About a week ago I scanned the beer engines in a local and decided to have a pint of Harvest Pale from Castle Rock Brewery. This beer was awarded the Champion Beer of Britain by CAMRA in 2010 – roughly the time I started nurturing a serious interest in beer.
It’s been a long time since I’ve had a pint of Harvest Pale. Like Landlord, Doom Bar and Tribute, it’s on permanently in pubs far from its home town – in HP’s case Nottingham. In my hunt for the new, I often neglect it simply to endlessly chart the rotating guests on offer.
It’s completely clear, golden and glowing with a glossy white head. There’s a grassy aroma as we’ve now come to expect from ales of this hue. Citrussy notes tantalise the lips before it’s even been transported across the gullet. These observations could be describing any number of modern pales.
It’s only after this initial introduction that an old school sweat returns; the humulone spritz segues into the warm greasy pastry from beers I moulded my palate on in the 1990s. This malty depth used to be hidden in plain sip as it haunted every pint of amber or golden cask ale.
The malt bringing up the rear – as dominant as the hops at the front – only registers now. It’s a character in itself and yet it’s been displaced during a time frame of little over six years. Taste and smell are hardwired to memory which otherwise fades. This is what makes this beer so special – it’s a sudden flashback to how things always were – suffixed onto the bouquet and palate of how things have become.
There are other culprits that have had similar associations footnoted to them like Summer Lightening and Exmoor Gold, but this one is for the beer connoisseurs of my vintage. I don’t go back far enough for those beers to be game changers to me.
History gets faster and faster meaning the rate of change keeps accelerating. Culture turns. Social media pushes things forward. We strike out at the constantly new. Everything is in flux and few people are keeping tabs.
It seems that more has happened to beer in Britain in the six years since Harvest Pale won Champion Beer of Britain in 2010 than in the decades before it. For example, I don’t bat an eyelid when I see a DIPA on cask now. They’re being made by rural breweries who up until recently were trading on kitsch farming nostalgia on their pump clips. However, this time last year I’d never even had a DIPA via any dispense!
In 2010, CAMRA couldn’t have realised quite what a chimera this beer was. We talk of gateway beers but this made me think more of a bridge linking new beer with the old. For that reason, I now believe Harvest Pale is one of the most significant cask ales ever produced. I just never appreciated it up until now.
Here is my roundup for Session 119 – Discomfort Beer:
Considering the squeezed time frame during the Christmas period with us bloggers hammering out Golden Pint Awards, Twelve Beers of Christmas and other festive gambols, I’m especially grateful to all who contributed.
Gary Gillman @beeretseq contributed a post within record time – almost before I’d sent out the request. He’s a true online grafter.
He recalls an increase in ABV in beers from his native Quebec which caused sensory discomfort as well as the sharper hop profiles that started gaining a footing – particularly Cascade.
Meanwhile from Boston USA, Mike Lynch @burgersbrews describes growing up disgracefully during his college days. His recollections also round on the Cascade hop as popularised by Sierra Nevada – a benchmark brewery for many.
The shock from pronounced hoppiness is echoed from this side of the pond too by Suzy from Lincoln in the UK @lincolnpubgeek. She recalls the trauma of hoppy beer colliding with a predilection for sweeter, darker ales – in this case the discomfort came from Brewdog’s Punk IPA. On realising how vast a magisterium beer is, she states:
“it was like getting on a ferry from Bangor and only then discovering that Ireland exists”
(just for the record – I was raised very close to the Bangor she alludes to in north Wales – not the one in Ireland. The latter would’ve added surreality to the quote).
Jay Brooks is a Californian and makes clear his Discomfort Beer – it’s one I can agree with here in the U.K! I don’t believe I’ve ever had a chilli beer I can get down with and neither has he. Beer with chilli-infused food YES. Beer with chilli IN (often stouts – at least in Britain) – NO!
Jack Perdue @deepbeer hails from Grasonville in Maryland and is working on crossing from one side of the beery planet – the rich quads and imperial stouts – to its antipode where sours, lambics and barnyard ales roam free. These more astringent numbers represent Discomfort Beer to him and he’s as determined to acquire their taste as he is to explore.
Back in Ontario, Alan @agoodbeerblog (abetterbeerblog427.com) talks about many beers but finally rounds on the hop-obsessed and often catch-all style of IPA – but not before going through some seriously unique tasting notes on Cantillon’s Bruocsella:
“quite plainly watery at the outset then acid and more acid…then one note of poo. Not refreshing to slightly sub-Cromwellian stridency”
A nostalgic recollection takes us away from the hops and towards a critique of the body and what’s often seen as the cheaper stand-in for malts (though they can both be used to good effect by good breweries) – maize and corn. Leslie Patiño @lpatinoauthor lives in Texas and dwells on some of the US beers of yesteryear that her father drank.
Mark Lindner @bythebbl is from Bend in Oregon. He is equally blessed and cursed insofar as he judges many beer contests but with a very discerning palate. He dislikes a lot of IPAs – something you seldom hear – and finds that his taste represents a thin sliver of a broad wedge. Pilsners, barley wines and imperial stouts are his favourites but getting an underwhelming one could be worse than sipping a bog-standard take on a more noxious style. His post is as analytical as it is complex.
Also from Bend in Oregon and this time focussing on the malt (or in this case – as much what’s standing in for it), is @brewsite Jon Abernathy’s post about a beer he’s struggling to get acquainted with – white stout and the dubious lengths brewers go to to actually produce one.
Kate Bernot @kbernot from New Jersey chose to talk about a beery cousin – mead. She recalls her first sickly sweet experience with a beverage that she ended up falling for and it proves that even when restricted to one element (honey), there is still a world of variety.
Back in Cornwall UK, Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey @BoakandBailey dissected the topic in their typically cerebral style. They point out that taste and discomfort are rarely fixed – over time, they’re as fluid as our tastes in anything else. The post image they use is also spot-on:
Andreas Krennmair @der_ak is from Linz in Austria but currently resident in Berlin. He brought his experience of home brewing to talk about his initial taste of Orval and goes into the associated history of “keeping beer” or stock pale ales. The link between Orval and these styles was an education to me.
Gareth @Coluleeds originally from Leeds UK (but now an Essex lad), recalls innocently ordering a glass of Oude Gueuze at a beer festival in Belgium. To be accustomed to a sweet warming Blonde or Brune and then get choked by the aggressive sour hands of a Gueuze must be a real shock. He also glimpsed a revered demigod meditating in a tent…..
Rebecca Pate @rpate has roots in Canada but dwells in and chronicles the frenzy that is brewing in east London. Here she reflects on the osmotic way she takes to new beer styles; her palate adapts to most and evolves accordingly. But she was given pause recently after trying a floral kuitbier. Definitely a new one on me – read on!
Joe Tindall @FatalGlass picks a beer style he initially disliked – and I can join him in reviling it – smoked beer or Rauchbier. He refers to how the palate adjusts to ever more bitter flavours – with hops it’s the lupulin threshold shift (I cannot wait to bring up this term in a loud voice next time I’m in the pub. Thank you Joe!). In Rauchbier’s case, the aggressor’s the smoked malt. He took on this demon and won.
Stan Hieronymus @StanHieronymus (the father of The Session) lives in St Louis in Missouri. He delves back to some of the earliest memories of drinking and the dislike it can kindle as a young spectator; viz his father drinking with friends and the stench of tobacco. Isn’t most people’s first experience of beer negative? I believe so. It’s the original acquired taste.
Finally, and perhaps fittingly for someone into endurance sport, Derrick Peterman @ramblings_oa_br from Campbell, California adds a new depth to this discussion: he talks about discomfort somatically and the way you push yourself psychologically to absorb the pain of running or to adapt to new beer styles. One style that just can’t grow on him though, is American Barley Wine.
Well 2017’s here. Whether it will be as full of upheaval and death as its predecessor, I doubt. But if it is, then current affairs will replace benzedrine this coming year.
I’m sharing with you not so much two new year’s resolutions as two statements of intent. They almost contradict each other:
1 – drink more German beer on tap (which will necessitate going to London).
2 – explore the shire in which I now live instead of constantly visiting London.
Statement number one reflects that the best beer I had in 2016 waited until late December. It was a glass of Lagerbier Hell from Augustiner-Bräu – Munich’s oldest brewery. It was dispensed from keg at the Beer Shop in St Albans. At the time, the town was in a fifteen tog duvet of freezing fog so imagine how much more appealing this beer would be in the swelter of summer. Speaking of which, I also had a brief fling with Kölsch at the end of May (this time just in bottle) so that’s twice I got seduced by Deutsches Bier in 2016.
Lager is like the tide sweeping in over a salt flat. When it’s good it’s the most ravishing beer. It’s gorgeous and it’s always been there for me to ignore. Why?
My ignorance of German beer might also be linked to the fact that the bottled version often pales against its tap version. Apart from a few examples like Franziskaner Weissbier, I rarely see variety of German beer on draught – even in London. That’s why the Lager from the beer shop was such an eye-opener.
It’s also in stark contrast to IPA which has in one popular guise put itself on a path of convergent evolution with Um Bongo. IPA is rapidly becoming the syrup at the bottom of tinned fruit both in taste and consistency. It’s lovely but it’s beginning to miss an elemental part of beer: the refreshment.
The problem is I have been fixated on the British and the American with small cameos from Belgium for years now. In part, I think it’s because I’ve subconsciously convinced myself to ignore beer from large established breweries (unless, hypocritically, it happens to be Fullers). It’s time to put that right in 2017.
The second statement isn’t a swipe against the capital. I love it. It’s in me and always will be. I’ve worked for the same borough council now for over ten years so come into it each week. On my adventures around Westminster, I often pass pubs I don’t know and peer through the windows to try and discern the outfit that runs it and the beer it serves based on the pump clip silhouettes. I always used to put down markers for when I was off duty. We moved out in 2011 but the compulsion to go to London during down time carried on.
But this means I have neglected Hertfordshire where I now live. It’s to my great shame that it wasn’t until 2016 I finally visited places like Sarrat and Watford on beery days out. The older pub-goers I know in St Albans that are or were plumbers, milkmen and builders all know the surrounding areas. The people that moved up from London tend to be completely ignorant of them. In St Albans’ case, this isn’t actually a new phenomenon as it’s always been a commuter town and owes its wealth to the big smoke. On the street I live on, most people still work in London so the north/south commute is the norm. The east/west axis doesn’t exist.
The villages and towns in Hertfordshire are connected by wiggly arterial bus routes that take time and often require you change at least once. Since moving to St Albans, I haven’t been on a single bus. I actually had to ask a local codger whether bus drivers take payment (my recent experience only being London) as I genuinely didn’t know. I was also given a piece of advice: never wait to get the last bus – it might never come.
But out there in Hertfordshire’s multiple ayots, garden cities and steads, there are breweries of mystery and brew pubs of legend. They are mine to discover along with the shaggy creatures that run and frequent them. I have big feet for my short body so I’d make an excellent hobbit. It’s finally time to cut across country in 2017.
A few days ago, I got a message in my inbox. Here is an edited version (SADC stands for St Albans District Council):
URGENT – WE NEED YOUR SUPPORT!
“to all our members in St Albans and Harpenden (….) over a year ago we successfully obtained an Asset of Community Value designation (….) on the Red Cow pub in Harpenden which was under threat. Unfortunately the owner has appealed against this decision (….) The council have asked us to provide the names and addresses of at least 21 of our members who are resident in SADC to support our opposition to the appeal (….) The Council have assured us that nobody listed will be contacted by the council or by the appellant. So all I need is your permission to give them your name, address and postcode. No emails or telephone numbers are needed (.…)”
Should I lend my weight to help save a pub I’ve never been in? Or am I unwittingly colluding in a practice that will blow a major hole in saving pubs or granting them ACV status in the future?
As evidenced in the email, the council currently takes no steps in contacting anyone putting their name to an appeal like this. But could this change? Will the time come when the local council has to actually question each signatory on a petition? I get the feeling it might.
Over the past few years, the number of petitions has soared. This is mainly for two reasons: the popularity of e-petitions that can be signed from the comfort of the sofa, and umbilically, 2010 government legislation whereby petitions of 100,000 signatories automatically get debated in the Commons. Without any discussion on the issue, 100,000 names can easily be gathered in a few minutes
Following on from the June EU referendum, the government was swamped by petitions calling for a second referendum. This in turn provoked internet petitions for the football match between Iceland and England to be replayed, the Battle of Hastings to be refought and the National Lottery draw to be recast as the participants didn’t like the result. There are even online petitions calling to ban online petitions.
Fun and mischief was being had with those latter examples, but they do illustrate the ease, whimsy and apathy that petitions – especially online – can potentially nurture.
I’ve often suspected that if the signatories were contacted after a campaign, many of those who added their name might have forgotten they ever signed it, did it just to get the canvasser to go away, because the rest of the students signed, because their friend or partner got them to et cetera. This is part of the reason petitions are often ignored or given a token debate in Parliament at around 4am.
Now admittedly this is very different to the case being fought by South Herts CAMRA. For a start, unlike many e-petitions, it won’t be cancelled out by a rival e-petition trying to push matters the other way. Also, the people signing this will be local (as it’s addressed to the South Herts branch), will have an interest as dedicated pub-goers and genuinely want to see pubs stay open.
I decided to give my permission to send SADC my name and address as it stipulates nothing else is required. A knowledge of the threatened pub isn’t essential but I’ve given my details with a feeling of hypocrisy. Not only have I never been into the Red Cow, but up until this point I’d never even heard of it.
Something else decided me too: there was recently a petition in St Albans to save a pub called the Camp which I didn’t get involved in because I thought it couldn’t survive as a public house. I now regret this as other pubs I wrote off at the time have successfully turned themselves around. The Camp closed.
In my opinion, petitioning to save pubs has been a huge success so far (though obviously this doesn’t mean all of the pubs have been saved). But my fear is that very soon, the owner who wishes to sell or develop the pub will have lawyers to cite evidence based on the shortcomings of petitioning itself. If it can be proven that very few of the signatories had any historical connection to the campaign, it could undermine appeals like the one for the Red Cow.
Watford has provoked fear in me for some time because I’ve usually driven in and its road system was designed by Hieronymus Bosch. Circling the town centre, you build momentum through centrifugal force and are either flung from the circuit into deep Hertfordshire or brought in by its gravitational pull. In fourth gear, you realise you need to cross four lanes of agitated motorists in the space of twenty metres. You exit like a dart to breach a chicaned car park entrance. I’d recommend drinking Red Bull before attempting it – in fact, the traffic could be sponsored by it.
I didn’t need to worry about that this time though, as I got the train that shuttles between St Albans and Watford Junction which is a genuine delight. It trundles back and forth along a route of just six stops and takes but sixteen minutes. Each time it sets off after a station, a recording of a “ding ding!” is played. I thought I could hear Ringo Starr’s voice narrating.
Considering their almost walking distance proximity, the difference between St Albans and Watford is striking. St Albans is a cathedral city of strict masonry, building discipline and conservation areas but Watford feels very different. On the walk into town, it veers off in every architectural idiom at once. The office buildings at the top of Clarendon Road look like the round-cornered and smoked glass futurism of the 1980s and 1990s. The Victorian era Beech Grove Baptist Church boasts its ship-like hull. Then there’s the stocky frontage of the Palace Theatre, Edwardian in age. Deeper in, St Mary’s Church roughly dating from the 1200s squats awkwardly among the multi-storey car parks.
There is a tangible pride here too. It’s seen it in the murals on the walls along the subways that give pedestrians safe passage into the town’s heart. Watford is written in big colourful letters and illustrated in spray paint pictures.
The market here is an institution that goes back 900 years and still dominates. Part of it has been repackaged into a structure made from shipping containers and renamed New Watford Market.
The town centre is a bric a brac of chronology and style. It seems both up-and-coming and run down. Gentrification sits shoulder to shoulder with destitution. B&M Bargains neighbours Pret a Manger.
But there’s a creative energy here that St Albans is too prudish to acquire. St Albans has too much rectitude. Trashiness – a quality Watford has, comes with a kind of hunger for new blood. St Albans practices self-deprivation in this respect – its city centre looks like the browning photographs of itself from the nineteenth century and will be just as recognisable centuries from now. Watford is a bargain bin of civic projects. It’s alive.
St Albans is a tucked-in shirt, cobbled, IT manager-y, Waitrose-y, Jack Wills-y. You just know its pretty streets are heaving with conservation orders and neighbourhood associations that do mulled wine evenings – and they are! Whereas Watford has the freedom to keep redefining itself.
There’s an awkwardness to Watford too, though. When said aloud, it even sounds like it’s annoyed. The town’s chaotic but through some cosmic fairness, it’s just as difficult to negotiate through it by car as it is on foot. It’s like the town was planned to make life harder for both modes of travel without putting bias on either. Maybe the planners just got a fantastic deal on concrete.
And another thing, why does everybody cycle on the pavement here? I keep almost getting mown down.
Perhaps what tops it all is the brutalist concrete flyover careering straight over the main drag – Exchange Road built in 1972. That carriageway needs to stay because one day soon when 1970s brutalism isn’t the recent past but the sepia history, that structure will be as symbolic for Watford as the bridge is in Avignon. It will become a listed monument closed to traffic with a public walkway, visitors centre, viewing platforms and a sustainable coffee shop. Watford, the town on a roundabout, will become a UNESCO site.
A cold grey version of the Jetsons – vehicles orbiting in rings around the town and even soaring overhead on roads through the air. This was the future as we used to imagine it. Kudos to Watford for trying.
Hertfordshire is a very traditional county in regards to our national drink. The difference in beer culture between here and London who’s doorstep we’re on (or vice versa) is something increasingly apparent in my mind. I associate Hertfordshire with cask heritage, with CAMRA, McMullens Brewery and an apprehension towards the new – but maybe that’s pushing it.
Pope’s Yard in Watford is doing things very differently. In fact, Watford tends to do a lot of things very differently – town centre planning being one of them. I went down to the brewery to meet the two brewers – Ben and Geoff.
I strolled down the everlasting Whippendell Road and eventually made it to the building the brewery is located in. It’s part office, part workshop and maybe even slightly factory. The structure was once owned by the Ministry of Defence. It’s the kind of building I associate with scout or brownie meetings and polling stations. Pope’s Yard Brewery occupies a ground floor space.
They have a one barrel kit and a five barrel kit. Brewing hasn’t yet become regularised to a specific timetable but they have mastered a commendable portfolio of styles.
For a new brewery, Pope’s Yard has a lot of space in comparison to new startups in the capital. What it also has when it opens its doors to the public is convenience – a symphony of lavatories. When I entered the building the ladies’ were to the right and the gents’ to the left. And on the brewery floor is another stealth multi-toilet chamber behind a secret door. This is a stark change to the fifteen minute conga lines that develop under London’s railway arches for a single pan. The many cubicles no doubt reflect a large ex-workforce, but I’m digressing.
What’s particularly pleasing to find is that Pope’s Yard isn’t blinkered about real ale. It has a preferred dispense method for each of its beers. To illustrate this, I mentioned my fondness for Hibiscus Sour, a cask of which sold recently at the beer festival in St Albans. It was my beer of the festival, in no small part because it was so different to the surrounding cask staples. Ben pointed out that it had to be casked back then as that festival only serves cask ale (foreign bar aside). But ideally, keg would be better for a sour and keep it cooler, consistent and more carbonated. I agree.
Conversely, Quartermaster – the amber bitter they were pouring – is so full bodied and malty that to afford it any respect it could only ever be served on cask. I said that it reminded me of Fullers ESB and they confirmed that’s what they were going for with its crystal malt base. It’s gorgeous.
The second cask ale on tap was the Club Hammer Stout (it was originally called Lump Hammer but this name was shared by another brewery). It’s chocolatey, fulsome and perfect for sipping in the winter chill. Luminaire was the third – a more refreshing citrussy beer that slides down easily.
The brewery isn’t just a tap room but a grotto with a table of collector’s items. There is a beautiful sign for the Fish and Eels – a pub in Hoddesdon which criminally decided to “update” its signage. This is the discarding of art – just look at the image! Why are so many pubs doing it? On the table there was also a collection of Benskins pump clips and what looked a bit like pepper grinders were in fact German sachrometers – the tops unscrew to reveal the probes.
Two brewers barrels on the shop floor carried an unorthodox cargo: evolving inside was a Brett sour beer that was being aged on spruce tips. By their own admission, the beer wasn’t ready but we were treated to a taster. There is currently no carbonation but the Brett aroma is an almost physical barrier it’s so ripe. The spruce added a fresh not-quite menthol note to the finish – almost a cool draught rather than a taste. I look forward to when this beer’s properly come of age.
Pope’s Yard’s beer range doesn’t reflect the greater brewing scene in Hertfordshire but neither is it a clone of any of the output in London. It’s bespoke to its own taste. Most of its beer is sold in 330ml or 500ml bottles. They have an impressive range including whisky aged beer, strong dark mild, and single hop varietals.
On sale at the tap on this visit were the likes of Hibiscus Sour, Vanilla Milk Stout, Galaxian IPA and Lapsang Souchong Porter. They’ve even developed an Abbey style ale in tribute of St Albans (its cathedral/church is locally known as the abbey as it used to be one) – St Albans Abbey Triple. Finally, their Never Surrender is an ale that puts malt in the spotlight. Six malts and as the label states: “just a hint of hops”. How often would you hear that bold claim in Hackney?
The Session, a.k.a. Beer Blogging Friday, is an opportunity once a month for beer bloggers from around the world to get together and write from their own unique perspective on a single topic. Each month, a different beer blogger hosts the Session, chooses a topic and creates a round-up listing all of the participants, along with a short pithy critique of each entry. Over time, it is the hope — of me, at least — that a record will be created with much useful information about various topics on the subject of beer. The idea for the Sessions began with fellow beer writer Stan Hieronymus, who noticed similar group endeavours in other blogospheres and suggested those of us in the beer world create our own project. Here is Stan’s original thought process to start up the Session.
Session 119: Discomfort Beer:
What was your first ever taste of beer like? For me, it was like chilled copper coins mixed with tonic water and was disgusting. This is a process us committed beer drinkers can revisit every time we try something new.
A few years ago, I visited a pub in Pimlico called the Cask and Kitchen. There was a beer called Wild Raven by Thornbridge Brewery. Making assumptions based on the title, I ordered a pint as I love stout. I remember opening the sluices and then seizing up. Something wasn’t right. It had the chocolatey flavour of a stout but there was an intruder – lemon rind hissed in my nostrils and tainted my palate. Citrus grappled with the roast malt. Was it supposed to taste like this? Was it infection? Detergent? I spent some time staring at the floor in a suspended double-take.
That was my first ever Black IPA and at the time I wasn’t sure. Initially, I didn’t like it but whilst deciding whether or not to return it to the bar I kept giving it the benefit of the doubt. The dislike diminished. The acceptance grew. The pint gradually drained.
Black IPA is now one of my favourite styles but it could have gone the other way.
And does a Black IPA still get me blinking at the floor in a state of disquiet? No. Neither does the astringent character of Brett nor the dry bite of Lambic. All styles have been comprehensively “locked in”. Ultimately, familiarity devours discomfort.
For Session 119 I’d like you to write about which/what kind of beers took you out of your comfort zones. Beers you weren’t sure whether you didn’t like, or whether you just needed to adjust to. Also, this can’t include beers that were compromised, defective, flat, off etc because this is about deliberate styles. It would be interesting to see if these experiences are similar in different countries.
I think this could be a good archive for people researching fads, the origins of styles and the dearths of others – but especially how new ones were initially perceived.
Over the past year I’ve had a black barley wine, a braggot, a rye wine, a seaweed and cloudberry Gose, a beer made with Saki yeast and several made with Champagne yeast. I’ve sipped stout with Tonka beans, drank mulled lager and many tea beers – some with the tea complementing the hops – others completely replacing them. This has also been a year where 9 ABV hop-forward beers have become standard*.
Some of the above I loved, others I liked and some I hated. What remains to be seen is which will catch on and which are just brief social media cameos.
I look forward to reading about your experiences. All contributions will be rounded up for January the sixth.
On Monday I saw an image of a young child simulating being breast fed by a shop mannequin. It was tweeted by Acton Ales and retweeted with revulsion by Melissa Cole (the disgust was directed towards the brewery for other reasons beyond the scope of this post. Donald Trump, White Knight – you can look into it). I also discovered that Acton Ales isn’t in west London but Northumberland.
I’ve not included the picture here. It’s not because it’s controversial it’s just because I don’t know who the boy and his family are and whether or not they want to be spread across the internet. To see the original image, just go into Melissa Cole’s or Acton Ales’ Twitter feed. Instead, I’ve put this charming image of a rose snapped with my phone in the Boot in St Albans.
The brewery originally posted the picture with a reference to knowing your first taste of their beers which is a terrible pitch. If their beer is synonymous with breast milk, then the shot needed to be of a genuine breast otherwise it’s basically saying their ale is a shocking disappointment – a mannequin’s nipple is bloody bakelite! In any case, there are no details with the image and nobody has commented on it.
That should have been it but my thoughts have gone off in all directions at once. The image won’t leave me alone. I actually treasure it. But why?
Here’s a description: the child looks male and isn’t much older than a toddler. The context is suspect. For a start, the mannequin torso is standing on the floor too low for perusal by shoppers so it seems a bit set up. It’s wearing a summer dress and the straps have been pulled away to expose the bust. The child’s left hand is on the right bosom and he’s sucking the teat of the left bosom (something I learned from a Richard Dawkins book that we always get wrong – it’s the mother that suckles, the infant sucks).
I don’t think a child would intuitively go up to a dummy and do this because it’s a lump of moulded plastic. In the care of sniggering teenage relatives who showed him what to do? Probably. I think I can see a bit of knowing mischief on the boy’s face like he’s in on it and trying to suppress a smile.
Acton Ales and its misguided way of promoting itself aside, I’m not sure if I’m creeped out by the image or amused by it. This got me to thinking about the country we’re viewing it in. We don’t generally like these kind of pictures in Britain. I can’t help imagining a group of Italian or Greek mothers loving an image like through the prism of matriarchy. I went to school in France for three years. What struck me when we first moved there is that frontal nudity is on the shower gel adverts in between ad breaks on children’s television. In fact, nudity was everywhere and this was before the age of the internet.
The French version of blooper reel shows and Candid Camera often has things very much like this – breasts being exposed by babies. Shows in Italy go even further. They’re a bit like the 1970s “confessions of” films with Robert Asquith to our eyes. Tutti Frutti – a 1980s strip show – was first commissioned by Silvio Berlusconi.
This photo is also a good representation of apps like Untappd – sucking at the nipple in pursuit of the holy grail and finding that nothing lives up to expectation. Aren’t beer tickers just like this young boy desperately seeking the elusive five stars? It’s a testament to negative publicity – disappointment can be more cathartic and occupy a greater number of column inches than approval which lends much less to the creative process. We love whingeing more than we do being satisfied.
Another thing it makes me think of is beer obsession and breast feeding and a possible link between the two. Is the need for beer linked to our most fundamental desire to be wet nursed? Are the genes that drove that hunger still with us decades later? It’s something I’ve often cogitated over – especially when sipping a sweet stout or a mild. They just feel like milky nourishment. For substantial research, I’d have to read up on work by paediatricians, nutritionalists, primatologists and evolutionary biologists.
It also made me look into myself and I’m not proud. It made me realise that if I did find myself the last of mankind after waking up to discover the human race gone, between draining bottles of beer from shop shelves and cleaving open tins of food, I’d definitely be sneaking around the upper floor of Marks and Spencers groping the mannequins too. It’s only the layers of inhibition, self-respect and public disgust that stop me from acting like this toddler in the first place. Obviously it would take time for these safety mechanisms to be eroded – potentially hours. I know. Horrid.
So there you have it. A stream of consciousness from one picture on Twitter. I needed to get these thoughts off my chest (come on – you knew it was coming). I hope the boy’s healthy and happy. I’d recommend following Melissa Cole because she’s a professional beer writer. Have a look at Acton Ales too and make up your own minds.
This is not a post about the history or origins of the black IPA style – others have researched that thoroughly. Suffice to say it’s a beer, which in its current guise became popular in America then in the UK and now across the world. I’ve had Danish, Dutch and Italian takes on it. I’m talking about Black IPA today. I’m also being selfishly place specific: Britain where the term has – up until now – trumped rival terms like Cascadian Black or India Black Ale.
I first noticed a change in the vernacular at the recent St Albans Beer Festival. Staff T-shirts were branded with Farr Brew’s Blacklisted IBA – India Black Ale. I then clocked a bottle of the London Beer Lab’s India Black Ale in a beer shop. There’s also Wishbone Brewery’s Tartarus India Black Ale and a quick Google search has thrown up Vibrant Forest’s Metropolis India Black Ale. So I’m not going mad – the term is gaining currency in the U.K.
Cascadian Black sounds sexy and links to its ties in the Pacific Northwest of the States but the tale goes back further. India Black Ale also severs its connection with history by omitting IPA. Though Black IPAs have no modern link with India, this more contemporary American take on the style follows on from IPAs as brewed in the US – resurrected and reinvigorated from those of the days of the British Empire. It carries through a journey that leads to its current incarnation. Neither Cascadian Black nor India Black Ale do (though the former’s more legitimate to me).
Maybe this recent experience can help illustrate what I mean. When in doubt, always return to the pub:
Earlier in the year I was sat at the bar of The Verulam Arms which brews its own beer. On cask was Mediocria Firma – one of their cask bitters surmounted by a carved wooden badge. Mediocria Firma is the motto of the Bacon family (his inheritors the Verulam family own nearby Gorehambury Estate and get their title from Verulamium – the Roman name for St Albans). This motto has always puzzled me as it seems to say mediocrity is best, i.e: “be crap!”
A gentleman with a plummy voice entered and sat down to my right. He remarked on the pump clip.
“Oh. You can’t have done Latin at school!” he announced. Interesting opening line. It made me wonder how it would go down in other pubs. Fortunately, St Albans is quite posh so umbrage wasn’t taken. The man explained that he’d been a pupil at the prestigious St Albans Boys School (Stephen Hawking was a young student too) where he’d been taught Latin. Patronising arrogance aside, he did go on to cast light on the Latin motto: It was a common misapprehension that it was two words. Mediocria looks like it should mean mediocre but it doesn’t – it’s actually two words: Medioc and Ria – Middle and Road. It therefore means the middle road is best or keep to the straight path.
This puts a completely different spin on it and throws the motto open to being about doggedness, cutting the Gordian knot, compromising to achieve. It’s loads better than “be crap!”
I use this example as a very loose parallel with the term Black IPA: on the surface, it seems wrong and the bit that doesn’t make sense is based on an assumption. Black IPA is only an oxymoron through one sense: visually.
But what’s in a colour? It’s the Buddha Beers, the Carlsbergs and the Bulmers that entice people via the eyes with colouring agents, head retention agents and now even hazing agents.
Oxymoron is rarely abuse of the English language but a clever use of it and by chance rather than by design, the term Black IPA is as sharp as the term “deafening silence”. We should be identifying Black IPAs with out palates not our eyes.
Just look at it this way: a beer style defined by the fact that a roast chocolate malt aroma – the black, is then overlaid by the fruity verdure of new world hops – the modern IPA. This means we’re identifying the style using the full capability of our sensory apparatus – an area where corporate brands whose recipes are predicated by spreadsheet brewing cannot reach. We have a distinct aromatic and gustatory sensation whereas they have a colour chart. We have a new chapter in an historical sequence that’s been developing for over a century. They have prime time advertising.
Black IPA divides beer lovers – a sign that it’s special. We could use another word for divides when it’s used in the context of separating discerning drinkers: reinvents.
How can a beer be both an India Pale Ale and black? Easily. Just taste it.
It’s time to reflect on 2016, its beers and the places I drank them in. Frequently lugging a camera about has helped preserve my memories and added some nice detail to blog posts. The unsung hero, though, is the mobile phone which is always in pocket. Swiping through the image archive is a resource we didn’t have just a few years ago. It’s amazing how many (mostly dreadful) photos I took but without it, many recollections would’ve been lost. Admittedly, this can often be attributed to the drink itself.
I’ve decided on a list of seven to sum up beer in 2016. Some I blogged about, some I didn’t. Each is included for a different reason. I rarely leave the orbit of St Albans or London so they all take place there. I also want to keep the focus on the pub, bar, brewery or taproom so I’m not regurgitating experiences I had at home.
The garden of the White Lion, St Albans:
One thing I love about summer isn’t so much the nuclear light of early afternoon but how long into the evening it takes for the sky to darken and how many transcendent colours it turns. In St Albans the celestial streaks from aircraft contrails add a Jackson Pollock flourish to the canvas too – both Luton and Stansted airports are very local. On the pub’s lawn, burning brasiers provided a primal warmth. When the heavens finally deepened to indigo, the fires radiated their orange and hunched over, people sat around as they have done for thousands of years with their shadows flickering about them. It felt so natural and timeless and it intensified conversation to the clandestine. On pallets we sat back to back with a friend or acquaintance without even realising it as they were engrossed in equally intense exchanges. What was the beer I was drinking? I’ve no idea but it was good and came in rounds. Elemental and outdoors, it just felt like freedom.
The London Craft Beer Festival, Bethnal Green:
I want to avoid cliché here and not use the sweetshop analogy but can’t. It was a full-on Willy Wonka extravaganza but I can at least customise it a bit by specifically referring to the 1971 version with Gene Wilder. That film had technicolor psychedelia and a brooding menace. It was like having free reign in a sweet shop because this festival has dispensed with cash, pint measures, tokens and (virtually) queues too. It’s one swig of beer after another. All the hipsters with their common sartorial pomp served well as updated Umpa Lumpas too. I usually keep tally of how many pints I’ve drunk but that measure – for good or ill – has also taken voluntary redundancy at the Oval Space. No idea how much I drank and difficult to even remember which I consumed. Only the most memorable gobstoppers punctuate the memory. Somehow I made it back home. The recollection will be forever date-stamped by the geometric hulk of gas holder five – the gasometer cage that lends the venue its name.
Paradigm Brewery, Sarrat:
I spent an hour or so exploring a quiet village in a low hanging mist. It was the first chill of winter and Sarrat seemed deserted – a perfect Midsomer Murders venue. I descended into the Chess Valley to find a commercial watercress bed and bought some by leaving money in an honesty box. Watercress has a long history of being stream-farmed in Herts and Bucks. I then dropped in unannounced to Paradigm brewery who brew a beer with it. It was in the fermentor on my visit. I met the two brewers going about their grind in a converted pig house. They were hopping, taking orders, driving, collecting, delivering and good enough to show me around. I was given a glass of a Mosaic-hopped beer straight from the cask in a cool room. It was carbonated, cold, zinging and utterly refreshing in a way I don’t usually associate with gravity dispense. Paradigm is a brewery successfully exploiting the traditional and the present.
St Stephens Tavern, Westminster:
This is the only entry I include where the beer was bad. It was a pint of First Call by Hall & Woodhouse and it was awful. Despite that, it makes it into this roundup for the location’s surreality. Even if the beer had been good, it would never have matched up to the sights and sounds – the unreal view of human and vehicle traffic teeming past parliament. It made me want to pinch myself. The architecture of the pub interior had window panes soaring towards the sky. Summer was rearing up. The scene from the service bay looking towards Queen Elizabeth Tower was like standing in the aisles of a giant movie screen – the backdrop to a documentary about parliament you could walk into! Just order a half.
The Six Bells, St Albans:
I can be a bit of a ticker (less so these days as it increases the amount of crap beer you pay for), but when Timothy Taylor’s Dark Mild and Ram Tam come around, the stakes change. Both are ales I’ve been aware of for years, they just don’t break out of West Yorkshire much. The feeling was like celebrities coming to visit your home town. They were here as part of a tap takeover and food pairing that had happened a couple of days before which I missed due to work. But I crossed the threshold at my earliest opportunity. Even though the Six Bells had few customers at the time, I ordered a half of each together in case one cask ran out. I then returned for a pint of each at a more civilised pace. I had the chance to savour them, talk to them, listen to their concerns and make plans for our retirement together in the Pennines.
The Harp, Covent Garden:
The relaxation and comfort I associate with a pub I don’t expect to sit down in speaks for the pub’s conviviality. This is the feeling that’s been reinforced over a decade. The Harp is the kind of pub that gives a backbone to pub mythology. Not only that, but this glow was made even more cosy by a glass of fondant manna – Fullers Vintage Ale straight from cask. You don’t so much drink it as absorb it like a vanilla sponge soaks up brandy. The Harp is one of those pubs where you feel yourself willingly becoming part of the structure – you start to melt into the wall you lean against like you’re becoming one of the many characters portrayed in its paintings. I hope to be reincarnated as part of the decor so I remain forever.
Craft & Cleaver, St Albans:
In London you could probably tap one of Cloudwater’s 2016 smash hit DIPAs and turn an hourglass over next to it to see if there’s any sand grains left in the top before the keg runs dry (especially if you’ve Tweeted about it too). In St Albans, it lasted a week and I seemed to be the only person drinking it. I went back to the Craft & Cleaver four or five days on the trot like an addict returning to the drug. Each time I sipped it in quietude – I think it’s best savoured this way. I don’t want anybody speaking and interfering with the taste. This is good anti-socialism: the kind you sometimes need. Cloudwater DIPA is a beer you need to shut your surroundings out from to allow a large empty space for contemplation. I witnessed so much footage gazing down at the headless surface. Beers that force you to drink them slowly have this power. The price was worth it.
In 2016 going out to drink has lead to a wealth of experiences – some opposing, some complementary. They have reflected not just socialisation but introspection, heritage as well as modernity and both solitude and conviviality. The feeling of outdoors has been as remarkable as the awesome anatomy of architecture and it’s been a year where institution can equally accommodate innovation.