Ice to the Inuit

I had looked forward to trying one of this brewer’s beers – Little Creatures – for a long time; but frankly, hadn’t tried that hard to hunt one down, and none of those wretched PR companies who seem to fling out samples to all and sundry were flinging any out to me. So anyhoo, I find myself in a gastro pub – a contemporary free house if you will –  eating a wood fired pizza with a side-order of clichés and some stereotypes on a stick, drinking a Little Creatures Pale Ale.  It was very nice. ‘Earthy’ would be the word I’d use. Not vibrant with hoppy overload, but muted, balanced, the malt part of the choir, not just the hops – more in the Pommy style, dare I say it. More Burton than Portland. Drinkable and even exciting for not being a herbal, spicy assault on your bitterness receptors.

But there was also the slightly sour taste of guilt – not towards the beer, or indeed this brewery – and not, I am assured from the Antipasti Skewer Board – rather from the power of free trade and a society that has normalised shipping modified water around the globe for our pleasure. Am I being a spoil sport? Yes? But should it matter? Yes, too.

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Sizzle, sausage or both?

IMG_2966Be in no doubt that this beer – Beavertown Lupuloid IPA – is a fearsomely good one. Rip open the tab and there’s already an aroma of juicy hop oil spilling out… tinged with pine resin. You pour it, and it’s a hazy, wheat yellow – that dusty, golden colour you can get when some yeast is lingering; the head was billowing large and tight, rippling up the glass side as it was decanted and settling only slightly – and there in that head was the scent of a tropical lemon grove where the workers have been feasting on lunchtime chunks of juicy, sweet mango and pineapple (with no cheese or cocktail sticks anywhere to be seen). Yes, it’s fearsomely good.  It has all the attributes of a proper sausage. Sustaining. Meaty. Rewarding. Enticing. A beer with real substance.

Yet this sausage also has sizzle. Look at the can. It would be rude, demeaning even, to call it a ‘can design’. This is a company who know what they’re about and see the packaging as a canvas to tell us, to sell us and to beguile us. You can’t see it here, but the can top is also a deep pink to match that iridescent pink sky on the can itself. The tab is green to enhance the hop-beast artwork / mural. It’s folksy; it’s threatening and it’s deeply, pugnaciously attractive. This is the bar to which all others aspire. This is proof that whilst sausage is vital, when it sizzles too, the result adds up to much, much more than the sum of its meaty, chunky parts.

Craft Snugs

Everyone, surely, has a soft spot for a pub snug. Those cosy corners, the fugg of cigar smoke from years ‘BTB’ (Before The Ban) still greasily staining walls and furniture, in what can only be described as ‘Farrow & Ball shades’. The Bridge in Topsham, with its wood-lined snugs, one with a small direct serving hatch through to the bar; the Pianola room at The Yew Tree in Cauldon Low; the back room of The Cooper’s Tavern in Burton on Trent with its tall-backed pews lining the walls, undoubtedly hiding misericords venerating Burton brewers Great and Good beneath.  Yet snugs seem a feature of the past – no place in the huge drinking establishments built by the likes of Marstons or Mitchell’s and Butler today. Snugs make way for ‘covers’ and easy access for the table service and the Hunters’ Chicken.

There’s hope though. A new generation of micro bars, or craft snugs is opening up. Freed from the capital needed for cellars, kitchens and cooling, these bars tend to focus on bottles, spirits and nibbles. And because they’re small, they don’t need to be on the High Street or City Centre circuit, with their requisite ‘high footfall’. They don’t need to think about being chameleons, serving early breakfasts, frothy lattes or renting out to the local Slimming World group. They can just be a bar, with low rent, lower overheads and hours to suit.

Saying that, one’s opened in our village that goes in the other direction. It started as a cafe, working with the exposed beams and quarry tiles laid to earth; making the most of the sagging lintels and trip-hazard floor levels, all in the aid of ‘character’. And now it’s become an after hours drinking snug. What was once someone’s front room, what was once a scullery is now a series of inter-connected shadowy snugs, serving cocktails, cake, crisps and craft beers from wherever takes their fancy. So it was I enjoyed a Nelson Sauvin Pale Ale from The Kernel (Bermondsey), a Snakecharmer IPA from One Mile End (Whitechapel), and a Queen of Diamonds from Wild Card Brewery (Walthamstow). Oh, and there were beers from local brewers too, like Slater’s (Stafford) and Freedom (Abbot’s Bromley), but I wasn’t going to miss the chance to ‘go exotic’ now, was I?  And only one bottle of lager – a rather lonesome Nastro Azzurro peeped out from behind the fridge door. Which seems right – somehow, lager seem less well suited to these snugs of warmth, intimacy and close friends.

 

 

(https://skinnykitten.cafe (site still under construction at time of writing))

Velcro hype

These bloody hazy beers – these ‘New England IPAs’ – how they’ve divided. On the one hand, there’s a camp that has been veritably worshiping at their gluey, gloopy alter; on the other, a vocal bunch who see these thick, sticky, opaque creations as a product of our instagram times – more about the hype, share-ability and visual pub currency than any real substance.

Me, well, I’m relaxed…and I certainly wasn’t going to pass judgement on a whole style, when I hadn’t yet tried one; and there’s that occasionally drony voice in my head that mumbles, ‘Well, where do new styles come from then?‘ whenever I get a bit ‘Grumpy Old Man’.  Someone has to go out on a limb. Someone has to try new things. Why not these?

Thing is, many purists – often brewers – often, if I may be so bold and admittedly sweeping to suggest, see any haze as an off characteristic. That is, there’s something up with the brewing process if there’s yeast left in the beer, and, or, there’s something up with the cleanliness and sanitation in the pub. Any road, I happened upon a can of Hazy Jane, BrewDog’s entry into this space. So this is a big brewery; with good kit, skilled brewers, brewing in quantity and putting it in cans. Not a line cleaning issue in sight.

And oh my giddy aunt, if this isn’t the best beer I’ve drunk in a long while. The first thing you notice is the pour: it didn’t flow but glugged; this wasn’t like an old bottle of Bass Blue which had a thin leafy layer of yeast at the bottom, this was like a turbid stream, flowing out from under a glacier – bright, inviting, yet thick with milky sediment. Next there’s the settle; this isn’t like a nitro beer (or a widget) with a slow, bubbly separation; it rocked and rolled but also soon parted; thick head above; orange juice with bits below. And then the fruit: imagine a bald-headed Frenchman who has a special pair of boots he’s worn all his life for just one job. The boots are a bit battered and somewhat stained, but they are special. These are the boots he puts on when he clambers into an enormous oak barrel once a year. These are his stomping boots and they are for stomping fruit. Forcefully, he jumps up and down; his jelly stomach wobbling; his moustache flailing up and down as he does, his Gauloises jauntily angled. This is a barrel full of citrus fruits of many kinds: melons, grapefruits, yuzu (that sort of mandarin / lemon thing), maybe something tropical (the can says pineapple, but I didn’t get that). Unyieldingly he stomps with his stomping boots; he stomps and squeezes, pulps and pounds, minces and macerates and manfully mashes the hell out of all this fruit before reverentially pouring the juice into this damn beer.

It must be the yeast: a billion little velcro hooks, grabbing the hop particles and clinging on to them. Dance with me they say. Hold me close darling, don’t let go they whisper, seductively

And that’s it. The yeast is a distraction; it’s a blummin’ fruity hop explosion. And it must be the yeast – the mouthfeel is as you’d expect: thick and unctuous, and our crazy single-cell has found it’s calling here, a billion little velcro hooks, grabbing the hop particles and clinging on to them. Dance with me they say. Hold me close darling, don’t let go they whisper, seductively. Kiss me like we die tonight, a final swansong before being swallowed, whole. If that’s the effect the haze has, then never mind the hypecocks: they’re a yeasty revelation and damn the naysayers.
Hazy Jane

Crazy sh*t

IMG_2844.jpgJust occasionally, brewers have really crazy ideas.  I remember once, when working in Big Beer, someone presenting this idea for beer slushies. It didn’t make the cut. Then there was the ultra-caffeinated beer that boosted your mojo. Or the one infused with tequila (oops – bit late to the party on that). Then this crazy sh*t springs up in my instagram feed, courtesy of @maltjerry.  Beer purists may object, but not me. If you don’t push at the edges everything gets boring. And besides, this beer, a Passionfruit Cheesecake Extra Sour from Omnipollo in Sweden has a rakish air of 1950s beehive hairdo, crossed with Mr Whippy, crossed with bleached-out squirty dog turd. What’s not to like?  Now, where did I put my slushy machine…

Pouring it down the sink

I can think of only a few times when I’ve poured beer down the drain – and there’s been no common denominator. I mean, I don’t buy beer ever with the intent of disposing of it anywhere other than down my throat. And sure, it would be easy to chortle and say that’s what Bud Light’s for, but they brew that lack of flavour with real care and attention to detail. And the beechwood chips really do exist. I’ve disposed of beer in punctured cans or when it’s been heinously out of date – not a regular occurrence in truth.

But a sink evacuation is what I was faced with. An experiment that went wrong.

I’d saved two bottles of Worthington’s White Shield. It’s not like the White Shield from the ’90s – the first I remember drinking, which had a good finger-thickness of yeast gloopily sticking to the bottom. The late 2005 vintage I’d kept (guessing from the best before at least) had a tickle of yeast below a deep, almost mahogany brown liquid. I had deliberately saved it – in fact, I have two cases of 2010 vintage tucked away elsewhere. These three had been lounging in an old Grolsch case (more commonly used by  painters and decorators these days). Stored in my cellar (don’t read into this visions of Downton Abbey, we got the servants’ quarters) it had been well looked after. Crowns checked regularly. Any signs of dampness scrupulously sought – but nothing. Our cellar may be small. It may be full of old crates of kids toys, books and our stash of loo rolls, but it’s also the perfect home for good wine and good beer. Cool, consistent, dry.

Whiteshield

So there was a no reason to have anything other than high hopes. I prized off the cap of the first and poured – as steadily as I could to ensure the yeast stayed at the bottom – but even after that first slight crimp in the cap, even with the first whispy release of gas (very little it must be said, this is naturally carbonated but old beer) – even then, I knew.

Just the faintest whiff. Just the touch of acid glancing across my nostrils. Just the organoleptic receptors hitting the nuclear alert button. Spoilage; bacteria; vinegar.

I poured it out all the same. Poured and held my nose. And gazed. Gazed longingly at the colour; deep and rich, dark conker brown; imbued with just a faint red after-light where the meniscus clawed up the glass rim.

And yet, dispassionately, poured it away. Swirled out the bottle and poured that away. This is experimenting with ageing beer. The 2005 is gone. Long live the 2010! It will wait no more.

New look, new Tinted

Today sees a new look and feel for Beer Tinted Spectacles.

Last year, I found my passion for writing about beer waning – something I couldn’t easily explain or reconcile. One factor was time; my own business is almost five years old and growing, placing an inevitable constraint on other things. But it was more than that.  For some reason, I was finding the world of beer and the narrative around it frustrating and… boring.

That’s a difficult thing to admit, and on the surface utterly counter-intuitive. The world of beer is as healthy as it’s been – arguably for 50 years. The number of new breweries; the plethora of choice; old styles being rediscovered, re-worked or bastardised. Who cares in the pursuit of great taste?

Yet, one debate – that of New England IPAs got my goat. Tit-for-tat arguments about whether such yeasty, sediment-rich, cloudy, turbid brews are genuine brewer-led innovation or the products of today’s ‘Instagram culture’. At the time from what I could see, the debate was getting personal and pretty nasty. And this is amongst so-called beer lovers.

Beer lovers who are losing the plot.

Let’s go back just 30 years. U.S. beer was dominated by one brewer, who focused on two brands: Bud and Bud Light. Everyone else was a runner-up. Marketing spend was aggressive and enormous. U.K. beer was dominated by half a dozen vertically integrated leisure conglomerates, who owned the ‘route to market’ pretty much from the point that the newly harvested barley crossed the gates in the Maltings to the point where the liquid touched the drinkers’ lips. Depending where you lived, this meant a limited range from pub to pub. Innovation was quashed, possibly inadvertently, but quashed all the same. Regional brewers struggled to co-exist. Micros weren’t even a fertilised egg. Love or loathe CAMRA, they were genuinely fighting big, hairy corporate beasts who wilfully or not, were shaping consumers’ tastes and controlling the market.

To bicker about whether a cloudy IPA is good or not is missing the point.  The threat of drink consolidation is looming again. In the short term, changes will seem imperceptible.  New owners will commit to keeping the breweries (or cider presses) of the acquired companies open; their brands will be lauded; their people extolled. But soon, all too soon, small changes will occur. Recipes will subtly change. Efficiencies will be found. Economies of scale will be sought. The heady drug of profit and the churn of staff will see promises reneged and old favourties become milking machines for bottom line growth.

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So, Beer Tinted is back. Stripped back, simplified, more picture-led, its core purpose nonetheless remains. To tell beer stories that celebrate great beers. To champion the people who have had the courage to risk everything in pursuit of a dream or a passion. To narrate a perspective on issues of the day from the point of view of someone who was once on the other side – the consolidator, the acquirer, the ‘big beer’ executive. To remind anyone who passes through these pages what we have, what we should cherish and what we will need to fight for.

Thanks for reading.