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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

What's new?

What's new?
New events added including Stoke Newington Literary Festival
I had a big piece in the Guardian this week about why publicans are unhappy
Click here to hear me talking about craft beer on this week's radio 4 Food Programme!
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Thursday, 30 June 2011

June Video Blog: Celebrating the Great British Summer in Cornwall!

So last month we were sitting in Norfolk, in the sun, worrying about how the lack of rain was affecting the local barley crop.

Ah well, we thought, at least if it's like this, we'll have a great time in Cornwall next month - sun, sea, sand, seafood and a nice golden ale on the beach.

I didn't realise we were planning on doing this the same weekend as Glastonbury and Wimbledon.

It was freezing cold, rainy, windy and unpleasant.  Of course it was. I returned from the Baltic the day before, and there was no difference.

Never mind.  We got to have a look around St Austell brewery.  I've been a huge fan of Tribute ever since I went to Portland, Oregon in 2004, and learned that brewer Roger Ryman was in a sort of cultural exchange with the brewer at Portland's Bridgeport brewery.  Roger was teaching the Yanks about cask ale, and they were showing him the secrets of American hops.  Many readers probably don't think of St Austell Tribute as a particularly hoppy beer, but ten years ago there were few beers like it in the UK.  It accounts for 75% of the brewery's output, and has become a nationally recognised brand.

If you like Tribute, you'll love Proper Job, a beer that truly cuts the mustard as a 'proper' IPA.  In this moth's style guide, we take a 60 second look at probably the most argued over beer style the world has ever seen.

Then we're off down to Falmouth, in search of all that sun and seafood.  We settle instead for a few beers in the Front, recently named Pub of the Year by Kernow CAMRA.  It should be obvious why form the video, in which we try beers from Skinners, Chough and Tintagel breweries.





Next month we finally make it to Edinburgh, where we'll be looking at the Caledonian Brewery and seeing why Scotland is the fastest growing cask ale region in the UK.

And after that, our final Vlog will be from the trade day of GBBF.  If you're going, bring along your 'Hello Mum' signs.  And whether you're going or not, if you think there's any particular aspect of British cask ale we should be looking at there, let me know.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Surviving the Great Baltic Adventure

Yes, I know it's the middle of the summer - that's why it's daylight at 11pm.  But this is the Baltic Sea. On a good day.


Life is never boring.

Following the absolute exhaustion of the Stoke Newington Literary Festival, I’d like to say it seemed like a great idea to join the Great Baltic Adventure, sailing to St Petersburg with fourteen casks of Russian Imperial Stout.  Except it didn’t – it felt like a really stupid idea. 

And it was. 

Like my last big sea adventure, we weren’t long into it before my wife wanted to divorce me.  Not because I was away from her this time, but because she was on the ship with me.  We were ill equipped and under-prepared, yearning for sleep and running on fumes. 

Two weeks later, Liz declares it the best holiday she’s ever had (despite the entirely fictitious account on her Beer Widow blog of how it came about) and we’re both in some kind of wonderful sensory overload phase where flushing toilets and hot baths give us all-over intense pleasure, where after two weeks of listening only to waves, wind and engine noise has made music in my headphones feels more intense and beautiful than it ever has, and yet part of each of us is still on the ship, still swaying, still squinting at the horizon, still sharing inanities, UHT-milk flavoured tea and endless Custard Creams with the ragged, wasted bunch of beery eccentrics we now call close friends.

“Father” Tim O’Rourke is my new beer hero.  When I pissed off to India with Barry the Barrel, it was one man’s search for a book idea that could trump the previous one.  Tim, while inspired by Hops and Glory, has managed to achieve something much greater, something that turned into a trade mission for British beer and a quirky news story that repeatedly captured the imagination of the BBC - here and here  - and various other media outlets.

If you saw me standing in a Russian brewery wearing a tri-corner hat, looking greasy and smelly, I apologise.  If you heard Tim and me on the Today programme, I hope we sounded not too mad.

Between us, we have a great deal to say about the effects of sea-aging on beer.  I’ve got more to say about Russian Imperial Stout in general, as well as Finnish Sahti, Russian Kvass, the Baltika Brewery, Finnish microbrewers, why you should go and drink in Tallinn, or if not then at least the Red Bull in Histon, Cambridgeshire, and why there’s no people like boat people like no people I know.  

From Sting personally trying to ruin my life, to watching films about dogs turning into men while deep in conversation with Russia’s first Belgian microbrewer, to face-offs with pathetic gangsters driving ancient Ladas (or ‘cab drivers’ as the Russians call them) to the case for Disturbingly Random Theme Bars, to why it can be handy to view British ale as others see it – it’s not a book. It’s not a coherent article or single blog post.  I don't know what it is yet.  I’ll try to make sense of it and present the best bits in the most appropriate and interesting way over the next couple of weeks.

Till then – would anyone like a Custard Cream?*

Good night.

*Sorry – on this score I think you probably had to be there.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Off up the Baltic

Writing this from a Helsinki hotel room: endless days, Mediterranean temperatures and six quid pints.

Hope the boat is bigger than this one

I blogged in March about the harebrained scheme that's been hatched to take casks of Imperial Russian Stout from London to St Petersburg by boat.  I won't repeat the overall idea here - if you didn't catch it, check out the link.

In mid-May, pins of each beer were tapped in Woolwich, South London, and I was one of a dozen or so people to take part in a blind tasting of them.  Beer style purists would have disappeared in a twisted spiral of smoke at the extraordinary diversity of beers all supposedly brewed to the same quite distinct style.  There were some awful ones, some OK ones and some fabulous ones.  Some of the latter were from the people you would expect, others were surprising (it was supposed to be blind - I made a note of what they were afterwards).  I'm not going to go into more detail now, because I want to wait until we taste them in St Petersburg and compare the effect of the journey.

So after four weeks the ship, containing more pins of each beer, has travelled from St Petersburg as far as Helsinki.  Thermopylae, her crew and a bunch of ragged beer eccentrics all entered port yesterday, while the Beer Widow and I landed at the airport late last night in the 10pm sunshine.  We all meet up today.

We set sail for St Pete's early tomorrow morning.  For most of next week I'll be out of email and phone contact so apologies for any unanswered messages or blog comments that go unpublished (I have to keep comment moderation on because of the immense volume of spam - I'll check up whenever I have a signal).

I'll try to blog from St Pete's about how it all goes- y'all behave now!

Friday, 10 June 2011

Confused cognitive pathways and books and beer

Synaesthesia – it’s one of my favourite words. 

According to Wikipedia, it’s “a neurologically-based condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway”.  So seeing colours might evoke sounds, you might ‘taste’ texture, and so on.

Since I learned of it, I’d tell myself I had it.  And recently, doing a bit of research, I discovered I do have a particular strain.  Since an early age, I’ve always thought that numbers have personalities – 6 is a bit hysterical, 7 cool and aloof, 5 friendly and garrulous, 2 cool and elegant, 9 a bit sly, and so on.  I also visualise dates, years, and days of the week three-dimensionally, on curved lines.  I’d always thought this was entirely normal.  Turns out it’s all a variant of synaesthesia known as ‘ordinal linguistic personification’.  So there you go.

But I think we all have a yearning for cross-neural pathways.  Information from one sense can fit – or not fit – with information from another sense to create a more or less pleasant holistic sensory experience.

Everyone who has ever put a soundtrack to a movie, chosen music for a pub, restaurant or dinner party, decided they prefer the feel of a book in their hands to the theoretical convenience of a Kindle, or played the Withnail and I drinking game has, at some level, matched different sensory stimulation to create a more pleasing experience.

So while beer and food matching is being extensively promoted by beer writers and brewers, you can also match beer with music, films, books, anything really.  I wrote a few years ago about how research at Herriott Watt discovered that different styles of music actually changed the enjoyment of wine that was drunk while it was being played.  

You can take words that apply to experiences in any sense – music, pictures, flavour, texture – and whether it’s complex, loud, light, spritzy, heavy, dark or whatever, they go well together.

But on another level, it’s just a bit of fun – a ruse to get some interesting beers in front of people who may otherwise be unaware of them or choose not to drink them. 

The success of this ruse was borne out at my first proper ‘beer and book matching’ talk, last Sunday as part of the Beer Widow’s Stoke Newington Literary Festival.  The sell-out audience (OK, it was a small venue) was one of the most mixed I’ve ever spoken to, about 50-50 men and women, mostly unfamiliar with my writing, mostly unfamiliar with the beers I’d chosen. It worked really well, taking the beer conversation into completely new territory and making porter fans out of at least two steadfast red wine drinkers. 

I didn’t have time to go out into the wider field of literature and match non-beer related novels thematically or tonally, but I hope to do some of that in future. All the following are beer or pub related and simply provide a platform to talk about some good beers, while showing in a different way how important beer and pubs are to society, and to our collective imagination.

Hops and Glory with Curious Brew IPA

Obvious starting point – the reason I came up with this idea is that I’ve been half-jokingly calling readings/tastings of my beer trilogy ‘beer and book matching’.  I used the title here, then realised people were probably expecting something more.  And H&G led in a very convoluted way to StokeyLitFest happening – it was while I was touring the book round literary festivals in 2009 with the Beer Widow at my side that she had the inspiration for the event. 

I read bits that showed what she’d had to put up with when I made the journey, and tasted a restrained but flavourful IPA from the folk who make Chapel Down Wines.

The Flying Inn by GK Chesterton with Brentwood Summer Virgin

Chesterton is one of my favourite writers, a total polymath whose ideas and language feel totally relevant today.  A century ago, he wrote “The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.”  This struck me as having some resonance with the whole CAMRA vs Blogeratti debate. 

But that wasn’t why I chose him.  The Flying Inn is the story of a slimy, devious, PR-savvy Prime Minister trying to kill pubs and usher in prohibition via the back door.  It seems to have a particular contemporary relevance.

It’s a charming read, a pastoral ramble down English country lanes, across fields and through copses.  (No one talks about copses any more.  Where have all the copses gone?)  As such, I felt it needed a golden ale, a beer that evoked summer evening and birdsong.  Brentwood, an Essex brewer, were very generous in response to a Twitter plea and supplied me with Summer Virgin, their first brew, which won the Chelmsford Summer Beer Festival in 2007 and fit the bill perfectly.

London Fields by Martin Amis with Brew Dog Avery Brown Dredge

On one level, Amis and Brew Dog feel like a perfect match: undeniable brilliance, undeniable arrogance, they piss off a lot of people, but even those people have to admit that on their day, few can match them.

I love Keith Talent, the lager-drinking, darts-obsessed protagonist of London Fields. This is easily Amis’ best work.  Even though he can’t help sneering at the stupid poor people in down-at-heel boozers, frustratingly he captures something true and timeless about those boozers.  And Keith’s defence of lager – “It’s kegged, innit?  You know what you’re getting.  Kegged,” meant I simply had to read it now.

ABD is a lager I hope Keith would have liked.  It’s still tasting bloody marvellous.  It combines the brute power of Keith ‘The Finisher’ with the elegance and mystery of his obsession, the beguiling Nicola Six.  Shit, I should probably have said that on Sunday.

‘Neath the Mask by John M East with Curious Brew Porter

Long story – this is a biography of an actor by his grandson – also an actor.  The family had a long association with the George Inn in Southwark, subject of my next book.  This biog has some great material about the George, especially its association with Charles Dickens, who was a regular porter drinker in the pub. And there’s a punchline to this particular luvvie biog that I’m going to have to keep under wraps till I’ve got it right in the book.  Another showing for Curious Brew – their beers are really rather good, if you don’t believe a beer has to tear up the rulebook to be good.

Honourable mention: Westerham Little Scotney Pale Ale

I recently featured this beer in my 50 best British beers in the Morning Advertiser.  I love it because it’s one of those beers that’s hoppy without being HOPPY, structured, refined and friendly.  Westerham’s offered to send me some beer for the tasting.  In the middle of festival chaos I was told it had arrived.  Three hours before my event I was looking for it, couldn’t find it.  The following day it turned up, unopened, behind one of the festival bars.  Guys, I promise I will make good, literary use of it.

So, I think I’ll take this format out on the road – just as soon as I’ve ironed out some of the kinks such as Chesterton’s casual racism and Amis’ tongue twisters, and perhaps broadened the repertoire. 

What do you think?