what beer goes best with oysters?

what beer goes best with oysters?

I’ve never had oysters with beer before but I’ve read a few recommendations on the best beer to serve them with. Sources range from notes by Michael Jackson, Martyn Cornell and Garrett Oliver. We also visited to the Forge in Whitstable – a seafood and beer cabin on the sea front. At the time, I stuck to my favourite: beer battered skate.

I’ve put together a sextet of the kind of drinks that keep coming up in relation to oysters which includes two non-beers of a similar alcoholic strength: a cider and my own wildcard based on nothing but intuition – a hopped mead! The oysters are from Kent and were bought for 79 pence each from Waitrose (a posh British supermarket). I don’t possess an oyster shucker so had to rely mainly on innovative violence. Also, be prepared for what might visit you in the night.

Bornem Blond – Van Steenberge Brewery (bottle 6%)

dscf4913This Belgian blonde is a good example of the style I was going for: spicy with a bouquet of hay/wet straw and a touch of candy – something I get with many session strength Belgian beers. The effect when you swallow the oyster is to get savours on a few levels: the herbal, the sweet and the salty. This beer glows with a sweet warmth afterwards like it’s trying to cook the oyster internally. It brought some colour to the cheeks. It’s more than a match for the oyster’s abrasiveness. Bornem is also very carbonated and this helps to absorb the mollusc’s potency too.

Gosnell’s Hopped Mead (bottle 5.5%)

dscf4916My stab in the dark: it’s intoxicatingly sweet on the nose before you even sip it. Obviously, it honks of honey and has quite a sweaty dimension too not unlike malty bitter (though there is no malt in the mead). The honey sticks to the lips, palate and gullet. I can’t really detect any hops in there. When I devour the oyster, there are no shared attributes. The cloying sweetness and the incoming salty tide complement each other like a boat crash. The counterintuitive tang you get with things like salted caramel does not work here. Also, the mead has absolutely no dryness or bitterness to temper the coarse bivalve. I should make very clear that Gosnell’s has never claimed or implied that its products complement oysters. The miscalculation was all mine.

Oude Geuze – Boon Brewery (bottle conditioned 7%)

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This beer has a huge charge of carbonation like a wave surging up a Sussex chalk cleft so this could be a good sign. It’s dessicatingly dry on the nose – the archetypal horse blanket. It’s so dry, your sinuses stick together when you inhale it. It’s this very aridity that carries the oyster in a similar way that Champagne might. The salt is ingested almost unnoticed. The Geuze is so chewy it makes up for the lack of mastication on the shelled protagonist. Drinking the Geuze is almost like eating meat; the seasoned protein lent by the oyster became just part of a larger platter.

Gwynt Y Ddraig Medium (bottle 4.9%)

dscf4924As a child of Gwynedd in North Wales I can tell you this means dragon’s breath (actually – wind of the dragon but I’m sure they’re referring to a blast from the upper body). Oddly, I can’t really smell any apple flesh on it. It smells a little bit like gas (about this “wind”…). The palate, however, is very different. There’s much less sourness or acidity than I’d anticipated for a medium cider. To me, this is as sweet as a perry. It verges on butterscotch. On the eye, it has a gorgeous glow like liquid amber. Into this whirlpool the oyster vanishes. The cider strips away the salt. It works. The oyster’s aggressive character has been disarmed. Possibly, it would’ve worked even better with a bitter edge to the cider. It remains too sweet for my palate.

Burning Sky Saison A La Provision (bottle conditioned 6.7%)

dscf4934Unfortunately I couldn’t get my preferred choice and benchmark – Saison Dupont. Burning Sky’s equally crafted Saison has dried grass on the aroma. It’s musty and sticky like an Altbier with tangy decaying apples and a very dry finish. The oyster slips down and mirrors the dryness in its salt. Another sip and this is a viable marriage – a midway tide of savoury washes in. They’re like sensory echoes of each other. It’s a milder experience of the Oude Geuze.

Fuller’s London Porter (bottle 5.4%)

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The porter doesn’t leap up to be drunk like a lot of the other candidates. The carbonation doesn’t surge because it’s a porter: it’s rich and creamy with chocolate powder on the nose. It’s smooth-bodied and just holds back from being sweet. Introducing the oyster is a shock to the system and stands for everything the porter isn’t. For a moment I fear a mismatch but it works very well. It’s a bit like the balance of extremes between a rich creamy salty cheese and a bitter hoppy IPA. In this case, the sharp edges come from the oyster and the porter simply engulfs them in its warm mammalian arms. The whole chocolate roasted dimension kicks in afterwards too giving this pairing added layers.

With oysters, the Champagne, Muscadet and white wine are gradually rolling over to be replaced by beer to the point that they might soon top the pairing lists in restaurants. As ever, beer has the ability to be more versatile. This is proven after popping the six bottles and battling with the six shells, my own bias is for the Oude Geuze and the London Porter. The former is an overpowering brute while the latter neutralises the threat with a cuddle.

the tilting sea

the tilting sea

There was a darker side to my beer and oyster pairing. Firstly I discovered that I don’t actually like oysters. Then I found that the oysters didn’t suffer me gladly either. I’ve seldom had them in my life – maybe as little as twice – so didn’t realise this. On the few occasions I had them they were part of a more varied meal which largely absorbed them. But when I paired them with beer, they were naked and uncompromising and in the middle of the night they sent me on a journey I wasn’t prepared for.

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I thought of these molluscs as simple sources of protein to complement beer like Salami, Wurst or beer sticks but those are sides that have been cooked and processed – they’re basically benign. These creatures are raw and elemental and may as well come from the cold of deep space they’re so alien.

They put up a fight too. Cracking them open unleashes the Djinn. The reek clings to your hands, to the sink, to the table, the floor, the screwdriver. It lingers in the fridge from where they spent some time on a plate. Likewise, the bin is now haunted. Even the bottles of beer, cider and mead stank of the maritime as I bundled them into the recycling bin outside which in turn stinks like downwind of Whitstable docks.

img_0890Our Labrador doesn’t like oysters either. It’s not the taste nor the smell but the fact I had to push a couple of the armoured molluscs against the inside of the sink and bash them with a hefty screwdriver. Bits of shrapnel rained down on me and the kitchen floor. Milo (the poor canine) trotted away to sanctuary underneath the living room table.

I had to pace myself with each oyster and take a breath before devouring. Towards the end I actually chanted a countdown. Six was the absolute maximum. As the last went down, a bead of sweat emerged.

I retired for the night not just with the oysters dissolving in my gut – a species that evolved within the acid bath of the ocean and then got ingested by a distant land-bound relation with a body temperature the like of which they’ve never experienced. We are furnaces to them. Also within me was most of six bottles of booze or whatever I’d managed to finish before pouring the remainder down the sink.

As I laid back, a foretaste of the sea came with my stomach rolling up towards my chin and flopping back towards my groin heavy with the evening’s bounty. It uttered “splewongel” and aped the tide going in and out. I then regressed into a shallow sleep for a few hours.

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Around dusk I suddenly fell at the sea’s edge. The wet sand was abrasive to the skin. The fug of the churning waters, the seaweed and the barnacles clinging to green-cloaked rocks gasped through me. A wave thumped at the coast, the vibration from the impact pulsed up my spine.

In the dark, I checked my breath, the palms of my hands and the bedclothes but I hadn’t inhaled this aroma via the nose. Rather, it was inside me already. It had returned, torn from my memory without me calling it back. There’s a direct link with the olfactory bulb and recollection. It was like a warning.

dsc_0065I found myself at the mouth of a cove with the stench of kelp turning me a limpet pale. Vapour poured off my breath and the elemental stood before me in the gloom. It spoke – its lips the scraping of shells, its tongue a living bivalve rasping wet visceral sounds as it flexed to form vowels. I didn’t make eye contact with the deep blue eyes. I just nodded with humility. Things couldn’t be made clearer.

Directly above my head where I sleep is a small luminous cluster of stars and galaxies. This isn’t an hallucination but a decoration put up by the previous owners of my house for their little girl. I’ve never removed them. They’re of the glow-in-the-dark variety and took on a malign dimension – seemingly in cahoots with the tilting sea. They’re invisible in the light – only shining in the dark. For a moment, they quivered together as if on the surface of a body of water disturbed by the ripples of me treading water. They then coursed to the left on a riptide.

I blinked and had to sit bolt upright in bed and focus on the strips of light coming under the door and tracing the curtains’ edges. I needed a fixed point – a mast or railing to cling to. And then it passed.

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This is not a computer graphic – this is actually the plastic glow-in-the-dark constellation on the bedroom ceiling taken on the night setting of our SLR. Try looking at it with a couple of litres of booze, six oysters and a whispering fever in the small hours. But don’t stare at it for too long…..

It made me think of all the spiritual attributes given to game and food in folklore. To have had a neurologist and biologist taking readings during this night interlude would’ve been interesting. Fly Agaric mushrooms, burning hydrangeas, Peyote, the fine patina of lysergic moulds on barley during the hungry gap in Saxon times. The visions, the experiences, the journeys and the stories that tried to make sense and structure of them. Well, I went back there for a while. It was definitely brought about by an overdose of a food I’m not accustomed to mixed with a load of beer (of which I am). I can also report an absolute zero on the aphrodisiac front. I’m fine now thanks for asking.

The message kids is treat oysters with respect. I’m quite certain those six were my last.

the trials of an inbetweener

the trials of an inbetweener

Today I turn 39 and it was almost a year ago I wrote “Caught between the Revolt and the Revolution” where I talked of being too young to remember CAMRA’s inception but too old to be “down” or possibly “up” with what’s going on in the more general sense. Little’s changed since then apart from growing older.

Maybe a couple of examples from 2016 could help illustrate some of the trials of being an inbetweener – of not completely swallowing the benefits, bias or even the bullshit of either tribe.

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On a dulcet spring afternoon I visited one of my favourite breweries in Bermondsey. Though I’ve stomped that ground enthusiastically for the past several years, the gathering popularity of the beer mile and the warming climate meant that a twenty minute queue snaked out of the entrance supervised by a zealous bouncer who shoved and prodded at people to keep in line. It was like being a sheep corralled towards the dip. I had come alone and was a quarter of an hour from actually seeing what was on tap (to nip inside to scan the badges would be to lose one’s place in the queue). Once at the bar, I ordered two glasses – I had to – otherwise once I’d finished one, I’d have to start from scratch at the back of the line.

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this brewery image is for illustration only. The experience I’m moaning about didn’t happen here

The two glasses (both two-third pint measures) came to over ten pounds. For a moment I thought I’d been charged for the drinks of the guy standing next to me too. But no. Something about these drinks had cost the earth. Neither beer was of a rocketing ABV – both around five per cent. Neither had a rare botanical ingredient that necessitated scaling the reaches of Machu Picchu to obtain it, either. Both beers were brewed in London! Why were they so expensive? The moment to reject the drinks was there and then at the head of the queue. Stupidly, I let that moment pass and went on to stand awkwardly in the corner with my two stem glasses. Because the railway arch was standing room only, I was unable to put my cargo down anywhere. The bouncer glowered, ensuring my spine was flush with the wall so none of my limbs projected outwards to cause a fire hazard. I actually remember re-evaluating my life from the shock.

Objectively, the beers were nice. They were both cool, carbonated and hoppy as is the modern new world wont. They’d have tasted nice for five pounds but not possibly enjoyable for over ten. I observed the other customers in small huddles not seeming to smart from this daylight muggery. The contingent in cycling gear was enjoying itself. The group of Americans reminiscing was too. The gents with chequered shirts and immaculate beards were beaming. Or that’s how it felt and their enjoyment increasingly seemed in spite of the lack of mine.

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I longed for the comfort and hospitality of a real pub and without finishing either beer, I placed the glasses back on the bar and tramped sprat-like from Bermondsey to Covent Garden to the uterine warmth of The Harp on Chandos Place. She cradled me and lifted me to her bosom where I was nourished by an institution perfected over generations. I had my faith in social drinking restored. Because of her, that day ended with everything being okay with the world.

With mature pub-goers, I understand everything they say but might miss historic cultural references. With pub-goers of my age, I get the vibe but haven’t got a clue what anybody’s job title means. With some younger drinkers, I might understand the words individually but not when they’re strung together. My next recollection reinforces the negatives of the Bermondsey trip but does so at a different kind of price.

I wandered up to one of my locals in the summer. I saw Gerard (not his real name) through the window sitting at the bar before I’d even entered the pub. I recognised the barnet of white candyfloss that marks out an elder member of CAMRA. Glowing, it hovered over the bar like a small lampshade in the comparative darkness. I heaved the door open and faced a troop of pump clips, the young guy serving and the back of said swiller’s head.

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look closely and you can just make out Gerard’s luminous hair in the right hand window

There was to be no avoiding each other – I’d have to speak in a second to order and get rumbled anyway so I chose to salute him in the way I address all Watneys Red Barrel veterans:
“evening young man”
Eyes wide, Gerard swivelled around on his bar stool. His cheeks blazed the same auburn as his Twang brewery T-shirt (not the brewery’s real name either). It looked like he’d been steaming for some time.
“Allo matey. ‘Ow’s it going?” He struggled to recall my name.
We’d first met several years ago behind the Hertfordshire bar of the St Albans Beer Festival during a quiet shift so we’d had the time to chat. We’d glimpsed each other through various throngs many times since. And so we got to talking.

dscf4620The conversation inevitably moved onto what beer was around and I made the mistake of mentioning that a popular DIPA was currently on keg at St Albans’ “craftiest” pub. By way of precaution, I added that it was quite dear. This was misguided. It sparked Gerard to recount an experience he’d recently had in Soho whereby a barman had warned him that a pint of London-brewed beer would be seven pounds. The battle cry went out:
“Seven pahnd! I’m not paying seven pounds for a pint!’’ This salvo was launched lengthways down the bar of the pub we were in and caused heads to turn – many as luminously white as his. I was in an awkward position: I loved the DIPA. I wanted to enthuse about the beer but knew everything about it would be prohibitive in present company. One of the permanent bar staff appeared in time to hear Gerard add
“One day there’s gonna be a revolution!” He was still referring to the seven pound Soho pint!

To make me squirm even more, barman Ted (you know the score) let on that the exact same Manchester-based Double IPA was due to come on in that very pub during an upcoming beer festival and he pointed out that seven pounds is what it would sell for. It cost a lot to buy; if they sold it for any less they’d be giving it away. Ted shot me an annoyed look as it was me that had brought this spotlight upon him.

I regarded Gerard. He looked like he might start a march. I toyed with coming at this appreciation from a different angle: maybe I could ask how much he’d be prepared to pay for a half pint of red wine but the analogy was too strained. My point was that a half of this particular number was a sipping beer. It wasn’t a cask ale – more of a hop nectar – a completely different experience to downing a pint. In fact I’d been having a daily dose of it five days running at the other pub. I was given no option but to stare at the carpet for a while until the conversation moved on.

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To many of the older generation, beer only comes in pints and should always be sold at the lower price bracket regardless of style, strength or any other underlying factors. Reading the letters page of What’s Brewing, it sometimes seems volume to pound Sterling is the bottom line. However amongst younger drinkers, there seems to be literally no upper limit to pricing and they don’t seem to mind what they pay as long as the beer and the brewery’s “on message” in an alt cultural way.

Like a charged particle, I still find myself drawn towards the rubbings of both the older clusters and younger hipster “collectives”. But increasingly, I find it easier to mingle in age upwards rather than downwards even if I’m closer by vintage to the younger generation.

So in 2016, have I taken one step closer to the older mindset – to codgerhood and drifted further from youthful enthusiasm? I’ll keep a running update as the years go by.

Session 117: look to the future

Session 117: look to the future

This month, beermeansbusiness.com is hosting session 117 of Beer Blogging Friday.

The Session 117 Announcement: More, more, more…

The aim is for bloggers to paint the following:

“The final picture of Beer Future will be based on what you think we will see MORE of”

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I’ve channelled my inner clairvoyant to look into the future of beer, breweries and pubs. For me, the stress on ripeness or freshness is a phenomenon which is proliferating in the food world and it’s spreading tendrils into the beer market too. Here it manifests itself in various ways – here are three of them:

1: Cloudwater Brew Co. Here’s an edited section from Cloudwater Brewery’s blog. It was about how they distribute their popular DIPAs:

Brewery Fresh – Promoting Cold Chain Distribution

“the biggest advantage to releasing a greater proportion DIPA, our hoppiest beer, direct from the brewery immediately after packaging is that you’ll be able to buy beer that hasn’t been above 5ºC.  After the end of fermentation our beers are crash chilled to 0ºC in FV, before being packaged as close to 0ºC from our brite tanks, and being transferred into our sub 5ºC cold store immediately after the packaging run finishes. Warmth and heat kill hoppiness (and other volatile flavour compounds) in beer, ageing and degrading it many times faster than when it’s held at a low and stable temperature”  

(……..)
 

“we’re going to do our bit to reflect what our peers and friends in the US do to get beer to their customers in the best shape possible.  From the East Coast to the West Coast, and from some of the largest craft breweries to the smallest neighbourhood micros, hoppy beer in the US enjoys more care through cold chain distribution and direct consumption at the breweries themselves than we currently afford hoppy beer here in the UK.”

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Cloud water thus depend on their customers (meaning retailers) to have the facilities to actually keep their beer under a certain temperature. Cellar cool won’t do anymore. The trade’s gone a long way from spiling, venting and tapping.

2: Green hopping

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this year’s green-hopped beer by Red Squirrel

With cask ale, a new old trend is becoming popular: fresh/wet/green hopped beers. These are ales where the hops have been taken from the bine, straight to a brewer and brewed within the fastest time possible – often within twelve hours. This was more of a regional event and obviously can only be a seasonal one. But for festivals around the end of September, these beers are beginning to appear on beer lists across the country – not just their Kent heartland. Because the hop flowers haven’t been freeze-dried, some of the oils that would’ve been lost through ageing and drying are still seeping when they get tossed in before or after the boil. It’s hard to regulate flavour and each batch is basically a leap in the dark. In my experience, these oils can produce lemony, vinous, citrus or chlorophyll-like tastes. Sometimes they’re zinging, sometimes they’re undetectable.

3: A simple Tweet by Brew By Numbers in Bermondsey:

Brew By Numbers @BrewByNumbers Oct 26

Our hoppy beers will now have pack dates on tap badges for draught and front-of-label for bottles. #DrinkFresh! –> http://www.brewbynumbers.com/drink-fresh/

The brewery is going to indicate when the beer was made both on the bottles (and I’m sure very soon – cans) and the actual point of sale on tap.

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Oddly enough, I recently Tweeted that I’d like to see a timer put on pump clips to show when a cask came on to avoid drinking a glass of balsamic vinegar. In its key keg equivalent, Brew By Numbers is doing just that!

Alec Latham @LathamAlec Aug 13
Here’s an idea – let’s make it law that all cask pump clips are fitted with a timer. This way you can see how long ago the cask was tapped

Often when I go into a pub and scan the row of beer engines, the tender will raise his/her hand above the hand pumps and let it land palm-down on one of the heads. “this went on twenty minutes ago and it’s going quickly”. This is a tribute to freshness and cask at its best as well as a good line to part me from my cash. Something just-breached is definitely a draw.

To summarise, I believe the stress on freshness will become more acute over the next few years. More and more of the beer will be kept from degrading technologically (Cloudwater), by an actual race from the harvest to the brewery, the drinkers will experience beer made using ingredients virtually still clinging to the bine (green hopping) and freshness will be maintained procedurally by serving to the customer as soon as possible (Brew By Numbers).

Hertfordshire Stream Beer

Hertfordshire Stream Beer

In the midst of all the events taking place during the summer, I visited the Lower Red Lion in St Albans (the comparative prefix comes from the fact there used to be another Red Lion up the hill). On cask was an ale with an extra element that divided the customers: watercress. On the palate, there were sparks of green and blue in there amidst the chorus of orange and pink – that’s the synesthesia of my drinking recollection. This was a beer you rolled around the tongue.

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photo taken in the Lower Red Lion from the now distant summer

Watercress Ale is brewed by Paradigm Brewery in Sarratt. At first glance, Sarratt (pronounced to rhyme with carrot) looks like a place name from Brittany or even Catalonia but it lies to the south west of Hertfordshire near the Buckinghamshire border. Watercress will undoubtedly have been added to ale before – especially in the pre-hop days of hedgerow gruit, but I don’t recognise it as a thing and there are few breweries currently doing it.

Brewing with botanicals has become a new norm. I hate the term botanical when it’s used in brewing because of its shampoo advert sterility. It should also be noted that the hops and the malt are botanical too but the moniker never applies to them! In any case, what’s rare in Britain is to find a brewer that exploits the local flora for these ingredients. There are examples – some of the mead makers in London use Hackney honey and some Kent brewers use native molluscs in their oyster stouts. Williams Brothers in Clackmannanshire have also made ales with local kelp and heather.

But nowadays it’s more typical to brew with imported ingredients whether that be tea, cocoa nibs, coffee, molasses, chilli, blood oranges, mangoes, vanilla, coconuts or the most imported ingredient of them all – the new world hops.

dscf4882In the context of cooking up the local greenery, Paradigm brewery makes me think of another rural producer: Jester King in Texas. Just hear me out here: Jester King’s website is basically Edenic rural porn. Each image is of glowing refraction through stemmed glasses, weathered casks, sunlight dappled across verdure, high fertile canopies and mountains of nature’s harvest: oranges, peaches, melons, squashes, lemons, loquats (look it up), apricots, grapes – all ripe and glorifying in the Texan sun. Well stick with me here – this is our toned-down home counties equivalent. Our version however, is a land of trickling, of wetness clinging to brambles, low mists and slate skies. A watercress bed is such a perfect emblem of the local geography of the Thames Valley. It bears the same gentle characteristics.

I visited Sarratt on Tuesday. I could see the first signs of winter – the grass in the churchyard bore a frosted tinge like the bleached highlights in hair. Breathing in was fresh and life-affirming but coupled with an urge to cover up the throat. The chill was tempered by the aroma from cattle which was strangely comforting. Tramping across the fields was like entering into a cloud and I loved it. The atmosphere hangs ancient and still as you descend into the cleavage of the Chess valley. Cool moisture, serene and refreshing. With the sun hidden, there were no shadows and the edges of everything disappear into the shroud. These are also fitting conditions to acquaint myself with true watercress; the aquatic plant packed with iron.

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The chalk streams of both Herts and Bucks are ideal for farming watercress beds. In the 19th century it was a business that thrived and the yield would get sold in London in places like Covent Garden. The adjacent land to the chalk rivers was also conditioned for the growing of wheat. The heads and chaff were used in the brewing and milling trades, the stalks were used in the straw plaiting process. Places like Luton, St Albans, Watford and Hemel Hempstead had literally thousands of people working as plaiters and hundreds of hat makers (hence why Luton FC fans are known as the hatters).

E Tyler & Sons Watercress bed straddles the river Chess. It has a well-weathered fridge in the front garden from which the public can help themselves to bags of fresh watercress and leave the money in an honesty box.

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the river Chess, a bank of watercress and the public fridge and honesty box can be seen on the left

My teeth rent into the leaves and stalks. Initially they tasted a bit like tonic water, then came the grassy chlorophyll followed by the radish-like dry heat. But then it reverberated like an iron sheet struck by a hammer – that metallic note just resonating like a tuning fork. You end up blowing clouds of vapour to try and reduce the temperature. I could still taste it when I got back home a couple of hours later. This is potent stuff. If the beer tasted like this it would be undrinkable. The tiny shamrock-sized leaves you get sprouting from a sponge square in small plastic containers from supermarkets are a world away from the lolloping triffids that thrive in the chalk streams of the Chess.

 

dscf48915 kilograms of watercress go into a 550 litre volume of beer. This is enough to cause the drinker to take notice but not enough to overwhelm. At 3.6 ABV it’s a gentle beer as restrained as the landscape it’s cultivated and brewed in. At the time of writing the liquid was fermenting in “Pinky” (the vessel in the background is Perky) ready to be bottled for the first time.

I like this ale for two reasons: firstly, I simply liked drinking it in The Lower Red. I had a trial half followed by a confirmatory pint. Secondly, it stands for a place, a trade, local flora and a heritage that all get captured in a fermentor and end up presented in a glass. It deserves Protected Designation of Origin status.

I’d love it if in a few years’ time in Colorado, a bearded customer in a baseball cap and shades scanned the chalk board to see the beers on offer and asked the host:

“What I was really looking for was a HSA. Do you have one?”
“Hertfordshire Stream Ale? Sure. We got this one. It’s come all the way from Sarratt” (except now it rhymes with cravat).

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