Friday, 18 April 2014


The sign makes me smile. It’s outside a pub on the road to Exeter, a pub that is primed and cocked for the Easter weekend. As we drive past I see the sign that makes me smile. ‘Something for the kiddies, Good Friday Easter egg hunt, 3pm, SHARP!’ So what makes me smile? The use of the word kiddies seems archaic, as if the person who wrote it wasn’t used to dealing with kids; it makes me wonder if this Easter egg hunt for the kiddies is something that has been put on under pressure perhaps, from an area manager, brewery rep or partner. And then the exclamatory use of ‘SHARP!’ — now that really made me smile. If dealing with kids you’d expect a free and easy manner, but this suggests something closer to a sergeant-major ordering reluctant recruits about, getting them to do something on the double. And this sign makes me then think about the language that publicans and brewers and their PR people use — sometimes it feels as if a Thesaurus has been dredged with a deep sea net and all manner of words have been brought to the surface, some of them lying there, flapping about and gasping for breath. Things are, of course, awesome; let’s smash it (what? a window, a tea cup?); it’s all been brought to the customer with passion (what with blood, sweat and tears? sounds a bit unhygienic to me); and naturally everyone is ready to rock. And back in that pub this afternoon the kiddies will be expected to turn up sharp at 3pm and look for their Easter eggs. Woe betide any that turn up late.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Drinking in the open air

Back in 1998 I was a columnist in GQ on the joys of living in the countryside, which was more Withnail than a man standing in a hedge with a pair of bins in his hand. This was my first one, which was all about the joys of getting drunk in the open air — note the mention of Old Freddy Walker, which was one of my favourite tipples then (and the old bloke after whom the beer was named was still alive then). I went onto write about sex in the countryside, selling cider to hippies going to Glastonbury and shooting at (but not hitting) wild ducks. It was great fun and I even got commissioned by then editor James Brown to write 3000 words on West Country cider, which set me off writing about cider for about 12 years until I got bored with it (that makes me feel like the man who turned down the Beatles). Anyway I thought it would be fun to put the column up as this was all done when magazines were strictly binary (or whatever the word is).

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Jam Jar

When I was a kid my brother and I had a guinea pig that we called Reginald (to be honest it might as well have been Regina, we had no idea what gender it was). Its hutch was in a greenhouse and during the winter I would fill a jam jar with hot water, wrap it in a bit of old blanket and hope that it would work as a sort of hot water bottle to keep him warm. It seemed to work as Reg survived this particularly cold winter but it does feel a bit daft when I look back at it now.

I thought of Reg for the first time in years when enjoying a glass or two of Lagunitas IPA in the Hops and Glory in Islington. It’s an amiable and easy-going kind of pub, named after a certain book that anyone with any interest in beer should read and majoring in (let’s not beat around the bush) craft beers. So there I was with my first pint of Lagunitas’ IPA and decided that I needed another to get to the heart of what the beer was all about. Another please, the bar man nodded, would I like it one of Lagunitas’ branded ‘jam jars’. He showed me it and yes it looked like a jam jar. Does it hold a pint I asked? It did. I’ve drank from some curious glasses (if I order a glass of Kwak in my local there are always people who have never seen the test-tube-in-a-wooden-bracket glass before and it seems to cause a minor sensation but then we live in the countryside and we still turn out in droves to watch the air ambulance land on the football field) and once at Boston airport I rather enjoyed a glass of Sam Adams from that peculiar glass that the brewery developed with the aim of enhancing the flavour and aroma of the beer (I thought it worked even though the glass’s shape reminded me of that bloke’s face in The Scream).

Back to the jam jar. As I write I’m still trying to work out my feelings about it — yes it was simple and utilitarian, easy to hold, and the perfect alternative to the handled dimpled hipster’s choice mug (the sort of glass you’d imagine Ukip members drink from), but I’m still not sure whether it’s a bit of a gimmick. What does it say about the beer in the glass? That it’s ordinary and down-to-earth? That nobody really cares how it’s served. That it’s quirky (as in Timmy Mallet rather than Dali)? On the other hand why shouldn’t an IPA become as John Doe as PBR or Bud? It’s a lovely beer, being spicy, peppery, hoppy, fruity, dry and bitter over several layers, a beer that given time I would have studied for the rest of the evening. Yet, the jam jar haunts me, I wonder why?

Friday, 4 April 2014

Different directions

Lagering tanks in the hillside
Sometimes what breweries want and what beer writers do go off in different directions (and long may it continue): here are some photos of a press trip I took to Zywiec Brewery several years ago. The brewery wanted to show off its brand new plant and — as this was the time when Polish beer was becoming ubiquitous in pubs and the off-trade — its premium lager, an inoffensive drink that was ok in a tight spot. However, as soon as we were taken to the rundown Brackie brewery on the Czech-Polish border, where the wonderful Zywiec Porter was produced, that was all we could think about. There was a brewery cat, a magnificent pale lager, lager tanks burrowed into the side of the hillside, a three-month brewing, fermenting and conditioning cycle for the Porter and, of course, the rich, muscular, brawny, tenebrous nature of the beer itself. That was it — when we got back to the UK we had our features to write, all of which focused on the porter and its brewery, though the sparkling new Las Vegas of a lager plant did get its due mentions (we were a polite crowd). I don’t think any of us have been back and I do wish that the Porter was available over here, but on the other hand going over to Krakow and trying to track it down and drink it served on draught in a small side-street bar is more fun I would have thought.

And this is what a couple of us discovered in Krakow
The gleam of the new

Thursday, 27 March 2014

By the long bar

In the summer the beer garden buzzes and the voices of hundreds of happy beer drinkers rise to the clouds as they have done (with the odd gap due to historical interruptions, for after all this is Berlin) since the middle of the 1800s (which apparently makes Prater Garten Berlin’s oldest beer garden). However, this is the end of February and I’m here inside the long bar, sitting on a stool, one of several that gather at the long bar, still and sentinel like in the way they place themselves here every day and night. The floor is wooden, the bar is wooden with a marble effect top; the tables are wooden, the kind of wood that’s in distress as soon as the day dawns and light strokes its surface (the wood ends halfway up the wall and there’s a sort of Dairylea yellow colour the rest of the way and across the ceiling). The windows are arched and mullioned and I also note a couple of stuffed birds, stranded in perpetuity in the corner of this long bar. Further on, to the left of the long bar, the room opens out, tables and chairs in rows, dotted with early diners, knives and forks handled, gliding through the still air, cutting, spreading, stabbing, lifting, the rough but strangely balletic poise of the motion of eating. And finally, my eyes rest on a small stage at the back of the larger room, presumably a respite for a musical interlude, dare I think brass and bratwurst and a Berliner’s burst of Oktoberfest? Or will it be Brecht?

Thoughts on the room gathered and garnished I turn to the beer in front of me on the long bar: it’s the Prater Pils that is brewed for the pub by Berliner Kindl Schultheiss Brauerei (in my ignorance I thought a brewery might be somewhere on the premises). Into the glass it goes, a pale golden yellow with a whipped egg white purity of a foam head; a delicate touch of a hand on the shoulder aroma of bready and warmed grain with a lemony sweetness in the background; meanwhile crisp carbonation, lemony bitterness and a dry finish sing their song on the palate. It’s an ample beer and just the job to satisfy a thirst that has grown and grown after an afternoon spent cycling along the route of the Wall.


Yes please.

This time I plump for the Schwarz, which is rye bread, liquorice, alcohol and cinnamon and then some treacle, molasses perhaps and a dry malt loaf finish, which to me suggests that I need to reinvestigate Schwarzbier as a style.

And in the meantime, footsteps sound on the wooden floor and the purr of voices changes to a whirr as more drinkers and diners enter, while outside on the Kastanienallee Berlin’s evening traffic passes on by as certain and as pertinent as the stream of history that Prater Garten has drifted along since the day it began.

What I saw on my bike ride

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Beer House Club

There’s a beer club having a meeting at the front of the bar here at Beer House Club in Florence. Tonight it’s stouts that are being discussed and tasted, which is just as well as there are several on the taps (dry, imperial, oatmeal). Outside in the streets of Florence I passed a couple of bars that were pledging their troth to St Patrick’s night, which in one instance meant green and white balloons around the entrance and in another the promise of green beer. Here however at the Beer House Club there’s a glass of their own brewed Imperial Stout in front of me, a deep dark mahogany beer with a fluting of cascade and roast on the nose and a rich fullness on the palate. Another glass appears with the same beer in it, though this one has had dried ginger added during the rest period of fermentation. It’s 12 months old by now I’m told, but its ginger character is mellow and herbal, a gratifying addition to the creamy and appetisingly dry finish. People still like their IPAs I am told by the guy behind the bar, but late at night, he continues, they turn to Weissbier, maybe, he continues to muse, it’s something to do with the brisk carbonation and the quenching nature of the beer that makes it so effective after a meal. There’s a fridge full of bottles to the left of the bar, with beers from all over the place. I spot Demon Hunter from Birra Montegioco, a beer that appears in 1001 Beers, but which I have yet to try. It’s 8.5%, has a firm foam, and a blast from its nose can only be considered as mocha with hops. Meanwhile, the beer club continues its discussion and outside in the streets of Florence St Patrick’s night takes a downwards curve and the green and white balloons move ever so slowly in the night air.  

Monday, 17 March 2014

The Italian Job

This is what judging beer looked like in the Brewers Exhibition
back in 1937; the bowler hats are probably in the cloakroom
This is not true to style. Words I have never uttered before and as I said them I wanted to claw them back, vanquish and erase them, but it was too late they were out there (and inside my head a man carrying a notebook filled with the names of thousands of beers he’d drank and put into their appropriate styles hooked his thumbs into his Union Jack waistcoat and tipped his bowler hat at me with malicious glee). Thankfully no one else on the table took any notice of what I’d said. Why should they? The occasion, after all, was the judging at the Birra Dell’Anno in Rimini, where over 600 beers would be tasted, sipped and investigated over the course of two days by a jury of 40 plus judges from Italy and various parts of Europe. This was my second year of service and the event is one of the best competitions at which I judge during the year — it’s well run, it offers a chance to investigate what’s going on with Italian artisanal beers (no one said the word craft once as far as I can remember), there’s a good crowd of people, there are great beers and setting it in Rimini is a rather ingenious masterstroke — the Adriatic in early spring, plenty of sun and that bright and breezy sense of a seaside resort about to wake up from its winter hibernation.

However, there is a serious side to things. There are 26 categories of beers, including golden ales, IPAs (both English and American influenced), beers made with wine must, sour beers, a variety of Belgian, German and British influenced beers and the one beer style that is uniquely Italian chestnut beer (though it has to be said it’s not the most popular category). We received a press pack with a thorough dissection of what to expect from the variety of beers, the colours, the taste specs, the clarity (or not), the persistence of the foam and whether or not some diacetyl could be allowed. I’m relatively relaxed when it comes to style perimeters, but I found the existence of these rules intriguing and thought-provoking, it was a challenge to be faced, it made for stimulating conversation and it made me think about the beer I was dealing with.

The styles our table dealt with were golden ales, honey beers (a collective groan from the table when we saw this, though there was a stunning one made with chestnut honey), the final of Italian lagers, double IPAs (not as impressive as the ones I judged last year) and the final of Belgian-influenced dubbels. The latter was incredibly impressive and for once we didn’t discover any DMS, diacetyl or solvent notes. However, there were two beers we knocked out, which was when I held a light amber glass to the light, then sniffed the crystalline, slightly dessert wine nose that reminded me of a tripel and uttered the words: this is not to style.

So what I have learned about Italian beer? BrewFist’s Galaxy saison is a superb beer, but I couldn’t pick out any saison character (the Galaxy gives it a big fat character that for me swamps the pleasing austerity of saison); the same brewery’s Too Late double IPA is incredibly drinkable, even at 9.4% and HopFelia’s Foglie d’Erbe is a ringing, chiming assemblage of Northern Brewer, Tettang, Centennial, Citra and Amarillo that all comes together to form a bright, brilliant, zestful, cheerful IPA. I have learned that not all honey beers are bad; I have learned that some Italian brewers make what they call a double IPA but during brewing it seems that they get to the hop precipice, look over and turn back; I have learned that not all Italian beer people swoon over Le Baladin anymore; I have learned that there are some superb lagered beers being made (Bruton’s floral, crisp and bittersweet Eva for instance); and I have learned that dry-hopping roast potatoes is a brave and bold move but doesn’t necessarily work. After all, spuds and hops, er, this is not to style.

The results for the Birra Dell’Anno will be found here and if you go to Rimini then hang out in Catinetta and Fob, where an intriguing beer dinner included pig clouds (think massive pork scratchings), bone marrow with Westmalle bread, pork ribs cooked with bock and dry-hopped potatoes.