Friday, 19 February 2016

The Road out of Flanders

I saw an image about ten years ago in Michael Jackson’s Great Beers of Belgium: It was of the huge striped foudres/Foedern - the ageing vessels beer is stored in in Roeselare, Flanders. These giant oak vats stand in a hall worthy of Wagner’s Gotterdammerung. The brewery was Rodenbach and my first taste of it was a few years ago in the Cafe Arcadi in Brussels. I ordered a bottle of the standard Rodenbach. The thing I remember most is the depth of the beer - it felt like I was draining through the larval galleries in an oak beam. It was sour just short of wincing. It was sweet in a way that sugar can’t be. There was something thin yet fulsome about it. For as many notes as you could chase in one direction, there were contradictory notes to pursue in the other.

Two of the brewers of today’s three beers in this vertical tasting are within spitting distance of each other in Belgium. The third is in Texas: Jester King from Houston is a self-proclaimed fan of Brasserie Thiriez and has taken inspiration from their brewery at Esquelbecq in the heart of French Flanders. Sadly I’ve never had any of their beers but now have a reason to hunt them down. There are few world beer styles that command the reverence of Flanders red ales.

I’ll start this taste-off with Rodenbach. The brewery has been absorbed by Palm Breweries.

Rodenbach Brewery: Grand Cru (bottle 6%)

It pours a dark crimson/rosehip red and has a brimstone oil of a head. On the nose are notes of red wine vinegar, raspberry balsamic, redcurrant and molasses. The first sip reveals that the fruit balsamic continues on the palate along with Port and blackcurrant jam. It’s carbonated like a Saison. There is a time lapse in the tastes in this beer - the notes come after a 2-second lull each time like cloves and allspice.

Its soul is the bletting and sharpening as well as the the turning and decaying of red fruit. There is also a toffee apple character and the stickiness associated with it. It causes a little post sip wince which just keeps sending you back to the glass.

As someone from Britain, I regard countries like Belgium and Ireland in a similar vein to us. We are each twisted cousins from the same dysfunctional background. I am struck by the familiarity and yet startled by the sheer alienness of both cultures. We were all weaned from the grain rather than the vine and all too aware of the hungry gap in winter and the skeletal trees. We’re acquainted to the cold and the damp - the mildew and the osmosis; all conditions that necessitated the brewing of our beers.

The Verhaeghe Brewery has a monarch depicted on the bottles of its best selling beer who looks just as depressive as us Brits. I feel sorry for the 15th Century Duchess Mary of Burgundy - she’s the goth on the label holding what looks like an equally moody sparrow hawk. Her face looks as radiant as a wet weekend in Ghent and to be able to enjoy Duchesse de Bourgogne fully, turn her bleak, judgemental stare away from you. She died after being squashed by a horse - her body possibly emitting a rasp in the process. There’s a mixture of sombre tragedy and cartoon strip humour that can only come from Belgium and its tradition of bandes desinees.

Verhaeghe Brewery: Duchesse de Bourgogne (bottle 6.2%)

The ale’s a dark resinous red like blackberry jam and sports a swirling khaki head. Bubbles can be seen erupting across the surface of the head - strong carbonation again. It’s verging on gassy. There is a restrained charcoal and clove aroma that keeps itself low. On the palate it’s very tangy with a taste like sarsaparilla or dandelion and burdock.

The lasting impression is of fig syrup, cloves and red wine going stale with a dessert wine stickiness. It leaves a sweet brown sugar coating on the teeth. You can actually taste sugar in this.
This isn’t the grand cru like Rodenbach - that needs to be taken into account.

The winter conditions in northern Europe that lead to the seasonality of beers like Saisons are pretty much absent for Jester King but it also proves that beer, even taken out of the narrow constraints of its origin, can be beautifully crafted thousands of miles away. The climate in Texas could hardly be more different to the overcast dome of Flanders and yet that’s where their inspiration comes from. The whole of Belgium could fit inside Texas about 10 times and yet the small Benelux kingdom constitutes an entire planet where beer styles are concerned.

Jester King is a mythic brewery that lives in the internet. The website’s rammed to the barn rafters with images of beautiful glowing ale in stalked glasses on hay bales, wooden tables, rustic fences and sun-bleached casks. The trees are always in leaf. Dappled sunlight is forever scattered across the yard. There is an abundance of fruit, of fungi, of squashes, of happiness, of everything. The images make me drool into my own lap.

Jester King maintains a brilliant website and blog. All ingredients and methods are published for each beer they brew and they raise the bar for beer artwork. I’ve only had a beer they’ve been involved in brewing once - Farmhouse Table. It was a collaboration brew with Kernel in Bermondsey. I got hits of hay off the aroma and a note of milk of magnesium. I’ve not had a beer like that since.

Jester King: Ambree (bottle-conditioned 4.5%)

This beer has spontaneously fermenting yeast in so what was bred in the Edenic garden of Texas has now passed through me. It decants a glowing apricot amber with a perfect white hop oil. Carbonation streams up the glass sides. On the nose, it’s a reminder of the other two but sweeter. I get toffee, pear drops and fruit balsamic. I can also smell malt which I couldn’t with the other two.
The first impression I get isn’t actually the taste but the sensation of the mouthfeel - it glides across the palate like silk. The carbonation effects this beer differently too - it really lifts it like a tonic water giving it a real levity.

It takes a few moments for the notes to register and I get orange and lemon flesh, star anise, dilute lime cordial. It’s not sticky. There’s no syrupy dimension to it. There’s also something on the palate or the nose like heather honey. It all resonates where it’s been lifted to - the roof of the mouth.
From the medieval catacombs to the Texan sun. Lighter fruits come through: apricots and peaches and a lemon squeeze finish. This brew actually reminds me of the restraint and fruitiness of a British bitter of all things! The flavour is accumulative like a pint of best. It even has a neat Assam tea/bergamot edge. 

The words “inspired by” are far superior than “re-creation”. With re-creation, you don’t have the parameters for experimentation the brewers who made the beer you’re trying to recreate had. The largely local ingredients, wood and microflora in Flanders produced the best product in their space and time only. Ingredients from a separate terroir, more modern equipment and a wildly different climate will paint a different picture though an expert brewer might still capture the original soul. Also, what comes about through inspiration can be greater than the thing that inspired it.

I announce a draw in this vertical tasting between Rodenbach and Jester King. The beers, though sharing some initial similarities, are wildly different. The aged red Rodenbach is the epitome of a grown up stale to be sipped. The Ambree opens up doors between that style and light sessionability and could act as a tasty table beer.

Here is the mad and inimitable Jonathan Meades with a short documentary he made on Belgium in 1994. Those of you indifferent to or ignorant of Belgium prepare to have your weekend enriched.

Other taste-offs:

Heavy Rye Beers
Black Roasted Beers
World Saisons
Tea-infused Beer
Strong Black IPAs

Friday, 12 February 2016

Bread and Marmalade

On a recent haunt to The Mermaid in St Albans, I opted for a pint of Encore by Lacons Brewery in Great Yarmouth. It bills itself as a bitter and has won multiple World Beer and Society of Independent Brewers awards. 

Lacons is a surreal tale of a brewery coming back from the dead after almost half a century. The original brewery dated back to 1760. In its heyday, a railway siding was even built in so its beer could ride directly out to its wide audience - much of it in London. Whitbread took it over in 1965 and closed it just 3 years later. The rights to use the name were bought from a subsidiary of AB-Inbev by Wil Wood in 2009 and the original Lacons yeast was obtained from the National Yeast Bank. Brewing began in earnest in 2013 and here it is again live and frothing.

Lacons Bitter (cask 3.8)

It was light clementine in colour with a Daz white lather on top. It retains this head right to the bottom. The beer’s delicate but tasty. I’m reminded of chewing through the rind in golden shred marmalade. Also on the palate are notes of apricots & peaches - dappled sunlight that gives hope during the cold wet February outside. It has a bitter aftertaste and a frugal body. This is not to say that Encore isn’t balanced because it is. It’s just unashamedly light and optimistic being hopped with Citra and Centennial. I approved of it so much I had to return to get the pump clip.

Encore made me think about what a bitter is and moreover what bitter has been, but inevitably what bitter is becoming.

A very short walk away I could order a pint of the oldest Hertfordshire bitter doing the rounds: Country Bitter by McMullens. It was first brewed in 1964 and retains the same recipe. Country Bitter has a really earthy leaf litter aroma - an association I make with many traditional English beers. It's as malty as it is orangy. Compared with Encore, it would be like drinking caramel because of the primacy of the malt which has little counterfoil. The dryness and bitterness are noticeably absent compared to today’s brews.

Both beers are self-proclaimed bitters. Both are a combination of the same four principle ingredients. Both are from the large interpretation of East Anglia too. Would a drinker from 1964 have recognised Encore as a bitter? I doubt it. Too much citrus and too much levity. It would have seemed foreign.

I come back to the idea of a session bitter. Beer, as has often been noted, is bread. In terms of malt, the analogy here speaks for itself - when sessioning beer it becomes the food. Because there is now greater choice on the bar, because people generally drink less and because beer is tilting towards the more potently flavoursome and experimental world of craft, people session beers less - especially in full pints. It’s in this context that the malt abjures from its throne and the hops slide their eager buttocks into the warm grooves instead.

On the same bar in The Mermaid, dispensed from a neighbouring pump is the pub’s house beer: Citra by Oakham Ales in Peterborough. Golden and garish, this strong grapefruit punch of an ale is one of the most popular staples around. By a slow gradated creep from dark and malty to pale and alpha-acidic, will we soon come to regard Citra as a bitter too? The suggestion seems outrageous but the chasm between Country Bitter and Encore is much wider than the narrow strait between Encore and Citra. I suppose the same could be said about the crossover of many beer styles but it’s especially true for bitters, pale ales and IPAs: they blend into each other with no agreed defining thresholds to cross.

I’m much more fond of Encore than the ales I cut my teeth on like Bishop’s Finger, Arkells, Badger Ale, Morrells, Morlands, Brakspears or Wadworth 6X. Encore isn’t a recreation of them in my view but a reinterpretation of bitter itself. I find that more and more new breweries take this direction rather than the thicker maltier option - focus has switched from the bread to the marmalade. What it does share is bitter’s reputation for balance and subtlety

However you might categorise Encore, I thoroughly recommend it and think that for bitter to survive, be more refreshing and appeal to a broader palate, it needs to be like this.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

The Perfect Pub part 1 - Naming a Public House

The Perfect Pub 

1: Naming a Public House

The Draw:

As a child in the mid-1980s, I remember summers spent in the back of a car watching Cornwall go past the window. My father and his friend are keen birdwatchers and we’d shuttle from coast to RSPB reserve. There’s an image I’ve harboured for years from these outings - I’d see it pass from my low vantage point in the backseat: a hanging sign of a man pulling a bucket out of a well and floating in that bucket, a severed human head. The pub in question was The Bucket of Blood (B.o.B) - a St Austell pub near Hayle and it gave me the creeps. Though fascinated, I willed the car to keep moving on.

Googling the sign now the image is more restrained. An astonished man spills the contents of a bucket which are red. I sought to confirm my memory with Cornish residents and am thankful to beer writers Boak and Bailey as well as Rod Davis the pubs officer for the local branch of CAMRA. They don’t recall it. My father and sister seem to remember the severed head too when I prompt them. The power of suggestion?
There are two theories to the pub’s name: firstly, a local drew up a bucket from a well. It was filled with blood and he realised there was the body of a murdered man at the bottom (some accounts go further and suggest the victim worked for revenues & customs). 
The other version says it was simply that tin in the ground turned the water red and the name derives from that - it was even used to brew a dark beer. Oddly, these competing theories are posted on St Austell’s corporate website for the B.o.B and the B.o.B’s own website. I’m sceptical about the butchered body story as I think it reflects a template we like to impose on Cornwall: the county has been romanticised into a lawless hinterland more than any other part of Britain has. The locals become complicit in smuggling, the black market and ship wrecking. I can’t say the word cove without thinking of clandestine tunnels, the full moon and flint pistols. Daphne du Maurier has a lot to answer for. 

Whether or not my recollection is accurate, the title causes a buzz and immediately draws questions. These signs jut out from buildings or are stuck in the ground like beacons in time and space. Meanings and relevance are often lost and back-engineered but the character - the attitude endures. My child’s memory, however much I’ve embellished it, has stuck with me for decades. The perverse thing is I really want to go to that pub now. The repulsion has matured into attraction. 

History and Place:

The Great Northern, St Albans

On London Road in St Albans is a pub called The Great Northern. I can’t think about the pub without also thinking about the walk from St Albans to Hatfield. This is because the free house is situated just down the road from one of the access lanes to that walk and because it’s named after what that track was in a previous life: The Great Northern Railway. The main line linked London to York but it had many local offshoots. St Albans’ opened to commuters from 1865 to 1951. The line continued just for freight until 1969 and then the tracks were removed completely. The train’s trajectory, so to speak, still exists as the Alban Way and is a pleasure to both walkers and cyclists. It’s a long, straight, deeply sunk gangway mostly under tree cover. You can actually walk past the concrete and wooden remains of the station platforms which you encounter at around chest height. The original platform station for London Road is now a children’s nursery but the building is completely intact - one of the best preserved in the country.
There are quite a few pubs in England called The Great Northern for the same historic reason. It perfectly links up place with past.

To continue with St Albans as an example, the following pubs also link their titles to local history: The King Offa (now closed) is named after the 8th Century monarch who probably founded the original St Albans Abbey. The Chalk Drawers Arms is named after the workers who mined chalk from the surrounding hills. The Six Bells reflects an archaic bell mechanism in the nearby parish church. The Duke of Marlborough (now closed) takes its name from the owner of Holywell House which was located opposite the pub until 1827. The Garibaldi is named after freedom fighter Giuseppe Garibaldi who visited the city in 1864. Though they all forge historic links, I can’t attach any personal experiences to any of them in the same way. The Great Northern therefore has the biggest effect on me because of the long walks in summer. The more you remember the connection, the more the connection is embedded. 

What used to be part of the GNR - now the Alban Way

There is one more pub that links directly into its own past but also links beautifully to the next section: Ye Olde Fighting Cocks that used to be a cockfighting pit.

Pub Title Crimes:

An alternative name for the aforementioned pub could be The Old Misunderstanding. It would be spelt thus:

Ye Olde Mifunderftandinge

You might be aware that in older texts, the letter “s” is often represented as an “f” making the word succour much more fun to read out. If I were to read misunderstanding as mifunderftanding and say that that’s how they used to pronounce it, I’d obviously be wrong. Similarly, when we see “ye olde” and pronounce it “yee oldee”, we’re not pronouncing anything archaically either. In Tudor times, a letter that used to be in the English language - the thorn - got replaced by a “y” which looked similar in printing cap. Therefore when we see “ye olde”, it’s actually pronounced “the old” just like it is now. I’m much more irritated by this souvenir biscuit tin nostalgia than I should be. It seems to be a misconception that started on these shores too - we bastardised our own mother tongue into this ruff-collared tweeness!

Known locally as the fighters (not ye olde fighters)

Resetting the Trend:

I think it’s a shame that we don’t link our pubs to local or contemporary things as much as we should or used to. Occasionally thought is given, though. A bar in the middle of London’s financial district is called The Arbitrager. I’d never understood what the title meant (still not completely sure now) but it’s to do with making money from exploiting the differences in the buying and selling of commodity prices. It captures perfectly what makes the area around it tick. 

A few pubs changed their names to The Duchess of Cornwall following the last Royal wedding but it’s not imaginative enough. We need to be taking our cues from real life events that are out of the ordinary. Last year for example, the keys to The Carlton Tavern in Maida Vale were left with contractors so they could complete cosmetic work to the interior on behalf of the owner. The landlady returned to find the pub demolished! This caused a public outcry and Westminster City Council ordered it to be rebuilt. It just so happens that during the First World War, the pub was also demolished by a hand-dropped bomb from a German Gotha aircraft. Once rebuilt again, The Carlton Tavern should be renamed The Gotha and Wrecking Ball or The Bomb & Bulldozer and hopefully outlive them both.

To come back in my home town, the legend associated with Saint Alban is that when the Roman executioner cut Alban’s head off, the Roman’s eyeballs popped out of his head and landed in a bush while the saint’s head bounced down the hill. From this treasure trove of possibilities we could have An Eye for a Bush, The White Stick & Gladius, The Severed Saint, The Bouncing Bonce or The Eyeballs & Squirrel.

In 1832, the rector in charge of the church’s restoration funds, Mr Small, stole all the money in the account and legged it. It was at the time the largest bank fraud ever committed in England. Here we could go with The Rector’s Swag, The Clergyman’s Flight, Sod the Roof or The Empty Coffer.

Bag o' Nails is reputedly a corruption on Bacchanals

In 1870, the architect Sir George Gilbert Scott saved the abbey’s tower from sudden and total collapse but was forced to direct the repairs from his sick bed: The Architect’s Bed, The Timbers in Haste, The Cracked Tower. You get the picture.

So let’s bring it into the present day. Last year in Fontmell Close, St Albans, a huge sinkhole opened up overnight and made national headlines. The surrounding properties had been built on ground that up till the First World War housed brick kilns and the raw material was mined from directly underneath them. The hole was eventually filled with concrete and bore holes were made around the site to try and gauge what’s actually underneath. I’m pleased to say that nobody was hurt. The pub titles here could be The Sink Hole, The Concrete Plug, The Brick Kiln’s Ghost or The All Fall Inn. From the point of view of one of the homeowners, The Motivated Seller.

In Britain we have developed a bizarre way of naming our pubs - free from any kind of restriction. This culture is completely unique and unregulated though susceptible to imitation and meme. Struggling to think what I can compare it to, the closest I can think of are the titles of novels. The name can be literally anything - descriptive, ambiguous or satirical. It can be a concrete noun (The Boot), a notion (The Load of Mischief), a saying (The Hung, Drawn and Quartered), a corruption (Bag o’ Nails from Bacchanals) or a comment (I am the Only Running Footman). Admittedly, the majority plump for the unimaginative: Royal Standard, Cross Keys, Red Lion, Queen’s/King’s/Duke’s Head, White Swan, Black Bull, Fleur de Lys, Rose & Crown, Victoria, Albert, Royal Oak, Globe, Fox, Crooked Billet et cetera. There might be an interesting tale behind pubs bearing those names, but it’s the oddities that stand out. If the illustration stops people in their tracks too like The Bucket of Blood, it becomes all the more potent.

More about what makes a perfect pub here

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Rye Monster Ruckus

Rye beer has become increasingly popular over the last few years; a regular in brewery portfolio line-ups. I often have it on cask under 5% ABV. To over-generalise, I get an initial peppery taste from the head. As you down the ale, a deep candy sweetness develops and it’s usually thick-bodied - too filling to make it sessionable. The preceding thoughts are what I’ve come to expect but I want to see what shapes the mad hands of craft brewing can pummel it into.

This monster rye ruckus starts from 7% ABV and climbs to 10.6% and I suspect it’s going to depart from the usual script. Both Ryesing Tides by Siren Craft Brew and Double Rye IPA by Brouwerij Kees categorise themselves as rye IPAs. Rye Smile - a collaboration brew between Weird Beard Brew Co and Hanging Bat Brew Co calls itself a Rye Wine - second cousin to our Barley Wines.

Ryesing Tides IPA - bottle conditioned 7% ABV

Double Rye IPA - bottle conditioned 8.5% ABV

Rye Smile - bottle conditioned 10.6% ABV!/beers.html

Cracking open:

Ryesing Tides has been hopped with Smile (a new one for me) and Mosaic. 

The ale pours the colour of polished pinewood. On the nose there’s a bouquet of bitter orange zest and pale apple flesh. The analogous orange continues into the first sip as the pith hits the palate. Very quickly, you sink into a clay-like seam of sweetness. There’s even a touch of caramel. It has an amazingly clean body - it’s like drinking in high definition Blu-Ray. It has adequate carbonation to keep itself refreshing but overall it’s very steady and matt. The notes you get within the first minute remain constant throughout the sitting. The only added note I get is of a faint chalk aftertaste that just adds to the boreal seam analogy. The alcohol comes through gradually as a happy warmth.

Kees’ Double Rye IPA, apart from rye, was malted with Pale malt. It keeps the identity of its hops a secret but does divulge they’re American. The beer’s also been dry-hopped with bittering and aroma hops. 

It glugs into the glass mid-amber. You inhale a sweet orange mousse. This is also the beer I get the cracked black pepper hit off when I initially sip it; a hors-d’oeuvre as it gives over to lemon pith and a chewy fruity bitterness. It goes beyond citrus, though. There are cherries and cute little red fruits - the tangiest, lightest and friendliest you can think of.
Kees’ beer’s body is a vat completely filled to the goiters with fruit. You sip it, there’s a pause, and the notes start to rise again like the voices in a children’s choir coming back to the chorus.

The Rye Smile uses Pale, Munich and Crystal malt as well as rye. The hops are Centennial and Columbus. 

The liquid decants a crimson blood/beetroot and is garlanded by an off-butter lily head. This head will remain, gluey and glossy, right to the bottom of the glass with near-geological stratification. The menacing aroma is of alcohol lurking under the cover of brown sugar. There’s a more pungent sourness too that the alcohol carries: stewed rhubarb. On the first careful swig, the alcohol is still apparent. There’s a touch of citrus but it’s subservient. The boozy warmth remains its main character.
This beer’s body is very malty and it mops up some of the strength. The mouthfeel is very thick and  quite oily. It’s obviously a different style to the other two beers. When you drink this ale, there’s an uncomfortable feeling like someone you can see at the periphery of your vision staring at you on the tube.


Ryesing Tides seems to be a rye beer cross-bred with a summery golden ale - it’s illuminated, malty and balanced. Out of the three beers, it most brings to the fore the best of my experiences with cask rye. I have had this via that dispense before and compared it to itself on key keg. Cask is hands-down the best way to experience it. If this vertical tasting had been from tap, it almost certainly would’ve won.

In my opinion, Rye Smile doesn’t carry its own alcohol. There’s a difference between feeling the blushing-cheek effects of alcohol and actually tasting it. All ales were drank neat in this experiment. If I’d matched this beer with a garishly sweet almond flapjack or paired it with something like an intimidating stinky blue cheese, it might’ve worked as a balance between aggressors.

Kees Double Rye IPA  does not in any way feel like you’re drinking an ale with an 8.5% ABV soccer punch. It has levity. It has an easy-drinking refreshment. It ends dry, making you want to slake your thirst again. It stays lifted right to the end - even into the yeasty sludge. A lot of experience has gone into this. It’s the first time I’ve ever had a beer by Brouwerij Kees and it’s the winner in this heavy rye shoot-out. Seek it out!

Other Taste-offs:

Black Roast Beers
Flanders Red Ales
World Saisons
Tea-infused Beer
Strong Black IPAs