Down the Rabbit Hole

January 20, 2011 - 2 Responses

The European Beer Bloggers Conference?

Now that I have escaped London I can look on it as Alice might, wandering past the rabbit hole.  The six years I spent there are more solid than a wild dream, but no less strange.  London still holds for me a kind of bland terror spiked with moments of thrall. Often my time there felt as if I were pleading my case to an unseen tyrannical force full of whimsy and danger, not unlike the King and Queen of Hearts.

But was there ever such a labyrinth of surprises as London?  Not in my life.

So it was with a keen sense of timing that I sampled BrewDog’s version of that quintessential of London brews, the porter.  That it’s named it after the blue-skirted adventuress, Alice, makes it all the more fitting to sample before my return.  Alice Porter is as surprising as I’d hoped, with a big tart cherry nose straight out of the bottle and shifting notes of bitter chocolate, pollen-like hop florals and a bit of pleasant mineral tang all topped with a bruise-dark cherry sweetness.

I’m going back to London Friday for a day, hopefully having a pint or two at the Jolly Butchers in Stoke Newington and saying hello to a pizzled dragon or two guarding the city before making my speedy return.

And I will return again, certainly, in May, for the Beer Bloggers conference.  Now if I could only find the right rabbit hole to get me to the conference in Portland in August…


Life Through a Sparkler

January 18, 2011 - 16 Responses

House of Trembling Madness Illustration by Rebecca Wright

I’ve lived in Yorkshire now for nearly two months, living in three different cottages and one hotel room.  My nomad ways are over (for a time) and I find myself in a little cottage (“Moonlight Cottage” it’s called on the door, in that affectionate way the British have of naming their houses) in a little village a few miles outside of York.

It’s the kind of place where people win prizes for floral arrangements and making elderberry wine.

Though I may not win any awards, I have begun a little private brewery in the Moonlight Cottage– the first batch is bubbling in the fermenter as I write, an American Pale Ale brewed on the Cold Moon from partial extract, steeped with Crystal malt and Northern Brewer bittering hops and lots of Cascade for aroma.  I’ll be dry hopping this batch with more Cascade or Amarillo hops– I have yet to decide.

In the two months of Northern living I’ve drunk many a beer from a sparkler, which is a particularly Northern way of serving cask ale.  It is a method of delivery that produces a denser head and a mouth-feel that is creamier, at least initially.  I like it, or maybe I just like the beer up here that seems to echo the laid back understatement and love of place– predominant Northern qualities, if I can generalize.

I’ve had some cracking pints, which must be fuel for a future post.  The House of Trembling Madness, a medieval drinking hall specialising in Belgian beers, has become my new York local.  Oh how I love it’s cozy strangeness.  But there are no handpulls– no cask ale.  Mr. Malting made the mistake of asking the guy behind the bar if they had any “real ale” on, and he returned with a perfectly straight face, “What do you mean by real?” Which just made me like the place more.  And in the Shambles there is Pivni, which always sets my heart racing as I peer in at the taps.  It was there I tried BrewDog’s There is No Santa, the standout Christmas beer (and I tried quite a few this year)– with its velvety-nugmeg-dark-comfort– unforgettable!

The other unforgettable pint was of the omnipresent Black Sheep Bitter.  Yes, it’s everywhere here, and I was loathe to try it as the pints I’d had in London were just not that great, but I found myself snowed in in the village of Hutton-le-Hole on the moors during the beginnings of the brutal winter snows.  The Crown pub had been closed due to the snowy roads but somehow on this night the landlord made it in, and this was the beer they had.  There were just a few of us there but he’d stoked a roaring fire and if that wasn’t the most beautiful pint of bitter I’d ever had, I’d be lying.  And I had two more, something I almost never do.  I commented that the beer was so much better than the Black Sheep I’d had in London and someone called out, “It don’t travel well!”

On that night, tucked up near the fire, all the moors coated in fondant and sparkling in the moonlight, I thought, “and why should it?”

A Cracking Session–Quite Quaffable

November 1, 2010 - 8 Responses

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.


Eau de Stoat

October 29, 2010 - 2 Responses

I feel it important to note, however briefly, that I have tasted The End of History and lived to tell the tale.  The tail of the stoat, it must be said, was rather perky thanks to the BrewDog taxidermist who also seemed able to eradicate any tire tracks or other signs of roadkill demise, if we are to believe the forensics from the press release.

The End of History is a lot like putting your face in a cocktail of moonshine and synthetic musk cologne. It’s half liquid, half vapor.  It might have been a blonde-Belgian-nettle-and-juniper-infused ale at one time but now it is just a £38* swallow of fuming singe, like the stoat giving up the ghost all over again down your gullet which will burn like the crap brake pads on the deux chevaux of history which has just stopped on some Aberdeenshire back road for a scampering stoat who may or may not have been drinking.

During the tasting, the charismatic James suggested one should always greet the beer with a hullo! and approach it meditatively, as one would a new friend.  So, to the tablespoon of 55% beer, just poured from the bowels of a weasel into my fluted glass, I would say, “I’m glad I didn’t have to pay £500 to taste you. And I guess this means all my pretence of being a vegetarian is blown? Just between you and me, stoat.  Between you and me.”

*calculated estimate of generous swallows in a £500 .33 pint bottle, though for the record this writer did not pay said amount.

BrewDog End of History

AB04: A Cerveza Worthy of Xochiquetzal

October 29, 2010 - Leave a Response

Xochiquetzal, Aztec Goddess of fertility, female sexual power and chocolate.

Aztlán is the mythical land of the Nahua people and the concept has been used by the Chicano movement in America to refer to the Mexican lands annexed by the US and the cultural hybridity of Mexian-Americans. I am from Aztlán, though technically it is a place that does not exist and as a gringa it gets complicated.

Last night I went to the launch of BrewDog’s new AB04 at the White Horse.  How strange to be standing in this West London gastro pub, full of upwardly-mobile young white professionals and to taste my home, Aztlán, in this beer.  Brewdog have combined chocolate and chilis in this black imperial stout– sure to make you swoon at 15%.

The word chocolate is from the Nahuatl, and new archeological findings have not only dated the invention of chocolate by the Mesoamerican peoples almost 600 years earlier than previously thought, but this evidence suggests the first chocolate was actually a kind of beer.  Researchers have suggested “the distinctive taste of chocolate was stumbled upon by ancient brewers fermenting cacao pulp to make a kind of beer known later to the Spanish as chicha.”  Chicha is a beer which involves masticating the maize prior to fermentation and is still brewed in some parts of Mesoamerica, giving us a contemporary glimpse of ancient brewing practices.

Could the AB04 hint at what that ancient cacao-beer might have tasted like?  Probably not, but like Aztlán, it can stand in as a glorious invention.

At  the tasting James Watt asked the crowd what foods they thought might pair with it and immediately I thought of mole- named for the verb moler, or to grind.  And what a grind making the mole is!  The ultimate in slow food, it’s a lot like brewing beer: labor-intensive, communal and full of variations.  It takes two days to make the mole, which contains chilis, chocolate, seeds and herbs.  And like beer, it is a food in which one can put dreams and wishes, memories and hopes as you grind and stir and grind and stir.

Briar’s on Fire

October 26, 2010 - 4 Responses

Smoked rose petals.

Berliner Weiss mit blut: the only drink they serve in the asylum.

a hint of ozone.

I’m drinking BrewDog’s Prototype 27.  Mr. Malting and I took a first sip, immediately looked at each other and said, Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab— a Los Angeles perfumer/magician, who makes a scents based on circus side show characters and famous deviants. If only there were a perfume that smelled like this beer!

It’s a puzzle to the senses– the closest I’ve come to synesthesia in a beer, and no less refreshing for its complexity.

James from BrewDog, in his generosity and wisdom, sent me a bottle of this stuff months ago and I finally opened it tonight.  I tasted it without reading what it was (for the record, I just looked it up and it’s one of 150 bottles made,  Hardcore IPA with raspberries aged in a whiskey cask.)  It came to me with the white, hand-written label.   I had no idea what was in it or how it was made, and there’s a certain delight in going in blind– the shock of the red  in the glass– surely berries are involved– and then the intense rose esther and smoke hit you like some sinister fairy-tale conflagration.  When the story is over, the glass empty, you feel like a child asking, again!  again!


Beers that Go Bump in the Night

October 23, 2010 - 2 Responses

Halloween, my favourite holiday, looms.  Usually around this time, Mr. Malting will dust off his extensive collection of Vampire Disco on vinyl and I bust out my Ben Nye “contusion” greasepaint color assortment and it’s a party.  Luckily, I have just the beers to kick off the season while I fine tune my skull face.

The fantastic folks at Cumbrian Legendary Ales have sent me a bottle of their 8% doppelbock named after a Cumbrian vampire legend from the 17th century: two red lights from yonder graveyard come forward and move around the house.   Something unpicks the lead of the glass in the window and then a corpse-like hand reaches in….

The Munich malt really dominates in the nose and centrally on the palate.  It has a nice red-amber tinge suitable for something named after a blood sucking fiend, and there’s an alcohol warming, though for such a strong beer it’s very easy to drink.  There’s a pleasant cereal-candy aspect to this that’s just sweet enough to remind me of a childhood treat hoard.

Bashah reserve, label by Johanna Basford

The next beer is the limited-edition Bashah, another version of the Brewdog-Stone collaboration, the original Bashah, which was dry hopped with Amarillo (my favourite hop) as well as the new-to-me hop, Hercules.  The beer was then aged in whisky casks with 30 kilos of tayberries in one and black raspberries in the other. (I’ve already had the Tayberry one last week, and enjoyed it in a totally non-verbal way, taking no tasting notes and just relishing the experience.)  I’m a huge fan of Bashah and when I saw that Johanna was doing the labels for these, I was smitten all over again with what Brewdog can do. The labels are about as goth as one can get, with the Stone gargoyle crouching amdist skulls and brambles where an owl perches and bats fly out over a full moon.  It’s the kind of beer label you’d want as a tattoo.  Or maybe that’s just me.

On uncorking the bottle the whole room is filled with the scent of chocolate raspberries.  The nose is powerfully boozy, with a note of sweet musk, like a heady perfume.  The tall, dense head soon wanes, lacing the glass with a delicate foam and the beer itself is an opaque black.  The raspberry version is more complex than the Tayberry, which was sweeter– a simple fruity chocolate delight.  But this has a lot going on– it is very similar to the Rake Raspberry Brewdog made a few years ago, but this is more balanced and smoother.  Vanilla and intense alcohol warming hit you first. Then, big, bitter chocolate follows and of course the mineral tang of earthy raspberry.  It’s only at the very end that I can taste the hops, though no doubt they are tempering the sweetness of the chocolate malt as well as drying out some of the fruits.  This is a very special beer, and I only wish I had another bottle to drink on Halloween.

Brewdog/Stone Bashah Reserve label

UK Style Revolution

October 21, 2010 - 21 Responses

On Monday I went to the British Guild of Beer Writers seminar on Beer Styles.  Billed as a contentious subject, I was relatively new to the controversy, seeing it as mainly internet furor where a fight can be started about anything, even something as innocuous as beer.  Though the potential arguments were not hashed out until the end of the seminar, I did get a sense of what was at stake.

In order to market beer, style becomes essential not only in informing the consumer but also in allowing certain beers to enter competitions such as the ones run by CAMRA at the GBBF.  However, the certain prescriptive and narrow style guidelines really hem in brewers like the head brewer at Meantime, Steve Schmidt, who are trying to brew according to inspiration and sensory goals.  He explained that for him often a beer will begin with an idea of what it should taste and look like rather than what style it might be.

I will not go into styles at all in this post, and that perhaps gives away where my sympathies lie– with the brewers who are asking for this to open up a bit, and for a certain flexibility for hybridity and invention.  I know just enough about styles as a consumer to know what I like and to guess at what a certain beer might taste like, and as an amateur home brewer I would attempt a certain style rather than the more creative approach of a master brewer.  That is enough for me for now.

Alastair Hook, owner of the Meantime Brewing Company, presented a visionary argument about styles and evolution.  His forward looking approach is clear in his beer and his brand, and I have long been a fan of his vision.  The seminar was held in his brew pub, the Powerpoint presentation cast before the gorgeous copper kettles in the main dining room.  On the site, Henry the VIII was born as well as Elizabeth the I, and the site has held a brewery on and off for 300 years, so when Hook says one can’t fake provenance in brewing identity, we can believe him.  He cited many examples of wine advertising and their success– that your average British consumer can tell you the difference between a chardonnay grape and a merlot is evidence that wine marketing has permeated British food culture.  What can breweries learn from their approach?

Hook has branded his wonderful beers with London in mind, this city that was once the brewing capital of the world, with three styles attributed to this place– the porter, stout and I.P.A.  Meantime brews versions of all of these styles, and they are not museum pieces but re-inventions of these beers.  I would argue that Hook’s notion of provenance is prioritised over tradition in the strict sense, to the brewery’s credit.  The history of the core style may inform the beer but it does not dictate the brewing process. (Much of the beer is served in kegs– why this mode of delivery is controversial is beyond me, though there seems to be some worry that keg delivery will somehow endanger the future of cask ale in the UK.  I don’t think keg beer is a threat here but that is fodder for another post.)

Hook also spoke of a brewing renaissance and revolution which originated in the US in the 80s with its “holistic New World approach to beer design.”  I think the UK could also learn a lot not just from this approach to beer design but also to beer marketing.  Last night I went to a gig at the Lexington and you know what young women and men were drinking there?  Blue Moon, Goose Island and Brooklyn Lager beers.  Ok, so it wasn’t real ale but it was craft beer, and it was “hip” to be holding a bottle of the stuff.  And I think this is key– US microbrews are harnessing their claim to authenticity: they are the underdogs, brewing newness with passion.  In a perhaps subliminal way, younger UK drinkers get this.

Though I admire Alastair’s approach and his beautiful beers, I would break from his argument in just this one regard. Of course breweries should learn lessons from successful wine marketing but beer will never be wine.  I would hope that beer and beer culture would never adopt the middle class trappings of wine in the UK.  Beer is so much cooler than wine because it is authentically British, and even the best beer is accessible to all price-wise.  I’d venture those gig-going Londoners in the Lexington weren’t wine drinkers.   The aspirational hegemony of wine will wane, and craft beer is poised to replace it.

But this is going to happen on the ground, in pubs, by employing and training staff about beers, by hiring staff who not only love beer but love customers.  (Even in customer hating London this can be done– just look at the success of the Jolly Butcher in Stoke Newington).    And pubs should offer flights of beers– small tasters presented on a tray in order of palate receptivity, and there should be halves and even third measure glasses available.  Taster plates of tapas sized snacks paired with beer would be a fantastic way to introduce a range of beers to people in a pub context.

I look forward to the rise of the welcoming brewpub that eschews gastro attitudes for casual generosity.  Ultimately, as craft beer variety increases in the UK, the younger UK drinking public will become more daring, expecting more  than just a 3.5% session bitter, which let’s face it, is currently the only alternative offered to the Stella and Guinness at most locals. Though this may already be happening in the US, breweries there are looking to the UK for roots and inspiration and breweries like Brewdog and Meantime are bringing this collaborative attitude to the UK.  Here the revolution is just taking off, and I can’t think of a more exciting time to be a beer drinker in the UK.

The Alembic of Destiny

September 25, 2010 - 8 Responses

So, sometimes things change, just like that.

I didn’t go on the mega-North-pub-crawl, despite everyone’s wonderful suggestions (though I should say the Brewery Tap in Chester, serving Spitting Feathers beers was fantastic.).  Our visiting the North West was totally consumed with hiking.

I went on the 38 pub crawl with some great ale hounds from the Randomness Guide to London.  I took notes but have failed to write them up due to our approach which saw us visiting all pubs on the route, condemning us to endless halves of Guinness.  It just proved how many really dire pubs there are serving the same 5 generic beers.

Now, Mr. Malting and I are sitting in the chaos of our tiny London flat amidst half-filled moving boxes, opening the bottle of BrewDog Abstrakt 01 which James kindly sent to me six months ago.  I probably should have aged this for another six months but we had something to celebrate.

Mr. Malting has been offered a job in North Yorkshire and so we are moving, and not just leaving London as we have wanted to do for some time, but moving to a part of the UK that has captivated me since I first visited over a decade ago. (And the beer up there…Maud help me…!)  I’m in a dream-haze about it; I didn’t think our escape would be so soon and precisely hopeful.

So, on to the beer– the color of dark, baltic amber– I should really let mine settle a bit as the yeast is floating around but this flavour is quite mellow for a Belgian, and a quad to boot.  I’ve never had a quad so I have little to compare it to, but I have had a triple or two and this beer shares that fruit-wine character of a triple, yet it’s a bit brighter and the fruits are fresher.  There’s almost a berry jam note here and perhaps some tropical fruits as well.  This is vanilla infused but I can’t detect the vanilla, that’s probably due to my difficulty picking up that note in beers in general rather than the beer itself.  There’s a subtle honey nose.  Mr. Malting says it reminds him of a kind of liquor.  I get the faintest horse blanket finish on this– the only aspect that I could say with confidence reminds me of a Belgian ale, and is something I associate with some Belgian yeasts.

I feel a tad guilty drinking this so soon, but we had to toast our continuing adventure in this fair island, and as I look back on everything that has made me feel at home here and has fascinated me I have to say BrewDog has played a key role in all that and it’s only fitting.  Here’s to a new chapter!

Pub Crawl No. 38

September 8, 2010 - 5 Responses

Kake of the fantastic Randomness Guide to London and I have organized a Bus Route pub crawl, following the 38  through the city from Hackney to Hyde Park (and beyond?).

Won’t you join us?

Meet at Organic and Natural in Hackney at noon on the 19th of September. We’ll be hitting a wide array of pubs all along the route.