Monday, 20 April 2015

Taste

What’s that you’ve got in your glass, I ask Magic Rock’s Stuart Ross. Salty Kiss comes the reply, with incan berries added at three weeks and then aged in Tequila barrels for about three months.

We’re at the launch of Unhuman Cannonball at Craft Beer Co in Islington and it’s good to catch up (I first met Stuart when he was at the Crown Brewery in Sheffield and we bonded over our love for Randy Mosher’s Radical Brewing, which is the only home-brewing book I have ever read with the intensity I usually accord to Hemingway).

He offers me a taste. It’s vinous, delicately sour and lightly salty, there’s a background hum of sweetness and I can just about taste something Tequila-like in the background.

Later on, next day, I’m thinking about the beer and how some drinkers would taste this and say that it wasn’t beer; then I start thinking about the variety of flavours and different directions brewers are now heading in, whether it’s about making their own interpretations of Gose, adding all manner of ingredients, letting this or that yeast in, or replicating their favourite hangover cure in a sour way (when I was interviewing Beavertown’s Logan Plant last year we were talking about Lemon Phantom Sour and he told me it was based on ‘that wonderful hangover cure, Lemon Fanta!’).

If you’re of a traditionalist persuasion, whether it’s keg or cask, then these might seem non-beery flavours, a strangeness in the way brewing is being done, a wayward exclamation of the arts and crafts of brewing, the cliffs of god that need to be climbed on your knees when a nice comfortable escalator will do. Go away, you might want to say.

On the other hand, such flavours and cravings are here to stay, but immersion in the sanctuary of beer can send one off on a crass course towards thinking that everyone, just everyone, thinks the same.

At tastings I have seen people who know their own minds about Pilsner Urquell, Doom Bar, London Pride or Peroni express surprise at their first experience of Saison Dupont or Westmalle Tripel and actually rather enjoy this experience, and with this in mind it’s easy to forget that when you chat and collaborate with those of a similar ilk, that not everyone has their palate calibrated into this brave new world of flavour, for that is what it is — a brave new (rediscovered, some might say) world of flavour, a grave bold cure away from what some might recognise as beer.

And after I taste the Salty Kiss, I return to my Unhuman Cannonball (lemon-gold in colour, juicy, bracingly bitter, forward facing in its grapefruitiness), another beer that traditionalists might care to dismiss — and then I think back to the tasting I had done earlier in the day when someone had asked me what constitutes beer? There and then, aloud, I had mused that beer is an alcoholic beverage made with malted barley, hops, yeast and water but that it might include other grains, and could have spices, fruit, vegetables or meat extract within, and might not have hops or might have more hops than was thought decent, or it might be aged in wooden barrels or even within clay (as I tasted a couple of years ago in Rimini from Birra del Borgo). 

And that is what I like about what is going on in beer at the moment — brewers might not always get it right but the search for (or the rediscovery of) different flavours and aromas is a great thing. Musicians and writers and bakers and builders use traditional forms to express their soul but if they discover a new way then it’s right that they take that path. Brewers can do the same.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Diversions

…And there are times when I don’t know what words to clink together when it comes to beer (and its accompanying spheres of conflict, comfort and crumbling ideals); and there are times when I don’t know in what way words should follow each other. Should it be a pre-ordained path of understanding? Should there be understanding at all? After all, words come into the world unformed or perhaps uninformed about the path that they should follow — that understanding is the plan of the writer, or is that more the slow camera pan of the words of the writers the writer has read that form themselves into squares, at arms length, Frederick the Great’s giant guardsmen assembling, an understanding of human form. That beer in the glass there, the one that glows on the table, whose colour suggests the sun of the Mediterranean, what should I make of it, how should I approach it? How do you do? What’s your name? Shall we dance? Or should I just engulf myself in it, let it take me over and wait for the next one to pass?

Is it just a liquid in a clear glass, or is it something more amenable when it comes to understanding? The flavour, the aroma, the feel of the liquid on the tongue, the stroke on the throat, the taut line when a fish is caught, what does that mean when the beer is drank. Enjoyment for sure (unless of course it’s a beer whose only lure is a bright, fluorescent light, a clowning glory, a false story that all will be well if only the drinker picks this beer), the swell of the ocean, a mighty movement on the palate, a realisation that here is something that makes you remember why one day, long ago, you chose to add beer to that happy band of companions that shall always be at your side until the day the great ride is done (the deep well of literature, the soaring peaks of music, the deep wine-dark breadths of the sea, the earthly powers of mountains, the companionship of history, the simplicity of friendship and love, the faithful pleasure of the table, the immortality of sport, the instinctive bond with canis lupus familiaris).

And on that day beer, and all the notes that appear on its own chromatic scale coming together in as many different ways as there are days in a life (the people, the places where beer is drank and made, the parade of flavours and aromas, the nothingness with which one grapples with to understand its place in the world), became embedded in my life and yet there are times when I still don’t know what words to clink together when it comes to writing about beer. 

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Elgood’s Coolship Dark

And yes, that’s a Staro glass,
it was given to me by the local curmudgeon,
who has thankfully left the area
Aged, received in December, sent to me from the brewery in lieu of an article on British sours that will appear in All About Beer soon, late December, and when it’s poured it’s still and limpid in the glass reminiscent of the kind of pond that poor old Ophelia drowned herself in (and which Millais put onto canvas), and as a digression I recall the first time I read Hamlet I thought what a ditherer he was, couldn’t make his mind up about anything, give me Falstaff or even Malvolio anytime — very dark chestnut/mahogany in colour, like a stained, ancient piece of furniture that’s been in the family for centuries. An agreeable handshake of dark stout like sweetness, burnt notes, treacle (or is that toffee?) alongside the angular, yoga poses of sourness, all making for an initially uncomfortable introduction but then it’s all ok, the kind of feeling you get when you settle into the yoga pose and know that what you are doing has got to be doing you some good. There’s a mustiness and earthiness on the palate, as if I had just gone into an old stable on a hot summer’s day and caught the aromas of horses and their actions long gone, but there’s also a grapefruit-like acidity, a stout-like boisterousness, a long day dawning of quenching zestiness; it’s a dirty beer, a beer that slinks along with a scowl on its face, a beer that kicks up the dust in the road (the mood of Dos PassosUSA perhaps), a beer that ululates to be matched with a big fat sweating pungent slice of Stilton or maybe it’s a beer that can be enjoyed on its own, a lonesome pine of a beer, that highlights the day as the sun moves across the sky. I rather like it.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Bière de garde 2005

Back in the late autumn of 2005 I visited the bière de garde region of northern France for a What’s Brewing article — I thought I’d bring it back to life and also remind myself that it’s time for me to get out there again (I was in Lille in 2012 but that was for this). You might have to excuse certain phrases that I wouldn’t go anywhere near now, such as ‘weighing in’ — cringe.


I’ve never met a landlady like Beatrice Maerten. Along with her husband, she runs a guesthouse in the French Flemish village of Boeschepe, on the edge of the hop-growing area that stretches north from Steenvoorde over the Belgian border to Poperinge.

This is a house of beer. Each room is named after a Trappist or Abbey classic, while if you call ahead you might even be offered a beer dinner. I stayed for one night and had St-Sylvestre Biére Nouvelle as an aperitif, while Annoeullin’s exquisite L’Angelus accompanied a ham and cheese crepe, followed by a beery carbonade. Post-dessert contemplation came with a bottle of St-Sylvestre’s stately strong-armed ale Gavroche. There were more surprises. ‘I thought you would like this,’ she said next morning, handing over a bottle of Westvleteren 12. Beats a Blackpool guesthouse any day.

As most CAMRA members will know, beer rather than wine is king in Northern France. Here, biére de garde has long been the name to drop, even though the term is more of an umbrella for the varieties of beers produced by small and large breweries in the region (of which there are approximately 30), than any specific style.

Garding is unique to the area. It means to lay down a beer for a specific period of time, almost similar to German lagering. It stems from the time when brewing was a seasonal activity and beers had to last throughout the hot summer months. These days, anything up to four weeks post-fermentation garding seems to be the norm. Another USP of these beers was the use of warm-fermenting yeasts that gave the beers a fruity, ale-like warmth.

In this strip of land that runs from the coast towards the southern edge of the Ardennes, breweries look to Belgium, as well as their own history, for inspiration. There are spritzy, fruity blancs, rich and deep ambreés, honey-hued blondes and spicy, mind-blowing Christmas ales, the latter unveiled with all the razzamatazz of Beaujolais Nouvelle.

Yet, try finding some of these beers in bars whose exteriors are festooned with signs for the multi-national babble of Amstel, Stella and Jupiler. I asked one small brewer if he sold his beer in the bar across the road from him. He shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘sometimes’.

Over at Brasserie Duyck, whose Jenlain heralded the biére de garde revival in the 1970s, Raymond Duyck seemed a bit downbeat. There used to be a Jenlain café in Lille, but that is now closed, though the Paris one still remains. He would like to open more of this sort, he said, then told me of the difficulties caused by InBev hoovering up the distribution right to French cafés. ‘This means that there are only about 30% of cafes we can sell to.’

Yet, despite these concerns about outlets, in a journey round a selection of brewers in the north of France, I found a still thriving brewing culture, that was going against the grain of multi-national, rice-based, cold-fermented, quick-brewed ersatz lagers.

Daniel Thiriez at the Brasseire Thiriez bar
For a start when I visit Brasserie Thiriez in the small village of Esquelbecq, which can be found outside Wormout, owner Daniel Thiriez tells me about his plans to expand, such is the demand for his excellent beers.

Formerly a human resources manager for one of the big supermarkets, he started brewing in 1996. He had long nurtured visions of brewing, but was also in search of the good life. ‘I wanted to be independent and live in the countryside,’ he tells me over a glass of the superbly hoppy Etoile du Nord, a fruity blonde with bitter highlights. This is his bestseller, alongside La Blonde de Esquelbecq.

‘This building used to be a brewery until about 60 years ago, but when I bought it there was nothing left, though some of the older people in the town remembered it.’ Now it is home to a gleaming stainless steel kit. The beer, which is mainly in bottle, is garded for a minimum of two weeks, though Thiriez is a bit unsure about the whole tradition.

‘For me it is difficult to say what is biére de garde. I cool my beer and leave it for a couple of weeks, which is when the quality improves. I did do experiments with four weeks but didn’t notice any difference.’ Make a trip here if you want to buy these excellent beers.

Biére de garde historically had its background in the farming community and this tradition is maintained at Brasserie Ferme-Beck, near the town of Ballieul. As the farm is approached, hop poles are a fairly obvious clue as to what the Beck family farm. They also grow their own barley, raise livestock and have gites where those with a rural bent can muck in with farm activities if they so desire. They have been brewing since 1994.

One beer is produced, the stunningly hoppy 7% top-fermented Hommelpap. When I visit I am taken around by Dennis Bergkamp lookalike Dany Beck. This is a small operation, but the beer has a bigtime earthy hoppiness with a burly resiny character. It’s dry and spritzy on the palate with a hint of refreshing lemony citrus fruit. It’s very moreish and can be had on draught at the bar that is open at weekends (check during winter months). Bottles can also be bought. Dany recommends that the bottles be drunk within a month or so of purchase.

A murky misty morning saw me in the village of St-Sylvestre, a strip of houses, shops and bars along the main road between Cassel and the A25 southwards towards Lille. The brewery straddles a side road in the centre of the village, opposite the church. I am met by Francois Ricour, whose grandfather took over an already existing brewery in 1920. This is the home of Trois Monts, which along with Jenlain is seen as one of the great biéres de garde. It is a blonde beast of a beer, weighing in at 8.5%, with a rich, smooth, ripe fruit palate and a warming, fruity finish.

The brewery itself is a mixture of new and featureless storerooms and a bottling line (every brewery of a certain size in northern France is proud of its bottling line), alongside the old brew room with its copper mash tuns, lauter tun and tiled floor and walls. Other beers produced include the aforementioned Gavroche, Biere Nouvelle and a Noël, while Lux du Moulin and Hoppeland Bier are brewed solely for the local market.

After a lunch-stop in Lille at the Omnia brewpub, which used to be a porno theatre but now attracts a hipster crowd who gorge on local dishes such as potjevlesch (a terrine of rabbit, pork, chicken and veal), washed down with the house specialities such as a marvellously refreshing blanc or the rich ambrée, it’s over to Douai.

By a railway bridge on the outskirts of this town, several massive cylindrical vessels mark out the site of Gayant, local dialect for giant. And giant this brewery certainly is. It brews a lot of beers of varying character, but the bestselling beer of France’s second largest independent brewery is the wonderful Goudale. Weighing in at 7.2%, it is often described as a wheat beer, though with an aromatic and perfumy nose and a bready, caramel, spicy, bittersweet palate it is closer to a Saison or even an Abbey beer.

As mentioned, Jenlain is the beer that springs most to mind when discussing biére de garde. Brasserie Duyck can be found in the middle of the small village of Jenlain and the whole range of beers sampled at a café in the centre of town. Ambrée is the classic, with deep herbal aromas and a big mouthful of hops and spice before the dry and bittersweet finish. The brewery’s Biére de Noël is a souped up Ambrée with an orange, Cointreau-like palate, while the Blonde is one of the brewery’s most complex beers with fresh citrus fruit, crunchy breakfast cereal, peppery hop and a hint of toffee making its presence felt.

Brasserie Bailleux is one of the smallest breweries in the area, but has been enticing lovers of local beer since its inception in 1989. Hidden away in the verdant Avesnois area, at the small hamlet of Gussignies-Bavay, it is attached to a restaurant, set up in the 1970s by Roger Bailleux. ‘My grandfather had brewed for several different breweries so it felt right to do this,’ he says.

The 7% Cuvee des Jonquilles is the brewery’s signature beer, a luscious blonde with an assertive bitter finish, with plenty of nods and winks to the tripels of neighbouring Belgium. There is also a beer influenced by the Saisons of Wallonia and the inevitable Noël. Fermentation is for one week, followed by a fortnight in the cool room, before bottling takes place with more yeast to form a secondary fermentation. Then another week passes before it is ready to go out to the public. In this hidden away haven of good beer, the time-honoured tradition of garding is maintained — and for that we should give thanks.



Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Yesterday never really dies

Does it matter if a style/variety/type of beer vanishes, does it matter if, say, Burton is no longer made or if it becomes known under another name? Do we ask if this beer in the glass is really a Burton or is it something else — and should we care? Can one feel a sense of sadness if a cherished style of beer is subverted and converted into something else and how would this metamorphosis take place?

A brown ale becomes a mild and then goes on to be a rootless subject in the world of beer, wandering and clambering around the steps of this world, an Ancient Ale Mariner, an eternal refugee from its original identity, unknowing, bellowing its anguish and throwing no shadow when the sun comes up. Gone before we knew it was going, expect it’s not really gone, it’s invisible and might as well be gone. 

But let’s have context: it’s not the tragedy of the fall of the African elephant or the end of a tribe whose language might have turned a key and opened a door onto the origins of early human discourse. Its passing is rarely noted by many. However, on the other hand the end of a style/variety/type of beer is the end of one small part of the way we map the lives we live, the way we order the food and drink and place it in the place from whence it came, the way we give our food and drink an identity, a relationship with a city, a town, a region, a country. London and Porter, Burton and IPA, pale lager beer and Pilsen; or maybe it’s a history with which a beer style can be associated, such as IPA and the Victorian age, Porter and Georgian London. So all of this does and should matter.

Sure, the death of a style/variety/type of beer is part of the forces that the market thrives on and a death in the family can come from no one wanting to drink a beer anymore, be seen with it, quit of it, but styles/varieties/types of beer (or whatever you want to call a variation in the beer brewed) bounce back, reanimate, reappear, and take a life out of the pages in the book that Porter wrote.

And with this in mind I take a break from an article I’m writing about the English-style IPA and what I see as its submersion in a sea of bright coloured, boldly hopped, briskly carbonated, Carmen Miranda-ed and occasionally unbalanced beers that call themselves IPA. I like subversion in beer (and submersion), but I also have a fondness for the English-style IPA and would hate to see it go the way of Burton, but as we see with Porter and IPA, yesterday never really dies. 

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Beer Festival


There are happy faces, there are faces that have happiness etched upon them like streaks of charcoal on a canvas and we know what will happen next: colours will concur and art will embed itself on the canvas that was once blank; there are shrieks and creaks of joy as a new beer is sampled, an elderflower note here and a boisterous and bolshy hop character there — mosaic, citra or maybe it’s centennial (while those beers with goldings, EK naturally, and perhaps fuggles, smoulder and shoulder their hurt in the background). There are tables full of people, beer drinkers not consumers please, in front of me, the time is edging towards 1pm and it’s time to take on the happy flight of opening the mouth and engaging with drinkers, one of the best parts of being a writer who makes beer as part of their beat. The Winchester Beer Festival it is, they asked me if I’d like to do a tasting, take myself into the world of a speaker and take people through a series of beers, all of which I linked to Britain’s Beer Revolution. I’ll be honest: speaking in public is easy, standing in front of a bunch of people is such fun, especially with a glass in the hand; I did it first as a kid, not with a glass, some crap in school, and then when in a band it was so easy to engage and so I find myself doing beer tastings and beer talks and I do love them. Back in Winchester, I’m announced as an expert which I quickly tell the assembled I’m not, just a journalist who got impatient with the way beer was being portrayed and thought he’d have a go. And the next hour ebbs and flows, a tide of words, glasses lifted, amber, blonde, midnight black, questions asked, answered, clasped to the chest, this is the way beer goes, this is the way beer goes. Thanks for coming, enjoy the rest of the day, it’s time for a drink or two. Until next time.