Wednesday, 12 December 2012

The Golden Pints 2012


And so without further, or indeed any, ado, let's kick off with the first category, Best UK Draught Beer.

The winner of this category impressed the judge with its fusion of British pale golden ale and utterly bonkers new world hop overload. It is a beer that is so compellingly drinkable that the judge was compelled to drink several pints of it after a perfectly nice day out at the National Winter Ales Festival, falling asleep on the train home and having to get a £40 taxi from York back to Leeds. Bonus points go to the brewer of this beer for turning up at the Friends of Ham Smoked Porker / Quantum Tap Takeover and just drinking halves of it all night, ignoring everything else on offer. Yes, the Best UK Draught Beer 2012 is Magic Rock High Wire (cask version). Runner up is, well, pretty much everything else compared to High Wire to be honest.

As someone wholeheartedly committed to the death of the on-trade by running a successful bottle-wholesaling and retailing operation, the Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer is, of course, a category close to my heart. Unlike the previous category, competition here has been hard fought. Honourable mentions go to Oakham Green Devil, The Kernel Table Beer, Red Willow Ageless and, er, Magic Rock High Wire. Sadly, one beer has pummelled all of these into submission, just like Chuck Norris, an icon of uncompromising uncompromisingness held dear to the brewer of the winning beer. Yes, I'm talking #carnagenoir, James Kemp and Buxton Imperial Black India Pale Ale. Not only redefining "ruinously drinkable", but delivering a karate chop to the windpipe while it's at it.

The award of Best Overseas Draught Beer goes to a single pint of Ska Brewing Modus Hoperandi that I shared with Andy Taylor (@tabamatu) on the Leeds Open It night out. You can read a summary of that night here, but really, it's all summed up in this tweetBest Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer would have to be Southern Tier Iniquity, an imperial black ale that I bought to sell to people, and then ended up buying back from various shops at full retail value when I realised it's sheer brilliance.

I've no idea what Best Overall Beer means, but out of the beers above, I honestly couldn't choose between High Wire and Imperial Black, so over the Christmas holiday I intend to make some sort of imperial black 'n' tan out of them to see what happens.

Equally hard for me to make sense of is the Best Pumpclip or Label category. Red Willow, Moor Beer Co., and Bristol Beer Factory all look great on the bar or on the shelf, as do Marble. While it's easy to pick out a favourite beer, picking out the Best UK Brewery is a much harder task. So hard, in fact, that I'm not going to even try. The bar is set too high to split between them. And best - best at what? Making beer? No, no, I won't have it, this category is a NONSENSE! That said, the beers that I tried at Brodie's a couple of weeks ago (coupled with the odd bottle over the course of the year) were a real eye-opener - a brewery making great beers across a variety of styles, international collaborations (Mikkeller AND Three Floyds). I've not tried enough of their beers to claim them as a 2012 favourite, nor are they the best of 2012, but favourite new (to me) brewery, for sure. I'm rambling now, sorry. Argh, similarly, Best Overseas Brewery. At Borefts Beer Festival, I was blown away by Mikkeller and Jester King, so pick one, settle down, and shall we move on?

I don't get out much, so I'm not one to judge Pub/Bar of the Year. Seeing North Bar turn 15 this year was brilliant, and seeing Friends of Ham emerge blinking into the sunlight like an ickle faun was also a beautiful moment. No such qualms, however, about Beer Festival of the Year - hands down it was Indy Man Beer Con, which in my humble opinion was a world-class event. Or maybe it was Borefts Beer Festival. Hmm, I thought I had it nailed there. Oh well.

Voting for Supermarket of the Year is like voting for Best Cultural Apocalypse - whenever I buy beer there, I can feel the ghost of Hilaire Belloc tugging at my collar, whispering "From the towns all Inns have been driven: from the villages most.... Change your hearts or you will lose your Inns and you will deserve to have lost them. But when you have lost your Inns drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the last of England". Supermarkets are great for picking up decent beers at knock-down prices, and while I'm always disappointed to see brewers getting locked into volume production contracts and then bleating about how there's no money it, but they have to continue at that scale otherwise they won't be able to do anything, ever, I have to congratulate Morrisons for managing to have Worthington White Shield on sale at £1.40 for ages - congratu-fucking-lations to everyone concerned for devaluing an icon of British brewing. Still tasted great though.

Both Independent Retailer of the Year and Online Retailer of the Year are a bit hard to call, not least because of my vested interests in each, so what the hell, I'll say Beer-Ritz in Headingley and BeerRitz.co.uk, just because I co-own them. And also because brilliant people who really give a shit and love beer work at the shop. That's a good enough reason, right?

As anyone who has seen me doing my "jazz-hands are the hops, clog-stomping is the malt" interpretive beer dance, writing about beer is like, er, dancing about beer. This year I've read a lot of Stan Hieronymus, so I'm nominating Brewing with Wheat as my Best Beer Book or Magazine. His prose is always elegant and concise, with enough information to provoke further thoughtful investigation rather than give definitive answers. He's sort of Yin to Garrett Oliver's Yang.

Much as I'm loving the new eBuzzing nonsense algorithms (so much more random than Wikio!), I still read through almost everything posted in my blog roll (drop me an email if you'd like to be included). Mainly for providing as constant stream of literate and engaging beer notes, tempered hugely by being great company at Borefts, and insisting that 9pm on Saturday night was "doppelbock o'clock", award for Best Beer Blog or Website award goes to The Beer Nut. Best Beer Twitterer doesn't make any sense - it's like best brewery - best at what? Favourite? What is this, a popularity contest?

Popularity is what Best Online Brewery Presence is all about. Or is it an unpopularity contest? Either way, BrewDog manage to butt into my week fairly regularly, and at least a quarter of the time I have to remind myself to step away from the computer and put all that swearing back in the cupboard at the latest piece of countercultural froth they've managed to concoct.

Food and Beer Pairing of the Year was at the launch of Melissa Cole and Outlaw Brew Co's Mad Hatter Jasmine IPA, mainly because the beer was great and the food was ONLY THE BEST PORK PIE I'VE EVER EATEN!!! Quality always shines through.

In 2013 I’d most like to... get out a bit more.


DISCLOSURE - I buy and sell beer for a living, and work with almost all of the breweries mentioned above. I'm pretty sure my integrity is intact, your opinion may differ.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

On Yeast - or - Yeast Is Like Light*

As I sit here sipping my way through a bottle of Badger The Wandering Woodwose (8%abv), I'm immediately struck by two things. The first is what a lightweight I've become of late, and how I can feel the effects of the alcohol after barely a few sips. The second is that even though this is a substantial departure for Badger - 8%abv, bottle-conditioned - it's immediately identifiable as a Badger beer, mainly down to the house yeast character. There's something classically British (or is it English?) about the soft, fruity, ripe-melon sweetness in this beer that isn't down to the malt, hops, flavour additions (a favourite of Badger's) or anything notable about the water profile. It's the yeast, stupid.

Yeast is so much the underplayed ingredient in beer that one rarely hears it talked about, even in the uber-geek recesses of the beer blogosphere, and yet ask any brewer if they would switch yeast strains, and you'll receive the sort of "you don't get it, do you?" look and shake of the head usually reserved for the feeble-minded.

The reason for this is that no matter how badly behaved a particular strain of yeast is - and let's for the moment just restrict ourselves to the seemingly endless variations of s. cerevisiae - it is absolutely fundamental to the character of a beer. I know of a brewer at a particularly successful brewery who feels that if he leaves the building for longer than a weekend, the yeast can sense that it's their chance to misbehave, and things go awry. But rather than ditch and switch, they soldier on because nothing else tastes quite the same as their own house strain.

And it works the other way too - I've done guest brews at a brewery where when I asked what their house strain was (or what it started as - yeasts will subtly mutate over time), I was told that the brewer didn't know. And another brewery who need to let the yeast run away with itself and ferment warmer than might be conventionally expected, otherwise the beers don't have the particular character that they are famed for. Or the brewery that uses the waste yeast slurry from another brewery. And for the avoidance of doubt, all the above examples are top-tier UK breweries, not madmen making ropey beer in unsanitary conditions.

A few years ago, I stayed in post-festival Cannes for a couple of days. As someone who is interested in art, I remember thinking that all the tales about the intensity of the sunlight there turned out to be true. The light there gave your vision a peculiarly heightened quality that was hard to define, and yet also unmistakable in whole swathe of 20th century art. Just as the quality of light and how it affects what you perceive is important to an artist (go and have a look at Monet's Haystacks for an example of this), so the way a yeast behaves is key to how a brewer makes a beer, and how that beer is perceived by the drinker.

As I say, I've become a bit of a lightweight lately.

*with apologies to Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Monday, 8 October 2012

What The HELL Is Craft Beer?

Scoop front left, scallopcheeks dead centre
As questions go, it's an interesting starting point, but I'm not sure that anyone seriously expected the panel discussion at Indy Man Beer Con to yield any definitive conclusions.

John Clarke and Tandleman (Peter to his friends) both gave a viewpoint that was perhaps informed by many years as CAMRA stalwarts, with John perhaps having a slightly broader view of the global scene, and Peter taking more of a pubs-man approach. Both broadly agreed that anything that was good for beer had also to be good for the culture of beer, with Peter striking a surprisingly conciliatory approach born of a desire to keep pub culture alive - "there's a beer for everyone" was a quote I was surprised (but not disappointed) to hear coming from him.

What of people involved in the industry? BrewDog kingpin James Watt put on a virtuoso performance showboating against the calumnious claims of big brewers making faux craft beer, with a tirade against Blue Moon that produce applause and rolled eyes in equal measure. Big brewers don't make craft beer, small brewers make craft beer - that was the message, and indeed that sort of resonates with most accepted definitions of craft beer, although of course there is no guarantee of quality in that. Ever one for a spot of devilish advocacy, I asked James at what point in their growth BrewDog would cease to be a craft brewery, to an "ooooh, handbags!"-style response from the crowd.

There was an impassioned interjection from the floor about how craft brewing was about the willingness to experiment, and the willingness to get things wrong occasionally. My response - "By all means experiment, but if it goes wrong please don't dry hop it and call it a special" - might have been seen as an attack on the person raising that point (I think it was Jan from Marble), or on any other brewer that I waved an impassioned finger at as I said that (god knows there were plenty in the hall that I've had "polite words" with over the years). It wasn't an attack on anyone in particular, but more of general appeal not to sacrifice quality and consistency for restless, needless, or pointless experimentation.

You would imagine Toby McKenzie of Red Willow brewery to have a viewpoint, and indeed he did. He brews the beer he likes, and if people like it, that's a bonus. His most impassioned plea, though, was for everyone to stop taking everything so seriously, which I completely failed to do with my analysis.

I think craft beer is about identity politics. I think that whether you're a brewer or a drinker, it's about defining yourself as much by what you are not as by what you are. I think it's about a willingness to experiment, both as a brewer and as a drinker. It's the forerunner of something that's going to get bigger, in the same way that styles of music go from being underground cool to mass-produced products. And that's not to belittle mass-production - Sierra Nevada are an example of a brewery that has grown without ever compromising its core ideas, but who are now really turning it out in volume.

Is craft beer more a state of mind, for the brewer and the drinker, than anything else?

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Borefts #2

Gaustalle-Brau Natrub Zoiglbier (5.8%) - very slightly hazy, gold, hint of wildness in the aroma. Great texture, slightly heavy, slightly sweet, perfumed, fruity, big bitterness building towards a grassy finish. Great.

Mont Saleve Sorachi Bitter (2.5%) - hazy peach colour, classic Sorachi aroma (oily coconut) but somehow a tasty beer emerges from the Sorachi slickness. Enjoyable orange peel character emerges from the oiliness, before a big, big bitter finish. Good.

Buxton Wild Boar (5.7%) - tropical fruit nose, diesely undertones. Lovely balance of fruitiness, dryness and bitterness. Excellent.

This is such an unusual festival, this year spread across two sites a couple of hundred yards apart.The road between the new brewery and the old mill is a constant procession of people parading from one to the other, glass of beer in hand, crossing roads, all without incident.

Jester King Wytchmaker (7.3%) - hazy copper colour, spicy hop nose, toffee and pepper. Sweet on the palate, spicy pepper and oranges. A funky rye-driven farmhouse saison. Very good.

Buxton Tsar Bomba (9.5%) - Tsar with an old cultured strain of brett. Lush, smooth and complex, intense espresso mocha with a tickle of brett. Excellent.

Buxton Axe Edge (6.8%) - I can smell this from the tabletop two feet away. Lychees, passion fruit, diesel. Slick and sweet, touch of alcohol mid-palate, then a long and sweetly perfumed finish. Excellent.

At the old mill, a woodwind quintet strikes up, sounding for all the world like the backing band for a 'Debut'-era Bjork Unplugged session. All around them, people drink great beer and chat. The quintet are all dressed in freshly ironed white clothes, a single unit, an island of beautifully syncopated music, an oasis of cool concentration among the polite bacchanals.

Thornbridge Aussie Summer Ale (5%) - pin-bright, golden, softly fruity aroma, tropical hints ont he palate and nose, Classic Thornbridge. Made from Victoria's Secret hops - only 200kg in the world this year, of which Thornbridge got 30kg. Good.

Del Ducato Via Emilia (5%) - is there a hint of green gold about this, or is it just a trick of the mind? Noble hop character all the way through, but perfectly in balance, FOr me, a text-book pilsner. Brilliantly hoppy, but perfectly balanced. Very good.

Mont Saleve Blanche (5%) - neither as hazy nor as aromatic as you might want from a biere blanche,but hints of lemon barley water on the nose and palate, faintly cat-pissy. Doesn't really have much drinkability or moreishness. Oddly bitter finish. Not much cop, in all honesty.

Day two arrives, brisk and bright, with cartoon cotton wool clouds scudding across a Simpsons-blue sky. Everywhere people bustle about, on Saturday chores, on foot, on bikes so large they need to be climbed down from at a red light. A woman takes the lead off her chocolate Labrador, and in gentle guttural Dutch urges it onto the grass verge for a pee.

Alvinne Freaky (3.8%) - hazy copper colour, wild nose, thin body, wild tart finish. I don't think I'm a fan of their Morpheus yeast.

Del Ducato New Morning Saison (6%) - slightly yoghurty lactic aroma alongside classic saison spiciness. Pinprick carbonation, savoury celery quality. Burst of gently perfumed brett in the finish. Excellent.

Del Ducato Masochist IPA (6.5%) - hazy orange gold, tangerine aroma, tangerine palate, tangerine finish. Unsophisticated, but very good.

Bodegraven is such a sleepy suburban town that I'm struggling to see how it fits in with the mainly urban phenomenon of "craft beer". And yet people have travelled from all over the world to be here for a couple of days of low-key, almost inconspicuous beer geeking. All human life is here, and a few other forms besides, from the pot-bellied local guy, to the chi-chi Euro-femme, to hipsters of all ages and nationalities arriving on Saturday to be disappointed by Mikkeller having sold out of beer already.

Haandbryggeriet Sur Megge (8%) - peachy gold, tartly fruity nose, peach, lemons, honey, mano, pineapple, a total riot of fruit. Tart finish, faintly nutty, dry cider, more fruit. Absurdly good, monumentally good, actually indescribably good [my beer of the festival]

Narke Coffee Porter - [no note]

Kernel Topaz IPA - what to say? It's good.

ACCELERATED DRINKING PROGRAMME including Kernel Imperial Brown Stout (excellent) [it actually says this in my notebook. IN CAPS]

The Tulip Hotel, 2am Sunday morning: woken by a raucous party in the room next door. Is it an overspill from Saturday night hotel bar antics, or is it a bottle-sampling party. Sleep. Wake. Is that Craig's voice? Is that the Spanish guy I spoke to earlier? Is someone smoking? I hope the fire alarm doesn't go off.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Borefts #1

Christ, Holland is flat. From the upper deck of this train, you can see for miles. Well, you could see for miles if the Dutch nation, no doubt freaked out by the endless expanse of Netherlands all around them, hadn't planted a lot of trees. The trees follow the road, they follow the canal, they act as waymarkers, and they break up the agoraphobia-inducing sense of colossal sky pressing down with biblical force on the horizon all round.

Buxton SPA (4%abv, Nelson Sauvin dry-hopped special edition) - straw gold colour, slightly hazy. Nose is a touch dieselly, like Riesling (diesling?), almost certainly from the Nelson. Tropical fruit, then slightly tart bitterness. Good.

Thornbridge Baby Black Harry (2.8%) - given that it's advertised as being dry-hopped with Amarillo and Citra, I was expecting a bit of oomph, but it's a pretty straight down the line dark mild, roasty, designed for pints rather than dinky tasting glasses. Nice.

An adapted line from Salt N Pepa's Grammy-winning smash hit "None Of Your Business" loops over and over and over in my head: "If he wants to be a freak and be a beer geek then its none of your business". I'm heading for the Borefts Beer Festival at De Molen brewery, for two days of unashamed beer-geekery. I've got a leather-bound notebook, a purple corduroy jacket, and a mischievous intention to try and introduce the phrase "boutique brewery" to the lexicon over the weekend.

Thornbridge Wye (4.7%) - pale, nay limpid gold. Fresh air (?) and pale malt on the nose, and then the palate bursts at the finish with cucumbers. Yes, it's wet-cucumbered (the antithesis of dry-hopped) in the conditioning tank. Very good, but again, needs at least a half pint to get it.

Mikkeller SpontanDoubleBlueberry (8.5%) - thick indigo, with a persistent purple head. Tart funky nose, intense jammy aroma, violets. Fruity and tart on the tongue, big bursts of red fruit and funk in the finish. Symphonic, superb.

Bodegraven is such a sleepy, two-storey sleeper suburb of a commuter town that it's hard to believe there is anything going on here at all, let alone a dozen or more of the worlds hippest brewers in town pouring beer for a couple of thousand fans. Which makes it all the more thrilling to turn the corner on Overtocht to be confronted with the the mill, De Molen, in full sail, turning briskly in the breeze. My stomach actually lurches at the romance of it all.

Evil Twin Gooseberry Danbic (5%) - hazy pink (aged in red wine barrels) with a weirdly nutty nose. Faint hints of oloroso sherry (oxidation? age? barrels?). Tartly fruity (although could be any fruit), slightly acetic, oddly mousy finish. Interesting.

De Molen Nat & Droog (6.2%) - hazy orange - end of the keg. Massive hopsack and marmalade aroma. Big sweeetness on the palate, then spicy, then a bitterness that after a while develops an oddly chemical note to the hop character, which m'colleague The Beer Nut describes as beeing "too much like sucking hop pellets". Good, becoming odd later.

Soaking up the easy-easy nature of it all. You can wander round the brewery and look at everything, from the shiny stainless beer porn of the brewery itself, to the bottle store, to fresh-filled barrels, to the pallets upon pallets of Keykegs waiting to be filled. Mind gently boggles as it realises there are far to many beers to try.....

Jester King Petit Prince (2.5%) - hazy double-shine gold, appealing witbier/saison nose. Full carbonation, silky and smoothly drinkable, again on the palate a witbier/saison cross. Totally sessionable, and the sun has come out in agreement. Excellent

Jester King Buddha's Brew (4.7%) - cidery nose, slightly mealy and slick on the palate. Gently tart, slightly mousy, but hangs together nicely. Honey, lemon, dry cider in the finish. Good.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

On Beer Festivals

There is a great tale that after attending the 1982 Great British Beer Festival, beer guru Charlie Papazian said to beer writer Michael Jackson "Do you think we could do something like this in the States?". "We could, but what would we do for beer?" was Jackson's retort.

You might imagine that all beer festivals were much of a muchness, although the fact that you are reading this suggests that you are one of the self-selecting few who know that there are beer festivals, and then there are Beer Festivals. Like any festival, each event has it's own particular vibe, and to assume that all beer festivals are similar is to make a mistake akin to assuming that all music festivals are similar. They're just not.

I have a surprisingly limited experience of beer festivals, although I like to think the breadth of experience outweighs the frequency. From the archetypal regional CAMRA festivals (Salisbury Beerex, early 1990s), to the many-tentacled beast that the Great British Beer Festival has become, to the slightly off-the-wall Beer Exposed (September 2008), to the somehow urban-yet-pastoral vibe of the Copenhagen Beer Festival, the modern beer festival experience is as diverse as the modern music festival. You can draw your own analogies, but maybe start with the GBBF being the beer equivalent of Glastonbury, and work down from there.

Two festivals in quick succession are currently on my radar. This weekend sees the 4th Borefts beer festival, which has been described by various commentators as the sure-fire way to restore faith in craft beer (if it's in need of restoration), and the best beer festival in the world.I'm sure that the hyperbole of the latter is a recipe for disappointment, and we'll see how craft beer acquits itself on the day, but a quick peek at the beer list tells you that this is a beer festival with an agenda.

Also with an agenda was the recent Leeds International Beer Festival, although their idea was more about putting a beer festival into an urban (rather than suburban) setting - Leeds town hall, to be precise. The mix of beers was good, I thought, from cask stalwarts such as Taylor's and Ossett, to the vanguard of UK craft, to some rarer US imports. There has been some internet grousing over queues and pricing, but overall I thought the event was well thought-out and stands as an excellent foundation for another run at it next year.

Yet another agenda, albeit one questionably enhanced by my good self and a cast of other rapscallions, can be found on the first weekend in October. The 5th-6th sees the inaugural Independent Manchester Beer (& Stuff) Convention, or Indy Man Beer Con for short. Again, a glance at the beer list makes it clear that this is very much a beer festival of the moment. And that's no bad thing - there has been enough bleating about how the CAMRA/ the GBBF has "excluded" (that wouldn't be my choice of word) a certain sector of the brewing fraternity, and so it's good to see that rather than play victim, there has been a call to positive action. This is, I'm sure, a topic that will come up at what proves to be a lively discussion on Friday night about What The HELL Is Craft Beer? I look forward to finally reaching a definitive conclusion on that topic on the night.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Great North Run (Update)

I won't make this any longer or more detailed than it needs to be, but I've been suffering with a stomach bug all week, and have made the decision to pull out of the Great North Run this weekend.

It was a hard decision. The organisers make it very clear that if you don't feel 100%, you shouldn't run, and not having eaten properly all week, combined with a fair amount of, ahem, fluid loss, has made me reluctantly see sense and bail out.

I will be registering for another half marathon in the next few days. Birmingham Half Marathon is another BUPA-organised run, in mid-October, and seems the most likely candidate at this point. If you've sponsored me, thanks very much, it really means a lot to me. I'll still be honouring your pledge with 13.1 miles, just in a different city.

Onwards and upwards.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

SPONSOR ME! Great North Run 2012

Those of you who follow me on t'Witter may have noted that I've been engaging in a slightly unnatural activity of late - to whit, running. And those of you with an attention span longer than 140 characters may remember this post about Ant Hayes, who sadly took his own life last year, leaving a wife and two children.

Long story short, on Sunday 16th September, I'll be running the 2012 Great North Run to raise money for Child Bereavement Charity. CBC is a national organisation that coordinates a network of workers who offer support to people in times of bereavement - parents who lose a child, or children who lose a parent.

It's hard to put a positive spin on this, but I just think that when the worst happens, the best we can hope for is that there are people around to help those left behind make sense of a terrible situation. I think that Child Bereavement Charity offers that, so please dig deep and donate.

That's all a bit sombre, I'm afraid, so on a lighter note, the picture above is of me in the running vest.  I'll be wearing while I plough through the 13+ miles of the half marathon that is the Great North Run. It's yellow and so tight it makes me look like a banana with nipples. I should have got a larger size. Oh well.

You can donate at my Just Giving page here. Thanks for reading this far.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

The Symbiosis of British & American Craft Beer


On Thursday night, I was delighted to give a short talk to the Northern branch of the Institute of Brewing and Distilling (IBD). The topic that I'd been asked to address was the relationship between British and American craft beer cultures, which is something that I like to pretend I know a bit about. Of course, when faced with an audience of very well-respected brewers and other assorted luminaries, it's hard to remain cool, so rather than major on trifling things like facts, which are either right or wrong, I fell back on the safety net of telling a story anchored to a couple of key points.

To summarise thirty minutes of rambling into a few sentences: a lot of the early American brewers came out of the homebrew scene, and looked to Europe generally and Britain specifically for inspiration; Jack McAuliffe at New Albion was just ahead of the curve; when Ken Grossman brewed an English-style ale with local Cascade hops, he set the blueprint for the industry; for a country whose culture has dominated the world, the craft brewing scene in the US is still mostly about local beer, drunk fresh; there is an ongoing, symbiotic realtionship between American and European brewing traditions; dragging bottled beer from California to Europe is, if you stop and look at it, a really stupid idea.

Let's expand on some of those, shall we?

When Ken Grossman brewed an English-style ale with local Cascade hops, he set the blueprint for the industry.

The beer that became Sierra Nevada Pale Ale was a local interpretation of what brewers in Britain were doing at the time. It was born out of expediency, using local ingredients feremented in converted dairy tanks, a tried-and-trusted route into the game. The key point here is that the beer is about what is available, a bottom-up approach to craft foodstuff production. That Sierra Nevada have become the worlds largest consumer of whole-cone hops is born out of that mindset of wanting to do something in a traditional way, but just do it on a scale that boggles the mind.

For a country whose culture has dominated the world, the craft brewing scene in the US is still mostly about local beer, drunk fresh.

Americans don't mess about. They take everything very seriously, even fun, perhaps down to the fact that they have so little paid holiday that when they are on their own time, they want to have fun RIGHT NOW. Craft beer is an expression of that. But despite the fact that Sam Adams Boston Lager, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Brooklyn Lager (or at the very least, one of those three) are available in most UK supermarkets, American beer is still about local production and consumption. For example, Odell Brewing have a wider presence in the UK than they do in the US, but they only export a half of one percent of their output to the UK.

There is an ongoing, symbiotic relationship between American and European brewing traditions.

This just can't ignored. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is Fullers ESB brewed with local ingredients. Access to cheaper air travel in the 1980s meant that people and brewers (actually, brewers are people too, aren't they?) were able to travel to the USA and discover these new-fangled beers. You can't brew American beer without American hops, and so back over the pond they came, vac-packed and ready for action. British drinkers turn their back on traditional British ales, and the UK hop industry starts to founder. With wonderful symmetry, American craft brewers become interested in traditional British (actually, damn it, they're English, aren't they?) hop varieties, and the UK hop industry is saved via export to the US (This was put forward by Venkatesh Iyer, head brewer of Leeds Brewery - I think it's such a wonderful idea that I'm going to start passing it off as my own).

Dragging bottled beer from California to Europe is, if you stop and look at it, a really stupid idea.
Most beer is around ninety five percent water, and comes in a heavy glass bottle. Why wouldn't you move the key raw ingredients nearer the point of consumption and make the beer there? It will be fresher, tastier, and cheaper in the long run. So while Sierra Nevada are approaching carbon-neutral status by virtue of solar power, CO2 capture and anaerobic digesters, they they squander all that by insisting on refrigerated transport for their beers. You can look it it the other way too - they've earned the right to use refrigerated containers by virtue of being so eco-friendly at the point of production. Of course, this raises the issue of whether a beer brewed under licence is the same beer. Sam Adams Boston Lager for draught dispense is now being brewed at Shepherd Neame. Some moan about this, I'm on the fence about it. Would we feel happier if Sam Adams built a European brewery? What about a generic European American Craft Beer Facility that contract brewed for, say, Sierra Nevada, Brooklyn, Sam Adams and Stone? Or do we need the brewery's badge on the door to make us happy?

A couple more further thoughts. I was asked what I thought future trends would be. I think freshness is going to be a real driver of growth over the next 10 years, and allied to that, I also think that gap between the producer and the consumer will become smaller, and maybe the brewpub will make a return. But simply put, nothing tastes better than fresh beer.

The second point comes out of this. As British consumers come to realise that freshness is important, so understanding will grow about the ingredients in beer, and how those ingredients are key to enjoyment. I've said it before, but what American craft beer is doing to the beer industry in the UK is similar to what happened in the late 80s with Australian wine - it demystified the subject and made it easier to understand. Citra is basically Aussie Chardonnay in hop form, and that's actually good thing. But a lot of the key American hops - Citra, Amarillo, Simcoe, Ahtanum - are owned by individuals and grown under licence as registered brands. The question was asked of me; what to do when the year's crop runs out. My answer is to stop production of that beer, and explain to the drinker why. This was, you reinforce the idea that beer is a natural, agricultural and, to a certain extent, seasonal product, and imbue with all those qualities beloved of foodies the world over. Maybe the reason that BrewDog stopped making Chaos Theory is that it rested solely on a particularly sensational crop of Nelson Sauvin one year? (Thanks to Stuart Ross of Magic Rock for suggesting this to me). If that's the case, why not make a virtue of it?

These aren't finished ideas, or even close to being fully-formed, but I'd still love to hear about it if you agree or disagree with any of them.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Friends Of Ham, Leeds

You can tell a lot about a culture from their use of language. I remember having a slightly drunken argument with my Spanish cousin about who had a better language. He insisted that Spanish was better because it has a greater vocabulary (it doesn't - English words outnumber Spanish about 2:1). He pointed out that Spanish must be better because it has two words for "olive" (oliva and aceituna). I laughed at him, and pointed out that Spanish doesn't even have a word for toes - in Spanish, toes are los dedos del pie, literally "the fingers of the foot".

Like many drunken arguments, it wasn't resolved on the night, but Rafa's pointing out that the Spanish has a surfeit words relating to food has some merit. He's right about olives, of course, and without bothering to do any research, I'll bet that there are more words for different styles of dried meat in Spanish than any other language. Not only that, they also have words for the accoutrements of food. The device in the picture is a jamonera, basically a stand that holds a leg of jamon steady while it is carved. You don't see many jamoneras in the UK.

Friends of Ham has a jamonera.In fact, it's the one in the picture. It also has great range of really good quality meats and cheeses, Scotch eggs, a great of-the-moment beer list, and a shuffleboard table. I hear they have wine and spirits too, although my beer obsession is such that I genuinely didn't register either.The comestibles all live upstairs, the shuffleboard table is downstairs in the surprisingly large lounge.

The lounge (there's not really another word for it) is really well thought-out, delineated into different areas with different seating, but very open-plan. I'd almost go so far to say as it has a pleasingly gender-neutral feel. It's a bit blokey (a wall of faux book spine wallpaper, scaffoldy shelves) and a bit girlie (cut flowers, candles, nice pillows and cushions - and before you get outraged, yes nice pillows and cushions are a girlie thing). It's great, balanced, a soothing little oasis, made all the better by the surprise of how nice it all is.

In the month that North celebrates its 15th birthday, it's wonderful to see emerge another qualitatively different take on the whole idea of what makes a great bar. Rather than being competition for anyone, Friends of Ham is bringing something unique to the table, adding another option to the Leeds beer scene. Great beer, great eats, great staff, and a great space to do it all in.

Friends of Ham, New Station Street, Leeds.

Friday, 6 July 2012

The Session 65: So Lonely…

There are lots of reasons for going to the pub. One of my favourites is cask ale - it's just a bugger to have 72 pints of ale sloshing around at home, and the pub usually does it so much better than I could. I like the sociable aspect of sitting around with friends, drinking beer, inhibitions slowly being worn away, defences slowly lowering. By the end of it, much to my surprise given my misanthropic streak, I feel slightly more human for having spent time with people.

But equally, I love the solitary pint or two. For me, the pub is the third place, between work and home, a public house where I can be at home. But I don't think I've ever gone to the pub just to drink. More often it's to make phone calls, to look for inspiration to write, to actually sit there with a netbook, pecking away at the keys, trying to hit a deadline, or trying to turn number crunching into something slightly less dreary.

Sometimes I like to get really comfortable and take my shoes off. I'd never dream of going to the bar without shoes, but there's something incredibly relaxing about slipping off your shoes while you work, Tweet, or just make plans on the phone. It's not something I'd do in company - that would just be weird - but on your own in a pub, with a pint, shoes off, brain zinging away on a project - that's something else.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Maui Brewing Co.

Sometimes, you look at a business and just say to yourself "what the hell are they thinking?". For example, the Orkney Islands host two breweries. The climate on Orkney must be something special to lure two breweries there, given that they have to import all the ingredients to make the beer, bar the water, which I'm told is plentiful. And then they have to freight the majority of the beer back to the mainland for it to be sold. Mental, I tells ya.

Orkney is about 10 miles off the coast of the Scotland. Maui, one of the islands that makes up the 1500 mile long Hawaiian archipelago, is 750 miles from mainland USA. One has to question why Garrett Marrero decided to found Maui Brewing Co there. I mean, why on earth would you want to live in a blue-oceaned, sun-beaten paradise, making craft beer (in the American sense)? It would be easy to paint the whole thing as some slacker "Aloha, whoah, surf's up dude" idyll, were it not for the fact that you don't make good beer without putting in a lot of hard work. And that hard work is evident in the beer.

The beer that perhaps most people will be initially drawn to, Big Swell IPA, is a really solid IPA - think Odell IPA, in terms of that classy Anglo-American crossover, where malt and hops actually work together to produce a rounded, integrated whole. Slightly more off the wall, but showcasing a local ingredient (at least, I'm assuming they use Hawaiian coconuts rather than importing them from the Maldives, although given the island brewer mentality, nothing would surprise me), is their Coconut Porter, which really does taste faintly of coconut, and is a pretty damn special porter to boot. Smooth, silky and slightly unctuous, with a heap of mocha flavours. Aces.

Not simply off the wall, but actually packing a bag and leaving for a long holiday from any semblance of sense is the Mana Pineapple Wheat. When I tweeted about this beer, someone mentioned that they thought it smelled and tasted like urinal pucks. All I can say is that it doesn't, it tastes like a wheat beer with pineapple in it, which is to say a completely bonkers riot of fruit and spice. I liked it, but I can see why others might not, because it treads the tightrope of being fun, and some people think that anything fun shouldn't be taken seriously. Which is a shame, because we can all use a little fun once in a while.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Flat Cap Beers Ted

I'll jump straight to the conclusion, because I'm going to use some words and voice some opinions here that may well spark a lively debate. I really like this beer, it's a classic English pale ale, with plenty of toffee, nuttiness and spicy, pithy bitterness - so much so that it might be said to be a modern take on a traditional style. It's bitter, edgy and pushes the envelope a bit. It's rad-trad, dad, and all the better for it. I don't like the branding one bit, but maybe that's just me. What I also find slightly jarring is the stab at contemporary branding while cocking a snook at traditional imagery. Is it post-ironic? Retro-modernism? I don't know, but I'm not keen.

Let's have a look at the label, shall we? Their tagline is "Flat Cap Beers: Top Notch Craft Beer". Hmm, craft beer. Well, it's beer, and it's been crafted, I suppose. Their take on the c-word is that it means "small scale and not mass produced, independent and created with human skill and care" - Flat Capper Andy Orr explained this to me in an email. Their Twitter feed adds to the debate: "Brewed in the West Country of England & the Czech Republic". Again, hmm. Am I being taken for a ride here? Am I getting the feeling I've been cheated? The other two beers in their core range - a Czech pilsner and a Czech dark lager - are still lagering in the Czech Republic. That makes them authentic continental craft beers, right?

Make no mistake, this is all rather rum. The knee-jerk response to this is that it is All Wrong, And Must Not Be Tolerated, Because, It's, Like, Not Very Craft Really, Is It? That would be too easy though. Think a bit harder. Know any brewers who brew great beer without owning a brewery? Let's call them gypsy brewers, make it sound more romantic. And do you know any craft breweries who, when suddenly faced by a huge surge in demand for their flagship beer, decided to have it contract brewed for them? Sorry to break it to you so harshly, but that's more common than you might think, and done by the most unlikely people. Some unwillingly admit to it when directly asked, others flatly deny it, but it happens. And every now and again, when a beer moves from a small plant to a big plant, with fancy modern gizmos like flow meters and hopniks, it gets better. How craft is that?!

Craft beer, authenticity, transparency - these are Big Ideas, but now I just don't know what to think. Care to help me out?

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Arbor Ales Aramis


The whole point of a single hop ale is to showcase the character of the hop. It's basically a pale malt canvas onto which the hop character is projected. That description is how Sean Franklin, founder of Rooster's brewery, described the idea, and that's the formula that people follow, with good reason.

Aramis is a relatively new hop, "from the Alsace region of France, a triploid variety developed as a cross between tetraploid Strisselspalt and a male seedling of WGV to create a unique variety with reasonable bittering potential and strong noble aroma characteristics, notably citrus, herbal, fruity and spicy", it says at SimplyHops.co.uk. Fascinating, but what does that really mean?

Arbor Ales Aramis smells like the steampunk future of hops. It's steampunk in the the sense that it's not some immense fruit bomb, some hydroponic citrus monster hop that will make all beers taste the same, but it's a traditional set of flavours that has been amplified somewhat for the modern palate. In this beer, it's a very European-smelling hop, with a real noble Saaz quality, including some of that slightly earthy, dirty, catty character. But at the same time, there's a citrussy lemon edge to it, some faint black pepper spiciness, and a fleeting suggestion of fruitiness mid-palate (peaches? tangerines?) that makes it bang on trend for 2012. At the same time, there's a faintly smoky note that suggest Lapsang Souchong tea, or perhaps the interaction between this and the fruit suggests Earl Grey.

And in this beer, there is plenty of bitterness, so the overall impression is a beguiling package that is simultaneously delicate and assertive. When Mark Dredge, Pete Brown and I brewed Avery Brown Dredge, BrewDog's Martin Dickie tried it and said "I feel like I'm being punished by Saaz, which is something I never thought I'd say". This beer has that same quality, albeit toned down from 11 to, say a 6 or 7 in volume terms, which given ABD's hooligan credentials is perhaps no bad thing.

So, Aramis. An interesting hop, and a very good beer.

NOTE: I buy and sell this beer through the business I own, although I don't think this has influenced my opinion of it

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Beer Is A Continuum (or The Bell-Curve of Style vs Consumption)

I wasn't born in a mash tun. I wasn't bottle-fed wort when I was a nipper. I've learned to love beer, the same as everyone else, although I did it back-to-front compared to most. I cut my teeth on real ale, and didn't drink lager for the first 10 years of my drinking career. There are some styles I still struggle with, and although I may acquire a taste for them later in life, being in my 40s makes that unlikely. There are some styles that I've grown bored with - I still LIKE huge barrel-aged beers occasionally, but these form a tiny part of my drinking repertoire these days.

For everyone immersed in the beer world - and readers of this blog are mostly that, rather than casual passing traffic - there is a particular segment of the market that we like to drink. Chris Mair touches on that in this post, so there's no need for me to reiterate it. I agree with his sentiments. And as I'm sure I've said before, there is a tendency for any group centred around a communal interest - food, technology, lifestyle - to assume that they are the peak of sophistication for any given phenomenon. It's called having an opinion, and it's a human trait.

But one thing that I'm really keen to stress is that we're in a niche. If the world of beer is a pint, we're probably no more than the head on it, if that. And at the risk of being branded again as "cheery-beery", someone is drinking all of that other beer and enjoying it. You can take the view that all that beer is being drunk for want of an informed alternative, and in my experience this is true in about half of the cases. Most people don't have the information and experience available to them to make the leap to something difference. That's my experience from 10 years of retailing, and I was unsurprised to see Young Dredge reflecting that in a recent post

OK, I'm rambling a bit. What prompted this train of thought was the comment on my previous blog about Mikkeller Not Just Another Wit being a witbier with "everything turned up to 11". It prompted a response from Jon at Stringers asking if that was what we wanted in a beer.

And my response to that is, of course we do, but that's not the only thing we want. I want all the options to be available to me, all the time. I want anything from a pint of Carling or Carlsberg (I'd guess I only drink those a few times a year) to a monumental barrel-aged barley wine or tart lambic (which, equally, I only drink a few times a year). Those are my outliers which frame the bell curve of my consumption. The existence of those outliers doesn't threaten what's in the middle. And in the style of Boak & Bailey, I've prepared a graph to illustrate that idea: (EDIT: the vertical axis is volume drunk by me)


Witbier - Mikkeller Not Just Another Wit

If there is another brewery (cuckoo, gypsy or otherwise) that better epitomises beer in the 21st century than Mikkeller, I've not heard of it. And I keep my ear pretty close to the ground these days.

Mikkeller specialises in taking a beer style and, like the geeky kid that nobody really wanted to be friends with, but everyone acknowledged was something of a braniac, pulls it apart and studies how it works before reassembling it into a ne plus ultra example of the style. NJAW is a great example of that approach. Belgian witbier, made popular by Hoegaarden Wit in the late 20th century (hey, I was there) is one of those not-beers that relies on things other than malt and hops for its character - namely, wheat and spices. The wheat (wit) lends a roundness to the palate and a slight tartness to the finish, while the spices (coriander and curacao) add a completely different dimension of flavour and aroma.

At a time when everyone is in slavish thrall to hops - myself included - it's great to have something different that is made with a more-is-more "craft beer mentality".I remember visiting Kelso of Brooklyn in 2007and Kelly describing his beer as "like beer, but with more stuff in". So it is with this beer (and most of Mikkeller's output). Everything you want in a witbier - yeasty, spicy orange aroma, soft spritzy mouthfeel, coriander spice-burst finish - is here, but all turned up to 11. It's like Celis Wit on steroids. It's an old Belgian style on a rollercoaster. It is, God help me, an imperial witbier.

NOTE: I buy and sell this beer through the business I own, although I don't think this has influenced my opinion of it

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Black IPA - Moor Illusion

Black IPA is such a nonsense. It's a style that makes no sense - a black India pale ale that rests on the beer not displaying too much of the dark malt character that gives it its name. Why bother?

Well, like all of these infernal things that are hard to do right - soufflés, sex, making a decent Cosmopolitan - when it's done right, it's exceptional. The black IPA was first brewed by Greg Noonan at the Vermont Brew Pub in the mid-1990s, and while there is some debate on Twitter as to the first British black IPA, it seems likely that Thornbridge Raven was there first. Although maybe the BrewDog/Stone collaboration Bashah (it stands for Bitter As Sin, Hoppy As Hell, apparently) might have been the first UK-based version, should you allow collabs to be included.

The thing is, although black IPA is one of the styles du jour, it's something that is rarely done right here. Archetypes of the style (Stone Sublimely Self-Righteous and Southern Tier Iniquity are cited most often) manage to combine the balance of smooth, chocolatey dark malt with a huge hop hit in a way that seems totally unforced. Many UK versions seem to go overboard on the bitter dark malt, making a beer with the dry, smoky astringent edge of a stout with a big hop load. Trying one particularly roasty example with Sean Franklin (founder of Roosters) prompted me to comment "It's a tasty beverage, but it's not a black IPA". He grinned, and concurred. Sat with Garrett Oliver in North Bar a few months ago with another local example, he took and swig and said "that's good, but it's not a black IPA". A smooth, chocolatey note is apparently how the darker malt should manifest itself.

Moor Illusion falls slightly between two stools. It is indeed a tasty beer, and having tracked it's evolution over a few batches, it's certainly becoming more hoppy and less maltily bitter, although it still has that vague "hmmm, there's quite a lot of roast flavour here" thing going on. But having a bottle of this to hand on a quiet afternoon recently, newspapers to hand, was a blissful situation. It may not be an archetypal black IPA, but it is a tasty beer.

NOTE: I buy and sell this beer through the business I own, although I don't think this has influenced my opinion of it

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Ilkley Siberia Rhubarb Saison

We bloggers are the rock stars of the craft beer movement. It must be true - BrewDog said it about me, Mark Dredge and Pete Brown when we went to brew Avery, Brown, Dredge. We go on tour, smash preconceptions with an iconoclastic dry-hopped rye mild, and then write a thousand unpunctuated words about it (that was Adrian Tierney-Jones at Arbor Ales, with Ryeteous Mild - I lied about the punctuation). And Melissa Cole didn't bugger about when she went to brew at Ilkley - a rhubarb saison with vanilla, grains of paradise and orange peel. Have at you, convention!

I've said it before, and I'll say it again - saison is the riesling of the beer world. It's a delicious, complex and under-appreciated style that can hit the mark like nothing else. It's also tricky to get right - I'm not sure that I've ever had a cask saison that's been worthy of the name, and even keg saisons seem to lack a certain something. But taking the cap or cork from a bottle of saison, and the eruption of escaping gas, with it's faint aroma of hay, spice and sweet silage on the breeze, seems to bring the beer to life in a way that draught dispense just doesn't. Garrett Oliver talks about the eruption of life force you get when opening a saison, and he's right, not just in the force of the escaping gas, but also the pungent aromas too. It needs all that busy carbonation to lighten the palate and make it taste just so.

I didn't get to try this beer on draught, but I doubt that it could better the bottles. All the classic saison hallmarks are there - brisk carbonation, complex yeasty spiciness, dry finish - and each one of these is accentuated very subtly by the ingredients. The vanilla slightly fills out yeasty palate, the spices lift the aromatics a touch, and the rhubarb adds a slight tartness to the finish. Much as I love hops, it's nice to try a beer that has been made subtly modern without the addition of armfuls of the damn things. Hazy, lovely and moreish. Nice work all concerned.

NOTE: I'll be buying and selling this beer through the business I own, although I don't think this has influenced my opinion of it

Sunday, 3 June 2012

EBBC2012 #5 - Tired And Emotional

I think it's fair to say that by the time we got to the end of EBBC2012, everyone was ready for a long sleep and a blood transfusion (well, all except Alessio Leone, who was to spend the Sunday night in various Leeds bars before getting an early flight back to Italy without any sleep at all - now that's hardcore). When I got home and was asked how the weekend was, I surprised myself by hearing myself talking about it while my voice cracked with emotion at some of the things I'd heard over the weekend. Not for the first time that weekend, I actually shed a few embarrassed tears. And here's why.

Having moved over the last decade from working part-time in a good beer shop, to managing an award-winning beer shop, to launching a beer-tasting events company, to being British Beer Writer of the Year 2008, to having a book published, to buying out the company that employed me has been a long and exhausting process. There have also been a bunch of people who have been at my side along the way, and who I see as contemporaries, partners-in-crime, whatever. But if you'll permit me the indulgence, I'd like to share with you two almost eidetic moments from the weekend.

The first was after the speed-blogging event, which itself was a whole heap of fun. I think it's fair to say that Rooster's Baby-Faced Assassin was the beer of the night, just pipping Marble's Earl Grey IPA by a small margin. Tom of Rooster's has very kindly acknowledged my indirect influence in the development of this beer - undeservedly so, as all I did was say "yeah, that might work" as Tom explained the idea behind it. As I chatted to him after the event, he casually mentioned that Doug Odell was coming to brew with them in a couple of weeks, largely on the back of having tried and enjoyed Baby-Faced Assassin. Such was my delight at this news that I couldn't help but get dewy-eyed. I guess I saw a lot of similarities between Tom's journey and mine, from amateur beer enthusiast to someone who was making a living doing something they loved, and having a great time doing it.

The second moment was on the Magic Rock visit, when I was talking to head brewer Stuart Ross. Having just toured the brewery, I thought back to a brew that we'd done a couple of years ago. Stuart is a guy who has learnt his craft and apprenticed under some of the best. And looking round at the American craft brewery he and Richard Burhouse have built in Huddersfield, I couldn't help but have an immense swell of pride for the pay-off for his years of hard work. I slapped him on the shoulder and told him this, and he looked me back in the eye, without blinking, and said "And well done you, for what you've done". That is as close to an emotional outpouring as you're likely to get from a Yorkshireman, and it meant the world.

Although I make a living buying and selling beer, I try and resist the idea that these beers are brands. When I look around the warehouse full of beer, each little bay of beers from a particular brewery isn't just beer, it's a lot of hard work, hopes, aspirations and stories, not just from the brewer, but as I mentioned in the last post, the result of an awful lot of work from an awful lot of people. That's why I get emotional when I think about the industry - it's not just beer, it's peoples' lives and peoples' stories that fill your glasses. If you can join me in that belief, not only will your understanding of the topic deepen, but I also believe your beer will taste all the better for it.

EBBC2012 #4 - The Hop Man Cometh

I quite like things that challenge the taken-for-granted. I like that sensation of learning things that make you realise that you don't really know as much as you thought you did. I like the way that when I was in my 20s, I though I knew it all; when I was in my 30s, I realised that I didn't know as much as I thought I did; and now I'm in my 40s, I think that by the time I hit my 50s, I might have a decent working knowledge of most things that interest me. I just hope I'm still able to use that information creatively.

Some things that I've learnt about beer over the last few years; it's hard to say exactly what makes a great brewer; making good beer is much more about yeast management and cleaning than it is about malt and hops; just because everyone else says something is great doesn't mean that you will actually enjoy it; the trail of talent goes a lot further up the line than you think.

This last point was brought home listening to Paul Corbett, MD of Charles Farham Hop Merchants, talking about the state of the global hop industry. When you get into beer, it's usually just about the liquid in your glass and your relationship with it. As you develop that interest, you might broaden your horizons to take in the place you bought the beer, or the person who sold it to you. You might then go beyond that and get interested in brewers and breweries, and for many people, that's as far as the interest goes. What was clear, listening to Paul Corbett talk, was that an awful lot of the new wave of British brewing wouldn't be happening without the interaction between brewers, himself, and the hop growers making the new generation of hops that are driving the revolution.

I'll be honest, although it had occurred to me that there was any intermediary between the hop growers and brewers, I didn't really think about the level of influence there was. But it's hard to ignore when Paul casually dropped into his presentation that (for example) New Zealand hop varieties Riwaka and Motueka were originally named Saaz D and Saaz B respectively, until he suggested that perhaps they might look for a more New Zealand-specific name if they were to export them to Europe (presumably muttering "they already have Saaz there, numbnuts" under his breath). And it's him (and others like him) who are gently exerting pressure on producers of licenced brand hops (Ahtanum, Amarillo, Citra, Palisade, Simcoe, Warrior etc) to grow enough to meet demand.

So there we have it - from glass, to vendor, to brewer, to ingredients supplier, to ingredients grower, beer is intimately associated with the fortunes of a lot more people than one might think. And this idea is the starting point for my next post - Tired And Emotional -  the last that I'll be posting about EBBC2012.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

EBBC2012 #3 - Who Are We Talking To? And How? And Who's Listening?

I was quite surprised by how much I enjoyed the tech and social media sessions at EBBC2012. I thought I had a pretty good handle on stuff, but it turns out that I was only about half as good as I thought I was. The reason for this is that although I've fiddled about with all sorts of social media (YouTube, Blogger, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and briefly Tumblr, Google+ and Klout), I don't really pay any attention to who is listening and responding to what I say, beyond comments on this blog, Twitter followers, and Facebook feedback.

I still don't know how I feel about this. On one hand, I'm pretty happy with what I do via social media. It's a great network of like-minded and interested individuals, and as I said in the session that I co-hosted, it was having a body of work online that enabled a publisher to find me and commission me to write "500 Beers". Clearly I was doing something right, and crucially, that commission happened just before I was made Beer Writer of the Year 2008 by The British Guild of Beer Writers. I'm sure the award reassured them that taken a flyer on the right person, but they had approached me solely on the basis of my online persona. I'm sure that having video available to them helped to round this out a bit, but ultimately, having a social media portfolio is vital if you want to Take It To The Next Level (as the session with Mark, Marv and me was called).

I was also interested by the idea that you might want to alter your voice and respond to feedback from readers to write content that they were more interested in, points raised in part by Sophie Atherton and Adrian Tierney-Jones. I disagree with this - I say write your own thing, just make sure that spelling and grammar are correct. Very little good ever came by committee, or by trying to mimic someone else. But that's just my opinion. And anyway, Adrian was being somewhat disingenuous - his blog is his Gonzo, Joycean, Proustian outlet. Having read a few draft pages of a book that he's currently writing, it's obvious that he's one of the greats, with a unique voice that is the summation of years of self-taught journalism and, most crucially, of a life lived in (and through) words and literary structure.

But I digress (hey, this is my space to do so). While you can use social media to create a showcase for your talents, content is still king. I'm still not convinced that being popular on social media is the same as being respected, despite what Klout might say. It's probably apposite to conclude on one of my favourite maxims - you can't polish a turd, but you can roll it in glitter. But who wants to be a glitter-covered turd?

EBBC2012 #2 - The Circle-Jerk Of Influence

One of the themes that re-occurred throughout EBBC2012 was that of influence. It's taken for granted that as bloggers, we have the potential to influence opinion. As a result of this, and moving up the food chain, it's logical then that interested parties might seek to influence bloggers. The ethics of this was a topic that ran through many of the discussions over the weekend, from the obvious (should bloggers take freebies?) to the slightly more considered (how can I take freebies and retain some integrity?). As Allan Wright of conference organisers Zephyr Adventures pointed out (to slightly uncomfortable silence), we'd all accepted Molson Coors' offer of sponsorship when we turned up - nobody refused to take the cheque on principle (although whether The Ormskirk Baron was actually able to cash his cheque, given it was made out to "The Ormskirk Baron", is still unclear)

The question of influence is also applicable to the question of why we actually blog. We all believe we have something worth saying (as Tandleman sums up with customary pithiness here), but the question of who we are saying it to, and why, is perhaps still unclear. This was brought into sharp focus after the Q&A session that Mark, Marverine and I held, when Allan Wright (again) asked "has anyone ever emailed a brewery to let them know that you've written something about them?" More uncomfortable silence. Don't the Americans have a splendidly pragmatic approach to stuff? The coup-de-grace of "then why are you doing what you do?" hung in the air, unasked and unanswered.

But of course, a few beers makes everything OK. The incredibly lavish dining event (merely calling it dinner would be selling it a bit short) that Pilsner Urquell hosted on the second evening was a chance for everyone to sample their superb unfiltered pilsner, served straight from the wood. We were also well-fed, dressed in PU polo shirts, kidnapped and transported to another venue, and FORCED to drink more unfiltered pilsner under the supervision of The Thirsty Brewmaster. I found myself leaving early that evening - I wish that I could say it was down to some sort of principle, but the events of the evening meant that I just needed the sort of solitary relaxation time that you only get in a hotel room on your own.

We need to take it as read that blogging is about influence. As bloggers, we want to influence people, and because of this, people want to influence us. But how these things happen, and to what end, is perhaps still a bit uncertain.

Friday, 1 June 2012

EBBC2012 #1 - Beer and Beer Blogging Is A Very Broad Church

Yes, I know, it's been a couple of weeks since EBBF2012, but having been away on a Cruzcampo and seafood bender, I just wanted to add a bit of analysis. This is just the first in an as yet undetermined number of posts.

The opening session from Pelle Stridh, Ludmil Fotev and Jan Menken was perhaps not what everyone expected - at least, it certainly acted as an eye-opener for me. I thought that it reflected the way that beer was a cultural currency that united different strands of thought, and acted as a way for people to express their differences while realising their similarities. So the three presenters had very different perspectives on beer blogging, but beer was theme that united them. Pelle was perhaps the most conventional, with his stated agenda of trying to educate people to drink "better" (problematic word) beer. Jan's personal slant was attending beer events on public transport - trains, mainly - which I guess fitted in nicely with his jaunt to Leeds. Ludmil's slightly more freeform approach - perhaps enhanced by Google's translate facility acting as a filter on his blog - was brought back to earth with a bump as his presentation made it clear that Bulgaria is a market that even BrewDog has yet to properly penetrate. You can only blog on what's readily available to you - indeed, perhaps this sort of blogging is more "authentic" (another problematic word) than the trophy-bagging style of blogging (and I'm as guilty as anyone of that particular vice).

The key point that I took away from this session was that beer blogging is a broad church, and that what I enjoy most about blogging personally, and a lot of the blogs that I read, is that sometimes the best blog posts aren't directly about beer, but are a stepping-off point for discussions about other things. And conversely, the things that feed forward to the produce the product that unites us (beer, duh) aren't as simple as you might think. Often it's not just about ingredients and process - it's about the stories behind those things that bring the topic to life. I'll touch on that idea in a couple of upcoming posts, tentatively entitled "The Hop Man  Cometh" and "Tired And Emotional".

Saturday, 19 May 2012

EBBC 2012 - Live Beer Blogging

I'm live-blogging from the European Beer Bloggers Conferrence - 10 beers in 50 minutes. IT'S GRIPPED, IT'S SORTED, LET'S LIVE BLOG!


Slaters Top Totty - I just mis-typed that as "Top Titty", which given the bunny girl label is pretty appropriate. Clean lemony nose, fresh clean and tart palate, nice and fresh, good. Not sure about the label - they defend it on the basis of it being ribald British humour in the seaside tradition. Sophie Atherton is unsurprisingly outraged, and drives the point home forcefully. But is the beer being overlooked in the furore? That would be a shame, because it's great - clean, zesty, fresh and delightful.

Camden USA Hells - unfiltered lager, lots of American C-hops. Slightly funky nose, might be the cattiness of the hops rather than any faults. Really nice bridge between old- and new-world traditions, clearly a quality, well-made lager with another layer of zesty, spritzy, great. "Brewed to suit the London palate" according to their PR guy - an unashamed pitch at the mid-market, but very good in spite of that - or perhaps because?

Adnams Ghost Ship - absolute classic English ale in the modern style - just what you'd want on a hot summer afternoon, or indeed on a busy speed-blogging event. Pale toffee colour, clean, biscuity with lots of fruity hop character. Very nice, and doesn't stamp its feet for attention. 

Innis & Gunn Scottish Pale Ale - limited release only available in Sweden. Big oaky vanilla nose, with plenty of hops added to try and balance the sweetness out a bit. Oddly for a relatively light beer, it really crashes onto the palate, sweet initially, turning zesty and floral. Tastes of new oak and citrussy hops. Bit of a car crash, but also sort of enjoyable.

Leeds Brewery Hellfire - very pale beer, zesty nose, very fresh, lovely sort of lemon sherbet and lime on the finish. Really nice fresh beer, although not convinced by the claims that "it's designed to be drunk from the bottle". Sam Moss from the brewery says that it's because the beer is meant to be drunk cold, from the bottle - the body gets big as the beer warms up. Nice idea, and seems to be well executed.

Otley Oxymoron Black IPA - Nick Otley says that this was their unashamed stab at having a go at the American craft beer style - "we wanted a piece of it" in his words. Big fruitiness on the nose, combined with smooth chocolate. Big flavours, great hop character and balance, but maybe a bit drying in the finish? Perhaps not helped by lack of condition (they apologised profusely about that)

Brains Dark - announced as Brains Dark Mild, which I guess is true to style.Dark brown, full chocolate aroma, vinous fruitiness. Finish is again vinous, fruity and complex. An essay in complexity and drinkability. Apparently, it's a great match for a Clark's pie, which is "some sort of meat pie" - apparently, nobody has ever had the courage to ask exactly what is in them.

Marble Emelisse Collaboration Earl Grey IPA - shot for a low bitterness in the expectation that there would be some tannic bitterness from the tea. Nose of citrus fruits and bergamot, unusual but enticing. Massive tangerine character on the palate, with more bergamot in the finish. Brilliant, enticing, and the first time I've ever used the phrase "dry teabagging" in conversation with a brewer. Excellent.

Roosters Baby-Faced Assassin - the classic guerilla IPA made for cask - how does it fare? Really well, given that they are following a big bruising bergamot IPA. Clean fruitiness, big mango hit, slightly toasty pale malt, unfolding endlessly on the palate. Tom used the phrase "went balls-out with the recipe", which I guess thematically nicely links back to the dry teabagging of the previous post.

Great Heck Stormin' Norman - "an easy drinking 6.5% session ale" according to the brewer Denzil. A little bit of roast barley in the mix brings out a toasty edge against which the hops brush up nicely. Big and hoppy, sweet tropical fruit brushing up against gently nutty malt. Lovely.

Monday, 14 May 2012

The Relationship Between Consistency and Quality (or, Lager Is Like House Music)

I was in a pub in the Lake District this weekend, drinking a blonde beer from a brewery I'd never heard of. It was unpleasant, slightly tart, with a plasticky phenolic finish. I'm all for returning pints to the bar if you're not happy, but I just wasn't in the mood for it that night. There were a few of us chatting over dinner, and so I laboured through it, hoping for something better next. One of my companions asked me what the beer was like: "Bloody awful" I replied. He tried it: "Jesus, that IS awful. I thought you were just being a beer snob, but that isn't right, is it?". We have a brief discussion about how although it's tempting to write off a brewery based on a bad pint, it might just be a bad batch, or a bad cask, or even a cellaring or dispense issue.

I scan the bar, and decide the lesser of the four evils presented to me was probably Theakston's Best. It was the most likely to be consistent with what I was expecting, by virtue of having come from a large and successful brewery. But that was odd too, also slightly phenolic, so perhaps rather than the beer being poor in itself, the pub does have a  hygeine issue. Maybe the lines haven't been properly rinsed after cleaning. Still, the tally of bad pints is two for two, and I think about switching again. Stuff it, I'll have a whisky - Glenrothes 10, very nice. Although the Tirril Lager font that I've ignored sets me thinking.....

A couple of days ago, I was in another pub, catching up with another friend over some food and beer. He was drinking Staropramen, I was drinking Kozel. I don't normally drink lager, but I just wanted something cold and clean to go with the pigs cheek scotch egg (thank you Town Hall Tavern in Leeds). It was a revelation, not in reference to any undiscovered flavours, but for its clean, consistent, cool bittersweetness. It's like the moment when, stuck in a monumental traffic jam on the A303 one night, I finally "got" house music - it's just there, that beat, always solid, always loud, providing a rhythm for you to exist within. Lager is like house music - eternal, omnipresent, and in varying levels of quality. After three pints of Kozel, a pint of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale was a crazy flavour bomb, all toffee malt and pithy hops. Sensational.

These experiences got me thinking. Am I just being seduced by big-brewery quality control into thinking that their beers are better, because they are more reliable? My Kozel experience has left me positively disposed towards drinking more of it, whereas my local beer experience literally left a bad taste in my mouth.

Put simply, is consistency a factor in quality? And if the answer is yes (and I think it is), then how big a factor is it?

Friday, 4 May 2012

Cheese and Beer - Post-Hoc Analysis

This week, thanks in no small part to the hard work of all the lovely staff at Beer-Ritz in Leeds (GhostDrinker worked his arse off behind the counter, while Beth and Jeff did their best to demolish the mountains of cheese on offer), as well as the tireless enthusiasm of Leigh Goodstuff, we hosted a beer and cheese tasting event. It's fair to say that although it doesn't take many people to fill our little shop to bursting, the evening was very well attended, with both a plethora of regulars and a whole bunch of new faces on show.

Orval and Delamere mature goats cheese was, for me, always going to be a hard sell, so this was the obvious first choice for me. I'm not a fan of goats cheese - it's just too, well, goaty for me. Perfect then to pair it with Orval, a beer that slowly turns to dung through the action of brettanomyces yeasts, also a bugbear of mine. Look, I know this makes me sound (a) fussy and (b) a philistine, but I simply struggle with these flavours. I can appreciate that they have a wonderful depth, complexity and intensity, but I simply don't like them. It's a good beer, it's a good cheese, I'm just not crazy about how they taste.
What better, then, to clear the palate than some gently crumbly Lancashire cheese and and dark ale. Ilkley Brewery are firm favourites locally, and starting to make some serious inroads into the national scene. Not only have they been very generous to our little homebrew group, but brewer Stewart Ross also distinguished himself by (a) turning up to consume some beer and cheese and (b) bring some Ilkley Lotus IPA with him, presumably in case we didn't have anything worth drinking on the premises. The cheese was marvellous - like soft, crumbly butter - and paired nicely with the dark nuttiness of the Ilkley Black.
This is a pairing handed down to me, father-to-son style, by the legend that is Rupert Ponsonby. The pairing of mature cheddar against a medium-bodied IPA is one that isn't immediately obvious, but one that actually works really well. The sharpness of the cheddar serves to bring out the sweet nuttiness of the beer, which in turn acts as a foil to the.... well, cheesiness of the cheese. It's hard (as you can see) to explain exactly why this works, but it's something along the lines of marmalade and butter - salty and sweet rubbing up against each other in a deliciously saucy manner.

I started out this post 'fessing up to a dislike of certain flavours that no doubt many readers will view as a lack of maturity, but I'd like counter that by saying that blue cheese is something that I used to abhor, but have come to love. I tell you that to demonstrate that (a) I like scary cheese - I'll eat runny brie with a spoon quite happily - and (b) don't give me a load of crap about how my palate will mature and I'll eventually like goats cheese. I won't. Ditto brett - a tiny amount is OK, giving some sort of hint of background sexiness, like glimpsing the silhouette of the body of someone you fancy through backlit sunlit clothes, but anything more than a glimpse is a bit intimidating, and can almost be unpleasant, because after all, it was only a fantasy anyway (note: I'm aware that I've stretched that simile to breaking point). ANYWAY, blue cheese with strong dark beer totally rocks - the Elland 1872 Porter was great, as was the Moor Amoor (Peat Porter), which displayed a remarkable body and muscularity (sorry, I'm still reeling from the sunlit clothing simile) for a beer of relatively modest alcohol content.

In summary - people like beer, people like cheese, but people love beer and cheese. It's a win-win scenario.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

@ooa09 - My Top Ten Beers

A Mr Olusola Adebusuyi tweeted me the other day asking me about what my favourite beers were, first the top three, then after I protested that was impossible, the top ten. I didn't respond at the time, because I couldn't properly formulate an answer, and a few days later, I still can't get close to starting a list.

How hard can it be to have a list of your favourite beers to hand? Why am I struggling with this apparently simple task? Surely you just start with whatever beer is your current obsession (for me, Magic Rock High Wire, on cask for preference) and work backwards from there? There is obviously going to be a of a primacy effect - whatever you've drunk most recently will be fresh in your mind, so maybe Moor Amoor (formerly Peat Porter) would make the list, not only for being a great beer, but also for defying my expectations of it - I'd foolishly been looking at the bottle for a month, worrying that a sub-5%abv porter wouldn't deliver the sort of flavour hit I was looking for, but it did, admirably. But was it better than Anchor Porter, or did I like it more? I simply can't tell you. It's just different. Why do I have to choose?

Maybe if I started scoring beers, I'd be able to formulate a list eventually. But to do this would be to sacrifice the multi-dimensional map that each beer creates in my head with its aroma, flavour and aftertaste. There's no real way of recording those sensations, other than with recourse to detailed and florid prose, or an elaborate contemporary dance. I would find that the dance routines elicited by Hook Norton's Old Hooky and Sierra Nevada's Ruthless Rye IPA are pretty similar, but one would be a more energetic version of the other. Both of these beers are about balance, and each mouthful conjures a little vignette about the balance between malt and hops with each mouthful, albeit in different accents. But do I prefer one over the other? No. And do I like them more or less than the singular hop character of Mikkeller's Single Hop Simcoe IPA? I'm not entirely sure, now I think about it.

Poking around in the cellar, looking for a nightcap, I see the iconic red and white label of a bottle of Duvel. My heart leaps momentarily, only to sink when I find that it's an empty bottle that has found its way back onto the shelf. The distance between that peak of excitement and the trough of disappointment is an unusual index of how much I like that beer, both the beer itself, and that bottle in particular.

And of course, scoring beers creates an illusion of objectivity. If, for example, I was asked to generate a numerical score for Cantillon St Lamvinus, the numbers that come out at the end would be pretty large, but it  wouldn't convey the fact that I don't like any of Cantillon's beers very much. I can't score the beer down simply because I don't like it, but neither can I feel comfortable about giving a high mark to a beer that I just don't like - my ego prevents that, I guess. I like plenty of other wild/spontaneously fermented beers - Oude Beersel, Girardin, Russian River, obvs - but like these beers, I want to be able to feel the complexity in the beer and express that in a way that impossible with number.

Beer is a personal thing. It's subjective, and most importantly, it's a continuum, from volume-produced beers at one end, to impossibly rare one-off batches at the other. Everywhere on this continuum has good and bad examples of what is on offer, and your opinion of what is good and bad is different to mine. Part of the fun of what we do - we beer drinkers, we beer writers, we beer bloggers, we brewers, we homebrewers - is to dip into the different points on that continuum. For me, it's about that journey - I'm not trying to find the ten best beers, I'm just loving the endless variety that the journey offers me.