Category Archives: Pale and India Pale Ale (et al)

Sparking clogs

We used to drive into Manchester past Maine Road (Manchester City’s old ground), through Moss Side and the always-steaming Royal Brewery of Scottish & Newcastle; then skirt past Whalley Range to the top of Deansgate just as the arced roof of GMEX came into view, or swerve a tighter left to Old Trafford, like Ryan Giggs cutting in from the wing. Moss Side remains my first impression of Manchester, a city which, despite years living in the Midlands now, still feels ‘mine’. But boy, what an impression: the street fronts then, as most are today, were Victorian terraces – strong, red, Ruabon brick, glossy but tarnished, clothed by plastic shop facades of a range of implausible businesses, 48 sheet poster hoardings and spray-paint tags. Behind was the urban ‘improvement’: low rise local authority dwellings where once were the back-to-backs; low-rise, red or blue flags fluttering depending on your allegiance, set off on battleship grey and cream concrete. Not far north of here is the city centre; back in the ’80s the blooming was only just beginning and this area was tough, rough and uneasy on the eye.

And Manchester’s beer weren’t that easy on the throat back then either.  I’ll be honest, whenever I drive home, I see my first Robinson’s pub (The Lawton Arms usually) and there’s a pang of ‘I’m home‘. But I never got on with their beer.  There was Boddington’s of course, Boddies, which had mythical status growing up – pale, strong, smooth, hardy somehow, brewed up next to the prison, it somehow erred on the boundaries of good and evil.  Then Whitbread got hold of it and turned it into a confection, a very successful one for a few years I grant you, what with all the ‘Cream of‘ and Blue Tits and Wafer Cones and that, but a confection nonetheless; a confection that today it is reaping the rewards from. It’s largely gone (unless you’re in a Whitbread owned Premier Inn, well known for their beer range) and it’s mythical presence is lost forever.  And there was Hydes, but they were confined to their own pubs so were off my radar. And that was it; my mental landscape: Manchester, rich, industrious, ambitious in all but beer.

It would be trite to say it’s changing – there are so many craft breweries now that even many villages have one – what am I saying? There’s one on top of a Moor – but there are Manchester beers that now have that ‘edge’ just as the city has in industry, in architecture, in music, in media, in sport.  So many in fact, that I worry – a worry that I know many don’t share – but I worry about how these breweries can survive in an environment where we are drinking less in general, drinking less beer in turn and where the big boys are waking up to the threat and the opportunity posed by craft.  The key of course, even if your exit strategy is to sell up, is to create a brand, and a brand built off beer that is superbly brewed and truly different.

That’s what Cloudwater are doing.  A tongue-in-cheek riff on Manchester’s rep for precipitation, the rainy season is at the heart of the brand – although every time I’ve been up recently it’s been unseasonably warm and bright.  Cloudwater are up round the back of Piccalilli Station and they’re brewing seasonal beers – seasonality in fact, is at the heart of what makes them different. Perhaps it’s the stories of queues round the block for Russian River’s ‘Pliny the Elder‘ that drew them to it; or perhaps it’s just a philosophy of ‘we’ll sell what we brew’ – a philosophy that takes you away from having to worry about the economies of brewing to a tight ‘product specification’ band, worrying more about brewing efficiently and consistently rather than the taste, a skill in itself (and a skill the big boys are better at than many craft players). That neck of the woods, Ancoats, is Lowry territory of course, and there are more than hints of it today. Victorian factories lying dormant or repurposed; narrow streets, still lain to setts or tarmaced over, the setts peeping through down the edges or where wear and tear has scuffed off the surface. From improbable nooks and crannies, buddleia springs out with its attendant insect life as if to warn that if we don’t reclaim the buildings, they will.

Cloudwater DIPA v3 2It’s this ‘when it’s gone it’s gone’ word of mouth that seems to be fuelling Cloudwater’s burgeoning reputation.  Their Double IPA v3 (DIPA v3) has a menacing, grasping hand jumping out as a greeting: it sports bittering hop in abundance and then four aroma hops Citra, Chinook, Comet and  Mosaic, a blend of east coast, west coast and the Pacific all raining down in Manchester. With the addition of brewing sugar, this beer is a whopper and it seems to cover every dimension of IPAdom: piney and tangy, like you’re shoes scuffing up pine needles in a forest; grassy and dry, with the aromas of newly mown lawns in Spring and that spiciness, both I think, from the prodigious hopping and the yeast strain. I drank it whilst reading the paper (at 9% ABV, I should say whilst I could read the paper – it got a little blurry after a while, but that could be age) and the ever-so off white head lasted and lasted as only the real cream of Manchester could.

Cloudwater Dark LagerI was actually more impressed though with their Dark Lager from their winter range. A more modest 5.5% ABV, but actually a ‘dark’ ‘lager’, i.e. it was dark from the more roasted proportion of the malt, but it’s many stratifications of flavours, its layers attested to good lagering. This wasn’t a mild ale that’s been laid-low for a week more and masquerades as ‘lager’. This had that rounded smoothness, that matured and assured depth of character where no single element overwhelms – and – and this is important, it is drinkable, sessionable, call it what you will.  A lager in name, with the character of a refined ale. And there is something of the Lowry about these beers; seemingly simple – from the labels, to the styles – but underneath it is beguilingly complex and fulfilling. A fitting revitalisation to a part of Manchester that has been under a raincloud for many years.

Drown the bureaucrats in beer

I’m a firm believer that we all have our own peculiar ticks, our own OCD tendencies over one thing or another. Mine? Well, I have a few; some perhaps, are just rituals. I start the day with a cafetière of coffee. Instant coffee is like Watney’s Red Barrel, firmly, if you will excuse the word-play, beyond the pale. Tea? Milk in first, no question. Cream tea: jam on first, clotted cream after, no question. More strangely, I find myself particularly irked by the 1974 Local Government Act. Essentially, for bureaucratic neatness, the English Shires, or Counties were reorganized. Some counties, in effect, disappeared: Rutland, Westmorland, Cumberland, Middlesex. ‘City-states’ were created: Tyne and Wear; Greater Manchester, West Midlands. New administrative areas were cooked up too: Humberside, Merseyside, Avon, Cumbria. But the Government of the time, in their own version of administrative OCD had a revulsion against ‘exclaves’. Parts of counties that weren’t attached to the ‘main body’. Dudley, in the Black Country (actually in Worcestershire), was totally surrounded by the Staffordshire Black Country ‘proper’. The Furness peninsulas in Lancashire, were separated from the rest of the county by Morecambe Bay. Parts of Flintshire in North Wales. To the modernising eye of 1972 (when the Act was designed and the Bill passed through Parliament), the New World Order was manifested by sharply tailored bell bottoms; neatly brushed moustaches and floridly smart Prince of Wales Check suit lapels. Exclaves were distinctly untidy and, more to the point, were a real hassle for the bin lorry drivers who might have to stray across the ‘border’ to empty the rubbish. So my home county, Cheshire, had its arms removed. The left arm, the Wirral went to Merseyside, and the right arm, the spur of Longdendale and the Woodhead valley ‘given’ to Derbyshire simply because had they not done so, it would have become an ‘exclave’ due to the new mass of Greater Manchester being created and annexing the towns of Stockport, Staybridge, Mottram and Sale. And remember, exclaves are bad.

In some places there was uproar: Rutland has been restored after a long campaign; Humberside has ceased to exist. Elsewhere, quiet protest continues. The Westmorland Gazette is still published in the old county town of Kendal. In Delph and Diggle, on the edge of Saddleworth Moor, the county street signs still get vandalized and white rose flags are occasionally hoisted up the flag poles rather than red.   Frustratingly, in other areas the changes seem of little consequence to the residents, Cheshire for one. Maybe I feel it more as I’ve lived away for so long now.

Moor beerBut brewers are tuning in. Robinsons in Stockport now describe themselves as ‘Cheshire Brewers’ even though they’ve been in Greater Manchester for 41 years. And Moor beers are ‘Brewed and bottled in Somerset’ even though, strictly speaking I guess, they’re in one of four new ‘Unitary Authorities’ in that part of the world. What a load of tosh. I know, let’s play cricket for ‘The Unitary Authority of Bath and North Somerset’.  No thanks. The craft brewers, yet again, see sense and speak it.   And that’s certainly the case with Moor. Here are simple beers in concept, carefully brewed and elegantly delivered. I bought a couple of cans of So’hop and Nor’hop when I was down at Darts Farm in (the ancient county of) Devon. Not only do they look lovely and feel great in the hand (due to textured ink) but they’re terrific beers the pair. Nor’hop is a pale ale (described as a ‘golden ale’ if that helps you – not me) brewed with a generous slug of northern hemisphere hop varieties, it has an unsurprising but in this case superbly balanced floral character – a hint of elderflower as well as the more dominant citrusy notes. So’hop, on the other hand, has that distinctive Australasian character; still a well balanced and sessionable 4.1% yet so much hop aroma, character and body jam-packed in. There was a distinct tinned pineapple note – and that’s meant in a good way – as well as a sweet honey character, not overpowering, and psychosomatically it would be easy to believe there is a little drop of Manuka in there – there isn’t as far as I’m aware, but that’s perception for you.

IMG_5491What can we conclude from all of this? Politicians are happy to throw away a thousand years of our connection to the land, to our regions and counties and think we won’t care or notice. But brewers are at the vanguard of the rebellion: because nothing connects someone to their sense of place than their local ale; and the brewers at least can see sense.

Craft and consolidation

I’ve thought long and hard about a Tinted perspective on the ‘craft’ debate. Industry insiders and writers of all denominations here in the UK, in the ‘States and elsewhere have chipped in to make this a rich vein of beer column inches. Should I join in?

The answer I reached is no. And not because it doesn’t matter, but because it’s already too late. “Craft” as a word is already baseless, devalued. It’s become so over-used, so stretched that not only has it lost any useful meaning but it’s crossed the line and become unhelpful and confusing. At its bluntest it is a false amplifier, used to cast a positive halo on something questionable; at it’s most sophisticated, it adds no value to the more knowledgeable drinker who’ll work out for themselves what’s good and what’s not.

If we truly think that ‘craft beers’ are motivating for many drinkers then what do we think craft means? Or more to the point, what should it mean? Surely, you would imagine, it should involve some craft, some learned skill, human artistry, or personal flair. I like ironwork when hammered and hewn by a smith; or glass art, igneously brought to life by the likes of Jo Downs. To me that is a ‘craft’. One piece, similar on face value, is totally different from the next. Each with its own unique fingerprint.

For me ‘craft beer’ should mean this too. A while ago, I visited the Žatec Brewery in the Czech Republic. It was fairly tumbledown, apart from where investment had been made in key places: in the copper room; in fermentation, in yeast propagation and in new lines throughout. In the main, Žatec brew familiar Czech, lagered beers, not the mega hop profile of a West Coast pale ale, or the counter-intuitive thinking of a black IPA. But their beers are craft: the ingredients are picked, selected and loaded by hand. Fermentation is judged to be completed by the brewmaster not the stopwatch, maturation also. There is some slight variation in the end result, precisely part of its charm. They’re now half owned by Carlsberg, but are they any less craft?

Likewise, I recently visited Westons cider mill in Much Marcle. The vat shed there is one of the wonders of British cider making; there must be over 50 oak vats, all old, all named, unique in height and girth, strapped together with iron belts and carrying titles as varied as ‘Gloucester’, ‘Worcester’ and “Aston Villa’. But every drop of Westons cider spends time in those old oak vats. There’s just no way on earth that each batch can be 100% consistent, yet alone the fact that much of their product is ‘vintage’ so will vary enormously from one season to the next dependent on the fecundity of the harvest. Surely, this is craft? Yet within cider circles, merely because of their ‘scale’ (medium-large in cider terms, modest compared with many breweries, minuscule compared with brewing multi-nationals) many commentators claim that they can’t be described as such. They remain wholly family owned and independent.

Yet equally, I have been round a number of craft breweries who use spankingly new, gleaming stainless steel equipment and whose brewing process features automation (grist loading, hop addition for example) and is run from an iPad. Is this craft?

Our perspective has become cock-eyed. What we have to nurture is something entirely different. What we have to nurture is the human desire for variety, to be curious, to discover and try new things. A desire that in the late 60s and 70s was almost suppressed. The role of ‘innovation’ in proper beer remains as important today as it has ever been. On the one hand, we have the major international brewers putting much of their focus into mass-produced hybrid products (part lager, part spirit, often mixed not brewed) that do little for the brand other than confuse and are, in essence, a way of supplying easy drinking, relatively low cost alcohol to young adults. Conversely we have a push for discovery and rediscovery in genuine beer from national brewers to micros (and even, more patchily, with some multi-nationals) that matches this human trait and is breathing new life, new vigour back into beer. This is what we must protect, through our inventiveness and as drinkers, through out wallets.

Because have no doubt. The threat of mega-consolidation is a looming large now, dwarfing any petty questions of how to define ‘craft’. The economics of acquisition demand cost and efficiency savings. Savings mean cuts, closures and simplification. Brands will die; brew streams will be reduced, provenance will count for little. And as in turn, growth slows, so the eye of the multinational looks out into the world of burgeoning smaller brewers and eyes them lasciviously. Once they’re ‘synergized’ into their networks, the clock on them being able to carry on brewing in the way that the Founders intended, the way that built the brand and brought them success, is ticking. Tick follows tock follows tick.

So call it craft if you want to. Call it ‘interesting’. Call it ‘flavoursome’. Call it what you will. To me, it doesn’t matter. But whatever you do, support independent brewers who continue to innovate and brew with principle. A dark shadow is growing.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2015

Lost Blogs #4: A Vote for Debeerlution

Beer Tinted Spectacles was originally posted to Posterous, which closed suddenly and made life irritating for a while. Some of the blogs were lost, recently found and are republished here.

For fear of painting the world with broad Impressionist brush strokes, my regard for Scottish beer a few years back wasn’t high. It all started with my first business trip north of the border, working for the then leading brewer in Scotland and the heady excitement of sampling some of the country’s leading beers. A pint of Tennent’s is what you would expect of a 4% session pale beer to be, only with better than average marketing and an inharmonic aroma somewhere between corn on the cob and a malodorous whiff of Marigold gloves. A pint of Tennent’s Special (a 70/- ale) was an unpleasant, soapy experience, which I pledged never to repeat. There was a more malty but equally bland 80/- too, and then there were the competitor beers, like McEwan’s Export which, let’s just say, won’t be featuring in any good beer guide. Hence my first evening saw me swing from naïve excitement to disillusionment, a mood not enhanced by lodgings in a rather ‘tired’ Toby Inn on Corstorphine Road. Not that much different from England and Wales at the time then, except for the blocking tactics of a powerful duopoly stymieing choice to a greater degree than down south.

In future months and years it was interesting to learn more about the Scottish market and despite that first experience, good times were had, including being part of launching beers like Tennent’s Gold Bier – in fact, generally there was a more pro-lager, pro-American leaning (brands like Bud, Miller had higher shares north of the border and North American brewers saw Scotland as prime real estate for their brands – Coors Extra Gold, Molson Dry and even Schlitz all had a crack). There was also virtually no infrastructure for cask beer.

Hop, skip and jump twenty years on and look at the transformation. What started as a trickle of dissatisfaction with the restrictive duopoly led to interesting start ups – Traquair House, Caledonian and William Bros (with their excellent Heather Ale, Fraoch) exemplified the emergent undercurrent. Brew Dog or Innes & Gunn followed as brands not just cutting through in the Scottish brewing scene but across the UK and beyond….and there are many, many others besides (see http://thebeercast.com – for a good round up of Scottish brewing with an Edinburgh orientation).

Which leads to the Archerfield estate, just outside Edinburgh, on the beautiful southern Firth of Forth shore – the ‘Golf Coast’ as it’s colloquially known for the number of international links courses with pot bunkers that swallow small children whole. It is also the home of Knops’ Beer Company. Bob Knops was, not so long ago, an operations manager for a big brewer north of the border. Always professional, reliable, committed… but his heart was never in it. He was a trained brewer, and he wasn’t brewing. Now he is and after initially contract brewing, he now is running a gleaming new-build brewery in the Walled Garden at the Archerfield estate. Like the Lost Gardens of Heligan but with more spas and fewer ‘losts.’   There’s a broad spectrum amongst craft brewers – at one end, those inspired by past styles, or past companies – bringing them up to date, or just plain bringing them back. At the other, there are those actively shaking off the legacies of the past and trying something new.   Knops’ beers lean towards the former but with a generous smack of contemporary rule-breaking. The beers themselves have a story at their heart; in some, the plot is Scottish – like ‘Musselburgh Broke’, ‘Black Cork’ or the IPA with its roots firmly in the Edinburgh tradition of IPA. Others feature international characters like ‘Californian Common’ – a Knops’ take on west coast U.S. steam beer. The twist is the presentation – LNER or GWR railway posters from the 1920s and 1930s spring out, with bright, striking labels and engaging pack copy.

And picking up on a recent Tinted theme, Knops’ beer show the diversity that exists within ale. Of course there is an IPA – and this one is well structured with a punchy, cleansing bitterness and an appealing brightness & presentation. But the California Common is less common on these shores. Even in San Francisco, they’re not sure how the name arose, but it seems to be to do with the ‘steam’ that arose off the shallow fermentation vessels as they cooled the beer in the colder air blowing in from the Pacific. I’m not sure Bob has mounted fermenters on the greenhouse roof, but the beer has that Anchor Steam quality – something that you can’t quite put your finger on. A bitterness, yes, but also a Czech lager-like cleanness on the palate and then back to a pale ale maltiness. Black Cork is even less clear – a beer whose origins and taste are now shrouded by time. Using as much historical information as they can, Bob and his team have recreated a 6.5% ABV whopper – you sense ingredients measured in ‘good handfuls’ feature on the recipe, with a full malt backbone, but an intriguing cut of citrus that must come from generous hopping. And then finally, Musselburgh Broke, which reminds me of classic Scottish 80/- beers, executed well. There’s lots of malt in here and it shines through: it’s full and coating as you roll it around your mouth but the brewing is adept enough to ensure the hopping regime encourages drinkability.

The disillusionment from that dreek October evening in Edinburgh is finally beginning to lift.

For further info and stockists on Bob’s brews, check out the website: www.knopsbeer.co.uk

©Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2013

Lost Blogs #3: Alehouse Rocks

Beer Tinted Spectacles was originally posted to Posterous, which closed suddenly and made life irritating for a while. Some of the blogs were lost, recently found and are republished here.

Events can sometimes seem like ribbons of consciousness that weave and wend their way through time, like the pennants of rhythmic gymnasts as they lithely dance across a mat. The ribbons tend to diverge, in the quest for new ideas and the latest thing, or less occasionally, converge, and ideas that once were dominant have their time again. So it has been in the Tinted House of late: a number of related themes coming together in a series of fortunate co-incidences.

It started with Pete Brown, unaware though he will be. I first met Pete before he became a writer (or at least, before he published his first book). He was the advertising planner at an agency we had chosen to be in a pitch for a beer launch we were doing. A thoroughly down to earth bloke (Barnsley, like), both he and the whole agency did a great job and only lost the work on the toss to another agency. We next met again over a curry¹ when he was researching for his book ‘Hops & Glory’, as a colleague of mine had responsibility for the White Shield Brewery, along with the acclaimed brewer, Steve Wellington, who were going to be brewing his circumnavigational ale. Anyway, this passage was not supposed to be glorified name-dropping but rather an introduction to the fact that I have just read his latest work, ‘Shakespeare’s Local’. And in it was one of these ribbons of convergence.

Next, introducing James, now an Operations Manager at a large brewing business, who I’ve known for a decade or so. James has a talent that he is loathe to admit – a very curious & observant person… he works in the pub trade, but he doesn’t just go out and ‘do his job’. He questions things; he investigates; he makes links; he asks why. That’ll be the top class training he received from yours truly, then, **cough, cough**. James spotted the rise of Pale Ales and IPAs three, four, maybe five years before they exploded. And this isn’t just as simple as spotting that ‘craft brewers seem to be doing OK’ – it was more specific. This was about Pale Ales. The logic was simple – lagered beer, he reasoned, has been tarred by the same brush; there’s a generational effect of people wanting something different to the previous ‘generation’ (well, from people a few years’ older than them) and the simple fact that functionally, many pale ales offer taste, refreshment and sessionability. To James it was a bit of a ‘no-brainer’ – and he was right.

So when James makes an observation, normally gently put, I listen… “Have you been to The Cock, in Hackney?” was the question. And no, I hadn’t, indeed haven’t, yet. James told me about it: it’s an alehouse. Not an inn; not a gastro pub; not a chain or managed pub; an alehouse – somewhere that primarily concentrates on, and sells, ale (and drink) and isn’t distracted by the haughty charms. Like the Rake in Borough, or The Cooper’s in Burton , or the Yew Tree at Cauldon Low. And here was the point of convergence then: Pete’s book, and the alehouse. The George, that he was writing about, was definitely an Inn. Of course, it sold beer, sack (sherry) and wine…even coffee before Costa Coffee Express franchises were invented, but more than that, it housed lodgings for travellers, hop merchants, assorted hawkers and traders. In Coalition Government parlance, it was its very own Industrial Enterprise Zone. It had respectability; definitely an Inn. Alehouses were something else – retailing intoxication and therefore definitely something that you wouldn’t want to be seen in (hence the ‘Snug’, with its high frosted glass or wood partitions, to shield inquisitive eyes from your supping habits). Funny that, over time, the pressure has been unrelentingly against them – either because of the comparison with ‘gin houses’ or simply because, at different times, different Governments wanted to cut down on excessive drinking. And funny that, only now perhaps, is the trend working its way back towards them.

But to me it makes sense. When British brewers are buying coffee shop estates; when major pub retailers declare themselves, ‘Agnostic to drink because we’re restaurants’, you know that at some point, something has to change. For ‘tis written: ‘For every trend, there’s a counter trend’. For every pub, masquerading as a gastro pub but buying its vacuum sealed food parcels from Brakes’ Brothers, for every lamentable style bar or ill conceived sports bar², showing Sky Sports, there’s a pressure to resist. Sure, our homes today have comforts that our forebears couldn’t have even dreamt of – warmth, water, cold food storage, on tap entertainment (that’s TVs with quadraphonic sound, not kids singing ‘Glee’ songs into fake microphones) – sure. You’ve even got food retailers like M&S doing ‘Gastro Pub’ meals to peel the lids off and stick in the oven at home. But it’s not same.

No, the time of the alehouse is overdue. The informal, friendly bar, where you can enjoy interesting ales; where you can sit in comfort and put the world to rights; where you can hatch plots for global domination or just slag off your boss; where you don’t have to worry about whether you are going to have starters, or worse, whether any part of the wretched place is set aside for people not eating. No, the circle is coming around, and for the enlightened, behind the ‘pub closure’ and ‘Binge Britain’ nonsense headlines, it will be an exciting times for Britain’s pubs and a more exciting time for British drinkers. You heard it here first.

¹The Manzil, Burton on Trent, 01283 _________. Nice new premises, opposite the National Brewery Centre, and unlike the old place, it doesn’t have concrete cancer (or a wrecking ball coming through the wall).

² Why is it that in the US, showing sport is just accepted? It almost doesn’t matter what sort of bar it is, there will be TVs on the back bar, they will be showing ‘Monday Night Football’ and everyone just gets on with it. Here we seem to try so hard and get is so wrong.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2013

Lost Blogs #2: Life at the Sharp End

Beer Tinted Spectacles was originally posted to Posterous, which closed suddenly and made life irritating for a while. Some of the blogs were lost, recently found and are republished here.

1998, and an American road trip to remember. From San Francisco across to Napa; through the winelands to Calistoga; then up and over, via the Petrified Forest Road to Petaluma and down, down by way of Big Sur to SoCal and San Diego. It was like ‘Sideways’ only with more of the bine not the vine, and markedly less shagging of dusky skinned Harley-riding waitresses.  Oh, and all in a Chrysler Neon. It was my first experience of liberal California – and what struck me was the scale, the brown-ness (we Brits forget how lush and green our island is) and how, to me surprisingly, how unselfishly self-centred and self-sufficient it felt – kind of cut-off from the rest of the US, even though this clearly isn’t the case. It was the Californian flag that flew; it was pride in Californian ingredients and products that was displayed foremost. The brewpubs we went to were impressive and inspiring, even back then, but it was the independent shops, from food stores, to bespoke T shirt stands, from boutique coffee to thriving independent book shops – and often these things combined – that really landed what a vibrant, innovative economy California was. Viewing through my beer tinted gaze it was obvious back then that something big and beery was going on. Simple pizza restaurants had brewing out back; San Diego had some amazing breweries, bars and brews; San Fran too, even Napa at the entrance to the winelands.

And strangely, the memories came back to me in ripples of déjà vu during a stay in west Cornwall, of all places, recently. And just as in late ‘90s California, in early 2013, it’s clear that our national craft beer revolution is in full swing down at the sharp end. Perhaps – and I have no numbers to back me up here, just a gut feel – perhaps, more so than anywhere else.

When I lived out west, twenty years ago, the beer wasn’t anything to write home about. The big brewers had a presence, Bass in particular was typically served well, so too Courage Director’s and some regional-ish brews from Gibbs Mew, or Eldridge Pope, with Royal Oak being a particular favourite. The south west’s regionals by comparison didn’t put up a good fight – St Austell beers were flaccid and average… and there wasn’t much else outside of The Beer Engine at Newton St Cyres. Yet something was stirring in the world of food and drink – I remember a little cheese shop in Chagford, where I first encountered Cornish Yarg – the same cheese that just 20 years later featured on the national TV break bumpers for Morrisons during Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway! And there were artisan ice cream makers, fruit & cider presses, local bread and crisp makers beginning to crop up all the way down the peninsula.

Within the region, Cornwall always seemed to lag behind – it was almost as is the economy had become so beholden to the tourist Pound that local shopkeepers and producers felt that they should provide the big, well-known brands that the Emmits would recognise and trust. How wrong they were. In fact, the opposite is true – Cornish brands are effecting a reverse brain grab, following the memories of languid Summer days rock pooling, yachting or drinking in a Quayside pub back with them, and building their business success from there. Sharps’ Doom Bar and St Austell’s Tribute being the obvious examples – sprouting up on bars from Tonbridge Wells to Todmorden.   What I hadn’t grasped though was the fecundity of the microbrewers loins in Cornwall – there are breweries popping up all over the Duchy.

I’ve heard Skinners brands described as ‘crass’ – but to a marketeer ‘distinctive’ and ‘consistent’ describe them better and are powerful, desirable epithets. In design terms, Skinners beers do stand out – from Betty Stogs herself, the landlady of the range, to Heligan Honey or the slightly stronger (4.5%) Cornish Knocker. In truth, they do all have a Viz quality about them. Were Skinners to launch a Fat Slags beer, it wouldn’t seem out of character.  But the beers stand muster. Stops is widely available down here and is a good session beer, well balanced with a malt orientation; Heligan Honey is a lovely beer (it’s probably Stogs with some honey added) – too often honey beers are either overly sweet and cloying or underplayed. Here the honey is at the delicate end but noticeable and appealing. Knocker is Stogs on steroids; beefier, maltier, a little more hop aroma too; in the Midlands this would be the session beer and go down well it would too.

In a similar vein, I picked up a bottle of St Ives’ Brewery ‘Boilers’. Again, this is the mainstay in their range at an unsurprising 4%, yet it is a modestly striking beer, almost pulling off a difficult trick – to deliver balance and drinkability but also some character. There’s a rich malty loaf sweetness, a handful of dusty hop biting through and a herbal hoppiness on the nose. I’d push a bit more personally, but its drinkable and beautiful too – a lovely bottle label, inspired by the art scene thereabouts.

And the Pale Ale Counter Reformation continues. Rebel Brewing Company from Penryn do a cracking one – ‘Penryn Pale Ale’, which, despite its modest ABV of 4.3% has a grapefruitiness reminiscent of sauvignon blanc, with a few twangy, tangy citrus notes thrown in – lovely.  ‘Proper Job’ from the St Austell stable is another and consequently widely available in their pubs – which is where I drank one with a platter of fish and chips. I had a bottle as it had sold out on draught: the bottle is stronger (5.5%) and is a cracker: a head, thick with glistening creaminess like a dew covered spiderweb under a microscope; a McVitie’s digestive and elderflower aroma and a vividly golden colour, all bright and backlit. US hops are used – Willamette, Chinook and Cascade – and skilfully so – it’s a delight of a beer. If you want something punchier try ‘Nugget’ from Harbour Brewing, who given close on 300 miles of coastline to choose from, you think would have had the sense to brew by a harbour. But no, they’re in landlocked Bodmin (apparently the owners decided to start their brewery whilst sitting in a harbourside bar). Forgive them this though: Nugget is beautiful presented, with textured matt labels, almost hand-typed in feel demanding molestation. And the beer I drank had a real punch (Refound note: since this blog was written in 2013, Harbour are now more widely available nationally (in Sainsburys for one). They brew a couple of cracking IPAs)

Another landlocked brewery is Wooden Hand, located just off the A30 in Grampound Road an area known for smuggling hideaways. It’s difficult to judge whether Poldark would be happy with their ‘Cornish Gribben’ or not though. On the one hand, both the label and the beer really do sparkle like pirates’ gold; the flavour, all caramel toffee apple notes and a hint of melon, speaks of exotic tastes washed ashore in barrels from distance lands.   But on the other, the Gribben lighthouse featured on the label wards off ships, so no wreckers’ treasure for decorating Demelza’s boudoir this time round and my bottle had a slightly stale aroma.

A postscript: in Falmouth, there’s a run of new shops down near the hugely impressive National Maritime Museum. At the far end there’s a bottle shop that deserves a call out – not just for stocking a beer range as diverse and exciting, as intriguing and as rewarding to browse as a bookshop, but also for having a crack being a specialist licensed retailer when they are distinctly off trend. The guy at The Bottle Bank wrapped the bottles I bought in paper as if they were fine wines of five times the price. But it also brought home the scale of the revolution going on in Cornwall – there were beers from Falmouth on the south coast to Rock on the north; from mine-scarred St Austell to idyllic Scilly, from ghostly Lostwithiel to haunting Lizard. It’s a revolution all the more remarkable given that it’s happening right across food and drink and in chastening economic times. If a roadtrip round the sharp end isn’t enough to keep you away from the Costa Brava this summer, I’m not sure what can.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2013

Cigars, Keys and Panhandles

If I had to draw a brewery hot spot map of the U.S., it would glow red around Chicago; it would burn with fiery hues in a stretch from San Diego up through California, and the top left, Portland, up into Washington State would light up the rainy night sky with its incandescence. And of course, for fear of upsetting anyone Stateside, it would be peppered with spots of orange and red just like the holes surrounding my dartboard; peppered from Alaska, Hawaii and right across to the Atlantic seaboard. Except for Florida.

What Florida is known for is a state that grows citrus fruit (somewhat erroneously, it’s predominantly a cattle grazing State nowadays), welcomes Canadians for their Winter hibernation, has a world class theme park in a swamp, a rocket base and has an incredible coastline with an enceinte of beautiful Keys, home to Manatee, ‘gaters, everglades and the Lesser Spotted Key Lime Pie. But beer? No, non, ni.

Why? Why did I believe this? And why have I changed my view? Well, just a few short years ago, I combined a business trip with a holiday to the state. The craft beer range in the supermarkets were slight; internet search engines for ‘Craft beer Florida’ or ‘Florida microbrewers’ broadly drew a blank. It seemed that The Sunshine State was still in love with sunshine lagers designed for hydration and slaking thirsts, not offering character or uniqueness. On my particular travels, I found one brewpub, located in a characterful building, but on checking it a few years later, found it was closed.

Hit the fast forward button and zip through the last five years. Select Genesis’ ‘Supper’s Ready’ from Spotify* and scroll through to 12’ 27”, blow your whistle and shout, “All change!”

The first difference: the snack and drinks trucks around the Disney Parks. Yes, they’re still selling plastic beakers of Bud Light. But they’re also selling Sam Adams Summer Ale. Think what you like about Jim Koch, but that feels like a mighty beachhead to me. And then there’s the selection of craft beers in C stores and supermarkets, which I wrote about in a recent post – you can’t miss it. Craft beer is reaching maturity too – or at least it’s now a dominant trend you can’t ignore rather than something that’s emerging. People are getting excited and on board. And more particularly, Floridians are getting excited and on board.

florida cracker_FotorAnd so it came to pass then that we ended up in a friend’s swimming pool, cooling down after a day kayaking drinking cans of Cigar City Brewing’s Florida Cracker. I liked this beer very much: it was a Belgian style ale, brewed in the American way; some unmalted wheat, curacao orange peel, coriander and according to their web page, a Saison yeast. It was a blissful combination after a hot day; characterful yet refreshing; reasonable pokey in alcohol (5.5%ABV) yet hopelessly drinkable. The brewery was in nearby Tampa and from the range that I saw, and the fact that the locals I spoke to knew of it, bodes well.

Just to the south of Tampa is circus country; Sarasota is where The Ringling Brothers circus had their base, provenance which lends its inspiration to Big Top Brewing Company and many of their brands. I got some Circus City IPA – a feisty, hop-forward beer. And again, in cans – this time packaged on a mobile canning line; the can being stickered (nicely done) rather than printed – an additional help to the would-be brewer. There are more: I liked the look of Fat Point in Fort Myers too but couldn’t make it down there; further south there’s a brewery on the beach in Naples. In fact, poking the wasps’ nest found me stumbling upon the site of the Florida Brewer’s Guild. Take a look. Little breweries popping up everywhere. Soon the map of Florida will be painted red.

*Other music providers are available. Oh, and it’s from ‘Foxtrot’, 1973.

© David Preston, http://www.beertintedspectacles.com, June 2015