Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Flying the nest - the future for mild

The winter sun in Hertfordshire makes the clouds blush pink but now they’re pregnant and brilliant white. The low light that elongated our shadows into black contrails across the frosty ground has now climbed. The shadows are stouter - more fluid from the gathering warmth.  The trees are taking on body, reviving from their monochrome naked stasis. Folk from Falmouth to Inverness are stripping down to just three layers of clothing. The swifts have returned, accelerating through the sky with rollercoaster shrieks. The weather is now quite - what’s the word..…

Mild is a good title - it’s polite, unassuming and self-effacing. Mild comes in May. This is a recent fact. I believe my first mild was Mighty Oak Brewery’s Oscar Wild Mild in the Cask and Kitchen in Pimlico. I’ve perhaps had a hundred milds from breweries across Britain since then and have experienced chocolate, leather, fruit lockets, liquorice, malt loaf, raisins, blackcurrant, smoked meat, peat, blackjacks and coffee on the palate. For what’s often such a low ABV beer this isn’t a bad back catalogue. On the eye, the beers have ranged from russet, light caramel and chestnut to black though I’ve yet to have  a mild that remains impregnable to the light when held aloft. 

In beer books fifty years from now, mild will have been traditionally only drank in May. What we do in the present is the tradition of tomorrow - especially with other countries getting on board with the May theme.

If it wasn’t for CAMRA I wouldn’t know what mild is. Making mild synonymous with May, this beer style has become a kind of seasonal in Britain. Breweries crank up Mild production for May. Pubs display the range across the beer engines. Mild crawls begin among CAMRA groups. But is this a kind of CPR? Is it an acknowledgment that without this lifeline, it wouldn’t survive? In some respects it has come to resemble a charitable case - the Mild May crawl feels a bit like sponsorship. I expect a collection tin at the end to be shook for Friends of Mild.

What is it traditionally? The problem with tradition is that what we assume is a constant is actually a continual evolution - sometimes planned (CAMRA Make May a Mild Month), sometimes expedient (excise duty on barley or ABV), but often just subject to the caprice of fashion. To answer “what’s it like traditionally?” you’d have to answer “In what decade of which century in which city?” and that doesn’t even include handling & storing practices from inn to inn. In some pubs the beer may have been served with pride, in another, continually topped up with any beer from the drip tray. Its reputation would have varied coloquially.

Mild was often the beer that was fresh (no more than a fortnight old) and took less of the acidic tastes of aged beer. Fewer hops were used because their disinfectant quality wasn’t as required - the beer wasn’t aged long enough for bugs or microflora to gain a clawhold. Another common feature - one that we generally emulate with modern milds - is the sweetness and low ABV. It remained sweet as young ale because it takes time for yeast to convert wort sugar into alcohol.

Over the past 200 years mild has been pale. It’s been the lighter hue in black & tan. It’s been the gentle strand in three threads. It’s also been acidic. It’s been the ancestor of both milk stout and Kiwi Brown. I was amazed at how diverse it has been when I looked through Martyn Cornell’s brilliant book Amber, Gold & Black. 

Leading up to our own times, mild was the economical choice in Britain’s pubs. It was to be sessioned to remove the dust of industry from workers’ throats. In the 1930s, Mild accounted for 75% of all beer brewed in the UK. Before the first world war, they averaged out at 6% ABV. The 3% Milds only became ubiquitous after the second world war. It enabled economies to be made by the brewery on time and ingredients. It also lessened alcohol-related debility in the workplace.

When the current May mild trail comes back though I find that all the examples on offer seem to fall into the dark, sweet and malty. It seldom comes across in the craft beer scene but when it does, it’s often as the earlier heavier versions and I have difficulty in telling them from porters or stouts.
I enjoy Mild but when it returns, I find the corset is too tight as a style. The stitches need to rupture. Obviously my taste is subjective but I’ve always thought “that’s nice” but never “that’s amazing”. Mild’s potential has not been properly explored. 

Some other ingredients are well wed with mild - nuts, raisins and maple have all been complimentary. However, those ingredients are just as polite and risk averse as the style they’ve been matched with.
One encouraging sign is that the US has started to take an interest in it. They have started to push it as a May drink too following the UK example. It has started to find a new lease of life with a cleaner yeast style that can let hop flavour shine through more clearly.

As a style, IPA has accrued millions of air miles. In the past twenty years it has been resurrected from an old and neglected drink from the age of empire, and been given steroids by America. It’s become shorthand for craft beer - a neon sign showcasing the hops that go into it. It’s been an education and now America, New Zealand, Australia, Scandinavia, Britain and Holland have fallen on it in a feeding frenzy. The ingredients and colour have been warped in the orgy of innovation. Our boy mild needs a piece of that action.

I see equivalence running between milds and sours. As beers, they’re about as different as you can get on the palate. But they have developed similarities insofar as they’re both generally low ABV beers. The genius behind sours is they act as a palate cleanser to tastes as diverse as cucumber, beetroot, cherry, raspberry, mint or damsons and that’s just scratching the surface. With sours, the hosted fruit can be like primary flashes on a watercolour - Sunset Over A Lake by William Turner. Mild is more like an earthy pastel work - Starry Night by Vincent Van Gough. Sours - unlike mild - have little malt depth but big initial taste. Milds might have their own unique selling point - they turn away from loud hop profiles and it’s in that space the innovation needs to take place.

As beer is taking a hold in the historically more wine-dominated parts of Europe, mild should be jumped on. Italy likes to use almonds in innumerable drinks and dishes. A Milanese almond mild might fire the starting pistol on the style being copied and elaborated internationally.  

Personally I think the challenge should be to keep the style as a low ABV beer. Even though the low booze threshold is comparatively recent as a mild association, it makes it a bigger challenge.
Mild needs to be seeded with wild airborne yeasts, brettanomyces or champagne yeast. It needs to be built on a body of wheat or rye. Bring in the liquorice and brambles, the smoked peat and cider apples. Let it be pummelled, kneaded and moulded by the mad hands of international craft brewing.   

Mild has had bouts of exploration when duty on beer has been cut. After these earlier breaks for freedom - as a toddler running before its inevitable pratfall, mild has been held back in infancy for a hundred years. Expediency (in this case sticking to what was available and what was legislated to spare supplies, make economies and save labourers from themselves) may foster a warm familiarity and nostalgia, but it can hamper potential. Mild needs to grow again. It needs to evolve anew.

We need to send our fruit out into the wider world to experience the flavours, cultures and knowledge absent from the cosiness of its safe terraced homeland. Our polite adolescent needs to be tested, to be influenced and to sate its own carnal hunger by lying down with exotic others. Then it can come back fresh faced, self-confident and with a knowing gleam in its eye. Gone would be the days of the wall flower. Mild would finally be ready to break some hearts.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

A Belated Goodbye to Terry Pratchett

There is a shelf in my home that has been there most of my life. My home has moved around but the shelf – though it grows – doesn’t change.  It looks like a barcode of lush colours. It’s made of paperback books. The most ancient are on the left and as you scan to the right, they gradually encroach on our times. Fittingly, your eyes follow them in the same way you’d read a line of prose. Bars one and two are orange and blue and represent genuine magical power - The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic - the first two novels in Terry Pratchett’s  Discworld series. Starting  left, the colours go from primary and full from the illustrations of Josh Kirby and from 2001 onward (1) they  become more sombre and moody from the work of Paul Kidby. Inside, the pages are brown with age, gradually regaining their youthful crisp whiteness the further right you go.
My memory of my first Terry Pratchett book is as bright as the detail on the cover. In the late 1980s, a new supermarket opened in Bangor in Wales called Leo’s (2). Every pupil at my school had an identical plastic Leo’s key ring as they were handed out free to each child shortly after the store opened.  There was a small book and magazine section and in 1987 at the age of nine I recall the wonder of seeing a book called The Light Fantastic for the first time. The cover had a luggage trunk flying through the air with rows of human feet. Depicted clinging onto the trunk were a wizard, a man with four eyes, an amazon woman and two Conan-style barbarians. Below them was a castle strewn landscape with massive axe-wielding trolls coming at the viewer. The glowing azure sky in the background is what gives the book its colour on the shelf. Either from raiding my pocket money or from badgering my mum, the book was bought.  I pored over it in the car home. The Light Fantastic is actually the second book in the series but I read it first and read The Colour of Magic – the first Discworld book - second.  Although I was too young to appreciate a lot of the humour, the spell of that universe bound me.
What drew me to The Light Fantastic
My main author before discovering Mr Pratchett  was Roald Dahl. Years later it would be Stephen King. Each writer has been vital in my upbringing: Roald Dahl is the author of the first novels I ever read in my life. He took me from children’s picture books to reading books like grownups do. Sitting down by yourself and reading a book from cover to cover is a huge rite of passage in life. Only truly special authors can make children want to achieve this. Once that little feat has been accomplished books become pleasure for the rest of your life. We associate reading with relaxation and entertainment. Not to have that escape in my life is unthinkable but I know a lot of adults who never took this quantum leap and have consequently grown up without the joy of literature. The experience just never entered their lives. 
After Roald Dahl, Terry Pratchett was the step into actual adult material - a window into something clandestine and hidden. Reading my first Discworld novel, I could watch the forbidden scene unfold with the security of being an invisible witness to it. The secret had been exposed!  This is what adults watched in their head when they read adult books! Later on Stephen King would let me in on the darker side of human beings – another voyage of discovery as I ploughed through his 1000 page plus tomes as a teenager. Unlike Roald and Stephen however, Terry Pratchett  has stayed with me my whole life. There may have been dry gaps but every government I catch up with Great A’Tuin and the characters that dwell in his unique cargo. Each time I get taken back to the intimate pleasure of having the text and me together - The Light Fantastic all over again.
One particularly fond memory is from a camping holiday I had with my parents. We had gone to Dorset and stayed in a campsite in Langton Matravers. There used to be a tiny bookshop on the quayside in nearby Swanage and that year’s novel – Pyramids – had by chance come out in paperback the same time as our trip(3). It was to be a golden experience in more ways than one: Gold was the colour of this novel emblazoned with desert sands, camels and sequinned bikinis. Gold was the light of that summer holiday. I read Pyramids in the car. I read it in the oven glow of the tent canvas. I read it as the light died outside and continued to strain until the batteries in the torch set too. The name of the camel in the novel was You bastard! and I uttered it under my breath lika a mantra. I would at intervals take my folks hostage and insist they read a passage that had taken a comedic stranglehold on me.  

At a later date, Pyramids went with me to Oxford to the Paperback Shop on Broad Street where it was signed by Terry Pratchett himself. Eric had just been published (4). I bought it but also took along my copy of Pyramids. We waited hours. The queue to have copies signed trailed right around Broad Street and around the corner towards Carfax. When my turn finally came, he wrote ‘to Alec – may your camels be multiplied’.

"may your camels be multiplied"

I re-read his first ten books when I was a bit older and became privy to fresh layers of comedy. The in-jokes, euphemisms and insinuations beyond my ken when I was younger were now within grabbing range of my older ken. Ken the elder loved it. I loved the fact that he’d take us into the dark places and we’d find that even the elementals, the gods and the Djinn need to consult their own prompt cards in the execution of their duties or need to use their dark power to whisk themselves off for a quiet uninterrupted fag.
It hasn’t just been the Discworld series though. Through the books he co-wrote with biologist Jack Cohen (5) about science, I developed a liking for more factual books. Ultimately, it was a path that led me to read books by Richard Dawkins, Matt Ridley, Richard Fortey and others. It fostered an interest in anthropology, natural history, evolution, archaeology and astronomy. If I think of the trade-off – the few coins that have trickled down to him over the years to buy his books for the privilege of being able to better understand our own period in history. Each book inevitably leads to associated books that allude to works by other writers which I then seek out who will instil yet further questions. Basically, Terry kick started my own wonder for the enlightenment. It’s a continuation of the process that started with reading grown up books as a child. For those few pennies, nothing could be as valuable to me.
I love Terry Pratchett for his footnotes – a process he took from reference books. Throughout his work they appear like seams of precious ore in the text’s bedrock. They add dimension to a completely imagined world, adding a perverse level of legitimacy. They reveal further and as yet unrecorded (un)civilisation in the realm, baking up a thick historic pastry base to build the current novel on. These notes are sometimes longer than the regular text on the same page and even spawn footnotes of their own – stratum upon strata.
That special shelf in my home which has been growing for 28 years has finally reached its limit. It is with the passing of Terry that the coloured bar will stretch no further. It has moved with me eight times.  They are the only books with an “own shelf” privilege. With each move I have lovingly unpacked each novel, thumbed it nostalgically and ensured each goes into its proper chronological slot.

Terry - your presence on my shelf will stay with me on every future move because without you in my home it simply wouldn’t be my home. Thank you Terry for the joy of reading.
Terry Pratchett 
28th April 1948 – 12th March 2015 
Terry Pratchett (in the guise of Eric) by Josh Kirby

(1)2001 was when we lost Josh and his energetic art (i)
(2)It was part of (and was later re-absorbed by) Co-operative Retail Services ltd. The name and brand identity were dropped a long time ago. The other footnotes will be more interesting than this one.
(3)I never bought his books in hardback – something I have maintained right up to the present day. The hardback would always be like the trailer for a coming attraction. A member of staff in Waterstones once told me that “when is Terry Pratchett’s book coming out on paperback?” was her most frequently asked question.
(4) Rincewind the wizard needed to return to the Discworld series so Terry came up with Eric - a Faustian story to act as a mechanism to bring him back(iv).
(5)No relation to Cohen the barbarian as far as I know.
(i)Josh Kirby has actually depicted himself on one cover – on Equal Rites he is seen behind Granny Weatherwax in a wizard’s hat with a shrouded dark green being directly behind him(ii).
(ii)In Eric, Josh also depicted Terry Pratchett. The eponymous hero wears a fake beard which makes him the spitting image of Terry - see above(iii).
(iii)In honour of Terry, I just wanted these footnotes to have footnotes.
(iv)Eric is the stubborn book that never fits properly on the shelf as it’s in A4 format and is more like a graphic novel. It’s always underneath the other books acting like a plinth.

Friday, 1 May 2015

Questionable Urges

Tescos seems to be the least interesting supermarket for Britain’s growing number of zythophiles. It lags behind Sainsbury's, Morrissons, Waitrose and Asda for beer choice but it's not all bad; I’ve noticed that the beer range changes across the country so there is some reflection of local beers, albeit only from the big breweries. In all practicality though, the smaller breweries probably wouldn’t be able to deliver on sheer supermarket quantity. Slowly but surely though, Tescos is hastening its crawl to keep up with the growing demand for better social lubricants.

I’ve seen a bottle leering down at me from the top shelf of the drinks aisle that looks plain wrong - William Sharvatt’s London Velvet - a porter and cider marriage. I’ve never heard of Mr Sharvatt nor the term London Velvet before. After doing some research, I found it's produced by Thomas Hardy Burtonwood - a subsidiary of Molson Coors. It’s mainly a packaging &  kegging plant in Cheshire. I get an image of people sat around a table indulging a slick young hopeful in front of a powerpoint presentation. His pitch strives to target the rustic market, the traditional supermarket ale market and the trendy new craft beer market. The website is professionally made and pretty interesting for all the wrong reasons. Apart from talking about what porter and cider are, no mention is made of the provenance of the ingredients - neither the malt or hops nor the apples or orchards. It does, however have a short section on the different kinds of porter a bit of history about them. William Sharvatt originally ran a timber merchants on the Old Kent Road and it partly still exists; it merged with another merchant to become Sharvatt Woolwich and is still trading today. He was also responsible (allegedly) for the import of cider into the capital which he'd blend with porter. The only thing we can know about this drink for sure is that it’s pasteurised as Thomas Hardy Burtonwood don't deal with live beer. 

I also felt the need to reacquaint myself with Newcastle Brown Ale. I think this was brought on by the recent news that the beer is going to be sold in the United States. One of the conditions of its sale there is that malt should be used to give the ale its colour rather than a colouring agent. It has caused some outrage amongst aficionados - how dare the US improve the quality of the beer! My first ever branded beer glass was a Newcastle Brown Ale schooner. It's been sat gathering dust at the back of my cabinet and it’s been a long time since I showed it any love. It’s cute but a bit twee for the bottle it's designed to compliment. I just feel the need to taste the beer again to see if it's still like I remember it - bittersweet and moreish. I used to session it all the time but it’s been years since I drank it. In its current form it might become extinct. It’s a bit like wanting to suck a rusk just to see if it’s as good as you remember it from toddlerhood. I finally gave in to these questionable urges and bought both drinks last night from Tesco's. 

I wanted it 'cause it's wrong

I started with the London Velvet - bucket on standby. Just for the boasting rights, I wanted this to be much worse than it actually is. It pours a very dark crimson/brown. A proud rocky off-white head builds up. The aroma is of beer rather than cider - I had expected the opposite. It honked of strip lighting bathed supermarket beer. The first swig was quite overwhelming. It started off as a malty porter but warped into a goosebump-raising balsamic. It made me wince but I was also glad it had the guts to taste of something. The second swig left the palate completely unperturbed - my buds had adapted already. It has the carbonation of an industrial cider. The cider actually starts to dominate - Appletiser with a granular coffee background note or maybe a coffee cake doused in cider vinegar. It does smooth out and leaves a mild malty aftertaste. It’s pretty dry and not too refreshing. The next day, I had a bit of a cider headache like I remember from my teens after a bottle of Woodpecker and I found myself belching into the afternoon.

Sometimes friends drift apart for good reason

So onto my old friend Newkie Brown - a bottle of dog. It decanted a dark caramel (I’d need a paint chart to pick out the right colouring agent). A big silver/grey spongy head ascends but quickly vanishes with a hiss. On the nose there’s a charcoal note that degrades to damp cardboard. Sweet taste - it’s of caramel, malt loaf or maybe raisins but it completely lacks any depth. There are no ingredients on the label - probably for the best. It’s a bit like the lack of satisfaction you’d get if you had hunger pangs and only had rice paper to eat. I get no aftertaste, malt depth or mouthfeel. You can forget about the hops completely. I can't avoid the word - synthetic. Did it always taste like this?

Like asking a question you don’t want to know the answer to, this is what happens when you slake your curiosity. If I had to pick a favourite it would actually be the London Velvet. With good ingredients and craft, beer and apple pairings are possible. Ninkasi by the Wild Beer Co is a good example of a gorgeous beer made with apples but it's helped by dedicated brewers and and alcoholic warmth. I therefore leave the door ajar on this beer being reproduced. The bold strategic move by Thomas Hardy Burtonwood's forward steering committee might pay off. Newcastle Brown Ale however, needs not just tweaking but reinventing. I'd like to see if it achieves some potential on the other side of the pond. About £4 was spent on this little misadventure, but misadventure is still adventure.