Wednesday, 11 October 2017

A coaching inn in Topsham

Rat-a-tat. Ding-dong. Clip-clop. Here’s a train of horses sparking in the yard. Words that faded away at childhood’s end. Bow-wow, plip-plop, giddy-up. At the Globe, an old coaching inn in Topsham, in the small bar, on a beneficent Sunday lunchtime, while the rest of the place gets on with munching much of their Sunday lunch, I sit and return to a past I never knew in the company of a bottle of St Austell’s Big Job in my glass. Wooden floor, panelled bar, low-beamed ceiling, sound of coffee machine, hiss hiss, locals talking, laughter, the genteel gentility of an elderly couple with their wine at the end of my table (there’s a string quartet at 4 in the church across the road), dogs, chat, laughter once again, and a Gerry Adams lookalike with a Devon rogue to his language. It all reminds me of the Angel in Grantham in 1987 (or was it 1988?) when I first became aware of the lure of the coaching inn, as scrubbed up and polished an icon as it has become (especially the Angel). But here in the Globe I get a sense of what I first felt, a lapse into the past, a drop into history, not only mine but one that spans several centuries, whether imagined or real. There’s a mythic sense of a past that wasn’t probably that good — no money for starters, dreadful food, awful conversation — the honeyed tone of a theme park, Westworld, what-would-have-happened, alt-history, nostalgia, especially if it is Sunday, but still the lure of something that was once in this space makes me think and then I stop. And take another drink and bring myself back to now, which is where I want to live and the dog by the bar wags its tail and the elderly couple head off to their concert and I think it is time to have another beer (and is that the metallic sound of horses’ hooves in the courtyard? Probably not). 

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Trust

Red barley was used to make this beer,
it was chewy, full-bodied and rather enticing
After a visit to Carlsberg a couple of weeks ago I’ve been thinking a lot about trust. When various people at the brewery talked about the need to recall their origins, you know Emil Hansen, the good works of JC Jacobsen and so on (which suggested that they had forgotten who they were — as the last time I was there was in 2011 for the launch of a sodding advert and a meal), I thought, can I trust what you say; when I drunk a beautiful single malt lager that had been produced on their experimental kit, lightly fruity, delicate despite being 5%, uncomplicated but damned in the way it went down my throat, which was then followed by a beer that had green unripe barley as part of the mix (estery, grassy, clean), I thought about trust, would these beers ever see the light of day beyond the room we were in; and then there were certain phrases from people that acknowledged the revolution that craft had brought about, with almost like an air of sackcloth and ashes about it, mea culpa and all that, and as I drank the Jacobsen Yakima IPA in the brewery’s brewpub, I also thought about trust. And then several days ago Anheuser-Busch sacked several hundred employees from the High End subsidiary and I wondered what they thought of trust. I hope I can trust Carlsberg, I met some good people, and I respect the role it played in the development of beer in the 19th century, and I enjoyed the 1883 Vienna-style Dunkel-style beer that they are rolling out in Denmark (but not here), but I keep thinking about trust. 

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

I just want an imperial stout

Is this an imperial stout? 
So there I am in the tiny Mikkeller bar in Copenhagen, my first time back since 2011. It’s gone 11 and I want a final beer or two for the night. An imperial stout calls and on the blackboard behind the bar there are two imperial stouts chalked up. 

I just want an imperial stout. 

However…

One of the them is brewed with Sahti yeast, which is rather interesting and has a soft vinous-like character, you know the jazz shapes that wine can give to beer, a roastiness and a sweetness and a sense of darkness reminiscent of the thoughts of a murderer planning their next killing. 

I just want an imperial stout. 

However…

The other imperial stout is Imperial Mexican Biscotti Cake Break, a collaboration between Evil Twin and Westbrook — it is sweet, soft, doughy, biscuity and gently roasty. 

Both of them are decent beers and inevitably get good marks from the teachers at Ratebeer, but as I sit there zoning in and out of the conversation on the next table (has Copenhagen become the new 1920s Paris given the amount of Americans I heard or saw?), that moment, that brace of beers, feels like an infantilisation of beer. Imperial stouts are muscular brutes, hammering away like a leather-clad smith on an anvil — now, they, just like the IPA, have become a laboratory for mad scientists, a dartboard randomly pinned, a ghost style perhaps. 

I’m not arguing for an interdiction on beer styles, after all no one made me drink these beers. Instead, what I felt in the Mikkeller bar was an irritation, an utterance of quiet despair, a flight from fantasy. And I was aware of a counter argument going on in my head, beers like this are an example of breweries heading for the open seas, the outer space of brewing imagination, the search for a god, a lodestar of flavour. 

As for me I remain genuinely torn by these conflation of beer styles — sometimes I think it is marvellous and creative and a mark of greatness and other times I think it is just Cheddar with chilli or a pizza with chocolate, baby food for adults. 

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

The hanging hooks of a pub’s imagined past

Here we are in the Alexandra Hotel in Derby, a two-roomed trad pub that is always somewhere I make time for whenever I have time in Derby (maybe I’m also paying my respects to the late Simon Johnson as this was where the two of us ended up after a fun afternoon of drinking not long before he died). And so I sit with a glass of Pentrich Citra IPA (hazy, plumpish in its fruitiness and rapier-like in its bitterness) and there is a joy in my heart as I note the hooks that hang beneath the brow of the scuffed, dark brown bar. It’s a habit I have, a tradition perhaps, or maybe a nervous tic, but all too often when I find myself standing (or sitting) at a bar, elbow in a puddle of spilt beer and crushed crisps, I always put my hand beneath the brow and search for a hook, usually something on which I can hang my rucksack (just like the chap has done in the photo). It’s a neat little aid, a helping hand to the drinker, perhaps even a link with the kind of imagined past that some pubs are so adept at. 

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Ostentatiously opaque beer

Here’s a brief thought on the ostentatiously opaque beer saga, which seems to be excising so many fine minds at the moment. Last week, at a Mikkeller in Copenhagen I noted men and women enjoying glasses of ostentatiously opaque orange-coloured beers— they were sniffing like pros and sipping with ease and enjoyment. As I watched I wondered if these IPAs (of a kind) were the beer version of bucks fizz or sangria and then continued to ponder whether there was a time when wine purists went gaga over such a mix. This is a completely unscientific overview but from my observations (and at Warpigs as well) it did seem to me that a lot of women and men were interested in these kind of ostentatiously opaque beers and also that these drinkers were different from those who drink beer as a badge of honour. Perhaps it’s a case of these drinkers having a liking for ostentatiously opaque alcoholic fruit juice and breweries being businesses have to respond (recently I have heard from two brewers who were rather dismissive of well-received and popular beer styles they have produced — think fruit IPAs amongst other on-trend styles), so getting annoyed over ostentatiously opaque beers is a waste of time and effort perhaps. But back to the beers being drunk in Copenhagen, one of my favourite beers that night was a juicy and lustrous, muscular in its mouth feel, Dank & Juicy IPA at the marvellous Fermentoren (above). Ostentatiously opaque naturally. 

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

A Tale of Two Breweries: Budvar, Lost Grounded

Two breweries. The division, time and distance, 1895 the year Budvar was kindled, in a town where German was the spoken word, while 2016 was when Lost & Grounded took root in the fertile soil (metaphorically speaking, in a sort of English) of Bristol. Both of them I visit in the space of 10 days, drink the beers their brewers produce, spend time amidst the gleaming turrets and tanks and spires and flights of fantasy that brewing kit (whether stainless steel in its nakedness or clothed in a copper carapace) seems to inspire in me. The brewing space in Budvar has the stillness of the cloisters about it, the monks nowhere to be seen, bending the knee in their devotions in another space perhaps, while Lost & Grounded was a boisterous space of people drinking and appreciating and listening to beats from an another age (a DJ like a warrior throwing out his views on the world). In Budvar, as well as beers drunk at different ages, I tasted the water, bright and as clear as the air in a mythical mountain range straight out of Thomas Mann. It had no mineral character, or either salinity, both of which you would expect to pick up in a brewery’s water. It is neutral and plain in the taste with a purity of a child’s voice. 


Meanwhile, at Lost & Grounded, I tasted collaboration. First of all, Accidental Icarus, a beer the brewery made with Verdant: oily, a fruit bowl ripeness, sub-Saharan dryness, and hints of basil amidst the centre of the palate; then there was Burning Sky’s Les Amis du Brassage, a collaboration with New Zealand’s Fork & Brewer, a three year old saison aged with a 10% blend of Girardin lambic in Chardonnay barrels. Lazy and bucolic in the glass, juicy and citrusy and tart and peppery, it called to me with the yearning of a slow-played cello glutting itself on a surfeit of minor chords. And as I meditated over a second glass, I thought of Budvar and then of Lost & Grounded: two totally different breweries, but both with a soul and a sensuality that links then more than divides them. 

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

The Seven Moods of Craft Beer

The Seven Moods of Craft Beer is my latest book and if you want to be snarky yes it’s a list book, 350 beers from around the world, about which I have written and I suppose recommended the reader try before he or she stumbles off this mortal coil. You can look at it that way and if so please be my guest. 

On the other hand, what I think does make it different from what I have written before is that I have tried to approach the beers metaphysically, go beyond the whole ‘this uses Fuggles/Cascade/ME109, weighs in at 4% ABV, was developed by Cajun renegades in the East End of London in 1855, and is designed to be drank from a fluted wellington boot made of coloured glass’. There is nothing about the price of beer, what is best for its dispensation and despite the book’s title nothing about the meaning of craft beer.

The kernel of the book, the approach that I have taken, is to harbour an intention towards each beer that marks it with a mood applying to both beer and drinker. It’s about imagining the beer’s mood, giving it a personality, letting it speak to me, going off on a tangent about the beer, seeing what it really says to me, letting it expose its mood as it settles or seethes in the glass. It’s about beer having a character, a personality, which I have tried to reflect through the mirror of my words. Usually in about 100 words.

You want a beer to have a social mood, to be as chatty as a mynah bird, as sociable as your best mate who’s just got paid, then beers such as De Prael’s IPA or Douglas’ 942 will be ideal; these are garrulous, chatty, flighty beers, frisky in their playfulness, sincere in the way they sway in the glass, words tumbling out like acrobats in a French farce from the 1930s.

On the other hand, if you want a beer with a bucolic feel, a mood that reflects your inner rurality, that makes you think of a lonely farmhouse in the middle of Wallonia where saison has been made for countless generations (you might even find a bucolic beer that does that even when it has been brewed in San Diego to a soundtrack of car horns and the frenetic pace of city life), then there is the incomparable Saison Dupont, but also Modern Times’ Lomaland. 

This is about beer being flexible, about being a friend, about beer gelling with how the drinker feels, about beer surprising and leading the drinker to surmise how little they knew about the beer in the hand. 

And the other moods? There are poetic beers, adventurous beers, gastronomic beers, imaginative beers and contemplative beers, all of which will reveal themselves to you whenever you are in a mood for a beer. 

I’m signing copies this week at GBBF at 6pm on Wednesday, so if you are around come and hear me rattle on more about moods (and of course buy a book), or on Thursday as part of London Beer City I’m at the Mermaid in Clapton where I’ll be celebrating the moods of London craft beer in the company of a few yarns on my beer travels in the last few years. You can get tickets here or turn up on the night and get them from the pub. I promise to be in a good mood. 

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Lucozade

I had that Northern Monk’s Neapolitan Ice Cream Pale Ale the other day. Bought a can from my local bottle shop, wondering what it would taste like. I didn’t enjoy it. I drained the can, but I didn’t like the sweetness and the creaminess going up against the crystalline edge of tropical fruitiness; it felt unintegrated, as if someone had dropped some hop oil into an ice cream. It wasn’t a bad beer, but it was a beer that I asked myself (as I did when drinking Beavertown’s Tropigamma on the train over to Lille back in November) why? Once again, ungenerously perhaps, I thought about the infantilisation of beer flavours, which had occurred to me several years ago when Logan Plant told me that Lemon Phantom Sour was based on ‘that great hangover cure Lemon Fanta’. Just a thought, has anyone done a beer based on Lucozade? 

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Breaking hearts

It’s playing in the background, ‘never gonna break my heart again’, what Coward called the romance of cheap music, and I ponder on the beer in front of me, Zundert Trappist, and I wonder if a beer can break your heart, or for that matter can a brewery break your heart, or is the hurt that some of us feel when a beer or a brewery vanishes similar to the two minute emotions of a song — transitory and enduring only as long as the song echoes in our thoughts?

And as I drink I think back to the morning as my coach pulled into Victoria at 6am and I saw a guy walking up the road, in full early 60s rockabilly (or was it greaser?) regalia — peaked hat, leather jacket with badges and slogans written on it, including one for the Pirates (Johnny Kidd and the Pirates I think), old school bike boots with white socks rolled up at top, jeans tucked in, denim new and durable, an outfit that was popular when the Beatles drank Mackeson, London Pride had an ad campaign based on an LP and Albert Seaton swigged his body weight in beer on a Saturday night and fell down the stairs in his local pub…

And the point is that this man was both celebrating and mourning a past he would never know, but things have moved on and those who want to drink the beers they drank in the past will find that they too have moved on, meanwhile the Trappist beer is ok, sugary and blanket-like in its smoothness, but I feel like I’m back in that coach watching the rockabilly guy, reliving a beer that never knew its past but is content to stride along the pavement, unafraid of what contemporary time thinks, undaunted in the pomp and passion of asking the past if it can answer the phone or come to the door or unfurl its flag and never break your heart again.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

What have Brewdog ever stood for

I saw some tweet, from a friend, which said ‘what did Brewdog ever stand for’, in light of some legal stuff (which you can read elsewhere), and I thought of the piece I included in a book that Roger Protz and I wrote for CAMRA in 2015, and which we both suggested/demanded should include BrewDog. I wrote it and Roger was happy with it and in light of all the stuff about punks not being punks (I was a punk and dropped it like a hot coal when everyone and their mother became one — it was not about mohicans but more about an attitude, I learnt more about situationism and structuralism through punk than anything else and never passed into the fancy dress stage, which owed more to 19th century dandyism than anything else), here it is before it was edited. Despite the dreadful Raspberry Smoothie IPA and knocking over the furniture in the PR showroom of self-righteousness I still think they do a good job (as do Adnams, Fullers, Hook Norton, Camden etc etc etc). 


BrewDog’s brewery is a cavernous, cathedral-like brewing hall with its steel ribs reaching out and holding up the sky; it’s a lively animated space on brewing day as rock music plays and brewers mull about, clambering up steel ladders to check brewing vessels and ducking beneath metal pipes through which beer flows. Outside sit the fermenting vessels, silvery, towering cylinders that receive more hops as the beer sleeps, through something called a hop cannon. This feels like a brewery committed to the future.

However, there’s one thing missing. BrewDog don’t make cask beer, they stopped making it in 2011. They did make some very good cask beers such as 5AM Saint, Paradox and, yes, even Punk IPA, but that was then this is now. Their beers are either in bottle or what is called, for want of a better word, craft keg. Go to any of the brewery’s bars in Bristol, Sheffield and across London and you won’t find a hand pull (but you will find friendly bar staff who are exceptionally knowledgeable about beer, but it won’t be cask). The brewery has also a fractious relationship with CAMRA, to say the least. 

Yet, BrewDog cannot be ignored. Their craft keg might not be cask but it’s neither the tinny-tasting, strained keg of the past, which had as much a relationship with flavour as processed cheese has with the Slow Food movement. BrewDog is also seen by many drinkers as one of the most significant and — yes — exciting developments in the world of beer for many years, and that would probably include a fair amount of CAMRA members.

Important? For a start, without them we probably wouldn’t have had the likes of Magic Rock (whose High Wire could be seen as a tribute to Punk IPA), The Kernel and Wild Beer. For better or worse they have been an inspiration. BrewDog has brought many young men and women to beer and, in a similar way the Sex Pistols broke out of the punk ghetto, they have also transcended the beer bubble. They have been heard of by people who rarely drink beer, a recognition factor many breweries would love. Your mum has probably heard of them.

Even though it’s not cask, BrewDog brew some good beers. A bottle of Punk IPA has a pungent and arousing nose of ripe peach and apricot skin; lychee, papaya and mango trips off the tongue, while there’s a gentle touch on the elbow of white pepper in the dry and grainy finish. Meanwhile Jack Hammer is a big beast of a strong IPA with its bitter finish clanging away like an alarm bell and the even stronger (9.2%) Hardcore IPA has an intense swagger of grapefruit, blue cheese and pine cones on the nose while in the mouth it is fulsome with a concentration of sweet grapefruit alongside a resiny hoppiness — this is a beer able to hold its head high against anything the likes of Stone can produce.

Yes they can be wearisome. There have been the controversies: by and by the world of beer is a relatively cordial one but some of BrewDog’s comments on the nature of British brewing not only upturned the apple cart but starting throwing the fruit about. This is something that James Watt acknowledged when I met him up the north of Scotland, where the brewery have their home, early on in 2014: ‘there are things we wouldn’t do now.’

That was then, this is now and who knows, there might be things they will do in the future: such as brewing cask, because if you cast your mind back several years they brewed some excellent cask beer.



Friday, 24 March 2017

Teak

What colour do you think that this beer is, I ask a friend and fellow judge at the Dutch Beer Challenge (to give it some context we are are at Brouwerij Noordt in Rotterdam and drinking its Bok). I suggest the colour is mahogany brown, but he says it reminds him of the teak coloured deck of a sailing ship, which is perhaps an apt description, as the river that has made Rotterdam is only a street or so away. And then I think of the connection with the open sea — the beer is cold, 5˚C perhaps, a watch bundled up and shivering on the deck in the Atlantic, and then I think of the great steel ships abed in the harbour, the ships I’d seen earlier in the day, standing at anchor, their hulls a story of the travels that had taken them about the world. Then I smell the beer, the chocolate and coffee on the nose of the Bok, which suggests to me the emotional cargoes of Europe brought to the port, a history of several centuries brought together in a glass. Then there is the alcohol, 7%, alcohol that combustible constant of civilisation. The beer is also crisp and cold — a night spent on deck, keeping watch, crossing the Atlantic, and then there is more coffee and chocolate, followed by a brisk carbonation and finally a quick finish, as if this beer suddenly decided it wanted the BlueRiband. The tales that beers do tell.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Are sours the new alco-pops

A train of thought is waiting at the station and if you don’t mind it’s waiting for a new passenger: ah here they are, a little late but on they go. Are sours the new alco-pops, asks the passenger to no one in particular. One person looks up and asks in what way are sours the new alco-pops and the answer is shot straight back, down a well-rifled barrel: when they were first introduced alco-pops were seen by some as easy going drinks that those hitting 18 went straight to, an easy avoidance of trying to work out trying to get one’s tongue around the contusions and customs of bitterness? And did those who walked the green hills of ancient pub land have to work so hard and heft their shoulders to the wheel before they left the sweet seductions of their childhood behind (though lager/bitter top and diesel are remainders of this memory of times gone by), while those who enter this magical world through the portal of sours not have to do much at all (hence the comparison with alco-pops).

And so why does this passenger think that way? The other night they drank a can of Chorlton’s Amarillo Sour, followed by Cloudwater’s Vic’s Secret Tart IPA, both beers going down as easily as a soft drink, despite their relative alcoholic strengths of 5.5% and 7.3%. They were, I was told by this passenger, juicy and restrained in their sweetness, while the tartness was unbridled in its friendliness and sense of wonder, like the face of a child, eyes closed, slyly smiling, as it lifts its face to a warm sun. They were both beautiful beers, of which the passenger said ‘I could drink deeply’. They were also both what are generally called sours,

Similar thoughts had whisked over me with the soft petulance of a feather duster a couple of weeks ago whilst giving a talk at a beer conference in Cusco, Peru, on the state of sour beer in the UK — within the audience of brewers, both newly pro and stay-at-homers, there was a real interest in sour beers, with several putting their hands up when I asked who was making a sour. A few days before I’d also filed a piece on sours for Imbibe magazine, making the point that sours had the ability to appeal to those who had always said that they didn’t like beer, ie wine drinkers who like their acidity, of which there is plenty within a sour beer.

Sours (or wild beers or acidic beers, or whatever you want to call them), when they work are exemplary in the way they both tease and trounce the palate with their visions of a beer beyond what we know as beer. They have the ability to shush the palate and to rush their way along the gustatory highway to deliver refreshment and also compress sensations of acidity, juiciness, sprightliness, dryness, saltiness, tartness and a piquant bitterness all in one. And because they have the ability to introduce those who say they dislike beer they are the new alco-pops, but on the other hand I hardly think Amarillo Sour is the new WKD. But you never know.


Thursday, 9 March 2017

Peruvian Gold

Yes, that’s one of them craft jam jars

Here is an IPA, an India Pale Ale. Hazy, orange-yellow in colour, flurries of tropical fruit (ripe fruits sitting in a bowl in a sunny kitchen, on a pine table) emerging from the glass like the furies of Greek myths, benevolent though, beneficial even, bending one’s thoughts towards taking a sip or maybe a complete submergence in the beer. Petrol, as in Riesling, tropical fruit, that ripeness again, that sun-stroked ripeness, and then a dry rasping finish that lingers like the memory of a long lost love affair. That savoury allium note of a West Coast IPA (the Pacific rather than the Cornish Riviera), the tropical fruit sweetness and pungency and sensuality, the dry graininess of a malt backbone, the charkas of grain, and that dry finish all combine, a combination once forbidden and now bidden to all, and create an assertive and expressive IPA, the dominion of lupulin. And outside in the sun, the foothills of the Andes rise, steep and sudden. This is IPA country but it also the Sacred Valley of the Incas, and I have been drinking Inti Punku IPA from Cervecería del ValleSagrado and immersing myself in it with the rhapsodic and revelatory nature of a traveller who’s found themselves in a new land and discovered a small slice of home.