Archive for the ‘session’ Category

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.

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A Cracking Session–Quite Quaffable
November 1, 2010

I’ll admit it, the idea of a session beer was alien to me before moving to this country.  I couldn’t hear the phrase without thinking of the mis-heard lyric “a rock and roll session is a second pirate session of a strange wax.” from the Nurse with Wound cover of the Jacque Berrocal ditty from 1976.  And I would giggle.

I’ve never drank in volume so a session was a weird concept.  It’s taken me near 6 years to acclimatize myself to drinking beer in pints.  I still don’t like it– the volume is overwhelming, a bit like those Big Gulp portions of soda from 7-11 in the US.  Do I really want that much liquid?

Here in the UK most pub offerings are limited to “session bitters”– varying in strength from 3-4.5%.  Anything 5% and over is considered quite strong because people often drink in volume.  Here one works towards a session and these beers are quaffing.  They are quaffable.  You quaff them.

For something to be quaffable it must be drunk with vigor in large gulps.  So that rules out a lot of beers on mouthfeel alone– too dense and flavorful and you just couldn’t throw it back for hours, right?  I wouldn’t know.  Many session bitters I’ve tried seem thin an somewhat spineless.  If there is other cask beer to drink besides a session bitter, I’ll usually go for that.  The contradictory nature of that rare creature, the proper session bitter is often too elusive:  it should be light yet substantial, characterful yet refreshingly simple.

In the past couple of days I’ve had two wonderful session bitters. I’ve never had an Adnams beer I didn’t like, and their Old Ale stands up as one of the best.  Adnams describes it as a mild which uses a recipe that dates back to 1890.  Roasty and deep with hints of fig, yet with a dry finish that made it quite drinkable.  I found this at the George pub, across from the Royal Courts of Justice in Holborn.

Yesterday I met some friends at the Old Dairy in Stroud Green, which I have to say was not as pleasant as on past visits.  The crowd has always been a bit vanilla-hipster but seemed even more-so yesterday.  As usual, it was hard to get served, despite the plethora of staff in the place.  The tables were mysteriously sticky.  Like, flypaper sticky.  Menus and promotional post cards stuck to the surfaces leaving scraps the barmaids struggled to clean.  They were playing the same sad 70’s disco mix over and over.  We suffered through the Bee Gees/Walter Egan/Hues Corporation in rotation three times while there.  It being Halloween, this was especially unforgiveable.  It’s the one day of the year you can play Monster Mash and Werewolves of London freely, without recriminations.

And this is the first time CAMRA’s “Take it to the Top” campaign actually made sense to me, as each pint I had was a shamefully short measure, at £3.40 to boot!

Anyway, I digress.  The reason why one would return to this place is for the beer, which is always in top  condition.  They had on a Halloween ale called “Howling Ale” which was brewed by Cottage as part of their “Whippet Series”. As far as I can gather from the website marketing this is a selection of beers brewed in honor of their dog.  This brewery also has a trainspotting range, making it almost archetypal in its Britishness– at least to this expat.  The pump clip to this beer features were-whippet of sorts, surrounded (I think) by bats.  The beer was in top condition with a dense head, a pretty ruby color and lovely roasted grain flavours and some cinnamon with an unassuming bitterness at the finish balancing it nicely.  I could have sipped the stuff all night, that is, if I didn’t have to listen to Van MacKoy and the Soul City Symphony yet again.    If only they would play some Nurse With Wound, we could call it a proper session; by the time you’re on the third pint everything is possible.

 

A Community Brewer
May 7, 2010

Bob Tower, brewer behind the Echo Park Private Brewery

This month’s Beer Blogging Session is hosted by The Hop Press and they’ve chosen collaboration as a topic.

The most obvious approach is perhaps to discuss micro-brewery collaborations between BrewDog and Mikkeller or other joint ventures that create a buzz in the beer world.

But that would have nothing to do with how I came to beer, which was through a different kind of collaboration.  There is a vibrant arts and d0-it-yourself, indie community of creative people in Los Angeles and one locus of this community was The Echo Park Private Brewery, or Bob and Edie’s home. There was always some new and amazing brew on– from Malt Liquor to Mead and fascinating combinations in between. Bob would  send out humorous and informative emails detailing the style and process.  He has turned hundreds of people on to beer and brewing, and I’m one of them.

Bob sees beer as a collaboration with the drinker, with artists and other brewers.  He has made beer as part of international art installations where participants designed the beer labels— each one different, hand made and sewn. This beer was given away at art openings and community events across Holland.

One of my fondest memories of those nights drinking beer with other artists, writers and community organizers in Bob & Edie’s kitchen was the Chicha night, where we tried to help Bob prepare the maize for the traditional South American fermented beverage.  There were about fifteen of us chewing the maize, rolling it into little balls and flattening it to dry.  (The enzymes in saliva break down the starch into maltose.)  So what if that brew didn’t exactly turn out?  We were all doing it together, part of a big experiment, and it put me in mind of what brewing might have been like when it was a community endeavor marking the seasons.

Sometimes I wonder what the Echo Park Private Brewery could do with a huge influx of capital.  What if Bob Tower’s beer could be available on a larger scale?  His clever vision and mastery of the craft could be shared by many more drinkers.  In the meantime, he has used local resources and creative alliances to continually reinvent what he brews.  Echo Park is indeed lucky to have its own community brewer.

New Beers Resolutions
December 31, 2009


The Beer Chicks have asked us for our best and worst beers of 2009.  There is a tie for best– between the sublime BrewDog Zephyr, and Pete Brown’s traditional Burton IPA– the same beer brewed for his voyage which he documented in Hops and Glory.  After fermenting for two years, it took on all sorts of mysterious, vinous, lambic-like characteristics.  Really haunting and complex, made moreso by its role in such a marvelous narrative.

In 2009 this blog turned one.  It started as a whim and has now become central my lens on life and London.  The days of the lone blogger are over; I’m part of a community.  It’s introduced me to fascinating people, many who are now friends.

My biggest leap of faith in 2009 was investing in BrewDog.  Why did I do it when so many in the blog-o-shire put forth compelling arguments not to?  When it’s not really an investment? When the Equity for Punks promo material was clearly sexist? When the guys at BrewDog went one stunt over the line and reported their own beer to the Portman group?  I confess the lifelong 20% sweetened the deal but really, I believe if anyone can inject new life into brewing in the UK and turn on a younger generation to craft brewing, it’s BrewDog.  Their beers excite me and capture my imagination. James’ sincerity and passion have won me over. I want them to do this thing– the new brewery, the brewpub, everything. It’s going to be amazing, the kind of thing that is already alive and well in the US. The Equity for Punks scheme is a bit crazy, but it just might work, it might be this kind of craziness that’s needed to ring in this sea change. What a coup it will be if they pull this off. These are exciting times in terms of craft beer, especially in Scotland, but in the whole of the UK.  I don’t want to miss it and I want a front row seat.

My big mistake of 2009 was not brewing enough of my own beer, not finding enough time, bottles, gumption.

The Beer Chicks have also asked us what kind of beer-o-phile do we want to be in 2010.  For me that would be a home-brewster beervangelist of a higher order.  Brewing stronger, bigger, tastier.  I want to take the beer message to the people.  And by people I mean non-beer drinkers.   In 2010 as in life, I want beer to dictate my travel itenerary and season my travelogue.  I want to eschew the role of foodie in favor of beer bard and alethropologist. I want to have a green knees up in Hastings at Beltane. I want to be my own surveyor of a beer map of Scotland and hunt for booze in Bruges.  And all this I can do, provided the Border Agency sees fit to keep me.

Happy New Year, beer-0-sphere!

Here’s to Great Lengths!
June 5, 2009

session_logoThis months session is hosted by Red, White and Brew, who’ve asked us to consider beer and distance, or which beer was “the longest haul away.”  I first considered writing about the earthy, comforting Dragonhead Stout from the Orkney Brewery– I took a plane and then a car and then a ferry and another car across the the Orkney Mainland to Quoyloo because I thought they would have a visitor centre or at least sell me some beer, but it was just two guys working hard at making more beer.  In the end, I basically went all that way to gush at them about how much I loved it and ended up buying some from the local market.  Along with some bere bread and a mild, crumbly cheese made locally– it was the perfect meal.

But then I reconsidered the subject.  Surely the more interesting take on this is not the farthest beer, but just how far would you go for beer?

Last night I toasted Pete Brown’s IPA voyage carrying a keg of traditional Burton IPA by ship to India. This journey has culminated in a book called Hops and Glory. The book is mixture of high-seas adventure, travelogue and an ode to IPAs.  I read it on the tube and couldn’t help laughing out loud even if that made me look like a nutter.

Last night I got to meet this man who has quite possibly gone the farthest for beer: his warmth, self deprecation and enthusiasm, so apparent in his writing, is amplified in the man.

I spent the night chatting with the Moore Group fellows.  The guys behind the Bronze Age Brewery experiments flew in from Ireland to drink IPAs (The Meantime IPA was my favourite of the evening) and chat about using moss to cork up an old wooden trough to use as a mash tun and boiling water with hot stones, and how none of it is reinactment because let’s face it that word is problematic. Good times!  I hope someday to travel to Ireland to sample their ancient beer and laugh with them again.

Beer obsessives, they are my people.

at the excavated burnt mound at the Tomb of the Eagles, Orkney, what might be the remains of an ancient brewery.

At the excavated burnt mound at the Tomb of the Eagles, Orkney. It very well could be the remains of an ancient brewery.

Take a sad beer and make it beh-eh-eh-ter*
May 1, 2009

Gypsy Rose Lee serving the "Little Brekkie" on the far right.

Gypsy Rose Lee serving the "Little Brekkie" on the far right.

session_logoIt’s the Session, hosted by Beer at Joe’s who’ve asked us to wax lyrical about beer cocktails.  I blogged about stuff in beer quite recently.  It’s a delightful topic which undermines a good deal of beer snobbery present in the blogoshire (coining credit:Woolpack Dave)

Without getting all pedantic, what exactly counts as a “cocktail”– must it be another liquid added?  Another alcohol? If you add fruit (or, say, garlic) does it count?  And, is it still real ale if you’ve doctored it with Tango?

I must confess that though my mild has vastly improved with more time in the bottle, it’s just not very alcoholic.  I’ve taken to dropping a shot of whisky into each pint and it’s a winner.  I did not drink it from a martini glass a la Janet on Two Pints of Lager.  That would have been ace.  I would like to call this cocktail FREAKOUT IN A MOONSHINE DAYDREAM (oh yeah).  And now it will have to be one of those mythic drinks that people whisper about in hushed tones like Westvleteren 13, because it’s all drunk up.

With the success of FOAMeD, I feel I should branch out into other beer mixology.

Thus:

The Power Skunk: Pacifico, Emergen-C (any flavor will do but acai berry is the best) and a shot of vodka.  If you find yourself in the Netherlands or other permissive environs, feel free to garnish with a fresh cannabis leaf.

Little Brekkie: Bud, clamato and minced Vicodin.

Three Wise Men and the Landlord: Goldschlager, Jagermeister, peppermint schnapps and some poorly-kept Timothy Taylor Landlord.

Green Flem ahem. Or, the Flaming White Fairy: Hoegaarden and absinthe.  Don’t forget to set the sugar cube on fire before pouring.

*Sung to the tune of Hey Jude.

**let it be known that I would consider drinking any and all of these, though for the record I would only drink the “Little Brekkie” when recovering from major surgery or other situations which would find me in legal possesion of controlled substances.

Dancing Sparkle in Each Glassful
March 6, 2009

session_logo

The Beer Nut has decided on a most compelling theme for this month’s session– lager.

There are lovely lagers out there– Brew Dog’s Zeitgeist being the first that comes to mind.  But I’m more interested in talking about the unlovelies. Homer with his can of Duff.  Billy Beer. Hamm’s Beer Bear– one of the first commercials I remember, and I can still sing the jingle. Marketing beer to children works! But I digress.

In the US I knew lager as simply beer, and I thought there was no other kind.   My mother loved Michelob and would drink it very cold, just one bottle, after her game of tennis. For most of my childhood I thought this was a very sophisticated drink, as my mother was a very polished sort of lady.

The first beer I ever tasted was a Michelob– I was very small and we were on a trip in Florida, lost in the swamps there.  I had to take my tablets and there was no water, only beer, and not cold.  Poison! Suddenly this sophisticated drink didn’t seem so elegant after all.

In college I tried to drink Miller.  I think I liked the sound of the initials, MGD.  But once in a seedy bar in San Francisco my friend handed me a cold bottle of Rolling Rock.  Beer in a green bottle was a revelation!  It seemed colder, happier from the neck of green glass, which is of course how we drank it.  I can still feel the braille of the white and blue printed label and I confess it makes me thirsty just thinking about it.  It wasn’t good beer of course but if I was drinking it, it meant I was with friends, people I loved, and we were having a good time. I’m glad at the time the brand had not yet attempted their hoax marketing gimmick of “moonvertising”, where they claimed to use lazers to project an ad onto the surface of the full moon.  I contemplated a tasting of this beer, knowing it would bring on a bargain-basement of Proustian revelries, but lucky reader, I could not find a bottle of the stuff.

When I moved from San Francisco I just couldn’t drink Rolling Rock anymore.  I flirted briefly with Mickey’s Big Mouth (technically a malt liquor?).  The bottle was green and round, it fit nicely in the hand and the caps featured a picture puzzle on the inside which served as a handy drunkenness test.  But the love didn’t last– I switched to martinis and stuck with those for many years, swearing off all beer.

During my martini phase I was teaching and one of my students worked as a Bud Girl.  One of the writing assignments was to render a formative moment in a few pages.  She wrote about her experience peddling lager to lunkheads and titled her narcissistic ramble, “Beauty and the Beast”, concluding that by the time she was done with the job, Bud would have basically paid for her plastic surgery and she could go on to “real” modeling. The Beast in her story was not the mega brewery and its sexist approach to marketing, but the louts she enticed.

It’s hard for me to see a can of Bud without thinking of her, even now, and how the lager stigma goes beyond just bad beer– it represents advertising’s cartoonish gender divide and the bonehead banalities of our culture.  A Bud Girl doesn’t drink the stuff, she just wears the branded bikini, and the lager lout “beast” has the power to turn your beloved Burberry plaid into trash and your local A&E into a WWF smackdown.

Last night I was with a dear friend and drinking buddy who loves lagers and is not interested in drinking anything else.  I’m not a very good beervangelist– I’ve tried to tempt her to try other styles but she’s having none of it.  Yesterday, as we were putting a few pints away in the Cockpit,  I’d commented that most ladies in the UK seem to drink chardonnay, so what did that make us, drinking pints in a manly place like this?

“Oh, there’s a word– Ladettes,” she joked.  I’d never heard it before, though apparently there have been reality teevee shows based on sending these individuals to finishing school, etc.   I mentioned I would be brewing some beer, you know, probably whilst skipping out on my deportment class.  She said if I could figure out how to brew a lager we would be BFF.  I’ll be calling it Ladette Lager.

Limited Edition Paradox
August 1, 2008

I worried about when to open it. It was so pretty, so perfectly black. What occasion could match it?

I wondered– could my bottle of LE Paradox 004, 10%, aged in 1968 Ex Duncan Taylor Bowmore casks, the most expensive beer I have ever imbibed, this bottle numbered 141 of 200 made, be its own occasion?

And then all at once things conspired against my niggard’s caution. Today is Lughnasadh, the Celtic festival that marks the beginning of the harvest– really the wrong time to count beans. And it’s beer blogging friday, hosted by The Barley Blog, who’s asked us to make tasting notes on a an anniversary beer.

(Plus, this week I got a job in the City, and that’s something to celebrate.)

I was reading the wonderful Boak and Bailey who participated in the session by cracking open a Fuller’s Vintage Ale, “You need an occasion to justify it, and what better occasion than raising a glass to fellow beer-bloggers across the globe.”

Genius! Of course. I have met so many wonderful beer people since starting this blog; it’s truly remarkable to be in such good company. At first I worried about opening a special beer all by myself and then I realized, hey, once you’re in the beer-blog-o-sphere you never truly drink alone.

So cheers, all you warm, funny, brilliant beer-folk– here’s what I’m drinking– Limited Edition Paradox, released for BrewDog’s first birthday:

Limited Edition BrewDog Paradox, bottle 141 of 200

Limited Edition BrewDog Paradox, bottle 141 of 200

The label is gorgeously florid– screen printed in gold laquer on matte black paper by Johanna Basford Designs. Out of the bottle it’s a perfect inky colour. The head is flocked, tea-stained and lovely. (There’s a beer p0rn moment where the black stream nests in the head perfectly, but of course I didn’t capture this on camera. I’m not that kind of girl.) The notes that predominate are a mysterious woody note, kindling in the nose and carpentry on the palate. There’s chocolate, too– but it’s only a shadow. The first taste is sweet but brief, prunes steeped in black tea. This glows to bitter smoke, tarnished metal and a bit of blood, and ghost-flashes of the whisky whose cask it’s shared. Five sips and it’s already warming.

Aztec Skull depicting Tezcatlipoca, from the British Museum.

Aztec Skull depicting Tezcatlipoca, from the British Museum.

It reminds me of a concoction made by the Los Angeles perfumer, Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab, who make a scent named after the Aztec god Tezcatlipoca, or “Smoking Mirror”– it shares the same notes of chocolate, armour, blood and fire.

Drinking Paradox has made me contemplative. There’s an autumnal memory surfacing– late summer watching fireflies with my cousins who would break out their Barbies when I would visit (the older, creepy Barbies from the 50s–) while the adults cooked things with fire. My uncle had built a new deck and it’s the wood smell that’s bringing it all back. My hands smell like that now, in a truly Proustian fancy: the Paradox reflects this Indian Summer night from my childhood in its smoking mirror.