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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, 27 March 2010

Cask Ale? There's an App for that.

Today sees a big drumroll for Cask Ale Week, which officially launches on Monday.

Two exciting things this morning:

Firstly, The Independent, the official media partner of Cask Ale Week, has published a cask ale supplement. I've written the intro and a piece on the history of beer, and there are also pieces by Protzy on the rise of microbreweries, Tim Hampson and Tom Stainer at the Kelham Island Tavern, none other than Al Murray rhapsodising about cask ale and British tradition, and Neil Morrissey on his life in beer. Follow the links by all means, but please do try and buy the paper as well - they need all the sales they can get!

Secondly, Cask Marque and Cyclops today launch Caskfinder, an iPhone app. Now I'll be honest: when you see Cask Marque's somewhat dated, cramped website, I didn't have the highest of hopes for this. But having just downloaded it I'm absolutely blown away by it. I can see it's going to be indispensable.

First, there's an encyclopedia of every beer rated using the Cyclops tasting notes - currently just over 1000 - searchable by beer name or brewer, with tasting notes and the opportunity for you to record your own rating of it.

Second, there's a directory of every one of Cask Marque's 6000-odd pubs. Let your iPhone know where you are and it flags up the nearest pubs to you - you can also download this onto your car Satnav. Googlemaps gives you the address of the pub, a link to their website if they've got one, and details of any beers on tap that have been tested by Cask Marque's assessors.

Then there's a directory of brewers - don't know how many bit I'd guess a couple of hundred. You can see all their beers, back search from here to find the pubs that serve them, link to the brewers' websites, and find the brewery in a map.

There's a directory of upcoming beer festivals with full details, locations, maps etc, a featured beer of a week, and and, er, an RSS feed to this blog! Looks like I'd better tone down the profanities from now on.

And it's absolutely free.

I know there are some people who are sneery about Cask Marque, and critical of Cyclops. Some breweries claim their own quality standards are higher, and people don't like the format of the Cyclops tasting notes. But in each case, while they may not be perfect, they are rapidly becoming national standards. This app shows the confidence and vision that cask ale as a beer style now has. For pubs and breweries that have not yet signed up, or feel they don't need it, I'd say it's worth signing up just be be on this app. The more pubs and beers it includes, the more indispensable it will be.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Cask ale and lager: friends or foes?

It’s Cask Ale Week next week – and Roger Protz and I will be celebrating by singing the praises of lager.

No, it’s not a premature April Fool.

I wrote in January that drinking unfiltered, unpasteurized Budvar straight from the conditioning tanks in Ceske Budejovice was one of the most amazing taste experiences of my beery life so far. It was exquisite, a completely different drink, and it underlined to everyone present that great lager is every bit as superb as great ale.

Well, next week I get to drink it again, without having to go to the Czech Republic – and you can try it too.

On Tuesday night, 30th March, The White Horse at Parson’s Green will be cracking open some of the unpasteurized, unfiltered nectar flown straight in from the brewery, and Protzy and I will be singing its praises and talking more generally about the difference – and similarity – between ale and lager.

I’ll be focusing on what I learned at the fascinating Guild of Beer Writers lager seminar at Thornbridge about 18 months ago, questioning our conventional understanding of how you define lager, discussing examples of beers on the borderline.

Then, the Protzatolah will share some of his research on the history of lager brewing, challenging conventional wisdom that lager is inherently somehow inferior in quality to ale, and showing that lager brewing actually goes back much further than most of us think.

Admission is free but places are limited, so if you’re keen, it’s best to book a place with the White Horse now.

Things kick off at 7.30ish. See you there!

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Thunderbird Zero - you're fired.

Just realised I can't bring myself to use this picture any more after today.

It might be funny, but I love Thunderbirds. It was my favourite show when I was growing up. You know what? It still is.

International Rescue helped people. They saved lives. Made the world a better place. This man is an disgrace to the uniform. It's an insult to Scott, Alan, Gordon, Brains and especially Virgil to associate this fucking moron, this retard, with their legacy any longer. (And yes, I know 'retard' is politically incorrect. But not as politically incorrect as 'cunt', which is the only other word I can think of.)

I hereby proclaim that Alistair Darling is off the SupermarionationTM roll-call forthwith.

I was going to do a post sounding off about the budget in detail, but what's the point? Everyone else from CAMRA and BBPA to the entire UK beer blogosphere is venting their spleen, and I agree with them, but I've nothing additional to say. I have been thinking about where we go from here though. And I plan to write quite a bit about that, real soon.

Cask ale week - and beer versus wine again

Next week is the second cask ale week. After a cautious, modest success last year, this year's event should see pubs and brewers promoting cask ale with a little more confidence, and getting great beer a rare outing in mainstream media.

One brewer who already has a radio show lined up has asked me to ask you to help him out. Notwithstanding my poorly written and therefore misunderstood blog about how we shouldn't be trying to make beer the new wine, the question is this:

What arguments would you use to convince a regular wine drinker that they should be drinking beer instead?

I have my own views on this, but what do you think?

For the record, in my previous blog post I wasn't suggesting that you shouldn't attempt to convince wine drinkers to drink beer, just that you shouldn't do it by trying completely to compete with wine on wine's terms. Some people seek flavour and they should already be open to try anything flavoursome - beer, wine, whatever - whereas others drink wine not for its flavour but for image reasons, so trying to convince them about beer's flavour is simply barking up the wrong tree.

But you may disagree.

Either way, if a wine drinker came to you and said, "Why should I drink beer?" What would your reply be?

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Hair of the Dog

Good afternoon, and we're blogging LIVE from the White Horse in Parson's Green, where a momentous event is taking place.

Last month, I helped brew a beer up at Kelham Island in Sheffield. It's a 6% IPA that had a final sparge of hops at the end of the brew. As is always the case, there was the difficult question of what to name the beer. This was resolved when Crown Brewer Stu's wife, Cat - who works at Kelham Island - contacted the beer widow and suggested the beer be named after out dog, Captain.

And so, a beer was born:

In the photo on the pump clip, the little fella is lying on our rug chewing away at a dried bull's penis. he loves a bit of dried bull's penis, does Captain. But he does look like he's smoking a cigar - entirely befitting of the successful dog about town with a beer named after him.

So, today Captain IPA went on the bar at the White Horse, and Captain wanted to come down and check it out. Here is is on the bar, next to his beer:

He's not that interested in trying the beer, which is a shame - that hop sparge hasn't necessarily given it a stronger hop flavour, but it's given it a much more rounded hop flavour - the usual citrus and resin is fleshed out with a much sweeter, fuller hop character that blends perfectly into the malt. It's a winner!

Captain has also been sighted at this weekend's Kelham Island Beer Festival and at various pubs around the country, including some Wetherspoons. There are two nines of it down here at the White Horse - not sure how much of it we'll get through this afternoon but please do try and check it out! It'll make Captain's afternoon.

Friday, 19 March 2010

Defeating the human survival gene

There's a restaurant in Old Street, North London, called the Bavarian Beer House. Look, here it is:
If you've ever been to one of those sad, half-arsed, desperate-and-yet-at-the-same-time-can't-quite-be-bothered apologies for an Oktoberfest that British events companies occasionally excrete onto the heads of an unprovoked public, you could be forgiven for thinking that there is no point going to a Bavarian Beer House in North London.

But unlikely as it sounds, in this case you'd be quite wrong. It's run by Germans, staffed by Germans, has beer imported from Germany, serves truly authentic German cuisine, and the waitresses all look like this:

I first encountered the people there when I met head honcho Sabine von Reth while we were both defending our national honour in Market Kitchen's Beer World Cup. I then went there for lunch, and we got chatting about beer and food matches, and last Tuesday I went back for a free meal, going through the most popular dishes and recommending which of the various lagers and wheat beers worked best with each one.

If I get around to it I'll write up those recommendations - and they should be on the menu in the BBH quite soon. It was a very enjoyable evening and I'd heartily recommend a visit to anyone. Good food. Good beer. Great service.

But I wanted to talk about one particular dish. It's a dish - an ooze, a concoction, a form of matter - that worries me. No, more than that - it scares the holy fucking crap out of me. And that dish is Obatzda.

Here is a picture of Obatzda:

Yes, it looks like cat sick dressed with red onions. It's the most revolting-looking food I've seen since the Heinz sandwich paste my dad used to give me to take to school. There is no reason whatsoever why anyone should feel moved to put this in their mouths. And yet for some reason, Germans do, and the first time I went to the Bavarian Beer House, I did too.

When you put it in your mouth it has the consistency and character of wet concrete. It's all so badly wrong, and then your tongue takes a tentative look and it's oooooooooohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh........ ooooooooooooooooohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh yyeeeeeeeeeesssssss....... mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.............

Turns out it's not made of cat sick. It's made of Emmental cheese mixed up with cream cheese, butter, herbs and onions, served with pretzels.

When you swallow the first mouthful, you feel it coat and line your oesophagus on the way down. A second mouthful, and your heart sits up in your chest like a meerkat sensing a hawk. The third settles in your stomach like wet sand. After the fourth, your heart tries to make a run for it, hammering on your ribcage, pleading tearfully to be let out.

And yet, you just keep going. And going. And going.

I was eating it for, I'd guess, about forty minutes. I had to ask for extra pretzels. I was eating steadily, methodically, workmanlike, and after those forty minutes I had made no impression whatsoever on the bulk of the thing sitting in front of me. But still, I kept going.

This... substance is not right. It's uncanny. Sinister.

Think about it: humanity has had a long and violent history getting to where we are today. Some of the most celebrated stories we tell each other are about our triumphs over adversity and gritty will to survive. We're resourceful, ingenious, determined and strong, but most of all we have a survival gene, a sixth sense that alerts us to danger and helps us avoid it.

When I was a teenager I went abseiling down a cliff face. Eight people went before me. I was roped and harnessed up, and I'd seen them roped and harnessed in similar fashion enjoying the descent. And yet I simply could not make my body take that final step off the cliff top. In my brain I knew I'd be safe, but my body simply refused to obey my brain and would not act on the instructions being given to it. Primally, it knew that to step off a sixty foot high cliff would result in certain death, and so it refused to do it. Eventually I think I tricked it by leaning back ever so slowly, until by the time it realised what was happening there was nothing it could do.

So why - if our survival instinct is so strong - would anyone ever have more than one mouthful of Obatzda? In a brief moment of clarity and strength that just happened to coincide with a pretty waitress passing our table, I just managed to blurt out a plea for her to take it away - I think I may have fought her for the plate as she did so. But if that hadn't happened, I'd still be there now, munching away methodically at this never-ending pile of foul-looking slop, for the rest of my life - which wouldn't actually be that long.

It doesn't even taste that nice. I mean it tastes very good, but it's not the taste that's making it so addictive. It's something deeper, something chemical. In the mouth it releases endorphins that instantly make all the pain and anxiety of existence go away. It cradles your head in invisible cheesy hands, strokes your cheek and shushes you, telling you not to worry about the sudden chest pains and pins and needles that seem to have developed in the last few minutes.

If any ingestible, addictive substance should be banned, it's Obatzda - so potent, it completely overrides the human survival gene.

It goes really well with the Erdinger Hefeweisse, by the way.

Why Beer Matters - Third place runner up

Please say hello to John Bidwell. Hello John!

John lives in Denver, Colorado - good beer country and home to the Great American Beer Festival. In his entry, he displayed the disciplined passion that characterises the North American craft brew scene. I like this entry a lot because it transported me to the places he was discussing - I could almost taste the CoConut porter. happily, I'll be able to soon, because brewer Garret Marrero - discussed here - has brewed it at Marston's for the upcoming Wetherspoons Cask Ale festival.

I was introduced to Garret down at the Rake about a week after I read this, and found myself excitedly telling him every detail about the essay. I hadn't realised until that point how vividly it had lodged in my mind, and that - along with the fact that this reads like it's written by an experienced professional journalist - is why this piece made it in to the top three.

Why didn't it come even higher? Stay tuned for the second place runner up, Shea Luke, in a few days!


by John Bidwell

First off, let us state the obvious - beer is just a beverage made of barley, hops, yeast and water.

To some it’s a thirst quencher; to others it’s a way to unwind after a long day at work. Sure, each of these uses holds a shred of importance to the individual, but why does beer matter? What has made it so ubiquitous worldwide? Why has beer become celebrated in cultures around the world? Perhaps it’s because beer acts as a window into a community. It allows a town, city, or region to tell a story about who they are in liquid form. This isn’t the case with all beers, but the most unique and imaginative beers begin to reveal their heritage after the first sip.

By the turn of the 21st century, the craft brewing scene had exploded; long gone were the days of mass commoditization and conglomeration. Craft beer was now commonplace, but in Santa Cruz, California, Alec Stefanski was doing something most uncommon. “It’s a brown ale brewed with pork!” Alec exclaimed emphatically. He is the founder of Uncommon Brewers, a new brewery that prides itself on doing things a little differently, and he had just gotten his first shipment of pork belly to brew his new bacon nut-brown ale. Santa Cruz is a city known for its independent spirit, alternative living, and its reputation as an international nexus of organic farming. Uncommon’s beers reflect Santa Cruz - they are unique, broad-minded beers flavored with an arsenal of bizarre ingredients including kaffir lime, poppies, anise, and candy cap mushrooms. The brewery is run by an offbeat staff that incorporates these ingredients into their 100% organic beers. Like so many other food and drink based businesses in Santa Cruz, Uncommon Brewers is grounded in the principles of the Slow Food movement, sourcing their ingredients from the farms in the surrounding region. To taste Uncommon is to taste the community of Santa Cruz, and if the essence of the city could be captured, it would be in one of Uncommon’s signature tall boy cans. But Santa Cruz is just one of the cities that can tell a story through its beer.

Garrett Marrerro was young and powerful; he was a recent college graduate making big money as an investment consultant. Like so many others, it seemed like Garrett was destined to spend his life working 9-5 for his paycheck. Unlike many others, Garrett took a bold step: he quit his job, moved to Maui, and opened a brewery. Many others have dreamed of leaving their unfulfilling jobs and moving to paradise. With sandy beaches, a tropical climate, and palm trees, Maui is, in effect, heaven on earth to the working stiff. It’s a laid back community that doesn’t take anything too seriously, and Maui Brewing Co. embodies that lifestyle and the Aloha spirit. This isn’t your typical Hawaiian beer that you drink at a ‘luau’ in line for the pineapple-glazed ham behind other tourists while a fire dancer bounces around on stage. Instead, Maui Brewing Co. produces truly local Hawaiian beer by sourcing many ingredients from the islands - CoConut Porter, anyone? Also, it is made by Hawaiians - Garrett prefers to train the local workforce as opposed to bringing in experienced mainland employees. Garrett explains: “It keeps more money on the island instead of sending ninety cents of every dollar to the mainland.” This is what Garrett refers to as ‘Brewing with Aloha’ – buying local first and supporting the community. His philosophy has led to Maui Brewing becoming the best selling locally produced beer on the islands. Garrett, like Alec and so many others, has created a product that goes beyond barley, hops, yeast, and water. He has helped mold a community identity, and has once again shown why beer matters.

Beer is a reflection of our communities; it has the capacity to convey societal values and ideas in an accessible and unpretentious manner. Think drinking a beer isn’t like tasting a community? Try one of Alec’s brews, and when you taste the organic ingredients of the Santa Cruz Valley, you’ll quickly reconsider. Open a can of Garrett’s CoCoNut Porter and try not to envision relaxing on Wailea Beach.

Beer showcases our community bonds; it promotes our societies’ collective creativity and displays our penchant for and acceptance of new ideas. The art that is created at breweries across the world is every bit as important to their communities’ identities as Mozart was to Salzburg’s or Van Gogh to Amsterdam’s. Yet the art of beer is down-to-earth and genial. A simple trip to the pub can take the consumer from the beaches of Maui to the beer halls of Munich and any number of places in between.

Beer matters because it acts as a cultural medium between communities, a common language in which to communicate the following:

‘We crafted this beer for your enjoyment, but also to let you know who we are. We crafted this beer, and it reflects the values, beliefs, and attitudes of our community. We crafted this beer from our land’s ingredients and through our people’s labor - both are contained within every bottle. We crafted this beer for you to know us, so drink up and enjoy.


Thursday, 18 March 2010

The Day after Paddy's Day

Unbelievably, it's six years since I was in Dublin for Paddy's Day, at the start of my research for what became Three Sheets to the Wind. Which means it's six years today that I had the scariest and most surreal cab journey of my life.

I wrote about it but it didn't make it into the final book. It's not really beer related as such, but it's been sitting there in a folder for six years so I thought I might as well share it!

The story so far: I was in Ireland for a few days being a really crap traveller, utterly out of my depth. Liz joined me and we had a great Paddy's Day, but I didn't really get what I needed for the Irish chapter of the book - which meant that I would return a few months later and visit Galway. Somewhat downhearted, we hailed a cab to take us back to the airport, for our flight back to London...

Liz is unusually quiet and reflective on the way to the airport, in that we’re almost twenty seconds into the journey before she tells the cab driver that we’ve been here because I’m writing a book about beer. She gets a lot more than she bargained for in response.

The driver turns around fully in his seat, away from the busy junction we’re rolling towards, to tell us that we are very, very welcome here. “That’s great. That’s really great. I’ve an idea for a book. Would you like to hear it?”

Of course, we nod and say we would love to.

He then spends the entire journey telling us how his sister had a relationship with a man from Eastern Europe who turned out to be a murderous thug. They went to live in Sweden, where the thug worked for a man who imported gold bullion. The thug’s job was to follow the people who bought the bullion back to their houses, kill them and take the gold back. Eventually, criminal mastermind and hired muscle had a falling out over the absurdly high bodycount their business was creating. Hired gun murdered mastermind, along with all his family, just to be on the safe side – except one son got away. This man then turned up at a wedding and massacred the hired gun and all his family, all except our cabbie’s sister, who was somehow spared. She took the hint and fled to South Africa, where she remains, too terrified to come back to Europe. But she took something valuable with her: the location of the spot where all the dodgy gold bullion had been buried, in a cemetery on the outskirts of Stockholm. She kept quiet about it for years, but when her brother, our cabbie, lost the multi-million pound fortune he had built up from property and ended up having to drive cabs, she told him the full story. He is now splitting his time between driving cabs in Dublin, and visiting Stockholm cemeteries to look for buried gold bullion and krugerrands. He has a man there doing research for him, and all our cab fares are going to pay for this man’s services. However, the trail seems to have gone suspiciously cold, so perhaps this contact is trying to claim the loot for himself. Our cabbie may have to go over to Stockholm again and, er, take care of him.

He turns around to face us again, leaning over into the back of the car, his face close to ours, while doing seventy on the motorway. “D’ye think that might make a good book now?”

I tell him that it would make a fantastic book and he must write it. I give him plenty of advice on how to get an agent and a publisher. Because the alternative is to tell him that he is mad, and I don’t want to do that, especially while he’s driving. I’d like to ask him, if he’s close to finding these missing millions, why he would want to blow it by writing the book and revealing the secret. He obviously believes his own story. The distressing thing is, it has so much detail and so many quirks of individuality I feel pretty sure there are shreds of truth in it somewhere. As I’m thinking this, he forgets about controlling the car altogether, reaches under his seat and brings out a 700-page pictorial guide to graveyards around Stockholm, starts showing us various pictures, asking us if we can read Swedish because he needs help with some of the passages.

I want to scream so badly. I don’t recognise the road we’re on – I’m positive we’re not heading back to the airport the way I came in. We’re on a new motorway that’s still being built, and for the first time in my life, I visualise my own death. I know I’m going to be hacked up with a spade and buried in bin bags under a flyover.

Then we’re at the airport. We leap out and get our bags. With my mouth I beg the driver to buy the Writer’s Handbook. With my eyes, I beg him not to kill us. We sprint through passport control, only relaxing when the plane finally pulls away from the gate and he isn’t on it.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Happy St Paddy's Day!

After having the naked audacity yesterday to suggest that a large regional brewer doing something that improves beer quality might actually be a Good Thing for beer drinkers, I’ve decided to completely blow any remaining credibility I might have with the miserable indie kid wing of the beer fraternity and write a post in praise of Guinness.

Beer Nut – I’m not necessarily calling you a miserable indie kid but I know how you feel on this particular issue. It might be best if you just look away now.

I like Guinness. Sorry, but I do.

I like it as a brand – it’s stuck to its guns with mould-breaking, innovative creative advertising for eighty years now – and I occasionally like it as a beer.

If there was a better porter or stout on the bar, of course I would choose to drink that instead.

But the point is, in 99 out of 100 pubs, there isn’t a better porter or stout on the bar. There’s no porter or stout at all. Apart from Guinness.

In fact when you think about it, the fact that Guinness – a dark, bitter stout – is as ubiquitous as it is in a world dominated by pale, tasteless imitation pilsners, it is a remarkable achievement.

You might be about to comment that Guinness has been dumbed down and isn’t a patch on what it used to be. I’m not in a position to disagree with you.

You might also be about to comment that Guinness isn’t a ‘real’ stout, that it’s way too bland or even that it actually tastes of nothing at all. There, I would have to disagree.

Guinness is a big brand, one of the few beers that can truly claim to have a global presence. And the main reason it’s not even bigger? Survey after survey shows that the vast majority of beer drinkers find it too bitter, too challenging, too full-bodied. If Guinness were to reformulate to something as robust as the craft-brewed porters we all know and love, it would kill the brand stone dead. It might not be challenging to you, but it is to 99% of drinkers who ever come across it.

And still it survives. The success of Guinness should actually give us hop that there are enough people who like challenging beer to make brewing something a bit more challenging worthwhile.

If Guinness hadn’t kept the dark flame alive when porter and stout were otherwise extinct globally, would those styles have made the triumphant comeback that’s happened over the last ten years?

And there’s one other thing. It’s St Patrick’s Day. If you really, truly believe that Guinness is shit, then go to a pub in Galway tonight and tell the people drinking there that they have crap taste in beer and don’t know anything about drinking.

Good luck with that.

I’ll be in the Auld Shillelagh in Stokie tonight, having a few pints, otherwise I’d come with you and help try to find your teeth on the floor of the pub.

Guinness probably holds the world record (ironic that!) for number of books written about a single beer brand. Today there’s a new one out - Guinness ®: An Official Celebration of 250 Remarkable Year, from Octopus publishing. I don’t know if it’s any good or not, but it does have some recipes in it, and the publishers asked me if I'd put one up ande give the book a plug, so I am, because it's Paddy's day and I. Like. Guinness.

So here’s one for Iced Chocolate, Guinness and orange cake.


This sumptuous cake is perfect for a special occasion. The recipe may seem a little involved, but it’s easy to accomplish if tackled stage by stage.

Preparation time 45 minutes

Cooking time 1 hour

Serves 8

2 large oranges

250 g (8 oz) caster sugar

175 g (6 oz) unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing

150 g (5 oz) self-raising flour

25 g (1 oz) cocoa powder2 teaspoons baking powder

3 free-range eggs, beaten

25 g (1 oz) ground almonds

5 tablespoons draught Guinness

150 ml (¼ pint) double cream Icing

20 g (¾ oz) unsalted butter

50 g (2 oz) caster sugar

3 tablespoons draught Guinness

100 g (3½ oz) plain dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids), finely chopped

step 1 Peel one orange. Finely grate the zest of the other orange and set aside. Using a sharp knife, pare away the pith from both oranges. Cut the oranges into 5 mm (¼ inch) slices. Put them in a small saucepan and just cover with cold water. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Add 50 g (2 oz) of the sugar and continue to simmer until all the liquid has boiled away, watching carefully to ensure that the oranges don’t burn. Leave to cool.

step 2 Beat together the butter and the remaining sugar for the cake in a large bowl until very pale and fluffy. Sift together the flour, cocoa and baking powder, then beat into the butter mixture alternately with the eggs. Add the ground almonds, reserved grated orange zest and Guinness and beat for 3–4 minutes until you have a soft dropping consistency.

step 3 Grease and line the base and sides of 2 x 20 cm (8 inch) round cake tins, then divide the cake mixture equally between the tins, smoothing the surface. Bake the cakes in a preheated oven, 190°C (375°F), Gas Mark 5, for 25 minutes until risen and firm to the touch. Leave to cool in the tins for 5 minutes before carefully turning out on to a wire rack to cool completely.

step 4 Whip the cream in a bowl until soft peaks form, then spread over one of the cakes. Arrange the cooled orange pieces over the cream and carefully place the other cake on top.

step 5 To make the icing, put the butter, sugar and Guinness in a small saucepan. Stir over a gentle heat until the sugar has dissolved, then bring to the boil. Remove from the heat and add the chocolate. Leave to soften, then beat gently with a wooden spoon. Leave to cool and thicken. While still warm but not too runny, pour the icing over the cake and use the back of a spoon or a palette knife to spread it evenly.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

EXCLUSIVE: Marston’s redefines Cask Ale

Full Disclosure: I was paid a consultancy fee by Marston’s to help them look at how to talk about this. That was three months ago and I haven’t been privy to developments since. Despite my previous involvement I have not been paid to write this post – I’m writing it because I believe in the product. But I’m flagging it because I do have an on/off strategic relationship with Marston’s and you should know that before reading this piece.

Marston’s are today announcing the launch of a new initiative called Fast Cask, which the brewer believes will revolutionise the availability and quality of cask ale.

Without going into too much technical detail, Fast Cask is still cask ale because it has live yeast working in the barrel, conditioning the beer. But that yeast has been put through an innovative process that makes it form beads which do not dissolve into the beer. These beads act like sponges, drawing beer through them to create the secondary fermentation.

What this means is that Fast Cask ale casks can stand a lot rougher treatment than a standard ale cask. They don’t need time to settle, which means they can be delivered to festivals and events that don’t normally have cellaring facilities. If a tapped cask is knocked, moved or even upended, the beer inside will still be clear. When not in use, a cask can be stored on its end, making it much more practical in small, cramped cellars.

The process means the beer no longer requires finings, so cask ale becomes acceptable to vegans.

Casks must still be tapped and vented to allow them to breathe.

Doubtless some ale aficionados will reject this as somehow being not ‘real’ ale because it’s not ‘traditional’.

The conversation I had with Marston’s was about taking a longer term historical view of the development of real ale. People who say traditional cask conditioned real ale as we know it today is ‘beer as it’s always been brewed’ are wrong. Traditional ‘running ales’ have only been around since the late nineteenth century, and were themselves one result of the scientific analysis of the behaviour and properties of yeast – an analysis which was decried by many at the time because it wasn’t ‘traditional’. If that process bore fruit a hundred years ago, it’s difficult to argue why we somehow should stop researching yeast now.

If people would simply rather have traditional cask ale that’s fine – Marston’s have no plans to phase it out, and will be offering Fast Cask alongside traditional cask.

We often talk about how cask ale is a living, breathing thing. Well living, breathing things evolve and grow and develop. Fast Cask is simply the next stage in cask ale’s evolution.

Hopefully it will be accepted as such rather than decried in a rerun of the whole cask breathers debate. Because like cask breathers, it makes no difference whatsoever to the quality or character of the beer. It’s still living, breathing real ale.

And it’s a move that helps spread the appreciation of that ale to people and places it can’t currently reach. Anyone who thinks that’s a bad thing really needs to have a word with themselves.

If you want to try it out, look out for Pedigree and Hobgoblin during Cask Ale Week (29th March to 5th April).

So what do you think? Is this good? Bad? Significant or not? Do you want to taste the beer first and then decide, or have you already made up your mind?

The Beatles and the Stones

Maybe it’s because they share the same combination of artistry and sociability, maybe it’s because both have the power to intoxicate, or maybe it’s just that one was my passion and obsession before the other came along. But I can’t help seeing constant parallels between the world of brewing and the world of pop and rock music. When I first realized that I wanted to be a writer, I wanted to write about music, and maybe I’m just venting some of that frustrated desire.

I’m not going to describe brewing as the new rock and roll because that would be unforgivable, but the excitement of discovering a new beer, the sense of an underground, an alternative to the mainstream, the hype and buzz that occasionally surround an ‘important’ new release… they’re very similar. If you took away the music analogy and my other favourite – seeing the brewing industry in terms of Monty Python films – I’d struggle to describe how I feel about beer and brewing.

With that in mind, I was struck recently by the strongest parallel to date. And it’s this: Thornbridge and Brew Dog are the Beatles and the Stones.

In the early sixties, the Beatles and the Stones tore up the blueprint of popular music and redefined it forever. They took established forms – rock and roll, rhythm and blues – and while they showed immense respect for these traditions, they twisted them into brand new shapes.The influence of both is inarguable and still felt today.

But the two bands were quite different in the way they came across, and people talked about which they preferred.

Thornbridge Hall just to of shot to the left.

While both were experimental and incredibly popular, the Beatles were seen as clean-cut, nice, cheeky boys who you could take home to meet your mum if you snagged one of them. They rocked the establishment, but there was something wholesome about them. They proved accessible and likeable as well as pioneering and brave.

You can't go out in Fraserburgh dressed like that, you dangerous young punks!

The Stones on the other hand were more dangerous, more edgy, with more attitude. “Would you let your daughter marry a Rolling Stone?” ran the infamous headline. While both bands indulged in mind-altering substances, it was the Stones who were seen as the druggy, edgy band, the real rock and rollers, the Rolls Royce in the swimming pool and the TV out the hotel window.

You could obviously appreciate both, but you probably had a definite preference for one over the other.

Thornbridge and Brew Dog are symbiotically linked in my mind because when I first met Thornbridge, Martin Dickie was joint brewer there with Stefano Cossi. Since they went their separate ways they’ve remained on good terms (when I brewed at Thornbridge, the screensaver on the brewery laptop was a big photo of Martin). They’ve developed very similar beers – Martin first explored the wood aging that would lead him to Paradox and beyond with Thornbridge’s wonderful St Petersburg. And Jaipur and Punk IPA are clearly related.

A couple of weeks ago, each brewery sent me some beer to try. Brew Dog sent a bottle of Sink the Bismarck! And Thornbridge delivered a few bottles of Jaipur that’s been centrifuged rather than pasteurized and/or cold filtered. This weekend, I tried them both.

Both IPAs, both from new wave rock and roll brewers. Jaipur the latest Beatles remix, Sink! the challenging new release from Their Satantic Majesties.

I’m actually going to have to discuss the beers in a separate blog post now because there is so much to say about Sink! in particular, so I’ll let this observation – originally intended as an intro to a blog about beer tastings – stand on its own.

Please let’s not get into which one of the Bakewell lot is Ringo, and whether James Watt is more Mick Jagger or Andrew Loog Oldham – I don’t want to get down to the personal level (though I’ll give you Martin Dickie as Keith Richards – there’s even a passing physical resemblance to the young Keef).

But if the analogy is true, can we extend it? Who is the brewing world’s Simply Red, its Joy Division or Black Lace?

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Why Beer Matters - The Results!

21 people competed for the trip to Budvar I won in December and offered up here in January.

I'm sorry it took so long to pick a winner!

It was interesting to read the variety of entries - a privilege to get an insight into what beer means to different people around the world.

Many entries talked about beer's role through history in keeping us alive, and almost everyone touched at least in part on beer's role today as the most sociable of drinks, its uniquely slow, stately progression of inebriation and the way we can bond over it. Many said we could do that bonding anyway, but the beer sure as hell helps. Some tried the angle that the beer itself is not what matters, but the friendships and times it helps catalyse, while others said beer may not matter to you, or to the guy down the street, but it matters to me because I drink it, or I brew it, or make my living out of it, and wouldn't have it any other way.

So in terms of themes it was all quite familiar stuff - I've made all those points in my books and on this blog many times before.

But what made reading these entries special was the way these arguments were illustrated. We might all think similar things about beer, but our own individual stories that back up these beliefs are quite different, and make for a wonderful collection of reading. Your first beer, your coming of age with beer, the moment you decided you wanted to brew, the places you've travelled in the name of beer... reading these entries one after the other was to be pulled around the world from one cool bar to another, back and forth across the last three or four decades, fantastic beer at the centre of a kaleidoscope of life experiences.

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking 'sod the platitude and purple prose Pete, who won?'

OK, so we had three entries that really stood out for the pack.

In third place, is John Bidwell from Denver, Colorado, with his essay: 'Liquid identities: Community Representation through Beer.' He focuses on how two brewers in two different parts of the world pack their beers with a real sense of place and provenance, and transport you to those places when you drink them.

In second place is Shea Luke, with a spirited romp through her life as a young, female real ale enthusiast and ticker. Shea blogs here and will be on my blogroll from now on. She has a distinctive, fresh voice and a lovely turn of phrase, and I hope we hear a lot more from her in future.

And the winner... let's hope all these prizes don't start going to his head, but first place goes to Mark Dredge. He's so industrious, so omnipresent, that it's easy to forget that Mark has been writing about beer for less than two years. He's on a very steep upward trajectory and this entry is proof of that. It traces all the themes outlined above, but frames them in a neat narrative arc and addresses them with passion, energy and clarity. A clear voice and an increasing confidence in his writing mean Mark will be going to Ceske Budejovice and seeing his piece in The Publican very soon.

Thank you so much to everyone who entered. It really was a pleasure to judge - I don't think there was a single entry that was not enjoyable in some way. I'm hoping to post the top three entries on here over the next week or two, so stay tuned for some fresh takes on the beverage we all feel matters so much.

Hold the front page - Daily Mail twists truth to scare people over drink

It's like shooting fish in a barrel these days I know, but after being alerted to this by a fellow blogger, I couldn't let it pass without comment.

The Mail this week ran a story titled 'Beer for breakfast? Pub chain Wetherspoon to open at 7am'.

It's one of those classic weasels whereby if you read to the end of the piece, you eventually get the true facts. But journos know that most people read the headline and the first paragraph. If you did that here, you could only come away with the very clear impression that Wetherspoons is going to start serving - as the headline says - 'beer for breakfast', from 7am.

The only trouble is, that's not true:
  • Wetherspoons will NOT be serving alcohol when they open at 7am - they won't be serving alcohol till 9am - meaning the headline is factually inaccurate:
  • Wetherspoons ALREADY serve alcohol from 9am - so this is not news - in terms of pursuing its anti-drink agenda, there is actually no story here. Wetherspoons is NOT extending the hours during which it serves alcohol, even though the story is desperately trying to make you think they are.
So far, so Daily Mail. But the reason I had to write this piece was the following sentence:

"The new early hours are one result of the controversial shift to 24-hour licensing laws that has also coincided with a rise in concern about under-age drinking."

Even by the Mail's standards, this is a masterclass in deceit and distortion, and deserves to be dissected and studied carefully.

Firstly, its place in the article seems odd. Why are we suddenly talking about underage drinking when we were just talking about breakfast in Spoons? Read it quickly - as most of us do - and you'll think that Spoons opening for breakfast is going to encourage underage drinking. This is not what the sentence says, and it wouldn't make sense of it did now we've established alcohol won't even be served at breakfast time. But if it's not trying to do that, why is it here? It's actually irrelevant in this story - it's part of an entirely different story. Given that alcohol is not being served, the whole area of licensing laws and '24 hour drinking' is irrelevant to the story - this breakfast move has nothing to do with liberalised licensing hours whatsoever. This point is only here to create an entirely false association between Wetherspoons and under-age drinking.

Secondly, look carefully at the sentence itself - it links two entirely separate concepts - 24 hour licensing laws and underage drinking. It cleverly uses the word 'coincided' because there is no evidence whatsoever that what they refer to as "24 hour licensing laws" have had any impact on underage drinking, but still, the link is forged.

And finally, there's that beautiful weasel of 'a rise in concern about underage drinking'
What's that you say? Under-age drinking is rising? Oh hang on, no, that's not what you said is it? Because under age drinking is not rising, and you know it's not rising. In fact every single survey conducted since the new licensing laws were introduced, such as those surveys discussed here and here, shows that underage drinking is FALLING.

But you say 'concern' over underage drinking is rising? It is, is it? Among whom? And why? Wouldn't have anything to do with the Daily Mail creating a scare story where none exists, would it?

Take a bow Sean Poulter. Even by the standards of your colleagues, this is a brilliant piece of shit smearing. If it weren't so evil, I could almost admire it.

Fortunately, most of the commenters on the article have seen through your spin. Apart from some vile, bigoted comments about people on benefits, no one can really see what the supposed problem is in this (non) story - and this is Daily Mail readers we're talking about. Maybe there's some hope for us after all...

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Government report says Mandatory Code on pubs not needed - govt introduces it anyway

Catching up with myself, I thought that overall it would be less embarrassing if I started at the back with the really old correspondence and notes I haven't yet dealt with rather than starting with what I need to respond to from yesterday.

I'm glad I did, because I'm regretting not remembering and sharing this little treasure earlier: At the end of January, a friend of mine in the industry sent me a link to Home Office's overview report on regulating the alcohol industry, which was issued by the Government to support the launch of the Mandatory Code a few weeks ago.

My friend D thought the final paragraph of the report was particularly revealing:

Existing legislation
A question that looms in responses across strands and across audiences is whether the regulation
of the on-trade needs as much tightening as the Consultation Document suggests. It is stressed
that most premises are not hubs of crime and disorder. Where problems may arise, many feel that
the enforcement of existing legislation as well as voluntary local partnerships can go a long way in
addressing them. Many measures are already considered good practice and it is questioned
whether further legislation is therefore needed.

In other words - the government produces a report to back up more restrictions on pubs, and that very report concludes by questioning whether further restrictions are needed, but the government implements them anyway, and releases the report that says no further restrictions are needed to support the further restrictions they've implemented.


I wanted to use a picture here. This is the space where a picture of the Dentist's Chair promotion would go, if such a picture actually existed.

And for those of you with long memories - there's no mention of the Dentist's Chair promotion anywhere in the report. I wonder when that was inserted as a soundbite? Surely we're not looking at something here that was 'sexed up'?

Sunday, 7 March 2010

At conference

Writing this on my way home from the SIBA annual conference, on a cold, draughty train with no tables, no refreshment trolley, no power sockets. Wedged sideways on a hard, narrow seat, developing pins and needles in my left leg which is curled up to provide a surface for the laptop, the cold grey light, bare branches and churned, muddy fields gliding past the window, everything conspiring to accentuate what was a surprisingly mild hangover, draw out the nuances of it, develop the waves of pain and nausea like a symphony orchestra playing variations on a theme, and turn it into something that forces me to seriously contemplate tearing my eyeballs from their sockets.

But it was worth every groan, whimper and noxious whiff.

I first went to SIBA two years ago, to present a summary of the first Cask Report. They treated me well, looked after me, and I said yes like a shot when they asked me back to present on the second cask report a year later. But three years running felt like overkill, so this year I wasn’t invited to speak. It got to Monday and I thought, sod it, there’s no actual reason for me to go this year, but it’s such a good crack I’ll go anyway. Not for the speeches and presentations – even though some of them were quite good, they weren’t really aimed at me – but for the chance to be in a room full of brewers sharing their beers.

Every year a local MP or mayor will open the conference and inevitably talk about how real ale is not a binge drink, and everyone will nod furiously, and throughout the day the theme will be referred back to in presentation after presentation – real ale drinkers are moderate drinkers, responsible drinkers, you can’t really binge drink real ale, and we all nod every time it comes up, and then at 5pm the speeches finish and we charge the bar and get riotously, deliciously hoonered on real ale. SIBA conference drinking is drinking with gusto, with relish. It’s hearty drinking, lustful for life drinking, and more importantly, it’s only £1.50 a pint.

The conference (or just ‘conference’ without the definite article according to the people running the thing – it makes it sound more important) also sees the announcement of the winners of the SIBA National Brewing Competition, which is becoming a serious contender to CAMRA’s Champion Beer of Britain.

The overall winner was Triple Chocoholic from the Saltaire Brewery in Bradford, also winner of the speciality beer category. Brewed with chocolate malt, actual chocolate and chocolate syrup towards the end, it’s a very easy beer to write tasting notes for; a very difficult beer to write good tasting notes for. It’s very, very chocolatey and very, very gorgeous. Sorry, that’s the best I can do.

Saltaire also won their category for their Cascade Pale Ale. People have been murmuring about Saltaire for a while now, they’ve won a bagful of awards already, but this felt like a coming out party for them. Definitely a brewery to watch, and after chatting to the brewer after dinner I’m looking forward to arranging a visit as soon as I can.

Thornbridge Lord Marples, Bank Top’s Dark Mild, Salopian Darwin’s Origin, Green Mill Big Chief Bitter, Dorothy Goodbody’s Country Ale, Blue Monkey Guerilla and St Austell Proper Job were the other category winners.

And Christ, I’ve laughed a lot in the last two days. Sometimes I laughed at someone’s expense (I’m sorry, but even if the bloke selling stillaging units has never seen Swiss Toni on The Fast Show, he still can’t be forgiven for that haircut, moustache and grey suit combination) but mostly I laughed because the people I was in conversation with were extremely funny.

The theme of the conference was people – working with people, valuing people you work with, getting the best out of them. It brought home just what a people business the beer business is. That’s a rubbish thing to say, because every single business on the planet is a people business, but what we mean is that it’s a sociable business.

Someone on my table at dinner last night told a story about when he was at another conference in a hotel, and in the bar afterwards he was sitting enjoying a few beers with some of the other delegates. There was another conference in the same hotel – packaging or IT systems or insurance or something – and the guy in charge of that conference decided to – ahem – ‘work the room’. He came over to our brewer’s table and said, “Hi, what do you guys do?”

“We’re brewers,” replied the brewer.

“Right! Cool. Which brewery?”

“Well… we all work for different breweries.”

The guy was incredulous. “I’d get fired if I did something like that! There’s no way we could simply sit round a table having a laugh with our competitors. It just wouldn’t happen.”

This is one of the things I love most about beer. You doubtless have a pile of stories yourself that illustrate the same point. And it’s why I get so bleeding angry when the infighting starts. We’re better than that. We have something no one else has.

SIBA has its critics, as do small brewers generally (I was in a room recently where one big brewer turned a small brewer he’d only just met and said “You lot are all parasites.”) And SIBA itself has its own share of infighting and politicking. There are always issues and genuine areas of disagreement, competing priorities and conflicts. And I’m lucky that I can stay half in, half out of such conflicts, not being a brewer or pub owner myself. But the sociability and the common cause are much greater, much more important.

Which is why I’ll be at ‘conference’ again this time next year.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

The Special Relationship

I just spent a couple of minutes trying to find a picture to illustrate this post, because that's what you're supposed to do on blogs - make it more multimedia and all that. But as soon as I started scanning potential pics, I realised this was one of those posts that's best appreciated if we let your imagination do the work, so here goes...

Had a fantastic afternoon today in a Euston pub with Mitch Steele and Steve Wagner from California's legendary Stone brewery. They're over in the UK researching a book on IPA, and having a once in a lifetime type of trip (note to self: pretend you only have ten days left in Britain, but three months to plan what you do in those ten days. What would you do?)

We had a good chat and traded notes, and even drank some IPA. After an hour or so, it emerged that Mitch and Steve hadn't eaten lunch. It was Steve's round, so he volunteered to order some food when he went up to the bar.

Ten minutes later, the food arrived. Both Steve and Mitch looked perturbed - the classic look we all get when we're in a foreign country and we're almost certain something is wrong, but we don't want to kick up the same stink we would at home for fear of offending someone or being shown up as a clueless tourist who just doesn't get it.

Eventually Steve said "Um... this is not what I ordered. I ordered a vegetable platter."

I looked at the sharing platter between us, and felt the slow, cold-water-creeping embarrassment we all feel when we're in our own country and we realise something is wrong, but only because we're seeing it through a foreigner's eyes, and we don't want to kick up a stink because we don't want our guests to think of us as some clueless hick who just doesn't get it.

Eventually I said, "Um... yes, this is what you ordered. It is the vegetable platter. Look, these are deep-fried onion rings in batter. Onions are a vegetable. These triangular things are deep-fried vegetable samosas. They've got vegetables in. These nobbly things are... they're deep-fried mushrooms in breadcrumbs. Mushrooms are a vegetable. And so is bread. These things here are curly fries. They're made from potato, which is a vegetable. You recognise taco chips of course - made of corn, and corn is another vegetable. And this last one here, this grey cylindrical thing... I'm not sure.... hang on, I'll taste it... oh. These are onion bhajis. Deep-fried onion and potato. So you see, it is a vegetable platter."

Steve and Mitch were both silent for a while. Then, eventually, Steve said, "I keep forgetting we're not in Southern California any more."

"Look," I replied, "If I turn the plate around there's a bit of garnish on this side, and there's a little bit of that that's green."

Gingerly, Steve reached for a deep-fried breaded mushroom.

But even though I'd already had lunch, I was the only one of the three of us who went anywhere near the bhajis or the curly fries.

Wikio Rankings for February

The algorithms are in, and the rankings have been compiled for beer and wine blog rankings for February 2010. Lot's of jostling and ooh look, I'm back on top! Barry M's bitten bullet is rising steadily, and the fact that Jeff has finished his blog is starting to make an impact as it slides down three.

If you'd like to be included in the rankings and currently aren't - or if you would like to exclusively reveal the monthly rankings on your blog next month - please drop me a line...

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Exclusive - more details about the future of Tetley's

I've blogged in the past about how Tetley's was my trainer beer, my local pint, and how even though its star has fallen, it retains a special place in my heart.

In 2008 Carlsberg UK announced that the brewery in Leeds would be closing. Today they've announced that from 2011, Marstons will brew Tetley's Cask in Wolverhampton, while Smoothflow will be brewed by Molson Coors in Tadcaster. Carlsberg say they are delighted that most of the volume brewed will be remaing in Yorkshire, and that with cask, they looked into every option for keeping it in Yorkshire but this proved not to be possible.

I've just had a chat with Darran Britton, Carlsberg UK's marketing director, and got a bit more background. I'll scribble down what he said first, and reserve some personal reflections till the end of this post.

The most contentious part of the whole deal is the move of cask out of Yorkshire. Was there really 'no other option?'

"It may not be as fashionable as it once was, but Tetley's is a still a very sizeable cask ale," replied Britton, "it needed somewhere with enough excess capacity. But it also needed someone who is experienced in brewing other people's beers, someone who is technically excellent."

Lots of names have been speculated - Black Sheep, Timothy Taylor's, Heineken (as in John Smith's in Tadcaster) but if you agree with those criteria - and it's hard not to - then it's difficult to disagree with the conclusion, however unpalatable it may be.

So why Marston's?

"They have a great reputation for their ales, and they're an experienced contract brewer. In Wolverhampton they have traditional square fermenters, which Tetley's has always been brewed in. We'll work with them to keep the same recipe, the same ingredients, and we'll continue using Tetley's unique two-strain yeast."

And what about Leeds? What are the plans for the brewery site?

"Production in Leeds will end mid-2011. We'll be transferring the brewing earlier in the year. We're in talks with Leeds council about their plans for the city, but there are no plans for the site yet."

Tetley's - like its counterparts Worthington's, John Smiths and Boddington's - has been in a phase of managed decline for several years now, ceding the cask ale market to regionals and local brewers. Now that cask ale is back in growth - tiny, tiny growth, but growth nonetheless - will this move coincide with renewed support behind the brand? To be clear, Carlsberg is retaining ownership of Tetley's for the foreseeable future, with Molson Coors and Marston's brewing on a contract basis. Despite this, I'm reminded of when Courage brands moved from S&N, who clearly didn't want them, to Well's & Young's, who did. In that case there was a change of ownership, but it saw the beers being revitalised to a dramatic extent. As I said, this move for Tetley's is different, but after reports of new investment and the return of the huntsman to the brand's identity, I wondered if this was a cue for somer kind of relaunch.

Britton refused to be drawn, saying more that this was "business as usual". Rather than there being any renewed energy behind the brand, he insisted that there wouldn't be any less support behind it, that investment will continue, and that there'll be a new sampling campaign later this year.

So there we go.

In my job, I get to see both sides of stories like this. Sometimes I'm with the marketers when difficult decisions have to be made, when the harsh realities of modern business and the demands of shareholders make unpalatable choices inevitable. Other times I get to be a beer fan, and to be able to say "Fuck the shareholders, this is beer we're talking about! A short term view not only betrays the core drinkers of the brand, it actually doesn't make sound business sense in the long view."

In this case, I'm torn. I am grief-stricken at what has happened to Tetley's, appalled that the link between the brand and the city of Leeds will be broken. ("Tetley's will always have a relationship with Leeds", insists Britton, but that relationship will only exist in an abstract, emotional sense). I'm frustrated that for one of the biggest beer brands in the country, Carlsberg seems unable to make the huge power of provenance and place of origin make commercial sense for them. Lots of people will say that Tetley's can never taste the same if it's brewed in Wolverhampton but I'm not one of them - it'll taste exactly the same. But it's not about that - it's about the story, the soul of the beer.

On the other hand, I feel we have to accept the commercial reality that it no longer makes business sense for big breweries to sit on lots of expensive land in city centres. We don't have to like it. We can rage against it. But that doesn't stop it from being true. It's difficult enough to make money in brewing.

I think that to fairly criticise Carlsberg for what they've announced today, you have to be able to suggest something they could have done instead.

Keeping the Leeds brewery open was not an option. Moving cask to another brewery in Yorkshire was - if we take Britton at his word - not an option.

The one thing I think may have been an option, and which I'm disappointed by, is not keeping a small part of the space in Leeds and continuing to brew cask there. Most of the land is a massive distribution centre, which would be way better somewhere else. It doesn't make much difference at all where Smoothflow is brewed and I'm not sure any0ne cares. But if you sold off all that lot, and kept hold of the old brewery bit or redeveloped a new purpose-built cask ale brewery for a few million quid, this could only have enhanced whatever plans Leeds will eventually have for the space (I'm guessing "luxury apartments" with the odd Starbucks and panini shop.) It would add heritage, character and romance, something uniquely Leeds, to what is sure to be a development that will look identical to any city in the UK. This would have sent the right signals to the ale community, given the city a stake, mollified hardcore Tetley's fans. Maybe they looked at this option and found reasons why it wasn't viable. Maybe not. But the fact that it is not happening is a crying shame.

I have no problem whatsoever with Marston's - they certainly know how to brew beer.

I think Britton is right - it will be business as usual. Nothing will change in the beer itself. And it has always been a decent cask pint, brewed with love and care, no matter what anyone thinks.

But I had hoped that this would be more than business as usual. It's emotional and sentimental because that's what beer is, but when Tetley's cask is no longer brewed in Leeds, I for one will have one less reason to drink the beer. I'd rather been hoping for new reasons to drink it instead. Sadly, I've heard nothing to suggest that there will be.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Raise a glass to St David's Day

Why do we think it's still acceptable to take the piss out of the Welsh in a way that's no longer acceptable with any other nation?

OK, I'll admit they talk a bit funny, and maybe we don't have the same sense of them being a nation that we do with the Scots and Irish, who both fought more robustly to avoid being absorbed by England than their south-westerly Celtic cousins. 'England and Wales' is still often said on one breath even in this devolutionary age where Scotland has regained a considerable measure of national pride and identity.

But I love Wales. I mean, just look at it:

The fact that The Beer Widow is a closet Taff has a lot to do with that (you'd never guess to hear her talk, unless you make her really mad and really drunk at the same time) but I hope to divide my time between South Wales and London to an increasing extent. It's stunning scenery in the valleys, the kind you drink in. The pubs around Abergavenny are some of the best I've ever been to, delivering the quality you'd expect from a gastropub with none of the pretension. And the Abergavenny Food Festival is one of the culinary highlights of my year.

I did two talks/tutored tastings at last year's festival. I got a kick out of the fact that they both sold out a month or so in advance, when tickets for other events were still available on the day. OK, so one of those was an audience with Michael Winner so it's not fair to compare, but still.

One of my events was a tasting of locally brewed beers. Four years ago, when I was commissioned by the Mail on Sunday to do a piece on micros across Britain, I had trouble finding many breweries in Wales to talk about. I had Breconshire Brewery, and that was pretty much it. There's no such problem now.

As with any region of the country, when I was selecting beers for the tasting I found several that were so bad I had to pour down the sink, but the good ones were sublime.

Otley is one of the most exciting breweries in the country. Founder and brewer Nick Otley shares the vision of peers like Dark Star and Thornbridge, always asking 'What If...', always giving trad beer styles a new and unique twist, and his branding is arguably the best in small-scale British brewing:
At the tasting we had O-Garden - yes, a Belgian-style wheat beer - and Columb-O, a 4% golden ale for which Nick bought up the entire UK supply of Columbus hops to create one of those peachy, zingy beers that makes you a bit giddy when you first taste it. At the end of the tasting we had to clear out so the next talk could set up, and we were dawdling, going "Hang on, I think there's just a bit more left in the pin," desperate not to leave any behind.

Otley also runs a mail order business supplying other Welsh beers, and he very kindly gave me a few other beers for the event.

Purple Moose is probably the most celebrated Welsh brewery right now, at least in terms of awards. I found their beers to be expertly made, nothing wrong with them at all, but I should have tasted them before the Otley beers. Nice pale ales, crisp and flavoursome, and maybe it was unfair of me to expect more than that, but with the hype and the funky name and branding, I kind of did.

Kingstone is a farmhouse brewery in Tintern who'd caught my attention the year before with 1503 - an ale based on a recipe from that year. Unfortunately I've had one or two dodgy bottles recently from shops, but on the day it didn't disappoint - dark and carmelly, with that lovely sweet spot where hops and malt meet and synthesise in a rich fruitiness. (Kingstone also helped out the following day after Fedex played a game of football with the Jaipur intended for my IPA tasting, donating the festival stock of their IPA). They've got a fantastic and intriguing bottled range, nothing too wacky but very solid.

Breconshire kind of dominates the Welsh brewing scene now. Head Brewer Buster Grant is a striking figure, tall with a Victorian-size beard and often sporting a kilt. His beers are subtle - they make you work a bit before revealing their strengths, but it's well worth the effort. He takes classic styles and tweaks them a little - a best bitter that's paler than a golden ale (Cribyn, 4.5%), an old ale that has sherry notes and ages nicely despite being only 5% (Rambler's Ruin), and a stunning stout made with peated malt that delivers the flavour profile of a whisky aged beer without pinning you to the ground and punching you repeatedly in the face with it (Night Beacon, 4.5%). These are beers that knock politely and ask if they can come in, before revealing themselves to be more than you first took them for.

My one big regret at the Festival was that I didn't feature anything from the Tudor Brewery. This is a new operation in the heart of Abergavenny, a brew pub in the Kings Arms, a delightful, ancient pub with rooms and food that punches above its weight. When the brewery opened I tried to like the beers. I tried so hard. But they simply weren't very good, so I didn't put them into the tasting. And then, afterwards, I found out they had a new brewer who'd had a bit of help and completely turned them around. If you see Skirrid, Sugarloaf and Blorenge - named after the mountains that overlook Abergavenny - please give them a go. They're well worth it, especially the slightly spiced toffee warmth of the Sugarloaf.

Apart from it being St David's Day, and the fact that it's easy to overlook Welsh beers, and that have been meaning to write about Abergavenny for months, the other reason for posting this today is that there's a Welsh Beer Festival on down at the Rake this week. We went down yesterday, attending a tasting of Breconshire beers by Buster - including the excellent Rambler's Ruin and Night Beacon.

Then we shared a couple of pints with Nick Otley, who talked us through O Rosie (blonde ale brewed with rosemary ) and Motley Brew, the full-on IPA brewed with Glyn from the Rake. It's a beer that stops you in your tracks and makes you see the wisdom of ordering halves. It's pretty much Glyn's favourite beer. I mean, it would be, but after doing it as a one off, there is now talk of it being made a permanent Otley beer and rightly so.

If you're anywhere near London the Welshfest worth checking out - the decking area is full of racked beers, I reckon there's over 20 on in total.

So, Wales then. The country is about the same size as Belgium. And while chances of it competing with the continental surrealists in beer terms remain remote, in beer - as in so much else these days - when you start to scratch the surface, it has a burgeoning beer culture all of its own - a distinctively Welsh beer culture.

Lots occurin'.