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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The 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.
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.