Thursday, 22 January 2015

In which I try to make friends again

Leffe Blonde. It was a beer I used to enjoy a lot of in the early 1990s, an easy-going beer, an easy-to-drink beer, but a Blackpool rock of a beer that I soon discarded as the tide went out and uncovered plenty of better beers. But last night on passing a pub in central London, a local-looking pub; it’s so rare an occasion to see a local pub in this part of central London; and this pub that I used to go into when I worked around here some years ago (the beers drank? I can’t remember), but I thought I would go in. And there is Leffe and I think why not (£3.50 a half is so craft). The beer? It’s so sticky and sweet and toffee like, crystalline even, the sort of beer that you would use for cakes (now there’s an idea, as it’s certianly not fit for recreational drinking). Oh well, I tried (nice people at the pub though, nice pub actually) and I finally said goodbye to Leffe.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

There’s a man in a pirate outfit

It must be a beer festival as there’s a man in a pirate outfit on the stage where bands normally play in the bar at Exeter City FC; the stage is small and there are about four tables and chairs arranged upon it. The pirate and his equally buccaneering companion are on the table that is directly opposite the small stairs that lead onto the stage — this means that if you want to get onto the stage then you cannot miss the pirate and his missus. It must also be a beer festival as at the other end of the stage there’s a lonely looking man on a small table on his own, with books stacked in front of him. He’s got a pen in his hand and looks so relieved when a man climbs up the small stairs, passes the pirate and crosses the stage and asks to buy a book and yes he’ll have a signature. I, Ghent-loving reader, was the writer at the other end of the stage to the pirate, the lonely man sitting at a table looming gently over a bobbing, hob-nobbing crowd of drinkers at the Exeter beer festival last Saturday. Yet I always enjoy this sort of thing. Who wouldn’t? You get to chat and drink at the same time.

Book signing is the slap on the back, the ego booster, the brief spot in the sun, the this-wouldn’t-happen-if-I-was-a-subeditor moment of journalism, which I have always enjoyed, but then I like the sound of my own voice (though I’m not always sure on the accent); so there I was on Saturday lunchtime with a glass of Coastal’s Erosion and then one of Penzance’s Scilly Stout, finding something fascinating about a piece of paper I had found in my pocket, looking at my pen with a new sense of admiration, and willing more people to come up on the stage (and let’s not forget they had to pass the pirate, who at one stage at my public exile on the stage poked a — I presume — plastic sword at a balloon above his head).

I have always enjoyed Exeter’s festival of winter beers: they’re strong and I like beers that have the ability to place themselves in the front row and grunt and groan as if pain was a word that involved more than mending windows; I see people I have known for years there; this beer festival also gives me a nostalgia for a time when I used to visit quite a few, not travel the country you understand like some folk did and presumably still do, but they would be ones I would go to if I was in London or there was one on a farm or in a village near where we lived before moving to the beyondness of Exmoor (which we hope to escape this year to more benign surroundings). 

These were times when I used to search out beers with names that resonated with me or they were from parts of England that I loved (usually East Anglia, where I lived for six years); I don’t think that I bothered much about beer styles, even though I was reading Michael Jackson and in love with Bavarian Weiss (I do remember ramping up on the Rauch once though); it was fun, it was beer, it was getting drunk with a friend or two or sitting in a corner with a good book, but it was never about education (alright a few tasting notes, but they were more like the autographs my mother collected from friends when she was a kid) and it was certainly never about ticking; it was about inebriation, sociability and a vague link with landscape. Those times are all gone and I don’t think I miss them, apart from a brief moment on the stage, looking at the glass of Coastal’s Erosion in my hand and thinking about big waves hitting some Spartan slice of Cornish coast. Time passes and the drunken man continues to look at the thistle.

Monday, 12 January 2015


Local: another one of those debates that is running through beer with the assurance of an arrow in flight, possibly during the battle of Agincourt, let loose by an archer from the Welsh Marches, whose right arm is markedly stronger than the other, unless he’s left-handed of course.

Drink local, drink beer from the brewery or brewpub that has just opened down the road, make mine local; if you don’t drink local you could be letting down the side, hiding the light that the brewery down the road lets shine on the wall behind a bushel, or something similar — or on the other hand, you could just drink good, imbibe intelligently, guzzle with due diligence and just before you dive into the idea of local you should really think about the beer, is it any good?
Drinking local is ok if you live somewhere like Southwold, Bermondsey, Chiswick, Seattle, just outside Bakewell, Bamburg or across the road from Cantillon, but in other places? Local doesn’t necessarily mean good as I recall when a brewery briefly opened up on Exmoor over a decade ago. Even though its sole beer won beer of the festival down in Minehead (due to the nefarious influence of the neophiliac drinker who had mastered writing the art of jabbing a Biro on a clip of paper; ten years on not much changes — some elements of beer remain a neophiliac’s game), it was a beer that I didn’t get on with and I rarely drunk it. It’s long gone.

But this is not some digestive tract on local; instead it’s a memory I have of a local beer, which I recall from when we moved out of London in 1994 to a small Somerset village outside Bridgwater called Chedzoy (one of a trio of –zoy villages in the badlands of the Somerset Levels — our neighbour, an old farmer, who crossed the Styx a few years back, made his own cider with an ancient cider press, it was as acidic as a working day with Haigh with just one glass being enough to dissolve the following day into tears). The local pub was a bit American werewolf but in other pubs in other villages along the Polden Hills I fell heavily in love with the beers from a — trumpets and accolades please — local brewery, called Bridgwater Brewing Company. I haven’t got any tasting notes and I can’t remember too much about the beers’ characters, but I do recall that I loved one of their beers, which was called (you have to recall that this was a different time, for instance, the word awesome was more useful in describing an American air force strike in the first Gulf War) Copperknob; there was also Cannonball. Both of these beers, I described (in retrospect I apologise for the use of the word) as being ‘very tasty’ in my journal at the time — tasty is one of those prescribed words that should be sewn into a Hessian grenadier’s sack along with a ratebeer of rats and then thrown into a very deep cavern; it is a word on a par with ‘nice’ and ‘lovely’, words that are commonplace and irritatingly cosy and somehow coordinate themselves with slumped shoulders, rumpled cardigans and well-meaning grannies.

Back to the beers though, back to the local beers — I do remember being incredibly enchanted by Bridgwater’s beers (naturally you could not find them in the seven circles of hell that comprised the pubs of the eponymous town), enchanted enough to ask my wife-to-be if we could have a cask of the brewery’s beers at our wedding reception alongside the traditional glass of carbonated carfuffle. She wasn’t very impressed (it was 1994 after all) and we didn’t. I tried.

Bridgwater Brewing Company’s beers and I got on famously (when I could find them that is, which was usually beer festivals and the odd Polden pub) for the next two years until I went along to my first ever CAMRA meeting at the Ring o’Bells in Moorlinch and discovered that the brewery had closed: ‘over-reached themselves with the battle of Langport celebrations I was told by the sepulchral-looking landlord,’ I wrote in my journal. And that was that. Was it the end of local for me? Not consciously of course, but over the years I’ve spent writing about beer and spoken about this and that with all manner of people the idea of local beer has waxed and waned, a totem pole one minute, an irrelevance on a par with golf the next. Now? It’s about the beer in the glass, rather than the elasticity of the relationship with where it’s made, but I still remember Bridgwater Brewing Company’s beer with fondness.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

The drift from the Pangaea of craft beer

Tables overturned in a crowded restaurant; temple columns shaken and toppled on a Mediterranean island; lipstick daubed on the Mona Lisa. Then a Wall Street Journal piece covers a Belgian spat between those who sweat and toil and build a brewery and those who come up with an idea and have it brewed elsewhere — the two main protagonists seem to be De La Senne and the Brussels Beer Project; I have interviewed both outfits and love what they do, especially De La Senne.

Then over in the USA, Andy Crouch, a beer writer I really respect and enjoy reading even if I don’t always agree with him, produces an excellent story on what you could say is the drift from the Pangaea of craft beer by one of the founding fathers Jim Koch. It’s the sort of in-depth beer journalism I wish I could read (or find an outlet for) over here. Both stories have stirred up passions, especially Crouch’s.

Others have written much more concisely and adroitly about the controversies here and here, but what I wanted to do was to think aloud about the nature of beer and how it’s always had this obsessive undertow, always had an ability to drag people along in its wake. Certain beers encourage a sense of ownership amongst a segment of drinkers, an obsession even, that brings the beer (and the brewery) in their own psychological Google + circle. It reminds me of the outrage that exists amongst Archers fans whenever a plotline hits the bumpers and Nigel whatshisname falls off the roof to his death on Christmas Day or whenever.

Is it about the breakdown of the boundary between one’s personal life and the imagined? I’m not suggesting that Dark Lord Day fans hear voices telling them to camp out three days before the beer’s release or that London beer drinkers dress up in animal masks and robes for the release of Camden’s IPL (you never know), but I do wonder if what for the lack of a better word we call craft beer is something that fills a gap in the life of the most devoted of followers (the rest of us just like the taste, the branding and the feeling of being part of a club, like teenagers wearing Abercrombie & Fitch) as does cask beer in a different kind of beer drinker’s life (or as Guinness used to do for others).

I’m not suggesting I’m any different. At various times in my life, punk rock, Joy Division, Inspector Morse, beer and football have probably been unhealthy in their presence. I presume it’s the psychological need to be part of a gang, to belong and of course this also expresses itself in the way people dress (along with that all important haircut); again we’ve all done it at one or two (or three) stages in our lives. I would also hazard a guess that beer has always had an element of tribalism in it, perhaps linking back to perceived regional differences; for many drinkers it seems to have engendered a sense of belonging (or disconnection even — my mate used to call anything from a brewery called Wilson’s ‘death brew’, because he thought it so dreadful; growing up I loathed mild and couldn’t understand why anyone under the age of 70 would drink it as it seemed to watery and thin). Maybe the ups and downs in the British brewing industry after the Second World War also sharpened that sense of ownership (while paradoxically loosening it). The beer that your father drank and your grandfather drank was there for you and there didn’t seem to be no reason why it wouldn’t be there for you too when you were their age — unless you were part of the generation that didn’t want to drink what the old feller drank and didn’t want to sit in the snug or stand around the piano singing rubbish songs.

This is all thinking out aloud, writing along a thread of notes that I made, an attempt to clarify what I feel about Yvan de Baets’ objections and Jim Koch’s sense of rejection and some of the reactions on social media (the latter story has provoked the most florid and bizarre reactions — blimey it’s only beer, but then on the other hand I had a conversation with a British brewer yesterday about sour beer, bugs and time which at last brought to life my slumbering post-New Year apathy towards beer). These are issues that are more complex than some of the comments and counter-arguments I have seen online make out, especially on Facebook. But then social media is the modern equivalent of a noisy drunken bar where opinions are enflamed and declaimed and someone somewhere puffs out a bullfrog of a chest and says ‘boo’. On the other hand, I’m glad that people care enough to think and drink and plink the piano keys of their outrage and approval, otherwise what is the point of that beer in the glass?