Archive for May, 2008

Dark Hare
May 30, 2008

I have had numerous beer conversion moments, with lots of false starts. The first beer I ever loved was Guinness, and the first time I had that was when I was a teenager in San Francisco. I had the flu and my Irish friend brought me a pint of Guinness and a raw onion which he said would make me feel better if I just bit into it, “like an apple.” The onion was painful but the Guinness was a revelation, as previously I’d thought all beer was icky lager.

I am nostalgic for a time before I existed, when nursing mothers were given milk stout as a tonic. For years Guinness was my chicken soup. I had no idea that what I was drinking was a shabby version of what could be had in Dublin, and now it’s possible to find wonderful stouts whenever I have the blues or the lurgy strikes. (The last time I was at Utobeer I was eying the imported Rogue Shakespeare Stout for my medicine cabinet. Specific indication for that brew– homesickness.)

I love bath ales which I have only had on tap until now. I found a bottle of Dark Hare at Waitrose and kept it for medicinal purposes, and tonight it’s my dinner: roasty and dry with just enough bitter chocolate to be comforting. I’m skipping the raw onion.

While listening to: The Young Charlatans’ “Shivers”

Who’s With Me?
May 29, 2008

Last Orders on the Underground

The Final Circle Line Party. The booze-on-the-tube ban goes into effect on June 1st. Say it’s a protest or hedonist last harrah, but you really can’t have an opinion unless you show up. 9pm. Liverpool St. Station, Circle Line Clockwise Platform, rear of train.

Paradox Grain
May 28, 2008

Who knew my perfectly dashing imperial stout would show up in a whisky-soaked kilt.

I’m not complaining, mind you. I once dated a guy who played bagpipes at funerals. He had a rather morbid print of Vlad the Impaler on his bedroom wall. I’d like to think this is the kind dark-as-night beer that would have made sense to us, but that was a long time ago.

I’ve been wanting to try a Brew Dog beer for some time– the brewers are young and bold, and the ransom-note style branding appealed to me as well. Maybe I’m cruising for an ASBO, at least if the Portman Group has anything to say about it.

This was a whisky cask aged imperial stout. This particular bottle was the 007 batch, aged in Carsebridge 1963 barrels. Upcoming Paradox stouts will be aged in other barrels. Despite Virgil’s warnings, I would like to try batch 9, aged in Ardbeg barrels. Ardbeg…like drinking the smoke of your vanquished enemy’s pyre. I wonder if I can find it, especially considering the ridiculous Portman group action against the Brew Dog labeling. (Read BrewDog’s fightin’ words here.)

I love whisky. I love imperial stout. So I had high hopes for this beer when I spotted it at Utobeer in Borough Market, even before finding it in Stonch’s archives.

There’s a full-on whisky nose with a bit of coffee. As it warms in my hand a buttery-toffee comfort surfaces. A bit savory, with the whisky/coffee continuing to the middle. Very warming, with a creamy mouthfeel, just a bit tickly with effervescence, gorgeous vanilla finish.

The Islay ’68 Paradox, brewed for the brewery’s one year anniversary, will cost £40 a bottle, of which only 200 will be made. It’s a testament to this beer that I’m actually considering advanced ordering one of these.

Eats: I’d like to be alone with the stout, please.

While listening to: Rose McDowall singing Devil’s Plaything.

Two Americans Walk into a Pub…
May 25, 2008

I have been to the Magpie and Crown in Brentford on several occasions. It is a short bus ride away from my flat, and I can confidently say the beer is the best I’ve had in London. The clientele is diverse and strange, many coming in from the nearby tattoo shop, and the landlord is friendly and clearly passionate about real ale.

Last week a heavily tattooed American sat drinking with a tattooed Dutchman and they got to talking politics in between discussing classic cars. I overheard the American, “Your people hate my people.” The Dutchman concurred amiably. I’d like to think anything can be discussed over a pint, especially a pint of lovely Twickenham Blackbee as I had there today. Steve, the landlord, brought over some roasted potatoes for us which were especially delicious, and when a game isn’t on the telly there’s The Stranglers, Meatloaf or Ian Drury on the stereo. It’s quickly becoming my favourite place on a Sunday afternoon.

Today, a scraggly geezer with a gin nose leaned into Mr. Malting and me as we sat conspiring, “So what’s it like to be in love?”

I giggled, which is usually my response for any conversation I really don’t want to enter into. It’s a habit I’ve been waiting 30 years to outgrow.

“What’s the matter with you? Why are you laughing?” He’s annoyed already and he hadn’t even properly met me.

I replied, “That’s a complicated question.”

Which led to the inevitable, “Are you Canadian or American?” When he heard we were American he asked, “Going around the globe with your machine guns, where do you get off?” Having neither owned a machine gun nor traveled around the world, I couldn’t really tell him. This proud member of the empire on which the sun never sets was drinking German weiss beer, in case this matters to anyone. He then offered an anecdote, “I met one of the likes of you, after 7-11 (I didn’t correct him) and I offered my condolences. But it’s no surprise, is it, after what you did to the Red Indians?”

I have never actually heard the term “Red Indians” used by a living person before. It was almost quaint. I wanted to say that my ancestors, as well as their crimes, were most likely the same as his, but I said nothing.

“Why are you here, anyway? Is it by choice?” He pried.

“I work here,” said Mr. Malting.

This man pointed to his chest, “You are sitting across from a genuine Englishman. Take a good look, we are a rare breed, most now being black or brown.” I took a good look, his face so blanched with booze it was the colour of his long, lank grey hair.  He looked like a ghost.

At which point we turned to our pints and I wondered if this would be on the “Life in the UK” test.

Ebullient Redemption
May 22, 2008

As Pete Brown suggests in a recent post, sometimes taste, whether we like a beer or not, is all about context.

I must begin my discussion of this beer with putting it in the context of several other beers I tried around the same time. Last year I was traveling in Scotland and saw signs for the Black Isle Brewery. I convinced Mr. Malting it would be a good idea to check it out, a decision I later regretted. In the brewery store we just wanted to grab some beers, but clearly if you stopped it meant you wanted a tour of the brewery. We waited for the brewer to finish his conversation with a well-dressed couple who were chatting with him endlessly about their green lifestyle. Having come from Los Angeles this sounded weirdly like beer schmoozing, but we waited. And waited. He offered samples to the M&S wearing Brits but not to us, even though there were only five of us in the room. It was awkward. We waited some more. I considered leaving, but in one of my Larry-David-esque moments I decided that I was going to see this through. So of course once we purchased a range of beers to try later, they were already clouded with my vague annoyance. I’ve also had bad luck with several organic beers (why is it so hard to find a really good organic pint? I have had a few nice ones, but that is a subject for another post.) I tried the Irish red, the “Beat the Drum” ale and the Yellowhammer IPA. They were that rare thing– beers I couldn’t finish. I did finish the porter, but barely, being the one style I’m very forgiving about.

It all left a bad taste in my mouth, literally. So the next day when we stopped at a tourist shop to use the loo, I perused the shelves of coats-of-arms mugs that Americans buy to take back with them to prove they have roots somewhere, and in between the plush Nessies and clan tartan neckties, there was a small beer section. I fell for the Ebulum label– I am not immune to the whole Pictish-Celtic marketing aesthetic. But it was also black, flavoured with elderberries and was 6.5%. I was sold. And you know, after the bad-beer luck I was having, this beer wasn’t just good. It was redemptive.

The Plough Inn, Crowmarty

The next day we went drinking at the Plough Inn in Rosemarkie, where an old man played the accordion for the almost empty room. There was a gentleman there with a big black dog named Molly. When this man saw me he exclaimed, “You are a strange one, you are,” pointing at me as if I should know it.

“I’m a stranger.” I agreed. And once that was settled we got to talking. He’d lost his wife “two years to the day.” He bought me a pint of Tennent’s Velvet, which was really quite lush, and I told him I had been to the Black Isle Brewery. He then gave me an earful of gossip! He also asked me what I thought of the beer and I told him honestly.

He said, “The red one?” and then made a choking gesture, “It’s like Buffy the vampire was choking me!” I had to forgive him for mucking the pop culture reference– I was just happy to have someone concur.

And now, curled up with my laptop and cat in my little flat, that Ebulum holds up to a second try in these more familiar surroundings. The berries mix with a dark tea-tannin deliciously, any Ribena subsumed in warm barley, and the vanilla-malt nose floats over it all. Cheers to Molly and the widower and that old man playing the accordion, faraway on the Black Isle.

Eats: belgian chocolate truffles

While listening to: In Gowan Ring

Bronze Age Microbreweries
May 19, 2008

Bronze Age Brewery

(In borrowed gear at the excavated burnt mound near the Tomb of the Eagles, Orkney)

While in the Orkneys last year, I noticed the plethora of “burnt mounds” on the OS map, and I wondered what they might have been for. While in the visitors centre of the Tomb of the Eagles, one of the archaeologists there was hot with excitement about something she’d just read. She asked me to guess what the mounds might have been and I offered something about cooking and food storage, and she said– “Almost! How about a brewery? Think about it!” and I did.

I was prompted to post this shortly after reading the story of St. Brigid, the patron saint of brewers, turning bathwater to beer for some lepers. This bathwater might have been a vat of soaking barley, part of the malting process, as The Zythophile points out. Recent research conjectures these bronze age burnt mounds might just be ancient versions of this kind of processing. Apparently these researchers brewed an ancient ale using similar facilities, and the drink was “sweet,” being unhopped– I would have liked to try that!

St. Brigid is the Christianized version of a much older Goddess, Bride, whose name appears in places all over this island. If these researchers are correct, this brew, a joy older than bread, has left its ancient mark on the landscape. Sumeria has written records of brewsters and even recipies, but these sites will remain a prehistoric mystery, not unlike the process of fermentation itself. Michael Jackson describes wild yeast, “descend[ing] from Heaven even more gently than rain.” He imagines it must have seemed magical to ancient people. And I would venture– a gift of a benevolent and fecund goddess.

May 17, 2008


My German is limited to danke and dunkel. OK, I exaggerate. I can also say kölsh and proust. I have spent a lot of time drinking beer in Bavaria, going to different breweries in Munich and the countryside. My favourite by far of those was Andechs. One of my good friends used to live near the Augustinerbräu, or as we called it, “The Beer Factory” because you could smell the beer brewing from his flat. And last year I went to Cologne with my friend who is a brewer and we tried as many types of kölsh we could find.

Before I really got into beer I would order weissbier– it was delicious but one day I tried a dunkel and never looked back. My journey to beerdom has been a dark one. So, when I went to Zeitgeist, the German Beer Fest at the Jolly Gardener, I was looking for dark lager style beers. My friends Hadyn and Kate came with and we tried as many different beers as we could before the last train out of Victoria at 10.

The first beer I tried was probably not a good starter– it was Fuschen Alt, which tasted a hell of a lot like a British bitter, with a very strong resin-pine hop finish that really lasted, very little carbonation and almost no head. Ok, it wasn’t a bad beer but it wasn’t what I wanted.

Next, when I went up to look for a Dunkel, it didn’t seem like there was one out at the moment? I pointed to the tap I thought had a darker beer in it but the friendly guy working the taps poured me the Bolten Landbier or “country” beer. It looked unfiltered and was refreshingly sunny on this sunless London day. It had a nose that reminded me of blossoms crushed to the ground and faintly rotting. This was the only significant note I could detect and it was probably because my palate was still recovering from the first beer.

Out of frustration my friend Kate and I ended up asking a guy drinking a dark beer what it was. He was very generous and actually offered me some. It seemed that whatever he was drinking was tapped out but he suggested the Scheubel-Sternbrau Dunkel Rauchbier– an older beer style where the malt is dried over a wood fire. This is what I came for! Thank you lovely man who said, “Ask for tap 16.” It had a tall, lacy head, a bright and quenching mouth feel and a caramel-buttery nose. The smoke really came out in the middle and it was subtle and complex for something so drinkable.

My favourite of the evening, Kathi-Brau Dunkels Lagerbier, got put out later, which was a shame because I would have liked another pint of it, and I had to leave early to catch the last train. It was lively with carbonation, with a honeydew melon malt middle. I couldn’t detect the nose very well but I adored this beer!

Kate w/ german shandy type beerKate and green lemon

My friend Kate ferreted out the beers that would curl the beard hairs on any beer snob. I am not one. I am barely a beer-evangelist. (I suppose this blog may be proof otherwise.) Kate found a grapefruit beer that was a bit like a shandy– these were bottled behind the bar and not part of the beer festival, I should add! There was a distinct baby aspirin flavour to it. Next she cracked open a “Beck’s Green Lemon”– she told me that she went through Berlin drinking this stuff which tasted like Corona with a plop of synthetic lime cordial, I mean, if Corona was a dental rinse! To be fair, I did try to get her to try what I was drinking but she couldn’t get past the smell. Cider and perry are more her speed.

I thought briefly about going back to the festival today but the 1.5 hour tube ride to the other side of London has put me off it. The beer was going so fast I imagine a good deal of it is gone! Thanks to Stonch and Bier-Mania for putting this on.

Badger Golden Glory
May 16, 2008

Badger Golden glory, originally uploaded by unclewilco 

(Thanks to unclewilco on Flickr for the use of the photo and power of suggestion)

When I was a teenager I read Flipside magazine, combing through the ads for pen pals in the back. Those were pre-internet days: heady exchanges of mixed tapes and Xeroxed collages! I met a guy that way who ended up being ten years my senior and actually someone who babysat me when I was tiny, but to continue in this nostagic vein would be OVERSHARING.

None the less, the first time I ever drank was with this person, who I adored. We sat on the rickety balcony of his squat in downtown Chicago drinking fuzzy navels– peach schnapps and orange juice. Sure it was poison, deliberately concocted to appeal to my adolescent femme palate, and I wouldn’t be able to choke one down now but there is something about Golden Glory that reminds me not of the flavor of that cocktail, but that glowing delight of initial intoxication. Of course, it’s the peach.

And maybe even honeysuckle? How did it get in there? Nectar? Fairy dust? Some hyphenated additive? Wait, don’t tell me. Or if you do, it better be buried between tracks on a mixed tape.

Eats: parsnip crisps!

While listening to: Psychic TV– The Orchids.

In the Meantime
May 14, 2008

While real ale in itself isn’t going to change white, male “boy’s club” feel of beer drinking in the UK, it does have the potential for wider appeal with women and people of color. How is this going to happen?

One possible way is that beer will be marketed to separate race and gender demographics. People will buy it from supermarkets and drink it in front of the telly.

Where is the fun in that? Beer is a social thing, a bonding agent. Beer has the potential to really bring people together joyfully. What if real ale culture harnessed that anew, starting with pubs and festivals radically rethinking their base?

Perhaps the nationalistic, tradition-based advertising approach of many British pubs, festivals and breweries is not ultimately the way forward if real ale is to have more appeal. In the changing landscape of Britain it must have wider appeal to really survive and grow.

Meantime– which doesn’t produce cask-conditioned ale– is an amazing example of British beer adopting international styles and learning from the American microbrewery revolution. Easy-drinking kolsh and Munich styles plus Strawberry cream, blackcurrant porter and raspberry ale are beers that will appeal to women, but they aren’t marketed patronizingly at us. Also the packaging in the grocery store and the pub spoke to me: bottles with a beautiful font and a great name. They were elegant, back to basics and yet full of London magic (Greenwich Mean Time– time begins here–).

The Greenwich Union pub did not disappoint, and echoed the branding effortlessly. Everything was perfect down to the details: the glasses were appropriate to the style and brewery branded, and even carefully sprayed down after pouring by the bar staff so they wouldn’t be sticky. The beer itself was perfect in every way– the kolner seemed quite accurate especially– I suppose it can’t be called a kolsh because you can’t hear the bells of the Dom in Greenwich! The dunkel rivaled my favourite of that style– Andrechs. The raspberry was specially perfect for drinking outside on a summer’s day. The sunny Union garden did remind me of happy times with friends in the beer gardens of Bavaria. It was a Sunday afternoon and there were many more women here drinking– maybe even outnumbering men. Though it was still a predominantly white crowd.

Doing Two Things at Once
May 11, 2008

dove pub

Having lived in London for three years, it’s just long enough for me to understand I’ll never get to everying, and there are no more secrets to discover. Everything has been marked and claimed and remarked and I will present little new light. This is the case with the famous Dove pub in Hammersmith, the oldest riverside pub in London, where James Thomson composed Rule Britannia and William Morris got pissed.

It was purchased by Fuller, who still owns the pub, in 1796, but it existed as a pub for at least 100 years prior. I had walked past it many times while strolling by the Thames there, and it looked so cozy but I never went in until yesterday. One of my American brewer friends is attempting to replicate Michael Jackson’s favourite drink, Fuller’s Mild, and has been prompting me to do field research because I live close to the brewery. I thought it being the “Month of Mild” for real ale drinkers they were bound to have it on tap at this Fullers pub.

It was one of those hot days where Londoners are a bit miserable but won’t admit it, and everyone is forcing themselves to have fun, wearing things that don’t come naturally to the English, like plastic sandals and board shorts. The Dove was packed with people in this mode, all drinking Pimms and Lemonade or bottled cider. On ice. Why is it this is the only time you can find ice here, in this atrocious manifestation? Anyway, the promise A FRIENDLY WELCOME SERVED ALL DAY, outside on a chalk board, gave me a twinge of trepidation. In my experience any pub which claims this will offer you nothing less than tepid animosity inside. But one lives in hope.

Upon entering, another chalkboard sign offered a new way to drink Fuller’s honey beer– “TRY HONEYDEW ON ICE” I cringed. I cringed some more while scanning the taps: all bog-standard fair– Guinness, Carling, Fosters, save four Fullers taps– no mild. I went for my usual choice of Discovery, which is one of despair. I’m not that keen on Fullers ESB or Chiswick Bitter. I’ve had many a crap pint of Discovery, too. The only thing is, when I tried to order at the bar, the bartender took the order from Mr. Malting. He then asked if he wanted anything else and I piped in, “One pint of Discovery,” and the bartender mysteriously walked away to wait on some guy in affected apres-surf gear next to me. (This is a rather common occurrence in pubs– where I am passed over for a man next to me– but I digress). Plus, there was no loo roll in the ladies. Warm welcome, my ass.

So M and I split the pint, crowded into a corner. Of course it was beautiful inside with low ceilings and wooden rafters, and I imagine it would be cozy on a winter’s night but today I had to wonder, sweatily, why had all these people come here to drink the same thing they always do, with the same people? With the countless pubs in London, why suffer one that is coasting on its atmosphere and history? M and I used the time to plot our next move. Inspired by Knut Albert’s beer blog, we decided to check out the Magpie and Crown in Brentford, a steamy bus ride away.

Magpie and Crown Pub

Both of us had been by this pub many times and even asked friends about it who wrinkled their noses at the idea, no doubt put off by the fact that it is a local boozer and also caters to the “Beardy Weirdies”, or real ale lovers, as Stonch so affectionately puts it. I knew as soon as I walked in that this was the place. Despite the ugly, worn out carpet and footie blaring on the wall, I could see countless taps gleaming before me, all with beer I haven’t tried yet. I noticed they even had Fentimans, my favourite non-alcoholic drink.

I started with Crouch Vale Blackwater Mild, a total winner– it was, well, the blackest of blacks and beautifully balanced. Unable to resist an Essex beer named after a place in Texas, I tried Crouch Vale’s Amarillo next. Holy cow! This beer had an aggressively estery nose– yellow roses, you could say. And the hops seemed actually spicy, a bit like lemon pickle if you’ve ever had it. I shouldn’t have liked this beer. Maybe it was because I was sitting next to my own Texas sweetheart, but you know, I was so into it. I tasted a couple others but it was the Amarillo that merited a second pint.


As I sat sipping, the crowd of chunky men watching the footie started in on a rather ugly conversation about the government taxing white Englishmen while Muslims just get away tax-free. I thought, yeah, this is why beer culture is not considered cool in this country– there is all this racist nationalism tied up with “real ale”– a false sense of authenticity. But this is a topic for another post.

Meanwhile, as the men had at it, a tiny woman with a sensible bob and Liberty handbag came in and ordered a pint of mild, and sat across from us, drinking it quietly. I overheard one of the men yell, “I’M NOT A WOMAN, I CAN’T DO TWO THINGS AT ONCE.” The mild-drinker wrote something down and checked her makeup in a little brown compact. At the bar, the only other woman in the place sat hunched in her dirty winter coat, carefully raising her glass to her face with one violently trembling hand. I took notes and drank, noting the model ships, freshly dusted, on shelves all around. One was actually made of Shweppes cans. The governor (named Steve– thanks, interwebs) in a shirt that said THE LIVER IS EVIL AND MUST BE PUNISHED, was busy filling a stein with a German beer with a head as voluminous and dense as mousse. Try that next time, I promised myself. In fact he told us that if we came back in three days all guest taps would be changed again. I think I can wait that long.

EDIT: Comments are closed for this post, which has been distorted out of context on another site. I am receiving comments that are not relevant to this post. If you want to talk to me about beer, great! Please do.