Archive for February, 2011

A Haunted Pint of Old Peculiar
February 26, 2011

The fireplace at the Black Swan Inn

Within the tiny city of York, circumscribed by the ruins of the medieval wall, there are myriad pubs.  I have not been to them all, and will probably never get to all of them.  York is also the “most haunted city in England.”   And I would believe it.

Even my own cottage seems to have a ghost, or so one of my house guests claims- he came down from the ceiling to greet her.  She described someone who looked a bit like Minty off Eastenders.

Ghosts are a part of the tourist trade here– men in stilts and archaic clothing hawk nightly tours, and on any night you can see similarly dressed men spinning yarns for gaggles of tourists who gasp and laugh at their storytelling.

Many of the churches are haunted but if one were to do a ghost-for-ghost accounting I would bet pubs would win out.  Just the other night I was in the Black Swan, a beautiful 15th century inn inside of the city walls.  It has an archetypal look, like something out of a fairy tale, with  black beams and iron fireplace, decorated antiques of rough domesticity– kettles, pots, bed warmers.  The space is intimate and friendly– you can hear everyone’s conversations and on the night I was there it was a convivial, fascinating crowd– ramblers, older women in bright colours sitting together, a woman in a cocktail dress with her suited-and-booted date.

At one point the pub was packed with a ghost-trail tour which ascended the stairs looking for  “Legs”.  He is, you guessed it, reduced in the afterlife to a pair of limbs.  There are other ghosts here:  a woman in white (isn’t she always?) looking after the fire, a man in a bowler hovering by the bar, waiting for someone.

The woman beside me kept looking around– at the Toby jugs on the shelf, lit from beneath and looking like disembodied heads, jolly trophies.  The iron chandelier, empty of candles, kept swinging of its own accord.   Over a door behind the bar hangs a set of Morris Dancing knives, woven in the shape of a pentagram.

These knives first became known to me watching the Wickerman as a girl in the early 80s.  (My parents forbid me to see it, which of course made me even more curious, and in many ways this film has had a formative effect on my imagination but that is for another post.) The knives appear in the famous masked “chop-chop” scene, where the be-wigged Lord Summerisle, played by a histrionic Christopher Lee, sends foaming barrels of ale into the sea.

The woman next to me shuddered and declared the place “creepy,” staring at the knives which I suppose could be a bit sinister.

Sword Morris Men in Hastings, May Day 2010

But I associate them with the joyful virility of this style of Morris, where men weave and interlace using the swords in a snaking puzzle.  (If anyone knows the name of this troupe pictured above, let me know so I can credit them.  They were amazing.)

That night at the Black Swan I had a Copper Dragon’s Golden Pippen, malty and light with a delicate bitterness, perfect served though the sparkler.  Then I unwisely changed to Theakston Old Peculiar, one of my favourite beers.  This pint tasted sour, as if the lines were not cleaned properly.  Next to Landlord, Old Peculiar has to be the most wildly varied cask ale I’ve ever had– no two pints are ever the same.  But this one had none of the characteristic dried fruits and dark malts, all the sweetness siphoned out of it.  I blame Legs.

Local, the Cover Version
February 24, 2011

Dunnington looks the same, except now there are smokers' tables outside the pub.

Moving from North London to a village in Yorkshire has carried with it a bit of culture shock.  And, to be American in this little village is even stranger.  Men will come to the door offering to cut trees or wash windows and when they hear my accent will ask for the person who actually lives in the house, or they ask me when I’m going home.

Despite these provincial reactions, this place is big enough to have three pubs. There is a pub called the Windmill which is right off the busy Hull Road, surrounded by a large parking lot.  It looks like a typical roadside pub, a bit lonely and incongruous.  I should brave it because maybe it’s not such a locals place.  But I am a local. Oh, nevermind.

The Cross Keys is technically my local.  One night I was killing time before stopping by the vet’s across the street and I got myself a pint of Black Sheep Bitter– the only ale on cask at the time.  It was perfectly fine, but nothing special.  There was a decent crowd on the week night.  The place was full of grey haired men in quilted coats, all dark green or navy blue, some old age pensioners waiting to eat. Are these the salt-of-the-Earth Yorkshire folk who people Herriot’s books?  Are they property owners full of aspiration, looking after their patch of grass?

The Cross Keys was obviously done up proper in the 80s and now the upholstery was looking a bit greyed-out. What was once a cozy colour scheme of vanilla and burgundy has faded to fusty.  None of this would matter if it were the kind of pub that dispels loneliness.  Such is the magic of the best kind of British pub– a woman can go in and drink unmolested and maybe even strike up a conversation and feel at home.  Frustratingly, this is almost that place.

It was the music.  I would rather have silence than some kind of pollution parading as canned craic.  Overhead, buzzing from large speakers, a CD played generic covers of 70s pop songs.  Was it a pub equivalent to the Musak of the dentist’s office?   You can forgive even shite if the music reveals something about the person pulling the pints, or even the punters.  I looked around at the men drinking their pints, the young blonde barmaid with a drunken-dare star tattoo on her shoulder, the landlady in sensible separates with her pad in hand taking food orders orders.  Was anyone listening to it?

You Got a Friend sung by some random studio musician.

It’s enough to send you on the next bus into town.

Brewing in the Moonlight Cottage
February 6, 2011

Yesterday was bottling day– all the Cold Moon Pale Ale has been bottled, quite neatly, thanks to a spigot-bottling stick.  No more sticky wrasslin’ with the siphon tubing! The Cold Moon was all about using up what I had– some light spray malt, crystal malt grains and cascade hops and calling it a Pale Ale. It was my first experiment in dry hopping as well.  Thanks to Simon, Oblivious and Zak for the pointers!

Today I’m brewing more of an experiment– I’ve had a notion to brew something akin to my favourite candy– chocolate-covered orange peel.  I hit a snag when I went to the local brew shop looking for some spray malt that wasn’t extra-light, and that’s all the unpleasant shop owner had.  He was too busy endlessly chatting to some punter about his range of kits to help.  Despite my patience– waiting a good 10+ minutes to be noticed, and then some polite inquiries which were met with barking and vague pointing.  Why, in the day of hot competition from internet vendors, do brick-and-mortar places not get their customer service in order?  If it’s easier and more pleasant for me to shop online, that’s what I’m going to do, despite the sticker on the door of the shop that insists I should “Shop Local.”

I dropped thirty pounds in this place, feeling like a chump, leaving with the wrong stuff entirely.  But, I’m brewing with it anyway.  Generic ale yeast & extra-light spray malt will hopefully be tempered by chocolate and black malts for steeping and loads of cascade and Amarillo hops which will be added late in the boil, and later to the fermenter (dry hopping).

One of the best things about brew day– the hops and boiling wort make the kitchen smell like some bacchanalian garden of plenty. Oh, and it’s a good excuse to make a dent in the stash– in the name of research.  I’ve had a bit of Dogfish Head 60 minute and Meantime Coffee porter.  Oh, by some sympathetic magic that I might make a melding of the two!

The Mystery of Cask, the Consistency of Keg
February 4, 2011

Pivovar Matuska's prog-rock looking logo

What’s all the fuss about method of dispense, anyway? The fabulous Reluctant Scooper hosts this month’s session.   I won’t even start in about bottle conditioning, and yet…maybe I will.

Some drinkers have formed whole identities around their preferred method and embrace it as a political stance.  There is a political history here, a David-and-Goliath story of mega-brewers versus traditional, craft methods, but somehow it has taken on an essentialist dichotomy in some discussions to the point of absurdity.  For beer drinkers outside of the UK, the urgency of this debate may seem remote and exotic.  It did to me, at least, before I became slowly enamored of cask ale.

After my recent trip back to the US I longed for the gentle, complex mystery in the best cask ale, as the cold fizz of the keg was masking flavors in the beer I was drinking, which was all very strong and hopped.  I let it rest in the glass for a very long time just to taste what was really going on. At least with keg you’ll always know what you are getting.

But the heartache of the immigrant is constant– when you are in one place you think you love the other more.  And so it is with ale.

That is, until you find a place like Pivni, in York, that has fantastic cask and keg in an ever-changing array from around the world.  On my last visit they had Thornbridge Raven on cask, a black IPA with a mysteriously peppery, minty, herbal hop character which I’m sure would have been masked by keg dispense, but who knows!

When I metioned to the landlord there that Black IPAs were my favourite he told me about a new beer he had just put on keg, from Matuska, a Czech microbrewery.   He gave me a taste– there was a blast of Amarillo hops right at the end of a really stand-up, well rounded Czech malt backbone, with other mysterious hops dancing hand in hand along the way. I had a half and was completely won over.

Another reason to love Pivni is they care about beer.  Not only will this wonderful guy behind the bar wax lyrical about new and exciting ways to clean pipes, when he realizes you are really into a beer he will go upstairs and print you out a profile from the brewery!

Where I thought this beer a kind of super-hopped dark lager, (thanks, keg for tricking me!) it is actually a top-fermented ale.  The notes from the brewery go on to say that to call a beer “black” is not part of the Czech brewing tradition, but calling it “dark rocket” wouldn’t really cut it, “so black rocket it is.”

The profile goes on to list all the stats: the malts (“Primary Rocket Fuel”) and the hops (“Secondary Rocket Fuel”), kind of yeast as well as fermentation time.  That’s all valuable information for a budding home brewer like myself who is learning what methods and ingredients make different flavors.

I love many kegged American, German and Czech beers too much to disparage the keg, for without it, how could I try Black Rocket, or when I’m really homesick, tuck into some Sierra Nevada?  Sierra Nevada Pale Ale  is a beer I disliked in its “real” bottle-conditioned form but I now find, in all its imported keggy zest, quite wonderful, and am content to be in the majority of beer drinkers who simply, aren’t that fussed about how it got into the glass.