65° 41’ North

It was Slati Bartfast, the planetary designer in The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy who was particularly proud of his handiwork in penning Norway’s fjord coastline (“the fiddly bits”). Rightly so, he did a cracking job, what with their soaring cliffs, spouting waterfalls and magnificent base jumps, if that’s your thing.  In fact, I find the map of the whole North Atlantic fascinating, from the mouth shaped bite of Scapa Flow on Orkney, to the fine filigree fingers of the blustery Shetlands and the Faeroes with their whale-backed mountain ridges, arching as if ready to dive. Then beyond, to Svalbard and across, to the land of ice and fire itself: Iceland, precariously perched just below the Arctic Circle on one of the world’s most active volcanic boundaries.

Iceland has always fascinated me: when I was younger, it was the Norse mythology, the Cod War and the Sagas, many of which are set on the island and spelt out the lives of the brave wanderers who had upped sticks and island hopped until they settled on what we now know as Iceland.  It shows how tough these characters were when you consider that they thought the island verdant and warm compared with where they had left. In fact, it’s said that those original Norse settlers called it ‘Iceland’, despite its greenness to discourage further immigration and leave more of the land and resources to them. In an ironic twist, Erik the Red, later banished from Iceland for sundry pillage, brawling and fornication related misdemeanours, settled on the icy landmass he found further west and called it ‘Greenland’ to attract more settlers (before buggering off yet again and investigating the coast of today’s Labrador and Newfoundland).

I went to Iceland in 1991 after leaving University, to dig pits, study soil and ice sediments, measure glacier melt and do various climate-change related activities in the days before anyone seemed to be bothered about that sort of thing.  What I did not do was drink beer: firstly due to a lack of geographical proximity to any licensed premises and secondly, because I was poor and beer was – is – tear-inducingly expensive.   For the first four weeks, I stayed on a farm in the far north, Dalvík.  Our party, split into two: one half, my research tutor, his wife and young child stayed with a farmer who they had known for many years.  The other half, me and a small party of German researchers, stayed on a deserted farm a few miles further on.  Beer was so prized that it was the way we paid for our hospitality, along with a case of good single malt. The reason was Prohibition – at the time, Iceland had only legalised beer two years prior; its strength was strictly controlled, as was who could sell it. Like many Scandinavian markets you could only buy alcohol from a Government licensed shop.  And because the ban on beer had only just been lifted there were no Icelandic brewers and so everything was imported, everything expensive.

22 years on and the situation has changed.  I can’t tell you this from primary research (I plan to go back soon but haven’t made it yet) but through other means, chief of which is the small but growing number of Icelandic breweries I’ve been keeping an eye on.  Back in 1991, when I met my brother in the final week in Reykjavik, we pushed the boat out one night, wandering down to the sea front area and treated ourselves to a pizza and a Pripps Blå: a nondescript margherita and a nondescript Swedish euro beer but *ouch*, it dented my wallet when I could least afford it.

IMG_0652IMG_0658Today though I am drinking a beer from one of the nascent craft breweries. This one in fact is close to my affections as it’s from Akureyri, Iceland’s second largest settlement and situated just below the Arctic Circle. It was the place I flew into all those years ago before heading even further round the northern coast to the farm. It was here we did our shopping; buying delicacies such as caviar in metal tubes or vac-packed puffins. It was here too that our Jeep broke down and we ended up making an impromptu meal on a camping stove from air-dried cod, turnips and a can of tomatoes, just off the forecourt of the most incongruously placed Esso filling station imaginable, before eventually fixing the engine problem with a pair of old tights.  There was no brewery back then. Today there are a few, including Iceland’s largest, Villifel (Viking) and a smaller, craft ale brewer, Einstök Ölgerđ. It was beers from the latter that I found in the Harvey Nics pop up shop in The Trafford Centre of all places.

I bought a couple of bottles of the Pale Ale, a 5.6% affair, presented in a dark blue Scandinavian minimalist label-set, featuring some bearded bloke with a horned helmet and crossed axe detailing. All very dark ages chic.  It’s a good beer: very much in the style of an American pale ale, with a melted caramel colour and a grassy, lemony, wheaty aroma and a soft, gently carbonated body with a sharp hop tang. It’s a beer perfect for these high latitude dark nights and short days, when the sun hardly seems to rise above the horizon.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2013

The Session #79: U.S. vs Old World Beer Culture

The Session, a.k.a. ‘Beer Blogging Friday’, is an opportunity once a month for beer bloggers from around the world to get together and write from their own unique perspective on a single topic. Each month, a different beer blogger hosts the Session, chooses a topic and creates a round-up listing all of the participants, along with a short pithy critique of each entry. This month’s topic is hosted by Dingsbeerblog (http://www.dingsbeerblog.com)

The Session ImageIn the late 1980’s, three strands interwove at a crucial time for me which triggered my interest and enthusiasm for beer. The first was family – my older brother, in his first radical phase was an unwitting early proponent of slow food, and as he was building his knowledge of food, wine and to a lesser extent beer whilst at University his influence rubbed off on his younger brother when he came home.  The second was friends: Dave Wilkes and his home brew to be exact. I’m not sure where Dave’s passion for home brew emerged, but what I do know is that it was a consistently deep brown, nutty concoction, served straight from the cask (something I hadn’t seen at that point in my hitherto sheltered life) and weighing in at what I’m guessing to be about 15% ABV¹.  The third strand was the emergence in America of a beer tea party: new, interesting brews, attempting to throw overboard the homogeneity of typical US offerings.  To a late teen in provincial UK, this was not learnt first hand.  Rather, the source was Michael Jackson of course, both through a much thumbed copy of ‘The New World Guide to Beer’ and also through the particular episode of ‘The Beer Hunter’² where Michael travels to west coast USA and vividly brings to life this new narrative of US craft beer. As he takes the trip to the tip of northern California to celebrate the barley harvest with all the Anchor Steam workers, my beer idyll is born.

IMG_0444Over 20 years on, as I read Tim Acitelli’s excellent ‘The Audacity of Hops’ – an almost 50 year history of American craft beer, I realise how much each ‘culture’ is indebted to the other.  If you can call it that of course:  I’m not sure anyone in the ‘Old World’ would see much a shared tradition between say English beer culture and Bavarian beer culture – an important point when you see how the different European nations individually influenced the US scene.  The first wave was largely inspired by English pale ale:  could the early craft brewers like Jack McAuliffe create domestically brewed pale ale as flavoursome, as full on those he had drunk on his British travels? The name above the door giving away his influences: New Albion. Could Pete Slosberg devise a recipe as enticing as the brown ales he had drunk on his travels in Europe (I didn’t realise that the resultant, massively successful beer, ‘Pete’s Wicked Ale’ is no longer available)? Then later, wider European influence took hold, kick-started by Jim Koch reliably recreating his grandfather’s recipe for a Bavarian lagered beer in the form of Sam Adams Boston Lager but quickly and rapidly spreading into replicating, and attempting to better, beers from Belgium, Germany, France and beyond.

IMG_0442I’m conscious of my own biases around beer and particularly my orientation toward well brewed and properly lagered Czech and Bavarian lagers and feisty and flavoursome US pale ales and IPAs in particular; but actually portraying a picture of the ‘Old World’ and ‘New World’ as a battle: us versus them isn’t overly helpful.  The reality, as is so often the case, is defined more by the similarities than the differences.  Riddled through both cultures are defining traits: a trigger event – a burning platform that great, idiosyncratic, varied beer was close to dying out. In the US’s case, Fritz Maytag heard about the brewery days before it was due to close down. In the UK, the dawning realisation that cask beer (and the infrastructure that supports it) was facing the same fate. Struggle – it’s easy to forget the perseverance, grit, setbacks and failures along the way. Many of the original wave of US craft brewers simply didn’t make it through the first wave of growth, starved of cash, resources, time or capital, they had to either close or stay niche. Most went under. It’s why I fear the same for many of the UK’s current crop of micro brewers. Time – it’s almost 50 years now since Fritz Maytag bought Anchor. It’s over ten years now since Gordon Brown introduced the progressive beer duty, the so called ‘Small Brewers Duty Relief’ and yet, you could argue that for most drinkers here, cask beer still hasn’t entered the mainstream.  But more than anything else, what’s clear is how the Old and New World cultures are self perpetuating, each fuelling the other – the growth of craft brewing in Italy, inspired by the US, being a great example. I saw this for myself on a recent business trip to Milan, managing to fit in a short beer break after work one evening, and finding a craft beer bar that you wouldn’t expect to see this side of the pond – the most ‘mainstream’ beer available was Menabrea which enjoys, what? 2% of the Italian beer market?  Or the spread of US hop varieties to the point where a number of UK beer aficionados are actively complaining about their over-use versus traditional British hop varieties.  And finally, there’s the experimentation. The emerging narrative is that it’s a case of poacher turned gamekeeper, and the European brewers are only experimenting because of the boundary pushing of the US brewers.  True to a degree of course – but not solely so.  There’s been an experimental tradition in surprising and not-so-surprising European countries for many years – Belgium of course, but also in countries like Scotland, where brewing with traditional ingredients, or barrel aging is not a new phenomenon.

No, this is all a case of ‘and’. The real vibrancy between the craft brewers is the mutual support, the ready sharing of ideas and experience, the healthy competition that exists.  It’s a culture that’s worth celebrating and enjoying across the whole world.

 

¹The fashion in beer books is to tell how home brew ‘transformed my expectations of how amazing beer could be’.  With respect to Dave, this wasn’t the case, I think his home brew was a malt extract kit brew and it was pretty hard going. I seem to remember swirling my mouth out with a Heineken.

² Two links: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CtmxXgKU1o0, the beer idyll is at the start of part 2, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=36BUK7lv-iU

©Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2013

The Session #77: IPA: What’s the big deal?

the session beer blogging fridayThe craft beer movement is gaining momentum – in the U.S., U.K, Italy, Scandinavia, Australasia – drinkers in these traditional and mature beer markets are broadening their repertoires, hearing the voice of craft brewers and slowly opening up to a new philosophy – of difference, of experimentation and of expectation of choice.   And India Pale Ale, or IPA, is the poster boy of the movement – in its well structured, challenging yet rewarding, countenance – it stands for everything that large scale manufactured pale beer is not.  Yet it is in those pale, ‘lagery’ seeds of why IPA is a big deal.

According to the latest studies from the Neolithic Cerevisial-Archaeology Unit in Portland, Oregon* beer started as a bready, mushed up foodstuff, mixed with water in ceramic pots and left to stand whilst the Godisgood worked it’s magic and turned it into a hearty, safe, nutritious drug. And although brewed significantly better – beer remained a dark, chewy, opaque food replacement until the nineteenth century. No wonder people enveloped lagered beer so in a revolutionary embrace.  It was easier to drink, eminently refreshing and visually appealing – a beguiling, magical, experience – almost incomprehensible given everything they had drunk up to that point – it would be like having KFC Chicken Nuggets that actually contained chicken.  After two years of pretty much exclusively drinking pale ales and IPAs for the last two years, I lived through something of this experience when I recently cracked open a bottle of four of Pilsner Urquell (see http://www.beertintedspectacles.com/?p=369).

And then, a few days later, I reverentially removed a bottle Sierra Nevada Torpedo from the beer fridge, an ‘Extra IPA’, 7.2%, one of Chico’s finest.  Just levering off the crown led to an attack of citrus fruit aromas, then on pouring, a billowing, off-white head, beautifully constructed and lacing down the glass sides with each sip like tree rings showing their annual growth throughout the heartwood. The maltiness had a walnut bready character, biscuit but with some nuttiness – Hob Nobs maybe?  Yet despite its considerable punch, it was a refreshing, drinkable beer – all the things that I had experienced a couple of weeks prior but with a well brewed lager.

So I think the ‘deal’ is this:  Pale Ale represents two things. Like lager it is a base: a base for challenge, for experimentation, for moving beer on, for saying, ‘Oh, I like this, but I think I can do better’.  Pale Ale becomes IPA, IPA becomes Double IPA, Double becomes Extra, becomes Black, becomes Cascadian, becomes Indies, becomes Pacific.  It’s a becoming sort of beer.  Unlike lager though which over the last 40 years, has got progressively lighter in alcohol, less bitter and paler in colour, IPA turned left at the lights, not right, and we see some of the beers that writers fret, fete and fight over today.

And then there’s adoption.  It’s a simple human trait – we want to prove how we’re different. How we’re our ‘own man’, how we’re independent.  IPA is not my Dad’s beer, blimey, it’s not even my older brother’s beer…it’s mine…. but most of all, IPA isn’t everything else. It isn’t mass brewed, it’s revolted against its Burton on Trent, Imperial roots and become a tattooed punk with multiple piercings through places too tender to speak of;  a banner waving revolutionary demanding the end of the old order.

And we all have a bit of the revolutionary in us, don’t we?

*If only.

©Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2013

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