Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Dose

Dose. How nice it looks, like the glow of a hearthside fire, in which one sits in front of reading an MR James ghost story, secure in the knowledge that such things do not exist though the beer in the glass is corporeal and firm and believable; how snug and inviting the beer in the glass looks, a glow and a warmth that lifts the soul even though the next stage of your commitment to the beer is yet to come. Dose. As if in contrast to the soft glow of the beer in the glass, the nose is an assertive sergeant-major, a firm fruity (raspberry, but then you already knew that) toffee nose with a hint of dried rucksack that leads—even in the middle of winter—you to think that Sumer Is Icumen In; and then you taste it and think of the waft of ripe raspberries smashed against the side of a sun-warmed wall (brick perhaps), more toffee (strictly caramel this time), a creaminess that strokes the hand and a Robinson Crusoe sense of dryness in the finish. The beer in the glass is a big wrap around the world in its sensuous, fruity, malt-sweetness, and slightly sour group hug. Dose: this has been Thornbridge and St Erik’s Imperial Raspberry Stout. Dose. The beer in this glass has a darkness, a depth of darkness that you could drop a stone into and never hear its impact on the ground, falling, falling, falling, falling through space and time; but once you’ve got past the darkness and any feelings of vertigo, the senses are lit up with a rainbow bridge of flavours and aromas, a bridge that needs to be crossed. Dose: and then I think it has a Bruckner-like sensibility, in that it brings together fudge-like caramel, luscious liquorice and creamy coffee notes, and then there’s a piney-hoppiness, that hoves alongside a big fat alcoholic musical motif that is symphonic in its intensity. It rises and falls, here quiet, there robust in its challenge to the palate. A complete beer, a beer that sends you off to bed with the expectations of the sort of dreams that all of us wish for. Sweet dreams. Dose: this beer has been Sharp’sQuadrupel.


Saturday, 28 December 2013

On beer writing

A few weeks back I was asked by What’s Brewing in my capacity of Secretary of the British Guild of Beer Writers to write something about beer writing for their back page column Industry Insider. I noticed in the new issue that someone has written in a letter taking me to task for ‘bemoaning’ the lack of narrative books about beer , whilst forgetting The Longest Crawl by Ian Marchant. He’s right, I completely forgot about it. I read it several years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it, and whilst I’m on the forgetful trail, another excellent narrative book about beer (or maybe pubs), is The Search for the Perfect Pub by Robin Turner and Paul Moody. However, enough of the sackcloth and ashes, the reason for this post: if you missed it or don’t get What’s Brewing, here is it (this is the version I sent in and it had several cuts to make it fit, it’s only here because I cannot find the print version online, so this is not a case of poor subbed me).


Writing about beer is the best job in the world. Apparently. That’s a phrase I (along with colleagues in the British Guild of Beer Writers) frequently hear, as if I spend all our time propping up the bar or travelling from brewery to brewery or pub to pub.

Yes, there’s a great deal of fun in beer writing and a fair amount of beer consumed (moderately of course). I go to beer dinners, visit breweries in the UK, across Europe and the US; occasionally brew myself; go to great pubs all over the place; judge beer and receive beers in the post. What’s not to like? Oh and I get paid for it.

However, I can count on one hand the UK beer writers who make a living from just writing about beer. I also write about travel, occasionally turn my hand to freelance subbing and editing and host beer dinners and talks. Yes, it’s not a bad job, but not the best paid.

The majority of Guild members either write about beer in their spare time (some are journalists in other fields) or communicate about it as PRs, consultants, brewers or sommeliers. We’ve even got a poet in our ranks (he’s also a part time King of Beer in Derby), while a couple of playwrights have recently joined. Beer writing (or should that be communicating?) is a broad church, all of whose members share a powerful passion for beer.

Despite the financial disincentive to write about beer, as the Guild’s Secretary, I continue to receive requests to join, from both the UK and across the world. We also have members in the US, Canada, Italy, the Low Countries, Austria and Greece — it all makes for a healthy discourse.

Was there ever a golden age of beer writing? Some might say that it could have been during the early 1990s when Michael Jackson’s column in the Saturday Independent was the first thing I turned to or when Roger Protz popped up regularly on the BBC Food Programme. Or is now with books, blogs, apps and beer tastings going on all over the place? I’m inclined to the latter.

The national newspapers, as ever, are desultory in their beer coverage — a pub column here, a feature on women in brewing/beer/whatever there. On the other hand, the regional newspapers cover beer and pubs a lot more regularly, while trade publications such as Publican’s Morning Advertiser, Host, Inapub and Pub & Bar provide a healthy amount for work for Guild members.

On the magazine front, there is of course CAMRA’s Beer, while Beers of the World, which was briefly resurrected, is now online (the history of UK beer magazines is a fraught one and needs a separate article). Let us not forget CAMRA newsletters — I spent ten years editing Somerset CAMRA’s Pints of View and it was good fun.

On the book front, yes there’s a liturgy of lists, whether 1001 Beers, 300 Beers, Craft Beer Worlds or Yorkshire beers. However, there are also home brewing books plus gift-type did-you-know-this-about-beer books and guidebooks.

For me, what is missing (and this is a constant source of conversation between some beer writers) are more narrative books about beer, something that tells a story, or undertakes a journey. Apart from Pete Brown’s trilogy of Man Walks Into a Pub, Three Sheets to the Wind and Hops & Glory, there is no real beery equivalent to Andrew Jefford’s magnificent book about Islay whisky, Peat Smoke and Spirit (though bloggers Boak & Bailey’s forthcoming Beer Britannia will be eagerly awaited).

From my own experience, publishers are unconvinced that beer narrative books will sell; maybe beer writers have to do what Tony Hawkes did, take a fridge (full of beer perhaps) around Ireland or something? It’s a shame because beer writing is crying out for something that merges beer, history, travel and anecdotes along the likes of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts or even Harry Pearson’s light-hearted take on Belgium, A Tall Man in a Low Land.

Then there are the blogs: seven or eight years after their emergence there is still a vibrant beer blogging community out there, even if some complain that many consist of beer tasting notes and ‘where I got drunk last night’. With my blog (maltworms.blogspot.com) I enjoy the freedom to write about beer in a way that I cannot do when I have been commissioned; it’s place where I can experiment and think aloud about beer issues. Finally there is Twitter, where brief reviews, comments and links to beer stories can be posted

As well as the up and down nature of beer writing’s financial side, to me there’s also another issue beer writers need to be aware of: independence. By the very nature of what we do, beer writers are part of the industry (beer is sent to us, invitations are issued to launches and dinners), but there is a need to be separate from the industry. Beer writers should not be cheerleaders for every beer in the universe, while some writers are better than others in covering the complex issues of, say, the pub companies.

As for the future of beer writing, I’m positive. It’s no good moaning about the lack of coverage in the national press or the fact that a lot of beer books are list-orientated — people who want to be beer writers have to think beyond the traditional ways.

The whole concept of beer writing has changed in the last decade. I remember when Zak Avery, Beer Writer of the Year in 2008, started doing his beer tastings straight to camera and putting them out on Youtube. This was then a relatively new concept and at the time I remember commenting that this was asymmetrical beer writing: Zak was also writing articles, blogging as well as filming. It pays for a beer writer to use several different approaches to communicate about beer. For me that is beer writing’s future — a diversity of voices, methods and opinions letting the world know about the rich universe of beer, breweries, pubs and the people who make it all work.


Sunday, 22 December 2013

In pastures green…or Golden Pints 2013

What’s best about best when it comes to beer and — if you think about it — pubs? Is it the moment, the surroundings and the time in which the moment occurred, the memory, the nostalgia, the feeling of being somewhere beyond the ken of day to day life, the spontaneous, out-of-the-blue event that can knock one sideways with its sense of chance; or is it the carefully considered, pondered over, politically correct, look-at-me, pencil chewing collection of choices spread out in front of one like a crowded table cloth?

I’ve made my living by working on books that celebrate the lure of the list, so another list should be easy, but given that the aim of this blog has always been to write outside the constricts of my working life, this listing is harder than a list I have to write that puts money in the bank; so there’s an inevitable laziness and fatness to its construction, an indiscipline even, but also a joyous sense of letting loose, running across a meadow like a dog after a rabbit. So let’s go. As the bloke at the bus stop said: trap one, trap two.


Best UK Cask Beer
As much as I like hops and the joy that they bring to my soul, I have also spent 2013 reminding myself that malt has a place in the construction of beer, which is why the most memorable cask beer that leaps to the forefront of my mind is Adnams Broadside, as sampled and glorified and glowed over at the Anchor in Walberswick. I would also like to mention: Exe Valley’s Winter Glow at their pop up bar in Exeter, Fuller’s Black Cab in the Mad Bishop & Bear and a pint of ESB in the Bear in Oxford, which was so entire in the way it embraced all points of my sensory compass that I remembered why I loved it. Oh yeah, Hook Norton’s Old Hooky continues to bring forth both smiles and similes. 

Best UK Keg Beer
Anything by Camden, but I really loved the collaboration they did with Doug Odell earlier in the year, am too lazy to look up the name, but it was very very gorgeous. How about a glass of Freedom Organic Dark? Yes please. Or maybe, Partizan’s muscular Quad, the finale to a good night out, as drank at the Jolly Butchers in Stoke Newington. And not forgetting Wild Beer’s gorgeous cucumber beer, which I had in a pop up bar in Bath, on a hot summer’s day.

Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer
I think I’ve only had one UK canned beer and that was from Camden, while on the bottle front I was bowled over by Ilkley’s ‘triple hopped IPA’ The Chief, which as I wrote at the time it lifted up its leather-trousered, boot-clad leg and got onto a Guzzi Cali and roared off along the highway. Buxton’s Axe Edge, Westerham’s Audit Ale and a couple of beers from Siren, whose names I didn’t note also impressed. Then Meantime’s Imperial Pils was an intriguing drop.

Best Overseas Draught Beer
Easy. I was in a bar in Malaga, a craft beer bar, which on the European mainland seem to becoming as ubiquitous as Irish bars were once (see my thoughts on them in the Czech chapter in Three Sheets to the Wind), and I ordered a glass of Dougall’s 942 Pale Ale, 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. And it’s from northern Spain. I also ended up in Rimini twice this year on a couple of assignments and rather enjoyed Forst Sixtus in a sort of sports bar. And while I remember I rather enjoyed the creamy Schwarzbier at Hausbrauerei Eschenbrau in Berlin. Hold on a minute I’ve also just recalled Brooklyn’s Soriachi Ace and Lagunitas IPA, more of them please as well.

Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer
In can I enjoyed Ska’s Modus Hoperandi while in bottle I also continue in my reverence for Orval — I’m just about to start work on a bottled beers book (another list!!) so that might easily change.

Best Collaboration Brew
Is that between breweries or writers? With breweries I enjoyed Moor and Arbor’s Dark Alliance, while Wild Beer’s decision to invite Mark Tranter and Kelly Ryan over to produce Shnoodlepip also brought a smile to my face. On the writers/breweries side I enjoyed Melissa Cole’s Siberia with Ilkley and the various Brains continental beers; and in the spirit of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf I would like to mention the India Pale Bock I did with Arbor. Lovely beer, but then I’m not a brewer.

Best Overseas Brewery
I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Bellevaux in the Ardennes, where a coachload of beer judges were met by locals holding flaming torches and the village band; the beer, especially their Black, was good as well. Can’t recall if I have visited any other overseas breweries apart from Bellevaux and Val-Dieu this year. Oh and I enjoyed a couple of glasses in the brewpub U Tří růží in Prague earlier this year.

Best New Brewery Opening 2013
It’s got to be Burning Sky, whose Saison à la Provision had a leathery, lemony, bitter, orange, dry, bracing character while the large long dry finish reminded me of one of those long endless runs that I seem to vaguely remember on Ski Sunday. I drunk it with the ferocity of a wolf coming down on the fold.

Pub/Bar of the Year        
My local pubs the Bridge Inn and Woods never fail to satisfy me, good company and good beer — what else do you want in life; but in my travels I have also had my head turned by Hops & Glory in Islington, the Exmouth Arms just down the road and the Three Horseshoes in Batcombe; but my favourite at the moment is the Swan in Stratford St Mary, which is Mark Dorber’s second pub. It is brilliant — an old school village pub with a new wave range of beers, including Soriachi Ace, plus great food (pig cheek croquettes). And in the commodious garden at the back there are hop poles with First Gold and Bodicea growing. 

Beer Festival of the Year
Don’t seem to go to too many anymore, enjoyed the one at the Bridge Inn in May, especially as it is a five minutes walk for me; I also enjoyed the Birra del Anno event in Rimini.

Best Beer Book or Magazine
Beer continues to impress, while I love All about Beer and look forward to seeing what new (ish) editor John Holl has in store. Audacity of Hops, Craft Beer World and the regular Brewery History Society quarterly publications (if you are not a member then I would recommend joining them immediately) also made my life more bearable.

Best Beer Blog or Website
When he can be bothered to stir himself out of his cave, Pete Brown still smashes it (you could say the same for Zak Avery), while I also enjoy (and occasionally get infuriated by) Boak & Bailey, Alan McLeod, Martyn Cornell, Chris Hall and Pivni Filosof. However, if I am going to choose a best of, then it’s Northern Snippet — it’s more about pubs than beer, but for sheer enjoyment on the ups and downs of the licensed trade it’s unmissable. 

Beer App
Will Hawkes’ thingy. Are there any else?

Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer
Simon was the best, but my favourite tweeter these days is Dai Llama, but that’s not beer.

Food and Beer Pairing of the Year
Bit of self PR here, but I was very proud of the BritishGuild of Beer Writers dinner, where myself, Mitch Adams and Tim Hampson arranged Camden US Hells with chilli jam brushed smoked salmon, Wild Beer Modus Operandi with pheasant and a venison sausage roll and Partizan’s Quad with stout ice cream and a salted caramel dessert. Try it at home and let me know how you get on.

Cor that seemed to take forever.

Friday, 20 December 2013

1001 Beers updated version

If you have the updated 1001 Beers book that came out in the autumn and are wondering what new beers went in here’s a handy little crib list — I’m not going to say what came out, readers will have to work that one out themselves, but these are the beers that went in and the writers were Zak Avery, Pete Brown, Greg Barbera, Martyn Cornell, Evan Rail, Joe Stange, Tim Hampson and myself. 

21st Amendment Marooned on Hog Island 
2nd Shift Katy
8 Wired Sauvin Saison
961 Lager
Adnams Ghost Ship
Alvinne Morphe Extra RA
Ampleforth
Anosteke Blonde
Arbor Breakfast Stout
Badger Wandering Woodwose
Ballast Point Victory at Sea
 Bayerischer Original Gose
Beavertown Smog Rocket
Bell's Brewery Hopslam
Bluebird Bitter
Boulevard Reverb 
Boxing Cat TKO IPA
Břevnovský Pivovar's Benedict
Brewfist Spaceman
Brio Lager
Brodies Peach Sour
Buxton Black Imperial
Colorado Imperial Stout
Costa Rica's Craft Brewing Segua
Courage Russian Imperial Stout
Crazy Donkey
Dark Star Six Hop
DC Brau the Public
Dirty Stop out
Dochter van de Korenaar Belle-Fleur
Eggenberg Nakouřený Švihák
Emelisse Russian stout
Evil Twin Cowboy 
Evil Twin Hipster Pale Ale
Feral Hop Hog
Freedom Pioneer
Gruut Brown
Gypsy Porter
Hardknott Vitesse
HB Festbier
Heavy Seas Below Decks
Hogs Back OTT
Hopfenstopfer Citra Ale
Hoponious Union Jack’s Abby
Pretty Things Jack D’or
Kacov 12˚
Kagua Blonde
Kagua Rouge
Kernel Export Stout
Keserű Méz
La Trappe Quad
Lindemanns Gueuze Cuvee Rene
Magic Rock Cannonball
Marble Chocolate
Modus Operandi
Narwhal
New Albion/Sam Adams pale ale
Nomád's Karel,
Oakham Citra
Oskar Blues G'Night 
Otter Creek Copper Ale
Page 24 Réserve Hildegarde Blonde
Perennial Black Walnut Dunkel
Perennial Hommel Bier
Pivovar Matuška's Raptor
Pivovar Matuška's Weizenbock
Sam Adams Latitude 48
Sharp’s Quadruppel Ale
Sharps Cornish Pilsner
Shepherd Neame Generation
Ska Brewing Modus Hoperandi
Southville Hop
Telenn Du
Thomas Creek Up the Creek
Thwaites 13 Guns
Tilquin Oude Quetsche
Toccalmatto Grooving Hop
Troubador Magna
Typhoon T8
U Medvídků's Oldgott
Uinta Crooked Line Tilted Smile
Únětice světlý ležák
Urban Chestnut Zwickel
Vivat blonde
Von Trapp Golden Helles
Windsor & Eton 1075 Conqueror
Windsor & Eton Republika

Yakima Red 

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Dreaming, I was only dreaming…

Here comes a glass of beer, it might be dark, stygian in its absence of light or as glossy as Black Beauty’s coat; it might be as deep as the mines of Moria, mysterious and hiding all sorts of surprises. On the other hand, it might be pale, bathed in sunlight like a smile from someone you love, a crystalline brightness that brushes away the blues. Hold on though, it might also be coppery, it might also be amber, it might even be chestnut brown with crimson hues, a bomber of a brunette.

Here comes a glass of beer (or could it be a bottle), it might be cheap, it might be affordable, luxuriously affordable, perhaps the sort of price we pay for a decent bottle of wine, a chunk of cheese that has a tang or a pliancy and a creaminess that love-bombs the mouth or a bite that bites back. Or heavens above, shiver-me-timbers, they’re-all-at-it, vote-UKIP, things-used-be-much-better-in-my-day, I-found-a-hipster-in-my-turn-ups, destroy-all-beer, it might be expensive, beyond the pocket of most of us, it might be making money for brewers, it might not be beer, it might use big words, it might be honest in wanting people to pay more, it might offend all sense and decency.

Let’s all go back to a simpler age: mild & bitter, bitter & mild and the ladies in the lounge. Raincoats, trilbies, Lady Chatterley’s Lover in brown paper, the paper the colour of the beer that spills over the Formica table on which the crumbs of a dry, Joker-mouth-shaped sandwich has sat upon prior to immersion in ill-fitting dentures. Let us then, you and I, go back to a simpler age of cheap beer, consumer campaign coupons, beer as beer, which after all it is, and cheap beer, one size fits all beer. Let’s all go back, for beer is the past and we like it that way.

When I first met him 20 years ago I used to have rows with my late father-in-law about wine. I used to say if I had the money I wouldn’t have a problem in spending saying £50 or even £100 on a bottle of wine, while he would say that no wine was worth that much. Perhaps it isn’t perhaps it is, but it’s beer that I’m interested in, which is why an online piece in the Guardian about expensive beers (and the predictable supporting hurrahs) got my goat. Maybe there’s a market for expensive beers, maybe there isn’t, maybe it’s a case of brewers dolling up ordinary beers in a fancy package and asking for top dollar, maybe it isn’t, but what got my goat was that there was no solution to the perceived problem, just an old moan. I spent £11.99 on Sunday for a 750ml bottle of Adnams Sole Bay Celebratory Ale at the brewery’s shop in Southwold; was it worth it? I think so. I am glad that Adnams allow their head brewer Fergus to muck about, to use champagne yeast and to even dress up the beer a bit. I’ll age it and see what it says to me in the summer perhaps. I’m also quite happy to spend £1 on Budvar’s session beer Pardál, as to be found in Morrisons. It’s not the best beer in the world (being famously described by Evan Rail as bear urine and talking of which the expensive/cheap beer argument has a good analogy with Rail’s exemplary Why Beer Matters being released as a limited edition book with a much higher price tag than the Kindle), but it’s a cold one in the fridge that breaks the thirst come the witching hour. I’ll spend £5 on a bottle of Schlenkerla’s Doppelbock and so on. I like the fact that brewers tinker, mess about and see what happens when they do this or that. There’s plenty of hairy-armed blue overalls beer about and plenty of bright citrus-sponged beer about. That’s the great thing about now. Last year, as I spoke with him for a piece on London brewing (see here), Fuller’s John Keeling told me that this was a great time for brewing. I would suggest that this is also a great time to be a beer drinker, all over the world, which is why the moaning about expensive beers got my goat.

Or I suppose we could all go back to a time when beer was just beer. Really? In my research at the National Brewing Library in Oxford last week, I kept coming across accounts of all sorts of beers in the 1880s: IPA, pale ale, bitter, barley wine, stock ale, black beer and of course lager. I suspect some of those would have been more expensive than others and I bet people coped then as they can now.

End of rant/dream.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Nostalgia

Melancholic have I been of late, thoughtful even, not bad, neither sad, but the consequence of the dark nights that now seem to fall directly after lunch, while the need for words remains as urgent as ever (I wanted to write the world. What went wrong?). And in this space, thoughts turn lathe-like onto other thoughts, most notably on the blurry cloud of beer-inclined speculation that exists out there in the ether — and one thought keeps returning to me with the regularity of a healthy heartbeat, that there currently exists a feverish nostalgia for yesteryear in beer and brewing. Next year’s most eagerly awaited beer book will cover the history of British beer from the 1960s; one of the most respected beer blogs is a mass of facts and figures from the last two centuries of British brewing, while another equally compelling blog corrects the myths and ghost stories that have plagued beer history for decades; meanwhile retro beer labels have appeared on bottles and cans from an assortment of family and global brewers and recipes from the past are dug out, dusted down and presented to the contemporary drinker. Beer festivals are not free from this strange yearning for the past — some of the most acclaimed ones have called home spaces that once represented a long vanished municipal pride. Perhaps hipsterism, the sickly runt of postmodernism, is also part of this nostalgia.

So is this nostalgia a bad thing? Not really. Beer is nostalgia: things ain’t what they were; you used to get a good pint in here (sometimes with the phrase once upon a time added, which imbues the statement with the quality of a fairy tale); it doesn’t taste like it used to (maybe nothing tastes like it used to); in my day (which suggests that every day is an endless collection of many days; there is no such thing as a day — Borges posited that there had only been one man throughout history in a poem whose name eludes me at the moment). The beer that sits eager and anticipatory in the glass has the ability to take us back in our own personal time; bugger the biscuit that Marcel Proust nibbled on and led him to spending years in bed writing A la recherche du temps perdu, a glass of beer has the power to take the drinker back time and time again, whether it’s to a pub, meal, meeting, sporting moment or even just a moment of discovery. This is beer’s strength but it is also the way that it cannot escape from nostalgia. Mind you, the future is overrated, while being modern means nothing. I’ve seen breweries use phrases along the lines of ‘Modern beer for modern people’, which is as meaningless as pubs that have ‘bar & kitchen’ attached to their name; though no one has yet used something like ‘yesteryear’s beer for people living in the past’. I wonder why. 

This is inspired by an essay I am working on at the moment that looks at memory and beer hence its rather inchoate nature


Saturday, 30 November 2013

Teo Musso

This is part of the Boak & Bailey inspired Go Longer idea and was written in 2008

Jesus turned water into wine, but Teo Musso at Le Baladin has gone one step further — by changing beer into wine. At his bar in Piozzo, a small village high up in the Piemontese hills above the Barolo wine country, he proffers a glass of Xyauyu, a dark, almost black powerfully alcoholic ale (13.5%) that has spent 18 months sitting outside in a container in the courtyard at the brewery. Exposure to air has led to the beer going through a period of oxidisation, which in most cases is sudden death to beer, but here the process has alchemically altered the beer in the most sensational way — it has gone through the valley of shadows and death and come out totally transformed.

Viscous and limpid in the glass, it is warming and sherry-like on the palate, complex and blessed with a restrained but comfortable sweetness: an elegant and esoteric beer that has taken on the character of wine. It is strong, 13.5% in strength, and the drink-by date on the bottle says to be consumed by the end of the world. Clearly, Musso is a man with his eyes firmly fixed on beery nirvana.

Even though wine is king in the country of Italy, craft beer is taking pot shots at the throne, challenging the old hegemony, especially in the style bars and brewpubs springing up in the north. Here in the beer homelands of northern Europe we always think of Peroni and Moretti whenever the subject of Italian beer crops up, inoffensive premium lagers with big advertising budgets and nothing much to get worked up about. However, it is now estimated that there are approximately 150 breweries and brewpubs in Italy, a number that will probably keep growing. Le Baladin, which has been going since 1996, is often seen as the star of the show with Musso as its leading light.

He certainly has the aura of a man who believes his own publicity (‘he is the Jim Morrison of beer,’ I am told by one Italian beer writer). He is tall and rangy, draped in a long scarf, leather-jacketed, stick thin, heavily stubbled and blessed with the sort of distressed, windswept hair that must take forever to do in the morning. Even though he’s in his early 40s, there’s a boyishness about him, an enthusiasm, a sense of adventure or exploration, plus a easy charisma — he greets people in his bar with the sureness of one of those infuriating people who seem to have limitless self-confidence. When we meet he is still thoroughly amused over the battle he had the previous day with a Carlsberg Quality Control Manager at a beer seminar they were both talking at. Ask him about beer and the last thing you will hear will be marketing double-speak.

The home of Le Baladin’s beery heaven is the bar of the same name where the brewery first started. Nowadays, the beer is created (produced doesn’t seem an appropriate word for what he does) in a stand-alone site across the village square and down a side street. In May 2008, it will be all change again as the current brewery will be solely for experimental beers, with the regulars being created elsewhere in the village. For the moment then the brewery remains an adventure in stainless steel, comfortably sited within a nest of tiled walls and floor. 85% of his beers are bottled because he believes that is the best way his beer can be presented, especially when it appears on the beer list of smart restaurants.

Many hail him as a genius, though others of a more conventional stripe might think some of Musso’s ideas as thoroughly bonkers. For a start, most of the fermenting vessels have headphones attached to them. This is due to Musso’s belief that as yeast is alive it can respond to music, in the way newly born babies like a spot of Mozart. There is even a tango guitarist who has composed movements for the different phases of fermentation. Along with the regulation barley and hops, various spices, chocolate, coffee beans and even myrrh go into the brewing pot, while top-fermenting yeasts are joined by strains that usually work with whisky or wine. 

Then there is Musso’s latest creation, the Casa Baladin, which is a beer restaurant and hotel across the square from the bar, a unique stronghold of beer cuisine and seven luxuriant rooms all individually decorated to a theme. The Flowers Room is dominated by an incredible three-metre deep brass bath that was brought from North Africa; the Jewels Room is hip and minimalist, while the 70s one is lurid and psychedelic. You get the picture (one of the other beer journalists I was with used the words ‘knocking shop’). There’s also a Turkish bath, while the high-ceilinged lounge continues with this mixture of modern and fantasy: old weathered beams hang over the proceedings, a metal chimney rising out through the roof has the feel of something out of 1001 Arabian Nights, some of the seating comes from an old Paris cinema. ‘I want to transmit experiences to people,’ he says.

This is the sort of room that would be an ideal winter’s night experience with a glass of the brewery’s chestnut-coloured Noel Baladin to hand, a sensuous Christmas ale that has become so popular it is now brewed all year. However, in keeping with Musso’s brewing contrariness, the recipe is changed annually. The 2007 vintage that I try has coffee beans in the mix, while 2006 saw chocolate being added. ‘Next year I don’t know what I will do,’ he laughs. Noel is nutty and alcoholic on the nose, with a hint of vanilla and ground coffee beans in the background. The palate relaxes with a rich and rummy smoothness that is woken up with an appetising espresso-like bitterness. Musso hands around a plate of truffles to accompany this glorious beer; they have Noel within them. Never mind about chocolate liquors, beer is the new confection accessory in town. ‘I like to challenge the way beer can be used with chocolate.’

Challenging our perceptions of what beer is and can be is what Musso is about. His Belgian-style witbier Isaac has a tart, sourish edge to the palate; Elixir is an Abbey-style ale that is fermented with Scottish distillers’ yeast, while Nora contains ginger root and myrrh and is hopped as lightly as Italian brewing laws will allow — it’s weird in the it’s-a-beer-Jim-but-not-as-we-know-it mode and absolutely delicious. The Italian spirit of adventure and inspiration that drove the likes of Marco Polo and Da Vinci are very much alive in Teo Musso. ‘Every week I think in my head a new beer and every two months I try and brew one,’ he says. ‘A new taste is like a new way of communicating with people. My beers try to communicate new flavours and aromas to people. I never get bored with brewing. I am like a volcano spewing out new ideas. I could never be a wine producer because there I could only expect to be creative once a year, while in beer you can be creative all the time.’

Tasting notes
Nora, 6.8% — dry, spicy and refreshing
Brune, 4.7% — chewy, smoky and creamy with toffee notes
Super Baladin, 8% — strong Belgian-style ale with a candy-sugar sweetness on the palate; chewy, bittersweet and silky with lots of malty flavours
Blonde, 4.9% — honeyed, tart and herbal
Isaac, 5% — delicate and subtle with hints of spice and a quenching sourish edge
Nina, 6.8% — ESB style, which is quenching and chewy
Sei no 6, 5.2% — made with a special mineral water; dark gold in colour, it has an estery, sour, gueuze-like nose, with lemony hints; has spices and buckwheat in the mash and is fermented with a wine yeast.
Wayan, 5.8% — light and subtle with a gentle carbonation, dryish; ‘I contaminate the beer with lacto-bacteria and then bottle and secondary ferment’.
Elixir, 10% — sweetish, has a hint of Belgian triple about it but not as hoppy; sharp and prickly in its carbonation; a dry and fiery triple that doesn’t have the sweetness of the more common Belgian ones.
Erika, 9% — dark orange in colour, made with heather honey and also has pine resin added to the boil; not overly sweet, has a nose that can be compared with like being in a forest after a rain shower; rounded, restrained bitterness, bittersweet dryness; very drinkable.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Burning Sky gets its timing right

Mark Tranter
Morning has broken in the East Sussex village of Firle and at the brewery Burning Sky the working day has began. The bells in the flint-faced church opposite sound the hour and the muffled clang of metal casks banging together beyond the wooden doors of the brewery entrance reach out as if in friendly response. Brewer Mark Tranter looks at the clock as if to confirm where he is at this stage of the day. It’s time to go to work.

Time, indeed. Time will be the fifth ingredient (or the fifth element if you will) in the beers produced by Tranter’s new brewery Burning Sky. Within the old barn with its brand new concrete floor, assemblage of shiny stainless steel vessels and a boiler whose tuneless humming puts me in mind of an elderly guy who’s a regular in my local, there is also a quartet of 2500-litre oak barrels. Two of them sit on their side, formerly filled with red wine, while the other two, upright, pot-bellied, are newly made; medium toast French oak I’m told. A further 16 225-litre wooden barrels gather in the corner, with another four on order. Someday soon these barrels will hold plenty of beer that will sleep the sleep of the just.

‘These barrels are a statement of my intent,’ says Tranter, who made his name as the head brewer at Dark Star, the creator of beers such as Hophead and Revelation, a former home brewer who started working with Dark Star’s founder Rob Jones in the 1990s (there’s an irony that Tranter’s current assistant Tom is also a home brewer — the wheel turns full circle).

‘I was proud of the part I played in what I achieved,’ he says of his time at Dark Star. ‘It was a real wrench to leave, but one of the reasons for getting out was that I didn’t want to look back and regret not doing things. I had an itch I wanted to scratch. I also wanted to do this brewery properly and didn’t want to sit in a van dropping a nine here and there. I wanted a decent sized brewery (this is 15 barrels) and everything has to be good.’

He left Dark Star in the spring, went over to the States and then having secured the building, undertook the alterations and got hold of the kit, the first brew was at the end of September. Three cask beers are regularly brewed: Plateau is a 3.5% pale winsome beer that is juicy and fruity (mandarin, peach, pineapple, hop sack pungency) and finishes with a dusty, dry bitterness; Aurora is 5.6% and is, as Tranter insists, ‘a strong pale ale not an IPA’ — it has a Cointreau-like orange character, a husky dryness that demands another taste and a slate-like dryness in the finish; finally, there’s the 7% IPA Devil’s Rest, which is almost red in colour and has a fragrant cherry/cedar nose (with a hint of amaretto), a nutty, stone-like centre, sensuous citrus and ferocious dry finish. This is a rugged IPA, Mount Rushmore with stubble perhaps.

And then we come to time, Tranter’s fifth element, fifth ingredient, burning passion perhaps. He’s always been interested in what breweries outside these isles do, there’s a restlessness about his creativity, which I recall from a trip we made to several small Czech breweries a couple of years ago. Then I recall the first time I tasted Dark Star’s exciting, extravagant Tripel, a gorgeous beer that possessed the fatness and ringing, chiming, jellied fruitiness of some of the tripels I’ve had in Belgium. Then there’s saison of which he is a devotee.

Burning Sky currently brews two saisons. At the moment there is Saison l’automne, a beer for this time of the year, complex, dry and spicy, and a reflection of what is available in the hedgerows of Sussex. For this beer, Tranter collected a load of rosehips and after steeping them in boiling water added the juice to the fermenting beer. ‘I love saisons and I love the countryside,’ he says, ‘this saison’s base recipe will remain the same all the year round but its seasonal ingredients will change. I had this idea that my seasonal saisons would reflect the seasons and whatever was in season at the time would be added to the beer.’ Saison l’hiver will feature hawthorns.

Then there is a Saison à la Provision, which is a different beast altogether. Though it has the same recipe as l’automne (lager malt, spelt, wheat, carahell, East Kent Goldings, Saaz, Styrian Goldings and Soriachi Ace), it’s accordingly amped up to 6.5%, has no rosehips or anything from the hedgerows but instead Brettanomyces and Lactobacillus are added towards the end of fermentation. The glass I drunk in the fabulous Snowdrop Inn in Lewes was hazy orange in colour, with a leathery, lemony, bitter, orange, dry, bracing character while the large long dry finish reminded me of one of those long endless runs that I seem to vaguely remember on Ski Sunday. I drunk it with the ferocity of a wolf coming down on the fold — I wouldn’t mind a barrel of this permanently on tap at home. It’s also a magnificent food beer, being a wonderful companion to the Snowdrop’s magnificent battered gurnard and chips.   

This would be the last time I drink it this way. On the following morning when I was at the brewery, Tranter was brewing the Provision and from now on it would be transferred to one of the 2500-litre oak barrels, and time would take over for the next two to three months. There will also be a 6% stout that will go into wood and a Flemish Red Ale, which Tranter reckons will need 18 months in wood.

There is a calm concentration about the way Tranter is going about his business. He can do the PR with meet the brewer nights and getting writers to visit his brewery but he’s not going to be using the word awesome any time soon. He’s a brewer first and foremost, inclined to the creative side of making beer but hasn’t forgotten that brewing is also a business. ‘Yes I’m nervous about it all,’ he says, ‘there’s a lot riding on what I am doing — what if it doesn’t work out, people have been kind, but if it doesn’t work out, what is there?’

I don’t think he has to worry. On the basis of the beers I’ve tasted and the skill and invention of the brewer I think Burning Sky is here to stay — after all it’s got time on its side.

a statement of intent

Saturday, 16 November 2013

…like a massive ant army on the march

video
With the sound of a massive ant army on the march, the grain for the first mash of the day at Burning Sky travels along the tube until it reaches the safety of the mash tun — as Shakespeare might have written if he’d been interested in covering the beer scene of his time, this island of brewing is full of noises, strange sounds and sweet melodies. The clanging of metal, the wheezy breathing of the boiler, the shouts of the brewer and now this a massive ant army on the march .

Monday, 4 November 2013

The Wicker Man as beer

video
Saturday night, the dark dark night, somewhere in the countryside outside Malmedy, pointillist beads of light flickering in the surrounding hills and fields, while here at the start of a lane that leads down to Brasserie de Bellevaux, fiery torches are held aloft, handed out to initially bemused but then delighted beer writers, who have just spent two days in Liege judging beer at the Brussels Beer Challenge (the competition, now in its second year, aims to be held in a different place every year — I’ll be writing a bit more about it later in the week).

Down the lane we go, The Wicker Man being mentioned time and time again (as well as Madonna when some wax drips on my hand), with a local brass band ahead of us leading the way, invoking a wonderful if Laurel & Hardyesque sense of carnival. It’s joyous, surreal, giggle inducing and above all fun, which is what is forgotten sometimes about beer. Hey beer is fun.

Into the farm yard we herd, where Bellevaux has grown since being set up by former chemist Wil Schuwer in 2004, torches still jerking up and down, while a bonfire crackles, glistening haunches of wild boar slowly turning on a spit. I’ve had some great beer moments and this is yet another memorable one.

Across the yard in the brewery, the copper clad vessels reflect the light, adding more lustre to the evening, while glasses of the brewery’s bracing Blonde and its bone-dry Black are handed around. Wil’s wife Carla Berghuis greets us, emotion in her voice as she tells the brewery’s story, its mantra of localism and good beer stirring and joyful at once amid the smell of wood smoke and the good natured mood of the judges.

In the brewery, Wil discusses beer and brewing, especially Bellevaux Black, which appears in 1001 Beers. ‘When I thought of it,’ he says, ‘I thought of a British beer, but this being Belgium we added some foam. I now like to think of it as a porter.’ It is a beautiful beer, a sleek dark chestnut colour with an autumnal aroma of berries, a smoothness on the palate punctuated spikes of roast and dryness before finishing with an appetising dryness. I found it a comfortable and considerate companion to the wild boar and uplifting when it met the cranberry sauce I dolloped onto my plate.

The brewery also makes Tom’s Pale Ale, a Brune and a Triple that at 9% was a perilously addictive beer — dried pineapple, voluptuous sweetness followed by an ascetic dryness. What’s not to like? And while we ate a woman with an accordion wandered amongst the diners, adding to the sense of the occasion (this was not U Fleku with the man in the Corsican bandit’s hand scowling as he waits for change). Good beer, good food but more than that a great, hearty, homely, friendly, joyous sense of occasion. If you’re in the Ardennes look these guys up — I can’t promise the fire parade and the band though.






Monday, 28 October 2013

Clean vs dirty

Some beers squeeze their way into the house, they’re from Sharp’s and they do more than make me think about how they taste. First of all, there’s Equinox, a 3.8% session beer with orange peel in the mix. I’m not thinking breakfast beer here though, it’s something that takes me into another space as the nose carries the delicate breeze of orange notes that occur when you dig your nail into the pith; it’s not a big orange blast, but something fine, something just there, something shimmering on the far horizon. Alongside this subtlety, there’s a corporeal sweetness from the barley, both notes combining to suggest a mythical beast along the lines of orange flavoured toffee. I would call it a clean nose, in which the constituent parts all harmonise together, Bloch’s Piano Quintet no 1 perhaps? On the palate the beer is more forthright with the ghostly oranginess and a honeyed sweetness and a cracker-like dryness in the finish that is accompanied by a zestful orange note. A complete beer, a refreshing beer and above a clean beer — where clean doesn’t mean lacking in flavour, but more that the flavours have a wholeness, a unity to them. And when the word clean appears on the scene is when I start to think about the idea of clean vs dirty beers.

Continuing on the theme here is Land Shrimp Pale Ale, famously made with woodlice, creatures I would squash without thinking about it when I was younger. This has a good carbonation, a zip and a zap of fizz when the top is popped. Hazy orange in the glass, fruit gum, orange flavoured, on the nose — not a big bazooka of aroma, but there it is, to be joined by pineapple. Mouthfeel is initially creamy, followed by a sprightly dance of carbonation, a good two-step action. Pineapple, orange and no woodlice — I don’t really know what to expect; further gulps bring forth an earthiness or is that the mind playing tricks on me? There is a good appetising dry finish with bitterness and subtle pepperiness in the background; plus a hint of chalk. There is still the cleanness of what I come to feel is the signature of Sharp’s beers.

This then brings me to think about the idea of clean vs dirty beers. I remember writing once about how Kernel’s beers were dirty and the better for it and I would say the same with Sharp’s from the clean perspective. It reminds me of something Alastair Hook said to me years ago about lager — about how he was trying to have his beers show off the flavours and aromas of the raw materials he was using. That’s the definition of a great lager. With the cleanness of the beers of Sharp’s, you also get to smell and taste the raw materials, but with the ale yeast adding that extra dimension. Clean vs dirty — it doesn’t have to be divisive.

Friday, 25 October 2013

An over-ignored Tasmanian Tiger eager to go for a walk

There’s nary a pop as the bottle top is popped, no hiss, no gentle pssst as what I would expect the noise the CO2 would make, eager to escape like a genie from this earthenware style bottle. Has it been released too young is the thought that burrows its way through my brain?

There is an appley cider sourness to the aroma, which bridges over to the palate; the tasting notes for the beer say vanilla and coffee and that is what I would expect from a beer billed as a strong dark porter — and then I think Brett? However, it’s still and viscous even though its end of life date is only next summer and the abv is 7.5%. Perhaps it’s meant to be still, but the stillness means initially that all the flavours hang separately; a wardrobe of badly picked colours and shaped, nothing that you would want to wear at the same time. It’s just I would like carbonation to be the wardrobe mistress.

Those were my first impressions. 

As time takes hold, takes me by the hand, there is a character and a cough and toughness to this beer that really makes me want to explore it further — it couldn’t any further from Box Steam’s other beers. A toughened, leathery toffee/treacle character that has pepper in the background and roast ground coffee beans that have been left for some time to lessen the freshness of the coffeeness, which is fine as I wasn’t expecting a big coffee hit; then here they are, the mellow vanilla notes are a nice big hug from someone close to you. It’s not overly sweet and the Brett is a delightful surprise but then I wonder if it is deliberate? Definitely Brett and it works pretty effectively with the vanilla and cocoa notes. It’s an interesting and exciting beer that nudges me like an over-ignored Tasmanian Tiger eager to go for a walk. Thank you Box Steam for sending this beer to me — I did think I knew what to expect but I am glad my expectations were confounded. Oh it’s called Evening Star and I think it’s rather special.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Raft beer


good beer, bad beer, here beer, here we go beer, beer for beer’s sake, I like beer beer, delish beer, ladies beer, hardness beer, there it goes again beer, oops beer, raft beer, hold onto beer beer, survival beer, need beer, near beer, greed beer, geek beer, bear beer, help me Rhona beer, sleep beer, god beer, got the look beer, slow beer, glow beer, wild beer, child beer, Keats beer, health beer, Indiana Jones beer, got me a real live living doll beer, here we go beer, it’s an up and under beer, Thomas Cranmer beer, wheelbarrow beer, roll out the barrel beer, Bafta beer, shopping beer, brown beer, beer unbound, the Oxford Companion to Beer beer, third world beer, sad beer, glad beer, light beer, all hell let loose beer, my beer, your beer, his beer, her beer, their beer, please release me beer, PC beer, queasy beer, museum beer, er beer. 

Friday, 11 October 2013

Deep breath, I like beer mats


I’m going to be brave and stand up and say my name and after taking a deep breath I am going to say that I like beer mats. Yes that’s right, I like beer mats. I started collecting them as a teenager, though I got rid of my first hoard after splitting up with a girlfriend, but then started again and now have enough to fill about four shoeboxes. I have some of them displayed on my book shelves, while others are in plastic sleeves somewhere in a folder and the rest remain in the boxes. 

What do I like about them? 

There’s an element of time and travel about them — some represent a visit to a pub (or brewery) in a specific town or country, a memory jogger, a souvenir, a time capsule. I can see an old school Adnams one with the fisherman (and pipe), which was used for Old Ale —this takes me back to my first visit to Southwold on a cold night towards the end of the year in 1989 (that was a good night). The one for Coreff returns me to our son’s first holiday when he was about four months old (oddly enough there’s a photo from that time on the web somewhere — I’ve got a glass of Leffe and a baby is looking at it worriedly). Then there are the mats of beers from breweries that I used to like but are no longer here: as I write I can see ones for Morrells, Devenish, Tolly Cobbold and Brakspear’s on the wall. There are also mat or should that be coasters for American, Polish, Italian, German and Belgian breweries.

However the reason why I have been thinking of beer mats is this little beauty above for Harvey’s in Lewes. I picked it up at the Rake on Wednesday night and I just love it. Its immediate, striking, has a cartoonish quality but is warm as well. There’s an element of self-humour there as well, as Viva Lewes is not a phrase I would usually attribute to Harvey’s, who are one of my favourite breweries. It’s a mat to celebrate their old ale and presumably the imagery refers to Lewes’ bonfire night next month. I love it and it’s like a prediction of a journey yet to be done — I haven’t been to Harvey’s but this is something I will get around to rectifying sooner rather than later. Oh and Pete Brown tells me that the artist who did this glorious beer mat also did the cover for Shakespeare’s Local

And of course we all know that beer mat collectors call themselves tegestologists’ — I think I’ll pass on that .

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Bristol Beer Week calling

Bristol Beer Week is coming to its close and from what I hear it’s been a liver wracking success. Last night I was engaged in a beer and food match alongside a 1001 Beers signing at Arbor’s fantastic Three Tuns in the Hotwells area in Bristol. I think it went well, there was good people, good beer and I was overwhelmed by the brilliant food that Ben at Meat and Breadmatched with the beers.

Here goes. Pork belly cured in Saison Dupont accompanied by celeriac puree — the beer’s spiciness and carbonation wrapped itself around the meat, hugged the fat, slapped the puree on the back and insinuated itself into the spices. A celebration. Brewfist Spaceman with mango salad, Asian spices and peanut: say hello to the deep orangey hues of this Italian IPA and it’s a greeting as effective as that between US and Soviet forces when they met on the Elbe in 1945. Cerviche. Bristol Beer Factory’s Southville Hop was used to cure fresh mackerel and then served alongside — what a beautiful result it was. The beer brought out the flavour of the fish, while its hop character of tropical fruit was kept intact. A sensual otherworldly experience somewhat akin to praying awaited with Ampleforth Abbey beer and a slice of well-aged Westcombe Cheddar —there was also a rarebit with the briskness of the beer’s carbonation and its toffee, coffee and dried fruit notes lapping at the well of creativity. Beavertown Smog Rocket was used to braise mussels and then served alongside — yes please, while home cured cucumbers were floured and deep fried as pickle chips before being served with Lindemann’s Cuvee Rene — an inspired match with the soft, gentle acidity of the cucumber lifting the vinousness and sherry like flavours of the beer. Oh look, here comes another triumph: smoked caramel ice cream and peanut brittle served with Arbor’s silky, earthy, bittersweet Breakfast Stout. If man is 5, the Devil is 6 and this match is 9 — the beer almost became a component of the dish, lifted its flavours, acted as a bridge and made the grown men in the room ooh and aah like babies. To finish: how about Triple Karmeliet with foie gras and banana chutney? Yes please.

So when in Bristol head to the Three Tuns at lunchtime and see what Ben at Meat and Bread has to offer (his sarnies are on the bar every lunchtime). And then on the way to the station pop into BrewDog and say hello — Bristol is yet another great beer city and I for one look forward to next year’s Beer Week. 

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Dissonance

Dissonance. It sometimes works in music. Chords bumping into each; a rhythmic disturbance that somehow works; slow, fast, slow, fast, C# Minor and G Major played at the same time perhaps, though given that one chord contains C and the other C# it might be stretching things a bit too far. However, I’m also thinking of John Coltrane, whose work I don’t know much beyond a Love Supreme, but I remember enjoying it years ago. The Jesus & Mary Chain could do a nice riff in dissonance as well — the Beach Boys (or the Monkees) filtered through Lou Reed Metal Machine Music perhaps? Even in Elgar’s transcription of JS Bach’s Fantasia in C minor there’s a nice line in creative dissonance when it seems like the orchestra is starting to slow down and fall apart but something happens to keep it all together and the music moves to new heights of beauty.

And what this has to do with beer? The other night I opened the bottle of Meantime’s Cali-Belgian IPA that I had been sent. Described as a golden Californian-style IPA given a Belgian twist, I found it an intriguingly dissonant beer with the Belgian yeast giving it a bright and spicy character, while the IPA side of things brought forward a concentration of grapefruit, orange peel and fresh mango, though it wasn’t an easy-going fruitiness. It was a fascinating beer and one that really deserved to have some time spent with it. It made me think and with each sip I loved the beer more. And as I drank it I thought that if Californian-style IPA was rock, then Cali-Belgian IPA was most definitely jazz and that is when I started thinking about dissonance.

There’s a wildness, a flutter of different harmonies, an itch developed to explore more, a feeling that such a beer is not an easy conquest, but something to be contemplated, not instantly understood. And it was then that I thought about jazz, a form of music that I’ve never been too fond of though what I’ve heard from Coltrane and Miles Davis has always intrigued me. That’s the same thing with this beer — it intrigues me, it makes me think and best of all it revives what I sometimes worry is a palate being jaded by too many IPAs, that everyone and their mother nowadays makes. I loved it but if you want some best be quick as it’s part of the Brewers’ Collection, a monthly beer from Meantime. Next time around there’s an Imperial Pilsner , which I really hope I can try. That won’t be dissonant — contrapuntal perhaps?

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Books

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?