the best beers out in 2016

the best beers out in 2016

It’s time to reflect on 2016, its beers and the places I drank them in. Frequently lugging a camera about has helped preserve my memories and added some nice detail to blog posts. The unsung hero, though, is the mobile phone which is always in pocket. Swiping through the image archive is a resource we didn’t have just a few years ago. It’s amazing how many (mostly dreadful) photos I took but without it, many recollections would’ve been lost. Admittedly, this can often be attributed to the drink itself.

I’ve decided on a list of seven to sum up beer in 2016. Some I blogged about, some I didn’t. Each is included for a different reason. I rarely leave the orbit of St Albans or London so they all take place there. I also want to keep the focus on the pub, bar, brewery or taproom so I’m not regurgitating experiences I had at home.

The garden of the White Lion, St Albans:

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One thing I love about summer isn’t so much the nuclear light of early afternoon but how long into the evening it takes for the sky to darken and how many transcendent colours it turns. In St Albans the celestial streaks from aircraft contrails add a Jackson Pollock flourish to the canvas too – both Luton and Stansted airports are very local. On the pub’s lawn, burning brasiers provided a primal warmth. When the heavens finally deepened to indigo, the fires radiated their orange and hunched over, people sat around as they have done for thousands of years with their shadows flickering about them. It felt so natural and timeless and it intensified conversation to the clandestine. On pallets we sat back to back with a friend or acquaintance without even realising it as they were engrossed in equally intense exchanges. What was the beer I was drinking? I’ve no idea but it was good and came in rounds. Elemental and outdoors, it just felt like freedom.

The London Craft Beer Festival, Bethnal Green:

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I want to avoid cliché here and not use the sweetshop analogy but can’t. It was a full-on Willy Wonka extravaganza but I can at least customise it a bit by specifically referring to the 1971 version with Gene Wilder. That film had technicolor psychedelia and a brooding menace. It was like having free reign in a sweet shop because this festival has dispensed with cash, pint measures, tokens and (virtually) queues too. It’s one swig of beer after another. All the hipsters with their common sartorial pomp served well as updated Umpa Lumpas too. I usually keep tally of how many pints I’ve drunk but that measure – for good or ill – has also taken voluntary redundancy at the Oval Space. No idea how much I drank and difficult to even remember which I consumed. Only the most memorable gobstoppers punctuate the memory. Somehow I made it back home. The recollection will be forever date-stamped by the geometric hulk of gas holder five – the gasometer cage that lends the venue its name.

Paradigm Brewery, Sarrat:

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I spent an hour or so exploring a quiet village in a low hanging mist. It was the first chill of winter and Sarrat seemed deserted – a perfect Midsomer Murders venue. I descended into the Chess Valley to find a commercial watercress bed and bought some by leaving money in an honesty box. Watercress has a long history of being stream-farmed in Herts and Bucks. I then dropped in unannounced to Paradigm brewery who brew a beer with it. It was in the fermentor on my visit. I met the two brewers going about their grind in a converted pig house. They were hopping, taking orders, driving, collecting, delivering and good enough to show me around. I was given a glass of a Mosaic-hopped beer straight from the cask in a cool room. It was carbonated, cold, zinging and utterly refreshing in a way I don’t usually associate with gravity dispense. Paradigm is a brewery successfully exploiting the traditional and the present.

St Stephens Tavern, Westminster:

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This is the only entry I include where the beer was bad. It was a pint of First Call by Hall & Woodhouse and it was awful. Despite that, it makes it into this roundup for the location’s surreality. Even if the beer had been good, it would never have matched up to the sights and sounds – the unreal view of human and vehicle traffic teeming past parliament. It made me want to pinch myself. The architecture of the pub interior had window panes soaring towards the sky. Summer was rearing up. The scene from the service bay looking towards Queen Elizabeth Tower was like standing in the aisles of a giant movie screen – the backdrop to a documentary about parliament you could walk into! Just order a half.

The Six Bells, St Albans:

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I can be a bit of a ticker (less so these days as it increases the amount of crap beer you pay for), but when Timothy Taylor’s Dark Mild and Ram Tam come around, the stakes change. Both are ales I’ve been aware of for years, they just don’t break out of West Yorkshire much. The feeling was like celebrities coming to visit your home town. They were here as part of a tap takeover and food pairing that had happened a couple of days before which I missed due to work. But I crossed the threshold at my earliest opportunity. Even though the Six Bells had few customers at the time, I ordered a half of each together in case one cask ran out. I then returned for a pint of each at a more civilised pace. I had the chance to savour them, talk to them, listen to their concerns and make plans for our retirement together in the Pennines.

The Harp, Covent Garden:

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The relaxation and comfort I associate with a pub I don’t expect to sit down in speaks for the pub’s conviviality. This is the feeling that’s been reinforced over a decade. The Harp is the kind of pub that gives a backbone to pub mythology. Not only that, but this glow was made even more cosy by a glass of fondant manna – Fullers Vintage Ale straight from cask. You don’t so much drink it as absorb it like a vanilla sponge soaks up brandy. The Harp is one of those pubs where you feel yourself willingly becoming part of the structure – you start to melt into the wall you lean against like you’re becoming one of the many characters portrayed in its paintings. I hope to be reincarnated as part of the decor so I remain forever.

Craft & Cleaver, St Albans:

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In London you could probably tap one of Cloudwater’s 2016 smash hit DIPAs and turn an hourglass over next to it to see if there’s any sand grains left in the top before the keg runs dry (especially if you’ve Tweeted about it too). In St Albans, it lasted a week and I seemed to be the only person drinking it. I went back to the Craft & Cleaver four or five days on the trot like an addict returning to the drug. Each time I sipped it in quietude – I think it’s best savoured this way. I don’t want anybody speaking and interfering with the taste. This is good anti-socialism: the kind you sometimes need. Cloudwater DIPA is a beer you need to shut your surroundings out from to allow a large empty space for contemplation. I witnessed so much footage gazing down at the headless surface. Beers that force you to drink them slowly have this power. The price was worth it.

Conclusion:

In 2016 going out to drink has lead to a wealth of experiences – some opposing, some complementary. They have reflected not just socialisation but introspection, heritage as well as modernity and both solitude and conviviality. The feeling of outdoors has been as remarkable as the awesome anatomy of architecture and it’s been a year where institution can equally accommodate innovation.

The humble shoehorn

The humble shoehorn

The post I had envisaged writing has been ruined by research. This often happens. I was planning to chart the change in cask ale at a CAMRA beer festival over the last five years. I suspected – and it’s hardly controversial – that tastes were drifting away from the bitters and golden ales to the IPAs, porters, black IPAs, rye ales and fruit sours. In a way, that assumption has been borne out but not in the way I’d anticipated; the results are wearing camouflage.

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The only beer festival I’ve been to each time in the past five years is the St Albans Beer and Cider Festival thrown each summer in the Alban Arena. Not only have I visited and volunteered, but retained each year’s brochure with the beer lists. Over the course of the lustrum (five years to you and me), this literature is what I’m basing my findings on. It won’t be 100% accurate because as each festival’s set up, some beers never arrive, some don’t get drunk because of cask or ale defects whilst others are substituted at the last minute. Notwithstanding all that, I’m taking the lists at face value.

First I counted the overall cask tally and then the amount of each style within it.

The amount of golden ales has increased and then dropped. The peak was 140 in 2014 (out of a total of 348) and has come down to a low of 75 out of a list of 337 in 2016. Other traditional styles – the stouts, porters, milds and barley wines have stayed within similar margins each summer.

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From 2012, the bitters make up just under half but that proportion obviously dropped right? Except it didn’t. It went up. This year, over 50% (180 out of 337) of the beers on offer were bitters. This didn’t seem right.

I then scrutinised the bitters a bit more carefully. Unlike the GBBF, the festival at St Albans hasn’t included the increasingly popular IPA in its categories. By extension, it hasn’t confirmed black IPAs , American IPAs or DIPAs in its flock either. Amazingly, all these developing styles have instead been shoe horned into the bitter or golden ale category.

Here’s a small sample of some of the “bitters”: Dark Star Green Hop IPA, Red Squirrel Double American IPA, Thornbridge Jaipur and Siren Craft Brew Liquid Mistress.

dscf4868And a similar taster of some of the golden ales: William Brothers Joker IPA, Deuchars IPA, JO C’s Knot Just Another IPA and Oakham Ales Green Devil. Granted they’re all golden in colour but beer isn’t a paint chart but a sensory experience.

Stout, porter and mild all get their own colour tag yet they’re often difficult to distinguish. It’s hard to get a Rizla rolling paper between the first two.

There were just twelve milds at this year’s festival (including Timothy Taylor’s Golden Best – this, I think, was just an honest publishing error). There were in the region of 27 beers that self-identify as IPAs or could be included in the broad definition. There were also a number of self-proclaimed black IPAs or black india ales including the beer advertised on the staff festival T shirt – Farr Brew’s Blacklisted India Black Ale. Yet they’re all bitters or golden ales according to South Herts CAMRA!

This year even saw the entry of some barrel-aged beers, Saison and fruit sours – all on cask. Each was duly baptised as a bitter or golden ale. A locally brewed bottle beer – AleCraft’s Sonoma Double IPA weighing in at 8% – has during the course of the lustrum been both bitter and golden ale. It’s never been able to “come out” as what it really is to the family.

The problem is twofold:

Firstly, this categorisation reflects beer styles as they used to be to the point that the monikers mean absolutely nothing if they encompass all of the above under the same umbrella. Bitter and golden ale have basically come to mean anything that can’t be lumped under other headings.

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Secondly, punters coming to the festival to learn a bit about beer styles might end up leaving more confused than they arrived. A golden ale could’ve been the sweet honeysuckle of Tring Brewery’s Fanny Ebb’s Summer Ale or alternatively it could be Oakham Ale’s aggressive Green Devil – a visceral grapefruit flesh nectar on steroids. Sampling bitters might have thrown up Dark Star’s Green Hop IPA or Windsor & Eton’s Conqueror – their black IPA. These are nothing like the more textbook Boltmaker or Sussex Best.

It’s time to revise the evolving topography in the field of beer categories. The GBBF does list IPA (how can it not?) but this is only one category more than its smaller cousin in South Hertfordshire. In reality, the craft of brewing, the technology used and the wider range of ingredients are shaping beer’s future. The old chalk-scrawled categories on the casks are becoming obsolete.

Contortionism & Diplomacy

Contortionism & Diplomacy

I move we celebrate a public holiday in honour of our bar staff whereby they get to keep all the day’s takings regardless of pub owner. All punters would need to present the exact change each time, anything over stays in the till. Each customer, even the regulars to show support, would also be required to sport a trademark prop to be immediately recognisable like a Mexican sombrero or a red carnation. Each empty glass would be returned to the bar along with a packaged food offering or bottle of fine wine or beer for the staff’s consumption and the following day would – of course – be a day off for them.

But how did I come to this conclusion?

I just volunteered at the 21st St Albans Beer and Cider Festival. I staffed one of the main bars during the busy times – Friday and Saturday evening. Though I’m proud to offer up my time, the hours didn’t so much feel like shifts as tours of duty.

From my temples, Diamante beads of sweat dropped silently onto the rubber matting which became more and more adhesive from the spillage of pints on mass migration. I played stillage twister with my colleagues. At one point I think I successfully dislocated my pelvis and shoulders just to crab walk through someone’s legs to get a half of imperial stout from the casks on the bottom row.

With live music causing my atoms to vibrate, I was confronted with a face I had to try and lip read from. I pressed my head sideways on the bar to hear what it was saying using a cupped hand to deepen my lughole’s parabola. The order just perceptible, I then scurried away, found the label, poured the beer and started my return shuttle. I forgot what the face looked like and couldn’t pick it out. A quick profile from memory: male, thirties, bearded, blonde. I headed towards that fit like it were a stadium version of Guess Who? The man looked perplexed as I handed him a beer he hadn’t ordered. His own glass was still in his hand. I looked back along the living Brueghel canvas and the guy I’d actually taken the order from was waving. The thirsty soul looked quite hurt. I lost count how many times I did this to attendees.

Working at a beer festival is obviously different to working in a busy pub: There are no hand pulls but a sheer wall of casks. For the first time this year, there was also no handling of money either as we moved onto a token system. There isn’t the pub intimacy and each customer approaches the bar with their own glass.

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But with regards to the workers that keep the nation’s pubs alive, consider the following:

Whilst in constant motion they need to clock every new face at the bar, the place it gets in serving order and the fact that it might pop up somewhere else than where they first marked it.

As they do that, they need to be able to add up prices in multiples, get asked to change some of that order half way through and even have several punters in the same group trying to pay at once and want the change to be split three ways.

Whilst these calculations are going on in their brains, they need to develop a sense of psychokinesis with their co-workers behind the bar and always sense where they are so their bodies arch around each other – the art of contortion is essential.

In the midst of that advanced Yoga, their skills of diplomacy will carry them through as casks run dry one after the other – something the customer starts to believe was set up especially to torment them.

With those apologies, unsure of who was there first, customers start to inflate and stand on their toes to avoid being overlooked bearing expressions of both dejection and anger. They’ll need to be reassured with a mouthed “you’re next” – an incantation as soothing as a dummy/teat hoving into view is for a baby.

I haven’t developed these talents. I’ll probably only ever be the barman once a year. I give it my best shot but I’m very conscious of my weaknesses. I also recall the times I’ve been the customer perched in a corner and witnessed a phalanx of young men or women irrupt into a quiet pub – glad I’m not the one that has to serve them. I’m sure I don’t even need to bring up the always potential face to face confrontation of the drunk and lairy – something the many patrolling stewards and bouncers in a festival offset.

After the toil was over and the crowds were herded out through the arena doors by security, it was the perfect time to reflect on the service that thousands of good publicans and bar staff provide across this country. Working behind a bar is far more than the simple dispensing of beer.

Dear publicans and bar staff – never in the field of human society was so much owed by so many to so few.