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What's new?

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!

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Chodovar and the Bohemia/Bavaria beer nation

So after the future comes the past.

An hour or so on a minibus from Prague to Plzen, delayed by Tierney-Jones' alarm not going off.  Bags dropped in a charming pension in town, then back on the minibus and out along motorways through forests and fields towards Chodovar.

There's a big hotel, a brewery behind it, and as we drive around the back of this complex, the entrance to a tunnel.

You wouldn't believe what's inside this cave entrance...

Inside is a vast labyrinth of caves hewn from granite over a period of six centuries.  Now there's a restaurant at the heart of it, busy on a Friday lunchtime with families, couples, goths, and gangs of sweet little old ladies, all drinking pints of Chodovar beer.  

These caves were originally hollowed out to store or 'lager' the beer, cut from solid granite.  The natural temperature in here os between 3 and 5 degrees celcius, and beyond the restaurant and the tourist tat, horizontal fermentation tanks are still embedded in the rock.

Jiri Plevka's family have worked here as brewers for 220 years.  In 1992 they took over as managers, and Jiri now runs the place.  "Every member of the family is a brewer," he says. "Beer is our blood.  What matters to us the most is the quality of the beer.  Money comes second." 

They certainly make a lot of money - we're only nine miles form the German border, and this complex has all the hallmarks of a coach trip tourist trap - so if money only comes second, the beer has to be amazing.  

And it is.  

Jiri brings us pints of unfiltered, unpasteurised lager straight for the cellar, a beer that's only available in this restaurant.  It's an elixir to my hangover, a bready, spicy, grassy Kellerbier.  

Chodovar is a geographical curiosity.  I've always said that Bohemia and Bavaria, separated by a national border, are in fact two halves of a beery nation that belong together, and you really feel that here.  Josef Groll, the brewer who made Plzen famous, was a Bavarian.  You get the impression that Chodovar does more business with Germans than Czechs, and there are German influences in the brewing.  But the region has Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status form the EU, meaning that 'Chodske Pivo' is unique - only ever brewed with ingredients from this region, including Saaz hops.

Just to confuse the regional identity further though, the local pronunciation of 'Chodske' sounds very similar to the way the Czechs talk about 'Scotland', and they joke that Scotland is the most northerly part of Chodske.  "Both places enjoy rainy weather, beautiful countryside, and have the same crops - you make whisky from the same ingredients as beer," says Jiri.  

He underlines this by distilling a clear spirit from his beer.  But maybe he's taking things a bit too far when he insists that he plays bagpipes at home.

OK it might just look like an empty room.  But this is a traditional floor maltings! In a brewery!

After this first beer we get a tour of the brewery.  It malts its own barley in an impressive maltings, with three female maltsters.  The traditional back-breaking work of turning the grain is made substantially easier with the help of little sit-on lawnmower-type machines that turn the malt.

The brewhouse itself is lovely, like all Czech brewhouses, all gleaming copper and long, fat, shiny pipes.
They do know how to build a lovely brewhouse in the Czech Republic
But it's those granite cellars where the magic happens.  In the week that A-B Inbev shamefully refused to tell journalists how long the new "premium" Stella Black is matured for - despite having the audacity to launch it on a positioning that it is 'matured for longer' -  Chodovar gave us a powerful reminder of the magic and integrity of true lagering, and a demonstration of how keen a brewer is to talk about lagering times when they have nothing to be ashamed of on that score.

The main lagers are aged for four to six weeks.  That's because a true lager has to be aged for that long to give it its unique, delicate character.  A real lager is not less flavourful than a good ale; it's just flavoured differently, and it's as beautiful as any ale, and a lot more drinkable.  Taste this stuff and I defy you to not start sounding like the worst kind of CAMRA loon.  It defies belief that most of the beer we drink exists on a scale of tasteless to offensive, when it's supposed to be like this.  This stuff is not more challenging or complex than mainstream British standard lager, it's not more difficult to get into, it's no less refreshing or crisp or any other things we want form standard lager.  It's just better.  And that's because it's been made with love and care - and time.  This beer is lagered for four to six weeks.  If rumours are correct, certain leading british lager brands are lagered for one day - or even less.  

Go figure.
Deep in the granite caves, this man is about to make Tierney-Jones quite tearful
If that's me getting a bit emotional about lager, you should have seen Tierney-Jones when we were given a tour of the lagering tanks, bricked into narrow granite passages with wet floors, and Jiri poured off some of his 'Spezial' beer, a Marzen style brew that will be ready at the end of September.  It's been i the tanks for one and a half months so far.  It's absolutely divine.  Jiri thinks it's getting there.

In the brewery yard is a fountain that springs from the brewery's well.  A statue to St Joseph presides over the fountain.  Behind his back, there's a second tap from the wellspring, out of which comes beer.  You pray to St Joseph for great beer, and he delivers.

Not much has changed here for 600 years.  Obviously lager styles have (they call it lager here, not Pilsner - they don't believe Plzen brews the best beer) and technology has, but the soul of the beer, the love for it, the sheer bloody loveliness of it, is as eternal as the granite.

Chodovar's slogan is "Your beer wellness land".  This is largely because it is the home of the beer spa, which we visited.  But that deserves a post all of its own - coming soon...

Friday, 27 August 2010

The New Czech Revolution

"This is a very typical Czech pub," said Jan, our guide, as we entered our first stop of the night.

"Unbelievably Czech," he said, as we walked past a heavily grafittied door and reached the top of a windy flat of steps.

"Worryingly Czech," he concluded, as we entered a room made of a series of arches and were shown to our table in the corner, my eyes already starting to water a little from the smoke.

But behind the bar, and in the cellar, what was going on was very un-Czech.
The ironically named 'Bad Times' - Zly Casy

Evan Rail is an American who's lived in Prague for about a decade.  "I used to live in Dresden.  One night I had a dream about going to Prague and I told my flatmates I was thinking of visiting, and they said, 'pack your stuff, dude, you won't be coming back.'"  He's brought us to Zly Casy (Bad Times - "Named because people used to come to the pub for good times, and now they come to talk about the bad times") because it's the centre of a new Czech brewing revolution.

My first beer is Rarasek, a refreshing wheat beer with a definite banoffee character but no spiciness, making it clean and refreshing.  The we have an 'English pale ale' from Kocour, who's branding alone tells you whoever owns the brewery has been inspired by Stone, and maybe by Brew Dog - whose livery adorns the walls.  Kocour doesn't taste like an English pale ale, but it does taste absolutely wonderful, delicately laced with new world hops and reminding Young Dredge of Nelson Sauvin-influenced Kipling.

The Czech take on English pale ale, via the US West Coast, and possibly New Zealand

Hanz, who owns this bar ("The Germans spell it with an 's', so I spell it with a 'z'") sources all the beers himself from Bohemia, and across the border into Austria and Germany.  There's a cross-fertilisation going on between these brewing traditions, taking in elements of Belgian, American and British brewing too.  This pub, and a handful of others like it, have formed a collective which seeks to promote interesting craft beer and work hard to serve it in the very best condition.  There are 25 taps on the bar here - there's a pub opening in a few weeks that will have 30.

"All these pubs - they just used to serve Staropramen, or Pilsner Urquell.  That was all you could get.  Now you're getting young guys coming in here boasting that they've been to Orval or Westverleteren and brining those kinds of tastes back with them," says Evan.

For our next stop we go to the end of the tramline to Prvni Pivni Tramway, affectionately referred to as a 'pajzl', which roughly translates as a dive or a shithole, but in a good way - my favourite type of pub.

A dive.  A dive that has Brew Dog Trashy Blonde on tap.
As we walk in, the barman rings a loud bell, which I take to mean it's last orders.  But no - it's an old tram bell, rung ion welcome as we walked through the door.  The seats are made from old tram benches, "The kind that are designed to be so uncomfortable that you cannot fall asleep on the tram and miss your stop."  Barcelona v Benfica is on the TV.  Brew Dog's Trashy Blonde is on tap.  "None of this existed three years ago," says Evan, "You simply couldn't get these beers or beer styles in Prague."

And finally, it's back into town to Jama.  There are three of these now, all serving great beer.

There's just one thing that worries me about all this.  I love the global craft brewing movement and I love American beers a great deal.  But there's a hint of triumphalism in some of the tweets I get back through the night, sharing this new wave of Czech beers.  There's a certain kind of beer fan who's never been happy with the fact that a great brewing tradition here was focused around lager, and now there's perhaps a sense that the Czechs have seen the error of their ways and are embracing the same craft ales popular everywhere else.  My worry is that we're in danger of losing a wonderful lager brewing tradition - I never had a problem with Czech beer.  In fact I love it.  I thought craft brewing was meant to be about regional and local diversity, and I'm uncomfortable that the same new world hops and beer styles seem to be permeating all corners of the globe.  is this the end for great Czech lager?

Evan puts me at ease.  "Czech lager brewing is growing alongside this stuff," he says.  "There are so many new Czech style beers, but they're coming from micros and brew pubs.  These other beers only account for a tiny portion of the total.  It's only the giants that are losing out."

None of us were expecting to see this in Prague, and we're delighted that we did.  In ten minutes we set off for Pislen, via Chodovar, home of the beer spa.  Let's see what's happening there.

I hadn't realised Tim Hampson fro the Guild of Beer Writers was here with us too.  Between me, him and Adrian, someone needs to be running a sweepstake on who's the first to use phrases like, "When you get to my age," with Young Dredge.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

On our way to Prague!


ATJ, Young Dredge and I, plus a couple of other beery types, are embarking on a visit to the Czech Republic, to take in the new attractions at the Pilsner Brewery visitors centre, the Pilsen Beer Fest and the famous Chodovar beer spa!  It's going to be messy.  It's going to be sticky.

What's exciting about this trip is that it's been put on by the Czech Tourism Board specifically to get British beer bloggers blogging about the Czech beer scene.  After several years where blogging was seen as somehow inferior to written journalism, the Czechs are the first people I know of to really engage with bloggers and go all out to court them.

I'm not going to let their hospitality lure me into writing adoring puff pieces, but I'm expecting the trip is going to be pretty damn enjoyable.  And because I've been invited in a blogging capacity, I'm going to cover it as fully as I can in blog form, in as close to real time as I can.  I'm going to aim to post at least once a day to report on our progress.

This is the first post - live from the new free Wi-Fi on the Heathrow Express.

First stop tonight - a tour of Prague pubs with Czech beer expert and author of CAMRA's Good Beer Guide to Prague, Evan Rail!

Na Zdravi!

Monday, 23 August 2010

British Guild of Beer Writers Awards 2010 launched

I've probably written too much about writing about beer rather than about beer itself in recent months but please indulge me one last time, because this one is important.

Last December I was named Beer Writer of the Year at the British Guild of Beer Writers Awards.  Blimey, but it's gone quick.

One of the perks of the job is that this year I have to chair the judges for Beer Writer of the Year 2010.  I've assembled a panel of judges who I feel will be thorough and fair in terms of rewarding work that fulfils the Guild's stated aims "To improve standards of beer writing and extend the public knowledge of beer."  I'm the only beer writer among them: there's a brewer, a national newspaper journalist and a food writer.  Between us, we're looking for writing where the passion for beer is obvious - and infectious.

The rise of beer blogging has seen a huge increase in entries to the awards, which is a fantastic thing - bloggers have re-energised the whole discipline of beer writing.  There's a category for online beer communication which potentially covers everything from tweets to e-books, but there are other categories such as beer and food writing or the travel bursary where blog posts can also compete.  Entries are judged on their merits.  At least two of our judges don't know their Protz from their Cooking Lager, so if there are any conspiracy theorists out there thinking of wading in about old boys' networks (two of the four judges are women by the way), the difference between 'professional' writers and amateurs, old media versus new media, forget it - we just want to reward the very best beer writing, irrespective of where it comes from or where it's going.

The press release for the awards is here.  And this year, to encourage as many entries as possible, I've gathered received wisdom from previous Beer Writers of the Year/Chairmen of Judges to write a detailed set of guidelines for entrants.  We've also tweaked the wording of the six categories of the awards, to make things as clear and open as possible.

This year we've also imposed a rule limiting the maximum number of entries in any one category to six.  It's about quality, not quantity - in recent years, prizes have been given to people who submitted a single piece of work.  So if you're a blogger thinking of entering, now's the time to look back over your work this year and choose the pieces that really stand out.  (If you haven't got comments from people after a post saying how good it was, and you're still thinking of entering it, just have another look).

So the field is open.  Anything written in the 12 months to 30th September 2010, to be submitted by 8th October.  If you have any questions, please do read the press release and the guidelines for entrants, and if they don't answer them, let me know!

Looking forward to reading your work in October.


Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Edinburgh 24th August

My kinda town

I love Edinburgh.  I'd live there if I could.  Next week I'm up there speaking at one of the most prestigious events I've yet been invited to take part in - the Edinburgh International Book Festival, which runs alongside the Edinburgh Festival.

My event is called 'A Raucous History of the Beer that Built the British Empire' and it's at 8.30pm on 24 August in Peppers Theatre.  Full details are here.  If you're in town, please do come along.  I'm quite nervous about this one so will be writing and rehearsing my talk extra diligently, which means it's going to be brilliant.

Yes I really am steering the bloody ship

At the same time in another venue there's some bloke called Andrew Sachs in conversation with an obscure local writer called Alexander McCall Smith.  So.  No competition then.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

It's time we talked about cider

Because I'm something of an expert on beer, many people believe I know about cider (and perry).  It's quite flattering I suppose, that they just assume I know loads about a drink that isn't beer and that I don't claim to be an expert on.  But it's been going on for so long now that I feel obliged to learn a little.  I've been extending my consultancy activities into cider over the last couple of years, and this summer I've been boning up my product knowledge so that I can incorporate it into my tutored tastings, food matching and writing.

This image was created by someone looking to promote cider.  Not take the piss out of it.  Hmm.

Not many of the beer people I know talk about cider (or perry) that much - I get the impression that they treat it with disdain as inferior to beer, or that it's a guilty secret.  For those among us who feel a little defensive about being called a beer geek, the bumpkin image of cider (and perry) makers and drinkers means there's someone one rung down from us who we can turn on.

For those who've argued with CAMRA that they should support all quality beer rather than just cask ale, cider is a bone of contention - the organisation that responds to criticism about beer with "The clue is in the name: what is it about the Campaign for Real Ale that's so difficult to understand?  That's what we're about, and that's all," cider (and perry) is an example of breathtaking hypocrisy, supported wholeheartedly by CAMRA at festivals and throughout the organisation despite the fact that it is clearly not real ale.

Cider is a sophisticated, quality drink.  No, it really is.

But if that's all we think, we do cider (and perry) a disservice.

I wrote recently in the Publican about the 'joyful anarchy' of cider, how cider (and perry) producers all seem to have a great time and many seem to operate at a slight angle to reality.  ABVs tend to be approximate.  Labelling and packaging often seems a little rough and ready.  It's gloriously shambolic.

But there's also refinement at the other end of the spectrum.  We have this positioning problem with cider in the UK, in that we consider it a direct alternative to beer.  We see a farmhouse cider at 8% ABV and sigh and go, "Shit, a pint of this is going to get me arseholed," and we shrug and order a pint anyway.

But why?  Cider is made from fruit, not grain.  It has a flavour range from dry to sweet, rather than bitter to malty.  Does that remind you of anything?  Yep, cider is a closer cousin to wine than beer.  Indeed sparkling perry was apparently the inspiration for champagne.  Cider is a hybrid, halfway between wine and beer, and yet different from each.

I've been enjoying the diversity and complexity of cider a great deal this summer, at least until what was shaping up to be a beautiful long hot summer got washed down a storm drain about two weeks ago.

I'm not a purist about cider, same as I'm not a purist about beer. If it tastes nice, I'll drink it.  But I do have one rule: it's ostensibly made out of apples.  Therefore it should taste of apples.  Or pears.  It doesn't have to be be squeezed on a nineteenth century press by a yokel in a leather jerkin and come out unfiltered and filthy to be cider.  It can be carbonated, balanced, blended, contain sulphites and stabilisers, come from big manufacturers, be served over ice from a pint bottle... I don't care.  So long as it's recognisably made from what it's supposed to be made from.  And tastes nice.

You would.  I bet you would.

I was helping an ad agency pitch for Magner's last year.  I organised a tasting of the big commercial cider brands, and got a bit of a surprise.  We took Strongbow, Woodpecker, Magner's, Bulmers, Gaymers and Westons Organic and tasted them next to each other.  As you'd expect, the Westons Organic was by far the most pleasant drink.  What surprised me was just how bad the others were - with one curious exception.  They didn't actually taste like apples.  I've had cider lollies from ice cream vans that taste more of cider than these drinks did.  They were sweet, fizzy and synthetic, the sweetness artificial with no discernible link to anything that's every been outdoors, let alone on a tree.  They weren't cider: they were alcopops repacked as cider, cheap, nasty alcohol in a new set of clothes to suit changing mainstream trends.

The exception?  Magner's.  Say what you like about it - and I know it certainly doesn't look natural - but it tasted of apples.  It wasn't a patch on the Westons, but it belonged in the same group, a class apart from its more commercial peers.

On a hot day I'll take an Aspalls or an Addlestones over beer.  Hall & Woodhouse sent me a case of their Badger pear cider and it's almost stupidly drinkable - shamefully I was hiding my last few bottles from people when we had out summer barbecue last month.

And if you're lucky enough to encounter Dennis Gwatkin - probably the most celebrated cider maker of the moment - you'll find stuff there to delight any craft beer enthusiast.  His cider aged in whisky barrels was one of the best drinks I encountered all last year.  Served in a wine glass, lightly chilled, it beats rose wine at its own game on long summer evenings.

So I like cider (and perry).  I'm drinking more of it/them.  I'm doing an event on (perry) at the Abergavenny Food Festival next month.  (I'm also doing one on Welsh microbreweries with a bit of cheese - but that's already sold out!)

I'll be cramming for this event on Bank Holiday Monday at the Alma on Newington Green, North London.  Fresh from the success of their first ever beer festival, they're doing a cider festival over August Bank Holiday Weekend.  There'll be twenty different ciders (and perrys) from five producers, including fruit ciders, perry, rum-oaked, whisky-oaked and wine-oaked ciders, and cider and food matching.

I think I'll be on the Rioja-matured scrumpy myself.  Just don't take the piss if I'm drinking it from a wine glass.

Classy Pub Crawls

The Guardian is steadily featuring more stuff about beer and pubs.  Only little snippets here and there, but they're growing in size and frequency.

Today has a short feature on pub crawls with a little extra class or quirkiness, and I was asked to contribute one.  Go here for my take on Sheffield by tram, ending with a night at the Hillsborough Hotel.

But please, drink responsibly.  *Tries to keep straight face*

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Exclusive: Wikio rankings for July

Yes, it's the monthly blog post you love to hate: the Wikio rankings!

There have been some changes at Wikio this month so it's all a little later than usual, but below are the movers and shakers for January 2010, due to be published in the Wikio site on 10th August:

Beer blogs are now up to 18 of out the top 20 "wine and beer blogs".  There's also a creeping increase in the amount of beer coverage in the nationals - Young Dredge is getting some pieces on the Guardian's Word of Mouth blog, and we've had two paid-for beer supplements in national press so far this year.  A few of us have also had more bits in the papers than we're used to getting.

What do you think - is the beer message finally starting to come through?

Friday, 6 August 2010

Eyes down for a full house!

It's just a bit of fun, OK?

Have had a rollicking time at the Great British Beer festival this week.  Curiously I haven't actually been drinking that much beer: had lots of meetings, work presentations and chats around the festival venue, and in between them was greeted by loads of people wanting to say hello, have their copies of Hops and Glory signed and stuff.  Absolutely wonderful and quite humbling, but also utterly knackering over the course of three days.

Anyway, between all the handshaking I've been keeping myself amused with a new game I invented called GBBF bingo.  I've been posting sights you often see at beer festivals, and asking people to tweet photographic evidence of them if they spot them.  The person who discovers the most gets a pint from me - a full house gets a signed set of my books.  Or just the pint if you'd prefer.

With two days of GBBF to go, the Twitter leader has a mere two.  So I've gathered the 'numbers' together and designed my own bingo card, below.  If you're going to GBBF today or tomorrow, print this off and take it with you, capture the evidence, and you could win fantastic prizes!

Monday, 2 August 2010

Come to my beer dinner, August 9th!

Thanks to my friend Niki, author of the fantastically successful Flavour Thesaurus, I was introduced to Dominique de Bastarrechea, who runs Hardy's Brasserie and Wine Bar in a quiet corner of Marylebone.

Niki had done a very successful evening talking about her book, after which a meal followed based on some of the pairing suggestions in the book itself.

The event went so well Dominique wanted to do more, and Niki suggested me!  One blurry World Cup semi-final evening later, which was almost but not quite ruined by an exploding bottle of Worthington White Shield, Dominique was a beer convert, vowing to replace the perfectly acceptable but unimaginative selection of bottled lagers in the restaurant with a short but perfectly formed beer list that reflects the diversity and innovation of beer today.

She's spent the month since then following a few recommendations of mine, visiting brewers and rapidly developing her own tastes and preferences with a work rate and dedication that's inspiring and quite frankly a bit scary.

The result: this week if you go to Hardy's you can vote for the new beer list.  We've got new lagers, fruit beers, wheat beers, pale ales, bitters, strong ales and porter/stout.  In each category there are two or three beers.  In each, the most popular will be kept on.  If they sell well, the list may then expand even further.  

So next Monday, I'll be talking about beer and my books, and unveiling the winners in a tutored tasting. After that, there's a three course dinner for the ridiculously reasonable price of £15.  Here's the menu:
I'm going to be matching different beers with each dish and talking through the matches.

It promises to be a great evening - Niki's event was an extraordinary success - so do book now if you think you'll still have a liver left after this week!  Full details below.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Over-hopped and over here?

There's never been a better time to drink American craft beer in the UK than next week.  The Beer San Frontieres bar at the Great British Beer Festival, form Tuesday to Saturday, is bigger than it's ever been and received some good coverage in the Independent recently.

And this Friday, 6th August, The White Horse at Parsons Green is hosting the American craft brewers for an evening with an amazing range of beers.  The list is below.  Break out the milk thistle.

·      Ballast Point Calico Amber Ale – 5.5%ABV
·      Ballast Point Big Eye IPA – 7% ABV
·      Butternuts Beer & Ale Porkslap 4.3% ABV
·      Butternuts Beer & Ale Moo Thunder – 4.9% ABV
·      Dogfish Head Midas Touch – 9%ABV
·      Great Divide 16th Anniversary IPA – 10% ABV
·      Great Divide Yeti Imperial Stout – 9.5% ABV
·      Great Divide Hoss Rye Lager – 6.2% ABV
·      Green Flash Double Stout – 8.8% ABV
·      Left Hand Milk Stout – 6% ABV
·      Left Hand Imperial Stout – 10.2% ABV
·      Odell IPA – 7% ABV
·      Odell 90 Shilling Ale – 5.3% ABV
·      Oskar Blues Dale’s Pale Ale – 6.5% ABV
·      Oskar Blue Ten Fidy – 10.5% ABV
·      Smutty Nose Baltic Porter – 8.7% ABV
·      Southern Tier 2XIPA – 6.5% ABV
·      Southern Tier Mokah – 11% ABV
·      Stone IPA – 6.9% ABV
·      Stone Old Guardian Barley Wine 11.26% ABV
·      Tommyknocker Black Rye IPA – 7% ABV
·      Tommyknocker Maple Nut Brown Ale – 4.5% ABV
·      Uncommon Brewers Siamese Twin Ale- 8.5% ABV
·      Uncommon Brewers Bacon Brown Ale – 6.8% ABV
·      Victory Hop Devil – 6.7% ABV
·      Victory Golden Monkey -9.5% ABV