Monthly Archives: December 2013

My Kind Of Town

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The Goosey Geese Tap Handles of Goose Island.

One city is the United States in microcosm. New York is amazing: soaring, spiky, spectacular. It’s almost a caricature of itself though; too showy; too extreme. San Francisco on the other hand is happening, boho, liberal, supremely geeky – so much so that it could never be described as typical, wonderful though it is.  No, that microcosm is Chicago; a city that for me encapsulates a little of everything you imagine heralds from the States, a little of everything the States is great at. There’s the architecture (Skyscrapers, Frank Lloyd Wright), the music (the blues, the jazz, gospel), the sport (the Cubs, the Giants, the Bears), the weather (+35°C Summer, -27°C Winter anyone?), the industry (head offices of Kraft, McDonald’s, Boeing)… all this and more. Yet there’s something else, something more elusive.  First, there’s the setting.  Most US cities have height in their downtown, but Chicago flies. It’s a city that simply rockets upwards, out of the Plains like the vision of ‘Metropolis’ imagined in early science fiction.  Although not the tallest skyscraper, the Hancock tower provides the best view as undisturbed, you can look out east over Lake Michigan, eyes straining to see the curvature of the Earth, or north as the city drops away, tracing the lake coast as it falls block by block, gradually descending like a city built from Lego, until it is just the shoreline heading into the horizon.  Then, there’s the food and drink culture.  Oh, this may be the Mid West; this may be Six Pack Joe central, but make no mistake, this is a great food city and what’s more, an amazing beer city too.

Twin Anchors rack of ribs: “Like an orchestral Xylophone being brought in sidew

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Take two pizzas. Stack one on top of other. Invert. Add more cheese and tomato. Bake.

I first went to Chicago in the late 1990’s. To be honest, I hadn’t really genned up on the place as the days beforehand had been stupidly hectic, but it didn’t take long to be astounded by the native Chicagoan foods – and the vast quantities served.  It was also the first time I had witnessed Starbuckisation in action.  We stayed in a pretty basic hotel, a Days Inn located perfectly just north of downtown for the bars, business and eateries and bang next door to the Lake Michigan shoreline over Lincoln Park. In no more than 100 yards of us in each direction were 6 coffee shops, 4 of which were Starbucks – easily within sight of one another. Anyway, that first week was business, and as a group we investigated Chicago’s dining and drinking scene. There was deep dish aplenty, a Gino’s East pizza restaurant not far from the Museum of Contemporary Art was my first experience of the famous upside down, inch thick pizza; there were others but Lord knows how we made room for them. Sandwiches too, bagels for breakfast of course, and downtown somewhere just below the Loop tube train, we had a two-inch thick Italian beef sandwiches soaked in gravy and served with whole heads of roasted garlic. Then there were the ribs: the most memorable assaulted us in the Twin Anchors chophouse where I went with my brother the night before Halloween. We were overawed, and not just by the skull decorations – there’s no other word to describe the speechlessness you get when a rack of ribs the size of an orchestral xylophone drenched in pungent BBQ sauce has to be squeezed out sideways through the kitchen door to the diner’s table. We shared a half rack (kids portion?) and were still fit to burst.

IMG_0766 IMG_0765The leitmotif of the trip though was the beer. The bar in our hotel was a bit like a ground floor ‘Cheers’.  It was not just frequented by guests but locals too, office workers mainly, popping in for a swift beer and bite before they headed off home.  Horseshoe shaped, with the barman seemingly at the centre of every conversation, many sat there at the bar for a few hours, making conversation with anyone who would listen.  As a group of Limeys we were, I’d like to think, entertaining as much as entertainment. Beers? Well, there was the normal selection – Miller, predominant, this being Chicago –  Michelob, Bud and Coors too, even Schlitz which you’ll hardly see now.  But none of these stood out nearly as much as the tap handles of Goose Island – my first encounter with the brewery and its beers. US bars can look like an array of wobbly wickets at the best of times so the Geese of the Goose Island hissed and honked like no others.  And the beers stood out too. At the time I hadn’t realised that we were only two blocks away from the island in the Chicago river that gives the brewery its name. With the passage of time, I can’t remember exactly which beers were on sale apart from two – both still parts of the Goose Island range today. The first, Honkers.  I mean, with the name alone you have to try it. And what a delight – a beautiful lustrous copper colour and fruity aroma with malty bitterness assisting drinkability.  And India Pale Ale, the beer that nowadays you can easily buy over here.  It’s simply an incredible beer: incredible when you consider it’s a fairly basic infusion mash off a single malt base and extensively hopped both with American and English hops. Yet for such a punchy, full on beer it remains well balanced – so its both one to savour and one to drink. My kind of beer; my kind of town.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2013

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Porter house Black

The Cathedral Close in Exeter must be one of the finest in the country.  The Cathedral Church of St Peter, an architectural beacon for miles around with it’s twin towers straddling an enormous vaulted nave, look down genteely on a full enceinte of hotch potch buildings constructed in all styles and through all the ages.  Today the shops are mostly cafes and restaurants, a bookshop and some gift shops, yet through all the change one pub still thrives. The Well House must enjoy one of the most spectacular views from its doors of almost any British pub.  And it was an old haunt of mine, taking our pints outside in summer, perching on the low wall in front of the cathedral lawns and wiling away a pleasant hour or three.

I associate The Well House with porter – a beer style that is increasingly in vogue these days but back then was a rarity. It was most definitely unusual to find it on draught in a pub at the time – and in fact still not so common today I suppose.  Alas, the beer was a struggle – I can’t remember the brewery or the brand, but it was an earthy, acrid, scratching beer – it fought you, it bit, it spat – making you work for the rite of passage – one I chose not to take. Almost unbelievably therefore, I have either avoided porter since, or more accurately, allowed myself to be tempted by other types of beer when the choice arose.  Daft really, but it shows the power of a single experience – just one ‘bad’ pint and the whole family of porters is tarnished, wiped off the map for two decades.  Tch.

Porter is one of those fascinating beers that would be of interest for general historians not just beer enthusiasts.  One of the first ‘mass produced’ beer styles, it caught on during the industrial revolution allowing its brewers to scale up as urban population exploded: steam powered breweries; wooden-staved conditioning tanks so large that brewery Directors entertained the great and good within them. All today’s porters guess at what we believe they might have tasted like. It’s believed for example that given that the beer was matured in wood, that the original porters of the 19th century would have undergone some secondary fermentation – from the yeast contained in the casks. It’s believed too that the malt bill would have contained a pretty high proportion of almost burnt grains from the direct firing methods employed at the time. So perhaps my experience in The Well House was accurate. We can only imagine the flavours that would have arisen – winey, vinous, with a cider-like cut of sharpness at their best, vinegary at their worst.

Shepherd Neame brew what for me drinks like a classic porter. They actually brew it for Sainsbury’s ‘Taste the Difference’ range.  It’s ink black – blacker than many stouts (and particularly, much blacker than Draught Guinness which nowadays is almost reddy-brown), definitely as black as squid ink and blacker than the heart, soul and naughty thoughts  of the Lord Of The Underworld. This beer is Seven Hells black and pours with a rocky, caramel toffee head which lingers beautifully and laces frillier than Agent Provocateur frilly knickers.  The smell: it’s Bonfire Night come round again, with cinder toffee and a whiff of Guy-Fawkes-is-Burning pure smoke or perhaps just gently smouldering pallets – all following through into the taste, with an extra sharp edge of charcoal.  Not then a pint-after-pint supping beer; but definitely one for sitting down in the Dickensian bay window seat of a local hostelry on a cold December night, looking out over the Cathedral before crunching home through the winter snow.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2013