Friday, 30 December 2016

12 Beers of Christmas - Day Eleven - De Dolle Brouwers Oerbier

Day Eleven - De Dolle Brouwers Oerbier (Belgium, 9%)

Whilst the glassware on this occasion may not have helped matters, Oerbier conforms to a trend amongst De Dolle beers in that it was an absolute ordeal to pour (see below for a comic attempt at decanting a bottle of Arabier from earlier this year). Having caught it within seconds of gushing all over my Grandma’s mantelpiece, the above picture captures the glass in the middle of several minutes’ worth of cautious pouring and settling, and I was desperate for the bloody thing to calm down so I could taste it.

Another delicious glass of De Dolle foam

And when I finally did, guess what? Treacle and plums. Well, amongst lots of other things, but they’re there. On a similar theme, there are figs, caramel, and plenty of dried fruit, recalling the booze-soaked currants in Christmas cake. There’s also a little black tea and a strong red wine undercurrent. It’s rich but just ever-so-slightly tart, which is lovely and really lifts it out of heavy winter-warmer territory. Further ageing reportedly accentuates this quality, and although I'm unsure how old this bottle is (BBE February 2017), I'll try and hold onto future bottles for as long as possible, because it's by far the most interesting element in the beer for me.

The end is in sight. Join me tomorrow for the final beer of this run as I ring in the new year with something special.

Thursday, 29 December 2016

12 Beers of Christmas - Day Ten - Thornbridge Love Among the Ruins

Day Ten - Thornbridge Love Among the Ruins (UK, 7%)

As I've mentioned before on this blog, I regularly underestimate Thornbridge, and tend to mentally file everything they do as "solid but unexciting". This is vastly unfair, and beers like Love Among the Ruins demonstrate that their restraint and subtlety are actually their strongest attributes.

'Sour red ale' is the descriptor on the label, and whilst I can appreciate why they might hesitate to use the term, style-wise its closest relative is the Flanders red. There's a similar complexity and balance between sweet and sour flavours, wild yeasts and bacteria bringing acidity whilst residual malt sweetness and addition of cherries mellow this out beautifully. This recalls balsamic vinegar, and there's also a slight botanical or herbal edge which comes off like old fashioned cough sweets, and a touch of clementine in there, too. The wild elements contribute a hint of musty leather, but nothing especially funky, and the lengthy barrel ageing results in a very dry and tannic finish.

The brewery excel in lager styles, and there's a similar perfectionism and patience at play in this beer. It's a much-needed reminder to drink more Thornbridge in 2017.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

12 Beers of Christmas - Day Nine - Schneider Aventinus Eisbock

Day Nine - Schneider Aventinus Eisbock (Germany, 12%)

After a couple of diversions, we return to 'treacle and plums' territory with Aventinus Eisbock, a beer that sits alongside Traquair House Ale and Brother Thelonious in a category of strong, dark, warming winter ales. Although unusual in some ways - it's produced using the controversial eisbock method in which ice is removed from partially frozen beer, leaving liquid with a higher concentration of alcohol - the flavour isn't so far out. It has close cousins in Belgian beers like Westmalle Dubbel or strong British ales like Adnams Broadside, though its considerably stronger than either. Although it's a variation of weissbier, the estery banana and clove flavours common to that style are no more pronounced here than in either of those examples.

The alcoholic strength is a notable factor in the flavour; this tastes seriously strong, although the heat is pitched at fireside warmth rather than unpleasant alcohol burn. I swear I could feel my cheeks ruddying after just a couple of sips. There's a huge concentration of flavour, too, with madeira, figs, blackberries and blackcurrants leaping out amongst the aforementioned treacle and plums, and there's a pleasant tingly citrus thing in the finish which recalls sherbet or cola.

Pleasant though it is, I found it heavy going - it took me over an hour to finish the 330ml bottle, which ideally I ought to have shared. I'd drink it again, although preferably no more than about a third of a bottle and never if the regular Aventinus was an option.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

12 Beers of Christmas - Day Eight - Mikkeller SpontanPassionfruit

Day Eight - Mikkeller SpontanPassionfruit (Belgium/Denmark, 7.7%)

And here's today's second post, bringing us back up to date. To begin, I must apologise for the so-called 'Iceman pour', which was purely accidental and resulted in me spilling what should have been the first mouthful over the counter, further proof that this is a bloody stupid trend. The beer is Mikkeller's SpontanPassionFruit, one in a seemingly endless series of fruit-infused lambics. These beers come from De Proefbrouwerij in Belgian, and if I understand correctly are produced by fermenting wort bought in from lambic breweries in wooden barrels with the added fruits.

The aroma is fantastic, full of vibrant passion fruit but also hinting at acidity. As you'd obviously expect from a beer of this style, the taste is tart, with the usual lemon and Granny Smith apple along with a touch of wheat and oak character. The addition of the fruit is nothing short of masterful, the two elements blending perfectly - the result is a beer which is tart in exactly the way that passion fruit is and incorporates all of the nuances of the real thing, including its honey and floral components and the crispness of the seeds. The best part is the finish, a kiss of passion fruit flavour which is as tropical and sticky as it is dry and wine-like. The ABV is staggeringly high for the style - the Cantillon Kriek I drank at the start of this run was a mere 5% - but there's no sign of elevated booze in the flavour, and its smooth and harmonious throughout.

The Spontan beers may be pricey, and may not involve ol' Mikkell himself doing much more than selecting a fruit adjunct, but on the strength of this I'll be seeking out others in the series.

12 Beers of Christmas - Day Seven - BrewDog Paradox Heaven Hill

Day Seven – BrewDog Paradox Heaven Hill (UK, 15%)

Having incorporated writing and posting a blog into the Christmas day festivities, on Boxing Day I was too busy having a nice time eating and hanging out with family to worry about blogging. I did manage to drink my intended beer, though, so I hope to post twice today to catch up.

Paradox is a range of imperial stouts each aged in a barrel from a different whiske/y distillery, and this incarnation spent time in casks from Kentucky’s last family-owned bourbon distillery, Heaven Hill. As the old-school BrewDog branding suggests, I’ve held onto this one for a while, partly because of its eye-popping ABV and partly because I thought that time might smooth out the intense bourbon flavour a little.

Whether that plan paid off or not, there’s still plenty of bourbon here, but I’m not complaining. The aroma is bold and boozy, a blast of vanilla fudge with occasional hints of blue cheese funk. The initial taste is pure bourbon – more of that vanilla, lots of caramel and a hint of honey. It’s very sweet and ever more so as it warms, but as your palate adjusts to the bourbon, the base stout offers a touch of burnt, treacly bitterness which just about balances it out. The body is full and the mouthful thick and slightly oily, with carbonation thankfully kept to a minimum, all of this encouraging a slow, contemplative approach; get carried away with too eager a glug and you’re chastised by an intense alcohol burn, but sip gently and this is largely absent. Nevertheless, as well executed as this is, it’s an intense experience, and even half of the 330ml bottle was a little too much for me.

Sunday, 25 December 2016

12 Beers of Christmas - Day Six - Monkish Olivia

Day Six - Monkish Olivia (USA, 6.8%)

A tart and acidic beer may make a great aperitif, but it's equally good for reviving a tired palate at the end of a big meal. I cracked open Olivia, a blonde wild ale fermented in barrels with 100% brettanomyces and ages in white wine foudres, within minutes of forcing down the final Christmas sprout, and it woke me up at the moment when the probability of a cat-nap on the sofa was at its highest.

It pours an attractive golden colour with a slight orange tinge, and fizzes energetically before any sign of a head completely evaporates. It's deceptively simple on a first taste - tart and slightly salty with the sort of acidity you might expect from a Berliner weisse, but without the funky, grainy quality I often note in that style. Complexity builds the more you drink, though; there's a touch of sticky sweetness to balance that acidity, and the ghost of the white wine foudre sprinkles in some subtle oak and crisp apples, contributing to a dry, tannic finish. The brett doesn't manifest itself as musty and leathery as I usually recognise it, but it may be responsible for the tropical fruit notes - honeydew melon, and perhaps a touch of kiwi.

A suitably sophisticated entry for my favourite day of the year. Merry Christmas to all those reading.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

12 Beers of Christmas - Day Five - Alaskan Smoked Porter

Day Five - Alaskan Smoked Porter (USA, 6.5%)

I've been patient about opening this 2012 vintage Alaskan Smoked Porter, but in truth, it was already fairly mature when I picked up from the bottle shop shelf. Beers of this strength don't always age well, but Alaskan actively encourage this practice on the label, giving an ambitious best-before date of '26/12/2026 (and counting)'.

Obviously enough, the initial noseful brings a lot of smoke along with some rich malt aromas, a slightly uneasy mix of golden syrup and that processed smoked cheese I'm fond of. The smoke hits first on the first gulp, tasting something like the blackened exterior of char-grilled food, and this is followed by some more traditional malty porter flavours of dried fruit and coffee. A different kind of smoke jumps out in the finish, this time more acrid and ashy. However, my palate adjusted to the barbeque vibe fairly quickly - less than halfway down the glass and I was barely noticing the smoke, save for the odd flash here and there. Luckily, there's a solid porter underneath, bringing chocolate and cola fruitiness. The finish, once that ashy flavour fails to register, is largely acidic with some liquorice bitterness, too. It's light of body, and the mouthfeel actually recalls a dark lager, which just makes it easier to drink and doesn't detract from the experience whatsoever.

It's a classic, and a beer I'm glad to have sampled. I'd love to try a younger bottle - might it have a more assertive smoky character? But for now, my thoughts are on the big day tomorrow...

Friday, 23 December 2016

12 Beers of Christmas - Day Four - The Kernel Imperial Brown Stout

Day Four - The Kernel Imperial Brown Stout (UK, 9.6%)

There are few safer bets in beer than something dark from The Kernel. Their stouts and porters, based on historical recipes from London's illustrious brewing past, are always good. Come to think of it, their paler beers aren't too shabby either, but you take my point.

It's a lovely pour - near black with a tan coloured head, and a huge aroma hits you instantly. There's a lot of booze on the nose, along with some brown sugar, and the combined effect suggests dark rum. There's some cocoa powder in there too, and on tasting this evolves into something more like chocolate milk - chocolatey, but in a very smooth, easy-going way. The more conventional bitter edge of dark chocolate is present in the finish, joined by some liquorice and an espresso note which is rich without being especially roasty.

There's a certain mustiness in the finish too, which is hard to write about without it sounding disgusting. Michael Jackson sometimes described beers as having a "cellar character", and this is the kind of flavour I think he's talking about. It adds complexity and increases the perception that you're drinking something special, decadent and sophisticated, like a prized bottle of dusty wine. The sweet dulce de leche flavours that increase as the beer warms enhance this effect, too. It's another beer that isn't specifically designed for the festive period, but works brilliantly for Christmas - next year, I'll consider procuring a bottle for after-dinner sipping.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

12 Beers of Christmas - Day Three - Traquair House Ale

Day Three - Traquair House Ale (UK, 7.2%)

I first heard of Traquair House from Boak and Bailey's excellent Brew Britannia, in which it is used as an example of an early microbrewery. The eponymous Traquair House Ale has been brewed since 1965 and is now widely exported and hailed as a benchmark example of Scotch ale. It's a style I like in theory, but rarely crave, and as such this bottle has been repeatedly nudged to the back of the cupboard for several months.

I'd be repeating myself if I said that it smelt of treacle and plums, but it really does - this appears to be a consistent trend amongst dark-ish, malt-heavy, wintery strong ales, and is really quite inviting. Those flavours carry into the flavour, too, along with some raisins and cooking chocolate, and some caramel sweetness and warming booze are teased out as it warms. Like Brother Thelonious, yesterday's beer, it's light of body and low in carbonation with it. I don't mind that, but a less charitable drinker might describe it as thin, watery and flat. The main obstacle for me is a definite oxidised flavour - the bad cardboard kind rather than the pleasant dusty sherry kind. Oddly, this characteristic comes and goes; in some mouthfuls it's barely perceptible, in others merely a background irritation. However, at times it tastes like I'm drinking a ream of paper rather than a fine example of British brewing tradition, and it's hard work.

A dodgy bottle, perhaps? Or have I caught this bottle during an awkward adolescence - old enough to let some oxygen in, too young for the resulting flavours to smooth themselves out? I'd be curious enough to try it again.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

12 Beers of Christmas - Day Two - North Coast Brother Thelonious

Day Two - North Coast Brewing Co. Brother Thelonious (USA, 9.4%)

Brother Thelonious has been on my 'must drink' list for almost exactly two years. I know this because my dad gave me a copy of Adrian Tierney-Jones' 1001 Beers You Must Try Before You Die for Christmas in 2014, in which this brew features. I was instantly taken with the label, which features jazz great Thelonious Monk decked out in a habit and holding a foaming chalice of ale. And on top of that, with every bottle sold the brewery makes a donation to the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, an organisation offering free jazz education to children all around the world. Despite my keenness to try it, this bottle has been in my possession for about 9 months, consistently pushed aside in favour of something with a more sensible ABV.

I'm glad I saved it for the festive period, anyway, because although it isn't sold as a Christmas beer, it does a lot of the same things. The aroma is pure fruit cake - plums, currants, almonds - and the malt character suggests sticky confectionery - treacle, caramel, a faint suggestion of chocolate - without being exactly sweet. It's boozy in the best way, never burning as you drink but leaving a pleasingly fiery sensation in the chest which is perfect for a chilly winter's evening. It also has a staggeringly long finish, ultimately culminating in a gentle dryness.

I had intended to listen to Monk's Dream, one of my all-time favourite jazz records, whilst drinking this, but instead I opted for the far less classy pairing with not-quite-classic festive farce The Ref, and that's a recipe for a great Christmassy evening in. So good I might do it again next year.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

12 Beers of Christmas - Day One - Cantillon Kriek

2016 marks the fourth year of the 12 Beers of Christmas event, overseen by Steve of The Beer O' Clock Show and Hopinions fame. The concept is simple - from the 20th until the 31st December, drink a different beer each day and write about it using some form of social media.

I'm taking part this year partly as an exercise in discipline. 2016 has been a busy year for me, and I've let blogging slip a little as a result. However, for the first time in many years, I've actually got a decent Christmas break to look forward to and so no excuse not to post something every day. I've also got a bit of a backlog of beer taking up valuable cupboard space needed for the many liquid Christmas presents I'm presumably soon to receive. A number of these beers have been saved because they deserve a certain a mount of ceremony - they're not all outrageously strong or rare or expensive, but they've lasted this long because cracking them open in front of the TV didn't feel quite right somehow.

I'll begin with a Belgian delicacy.

Day One - Cantillon Kriek (Belgium, 5%)

Besides pilsner, has any beer style has had its good name so thoroughly debased as kriek? Many of the brews that misleadingly appropriate this title conjure up images of sweet shops - saccharine sweetness, together with an artificial fruit flavour of a cherry drop. The real thing, on the other hand, is acidic and dry, carrying all the nuances of the fleshy fruit itself.

Cantillon's example is, obviously, in the latter camp. It pours with a predictably pinkish hue, a substantial head fizzing energetically before evaporating almost completely. Carbonation is restrained, something like the faint tingle of a well-conditioned cask ale.

The first sip brings plenty of acidity, and this registers before the taste of the cherries. The fruit flavour builds as your palate adjusts to this tartness, but never overwhelms the base beer, and this tastes as much like a great lambic as it does cherries. The most attractive element for me is the woody, tannic quality, which I think comes from the cherry stone - it's drying, almost puckering, making you want to smack your lips. It adds depth of flavour, but also sends you back for another gulp, and for all its acidity, this is a highly drinkable, moreish beer. I could happily have opened another if I'd had one to hand. The finish suggests almonds, which in some krieks can come across as marzipan or even cherry bakewells, but here I'm reminded of the slightly bitter edge to the nut itself.

It's a class act all round, and a fine start to my festive journey.

Friday, 16 December 2016

Golden Pints 2016

Best UK Cask Beer
After first drinking Kissingate's Murder of Crows at the Sussex CAMRA festival in March, I was lucky enough to sample it three more times, always in situations where a 10% monster was a foolhardy choice. But if it's on the bar, I have to order it, because it hits the perfect balance between straight-up delicious and fascinatingly complex. Rich coffee, caramel and muscovado sugar form its foundation, before a balasmic sweet and sour tang takes over, finally wiped out by a dry, tannic finish. A decadent treat.

Best UK keg beer
I'm awarding this to the keg beer most firmly imprinted on my memory - Wylam's Club of Slaughters, which stopped me in my tracks. The malt character is conventionally smooth and warming, all chocolate and berries, but acts as a vehicle for blue cheese funk and deep, savoury, lingering peat smoke.

Best UK bottled/canned beer
At the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve, I opened a bottle of Wild Beer's Squashed Grape, starting as I meant to go on. This beer has the weirdest discrepancy between smell and taste; the aroma is of neglected public toilets and damp, which makes for a pleasant surprise when the taste is vibrant, refreshing and unusual. Sweet, then dry, tannic and quenching, with a final kiss of tart grapefruit.

Best Overseas Draught
Birrificio Italiano Tipopils. Having previously been let down by a limp bottle, I was delighted to find this on draught at Ruzanuvol in Valencia, and on top form. I often daydream about its bubble-bath head and deep smack of grassy hops. 

Best Overseas Bottled/Canned Beer
Oude Gueuze Tilquin á L'Ancienne at Craft Beer Co. in Brighton after receiving some good news. Who needs champagne? Beautifully balanced between tart and sweet, with a savoury, husky fruit skin quality and a very crisp, dry finish. Simply beautiful.

Best Collaboration Brew
Three's Company, an IPA born of collaboration between Cloudwater, Magic Rock and J.W. Lees and utilising the latter's 4709th generation yeast strain. A glorious beer all round but conceptually, I love the idea of ultra-modern and established traditional breweries sharing ideas and learning for one another. Let's see more of this sort of thing.

Best Overall Beer
2016 was the year of the double IPA - a bandwagon style, but one that I rarely tire of when done well. Cloudwater led the way, and of their efforts I particularly enjoyed v3, v5 and v7. Brew By Numbers' 55|03 with Citra, Mosaic and Wai-iti was right up there, and Gun's Sorachi Ace DIPA was an absolute dream for those like me who can't get enough of this odd, divisive hop. However, Beavertown's Double Chin was the pick of the bunch, and gets extra props for amplifying an existing beer (their Neck Oil session IPA) without losing the essence of the original. 

Best UK Brewery
I've always held Burning Sky in high esteem, but they're on fire lately. All of their beers - from sessionable cask classics to IPAs to mixed-fermentation saisons - demonstrate great delicacy, and their ambition and imagination is astonishing. They introduced a few new beers in 2016, amongst them Gaston, which is probably the most accomplished use of an estery Belgian yeast strain I've yet encountered from a UK brewery. They've also just announced that they'll be installing a koelschip next year, so 2017 promises even more excitement.

Best Overseas Brewery
I'm not sure whether Stone Berlin really counts, being more of a European outpost of an American brand than a brewery in its own right. They're my pick, anyway, with the important caveat that I don't unreservedly love any of their beers. However, Stone was one of the first US brands to fascinate me as a beer novice, and I was repeatedly let down by stale bottles and lifeless kegs before giving up altogether. Cracking open a fresh can of Ruiniation, I felt a wave of boyish excitement and even if the palate-pumelling bitterness isn't really to my taste these days, I had to smile because my younger self would have been blown away. 

Photo: Rebecca Pate @ Brewing East

Pub/Bar of the Year
The Evening Star again. It's the pub I go to the most, and the one I'd insist all visitors to Brighton must visit, both for the beer and the people-watching. An honourable mention for The Westbourne in Hove - a smaller but lovingly curated cask and keg selection, good food and a friendly atmosphere. 

Independent Retailer of the Year

Trafalgar Wines, as ever. Scandi minimalism and growler stations are all well and good, but I prefer the unpretentious approach here - it's basically a small room packed to the rafters with beer. Prices are reasonable, and if I go in for something particular, I'll almost always find it. I'll also give Beer Shop St. Albans a shout for their always interesting selection, particularly on 750ml curiosities. 

Online Retailer of the Year
I don't need to rely on online retailers, but I put in at least one order to Beers of Europe every year, primarily for their German and Belgian selection which is slightly lacking locally.

Best Beer Book or Magazine
It didn't come out this year, but I've been really enjoying Jeff Alworth's Beer Bible. I'll use it for reference in the future, as it's well researched, but it's also a joy to read in cover-to-cover because Jeff is so fun to read.

Best Beer Blog or Website
Alec Latham's Mostly About Beer was a happy discovery this year. Nobody is writing about beer the way Alec does - pub crawls that verge on psychogeography, a beer festival write-up that includes an ode to a gas container, and so on. He's certainly never boring. 

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Sign of the times : new beers from Harvey's

The ‘crafty’ rebrand of a traditional brewery is, at this point, a recognised phenomenon. From the addition of a hop cone to the logo that adorns Shepherd Neame’s otherwise unchanged and increasingly tired range to 'craft' sub-brand such as Thwaite's Crafty Dan, there’s an almost palpable desperation for relevance amongst national brewers of brown beer. Such efforts verge from the cynical – give an old beer a new name and funk up the typeface a little bit and bingo, craft beer – to the sincere yet misguided, with only Adnams and Fuller’s generally thought to be successfully bridging the craft/trad divide.

Harvey’s of Lewes, East Sussex, would rank amongst the breweries I’d least expect to employ a modernising makeover. Their approach is thoroughly old-school, and they persevere with such near-extinct styles as sub-3% milk stout in the Mackesons vein and brown ale coloured with caramel, both packaged in 25cl ‘nip’ bottles. And yet, at this year’s Great British Beer Festival, Harvey’s revealed a sleek new look, both updating their visual style and forging a coherent brand identity amongst their numerous seasonal releases. More astounding was the announcement of two new beers to be packaged in kegs as well as cans, and this news is accompanied by a namecheck for Beavertown and BrewDog on their website.

Alongside the snazzy new branding and newly pressurised containers comes a new slogan – “we wunt be druv”, an expression in local Sussex dialect meaning “we won’t be driven”, as if to assert that Harvey’s continue to do things on their own terms. In fairness, I should stress that they are in no way claiming to produce ‘craft’ beer, and there is a definite continuum between their existing beers and the new range. Still, there’s no denying that these new beers are targeting a new audience. Large family brewers may be flailing to recover diminishing sales, but having operated as an exclusively local brewery, Harvey’s are now making a conscious decision to extend their reach, extending their sales area beyond the current 60 mile radius.

I have slightly mixed feelings about this. In Lewes, I’ve found that even pubs who clearly aren’t focused on beer quality or choice are likely to deliver a superb pint of Sussex Best. This is because there’s an immense sense of local pride surrounding the brewery. Best is the default beer for a generation of drinkers – my brother works as a barman in Brighton and says it is common for men of a certain age to order a pint of Harvey’s without first scanning the bar to check whether it is on sale, often indignant if it isn’t available. It is a beer tied to a place – if you travel to Sussex, you might seek out Sussex Best, knowing that you’re unlikely to find it elsewhere. Increased availability may dampen that magic.

It’s also hard to gauge exactly who these kegged beers are aimed at. I can see the logic behind Golden Bier – golden ales have long been considered a potential converter for lager drinkers, and cool, carbonated keg dispense will strengthen that link. Malt Brown, however, seems misguided. Modern beer remains all about hops – perhaps, actually, it is increasingly about hops – so the focus on malt, together with the reference to that most unglamorous of colours, makes them seem a little out of touch. I can’t see existing Harvey’s fans ordering this over their cask beers, and can’t see cask sceptics ordering a beer called Malt Brown, either.

The most sensible move in this revamp is canning Sussex Best, a beer with existing cult appeal which, until now, has only been available on draught (Blue Label, a bottled beer, is ostensibly a version of Sussex Best, but doesn’t taste particularly similar to me). It pours a familiar coppery brown, with a thin white head that fizzes intensely before disappearing altogether and the aroma is carried by malt, together with just-ripe plums. The taste is, as ever, mysterious – I get a slightly different impression every time I drink Sussex Best, which isn’t to say that it frequently changes, but rather that it has an unusual flavour profile that seems to suggest different things with each pint. Recently, I’ve tended to think of tea – black, possibly with a slice of lemon – and wholemeal toast. As with several Harvey’s beers, there is the faintest suggestion of tartness – small enough that you may find you’re still debating whether it’s really there by the time your glass is drained – which adds complexity. The carbonation in the canned product is gentle, replicating a well-conditioned cask and deftly avoiding the distracting fizz which dogs many bottled and canned bitters. 

Predictably, Gold Bier is a good shade lighter and with its generous, tight head, resembles a pilsner in appearance. On the nose are cereals, but with a hint of plum which suggests a familiar yeast strain. The initial taste is underwhelming – bland and watery, though there is an edge of toasty malt and Digestive biscuits before a lemony, bitter aftertaste. This lingering bitterness sends you back for more, but each subsequent gulp is a little disappointing, bringing a kind of empty absence of flavour that recalls alcohol free lager. And yet for all that, by the time I finished the glass I realised I’d been rather enjoying it. It’s a beer that doesn’t reward analysis – it all about sessionable drinkability, and I could happily have cracked another. 

Malt Brown is fairly dark, edging into stout territory save for some reddy-brown patches around the edges of the glass. It instantly reminds me of the brewery’s phenomenal porter, though without the harsh and acrid brown malt edge. Smooth milk chocolate dominates and, paired with a distinct malty tang, it recalls a malted chocolate milkshake. Surely they’re missing a trick not marketing this as a chocolate porter?

Harvey’s does have something of an image problem. Some of my craft-educated friends challenge the perception of Harvey’s as a fine brewery as received wisdom and don’t think the beers stand up to their reputation. These people can be sceptical of cask beer, but it’s not just that - but put a pint of Golden Bier, dispensed from a keg, in front of them and I don’t think they’d change their minds about Harvey’s. I’m with those who consider the likes of Sussex Best and Old Ale legitimate classics, and I don’t think a shiny keg font will ever tempt me away from these beers.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Big screen brews

Those who are obsessed with beer may sympathise with my habit of squinting at the labels on Hollywood’s beer bottles. “What beer are they drinking?” I wonder. “The label definitely says IPA, but what’s the brewery?” Probably the most exciting moment in the rather silly Tammy was seeing Susan Sarandon’s character, Pearl, grab a six pack of Dale’s Pale Ale from the fridge before heading out on a road trip. The effect, for someone who recognises the brand, is distancing, and takes you out of the world of the film. How did that get there? Is it a bizarre piece of product placement paid for by Oskar Blues? More likely is that someone in the props department is a fan and wanted to give a little nod to their favourite beer. Anyway, the filmmakers don’t want you to ponder these details — the beer is there to communicate that this raunchy grandma likes a drink. It’s meant as beer, any beer, not intended to signify anything other than a carefree, thrill-seeking quality in Sarandon’s character.

Sometimes, though, the style or brand of a beer is carefully chosen. In David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) enthuses, “man, I like Heineken!” as he and Sandy (Laura Dern) drink in a dark, neon-lit bar. The word ‘imported’ on the bottle’s label is prominently displayed. Sandy confesses she’s never had it before, to which Jeffrey replies “you’ve never had Heineken before?” in disbelief. The psychotic Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), with whom Jeffrey becomes mixed up, has simpler tastes. “Heineken?” he howls, “Fuck that shit! Pabst! Blue! Ribbon!”

PBR is the perfect brand for Blue Velvet and for David Lynch in general. Its clean, red-white-and-blue branding has an air of Americana about it, suggestive of the white picket fence suburbia. But it’s not entirely wholesome, either. The fact that the brand takes its name from a prize supposedly awarded in 1893, already almost a century old by the time Blue Velvet was released, suggests faded glory if not outright decay. It’s a cheap beer, associated with dingy dive bars (the film predates PBR’s renewed popularity as hipster affectation) and therefore leaning towards the dark underbelly of American suburbia. Blue Velvet announces its intentions with an opening sequence in which the camera, having registered a freak accident as Jeffrey’s father waters his garden, descends below the manicured lawn and into the insect life below. Pabst Blue Ribbon embodies the tension between the façade of squeaky-clean public respectability and the darkness and sadness that lies behind closed doors.

As David Foster Wallace notes in his essay on Lynch, Blue Velvet frequently draws visual equations between Jeffrey’s father, lying in a hospital bed on assisted breathing apparatus, and Frank Booth, who huffs a mysterious gas from a medical face mask.  These visual rhymes suggest a lineage between Jeffrey and Frank that the younger man doesn’t want to admit. As he finds himself increasingly caught up in Frank’s violent world, Jeffrey is disturbed to find darkness within himself, too. The imported Heineken is an affectation, a liquid equivalent of the earring he dons throughout the film. He likes to think of himself as sophisticated and cosmopolitan, separated from conservative father figures like Sandy’s Bud-drinking Dad and especially from nightmares like Frank. The horror of Blue Velvet is the suggestion that Jeffrey is, deep down, a good old fashioned, PBR-drinking American sadist.

In the French-Canadian comedy The Decline of the American Empire, a group of affluent, sexually-liberated academics discuss life and sex, culminating in an elaborate dinner party. As they embark on their feast, they are unexpectedly joined by Mario, a punk-ish young man of limited intellectual ambition who is physically involved with Diane, one of the guests. Mario is clearly not of their class or sophistication — refusing the host Claude’s offers of coulibiac fish pie, Stilton and, finally, wine, his request for a beer finalises the perception of his common-ness. Claude obliges, fetching him a Pilsner Urquell and a flared, vase-like glass. The imported beer (which Claude points out he enjoys only “occasionally”) is not to Mario’s tastes — “what’s with this beer?” he asks. To ask for beer at all is one marker of status, to refuse such a tasteful selection another. Although Mario is an unpleasant character, I feel for him as he sips, thoroughly patronised, on his Czech lager — everyone at the table looks at him as if he is of another species. But he, too, is dismissive and small-minded and makes judgements of character based on the contents of the glasses around the table.

To use beer as a signifier of class and taste would be more complicated today. Imported pilsners (few as distinguished as Urquell) are perhaps more mainstream in modern Britain than they would have been in 1980s Quebec, but amongst casual lager drinkers, they still carry a suggestion of premium-ness — there is a perceived difference between ordering a Peroni and a Fosters, even if beer geeks find both just as offensive. But equally, I could imagine a scene similar to The Decline of the American Empire’s climactic dinner party in which an unexpected guest is offered an IPA and complains that its “one of those grapefruit beers”. Whilst beer isn’t perceived as so impenetrably middle class as wine, it can at times be just as expensive, inaccessible or even elitist. Even as beer diversifies and grows, we still assume that the beer we drink says something about us. We should take extreme care in such assumptions — beer is for everyone, every beer has its place, and no beer is entirely right whilst another is entirely wrong.

Friday, 9 September 2016

Biére de garde : A brief survey

“Devotees have long regarded this style as a minor classic, and in recent years it has become more widely recognised, especially in Britain and the United States.”

Such was Michael Jackson’s introduction to biére de garde in his Beer Companion in 1993. If this resurgence in popularity really occurred, it’s hard to say how long it lasted. Some fourteen years later, K. Florian Kemp heralded a similar resurrection in an article for All About Beer. Today, though, biére de garde seems to be in a bit of a slump. Sure, your average post-Jackson beer nerd may be familiar with a couple of the classic examples, but you’ll see few contemporary takes on the style on Britain’s bars.

Biéres de garde are often grouped with saisons under the banner of ‘farmhouse ales’. Farmhouse brewing traditions extend way beyond France and Belgium — as Lars Garshol’s fascinating blog consistently demonstrates — but nevertheless, the biére de garde lives in the shadow of the saison style, and whilst the saison booms, its French cousin generates far less interest. This is understandable, in a way — if the dry, peppery quality of a saison in the Dupont vein invites dry hopping, mixed fermentation and other ‘crafty’ goings on, the soft, sweet, malty character of many biéres de garde hardly screams experimentation. However, appreciation of simple beers is a fine thing, and in my view, some examples have more complexity than they’re given credit for. If nothing else, a handsome corked bottle won’t set you back more than a few Euros in a continental supermarché and will bring far greater rewards than the green stubbies that share the shelf.

The term itself refers to a production practice more than a coherent group of beers — the name roughly translates as “beer for keeping”, and these beers were first brewed in the spring and kept for drinking throughout the summer months and harvesting season. The Second World War delivered a further blow to the already waning tradition as many breweries lost their brewing equipment when it was melted down by the occupiers.  Once artificial refrigeration made seasonal brewing obsolete and bottom-fermenting Alsatian lagers gained prominence, biére de garde all but disappeared.

In The Beer Bible, Jeff Alworth suggests that the effect of the Second World War defined modern biére de garde; as breweries recovered, they found that drinkers didn’t want the rustic, vinous farmhouse ales of old, and looked to lager brewing for inspiration. Today’s incarnations of the style are ‘kept’ in the sense that they undergo a lengthy lagering stage —longer than an average ale, not as long as what we think of as lager — which is part of what separates the style from the saisons brewed over the Belgian border. Some modern breweries have also switched to a bottom-fermenting yeast strain.

What, then, does one expect from the style? Well, it depends — biére de garde comes in blonde, ambrée and brune forms, though I have yet to encounter the latter. Michael Jackson refers to the beers as “rich and toffeeish”, with an “ale-like frutiness”, which seems mainly applicable to the ambrée beers. He also notes that “biéres de garde sometimes have a dash of cellar character, with suggestions of oak or cork”, which applies mostly to the dry, vinous blonde examples.

Amongst the blondes, 3 Monts (St. Sylvestre) is the most complex and by far my favourite. A pilsner malt backbone carries a gentle, semi-sweet marzipan and honey flavour before a dry finish reminiscent of white wine. This, along with brisk, palate-livening carbonation, definitely recalls a saison. Jenlain Blonde (Brasserie Dyuck) has a hint of barnyard in the aroma, and similarly has marzipan along with a crisp, lager-like malt flavour. There’s a dry, vinous finish here, too, with a bitterness that’s gentle but lingers nevertheless.  La Goudale (Brasseurs de Gayant) is brewed with orange peel and coriander (and, less attractively, rice), but doesn’t exactly come off like a witbier. It’s closer to shandy, its pale malt base merging with an elderflower-like sweetness and a citrusy tang. The bitter finish builds, and is actually quite significant for a beer of this style. It’s a great refresher in the sun, but one that must be handled with care since its 7.2% ABV is not remotely evident in the taste. Ch’Ti Blonde (Castelain) is very sweet, and lacks the dry and bitter finish in these other beers. I don’t like it much.

Ambrée versions of the style have more of a history, however. Brasserie Dyuck was the brewery that revived the biére de garde in the 1970 as their distinctive champagne-style, crowned and corked bottles became popular with students in Lille (their blonde was only introduced in 2005). Their Jenlain Ambrée is probably the closest thing to a style-defining benchmark. It is a heavily malt-forward beer, not a million miles away from an English bitter, except with very little balancing hop character. Its character principally suggests marzipan and vanilla along with tangy citrus fruits. Ch’Ti Ambrée is very similar, whilst La Goudale Ambrée is notable for introducing some faint banana esters. Page 24 Reserve Hildegarde (Brasserie Saint Germain) is from a smaller, perhaps more artisanal brewery. It’s the only bottle-conditioned beer amongst all these examples and perhaps as a result has bolder flavours than most beers of the style. Although the recipe doesn’t contain candi sugar, there’s a definite note of candy floss or cinder toffee, and it is faintly earthy and spicy. The finish brings a citrusy snap recalling a good, hoppy pilsner.

Within France, too, there are certain beers mixing the biére de garde tradition with outside influences. The highly regarded Etoile du Nord (Thiriez) resembles dry, highly attenuated saisons and, unlike most biéres de garde, has a notable hop profile thanks to large additions of Kentish Brambling Cross. Bellerose Biére Blonde Extra (Brasserie des Sources) sells itself as a meeting of biére de garde and IPA, which is a bit much — it doesn’t have anything even close to the hop character of an IPA, but there is a peppery spice before a finish far bitterer than most beers of the style. This bitterness isn’t enough to balance what is a strikingly sweet beer, like a sticky, sugary iced bun.

As I have already suggested, biére de garde isn’t often seen in the UK, but modern breweries will occasionally produce their own interpretations. My first taste of the style was the eponymous example from Thornbridge, which was later re-brewed as Jehanne. As I recall, this was a sweet, malty ambrée with a strong marzipan note. In a slightly curmudgeonly blog post, Thornbridge brewmaster Rob Lovatt suggested that this beer would have sold better if it had been labelled as a saison, the latter being the more ‘fashionable’ style. This seems to be Parizan’s strategy with their Biére de Garde Triskel, which is labelled as a saison first and a biére de garde in much smaller letters. This is actually an accurate representation of the beer, which leans towards the Belgian style with just a little French influence. It’s full of orange blossom and apricot with some phenolic pepper and clove flavours, and has an exceedingly crisp, dry, vinous finish. The Triskel hops, an Anglo-French hybrid, may be responsible for the grassy, herbal notes, but this is a firmly yeast-driven beer. I wouldn’t recommend it to those wishing to understand the biére de garde, but I would recommend it to fans of delicious beer.

More experimental was Brigid Fire from the currently dormant Celt Experience. This was a smoked rye IPA brewed with biére de garde yeast, a bonkers recipe that almost seemed to have all its elements picked at random. It didn’t wholly work, partly because that yeast overpowered everything else, dominating with toffee, almond and honey flavours.  Also in an inventive vain is a red wine barrel aged edition of Olde Garde, a biére de garde brewed by Cloudwater in collaboration with Burning Sky. I haven’t been lucky enough to try either the original beer or its barrel aged incarnation, but I am pleased to see modern British breweries take an interesting approach to an under-utilised style. In the past few years, we’ve seen impossibly obscure styles blow up in the craft beer world, the rise of the gose being the most obvious example. Perhaps, then, the biére de garde will have its moment in the sun.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Brighton Brewer's Market

Great keg beer isn’t easy to find in Brighton. There’s plenty in specialist pubs and bars, of course, but walk into your average boozer and you’re likely to find three or four handpumps, often dispensing excellent local beer, whilst the keg lines remain dominated by the usual macro lagers, Guinness and cider. Whilst pubs with brewery/pubco/chain ties might have some freedom to choose from either SIBA’s supply list or a pre-approved selection of breweries, I suspect this freedom doesn’t extend to kegged beers, subsequently making kegs harder for small breweries to sell. But with more established breweries like Burning Sky selling in kegs for a few years now and the likes of 360, Gun and Arundel now moving into this area, there’s an emerging demand for locally produced and full-flavoured keg beer.

I love cask beer too, of course, and would never state a general preference for either dispense method. Notably, the organisers of the Brighton Brewer’s Market, an outlet for local kegged beer, promoted the event without denigrating cask, and most of breweries pouring there produce cask beer too. It was a welcome chance to redress the balance a little bit and experiment with styles perhaps better suited to the keg format. Set in Yardy, a small courtyard adjacent to the Marwood coffee shop on Ship Street, there was food grilling at one end and beers pouring from a converted piano at the other.

Having written about Beercraft, the small pilot brewery based on the Watchmaker’s Arms premises, I was delighted to finally sample a couple of brewer Jack’s wares. A 3.2% Table Beer was seriously impressive – its easy-drinking light body and brisk carbonation made it really refreshing on an (occasionally) hot and sunny afternoon, and the hop flavour and aroma crammed into such a small beer is amazing. It’s truly sessionable in the sense that it’s difficult to stop at one – my plan to try as many different beers as possible was abandoned as I went back for two more glasses of the Table Beer.

There was also Zeit Weisse, a hefeweisse born out of a collaboration between BeerCraft and Brewtorial. This was excellent, too, familiar in its classic Bavarian yeast character – banana and clove – but a little different at the same time, with some gentle soft vanilla flavour in the background and just a touch of sharp fruitiness.

Brewtorial’s Logic Engine American Pale Ale recently won first place at the London and South East Craft Brewing competition, and I can see why – it’s an impressive beer. I want to say that it tastes like fruity sweets – Fruit Pastilles, or maybe Fruit Salad chews – but that would give an impression of cloying sweetness, which is far from the case. It is bursting with citrus and tropical fruit flavours, though, with a gentle bitterness and a beautiful full body that makes each gulp super satisfying.

The dream would be for a greater number of Brighton’s pubs to kick off a couple (just a couple!) of the big lagers, halt the creeping presence of pseudo-craft sub-brands from large breweries, and extend their support for local breweries to the keg fonts. In the meantime, Brighton Brewer’s Market will be back on the first Saturday of August, and again in September.

Monday, 20 June 2016

Drunken sailor

As I mentioned in my previous post, I was recently in Barcelona for the Primavera Sound festival. Though I've never considered myself a nautical type, we ended up staying on a (moored) boat because it was cheap and extremely convenient for the festival. The purpose of the trip wasn't beer, and it wasn't a wander by day, booze by night holiday either. Still, I did get a chance to stock up at BeerStore, a bottle shop I'd highly recommend - its well stocked in general, but heavily promotes local beer. Each evening, I sat on the deck with a couple of bottles, enjoying the last of the sun before heading out to the festival and its plastic cups of rancid Heineken. Here's what I thought of those beers.

Guineu - IPA Amarillo
On a previous trip to Spain, I was really impressed by a double IPA Guineu brewed in collaboration with the Bavarian BrauKunstKeller. On the strength of that, I opted for two of their IPAs from the bulging Beer Store shelves. This one is resolutely old school in approach – British IPAs seem to have become paler and paler over the past few years, but this pours an attractive hazy red-gold, with a thick, tight white head. Peach and orange aromas jump out immediately, with lots of peach carrying into the flavour along with apricot and some grapefruit. There’s a savoury element to the beer which almost recalls tomato (possibly a characteristic of some of the darker malts? I often get the same thing in red ales) which sounds weird but does kind of work, and the finish is notably bitter but not excessively so. It reminds me of the IPAs doing the rounds when I first fell in love the style – not-so-pale, not afraid to bump up the IBUs – and it definitely still hits the spot.

I was hoping for something like a white IPA, my current favourite pseudo-style, from this, but it doesn’t have any of the estery or phenolic flavours of either a Belgian wit or a German weisse beer, seemingly brewed with a standard ale yeast with wheat mainly contributing some extra body.  There’s a sweet-ish candy sugar thing going on which, along with the hops, presents as a summery stone fruit character before a long, bitter finish. It’s kind of non-descript and a little disappointing given the label’s reference to dry-hopping – it doesn’t have that juicy, amped up hop flavour and aroma you’d expect, possibly because the malty sweetness refuses to let the hops sing.

The motivation stated on this beer’s label is refreshment in sticky Barcelona weather, and in that respect, Apassionada absolutely knocks it out of the park. A passion fruit beer in the generic ‘sour’ category, its flavour is incredibly vibrant and has all of the freshness and complexity of the fruit itself. A restrained honey sweetness, a floral note, rich tropical juiciness and a light tart finish. It’s deftly managed - any sweeter and you could almost believe you were drinking a can of Rio rather than a beer, any more acidic and it would become hard work – and extremely accomplished.

How could I resist that branding? And the BrewDog-aping isn’t the only British influence on this beer. Described as an English-style bitter on the back of the label and table beer on the front, it has a super-pale malt base (100% Marris Otter) and a big, juicy hop character in an otherwise relatively small beer. I could be wrong, but I’d wager that this is modelled on The Kernel’s majestic Table Beer. The aroma is beautiful, a big burst of sherbet, and in the mouth there are tangerines and grapefruits and something almost herbal or botanical which recalls gin. For one of the lowest-ABV beers on the shelf, this is packing a huge amount of hop flavour and was undoubtedly the best beer of the whole trip.

One of a healthy number of brown ales on offer, La Nina Barbuda pours a translucent cola-brown with a tight off-white head. There’s wholemeal bread and boozy Christmas pudding on the nose, and the flavour is exactly what I want from a modern brown ale – cola, cereal, savoury cereals and the peach and clementine flavours characteristic of a meeting between New World hops and darker malts. Its drawback is its pointlessly high 7% ABV – some mouthfuls have a kind of boozy spikiness which just clashes with the otherwise smooth flavours. Knock this down to 5% and you’d have an excellent brown ale.

I was drawn in by the beautiful label on this beer – not the best way to choose, but faced with hundreds of bottles from unfamiliar breweries, what else do you have to go on? This is just one of the reasons why beer branding is important. This is far, far darker than I’d like an IPA, veering towards amber ale territory. The malt brings a kind of caramel and candy floss foundation for a smooth mango hop character before a slightly spicy and bitter finish. There’s great promise here -that tropical hop flavour is gorgeous, but I’d suggest lighter malt character would accentuate it a little further.

Having recently re-read this old post from Mark Dredge on the 'pale and hoppy' cask ale, a style that's remained prominent in the UK, I started to ponder my reservations with the malt character of a couple of these beers. Many modern British breweries favour a very pale malt base, at least in beers which prominently showcase American and Southern Hemisphere hops - consider the Juicy Banger and the latest breed of  IPAs favouring ever-later hop additions and geared towards massive, booming hop aroma and flavour (the Cloudwater DIPA and BrewDog Born to Die series spring to mind here). It's telling that the beer I most enjoyed was the BeerCat, which acknowledges a British influence - I like beers like this, and they're also what I've become used to drinking. I hope this doesn't come across as a suggestion that this is what beer should be like - I'm just stating a preference.

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Cat Bar, Barcelona

Hot on the heels of my recent trip to Valencia, last week I was back in Spain. This time Barcelona was the destination and, since we were there for the Primavera Sound music festival, there was considerably less time available for beery pursuits. I didn't even scratch the surface of what seems like an interesting beer city, but on the first night before the festival properly kicked off, we stumbled across Cat Bar. We found it whilst researching vegetarian-friendly restaurant options, and I jumped at the chance to check out a bar with a fully vegan kitchen and a broad range of Spanish craft beer.

It’s a fun place - cramped and candlelit, all mismatched furniture and low ceilings, just on the right side of the bohemian/divey spectrum. The burgers we ate were fantastic, and even if the dominant accents around the tables were British and American, the draught beer is heavily skewed towards the local. I drank the Powerplant saison from Barcelona’s own Edge brewery, which was sadly drastically under-attenuated and under-carbonated and should be approached as a faintly phenolic pale ale to avoid disappointment. There are some nice lemon and lime flavours, with just a hint of juniper and pepper. It stood up well to a big, bready burger and patatas bravas with lots of paprika, which is high praise.

Also from Edge was Padrino Porter, a beer with a rich, decadent chocolatey malt depth that suits after-dinner drinking. There’s a certain earthy, Shredded Wheat hop character (East Kent Goldings?), but also a hint of New World fruitiness before a light bitter finish. It’s a little thin bodied for the style, but was also served at a temperature that suits the close Barcelona evening which makes this less of an issue. I'm rarely so refreshed by a dark beer.

Paying my tab on the way out, I decided to take advantage of the pub’s CAMRA discount, more for the novelty value than the 60c it saved me – I always forget about it and so have never used it at home, and I like the idea of doing so in Spain at a bar serving precisely no cask beer. I'd guess that not many people redeem this generous offer as it completely baffled the bar staff. The British ex-pat proprietor seemed delighted to oblige, though - he explained that there's only one bar in Barcelona that sells cask, as few bars have cellars and the climate means that a cask goes off almost instantly. He did reassure me that all his beer was KeyKeg - "beer in a bag!"

I also stocked up at Beer Store, a great bottle shop recommended to me by Joan at Birraire, via Steve at Beers I’ve Known – thanks guys! Since all conventional accommodation in the immediate vicinity of the Primavera site books up within minutes of tickets going on sale, we ended up staying on a boat in a nearby port. Heineken is the only beer available at the festival, so I established a routine of sampling the wares of Barcelona’s craft breweries on the deck before consigning myself to the Dutch fizz. A separate post detailing those nautical brews will follow soon.

Sunday, 29 May 2016

My Bamberg onion

Bamberg might be getting a lot of things right, but vegetarian food isn't necessarily one of them. Actually, that’s not really true – finding good veggie fare in Bamberg was no problem at all when I visited, but the traditional dishes you’ll find served in the brewery taverns are as carnivorous as they come. I begrudge nobody their mountains of gravy-soaked pork, you understand, and was particularly envious of those getting to sample a speciality of the Schlenkerla pub, the Bamberg Onion. As it turns out, Bamberg is notorious for its onions as well as its beer, and in this dish an onion is stuffed with lots and lots of smoky meat and served with a gravy made from rauchbier and the drippings – the recipe can be found here. Quite understandably, a vegetarian version did not appear on the menu, so I started to think about how I could create such a thing at home.

How does one go about constructing a meat-free equivalent of a dish that revolves around pork, smoked pork, and a little smoked bacon for good measure? The answer was to fall back on the old vegetarian staples of mushrooms and cheese. Mushrooms bring a vaguely meaty depth of flavour, and cheese is, you know, delicious. In order to replicate the smokiness, I opted for smoked applewood, and decided to cook the mushrooms in Schlenkerla rauchbier. I sautéed them at a high heat until they took on a caramel colour and their liquids started to evaporate, then threw in around 100ml of beer, a teaspoon of smoked garlic powder and some smoked sea salt and cooked briskly until the liquid had mostly reduced. These mushrooms, even on their own, were a bit of a revelation, and something I’ll be cooking again. Leftovers made a sublime grilled cheese sandwich the next day.

I didn't have a genuine Bamberg onion at hand, of course, so went for the biggest Spanish one I could find. Spooning the middle section out was no fun at all. If I had to do it again, I’d seriously considering donning swimming goggles for this stage. I chopped these parts finely and fried them off, then added them to the mushrooms, before stuffing this mixture alternatively with grated cheese until the onion was bulging. I roasted this for about 45 minutes, occasionally topping up the water in the bottom of the dish whilst making a quick sauce out of vegetable stock and beer, thickened with a little flour and simmered in a frying pan. The sauce was simple but tasty, and the dish didn't need much anyway. The final touch was a smoked applewood crisp, tucked between the onion 'lid' and the main body where normally a slice of smoked bacon would rest.

I served it with mashed potato and some steamed veg, washed down with the remaining beer. It was delicious. That onion is no mere vessel – all of its sweetness is revealed, but it retains some texture and bite at the same time, and the filling was full of smoky umami flavour. It may insult Franconian tradition. It may sound unappealing to meat eaters drawn to the deeply porky original. It may have taken all afternoon. I don’t care. It’s my Bamberg onion and it made me happy.

Friday, 27 May 2016

The Watchmaker's Arms

It’s snowing as I head out to the Watchmaker’s Arms. It’s that wet, slushy snow that you get in the liminal weeks between winter and spring, the kind that disintegrates on contact and soaks my jacket and hair whilst a cold wind whips around my ears. The prospect of a warm and cosy pub has rarely seemed more appealing. The Watchmakers’ doors have only been open a matter of minutes, but the first regular customer is already sitting down with an early-afternoon pint and newspaper, and it’s not long until there’s a glass of Hammerpot’s Bottle Wreck Porter in my hand. It’s rich and warming with deep liquorice flavours, and I’ve soon forgotten the grey, apocalyptic skies outside.

This is East Sussex’s first and currently only micropub. I’ve been in pubs that are physically smaller, but the micropub model is more about taking a back-to-basics approach than necessarily setting up in a tiny premises. It’s easy to define this in negative terms – “no television, no music, no gaming machines” says Ali, one of four partners who own and run the pub – that don’t make micropubs sound especially inviting or fun, and there are those that find them a little exclusive. But think about the positive inversion of what this all means – a social environment that both encourages the sharing of tables and conversation, but also a peaceful place to relax with a book and a pint if you prefer. And, of course, a focus on beer which, bizarrely, is a subject many of Brighton and Hove’s innumerable pubs don’t seem particularly interested in. “Beer is what brings most people to us”, Ali says “a really nice pint of ale, served at the right temperature, straight from the cask. And then they say it’s friendly, or they met someone they liked here and that brings them back.”

Coincidence plays a large part in Ali and Ruth’s story. A former teacher and teaching assistant respectively, they were both looking for a change when an intriguing property came up on nearby Richardson Road, a small community shopping street. “You know how you start looking at houses for sale when you’re not really intending to buy one? I started looking at commercial property online, and this place came up”, Ali explains. Despite having fallen in love with Kent’s micropubs, it wasn’t the first thing to spring to mind – “I thought maybe I could sell furniture.” As it turned out, Ruth and husband Rick had already had the thought that the same property would make a great micropub - “and that was it, that’s what started it.”

After a lot of time, effort and money, the seller pulled out. But soon their current premises, a couple of hundred yards from Hove train station, came up for sale. As with many micropubs, the building is an old shop. With a visit to a local history archive, they discovered it had been a watchmaker’s in 1889, giving the pub its name. “We were worried it might have been a brothel or an undertakers”, says Ruth – “The Undertakers Arms!” They’ve now been here a little over a year, celebrating their first birthday with a weekend-long beer festival – when I visited, a steady stream of casks from the likes of 360 and Brighton Bier were rolling in in preparation.

There’s no bar here as such – more of a counter where you place your order, which is then poured from gravity-dispensing stillage in a separate room. Pump clips, wreaths of hops and regulars’ pewter tankards line the walls, along with a tasteful collection of clocks to tie in with the watchmaking theme. Alongside the beer, local cider and wine are served, but lager is notably absent. I’m intrigued by this – even the most beer-focused pubs and bars operate on the logic that you must serve at least one lager. “We do get people come in and ask for it”, says Ali. “Quite often they’ll come in with a friend who’s an ale drinker and very often we can find something they like.” “People come in and say “do you do lager?” and we say no, and either they try something or they go somewhere where they can get it”, says Ruth. “It’s a bit different to go somewhere where it’s just real ale and real cider.” This is the important point, I think. Should we really worry that lager drinkers (closed-minded lager drinkers who won’t even consider trying anything else, at that) might be excluded from micropubs when lager is available absolutely everywhere else, and decent cask ale isn’t? I think not.

The micropub model offers a lot of freedom and, in the Watchmaker’s case, very few challenges. Overheads are low, so financially there’s less risk in staying small and doing things their own way. Getting started even sounds painless – long waiting times notwithstanding. “The micropubs in West Sussex seemed to have a lot of restrictions put on them from what we know of them”, say Ruth, “like there’s no vertical drinking, so everyone has to be sitting down. I don’t know why, because some of them are so small, there’s not even any room to have a fight even if you wanted to! It was as if they were making it difficult for them to open, whereas for us it was a bit long winded but everything was fine.” In fact, they had their fans at the council – “we had a lot of people there who said “oh I love real ale, that sounds really cool!””, Ali says. Indeed, most of their restrictions are self-imposed – “they couldn’t believe that we’d be closing at nine and only sell real ale!” Ruth says.

As of a few months ago, the Watchmaker’s is also home to BeerCraft, a small pilot brewery using their premises to brew beer for sale here as well as other local pubs. “We’re really lucky because we’d have taken his beer even if it was average, seeing as he’s here”, Ali says, “but it’s really good!” “It just sells like hot cakes”, Ruth adds, “we put it on and it just goes straight away. It’s a real talking point. People come in and ask about his beer and want to know when it will be on. It’s good for us and good for him, because he’s just starting out and he’s got somewhere to brew."

After a successful first year, they seem content to keep doing what they do so well. “There are some very business-minded people who get off the train and come in who ask us, “what are your plans to expand?””, Ali says, “and we say, “nothing!” It will be nice if this carries on and does well but we’re not building an empire.” Sometimes small is just perfect.