Tuesday 26 April 2011

Into The Drink

Imagine you're standing on a beach, at the point where the sea meets the sand. Look down at your feet. Can you see the foamy seawater bubbling over your feet, tickly, exuberant and refreshing? Well, imagine that couple of feet of water washing around your toes represents beer today. Now look out to sea, all the way to the misty horizon, and side to side as far as the eye can see. That vast ocean represents the sum total of all human experience of beer. Care to come for a dip?

Let's wade out a little bit, leaving behind the present day expression of the brewers art, all the delicate, pin-bright flavours and aromas of exotic new world hops. Let's wade out knee-deep, where the water is churning up the sand into gritty murk, where things don't look so bright and cheerful. That represents what is perceived by many to have been a low point in beer, the keg revolution of the 1970s. In fact, let's say it's 1971, the year that the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) was founded. This year, their 40th anniversary, sees a general consensus that they have met their aim, and have saved real ale. Real ale is Britain's gastronomic gift to the world. Live beer, with the yeast still gently working, was nearly driven to extinction by the onward march of brewing technology. It's true that beer is more stable if you filter, pasteurise and artificially carbonate it, but it also tastes as though it's had all the life knocked out of it. Which of course, it has.

Come on, let's really swim now. Stride out of the murk, yelp as the cool water reaches your nethers, and plunge in. As you bob back to the surface, gasping, you can feel yourself supported by the ocean, transparent but indisputably there. That sensation of support represents everyone involved in the beer industry – brewers, publicans, retailers and consumers, all coming together and finding themselves bound by a common interest, a drink that sometimes becomes overlooked with the contempt of familiarity, and yet is still the first port of call for a social event.

President Obama has now put beer centre stage twice in his presidency, once exchanging beers with David Cameron, and once at the 'beer summit', where he famously sat down with his Vice President, along with Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr and Police Sargent James Crowley. There had been a suggestion of racism in the actions that Sargent Crowley had taken against Prof. Gates, and they were talked about and settled over a glass of beer.

It takes something as simultaneously momentous and simple as an American president doing business over a glass of beer to remind us of what we already know. Beer isn't just a beverage, it's a symbol of equality, of companionship. If you want a real flight of fancy, look at the derivation of the word companion. From the Latin companionem, literally meaning someone you break bread with. We all understand the significance of breaking bread with someone, but that meaning seems to have become lost when applied to beer, which is a shame when you consider how many ingredients these two foodstuffs share. But are you here to take flights of fancy, or are you swimming?

The companionship offered by beer doesn't just extend to those who drink it. The brotherhood of brewers is a happy, tight-knit family. There is a maxim among brewers that their job is just to keep yeast happy, and while there is some truth in that, it also plays to the typical modesty of an artisan. The world of beer offers a whole spectrum of colours, tastes and aromas, all born of more or less the same basic process. The problems that face one brewer are faced by them all. Perhaps it's this that makes them such a generous bunch of craftsmen. When there was a disastrous hop shortage a few years ago, many larger brewers took the unusual step of releasing some hops from their reserves to allow smaller brewers to carry on production. In material terms, the value of this didn't amount to much, but symbolically, it spoke gallons about how brewers view their place in the world. They are servants to the yeast, and servants to the public, determined to deliver the daily bread, no matter what.

Strike out. Now you're really swimming, the water deep and dark beneath you, effectively bottomless. This is the heyday of British beer production, the happy period after the industrial revolution, the Victorian era where technology was proper technology, powered by fire and steam, and anything was possible. Swim away from the shore, float out into an ocean of beer. India pale ale, London porter, produced in volumes that only a few decades previously seemed impossible. There must have been a belief among the beer industry that this was their apogee, that they were producing the best beer ever, in the biggest volumes possible. London porter brewers constructed ever-larger vats to age their beer in, not big barrels, but huge, vertical vats made of wood and encircled with iron hoops, as big as a house. If that sounds fanciful, bear in mind that to celebrate the commissioning of a new vat at the Meux (sadly, it rhymes with 'pukes') brewery, the brewers threw a dinner where they seated more than 200 people inside the vat. And if that sounds too good to be true, it turns out it was. The same brewery was responsible for the great porter flood of London in 1814, where the hoops encircling one of the vats broke, sending beer cascading into nearby streets and tenements, and killing 8 people. Some high point in beer that turned out to be.

Sit up. Look around. You're almost out of sight of land. Everywhere is water. This symbolises a time when the production of beer wasn't centralised, but was in the hands of the home-makers, the alewives and brewsters (female brewers). Beer wasn't something that you bought in a pub, because pubs didn't exist. The whole concept of a place where you went to drink beer evolved over time, and as ever, the clue is in the name: public house. Beer was something that was once only made at home, and then some bright spark realised that people would pay to drink beer in their house, and the pub was born.

Lay back. Float. Float back to a time when beer wasn't a carefully crafted product, but a hit-and-miss process of fermenting gruel. The simple calories in grain are better preserved as beer than as a dried cereal that risked spoiling. That the nourishment made you feel good too was a bonus, and all the more reason to build a ritual around it.

That's enough, you've drifted too far. Now there is only a memory of where land was, so strike back for it, hard. Head down and push, leaving behind the murk and slime of primitive, faintly boozy grain porridge, the memories of sweet beers brought to life with a magic, yeast-infested stick, swim back through the steam and smoke of Victorian London, through the war years, through the paradoxically fizzy and lifeless years of keg beer's heyday. Strike back for that tiny strip of white foam, breaking on a beach of golden sand, suggesting a soft, white head atop a shimmering, golden beer. Feel hopefully with your feet, and then stand up and scurry back to a sun-baked towel. Rub down, and feel the healthy glow that exercise and cold water brings to your body.

I don't know about you, but exercise makes me thirsty.


That was my entry for the recent Wells & Youngs writing competition, as covered by Pete Brown here (and seemingly nowhere else, rather disappointingly). I'm sure lots of other bloggers entered - how about now that I've shown you mine, you show me yours? Links below, please.


Thursday 21 April 2011

To Cardiff!

Getting ready to go and see Old Cheesy Pockets, I make sure that I have a few gifts that he will appreciate tucked away in the boot of the car. Some pale golden ales will do the job, so Buxton Moor Top, Thornbridge Wild Swan, Ilkley Mary Jane and some Odell IPA (he professes not to like American craft beer).

Of the four beers in the boot, it's not the never-ordinary, ever-dazzling Thornbridge beer that I'm excited about showing him, nor the soon-to-be-crowned-classic Ilkley Mary Jane, but the Buxton Moor Top. I can't think of a beer that is more of the moment than this one. Pale, low %abv, but absolutely stuffed full of hop character, it's at once both no-nonsense and spectacular. I first tried a bottle a little over a year ago, and was then made sure that we had the beer in stock at the Headingley shop as soon as we could. It's a beauty.

If you haven't tried it, you should. If you can't find it, weep no more - we are selling it mail order. In a move that's sure to strip this blog of every vestige of independence, integrity and credibility, I'm delighted to say, BUY IT HERE, NOW!

Sunday 17 April 2011

"Do you believe force carbonation gives a different kind of fizziness as opposed to bottle conditioning?"

In the comments on my previous blog post, Dom of Thornbridge brewery asked: "Do you believe force carbonation gives a different kind of fizziness as opposed to bottle conditioning?". This is the sort of question that is so innocently placed that it must be a trap, but nevertheless, I'm going to have a stab at answering it.

I'll preface this by saying that I'm going to talk in broad-brush terms, employing generalities to which there may be exceptions. However, what I say is what I think, and it's born of experience and education, although perhaps someone more expert than may might chime in with an opinion. It's also appallingly geeky, for which I don't apologise, but I do warn you that unless you find the title of the post interesting, the next 400 words will be a tad dry.

My gut feeling is that force-carbonating and bottle-conditioning do produce different types of fizziness. There may be some overlap between them – bottle-conditioned beer can be overcarbonated, and a filtered beer that is undercarbonated is particularly lifeless, and vice-versa - but in the main, they are different.

My drinking experience tells me that bottle-conditioned beers generally have a finer, softer carbonation than force carbonated beers. That's not to say that it's always preferable – I find the supersaturation of CO2 in many Belgian beers a bit hard to deal with, but again, this is a fine, small-bubble type of carbonation, whereas I find force carbonated beers tend to have larger, rougher bubbles. This is my experience, but there's also a bit of science behind it.

When sparkling wine is made, it can gain carbonation either from being fermented in a large closed container (tank, cuve close, or Charmat method), or it may be refermented in bottle (the so-called methode Champenoise). While both of these processes make fizzy wine, the methode Champenoise is generally accepted to produce smaller, more persistent bubble than the tank method. That's the science – I don't know exactly why, but I'd guess it's something to do with ratios of gas to liquid, and overall pressures producing a certain style of saturation, but that's only a guess.

One other thing I've learnt from homebrewing: the way a beer carbonates has a definite gradient to it. When you bottle a beer with a bit of sugar and live yeast, the yeast eats the sugar and produces CO2 in the the tightly capped bottle. What I've found is that the yeast produces CO2 faster than the beer can absorb it. So after two days, the beer is a riot of barely-dissolved CO2. In fact, I'd guess that the CO2 to conditioned the beer is produced within three days of capping the bottle – the rest of the conditioning process is about the CO2 dissolving into the beer.

Of course, what is actually happening in the bottle is just one thing. How the beer arrives in the glass is another. You can always pour a non-BC beer a bit more roughly, knocking the gas out of it. This does two things (for me) – it makes it less gassy (duh), and it makes it more tasty. It's more tasty because when the beer hits the tongue, if you've knocked a lot of the gas out of it, it doesn't erupt in a riot of bubbles, more beer stays on your tongue, and the flavour is more apparent.

So yes, I do think that force carbonation gives a different sort of fizziness than bottle-conditioning, and that's why.

Geek-out over.


Thursday 14 April 2011

NOW DRINKING: Salopian Darwin's Origin

(or: A Tale of Two Beards)*

Unlike Cooking Lager, I didn't get into blogging just to get loads of free beer, although equally, I don't try to send it back when it arrives. I actually get a lot less freebies than you might imagine, and am very poor at sending feedback to breweries when they do. So I'm going to try to write up free beers as and when I drink them, which tends to be anything from a few days to a few months after I get them.

Salopian Darwin's Origin is a cracking drop of beer. It's not smothered in Nelson Sauvin or Citra, it's not brewed with a fancy yeast, it's not 'if your just having one, have THIS ONE" strong (it's 4.3%abv). But it is a classic British ale brewed with one eye looking forwards, and one eye looking back, a bit like Marty Feldman if he were a brewing historian. It's a classic pale copper colour, and the aroma is spicy and citrussy. I'll throw caution to the wind and make a stab at the hops being trad and new world - maybe a mix of EKG and Challenger. The malt bill is, I'd guess, mainly pale malt with a few percent toffeeish medium crystal, a sprinkling of biscuity amber perhaps. At least, that's the sort of formula I'd use if I were trying to make a beer like this. It's classic, yet modern, drawing on a traditional style, and yet quite contemporary in feel. Best of all, it's got Charles Darwin sporting massive white beard on the label. I'm drinking it out of my Beer Hunter Session Glass, which has a bearded, ghostly Michael Jackson printed on it.

I'm sporting a beard too, not a big, bushy one, but a neatly trimmed evil-genius style beard. But keeping it modern, I'm wearing a shirt that has a William Morris-style print on it. I'm sort of Pete Brown meets Lenin meets Mr Spock, minus the pointy ears (Spock's pointy ears, not Pete Brown's). But I digress.

It's slightly coarsely fizzy (the beer, not my beard) as it's force-carbonated and not bottle-conditioned, but you know what - just pour it a bit more carelessly and knock some of the gas out. I wouldn't go so far as to say 'hop-forward and in the modern style', but it's definitely 'classic ale with a weather eye on the trends'.


*or three, if you include mine


Monday 11 April 2011

Beer Festivals - What Are They Actually For?

I had a cracking night out on Friday. Just 200 yards from my front door was the second Rothwell beer festival. I met up with a mate and we hit the bar, along with about 500 other people - not a bad feat for a hall with a capacity of about half that. The thing that made this festival so special was that we were allowed back out of the hall, into the churchyard in front of the church you see pictured. It was a warm evening, and the combination of great beers, an enthusiastic and genuinely mixed crowd, and a 'first day of summer' feeling made it quite an event. Indeed, so caught up in the revelry was everyone that they pretty much did for all of the beer on the first night - by the time I went back at 7pm on the second evening, there were only 5 beers left on.

I've gone on record as being a bit of a miserablist about beer festivals - they're generally not conducive to sitting around and chatting, they're usually held in slightly naff municipal settings, and they tend to live up to all the clichés about real ale that you expect to find. I won't rehash those here, but I will say that I was delighted by the really broad mix of people at the Rothwell beer fest - maybe it's because it's a more suburban effort, but it really did draw everything from hip young things to grizzled old soaks. I'd like to think of myself as somewhere between the two, but judging from the amount of 'hey beardy' stick I got, I fear I'm nearer the far end of the spectrum.

But as well as drinking some great beers (highlights included Five Towns Peculiar Blue, and Elland Eden), it got me thinking - what are beer festivals actually for? Are they just a big, hit-and-miss sort of a party, where you turn up and make your own fun? Are they a bit like a pub that you only visit once? Are they more about the beer than the festival, or is it all about "the craic"? I like to use the odd solitary session at beerfests purely to try as many different thirds as I can, as I find that gives a really clear idea of who's failing, who's hitting the mark, and who's trying too hard. Well, until about the 12th third, when it all becomes a bit academic, and I settle on a final pint of something a bit pokey that I'll come to regret on the bus journey home.

So then: Beer Festivals - How Do You Like Yours?


Monday 4 April 2011

Rooster's Brewery Sold - Rooster's Brewery Bought!

Yorkshire seems to be quite the hotbed of beer news at present. Alongside my news of late, there are new breweries popping up, improving and expanding all over the shop - Ilkley, Elland, Kirstall, Summer Wine and Magic Rock to name five without even trying. Now Rooster's ownership is on the move.

I've known Ian Fozard, MD of the Market Town Taverns chain for nearly 10 years, and I think he's pretty well known in Yorkshire as being someone who is in the business for all the right reasons. And it's no secret what regard I've held Rooster's in, especially Sean, Alison and the recently flown-the-coop Sam. What came as a great surprise is that a recent colleague of mine, Tom Fozard, and his twin brother Oliver, are going to be employed as brewery manager and brewer respectively. Can I be the first to make the joke about a new pair of cocks at Rooster's?

Below is the press release - congratulations and best wishes to the new owners, and to the departing ones.



Sean and Alison Franklin today announced that they have exchanged contracts for the sale of Roosters Brewery in Knaresborough, North Yorkshire which they founded in 1994. The sale will complete at the end of 2011.

The purchaser is Ian Fozard, Managing Director of Knaresborough based Market Town Taverns. Ian is acting in a personal capacity and his sons, Oliver and Tom Fozard, will shortly join Roosters. Alison and Sean will continue to own and run the brewery until the end of the year. During 2012, Sean and Alison have agreed to remain involved on a consultancy basis.

Oliver Fozard has been a brewer for almost 11 years, firstly with Daleside Brewery, Harrogate and for the last six and a half years with Copper Dragon Brewery in Skipton. Tom Fozard has related retail experience with the Beer Ritz off-licence chain and has worked closely with beer writer Zak Avery.

Ian Fozard said “I am proud to have been approached by Sean & Alison to take over the brewery. My sons and I are looking forward to working with them during the next 8 months. We’re determined to maintain the innovation and high quality standards for which Roosters beers are highly renowned.”

Sean Franklin said “I’ve known Ian for 30+ years and I’m confident that the brewery will be in good hands. I’m looking forward to introducing Oliver and Tom to the dark arts of Rooster’s brewing process. Then I’m going fishing – for a while……”

Saturday 2 April 2011

The Greene King Paradox

I had a great night a couple of weeks ago at The Job Bulman in Gosforth, helping to launch the JD Wetherspoon's Real Ale festival. It was a fun couple of hours of tasting through half a dozen of the festival beers with 20 or so guests, interspersed with a few bottles. So for example, alongside the Ballast Point Calico Amber, I brought some bottles of Ballast Point Big Eye IPA. And to taste after the Greene King Export IPA, I brought along a sample of Greene King Old 5X that the brewery gave me when I visited them a while ago.

Old 5X is the 12%abv beer that GK age in wooden vats, and blend with the 6%abv BPA to make Strong Suffolk Vintage Ale. Neither of these beers is released seperately, so having a bottle of something so unusual was quite a coup. This beer isn't a silky, polished wood-aged beer, but an old, oxidised, 'spoiled' beer that bears more resemblance to Belgian beers like Rodenbach than anything that we might think of being barrel-aged, which has come to imply spirit casks.

I introduced the GK Export IPA with my usual spiel about how much I love the regular GK IPA - I do, honestly - and how GK's beers are a paragon of traditional British ale brewing. I also touched on their purchase of various breweries, which also touches a nerve with people. Some people think GK are a horribly rapacious corporation who have bought and closed breweries for the sake of it. GK's take on it is that the breweries were for sale on the open market, and that they are a business, and that the brands and beers still exist, albeit produced centrally.

It's fair to say that things got a bit heated as I talked about GK. There was a shout from the other side of the room that I didn't quite catch, but it was something along the lines of 'this is like Nuremberg'. Everyone stopped short of booing me, but it was clear that I'd overstepped the mark in my praise of 'Greede King'.

I shared out the Old 5X, and it's fair to say that everyone was stunned by it. Its incredible sherry-like complexity and slightly acetic sharpness made for a reflective moment in the room. That's to be expected - Old 5X is a great beer, and the sooner GK can find a way to do a single-release of it, in nip bottles, the better. But after that, as I wandered round chatting to people, and they berated me to my face for my perceived GK propaganda, almost everyone ended their tirade with something along the lines of '...but actually, I had a really surprisingly good pint of their IPA in...'.

While it's easy to get fired up about new and exciting beers, it's not often that people get fired up defending tradition. Quite often, praise for British beer seems to get caught up in some jingoistic tirade against lager, which is perceived as a foreign invader, or American beer, which is still misconstrued to mean solely Bud, Miller and Coors. I thought it was quite refreshing to see such passion expressed about beer at what might be called the 'traditional' end of the market. What was also enjoyable was people publicly denouncing GK for their business practices, but at the same time discreetly admitting that they liked their flagship beer.