Tuesday 30 November 2010

COMPETITION TIME: The Winner Revealed.

Thanks to everyone who entered the competition. I can honestly say that I enjoyed reading each and every entry, from the poetic, to the prosaic, to the illustrative. Honourable mentions must go Neil Walker for his oblique (and, now I go to write it, unlikely-sounding) fusion of Bob Dylan and John Betjeman, and to Chris Cutting for the cartoon (you have to admire anyone who accompanies such a submission with the explanation “I know it doesn't comply to any of the requirements - please bear in mind I've recently taken on a job with a much longer train journey of late and have time on my hands.”)

However, like Highlander, there can be only one, and that one is Jeff Alworth. Jeff's entry was posted after the deadline, and so his win is sure to upset a few people, not least Matt Lovatt who submitted his entry 4 minutes before the competition deadline. To add further insult to injury, Jeff didn't even email me to tell me about his contribution, it just popped up in a Google alert (come on, we all have Google alerts on our names don't we?). You can read it here.

What I liked about Jeff's entry was the way that it made the story of beer seem like a long ribbon, simultaneously spooling into the past but also winding in from the future. It made me feel that each time we prise the cap off a bottle of beer, we make an imprint on history. And then because I got up to tend to our squalling child in the middle of the night and couldn't get back to sleep, my mind ran riot with that idea: the ribbon of time capped into each bottle, a story released with each hiss of carbon dioxide.

Each beer we drink may be a quasi-political act, determining which breweries will prosper, and who will perish. What styles will stand the test of time, and what sort of a Pandora's bottle are we opening when we release a double IPA onto the unsuspecting drinking public of the UK? Life may be too short to drink bad beer, but what kind of eugenics are we practising if we define our drinking habits too narrowly?

Like I said, my mind ran riot. So, it was nice to read every entry, and they all made me think, but Jeff's entry really blew my mind. Thanks everyone for entering, thanks to Greene King for the fascinating brewery visit and the bottle in the first place, and here's to more beer writing – may it continue to grow in stature, range and quality.

Monday 29 November 2010

Beer Vs. Fashion In the Land of the Tall Dwarves*

You'd never guess it to look at me, but I quite like fashion. I used to work for a small producer of very high-end printed textiles – in fact, that was my first job when I quit school at 16 years old. I even occasionally look at a couple of fashion blogs – Swagger 360 is my favourite.

The fashion business is a funny one. High fashion (couture) is the bit that gets everyone excited. The press lap up London Fashion Week, New York Fashion week, Dolce E Gabbana. It gets column inches, it gets the press and fashionistas worked up into a lather, but it is about as far remover from what people wear on the street as it is possible to get.

But the top end is where the icons work. There is a bit of trickle-down effect, where what happens on the catwalk influences high-street fashion. It would be unkind to call this sort of influence 'knock off' – at least it shows that someone is paying attention, and that there should be a bit of attention paid to what we wear.

However, the majority of what happens on the catwalk has little or no influence on what people actually wear. Despite the column inches given to sheepskin, metallics and wide-cuffed ankle boots, the delirium induced by a zip-up-the-back dress, and the brouhaha about marble print.

Does this ring any bells for beer-lovers?

Inspired by Phil at 'Oh Good Ale'

*the 'tall dwarf' comment came up at the Guild dinner last week. It's a faintly disparaging way of saying 'in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king'.


Craft Beer Defined

Craft beer is what a craft brewer makes.

It's as prosaic a description as 'real ale', isn't it?

Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?

Friday 26 November 2010

'500 Beers' Does Its Business

I'm delighted to report that last night I hoisted the category winner's tankard in the National Journalism category at the awards dinner for the British Guild of Beer Writers. It now has a slick of dried up Adnam's Tally Ho in the bottom, as a few of us stayed up drinking beer until the hotel threw us out.

Congratulations are due to the other category winners, particularly Simon Jenkins who, after winning the regional journalism category, was also named beer writer of the year.

I'll try to write a fuller report soon, but frankly, I need a big greasy breakfast like you wouldn't believe.

Tuesday 23 November 2010

Master of Malt - Drinks by the Dram

It's not something that I blog about, but I'm quite keen on whisky. I'm not a collector, I just like to buy good whisky and drink it. There was a time when it would be usual for me to have few bottles on the go - maybe an Islay, a Highland and a blend. Sadly, it's a habit I seem to have got out of - I'm not sure why, but probably a combination of time and money (the old excuse).

So needless to say I was delighted when the splendid folks at Master of Malt got in touch to tell me about their Drinks By The Dram service. In fact, they went one further - they offered to send a trio of drams for my perusal, and very nice they are. Here are some tasting notes:

Bowmore 26yr Old Single Cask (53.4%abv): bright, tangy attack with - implausibly - notes of raspberry and lavender. Initial attack on the palate is more perfumed fruit, evolving mid-palate into smoke and sea spray. More raspberries in the finish, layered with smoke and lavender. Complex, and more confrontational than I make it sound.

Rosebank 1990 19yr Old (Douglas Laing) (50%abv): soft smokiness, marzipan, soft oak and tropical fruit. Faint perfumed/floral notes. Very appealing, right in my comfort zone. Soft, creamy, marzipanny core, with more soft oak, fruit and spiciness (pepper) emerging in the finish.

Elmer T Lee Single Barrel (45%abv): spirity, a bit hot, with vanilla oak and corn on the cob. One dimensional, and faintly turps-like, but in an enjoyably raucous way.

The Bowmore is stunningly good, incredibly classy and polished, with just enough Islay wildness to remind you of its origins, but benefiting from the slow rub of time, with layers of flavour slowly unfurling on the palate. Out of curiosity, I looked it up on MoM website, partly to check the price, and partly to look at the tasting notes - you can see both here. It's a £100 bottle of whisky. So the nice thing about buying by the dram is that you can see what a £100 bottle of whisky tastes like for only £6.45 for a 3cl sample. And as you can see, the samples come in cool little wax-dipped bottles.

Drinks By The Dram is a great idea, and for anyone with even a passing interest in whisky, a great way to expand your palate, and drink some fine whiskies into the bargain. The little 3-pack of whiskies I received would make a great gift for any whisky-lover, and in case you don't quite get what I'm saying, I'm saying that you should buy me some whisky now.

This is the solution to all your tricky dad/uncle/grandfather present-buying problems. Should you feel that picking out a selection of drams is too much of a faff, there is also a whisky gifts page (hint: the Japanese Yamazaki 18yr is an amazing whisky, at a great price) Now, if only there was some large pseudo-religious, gift-based festival on the horizon....

Wednesday 17 November 2010

Competition Entries

As promised, for people who don't have a blog to post their competition entries on, I'm going to add emailed entries here. [EDIT: Actually, I'm going to try to provide links to all the entries]

Pete Brissenden (on Twitter @petebrissenden)


Time is a cruel mistress, warping memories, chewing it up and spitting it out, regurgitated as the good old days. But I think the purest memories are found in smell and taste. Beers provoke the best of memories, as most of my best memories involve having a beer in my hand.

There is that perfectly cool spritzy lager straight from the bottle with a lump of crusty bread, oozy, smelly cheese and fresh, herbaceous, yielding tomatoes drowning in oil, basil and black pepper in the shimmering sun on holiday in France. Crickets chirruping, the smell of hot, resiny pine trees, the prickle of the carbonation waking your palette up and slaking your thirst

There is that heavy, chewy, smoked porter for after a frosty winter walk, hands tingling, face glowing and feet thawing inside your boots. Sat by the fire, cozied up to someone you love on a Sunday afternoon.

There is that sour beer, served in a tulip shaped glass by a French speaking Belgian whose family has been making beer like this one for hundreds of years. You stand with a group of mates in awe of the building, the heritage, the guys serving you the beer. You sniff and swirl and peer at the beers; tart, dusty, a hint of lemony citrus and a slight hint of an acetic twang.

There is that beer that you love and is always in the fridge, it doesn't have to be an expensive craft beer or a high gravity Imperial Stout. Just something consistent, of good quality, that is easily available. Always there waiting for you at home expectant, like a faithful dog.

There is that beer after a long train journey to a new city to meet a bunch of strangers mainly from the internet. The beer is golden and shiny, it smacks of lychees, mangoes and peaches. Shaking hands, names to faces, smiles and banter, the making of new friends bonding over a common love.

All of these memories are mine, I hope memory hasn't twisted too severe. I'm sure the people reading this know of the occasions and the beer I'm speaking about. To them, I raise my glass. All of the shared times, the good beers and the bad ones, to the hangovers and all the greasy breakfasts shared.


Meer For Beer - Time For Another?

Neil Walker - Time enough for one more beer

There’s four of us and three to come,
And five to meet before we’re done,
There’s one round here that’s worth a look,
And twenty more in Walker’s book,
There’s twelve inside, it’s non too crowded,
But six or sevens senses shrouded,
There’s half that left, we’re waiting Dan,
Not sure ‘bout this one from a can,
There’s five to go and three now done,
It’s for the best dad didn’t come,
There’s more to try we’re not done yet,
And few that’s gone we still regret,
There’s time to sample all but few,
And time for something strong and new,
There’s sculpted glass and country chic,
And grimy spots with punters meek,
There’s five on tap and two to come,
That queues too long for me my son,
There’s twenty types from sixteen years,
And he that looks, and waits, and leers,
There’s far few less than when we started,
It’s seems a few have since departed,
There’s those that dazzle, thrill, excite,
And those that get you through the night,
There’s hops, and malt, and is that soot?
And the smell of horse as some have put,
There’s time enough to meet friends here,
And time enough for one more beer.


Cooking Lager - "Competition Entry"

Stuart Ross (on Twitter @crownbrewerstu)


Flagon of Ale - On Time


Chris Routledge - Beer for a Time


Ghost Drinker - Why, why, why!


Sean Inman - Flight of the Passing Fancy


Tandleman - Then


Beer Justice - Royal Wedding Beers


Beer Sweden - Time Gentlemen Please


Conor Gallagher-Deeks

History in a bottle? Immediately I get a feeling, a need to win the competition to be the one that gets the chance to claim the experience of drinking such a unique bottle of Greene King Coronation ale 1936. But when would be the right time to drink it? Making beer is art and therefore beer tasting is subjective to the person and to the circumstance he/she finds his/herself in. So how will I know when is the right time to taste this beer? Will I be able to do it justice, give it the necessary attention and gratitude for drinking history in a bottle.

On the other hand, it is and remains an old bottle of beer. Nothing more, nothing less. Obviously the weird and wonderful effects of time have been working on the beers chemical composition making it one of a kind. No one can repeat such a beer. Yet spending all this time on evaluating when is the perfect time to drink a beer counter productive? Hasn't beer become what it is; the drink of the people, because it gives you time? Isn't it not true of every pint? whether young or old, aged in a cask or travelled from a country a far. Every beer is a homage to history, every beer is unrepeatable, every beer has a story to tell whether you are interested or not, it gives you time to listen.


Phil at Oh Good Ale - 'Time Travel In Four Easy Lessons'


Ed's Beer Site - Time Is Relative


Matt Lovatt (submitted 4 minutes before the competiton deadline)

“What you doing?”
“Trying to write a competition entry. I'm attempting to win a 76 year old bottle of beer.”
“76? Is it good?”
“....I don't really know. Everything would seem to suggest that its past its best.”
“Eh? But its valuable right?”
“Couldn't hazard a guess really. I mean, it hasn't got a label. I doubt its collectable.”
“Well, its nice to have a hobby.”

My co-workers comments were momentarily irksome, but, on reflection perfectly reasonable. More than once I have been moved to ask of myself what interests me about this bottle. Do I think that I will perceive in its gently decrepit state the still living remains of great brewing? The brewers that I have come across would be appalled to face a similar scrutiny. Their concern is to bring beer to readiness, then ship it,hoping that diligent publicans will do it justice. Time and oxygen are their enemy.
Ageing beer is a funny business. I have been enticed into purchasing beers that, when specially aged, actually seemed to become a sliver of their former selves. At the Kulminator in Antwerp I experienced an assortment of my favourite beers rendered new again by careful treatment and time. This bottle of would-be coronation ale was never intended to make the passage of years. However carefully crafted, there have been beers brought up for the floor of the Baltic sea that have stood the test of time better (incidentally, I hear tell that BrewDog are intending to replicate this effect by scuppering their trawler with 20 cases of their hand numbered 'Screw the Lusitania' aboard.)
Perhaps part of the appeal comes from from the timeliness of its presentation. Having passed beyond its prime and out into the quiet waters of obsolescence and decay, here it is rehabilitated by the self-conscious whim of beer geeks. The ultimate tick. Perhaps. Or maybe its something else. The tug of history with a curiosity like this is inexorable. There is a transgressive pleasure in the idea of drinking a beer bottled before my pre-teen father was coerced into signing the pledge ( he reneged not long after). And there perhaps is the answer: there is only one answer to a paradoxical beer such as this one. Drink it.


Beervana - Great Moments in Beer (submitted after deadline, but you should still read it.


Chris Cutting - Beer & Thyme (click cartoon for full size original)

Tuesday 16 November 2010

COMPETITION TIME! Win a Bottle of Greene King 1937 Coronation Ale

Earlier this year, I visited Greene King and wrote a couple of posts about it (here and here). In the second of those, I opened and tasted a bottle of Greene King Coronation ale, brewed in 1936 to celebrate the 1937 Coronation of Edward VIII, which of course never happened, as he decided he'd rather live in sin with Mrs Simpson than be monarch of these fair isles.

Greene King have very kindly given me another bottle of this beer, and in a flash of the sort of generosity and kindness for which I am known, I thought it might make an interesting competition prize.

To enter the competition, all you have to do is write something about beer and time, up to a maximum of 500 words. It can be about the oldest beer you've drunk, or the freshest. It can be a technical essay on the ravages of oxygen on cask beer, a treatise on the historical evolution of the term IPA, or it could be about a long-held yearning and search for a perticular beer. Anything, basically, as long as there is some relation to time in it. Although if you decide to write anything that uses the phrase "time at the bar, please" as the link to time, you won't win. Look, it's my competition, and those are my rules.

If you have a blog, put it on your blog and send me a link to it. If you don't have a blog, email me your entry and I'll put it on here. If you don't have email, post me a paper copy. If you can't write, then you can make a video or a recording of yourself and send it to me. Poetry and song are also worth a shot, but please note that interpretive dance will also stand a poor chance of winning.

The closing date for entries is Friday 26th November, so you've got a bit of time to think about it.

I'll package and post this bottle anywhere in the world, at my own cost. It will go surface mail, as I'm not sure what air mail will do to the very old cork. The bottle is the very one pictured at the top of the page, covered with a lovely patina of cellar dust. If you look at the second of my two Greene King posts, you'll see the racks of crates from which it was taken. It would make a lovely paperweight, and if you put a blob of wax over the cork, it would also last forever.

TERMS AND CONDITIONS: This bottle of beer is a historical curiosity and not a beverage. Neither I nor Greene King can be held liable for any consequences arising from the postal transit, possession or consumption of the beer. You must be of legal drinking age in your country to enter this competition. Entering this competition implies an acceptance of these terms.

Tuesday 9 November 2010

Monsieur Rock

Yeah, I'm losing my edge.

There was a time when I'd have put on a clean shirt, sorted the lighting out, and cooked something to go with the beer (in this case, some robust seafood might to it - monkfish with lemon and caper butter, for example). As much as I respect Stuart Howe's endeavours, the added involvement of Jean-Marie Rock (brewer of Orval) should have at least made me wear a shirt with a collar, rather than a BrewDog T-shirt. But this was a hastily taken video, and with good reason.

You see, Leeanne only drinks a couple of nights a week. She doesn't like to drink on a work night, so getting this beer on a Wednesday happily coincided with an evening before a day off. The beer was delivered to the shop, and cheeky snifters were shared with Will and Tom - they both liked it, to varying degrees. I thought it was extraordinary - a 5%abv beer that drank like a session beer, and with a depth of sweetly herbal complexity that made it ruinously drinkable.

And I use the word ruinous with good reason - I couldn't stop drinking this damn beer. We killed the minikeg it came in - happily, I think it was a partly-filled minikeg, so maybe we only had a few pints each.

The incredible thing is, this beer was so compellingly drinkable without being overstated. Its soft, lemony character (hello Saaz) and light body meant that its aroma whetted the appetite, its flavour skipped lightly across the palate, and then after briefly lingering, disappeared in a faint puff of lemon, honey, ginger and fennel. And it did so in a manner that made you think 'hang on, did that really happen?'. And so you have another drink, and another. And then your glass is empty. And then the minikeg is empty.

I don't think that Monsieur Rock will be released for a couple of months yet, so that gives you plenty of time to pester the brewery and find out where it will be distributed. You really want to try this - it's classic British ale, filtered through the minds of a couple of great brewers, and making a virtue of such old-fashioned values as elegance and understatedness.

Just show some respect, and wear a shirt and cufflinks when you drink it.

Monday 8 November 2010

Kelly Ryan, Begone!

Hairy-handed and Hobbit-like, Antipodean refugee Kelly Ryan has struggled to fit into the UK brewing scene. After years of ham-fisted attempts at brewing something drinkable, he finally hit paydirt by somehow falling into a recently-vacated job. He was lucky to somehow gain the confidence of brewer Stefano Cossi - perhaps it was his fancy double degree in Microbiology and Food Science and Technology from the University of Otago. Clearly Thornbridge Brewery are not in the habit of checking references - there is in fact no such place as Otago.

After two long years of woeful incompetence, Thornbridge were forced to invest heavily in automated technology in an attempt to prevent Kelly from ruining any more beer. To this day, it is a mystery how Kelly's mere presence in a brewery can have such a detrimental effect on the beer that is being brewed, but it does. A programme of international mentorship, under the guise of a series of collaborative brews, all failed to stop the rot. Sadly, all the costly investment in brewing technology, not to mention endless hand-waxing and lessons in walking upright, have come to nought. In a last-ditch attempt to save what reputation he has, Kelly is returning to New Zealand.

This momentous event has seen a great outpouring of emotion in the blogosphere. No more shall we have to suffer exotically-monikered beers stuffed awkardly with crude hop character. No more absurd diatribes on forcing carbon dioxide into beer. And finally, no more tedious innovation and pursuit of some mythical, elysian notion of brewing. Frankly, it's been exhausting, and I think I speak for every beer-lover in the UK when I say that we're glad it's over.

Kelly Ryan, begone. You are dead to us already.

(For a more detailed exploration of the sort of contempt in which I hold Kelly's abilities, see Halcyon, Larkspur, and Jaipur & Bottle Conditioning)

Thursday 4 November 2010

Properly Proustian - A Brooklyn Flashback

The usefulness of the experiential descriptor "Proustian" rests on the reader knowing that it refers to Marcel Proust's retelling of an experience of smelling and eating tea-soaked madeleine cakes, and the memories that this evoked. It tends to be viewed as a bit pretentious, largely, I think, because it sounds (and indeed is) French, something that the entire non-French world dislikes intensely.

I had an unexpectedly Proustian moment the other evening with a bottle of Brooklyn East India Pale Ale. I was absent-mindedly putting the beer to my lips, and vaguely thinking about having visited the brewery in 2007. Garrett himself showed me round, and coincidentally, EIPA was in one of the kettles that day. As I breathed in, pre-sip, the big burst of floral and toffee aroma snapped me instantly back a couple of decades, to my first ever trip to New York. It was probably 1989, a time when New York was still the sleazy and dangerous city of filmic lore. I was visiting an American guy I had met while he was travelling in the UK. The precise scene evoked by this inhalation of aroma was a party at his apartment on Hoyt Street in Brooklyn. I'd been drinking black and tan for the duration of my visit, and like most Brits abroad, complained loudly about how crappy the beer was. In an attempt to shut me up someone handed me a bottle of the brand new Brooklyn Lager. I wearily, sneerily took the bottle, had a gulp, and was dumbfounded.

It was like the first time I ever tasted whisky. Laphroaig was my malt of choice back then, and what I liked about it was that the flavours were so different, so unfamiliar (and remember, I was only 19) that rather than being dispensed from a bottle, they may as well have been beamed directly onto my cerebral cortex from an alien craft orbiting the planet. That bottle of Brooklyn Lager was the most unexpectedly pungently floral beer I'd ever tried. The way the hops and the slightly toffeeish malt lingered was a revelation. I still moaned about the beer for the rest of my stay - hey, I was an English teenager back then - but I also had a new secret infatuation.

It clearly made a great impression. The beer that evoked those memories wasn't even the same beer, but maybe there was something about the house style, and the concentation of aromas as I breathed in that set off that little memory circuit in my brain. The whole reverie probably lasted for less than a second, before my conscious brain barged in shouting "WHOAH, DUDE! YOU'RE HAVING A PROPERLY PROUSTIAN MOMENT!". Stupid brain.

I've always been sceptical of this sort of thing, largely taking beer-related Proustian experiences with a pinch of salt - sure, I remember drinking this beer on holiday, but that's it. But this was so vivid that, like the bottle of Brooklyn Lager over two decades ago, it almost took my breath away. This wasn't reminiscing over a beer, it was more like a sensory hiccup, a deja vu projected 20 years in the wrong direction. Has anyone else ever had this, or am I special? [NOTE: these are not mutually exclusive]