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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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.

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.