Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Turns loudspeaker from the past on

There is nothing new under the sun, as I think most people with an interest in beer know — this is from the County Brewers’ Gazette 1902 — couple of things come to mind, someone was thinking about beer is the new wine at the start of the 20th century, while the hops used in IPA were a bit of a moveable feast (and given I’m about to spend the day judging beer at the second round of the World Beer Awards, that’s a lot to think about). 

‘We have already mentioned that the Belgian beers are from a very interesting class. Among them will be found a curious beverage known as Gueuze Lambic, which is brewed in a very novel manner, the wort being placed into yeasty casks, and fermentation set up by many yeasts, wild or otherwise, that may be available. The finished Lambic, when mixed with sugar, has a flavour somewhat resembling cider. Another variety of this beer is called Kricken Lambic, and is flavoured with cherries. It has quite a vinous taste, and the manner of serving it — the bottle being placed in a wicker basket — is also suggestive of wine rather than beer. Faro — the beverage of the working classes in Belgium — is also shown, together with many beers of the Munich and Pilsener type. Sweden sends a porter, which resembles the London type, and was brewed, we understand, from Messrs. John Plunkett’s Dublin malt.

‘The samples of Indian beer represent the manufactures of Messrs. E Dyer and Co, of Lucknow and Solan. The India Pale Ale of this firm, which is brewed on the Burton system, with the aid of ice, from English and German hops and Indian barley, was a very creditable production indeed.’

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Brewery fresh

A dog, a chocolate coloured Springer, bouncy and boisterous, straining at the leash held by a man leaning at the bar, attention on his paper and pint, greets a woman who makes a fuss and gifts him a treat. There’s a rumble, a polite clang perhaps, as a man pushing a porter’s trolley upon which a cask reclines, Cleopatra-like on a divan, enters the door of the pub, en route to the cellar. He’ll be back with another in a few minutes, taking his time to cross the street back to the brewery, from whose tall chimney I’d seen smoke, Vatican-white, twist and rise before entering this pub, which is just across the road. At the back of the bar, recumbent, less Cleo, more Bolt in the blocks, ready for the start off, I scan a quartet of casks, from which my glass of Sussex Best Bitter comes. Oh how I do love this beer that comes from the brewery across the road, with its pungent, sulphury, musky nose and bittersweet, citrus, deep rich palate; how I do love this beer with its broad, almost monochromatic sense of bitterness and hoppiness, though there’s a friendly malt sweetness that stops its deep booming nose from being the beery equivalent of that bit in the Magic Flute where Sarastro’s bass seems to descend into the pit. Meanwhile at the table, where the windows overlook the sluggish Ouse, the sound of birdsong drifts in through the window as well as — gleefully I note — the occasional scent of the boil, tendrils of weeds outstretched in the river’s current. The dog lies down, excitement still for a moment, the man at the bar continues with his paper and glass of cider, while around the fireplace, whose deep seats at each end were once a mash tun, a man and a woman, elderly, having taken an exit from their shopping, turn to each other and toast the day with a glass of Sussex Best Bitter. Quietly, unobtrusively, I join them. Meanwhile, the noise of a porter’s trolley rumbles through the room again, as the man from the brewery across the road brings in another cask for the cellar.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Dreaming and drinking

I believe in the redemptive power of a glass or two of beer, the power perchance to dream when the beer and its outrider of alcohol changes my mood, makes me think but slows down the sudden blink of thought, and links the grey skies, beneath which I drink my beer in a pub garden that for the last 20 minutes has been talismanic in its silence, to a memory, a painting, a piece of music, a mood in a novel (for now I’l take Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral Symphony but on another day it might be Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir or TS Eliot’s bequest for you and I to go). I do believe in the resourcefulness of a glass or two of beer that drops the labels and the clutter and swings open the shutters on another way of viewing the world, whether it’s the frayed gold of a shorn field of barley or the faraway band of green and brown of hills I’ll never walk. I do so believe in the hand on the shoulder that a glass or two of beer brings, the coiled spring of words sprung, the eternal and vernal drive towards the herd of friendship that a glass of two of beer can bring, the connected words, the did you know and what was it like when and the how are you and the would you like another, the whirring of words, seeds in the air, the release of which a glass or two of beer begins. That is all why I do so justly, undiluted and unjilted believe in the redemptive power of a glass or two of beer. 

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Are you a beer man or a cider man?

Are you a beer man or a cider man? Stentorian and fruity, in the sunny river-facing space of the pub in which I sat,  the words floated over my shoulders and disturbed my reading of an old copy of Granta about death and dying. My father enjoyed his beer, came the reply from the woman behind me. Her husband (I presume) said that he preferred wine but was enjoying the glass of cider, for after all aren’t we in cider country (even though I had my back to them I can sense a theatrical wave of the hand). I have always seen pubs as something akin to those pre-radar concrete sound detectors from the 1920s that were thought ideal to pick up the drone of approaching aircraft, reflectors of sound from the people around. It’s one of the most entertaining parts of pub life and I’m sure my own voice often becomes part of the saloon bar song. Are you a beer man or a cider man?

Monday, 7 July 2014

Beer and music, music and beer

I used to think beer and music, music and beer was about drinking bucketfuls of Holsten Pils alongside Iggy’s Gimme Danger or contemplating a deep and virtuous barley wine accompanied by Edmund Rubbra’s beautiful Passacaglia and Fugue from his 7th symphony. Otherwise I didn’t pay it much attention.

However, that all changed last week when I was invited to a music and beer matching event hosted by beer writer Pete Brown; it was entitled Why do guitars taste like hops? and about how certain pieces of music can affect the beer you taste. This is something Brown has being pursing for a while, and he has been joined in his research by academic Charles Spence, who is (take deep breath) Professor of Experimental Psychology & University Lecturer, Somerville College Oxford (I did rather blot my copy book when I said to him: Somerville, isn’t that the women’s college?), and Head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory.

So before I think and drink deeply, what else is there to know? Oh we were in a private dining room at Michelin star restaurant Quilon restaurant in Westminster, where Brown paired six beers with five pieces of music.

At the start there was some interesting stuff about how certain pieces of music bring their own mood: the Jaws’ theme is probably the most famous. There was stuff about the complexity of taste, about how there are trillions of aromas and how our brains decode chemical signals, all of which I’m probably not doing enough justice to — but then I got thrown out of Physics O-level and scraped through a Chemistry CSE (aka Certificate for Simple Escalopes).

So on we went — first of all starting with Goose Island 312 and Blue Moon with Neil Young’s Harvest Moon. I’m not a Neil Young fan, I think the only piece of work by him I know is something from 1980, can’t even remember the name, but I do remember that when I was a music journalist he was a big noise with the hipsters. Both the beers for me are moderate but what I did find interesting was that Blue Moon edged it; drunk when the music was playing it seemed to have a fuller flavour than when the music wasn’t playing. The 312 was thin and that is all there is to say about it — even Metallica couldn’t have roused it.

Duvel and the Pixies Debaser — this pairing seemed to bring out the beer’s bitterness, something that I hadn’t noted before (at this stage my notebook has the phrase ‘Status Quo on Ketamine’); it made the beer less elegant, which is a good thing. It made me think of a smelly leather jacket (I used to own one). Again I refer to my notes: ‘the Duvel feels soiled…’ Again a good thing.

Liefmans Cuvée Brut cherry beer and an acid house track from Voodoo Ray, A Guy Called Gerald. I wasn’t sure about this one, but then perhaps I couldn’t overcome my antipathy to the cherry beer, while I recall acid house made me feel I wanted to take on an army, I would have gone for a more aggressive beer, an imperial IPA? But that’s me, I never did do peace and love. But again referring to my notes what I did like was the fact that I was being challenged, I wasn’t a nodding donkey.

Finally we got to try Chimay Blue and Fuller’s Vintage 2011 with Debussy’s Clair de Lune and Jimi Hendrix’s All Along the Watchtower. I felt that the Chimay became thinner during the Debussy though the Fuller’s Vintage was like a Tiger tank ripping through the forests when drunk with Hendrix.

And that was that: the evening continued but I was left with a host of thoughts and questions about how this all worked. It is fascinating stuff and thoroughly challenging; also it’s indicative of how some beer writers are trying to work out a different way of articulating what we drink. If you get a chance to see Brown make Duvel feel soiled or Blue Moon taste palatable then I would hasten along. 

Monday, 30 June 2014

Imbibe Lager

Lager. I cannot believe that anyone who thinks and drinks beer and clinks their glass in the pursuit of a higher kind of lifestyle can believe that lager is just — to paraphrase a legion of people, a battalion of self-knowing buzzards, who perhaps also believe that Germans are not very nice and that the sun is a colony of lizards — yellow fizz; the idiocy of this position, the simplicity and the laughable lack of knowledge about lager is something that has always bugged me, something that has almost, you could say, haunted me from the time when I started writing about beer. I can hear the words rattle like Marley’s chains, ‘I don’t like lager, it’s yellow fizz, full of chemicals, foreign rubbish, and anyway doesn’t following the bear lead to cancer (or at least the annexation of the Crimea)?’

I still hear these sorts of sentiments from various people, some of them who purport to know about beer, but all I am hearing is a continent-closed-by-fog-in-the-channel attitude that suspects lager is the spawn of a lederhosen-wearing devil with a dirndl for a pelmet. For these people lager is a misanthropic liquid that crushed all before it like Genghis Khan and is now content to squat on the roof of the world like a malevolent toad. So who am I to deny them?

On the other hand, what kind of lager do they believe is yellow fizz? Perhaps it’s a Helles with its soft bready aroma and gentle carbonation (hey it’s the colour of the sun), or a Pilsener, a lemony, crisply bitter beer that arrays itself down the palate like a horde of horsemen crossing the Steppes; or maybe it’s a roasty, toasty, boasty East German Schwarz (though smaller German breweries’ versions I have tried recently seem to have become creamier and smoother in their mouth feel); how about a chestnut brown Dunkel with its mocha and chocolate notes or even a Bock or Doppelbock with lots of alcohol, hazelnuts, chocolate and mocha (midnight dark or cellophane blonde, take your pick)? Then there’s Keller, Zoigl, Rauch, Dortmund, Světlý Ležák, yeast lager, Spezial, dry-hopped, imperial. And then some are hopped more generously than others, while some might be darker or lighter or stronger or weaker.

So with all that in mind I can ask what’s not to like about lager – after all it’s a beer that should be a noble expression of its raw materials, a clear and clean acoustic chamber of barley and hops, the ocean breeze in a glass.

Which brings me in a roundabout way to this week’s Imbibe Live where I, along with Paddy Johnson from Windsor & Eton (makers of the exemplary Republika) will be talking about British craft lager at the Beer Academy stand on Tuesday and Wednesday. We will be tasting several examples, telling tall tales, rhapsodising, encouraging and enlivening the world (or those who are passing) on the glory of lager. If you’re around do pop over.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014


Two beer styles, poles apart, one is a saison blended with a gueuze, the other a double IPA — I drink one after the other, not fast, not slow, just drink, no notes, few thoughts, just pleasure. But, when I finish the double IPA I wonder about a connection between the two beers and I think about how that for many beer drinkers these two beer styles are not pleasing, not pleasure, prodding the palate a bit too much, not beer even. Gueuze, for instance, took me some time to get used to; back in the 1990s, when I first met the beer, I used to add a sugar lump or two to a glass, sweetened it, befriended it, spoilt it you might say. This practice, this sweet-toothed, tub-thumping destruction of a beer, this perceived failure of mine, came to an end as I persevered and the beer became a friend minus the sugar lump. No such doubts came along with the double IPA, though I’m not too sure when I first had one, was it Moor’s JJJ, or was it Sierra Nevada’s Torpedo or was it someone else? My palate was already poised to resinous noise through the bright bustle of IPA, but does that mean to enjoy a double IPA you have to have gone through the world of IPA first? And still I’m trying to make a connection between these two beer styles, which on first and second glance (and probably third) is a hopeless quest, but I’m still trying. Maybe it’s the beers’ expressions on the palate, the complexities I picked up without really trying (because don’t forget I was drinking not thinking), the contrapuntal motion between various flavour notes and moods in the mouth feel, the sprightly chime of light grapefruit brightness against an appetising tartness in the saison/gueuze blend, the buzzsaw of hop character, resin, deep, deep ripe orange skin against a bracing, bittersweet malt-influenced backbone of the double IPA, maybe that is the connection. To me (now) they are not difficult beers, but to others they could be, which then leads me onto another thought, what on earth is a difficult beer, is there such a thing? That is a thought for another day.

The two beers were Partizan’s Cuvee, which brewer Andy gave me the other week, and Bristol Beer Factory’s Double IPA, which they sent me last week (both exemplary beers).