Monthly Archives: May 2012

Gezelligmütlichness – and a solution for pan European harmony.

We sat at a rough hewn, oak table that runs twenty feet in either direction, topped with light blue and white diamond table cloths. To my left and right, drinking companions who have accompanied me here, to this shrine, in a battered, white Fiesta. Opposite, an elderly gentleman – possibly in his ‘80s but it’s difficult to pinpoint – unremarkable except for his deeply wrinkled face, crinkled embroidered collar on a brilliant white shirt, a velvet green bridle across his chest slightly shrouded below his waistcoat, and on his head a small, mole brown feathered trilby.  His drinking companions are similarly attired.  In moments the new world meets the old – jeans clad English lads in a social stand-off with three gentlemen from an earlier age.

Three huge, monster, glasses – they must be all of two pints¹of beer are placed in front of us, and, as if a switch has been flicked, the elderly gent in the middle fixes me directly with his gaze, stands up, proudly slapping his black lederhosen, raises his similarly mammoth glass of glistening, bronze beer, smiles and duels me with a toast:

“Der Gemütlichkeit!”

Moments later, at the far end of the tent – far enough to appear like footballers viewed from the back of the North Stand – a deep, reverberating string of notes wobbles over to us, ‘Ummm Ummm Um Um Um Paaaah!’  Recently arrived puzzled tourists like me scan around nervously as everyone rises, lifts their glasses and starts to sing: “Ein Prosit, Ein Prosit….”

Spin on a few years. A business trip to the southern Netherlands, near Maastricht, down in the pointy bit on the map. We’re touring a brewery with a view to importing one of their beers. The brewery is almost pastoral – verdant green hills, shapely oaks, ash and poplar trees shape in the  immediate hinterland – the word ‘bucolic’ was made for this. The brewery itself faces directly onto the road, barn like in appearance, with large, triple hinged wooden doors hiding the shining, modern set-up within. At lunch we break to a small bar just round the corner from the brewery and enjoy a bowl of waterzooi – this being with welly-wanging distance of Belgium after all – and a Summer wheat beer.  In this part of Holland, speaking English is less common than further north; nonetheless our brewery guide – a Brewster no less, raises her glass and gently says,

“Ah thies is soo gezellig”

I looked it up. Gezellig?  Gezellig? I hear it a lot but no one can translate it. The Dutch being proud in fact that ‘Gezelligheid’( with the gargling ‘z’) You have no word for it in English’.   I did the same with Gemütlichkeit , although knowing a bit of German I was aware the story was similar.  How come in English – English of all languages – with a vocabulary more extensive (and growing faster) than either German or Dutch – how come we don’t have a translation?   And as they are so central to the beer situation, this only made it worse.  Our beer culture is rich too – surely we can translate these words?  If only to reduce the lexicological one-upmanship

The Wikimeister was the first point of call. Gemütlichkeit being ‘an environment or state of mind that conduces a cheerful mood and peace of mind with connotation of a notion of belonging and social acceptance.  And apparently the Nordic countries, many of the Balkans all have a similar word. In Russia their word, yιom, “carries almost identical connotations”.  As for Gezelligheid ‘depending on context, can be convivial, cosy, fun, quaint but can also connote belonging, time spent with loved ones….or general togetherness”.   I understand these words.  I get them wholly. The emotional connotations make absolute sense to me, yet, yet… we don’t have a word. I struggle to express that familiar sensation in our language. They are either too lacking in nuance (like convivial) or else you need a phrase and that’s cheating.

But I want to be able to express this word.  I reckon that it’s a bit of gezelligmütlichness that we Brits could do with. Because just as we may not be able to translate these words, so our neighbourly continental languages don’t have an expression for our way of drinking and what that means, how that feels for us. And no, I don’t mean getting lashed on a dozen pints, but rather that fuzzy, somewhere in-the-middle drinking that’s two too many to count as a ‘quick pint’ and two too few to constitute a ‘sesh’.  That’s where the spark plugs fire without sparks flying and causing a raging inferno. It’s the sort of occasion, with your friends, that you could easily do a couple of times a week and still function the next day, without feeling piously or piteously out of it.

There’s a more serious need too. Put to one side our current economic difficulties, the perception amongst politicians and legislators of the effects of beer, and alcohol, on how ‘we’ drink is still stuck in a different age.  ‘Minimum Pricing’;’Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy’, talk of advertising bans, sponsorship bans, self regulation vs legislation – these are warning signs that the chasm of understanding between those in power and those who want to enjoy a relaxing couple of three pints exists and is a threat.  And it is a threat – to think, as I read in a quality daily recently for example, that minimum pricing in the off trade will lead to people going back to pubs again is folly.  We need to put gezlligmütlichness at the heart of a positive political agenda for beer – supporting not just good pubs, but encouraging bars and restaurants to serve a decent lower alcohol drinks range (beer) as well as a decent wine list  – and putting a new way of drinking, a little, often and good quality at the heart of licensing, rather than simply demonising supermarkets from stacking it high and selling it cheap.

In an earlier blog you may recall the journey my brother and I made to Czechoslovakia and Franconia just after the fall of the Iron Curtain.  Mere sprats we were, still on a hideously giggly voyage of beer discovery – it could have been one long trip of drunken debauchery and leery British embarrassment on the continent.  Yet one night, we sat in a wood clad bar drinking dark lager and Dunkel, having a conversation with the locals yet utterly unable to converse in their language.  And then, to paraphrase the Good Soldier Svejk, ‘it did happen to us that we drank one beer after another’…modestly so I like to think.  Of course, we’ll never meet those chaps again, but for all talk of ephemeral European Harmony, legislated by endless Treaties, perhaps it would be more constructive to just share a few beers and enjoy some gezelligmütlichness.

¹In fact, it turns out to be a 2 litre glass – or ‘mass’ which in German feels almost onomatopoeic.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles. Originally posted on Posterous, May 2012

Or was it Penry… the Mild mannered janitor?

At work this week, we were having that seemingly inevitable conversation that spins round with alarming regularity. “Doesn’t seem that long ago since Christmas… I can’t believe it’s May already!”  But fear not, fair dwellers of the Office World, for ‘tis May and this is a good thing. For CAMRA have proclaimed May as officially the month of Mild.

Mild. What does it conjure up for you?  If you read about this beer style there’s generally a passage or two suggesting that your memory is likely to involve people who say “Yow” not “You”, and feature, amongst other things, flat caps, looms, steel mills, 26 hour days and allusions to ‘honest working men’ or some such pap.  I mock – and perhaps without justification. Certainly for me, some of these impressions are supported by my early experiences.  Wilko, a school friend of mine, was at the root of it.  He was an interesting old fish, Wilko, being a few years older than me meant that in those impressionable years he had some traits I aspired to. He couldn’t be described as an oil painting, but he also had a remarkable knack with ladies, which was mystifying and frustrating in equal measure.  His politics were as Red as they come, and politically, only an Ultra Communist Utopia could solve the world’s ills for him.  Part of this Utopia featured a fascination with the past – not an accurate past of course, just  those elements of the past that suited his world view and crucially his arguments about the direction we should take as a country.  And strangely, Mild was part of it.

And so it was that some of my early drinking experiences with Wilko featured Mild (the ‘proper’ drinking experiences that is, not the ones that featured necking pints of fizz at the Cheshire Cat or French Connection, in a vain attempt to bolster the courage to try for a snog with assorted female classmates). And, boozers too. In back streets. Generally with the stereotypical set of old men sitting around in felt caps and grubby flasher Macs, publicly farting like it’s what you do in good company.  But the Mild was there. There’s no doubt it was deemed a starter beer.  And it needed to be. You had to keep your wits about you in the Ring O’Bells, The Midland Inn, or Iron Grey on a Thursday night and one too many pints of Greenall’s Original was enough to leave me only fit to be dragged home*.

I remember the beer being good – so much so that in later years I always kept a look out for a Mild… in fact it was buying a pint of what I thought was a dark Mild in The Well House on Exeter’s Cathedral close that introduced me to Porter.  In those days, there were a few we drank – Greenall’s did a good one, I think its gone now sadly, but I remember it being nut brown with a creamy head, and having a corresponding nutty taste. Robbo’s too did a good one – we used to drink it down the Lawton Arms, a ‘border’ pub which still to this day is the flag to me that I’m back in the North.  I think the beer is called dark smooth today and only on keg for what it’s worth.   More recently, in Burton I was in the Roebuck, a bit down on its heels, but was pleasantly surprised to see M&B Mild. It was dark, light in alcohol and…. awful. Somehow it was artificially toasty, like essence of astringency had been added as a deliberate flavouring. Plain, downright, rank. I put it down to the pipes not the beer, but I have my suspicions.

It hasn’t put me off Mild though, and the reason is very simple: the West Midlands.

In the Summer of 1990, I stayed with my friend Helen who was a house mate from Uni.  It took a while to realise that in her neck of the woods, I had to call her  ” ’Ilin” so her friends knew who I was referring to. And, she lived in one of the posh parts of the West Mids – Hagley – so posh in fact that they refer to it as ‘Worcestershire’.  Helen introduced me to some characterful pubs, and some lovely, characterful beers.  I’d never really liked Banks’ Bitter, but Bank’s Mild was and is, a cracker (although in these low confidence times for mild, it’s called ‘Original’).  I tucked into a fair few of them at The Crooked House in Gornal Wood, and was still sober enough to realise it was the pub leaning, not me.  A day later, in Chaddersley Corbett, we had a pint of Batham’s Mild .  This little brewery seems to exist in a protected niche; few know about it, and perhaps if you go into their Heartland and reveal their location, you die a painful death. Only time will tell. But in my defence, what a cracking beer – worth taking the risk for.  Ruby brown, if you know what I mean, with some hoppiness and great flavour, a bit like liquid bread and butter pudding. (Check them out: bathams.co.uk)

Yet Mild puzzles me too.  Putting my rational hat on, they seem an ideal beer for modern times. So many of us now like to enjoy a few pints, but want, or need, to remain compos mentis** for the activities of the day ahead.  Likewise, for many, beers that assault you with hoppiness are a step too far for everyday drinkability.  Yet Milds are the antidote.  Typically gently hopped, with a chewy malt character and a residual, comforting and coating sweetness that underscores their moreishness.  I love them because they offer refreshment, drinkability and rewarding taste. The holy trinity, right there.

And they provide a comforting link with the past without being nostalgic.  For the roots of mild go back much further than we think.  Their slighty tarnished reputation comes from a post-industrial time when our heavy industry was dying and sharper, lighter Bitters were on the ascendancy.  Throughputs fell, quality suffered, and associations were with generations before the war. Yet the taste profile, and indeed the strength of Mild (mid 5s not mid 3s) can trace its roots back to earlier times, when hops were prohibited, never used, or not appreciated and British beer would have typically been sweeter, maltier and darker.  I hear tell too, that those stronger milds (5 – 6%) are now making a comeback – that sounds like a pilgrimage for another day.  You certainly don’t need the month of May to drink a Mild, but you know what? It’s as good a time as any.

Crooked House

*Pints of Greenall’s Original featured in a legendary New Year’s Eve session which culminated in me running home from Wilko’s house to mine.  I can still picture it now. It was like that bit in Chariots of Fire where Eric Liddell pins back his head and takes off; the wind rushing through his hair… a vision of athletic perfection & beauty.  A friend of mine saw me, and apparently the reality was somewhat different. Uncoordinated feet flapping randomly and noisily as I dribbled home in the linear direction of the Circle Line.  Utterly pathetic and an abject lesson in the need for responsible drinking.

**There’s a Malaprop opportunity if I ever saw one. What am I saying? I need to remain Compost Menthol for tomorrow.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles. Originally posted on Posterous, May 2012

Small can versus environmental determinism

How to connect a simple holiday observation to some grand theory? (“Why more like?” I hear you ask. Sorry. No answer to that one.)

Well try this – and please do comment as I’m genuinely intrigued by this – but I think the grand old Victorian theory of Environmental Determinism is well and truly at large again in the world of beer.

Why at home are we (and I’m thinking men here) only happy to drink pints, or buy large cans? I’ve seen it for years now, in research groups, or just chatting to drinkers in offies and supermarkets : offer anything other than pints or 440ml / 500ml cans and the response is a flat “no”. “Too small”, “For girls”, “There’s only two sips in there”. Halves are bad enough, but 330ml cans have been tried and never worked (except it seems for Gold Label and perhaps Heineken’s little ‘mini barrel’). They’re just not manly enough.

Go to the continent on holiday though, sit yourself down with friends on the veranda and share a BBQ and everyone’s tucking in. “Good these, aren’t they?” “Just the right size, always cold?” “I like them too, not over-facing“, your long suffering partner interjects, “…why can’t we get these at home.”

All real quotes these, no actors involved.

So, what’s going on? Is it simply the presence of some Sun (assuming you’re not on a two week break in Murmansk)? Is it ‘when in Rome’ syndrome? Could it be that because it’s not one of our familiar brands, we behave differently? In short: environmental determinism – we meld ourselves, copy, the situation we are faced with. Or,  are we actually responding truthfully and our home lives are just a panoply of half-truths and filters of what we think we should say?

We shall see. Foster’s has just launched a tidy little 6 by 330ml can pack. It looks well and they’ve called them ‘stubbies’ which may confuse those familiar with the dumpy French bottles.  Unlike tall cans, they look in proportion (What is it with pint cans? They look like they’ll tumble off the shelf any moment or worse, collapse under their own weight) and seem less likely to pop out of the plastic hi cone.

It’s a curious little observation, but for some one interested in beer and drinker behaviour, potentially quite profound.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles. Originally posted on Posterous, April 2012

1776 and all that

Very soon, it will be a year since I finished working for a large, multi-national American brewer.  As with any job change, it’s been a year of excitement and nervousness, peaks and troughs, many surprises and most of all of new friendships and old friendships reborn.  Of course,  I still have many friends in the old country  and I meet and talk with them at regular intervals – what’s good, what’s bad, what can be learned.  And the curious thing of course is how re-energised I feel about beer again. It’s my passion once more, not just my job.

The most striking thing I have noticed as a ‘drinker’ is the ‘before’ and ‘after’ world.  At University, I was developing my interest in beer (both consuming it, and being interested in it).  And the focus was ale – critical of what I saw as mundane lager, this was a world of real ale. Of cask beers; of bottled conditioned ales where I could find them; of experimentation.   I was extremely lucky to be living in the West Country which had, and mostly still has, a vibrant and energised population of free trade pubs.  And of course, the off trade was not what it was today – there was still a reasonable range of beers without the stack-it-high mentality (24 pack slabs didn’t exist for example).  These were days spent at The Beer Engine at Newton St Cyres; over pints of Directors at The Jolly Porter, or Bass at The Great Western.  The Turf Locks, jutting out into the Exe estuary, was a promised land that, back then, could only be reached on foot or by private boat, yet put on a wonderful selection of local beers (as it does today – if anything, nowadays it’s better).  The Double Locks, higher up the river towards Exeter was and remains a superb cask beer shrine, where tasty pints from an ever changing range are served direct from the cask in an elbows tucked-in-tight bar amongst ruddy-cheeked locals and braying Sloans.

Yet the world I emerge into today is different. Ironically, the world of cask and bottled beer is more vibrant than I can ever recall. The positive unintended consequence of the Beer Orders now sees a cask and micro brewery movement that is building a new beer culture and growing respect for beer again. New breweries, new beers, limited editions are coming to market at a rate where it’s virtually impossible to keep up. Age old ‘problems’, like the young men drinking cask, and women drinking beer (at all) are being slowly eroded by a groundswell of new news that seeps into our consciousness on a weekly basis.  One factor is where I now live.  Despite its Grail-like reputation in the brewing world, Burton and the Midlands don’t have a pub scene like the West Country.  Don’t get me wrong – there are some terrific individual pubs. The Yew Tree at Cauldon Low, The Burton Bridge, The Brunswick in Derby is an insultingly short list to all the great pubs I’ve missed. No, the issue is a structural one.  Whereas in my Exeter days you just didn’t know what choice of beers you would get if you chose a free house, in the Midlands, you have to go looking hard to break free of the yoke of a Marston’s, or a Punch, or an Enterprise.  Great beer is frequently served, but the range means I’m often peering into the fridge to eke out something new.

But actually, despite this, the irony is that the context has changed.  When I was last a free man in beer, I hadn’t seen the world.  Aye lad, I ‘adn’t travelled much beyond me own shores.  Serendipitously, while I have broadened my horizons, so the brewing world has broadened its horizons.   My love affair – for ‘tis that – with craft US beers really picked up Steam in 1998.  My wife (who in a commitment to the cause, I met in a pub whilst drinking, if I recall correctly, a pint of Marston’s Oatmeal Stout) and I travelled to California the year after we were married.  We had picked up the bug a bit for the ‘States with a first trip to New England, and now wanted to see the land of the American dream.  It was a pilgrimage too – I had places I wanted to tick off the list. Anchor was one of course – the mythical place it all began. An inspiring place – one day, I will have an office that overlooks a copper.  Yet it was the vibrancy of the beer scene that struck me all over – and this when it was still juvenile. In San Francisco on our first night, we wandered down to Pier 39. Mostly this is tourist tat shops, but in a great setting overlooking Alcatraz Island and the spectacle of the seals underneath the pier barking like infants with Croup.  We went for a drink in a bar called the Cannery – an oak clad wall with beer taps peeking through confronted us; locals and tourists alike animatedly chatting and discussing hot topics.  I drank an Anchor Porter which was biscuity and baked yet refreshingly moreish too.  Later, we drove to Napa and Sonoma  – beautiful valleys, filled with lime green vines stretching up into the hills, weaving roads enticing the eye up to a distant col. The wineries (we went to Mondavi and Mumm) had fantastically run tours, free samples a go-go and were just great places to kick back enjoying the sun and the scenery.  Yet my fondest memory was a little brewpub in Napa itself.  I can’t remember its name, but I can remember the experience.  The building was an old fire station with tall, arched windows stretching floor to eaves in beautiful Amsterdam-style brick.  We ate straightforward food: wood fired pizza before it was the rage; a rocket salad; home made sausages with garlic mash and gravy.  Pub grub, done well.  And of course a fantastic range of beers – I had a Hefeweizen, a Pale Ale and an IPA, my wife had a citrusy Summer wheat and a glass of Zin.

The drive down the Big Sur coast was as legendary as the reputation would suggest, sweeping through the precipice-hugging bends – dream like open-top cruising in our 1 litre Yugo.  We stopped overnight in Santa Barbara and ate a fantastic meal in The Brewhouse, a recently opened brewpub.  It was my first experience of properly hoppy ales – a taste of things to come if you follow the scene today.  We bypassed LA and headed to San Diego – where the brewing scene was only just kicking off. We drank beers from Stone Brewing and popped into a couple of Brewpubs which sowed the seed of yet another dream back home.  We went to the Zoo and Seaworld, in case you’re asking. Mrs P didn’t suffer too much.

And the love affair spread – Denver, Chicago, Boston, Dallas, Tampa, Seattle…great brews are popping up all over.  Yet it was only the other day, when I finally got round to drinking a beer from the Big Apple. For whatever reason, Brooklyn Brewery had passed me by.  The label didn’t catch my eye; the story on their Lager (a Pre Prohibition beer) seemed to be an afterthought.  ‘They don’t care that much’, I thought, ‘I won’t bother’.  So I didn’t.

Until last week. I bought three bottles of Brooklyn Lager in Mr Tesco’s corner shop.  3 for £2, if you’re asking, which I reckoned was a good deal, and good enough to try something new.

Silly, silly, me.  A blast of leafy, green, hop aroma swelled out from the bottle top as soon as I levered off the crown. The colour, a deep copper brown, with red hues just glinting in the corner of your eye. The head, a deep lemon meringue of headiness, topping off a bigger, fatter, mouthful of lager loveliness with a balanced sweet malt, and hop linger. Silly, silly, me.

And so the love affair grows. Pick the stereotype you wish – America: the young upstart. Brash, big American beers.  No class, just in your face. Yep – all of those.  And the dynamism they bring to beer – the respect for the past with the excitement of the legacy being left for the future is palpable.  I love British beers; I’m basking in the warm glow of what some of our brewers are doing at the moment, but love them or hate them, there’s another American Revolution going on at the moment. It’s entirely peaceful and changing the world all over again.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles, Originally posted on Posterous, May 2012

The Session #63: The Beer Moment

 

The Session ImageA long walk in the Lakeland Fells; crisp air, plashy ground, working up a sweat but gently so.  Long views to distant tops and then the knee-aching descent down, down.  That pint. The first.  I spend as long looking at it; gently wiping the condensation away before…. one sip. Just the one. But a big one.

That’s a beer moment.

Old school friends. Uni friends.  People you met when you started work. Friends you met just last week.  The years in between compress somehow; there’s no filling-in-the-gaps required, just laughter, knowingness, shared bonds that time doesn’t erode.  Over a pint, or two, or five.

That’s a beer moment.

A long week. No jogging over the line; but sprinting, full on, bleary eyes, baggy for want of sleep. But there’s always time, to stop, pause, reflect, before the train home. And that bar, that one I’ve been meaning to stop at but always made an excuse. Turns out, it serves a fantastic pint.  Doesn’t hit the sides.  Ah….

That’s a beer moment.