Monday, 30 July 2018

Bière artisanale sur la Côte d'Azur

There are more breweries in France than in neighbouring Belgium. Putting aside the obvious fact that its a far larger country, you may be surprised by this statement - I certainly was when I first read it in Jeff Alworth's The Beer Bible. Belgium is internationally renowned for its beer; for the uniqueness, tradition and attention to detail its best examples represent. France is known for wine.

The binary opposition between grape and grain is, admittedly, too simplistic. Italy is dominated by wine, and a wildly inventive beer culture emerged there precisely because of this fact. In France, though, beer is both widely undervalued and restricted by a small handful of recognised styles. Most French beer is lager. Many others are variations on the biére de garde tradition - blonde, ambrée, brune - with the occasional blanche, much like a Belgian witbier, thrown in for good measure. Characterful beer from independent but industrial breweries is cheap and easy to find in supermarkets, but Heineken seems to have a firm grip on most bars.

The south of France, withdrawn from the brewing tradition in the North, is a particularly unpromising destination for beer, and you could be forgiven for forgetting it altogether and conceding to the delicious local rosé. But there are rumblings. Nice now has two branches of Beer District, a specialist beer bar serving French craft and imports - sadly I was unable to visit, but their existence is a huge development in a city that is otherwise largely indifferent to beer.

Nice, too, is home to the functionally-named Brasserie Artisinale de Nice. At a glance, their core range is unimaginative, consisting as it does of a blonde, ambrée and blanche. However, each of these is given a subtle but interesting twist - grains of paradise and chickpeas form part of the grist for the blonde, whilst the ambrée is hopped with Cascade. Lukewarm responses from Boak and Bailey and The Beer Nut a couple of years ago suggest a recent improvement in quality control, because all three of these beers were clean, well-made and vastly exceeded my expectations. The fairly straight-up blanche was the best of the bunch for me, but the sticky tropical notes of the blonde were certainly a welcome surprise.

In Nice you'll also find the Allez Hops! bottleshop (or, in the more poetic French term cave á biére), which looks as though it's opened fairly recently. There are plenty of US, Belgian and British imports here, but also a great selection from beers from all over France, many of which stray far beyond the typical conservative styles and into official 'craft' territory.

The New England IPA from Brasserie Popihn in Vaumort was the highlight of my selections - not as straightforwardly juicy as some examples of the style, it's balanced with zesty lime and grapefruit, some minty and pine resin notes and a moderately bitter finish. I also loved La Débuache's Cognac Barrel. The brewery is in Angoulěme in the Charente region, near Cognac; this area is strewn with vineyards growing grapes for the famous brandy named after that town. The beer is a strong ambrée aged, obviously enough, in a cognac barrel. I love this idea, which is progressive whilst expressing a sense of place. It's malt-driven and faintly spicy in that woody, aromatic way, with a dimension of mustiness and austere booze.

Another cave á biére awaits down the coast in Antibes. I visited this lovely town during an almost eerie lull as the locals geared up for the World Cup final, streets gradually emptying and the near-silence occasionally broken by fans driving past honking horns and shouting "allez les Bleus!" Beershop06 was cool and serene; had there been more of a buzz about the place, I'd have gladly taken advantage of the opportunity to choose a bottle from the fridge and drink it on the premises. Instead, I took a selection home, choosing relatively local brews from a selection more generally weighted towards Belgian beer.

Some specials from Brasserie Artisinale de Nice caught my eye; IPA Li Fumadi is a fairly old-school affair, with some barley sugar sweetness in the malt, stone fruit and sherbet and a bitter finish. It's made more interesting with the addition of smoked malt, used sparingly and gelling surprisingly well with the hops. Camín Lewis, an ESB with Earl Grey tea, is perfumed with oily, zesty bergamot flavours balanced by toffee malt and has a beautiful dry, tannic finish. I also want to mention Pacific Pale Ale from Colgan's, which has been on the receiving end of some savage 1-star Untappd ratings. Undeservedly so, though it drinks more like a saison than a pale ale - bone dry and vinous, with that white wine parallel boosted by white grape, lime zest and passion fruit notes.

Back from the coast and nestled into the hills is Vence, a beautiful medieval town that boasts an incredible chapel designed by Matisse and the best socca you'll ever taste amongst other delights. As I prepared for a leisurely stroll into town one afternoon, I Googled the term 'craft beer Vence', not expecting much from my results. Imagine my excitement on discovering K'fé Malté. A real hole-in-the-wall place, it's nestled between a cheese shop and a butcher and seems to perform a similarly vital community role. As I sat outside, locals wandered past and chatted to the owners and, returning at peak time on a Friday evening, the place was spilling over with drinkers from all walks of life.

The beer menu is entirely French, and includes four draught beers. Á la pression, I drank Biére de la Rade's La Torpille, an aromatic and citrus-heavy session IPA with some soft lychee notes in the background. Impressed, I moved onto their stout, La Muréne, which was initially chocolatey and rich, then acrid, dry and gently bitter.

On my return visit, the menu had an extra page advertising a range of bottles from A Tribbiera, apparently Corsica's first microbrewery. I figured this was a pretty unique opportunity, so ordered APA - not, despite the name, an American pale ale, but a blonde with Corsican chestnut honey. I began to regret my decision once the beer was placed in front of me; a 500ml adorned with WordArt-esque branding printed on a sticky label, ink running with the condensation, it looked like a pretty unpromising homebrew. I remained cautious with my initial sips - although not advertised as sour, it had a definite tart edge, which made me think it might be infected. Except generally, beers that are unintentionally acidic are riddled with other off-flavours, whereas this tasted clean and precise. The tartness may even be an effect of the chestnut honey, which is musty and earthy, not particularly sweet and has a notably bitter quality. I'd grown quite fond of it by the time I'd drained the bottle.

Not all the beers I drank in France were great. Some were not even good. Several were bland. Others were really quite bad. Whilst I'm reluctant to name and shame, it's worth sounding a cautionary note lest this post come across as unrealistically positive. French craft beer is a gamble - pick a beer off the shelf at random, and off-flavours may well await. Personally, I'm willing to endure the occasional flop because the hits mentioned here were worth it. Furthermore, in seeking out craft beer in a region that doesn't really go in for it in a big way, you occasionally discover businesses like K'fé Malté and Allez Hops! The passion for beer necessary to make a go of places like this can surely warm the hearts of even the most cynical drinker.

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

ISO: malt liquor

When my dad was a young boy, he’d see adverts in Marvel comics for something called Tootsie Rolls. These are small, chewy, toffee-like sweets, though he assumed from the pictures they were the size of a Mars bar. As I understand it, their appeal was as much to do with the exoticism of the all-American imagery in the adverts as it was their imagined flavour; “they were American sweets”, he told me, “so they would be better than ours.” Decades later, visiting the States for the first time, he bought a packet. And they were… OK.

In my (slightly older) youth, I too was strongly attracted to an American delicacy, though its image and reputation is quite different to the squeaky-clean Americana of a vintage Tootsie Roll ad. I longed to taste malt liquor.

This confusingly-named beverage is made of malt – cut with a fair dose of rice and/or corn - but isn’t really liquor; it’s beer. Alongside the adjuncts in the grist, it may also have enzymes added to encourage the yeast to break down the sugars in the ingredients, boosting its alcohol content significantly above the light lagers that otherwise dominate the market. And it’s cheap. Emerging in the 1950s, it was marketed initially towards affluent white people; one (surviving) brand was actually called Country Club.

According to David Infante’s excellent history of the style for Thrillist, malt liquor began to sell well in black neighbourhoods before companies began to consciously target this demographic. But target them they eventually did. From the mid-1970s onward, black celebrities such as Rufus Thomas and Red Foxx promoted various malt liquors.

In the 1980s, the 40z bottle was introduced (though nobody seems to know exactly why). As gangsta rap emerged at the end of that decade, 40s of malt liquor became ubiquitously associated with hip hop. St. Ides, a brand that came to public prominence at roughly the same time as NWA, capitalised on this, and extensively used rappers to promote the brand. The Portman group would be rightfully horrified by a 1993 ad, in which Ice Cube raps, “get your girl in the mood quicker / get your Jimmy thicker / with St. Ides malt liquor.”

Plenty of black folks objected to this kind of marketing. In John Singleton’s 1991 film Boyz n the Hood, Lawrence Fishbourne plays Jason ‘Furious’ Styles, father and mentor to Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr.) In one scene, the two take a trip to Compton, where Furious warns of the dangers of gentrification in black neighbourhoods. “Why is it that there’s a gun shop on almost every corner in this community?” he asks the gathering crowd. “Same reason there’s a liquor store on every corner in the black community. Why? They want us to kill ourselves. You go out to Beverly Hills, you don’t see that shit.” One onlooker challenges him, and Furious tries his best to press his point whilst, in an over-the-shoulder shot, we see the young man continuing to glug from his 40z of Olde English.

That Ice Cube could appear in both Boyz n the Hood and ads for St. Ides is something of a contradiction. In his role as Doughboy, a troubled young gang leader who fears for his life after murdering a rival, he provides the film’s thoughtful, painful conclusion. Reflecting on the cycle of violence he has found himself caught in, Doughboy’s final symbolic act is to pour away what remains of the bottle of malt liquor in his hand.

Furious in Boyz n the Hood speaks for many in black communities who were concerned about the negative influence of this potent brew on young people in their neighbourhoods. Their criticism damaged these beers’ reputations, and brands ceased advertising almost altogether. And, as hip hop entered a more luxurious fur-coats-and-diamonds phase, flashy champagne brands such as Cristal and Dom Pérignon took precedence as the rapper’s tipple of choice.

Why, though, did I want to try it? It’s unlikely to be good – beverages designed for maximum inebriation at minimum cost rarely are, because flavour is kind of surplus to their requirements. And anyway, malt liquor isn’t entirely unique – the likes of Special Brew or Super Tennents are pretty similar, but these brews don’t particularly call to me from the fridge of the local corner shop. But there is something quintessentially American about malt liquor; it’s big, brash, and in questionable taste. Its association with gangsta rap, and all the racial and economic inequalities that that implies, also suggests something of what makes America such a deeply troubling, fucked-up place.

On my recent visit to the US, I decided I wanted to finally satisfy my curiosity and track down a 40ozer. This was surprisingly difficult, but I did eventually suceed – a bottle of Mickey’s Fine Malt Liquor in a 7-Eleven in Austin, passed across the counter in the iconic brown paper bag. At 5.6% ABV, it’s not as strong as I expected, though there is some variation amongst malt liquors and some can top 10%. Owned by Miller, Mickey’s is apparently known for smaller bottles than mine; its 12oz packages are referred to as ‘grenades’ which they very, very faintly resemble.

It looks like any other lager in the glass, and the aroma is pretty familiar. There’s a touch of honey on the nose, and you can tell just from a sniff that it will be sweet. My initial impression after a tentative first sip was relief; it’s nowhere near as bad as I feared. There’s a tiny touch of something that is recognisably malt, followed by dollops of sweet apple that recalls cheap cider almost as much as cheap beer, and a slightly oxidised, papery taste lingers in the background. Aside from being sweet (ever more so as you persevere with it), it legitimately tastes like sugar, and a sticky, syrupy mouthfeel emerges if it’s allowed to exceed ice-cold temperatures.

Whilst my dad might have been underwhelmed by his long-awaited packet of Tootsie Rolls, Mickey’s actually somewhat exceeds my expectations. But I’ve changed since I first daydreamed about slugging from a 40 at a crusty punk show in some imagined American basement. Mickey’s is theoretically surprisingly drinkable, but I didn’t drink very much of it – my teenage self would be disappointed to know that I left more than three quarters of the bottle. And absolutely horrified that I sipped it from a bougie wine glass.

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Keep Austin beered

At the Austin Beer Garden Brewery, a country band is playing. Sillhouettes of the occasional cowboy hat stand out amongst the crowd. Behind the stage is a row of large fermentation tanks, crowned by a lit-up sign that reads ‘Pils! Pils! Pils!’ Outside, in the sultry evening heat, long communal tables are just as likely to seat families sharing pizzas as groups of friends enjoying Friday night beers.

The above scene encapsulates much of what is great about Austin; the live music, the warm, welcoming vibe and the lager. Lots of delicious lager.

There are ales on the menu at the ABGB, but on a night like this, straying from the broad selection of bottom-fermented beers is unthinkable. Industry Pils is superb, with a depth of malt flavour that’s rich and hearty, followed by bitter, grassy hops that make it lively and vital. If Industry is a homage to German lagers, Rocket 100 filters that influence through American tradition. Described as a ‘pre-prohibition’ lager, it uses corn in the grist, a practice now associated with bland beer from large breweries and, more often than not, a cost-cutting exercise. It wasn’t always this way; when lager was first brewed in the US, indigenous barley was harsh and needed softening out with rice or corn. Rocket 100 certainly has little in common with the Budweisers of this world; it’s robust and full bodied with notes of toasted, bready malt, but the real draw is the gorgeous floral, herbal hop profile which suggests orange and sherbet. 

Austin Beer Works is the most present brand across the city. They don't necessarily specialise in lager styles, but do excel in this area. Pearl-Snap is, apart from anything else, a wonderful name for a beer. It seems to suggest so much of the flavour you can expect without actually describing it; the smack of fresh, grassy, orange-like hops in the bitter finish was just what I was expecting and exactly what I craved when I ordered this at Easy Tiger, a venue which ingeniously combines a specialist beer bar with a bakery. That means oven-warm pretzels with your German-style lager. I should have drunk Czech Yourself before Pearl-Snap; it's more softly spoken, less brash, and suffered from following the assertive hop character of the previous beer. A shame, as it's a great example of the style.

Of all Austin's breweries, Live Oak Brewing's influences are the most emphatically European. Making your flagship beer a Hefeweizen is a statement of intent, and especially such a straight-up, unapologetically traditional example of the style. If I wasn't such an anxious ticker, I'd happily have drunk nothing but Live Oak Hefeweizen for the entire trip - it is superb. Need I describe it's flavour? Am I capable of doing so without falling back on the same descriptors we still borrow from Michael Jackson to evoke these beers? Banana, clove, etc. It's just pure class - easy drinking, but with such richness and depth of flavour.

Perusing the board at Craft Pride, the Hefeweizen tempted me once again. This log cabin pub, which feels like it could have had a sawdust-strewn floor in a past life, plays old-time country music and has a draught list of over 50 beers, all from Texas. Broadening my horizons but staying with Live Oak, I plumped for Live Oak Gold, a seasonal pilsner for spring. The malt flavour is crisp and the hop character delicate and minty-herbal - it was a great way to celebrate the sun coming back out after an unseasonable cold snap the previous day.

A veritable glass of sunshine came next; Hazed & Confused from Pinthouse Pizza. Pinthouse is a brewpub operating out of two Austin locations; I didn't make it to either, but their opaque, juicy pale ales and IPAs are easy to find elsewhere. Hazed & Confused is extra cool because it's brewed to celebrate the 25th anniversary of local director Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused. It seems weird to describe a beer as 'succulent', but that's the word that springs to mind; drinking this beer is redolent of biting into a chunk of perfectly ripe mango. There's a lot of pineapple in there too, and whilst the near total absence of bitterness might make it sweet for some tastes, it was fine by me.

At Wright Bros. Brew & Brew, I had my pick of several Pinthouse IPAs. As the name implies, this is both a beer bar and a coffee shop. These two functions bleed into one another; visiting at around 9pm, both espressos and pints of porter were pouring; around some tables, punters chatted animatedly whilst at others, people worked on their laptops. The result is a markedly relaxed atmosphere which I like a lot (oh, and don't visit without grabbing a Korean-inspired taco at the Chi'Lantro truck around the corner). Electric Jellyfish departs slightly from the intense fruit salad flavours of Hazed & Confused, balancing the juice with a certain dank, savoury quality.

A less conventional IPA came next; GAMMADELUXE, a collaboration between Jester King and Michigan's Jolly Pumpkin. It's inspired by the New England-style IPAs brewed by Monkish and looks the part, pouring semi-murky and with a distinct yellowish glow. There's a strong tropical fruit component to the flavour, too; juicy pineapple and grapefruit. The twist is in the use of Brettanomyces, which accentuates the fruity notes but adds a gentle musty note. It's gently tart and finishes tannic and dry, with not a hint of its intimidating 7.5% ABV.

A common bumper sticker and tourist T-shirt reads 'Keep Austin Weird'. Known as the live music capital of the world, it's the town that spawned Daniel Johnston, Roky Erickson and the Butthole Surfers, amongst a long list of other glorious oddballs. None of the above venues are especially 'weird', but the Austin's beer spots are consistent with the general vibe of the city. Like Brighton, my home, there's a chilled, live-and-let-live spirit that allows beautiful weirdness to thrive. Places like this make great drinking cities.

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

An ode to Jester King Brewery

“Here in Texas, there are really only a couple of weeks a year when you need to wear a jacket, when you can see your breath,” our tour guide tells us. We’re standing next to a beautiful copper-lined coolship; this large, rectangular, shallow fermentation vessel is used to deliberately inoculate wort with wild, airborne yeasts and bacteria. Once nature has taken course, the liquid is transferred to wooden barrels, and undergoes spontaneous fermentation. Traditionally, this style of brewing is employed only in cool weather, when lower ambient temperatures will allow the wort to cool overnight and when the microbes in the atmosphere are thought to be at their most balanced. For Jester King, that’s a tight window of time.

The strange thing is that, although we’re in mid-April, our guide could be describing today’s surroundings. Arriving in Austin the previous day, our Uber driver remarked, “y’all are getting a little taste of the Texas weather”. It was a close, exhausting, almost prickly heat. Then a storm came and the temperature dropped drastically overnight.

Most of the patrons at Jester King this Saturday afternoon have jackets on; and scarves, and hats. Not me though; I packed nothing warmer than a thin wool jumper, because I was going to Texas in the middle of spring and didn’t think I’d need them. Fire-pits are lit, people huddled close to their warmth.  Grey ashy deposits stain their clothes and, occasionally, float into their beers. Others get stuck into photogenic pizzas from the rustic restaurant just down the hill whilst a band plays stripped-down Christian songs and old country numbers on guitars, banjos and harmonicas. Bizarrely, a party of frat-boy types swagger up with cans of Bud Light and are promptly, politely ejected.

What I’m trying to communicate is that Jester King is a magical, serene place, and I’d have braved far colder temperatures to drink there. Situated in Texas Hill Country outside Austin, it’s around a half-hour’s drive from the city. Along the way, strip malls and roadside restaurants thin out, replaced by vast ranch land. 

Jester King make farmhouse beers. This is a broad term that can encompass both clean saisons brewed with laboratory-cultivated yeast and altogether wilder, more rustic beers. Jester King’s output lean toward the more esoteric end of the scale but, for them, farmhouse is more than just a label. Their house culture includes commercial strains from the European breweries that influence them, such as Dupont and Thiriez, but also yeast and bacteria from plants in the land surrounding the brewery. This reflects their ethos of making beers that express something of their place; this can mean using foraged ingredients, local well water and Texas malt.

SPON, the series of beers born of the aforementioned coolship, are a fine demonstration of the brewery’s approach. Based on the techniques used in traditional Belgium lambic brewing, including the traditional long-winded ‘turbid mash’, they are not (and could never be) a simple imitation. The yeasts and bacteria found in the beers are unique to their surroundings – the same beer could never be reproduced elsewhere. SPON Three YearBlend combines young and aged spontaneously fermented beer, much like traditonal gueuze. It’s tart, but not so challengingly sour, nor as tannic and oaky, as the classics. It finishes dry and slightly bitter, leaving an impression of utter balance and harmony. SPON Peach & Apricot has a jaw-droppingly vibrant fruit flavour. It recalls the entire experience of biting into a peach; the sweet, juicy flesh, the dry sensation of the skin and the gentle acidity.

Also given the coolship treatment is Abscission, a collaboration with fellow travellers Scratch Brewing Co. from Illinois. Jester King’s ethos has been applied to this truly collaborative beer, which includes ingredients from both the Scratch farm and the Jester King ranch. The wort was infused with grapevines, fallen leaves, spicebush, juniper branches, laurel and sassafras – I honestly don’t even know what most of those are, but I can tell you they added up to a very tasty beer. Subtly tart and maybe a tiny bit salty, it has a wonderfully vibrant herbal and botanical flavour which is never overpowering; a less subtle approach could have ended up tasting like a high-end shower gel.

Funk Metal is one of the few Jester King beers that is self-described as ‘sour’. It certainly has more bite than those I’ve mentioned so far, but is no less balanced. An incredibly rich chocolate dominates the aroma and forms the foundation of its flavour, too. This is followed by sour cherry notes and an acidic red wine quality, and it finishes beautifully dry.

It’s always a pleasure to drink a brewery’s wares at the source but here, standing on the land that so heavily shapes these beers, it’s a particularly special privilege.

A word of advice; if you’re visiting the brewery using Uber, warn your driver that the map on their phone may try and take them up a rough track at the back of the property, and that they should look for the front entrance on the main road. When you’re being picked up at the end of your visit, I recommend walking down to said road and making that your pick-up point.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Old New Orleans Rhythm and Juice

Off the top of your head, what associations do you have with New Orleans? Jazz, perhaps, which originated there; Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, which beautifully captures its humid buzz; the Hurricane Katrina tragedy; maybe, at a stretch, Lil Wayne? Beer is unlikely to feature on your list. A quick wander around the French Quarter will tell you that plenty of beer is consumed in the city, though. If open container laws apply here at all, they are openly flouted by carefree tourists spilling from jazz club to dive bar, beer in hand.

Granted, much of this beer is light lager from macro breweries but if that doesn’t satisfy, you don’t have to look hard for alternatives. If, say, you’re on a family holiday that is not specifically or exclusively beer-focused, this is particularly useful. Pizzerias, music venues, art gallery cafés and even bars aboard historic paddle steamers all have your back. You may stumble across an unassuming hotel bar quietly serving eight Louisiana craft beers on tap, and reflect on the fact that, in the UK, such an establishment would be trying to pass itself off as a specialist beer venue.

There are some places you should make time for, though, and I’ll get to those. First, an observation – the apparent trend amongst Louisiana breweries is for hazy, juicy beers in the New England style. Of the ten or so pale ales and IPAs I tasted in New Orleans, only a few poured clear, and even those – Bayou Teche’s LA-31 Biere Pale or Clean State from Wayward Owl, for example – had a touch of something tropical about them.

In a sense there’s nothing extraordinary about this, since the popularity of these beers seems to have hit just about everywhere with a craft beer scene, but it’s not what I expected. The swampy state is known for its sticky humidity, and I expected the brewers from such an environment to aim straight at the easy-going and refreshing. Hazy IPAs might be low in IBUs, but they’re also kind of intense and sometimes share the thick body of a fruit smoothie. On my visit, though, the weather was pleasantly warm but reportedly nothing like the still heat that New Orleans experiences in the summer months. And as such, I sure appreciated those juicy brews.

Amongst the best was Voodoo Pale Ale, from Baton Rouge’s Tin Roof; its tropical vibe was given further depth by a resinous, even slightly sharp edge, probably imparted by the Simcoe hop. Jucifer, brewed by Gnarly Barley in Hammond, was also sublimely juicy, with a touch of sherbet lemon and a gentle bitter finish.

The Courtyard Brewery dedicates a good percentage of their output to incredibly turbid IPAs, some of which almost seem to glow with a greenish-yellow luminosity. Situated a little outside the tourist centre of the city, it’s a self-described nanobrewery and looks like a tiny, tight space. You’ll need to come to the taproom to taste The Courtyard’s wares, as they do not distribute and sell all their beer on-site and on draught.

4th Best Body Surfer in the World has an allium aroma, and the flavour toes the line between savoury and juicy, like a mango salsa. The texture is creamy and smooth, and there’s a slightly raw bitterness in the finish. I liked The Wild Party better; it’s especially dank, with more of those onion-like notes, but also cranking the tropical fruit up a notch with bags of pineapple and a touch of blueberry. And to break up those IPAs, I tried And So We Can Acquiesce To Authority, a rosemary and blackberry witbier. It’s incredibly refreshing and the unusual ingredients have been added with subtlety. It instantly recalls the quenching sensation of biting into a slice of watermelon, though I’m conscious that making that comparison makes the beer sound watery, which it is not. 

The taproom is a must-visit; basic in the manner of Bermondsey’s most down-to-earth (though with the welcome addition of a plumbed-in toilet), it doesn’t amount to much more than a few tables and chairs placed out the front, but this is charming rather than half-arsed and chimes with the laid-back approach that earned New Orleans the nickname ‘The Big Easy’.

A short walk into the smart Lower Garden District you’ll find The Avenue Pub. Definitely a pub rather than a bar, it’s an old-timey place by American standards; thought to date back to 1845, it boasts quirks like a tin ceiling and fireplaces that, in the warmth of late spring, it’s hard to imagine are ever lit. Louisiana breweries are well represented on the extensive draught list, and I got my fix of juice from Urban South’s superb Holly Roller IPA. One of the highlights of the local beers I tried on this trip was All My Tomorrows from Great Raft in Shreveport. This is a saison brewed with rye, and has a slightly grainy, rustic farmhouse quality as well as bubblegum and black pepper. I could have sworn the version I tasted was brewed with Motueka or something similar, though can’t now find any reference to this online; my notes say that passion fruit and lime flavours intensified as it warmed, which doesn’t sound much the advertised hop bill of Mosaic, Citra and Bravo. Regardless, here’s the important part – it was utterly delicious.

Then came something really special. Each year, Montreal’s Brasserie Dieu de Ciel! release a series of variations on their imperial coffee stout, Péché Mortel, in an event known as Péché Day. Not only were several of these still pouring at the Avenue Pub, they were discounting them to $3 a pour as if they wanted to get rid of them. Péché Framboise is so good I feel privileged to have tasted it; it’s amongst the finest stouts I have ever tasted, astonishingly silky with a vibrant raspberry flavour that plays beautifully off the decadent chocolate notes. Péché Latte, with added lactose, was a desert-like treat, all sweet, creamy coffee. Do not leave New Orleans without going to the Avenue Pub. Miss your plane if you have to. 

Back towards the centre on the city, on the edge of the French Quarter, you’ll find Black Penny. This well-worn-in pub might have an appealingly divey feel during its late-night opening hours, but with the sun streaming through the window in the late afternoon, it’s pretty idyllic. Note the absence of the ubiquitous, OTT branded tap handles on the bar; all the beer here is in cans. Why this is, I don’t know, but I do know that’s it’s an impressive list featuring plenty of Lousiana breweries as well as those from further afield. You’ll find oddities such as Lion Stout, the Sri Lankan brew that Michael Jackson wrote about and which I’ve never seen anywhere before, and selections from Wasatch, the first brewery  in Utah since Prohibition – astonishingly, it opened in 1986.

Here I drank Hoppyright Infringement from NOLA Brewing Company. Once, Dixie Brewing Company made New Orelans’ local lager within the city, but closed after Hurricane Katrina and relocated brewing to Wisconsin. In 2009, NOLA became the city’s only active brewery. BeerAdvocate now lists about 15, of which NOLA is probably the most visible. The beer in my can at Black Penny is as good an example of the hazy fruit salad double IPA as you’re likely to find without queuing up overnight in New England (and I highly recommend their silky, hoppy Irish Channel Stout, too.)

I should point out, by the way, that the easy-drinking, refreshing brews I expected of the Pelican State are there when you need them; in the excitingly sweaty Maison jazz club on Frenchmen Street, I dodged IPAs in favour of Coop’d Up from Urban South, a refreshingly tart farmhouse ale with a beautiful peachy flavour and a slightly salty finish. Wayward Owl’s Family Tree is a kristallweizen – not normally a style I gravitate towards because I prefer the fuller, mealy body of its yeastier relative, the hefeweizen. Well, not in a humid jazz venue I don’t; the crisp, lager-like quality really hit the spot, whilst the rhubard, banana and clove flavours I love in German wheat beers were there in spades.

The visibility of good beer in New Orleans demonstrates, I think, at least part of what people are getting at when they say beer culture in the UK is “behind” that of the US. There’s plenty here to satisfy nerds like myself; but equally, there is a mainstream understanding and appreciation of craft beer here I don’t think yet exists at home. I like it. 

Thursday, 1 March 2018

The free state of Kemptown

The following is my contribution to The Session #133, hosted by Gareth at Barrel Aged Leeds. This month's theme is 'Hometown Glories'.

The year is 1989, and the Hand in Hand has no roof. Already 120-something years old, the pub is about to enter a new chapter; fermentation tanks are edging their way down into the cellar. The arrival of this kit marks the birth of the Hand in Hand as a brewpub.

Fast forward to 2017, and a fresh delivery of shiny stainless steel has arrived at the pub. Two new fermentation tanks are being lowered through a hole in the floor by the front door; leaving the roof intact, this time only floorboards are lifted. They’ll be returned and carpeted over again before the pub opens. Temperature controlled and able to contain the pressure demanded of beer destined for a keg, these tanks reflect the ambitions of Jack Tavaré, brewer at Hand Brew Co., the brand now operating out of the Hand.

Modern tanks aside, the basic brew kit is the same one that was installed those 28 years ago by then-landlord Bev Robbins, though the brews that comes out of it are very different. “The beers were awful apparently,” says Jack. “It was always the same base recipe and then when they were filling casks, the landlord just used to put different stuff in it to make it a different beer. I think there was one with… it wasn’t gravy brownings but it was something like that. Some kind of brown, food-based thing.” Another, dyed with red food colouring, was given the name Dragon’s Blood – an advertisement for it is still painted on the side of the building, but something tells me Jack won’t be reviving the recipe.

Crammed into a cramped, higgledy-piggledy space behind the scenes, the kit works on the principle of a traditional tower brewery. Rather than pumps, the flow process is propelled by gravity. The hot liquor tank and mash tun are on the second floor, and the wort flows down into the kettle on the level below. Once it’s boiled for an hour and hops are added, it’s transferred through a pipe, passing a heat exchanger on its way through the bar and into the fermenters in the cellar.

“We do actually use a couple of pumps now,” Jack laughs, “we’ve modernised”. He’s made small improvements here and there, like installing a manway on the kettle; previously, the only way to add hops was to drop them through a tiny hole which also released steam. “So far we don’t have a chimney,” he explains, “so when it’s boiling, steam just billows into this room. But that was the only hole I had, so when I was adding hops I had this steam blowing, hops going everywhere…”

Many of the old kit’s quirks remain, however, requiring some creative thinking. For example, Jack sets his hot liquor tank to around 92 degrees. “Normally you’d want your liquor around 77 degrees, depending on what you want your mash to be,” he tells me. “But below the element I get this pocket of cold liquor." Because the contents of the hot liquor tank can't be mixed, "I have to overheat the top part so that when that’s mixed with the bottom part and transferred into the mash tun, it will equal 77. You have to work around it.”

Bev and Brenda Robbins
Hand Brew Co. has been the house brand since August 2016. Since the initial installation, the brewery has been almost constantly used, with only short spells of inactivity. Bev ran the pub with his wife Brenda until he passed away in 2006. He brewed under the brand Kemptown Brewery, reviving the name of a historic brewery that operated in this part of Brighton until the mid-1960s. “I think the way he got round it was by making ‘Kemptown Brewery Co. Est. 1989’ the full legal name,” Jack says. The kit was then used sporadically until it was taken over by Gary Sillence. He maintained the Kemptown name whilst using any spare capacity for his own brand, Brighton Bier, now a much larger operation based in a unit just down the road.

Around the time Gary left, the pub was taken on by its current owners, Jen and Clark, leaving the brewery temporarily empty with the intention of starting brewing again once they’d found their feet. Jack was then operating a small brewery, Beercraft, from a pilot kit at the Watchmaker’s Arms micropub in Hove, whilst working bar shifts at the Hand. “I was working behind the bar here and we got chatting about the brewery. I said “I think I should do it!””, Jack tells me. As Hand Brew Co. grew, he had less and less time to dedicate to Beercraft, and took the decision to merge the two companies. He hopes to move the small pilot kit up to Kemptown for trial recipes.

And the beers? Well, they’re excellent, reflecting an obviously meticulous attention to detail despite the equipment’s vagaries. I loved Hans, a clean and bitter pilsner. This gets the full lagering treatment, spending a generous eight weeks in the tanks, currently tying up a large percentage of the brewery’s capacity but absolutely worth it. Ayyyy, a US breakfast stout is just as impressive; brewed with lots of oats for a decadent creamy texture, its richness is rounded out by cocoa nibs and beans from Hove’s wonderful coffee roasters, Pharmacie. Aside from these, the current focus is on dry-hopped pale ales, though Jack has ambitions to move into Belgian styles.

Initially, the beer brewed on the premises was exclusively sold here. Around 75% of the Hand beers are sold on the premises, but the remaining casks and kegs are sent to various bars around Brighton and the surrounding area. So whilst you don’t have to visit the Hand in Hand to try them, you really should. It’s small and well worn-in in the best way, walls covered with breweriana and ceiling beams decorated with a collection of ties snipped from the necks of punters by former landlady Brenda as a reminder that they were no longer at work. On my afternoon visit, there’s a warm community spirit to the place; regulars pop in for tea served in dimpled half-pint mugs as well as stemmed glasses of beer. It’s one of Brighton’s most characterful pubs.

Above the door hangs a sign that reads ‘you are now entering the free state of Kemptown’. I like the sentiment, but wondered if it had any further significance. “I really don’t know,” says Jen, landlady and director. “I think it just meant “anything goes” as its Kemptown and bonkers!?” And as such, it sums up why the Hand in Hand is such a wonderful place.

My sincere thanks to Jack and Jen for their hospitality. In the interests of disclosure, I'll point out that they refused to let me pay for my beers.

Monday, 5 February 2018

Two schooners of black saison and a portion of kimchi fries please

Last week, I received an exciting package. Contained within was the first freebie I have accepted (alright, the first I've been offered) in association with this blog. And I wasn't offered it, actually - I specifically asked after I was sent an intriguing press release. The contents of that package were three large bags of crisps, sent to me by a PR company on behalf of Walkers. 

What caught my eye was the suggestion that these crisps - three flavours under the Walkers Max Strong brand - have been designed specifically to pair with beer. The email reads as follows;

"Walkers has specifically designed its new range to be a strong, spicy accompaniment to a refreshing pint; so whether you're enjoying a craft ale, a pint of pilsner or a can of cold lager - Walkers Max Strong has you covered."

We could pick that apart, but that's not my intention. I'm mainly interested in the idea that Walkers needs to pointedly market their crisps as an accompaniment to beer.

Beer and crisps belong together. They just do. In this sense, the suggestion of pairing crisps with beer seems an odd thing to hang a marketing campaign around. I can't image a biscuit manufacturer emblazoning the words 'try me with a cup of tea!' across their packaging, though it would be a similarly obvious, common sense, automatic association to make. Pubs sell crisps, and if you're ever peckish in a pub, you're likely to buy a packet without a second thought.

So what might this branding exercise tell us about the state of beer and potato snacks in 2018? Well, perhaps that an increasing interest in the artisanal credentials of the beer we're drinking might extend to the way we snack. Pubs and bars that sell beer from small, like-minded breweries might well extend that principle to the rest of their offering, crisps included. If a craft beer bar sells crisps at all, you might find the words 'hand-cooked' on the packet; cheese and onion crisps that proudly name the specific cheddar in their recipe. Whether Walkers (part of the Pepsi conglomerate) actually feel the loss of this relatively small corner of the market I don't know, but the launch of the Walkers Max Strong brand does suggest that they might want a piece of it.

But, perhaps most importantly, I wanted to know how well they actually went with beer. Sadly, I'll never know the answer when it comes to the Jalapeno & Cheese flavour, since they contain rennet and so are not suitable for vegetarians. At least I appreciate the clear labelling me to tell me so. Oddly, the Hot Chicken Wings flavour are, as are Chilli & Lime. 

Alarm bells rang immediately at the focus on chilli heat - the crisps are labelled for their fieriness on a scale ranging from medium to extra hot. Beer (lager, at least) is often thrown at spicy food arbitrarily, presumably because it's served cold and chilli is hot, and perhaps because both constituent parts are generally thought to be good for the soul. Once a significant hop profile is involved, this pairing generally falters, with fiery chilli either obliterating the subtleties of the beer or, even worse, the beer's bitterness accentuating the scoville effect rather than calming it.

My road-test involved nothing more scientific that munching on a small handful of each flavour whilst drinking whatever happened to be in my fridge over the course of a weekend. The chilli and lime flavour is merely medium on the heat scale, but plenty hot by my standards. The citrus element gives a bit of zingy life to the peppery paprika depth. Brasserie de la Senne's Zinnebir was a surprisingly good companion here; though significantly bitter in a grassy, European way, if anything the beer tames the heat a little. The pairing doesn't particularly add anything to either the beer or the crisps, but they get along well enough. Burning Sky's Grisette didn't fare so well; it's a delicate beer with floral and herbal notes from additions of marigold and chamomile, with a gentle lemon note and a peppery finish. The heat in the crisps treads all over it, and I might as well have washed them down with a glass of sparkling water. Grand Imperial Porter, from Poland's Browar Amber went the other way, the big beer wiping out the lime and curry-like spicing of the crisps but gelling surprisingly well with the lingering heat for a kind of chilli and chocolate sensation.

I expected the spicy seasoning would be the dominant flavour in the Hot Chicken Wings crisps, but they taste very much like I remember roast chicken tasting (or, at least, they taste like existing roast chicken flavour crisps). The heat comes late but is fairly intense, reminding you that you've gone up a notch on the fiery scale as it pokes at the tongue and perhaps leaves a slight sting on the lips. Again, Zinnebir stood up to the plate, holding its own against the fire. The Grisette didn't have a chance - it's delicious, by the way, in other circumstances. The umami meatiness didn't gel with the Grand Imperial Porter, sitting uncomfortably alongside the beer's desert-like richness. One better suited to the 'cold can of lager' end of the spectrum, I think.

The trouble is, I think, that I thought too hard about all this. We don't need to think about what crisps we chomp on in the pub. The correct beer and crisp pairing is, within reason, any beer with any crisps. Because it just is.