pub primatology

pub primatology

I am a voyeur. Not in the 1970s Robin Askwith “confessions of..” sense, but in a more holistic one. Wherever I am, I’ll be keeping a narrowed eye on those around me. I like to people-watch. This is just as true whether I’m drinking a pint, an americano coffee or sitting in traffic.

I love the body language of converse. At a table, men sit and lean back to talk to one another and raise their voices to be heard. Men seem to hold their abdomen proud so the chest and stomach are exposed to each other – often with arms folded back over the chair. Women are more inclined to lean in towards each other. In conversation, they often look like they’re playing poker – each holding her cards close. They sometimes keep a hand over their mouth – only removing it to talk. When the plot thickens, their eyes widen and necks extend to close the gap between them.

Women have also developed a way of removing their handbag from the shoulder and setting it aside that tells me they’re having or are about to have a row with their partner. It’s actually the over-care and the slowness with which the bag is put down that instills fear.

But with regard to pubs – they’re the best place to be a voyeur. The kind of behaviour I watch might also be dependent on the kind of pub I’m in. I’m going to call type A the singleton pub and type B the group pub. In a singleton pub, you enter alone then “become” part of a group around a bar (if you want to). In a group pub, you enter or congregate as a pre-organised group and stay insular from the others in the pub.

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Also, I’m not talking about tap rooms or breweries which I think have a more varied demographic to pubs.

Type A and type B represent the extremes with most pubs occupying the vast space in the middle. But how did these types even come about? Let uncle Alec try and tease a few threads apart.

The singleton pub, in my opinion, is a public house of long standing to which the interior has changed little. The culture of mainly just men going to the pub has endured enough to still be noticeable. By this, I mean that most “singletons” are men whether they’re in a relationship or not. Music is either absent or background only. Also, there’s a small television in the corner – usually with sport – that can be as equally followed or ignored.

I find that group pubs are often ex-restaurants. A restaurant has a higher stock than the pub and this perceived classiness still clings. They are venues that tend to be candle and soft light heavy. Flowers are another ingredient. Group pubs have more seating around the bar. Fewer people can stand – hence fewer singletons frequenting them. They’re also likely to play music so shouting is necessary. Again, this would deter the singletons. There are no televisions in group pubs, either.

Some of these pubs can make you feel like you’ve come to a swingers’ party alone. There’s nothing to do but to get a facial tan from the scroll of your smart phone while fondling the pump clips on your tod.

The more these demographics occur, the more they establish as the singletons and the groups seek out the places that reflect them. But then again, it’s just my theory.

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primatology observations from type A:

Wherever there’s a bar with men in, an odd posture is adopted: first, you lean onto your elbows and let them take the stress of about forty per cent of your body weight. Then, you try and put a hinge in the small of your back where there isn’t one by extreme arching. The effect of this would be quite provocative in other circumstances – you’re actually pushing your bottom out to form a shelf (I’m afraid I’ll return to the issue of male bottoms in pubs later. Please bear with me). Then you stand on one leg – usually the left – while your right one bends around it so only the toes at the end of it make contact with the floor. Straining on just one elbow, you could also hook a thumb through a belt loop of your jeans if you wished. Texans accessorise this look best (probably) with a belt, a couple of holsters and a tilted Stetson. Here in Britain, a rain-spotted copy of the Guardian and a brolly isn’t quite as manly.

The bizarre thing is that this position – public statement of male relaxation – gets really uncomfortable. After all that heightened relaxation you need to sit down somewhere to recuperate from it.

This is a learnt male behaviour you can see across the globe. This posture also advertises that the stander is open for business and proficient in a very special discipline: the fantastical and ancient art of bollocks – a language rooted in beer.

There is something magical about beer and bollocks. A few years ago I was in the Blackies’ (Blacksmiths Arms, St Albans) standing at the bar adopting the requisite position. At some point, I got talking to an Irish man who was also assuming the stance. Between us, over the course of a couple of hours, we put Britain’s farming problems to rights. I’m not a farmer and neither is he. I did once work on a farm near Loch Gruinart in the Inner Hebrides when I was sixteen (this actually sounds like bollocks but it’s true!) and that served as the basis for my authority. I eked this out to about thirty years’ experience man and boy with the environment minister having my number on speed dial. I was a consultant. He’d probably once owned a pair of wellies, so he was an expert too.

I’ve seen him about and we acknowledge each other whilst not being in the zone. We’re normal punters going about our business, but at a given signal, if both of us cross a certain threshold whilst being in the same pub, we can take on new identities again. I fancy the one where I almost qualified as a winger for the England Rugby team. If I can have that, he can have almost being a scrum half for the Irish one. That’s the beauty of bollocks.

Like Dorothy, all we need do is tap our heels together. And raise the wrist….

primatology observations from type B:

I once witnessed a car crash of a first date – and, as I’m sure, dear reader, you’ll agree – last date.

There were some small tables and stools in that pub and this “couple” was sat at one. It gave the impression I was looking down from an elevated floor.

I could tell by their body language they didn’t know each other. She’d dressed up. He’s dressed down. I watched him laugh at something on his phone while she was trying to talk. I got the impression the venue was his choice. It was hard to tell whether she wasn’t into beer or just not into him or both. He was certainly into beer. He drank fast – having to go to the bar to get himself another pint as her stalked half pint glass stood virtually untouched.

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What had originally drawn my attention to them was actually two of sides of pink mutton – his bare haunches squashed above the driveway to his builder’s bum. It was all on display and because it was summer, it had a dewy glisten-on too. His jeans and belt were too tight and his T-shirt too small. The effect it made was his rear seemed like a fat child’s face smiling at me. I smiled back but that wasn’t the worst thing – this was: every time he wasn’t using his right hand to hold his glass, he was tucking it snugly into the hind cleft like it was a docking station.

One grace might have been that his date was spared this knowledge as she didn’t have my view of the house.

When they got up to leave, he swiped her glass off the table and drained it in one go – waste not, want not. The look she gave was pure rennet. And then, dear reader. He attempted. To plant. A kiss on her. I’m not talking about tonsil-devoration but an affectionate lip-purse to the cheek. Instead, he puckered the dry air in the space her head had just taken evasive action from. He then proffered a hand (that one!) which was left hanging.

Meanwhile, her entire body channelled an arrow being fired at the exit and then she was but a memory of footsteps. He looked confused and hurt and I snapped my gaze to the ground as I thought we were about to make eye contact.

We were the same species. I was feeling humiliation, shame, impotence all on his behalf. I felt like a beetroot roasting in its skin because I knew that there was more that connected me and him than separates us (though not the hand down the trousers!). His inability to read other people is something that goes to my core – I have personally been human illiterate too many times. And yet there I’d been “reading” his companion perfectly from a safe distance as he fulfilled his own dire prophecy.

If you want to know yourselves, then scrutinise the people around you. I find that the pub is the best place to people-watch as it exposes our quirks and vulnerabilities through the gentle unwrapping of alcohol.

Traveller’s Joy

Traveller’s Joy

I was a Londoner when I first kindled an interest in beer. At the time, there was only one shop for it: Utobeer in Borough Market. More shops began to proliferate around the time I moved away and I assumed that to “browse” beers on the shelf – other than macro supermarket staples – would always mean a trip to London.

However….

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Every Wednesday and Saturday is market day in St Albans

Of all the home counties, something spectacular is happening in Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire. Over the last several years, beer shops have opened up in St Albans, Berkhamsted, Letchworth Garden City and Hitchin (Herts), and Chesham, Amersham and High Wycombe (Bucks). If this catchment could be approximated geographically, it very roughly describes the Chiltern Valley.

I’ve done some searching online for these shops’ equivalents in surrounding counties. I find, for example, one in Billericay for Essex and one in Reading for Berkshire (where I once lived), but they’re singular enterprises. Within Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire, beer shops have happened in spates.

Although there are eight stores all within a short drive of each other (more if you include new breweries selling other breweries’ ale in their tap rooms), they are owned by just three concerns.

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Back in 2013, the Red Squirrel Brewing Co had just relocated from Hertford to Potten End near Hemel Hempstead. This was an example of East coast to West coast before it became synonymous with American IPAs (though long after rap music, which never really got down with real ale). It opened a bottle shop in August of that year in Chesham – the first beer shop. Red Squirrel soon followed up with shops in Berkhamsted and Amersham, and has just opened its newest venture in High Wycombe – the Emporium – which also serves small batch coffee and pizzas.

Over the Herts border, John and Ben (the latter working for Tring Brewery – I name them both as I know them and regularly frequent their shop in St Albans) trialled market stalls in St Albans, Harpenden and north London selling bottles from British breweries as well as from Europe, America and beyond. The success enabled them to set up a permanent shop in St Albans in October 2013. Last year, John and Ben also opened a second larger store in Hitchin to the north of St Albans.

In June 2016, a new brewery and tap room opened up in Letchworth Garden City: Garden City Brewery. Hot on its heels, and just a block away, Crafty’s Beer Shop opened to the public in what used to be a jewellers’ shop where the display windows lend themselves perfectly to the presentation of gleaming bottles.

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For Hertfordshire alone, I could see similar shops and tap rooms opening in towns like Watford, Welling Garden City, Royston (where sadly its brewery Buntingford has ceased trading), Baldock, Harpenden, Tring, and of course, Hertford.

I’ve been to the bottle shops in London. One difference between them and their more rural counterparts is that those in market towns are often right in the heart of them rather than out in the ‘burbs or under railway arches.

There is something special about a market town. Market towns are magical places where bunting suddenly appears. There is always the well-tended war memorial and it’s always afforded pride of place. Then of course there’s market itself – the white canvas village encamped along the main drag. I love the smell of meat being fried and the call of the stall holders who adopt an accent that verges on caricature…

“Cammin’ ‘ave a look! Two bawls f’ra pahnd, nar!”

When you join in the cattle-like drove of the customers, you almost start braying. The irony is that when it’s someone else’s market town, you join the herd wide-eyed. When it’s your own market town, you cut an arc around this human infestation in order to reach Tesco’s.

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The war memorial – an elemental part of the market town.

There’s something special about a bottle shop too. It seems to have come about through cosmic ordering and is rooted in both specialism and localism.

I remember visiting a proto beer shop a few years ago in Whitstable. It was an off licence and I say “proto” because there was a specific section set aside for Kentish beer which I was immediately drawn to. The same was true of one in Swanage for Dorset ales. At the time, they could only exist within the structure of a larger off licence.

But now the beer has broken free. Racks of wine from Gallo and stacks of Heineken cans are no longer necessary. There’s a more continental feel to beer shops – they often have seating on the cobbles in front. They have come to fruition and are evolving.

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Here the continental outside seating comes face to face with the British weather – the first bottle shop in otherwise gorgeous Chesham

Beer shops blur the edges between brewery tap rooms, shops and bars. This is in the context of supermarkets like Waitrose serving coffee and chain restaurants like Carluccios and Jamie Oliver’s flogging their own products – books, ingredients, cooking gear – within the eatery itself.

There is however, no confusion between the experience of drinking in a beer shop and drinking in a pub. This isn’t about the differing licences, either. With a beer shop, there is no illusion that you’re entering somebody’s lounge as there might be when visiting the Red Lion. The foundation here is basically the shop floor. The rest is added benefits. This is a much specialised form of the deli rather than the public house.

But maybe you could argue it’s in the eye of the beholder.

You also wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) session beer here as you might in a pub as that would defeat the object. It would be like filling cartons with a single sweet at the Pic n’ Mix. Yes, a beer shop is a confectioner’s boutique.

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I now feel that a market town isn’t complete without one – it fits in with the ethos perfectly. You inspect the wares on the shelves; try before you buy on the taps. What’s good? What’s local? But equally – what’s foreign, exotic and exciting in a sharing bottle?

Though I don’t want any more to be lost, the beer shop might one day gain as equal footing in communities as the pub.

Let me finish on this as proof of evolution. This is the beer shop in Hitchin. To me, it represents possibilities and the future. This isn’t a pub but a cross between a celebration and an analysis of beer. It’s been thoroughly thought out – the tasting tables separated from the bottle shelves as neatly as pub snugs used to be separated from the public lounge. The thing this establishment reminds me of most is a library – the archiving section and the reading section. This is the kind of set-up you get when you have an increasingly discerning clientele – the browsing and the study.

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Despite the onslaught of morris dancers, the beer shops in England’s market towns are leading the way. Beer has become a focus and a quest rather than a staple. The beer shop is something new in Britain. There is, of course, precedent in Belgium but the ones flowering in our market towns are raising the… what’s the word?

Bar.

Session 120: Brown Beer

Session 120: Brown Beer

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This month, Brighton-based Joe Tindall hosts the 120th Friday Session and has chosen a topic that comes with some emotional baggage: brown beer.

He explains:

“The colour brown has certain connotations, some of which I won’t dwell on. But used in reference to beer, it can signify a kind of depressing old fashioned-ness – to refer to a traditional bitter as ‘brown’ seems to suggest it belongs to a bygone corduroy-trousered era. As breweries who pride themselves on their modernity focus on beers that are either decidedly pale or unmistakably black, the unglamorous brown middle ground is consistently neglected.

So for Session 120, let’s buck the trend and contemplate brown beer. This might be brown ale, or the aforementioned English bitter; it could be a malty Belgian brune, a dubbel or a tart oud bruin; even a German dunkel might qualify.”

Joe is absolutely right. It’s time to ditch this lazy prejudice. I have ripped off my corduroy trousers and thrown them from the upstairs window.

This also gives me an opportunity to add a local slant – I want to talk about a gem little known outside its native borders: Death or Glory by Tring Brewery.

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There are only a handful of long-running cask strong ales across Britain and this is Hertfordshire’s. Heavy abv beers have become legion over the past few years but this ale is an old-timer by comparison. Tring Brewery was founded in 1992 and Death or Glory was first brewed in 1994, so celebrates its twenty third birthday this year. It’s a 7.2 abv beer traditionally brewed on 25th October to commemorate the charge of the Light Brigade but is now produced numerous times a year.

It’s billed as a strong ale though if you wanted to shoehorn it, you could call it a barley wine. It features Styrian and Challenger hops and Maris Otter, Crystal and Chocolate malt.

It’s a beer that would mellow over a few days but doesn’t often get the chance; when it does the rounds across the beer engines of Hertfordshire, the cask can be completely emptied by the pub-goers on the day of tapping. You usually have to be quick on your feet down to the local to score some.

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What was noteworthy when it was first made is that it was aged – a process given to few beers at the time in Britain. It’s always matured for a month before release.

It’s in the midst of modern beers going into the citrussy hop jungles that this beer stands out even more. It’s of a different time and disposition. There is fruit but it’s not the modern pale oozing tropical juices – it’s more typically British. It reflects the climate; the conserves and the pickling. This has the taste of jams and chutneys, nods to brown sauce and Worcester sauce.

When it’s dispensed from a bottle, there’s an appropriate whoosh of carbonation when you crack it open but there are no runnels charging up the inside of the glass because the beer is too rich.

On the eye it’s like dark treacle. The aroma is of tar, stewed dark fruit, polished wood and bitumen. The palate reflects notes of black cherries, dandelion and burdock, iodine, molasses or brown sugar and that funfair staple – candied apples encased in a caramel amber. It’s viscous and sticky like the thrush-strewn berries along autumn gutters.

It laminates the tongue and inner maw like a glaze. It’s everything in all directions with the fruity hops in there somewhere clinging to flotsam in the maelstrom. It goes sweet, sickly sweet then bitter and retraces this circuit.

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I wanted to give an idea of this beer on cask so I rang the brewery. I was told if it would be anywhere it would be in the Lamb in Stoke Goldington in north Buckinghamshire. I contacted this pub and found out it’s on as a permanent! At my earliest opportunity, I embarked on a quest into this exotic county that borders mine – a proper Ernest Shackleton, me.

There’s a more rounded feel to the beer when it’s dispensed from beer engine. When you swallow it, it’s vaulted from the condition in the cask – it gives it more life and at the same time spreads it out more. It feels less adhesive and carries itself more lightly.

What really completes this ale is to understand the context it’s from. Currently, we’re in the middle of winter and the tarmac and cobbles have a zinc sparkle from the frost. It’s that time of year when we have to get up earlier to defrost the car and drive slower. It’s that time when walking, you lower your centre of gravity rounding a corner to get to the village inn and this is where Death or Glory comes into its own. It’s sitting here in a rural pub with an open fire that completes it.

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You grin daftly from the warmth and morph into a happy Christmas bauble. As you sit by the crackling hearth, you wonder whether mankind built stone dwellings and harnessed fire simply to complement a beer like this rather than the other way around.

This is where the beer was conceived and grew up. It isn’t refreshing but nourishing. It makes sense here in the biting jaws of January to help relax, thaw out and loosen sinews. It would make no sense in Sydney or in Palm Beach. It might have been fate that it was originally brewed at the end of October – just as we say goodbye to the sun and beer gardens.

Boring brown beer? Nope. Try endearing, satisfying, warming, luxuriant, complex, heartening, life-affirming, soothing brown beer. But like a lot of local staples the world over, you just might need to be in its land of origin at the right time to appreciate it fully.

Harvest Pale – the gateway beer

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.

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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.

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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.

 

Session 119 Roundup: Discomfort Beer

Session 119 Roundup: Discomfort Beer

 

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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.

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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.

The Session: Exploring the Beer Discomfort Zone

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.

Session 119: Discomfort Beer

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).

Discomfort Beer – What is “hoppy”?

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!

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http://brookstonbeerbulletin.com/session-119-the-discomfort-of-burning-mouth-beer/

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.

http://www.deepbeer.com/journal/2017/1/5/discomfort-beer

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”

Session 119: My Discomfort Beer

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.

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Discomfort Beer

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.

Discomfort Beer (Session #119)

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.

The Session #119: Discomfort Beer

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.

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this sumptuous image was taken by Jill McNamara – photo editor for Draft Magazine

http://draftmag.com/the-session-discomfort-beer-mead/

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:

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http://boakandbailey.com/2017/01/discomfort-beer-saison-tripel-brett-and-kriek/#comment-71788

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.

My Discomfort Beer

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…..

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Session 119 – Discomfort Beer

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!

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http://www.brewingeast.com/home/2017/1/4/the-session-119-discomfort-beer

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.

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http://thefatalglassofbeer.blogspot.co.uk/2017/01/wholly-smoke.html

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.

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The Session #119: Feeling comfortable

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.

http://beer-runner.blogspot.co.uk/2017/01/the-session-119-dealing-with-discomfort.html

 

2017

2017

2017: a year that doesn’t roll off the tongue

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.

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German bottled beer is delicious – but I’ve had a taste from tap now

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.

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the main drag through Sarrat

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.

Happy new year!

Pope’s Yard Brewery

Pope’s Yard Brewery

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.

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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.

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located in a large ex-Ministry of Defence building on Whippendell Road, Pope’s Yard Brewery is also the closest to a speed camera in Hertfordshire

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.

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club hammer – winner of beer of Hertfordshire at St Albans Beer Festival

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.

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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.

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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?

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Session 119: Discomfort Beer

 

3664495992_93f88ba766_oWhat is The Session?

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.

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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.

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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.

*from the UK perspective

suckled by a mannequin

suckled by a mannequin

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.

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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?

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here for your enjoyment – a cute little frog from St Albans

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.

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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.

20160129_145630Another 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.

why we should cherish the term Black IPA

why we should cherish the term Black IPA

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.

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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:

20150223_171958Earlier 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.

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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.