tradition and craft

DSCF5206

Over the weekend, I noticed that Chiltern Brewery had a stall in the Sunday market with a couple of beers I’ve been aware of but never tried: their Black IPA and White IPA. I’ve always been a fan of their cask beer but it’s rarely seen in St Albans despite the brewery being considered “local” in a broad sense.

En route to visiting my parents, Chiltern Brewery is somewhere I occasionally haunt. I go on a small detour off the M4 into the Buckinghamshire landscape to pick up some bottles or fresh beer.

The countryside motif replete with fox appeals to the British fetish for bucolic nostalgia but in Chiltern’s case, it’s simply a point of fact: it’s very rural, very traditional and it’s situated on an old working farm so it’s a badge it can wear without being contrived.

Chiltern Brewery was founded in 1980 making it a really old new trad brewery or a very young old one. Here though, a traditional brewery gets craft right. There are no skulls, no living dead mammals, no split personality, no psychosis. Just well crafted beer.

DSCF5214

The Black IPA (bottle conditioned 7.8) pours a dark tan with a fluffy beige head and lilts of earthy British hops. There’s less of the Opal Fruit fluorescent green coming through on the aroma compared to other Black IPAs. It’s more grassy and finishes dry.

I was most looking forward to the Black IPA as I love the style, but it’s actually the White IPA I enjoyed the most.

The White IPA (bottle conditioned 7.5) is so-called because Marris Otter and wheat have both been used in the grain bill. Despite the name, it actually pours darker than most IPAs. It’s racks up a big nougat head. Its bouquet is of candied oranges. There’s a musty ashen note too. Drinking it reminds me of red hedgerow berries and Braemar apples – just the fruity sweetness – there’s no tartness here. It’s an English fruit sponge take on a double-strength IPA.

The thing that these two ales share is that they completely conceal the alcohol; it doesn’t come through on the taste or nose. They’re both full-bodied but could pass as session beers. Both IPAs were matured for 18 months which helps smooth them out too.

DSCF5212

Some of the writing on the bottles explains the thinking behind Chiltern’s releases. This for the Black IPA: “dark ruby and full bodied this is a smooth roast black IPA – a new style of beer that is fast gaining popularity”. I like it. It’s straightforward, honest and unpatronising.

In the smaller bottle range, Chiltern also have their fulsome Lord Lieutenant’s Porter (6 abv) and their longstanding Bodgers Barley Wine (8.5 abv) – a beer I’ve had many times. It’s an unctuous sweet ale like liquid macadamia nuts – perfect for ageing. All these beers are in 330ml bottles which makes perfect sense for the more boozy sipping beers they all are. So they fit in neatly with other craft brands.

When it comes to diversifying into new beer styles from the craft cannon, traditional breweries can be a bit like a dad trying to dance at a party – Batemans or Marstons come to mind. They can also implode into a steam punk schizophrenia whereby they change their name and identity, get tats done and invest in piercings. You know the ones I mean. Maybe it’s a form of mid-life crisis.

Version 2Here is a photo of a pump clip I took a while back. This brewery is actually Northumberland’s Mordue Brewery but as you can see, it’s taken on an alter ego: The Panda Frog Project. I did have a pint of this but can’t remember much other than it was quite hoppy. I’ve got nothing against the lively artwork I’m just puzzled by it.

I can’t reconcile a pale beer with the nightmare scenario depicted. It didn’t make me hallucinate any more than a bitter or a stout would. So what exactly makes it insane? And that’s my point. I think breweries are feeling compelled to follow this vogue.

These two new beers by Chiltern haven’t required that the brewery go on an acid trip to release them. What comes across is simply a brewery confident in its own brewing ability releasing a couple of limited edition beers.

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….

20140413_113204
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.

DSC_0005

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.

DSC_0027

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.

DSC_0015
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.

DSC_0016
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.

DSCF3284

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.

DSC_0033

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.