Monthly Archives: November 2012

At Lowlander

London’s Drury Lane is famous for its theatres of course.  The Theatre Royal, The New London, all in their time have witnessed the great and good of thespianism grace their boards.  Up at the top end, towards High Holborn, are the interesting sights though.  Narrow buildings made from small blackened-buff handmade bricks, with that vertiginous sense of perspective as your eye tracks them upwards.  Here, strangely enough, was the original Sainsbury’s store, and here too, inspired perhaps by the visual echoes of Amsterdam, is Lowlander.

It’s a favourite bar of mine. Inspired by a Brussels Grande Café, every attempt has been made to authentically reproduce and convey that feel. From the long bar with the wide aperture beer taps with glass washers below; to the enamel wall plaques advertising and celebrating some of the glotally tongue-twisting brands like Delirium Tremens, Echt Kriekenbier and Trippel Karmeliet; to the reverential alter of glassware behind the bar, celestially lit and tempting you to order one of the bottles to fill them: Westmalle, Trappiste Rochefort, Rodenbach Grande Cru.  And the tables: I’m just a sucker for these long tables, forcing you to sit next to a stranger; inviting you – threatening you perhaps – to strike up a new dialogue or forcing a little smile as you observe groups play out the unspoken dance of rule-finding around who can invade personal space and to what level.

logolowlander

Perhaps Drury Lane is the right location: because ultimately it’s all a faҫade – authentically fake if you will.  But as I refamiliarised myself with a smooth De Koninck last night, I was transported, albeit momentarily, to a real homeland of beer, and was all the happier for it.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles, November 2012

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50 Shades of Dray

It had clearly become too much for my long-suffering wife. In a delicate eruption of frustration one evening last week she pointedly accused me of watching only food programmes on TV. I can accept that some, small minded individuals cannot appreciate nor accept ‘Pointless’ as the true visual art form that it is.   Yet as always I had to reluctantly admit that there was more than a grain of truth in her accusation. In fact of late, the truth was not a grain but a large soon-to-be-double-decocted mash full, triggered in this case by a monster session of ‘Great British Food Revival’ which I had put on the Sky+ and inevitably, therefore, was watching en masse, putting enormous pressure on her weekly Soap schedule as I fought to catch up in any 5 minute gap that presented itself.

The basic premise of the programme is this; like our canal network in the ‘70s, some ‘great’ ‘British’ foods, are endangered, not through over hunting but through lack of use.  From brown shrimps to asparagus, cured ham to Cheddar (of the proper, West Country variety, natch), from Aylesbury Duck to real ale, unless we change our eating and shopping ways then these fine fares, which we all ‘enjoyed round the table of childhood’ apparently, will be gone forever.

Alas, some of the motifs of the series are weakened by stereotype and bombastic language: “Go on!”, you are urged in each programme, “Just think about the crap you are putting in your basket (Idiot! Charlatan!) and buy the proper stuff”.   It’s well meant; undoubtedly true to a large degree; and I have no qualms at all about raising the profile of some of these high quality products and the producers who fight to save them and make a living.  And yes, you did read that right, real ale was on the list.

Which was funny.  Because if there’s one Great British food (and I think on both measures this counts) that is saving itself then cask ale would be there.  Credit to CAMRA 40 years ago, and credit to the countless numbers of entrepreneurs, home brewers, retired professional brewers, and beer lovers from all walks of life who have had the balls to start a brewery.  But there’s the (*cough!* *cough!*) …rub.   The premise of the episode on real ale was mostly about the balls and not the beer.  That somehow, it was the industrialisation of beer production, and the replacement of the brewing art by employed men, not home-making ale wives or brewsters, that accounted for real ale’s decline. Not shit quality in pubs, total lack of focus by brewers big and small and the global change in tastes towards pale beers then?

hartnett

Angela Hartnett. On the left. Obviously.

And It wasn’t helped by Angela Hartnett.  Clearly, she’s well rated as a chef – whilst I have not dined at one her establishments myself, all this celebrity froth must be for something. But unfortunately she came across as just a touch patronising, actually looking down her nose at people, an apparent haughtiness aimed even at those that she was endeavouring to champion. Annoying really, as it was clear that she has a fair bit of beery knowledge and can use her platform to champion the case for beer.  And. She didn’t venture out of the south east; but that’s just the regional chip butty on my shoulder, so let’s say no more about it. But it’s chips ‘n’ gravy every time, if you’re asking, and  feel free to pop a bit of stout in the gravy for that whole ‘beer and food’ extravaganza if it makes you feel better.

Yet scratch all the criticism. At the end of the day, the angle she was driving down was interesting, borne out of yet more grains of truth; and unlike the previously impoverished attempts at beer programming on the BBC, was relatively balanced¹. Specifically, the role of women in relation to ale has weakened, and extending the ‘cult of the brewer’ to include female brewers is a must if we want ladies to sit up and take notice, not just men.  Getting women to suspend disbelief and try great beers, not just cask beers, is an industry wide action.  Getting the BBPA or other august bodies to promote the fact that ‘beer = lager, ale, lambic’ and not just ‘beer = bitter’ is a pretty basic cornerstone of knowledge that we haven’t yet established. Getting over irrational connections to the pint, and stretching out our arms to welcome in other measures is a must too, heretical though it may be to say it.  But most importantly, getting over the fact that beers ‘for women’ don’t have to be flavoured light beer (or worse) will be the first major victory.  At the end of the day, beer has always been more of a blokes’ drink.  And you know what, that’s OK.  Us men should stop wearing hair shirts of guilty penitence and flagellating ourselves outside the Rose & Crown.  Change nothing about beer today and there are still huge numbers of occasions when women would happily pick up a beer when they’re not now. There are plenty of beers today that hold appeal to both genders – from fresh, cask draught beer at the one end, to Mexican beers and Tequila beers at the other; from sweeter, mild beers to deep brown and alcoholic Italian ones – it’s the context around it; the machismo; the ‘half’ culture we need to break down.  And at the end of the day, I may drink a glass of rosé wine from time to time too without needing a ‘rosé for men’ initiative from the wine producers.

Yet scratch all the criticism. At the end of the day, the angle she was driving down was interesting, borne out of yet more grains of truth; and unlike the previously impoverished attempts at beer programming on the BBC, was relatively balanced¹. Specifically, the role of women in relation to ale has weakened, and extending the ‘cult of the brewer’ to include female brewers is a must if we want ladies to sit up and take notice, not just men.  Getting women to suspend disbelief and try great beers, not just cask beers, is an industry wide action.  Getting the BBPA or other august bodies to promote the fact that ‘beer = lager, ale, lambic’ and not just ‘beer = bitter’ is a pretty basic cornerstone of knowledge that we haven’t yet established. Getting over irrational connections to the pint, and stretching out our arms to welcome in other measures is a must too, heretical though it may be to say it.  But most importantly, getting over the fact that beers ‘for women’ don’t have to be flavoured light beer (or worse) will be the first major victory.  At the end of the day, beer has always been more of a blokes’ drink.  And you know what, that’s OK.  Us men should stop wearing hair shirts of guilty penitence and flagellating ourselves outside the Rose & Crown.  Change nothing about beer today and there are still huge numbers of occasions when women would happily pick up a beer when they’re not now. There are plenty of beers today that hold appeal to both genders – from fresh, cask draught beer at the one end, to Mexican beers and Tequila beers at the other; from sweeter, mild beers to deep brown and alcoholic Italian ones – it’s the context around it; the machismo; the ‘half’ culture we need to break down.  And at the end of the day, I may drink a glass of rosé wine from time to time too without needing a ‘rosé for men’ initiative from the wine producers.

None of that’s the point though.  The real point is this:  if we really want to ‘revive’ real ale, we can’t just focus on women.  The male ‘lager generation’, growing up with exciting lager as a reaction to the drink of their forebears, are now in their 30’s and 40’s and need to be enticed back to drink cask more regularly.  Young adults prioritise their mobile subscription above food and rent, but we need to bring them on side too – men and women.  Our ever-ageing population need to be encouraged to try too, especially if the memories of the ropey stuff from a generation ago hold any truth. If real ale is going to really revive, then it needs broad appeal, women and men, young and old, big brewers and small brewers, national retailers and independents getting behind it.  The Great British Food Revival might help, but it’ll need to broaden its focus to do so.

¹ Oz Clarke and James May anybody? They should sack the Director General for that.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles, November 2012

“I’m dreaming, on a jet plane…”

In the spirit of Radio 5 Live presenters who like to make awkward and apparently unlinked segues between pieces, here’s mine. Rod Stewart: sensationally weeps after Celtic beat Barcelona in an otherwise dull football match¹, although he has now declared himself “silly” for giving in to such emotional soppiness. Which are the beers you would “Dream about on a jet plane” (or in my particular case, ‘Virgin Train’).  Here are my contenders:

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, which, after naming as my “One Beer to rule them all” in a recent post, would be rather remiss of me to leave off the list.  It is naturally a beautifully brewed, versatile, flavoursome and aromatic Californian beer.  It is also the one I genuinely think most about on my Friday nights – the most hallowed of all beer occasions.

Windsor & Eton Conqueror:  in my book, not a session beer, yet the whole concept of dark beers that don’t taste roasted or charred is intriguing.  Conqueror manages this – a beguilingly dark beer, with a fromage frais coloured head and only a lightly roasted note which you pick up in the sides of your mouth. So a burly beer but one which still allows the hop leaf character to show through – too much  so in some of their other beers, but judged nicely here.

Menabrea Blonda: someone who I used to work with would choke on her cornflakes knowing I put this beer on my list.  Brewed in picturesque Biella in the Piedmont region in Italy, the beer itself is a fairly ordinary pale lager.  But it’s the associations that swing it for me – a great match for Friday night pizza, a bar in downtown Milan, the brewery nestled up a tight street in the foothills of the Alps.  Shallow I know, but I can live with it.

St Austell Tribute: something has happened down in Cornwall.  I used to live in Devon and my recollection of St Austell (company not place, although it could have described both) was ‘good pubs, dodgy beer’.  And it was all acronyms like ‘St Austell HSB’ or ‘Bodmin PMT’ that sort of thing.  Perhaps it was Sharps.  Doom Bar taking off and being bought for nigh on £20 mill must have woken up the Cornish to their terroir as there are some cracking beers emerging from west of the Tamar now.  Tribute makes the list – I can get it in my neck of the woods, and it’s a drinker, but Betty Stogs would be on it too if it was more available.

Schneider Weisse: this is the daddy of the Bavarian wheat beers for me.  Erdinger is a little too clovey, a little too texturally thin and a touch too ethanolly in taste for me. Schneider though, nails it.  In decent distribution now in the UK too, which is handy.

Jennings Cumberland Ale:  another associative beer for me – this one is the Fox and Hounds in Threlkeld, the slopes of Blencathra looming behind. Or the Old Dungeon Ghyll in Langdale. Supping slow pints after a day getting lost on Crinkle Crags (again).

Goose Island IPA – Chicago, 1999.  I had been in the US studying for my MBA international assignment and stayed over to meet my brother who was living in the US back then.  He flew to meet me in the windy city and we had 48 hours of tourist highlights.  These included a ‘Half Rack of Ribs’ (note: a half rack, between us) taken I think from a white rhino in the Anchor Chop House. And a deep dish pizza in Pizzeria Uno. An 8” being enough stodge for 3.  But hell, the beer was the revelation.  Goose Island beers in what we thought would be our crappy ‘Hospitality Inn’ bar, but turned out to be a drinkers’ honey pot. Glasses of IPA and Honkers: untouchable.

¹Football fans please forgive me. I did not watch this match nor any other.  Ultimately, it’s lots of grown adults getting all het up about kicking a pig’s bladder.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles, November 2012

The Session #69: The Perfect Beer World

the session beer blogging friday“The grass is always greener on the other side”, so sang Glaswegian post-Britpop crooners, Travis; “the neighbour’s got a car that you wanna drive”.

Dear old Fran Healy, where are they now?  Mind you, it would be easy to agree with his sentiment when considering this month’s blog topic – the perfect beer world.  For UK readers, it could be like the latest British Gas adverts – idyllic & psychedelic pints of frothy ale, always full, never drunk, in carefree orbit around our mini planets. But really. Where will it take us this navel gazing at a Beer utopia? Frankly I don’t see any positive value in that exercise – so in true politician’s style I shall answer the question my own way. And it’s still a good angle because the trials and tribulations of life are written into the weft and weave of beer itself.

The lesson of time immemorial.  From fantasy worlds like Star Wars or Harry Potter; to the real world –the motivations are the same.  Good versus evil;  failing, getting up and trying again, or just staying down. The big guy vs the little guy. Of man and woman, race and religion, tribe or creed.  And it’s all here in ‘Beer – The Board Game’¹.  Let’s consider the United Kingdom as said board game to illustrate.

The playing surface plots international brewer against start up micro; of wholesaler against cash and carry; of national pub chain against a family run independent pub; of government policy against pressure group set against a three dimensional backdrop of street scenes inspired by market towns the country over. And we have our equivalent of  ‘Chance’ cards?  The rise of teetotalism (‘Go To Jail. Do Not Stop at The Red Lion’); the growth of non-alcoholic drinks, coffee in particular (‘Advance to Starbucks. Lose 5% market share’); the media stoking the flames of ‘binge Britain’ or neo Prohibitionists in the US (‘The local authority orders you to clean up the vomit. Lose 2% market share’).  Oh, and good ones too, like (‘Cask Beer Reports sector in growth by 2%.  Collect 3 free beer tokens’).

But this is a board game: players will win and players will lose.  If you work for Waverley TBS, my genuine commiserations; if you work for Punch – your business model doesn’t seem to be working fellas, maybe take a look at it again.  The government, with its incessant and anti-competitive above inflation duty rises… well they are doing the equivalent of perpetually building hotels on Park Lane – but one day the property bubble will burst and the rents won’t come in.

Beer is playing out the game. From some angles it seems precarious – per capita consumption in western markets is falling…but in eastern, emerging markets it is growing.  The inexorable rise of pale lager is being challenged: indigenous and new beers are appearing again, and like life, the fun is in the hunt, in taking part.    Elsewhere spirits are back in growth or the growth in cider threatens ‘the pint’.  They are players in the game and they have every right to try and win. Pubs are closing at an alarming rate, but some of the best bars ever are opening up and down these islands.  Supermarkets are slashing the price of beer…. but they are dedicating ever more space to speciality ales and lagers.   No, the perfect beer world is here warts and all, best that we see the game board, get stuck in and plan our moves ahead.

¹ Don’t even think it. I got there first: ‘Beer – The Board Game’© Preston Enterprises, 2011

 

Beer gameOh, hang on……….damn!!

 

 

 

 

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles, November 2012