Wednesday, 31 December 2008

January - Time To Retox

Welcome to the wagging finger season. It is that time of year when the nation’s journalists, feeling tired and insecure on every level, decide that that rest of the country must be suffering similar internal ructions. And so it is their moral duty to shake a judgemental finger at them - before knocking off early.

So they find the most tedious paper-skinned living-forever-through-denial freelancer to write a happy-clappy health piece about detoxing. It’s pure Googlefiction of course, but still every part of it is backed up by ersatz quacks who at least managed to fill in their Response Source form and so is clearly an expert in something.

Of course they advocate taking charcoal/dried cat anuses/rose-flavoured magical spring-water to cleanse your blood/colon/soul. It doesn’t matter what is in these potions and lotions though because it’s all-natural and nothing natural ever hurt anyone, ever. And that is a fact.

Along with keeping Ben Goldacre in columns for another year, they also always want you to stop drinking, at all, for a whole month, regardless of such inconvenient truths as the Reinheitsgebot and the general purity of most alcohol. But they can be very insistent, very repetitive and use a very big font. So here are five reasons why you should carry on drinking right throughout January and beyond:

January Is The Coolest Month
January is the best time of the year to go to the pub. Those lovely sweet/smoky dark beers are in, the fire is lit and since the sun never actually comes up there is nothing to see outside the window – except the inexorable decline of capitalism.

Silence With Golden
January is the quietest time of the year to go to the pub. Since the rest of humanity is wracked with Sunday supplement-driven self-flagellation, they aren’t spoiling your drinking time with their voices/faces/jostling. You’ve got a pint of Entire Stout, they’ve got a litre of something gloopy sculpted from wheatgrass, and a hollow feeling.

Also the amateur drinkers who ruined the whole of December with their tottering, bragging and eruptive vomiting have also gone back to their PCs and padded work cells for another twelve months - or three months in the case of most of the financial institutions who think that they can dodge the world’s ire simply by delaying their parties till March.

Brevity Is Best
February is only 28 days long. If you really want to punish yourself, you know it makes sense.

Fiends Like These
If it is your friends who say you drink too much, where else could it be easy to make new friends than a pub?

Who's Got A Problem?
Who actually needs a month off alcohol? Alcoholics is who. So if you need a month off booze, it’s because you’ve got a problem and if you don’t, you don’t. Simple, so long as you don’t question the logic and just get your round in.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Four Organic Ales To Try, And One To Avoid

I know. No festival has been milked this mercilessly since Vince Power’s Mean Fiddler took over at Reading, but The Royal Oak’s organic beer festival is worthy of more of my words.

You see it is a wonderful thing and it has grown during its three years. So the first surprise to my post-work-spazzed head about this year’s event was how many SIBA members seem to be treading the mulchy path to organic brewing. Because there were more beers on offer than last year with ABC, Bath Ales, Celt, North Curry, Matthews and Bridge Of Allan joining Butts, Spectrum, Marble and the Organic Brewery.

What also chaffed in my limited brain was the range of styles and shades of offer. The increased cost and restricted availability of organic materials doesn’t seem to have dented the diversity or depth of the brewer’s range and reach. So there were hop-powered beers, dark ales, pale beers and just one punchy ginger number. And I tried most of them, except the Bath Ales, which felt like a charity addition.

One Beer To Try
It is tricky to pick which one of Butts’ many lovely beers to select – the darkly rich chocolate Blackguard porter is superb – but Barbus Barbus is one of those beers that I have to have every time it appears. It’s a gently sweet golden with hints of malt and orange marmalade amid the hops. It isn’t a big gaudy whore of a beer but a well balanced one that also packs in plenty of flavour for a 4.6% ale.

Another Beer To Try
The annual appearance of Marble’s Ginger, meant that at least I had to try some, even though starting a drinking session with it would be as likely to invite disaster as playing the 1812 Overture at an outdoor Afghan wedding. For this 5.0% beer delights and punishes in equal measure and I’ve already sung the praises of this fiery pint. Anyway the zest, zingy, utterly fresh 3.9% Pint was my favourite from the Manchester brewery this time.

Two Beers To Try
First in a double header of stouts came the Bridge Of Allan Glencoe Wild Oat Stout, 4.5%, with the Marble ‘Stouter’ Stout, 4.7%, as pudding. Now while the 0.1 megapixel picture above might make you think that this pair of ales are similar in shade, there is actually quite a contrast in flavour.

The Glencoe is actually the more traditional of the two. Beneath its gently beige-shaded head, it has a smooth, almost milky sweetness that probably comes from the oats. Cutting against this is the carbonation – not fizziness - but the burnt, smoky flavours. So there is a little bit of ash, burnt toast and perhaps even liquorice that all combine with a bit of malt to provide a lovely finish. It’s really rather lovely affair.

Obviously the Marble Stout is different, otherwise I wouldn’t have mentioned that fact earlier, but it is very different. For a start it is hoppy and for a palate that has just attuned itself to the mellifluous malt and soft fruit of the Glencoe, that is a shock. So imagine the oily washing-up liquid bite of hops and those hefty citrus flavours fused with roasted malt and chocolate. Does it work? I don’t know, it is pretty interesting though. I understand that blogging is all about rabid, utterly certain opinion over considered thought but this time, opinion fails me.

One Beer To Avoid
Being a West Country lad and keen to embrace almost everything from this corner of the world - bar slave trading, losing the tops of your fingers in a threshing machine and Bristol City - I had to try a pint of ABC’s Gurt Lush. Even though the staff warned me against it, even though the regulars warned me against it, I tried it.

Now I’m told that they are really nice chaps and that their beer is getting better all the time but I really wish I hadn’t. Sorry ABC.

Oh well ‘tis the season for regret. Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

A Soiled Association?

With their preference for taste over branding, flavour in place of price and microbreweries over macroeconomics, you might think that ale drinkers’ desires would mesh neatly with many of the objectives of the organic movement. And let’s be honest, the demographics probably aren’t that divergent either.

But in all the quickly cobbled together, mildly slurred pub-polls I’ve ever conducted, the origin and nature of the ingredients in a beer hardly ever get a mention, even amongst ardent label-searching vegetarians. Beer seems to exist outside the normal rules.

It was largely the same at The Royal Oak’s Organic Beer Festival. Because while the vast numbers of organic ales on the bar, and those served straight from the barrels, attracted plenty of attention, most of the pints were bought without the livers owners’ even knowing about the pesticide-free origins of the hops and malt. Let alone caring.

And yet Britain is reputed to be the third largest market for organic produce in the Europe. Over the last few years the Soil Association have charted double-digit growth for the retail sector. And while that may be slumping now there never seems to have had the same effect in beer or booze generally. The word ‘organic’ and ‘local’ appear on menus all the time, but very rarely on pump clips. Instead the brewing industry seems to target its organic beers at supermarket bottle-buyers. Particularly with sweeter or novelty ales.

Instead the received wisdom, both on the web and in the pub, seems to be that all organic beers are lacking something. That higher costs lead to weaker beers. That the price of organic hops prevents brewers from producing certain style - particularly the bitter-bombs that are so in vogue at the moment. That somehow any brewery that worries about such fripperies couldn’t create an ale worthy of serious consideration anyway.

So in the name of a purely unscientific research the question has to be asked: Do you think about organic beer? Do you even notice if your beer is branded as organic, local or even British? Have you ever knowingly tried an organic ale and is there one you like? And more importantly do you care either way?

Thursday, 4 December 2008

A Christmas Barrel

Men are clearly stupefying dolts. That isn’t a conclusion that you need to spend much time with Andy Townsend to come to either. We are easily pleased. We have to be otherwise we’d be insulted right to the most oblong shaped part of our medulla oblongata by Top Gear. Really most men are happy with bladder integrity and unfetted access to their own penis.

We don’t even ask for much either, except at Christmas. Then we demand presents that reflect the many varied facets of our personalities – those that aren’t represented by power tools or porn. Well you can probably guess what I’m going to advise that you buy for your friends, for family or for yourself - beer.

But I don’t mean you should join some club or order bottles online. I’ve tried it and you feel mean when the beige box is unwrapped. A few bottles seem to cost a lot of money – and some companies seem to stick a lot of less exciting ales in with the good ones. Instead go right to the source – a brewery – and get a box, or a barrel or a mini-cask.

It might seem excessive to buy that much booze and that is because it is. It is also generous and sociable and – this is the good bit – fun. Few people can resist pouring themselves a lovely foaming pint. It might be the sense of agency, it might also be because no one has any idea how much you are drinking.

Yes I know what you are thinking – why don’t you write short, regular posts like other bloggers? Either that or you are guessing that it won’t appeal to non-ale drinkers. But here is a little anecdote:

Last year we had a biggish party with lots of friends and family – and three 10 litre boxes of beer and a 5 litre one too. It was a calculation based on a generous estimate of how much beer all the ale drinkers would get through. Except that the lager drinkers all became beer drinkers that night and even some of the wine drinkers were temporarily converted too.

So we ran out of beer long before the evening was over, simply because no one could resist giving those little taps a twist. And we ended the evening taking requests for the names of the brewers and making promises to buy beer boxes as presents for others to give that Christmas. Convinced yet?

Buying Your Beer Present

Choosing The Right Stuff
Obviously you know what your pals/parent/liver likes but in our experience to make sure it’s all drunk means going for lighter, paler ales, less hoppy ales such as Brassknocker and not the traditional brown, often metallic Bests. So picking something light and bright will make sure your gift is appreciated – and while you are there why not get something darker and dangerous for yourself?

How Long Will It Last?
Most beer for home consumption will be what is known as Bright. This means that all the sediment and yeast has been filtered out at the brewery making sure that the beer is ready to drink immediately. It does mean that the box or pin will only last about five or six days but it does mean that the beer can be moved, poured and enjoyed at a moments notice. We even took a 10 litre box to a festival, keeping it in a tent and somehow it survived just fine.

How Much Beer To Buy?
It’s is tricky to estimate how much beer a person can get through but remember that this beer is going to need to be gone by New Year. Just try to estimate how many pints it will take for you to enjoy the company of an irascible racist grandfather, in the dry semi-tropical heat of the front room, while the Christmas edition of Alan Carr’s Giant Step Backwards perforates every eardrums. And then add a couple of pints. After all the Queen's Speech watched sober is something few people can endure.

What Sizes Are Available?
The smallest most breweries will sell you is a tiny 5 litre mini-cask for as little as £15. At just 8.8 pints they aren’t too big and they do look great, although they can be tricky to recycle.

Almost every brewery will do beers in boxes, varying in size from 10 litres (17.6 pints) to 20 litres (35.2 pints). Again prices vary from brewery to brewery and beer to beer so you can pick up a 20 litre of Cotswold Spring’s Olde English Rose for £50, the same quantity of Hopback’s Summer Lightning will cost you £74.36.

Where Should I Go?
The biggest choice can usually be found by contacting a local brewery directly. Click this scruffy but effective website to find the breweries near you. Or if you are lucky enough to live in the West County, there is a pretty good list to be found here. Just remember to give them a few days warning of when you want to pick up the beer.

Some pubs will also sell you all sorts of ales in containers of varying sizes and many of the brewery-owned houses will offer some good prices too.

Is that simple enough for you man?

Monday, 1 December 2008

Organic Beer Festival

The Royal Oak, Bath

I like you. I must do because I’m going to tell you a secret. The Royal Oak in Twerton, Bath is having a week of organic beers from Monday 8th of December. You can look on their website, their brewery’s website or even the pub's Facebook group and you won’t see any mention of it or the 30 ales that are set to appear over the week. You also won’t know that along with the ten handpumps there will also be a stillage set up inside the pub allowing you to get your organic ale straight from the barrel. Or if you as frog-stupid as I am, you can make Chris get it for you instead.