Friday, 23 November 2018

Artisautza garagardoa Bilbon

There’s a resinous quality to the air on Goienkale, in Bilbao’s old town. Shops selling studded belts, Dr. Martens and Dead Boys records give this street a certain vibe – like Camden, but not trying so hard – which is completed by the groups of scruffy but friendly-looking young punks crouching outside the bars. The dank aromas might be something to do with them.

When I first visited Bilbao, aged around 14, my main priority was seeking out cheap Ramones CDs. That mission quite likely took me to this part of town, though I can’t really remember. It was probably the gently edgy feel to the place that made me fall in love with the city – it was one of the first places my parents took me on holiday that I actively enjoyed, rather than passively being dragged around between plates of chips and glasses of Coke in continental cafes.

Priorities changes, of course. There seems to be a punk show on at a squatted building down the road; but I’m more interested in wolfing down vegan pinxtos, the Basque equivalent of tapas, in a couple of the local bars. My introduction to Basque beer comes at Tirauki, where a selection of bottled beers displayed on the bar offer a welcome diversion from the Heineken brands on tap. From these, I opt for Pink Porter from local outfit La Txika de la Cerveza. I'm a little taken aback at first, not expecting vanilla and dark sugar that suggest rum ‘n’ raisin ice cream. Served cold and being relatively light of body, this hits a sweet spot between refreshing and interesting.

Moving out of the old town and crossing the river, I head for Café Bihotz. This place is intimate, but very cool in a minimalist, Scandinavian fashion like a hipster coffee shop – which, by day at least, is what it is; in the evening, candles are lit and beer pours from six draught lines. Initially bypassing these, I get stuck into the menu of bottles and cans, starting with Zapaburu from Basque brewery Laugar. Billed a hazy IPA but not especially murky, it has a sticky tropical mandarin edge, balanced with a touch of dankness. Dumbstruck from Jakobsland, a little further afield in Santiago de Compostela, is an ode to Citra hops, bursting with juicy lychee.

Of the draught beers, I plump for the local option -  Basqueland’s Brut Reynolds. Obviously enough, it’s brut IPA, a zeitgeist style at the moment and one I happen to be keen on. Like the best examples, this has a real precision and clarity of flavour, boosted by a very dry and bitter finish. I struggle all the way through the glass to put my finger on the dominant flavour – my best attempt is citrus zest and cannabis, with an earthy pine sap quality. On the way home, in a misplaced effort at sophistication, I stop at a cocktail bar and order almost blindly from a menu written in Spanish. I curse my monoglottism when a mango smoothie-style drink arrives in a milk bottle with a striped paper straw. I mention it because it was accompanied by a sprig of fresh oregano; chew on a leaf and sip the mango puree and the flavour sensation uncannily recalls the IPA from earlier in the evening.

The principal rationale for choosing Bilbao as a destination was the Guggenheim museum, somewhere I definitely did not appreciate on my previous visit as a teenager. It’s sensational, obviously, but a lengthy wander through its galleries builds up a significant hunger and thirst; Basquery is the answer. Though listed on Ratebeer and other sites as a brewpub, it looks to me more like a full-size production brewery with a deli, bakery and restaurant attached. The staff, initially bamboozled by my presence (I think I was maybe slightly early for full lunch service and this was the source of confusion, but I can’t be sure) valiantly overcome a significant language barrier to sort me out with a nice lunch and some impressive beers.

Itsasbeer is a saison incorporating grape must from a local winemaker specialising in the beautifully dry and acidic Basque white, txaokoli.  I’ll admit to being a sucker for almost any beer that straddles the boundary between grape and grain, but there’s something particularly wonderful about the crisp, tannic quality of white grapes in a saison; a gently floral air rounds it out and a dry, peppery finish almost demands another swig. Hitman, an IPA, is less distinctive, but very good, recalling that same mango/oregano interplay I’d found over at Bihotz the previous evening.

An audible buzz of conversation hit me from halfway down the street as I approached Singular. The place is bustling, seemingly fulfilling an important community function as a place for locals to meet for beer and pinxtos. The tap list is short but well curated and boosted by a decent selection of bottles and cans. I choose another from Basqueland, Aupa, and settle down with my book. I’m distracted first by the beer, which has an austere blood orange bitterness about it and a remarkable cleanliness. Then there’s the general ambience of the place, the people-watching potential, and the delightful old beagle scampering about. Before long I’ve put the book down, deciding I need no further stimulation than the beer in my glass and the ambience of the room.

A can of Salda Badago from the unfortunately-named Gross brewery in San Sebastien follows. The flavour is oddly nostalgic – it tastes exactly like Barratt’s Fruit Salad chews. The key elements here are pineapple and vanilla, but there’s a more grown-up edge of sharp tropical fruit and a notable bitterness in the finish. To finish, a small glass of Aupa Tovarisch, from the aforementioned Laugar (‘aupa’, by the way, is apparently a Basque expression meaning something analogous to ‘cheers’). This is a complex imperial stout that I initially find hard work, such is its intensity – my notes read “I will probably feel very pissed by the time I’ve finished this (very small) glass.” A rounded coffee depth of flavour props up notes of maple syrup, orange oil and gingerbread, finishing on a port wine tang. After a good 45 minutes of slow sipping, I decide its excellent and leave before I can be tempted by another.

Penguin Bar has a somewhat familiar feel; with a minimal, faintly industrial vibe and 16-strong tap list chalked on the walk, it's in the mould of craft beer bars in major cities the world over. Personally, I don’t hold that against the place; it's atmospheric with a young, hip crowd amongst whom I obviously feel right at home. There are several house beers, and its not easy to ascertain who brews these – some sources suggest it’s Txorierri Garagardoak, based just outside the city in Sondika. APA Blonde eases me in, and it’s a solid West Coast pale ale with a resinous, piney quality rounded out by some stone fruit.

To follow, I catch up with a couple of Barcelona breweries. I’m excited to reacquaint myself with Appasionada from Barcelona’s Edge, but I'm let down as its vibrant passion fruit aroma is muddied with buttery diacetyl. Beanz, a double IPA brewed in collaboration between Garage Brewing and Ireland’s Whiplash, is straight-up bizarre. I’m taken aback by its distinctly Middle Eastern vibe, which primarily recalls mint tea but with a musty quality redolent of saffron. Tropical fruit lurks underneath, sure, but I’m astonished to look it up and find that it doesn’t contain any kind of wacky adjunct ingredient. Perhaps this is what happens to New England IPAs when the savoury, caraway-type flavours almost completely take over? It’s interesting to begin with, but soon becomes difficult to drink.

Barcelona might be the more obviously fruitful location for beer, but on this evening in Penguin Bar, the Basque country easily has the edge. I’m aware that I end almost every travel post on this blog by saying something along the lines of ‘city X might not be an obvious beer location, but if you’re going anyway, there’s good stuff to be found.” Having spotted this trend, I should now resist it, but the truth is it applies perfectly to Bilbao. The dedicated ticker, such as myself, will gain satisfaction from the fact that the city’s beer locations can all be visited over the course of a weekend. There may be a couple of duds along the way – the worst Spanish beers can be really bad in my experience - but that’s tolerable. And at the very worst, I can heartily recommend sitting with a one-Euro tin of Mahou on the edge of the Nervión river in the sun.

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Drinking in Vilnius, pt.3 - Lithuania's craft capital

Catch up on my Lithuanian adventure in part one here and part two here.

The concept of 'craft beer' only really makes sense in a particular context. A beer like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale emerged in a marketplace almost entirely dominated by mass-produced lager; the craft beer ideology, which values independence, traditional methods and bold flavour, defined itself against that dominance.

How, then, do we understand this imported American term when applied countries with rich traditions of independent and flavoursome beer? That binary opposition - craft vs mass produced - is complicated when there is a tradition, like cask beer in the UK, that is independent and flavoursome, and yet doesn't sit entirely comfortably within widespread understandings of craft beer. And craft beer is also not necessarily tied to a place - you can travel for thousands of miles in search of local brews, and find IPAs pretty similar to those you enjoy at home.

As this article for October suggests - farmhouse beer in Lithuania is in a precarious position, some of its brightest stars facing the possibility of extinction. It would be a terrible shame to lose these unique brews and find them all replaced by double IPAs. For the time being, though, there is welcome variety on offer in Vilnius. Much as I enjoyed the esoteric traditional beers, I wouldn't want to drink them all the time. The obligatory trendy craft beer bars showcase a modern-minded brewing scene in fine fettle, and in some venues American-style craft and farmhouse styles rub shoulders.

Pluck a bottle of Genys' Tamsus Miškas from the fridges at Bambalyne and you might expect one of the distinctively Lithuanian dark beer labelled as tamsusis. What you actually get is a chocolate porter. And a very good one, too – sweet and creamy with chocolatey decadence, but with a hint of sharp dried fruit, coffee roast and earthy nuts to add complexity. Dark Forest is, I think, the barrel-aged incarnation of the same beer, and has many of the same qualities alongside a sizeable dose of vanilla and a very subtle bourbon aftertaste. I’ve plenty of time for strong, assertive barrel-aged beers, but the strength of this particular one is its subtlety. 

What’s in a name? The moniker Nisha Craft Capital is a statement of intent; their anniversary T-shirt that reads “it’s been 2 years since the day that Vilnius was introduced to beer” even more so. I’m happy to dismissively roll my eyes at that notion – others might be less generous. Obviously enough, there are none of your rustic kaimiškas here. Lithuanian brewers are well represented, however, but working with international styles. You don’t need to travel to Lithuania to drink a Mango Milkshake IPA, for instance, though I was especially taken with the version from Apynys. I ordered it for some silly fun, but what I got was a sophisticated take on the New England IPA – not overly sweet, and using mango almost as seasoning to boost the naturally juicy hop profile rather than as an overbearing adjunct. A grainy, lager-like note in the finish might placate those who complain that modern IPAs “don’t taste like beer.”

A less convincing take on the NEIPA is Blacklights Multijuice. It opens with a sharp tropical aroma, and initially tastes soapy, floral and waxy with a big lemon zest dimension. Some sticky passion fruit emerges eventually, but that’s the only concession to the expected fruit salad effect you’d expect from the style. The good news is that it is, in all other respects, a very good beer; subtle and sessionable with bright flavours that complimented a summery evening beautifully.

I mentioned Dundulis in my previous post, noting that whilst they’re primarily concerned with modern craft styles, they make the occasional nod to tradition. Their IPA, Humulupu, was Lithuania’s first, and it’s pretty good, though already somewhat dated with caramel malt and English-style earthy, spicy hops, finishing on a notably bitter piney note. Their beers are easily found in Vilnius, including at several branches of their own Špunka bars. I visisted Etmonų Špunka, seemingly a popular spot for attractive young people and absolutely heaving. Here I drank Gutstoutas, a sweet oatmeal stout with a tobacco-like hop profile and chocolatey depth of malt flavour. Sadly it’s also thin where it should be rich and creamy, with a touch too much buttery diacetyl and some off-putting acidity. I’d highly recommend you swing by for the ambience, and probably best stick to the IPA when you do.

Just around the corner is Prohibicija, situated off a buzzing communal courtyard amongst a number of other bars and food joints. If you want a break from oddball Lithuanian styles but still want to drink local, a visit here should be your priority. The aforementioned Apynys teamed up with Russia’s Courage and Midnight Project from Belarus for 3 in 1 IPA, and it’s another clean and accomplished effort. Though crystal clear, it has much of the saturated stone fruit character you’d expect from a much hazier beer, but is much more refreshing and less intense.

Also skirting the NEIPA fruit bowl is Marakešas from Kuro Aparatūra, nominally a ‘hopfenweiss’ with the emphasis very much on the hop rather than the weiss. Alongside the tropical fruit there’s an edge of gooseberry which just verges on tartness and freshening the whole thing up like a squirt of lime on a wedge of ripe mango and finishing on a gorgeous zingy, sherbet-like note. NemieGOSEPareiGOSE, from the same brewery, was similarly impressive. Clean and sharp with a tart green apple quality, it also has a notable coriander component which gels very nicely with some pear-like esters, finishing with a perfumed, rosewater taste.

I feel no shame in admitting that after just a few days of oddball farmhouse beer, the occasional IPA really hit the spot. But I'd never take the latter at the expense of the former; after all, hopfenweisse and gose are no reason to travel to Vilnius - raw ale and keptinis are.

Thursday, 13 September 2018

Drinking in Vilnius, pt. 2: the Lithuanian national character

Part 1 of my Lithuanian adventure can be found here, and part 3 is here.

The most obscure farmhouse beers initially attracted me to Vilnius but really, my goal was seeking out beers with a distinctively Lithuanian character regardless of the size of the brewery. It doesn’t take long to notice some common characteristics amongst Lithuanian beer and certain descriptors – rustic, barnyard, nutty, straw-like, etc. – are bound to recur throughout this post, which covers a variety of beers that don’t necessarily all come from tiny microbreweries, but do all offer a flavour of Lithuania.

Take Kanapių from Taruškų, a modest regional rather than a tiny one-brewer operation. They’re known for their Kanapinis range, one of which I have tasted before and enjoyed. However I was most intrigued by Kanapių, which boasts the interesting gimmick of being brewed with toasted hemp seeds, and quickly found it on tap in Šnekutis Mikalojaus. It smells a lot like toasted seeds, and the nutty, earthy quality in the aroma quickly registers in the taste, too. Its full bodied and sweet, almost like unfermented wort, but also deeply savoury, earthy and herbal, with lots of bread crust, mint and cereals. Wonderfully complex, downright weird, very tasty.

Leave the old town and head for the river which separates Vilnius’ centre from the slick, shiny financial district and you’ll find Alaus Namai. This unpretentious basement pub has an impressive beer list, including examples from some of the small traditional brewers. Most excitingly to me was Kaimiškas, a keptinis beer brewed by Ramūno Čižo. This old Lithuanian tradition involves baking the mash in an oven before fermentation. Surprisingly dispensed from a cask via a beer engine and happily served in a branded clay mug, it had a strong aroma of overripe fruit, somewhat like a Belgian dubbel. A sharp, fruity, plum-like flavour struck me first, then medicinal sarsaparilla and liquorice. As I grew used to it, I began to notice parallels to a German dunkelweiss, the caramelised grain flavours gelling with banana and rhubarb. The complexity far outstrips even the best dunkelweiss though, and further surprises kept coming the more I slugged – smoke, rye bread, honey – and the bitterness seemed to build and build. Exactly the sort of delicious oddball I came to Vilnius for.

Beer nerds who want to find out more about diacetyl can do so using an off-flavours kit, adding a drop of this much-maligned chemical compound to an otherwise neutral beer in order to study it and better spot it out in the wild. If you want to really revel in diacetyl though, I’d recommend a trip to Lithuania, where a great number of beers are positively riddled with it. You could start with Davra’s Daujotu, also available at Alaus Namai. As I drank this beer, I pondered the nostalgic memory it stirred in me; something about it strongly reminded me of sweets I’d eaten as a child. At first I thought it might be ice cream flavoured Chewits but, although there is a strong vanilla component to its flavour, that wasn’t quite right. Eventually it hit me – the popcorn flavoured sweet you find in a packet of Jelly Belly jelly beans. Diacetyl is often described as something like buttery or butterscotch-coated popcorn, so it makes sense.

Daujotu might surprise you because, a) it tastes of almost nothing but diacetyl, a flavour that most beer geeks agree is generally undesirable and a tell-tale sign of sloppy brewing, and yet, b) it’s extremely drinkable. Leave your preconceptions of what flavours do and don’t belong in a beer back home if you hope to enjoy drinking in Vilnius.

The butterscotch is dialled down a little in Varniuku, Davra's tamsusis. This term denotes a dark beer, though this might turn out to be a straightforward porter rather than an indigenous Lithuanian style. Varniuku belongs firmly in the latter category, though it has plenty in common with Czech and German dark lagers - milk chocolate, caramel and cola, with the diacetyl singing harmoniously with bready roasted grain.

In the gorgeous cellar bar and bottle shop Bambalyne, I was recommended Cyrulis from Dundulis. Influenced by Czech pilsners, where diacetyl is also not uncommon in smaller doses, the beer nevertheless speaks with a tell-tale Lithuanian accent as suggestions of hay and walnuts emerge.This approach is indicative of Dundulis’ wider ethos; though dealing principally in modern styles, they also respect tradition. A commendable ambition, but I had mixed experiences with the beers, and the more esoteric styles were to my mind less successful.

Also at Bambalyne was Syrne, brewed with peas in the grist in a practice popularised by grain shortages in the Soviet era. It’s an interesting concept but unfortunately a minor disaster of a beer. (I realise I have just recently written that a shift of perspective around off-flavours is required to understand Lithuanian beer, but there are limits.) Smelling fairly strongly of manure, it’s flawed with smoky notes that recall at best Islay whisky, but more accurately TCP, and finishes on an unpleasant sour note that suggests it’s infected. Their Keptinis is better, with some vibrant apple and plum notes and a porter-like caramelised malt character, though it’s still distractingly acidic. There’ll be more on Dundulis’ more ‘craft’ offerings next time, but sadly their nods to tradition, however admirable, aren’t yielding delicious results.

A more refined beer with peas is Širvenos from regional brewer Biržų. A fairly conventional lager in style, it’s hard to tell whether the peas make any difference to the flavour or whether this is just the power of suggestion. It’s a touch sweeter than your average lager, with lots of honey eventually giving way to tangy honeycomb and crisp malt. Unlike some I tasted in Vilnus, this is not a beer that shocks and puzzles, but it has a certain something.

For another twist on lager, I’d pass on a tip from the barman at Šnekutis Stepono and recommend Armeniukas’s Jurgenborg. I suspect the malt in this beer might be Lithuanian, as it shares a slightly rough, dusty, rustic quality with many of the other beers mentioned in this post (and some diacetyl, though at this point that should go without saying). The focus, though, is on hops – seemingly noble hops, though they come off dank and citrusy rather than grassy and herbal. As it warms, estery weissbier-like notes take over, with waves of banana and pear. Whilst it’s not the most distinctively Lithuanian beer, it is nevertheless not quite like anything I’ve tasted elsewhere and I absolutely loved it.

As with many European beer cultures, though, there are plenty of brewers more interested in foreign influences than local tastes. In my final digest from Vilnius, we’ll look at some venues who proudly advertise something called ‘craft beer’.

Thursday, 6 September 2018

Drinking in Vilnius, pt.1 : Jovarų Alus

Photo by Lars Marius Garshol

Whenever I think about Lithuanian beer – which has been, over the past few years, fairly frequently – a very specific image is summoned in my mind. The image is of a brown PET bottle, the label of which depicts a grimacing man with a tangled grey beard, a battered straw hat on his head. The picture is one posted by Lars Marius Garshol, chronicler of obscure and fascinating farmhouse beer traditions, on his wonderful blog.

This photo, and Lars’ tales of Lithuania’s beer culture in general, fascinated me. The branding looked so weird, and the descriptions of the beer were even weirder. The country has a beer culture that is distinctly its own, with brewing practices and flavours that might seem pretty wacky to outsiders. And whilst I’ve been able to sample a couple of industrially-produced Lithuanian brews, the really interesting stuff comes from small farmhouse breweries. At the least, you’ll need to take a trip to the capital, Vilnius, to taste it, if not to the rural breweries themselves. Not willing to subject my family to the latter, this summer I finally took the trip to Vilnius.

On arriving, I wanted to track down the beer from the picture as my first taste of Lithuanian farmhouse beer. Happily, this was easily achieved, as it’s the house beer at a small chain of Vilnius bars called Šnekutis. The portrait on the label of the aforementioned bottle is of the eccentric owner, and you’ll recognise his likeness in painted portraits, 2018 calendars and even glazed ceramic figurines dotted around the bars.  The beer is brewed by Jovarų Alus, whose 70-year-old brewer is known as ‘the queen of Lithuanian brewing’ and uses a yeast strain her grandfather reportedly found in a forest. When I first stumbled across Lars’ blog, that story alone had me determined to taste the beer.

You might find this brew sold under the name Jovarų Šnekutis, though it is available in other places labelled simply as Jovarų Alus. In a very unusual and very old Lithuanian tradition, this is a ‘raw ale’, meaning that the wort is not boiled. One consequence of this practice is that lots of protein from the malt remains in the beer, and one of its most striking features is a mouthfeel so full you feel you could almost chew it. Another is that the beer has a short shelf life and can be a little unstable. This may explain why two glasses I tasted, both on the same day across two different branches of Šnekutis, tasted remarkably different.

The first of these was at Šnekutis Mikalojaus, a large and studenty place sporting large TV screens and table football as well as traditional wooden knick-knacks and hearty Lithuanian grub – a plate of crunchy fried rye bread with garlic known as kepta duona is the best bar snack I’ve ever tasted. Here, the Jovarų tasted a little sharp, with some lemony acidity, and ever-so-slightly metallic. The finish was flinty and exceedingly dry. I found it very drinkable and not uninteresting, but it didn’t seem as distinct as I’d hoped, recalling a very rustic saison at a stretch.

Just outside Vilnius’ beautiful medieval old town is the first of the chain’s bars, Šnekutis Stepono. Here the crowd is perhaps a little older, and included a few families finishing up traditional meals. Despite carefully combing Lars’ indispensable e-book, Lithuanian Beer: A rough guide for recommendations, I found myself stumped at the bar, unable to recall the names of the beers I’d read about and a little shy about asking for recommendations. The answer was to order a Jovarų to ease me in whilst I tried to make a little more sense of what was on offer.

Whilst recognisably the same beer I’d tasted earlier in the day, I was taken aback at the contrast. That hint of acidity was completely absent, and the beer came across much sweeter, with hints of vanilla. Diacetyl, a feature of traditional Lithuanian beer rather than an off-flavour, was prominent, along with some nutty notes. The finish was just as gloriously dry.

This glass gave me much more of what I’d hoped for from Lithuanian beer. It was wonderfully complex, and lay outside of any recognised beer style I could care to mention. I took a moment to reflect on how I was making one of my most desired beery ticks, drinking farmhouse beer in Vilnius, and suddenly finding the feeling of being just slightly out of my depth invigorating.

An auspicious start, then, to a week’s worth of adventure. During this time I tasted a wide variety of beer, from the very niche-est, traditional styles to the very juiciest mango-infused IPAs. Further thoughts on my experiences will follow soon.

See here for part 2

Thursday, 30 August 2018

Normal beer

Gordon Ramsay's horrified reaction to Timothy Taylor's Landlord

A middle-aged man stares in disbelief at the tiny cup of coffee in front of him. A bewildered young woman stands before a cluttered chalkboard menu, ignored by a disinterested barista. “I just want a coffee”, says a frustrated fellow, sparking an increasingly absurd montage. One moment shows a man being served hot water, coffee grounds and milk in three separate glass containers.

The above are scenes from a McDonald’s advert, advertising their coffee offering as a refreshingly simple, down-to-earth, unpretentious escape from the confusion of hipster coffee shops. I find it irritating, and perhaps I should – after all, it’s poking fun at people like me who care somewhat about the coffee they drink.

Another of these ads, though, pushes me past irritation and into the realm of indignation. Here, a stream of exhausted punters try in vain to discover the secret of that most mysterious of drinks, the flat white. “You don’t know what a flat white is?”, asks a self-satisfied barista with a well-kept beard and immaculate canvas apron. Looking away in pity, he guffaws, “oh dear!” In the final sequence, a dutifully smiley McDonalds employee finally unwraps the enigma, explaining that a flat white is “like a stronger latte, just with less milk.”

“Why couldn’t those attractive young coffee shop people just say that in the first place!?”, I suppose we’re supposed to scream at the telly. But my response to this advert, especially having just watched it several times in a row to write this, is hot-faced anger.

Yes, it’s just a McDonald’s advert. McDonald’s adverts are patently absurd at the best of times; try this one, in which a fictional food quality inspector assures us that they only use top quality chicken in their nuggets. Or this, which plays on the timeless stock character of the young punk who absolutely loves working in a fast food restaurant. And actually, aside from anything else, coffee culture genuinely can be a bit wanky and being reminded of that from time to time is probably healthy.

But the impulse behind it is more sinister. This advert plays on people’s insecurities, their fears of looking thick by asking questions, their assumptions that they’ll be ridiculed if they dare admit that they’re lost. It asks them to stay safe, accept an inferior product from an unethical corporation, rather than risk the embarrassment of exposing themselves by asking a perfectly reasonable question that any barista worth their salt would be delighted to answer.

Deeper still, the notion of “just wanting a coffee” or, even worse, just wanting a “normal” coffee disturbs me because it summons an image of a dystopian world in which everyone drinks the same watery brown-grey slop. When people say normal coffee, they're really saying, "the kind I like" and, by implication, "if you don’t, then maybe there’s something weird about you."

Anyway, there’s a point to be made about beer here, somewhere. In a recent article in The Sun, which I won’t link to because they don’t deserve the clicks, a collection of baffled drinkers sample a range of craft beers, pulling exaggerated grossed-out faces for the camera and grasping for poetic ways to express their distaste.

Never mind that they drank them straight from the bottle or can. Never mind that the very fact of being asked to take part would have prodded them towards rejecting these beers in the first place. What nags me about this piece is that it demonstrates the same kind of safe rejection as the aforementioned McDonald’s adverts.

This attitude is sometimes called reverse snobbery. Reverse snobbery is certainly at play when simple things like a pale ale are dismissed as ‘poncey’. And reverse snobbery towards beer can be frustrating for those of us who love the stuff. It’s an inferiority complex that, we might think, denies people the pleasure we get from great beer.

How, then, do we deal with this attitude? I’m not sure. It probably involves making beer accessible, open, easy to digest. But I’m quite sure we should avoid anything that further divides craft beer from those who have decided, however arbitrarily, that it’s not for them. Delighting in reverse snobbery by, say, composing Tweets wearing negative reviews from the Sun article as a badge of pride seems, to me, a little smug (craft beer already looks pretty smug from the outside). At worst, it could be interpreted as ridiculing less ‘enlightened’ tastes.

So, to clumsily return to blasted advert that set me off in the first place, I guess I’m saying that craft beer should be less like the conceited hipster barista and more like the approachable McDonald’s employee. I’ll reformulate that into a catchier slogan at a later date.

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.