Thursday, 18 December 2014

Chewing the craft beer carpet

Is there someone out there who is angry that Founders has allowed San Miguel to buy a 30% share in their business? Is there anyone out there who is miffed a corporation that makes a series of beers best drank Arctic-cold on the beach in Malaga has bought 30% of Founders? Is there anyone out there who is chewing the craft beer carpet and frothing at the mouth with righteous self-importance?

I don’t doubt there is. If you boil down the geek into a fan and then envisage them as an individual you have actually met rather than relying on stereotypes; if you remember a fan of beer that you have met, an engaging man or woman, someone whose company is pleasing and pleasant until the subject that they are most interested in comes up for air — with others it might be football, steam trains, military uniforms, Komodo dragons or fracking but here we are talking about beer and it will be a subject that once aired becomes an obsession and a passion and a dressage to get them through the day — then you will have a photo-fit of the fan, of the person who might be angry that Founders has sold 30% of its business to Sam Miguel.

On the other hand, I wonder if those with a healthy interest in beer (or maybe even an unhealthy interest) are beginning to get used to such collaborations, beginning to see it as normal aspect of a business growing up; understanding that there is a need for an outfit such as Founders to get an injection of cash under the right conditions. Some fans, especially those who go dewy-eyed at the thought of exchanging a few words with a head brewer whilst bagging a one-off brewed with echinacea or whatever, might feel let down in the spirit of fan ownership, but I reckon the majority of people who drink Founders beers will continue to drink their beers.

For an intriguing aside to fan worship of brewers see Tomme Arthur’s column in November’s AAB.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Landscape

So what influence does the landscape have on this brewery’s beers and the way it carries out its business? How has this land, this flat, featureless, tree-shy landscape been prevalent in the brewers’ collective minds when it came to creating their beers and shaping their pub estate’s planning? In a train carriage I sat, having left Wainfleet, where the aromatics of the morning brew drifted over the platform as if saying farewell, looking onto the flatness of this part of eastern Lincolnshire, a land some might call monotonous, but I find beautiful in the bleak, seemingly barren face it presents to the world. It’s a land of endless horizons; a land stitched with channels of water; a land flattened with vast, dark ploughed, shorn stalked fields, clumps of trees and in the distance, the pillars of church towers and the collected colonies of compact villages.

I think of communities hidden away in valleys, enclosed in by mountains, and imagine that this location keeps minds and currents of thought equally closed. Then I think of this part of east Lincolnshire, in which Bateman’s Brewery has its home, and wonder if the wide open spaces engenders a sense of freedom and a Marco Polo-like need to explore; or conversely, could it breed a need to pull up the drawbridge, to shake a fist at the world and venture into this same world, prickly and pumping up the volume as the beers are introduced into this world.

Of course, the landscape, if it does influence the way Bateman’s views the world, this landscape is just one feature that helps in their direction: the beer market, the beers the brewers drink and read about, the market trends and the customers’ preferences in Bateman’s pubs (of which there are 60 or so I am told and once there was one in Bethnal Green, but like Carthage it is no more) all have an input in the way Bateman’s passes through this world.

After a day spent in the company of Jaclyn and Stuart Bateman, engaged in a tour and time spent looking around the brewery, tasting the beers and gleaning scraps of information from head brewer Martin Cullimore, I’m inclined to think Marco Polo rather than an inclination to pull up the drawbridge. As Stuart Bateman and I investigate a bottle of the barley wine BBB that was brewed in 1975 and then match it with the 2013 Vintage, whose added ingredient included time well spent in a port barrel, we talk beer, brewing, touch on trends, discuss American hops (the brewery were using them in 2003 or even earlier I seem to remember), future beers, a multiplicity of ingredients (black pepper, dried orange skin, cocoa nibs), key kegs (this is booming for them) and fermentation. The BBB has spent 39 summers in this dark bottle, it was a beer that Bateman’s finished brewing in 1975 because demand was descending, but at the time some cases were put away for Stuart Bateman’s 18th birthday in 1978 and then these cases were promptly forgot about until 2010. The beer has aged well, it gleams in the glass with its sleek chestnut-burgundy tones; there’s a sherry-like character on the palate, flighty, light, sprightly, joined by sultanas, raisins, and a touch of alcoholic fire. The 2013 Vintage, whose recipe is the same as BBB’s, is rich and bracing, port-like, nutty, chocolaty and a solemn foil to its ancient cousin.


But let us not forget the workaday beers, the beers that Martin Cullimore and his team produce day in day out: XB, XXXB, Salem Porter and so on. A glass of the session beer XB has a sweetness mid palate and a ring, a chime of jelly-like fruitiness, a delicacy, movement seen out of the corner of the eye, a brush from a feather before its dry sardonic finish. It’s not a boldly flavoured, vividly hopped beer — instead, it’s balanced and ineffable in its attraction. And so in the Red Lion out in the countryside, this flat featureless countryside between Boston and Wainfleet, I sit in a pub that has the feel of a large, comfortable front room, furnished with blanquettes, tables and chairs and comfortable sofas, while in the adjoining restaurant over 40 people have gathered to drink a wake to one of their own, and I drink XB with Jaclyn Bateman and think of how much character goes into this glass of beer. And later on, after a night spent carousing with Bateman’s people at the brewery’s Visitor Centre, this home to old brewery artefacts, ancient brewing books and a massive collection of bottled beers, I now start to wonder what influence people have the way Bateman’s conduct their business and brew their beers.

People, landscape, trends, traditions, tastes: so many influences on the way a brewery goes its way in the world; and I’m still seeking the answers to my questions.

I was invited to the brewery, ate lunch, drank beer and slept it all off in one of the brewery cottages; such is life.

In this cider pub

In this cider pub there is the smell of a dozen ciders slumbering in their boxes, a sweaty, vinegary, sour, wine-like, pungent, otherworldly, half-pleasing, half-repulsive aroma, cheese-like, Parmesan perhaps, the relic of decay in the air allied to the dereliction of daytime duty that drinking cider in this ambience of insolence implies. I order a beer.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Drunk

What does a drunkard sound like? He or she might be incredibly fine in the way the words are chosen, but these same words will betray their state of inebriation: beautiful and gracious make their bows but the presence of phrases such as so clean and oh fuck no presage a descent, a ladder on which the language slides down, untidy, apocalyptic, like a town drunk tumbling down a hill, comical, Laurel & Hardy, Norman Wisdom (and then it becomes sinister when we hear the poke of the aluminium walking stick with its rubber stopper as its keeper Long-John-Silvers their way about the floor).

But on the other hand, let us hear another drunken person, the need to explain Nietzsche, the neediness of the enervated would-be intellectual, the expert on the Hungarian revolution, the rock critic yet to emerge from their shell; the rocking horse too and fro of outlandish opinion that always ends up in a cul-de-sac of the mind; another aspect of the drunkard, the splurge of words, the urge and surge of words that sometimes make sense but more often than not don’t make sense.

So what does this mean to beer, what does this mean to those who drink beer? You can get drunk, merry, smashed, wasted and wanton on beer; beer is not special, beer is not sparing of those that fill their mouths and bellies with its slow flow of sweet, bitter, luscious, sensual, bracing moments; beer like wine like gin like methylated spirits gets you drunk, is no respecter of traditions or trends, is and can be a berserker on the battlefield. 

I have been drunk, you might have been drunk, you might have thrown words about with the abandonment of a child at a kids’ party who decides that the red Smarties have to die, but to look on the bright side of life it’s a state of change, a mission impossible, a missive to the world that the order of things has been upturned, that you are drunk. And that change of things, that revolutionary nature of being, that darkness made visible can be good, a disordering of the senses as some French bloke once wrote.

And then there comes a time like tomorrow, for we are talking about tomorrow, the drunk will be changed, reversed into sobriety, uninterested in Nietzsche, tumbledown Dick no longer, clean and sober and as happy as the eternal Larry.

Until next time.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

There is a certain romance

This is a glass of Christmas Ale, Harveys’ Christmas Ale, as taken in a small measure in the sampling room at the brewery. This is a glass of the powerful, spicy, smooth, sweet, vanilla-almond, nutty, fiery Christmas Ale, which I enjoyed in the company of Harveys’ Miles Jenner, one of the most elegant and urbane brewers I know. The beer is potent and its potential for making me sleep after Christmas lunch is leviathan-like. Outside, while we drink the beer, the men and the women of the brewery are at work: checking the boil, maintaining the fermentation (and look at that lovely rocky head that signals the ascent of Harveys’ Best Bitter, one of the greatest expressions of this English beer style that I know), clanging barrels together after they’ve been steam-cleaned, directing nozzles into barrels in the racking room, the quotidian work of a brewery that those who reason brewing is a romance forget about. 

But then there is a certain romance in a vision of the tower brewery, designed by William Bradford, the same guy who brought Hook Norton to life in the 19th century; there is a certain romance in Jenner’s insistence on sticking to UK hops and the more local the better; there is a certain romance in the nature of the brewing liquor, a hard water that comes from two onsite brewery wells and there is definitely a romance in the idea of the rain falling on the South Downs within which Lewes sits and this rain taking 30 years to percolate through the ground and become the liquid that Harveys draws up for its beers; there is a certain romance about the copper-faced mash-tun from 1954 (bought at an auction after its former owners from Croydon closed); there is even a certain romance about the dome-like copper, which puts me in mind of Jules Verne and 10,000 Leagues beneath the Sea; there is also a certain romance about the story behind the yeast strain that Harveys use, a strain that arrived on the train from John Smith in the 1950s thanks to a brewing chemist on his hols who said that said variety was a good ’un and, which even though it has mutated and mutated over the decades, visitors from the north still pick up what they say is a Yorkshire character on the beers that Harveys brew; and yes there is a romance about the Russian Imperial Stout that Harveys brew, a romance in the three hour boil (as opposed to 75 minutes for their other beers) and certainly a romance in that this beer is going to be aged in wooden barrels supplied by a Portuguese and Crimean wine-makers. So for this moment or two let us remember the romance that exists in brewing as well as the day-to-day work that makes the brewing of beer possible.



Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Zlý Časy and beer help me slip the bonds of surly life

Rambousek Tmavý Speciál, oh you’re a beautiful beer, a selfless shadowy shaman of a beer, a sirens’ call to the senses of a beer — and that swish of a sound in the corner is the sound of my senses being thrown all over as I sally forwards to the bar to order another tall, lean glass of this raven-black, earthy-chocolate, autumnal-smoky, creamy beer, whose appeal and feel nails me within this bar for far longer than I’d planned. But then I’m in Zlý Časy and oh Zlý Časy you are one of my most beloved bars in mainland Europe — oh don’t worry Moeder, Arendsnest or Ma Che I still love you lot to bits, it’s just I’m in Prague at the moment.

This is a beloved place where I can sit or even skulk in the basement bar where I always feel at home, a homely space where drinkers gather about the bar with the air of those for whom drinking beer is an urgent and important business, as it is for me on this night when like the attraction of the peste in Camus’ best book I cannot let Rambousek Tmavý Speciál go (or can I just briefly?).

Around me, all are engaged in the buying of beer in preparation to the drinking of beer, a variety of beers, including the magnificent Pivovar Matuška, where I had spent a fascinating afternoon that day in the company of brewer Adam, for whom there are three things in the world: ‘baseball, beer and my girlfriend.’ It’s good to hear that beer folk have something beyond the world of the glass.

But back in Zlý Časy, I briefly turned my back, on Rambousek and grabbed a glass of Brauerie Griess’ Keller, a beer serpentine in its service from a small wooden barrel that sat on the bar, a benevolent uncle from across the border in Bavaria, a sweet malt nose, a dry and bitter finish, an elegant style of herbal aromatics, though its bitter finish at which (and with) I kept smiling time and time again reminded of a beery back-slapping bawdiness.

But oh Rambousek Tmavý Speciál it’s time for another glass and as I pounce on its raven-black, earthy-chocolate, autumnal-smoky, creamy essence drinkers about me continue in the urgent business of buying beer, while a guffaw of a laugh from the man on the next table reminds me of the sight of steam from a newly awoken train, intermittent signals that something is happening outside in the world. The evening passes, voices rise and fall like waves before they crash onto the shore; there is no climax here, just a continuous rise and fall that eventually comes to an end with the calling of last orders, an event that causes nature to crack and sunders the natural world, the world of the pub shut down and brought to its unjustified end. But on the other hand, I want to enjoy Rambousek Tmavý Speciál on another day or evening like this and so I head out to get my tram and remind myself that for an evening I have slipped the bonds of surly life.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

A book shaped like a bottle



World Bottled Beers. I’ve never done a book like this before, a book shaped like a bottle, slipped into the pocket easily, but shaped like a bottle. But then I’m a writer in love with words so for me the words are what matter with this book that’s shaped like a bottle. There are 50 beers in this bottle-shaped book, beers from around the world, beers that have shaped the way I view and drink beer and beers that I have always loved. It’s not an easy book to write because I find it hard to pick 50 beers and there’s another 50 beers waiting in the wings and then another, but then I tell a lie, a beer book is always an easy book to write because you keep telling yourself that you’re being paid for writing about something that often comes upon one like a divine wind, reeled in like a fish on a hook. This is a book of words and images, a list if you like, oh yes it’s a list (so look away now), a book, bottle-shaped let us not forget, that features such stars as Magic Rock, Camden, Kernel, Birrificio Italiano, Stone & Wood, Lost Abbey, Stone, Grado Plato and of course the beer before which I lose all reason Orval. This year has been a book writing fest (or test) with a Revolution, a bottle-shaped hole in my soul, 50 contributions to 1001 Restaurants, and in the next couple of days the final filing for the history of the International Brewing Awards — yep, writing about beer, food, travel and how they all combine for a pre-match huddle can be such fun. Sometimes. 
The bottle-shaped book seems to have a life of its own, it feels a bit like where’s Wally sometimes, as it flits around my bookshelves.