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

Never meet your hero

There’s all sorts of cod advice on the internet about why you shouldn’t meet your heroes. A motif of this revolves around the fact that your hero isn’t in fact some 2 x 6-packed Hercules-cum-Adonis with the intellect of Stephen Hawking and simply oozing pheromone-rich, indescribably alluring charisma out of every unblemished pore. In fact, they are likely to be quite human. One eye slightly higher than the other, one ear slightly lower than the other, a troublesome, unspoken wart, hairy nostrils and perhaps a small holiday tattoo to unrequited love on the nape of the neck, just behind their ear.

Generally, I attempt to avoid hero-worship if I can help it and possessed of sufficient rationality, this doesn’t tend to be a problem. Where I do have some hero-magnetism is with underdogs: Damon Hill was one, but he also had a very stylish racing helmet, which counted double. Irreverence and authenticity helps too: my daughters and I met Bradley Wiggins in a queue at Manchester Airport once; he was perfectly down to earth and back then, not as famous as he is now (this being a few months before winning the Tour de France and Olympic Gold); but, although we have an ‘in’ joke when we see him on TV, we also recognise he’s just a family guy who is particularly good at his job and also particularly apt at speaking his mind. But heroes? Real heroes – I could count them on the fingers of one hand with a digit to spare.

Plucky underdogs, irreverent and authentic. Well, there’s a better definition of craft beer than I’ve seen hithero. And musing on this, I realised that I do have more heroes than I admit to myself. They’re just not human; they’re of the malty and hoppy variety. Ultimately, there is a whole generation of brewers who, in my lifetime, have saved beer from a uniformly bland future. Many of them are U.S. stories, and as such, brands that are hard to find on our shores. I found two on my recent trip Stateside: beers which, to a craft beer enthusiast, and possibly those living near a good retailer (probably in London) will be familiar: Dogfish Head 60 Minute and 90 Minute IPA.

The story of the company’s genesis is written up in a part-autobiographical / part-business text by its founder, Sam Calgione, an affable and slightly languid New Englander. He’s also familiar to many more (albeit also on the subject of beer) through the company being featured on Brew Masters on Discovery Channel (2010). Sam, like many of company founders like to tell the tale of his distinctive ales as widely as he can and it’s worth tuning into some of his TEDx lectures, particularly on those that tell of the story of some of his beers and how they came about.  At the core of Dogfish Head beers is a central thought: ‘off-centric ales for off-centric people’.   There, in the credo of the brewery, is a manifesto that says: ‘we will play round the edges’. It says, ‘You don’t consider yourself mainstream; you’re an individual. So are we’. And that becomes the product brief: Dogfish Head beers must be different – different, not just from Big Beer, but different too from many other craft brewers. Hence: Midas Touch Golden Elixir, based on a recipe dating back before, well, before Last of The Summer Wine for sure (actually it purports to be inspired from a recipe from the 8th century BC and contains Yellow Muscat Grapes – Compo would be proud). Or Pangaea, which is brewed with an ingredient from each continent, including some Antarctic water. Or Noble Rot, a Saison, brewed with malt and grapes, the grapes being infected with botrytis for that Chateau d’Yquiem touch.

Now, if you’re a Big Beer player, you must compete in pale lager: Carling; Carlsberg, Heineken, Moretti, Jupiler, Asahi, Tsingtao, Bintang, Castlemaine, Molson, Corona, Quilmes. Similar build, similar personality, different clothes. If you’re a craft brewer, then you need to compete in IPA – well, pale and India Pale certainly. This was the challenge faced by Sam Calagione and the Dogfish Head team in the early 2000s. They’d crunched the numbers. They were pondering how to ensure the brewery remained full, and full with beers true to them. They needed an IPA. But how to do IPA the Dogfish way, the off-centred way?

Heinz WolffThe answer ultimately, was to deploy an elaborate, Great Egg Race contraption to make small additions of hops every minute for the length of the boil: for 60 minutes, 90 minutes, 120 minutes; in my head I have my old chemistry classes in mind; vertical pipettes mounted above a steaming copper; Professor Heinz Wolff gently adding ze hops all ze time. Vonderfol! Don’t spoil it for me.

But anyway, there they were, two of them at least, on the shelf in Publix in uptown Sarasota. Six packs and singles of 60 and 90 Minute IPA. I’ll be honest, time actually did slow; I handled them cautiously, reverently, gently. I think I might have stroked one, and purred, ever so quietly. And then this strange thing happened: I got them back to the condo, chilled them down, but I couldn’t open them. I mean, what if, just supposing, it turns out to be, well, just a quite ordinary, no doubt tasty, but still, quite ordinary IPA. What if, all the hyperbole was just that? Mere hot air, evaporating away like the steam from a copper boil?

IMG_3553A few days went by and I drank down the stocks of my other beers: some damn fine ones as it turned out. The issue had to be confronted: I thought slow and took out the Dogfish Head bottles. I polished a particularly bulbous ‘70s wine glass, not ideal, but it would have to do. I prepared the seat and low table on the balcony overlooking the sea. I got my book. And I cracked open the crown. The 60 minuter first. As you’d expect from a beer so doped on humolone, the head was effusive, abundant. It was tight too and Honiton lace, you know, the sort that old doilies were made from, was left down the inside of the glass as I drank. The colour was mid gold; but how to describe the aroma? Volatile, fresh, profuse, intense: it raced out of the bottle-neck even before pouring. It was spicy and resinous and quite three dimensional – the dimensions of taste that is. The first taste was zippy and fresh; here now a grassy hoppiness. Across the mid palate was the spiciness and the lingering finish was bitter, quenching, not astringent but actually smooth and rounded. Maybe this is my palate, but I’ve found the same phenomena with other highly hopped beers (Stone Ruination for one): an expectation of being undrinkable (unfinishable is more accurate perhaps) but the opposite is true – providing there is a strong malt backbone, the beers are highly drinkable and surprisingly balanced. Yet for all that, at 60 IBU and 6%, it’s still a half brick in a hop pillow.

IMG_3580The 90 Minute IPA has a pleasing mathematical symmetry too: a 90 Minute hop addition, 9% ABV, 90 IBU. The longer boil also brings deeper colour: here a deep copper brown (quite Best Bitter to be honest), with a just off-white head that again was full and billowing. To drink, the carbonation was surprisingly gentle, natural and sustained. A superbly balanced strong beer that belies its strength, or perhaps, re-writes our perception of what strong beer should be. Whilst 9% Carlsberg Special Brew is cloying and shakes you aggressively by the throat, here there is a profound maltiness, and a pine resin follow through. My note at the time read: “Dangerously drinkable. I understand it’s reputation. Boof!” Clearly, the 9% was already kicking in.

Yet there was a slightly bitter edge as a Brit. Reflecting, I found myself thinking: where are our pale ales of this inventiveness, this majesty? Why isn’t a beer like this being pioneered in Burton, or London. Oh sure, there are some great beers coming through. But a hero? A beer that makes you go, ‘Boof!’? Not just yet. Not just yet.

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

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