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What's new?
Pledges for my new beer book - Miracle Brew - are now closed. Book is out 1st June and available for pre-order here.
I've been accused of attacking cask ale. Here's what I actually wrote - decide for yourselves.
News about my next books!

Saturday, 29 September 2007

Barry RIP

This entry comes from a web cafe in Tenerife about an hour before I board the Europa and sail across the Atlantic, both lighter of luggage and heavier of heart than I should be.

We arrived in Tenerife just over a week ago and I hired an apartment in the south east corner of the island. After a weekend taking the pulse of the great British holiday and the beers thereof (Dorada is just a great name for a beer, but it has to be a beer you only drink on holiday, don´t you think?) I had to dash home for a couple of days for the media launch of the Cask Ale Report, leaving Barry on his own. On his own in a sealed, south-facing apartment.

I got back to the apartment late last night and wondered why there was a strong smell of air freshener in the corridor. I opened the door, and there was a different smell in the apartment. Not one hundred per cent unpleasant, but not right either. I checked the bin and the fridge, and noticed my feet were sticking to the floor. Something had leaked. My brain did not want to even consider the most likley possibility, so I checked the ceiling for leaks, the toilet, under the sink, until finally, after about five minutes, my brain caught up with my nose and identified the smell: stale, oxidised beer. SPILT beer.

I rushed to pick Barry up and take him out on to the patio to have a look without making more of a mess. He was very, very light.

I slit open the cellophane wrapping the bag - the thick layer of cellophane - and opened the bag. An empty barrel, a puddle of stale beer and dry hops, with the bung from the barrel floating in the bottom. Barry had committed suicide. I hadn´t realised our relationship had deteriorated that far.

Historically on this voyage, beers used to have to withstand extremes of temperature. High temperatures encouraged a more vigorous fermentation inside the cask, so it was essential the cask could breathe, allowing excess CO2 to escape. I´m pretty sure this was the problem, whether the cask wasn´t allowing CO2 to escape in the first place, or whether wrapping the cask inside a bag and then encasing it very tightly in a thick layer of cellophane was what did it, I´m not sure. But I think I know.

We´re now seeing if it´s possible to get me a replacement barrel delivered to Brazil. While this beer will have missed some of the most interestig and certaiinly the most authentic leg of the voyage, at that point we´ll still have 60-70% of the distance left to run, so the experiment just about stands.

But I´m about to set sail, and when I do, I have very limited e-mail contact.

And whereas three weeks ago, it was looking like I had about niine days between arriving in Brazil and the container ship leaving, I´ve been notified that the container ship is speeding up, and is now due to leave Rio on 30th October - just three days after we are due to arrive in Salvador, a thousand miles up the coast. It´s starting to look doubtful whether I´ll even be able to board the container ship, let alone arrange to meet with a new barrel before I do.

Things are starting to become a little too interesting.

Friday, 28 September 2007

Cask Ale Sector Report

One of the nice things about the British Cask Ale industry is its diversity and lack of corporate bastards. The only problem with this is that it can be criticised for not speaking with one voice.

This has now changed.

A consortium made up of brewers regional and local, CaskMarque and CAMRA, commissioned me to pool all existing knowledge on the market for cask ale, and mine it for new insights. The results are at the URL above. You can download a PDF of the report. Please do. Hopefully it will be informative.

We’re under way

Access to internet facilities is now sporadic, as Barry and I are in the third week of our re-creation of the voyage of IPA and spending much of our time on ships. I’m going to end up posting a few entries at once, with this being the first lot – a potted story so far. The next update will probably be at the end of October, when we land in Brazil.

Sorry for the lack of pics and links - my battery is almost dead and I ahve to be out of here in ten minutes!

Leaving Burton-on-Trent

I wanted the send-off from Burton to be a bit of a celebration of the town’s brewing tradition, and we managed to accomplish this in some style.

The night before the send-off, we had dinner (curry obviously) in Burton with most of the town’s brewers – Rudgie representing Coors/Worthington (sadly both brewers, Steve and Jo, were on holiday), Ian Ward from Coors, although by the time you read this he’ll have left to go to Marston’s, Jeff Mumford from Burton Bridge Brewery, and John Saville from the Burton Old Cottage Beer Company. And my mate Chris. The latter two seemed a bit bemused as to why we were all there, but a fantastic curry and a tasting of various Burton IPAs – Marston’s Old Empire, Worthington White Shield, and Burton Bridge Imperial India Ale, meant the evening went off very nicely.

We capped it with a bottle of Ratcliffe’s ale, the beer from 1789 found by Steve Wellington in the cellars. It was like nothing else – or maybe a little like Utopias from Samuel Adams – strong aromas of port and dried summer fruit, rich raisins, brandy and plums, vanilla, cinnamon, buttered leather, and according to one of our company, “the inside of a Bombay taxi driver’s jock strap,” though he didn’t tell us how he knew. And a taste of cedar wood, leather and old closets.

Thus fortified, the following morning the local MP, Janet Dean, turned up to see us on our way. Barry and I then travelled with Ian, Chris and Rudgie though Burton on the back of a horse drawn dray to the canal, where we set off back south again.

And so Barry was on his way – at a speed which, if I kept constant, would mean the whole journey would take me six and a half years…

Power Cruising through the Midlands

Before 1840, beer used to be taken from Burton to the ports by canal boat. It was slow and expensive, often costing more than the trip form England to India. Not much has changed.

Canal holidays in the English Midlands cost more than a decent-sized chalet in the Mediterranean, with flights included. I have no idea why. The very nice people at Viking Afloat gave me a 25% discount off the market rate, and it was still more expensive than the cost of a month at sea on a tall ship.

Cost and logistics meant we couldn’t do the whole trip from Burton to London or Liverpool by canal. So we rented a boat form Rugby, 55 miles from Burton along a stretch of canal that was once packed with barges full of India Pale Ale.

You can only go so fats in a canal boat, with an average speed of two and a half to three miles an hour. Our journey each way was estimated to be three full days cruising. The only problem was, we didn’t have three days to get there. By the time we were allowed to pick up the boat, and then stock it with groceries, we only had about three hours’ cruising time left on our first day (you can’t cruise after dark). We had to start at first light, keep constantly on the move, with one person on the tiller while others made breakfast, showered, produced cups of tea, and we didn’t stop until dark. We were meant to be using this stage as a way of getting used to the concept of slow travel, getting away from the idea of speed being everything. Instead, we ended up inventing extreme canal boating by mistake.

And then my cruising companions all had to get back to real life, and I was faced with the prospect of piloting a 68 foot long boat on my own, which we had decided would be impossible. In desperation, I phoned my mum to see if she and her new boyfriend (her first in the 11 years since my dad died) fancied a day and a night on board. I was a bit nervous about meeting my mum’s new beau, and wanted to create a good impression. About half an hour after rendezvousing with them, I took a call telling me that Tehran were refusing to give me an Iranian visa, which I need because my container ship stops off at an Iranian port before it reaches India. Maybe it’s because I was flustered by this, but I took a bend badly and managed to crash the boat. We’d all done this several times, but this was a bad one. I’d got us wedged across a bend in the canal, stuck against both banks. I went forward to try and sort us out. And that’s when, carrying my blackberry and mobile phone, I fell in the canal.

Oceana: a rest home at sea, but in a good way

Our first leg at sea was on the P&O cruise ship, Oceana. I was angry at Barry (see below) so he remained in our cabin the whole time, glowering. But he was in good company – it was a pleasant surprise to discover that the ship’s many bars all stocked Marston’s Pedigree and Bass Ale, which should have made him feel at home.

I can heartily recommend a cruise ship holiday to anyone who can afford it. Even if you don’t think it’s your kind of thing, it’s like all your senses are in a warm bath. This is what it must be like to be in long term respite care, only without being ill. Every need was catered for. You sign for everything on a little card that goes on your bill at the end, so you don’t even have to carry money.

Although this did cause a problem when we went ashore in Madeira, had a few bars in the Madeira Brew House (not worth the bother), realised we’d both become so institutionalised we had left all our money on board ship, just bringing our little cards out with us. With thirty minutes to go before ship left port, cue a sprint along the cobbled quayside back to the ship for my wallet, and a sprained ankle to add to my rapidly mounting injury count. And these were supposed to be the easy bits.

Barry the Bastard from Burton

It’s one thing to give a name to an inanimate object and anthropomorphise it. It’s quite another when that object starts to take on a personality that is not necessarily the one you would have chosen for it.

I’m worried that Barry is actually a bit of a bastard. And a grumpy one at that.

Of course he’s heavy – about 30kg. When I first picked him up, I breathed a sigh of relief (which came out as a grunt of exertion) that I’d made a compromise and gone for an aluminium cask instead of the planned wooden one, which would have been twice the weight and would never have gotten very far.

But this is about more than weight.

After getting off the train in London there were no trolleys, and I had a large, heavy bag and laptop case as well as Barry. I managed to get down the length of the platform by hoisting him on to my shoulder, where I could carry him for about thirty yards at a time. By the time I got home, I had a bruise on my bicep as big as a saucer.

He didn’t stop there. We bought a wheelie bag with a handle for him to go in. He broke the spine of that after about a hundred yards, the wheels sticking out uselessly at the sides. So then we bought him a trolley. We checked on the label that it was capable of taking 40kg. So far he’s managed to scrape the paint off it and buckle some of the supports at the bottom. We’ve wrapped him in that special cellophane packing you can get at airports. His bag is red, and glows through the mucus-green cellophane, making him look livid. He’s already burst through this cellophane at the shoulders of the bag, which is scarred with long black marks and tears.

Barry is now a malevolent presence in the room, causing people to stub their feet or bruise their shins on him far more than would be normal for an inanimate, highly visible object.

Our journey’s end in Calcutta is still far away, but I’m already starting to have fantasies about spilling the bastard’s guts once we get there.

Monday, 3 September 2007

Reassuringly Expensive

So I was in Burton Public Library, researching the IPA book, and I found something else interesting - in 1852 and 1875, Britain sent expeditions to the North Pole. And being British, they took beer with them. There was a public tencder to see who could brew the best beer, which was won by Allsopp's of Burton on Trent.
The expedition's leader, Captain Belcher reported that "Allsopp's Arctic Ale proved to be "a valuable antiscorbutic", helping fight off scurvy, the bane of all sea voyages in those days. He added that the beer was "a great blessing to us, particularly for our sick" and that it refused to freeze until the temperature dropped well below zero.

According to historian Colin Owen, the beer withstood temperatures of 90 degrees below freezing without a detioration in quality, "a reminder of the superb keeping qualities of Burton ale." But I don't think they expected it to keep for quite this long...

Last month, some guy with an antiques and Militaria shop in the US put a bottleof Allsopp's Arctic Ale on EBay. A bottle made it to the United States in the early twentieth century, and is now believed to be the oldest surviving bottle of beer in the world. It comes with a laminated description that tells its own story about the US in 1919...

“This ale was specially brewed and bottled in England, in 1852, for Kane’s Expedition in search of Sir John Franklin. A portion of the lot was cached in the Arctic; and was afterwards taken back to England, where it was bought by Allsopp, from whom Mr. Jus. Fennell obtained a part.

This bottle was given to me by Mr. Fennell May 13, 1919. Should I depart from this (by that time probably) dry world before consuming the contents, let my son and brethren perform my duties and enjoy my rights in that respect, on the eve of my funeral (if they find it in time) – unless such act be then illegal, in which case those of the aforesaid trustees who sufficiently learned in law shall advise ac-????? To the rule of ey fares.

Two bottles of this ale were guests of honor at the banquet given to Shackleton and Peary, in Boston, some years ago. (1907/1908) The skeletons of said guests were preserved as mementos of Sir John Franklin! (Useful suggestion regarding the “cast off shell” of the spirit.)

Signed: Percy G Bolster

So what was the closing bid on this item?

A cool $503,300.00...