Thursday, 21 February 2013

Beer and books

I’m in the middle of Bologna and on the top floor of the Ambassadors building at Librarie Coop, which advertises itself as a library but also seems to sell books; whatever its function it’s a place that seems like a pretty decent bookstore (think Barnes & Noble) — however on the top floor of the building there are shelves and shelves of beer, some of which I am familiar with in the UK, Belgium and the US, others are the aristocrats of the Italian beer scene. It’s pretty cool. The whole building is in what was once a church and there are the remains of the nave (perhaps it’s the nave or maybe I’ve lapsed on the lapse as I’m rather hazy on church architecture) at the end of one mighty wall. This space also did time as a porn theatre but now it’s only right that it’s dispensing all sorts of knowledge over three floors with the three tiered book store, a cafĂ© and artisanal foods on the second floor and right at the top the bar and accompanying restaurant (the eating and drinking places going under the name of EatItaly), where are there beers that make me warm and fuzzy and rather glad I am where I am. I order a draft Forst Sixtus, a review of which I had edited in 1001 (an Italian copy of which I found downstairs); it’s a doppelbock that I had always wanted to try — I like its toasty, chocolaty character and a finish of (more toastiness) dryness. I then ordered a glass of the same brewery’s Heller Bock, pale and strong, fragrant and glasslike in its fragile dose of malt sweetness and hop bitterness. There is a clear explanation of the beers on draught on the wall, colour, strength, ingredients etc, and I just feel that this is so right — it’s a gratifying experience, a flying buttress of gastronomic joy that combines books and beer (and wine as well) in a way that only a book-burning teetotaller with no room in their heart for good food could turn their face against. As I watch the woman who served me my glass of Sixtus bend her elbow to the cutting, the sawing into chunks, of the evening’s bread for the diners to come, I was aware that my glass was empty. And waited until she had finished. Another please. Beer and books: would it be too much to ask for this to catch on in the UK?

Monday, 18 February 2013

How the International Brewing Awards makes me think

Fuller’s John Keeling at the judges’ dinner on the last night 

How important is a beer competition? What sort of judges should be in charge of the evaluations being done? Does it matter, does it sell any more beer, make drinkers more aware of a beer, or is it all a big old pat on the back, self-indulgence, well done chaps, have another. Thoughts like this flit through my mind whenever I judge beer or, as was the case with the InternationalBrewing Awards at Burton last week, observe. Brewers, naturally, are cock-a-hop when their beers are recognised as quality, some on the other hand pick and choose their competitions while others don’t enter them at all (their reason — selling to the beer drinker is competition enough). These competitions have their moments of amusement —the best of which is whenever the winner at the GBBF is announced you can bet that there will be two trains of conversation amongst those in the business: a) oh no not another mild, it’s political isn’t it?; b) the winner is too small to cope with the demand that the award brings and that there should be small and big brewer categories.

At the International Brewing Competition this past week, where I and Pete Brown had been invited to observe the goings-on, questions like the ones above quickly surfaced but were just as swiftly knocked into the ground as I watched a group of judges (who included Stefano Cossi, Geoff Larson, Doug Odell, Ian Bearpark, Vaclav Berka and Hans-Peter Drexler, amongst others) deliberating over the hundreds of beers that had been sent in. These guys are serious, and all the judges I spoke with articulated the dedication and expertise they bring to their role; all of them also communicated with a commendable sense of grace (no big cheese Charlies here).

And if you asked me to try and bring to life what I saw, then think on this: in the room where the judges sat at tables and the stewards whirled in and out with the beer, I could sense at once a hush, then over there a murmur and a flurry of words and then a return to silence, concentration, furrowed brows. To my left laughter gushed briefly, followed by intense discussion; more contemplation and intriguingly I noted the blank stare that masked a judge’s thoughts as a glass was lifted and inspected. In across the room as the glasses were hoisted I caught the glare of amber and copper, the glint of gold. ‘I thought it slightly thin, the body was thin’ drifts across from one table then that’s the beer out of the running. It seems cruel, but that’s life. According to the competition’s chief judge the affable Bill Taylor from Lion, ‘the guys switch from having fun to serious within seconds, it’s fascinating to watch’.

All this makes me feel as if the judging season has started: SIBA’s National is next month, while I’m off to judge at the Birra Dell’Anno in Rimini in a couple of days. Then there’s the IBC, the WBA (disclaimer: I’m paid to define categories, recruit judges and lead a table), more SIBA and CAMRA stuff and numerous competitions for the best beer of the festival in pubs throughout the country.

This is the joy of beer, it’s both fun, initiating all manner of discourse in the pub, bringing people together and helping them remember significant events (I was drinking Landlord on the night the Berlin Wall fell down and 6X on my wedding night), but it’s also a serious thing. It can present two faces, Janus like to the world, which is what I love about it. And on that note here are the medal announcements of the International Brewing Awards here — there are some great beers there and if I was in any doubt of the cachet winners attach to these awards then the brief email that I had over the weekend from Sharp’s Stuart Howe is worth a thousand words: under the heading ‘2 golds a silver and a bronze!’ he had written ‘Boooooom!’. So how important is a beer competition? 

Thursday, 14 February 2013

International Brewing Awards

The world is here. There is Burton, spreading itself below me, a patient laid out upon a table, the turrets of Molson-Coors medieval in their dominance, church towers the pinprick of faith, the low mustn’t-grumble growl of traffic in the distance and the taste of beer in the wind. Brewers from all over the world sit, cloistered, content, judge and jury over a world of beers that have found themselves here in Burton, at the mercy of the International Brewing Awards. I like this event. I was here two years ago and was much impressed by the carmarderie on show between brewers, of which there are 40 of them tasting almost 800 beers and ciders. And I am here to watch and witness one of the most venerable beer contests in the world, which were first held in the Agricultural Hall in Islington in 1886 (ironically the site where Beer Exposed was on show in 2008) with only two classes of beer to be judged. The first was the best beer of any class or age with at least 15% of patent gelatinised rice malt or torrefied barley malt, while the second class offered prizes in three sections. The overall requirement was that beers be brewed with at least 10% of gelatinised rice malt and then they were split into three sections: beers with an original gravity of under 20 pounds (lbs 1055 OG), from 20-24 lbs, and 25lbs 1069 OG and upwards. Wonder if they had arguments over beer styles then… 

And one of the great advantages of being here, right now, is that you get to taste some excellent beers once the judges have come off duty. Last night Doug Odell presented Amuste, an Imperial porter made up of  20% grape must, a fabulous beer that married the sternness of porter and the love song of the wine. Then The Meddler, an old bruin ale, being at once fruity, musty, funky, sour, vinegar, sweetness and peach stone. After that Thwaites’ Ian Bearpark brought forth the twangy 13 Guns, a roustabout of a black IPA and a dark knight of a beer whose time well spent in an Islay barrel brought forth peaty, vanilla notes. 

And back at the National Brewing Centre the world of beer continues to mull and ponder on what is in the glass and late tomorrow the winners will learn what their peers thought of the beers they sent to Burton (and tomorrow just after the judges finish their work and disperse back to their own world the International Beer Festival begins, where you can taste some of the beers the judges will have made their own over these three days, why should they have all the fun?). 

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Some thoughts on beer innovation from 2010

From what I saw on Twitter, there was lots of interest in the PMA-organised Beer Summit yesterday on the subject of beer innovation. It’s something I’ve written about several times in the last few years — and here’s something I wrote in late 2010 for the Ontrade Preview. Make of it what you will (and it does show how fast things have moved since), but I think it broadly represents what I still think today though from what I gather speakers St Austell’s Roger Ryman came up with some interesting points as did Pete Brown. I look forward to seeing a precise of the day. 

Innovation. It’s one of the most casually over-used words in the brewing lexicon. Sometimes all innovation means is that a brewery’s marketing department has come up with a new way to sell the same old beer; fine if it’s already a good beer (Adnams ‘From the Coast’ campaign springs to mind), but if it’s not then that’s when the definition of innovation as novelty comes into play…

Then there’s technological innovation such as the eye-catching ‘Cask Beer Font’ developed by Wells & Young’s, or Marston’s ‘Fast Cask’ method of dispensation. Other aspects of this branch of innovation include the use of online social networks  — @bombardier_beer is the biggest ale brand on Twitter.

However, then there’s another style of innovation where beer and brewing come into play — innovating what’s in the glass. In the past few years, breweries have woken up to the fact that beer drinkers (especially the young and affluent) are developing a sense of adventure and looking for a beer that is more than the bitter or golden ale they normally drink. This is when a well-hopped IPA, an organic beer or a beer with added ingredients (ground coffee, honey, spices) can cause a stir and excitement at the bar. New varieties of hops, different strains of yeast and methods of fermentation and historical recreations are also grist to a brewery’s innovatory mill.

Relatively new concerns such as Thornbridge and BrewDog have been at the cutting edge since they first fell on the world. BrewDog causes equal amounts of hero-worship and consternation with their media-savvy beers and associated press campaigns that have an air of Malcolm McClaren-like mischief-making to them. Despite stunts such as the strongest beer in the world and bottles wedged into stuffed animals they make some excellent beers such as 5am Saint, Hardcore IPA and the Paradox ‘Smokehead’ series.

Thornbridge, on the other hand, is a quieter collective, still adept at publicity but less brash in their approach. New hops are experimented with, collaborations sought with other brewers and the envelope is thoroughly pushed through the letterbox of innovation and beyond. Jaipur, which celebrated its 5th birthday in 2010, was their initial calling card on the world of beer — a new wave, US-style IPA that sang its way into history with a trill of grapefruit notes. Fast-forward several years and there was Kipling, described as South Pacific Pale Ale, an orange-amber parade of tropical fruit on the nose (lychees, melon and passion fruit). Meanwhile, Ashford gets the designation New World Brown Ale and freshly picked hops zip and zest up their gorgeous Imperial IPA Halcyon.

‘We didn’t really set out to be different and that is probably more in other people’s eyes rather than our own,’ says Thornbridge’s Simon Webster. ‘Our plan was always to make “modern British beer ” and for people to talk about the great flavours and tastes of it like they do about the Belgian, German and, more recently American beers. From day one we set out to “Challenge the Drinker”.’

Other small or medium-sized breweries are also joining in the fun. Try Titanic’s Vanilla Stout or Saltaire’s Triple Chocoholic for luxuriant lushness or wake up to Dark Star’s Espresso Stout. This drive can be found at all points of the compass. Cornwall’s Sharps might be well known for their best performer Doom Bar, but that hasn’t stopped the restless and creative nature of head brewer Stuart Howe.

Several years ago, he developed Chalky’s Bite in league with super chef Rick Stein; last year this was joined by Chalky’s Bark, a 4.5% version of Bite, but lightly flavoured with ginger. ‘It’s a beer to be enjoyed for itself,’ says Howe, ‘but also something we have developed for its potential to match with food.’ Another superb beer developed by Howe is the 9.5% Belgian-style DW, a charity beer tribute to Dave Wickett, founder of Sheffield’s Kelham Island Brewery, who is currently battling cancer. The result is Sauternes-like beer, with the sweetness mellowed by hop bitterness; tangerine hints and pineapple blasts on the nose lead to a fruit salad of desire that would hold its own in any tabletop wrestle with Stilton.

This sense of adventure has also spread from beyond the newer brewing community into the realms of the traditional family-owned companies. Robinson’s have long been noted for their elegant barley wine Old Tom, a strong beer full of roast coffee and chocolate notes. Chocolate Tom goes a bit further with the addition of chocolate and Madagascan bourbon vanilla in the mix making for a decidedly luxuriant beer. Then there’s Ginger Tom, where the strong ale is blended with Fentiman's Ginger Beer to producing an intriguing mix of chocolaty smoothness and spicy ginger edginess. Fellow Lancastrians Thwaites joined in the fun earlier in the year with Midas, a fruity golden ale with oats in the mix.

Yet if there’s one traditional family brewery (alongside Fuller’s) that has taken the innovatory trail with a great sense of gusto it’s Adnams (they actually produced a beer called Innovation). The last couple of years has seen head brewer Fergus Fitzgerald develop beers that are light years away from the Suffolk brewer’s traditional portfolio. A series of world beers in cask include an American-style IPA, a Dutch bokbier and an Irish Dry Stout. Then there was Solebay, a 10% beast of a beer packaged in a distinctive silver tin and brewed with sugar and lavender.

The beer is stupendous, a complex, heady brew of wine-like immensity and Fitzgerald says it has been well received and should be brewed again. Meanwhile, in the on-trade, lovers of his beers can go global with his world beers.

However, he does sound a note of caution when it comes to innovation: ‘I think it's great to have a beer that people love and keep coming back to, and I think it is important not to lose track of that and why you are successful but I think it's also important to try something new. There are risks but if they work they can attract new drinkers, people who don't drink your beer because they tried one once and it wasn't for them or because they don't think beer in general is for them, they don't like the packaging the image etc. But if you present them with something that looks and tastes completely different then maybe…’

November  2010

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Bitter brewer

I once wanted to write fiction, had a couple of short stories published in little magazines, wrote a novel that was graciously turned down and eventually went on an Arvon Course in the depths of Devon, where I realised I could write but that no one would want to read it, I found this recently, a completed short story from that time, about a brewer. I remember being pleased with it, but reading through it now it’s ok (and it was at the time when I was starting to do more beer writing hence the subject matter). However, I thought why not publish it and following my self-imposed blogging commandments of keeping it relatively short this is the first installment. You can see why I stuck with non-fiction…

You brew good ale 

The good people of Taunton loathe my beer. Thanks to their distaste for my golden ales the brewery is shut. Closed. Capsized. Finished. At church one Sunday the boozed up mayor puckered his slim lips against my wife’s scrubbed cheek and hissed: ‘Your man’s a dead loss.’ He brushed a hand daubed with liver spots against a crumpled dress landscaped with our youngest’s breakfast. A man of niceties he was not. A man of perception he was. At Sunday lunch my wife sucked her soup noisily, then laughed off the mayor’s clawing. I served the rest of the clan.

My left leg was sliced and torn from below the knee by a surgeon whose name is now a byword for bungles. I was a 17-year-old father with a wife to keep. It was a football accident. I was busting a gut galloping up the right wing when I received a kick that transformed itself into gangrene. An easy injury; easily made good I was told. No cause for alarm. Doctor knows best.

He doesn’t, he didn’t. Time was wasted. Of medical advice I had none. I am now a 27-year-old father with a wife and four children to keep. Was. My glass doth not runneth over.

Coventry born I was, to a father who charged around the city in an ambulance, to a mother who smashed cups and saucers in the kitchen and turned a lathe at work. Coventry remains their home. I fled school at 16 and they begged me to quit the house and catch a train to Taunton where my future wife lived. I was fatally in love and blind to what the future could ditch on my doorstep. Settled and steeled in Taunton, I washed bottles at the local brewery. The business was family owned. I remember a Victorian, redbrick tower, its innards plumbed with all the paraphernalia of brewing; the biscuity aroma from the boil of the malty wort and hops which swamped the air outside the brewery; the harsh, rumbling music of empty wooden barrels crashing into each other in the yard. I loved this world that allowed chaos and order to co-exist.

There is alchemy to brewing beer that has always drawn me. Every year my fascination with the process that transforms water into beer grows. If barley is the soul of beer then the hop is the voice that speaks in a babble of accents, sowing the seeds of each beer’s uniqueness. I love the taste of beer but I drink little. A taste is sufficient for the day wherein.

People dream the strangest dreams about the jobs other people choose. I am a brewer. Correction. Was. When I was a brewer I learnt to think like a brewer. Bushels of malt. Pockets of hops. Barrels and gallons. Warm worts. Run-offs. Hopbacks. Pitch the yeast. Treat the water. Let it settle. On learning what paid for my wife and our four children, strangers would quiz me. First things first. Did I booze? How much did I booze? Then, as their eyes locked onto my figure propped against an aluminium stick the questions would flow like the day I deluged my brewery with unsold barrels of golden ale. How could I keep a grip on the place when… The end of the question was always absent.

My wife is called Elizabeth. She is Taunton born. We collided with each other on the seafront at Minehead. A day away from working at the Taunton outpost of Boots for her. Three friends giggling in a bus, then a promenade along the promenade with an eye out for the fellas, I imagine. For me a week by the sea, sweating at night in a threadbare caravan which rocked when mum and dad climbed in; and in the day, yawning and bored, stalking the town and casting an eye at fellow travellers doped by the same numbness. She denied a memory of the meeting. It was if she was alone one second and married to me the next. Between the meeting and the marriage there was no shadow. She forgot everything. Her mind was anaesthetized with the placebo of vagueness. ‘Get a move on upstairs,’ she yelled when I rummaged and stumbled about for a wet-eyed child’s toy. ‘What’s the matter with you,’ she spat when an aggravation in the smooth egg-shaped stump below my left thigh served a writ on a memory of an able-bodied life. There was no sympathy for me anchored within her. We were adrift.

The mayor was a perceptive man who knew that I never flattered my wife with flowers or chocolates. The mayor was privy to the information that my chosen gift for Elizabeth was an Indian takeaway. Or a sauce-drenched kebab from a tiny, stifling cabin yards from the railway station. The mayor was a man pumped and puffed up with the sense of his own importance. The chain of office choked his humanity. He would steal my wife. He was my enemy. Was.

Part 2 to follow

Monday, 4 February 2013


Civilized, very. Are you still serving? We are sir. I like the sir bit, inspires confidence. Look at the blackboard. A pint of Old Empire. This is so civilised I say, the bar man smiles. It’s 11.50pm on a Thursday night in the Wetherspoons at Victoria. The beer is brought to me. Freshly pulled, sulphury, nice twang of bitterness. Just what I need at the end of the night. 12.20am. A man in the corner with a rucksack that suggests hostels and a long journey into the night sits in the corner, quietly musing over a beer. I leave having finished Joseph Roth’s White Cities, an account of the alcoholic writer’s dispatches from France. He was a socialist but strangely enough never got over the end of the Austro-Hungarian empire. I love him for his incisive interpretation of events happening in Germany in the 1930s but also because he was aware that the stories of those with whom he hung out with in bars were also worthy of history. And that is why sometimes I feel I should celebrate Spoons — it doesn’t always get it right but it does give a chance for the forgotten to have a decent beer.