La San Fran Diego

In 1999, the now long-suffering Mrs Tinted was only the short suffering Mrs Tinted. We decided to fly to California for our first wedding anniversary in fact: into San Francisco; a brief excursion north into Marin County (mountain biking pilgrimage), then Napa (wine pilgrimage) then down the fault line – the Big Sur coast (“Warning, bends in road for next 99 miles”) via Carmel (Clint Eastwood), Monterrey (Jack?), then Saint Luis Obispo to Santa Barbara (Santa Barbara Brewing Company, good hefeweizen and chicken burger), avoiding LA (saving the smog for another time) before R&R in San Diego.

I had few expectations of San Diego: it was designed to be a restful full stop at the end of our holiday before the flight home. It turned out to be yet another highlight.

From a beer point of view, to say California is a delight seems trite and unsurprising nowadays. Back then however, the beer scene was still emerging, albeit at pace, but remained centred on San Francisco. We drank Anchor of course, which was all that it promised and more: malty and dry, yet smooth too. We found great bars in the city (Jack’s Cannery) and in the country – a small brewpub in Napa City served a rip-roaring IPA that we wolfed down with wood fired pizzas before it became standard. But San Diego? Well, suffice it to say, we weren’t expecting any such surprises: we were going for the weather, nice beaches, no doubt, a day trip to Tihuana and probably a few bottles of Tecate.

Gloriously off script, the perceptions were all wrong. The Zoo: incredible (the incredible masticating Panda); Upstart Crow, a little bookshop… no, actually my favourite bookshop in the whole world (for a time at least) down on the quay. Adobe settlements; The Padres baseball team, with excitement building as they strove to win the World Series (they didn’t in the end), and our hotel, a sort of half America’s Cup cum half bric-a-brac temple cum half archaeological salvage thrown together in an arresting way. A hotel considerably better than my fractions.   And it turned out, the nascent brewing scene was the cherry on the vacational cake.

Oh, I know that beer geeks will likely sniff: but we both really enjoyed Karl Strauss Brewpub (and I’m happy to admit that I Iike ‘Rock Bottom’ too – better that than a Hungry Horse any day). Most of downtown San Diego is so unprepossessing, and it fitted right in, with a concrete camouflaged frontage. Not the beers though: there was Red Trolley Ale, immeasurably better than the average for that oddly faux – and typically unrewarding – beer style of ‘Irish Red’. It foamed and fizzed and had a lovely malt character. Tower 10 IPA, now a range mainstay, was what you’d expect: a blast of grapefruity C hops and a solid malt backbone. And located dangerously close to Hotel Bric-a-Brac and opposite the airport runway (here I go, ‘sell, sell, sell’) was Oggi’s Pizza & Brewing Co. We ordered take out from it one night and only called in right at the end of the holiday:  cue general werreting and gnashing of teeth. The beer was nothing memorable (for craft) other than it kept great company: the view across the beach, the bay, the gentle sizzle from what most Americans consider the best climate in the country. Oh, and pizza. Don’t forget the pizza.

"My precious Stones"Today I suppose much of the talk of San Diego is about Stone Brewing. In ‘99, it was a shadow of its future self and I didn’t, as I undoubtedly would now, make a diversion out to Escondido to visit the bar and shop. But I was still excited to get hold of a couple of Stone beers just after Christmas through Beer Hawk: not being that close to a regular supply here in Burton on Trent (I mean, why would Burton on Trent have a decent beer shop FHS?). In fact, drinking these beers fired up for me a mélange of California, not just San Diego. A sort of ‘La San Fran Diego’.

From San Diego there’s the understated bullishness, the challenger mentality that comes from being the US’s eighth biggest city, yet squeezed right up against its second biggest. Take the IPA: this is not a beer by halves (or thirds). There’s a spicy, hop leaf aroma that’s full on yet appealingly dry and dusty. The alcoholic warmth is marked but not over-powering, and a mouthfeel that’s chewy, with round caramel and a pearl barley breadiness.

From LA? Well, there’s brashness and confidence; perhaps some artificial inflation too: I mean, the IPA is an umphhhing 6.9% and the Ruination IPA is a wheezing 8.2%. These beers do not whisper into the room. They drop in, in a mechanically powered suit and then blow the head off the guests sitting round the table, pronouncing “I AM Runination Man”. These are after all, the beers that started an arms race.

IMG_2936But there’s some San Francisco too, some old school California. A bit more culture, sophistication; keeping something back – the fingerprints of Anchor and Sierra Nevada linger here still. The Ruination for example, makes a strong pronouncement, but it’s actually remarkably restrained. The aroma is earthy and spicy – not fresh spices but roasty and dungy (this, as I have said before, is ‘a good thing’). The alcohol may put hair on your chest, but it’s combined with fruitiness too. Ruination is 100+ IBUs. That’s a lot. Yet it doesn’t drink that way; it has a strong malty sweetness, which acts as a foil, a counterpoise. It’s a ruinously good drop.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2015

Copper Bottomed

Sometime ago, I wrote a piece about recent efforts by some Czech lager brewers to bring ‘tanked beer’ to these shores. It’s a worthwhile aim: to attempt to deliver absolute authenticity and the ‘brewery fresh’ taste that rocks you on your heels if you drink beer straight from a lagering tank, ideally in a cave or cellar under a Bohemian brewery.

Recap #1: the players. Miller Brands, the UK arm of South African Breweries (SAB) were installing permanent tanks in a number of prime bar locations, and bringing over smaller barrels too, for a ‘from the wood serve’ with which they were ‘going on tour’ – essentially a PR exercise. Budweiser Budvar, without the financial clout of SAB, were cracking on with a slightly different riff, their ‘Krausen’ or yeast beer. Like the tanked PU it was unpasteurised and carefully imported from České Budějovice.

Recap #2: the results. The half-termly report was ‘not a bad start but with much room for improvement’. I tried the Pilsner Urquell from the permanent tanks at The White Horse on Parson’s Green. It looked glorious: served in chunky tankards to a variety of serving specifications. The beer’s famed bitter note were highly pronounced versus the packaged version – but strangely whilst it pleased the eye it did less for the taste buds; I didn’t get the rounded complexity of the unpasteurized PU that I had enjoyed in the Czech Republic. The Budvar on the other hand, here from the The Draft House on Charlotte Street, was the opposite. Looking nothing out of the ordinary, served in unbranded glassware and not forming or retaining its head, it was lively, fresh-tasting and spicy nevertheless – the only issue was that it was still quite close to the bottled beer (which I drank alongside).

Now there’s new news, to use the business parlance, from Budvar UK. The brand has been a bit quiet in recent times; still a fine, fine beer of course, with that lovely creaminess and a palate at the sweeter end for a Bohemian lager, but left a little breathless as wave after wave of new entrants, promising something ever funkier, have entered the market. But here’s the thing, brewing great lager – seemingly, so simple – is fiendishly complex, time-consuming and expensive. UK craft brewers who have set off down this road have realised the considerably higher level of investment needed, and the cash it sucks out of your business – assuming of course that the brewer is lagering their beer for a few weeks. The precious tank space which could be used for something well, quicker, is needed while the lager dozes. On top of this, there’s the unscrupulous cleanliness required, decisions about whether to use modified malt or decoct, a separate yeast bank, it’s never ending.

At the moment, Budvar Tankové Pivo is a trial, at the delightfully bonkers Zigfrid von Underbelly on Hoxton Square. The tanks, rightly, are pride of place; there are two stacked one on top of the other in the main bar area and another one in the cellar-proper. Each holds 10 hectolitres (about 6.5 proper barrels) and like the Crown Jewels, they are displayed behind glass. A nearby sign proudly announces when the next delivery is coming: this is, after all, fresh beer, unpasteurised. It can’t hang about, and initial sales show that it isn’t (currently about a tank a week and rising).

Let’s pause for a moment on what the tanks do to the experience of drinking. They’re copper and as such, have something of a Jules Verne, ‘20,000 Leagues under the Sea’ quality about them. With hand shaped, baffled ends, they’re only lacking a perescope. Copper piping too abounds, torpedo tubes no doubt. The font is copper too; and the beer, rather than being served in a standard tulip or nonic glass is a glass tankard. Everything marks this out as something different, something unusual. The expectation of specialness is copper bottomed, even before you even open your wallet.

Ultimately though, it needs to deliver: and no stone has been left unturned to ensure that the beer is as fresh as a daisy. The logistical complexity alone of getting beer from the lagering tank in České Budějovice, to the serving tank in London is eye watering: bespoke containers, refrigerated transportation; beer filled hoses (the beer goes to waste but ensures sterility): in all, four days of nail biting stress for those involved. It pays off: the beer sparkles with its crisp, gentle and all-natural carbonation – and here’s the clincher – it has that rounded softness, the biscuity base, the light fruity esters, the alcohol warmth – that only an unpasteurised and lagered beer has. The maturation adds the richness, serving it unpasteurised allows you to enjoy it in full.

The plans are for Budvar UK to extend the trial and hopefully roll this out more widely. It won’t (can’t) be something you’ll experience everywhere, it’s just too expensive, too labour intensive. But if you can, it is definitely something worth jumping in your tank to go and experience.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2015



The back streets of Smethwick are Cash and Carry land. Long horizontals of white mortar shine out from glossy deep red brick terraces, whilst large shop signs of every hue and a hotchpotch of shapes scream out onto the streets. Behind though is the beating heart of Birmingham past and present: small industrial units on streets that hark back to smoky, metal-beating times: Suffrage Street; James Watt Industrial Park, Kelvin Way. Today the heart of another industry beats, that of independent retail, of Asian and African trade and neighbourhoods. True enough, Cash & Carrys’ may not be that inspiring an association with an area, but let’s face it, depending on your interpretation of the reality of those parts, it could be much worse.

In my early years in beer, I worked in the off license sector (or off trade) – the independent retail of alcohol sales. Last week, CGA Strategy, who measure this sort of thing, reported that off trade sales overtook on trade sales for the first time. Still someway off the global norm of 70-80% of the beer market being consumed at home, but getting there slowly. Only twenty years ago though, off trade sales were much smaller, the market immature. The supermarkets sold very little and their range was poor; in fact supply wasn’t brilliant – mostly keg brands canned. It seems incredible today to think that most sales went through the off licenses – either the big ‘specialists’, Thresher, Victoria Wine, Augustus Barnett (all of whom had been the off trade arms of big brewers at some point) – or through independent corner stores. These were supplied by the Cash & Carrys – again, either the big chains like Booker or Nurdin & Peacock, Makro, to independent, more local, operators at the other. The West Midlands had a thriving Cash and Carry trade and the west side of Birmingham: Cape Hill, Winson Green, Smethwick had a profusion of the independents.

They were notorious: scale operators, run like fiefdoms, focused on volume, big deals, trunker* loads of beer coming in and out. And they performed the necessary evil of ‘clearing’ – taking the close to best before stock and shipping it through their network of retailers in double quick time at half the profit.

Given the sheer volume of beery traffic passing in and out of the loading doors, damages were inevitable. Typically, the offending cans or bottles would be removed and the remaining stock repackaged out back to be sold on, sometimes at a discount, often not. Damages – or to give it its butterily correct name – ullage – was a ludicrously lucrative business. The hope was that the brewer would credit them for the whole case, when in reality only one or two cans were damaged; they would then repack and resell the whole lot and effectively, double their money**. Usually, the Cash and Carrys gave the ullage a dedicated area; close to an unused loading bay or tucked out of the way of the key sales area. As you approached, there was the lactic smell of super strength lager turning to vinegar, oil-like spills on the floor, gel like in their viscosity, and beer flies (drosophila melanogaster, or the more common name bugus cerevesiae), who would drift and plummet in acrobatic displays then diving to feast on the sugars which the yeast were planning to consume in turn. It’s the same smell you get in a cellar where less than meticulous handling & cleaning practices are maintained.

Lindemans Framboise
The one that got away.

The back street Cash & Carry images came flashing back to me in an instant the other week, like rapid slide transitions in Powerpoint. We live in an old place, which has a small vault-like brick cellar below the room the dog sleeps in. You may justifiably ask what a bottle of Lindemans Framboise was doing in a fridge at all then, but let’s not get hung up here on the political correctness of beer storage. The point is that, made worse by a cold snap, the fridge temperature dropped and the beer made an escape for freedom. With surreptitious impact: what I found was a bottle essentially in tact: the cork still in; the crown in place, the foil seemingly undisturbed, but a huge plug of ice in the bottle and a spray of pinky-brown aging beery gloop covering the contents and inner sanctum of the fridge.

And my! The smell. Here was a characterful, already complex, heady beer, but given the chance to mature rapidly in contact with a room full of oxygen all for itself and probably some wild cellar yeasts snaffled up for good measure too. Vinegar, champagne, paint thinners or new emulsion perhaps, and fermenting raspberries – lots of fermenting raspberries in an advanced stage, über fruity yet sour and winey too. The memory, in short, of a potential great beer with a dash of Smethwick Cash & Carry.


*The term for a full 38 ton lorry of beer

** On one occasion, being full of youthful integrity, I refused to play ball and had to transport 20 cases of damaged Tennent’s Super cans, some of which were still spraying like a territorial cat through pinhead cracks, back to our depot. My Scirocco may have become The Zone Of The Piss Smelling Fly, but the Principle was worth upholding.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2015