Tuesday, 2 February 2016


I have of late turned my back, consigned to the lumber-room of precious memory, marked down as moderate and minding my own business, that sweet child of Belgium, the witbier, the spicy, fruity, refreshing beer that I first tasted, as did many, when someone suggested I try a hazy pale beer served in a chunky glass. Yes, Hoegaarden, though now this beer is undreamt of, unkempt in my mind, and part of the past as a foreign country. I last had it in the late 1990s, when it was juicy, orangey, silky and refreshing. And then its soul fell off a cliff. There have been other witbier moments along the way: 11 years ago on a sunny July afternoon at Du Bocq and a glass of Blanche du Namur was an easy drinking, engaging, uncomplicated companion chattering away in the glass. More grown up and with a sense of broodiness that would have suited Macbeth in one of his more lucid moments, there is the creamy and luscious Blanches des Honnelles from Abbaye du Roc. And yet, the Belgian witbier and those versions made by breweries from all over the world have remained in the memory room, locked up and forgotten. What went wrong?

As ever and in search of untying the ropes that had tethered my tastes, I went In search of new sensations, the rapaciousness of an avalanche of hops, potent potentates of dark beer, irregular shapes thrown by this yeast or that yeast or that sour bug bugging away in the wood. The witbier became an irregularity in the world of my beer drinking. And then this weekend, as if it had never been away there it was again and I remembered how I had forgotten that I knew when made at its best the Belgian witbier was an elegant, cheerful, uncloistered, friendly, thirst-quenching troubadour of a beer, something to be calibrated and celebrated when it came to the palate.

And the beers that reminded me, were kind to me even though the style had been left all alone as if waiting for a bus that never came? They were both from the Americas: Allagash White, smooth and flirty in the dance its spice and fruit made on the tongue, throat catching in the thirst that it quenched, a beautiful beer; then there was C5 Saga Ale Blanca from Mexico, which was sent to me with several other Mexican beers, though this was the stunner amongst the bunch. With a coriander spice and pepperiness, edge-of-palate sourness and Orangina-like fruitiness it brought in a big searchlight of summer to the dank and dark January night on which I tasted it. Both beers reminded me of the beauty that could be a Belgian witbier and it’s to my shame that it’s a beer style I’ve neglected for so long. Sometimes, in the rush for nirvana and newness we forgot the sturdy, the survivor, the subtlety and surprise that a beer we thought we knew can still bring.

Friday, 15 January 2016

Fruit of the (IPA) Boom

Fruit in a brewery: Cantillon, not for an IPA, though the
 time of the cherry IPA is presumably about to dawn, craft eh?
Do I want a fruit-infused IPA? Of course I don’t and I’m even more certain I don’t want one when I drink a can of Vocation’s gorgeous Session IPA Heart & Soul, in which the soul of passion fruit and grapefruit shines through courtesy of whatever hops are being used (I’m too lazy to check out the varieties); it’s a gorgeous beer, juicy and luscious and loose in the way it tempts me to open up another can. But it also makes me think, especially as I see that a few Mystic Kegs are predicting that IPAs with fruit in them are going to be humongous in 2016. It will probably be true (and I do so wish I had their skill when it came to horses) as breweries that I really respect are putting all their Carmen Mirandas in some of their IPAs, which I presume is something to do with the apocalyptic hop shortage that is coming our way (it always makes me laugh that there’s a hint of the Daily Express’ annual approach to winter in July — ie Coldest Winter on Record — in the way the shortage of Simcoe and co is being reported), which is why some people are turning to fruit. I’m all for stretching the boundaries of what constitutes beer, but I cannot help feeling that adding fruit to an IPA is sucking up to a sweet-toothed crowd in the search of the next gimmick. But then that’s me and I’m probably completely wrong. It’s just that I like rice to be used in risotto, corn to stay on the cob and fruit being directed, traffic cop style, to either the maturing tank in a Belgian lambic brewery or the kitchen blender rather than the brewing kettle (and on that note I hope no one thinks that the next trend is veggie or vegan beers — in 2013 I tasted an artichoke beer from Puglia, it was dire).  

Thursday, 14 January 2016

The joy of drinking copious amounts of beer with gusto and abandonment

One photograph was taken in Munich during Oktoberfest in 2012, while I was waiting for the bus to take me to what is laughingly called Munich-West Airport; the other snap comes from a visit to Pivovar Zatec three days before. On that Saturday morning I think I was drinking their 11˚ beer, which was superb (my notes: ‘delicately hopped, good mid palate sweetness, dry semi-bitter finish that lingers, grainy undercurrent that gives it a crisp chewy character’). 

There is an immense sense of joy in drinking beer that those who come up with guidelines about how much we should drink seem to miss. There’s a sociability about it when it’s drunk in a bar or a pub — the beer is a bridge between people, transporting ideas, jokes and gossip, lightening up moods, bringing on smiles and also giving you a chance to make friends, especially if you’re a new kid in town (yes of course there’s the dark reflective nature of too much beer but I’m a grin reaper rather than a grim reaper). So then there’s that moment when the first beer of the day hits ground zero in your mouth, washes over the palate and calves great chunks off that iceberg that we call day-to-day life, the cares and hairpin cracks that we carry with us are gone for a while. More people should try it.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Everything changes

Yesterday I asked a brewer what was the reason for the apparent decline of a type of beer that remained comparatively popular but seemed to have been in decline over the past 20 years. This was a beer that also has a history going back over a century.

Was it changing trends, younger people drinking this or drinking that? Was it the onset of clever advertising for rival brands, for beers that maybe made people feel better about themselves or maybe convinced them that their beers had less calories/units/whatever?

His answer was simple: fashions change and styles change with them. When he was in college my brewer drank one kind of beer that was drunk by everyone around him; then another kind of beer became popular and the beer from his college days declined until it rose again. Now the style of beer we spoke about was in apparent decline but it would come back again my brewer opined. Everything changes.

Before anyone mutters mild or builds a barricade for Black IPA/India Dark Ale, the brewer doesn’t make his beer in the UK and the beers he drunk aren’t made in the UK, either. Where the beer is made is irrelevant — though I have always said that there are reasons why some beer styles die on their feet: they’re horrible, but then again that’s my opinion, which hasn’t stopped mild from being the, er, comeback kid of the past 30 years.

However, what is relevant to me is that with his comment a secondary point seemed to be worth thinking about. Throughout the 70s/80s/90s and beyond for all I know, the rise of faux-lager and nitrogenated smoothies was seen as the consequence of the wool being pulled over drinkers’ eyes; of them (mainly men) being seduced by clever adverts, flash posters and the promise of a lifestyle beyond their dreams.

Really? People aren’t children (unless they’re children of course and some of them are pretty smart), they know how to make choices; they are conscious of why they drink this over that (those of us who suggest these lager/smoothie/good-knows-what drinkers are swayed by advertising can go away and give ourselves a pathetic illusory superiority pat on the back). There were a lot of reasons why these beers took off, but people weren’t stupid. 

So the next time, you hear someone rant about ‘stupid’ people drinking beers that this person doesn’t like, remind them that life changes in the most random of ways (not too forcefully I hope, I’m not advocating a barney in the pub). But it does change, which in some ways is the reason why I, for one, continue to be swayed and somersaulted over and over again by beer, its varying moods and its continual surprises.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015


2015, you were as a fleeting dash of silver in the dark sky, a scar, a rip in the fabric of my on-going (I hope) life, but there were moments that clashed and flashed in the gloom and made me keep believing that beer has a place in the way I spend my time. Such as the sound of sea-lions honking as if they were tiny motor cars stuck in some upside-down boulevard of Top Geared dreams, whilst inside the Buoy brew-house I was bearing down on a glass of a sardonically savoury hoppy cop-off of an IPA that delivered a few words in my mind, ‘so this is a West Coast IPA’ (which helped me no end when it came to salivate over BrewDog’s Born to Die), and so did I enjoy it, before thinking back, as the sea-lions kept honking and the broad murky Columbia river rolled on by, on how once again, on my third visit to the USA, how the beer that I found, the beer that I bound myself to hand and foot, was some of the best beer in the world that I’d searched every noun in the world to pick out a word, and another word, to write down what it meant. And then I think, if we think of words and their ambiguity, I think of the barmaid in a side-street bar, around the corner from my hotel on the Viale della Repubblica in Bologna, who on the second night on which I walked in, shouted out ‘ReAle!’ and then high-fived me as I sat at the bar. A confirmation and an affirmation and a consecration of the beauty of some of Italy’s great artisanal beers — unlike Spectre, they are not everywhere, but if you know where to look then these are beers that deserve their time in the sun. Of which this sun has signally to shine, but out in La Rioja, the city, of Logroño was where I found the brewery Mateo & Bernabé, who had an IPA whose maturity spent in PX sherry barrels came up with a ferociously fulsome beer that made me think of the Great Bear and Pleiades aria from Britten’s Peter Grimes, such was its mystery and complexity and simplicity. Talking of time, I also made time to visit Rodenbach where the beers that I have always enjoyed slept as if their lives depended on it, cosseted from a world of change and speed and a world that would heed nothing if it really wanted to. On a more ambulatory tone, my travels about the UK have convinced me that ordering cask beer has become somewhat of a lottery (though, just to give some examples, not in the Wellington in Birmingham, the Mawson Arms in Chiswick, the Kings Arms in Oxford, the Coopers Arms in Burton and the Bridge Inn and Woods in my home town of Dulverton); meanwhile keg has not always delivered the best beer on the planet but sometimes it has, and I still salivate at the memory of Beavertown’s Bloody ‘ell, served in a handled glass at the Fat Cat Tap in Norwich, before I drank it up with the thirst of a man long overdue on his travels in the Sahara. Lots of beers, lots of people, lots of bars and pubs, lots of surprises as well as old favourites (Harvey’s, Fuller’s, Adnams, Hook Norton, St Austell), lots of rolls of the dice and a head-lice of wondering which way beer is going, and of course a wish that the micro-management of thoughts about beer would just wash away; it is part of life in the same way as literature, music, wine, food and architecture, but it’s also just as flimsy and here-today-gone-tomorrow-and-bought-out-by-AB-InBev-next-week. It’s important but not important and bringing those two strands together is what matters.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Why drink this beer?

Why drink this beer?
Because I’m on a train going home.
Why drink this beer?
Because I had five minutes at Birmingham New Street and it was easy to grab.
Why drink this beer?
Because it was cheap and cold and I could get three of them.
Why drink this beer?
Because sometimes I’m just looking for a beer and this one is much better on my palate than Carling or Carlsberg.
Why drink this beer?
I don’t really know, I keep getting sweetcorn DMS notes in the middle of the mouth and I’ve just noticed a sickliness in the flavour that reminds me of Tiny Tim hobbling along on his crutches. 
Why drink this beer?
Because it’s cold and wet and carbonated and slightly sweet and has the ghost of bitterness somewhere in the flavour.
Would you drink this beer again?
Where would you drink this beer again?
On a train.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Thoughts on brewing

Thoughts on brewing: in which a beer is brewed and hewed into the world, leavened and heaved followed by a sense of me-too as other beers join in and to-and-fro their way into the glass, as careful as an aunt, as fretful as an aunt, as artful as the kindest thief.

Brewing is the beginning of the end: hops that were picked at harvest are changed and juddered into a different state of being in the dry heat of kiln; dead; packed together, forced, turned out into the world; the end of the journey that barley took from the field, cut down in its prime, crushed and eviscerated, its insides transformed, the death of John Barleycorn; the vanquishing of water, in thrall to a process that expels it into the air (only to start the journey all again). And, of course, the yeast, microscopic beasts, tumbling and turning over before coming to rest in the cool limpid liquid that will eventually end up as beer. Maybe, after second thoughts, brewing is just a means to an end, an end that is always beginning.