Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Collaboration on a clifftop

In a week’s time I shall be heading to Cardiff with the aim of collaborating on the brewing of a saison with Brains head brewer Bill Dobson. I like working with breweries on designing a beer — I’m not a brewer and my two attempts at home brew have ended in failure. Both were from Boots’ kits and one was a brown ale, which I ended up washing my hair with, and the other was a pale ale that only the dog and my brother drank. It’s nice to be able to have an idea and find a brewer who doesn’t think something I suggest is half-witted (dark saison, India pale bock, black Gose, dry-hopped rye mild for instance). I’ve also opened up another collaborative beery front, this time in the field of writing. A month or so ago Pete Brown and I were invited by Badger to come on a cliff-top walk in Dorset and then write about it together, the results of which can be seen here. We had a great time, even though a week after our walk part of the South West Coast Path upon which we had trod collapsed. 

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Simon H Johnson

Last night I heard the sad news of Simon’s passing. It is desperately sad. I can’t pretend to have known him well and we only met twice, but they were memorable times, which I think is the measure of the man. First time I was standing with Nick Otley in the Rake on the night when we launched Saison Obscura a couple of years ago and I said to him, ‘I thought that Simon Johnson bloke was coming’, the guy to my left, who had been standing there and drinking the beer with us, said, ‘I’m here’. I don’t know why but that always made me smile whenever I thought of it. 

The last time I met him was in February when I was in Derby en route to Burton and he suggested a drink. We went to the Exeter Arms, which I wrote up for the Telegraph putting Simon in it, and we spent an enjoyable afternoon there and then finished off at the Alexandra before I lurched off to get my train. In between there were emails and tweets and his thoroughly enjoyable blog; it was only the other day when I was smiling at it as I read the account of his bonkers Derby Bimble last Saturday. 

He was generous with his information, telling me about pubs in the East Midlands, including the General Havelock, and I tried to get him to join the British Guild of Beer Writers, but he never did. He will be missed by those of us who communicate about beer in whatever form but first and foremost my thoughts go out to his family. 

Monday, 20 May 2013

What I like about Camden Town Brewery

What I like about Camden Town Brewery…the place is a boost of sunlight, as easy as a bee that wants to be a bee and know it’s a bee; two or maybe three years have pressed on since I last set myself before its mast of a lauter tun and it still feels as if a friendly and fulsome zephyr is soft brushing its way about the non-Osmond gleam of the stainless steel where beer is made.

What I like about Camden Town Brewery…the place is both young and old; it’s about hanging out and also hanging about like an upside down bat in the railway arches that wire flex themselves outwards beneath the track that passes through Kentish Town West (‘Good Beer This Way’ says a sign); it’s buzzy in a way that wouldn’t have gone down well with the Essenes but also has a hussy/Hussar-like swagger of rock’n’roll off-handedness that I’ve always been drawn to, and because this is beer everyone can join the club, one sip and you’re a cool kid, whether topped by an ironic flat cap or dressed by Burton.

What I like about Camden Town Brewery…the brewery is a calm space and is taut in the sense that all is order and in order and it is friendly, lagery and larger than life and I love the six 120-h/l tanks in which the beer sleeps the sleep of the just; back in the 1980s when I was getting to know north London and didn’t really care what sort of beer went into my glass as long as it was German or Czech the very idea of tanks standing down here would have been a puzzle…

What I like about Camden Town Brewery…beneath the stairwell onto the brewing platform I spy Doug Odell as I ascend the steps. He’s here because he’s here — a collaboration brew between him and Camden, a Baltic Porter, a rich throughput of ideas that makes modern brewing so exciting. And it’s time for a beer, an unfiltered USA Helles, fresh, unfiltered, a throw in the air of flavour, an appetising high-five of crisp bitterness, the sort of beer that rarely lasts long in my glass. And like the beer, I’m soon gone, a train to latch onto, but like spring rain I will be back. 

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Train of thought

The train of thought begins with an article by Ray Anderson in the excellent Brewery History, autumn 2012, One Yeast or Two? Pure Yeast and Top Fermentation, which is about the production of beer using a single strain of yeast, as instigated by Hansen at Carlsberg in the late 1880s. It then passes through London not long afterwards with Hansen trying to persuade British brewers that a single (pure) strain was better than what they used.

It’s all aboard for Copenhagen (and Carlsberg again) now where Claussen isolates the organism ‘responsible both for the condition in [well conditioned English stock beer] and for their flavour’. He calls it Brettanomyces. The rest of the journey passes most enjoyably, as journeys do, and then in the last paragraph Orval and the work of Tomme Arthur (with particular reference to Cuvee de Tomme and its use of a strain of Saccharomyces cerevisiae and three Brettanomyces variants] are referenced — and a sentence leaps out at me: ‘We may see further developments along similar lines in the future as free-thinking brewers search for diversity of flavour in their products.’

I’m reminded of TS Eliot from The Wasteland, a poem that was a constant companion in my 20s: ‘We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started. Which I think is an excellent summation of the adventurous breweries making beer at the moment; they don’t always get it right but more often than not they do — and what they are doing is rediscovering what went before and we arrive where we started.

The train of thought isn’t over yet.

The train idles in the station, waiting for a driver, and this gives me enough time to think about: how some folk think it’s so wrong to put beer into 750ml bottles as if there is a cosmic law that beer should remain in a pint glass or a 500ml bottle, after all no one complains about Jeroboams; how the whistle is not blowing hard enough for session beers or even table beers, beers that you can drink all night without ending up wearing your trousers back to front (I always like to finish with a couple of stronger beers, but then I used to drink port once upon a time); how the ‘end’ of the extreme beer ‘cult’ is applauded as if a dictator were being lynched (though yesterday they lunched him) and yesterday — over at one of the most incisive and intelligent UK beer blogs — there is fretting over breweries that do something different and perhaps survive on a small obsessive fan-base.

I’ve had my say over there, but with all this fretting about beer being big and bold, noisy and noisome, hoppy and happy-clappy, Bretty and bigtime, unfiney and piney, popular with transient hipsters, innovative when nothing is new beneath the sun, I do wonder if the fretters (people of all beer shades of opinion) perhaps forget that some brewers genuinely want to create new flavours, new collaborations, new ways of delivering beer (though new as in West Side Story was a new story even if it was Romeo & Juliet brought to modern life) . 

I like the idea that styles and the idea of what constitutes beer can shift shape, even though the stolid beers of the ‘I know what I like’ crowd still rule the roost at the bartop; I like the idea of  beer connoisseurship (and before someone makes a point about beer connoisseurship being some sort of fancy-pants, cheer-leading, holistic PR guff here’s something else from Ray Anderson: ‘a considerable amount of acid is formed, accompanied by ethereal substances, the taste and flavour of which cannot fail to attract the attention of any connoisseur by their striking resemblance to the flavour of stored English beers’ — Claussen, 1904). I just like what beer can be capable of.

And on this train there’s music and when I wrote about music I enjoyed bands such as Blue Nile, Hula, Microdisney but then I also liked Sonic YouthEinstürzende Neubauten, Soviet France, The The and on another spectrum Nick Drake, The Smiths and the Monkees. I’ve got similar tastes in beer. 

Saturday, 4 May 2013

In 1997 I went to this beer festival

The place: Wiveliscombe, Somerset. 
The festival: Westfest, autumn 1997 I think. It was held annually for several years, at the local school. I rather enjoyed it, especially as Wivvy is rather a nice little town, surrounded by hills.
I think I drank a lot of Exmoor Beast and at the festival the previous year I had met Jim Laker, the man behind the beer, a beer I still enjoy a lot; he sadly died later that year.
However, I had been to the US the previous summer and spent a fortnight feasting on beers from Cambridge Brewery, Ipswich, Harpoon, Portsmouth and various other New England joys. Never such innocence again. 

Friday, 3 May 2013

Kubla Can-do

Kaite and Jason Loomes

In the verdant green of Taunton Vale, here in Lydeard St Lawrence, is the home of Somerset’s newest brewery (for now, as I keep hearing rumours of more), Kubla, as in the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for whom a door on which a knock was heard from a man from Porlock interrupted the opium inspired reverie that left us with his great fragmentary poem Kubla Khan. And Coleridge lived over the hills and not too far away on the seaward side of the Quantocks in Nether Stowey, so Kubla it is.

Kaite and Jason Loomes are the brewery, she the brewer, formerly let loose in the food industry and a trained taster. I first met Jason in December 2011 after doing an event in a pub in Taunton. We’re planning a brewery, he said and handed me a couple of home brew bottles. Now it’s for real on a one-barrel kit with a couple of fermenting vessels, in a roomy space in this place where they used to make cheese.

Kaite brews twice a week, bottles most of the beer and kegs a little for use in the Plough, a pub that is close to Taunton station and has oodles of ciders on sale. You might pop in there prior to ambling down to the cricket ground and taking a chance on being Trescothicked, as nearly happened to me and my son last year.

So it’s definitely a micro and there’s a suitably sensuous boost about their beers — Rise: Pale Ale suns itself in the full glare of Nelson Sauvin with a nose of ripe white grapes and the sweatiness of a hop sack; orange and gooseberry notes harry the palate while a succulent mouth feel turns expectations turtle and lulls the senses. It is a beautiful beer and I would serve it with grilled chicken that had lain with the juice of a full lemon.

I had Rock: Saison several weeks back and in the brewery tried it again. To me it is not a saison, I don’t get the flinty, chalky note I would expect from saison and if it were entered into a competition I was judging I would be scratching my head. On the other hand, it has an appealing austerity, an appetising dryness, a lullaby of herbal notes and a fineness that makes it a rather special beer. Categories sometimes are for babies.

Try this one, it’s a new beer, I was told. It was also 5.5% (I think). IPA? Maybe. Chinook and Columbus in the boil, ripe papaya skin on the nose, a very dry finish that lasted and lasted and lasted. Cheddar for me with this I said, shame that they don’t make it here anymore. It’s a nameless beer at the moment but it won’t be for much longer.

I like Kubla, I like the fact that they are beavering away doing their own thing, but firmly getting their beers out there; they’re small, not noisy, but intrigued by how much they can do; they’re learning, they’re good; they’re curious, they’re in control and they’re brewing in a nice part of the world. Can’t ask for much more than that really can you?

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Pure Evil

Thick and vicious in the glass the darkest shade of chestnut brown before it becomes as black as the actions that lead men to Hades; that tingly, tick-tock of  ripe orange infused with the merest hint of vanilla (or was I imagining it, being brought on by the colour of the beer?), the bracing bitterness, the spiciness of the hop, the come again come again call of the hop, which clarion-like bangs away on the soul of my palate for what seems an age; it’s 8% but it’s as light as the conscience of a serial killer, as drinkable as a drink should be; the fruit of the Sebright Arms Homebrew project, in which a local artist called Pure Evil has worked with the pub and Redchurch Brewery and the result is this raucous, Rasputin-like ursus of a beer. 

I look forward to tasting the next one, in which a local tattoo studio creates a milk stout.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Iceland — the country that is not the Kerry Katona ad

The phone goes and a woman at the other end of the line says she’s from Customs & Excise. ‘Are you expecting a parcel from Iceland?’ Yes I reply, it’ll be beer. ‘How strong will it be,’ she continues. I don’t know, I say, it’s a mixture, I’m being sent them, I write about beer for a living. This perplexes her (but at least I don’t get the best job in the world comment), but once she’s sure that this is not some dodgy deal it’s all sorted. And the next day the delivery man struggles up the path, a terrier trying to nip his ankles, with two cases from Borg Brugghús, about whose Brio I have written about before here. I only wanted a couple of cans and a branded glass for the purposes of photography, but Óli at the Reykjavik-based brewery said that they would be sending me a few extra beers as well, whether I liked it or not.

And I am glad he did what he did as when they arrived an intriguing variety of beers popped out of the cases, including a barley wine, wheat beer, imperial stout (two kinds), porter and an IPA. Dare one whisper Icelandic craft?

As for Borg it’s a micro owned by Egill Skallagrímsson, one of the biggest breweries in Iceland (I suspect there aren’t that many). As I researched a bit more into beer in Iceland, I found out that ‘strong beer’ (that is, beer above 2.25%) wasn’t allowed to be sold until the late 1980s, though apparently it was ok for brennivin, a distillation of potatoes containing about 40 percent alcohol and often called the Black Death, to be sold — I did read somewhere that the relative cheapness of beer compared to brennivin meant that legislators thought that the common people would get legless all too often (nothing really changes does it?).

Anyway that was then — there didn’t seem to be much concern about ‘strong beer’ now as several of the beers I tried were 9% onwards, which was the strength for Imperial Stout Nr 15, which had a rich wonderfully expressive espresso coloured head under which lay a bubbling fornication of mocha coffee, chocolate, treacle toffee, earthy hop (as in the small of wet earth). And to drink it was to lie in a storehouse of more coffee, spirituous chocolate, milky sweetness with a dryness spreading around the palate like radio waves girthing the globe. I think I liked it.

The beers continued Everest-like in their climb with the 10.5% Júdas Nr. 16 Quadruple, which again had that morning glory espresso-coloured collar of foam spread across the beer’s surface like a temptation. Soft zephyrs of milk chocolate drifted across the nose on first pass, but then there was the sternness of a rye cracker or even Marmite, plus a vinous note that was suggestive of an old wine barrel (funnily enough I got pineapple chews on another bottle). It was fiery and fruity on the palate with nougat, cherry brandy, woodiness, toasted marshmallows (one for the camp fire?), sugared cold coffee and a juicy full mouth feel. Yes please.

And finally, another Imperial Stout, this one with the designation Nr 8.1 and 13% worth of alcohol (it was also aged in French Cognac barrels). This was a beauty, as dark as the darkest thought that comes to you in the middle of the night, while the stygian theme continued with the nose, though this time with an added grape-like ferociousness and plenty of cognac character. I took a swig and there it was a rich dark knight smoothness and creaminess, more chocolate, liquorice, some hint of apple sourness, mocha coffee, a soothing hand on the brow with the flavours bombarding the palate with the frequency of a metronome. This was a dessert beer, a massive spread of a beer that was leathery, bible black, tobacco road, ancient lights and old books all rolled into one glass. 

Whether these are Icelandic craft or not they are truly remarkable beers that pulsated with flavour and favour. And next time the Customs & Excise woman calls I’ll be able to tell her a bit more about Borg.