Blessed are the cheesemakers

Just like the Black Country has pork scratching and Lancashire has Black Pudding some places are defined by certain foods – in a curious circularity, as originally the place had defined the food.  Pasties – Cornwall;  Barm Cakes – Manchester;  Stotties – the great North; Eel Pie – Larndon.  And there was my idle mind granting these British foods a divine uniqueness – quaint old Blighty, only here do we have these regional peculiarities.  Nonsense of course; a point driven home to me when an entrepreneurial ex colleague sent me some beers that his company is bringing in from the U.S…  Wisconsin in fact.

Ah, Wisconsin.  As a beer lover a source of perpetual confusion.  Isn’t it the beer capital of the US (by volume brewed)?  In the great city of Milwaukee?  No, hang on, that’s Minneapolis, and that’s Minnesota.  Nonetheless, Wisconsin is a food state.  In fact, for many US citizens it’s the food state, certainly in terms of capacity produced.   So I engaged in some primary research, and asked my friend Dan now resident back in the US to give me his top of mind associations when I say ‘Wisconsin’.   Of 26 associations he came up with 3 of the first 5 were food related: ‘Curds’, ‘Black and White cows’ and ‘Bratwurst’.  And there, down at number 7 was ‘beer’.  Which about sums it up: the holy trinity of food stuffs; a perfect blend which would sustain you, and entertain you, through a nuclear war, assuming the electricity doesn’t fail and the fridge doesn’t pack in.

It turns out that first and foremost, Wisconsin is a dairy state – so much for the degree in geography.  Milwaukee vs Minneapolis – an easy mistake I reckon.  But beer more than features –and not that long ago it featured big time in the economic make up of this state.  Because for a while, a beer that came out of Wisconsin was one of the US’s biggest beer brands* – Schlitz.  But that’s not what Mark’s importing, oh no.  No, travel north from Milwaukee to Green Bay, and then head due west to the small city of Stevens Point – and there you’ll find the Point Brewery (http://www.pointbeer.co.uk/).    A city, which, if the labels are in any way accurate, is where the Coneheads settled after the fame and success of the 1993 movie (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0106598/ …in case you think I’m making this up too).

Mark isn’t doing things by halves.  Why import one beer, when you can import five?  And that was the rather pleasing late Christmas present that arrived on my doorstep just after the New Year.  It’s an interesting range: ‘standards’, if you will – an IPA, a Pale Ale and a Belgian White, and two more unusual ones – an Amber Lager, and a Black Ale.  The quality of the beers is high – of course it is, the quality of US craft beers is so high that the poor performers get rooted out, but some stand out more than others.   Possibly the most disappointing – versus expectation – were the Amber Lager and the Belgian White.  The former because it is the most lacking – pleasant enough, more challenging undoubtedly than the lagers we typically drink here, but just not in the same ball park as the others in the range.  The Belgian White, a good, well balanced white beer, but lacking in uumph – perhaps, too delicate, a little too refined compared with its peers.

The Black Ale though is worth seeking out.  A great structure and a clean, sail-white head.  Whilst you can tell there’s roasted malts in there, the drinkability is retained.  All too often in Black beers of all denominations, just a touch too most roast can tip the balanced into ‘charred’. Not here. All I would want is a more complex, sustained after taste – but I’m being picky.

The IPA, a deep burnished bronze has an alluring, almost Seville Orange haze to it near the edge of the glass, and a clean, strong head. Clearly a relative of the Pale Ale, and to be sure, just like Jamie is eclipsed by Andy Murray, so too here.  This Pale Ale is a cracker. To my eye, the right colour, a back lit copper, like a buffed up penny and a come-hither hop aroma, that calls you as soon as the cap is twisted off and continues through the pour.  You can tell it’s Cascade hops a mile off, but unlike some US Pale Ales, not overplayed here – aroma, structure and a lingering aftertaste which beckons you for a second.  Which, alas, I didn’t have.

Mark and his team at American Craft Beer Co have just started out so the beers are only in limited stockists at the moment.  If you’re in Birmingham, check out the Post Office Vaults, they’re on sale there and will hopefully be more widely available soon – watch this space.

Which of course leads me to the food recommendation – what do I pair that Pale Ale with?  A spicy meal perhaps – a jalfrezi or Thai Green Curry?  Maybe some great English sausages – a richly herbed Cumberland?  Do you know what, I think I’ll just go for some cheese – semi hard, West Country Cheddar.  Not sure why.

IMG_2495

*I sold Schlitz in the UK in the early ‘90s.  I’m sure I recollect part of the selling story was that it was once the largest brewer in the World, but I can’t say for certain.

©Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2013

Leftovers

As sure as Autumn passing to Winter; as sure as repeats of TheTwo Ronnies or Morecambe and Wise, as sure in fact as Eggnogs is Eggnogs, Christmas is here again, and with it the routines of our Festive Period.  Anticipation; excitement (and not just for the children); lie-ins (well, a bit); the decorations gradually getting more irritating by the day; so many presents that they bring on a spurt of generosity of spirit that has you giving to the Charity appeals on the TV; adverts for DFS, holiday cottage brochures landing on your door mat, copious amounts of food, and food that’s far too rich at that, and with it, like a sinister shadow of gluttony, leftovers.

Cooking in the Tinted household is never easy.  A lifelong carnivore partnered to a virtually lifelong vegetarian; an elder child with a penchant to nibble on the cooked carcass of dead flesh once carved, whilst the other revolted by it.  This means more leftovers, as multiple meals must be cooked. Then there’s the visitors, before and after the Day itself, and often long after the ‘safe leftover period’ (SLP), that critical timeframe after which you know in your Heart that you shouldn’t really give your them the remains of the Ham or the salmon or the Roasties, and you’re not convinced that cold white sauce goes that well with mini sausage rolls anyway.

This year, I decided to deal with leftovers of a different kind.  The strays; the bottles that, for whatever reason, got away, escaped consumption. For some, this is an unknown phenomenon. Alas, this is not the case for me.  Call it fashion, call it tastes, sometimes I just get locked into a beer or a beer style and struggle to pull myself away; other times, it’s the taste that has left them on the shelf.  And occasionally – rarely – there is the forgotten stash as was the case with this year’s first Leftover, from Sharps in Cornwall.  Chalky’s Bite, a beer whose task it was as it says on the bottle blurb, ‘to create an English beer with the character, individuality and quality to stand along the Belgian greats’.  This prompts a number of questions, firstly, if it’s designed to be that good, why the heck is there any left, and secondly, woah! Taking on a beer is OK, but taking on all of Belgium’s finest is a bold – and erroneous – claim, surely?  I mean, where do you start?  Are we talking Lambics; brown ales, sour red ales, Trappist…?  Goal posts are useful, but not necessarily when they are larger than the pitch and moving. But the first question – ah, yes, a hidden stash?  I’m lucky enough to have a cellar in my house (it was, to use the marketing parlance) the ‘tiebreaker’ when deciding to buy a house that was at the time, ‘delapidated’ (thanks Dad, for that confidence boosting assessment).  Talk about getting your priorities wrong – whilstthere was no boundary in place between our house and the next door neighbour, whilst the old coach house at the back was structurally questionable, and whilst the drive flooded with even the merest drizzle, the previous occupants decided instead to paint every room à la Changing Rooms.  This, rather bizarrely, included painting the cellar in bold Adobe shades, inspired by the rustic hues of the native pueblo Indians of America’s Old West. In Staffordshire. The other rooms were far worse, but they were dealt with rapidly. The cellar to this day on the other hand, transports me to the Mesas and Buttes of Arizona.  But it’s damn fine for storing beer, wine, and books.  An even temperature all year round. It is, in short, the perfect Man Cave.

And it was here, tucked away between the rather empty looking wine rack, an old toaster and the deep freeze, that there lurked a partly broached case of Chalky’s Bite.  It was dated November 2012, but at 6.8% and bottle conditioned, that meant nothing. Particularly as the beer has apparently been matured for 3 months, so another 8 weeks won’t harm. I released the case from its jail and prepared the bottles for potation.  The first thing that struck me for a beer brewed with Wild Cornish Fennel was… well, the lack of fennel.  The other Sharp’s / Rick Stein beer – Chalky’s Bark – has ginger in it (Wild Cornish Ginger??) and whilst it isn’t strong it’s clearly there.  In this beer, the fennel seems to be more in the aroma – which frankly, is still slight – and also the texture, the mouthfeel.  There’s definitely a smooth, enveloping richness which the fennel seems to contribute to.  It’s also deceptively drinkable – a surprising light colour, I’d say a bright honey mustard would be about there, a decent crème fraiche coloured head and a taste that doesn’t drink it’s 6.8%. Perhaps a touch of extra aging has assisted in this regard.  Certainly, I’ll be doing a spring clean of the cellar to find more.

There was another Molson Coors beer, in fact two of the same from their Worthington’s Brewery on the National Museum site, slumbering down there as well – Red Shield. One was new carrying the new (‘old’) design which is pleasingly retro, and the other, that inspired by the old ‘copy heavy’ White Shield design. So again, probably a year between them and it would be interesting to compare the two.  Alas, both were disappointing.  For a beer with a moderate and moreish alcohol content, and a good dose of Bramling Cross hop, it promises much.   But the palate (in bottle form, I haven’t had draught for a while) is dominated by the Worthington’s yeast, with a tinny metallicness which unhinges its drinkability.  Bramling Cross should give properties of many of the enticing US hops, but sadly they are not generously given here.

Hoegaarden Grand Cru was next; there were only two, mislaid as I had laid them down in a wine rack. I’m not sure why I did this at the time – no corks to keep moist here, but equally no adverse effect either.  It’s a funny one Grand Cru; I certainly expect more of it, perhaps desiring greater difference with Hoegaarden itself, yet I always feel it’s an EPO fuelled version.  Dresses the same; looks the same in the glass and is clearly a very similar beer….just, performs better.  In fact, perhaps it’s more like Team Sky’s performance methodology, Grand Cru shows marginal gains across the piece – a thicker, creamier head with greater longevity, a denser body yet still with a that, almost orange shimmering, hue. And more cloves, more curacao orange character, more bananary esters.  Actually, no. It’s been doping. It’s the Lance Armstrong of beers – impressive, award winning, yet somehow with the suspicion lurking that something behind the scenes isn’t quite right.  Mind you, I had that second.

A couple of cans of out of date Bass and unbelievably John Smith’s, which didn’t make the cut and are now on slug prevention duty in the back garden.  Yet the exercise was enough to have me thinking ahead…planning next Christmas and in particular, the leftovers.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles, December 2012

Staffordshire Mountain Time

Jens and I had just arrived in from a long haul schlep from Heathrow to Denver – seven hours time difference between Greenwich and my favourite time zone of all – ‘Mountain Time’.  Wouldn’t that be great? If all mountains shared the same time zone? From the Himalaya to the Andes, from the Urals to the Lakeland Fells, whenever you climb above 1500m you equalise with Denver, Colorado.  That way, we could drive up to the Lakes or the Highlands and drink beer simultaneously with the Great American Beer Festival, although perhaps in the dark…  On this occasion, sticking with current conventions, we had flown a quarter of the way around the world for this particular bout of jet lag, and we weren’t going to waste it on sleep.  The tactic of course: immediately assimilate yourself by going to a bar.

We headed for Blake Street. Just one block from Coors Field (with the most excellent, but sadly closed, Sandlot Bar / Brewery) we knew there were a couple of excellent bars.  Falling Rock Tap House earned the honours of slaking mutual first pint syndrome – I had a Fat Tire from New Belgium – an oldie but goodie which I perversely enjoy for its barnyard (read: cow muck) aroma, Jens something much darker (What? Than cow muck?) and inevitably featuring ancient grains or triple truck loads of hops, or something. I think Nelson Sauvin featured but my beer notebook wasn’t working at the time.   More beers and a light pre-order of kickers featuring, from memory, a magical set of buffalo wings and enough ‘nar-chos’ to fatten up this week’s Christmas Turkey (Note: not ‘Natch-os’ as I requested, creating much confusion.  Fortunately I didn’t request the ‘Toe-mar-to Solsa’ so we managed to navigate that tricky spot.  And heaven forbid if they are ever served with ‘Tune-a’ in the footure).  Anyhoo, the conversation became more animated and a heated debate opened up regarding the Cascade hop and its train – the other ‘C’ hops).  In the Blue Corner – the hop heads, who appreciated when the hops were treated delicately but generally, were seeking vast quantity. In the Biney Green corner, were the Purists, appreciative of the energy and momentum created by U.S. craft brewers but a little scathing of the indelicacy of hop quantity that many craft beers boasted. ’They all taste the same – it’s just too much hop, hop, hop’ was the refrain.  I was a broadly neutral voice in the debate between brewers, but at the time holding a candle to the Purists’ view.  Too many glasses of beer had been unfinishable; too many face-puckeringly astringent as opposed to lime-suckingly sharp and refreshing.

Yet those who have visited these pages before will know that I appreciate American inventiveness, particularly in the sphere of Pale Ales and IPAs fed to me on the lean diet that we enjoy on these shores. Of Goose Island and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, enough has been said (quite justifiably) so I shall say no more today. But what a find the other day – one of those pleasant, out-of-the-blue surprises, that lifts your heart. And with it a touch of annoyance too – in the form of more beers in Sainsbury’s ‘Taste the Difference’ range. A Pale Ale (imaginatively entitled ‘American Pale Ale’) and also ‘Tap Room Brewing Company IPA’.    It seems from the blogosphere that I was not alone in being surprised by these beers’ appearance and it was only serendipity that allowed me to spot them in store. In the midst of the big Christmas shop, with the trolley losing its agility under the weight of festive groceries, I had carefully slotted some Goose Island and Brooklyn Lager into crafty niches between the bottles of Belvoir Presses (get me!) and the once-a-year parsnips when I decided to pause awhile over the UK range (actually to see if a friend’s beer had been listed yet). My eye was drawn to two slim 330ml bottles amongst the sea of 500ml pseudo-pints.  Naturally, despite the mechanically challenged trolley, I managed to engineer space for two bottles of each – the Pale Ale described as having ‘citrus aromas and malty flavours’ (no shit!) and an ABV of 5.3%; the IPA a more bullish yet still drinkable 6.3% and billed as ‘bold with spicy hop notes’.  Come on down!

IMG_2454 IMG_2455Well, my! What a find.  The Pale Ale in particular is a little haughty starlet.  Enticing you from the moment you lever (TWIST!!) off the crown.  Citrus notes – sure, but also a spiciness, which I assume comes from the hops, and a body, befitting a mid 5s beer that is both delectably drinkable yet supported with chiselled broad-shoulders. The mash contains wheat as well as barley and the roundedness comes through in the mouthfeel.  And my sort of beer – a come-hither-young-man aroma, multi-dimensionsal on the first sip and a lingering after taste that rolls around the taste buds gently tinkling a fading percussive melody on your tonsils with its Xylophone beaters, until the next sip is called for and your hand unfailingly answers.  The IPA in comparison was a bit of a let down – a good beer, but not a great one.  For a bold strength it flattered to deceive a little, drinking under its weight and creating a stewards’ enquiry from Barry McGuigan’s corner.  But not a bad beer, with a bright orange colour and a dense, compact head that laced beautifully. Alas, no timpani on the tonsils this time round.

And it revived memories of the old debate in that Denver bar.  U.S. craft beers – all the same? All hops and no knickers?  Well not on the evidence here – the tantalising tastes enjoyed in Staffordshire of all places have me pining to go back Stateside to update the argument.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles, December 2012

Extra mature.

There was a case of it dustily resting behind a shabby curtain in a rented house. Not an old suitcase but a proper case of old beer; thick, corrugated card on the inside with dividers between the bottles and brightly decorated, old-school style decoration on the outside. On opening, red and silver crowns looked up at us like baby birds expectantly waiting for the next worm from their mother.  This was a beer I hadn’t heard of at the time and was long out of date: Worthington’s White Shield.  It was the early ‘90s, but the beer had gone out of date in the late ‘80s.  Back then, my brother worked in beer distribution and when they closed an old warehouse in Wolverhampton or Grimsby or some such place, a few pallets of mysterious, out of date products had been found – in the days before SAP operating systems this sort of thing could actually happen.  It seems that they were products returned by customers because they had damaged labels, but as far as my brother could see, only one bottle in the 24 had a scuff.  So he happily handed over a couple of blue notes and carefully sat two cases of the beer in his boot.  From there, the last leg to his ‘cellar’ behind the dusty curtain could be transacted.

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Not quite the label on the mystery bottles, but not far off.

My brother you see, was in the know.  Not only did he know about White Shield at the time, a beer often referred to in hushed reverential tones, but he also knew that on big beers, proper beers, a sell by date was misinformation.  That’s why he had tiny nips of Thomas Hardy’s Ale uncomfortably lying at funny angles in his wine rack – decorated with thick gold foil and wire and string wraps over their crowns.

White Shield has travelled, in many senses of the word.  Born out of one of the Worthington brewery’s original India Pale Ales, it fell out of favour after Bass and Worthington merged in the 1920s as gradually focus fell onto the red triangle.  But for years, decades in fact, the beers were kept separate, Bass becoming predominantly a draught beer (red triangle on draught, blue in bottles) whilst Worthington’s India Pale Ale got renamed ‘White Shield’ and stayed in bottles. It also retained its secondary bottle conditioning – the art of adding a small glug of yeast before sealing the bottle. This seemingly inconsequential but tricky act is the key to bottle aging.  White Shield was also travelled during its many unloved years, being brewed by King & Barnes and Shepherd Neame if I recall correctly. Today it is brewed back in Burton at the National Brewery Centre and bottled by Fuller’s (who have the kit to add yeast for bottle conditioning).

Sadly I don’t remember the taste of the bottles found behind the curtain. I do know that they were 7 years past their drink by date, that the colour had a canal murkiness but the beer got drunk.  And it did leave a mark, as to this day, I age White Shield…and just last week I broached a case of 2007 ‘vintage’.  White Shield tasting notes normally conjure up cake. Not Victoria Sponge with cream and strawberry jam but deep, dark fruit cake, all raisiney & packed full of currants, glace cherries and shavings of almonds.  I always consider it a malt led beer with just an edge of oranges or citrus fruits. When young, it also has a distinct sharp, metallic character, is a bright red brown and tastes strongly alcoholic despite its modest strength (5.6% ABV). So it’s a cracker, no doubt.

Yet it’s a cracker that gets better with age.  The beer I drank last week would have been brewed in January 2005, its use by was July 2007, so that means it had over 5 years of additional bottle aging, 6½ in all.  And it drank much softer, with just a slight vinous character like Madeira or sherry. Its colour had darkened substantially, conker-brown now like Tudor furniture. Hop character was virtually non-existent but the malt complexity was as pronounced as ever – with none of the harsh metallic edges. Still a cracker, but a cracker of a different kind.  We’ll see how it stands up to another few years.  The only rub is the yeast, or lack of it. When my brother and I drank the beer from behind the curtain it had a centimetre of yeast at the bottom.  You had to pour with a steady hand which given the murkiness, we failed to do well enough.  But the 2007 vintage has a mere dusting across the bottom of the bottle – less yeast, less secondary fermentation, less potential to develop character.

IMG_2262Proof of the fruit pudding is in the drinking

Saying all that, a famous beer brand stoutly advertised for many years that ‘Good things come to those who wait’. Right message. Wrong brand.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles, October 2012

The brown signs to Burton-upon-Trent

There must have been a slightly incredulous look on my face when a colleague at work, who is part owner of a small brewery in the south east, suggested to me that Windsor, and not Burton on Trent was one of the original homes of UK brewing.  In fact, there seems to be the root of a hypothesis here and in truth, Windsor, like many towns (and perhaps more than most) did have many breweries – some burgher breweries, started by influential locals to ‘control’ the trade for some purpose, most, ‘alehouses’, more akin to modern-day brewpubs.  The claim though is ultimately hollow: you can argue all you like that is was Fry’s chocolate of Birmingham that was the first real brand of chocolate, but it was the Cadbury Family who unequivocally made the city famous for the product and their company with it.

I will not repeat the story of Burton in any great detail: the discovery of the ‘miracle’ water by Saint Modwen; the growing fame of ‘Burton Ale’ with the growth of the canal system & the Baltic trade and latterly, ultimate fame for the town and many of its companies with the annexation of India Pale Ale by the likes of Allsopp’s and Bass and the trade with India.  Industrialisation & imperialism catapulted Burton into a famous brewing town and with it a secure place in history – along with Plzen, Milwaukee and Munich.  It is one of the great hearths of worldwide brewing. Or was.

This week, after their purchase of StarBev, a conglomerate of eastern European businesses stretching from the Czech Republic through Romania, Molson Coors announced that it is centralising its European operation into one, based out of Prague. Geographically it all makes sense, yet you can’t help but feel that the legacy of brewing passed down to the current management team has yet again been forgotten – terminally so in this case. Of course, the company is at pains to point out that Burton will remain the UK headquarters, and they are investing a pretty significant amount into the brewery in the town at the moment bringing as much as they can onto one site in the town.  But they know it; we know it.  The impact of this announcement will be profound: Burton or UK based support roles will move; UK brewing will be consolidated; marketing will centralise to Prague as much as is possible; local sales teams will need to cow-tow to central diktats – Burton for Molson Coors will become, just as Edinburgh or Manchester are for Heineken, or Plzen is for SAB Miller, a town where they happen to have a beer factory.  It is a clear case of brewing Darwinianism: the commercially fittest adapt and survive.

They join the list of brewers who started, or relocated to the town for its raw materials and skills:

Brewer Date of Closure / Acquisition
Benjamin Printon 1729
James Musgrave & Sons 1803
Samuel & William Sketchley 1790
Thomas Dickens 1800
Benjamin Wilson 1807
Joseph Clay 1813
William Worthington 1927
William Bass 2000
John Walker-Wilson 1790
Hill & Sherratts 1820
John Greaves 1815
Samuel Allsopp 1913
Thomas Salt 1927
Lewis Meakin 1822
John Marston 1898
John Allen Bindley 1914
Burton Brewery Company 1915
Ind Coope 1913 (merger with Allsopp)
Charrington 1926
Truman, Hanbury, Buxton & Co 1971
Mann, Crossman & Paulin 1958
Peter Walker 1923
Sydney Evershed 1909 (merger)
John Thompson 1898 (merger)
J Nunneley & Co Mid 1900s
John Bell & Co 1901
Henry Boddington & Co 1892
James Eadie 1933
Thomas Sykes 1898
William Everard 1985
Marston, Thompson & Evershed 1999
Molson Coors Brewing Company 2012

Note there were other companies but their dates of demise are less clear.

Yet in all of this, there are signs of hope.  The raw materials, skills and passion to brew great beer in the town are still there.  Burton Bridge is testament to it; and other brewers, although tiny, do exist – Tower Brewery and Old Cottage are small acorns.  Great beers are still brewed – Molson Coors are brewing some great Worthington beers, including White Shield, at the National Brewery Centre, and Marston’s are brewing Bass as well as Pedigree at the Albion Brewery.  But you know, something happens when the brewery leaves the town.  The Marston’s brewery is no longer the humming centre of energy it once was; Bass has declined six-fold since the Government intervention into the acquisition of the old Bass Breweries by InBev – who immediately lost focus, put it in keg and generally gave it a proper back-alley beating.  Let’s hope it survives (and pray someone buys the brand off them).

It will be a sad day indeed when the only remnants of brewing in Burton are the brown tourist signs directing you to the National Brewery Museum, shopping centres with statues of Coopers of yesteryear (ironically, the one in the main shopping centre has a time capsule built into its base – how prophetic) and walking trails prompting you to see the towns former brewing glories.  I’m hopeful the new management of Molson Coors can turn their business around whilst having just the occasional glance in the rear view mirror to remind themselves of the great brewing legacy they inherited and for which they should feel a responsibility to pass on to future generations.

Museum

The National Brewery Centre: what will the attractions of tomorrow be?

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles, October 2012

The Session #64: The Pale Ale Counter-Reformation

the session beer blogging friday

In many respects, CAMRA came into existence to save pale ale. Yes, I know it should be a broad church the Campaign For Real Ale, but the reality it was pale ale that was being decimated by the rockets of kegged beer with all the day to day, ‘operational’ benefits they offered. Worthington ‘E’, Watney’s Red Barrel, Whitbread’s Tankard, Ind Coope’s Double Diamond were most definitely not ‘head and body above the rest’ (to paraphrase). Rather, for drinkers who loved and appreciated the subtle nuances of cask beer, these insulted through their artificial, aggressive fizziness and tasteless or unbalanced flavours.  In a way, they did damage on two fronts: they hurt cask, and they hurt the reputation of great beers that happen to be sold in ‘kegs’ for future generations.   My first surreptitious underage swig of beer was from a party 7 of Worthington’s at a party my Mum and Dad were having. I should have been in my room, but I cagily snuck downstairs for an illicit snifter of some sort. The beer was close to hand and I tapped some into a plastic camping cup.

Oh my dear God. It was the most unpalatably rank, wretched, drain-stinkingly awful experience. It didn’t help that I hadn’t yet been on a rite of passage with beer at that point in my life, but goodness me. This stuff had an acrid stink like beer changing from just about drinkable to off, and a taste that was aggressively sharp with carbonation and mildly painful.

There were two upsides though. Firstly it was bad enough to put me off tobacco and other illicit substances.  Secondly, it was so truly awful that I knew that there must be better stuff out there. Saying that, I left it a fair few years to find out more, and I have never trusted my Dad’s taste in alcohol since.    But no wonder CAMRA had a powerful cause. Here was our beer, a style of beer that had dominated our landscape for almost 300 years being right-royally buggered by the same people charged with doing the right thing for it…to tend it, nurture it, pass it on in better shape to their successors. Some hope.

So the movement grew. Not just the CAMRA movement, although undoubtedly that catalysed the change. Time became a powerful ally too. For with time, so the wash of characterless premium lagers revealed the hidden skeleton in the cupboard. Through the ‘80s and especially into the late ‘90s, drinkers began to see that ‘international lagers’ – at first so sexy and alluring – were in truth separated only by their clothes. An interesting label. An unusual font. A pertly shaped glass.

But where, oh where was the flavour?   And why, oh why, must I consume a 5% + ABV lager to get a mere skittering of taste?

And so the Pale Ale Counter Reformation began. And it began on many fronts.  Drinkers in the UK standing on the burning platform, with CAMRA helping them see what we were losing.  With the home brewers-cum-craft brewers in the U.S. challenging their beer norms and looking for interesting styles – sending ripples across the world.  This coincidental wave of drinkers unaccustomed, perhaps unaware, of this family of beers concentrated the flowing tide as it entered the mouth of the bay. To today, where it feels like Pale Ale is truly fighting back; is challenging the hegemony of international ‘lager’.

What a family of beers it is! From the unusual or less common Bière de Gardes, Blondes or Strong Ales, to the widespread, more accessible Bitters, American Pales or Burton Pale Ales.  Many of the bottles in the ale section of UK supermarkets today are pale ales; in the US no self-respecting bar would do without at least one great, often local (ish) Pale Ale on draft.  And pales are springing up all over now and gaining momentum.  In a bar the other night, I drank a Cooper’s (from Adelaide); a Sierra Nevada (from Chico, California), followed by a bottle of Llangollen Bitter (from North Wales) later that evening.

But let’s start with Burton Pale Ale. Not the first, but at their best, the style-definers.  Yes, you may beg to differ; and of course, the beauty of taste is how idiosyncratic and individual it is, but sorry, over this there can be no doubt. Burton didn’t earn its fame through fluke. It earned its fame because at their best, these Pale Ales were world class. At their best, they were beguiling, moreish, complex, rewarding, shocking and supremely drinkable. A combination that was….is…..awesome.

But there’s the rub. Where today are the pale ales that made Burton famous? In Pedigree, perhaps… but for me, still too unreliable when kept in the wrong hands and all too often these are the hands of Marstons publicans. And I do agree with my brother, who thinks it’s a bit ‘barnyardy’, a bit rustic, compared in his mind with the Daddy. With Bass.

But alas, alas. This, of all Pale Ales, a signature beer of its style, a world class beer, superbly balanced, flavoursome and nuanced, has been mugged by the shadowy yakusa of international brewer consolidation and left, breathing, but barely audibly, in a brewing back alley.  Once, not that many years ago, UK brewing’s biggest export, now a shadow of that, forced to become Disneyesque in Anheuser Busch InBev’s ridiculous attraction to serving it as part of a black and tan.  Damn you for wrecking this beer and damn you more for treating it with disdain.

Thank the Lord for Burton Bridge then. Their eponymous Bridge Bitter keeps Burton’s flag flying.  This is a beer with structure, with a delicate floral character but a spine to stand up for itself.  There’s just that drying, vaguely burnt, bitter linger that means your hand is lifting the glass for the next sip not long after the last one has been swallowed.  For like very few beers, great Burton Pale Ales have that quality that is so difficult to define:  tasty yes, but moreishly drinkable too.

Whilst Pale Ale found fame with the spread of the style from Burton, of course this is just a fraction of the story.  One of the interesting chapters is in Belgium; known of course for so many interesting, challenging, defining styles of beer, but a haven for Pale Ale too.  I travelled to Belgium a few years ago and met the chaps at Palm in Steenhuffel.  Palm Breweries is one of the larger national companies in Belgium today, but recent years have been tough.  Despite its reputation as a great beer nation, the reality is that the market is over 70% international lager and it’s as cut-throat as elsewhere in northern Europe.  So in the last decade Palm have redefined their business; adding true speciality brands like Rodenbach and Boon lambics.  And refocusing on Palm Speciale.

For many years, Palm Speciale seemed to play second fiddle to its Antwerp rival, de Koninck. A fine beer, no doubt, served in its bolleke (little ball or bollock). Palm seemed more grounded, less aspirational – it’s symbol of a Brabant Shire Horse the perfect manifestation.  Doughty and workmanlike.  Yet Palm is a terrific pale ale that shouldn’t be over-shadowed, and a great example of how the Belgians can appropriate and re-interpret different beer styles.  The base of Palm is undoubtedly a pale ale. A rich amber colour, a fruit-sugary crispness that you only expect from a warm fermented beer, but matched by a malt-led roundness. Cave Direct sell it in the UK (beermerchants.com) – look out for it, and look out for it’s cognac like bol glass, which doesn’t just add to the enjoyment but concentrates and directs the aromas in a way that enhances Palm’s drinkability. Only without the bolleks.

There are now so many pale ales in fact, with so much terrific variation that the style risks fragmentation. This may be no bad thing, especially when you consider how far the it has come in the last generation…from a time when it was on its knees, to today….a Pale Ale Counter Reformation, when for some, I drop to my knees and offer reverential praise.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles 2012

1776 and all that

Very soon, it will be a year since I finished working for a large, multi-national American brewer.  As with any job change, it’s been a year of excitement and nervousness, peaks and troughs, many surprises and most of all of new friendships and old friendships reborn.  Of course,  I still have many friends in the old country  and I meet and talk with them at regular intervals – what’s good, what’s bad, what can be learned.  And the curious thing of course is how re-energised I feel about beer again. It’s my passion once more, not just my job.

The most striking thing I have noticed as a ‘drinker’ is the ‘before’ and ‘after’ world.  At University, I was developing my interest in beer (both consuming it, and being interested in it).  And the focus was ale – critical of what I saw as mundane lager, this was a world of real ale. Of cask beers; of bottled conditioned ales where I could find them; of experimentation.   I was extremely lucky to be living in the West Country which had, and mostly still has, a vibrant and energised population of free trade pubs.  And of course, the off trade was not what it was today – there was still a reasonable range of beers without the stack-it-high mentality (24 pack slabs didn’t exist for example).  These were days spent at The Beer Engine at Newton St Cyres; over pints of Directors at The Jolly Porter, or Bass at The Great Western.  The Turf Locks, jutting out into the Exe estuary, was a promised land that, back then, could only be reached on foot or by private boat, yet put on a wonderful selection of local beers (as it does today – if anything, nowadays it’s better).  The Double Locks, higher up the river towards Exeter was and remains a superb cask beer shrine, where tasty pints from an ever changing range are served direct from the cask in an elbows tucked-in-tight bar amongst ruddy-cheeked locals and braying Sloans.

Yet the world I emerge into today is different. Ironically, the world of cask and bottled beer is more vibrant than I can ever recall. The positive unintended consequence of the Beer Orders now sees a cask and micro brewery movement that is building a new beer culture and growing respect for beer again. New breweries, new beers, limited editions are coming to market at a rate where it’s virtually impossible to keep up. Age old ‘problems’, like the young men drinking cask, and women drinking beer (at all) are being slowly eroded by a groundswell of new news that seeps into our consciousness on a weekly basis.  One factor is where I now live.  Despite its Grail-like reputation in the brewing world, Burton and the Midlands don’t have a pub scene like the West Country.  Don’t get me wrong – there are some terrific individual pubs. The Yew Tree at Cauldon Low, The Burton Bridge, The Brunswick in Derby is an insultingly short list to all the great pubs I’ve missed. No, the issue is a structural one.  Whereas in my Exeter days you just didn’t know what choice of beers you would get if you chose a free house, in the Midlands, you have to go looking hard to break free of the yoke of a Marston’s, or a Punch, or an Enterprise.  Great beer is frequently served, but the range means I’m often peering into the fridge to eke out something new.

But actually, despite this, the irony is that the context has changed.  When I was last a free man in beer, I hadn’t seen the world.  Aye lad, I ‘adn’t travelled much beyond me own shores.  Serendipitously, while I have broadened my horizons, so the brewing world has broadened its horizons.   My love affair – for ‘tis that – with craft US beers really picked up Steam in 1998.  My wife (who in a commitment to the cause, I met in a pub whilst drinking, if I recall correctly, a pint of Marston’s Oatmeal Stout) and I travelled to California the year after we were married.  We had picked up the bug a bit for the ‘States with a first trip to New England, and now wanted to see the land of the American dream.  It was a pilgrimage too – I had places I wanted to tick off the list. Anchor was one of course – the mythical place it all began. An inspiring place – one day, I will have an office that overlooks a copper.  Yet it was the vibrancy of the beer scene that struck me all over – and this when it was still juvenile. In San Francisco on our first night, we wandered down to Pier 39. Mostly this is tourist tat shops, but in a great setting overlooking Alcatraz Island and the spectacle of the seals underneath the pier barking like infants with Croup.  We went for a drink in a bar called the Cannery – an oak clad wall with beer taps peeking through confronted us; locals and tourists alike animatedly chatting and discussing hot topics.  I drank an Anchor Porter which was biscuity and baked yet refreshingly moreish too.  Later, we drove to Napa and Sonoma  – beautiful valleys, filled with lime green vines stretching up into the hills, weaving roads enticing the eye up to a distant col. The wineries (we went to Mondavi and Mumm) had fantastically run tours, free samples a go-go and were just great places to kick back enjoying the sun and the scenery.  Yet my fondest memory was a little brewpub in Napa itself.  I can’t remember its name, but I can remember the experience.  The building was an old fire station with tall, arched windows stretching floor to eaves in beautiful Amsterdam-style brick.  We ate straightforward food: wood fired pizza before it was the rage; a rocket salad; home made sausages with garlic mash and gravy.  Pub grub, done well.  And of course a fantastic range of beers – I had a Hefeweizen, a Pale Ale and an IPA, my wife had a citrusy Summer wheat and a glass of Zin.

The drive down the Big Sur coast was as legendary as the reputation would suggest, sweeping through the precipice-hugging bends – dream like open-top cruising in our 1 litre Yugo.  We stopped overnight in Santa Barbara and ate a fantastic meal in The Brewhouse, a recently opened brewpub.  It was my first experience of properly hoppy ales – a taste of things to come if you follow the scene today.  We bypassed LA and headed to San Diego – where the brewing scene was only just kicking off. We drank beers from Stone Brewing and popped into a couple of Brewpubs which sowed the seed of yet another dream back home.  We went to the Zoo and Seaworld, in case you’re asking. Mrs P didn’t suffer too much.

And the love affair spread – Denver, Chicago, Boston, Dallas, Tampa, Seattle…great brews are popping up all over.  Yet it was only the other day, when I finally got round to drinking a beer from the Big Apple. For whatever reason, Brooklyn Brewery had passed me by.  The label didn’t catch my eye; the story on their Lager (a Pre Prohibition beer) seemed to be an afterthought.  ‘They don’t care that much’, I thought, ‘I won’t bother’.  So I didn’t.

Until last week. I bought three bottles of Brooklyn Lager in Mr Tesco’s corner shop.  3 for £2, if you’re asking, which I reckoned was a good deal, and good enough to try something new.

Silly, silly, me.  A blast of leafy, green, hop aroma swelled out from the bottle top as soon as I levered off the crown. The colour, a deep copper brown, with red hues just glinting in the corner of your eye. The head, a deep lemon meringue of headiness, topping off a bigger, fatter, mouthful of lager loveliness with a balanced sweet malt, and hop linger. Silly, silly, me.

And so the love affair grows. Pick the stereotype you wish – America: the young upstart. Brash, big American beers.  No class, just in your face. Yep – all of those.  And the dynamism they bring to beer – the respect for the past with the excitement of the legacy being left for the future is palpable.  I love British beers; I’m basking in the warm glow of what some of our brewers are doing at the moment, but love them or hate them, there’s another American Revolution going on at the moment. It’s entirely peaceful and changing the world all over again.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles, Originally posted on Posterous, May 2012