Thursday, 26 September 2013


Books books books. Having worked in journalism and publishing for more years than I care to remember I know that autumn is a key time for getting books out. Christmas is around the corner, but we’re not caught in its headlights yet so there’s plenty of time to get people prepared to buy books throughout the next three months. So this autumn, there seems to be a torrent of beer (and cider) books coming out: we’ve had Roger Protz’s 300 More Beers, and now there’s Ben McFarland’s Boutique Beer, while Jane Peyton has been really busy with School of Booze and Beer O’Clock; having seen some PDFs of the pages back in the summer I’m also looking forward to Pete Brown’s World’s Best Cider, written in conjunction with Somerset Levels snapper Bill Bradshaw; there’s also Stephen Beaumont and Tim Webb’s Pocket Beer Book, a conscious echo of Michael Jackson’s similar publications during the 1990s and beyond perhaps? 

I’ve probably forgotten someone, but it’s time I blew my own trumpet. My first update of 1001 Beers is also out and it features 90 new beers that have been written by Tim Hampson, Evan Rail, Greg Barbera, Martyn Cornell, Pete Brown, Zak Avery and Joe Stange. The beers include ones from Kernel, Tiny Rebel, Beavertown, Brewfist, 8-Wired, Jack’s Abby (a particular favourite of mine), Buxton, Oakham, Vivat, Ska, Heavy Seas, Sierra Nevada (Narwhal), Evil Twin, Oskar Blues, Matuska, Nomad and Keserü. I’m really pleased with the selection and wish it could have been double or even triple — which says how much the beer world has changed in the last three years. While I’m on the podium can I also bring to your attention to Tim Hampson’s World Beer, into which I was drafted as an author along with Stan Hieronymous and Sylvia Kopp earlier on in the year. 

And further more can I bring your by now lack of attention to the beer tasting and extemporisation I shall be doing at the Three Tuns during the wonderful Bristol Beer Week on Monday October 7, followed by a Rake bar event with Hardknott Brewery on Wednesday October 9; then it’s Hook Norton on Friday October 18 and finally there’s something planned with Meantime in November — it’s like being in a band again, though the furthest we got from Cambridge was Peterborough.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Ilkley Speyside Siberia

The gentlest wash of iodine takes itself into the softly sour arms of rhubarb serenaded by a pleasingly high note of Brett and all is well as this aromatic triumvirate wishes everyone the very best before they vanish into the gloaming for a dirty weekend. Ilkley’s Speyside Siberia is 8.8%, which makes it all the more remarkable that this jigsaw of a complex beer has such a slinky, insistently pleasurable drinkability. It’s soft in its mouthfeel and sour in the way it rocks and reels through the senses, thrumming away on the palate with a lovely loose and elegant sense of its own beauty (think something kinky like dry champagne minus the bubbles spending its time romancing an eclectically inclined Belgian blonde and you might be somewhere close). Sour can be sometime dour in the way it can turn seconds on the palate into hours, but with this ramped up, well-wooded version of their rhubarb-infused saison that Ilkley made in combination with Imbibe Educator of the Year Melissa Cole the generous rush of flavour and brewing audacity makes me sad that only 700 bottles were made. I am now in Siberia for the rest of my life, with little hope of getting there.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Are craft beer bars the new Irish bars?

Craft beer café it says and in the middle of the old town of Malaga here is Cervecería Arte&Sana. Here for a couple of days on a travel feature and was pleased to find this place recommended to me. Unlike other ‘craft beer bars’ I’ve found in the unlikeliest places recently (Rimini, Bologna) this is actually easy to discover as it is on a busy Plaza in old Malaga (cheaper rents than in Italy perhaps?). I don’t expect much from these sorts of places: good beer, expertly poured and a decent ambience. Oh and some food if you want.

So there I am on a Friday evening in Malaga, in a very modern bar, with a black and white theme in the tables and chairs, but a stainless steel serving thing and a wall with a cupboard filled with loads of — dare I say it — craft beers from across the world (lots of Mikkeller). I like the place — in a funny sort of way it reminded me of Moeder Lambic (the second one), with its light and airy ambience, a none too precious attitude to beer with also a great beer list, of the sort you wouldn’t expect to find in Madrid never mind in the south of Spain.

There was a blackboard at the end of the bar with the draft beers’ names up there — I’ve come all this way and there is Thornbridge and BrewDog, but there’s also some Danish beer plus the best example of a Spanish c-word beer I have had for a long time. Dougall’s 942 Pale Ale is a fragrant (as in peach and orange ripe skins frotting each other until the cows come home) beauty of a beer with a weighty mouth feel and a dancing almost Sufi-like whirl of refreshment through the whole of the gulp. Thornbridge’s St Petersburg is a blast.

And as I watch a drunk American woman trying to keep it to together through her glass of Dead Pony Club, while lads with beards order Green Flash barley wine alongside Paulaner Weiss, I am struck by this thought: are craft beer bars the Irish bars of the future (a thought occasioned by the sight of a nearby Irish bar — Morrissey’s, for a moment I thought it was perhaps an ironic English bar celebrating Manchester misery) and mightn’t it not be a good thing?

Tuesday, 10 September 2013


I find this one of the most tackiest tap tops that I’ve ever seen. Can’t remember the name of the brewery, but this was at the expo in Rimini after we’d judging at Birra del’anno earlier in the year. Without wanting to sound too righteous, I mentioned it to the guys at the brewery, but they just smiled and sort of shrugged — looking at their other taps, Jesus in a kilt, big words such as BAD in view, I can only assume that they were taking BrewDog as their influence. They got that one wrong. BrewDog can be accused of many things, but misogyny is not one of them.

So what do I dislike about it? It’s tacky, tries hard for 50s-style Betty Page sub-porn but comes across as just a bunch of young lads sniggering after they’ve written cunt and piss on the wall. I also don’t like the way it suggests that this cartoon woman is enjoying being skewed on a pole. God knows there’s enough negative images of women being used to sell beer, but this takes the whole of the biscuit barrel and chucks in some fig rolls as well — Top Totty seems like a Spare Rib cover compared to this.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Ilkley The Chief

Ooh look, thank you Mr Postman, some beers from Ilkley, for the purposes of a feature I am writing. Lots of noise about the brewery, especially in the frozen north, but sitting here in the more benevolent west I’m inclined to hold my tongue until I taste one, which is what I did with the 7% ‘triple hopped IPA’ The Chief last night. I rather enjoyed it as its zephyrs of ripe mango skin that have sat in a bowl with an audaciously blowsy orange swept out of the glass, while the demands on the palate were of the fiery, peppery, pleasingly and engagingly bitter kind, with enclaves of mango and orange sweetness, all whipped into line by the kind of dryness that demands to be sated time and time again with another hug-slug from the glass. Meanwhile, in another universe this beer lifts its leather-trousered, boot-clad leg and gets onto a Guzzi Cali and roars off along the highway. 

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

In a beer garden in Berlin

I am in a beer garden in Berlin, in Hausbrauerei Eschenbrau’s beer garden, a space cloistered away off a street in the north-eastern district of Wedding. I am in a beer garden in Berlin that is shaded with trees and edged in by flats whose walls are covered in creepers. I am in an area that teems with ethnic shops and restaurants; take your pick: pizza, doner kebab, Thai or just currywurst. 

It is a summer evening, both august and August, the sort of carefree evening when a beer garden is a garden of Eden for students, office workers on their way home, local beer hounds and beercentric tourists like myself. The tables are all crammed, and the machine gun stutter of laughter and quick bursts of urgent conversation flit tracer-like through the air. The waitress weaves through the tables, a notebook the evidence of her trade, dark haired, irredeemably gothic, her head shaved on one side, long on the other, schizophrenic in the vision it provides to the world.

Great things have been told to me about Hausbrauerei Eschenbrau, a place I must visit I have been told, a place I should go to, a place I should pay my respects to. Remembering what Pershing (or was it someone else?) said at the tomb of Lafayette I silently say I am here. 

On the beer card there is Pilsner, Dunkel (brewed the old Berlin way apparently) and — intriguingly — a saison. However, the Dunkel is what I want to try but it’s not on and I’m told that the Schwarzbier is available instead. As a couple on the next table croon Waltzing Matilda softly for some unfathomable reason I order a half litre. I am glad I order the Schwarzbier — It is creamy and roasty, smooth but also prickly in the way it lays itself down. Tremulously soothing, a brush of milk chocolate, a heft and weight in its body, a robust elegance, a calming, hand on forehead, stroking of the hair, stroking of forehead kind of beer and then I note that the couple on the next table have gone silent. They too have just received the Schwarzbier. 

Monday, 2 September 2013

Stately brews

This is part of the Boak & Bailey inspired Go Longer idea and was written in 2006

Most shoots offer a variety of alcoholic refreshment — from the finest claret down to a heart-warming slug of port. However, if you’re planning on potting a few high pheasants at the Earl of Halifax’s Garrowby estate, you can expect something rather different — and rather special. What marks out Garrowby is its continuation of a noble tradition that almost died out in the 19th century: country house brewing. ‘Bugthorpe Brew’ is made just once a year and only 120 gallons of it are brewed. So only the very lucky and selective few — estate workers and lucky shooting parties — ever taste this beer. Word has it that the Earl of Halifax enjoys a drop, but is sensibly cautious of its powers. It’s staggeringly strong — at 6% it’s nigh on twice the strength of your average bitter. 

Once upon a time, when all big houses had proper staff (rather than pushy National Trust matrons badgering you to join), brewing was a natural part of estate life – no different from baking bread and churning butter. Beer was considered so crucial to the well-being of all, that in the golden age of country house building in the 18th century, owners thought it crucial important to get the brew-house up and running as soon as possible. Some of these brew-houses were pretty fancy too. The brew-house of Kimbolton Castle, built in 1764, was designed to blend in with the house’s Vanbrugh façade.

The 18th century saw ale become a fashionable tipple at the tables of the well-heeled as French wine was hit by duty and the Portuguese alternative was deemed a bit too rough for refined palates. It was the height of fashion to have your own home-brewed ale, served at table in super-model thin glasses (often beautifully engraved with delicate designs incorporating hops and grains of barley). A footman would hover about the table, with a tray, waiting to replenish your glass. This was the age of ‘beer is best’ with Hogarth’s prints showing the evils of gin versus the health-giving joys of beer.

Below stairs, beer was also King. The word buttery, you might be surprised to learn, has nothing whatsoever to do with butter, and everything to do with beer — it was the place where butts of ale used to be kept. Butler has the same origin – he was the good chap who looked after the beer. Unsurprisingly, butlers developed a reputation for being notorious soaks.

So why was beer so vital to the old estates? The importance and ubiquity of John Barleycorn has its origins in the days before proper sanitation (and mains water). Tea and coffee were still rare so everyone — high and low — drank beer. Because beer is boiled when brewed, it was inordinately safer to drink than water, which might have passed over the odd plague-ridden corpse or bloated sheep upstream. Low gravity (weaker) ales were drunk like water. ‘Small beer’, weakest of all, was supposedly reserved for children and women. This really was of the ‘weak as dishwater’ variety, being the output of the third brew from the same amount of malted barley (imagine a teabag being squeezed out for the third time). There was barely any alcohol left but at least it was clean and free of bacteria and there was no chance of the chambermaids passing out on the beds.

Strong beer, however, was reserved as a favourite tipple for the aristocracy and their royal visitors. And they did like their strong brews. One early writer described a fierce brew rather eloquently as ‘the sort that would make a cat speak’. Good Queen Bess’ favourite tipple was apparently a strong beer, of which she was able to down several noggins before a meeting with her ministers. Before Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837, a three-day visit to Shugborough House saw her party polish off 450 gallons of strong beer. The Halifax estate has records of one beery celebration at the family’s old home of Hickleton getting totally out of hand, thanks to a super-strong ale brewed for the 21st birthday of Lord Irwin. ‘There were bodies laid all over the place,’ wrote the brewer Clarence Hellewell.

However, by the time the 19th century was halfway through, the practice of big house brewing was dying out as the likes of Whitbread and Bass went national and railways delivered their products around the country.  Attitudes towards alcohol also changed and it was considered bad practice to offer beer to staff as part of their wages.

Fortunately, the last few years have seen a revival of the brewing fortunes of the country house. David Lord, who manages the Halifax estates, explains that beer has been a continuing thread through the history of the family. ‘Beer used to be brewed on a more regular basis at Hickleton,’ he tells me, ‘but the family moved from there in the 1930s. However, the brew-house was retained and used until 1989 when that was sold. The brewing equipment was then brought here to Garrowby.’

‘Bugthorpe’ continues firmly in the old tradition of estate brews.  You won’t be able to get your hands round a pint in the local. ‘The beer is usually served to shooting parties and guests at the house,’ adds Lord.  I downheartedly put my copy of the Good Beer Guide back in my pocket. ‘The retired head forester was the initial head brewer, but he was replaced by a couple of chaps from the estate with help from the Samuel Smith brewery. It is put into cask and quite a talking point for those who try it. The old copper vessels from Hickleton are still in use.’

Other aristocratic ales, however, are less picky about their drinking public.  Some houses which brew their own beer, sell them on the premises; some even deign to flog them to the local pub.  Take the beautiful Cotswold manor house, Stanway, for example. Brewing had ceased in 1913, but local brewer Alex Pennycook persuaded owner Lord Neidpath to resurrect the old brewery. ‘I had been made redundant from a brewery,’ says Pennycook, ‘and I had said I’d never brew again. But an old friend told me about the dormant brew-house and I approached Lord Neidpath about it.’  Pennycook now runs Stanway Brewery from the old brew-house, an historic building built in 1700 and fuelled by log-fires. Lord Neidpath has been so delighted with the success of beers such as Stanney Bitter and Lords-a-Leaping that he has caught the historical bug and is now working on resuscitating the old mill.

Another commercial brewing concern bringing back the old ways can be found at Thornbridge Hall in the Derbyshire village of Ashford in the Water. The Hall is pure House & Garden — all sweeping staircases, high-ceilinged rooms and drop-dead gorgeous views over ornate gardens through windows by William Morris and Edward Byrne-Jones. If you can tear yourself away however, make a beeline for the old stonemason’s. Here the Hall’s owners, Jim and Emma Harrison, have set up a small brewery whose excellent beers are going out to local pubs and winning barrel-loads of awards.

It’s a very modern set-up – all glistening copper and spotless steel. But Thornbridge is harking back to the past with its Imperial Russian Stout, a strong and potent dark stout. Simon Webster, who runs the brewery, says: ‘we are looking back to the sort of beer that might have been drunk in the house’s early days.’ This style of beer was imported regularly to the Baltic, with Catherine the Great reputedly a big fan. ‘It has a connection with onetime owner John Morewood who made his fortune in the 1790s selling linen to Russia,’ continues Webster. Thornbridge also makes use of its extensive gardens for additions to the beers. ‘We use the land for sourcing our raw materials,’ says Webster, ‘with elderflowers from the garden for one of our beers for instance.’

Further north, over the border, Traquair House was one of the forerunners in this modern rebirth of country house brewing. History is at a premium here. The house dates back to the 1100s and Queen Mary of Scots reputedly drank the homebrewed ale during a visit in 1566. Bonnie Prince Charlie also visited and since then the house’s main gates have been clammed shut. Legend has it that they will only be opened in the event of a Stuart on the throne. Catherine Maxwell Stuart (a descendant no less) is the current lady of the house, but it was her father, Laird Peter Maxwell Stuart, back in 1963 who came across what he thought was a pile of old junk.  He looked closer and found it was actually old brewing equipment.

‘Brewing had stopped here in the early 1800s,’ says Maxwell Stuart, ‘because the introduction of duty made it quite unviable to brew. Commercial brewers were also becoming more active. At the time beer from Traquair supplied the estate and it was given to workers as part of their wages. It was a remarkable find, just lying there and forgotten about.’ Her father started brewing rich and dark Scottish-style beers as no recipes from the past survived. Bottles of these beers are now become much sought after by connoisseurs, especially in the US. He died in 1990, but his daughter has continued to manage the house and brewery. Both are a major must-see in this part of the world — don’t forget to try the beers, one of which, not surprisingly, given the allegiances of the family, is called Jacobite Ale.

To get an idea of what brewing was like in the old days you could do worse than visit Shugborough Hall in Staffordshire. This was once the ancestral home of the Lichfields (who still have a sizeable complement of rooms), but it is now leased to the county council by the National Trust. Historical records from 1827 point to a gallon of beer being allowed to each male member of staff per day, while women had to contend with just half a gallon. Now, with the help of local microbrewery Titanic, Shugborough’s airy and cool brew-house is frequently filled with the aromas of malt and hops.  

‘What we try and do here is show exactly how it happened in the past,’ says general manager Richard Kemp. ‘We mill our own flour, do the laundry the old-fashioned way, look after a rare breed of cows who provide milk for cheese and so on. The brew-house is vital to an understanding of how people used to live in a country house.’ At the moment, personnel from Titanic come in and brew a selection of beers, but Kemp has time-travelling plans. ‘We want to brew once a week, producing beers based on recipes from the 1870s, brewed by someone in the costume of the time. We would do small beers that children could try and other brews that could be sold in the café and used for authentic food from the time. We are a living history attraction and something like this and our dairy are multi-sensory, you can smell it, taste and touch it. I see the brewery as more than something just working for profit just as I see a  stately home as a place which is more than just a house.’

So there you have it. Stuck with a pile and looking to raise funds for keeping the gazebo in good shape?  It’s very tempting.  No hordes of day-trippers fondling your ancient drapes; no National Trust tyrants telling you how to trim your topiary.  What better way to pay for new corbels than by setting up a brewery. You never know what’s lying around. Just make sure that what happened at Chatsworth doesn’t happen to you. When the beer was brewed it was piped to grand carved casks in the cellar. However, some enterprising under-gardeners found the pipe, drilled a hole and stuck a plug in it so they could fill their buckets on brewing day. Oh, and by the way, there’s a brewery there now as well…