Lowlander Grande Café, London, June 2014
I’m fascinated by spontaneous fermentation. Can there be a stronger link in any food or drink we consume today with the beginnings of civilization; the beginnings of domestication and agriculture? I also find it fascinating that as a brewing method it has only survived in Payottenland in Belgium (at least until recently). Is it because allowing the wort to cool in the attic space, open to the elements is a mucky and time consuming way of doing things? Is it the simple hit-and-miss nature of it all? Is it the end result – uncarbonated lambics – that are too limited in appeal and there variants, Gueuze, Kriek, Frambozen, Faro too time consuming, too tricky to master?
I thought about these questions as I sipped my Mort Subite Original Gueuze in Lowlander this week. It came in a natty little 25cl bottle which, at 4.5% ABV, was just right for the time. On pouring it was a burnished Chesterfield brown with visible strings of carbonation firing up form around the base of the glass. The head was open and fine, leaving lacing diaphanous and sheer, not the clumpy lines of mixed gas draught beer. There’s a marked (appley?) fruitiness in this gueuze and to sip, a gentle sweet wineyness too (hints of orange muscat dessert wine?); there’s none of the agricultural astringency of some lambics – perhaps not enough in fact – but sufficient farmhouse aroma to know that wild yeasts have been working their magic. It’s not a classic Gueuze by any means; but for the time and place it was smooth, approachable and sufficiently interesting.
© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014
Euston Tap, London, 25th June 2014, draught.
I had an hour to spare before my train back north. Time for one beer and just a half: not enough time for a pint to be confident it would have cleared the system by the time I needed to drive. A beer that needed to count; a beer I had been looking out for: Gamma Ray from the fêted Beavertown Brewery in Hackney (soon to be Tottenham Hale).
It’s a slightly hazy, conker brown India Pale Ale with a sweet, malty nose layered with gooseberry hops (a blend of Columbus, Amarillo, Magnum and Bravo apparently – the latter being a new one to me). To taste, full on bitterness (I learnt later, 45 IBU) that reaches from the first taste through to the aftertaste. It’s a choppy, savoury bitterness: not sophisticated, nor lithe, but punchy and drinkable for such a bitter beer. Oh. And it got me wondering. Why is the all seeing eye of Lucifer both on their beer bottles and on U.S. Dollar Bills? Is there some communion of Ley Lines in East London? Does this influence the beer?
© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014
An iridescent spark of blue flairs across the eyeline, darting this way then that, low to the water. Lazy pendulums of willow imperceptibly sway as the damselflies dart fitfully to and fro between its branches. Pull back. The brook snakes through the field as we view it from afar now, curvily cutting the crossing spurs of meadow-backed hills, the sun breaking its beams through a cloud dappled sky. And afar, smoke wafts slowly from the brick chimney of a low slung farmhouse.
Close in. The farm squares up across a cobbled courtyard, rounded and glossed from years of boots and hooves. On one side the farmhouse, sage green windows, grey tiled roof. On the other, a single storey run with broad arched openings, marked out with round-edged blue bricks round nuzzling a strong keystone. Some are left open; some gated with ledged doors and knurled iron hinges. Steam drifts out from one entrance. Inside there’s a mess of brewing vessels; pipes, old staves and a skittering of rusting farm machinery, repurposed, parts. Wood staved vessels, one broad and shallow, others taller, dumpier, glisten with the perspiration of a brew in progress. In the loft, a shallow coolship, battered and tempered with age is the source of the steam. Through a gap, under a flaking beam are barrels of different sizes, chalk marked and dusty. Alongside shelves and shelves of cork stoppered bottles, waiting.
My idyll was just that. A dream, never to be discovered, never acted upon. The beers would be rustic: quenching yet punchy; refermented for a sprtizy effervesence, grassy to smell and with a lingering green hop. Then Saisons discovered me. These golden, rural Wallonian beers, dry, hoppy, aged, musty had been off my radar as all but a whisper, unheard. Typified as a beer style hard to pin down: its agricultural roots, the word of mouth, hand me down archiving of recipes had left them in the shadows of consciousness. But of late, they have burst out, their popularity in the States beginning to be mimicked here. And these are the beers closest in reality to my dream, yet with spicy, modern twists.
It started in that most un-rural of places, The Euston Tap. On draught; on the blackboard; in the fridge: Saisons. I ordered a Brew By Numbers (BBN) Nelson Sauvin Saison. At 6%, it’s hardly a Summer quencher in strength, but to taste: oof! A splintering bosh of grapefruit fizzing out of the glass. Cloudy like a Wit, there was sour character in the palate and a woody, puckering, lingering dryness that sits on the middle of your tongue. Refermented, the palate was sparkling, promoting a criss-cross illustration on the inside of the glass. Eyes now open but back in the stix, the Saison spotting season evaporated, until a rare sighting in Tesco of all places; their Revisionist Saison, brewed by Marston’s. After the tour de force of the BBN Nelson Sauvin Saison, my expectations were low. Yet, the beer has merit, with a dungy, herbal nose and a slightly background toffee character. An appetising, deep gold with a moderate head and modest carbonation. The taste was clear, dry and hop forward but muted given that it’s dry hopped. But it’s the lack of refermentation, of ageing, of dryness, that makes this more a pale ale than a layered, complex Saison.
The journey continued. In Manchester, I found two more Brew By Numbers: Saison Citra (5.5%) and Motueka & Lime (5%). The Citra was fresh, green and bright with melon and grapefruit. An intense natural carbonation, capped by a tight pure white head. To taste, all citrusy and again, bone dry and puckering. The Motueka was even more pungent: limey with lemon peel; with sour lime in the after taste that grabbed your throat in a play-fight way. Stunning beers. Stunning, yet somehow, these are Saisons that have moved to town. That are more cultured, arty, sophisticated, urbane. I wanted to go back to the farm. After some time I found Saison Dupont – the seminal Wallonian farmhouse beer. The aroma is heady: beguiling, dry, yeasty. It invites you back before you begin. To the eye, clumpy sediment from refermentation means a fine but visible carbonation that runs and runs that cleanses the palate and rewards in equal measure. It’s 6.5% yet drinks well below this with a low key bitterness balancing it all out. I noted down, ‘Simply, one of the most balanced and rewarding beers I’ve drunk’. And so it seems, that dream, that brick farm brewery, nestling in the rolling countryside is perhaps, no dream after all.
© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014
The Session, a.k.a. Beer Blogging Friday, is an opportunity once a month for beer bloggers from around the world to get together and write from their own unique perspective on a single topic. Each month, a different beer blogger hosts The Session, chooses a topic and creates a round-up listing of all the participants, along with a short pithy critique of each entry (see link, posted to comments in due course). This month’s Session is hosted by Boak and Bailey (www.boakandbailey.com) and is on the subject of traditional beer mixes. With it a challenge, we should find one traditional mix (no beer cocktails either) and recreate it; even order one in a bar (if you’re man enough)…
Funny how memory betrays you. As I recollect it, The Blue Moon was a large pub tucked underneath a railway bridge, just down from tightly arcing motorway slip road. It was mock half brick; outside mostly put to tarmac; desiccated hanging baskets hung wanly and the landlord had some missing stumpy fingers, a shiny hairless scalp and gold ring earrings. The regulars were gritty, speaking with a pronounced Derbyshire twang. “Noo” for ‘new’; “Naa” for ‘now’; “Ay up” and “mi’duck” being dropped in frequently, revealing the border status between Yorkshire to the north and the industrial midlands below.
In reality, my memory was skewed by time. A photograph taken from then revealed that the pub was actually a Hotel. There was nothing ‘Blue’ about it, it was just a ‘Moon’ (although had you seen the decor you might disagree). There was no railway bridge and the slip road was a good quarter of a mile away. The landlord, actually a Manager, and he sported fewer piratical gold rings than my false memory betrayed. But he, just as like his customers, did speak with that round, fruity, ruddy Derbyshire dialect. And he, just like his customers, drank ‘Mix’.
I was doing a management training programme, and Spondon’s Moon Hotel was my training pub. Sprawling Spondon, in Derby, is known for its ‘pong’ so expectations were low: was said whiff from off beer or from nearby Courtaulds? Yet, although I was only there for a couple of weeks, I jimmied in months of learning. Learning about pubs; learning about customers; learning about life in a roundabout way. Basic cellaring skills; tallying up the take at the end of the evening and most fearsome of all, serving behind the bar. Why fearsome? Two reasons: keeping tabs on ferocious Friday night orders for one; two, the terrible mockery inflicted when you didn’t know what the various ‘Mix’ orders were. It was a whole new lexicon: ‘Half & Half’, ‘Black and Tan’, ‘Bass and Gowd’ and ‘Mickey Mouse’.
A Bass & Gowd? The Bass was optional – any decent pale ale would do, but the Gowd wasn’t – referring to Gold Label. A favourite of my father law for whom a pint isn’t really a pint without a good viscous slug of Gold Label in it. This isn’t about flavour transformation: it’s about pure brawn; beer doping. The parallel with cycling doesn’t stop there. A decade or so ago such doping was rife. Judging by the orders at The Moon, one in five pints ordered by men over 50 had a gowd with it. Today would anyone? Then there was trial by ordering. Some customers wanted the Gold Label from the fridge; others – very particular others – wanted it from behind the counter. Others, cellar temperature, although they could bog off and get there own. And do you pour it in or let the customer? The whole lot into a half pint or serve them a pint and then let them add it gradually? A blummin’ barley wine minefield, nothing less.
Not the mix for me. Instead, I chose the much more goofily monikered ‘Mickey Mouse’. An old boy in the Moon took delight in catching me out by ordering this, much as I’m sure he had for the proceeding 30 years with other all green round the gills bar staff. Turns out the Mickey Mouse was a simple mix of lager and ale. At the Moon it was Carling Black Label (the lager being poured first) topped up with an ale, in this case keg Worthington’s. And it was a mix – not a stratification as is popular in the U.S. where there’s a clear horizon between the two products in the glass. I chose the sweetish Heineken (export) – 5%, with its estery, pear drop aroma and a much more hardcore Goose Island IPA: hoping the upfront hoppy grapefruitiness and lingering bitterness would work OK with the sweeter lager with little finish.
What was I expecting? The best of both worlds perhaps – a less challenging American IPA that was more sessionable? A more rewarding factory lager: still with the structure and finesse of a lager but with more savouring qualities?
I got neither. Rather, the Goose got plucked – somehow not even an IPA-light but a rather muddy ale with the crisp hop notes hidden under a blanket. And neither did I get a lager-to-savour. Sure, it was arguably not the best pairing. A more robust lagered beer perhaps: Pilsner Urquell or maybe a Republika or Camden Hells? Maybe a less assertive Pale Ale would have been better: Sierra Nevada from the U.S. stable (I mean this relatively) or any of many beautiful British pale ales.
Ah, but there’s the rub. I’m not closed to the idea of mixing beers together, certainly not puritanical about despoiling the purity of an original recipe. Where I netted out though is that I’d rather go for a genuine beer cocktail, where the flavours of the beer are just one of many interwoven tastes from a wide gamut of ingredients, rather than mixing two ‘traditional’ beers and getting the worst of both or the best of neither. I’ll keep on trying them, but not with a sense of anticipation.
© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014