Category Archives: Hops

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

Punchy

Last night I went for a run, and, as a beer zealot who recognises the isotonic refuelling benefits and mysto-alchemic properties of beer, decided to have an IPA as my recovery – bottle conditioned, so feisty and full of the effervescent pep that I so badly needed.

Screen Shot 2014-11-26 at 14.26.21I reached for a Lagunitas IPA, 6.2%, which had been subconsciously put there earlier. A beer that in their words is, “homicidally hopped”. And boy, did I want to murder it. Levering off the crown – Boof! Hop aroma, oily, resinous, wafting out before I even got close, before I even touched the bottle. I poured and sipped in small measures, teasing out a fulsome head (really, it needed no encouragement), sipping and replenishing, sipping and savouring. Beer enthusiasts will know this beer, so let me be brief: it dates back to 1995 when it was launched as a seasonal (I first drank it in the Napa valley in fact), and comes from the fifth biggest US craft brewer: it is spicy, with a bold citrus edge in the aroma and a well balanced sweetness all the way through; for a beer of such beefy strength, there is little evidence of that unbalancing, almost winey, ethanol. In short, here is a top class American IPA, very much of the style, very much of the quality you’d hope for. And good old Adnams bring it to these shores; doubly whammy.

What struck me as I polished the Lagunitas off was how few UK ‘new wave’ craft brewers deliver pale or India Pale beers with such uumph, such attack, such boldness. Oh sure, we treasure balanced drinkability over here, and of course, we serve in larger quantities, but I didn’t struggle to drink this beer. I wasn’t left with that cloying feeling of ‘Woah, boy! Better go easy’. On the contrary, here was an eminently quaffable beer, high on taste, higher on ‘goes down easy’. And ok, I don’t live in a part of the country that is spilling over with top class craft breweries or more to the point, top class independents retailers – it’s down to the supermarket with a bag full of pennies and a bucket load of hope for me – but even so, the brutal truth is, I haven’t yet had a British pale beer brewed with Lagunitas’ level of chutzpah – full stop. They’re either too tame, too listless – or, at the other end – attempting to be so extreme that they lose their point as a beer – overly hopped, overly malted, forgetting that refreshment, drinkability and intrigue are needed too.

Perhaps where we need to focus is back onto the pale ale & IPA styles that we can do brilliantly, with our ingredients – that feels like an opportunity.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014

Apple hop day

Over the holiday I read Wildwood by Roger Deakin. It is his quiet celebration of a life spent with trees; learning their ways, being amongst them; using their fruit, and in their second life, their timber, their tinder. What is striking is not just how different one species of tree is from the next, but how each tree is an individual: its burrs, its knots, its shape, its bifurcations; down to the separate world that lives deep within the folds and knurls of the bark itself; each in a way as a separate from one another as our cities; distinct but unique, able to communicate, an interdependency of richness. It is both an uplifting read and a soul-stirring one. As the story of our lost ancient woodland unfurls, as the realization of how much has fallen under man’s saw, then it takes on a haunting, elegiac quality; not in morose prose but in accenting the profoundness of our loss.

This week I was uplifted by trees though. Driving through the weaving, wandering, looping lanes of Herefordshire, one minute I would be surprised by the forceful push of large lorry wafting along a road built for carts, the next confronted by a green verge running along the road’s centre, high banked hedges and overtopping trees, their outermost leaves gently dangling and waving above your head. I had forgotten how that land is defined by short, steep hills, fields that pitch and flow into the distance and stands of ancient trees; uneven in height as the eye pans across them; uneven too in shape, colour, form. Trunks of brown; deep greens and grey; and, even at the start of Autumn, abundantly, vigourously plump with life, sap, fruity vitality.

Just outside Ledbury, heading west, is apple tree land. The trees follow the natural contours of the land, planted years ago in immeasurable stands forming today’s superficially boundless orchards. The apple seems a proud tree, rounded in form yet spiky close to; planted en masse yet independent, shapely, interesting to the eye. This year, apparently, has been a bad year for wasps and a good year for fruit. So it seems; trees lining the roads hang saggily under the weight of a large and ebullient crop; dessert apple in size; preening themselves with red-robin bellies to the sun. Earlier I had drunk some farm-pressed apple juice; it was rich, fat and delicious; now I looked forward to the fermented version from these same apples.

Later that evening, I inspected my hops. They’re ornamental not for brewing, but they snake and bind pleasingly through a corner of my garden; bullying some plants, clinging on to others, finding holes in my fence where knots have fallen out, and pushing through, looking for the sun. The cones are just passing their best but are still lime green and resinous, almost to the point of dripping their oils. Some I will dry; others I will put in the house for the aromas; most will be cut back in waiting for next year’s hop shoots and riotous cycle of growth.

The apple-hop connection was only made later when a former colleague, Jo, posted some pictures of a Ledbury hop farm onto facebook. She had been to the farm the same day as I had been gazing on the apples and to watch their harvest; the bines twelve to eighteen foot; broad leaves like maples and dark, fleshy cones in bunches like a prize fighter’s fist. Most cones are stripped from the bines on a heath robinson contraption that cycles a hook round and round at head height; the bines dangle like a freshly butchered carcass before being sifted and sorted by hand and laid out in a thick pile carpet to dry. Like the fat apples, they spoke of spicy, citrusy, earthy beers to come; I licked my lips in anticipation.

For many, and for many a long year for me, cider and beer were like cats and dogs: you are a ‘beer man’ or a ‘cider man’; the fruit or the grain; the press or the boil. But nature doesn’t see it that way. In this thick tilled soil, on those rolling hills, both are at home; growing, ripening with the passing of the sun; blossoming richly in time for harvest and to sustain us all.

Apple Tree in fruit_fotor

Some photos courtesy of Jo Miller

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014