Wednesday 23 February 2011

Now Drinking: Bell's Hopslam 2011

It's easy to lose all perspective on what's great about beer. For me, it's not just about seeking out wonderfully rare beers or, as on this occasion, having them brought to you on a little velvet cushion. I like the mixture of flavours, availability and situation. This weekend I'm going to watch the rugby in a pub in Rothwell, where I live. If I'm lucky, it'll be cask Johm Smiths or Tetley's - that's cool, I'm not going there just for the beer, or for the rugby really - I'm going because I've been invited to the pub with a couple of other local dads. It will be fun, mainly because there will be beer and bonhomie involved.

At the other end of the scale from Tetley's in the pub, Bell's Hopslam is a beer so incandescently rare, so furiously sought-after that Bell's can't make enough to supply their home patch, let alone export any. So I'm indebted to Agent AK who brought this with him from Michigan, along with a few others, the most startling of which was Short's Brew Anniversary Blood Orange Wheat Wine - proper mad scientist stuff, but quite delicious with it.

Beer. It's brilliant.

Monday 21 February 2011

On Badgers, Wild Swans, Crooked Lines and Dishwater

Uinta Detour Double IPA is part of the 'Crooked Line' series of beers which, setting aside whether they're any good or not, have some of the coolest labels ever to appear on a beer bottle (pic from Want to know what the beer is like? This is a quick round-up of some of the beers I drank over this weekend, notable for no other reason than it was my birthday, and a year ago I did this.

Badger very kindly sent me a case of the reformulated Hopping Hare (4.4%abv), which like all Badger beers, is a perfectly decent example of what an English beer should be. Mercifully free of flavour additives, its soft, straw-like flavours were a surreally spring-like accompaniment to watching snow hammer down for six hours on my actual birthday.

Thornbridge sent me a three-pack of beer – Wild Swan, Italia and Bracia. The Italia was excellent – grab some of this limited beer while you can. An unfiltered pilsner stuffed with herbal and citrus notes, and a pleasant slightly savoury edge that beer maven Jeff Pickthall once memorably described as 'celery salt'. The Wild Swan suffered a little from being bottled – at 3.5%abv, not surprising, but having tasted it from cask, I think the exotic flavours (lime leaf and lychee) lose quite a lot of definition.

Happily, it was still much better than the piss-water that was being sold from a pump marked 'Springhead' at the Cross Keys in Leeds on Saturday night – the name of the beer escapes me (I was having a night off, but checking their website, it may be their beer 'Springhead', described on their website as “a clean-tasting, easy drinking amber coloured bitter with a dry, hoppy finish “). It was in perfectly good condition, but having had only fleeting association with ingredients usually used to make beer, tasted (according to one of my friends) “like dishwater that has been shown some twigs”. Further alarm bells ring when you note that the website informs you that “It was winner of the Best Bitter, Northern Beer Festival 1995” - that was 16 years ago guys! Come on! In that time, Sharp's brewery has grown from being a hobby in a garage to producing the fastest-growing real ale brand on the planet, and been purchased by Molson Coors! This surprising failure from what I've come to view as an otherwise reliable brewery drove us to drink Sierra Nevada Pale from keg for the rest of the night, the CO2 from which I think might blame for the hideous bout of indigestion that woke me in the night.

Sunday brought with it another bottle of Hopping Hare, still perfectly decent, and to my palate slightly drier than it was last year. I mean this in a nice way, but it's the sort of beer that doesn't jump up and down and demand your full attention – you can drink it while you do something else, like slow cook a frying pan full of onions and trim a steak while you listen to BBC6 Music. A bottle of Uinta Detour Double IPA (9.5%abv) rounded off the night nicely, and came pretty close to delivering the lysergic lupulin lightshow that I was hoping for. And it made a great counterpoint for a steak and onion sandwich, which is a noble and worthy end to any beer's life. To paraphrase Wilfred Owen: Dulce et decorum est pro steak sandwich mori.

Saturday 12 February 2011

Craft Beer: What Does It Mean?

I'm not much of a one for off-the-peg ideas, but Phil at "Oh Good Ale" completely nails this debate to the wall. I don't necessarily agree with everything he says, but he nicely sums up the intricacies and pitfalls of the question.

My point of view is that trying to find a category name for the beers that we enjoy isn't as important as explaining why they taste like they do. Once people understand what malt, hops and yeast are (I'll take water as read), and how they contribute to flavour, then things might start to change. It's easy to preach to the converted, but a bit harder to talk to the merely curious.

Having spent a decade doing that (talking to the beer curious) behind the counter of what was once a fairly good off licence, but is now a really great beer shop, I can tell you that explaining people what makes a beer great isn't as much fun as drinking it. But as always, education makes a difference, education is the key.

POSTSCRIPT: I'd also point out that education cuts both ways. I've had plenty of people ask what makes American beers taste the way they do, and on finding out that it is largely American hops, they've asked which beers don't contain American hops. And that's just fine too.


Friday 4 February 2011

The Session #48: Cask, Keg, Can, Bottle: Does dispense matter?

Pork is such a sweet meat. They have a saying in France; "Tout est bon dans le cochon" - everything on a pig is good.

The quality of the meat that comes out at the end is solely down to how the pig is treated. The ultimate expression of cured pork - jamon iberico - comes from the pata negra ("black foot") pigs that run free around the hills of Jabugo in Spain, the centre of jamon production. You can only make the best ham with legs from the pata negra pigs, who are allowed to gorge themselves on acorns that fall naturally from the trees where they spend their lives. These are huge, bristly wild pigs. I've seen them up close, and they are terrifying beasts.

There's something of an irony in this ham's final destination. Despite being acknowledged (well, by omnivores at least) as one of the peaks of gastronomy, most of this ham will end up being hung from the ceiling in a warm, sometimes smoky, bar, and then being taken down, sliced wafer thin, and served on an ordinary white china saucer, to someone who eats it standing up at a bar, with a glass of ordinary beer - Cruzcampo or Estrella Damm, or maybe a glass of fino sherry. It's the ultimate in democratic gastronomy - a gourmet snack for just a few euros. It's impossible not to be impressed by the quality of the meat, and what the curing process has done to it.

You can raise pigs cheaply too. You can rear them in a pen, feed them industrial pelletised garbage, and raise them to be fat and flabby lumps of protein. The meat that comes out at the end of this process is just that - fat, flabby protein, mainly flavourless. As meat, it's filling, but not satisfying, and it doesn't matter how you cook it - barbecue, sous-vide, whatever - it never tastes great. Sure, you can slather it with condiments and seasoning, and it will taste OK, but you're actually enjoying the condiments rather than the meat.

The point is, you can't polish a turd. You can roll it in glitter, but it will still just be a turd underneath. Equally, the way you dispense a beer can make a difference to how it is perceived, but it doesn't change the beer itself. Sure, the gentle zizz of carbonic bite that a kegged beer acquires from dissolved carbon dioxide can make it more lively, more refreshing, and if that appeals to the drinker, then fine. But for the majority of the time, the mode of dispense - cask, bottle, keg, can, sachet, aerosol, pipette - is the medium, not the message.

There are a few caveats. Sometimes the message dictates the medium. Big American IPAs needs to be served cold and carbonated - almost every beer of this style that I've tried on cask has been a cold glass of marmalade soup. And a tiny number of brewers in the UK use their kegged craft beers as a political tool, a way of attempting to overthrow what they perceive as the old order. They are trying to make the medium into the message. That's their prerogative, but for me, it distracts from the message rather than adding to it.

Cask beer is the UK's gift to the beer world, and when done well, it produces something unmatched in terms quality and sensual pleasure - again, it is the liquid equivalent of that little white plate of jamon, a gastronomic delight that anyone can buy for a few quid. But if you focus on the medium rather than the message, then you miss the point. The point is that the focus on cask as a mode of dispense in the UK (the medium) has distracted people from the quality of the beer (the message).

I contend that the proliferation of bland or poorly-made cask beers in the UK today is exactly what CAMRA saw in the 1970s, albeit then the beers were in keg form. People everywhere - not just CAMRA and their members - have become blinded by the medium. If a beer tastes good from a keg, it will probably taste good from a cask or a bottle. If you're drinking a poor beer from a cask (cellaring aside), it will be just as bad from a keg, can or bottle.

Referring to the caveats outlined above, sometimes the message and the medium are, of necessity, tied closely together. But here, moving into the second decade of the 21st century, when there has never been a better time to be interested in quality beer, surely we're not going to lose sight of the message, are we?