Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Discomfort Zone: Uncle Zester

What beer IS is becoming harder and harder to define. This is a good thing because beer is essentially cookery and physics. Unlike single ingredient drinks such as wine or cider, it has the potential to be as varied as possible so it should be. Before ale became universally hopped, the ingredients were basically a hedgerow cocktail mixed with wort. Before yeast was isolated, all beers were spontaneously fermented. The combinations are infinite. There should be beers you hate, beers you love, beers you lay down and beers that intimidate you. Uncle zester might fit the last category.

The Siren Craft Brewery in Finchampstead, Berkshire ( has made a name for itself by brewing beers that push out of their comfort zone and need time to digest. It’s also a brewery that loves to collaborate with other breweries outside the UK.

Siren’s products are esoteric. The esoteric pertains to something that is aimed at the few that have specialised understanding. Esoteric is from Ancient Greek esoterikos - belonging to an inner circle. This pretty much sums up craft brewing at the moment but this circle is steadily dilating and filling up with us geeks. We are to be found in Britain, the USA, Canada, Spain, the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand, Italy. 

Uncle Zester likely requires the drinker to have experienced a sizeable beery back catalogue to be appreciated. Not long ago I wouldn’t have been able to handle Uncle Zester. I’m only half-handling it now. It’s so complex I’ve had to devote a whole post to it.

Uncle Zester Sour Citrus Braggot (bottle conditioned 8.5 ABV)

This remarkable drink requires research. A braggot is a mead/beer hybrid made with both honey and barley malt. This take also has hops and citrus. It’s a collaboration brew with B. Nektar - an attitudinal Meadery from Michigan, U.S.

This bottle comes in 500ml so is easily sharable considering the ABV. Because this braggot is so challenging, I want to put it through its paces. I’m going to drink half of it from the fridge and the other half warmed up to room temperature. 

I pour it into a glass. I’ve no idea what the correct glass for a braggot is so I’ve gone goblet to get my medieval freak on. Appropriately, it looks like honey which shouldn’t be surprising. Imagine looking through a jar of honey and tilting it to and fro. If the honey was more fluid, this would be it.

All preconceptions of apiformes and pollen-heaving purples and yellows are dashed by the aroma: it’s more like cider but tarter. It verges on the Brett/Lambic. Once you let it warm up a bit though, more floral sweetness does emerge. It’s difficult for my senses to accept both extremes at once. They seem to let the dark and the light in in alternations. There is also a note both acrid and sweet - it’s decay. It’s the food waste bin filled with peelings in summer. Don’t let it put you off - it’s just the olfactory bulb trying to find a vocabulary for beauty. 

It charges over the tongue which smarts instantly from the alcoholic burn. My palate does this if I sip a spirit - it first goes into lockdown. This may be a natural caution the body has against allowing poison into the body; gustatory hatches initially batten down for protection. You then get the full rosy cheeked flush of ripening apples. Another effect the honey might have on this braggot is a lacquer effect; it stays on the tongue and in your senses longer than most beers - possibly because like honey, it hasn’t quite washed away. The taste and aroma reanimate each time you inhale. Uncle Zester offers intoxication via the mouth and nose and delivers different things to each. As both senses are connected, there’s an ongoing conflict between them. You’ll focus on the sticky floral sweetness and then wince from the acidic and farmhouse. You list from the boozy nectar of Cognac to the pursing bitterness of citrus rind. I’m going to come back to this braggot once it’s warmed up……

It has now gone up a few degrees. The aroma is even more of a mind warp as the liquid is more conducive to life. It’s as bitter as it is sweet - there’s even a menthol note to it. Digested/digesting mixed apple skins - the unripe and the sweet. The increase in temperature definitely brings out its cidery side. The alcoholic warmth puts paid to anything getting too tart for its own good. This is not a quaffing beer. Sip it and treat it with respect.

I used to reckon on gateway beers being golden ales that might be acceptable both to ale and lager drinkers. This is a gateway beer too for at least three species: malt beer, apple cider and honey mead. For those in the esoterikos circle, I seriously recommend you try this braggot as it resets your whole palate. You might not like it - not even sure if I do - but you’ll keep going back to it for a wrestle and an education.

Other discomfort beer: Argy Bargy Black Barley Wine

Monday, 14 December 2015

Sopfest 2015

The Sopwell Beer & Cider Festival 

I sit at the bar in the Hare & Hounds and watch as a pint is drawn through a beer engine. The pump clip has two pieces of information about the beer: It’s a Saison and it’s dry-hopped. I’ve had it before but it left no particular impression on me. This experience will prove to be very different. Before the swirling magma reaches the top of the glass, I reflect on a similar experience from several years ago: I’d had “14” - a pale ale seeded with a Belgian Saison yeast by the XT brewery from Long Crendon, Buckinghamshire. It was one of the liveliest beers I’ve ever had. That was in the garden of The White Hart Tap just around the corner from where I’m sitting. Drinking has a way of cutting paths through time and memory as it seeps into your consciousness; neural shortcuts through time accessed via ale and osmosis. The former experience of “14” in the garden of the White Hart Tap now resides with me at The Hare & Hounds. Both experiences took place during early Autumn and have now merged into one. As I hold my pint of Erasmus - a dry hopped Saison by the Red Squirrel Brewery near Hemel Hempstead, and after a long period of doubt, I’m about to have my faith in cask Saison restored. In the ledger I keep in my head, this experience gets filed under “S” for Sopwell - the tag for many a happy beer memory. 

I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let me take a few steps back and explain why I’m here (not that I particularly need a reason to be in a pub). For those of you who don’t know St Albans, you’ll not be familiar with Sopwell so come outside with me and enjoy the view from higher ground. The corner of Keyfield Terrace is ideal and only a few seconds’ walk away.

The Sopwell area of St Albans has something increasingly rare and coveted in a modern city - a cluster of local pubs within several connecting roads. Sopwell Lane, Albert Street and Keyfield Terrace connect like prongs on the head of a trident. It’s a beautiful little crawl. Within St Albans, it’s its own little village. There are other crawls down other arteries in this cathedral city but none with the number or the perfect “set” that Sopwell boasts. The streets look little different to how they were 100 years ago. In part this is due to the locality being a conservation area. The buildings generally range from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century. In other words, only from the recent history of St Albans.

We look west down Pageant Road. The Norman tower of St Albans Cathedral looms in the distance through a gorse yellow light. The mechanism in the belfry starts up and the same 8 note refrain that precedes the strikes of Big Ben tolls out across St Alban’s humble tiled rooftops. The barrister and self-proclaimed architect Baron Grimthorpe who designed the bell mechanism in the palace of Westminster funded the restoration of this church. The tower is a turgid orange or a light Lazian pink depending on the weather. The hue comes from the fact it’s made up from Roman tiles from the abandoned settlement of Verulamium and acts as a beacon of impermeability and steadfastness linking three distinct empires over 2000 years. We can see evidence of Roman recycled through Norman from where we stand and hear the sound of Victorian. 

In the beginning it was Verlamium - an iron age oppidum which was later adapted (under new continental management) to the Roman Civitas and later Municipium of Verulamium. It was located under what’s now Verulamium Park. Because it’s not been built on, the archaeology has been preserved. Right under our feet on this corner is where, in 1455 the Duke of York gathered his troops to face King Henry the Sixth in what would turn into the first battle of the War of the Roses. And now in 2015 another landmark has been reached that will live on in the annals of history - a six pub beer and cider festival during the August bank holiday! The beers featured in this festival come from all over Britain but I decided that I’d try and stick as much as possible to local beers. The pubs taking part are The Goat, The White Lion, The Hare & Hounds, The Garibaldi, The White Hart Tap and The Beehive.

Now come back into The Hare & Hounds where we began. Beer festival is also short hand for rain. 
Originally called The Falcon, it dates back to the 17th century. It’s first recorded as a pub in 1748. As The Hare & Hounds, it scores at least 12 in the pub legs game. There is a tale of black goo that flooded through the basement wall from next door. It came from the cellar of the building that originally held the public gallows. The dark matter was allegedly the liquefied remains of dead bodies that had piled up in a trough and it crosses my mind that I’ve never ordered a stout in this pub. Now that’s whetted the appetite, let’s get back to the Saison this article started on:

Red Squirrel Brewery Erasmus (cask via beer engine 4.7%)

Brewed roughly 7 miles from where I drank it.

It’s a mandarin hued slightly foggy beer with a tight elastic white head. It has a fruit salad aroma - particularly clementines & tinned peaches. It’s utterly alive and zings in three dimensions on the palate. It lands on the tongue quietly but then ruptures in sensation. There’s an image I can’t get out of my mind - it’s of an inflatable dinghy expanding into life as it’s thrown overboard. There’s a violent hiss from the gas canisters as they collectively exhale and explode the bright yellow shape into being. Only cask ale in perfect condition can achieve this sensation. It bounces off the roof of the mouth - nectarines, mango and hibiscus - even a hint of cider apples. This is proof that cask conditioning can handle and even improve a style like Saison. As the pint nears the end, there's also a calming pillowy wheat dimension.

St Albans boasts a commendable brewing portfolio. The Farmers Boy - home of The Verulam Brewery - has been a brewpub since 1996. The brewery is also used for AleCraft - beers by the same brewer sold on and off the premises. It’s also a cuckoo brewery for The Private Brewery of Bob and That Little Place - a restaurant in Harpenden. The Verulam Arms (no connection to the Verulam Brewery) is also now brewing on site (on my most recent visit they had a mushroom stout!). The White Hart Tap is brewing too. The Kings Arms is looking to do something similar at the start of next year. It won’t be the last pub to do so.

There are the 3 Brewers of St Albans located just outside the city as well as Hedgerow Brewing who would like to start up commercially but for the time being, are keeping it as a hobby. Within reach - hiking distance - are the Pope’s Yard Brewery, Haresfoot Brewery, Red Squirrel Brewery, Farr Brewery, Mix Brewery and Radlett Brewery. These are just the ones at the time of writing. 

A hop (non brewable), skip and a jump away from The Hare & Hounds is the ancient White Lion possibly representing the geographical nucleus - the central cortex of the crawl. It’s rotating twelve casks on stillage. It’s a Punch Tavern pub currently being looked after by The White Hart Tap (another Punch pub close to its own back garden) as it looks for permanent tenants. The White Lion’s sloping beer garden virtually leads up to the front door of The Garibaldi. The Beehive isn’t usually included in the Sopwell crawl but is just a few metres uphill from the White Hart Tap sitting on the edge of London Road. For the festival it’s including an outside bar but not deviating from its regular beer engine selection. The Goat has a bit of breathing room around it down the other end of Sopwell Lane.

The Garibaldi on Albert Street dates back to 1869 and is currently one of two Fullers pubs in the city. I went in and found a beer brewed by the 3 Brewers of St Albans. They have three permanent beers on in pubs across the town: Classic English Ale, Golden English Ale and Special English Ale. I asked the 3 Brewers about the spice mentioned on the Sopfest pump clip and it seems it’s there for the power of suggestion only. All flavours in this superb ale are down to the four standard ingredients of beer.

The Sopwell Special (cask via beer engine 4.3%)

Brewed roughly 4 miles from where I drank it.

It’s a conker coloured ale with a tight vanilla foam and screams of Autumn. The first taste is quite sour & barky. It's utterly earthy like a handful of soil & leaf litter. There’s an almost balsamic note on the palate. I taste sour plums, cola bottles and even the bitter iron tang from fried liver. Red & dark fruit dissolves on the tongue. This beer could only have come out of Britain by which I mean I associate all the preceding notes with the tastes British hops, barley and yeast provide. There's a lingering sensation of having chewed liquorice wood and my tongue slithers out to wet my lips and I rue the end of the pint.

Within 20 metres is The White Hart Tap. It’s known locally as the Tap. It was the pub on the cover of The Good Beer Guide 2013 and after squaring it with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, is now brewing and selling its own beer. Its beers show a courageous canter up and down the beer spectrum. One in particular stood out and I was able to enjoy it a couple of times.

White Hart Tap Strong Dark Ale (cask via gravity 8.9%)

Brewed exactly 0 miles from where I drank it.

The liquid is impregnably black with a mocca wraith haunting the surface. It has a dark berry & black chocolate aroma. It reminds me of chomping on Kirsch chocolate liqueur sticks. The alcohol and the dryness dance around each other singing ring a roses. This last observation might give you an idea the booze is having on the drinker. The taste is of dark Battenberg and Black cherry Schwartzwald cake. It has a silky malt mouthfeel and a Pumpernickel malt dimension. I recall being bleary eyed and telling Steve the landlord that it was the beer of the festival. The high ABV had generated its own warmth. I hoped it was au revoir to the ale rather than goodbye but when I next came with a mate, it had gone.

I pass the Hare & Hounds on Sopwell Lane again as well as The White Lion and make my way to The Goat. It was built in the 1500s and was first recorded as a pub in 1587. It had huge stables and was possibly the oldest brothel in St Albans. Another building on the opposite side of the road at the junction of Holywell Hill was also a coaching inn - clear evidence of St Albans’ vital connection with London. It was the first stop out of and the last stop into London in horse miles. 

The garden of the Goat isn’t a grass lawn like the other pubs in the area but an enclosed courtyard. It has an Italianate feel to it as though vines should be training along trellises. In summer it can be a place of remarkable quietude only broken by the shrill cries of careering swifts in the blue vault. Apart from its usual line up on the beer engines, a rack of beer boxes has been acquired and I’m fortunate to be introduced to the Paradigm Brewery from Sarrat near Rickmansworth. Their imagery uses a bowler hatted Rene Magritte figure with a hop cone instead of an apple obscuring his face. 

Paradigm Brewery Loose Head (gravity via beer box 5.1%)

Brewed roughly 8 miles from where I drank it.

It’s an auburn coloured (actually it was probably auburn coloured - darkness was encroaching as I wrote these notes) ale with a bright white hop oil meniscus. You can tell it's a British IPA as you get malt on the nose rather than a fruit salad bouquet. It tastes burnt like an overdone teacake. There’s ginger malt loaf on the palate and Demerera sugar. The sensation that really won’t leave me alone is of having a crumpet with butter melting into the pock marks and feeling the heat from it. I can sense wood shavings, petroleum jelly and oil tins. It’s like being in a metal working room. I pause and wonder which of my senses are actually conveying these notes. It aggregates at the back of the tongue and roof of the mouth rather than in the olfactory bulb. It’s quite cloying & gritty.
Adrian Tierney Jones recently made it into Pseud’s Corner in Private Eye for comparing the character of traditional IPAs vs new IPAs and I completely see what he means. This beer was like the sweat of industry and the oil that lubricates it. Paradigm Brewery uses hops from Kent, malt from Suffolk and yeast from Nottingham. The green Opal Fruit hit redolent of many modern IPAs (or the Gaugin factor) - though I adore it - is completely absent here.

These are my highlights from Sopfest 2015 - a dry hopped Saison, a strong dark ale, a traditional British IPA and a traditional English bitter. Half were traditional but none of them were typical. Some honourable mentions should also go to Moongazing by Tring Brewery, Sunstar from Buntingford Brewery, 13 by XT Brewing, Gangster by Oakham Ales and Best Bitter by The White Hart Tap. I hope the Sopfest becomes a permanent fixture.

In case you’re wondering about the name, Sopwell is from the Sopwell Nunnery. It dated from the twelfth century and was dissolved in the reformation. Sir Richard Lee built on top of the site using the original masonry in the sixteenth century (the ruins of Lee House is the image at the top of the article). The name Sopwell probably derived from the nuns sopping their bread in the holy well and tending to the pilgrims visiting the remains of St Alban. Neither Sir Lee’s nor the nuns’ nor Saint Alban’s beer preferences are known.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Raising the Hertfordshire Bar

To the rear of the Alban Arena in St Albans is an unremarkable grey service road called Civic Close. Dull though it both looks and sounds, it sees all the inner workings and is the strike plate, first point of contact and drop zone to every St Albans Beer & Cider Festival. Gears grind from the lorries and vans making repeated assaults as they disgorge their cargoes. Multicoloured casks are unloaded - precious pupae lovingly borne to the nursing galleries inside. On the floor of the Arena, furniture disappears under trapdoors to make way as racking’s erected and flooring’s proofed. From the back of one of the shuttles, wooden shapes are carried in. Some are dragged, others pinwheel and glide above the drones’ heads. The shapes congregate and interlock to form the bars themselves.

This article isn’t so much about the Saint Albans Beer & Cider Festival but The Herts Bar - the native bud unfolding at its head. Nobody seems to remember which year spawned a specific Hertfordshire beer bar but the general consensus is about eight to ten years ago. This festival isn’t the oldest in Hertfordshire but is by far the biggest. The Herts Bar used to occupy a corner of the Stage Bar. Now both flank each other equal in size.

I want to roundup the nine beers at the festival that I think sum up brewing in Hertfordshire today. Though the beginnings and current headquarters of CAMRA are from here, it’s a county not particularly associated with brewing in the national consciousness. The bud hasn’t yet blossomed to the extent that Norfolk’s, Derbyshire’s or West Yorkshire’s has and it’s overwhelmed by the London brewing scene right under it. The nine ales are not necessarily my favourites but each has a specific link to Hertfordshire whether it’s historical, based on the ingredients, or down to culture or innovation. I include with each entry some of my own biased tasting notes.

McMullen's - Country Bitter (4.3 ABV)

McMullen’s Brewery is an icon and a relic - the sole surviving brewer in Hertfordshire from the Victorian age - 1827. It’s also the only beer to have been included in all 20 St Albans Beer and Cider Festivals. As a session bitter, the ingredients couldn’t be more British - barley from East Anglia as well as whole leaf Goldings, Bramling Cross and Fuggles hops. It was first brewed in 1964 and the rough ingredients haven’t changed since. In a way, knocking back a glass of this is like supping the past. It’s noticeably different to the more aggressive and alpha acidic beers currently around. This fact will be further evidenced by many of the ensuing beers in the list.

The liquid is of a glowing clementine. It has a really earthy leaf litter mulch aroma - an association I make with many traditional English ales. It's fruity too. It's as malty as it is orangy - like a tangerine milkshake. The citrus sweetness clings to the top of the palate. Something is missing compared with more contemporary beers - the dryness and bitterness. I enjoy it but its sweetness dominates. It’s important to drink beers from breweries like McMullens to understand how taste has changed over the past few decades.

Tring - Death or Glory (7.2 ABV)

This strong ale/barley wine was originally brewed on 25th October to commemorate the charge of the light brigade. Whichever beer style one might call it, it does the rounds across the beer engines of Hertfordshire and is a local hero. It features Styrian and Challenger hops and Maris Otter, Crystal and Chocolate malt. Heavy ABV beers have started to become legion over the past few years but originally brewed in the 1990’s, this beer predates them. There are only a handful of long running cask barley wines across Britain and this is Hertfordshire’s. From experience, though it gets drunk mostly in halves, the cask usually empties quicker than the session beers around it.

This ale has both the colour and nose of a rich brandy soaked Xmas cake. It doesn't so much glide across the tongue as trample it into submission. The aftermath of a single sip lasts considerable time. Like the pluck of a cord, fruity spirit esters resonate. There are notes of cherries and treacle and ginger. A Jamaican ginger loaf would be as apt an analogy as a Xmas cake.
It's rich and sticky yet bitterness haunts the head long after the glass is drained.

Verulam - Farmer's Delight (3.9 ABV)

The Verulam Brewery is about 300 hundred metres from the St Albans Arena in the Farmer’s Boy Public House on London Road. Beer has been brewed there since 1996. A wall inside the pub hosts a display of CAMRA awards the many house beers have won over the years. The Farmers Boy is the oldest brewpub in Hertfordshire still going which is why it’s significant. There are now three and soon to be four brewpubs in St Albans alone. Kevin Yelland - the head brewer - is quite heavily hop-oriented and has been using New World hops well ahead of most national brewers. Farmer’s Delight (the old saying chimes with the pub’s name) is regularly on and a flagship beer for The Verulam Brewery.

Farmer’s Delight is a slightly hazy pineapple golden with a soft white rocky head and an orange pith aroma. There's the sweetness and spritziness of lemon flesh and some of the sweetness of lemon curd verging on custard. The carbonation’s strong. It ends with a fruity aftertaste.

Buntingford - 50 Summers (4 ABV)

Beer is considerably more than just the sum of its ingredients but if you mentioned Maris Otter barley to a brewer they’d know it’s regarded as one of the finest brewing barleys in the world. Buntingford Brewery is based in Royston in north Hertfordshire but it’s only a stone’s throw away from the Cambridgeshire fields where Maris Otter was first cultivated in 1966 (the year of another England first!) and for that reason it’s included here. A maris otter 2015 festival was recently held in Norwich. 50 UK brewers made a special beer and this was Buntingford’s.

It’s a gorgeous light conker in colour - the most beautiful hued ale in this article in my opinion. It has an aroma like red berries or redcurrant - sweet but tart. The taste isn't strong at first but is amplified at the back of the gullet when you swallow. There's a cereal crop taste too, an orange fruit locket aftertaste with a touch of lemon barley.

The Foragers - Wild Mushroom Stout (5 ABV)

Sticking with the theme of regional produce, this is a beer with a very special fifth ingredient: deceiving boletes (Suillellus Queletii). These mushrooms have a red/brown cap and yellow stalk. When the flesh is cut, the juice turns blue as it hits the air! Fortunately for us, we’re in safe hands as The Foragers are experts at what their title implies. Plus I made sure I watched somebody else drink a half first - they survived. The deceivers were picked within a mile from The Verulam Arms - home pub of The Foragers and therefore within two miles of the cask on stillage at the Herts Bar.

It’s completely matt black with a fine beige/mauve head of bubbles. I assume the intriguing colour’s from the blueness of the fungal blood. There’s a salty note to the aroma and a sweetness that's difficult to nail down - maybe demerera sugar in black coffee. It also reminds me of the seaweed note you get with the nori sheets used to wrap sushi rice in. The liquid itself is quite sticky and forces you to lick your lips. This exceptional tipple really benefits from being rolled around the tongue.

The platform that the Herts and Stage Bars occupy is the most exalted floorspace in the Arena. You ascend stairs to reach them, resisting the urge to genuflect when you get to the top. Leaning against the railing with a glass of fresh ale in hand, you look down at the Main Bar on the main floor and all the teeming peasants thereon. This year, the venue hosted a record 9 separate bars. As well as the Herts, Stage, Main and Cider & Perry, there is also the Oakham Bar in the gods, The 3 Brewers of St Albans Bar on the main floor, The XT Bar in the courtyard, the bottle conditioned bar in the foyer and the Foreign Beer Bar and Brewers Union Bar in the basement.

Though it didn’t make this list (and I missed it as one cask ended before the other could come on), Bishops Stortford Brewery’s Stortford Citra won beer of the festival for Hertfordshire. Citra is a hop from the Yakima Valley area of Washington now ubiquitous in British beer. It’s renowned for its grapefruit/piney bouquet and further reflects how our native palate has evolved. This fashion is not just with pale ales either. What were sweeter, maltier porters and stouts are also being subjected to hop intensity though there weren’t many black IPAs billed at this festival. Across breweries and bars nationally though, they’re becoming part of the core range.

Red Squirrel - London Porter (5 ABV)

This is a beer I see on cask right across Hertfordshire and into London. The Red Squirrel Brewery - originally from Hertford but now from Potton End near Hemel Hempstead - has won many awards for its beers but this session porter has won the most which is why I include it. It may have won more awards than any other Hertfordshire beer and in my opinion is one of the best examples of its style.

Deep and meaningful as it brands itself - it’s pitch black with the edges ceding a deep crimson to the light. The aroma reminds me of burnt barbecued red meat and black chocolate powder. Jimmy open a tin of cocoa powder and the cloud is intoxicating like this. It has good carbonation and dives headfirst into the dark malts. It's got a comforting rich mouthfeel. As you down it, you get sweet coffee dregs with a brown sugar cube stewed in. Smoky dry finish.

Haresfoot - Wild Boy Exotic Pale Ale (3.7 ABV)

Haresfoot Brewery in Berkhamsted only started up last year. I have to remind myself of this fact as it feels like it’s been around for decades. Its location, sitting on the Grand Union Canal, just seems like a longstanding fixture in the local landscape. Its branding - the stylised hares - are both archaic and contemporary. As one of its first brews, the following beer shows again how things are changing. The hops are New Zealand Wakatu and Waimea. The exotic is quickly becoming the common but is far from becoming the mundane.

It’s blood orange on the eye with a cereal/Readybrek aroma. The initial taste is very mild and mentally I search for it but then it rises, blinking in the sunlight. I get both sweet tangerines and acrid grapefruit. This beer tingles on the tongue a bit like sherbert. The aroma morphs from cereal to lemons. There's also a levity to this beer like tonic water.

Pope’s Yard - Luminaire (3.9 ABV)

Every so often a brewery emerges with a statement of intent. In 2011/2012, Pope’s Yard Brewery came on the scene with 330ml bottles of beer made for raising the profile of beer. Some beers are for laying down (or in beer terms, standing up) to drink at a later date like fine wines. Some are experimental such as Lapsang Souchong Porter and some are “amplified” beers such as Whisky Cask Dark Ale. It has also made a green hop beer with hops grown in its native Watford. This commitment to passion and regionality is why it deserves to be included. Admittedly it’s oblique as this is from cask rather than bottle but the reason for inclusion still stands.

It’s ever so slightly hazy and corn yellow on the eye. It has quite a sharp lemon aroma with a slightly balsamic edge. On the palate it's sweet like Victorian lemonade but with a tart melon rind note. All the flavour is front of shop - little malt dimension slips over the back of the gullet. It’s like dawn breaking over a lake and ends on a lemon flesh bitterness.

Tring - Pale Four (4.6 ABV)

There’s a reason I put this beer at the end: It’s to bookend The Country Bitter at the start and illustrate again how tastes in drinking have changed. American Simcoe, Citra and Amarillo hops and Australian Galaxy hops were used in this brew. We’ve become so used to the fruit basket aroma and taste that modern and ostensibly New World hops provide that it requires a special beer to raise the bar even further. British brewing used to be the science of balancing mutually restrained flavours but is becoming the art of balancing the primary coloured, garish and extrovert. This ale also won the gold award for SIBA East small pack premium bitters & pale ales.

The ale is glowing golden with a light white froth. I inhale and get an image of a kitchen knife cleaving a pineapple. It’s specifically the inner surface of fresh fruit exposed to the air. There are glistening tinned apricots and peaches steeped in their juices. The hop flavours are so assertive there's an almost spirit edge to the taste like juniper berries in gin. The beer is levity and light but rugged strength too. Unlike many heavily hopped ales, the malt isn't left out. It carries the beer and safeguards taste against acid burn. It has the tangiest possible oxidised fruit aftertaste.

It was only two years ago at the 18th St Albans Beer & Cider Festival that the cider and perry stall that used to be at the end of the stage bar was rudely ejected as the Herts Bar flexed its muscles at the other end. The Cider & Perry stall (including delicious native produce) landed in an exposed position on the main floor at the mercy of the throng. The Herts Bar continually widens, pushing “foreign” beers from places as far flung as Bedfordshire and Essex to the edge. It seems to me that the day is fast approaching when it will shoulder them out too. There were over 20 Hertfordshire breweries represented here this year and the majority of them - Pope’s Yard, Radlett, New River, White Hart Tap, The Foragers, Haresfoot, Farr Brew, Bishops Stortford, Paradigm, Private Brewery of Bob, Broxbourne, Mix and the 3 Brewers of St Albans - all postdate 2011! This entire elevated shelf will soon only host ales from Hertfordshire and I say bring it on.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Book Review: The CAMRA Guide to London's Best Beer, Pubs & Bars

This updated guide by Des de Moor is a much fuller update to his 2011 version. 
In the heart of Belgravia stands a floral pub called the Star Tavern. I’ve never been in it but it looks exclusive and stands behind a vehicle barrier deep in a warren of international embassies. I glimpsed it recently as my job led me to the area. If it wasn’t for London’s Best Beer, Pubs & Bars I wouldn’t have known that it was the unlikely venue the great train robbery was plotted in. Actors and gangsters alike frequented it. By location, it seems only diplomats would now. I know this background as it features as one of the Pub Trivia snippets in the book; they are scattered across the pages along with Hop Histories (short historical panels), London’s Brewing (panels about current breweries) and London Drinkers (short interviews with local beery connoisseurs).
The guide starts with a brilliantly written introduction: The City that Invented Itself.  It’s enough to bring a lump to the throat as it traces the capital’s history of business, adaptation and flux. This is followed by two sections that counterbalance each other:  City of Brewing:  London’s past as the brewing capital of the world, and The New City of Beer: London’s late but booming resurgence as a brewing epicentre. Des de Moor puts his cards on the table early and categorically states the 25 best venues before getting to the red meat of the book and dissecting London and its treasures area by area.
In my experience, there is nothing that connects Islington, Ealing, Peckham Rye or Notting Hill other than the fact that they happen to be in the same city. Each area seems more distant from the other than a foreign package holiday. Des de Moor might be one of the few people who can connect them by foot and therefore sip glass after glass, all the while taking notes as he tramples through each postcode. Somewhere under the capital a military war room was requisitioned for the planning of this book involving headphones, strip lighting and personnel advancing small models of Des de Moor across a huge map of London. I can’t conceive of how it was achieved otherwise.
The only problem with this guide is something Des de Moor can do nothing about and reflects London’s sudden and ubiquitous beer scene:  when the pages were still warm from leaving the printers, The London Beer House in Haymarket, Mondo Brewing in Stockwell, The Globe in Marylebone, The Eebria Taproom in Bermondsey and The Howling Hops Tank Bar in Hackney Wick and many others opened and instantly made this fantastic tome obsolete! 
Des de Moor might be the last man able to visit every beer bar in London in short enough a time to include them all in one contemporary book in a similar vein that Thomas Young was reputed to be the last man to be able to read everything published in his lifetime. The exhaustive upper limit must now have been reached and it seems unlikely that any future updated volumes could happen without thorough delegation. 

The last major section – Brewers & Beers - merits a book of its own but it goes in depth nevertheless. London Beer Styles is one of the most detailed chapters giving good examples of each style by a native brewer each time. There is also an innovative chapter in the appendices: Places to drink by theme. I think this is a brilliant cut-through for anyone looking for Belgian, historical, art, theatre-related or any other themed venue. I predict that in decades to come, many beer writers will be using this guide as a main source of reference as you can look up anything - whichever angle you want to come at the subject, it’s been covered. I don’t believe a more comprehensive and easy to use guide has ever been written for any city on any subject anywhere. In short, this guide definitely raises the ……. what’s the word?

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Brew Britannia - The Strange Rebirth of British Beer

This book has a bizarre effect on me that some pubs have – it makes me nostalgic for a time I wasn’t around in. In some cases, it’s also about things I do remember but was too young to experience like the Firkin pub chain started by David Bruce in chapter seven. I was old enough but unaware of the origins of Thornbridge. I was ignorant of the art of publicity as honed by Brewdog. This volume could easily be enjoyed by those who have no interest in beer as it charts a soap opera full of characters and intrigue. 

It’s unusual to hear about the humans rather than the beer at the centre of the changes that took place from the 1970s. This book isn’t partisan and has no ulterior motive. It doesn’t try and sell the benefits of anything traditional, real or craft over anything else. It’s about the journalism and what happened, the people that got involved and their recollections. For example, Watney’s Red Barrel is notorious in the vocal history of CAMRA. Ted Handel was in charge of Watney’s public affairs group but is fondly remembered by those that knew him. It’s refreshing that despite the dubious beer, he isn’t depicted as a tyrant. Tracking down some of the cast from the 1970’s, there’s often a feeling of a hangover from the night before - times when the rebels might have gone too far or been over-exploitative in hindsight. Boak and Bailey have tried to interview as many of the cast as possible to present a balanced account of the inception of CAMRA but the book is about much more than that. 

My favourite chapter is chapter eight: Taste the Difference because I read and write about beer’s feel, its aroma and its taste. This evidently used to be nobody’s passion. To the modern beer geek it’s quite disheartening to find that this most elemental attribute of beer – though it can verge on pretension - was until recently completely neglected. Pioneering brewer Sean Franklin relates that early descriptions of American hops were said to have a “cat’s pee quality”. Even worse, a technical journal described the Cascade hop’s aroma as mild “American!” The characteristics I take for granted from hops and the different malts roasted to varying degrees and the current craze for fermentation be it wild, with Brett yeast, Saison yeast etc were all completely ignored. Taste and aroma didn’t seem to register at all until recently. It seems people (including writers on the subject) were indifferent to the taste of beer. I found this fascinating.

This book would be invaluable to a non-British audience as it tracks the parallel histories of “real ale” and “craft beer” in Britain. It explains CAMRA’s amazing ascent but also the next generation’s attempts to distance itself from what was then seen as dogma. In many ways, it was superseded by its own success. The two terms – real ale and craft beer - though compatible (the former under the latter) still grate among many people and there is finally a concise history that explains the origins of this crepitus in Britain

There’s a poignant picture of the remaining members of the Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood and its 331 (mostly absent) members. It predates CAMRA and I wonder whether it might be prescient for the future of real ale fundamentalists. It illustrates the isolation of a faith over one type of beer and storage/dispense method being innately superior to all others. It’s the final chapter and I read it in sepia with plodding piano notes in the background.

Some badly needed visuals come in at the end to describe things too detailed for words. There’s the Kelham Island Brewery family tree, a chronological list of breweries before the modern boom, acres of notes, a recommended bibliography and a hard working index. My only quibble with this work is with the grainy illustrations. They look like they took some graft to find but their production doesn’t live up to the work and quality that went into the text.

The book ends as beer starts to fulfil its potential, diversify (through breweries such as the Wild Beer Co) and come into the mainstream. Images and demographics change and branding becomes artwork. I hope Jessica and Ray write a follow-up to this book documenting what came after but I suspect it would now have to be in 5 or 10 - year volumes as it’s now kicking off everywhere and at once. "Yeah, people are gonna want to it all went down" – said one of the cast of the sci-fi film Cloverfield but the quote comes to me as I look back through Brew Britannia. Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey have written an objective and thoroughly researched history.

Craft Beer Co Vertical Tasting

Well into winter's rain and chill, I went for a meander through London. My walk started out from Blackfriars Station from where I visited Bermondsey. From Druid Street I backtracked and traipsed all along the South Bank of the Thames to Lambeth Bridge. I was buffeted by placards and flags from  demonstrators returning from an environmental protest. I crossed north into Pimlico and soon into the warm welcoming arms of The Cask and Kitchen. There were two versions of an American Brown Ale on. Seeing similar takes of the same style by two reputable breweries, I realised it was fate; it was time for a vertical tasting. If anyone's had the misfortune to imbibe our own homegrown Newkie Brown recently, it comes as a shock: No malt depth - no hop dimension - no body! There's just a rice paper sweetness and the stench of wet cardboard followed by a vaguely Cola-like belch. The Americans on the other hand have treated the style with respect. The prefix American rather than British is much more comforting when attached to Brown Ale. Hopefully things are changing.

Rockhead (cask - 6 ABV) - Dark Star Brewery

Rockhead has a deep walnut brown hue but is still perfectly transparent. It has a soft beige froth which imparts some light chocolate dusting powder on the aroma. First sip is clammy verging on sticky and reminds me of the consistency of the thick cream in a chocolate eclair but has none of the sickly sweetness. It hones to a sharp ground coffee/black chocolate edge. It's this bitterness that gradually echoes across the palate but the alcohol buoys it comfortably.

The Stooge (cask - 4 ABV) - Magic Rock Brewing

The stooge is hazelnut brown with a milky lily white head. I can't detect any aroma at this point. I drink it and it's the fruity hoppiness that dominates. It's a bit like tart berries and puts me in mind of hops like Bramling Cross and Mosaic. There is a darker coffee backdrop to it, though. I think it's coming from burnt malt. Spiritually, it's like a dry bitter with an added roasted hit and it leaves a scorched taste on the roof of the mouth. A beautiful balance - each sip seems more colourful and floral than the last.

Out of the two American Browns, The Stooge wins it for me. I leave The Cask and Kitchen and continue my meander through Victoria, around St James' Park, across Admiralty Arch, through Chandos Place (fellow beer geeks will know why), across Covent Garden and up Endell Street. Soaked, I cross dripping over the threshold of The Craft Beer Co Covent Garden. I need something black for my constitution and guess what - an opportunity for a second vertical tasting arises!

Anastasia's Exile Stout (cask - 5 ABV) - Ascot Ales

Anastasia's Exile Stout is black and impervious to the light. It's got a light coffee sponge head. The smell of chocolate cake oozes off this. When you open the sluice (I mean the upper one), the taste has a cocoa edge but is more of dark berries - blackcurrant, black cherry and blueberry. The roasted malt provides a coffee dreg backwash. There's a creamy malty dimension like porridge oats but also a powdery mouthfeel.

Stouter Stout (cask - 4.7 ABV) - Manchester Marble Brewery

The stouter stout is black too but with crimson at the edges and more of a grey head than brown. I inhale a sweet aroma like demerera sugar. This beer is much more carbonated than the Exile Stout. There's a charred meat/dandelion taste to it that makes it slightly acrid. Something about roling it around the tongue also reminds me of a dry red wine like Merlot. A dry coffee bitterness clings to the palate. 

Both stouts are well crafted ales but my favourite out of the blacks tonight was the Exile Stout. I'm fickle, though. Another time, another place and another mood and I might have gone the other way on each tasting.