Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Silo and the Old Tree Brewery

I've been wanting to eat at Silo, a restaurant tucked behind Brighton’s North Laine, for a while. Perhaps you've heard of it – it’s the UK’s first zero-waste restaurant (read more about the concept at their website). Admirable and important as that is, it was the ‘plant’ options on their menu that caught my attention – these are often vegetable ‘steaks’, slabs of fried potato or cauliflower. This appears, on the face of it, such a woefully misguided and inadequate attempt at a vegetarian main that surely no chef would include it on a menu unless it was actually a brilliant idea.

Inevitably, there are those who turn their nose up – read online reviews and you’ll find complaints about the plywood chairs (uncomfortable) and mason jar glassware (kooky), perhaps missing the point in that these items are reclaimed and so in keeping with the restaurant’s ethos. You can’t win here – I’m sure damning reviews along the lines of “you say you’re sustainable and yet these chairs are clearly mass-produced in China” would soon appear if they did anything else. It’s always funny to imagine these people sitting, sour-faced, shovelling their grilled slab of broccoli furiously around their plate, and it made me all the more determined to eat there.

Silo also houses the Old Tree Brewery. Their biography on the Silo website leans towards self-parody at times (“Thomas Daniell and Nick Godshaw had a chance meeting on a train after an anti-fracking film showing”), but their approach is genuinely interesting, inspired by “pre-industrial” methods of brewing. This includes, where applicable, the use of foraged ingredients. They also use ‘intercepted’ fruit in their soft drinks and ciders – essentially, fruit that would otherwise have gone to waste. This is exciting to me because not only is a relatively high-concept restaurant taking beer (not to mention the even less fashionable cider and perry) seriously, but actually making it an integral part of what they do.

When I visit, there is a nettle beer on offer – this is an ancient tradition, a fermented drink made with nettles, but none of the other integral ingredients of beer. Usually, I doubt I’d give it a chance, but I’m determined to taste one of the in-house brews, so I order it. It’s very good- there’s a balance of tart and sweet flavours which reminds me of dry cider, with a big citrus tang and bitter herbal notes from the nettles. The other Old Tree offerings are a perry and a lemon and lime mead, but I opt for Idle Bo, a stout from Bartleby's, a small brewery based in Hollingdean in Brighton. Bartleby's is an obvious partner for Silo – they’re a worker’s co-op, producing unfined beers which they deliver by bicycle, and similarly committed to minimising waste. The stout is rich with treacle and aniseed flavours, but lacks any kind of carbonation or condition and is served far too cold. It’s also a little thin-bodied, which actually works when accompanying my food, but probably wouldn't satisfy otherwise. There’s a decent beer in there somewhere, but this isn't the way to serve it.

The food, by the way, is fantastic. To start, I have a heritage tomato salad with smoked quinoa and what I think is some kind of tangy cheese curd. Despite my fascination with the veggie steaks, I actually end up going for a beetroot risotto, which has the ideal consistency and is packed with pieces of sweet and earthy yellow beetroot. I’d highly recommend a visit, especially as you won’t be fobbed up with some pseudo-premium lager for the sin of daring to stray from the wine list.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Pelforth Brune: A certain 'je ne sais quoi'

I've mentioned my fondness for Pelforth Brune here before. When I was a teenager, my dad used to do the occasional ‘booze cruise’ to Calais, returning with a few 6-packs of Pelforth Brune amongst the bargain cases of wine, and it was probably the second beer (after London Pride) that I enjoyed that wasn't a standard light lager. If I didn't think he would read this post, I might even admit to having pinched the odd bottle from the stash in his shed  and taken them to gatherings at friends’ houses, feeling very sophisticated whilst shunning the lukewarm Carling in favour of a French import.

And then, once I left home, I didn't taste it for years. It is available in the UK (online retailers like the excellent Beermerchants stock it, for example), but not a common beer by any means. And absence made the heart grow fonder. As I became more interested in beer, I’d often think of Pelforth Brune; what was the deal with that crazy sweet French beer I used to surreptitiously sup as a teen? Was it a brown ale? A lager? I longed to sample it again.

In the meantime, I trawled the internet for information, piecing together a little background information on the beer and the brewery. Pelforth dates back to 1914, and was originally named Pelican. The name changed in 1972, adding the Anglo-sounding ‘forth’ because they used English malt in their beer. English beers were popular in 1930s France, and Brune was first brewed in either 1935 or 1937 (the date varies from source to source) to satisfy this demand with a domestic product. The brewery was purchased by Francaise de Brasserie in 1986, who were then bought out by Heineken two years later. Pelforth remains a Heineken brand today and, whilst its scarcity and somewhat unusual profile might seem exotic to me, it is very much a common, everyday beer in France – it is the most popular dark beer in the domestic market, and one of the highest sellers of any variety.

One of my online searches was fruitful – I found a great blog by Toby Cecchini, detailing his own small Pelforth Brune obsession, and his post answers some questions I've often pondered. For example, the beer is listed as a brown ale on sites like Ratebeer and Beer Advocate – it has a lot in common with traditional English brown ales, and its body and malt profile is no less substantial than many I've tasted. But I've often suspected that it is bottom fermented, which Toby confirms. The term ‘double malted’ which appears on the bottle’s label has never meant much to me either – turns out it refers to the combination of lightly-kilned and caramel malt. As Toby points out, this means that the beer isn't made from entirely roasted malt – caramel malt is a liquidised roasted malt sugar. If this sounds like a money saving shortcut imposed by the Heineken corporation, you may be surprised to learn that it has always been this way.

A great passage from Toby’s blog describes reactions to his professed love for Pelforth Brune;

“I've had friends drag me back bottles of it, with disbelief. Truly? With all the haut de gamme products one might purloin from Paree, you want this beer from the supermarket? This reaction is a mere shadow of what the French themselves exhibit when I regale them of my love for Pelforth Brune. Most of them smirk acidly, trying to parse whether I'm being facetious or not. Imagine some excitable French nerd sputtering on about his deep love for Miller High Life.”

This leaves me wondering whether either side of this argument is truly tasting the beer for what it is. Of the small number of beer drinkers who will admit to a fondness for Pelforth Brune, few will mention it outside of the context of happy memories of French sunshine. Ben McFarland, for example, designates the beer as “classic” in his book Boutique Beers, whilst adding the disclaimer, “There may not be those do not consider this a classic”. For him, though, “it’s like that Madeleine dipped in tea was for fellow Frenchman Marcel Proust”, taking him back to his student days in France. Those of us who like it seem quite determined to like it, just as those who wish to dismiss it as unsophisticated macro fare are unlikely to give it a fair chance.

I have a 650ml bottle of Pelforth Brune in my possession. When my band played in Paris some weeks ago, we decided to politely decline a kind offer of floor space in a cramped apartment and treat ourselves to a budget hotel for the night. I bought the beer to drink in the hotel room (everyone knows hotel room beers are a rare treat) but, on arrival in an especially grim branch of Formule 1 in a less than inviting neighbourhood, I lost all desire to drink it and went straight to bed instead. Much as I like the beer, I wouldn't normally bother to bring any back home with me; but it remained in my bag and, as it joined the rest of my stash, I wondered how it would taste when drunk on my sofa. It was unlikely to match up to the memory of the last time I tasted it, in a roadside restaurant hallway through a leisurely bike ride between Nice and Juan-les-Pinnes.

It pours an attractive reddish-brown, with a beige head. The aroma isn't hugely inviting – it’s a little acidic, and reminds me of Harvey’s Bloomsbury Brown. The taste is actually not dissimilar either, although perhaps this is closer to a big, malt-monster of a Scotch ale – caramel sweetness is dominant, with no notable hop presence at all. That malt is full of interesting flavours – there’s a little chocolate, but mixed with cereals, a bit like a malted chocolate milkshake. Banana, plum and cola are all present, alongside a nutty, marzipan note. This is possibly characteristic of certain French yeast strands – I've noticed it in the occasional Biére de Garde, especially Jenlain.

It’s unlikely to be to everyone’s tastes – I can imagine many might find it too sweet – but there’s genuine complexity here. I can’t pretend to be objective, because I want to like Pelforth Brune based on happy memories I associate with the beer. But if you haven’t tried it and you do happen to be ordering from Beermerchants, I’d urge you to take a punt and try it for yourself. And if you don’t like it, book yourself a holiday in France and see if that changes your mind. 

Monday, 15 June 2015

More Euro beers; Paris, Eindhoven, Antwerp

Not two weeks after we returned from our European tour (which I wrote about here and here), I was back off to Europe with The Soft Walls for a few more shows on the continent. As ever, I was on the hunt for good beer, and here’s what I found.

Last time we were in Paris, time was too tight to go looking for beer though, to be honest, I had little inclination to do so. I know there is good beer in France, but you have to try pretty hard to find it – you can walk past countless interesting looking bars, only to find they serve nothing more exciting than Kronenburg or Leffe. After we soundcheck, we go to meet the promoters for tonight’s show at a bar down the street and, as the subject of beer comes up in conversation, one of them informs me of a good beer bar just around the corner. After dinner, we head over to check out La Fine Mousse. It’s a trendy place with an air of a yuppie wine bar, and some of the bar staff seem to be actively trying to promote stereotypes about Parisian nonchalance. But the atmosphere is good, and the tap list strong – plenty of French beers alongside Belgian, Dutch, British and other imports. My first choice is Special Bitter from Brasserie du Mont Saléve. Although it tastes nothing like an English bitter, dominated as it is by US-style grapefruit and sweet orange hop flavours, it is refreshing and sessionable in much the same way. It’s very clean and fresh-tasting, perfect for a summer evening, and, though served from keg, I think it would make a very fine cask beer. Next up is Thiriez Etoile du Nord. Billed as an English saison, this was originally a collaboration between Thiriez in Escquelbecq and John Davidson from (now defunct) Swale Brewery in Kent. The hops are all from Kent, and the beer comes off something like a malt-driven, bready English golden ale spiked with peppery saison yeast. It's great, and perhaps this one might work well in the cask, too. Worried about drinking too much before we play, I leave it at that, though I would have loved to have stayed and sampled some more of the French beers. The general neighbourhood, as well as the bar itself, are worth visiting if you are in Paris – the atmosphere here is great and a lot different from the usual tourist areas of the city I’d visited before.

The next day we’re off to Eindhoven in the Netherlands for the Eindhoven Psych Lab festival. Happily for me, Van Moll, a brewery based in the city, has a stand at the festival. Whilst watching our pals Doug Tuttle play a ripper of a set, I sample a beer I’d been eagerly awaiting – Dougal, a Belgian golden ale brewed with Chanterelle mushrooms and Rochefort yeast, and brewed especially for the event. It instantly tastes great – spicy yeast flavours leaning more towards sharp apple and rhubarb than the soft, bubblegum flavours you sometimes find in this style – though I assume the mushrooms are a bit of a gimmick, a light-hearted nod to the psychedelic leanings of many of the bands playing the festival. But after a while, I swear I can detect a certain earthiness, which works very well with the dry finish of the beer – everything comes together perfectly. Not so good is the Doerak IPA, which is like cloying Fruit Salad sweets with an aftertaste of cheddar cheese. It doesn’t put me off, though, and I decide to take the walk across town to visit the Van Moll brewpub.

Simple though the journey is in theory, I soon find myself deeply involved in my apparent new favourite hobby – wandering around unfamiliar European cities in an increasingly fraught state, searching for beer bars. This time, for a refreshing change, I’m doing it in the middle of a thunderstorm. When I arrive I’m pretty well drenched, and very thirsty. Luckily, the bar is great, worth the journey – large, bright and cosy. There are six house beers on offer, though not all are brewed on the premises, alongside some guest beers and a wide selection of bottles - many of the locals are drinking Thornbridge Halcyon or Kernel export porter. I go for Van Moll’s Gizmo IPA, which quickly extinguishes that thirst. Earlier in the day I’d had a bottle of Goose Island IPA, and Gizmo reminds me of that, though fresher, more nuanced and more bitter than the Goose, which was maybe past its best. Funky Lambertus next, intriguingly described as ‘dubbel + the funk’. This beer would appear to be a blend of St. Lambertus, Van Moll’s dubbel, and Mud and Funk, a brett-aged imperial stout collaboration between De Mollen and Anchorage. I haven’t tasted either beer in isolation, but the combination really works – initially, it’s a huge burst of very ripe bananas, but the typical fruit cake dubbel flavours are sacrificed in favour of cheek-puckering, tart green apples.

We’re back in Belgium the next day and, having not made much of an effort to explore the watering holes of Brussels on our last trip, I’m determined to get to a great beer joint in Antwerp. Kuliminator comes highly recommended, and I can’t wait to get there, racing off as soon as we’ve packed up after our set. This journey is relatively painless, through eerily empty streets. The occasional cry from a small bar or living room reminds me that it’s the Champion’s League final, but I couldn’t care less. The bar, when I get there, has a similarly serene atmosphere – very quiet, with classical music playing, and a perfectly peaceful environment for contemplative sipping. The place is a sight to behold, too, resembling an old eccentric’s living room more than an internationally renowned beer bar – there’s stuff everywhere, not all of it beer related, and no less than five cats running around. I love it, but even if you didn’t, you’d stay for the heavyweight beer list. My knowledge of Belgian beers isn’t good enough to truly appreciate its wonders, though I’m amazed to see that bottles of Chimay from 1981, many years before my birth, are available. I choose a glass of Avec les bons voeux, from Brasserie DuPont, from draught. I’ve never strayed from the brewery’s style-defining saison, but this is every bit as good, a huge hit of orange sherbert with a comforting booziness and quenching dry finish. Next is Petrus Aged Pale, which I’ve been wanting to try since hearing about it on the Beer Talkers podcast a while back. It’s the base beer for the Brabandere sour red and brown ales, and the late Michael Jackson encouraged them to release it in its own right.  I have no doubt that aging any beer in oak barrels significantly affects its flavour, but this beer seems to have picked more of a musty, leathery wood flavour than most. Perhaps that doesn’t sound appealing, but it is delicious, and adds background to the bracing sour cheery and raspberry flavour that is upfront (to be clear, the beer contains no fruit – these flavours are just naturally in there). It’s a terrific beer which I hope I can drink again soon. I wish I could have stayed until closing, delving ever further into that epic beer menu, but I can’t. I heartily recommend you do – it’s worth making a special trip for.

Thanks again to Dan, and to Doug Tuttle and Trouble in Mind Records as well as everyone else we met and watched us play. These shows were an amazing experience for many reasons, and I’m only scratching the surface of how fun this all was by discussing the beer. 

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Beer and food fail; onion bhajis with Guinness Foreign Extra Stout reduction

Not all beer and food experiments are successful. This post is about a failure. It began whilst I was idly daydreaming about onion bhajis, which I love. Whilst I was studying for my undergraduate degree, I was mildly obsessed by these weird packaged bhajis you could buy in the campus shop – they were round and flat, like a giant cookie, incredibly dry and doughy and tasted like they’d had no contact with any onions whatsoever. Somehow, I loved them, and one of these joined a packet of crisps to make up a none-too-healthy lunch all too regularly. But I also like good bhajis; crisp and golden-brown on the outside, doughy and packed with gooey, stringy onion in the middle. So, I decided to make some of my own.

So far, so good. But the daydream didn't end there. I moved onto thinking about tamarind sauce, which is often served as an accompaniment to onion bhajis. Tamarind has a rich, deep, savoury flavour, but also a sweet-and-sour tang and, whilst it doesn't taste of tamarind as such, Guinness Foreign Extra Stout shares these characteristics. I began to wonder whether I could replace tamarind sauce with a sticky reduction of the beer. What could go wrong?

The bhajis themselves were excellent. I followed Felicity Cloake's ‘perfect’ recipe – I often follow Felicity’s stuff and it never lets me down – with a couple of small alterations. One word of advice I would share with anyone embarking on bhajis for the first time is to be careful with the consistency of your batter – there’s no measure of water given in this recipe, so you have to judge it by eye, but add even slightly too much and you’ll struggle to shape the onions into balls when it’s time to fry them. Even with this minor problem, the bhajis were crisp on the outside and full of fresh, soft, sweet onion on the inside, so I was perfectly happy there.

I’d poured myself a glass from a 600ml bottle of the beer and put the rest in a pan, heating it over a low heat with a couple of teaspoons of sugar for a little over an hour. The glass of beer was delicious, but the reduction didn't work out so well. A couple of tentative dunks were passable to begin with, but dipping with more enthusiasm, it became clear that reducing the stout had only accentuated its bitterness. It tasted burnt and, in combination with the crispier outer edges of the bhajis, the overwhelming flavour was of ashy bitterness. Luckily, I’d also make a portion of bhindi bhaji and this, together with the onion bhajis and a bottle of Radeberger I pulled from the fridge, still added up to a satisfying meal.

Was I disappointed? A little bit, but the more I thought about it, the more obvious it was that this was never going to work. I've often thought that Foreign Extra Stout would be a great companion to a packet of Walker’s Worcestershire sauce crisps, and this might be a much safer food and beer match to try in future. But I’d still prefer to be curious about food, trying things that don’t work, than not give a shit about what’s on my plate. So maybe that’s the point.

Monday, 1 June 2015

On tour with The Soft Walls - pt. 2

A couple of days later, we’re back on our way again, and our next gig is in Munich. The free beer from the venue is Giesinger’s Untergiesinger Erhellung, a lively, hoppy kellerbier. Bands are normally supplied with your average cooking lager in these circumstances – this is perfectly understandable and only a true ingrate would complain, but it is a real treat to be offered such a decent beer on this occasion. And once those are finished, a crate of Augustiner Helles is brought out for us - this is amazing in itself, but I need to get closer to the source. This beer holds massive sentimental value for me, as it’s a favourite of my girlfriend, Sidony, one I buy for her on every special occasion. Unfortunately she can’t be with me, but I still feel duty-bound to make a trip across the city and sink one in their beer hall, Augustiner am Platzl, located amongst branches of McDonald's and Foot Locker in Munich's pedestrianised shopping district. The journey is uncertain – I keep taking wrong turns, the blue dot representing me on my phone’s map feature darting and diving all over the city. To make matters worse, my battery is almost dead, and even if I find this hall, I'm not sure how I’ll get back. I have to question whether it’s worth it on a couple of occasions. But, of course, it is. I make it, sweating and dishevelled, and order a litre of helles. I can barely begin to assess its deliciousness before a trio of rowdy young Bavarians beckon me over to their table. My initial instinct is, shamefully, completely antisocial - I try with all my might to communicate that I'm happy by myself, waving my arms to signify ‘no’ and pointing to myself and then to the glass, as if to say “this is just between me and the beer.” They’re having none of it, though, so I head over, trying and failing to make them understand why a lone Englishman would walk halfway across Munich in the rain to drink alone. I have to admit that it’s more fun than sitting by myself, and a great experience I’d never have had if it weren't for the quest for good beer. My glass drained, I try to make my excuses and leave, which my new friends are less than happy about – “but you cannot walk on one leg!” one of them repeatedly tells me, meaning, I think, that one beer must always be followed by a second. I politely tell him I’ll be walking to Cologne if I don’t leave soon, and dart back to the venue, where we polish off a few more bottles before retiring to our youth hostel for glasses of Tegernseer and games of pool.

The next day is no fun at all. I'm hungover and exhausted, and on our way to Cologne, we hit a truly epic traffic jam which puts our journey time at about nine hours. By the time we arrive, I'm a shell of a man, in no physical or mental condition to traipse across the city in search of the Päffgen brewery tavern as I had planned to. I'm gutted – Cologne was my most anticipated beer location – but I do at least manage to choke down a glass of Sion kölsch at the venue. I figure it’s not one of the most highly regarded Cologne breweries (not one I’ve ever heard mentioned back home, for example) but it will at least be fresh and I should try something while I’m here. And it’s good – dry and very, very bitter, far beyond any regular lager, and it only increases my determination to come back and do kölsch properly someday soon.

Nothing spectacular happens, beer-wise, in Paris, though our show there is very enjoyable. The final date is in Brussels and, whilst I had been excited about searching out the very finest of Belgian beers, once we arrive I sort of lose my determination. Instead, I spend our free time hanging out, enjoying the final day of the trip in a more relaxed fashion. Besides, whilst the most visible breweries here are not necessarily the most distinguished, good beer really is everywhere – the convenience stores all sport impressive bottle displays in their windows, and I pop in and out of a few of them stocking up on some favourites to take home before enjoying a glass of delicious Orval in a café, then finding the venue for tonight’s show. When we get there, Ernst, Viet Cong’s tour manager, tips me off to a nearby shop where I can buy Westvleteren beers. I head over there and, sure enough, I find a palette full of Westvleteren 12, one of the rarest and most widely acclaimed beers in the world. It’s €13 a bottle, and I'm a little torn as to whether I should buy one – it’s expensive, but if it really is as good as everyone says, it’s likely to be worth it. It’s also something of a black market product – the monks who brew the beer don’t want it sold on in this fashion. But, as much as I’d like to, I'm unlikely to ever make the trip to the abbey to drink it ‘officially’, and so I decide to act now lest I never have another chance. After the show, we head to a strange, higgledy-piggledy café (the name of which escapes me) with slanted, claustrophobic ceilings and a ton of crazy crap on the walls, and see off the tour with glasses of Chimay blue. My final beer of the trip is a Duvel, drunk straight from the bottle, in a cramped, crowded drag bar, and it's a perfect end to the trip.

The whole tour was an amazing experience, and I’m so grateful to Dan, Viet Cong and everyone else that made it happen and came to see us play. And I’m glad I made the effort to seek out at least some of the local beer experiences in the places we visited. Now, to make a start on the stash I brought home with me. I'm particularly looking forward to reuniting with Pelforth Brun - maybe not everyone's idea of a classic beer, but it was one of the first I ever enjoyed that wasn't a light lager, and I'll always be pleased to see it whenever I visit France. I also picked up an imperial stout (though further research would suggest it's more of a baltic porter) from Carlsberg, which I never would have thought existed, as well as a couple of 2015's Duvel Tripel Hop, which I can't wait to try.