Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Think Globally, Drink Locally

“Which of these beers is local?” It’s a phrase that you’ve probably never heard before. In public. Delivered without irony. But this is Bath. In this petite city ‘organic, local and ethical’ has become the mumbled mantra for the hordes of trustafarians, tofu-knitters and Liberal Democrats as they bumble around the farmers’ market, flax-bag and HFW book in hand. They then strap their six-year-old ADHD-ridden bag of furious conceit into four-tonnes of reinforced steel and use zebra crossings as shortcuts, all to get home in time to be scandalised by a Food Programme story about air-freighting hummus.

But on this occasion, the ruddy-cheeked drinker wasn’t worried if the ales offered had been created from the salty tears of tiny-tots, harvested by squirting DDT straight into their Bambi-like peepers, he was just concerned about ‘beer miles’.

Luckily pretty much everything in The Royal Oak was ‘local’ that Sunday. A busy weekend had seen a flurry of flustered calls to the nearest brewers. So looking across the bar there were four from Blindmans of Frome, three from Matthews of Timsbury and a couple from the Bristol Beer Factory. There was also a rogue one from the Leeds Brewery but that just goes to prove one thing…

Isn’t the West Country great?

Cumbria might have more breweries per person than anywhere else in Britain but how many of those are tiny outlets giving a few tired, poorly, huddled masses in their free-breathing North Face wasterproofs a pint in just one or two cliff-side pubs? When it comes to variety, diversity and quality it is hard to beat Somerset and south Gloucestershire…

Abbey Ales of Bath do a really lovely mild while the (relatively) new boys Arbour Ales are always trying something different, from their dark lager to an oyster stout (pictured) produced with real shells.

The only problem being is that Arbour’s beers always remind me of early Belle and Sebastian records. Not because they are mimsy, whimsical affairs, more because their willingness to experiment seems to overwhelm their experience. So some of their drinks seem to be a muddy flurry of ambition instead of the clarity and purity of other's slightly duller beers.

If you prefer a sweeter edge to your noir-ish pints Bristol Beer Factory have their sublime Milk Stout while Butcombe produce clean, tasty beers including the light Blond, which uses lager hops to entice those who have recently graduated from the fizz.

Cheddar Ales might not be that near to home but it is worth going the extra mile(s) for the toffee-flavoured Potholer, the darkly dry Totty Pot and the golden-hued Mild Cheddar. Being just off the M4, Cotswold Brewery is much easier to reach than Cheddar and always a favourite in our house. Not just because the Codger is an amber, lightly-hopped delight but because they always have something racked and ready when we roll up at short notice.

Brassknocker from Matthews is also wonderful beer, wonderful enough to be short-listed for the Champion Beer of Britain this year. It is almost too good though, as at our wedding party that barrel was drained long before anything was even opened. And if you are looking from something seasonal, they seem to have a different ale for almost every month of the year.

There is more to RCH of Weston than Pitchfork but I adore the wanton bitterness of this hoppy, sinewy pint. Imagine being a chicken and having lemon stuffed into every cavity. It’s nothing like that. It would probably be worse, because really it has more of a painfully-grapefruit finish.

It might be stretching things even further to including Wickwar but no one should miss out on the CAMRA Champion Winter Beer of 2008 – Station Porter or their beautifully balanced Best known as BOB.

Just think of all those ales, all delicious, all brewed locally. Shame you drove to the pub from Devizes in your Porsche Cayenne Tarquil.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

A Boon To Beer?

Gastro pork scratchings from the pages of Heston, musical evenings with a skat-jazz outfit from Preston and cider festivals with brews made in Weston. To survive and thrive in the current economic climate – as predicted by Peston - the modern publican has to innovate. Or follow this simple maxim: To get a head, get a celeb.

Using your skill, luck, judgement and Wikipedia can you spot what is the secret behind the success of the Ye Olde Punch Bowl Inn, the pub owned by the lightly comiced actor and voice-over artist Neil Morrissey? Could it be that C4 have allowed him to create a series of hour-long adverts for his own pub, his own beer and his own book?

I admit that I slumped my way through Morrissey’s Perfect Pint - along with the tiny fraction of the nation who didn’t turn off during Embarrassing Teen Bodies and go and do something less boring instead – like rate all their stolen songs out of five on iTunes.

And so here is my review of the programme: Meh. Now I understand your objection that I’ve resorted to L33T-speak there but since brevity is still meant to be the soul of wit, I win. LOL.

Anyway I'm hardly likely to start picking on some former sitcom star now am I? Not in the current climate.

However what the show also did was implant the dated 90s laddishness of Neil Morrissey as the acceptable face of ale. Not just in the doe-eyes of the proles but also for the media too. Now when it comes to commissioning editors, producers, researchers and hack-journos fumbling for guests or commentators about beer/pubs/brewing it will be unrelenting mediocrity that is La Moz that pops into their spazzed heads.

Okay so at least it will make a change from the Protz but there must be others? There has to be someone more suited to representing all our hopes and alcoholic dreams? Obviously we have to steer clear of any previous advocates: The ‘Lonesome George’ of The Today Programme- John Humphries, and a man who seems to be attempting to bring back the feudal system through his model villages and pricing of biscuits – Charlie Windsor.

Well who would you like to lead? Who should front the campaign to save our pubs from the wrecking ball or become 'six contemporary living spaces' ? Or even worse, the indifference and slow decline of that pubco ownership brings? Who would you like to see on your bottles of beer?

My suggestion is Peep Show’s Mark Corrigan. With his love of history, Hawksmoor churches and total dislocation from the rest of humanity, he could be the perfect spokesman. After all with his past of historical re-enactments, girl-autism and “weird nuts” he would at least chime with the public's expectations of us ale-drinkers.

And yet he still seems like a relatively decent human primarily because of Jeremy, a man so vapid, vain and morally pinballing through life that you wonder if he’s ever been on a boating holiday in Corfu.

It sounds unlikely doesn’t? After all who would pick a man best know for his lager drinking, his slavering lust for a woman that he can’t have (until the plot jumped the shark anyway) and a pitifully dysfunctional relationships with his distressing flatmate. But after last night that is what we’ve got.

A Mild Winter

I’m getting old. No I should correct myself, I got old some time ago but the process seems to be an on-going, annual sort of thing. I won’t tell you how utterly past it I am now but if this world was Logan’s Run I would have spent the last three years of my life being pursued by a sort of art-deco drinks cabinet.

But the greatest signs of my decay has to be that I’ve started to like mild. Yes, it is as surer sign of coffin-dodging as casual racism or sitting in a pool of your own piss while Songs Of Praise plays at volume louder than war. But as I enter my doddering dotage I’ve come to enjoy these weak but interesting beers. And more importantly that all that – I’ve done it at a time of year not dictated by CAMRA and their designated 31 days of drinking mild.

Since milds are as fashionable as buying a shares ISA or having your breakdown in private, breweries seem to have decided to drop the name from their range. And who could blame them because it is hard not to associate mild with customers whose vowels as flat as their caps as they sip drip-tray dregs. Instead these model, modern, microbrewers market these ales as light beers, emphasising the balance of hop and malt instead of mentioning the M word.

Next time you approach the bar wearing your ‘I am 33 badge’, party hat and standard issue scowl and spot the bony hand of the reaper reaching out to pull you a pint, here are a few to sample:

Abbey Ales for one aren’t ashamed to name their Mild but this 4% ale with its light chocolate flavour and stab of coffee bitterness seems to only surface during Spring. Also created as once-a-year-treat is the Mild Cheddar from Cheddar Ales. Golden and pale rather than dark or dense, it is only 3.6% but there is plenty of malt and a little light hoppiness to give it slightly sweeter edge. Darker and so more suited to these gloomier times is the 3.8% On The Rails from Ascot Ales in Camberley. While its biscuity depths hide chocolate and caramel sweetness a little hit of hops give is a touch of citrus that lifts the whole experience from the depths. And finally there is the Sarah Hughes Ruby Mild, but I’ve already mouthed enough words about that classic reborn.

Yes I might be old enough have been alive when Keynesian economics were in last in vogue and AC/DC last topped the charts but then today I got asked for ID. Okay, so I was in Waitrose during the gimmer-shift when the rest of the world is in work but that didn’t stop me having to whip out some documents when buying a bottle of Hook Norton Double Stout and a few turnips to go in a beef stew. So it might be more a testament to the rising cost of eye tests than the lack of lines on my visage but it made me happy. After all wouldn’t the world be wonderful place if the ‘yout’ were out buying bottles of Hook Norton Double Stout?

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Tick, Tick, Gloom

It’s when the glass is half-empty that the problem begins. After each sip my eyes start to REM across the room, scanning the pumps, darting towards the beer board. Conversation collapses as familiar logos and names are sought, identified and ignored. Instead of deploying wryly-observed anecdotes from my day, mental Post-Its are re-read as my Rolodex of recall is ransacked.

Hello. My name is Alex and I’m a ticker. I wasn’t always this way. I used to be happy with one pint of something nice and then another, and perhaps one more after that. Each drink was the same as the last, each sip tasting identical to the one before. The only other flavour allowed to pass my lips was the sting of salt supplied by a bag of peanuts. Or for those truly special occasions: an away win or a date - a packet of Golden Wonder.

But all that has changed. I went here. Now I’m as likely to repeat a real ale as the BBC are to repeat How Do You Want Me? a sweet little sitcom that contrasted the crushing mediocrity of Simon Nye‘s writing with the unkempt wonder that is Dylan Moran in full bemused flow.

But why would you always stick to the same beer? Unless that particular pint is so utterly transcendent that its absence causes your liver to weep chunky tears of blood and iron. Because there is a whole world of drinks out there, and discovering them won’t happen if I stick with the same ale time and again. The perfect pint will always escape me if I get a ‘usual’. And so I need to keep searching, I need to keep sipping, I need to keep scanning. Like The Littlest Hobo of beer, but with slightly less body hair, I’m always moving on.

And now after years of quiet enjoyment, it is starting to become a problem. No longer am I happy in good pubs with good music, good food and good conversation. I keep wanting more. Once I’ve sampled all the regular ales, tried the guest beer and seen what is coming on next, I’m itching to move again. I’ll even trade in a fireside seat on a damp Friday night for the remote chance that the next place will have something different, something darker, something unusual.

There are limits though. I don’t write down all the beers I’ve tried in a little book. I don’t score, rate and rank every pint I’ve ever had using a system as fiendishly rule-bound as the latest New York dating manual. I don’t maintain a database of any kind, well unless this page counts… and it doesn’t. I also don’t drink halves. If I’m going to try a beer I’m going to either enjoy right to the bottom of the glass or make sure that I wince my way through the next half an hour.

Logically I should be happiest at a beer festival, but I’m not. Yes, I enjoy the variety of the ales on offer and yes; I like the chance to taste beer from breweries that I’ve never heard of in distant places. But beer festivals are shit. Nice drinks don’t make up shuffling around drafty and dusty community halls, blinking under harsh sodium lighting and enduring ‘good time’ Zep and Creedence covers bands whose limited talent is only matched by their limited understanding of sacrilege.

So the question has to be asked. Am I alone in this affliction? And are we scoopers just OCD box tickers who’ve grown out of football stickers? Do others out there wonder if there more to beer than just the brown Bests offered in so many pubs? Do you go out of your way to try something different or is good beer about enjoying the familiar, and lots of it? When your pint is half-empty are you happy with the same again?

Friday, 17 October 2008

Review: McChouffe

Brasserie d'Achouffe
8.00% ABV

It was destined to be drunk. I’d already seen its gnome logo waving and winking at me from the back of the bar. Lurking beyond all the other hand pumps and beneath a wonky blackboard acclaiming its Ardennes origins, its Scottish influence and its ‘premium’ price. But it was that Sunday night that fate took my hand, pushed into my pocket and pulled out £1.90. For a half.

I was innocently wandering home after an evening visiting parents. Meandering towards an empty house and a re-heated meal for one when my brain remembered that it likes beer. Perhaps a pint and quick peruse of the otherwise un-crumpled paper in my pocket could be the salve for my jaded soul? No, I must go home.

That is when my iPod shuffled me up an American ale podcast. I can’t remember which one, there are so many, and they burble away in the background ranking pints of West Coast IPA by their life-threatening IBUs. But for once the podcasting pair caught my ear as they were talking about my pub-flirtation - the McChouffe.

And they praised, they fawned and they mewed. Superlatives gushed into my ear like Stephen Fry Reads Roget: Chapter 19: Track 244: Sublime. Clearly these two knew rather a lot about beer and the brewing process, but this was bordering on the fulsome. First ‘prunes and strawberry jam’ were mentioned then ‘peat smoke, fruit and flowers’ were added to the mix. Soon it became a cavalcade of ‘heavenly glows’ and ‘maple syrup’. Finally ‘potpourri appeared as a supporting player on the outside of the tongue’ with ‘sweet unroasted barley’.

It seemed to go with everything too. From fried chicken to soy sauce or bread pudding and crème brûlée, you could drink it with anything and anyone. And yet my steely resolve remained unbent as I strode past the open pub door and into the darkness beyond. That was until I saw two long-lost former co-workers coming the other way. Serendipity, chance, design - call it what you want but fate had patted me down for small change and I followed them inside.

And what about this ambrosial ale, the much talked about Mc Chouffe? Well, it was nice. The sweetness was soft and sugary, the malt had a touch of nuttiness to it and there was also a hint of chocolate richness. There might have been a little dried fruit too.

Now obviously it wasn’t worth the hype, nothing could ever be. But it did confirm four fundamental truths:

1. A lot of Belgian beer is crushingly over-rated.
2. Never trust American podcasts on the subject of Belgian beers that are influenced by sweet Scottish ales.
3. Tartan trousers might suit gnomes as much as they suit Johnny Lydon, but gnomes have more dignity.
4. If God exists, he/she is dead from the tastebuds down.

Friday, 3 October 2008

Art For Beer’s Sake

Unless the impeccably ill-conceived logic of a thousand years of homilies and Wikipedia have lied to us: dogs look like their owners and football teams play like their managers once did. So not only does Roy Keane’s canine Trigg has the far away look of killer in his doe-eyes and Bayern Munich go down as easily as their new master, Jurgen Klinsmann. It also meant that I had some pre-conceived ideas about what to expect from the first beers from the Art Brewery.

For this new Axminster brewery is the creation of John and Becky Winnerah, owners of The Royal Oak in Bath who have now relocated to start the complex process of making drinks to make me giddy – instead of the slightly less complex process of selling drinks to make me giddy.

And so having plenty experience of the kind of booze that John buys and sells, I was expecting the booze that he brews to be different. I though they might be more like the man and his tastes. I was expecting something darker, something smoky and strong, perhaps with a hint of bitterness too. Okay, so I wasn’t expecting it to be wearing a green rugby top and listening to The Specials but these two just beers didn’t fit the profile.

For a start, they are both pale and skulk around the 4% mark. First up was 2 AM, a beer that looked pale and coppery and had a zesty sweetness to it. That was followed with the Art Noveau which weighed in at a full .2% more alcohol and reminded me a little of Cheddar Ale’s fantastic Potholer. Which might not be what I expected but who is going to complain about that? Well knowing him, John. Probably.