Friday, 22 June 2012

Meantime Friesian Pilsener

A glass of this beer please, golden and gleaming like the last rays of the sun at the end of a perfect day, the aura that surrounds the elegant glass a reflection of the thirst that hangs around in my mouth with the persistence of a memorable passage from, say, Shostakovich’s 1905 Symphony (4th movement maybe). Meantime’s Friesian Pilsener is a beer I have wanted to try for a long time, wanted to really study, wanted to sink into as if it were an ice-cold pool of glacier melt that would wake me up for good, but it being a seasonal and me not being in the right place at the right time has always been the foil of this desire. Did I mention desire? Can you desire a beer? Yes, you can desire a generic beer to plague the demons of thirst, but to desire a particular beer whose spec falls plumb centre in the North German Pilsener tin tray of style is a different matter, a matter of more consequence, the difference between a one night stand and falling in love. And so yesterday I tried the beer that has been wandering in and out of my thoughts for the past couple of years and disappointed I was not. As the name suggests, it is to Jever that the brewmaster Alastair Hook turned on creating this beer, and even though I love Jever I love Friesian Pilsener even more. It is as crisp as St Crispin’s Day, bitey with a mailed fist bitter lemon character and a Saaz-led hoppiness that leaves footprints in my mouth (I burp Saaz all afternoon). Dryness finishes it off and I am offered another in the tasting room of Meantime Brewery, where I have been invited to see these stainless steel maturation tanks create a beer fugue that JS Bach would have been happy to riff on if he could have found a way of playing beer. In this place time and beer collide and spend a minimum of four weeks in each others’ company. And at the altar where the brewers come and go and check the flow you can look down on this endless landscape of metal, evidence of Meantime’s commitment to the management of time. Oh and while I’m at it, time for another. 

Thursday, 21 June 2012


The blanche is as sharp and spiky as a retro punk haircut, a refreshing draft that lets coriander spiciness and lemon barley sweetness mosh-pit its way to the clean finish. There’s a brune and a blonde hanging around on the beer card as well, while there are some bottles with a Belgian theme as well. All brewed somewhere else in the building, by Guillaume Denayer, who used to work at Caracole and Rochefort. His last job before coming here was in a crisps factory and he was bored and wanted to get back into brewing. Brew-kit is Austrian, a stainless steel combination polished to the sort of perfection that the ancient Greeks would have had on their shields to trap Medusa with her reflection. He brews 15 different beers. Back in the bar, I note a mini Mannikin Pis peeking out from behind the glasses at the back of the well-wooded bar and the restaurant space has Bruegel-lite paintings on the wall. The staff hover about in brasserie-default uniform (aprons, black, you know the form), while the menu includes Flemish-style cuisine. The bar at which I sit has chrome piping, wrought iron work flourishes on the gantry and I continue to enjoy the wit. Where am I? Oh, sorry forgot to say, BrasserieMetropole, St Petersburg. 

Monday, 11 June 2012

The Nag’s Head

And how shall I recapture, recast, rejoin that sense of voices and life that I walked into on a Sunday evening whilst briefly marooned in the Mars that is Reading? A corner pub it was, the Nag’s Head, Tudorbethan in vision, black and white, white and black, with colour provided by a Morlands of Abingdon ceramic plaque embossed onto the wall. A large room it was, knocked into one and if you look carefully, if you look very carefully with some hint of an idea of what has passed, you can imagine the pub as a division of snug and public bar, but that was long ago and those that remember such Berlin Wall divisions are dying off, swapping their beer for a bier.

So what brings folk to this pub apart from a need to indulge in a spot of communitarianism? It’s beer. On my visit there I counted 12 hand pumps, while high up below the ceiling a coloured lantern-like joyfulness brightened the view as a line of pump clips led a conga around the room, Old brewery posters and beer guides and a sense of well picked beers (W&E, Dark Star, Red Squirrel, Humpty Dumpty and Triple fff) also added to the gaiety of the nation within this pub.

As it was Sunday evening I was perplexed as I look around the room at the drinkers tucking in — was this the final drink up at the end of the week or merely the start up when all sins are absolved and all sense of guilt at the weekend’s excesses is banished back into a box that no one opens until the end? And while I ponder these great philosophical ideas and pull on my pint of Dark Star’s Coffee Pilsner the voices within the pub are like cushioned tectonic plates all struggling and stroking against each other.

‘I just tell the truth and then no one trusts me.’

Characters. There’s a man at the bar whose head lopes on his shoulders like a feral teen wandering about a shopping mall, he’s had a good day. Another man comes in, his eyes immediately sweeping the room with the professionalism of a bodyguard; he stands at the bar, right foot forward, hands grasping the counter as if on a bridge cleaving through the high seas. Yet another man sits on a stool his legs tapping up and down with the regularity of a shiver. I’m also enraptured by a serene greyhound who comes in with its owner, serene in the sense that this is not one of those dogs that wages its tail and wants everyone to love it (I’ve got one of them).

The evening wears on and the feeling grows that this pub belongs to the people who come here and who feel a part of it. This pub thrives, is alive, cocks a snoot at the prevailing head winds of economic depression. So as ever there’s time for another before going back into the Mars that is Reading (and discovering sadly the disappointment of the town’s Zerodegrees, but that is another story for another time). 

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Roll out the barrel with the British Film Institute

Terry Jones and Michael Palin arse about as a couple of landlords in search of the perfect pint of Guinness. Pythonesque parodies abound: Jones is the oleaginous type, while Palin is more of a bumbler in this trade short for Guinness. A couple of cheery coves do a tour of English pubs towards the end of the Second World War (wonder where they got the petrol?), ending up getting their last orders in Battersea where one wall is given over to snaps of the local lads in the forces (there’s a real Powell and Pressburger feel to the thing). British movie matinee idol Michael Denison smoothes his Technicolor way through a winning hand of favourite inns in the 1950s (forerunners of the gastro-pub perhaps), the sort of place a fellow punts his girlfriend to. Meanwhile there’s 20 minutes or so about Bass as they move into hotels and clubs and keg and consider themselves part of the leisure industry — this is the moment that lager had been waiting for as we are shown a German brewing executive been greeted by the Bassers.

These films and more are all part of a fantastic DVD double set called Roll Out The Barrel that the BFI sent me last month. Featuring 19 short films made over the last 70 years, this DVD is an exemplary series of snapshots of British pub life. There is a sense in the earlier ones of the supreme importance of the British pub; it is not a place where people go to get colly-wobbled (as the puritans who hate pubs would have us believe), but where they socialise, be part of their community and take root in its very soil. As the years pass, lifestyles change and the old ways get stranded and left behind, like driftwood on the beach. The final film is from 1982 and is a Brewers Society sponsored 20-minute item narrated by Brian Redhead and featuring Bernard Cribbins*.

Roll Out The Barrel is masterly in its evocation of the British pub and all who sail on it. No doubt there will be some who will use it to keep banging on the big dark, negative drum for the death of the pub (and yes 16 close a week), but for the moment I would suggest you revel in the warm glow, the naïve modernism, the trade advice dressed up as comedy and the mixed sense of nostalgia it evokes, though not always correctly (not all the boozers look like the sort of place I would want to spend a night in, while the keg fonts dispensing uncraft keg are a real beer passion killer).
Roll Out The Barrel is released June 11, £22.99 and can be bought here

Every time I read or hear The Cribb’s name I cannot help thinking of the priceless moment in an Alan Partridge sketch when a precocious schoolboy asked him who’d played the lead part in the Hamlet Partridge had claimed to have seen — ‘er, Bernard Cribbins’ came the reply.