vertical whimsy

vertical whimsy

Like many bloggers, vloggers, geeks and enthusiasts I have an affinity with Cloudwater Brew Co’s series of Double IPAs.

In the height of the summer in 2016, I visited the same pub several days in a row to purchase two thirds of version seven. It cost five pounds but because it requires time and rumination to consume it, the price seemed about right. Craft beer – which for this paragraph I’ll choose to mean beer from new breweries dispensed from keg – has a much lower profile in St Albans than in London. Proof of this is that the visits I made were all watered from the same single keg. I seemed to be the only one drinking it.

Lone sipping suited the experience because each time I’d contemplate what beer actually is, what it used to be and what it’s becoming. I’d watch the debate unfold in the surface of the liquid. Colourful images and recollections had their cameos and form the basis of this post. For reasons I’m still not certain about, instead of doing a vertical tasting between three DIPAs, I want to do it with two of the things version seven reminded me of.

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I’m doing a vertical tasting of Cloudwater Brew Co’s DIPA eleven, the syrup from a tin of Del Monte’s fruit cocktail and Libby’s Um Bongo.

This is a completely unscientific experiment. It’s based entirely on whimsy and if you’d rather more serious and informed reviews, then stop reading here. This is not a parody either. I’m a genuine fan of the beer. I want to get inside it, dismantle, label each component and put it back together again. I just want to go at it from different angles.

DIPA version 11 (ingredients on label in image):

I open the bottle and hold it under my nose. The fragrance I get is of tinned peaches. This sours up a bit when poured into the glass to become more like gin and lime or even the cleaved grapefruit some narcissists eat for breakfast.

On the eye, it’s a grimy butterscotch yellow but I can still see trills of bubbles soaring upwards. When you sip it, it’s well carbonated – different to most other high ABV beers. It really helps to slosh itself all over the palate.

I get a hit of fresh celery with a citrus background which could be unripe satsumas, lemons or limes. Through some sense you’re aware of the alcohol too but it’s not on the taste per se. It broods under the surface just out of reach from the olfactory bulb. I think of Sauron not yet able to take physical form.

The last thing to say is that the feel of the beer is “graty” – harsh like a desiccated raspberry blown in the desert. I feel it on the back of the throat.

Del Monte fruit salad syrup:

All I know about Del Monte is that there’s a man in a panama hat that visits farmsteads in tropical locations. He has the air of a Mafia don. Downtrodden peasants give him a sample of their wares, he bites into it, pauses and if it appeals, gives a nod to which the farmer shrieks “the man from Del Monte – he say yes!” Cursory research (meaning Wikipedia) reveals that Del Monte was actually the name of a hotel the fledgeling company originally blended coffee for. That’s the best I can do for something interesting.

In a glass this actually looks attractive. There’s a gleam to the liquid – almost a sparkle – a bit like pearls. Some tiny suspended fruit particles also put me in mind of things trapped in amber.

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On the nose it’s horrible. It’s like a Care Bear’s fart or one of those odd “fruit” scented rubbers we used to have at primary school (by rubber I mean eraser – the school wasn’t THAT bad). I go back to inhale from the DIPA and by comparison, the beer now has a mustard aroma.

The texture of the syrup is a pure satin gloss. It doesn’t actually taste of fruit either. It’s just sugar throughout. Returning to the glass of Cloudwater, I get more new experiences. Version eleven now tastes grassy or like straw with hints of mustard seed – cracked black pepper, even.

Um Bongo:

I have fond memories of Um Bongo. At some point in my childhood we suddenly started doing a lot of driving between Wales and England and I acquired a big red lever arch file, which to my memory, had nothing in it but it went with me everywhere. It was my fetish item. On the front was a round sticker that had probably come free with a comic. It had an elephant with eyes like whirlpools. The slogan underneath read: “Um Bongo makes you wongo”. It made me daydream about the jungle in the Congo but it was actually born and bred in Cumbria! Here are some of the finest lyrics ever penned:

“Way down deep in the middle of the Congo,
a hippo took an apricot, a guava and a mango.
He stuck it with the others and he danced a dainty tango.
The rhino said, “I know… we’ll call it Um Bongo!”
Um Bongo, Um Bongo, they drink it in the Congo!
The python picked the passion-fruit, the marmoset the mandarine,
the parrot painted packets that the whole caboodle landed in.
So when it comes to sun and fun and goodness in the jungle,
they all prefer the sunny, funny one they call Um Bongo!”

It actually smells of something root-like crossed with sweet orange squash. There’s a note of warm plastic too.

It’s disappointing to behold in the glass. It’s roughly the colour of lemon peel but with no depth or glow. Just a uniform colour agent I presume. It’s a bit like the water you rinse paint brushes in.

When you sip it, it’s absorbed osmotically and you feel the insides of your mouth light up. Through the sweetness, there’s a note of pineapple.

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This makes me realise the roles carbonation plays in beer. Not only does it lift the aroma towards you and make the liquid react in front of you, it helps transport the taste, feel and aftertaste. It makes beer a layered experience in comparison. I sipped the DIPA again after the notes jotted for Um Bongo and counted that the full experience lasts about seven seconds – the more complex the beer the longer this might take.

It also revealed a taste I’ve read others attribute to beer but I’ve never had: I tasted raw white onions.

Conclusion:

Drinking the beer alongside the other test subjects made me appreciate just how many depths there are to a beer – and I’ve only really covered the initial ones.

It’s strange. When I sipped the DIPA in the Craft and Cleaver last summer, Um Bongo and Fruit salad syrup were the two main tastes that played on my mind. That version of DIPA was of course different to this one. It drank more lusciously fruity. However, I don’t think that would have made a huge difference here because when you get notes of something in a complex beer and then go to that culprit itself, it doesn’t align to your memory.

Put another way, the Um Bongo refused to taste like my recollection of Um Bongo and the fruit salad syrup didn’t spark synapses into recognition either. Whatever data I keep in my head about a particular ingredient doesn’t match it in real life. Memory, or mine at least, is very fickle.

what beer goes best with oysters?

what beer goes best with oysters?

I’ve never had oysters with beer before but I’ve read a few recommendations on the best beer to serve them with. Sources range from notes by Michael Jackson, Martyn Cornell and Garrett Oliver. We also visited to the Forge in Whitstable – a seafood and beer cabin on the sea front. At the time, I stuck to my favourite: beer battered skate.

I’ve put together a sextet of the kind of drinks that keep coming up in relation to oysters which includes two non-beers of a similar alcoholic strength: a cider and my own wildcard based on nothing but intuition – a hopped mead! The oysters are from Kent and were bought for 79 pence each from Waitrose (a posh British supermarket). I don’t possess an oyster shucker so had to rely mainly on innovative violence. Also, be prepared for what might visit you in the night.

Bornem Blond – Van Steenberge Brewery (bottle 6%)

dscf4913This Belgian blonde is a good example of the style I was going for: spicy with a bouquet of hay/wet straw and a touch of candy – something I get with many session strength Belgian beers. The effect when you swallow the oyster is to get savours on a few levels: the herbal, the sweet and the salty. This beer glows with a sweet warmth afterwards like it’s trying to cook the oyster internally. It brought some colour to the cheeks. It’s more than a match for the oyster’s abrasiveness. Bornem is also very carbonated and this helps to absorb the mollusc’s potency too.

Gosnell’s Hopped Mead (bottle 5.5%)

dscf4916My stab in the dark: it’s intoxicatingly sweet on the nose before you even sip it. Obviously, it honks of honey and has quite a sweaty dimension too not unlike malty bitter (though there is no malt in the mead). The honey sticks to the lips, palate and gullet. I can’t really detect any hops in there. When I devour the oyster, there are no shared attributes. The cloying sweetness and the incoming salty tide complement each other like a boat crash. The counterintuitive tang you get with things like salted caramel does not work here. Also, the mead has absolutely no dryness or bitterness to temper the coarse bivalve. I should make very clear that Gosnell’s has never claimed or implied that its products complement oysters. The miscalculation was all mine.

Oude Geuze – Boon Brewery (bottle conditioned 7%)

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This beer has a huge charge of carbonation like a wave surging up a Sussex chalk cleft so this could be a good sign. It’s dessicatingly dry on the nose – the archetypal horse blanket. It’s so dry, your sinuses stick together when you inhale it. It’s this very aridity that carries the oyster in a similar way that Champagne might. The salt is ingested almost unnoticed. The Geuze is so chewy it makes up for the lack of mastication on the shelled protagonist. Drinking the Geuze is almost like eating meat; the seasoned protein lent by the oyster became just part of a larger platter.

Gwynt Y Ddraig Medium (bottle 4.9%)

dscf4924As a child of Gwynedd in North Wales I can tell you this means dragon’s breath (actually – wind of the dragon but I’m sure they’re referring to a blast from the upper body). Oddly, I can’t really smell any apple flesh on it. It smells a little bit like gas (about this “wind”…). The palate, however, is very different. There’s much less sourness or acidity than I’d anticipated for a medium cider. To me, this is as sweet as a perry. It verges on butterscotch. On the eye, it has a gorgeous glow like liquid amber. Into this whirlpool the oyster vanishes. The cider strips away the salt. It works. The oyster’s aggressive character has been disarmed. Possibly, it would’ve worked even better with a bitter edge to the cider. It remains too sweet for my palate.

Burning Sky Saison A La Provision (bottle conditioned 6.7%)

dscf4934Unfortunately I couldn’t get my preferred choice and benchmark – Saison Dupont. Burning Sky’s equally crafted Saison has dried grass on the aroma. It’s musty and sticky like an Altbier with tangy decaying apples and a very dry finish. The oyster slips down and mirrors the dryness in its salt. Another sip and this is a viable marriage – a midway tide of savoury washes in. They’re like sensory echoes of each other. It’s a milder experience of the Oude Geuze.

Fuller’s London Porter (bottle 5.4%)

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The porter doesn’t leap up to be drunk like a lot of the other candidates. The carbonation doesn’t surge because it’s a porter: it’s rich and creamy with chocolate powder on the nose. It’s smooth-bodied and just holds back from being sweet. Introducing the oyster is a shock to the system and stands for everything the porter isn’t. For a moment I fear a mismatch but it works very well. It’s a bit like the balance of extremes between a rich creamy salty cheese and a bitter hoppy IPA. In this case, the sharp edges come from the oyster and the porter simply engulfs them in its warm mammalian arms. The whole chocolate roasted dimension kicks in afterwards too giving this pairing added layers.

With oysters, the Champagne, Muscadet and white wine are gradually rolling over to be replaced by beer to the point that they might soon top the pairing lists in restaurants. As ever, beer has the ability to be more versatile. This is proven after popping the six bottles and battling with the six shells, my own bias is for the Oude Geuze and the London Porter. The former is an overpowering brute while the latter neutralises the threat with a cuddle.

A few beers in Brixton

A few beers in Brixton

On the Saturday just gone I finally went to Brixton. That it’s taken so long is shocking considering we first moved to London ten years ago and still work there so I apologise. I’ve always been aware of Brixton even from my distant upbringing in Wales where I recall watching Delbert Wilkins (Lenny Henry) try and launch his pirate radio station from a bedroom here.

I associate the area with a West Indian identity more than anywhere else in Britain but that’s not actually how I found it at the weekend – it just seemed as mixed as most centres in the capital. Maybe the demographics are changing. Then again, I didn’t venture anywhere not within a short walk of the tube station. What is obvious is that Brixton is becoming desirable to move to. I meet more and more young people who reside there and as with everywhere, this might be changing its character.

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Fittingly, my first visit was to Brixton Brewery. This is the eleventh beer venue I’ve been to in London that’s under a railway arch and I’ll come on to the twelfth by the end of this post. It’s a cramped space in the stamp of Partizan Brewery in Bermondsey. In fact, as I walked along Brixton Station Road I momentarily forgot where I was and found myself back in Bermondsey on Druid Street. Above is an image to prove the similarity.

I’ve never given much thought about the names of Brixton Brewery’s beers. Why had I never wondered why it’s called Windrush Stout? Because Empire Windrush was the ship that a generation of migrants arrived on half a century ago giving Brixton its identity. I’d never given any though to Electric IPA. Electric Avenue was the first thoroughfare in London to be lit electrically. Atlantic A.P.A is named after Atlantic Road. The only one I’d got right from the start was Effra Ale – the Effra is a now obscured river running under the streets to the mighty Thames. I love it when visiting a brewery gives you a bit of local history. I hope they name a beer after London’s only surviving windmill as it’s another local celebrity.

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Atlantic APA 5.4:

It’s lemon curd in colour appropriately topped by a beaten egg white meringue. The palate revels in a melon rind tartness.
Hops used: Citra, Simcoe, Galaxy.

Low Voltage (session strength version of their Electric IPA) 4:

It pours a cedar yellow with a milky wisp of a head. The bittering hops come straight through as they land on the tongue and give off grapefruit. There’s a tonic water minerality too.
Hops: Cascade, Amarillo, Centennial.

I learn of a hop I’ve never heard of: Falconer’s Flight. It’s named after US brewer Greg Falconer and is another of the highly tropical bullets the states are renowned for. I also love the fact Brixton Brewery lists all its hops on its display boards.

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One landmark on this short walk is utterly site specific – the park of up-cycled shipping containers called Pop Brixton. I eye it cautiously and walk around it. The graffiti on the back (see top of page) is art which in the corners has been graffiti’d over by er ….graffiti. There are evidently hierarchical levels to this discipline. I clock the front but don’t go in. After ogling it, it ends up revealing more about me than it; maybe it’s because I can’t see inside I don’t cross the threshold. I find myself worrying about the plumbing in the units and am aware that all three beery venues on my itinerary are very crafty so potentially comfort-free. I think it’s just me getting old and wanting to feel my large bottom on a soft surface. The corrugated metal exteriors put me off and put me in mind of corrugated metal interiors and the lack of warmth. I take a picture, turn on my heel and toddle to the Craft Beer Co. I find a comfy seat there even if I get acrophobia from climbing up to it.

 

dscf4560I have a half of Blackjack Brewery’s Bramling Cross – 4 ABV on cask. It’s bronze with an elderflower milk and notes of redcurrant. It’s plummy and quite smoky. Corky, even. It’s got a metallic note.

On key keg I order Redchurch Brewery’s sweet dry Hoxton Stout. As it’s poured, I marvel at the sublime ugliness of the elephantine leg the keg taps are connected to. This branch has an impressive channel that completely straddles the length of the bar. The keg and cask get referred to as the upper deck and lower deck.

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I think about how quickly the Craft Beer Co has grown from its humble spore in Pimlico. Including the daddy – The Cask and Kitchen, I’ve now been to six and am yet to explore Clapham or Brighton while a further two are set to open in Croydon and Limehouse! Ultimately, Craft Beer Co St Albans is its destiny and mine too.

Last on my list is The London Brew Lab (under my twelfth London railway arch) on Nursery Road and an innovative new project budding inside of it: The East India Brewing Company. This has been started by Matt and Claire. I’m actually there attending a pre-scheduled Meetup group launching a small range of tea beers. I’d assumed that the tea was the fifth element – an added ingredient but it’s actually a substitute for the hops themselves.

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As I’ve penned before – tea, or more specifically, tisanes can cover just about anything. You could even argue that one permutation of tea beer would be to have one brewed with hop cones meaning regular beer is already a tisane. In the liberal use of the word, tea encompasses drinks made by infusing leaves, bark, petals, stalks, fruit, roots and even seeds.

I thought the removal of hops by The East India Brewing Company was a bold move – especially in the context of this country’s tropical New World humulone fever. It makes their beer unique.

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I tried a Jasmine Lager (flower head), a Darjeeling Ale (plant leaf) and a Lapsang Ale (plant leaves typically smoked beforehand). They took me away from my well-tilled vocabulary to try and express their flavours. Unfortunately the only tea I have regularly at home is breakfast tea with milk and sweetener or Tea Pigs’ liquorice and peppermint infusion. Neither is a study into the finer characteristics of tea.

Sometimes with new tastes it’s a bit like abstract art. It helps if someone points out what you’re looking for. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on this. I need an education in taste. I should have taken some bottles home but didn’t fancy humping that weight all the way back to Hertfordshire.

dscf4575 East India Brewing Co

I give my thanks for the hospitality but before I leave Brixton I sneakily return to the Craft Beer Co for no other reason than I’ve still got enough cash for a manager’s recommendation I saw on the menu earlier: Prairie Ales Raspberry Farmhouse Ale. It’s 8.4 ABV and shifting for £5.50 a third! Alcohol definitely helped with this decision. It made it the most expensive beer I’ve ever had – a pint would be £16.50 but you’re not supposed to look at it like that.

dscf4579The ale honked of raspberries. It was a cloudy salmon colour with a lily corona. It was tangy and fruity on the sip with a decaying fruit fug. Smooth. No dryness. The mind was set abuzz from the booze. It’s like a beer syrup you’d expect to dilute if it were a soft drink. I don’t regret making this purchase but was this modest slug worth £5.50? No. But I hope this parting burst of spontaneity helped make up for not entering Pop Brixton. Another time.

English fruit tarts

a sour fruit beer vertical tasting

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Sour beer has really taken off in Britain. It was exotic just several years ago, known only to connoisseurs who’d explored the beers of wider Europe. My first ever sour was by Kernel but now it’s part of every new brewery’s core range. Most traditional breweries are yet to catch up – maybe in part because it’s not a style suited to cask condition but I believe that the older boys will jump on board just as they did with black IPAs. If you were brought up in northern Europe, you might always have had a sour tooth. Why? Just follow this sentence.

Elgoods brewery, hailing from Wisbech in Cambridgeshire, is one of the country’s most traditional and is an exception. Its recent employment of a coolship in the loft of one of their brewery buildings was a very radical move for a purveyor of bitter and milds. A coolship is a large fermenting tank open to the air. Airborne yeasts kickstart the fermentation rather than being introduced by the brewer. It’s how Lambic beer is brewed in the Pajottenland in Belgium. With unregulated wild yeasts, the brewer needs to keep their fingers crossed. We can’t use the L word here though as it has protected geographic status. For the fruit version of their spontaneously fermented beer, Elgoods have steeped raspberries and blackberries in it.

 

Elgoods Coolship Fruit – bottle 5% ABV

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The pour reminds me a bit of decanting a bottle of pink Lambrini – the staple free bottle of plonk gifted to children when they turn eighteen at nightclubs (no I didn’t). It’s like carbonated rose wine the blush is of the resin on toffee apples.

There’s an off-white corona of a head that swirls around – a spiral galaxy imploding.

The nose is beautiful. It reminds me of grenadine syrup or even Vimto. It’s the smell of my own hands after scrumping brambles and dewberries as a child.

The beer’s very carbonated on the sip: it hits the tongue fizzing. It’s nowhere near as sour an experience as I’d anticipated. Nothing like, say, a brett beer. It’s tart-sweet – the fruit pushing through the most is the raspberry. It’s never sharp enough to make you squint.

I can still feel the buoyancy of the malt through all this. It thickens the liquid into a kind of fruit compote.

There’s absolutely no dryness or indeed bitterness. Just the tart-sweet.

A very refreshing beer but with no real complexity. In fairness, it never claimed it. It’s a showy extrovert rather than an introvert.

 

Buxton Brewery/Lervig Aktibryggeri Trolltunga – Bottle conditioned 6.3% ABV

dscf4493 buxton trolltunga

On the eye it’s a hazy dingy yellow. The head is white and pockmarked like grouting.

The aroma is sour, unripe, aggressive, not ready to be eaten, gorgeous. It’s like you’ve sliced into something green and organic and the acidity’s seeping out like milk. It makes your eyes water.

The liquid washes over the tongue like a cold tide across a fever. Sour and sharp, it passes through the roof of your mouth to the back of your eyeballs and unfocuses them. It’s strongly carbonated too which helps spread it further quicker. Osmosis drags it in and hastens the intoxication.

The pincer movement of nose and palate causes acute goosebumps. It cuts straight through. Goose grass with its barbs, gooseberries with their sharpness, goosebumps in defence. It stays the safe side of heart burn proving the brewer’s crafted it, not lost control.

You open and shut your mouth like a goldfish. You lick your lips like a lizard. It’s so sour.

This beer screams out for a soft rich fatty cheese to balance it out in a seesaw of extremes.

It’s piercing and makes your tense gimlet eyes equally so. Beautiful.

 

Kernel Brewery Damson Sour – Bottle conditioned 4.1% ABV

dscf4505 kernel damson sour

Bermondsey’s offering pours a pinky purple with a gentle carbonation. You can see bubbles erupting on the surface like a volcano crater pool. It looks like beetroot juice. A half moon of light beige froth coronas the crater.

I smell fermenting fruit – it’s like a food waste bin in the heat of summer. Bacterial breakdown is happening with a red wine balsamic edge.

It’s so gentle when you swig it – the first beer out of this trio to soothe despite being a sour. The flavours come through after a short delay. It’s suave and restrained in its taste.

There’s the sensation of eating handfuls of red currants. The plum (damson) is of the tartest variety but not to the extent this becomes puckering. It’s still sharp – slightly unripe pink rather than soft blue but carrying enough sweetness to make it sociable.

The mouthfeel is smooth and the liquid on the palate is tangy rather than fizzy. It’s almost as creamy as a fruit smoothie.

There is absolutely no dryness to this. It’s a gorgeous beer but very polite. It has a U rating and can be shown on mainstream TV in the early afternoon.

Its strongest facet is the unabashed aroma of decay and fermentation. I love it.

All three beers raise the bar for the style. Each can definitely come back to my boudoir but I do have a favourite in this vertical taste-off and it’s hands-down Trolltunga. Without overbalancing, it just kept its passion so that the finishing sips were as purging as the first. It wasn’t afraid to come on strong and forced you to sip it respectfully.

 

a predilection for sour?

img_2511 padarn lake
Llyn Padarn (Padarn Lake) with Llanberis on the far shore. This lake is a remnant of the last ice age.

It hasn’t taken long for sours to take off in Britain. From the Benelux countries northwards, sour fruit has been at the coxycc of desserts and fermentable drinks. In Britain we’ve traditionally sugared it up into jams and chutneys. In Poland, what they can’t do with plums and cherries isn’t worth knowing. The further north you go, the more varied the yield; colder climates – especially with altitude – seem to favour the dispersal of small fruit and berries. Norway, for instance, is rich with cloudberries, lingonberries, bilberries and loganberries.

My first taste of sour beer several years ago was a mild shock to the system but my palate instantly adapted and I’ve been wondering whether it’s been in there all along – a re-acquired taste. Looking back, it strikes me that the apples I always plumped for were the greenest – the ones that discharge electricity when you sink your teeth into them. Maybe I’ve had a predilection for sour because – in north west Europe – that’s the taste sensation I was actually brought up with.

I grew up in north Wales in the mid 1980s under the auspices of Snowdon in the small town of Llanberis. The area is dominated by slate, mountains, mossy bogs, sundew (our native little venus flytraps), ferns, glacial lakes and the ruins of miners’ dwellings and their chapels. It was a gorgeous landscape in which to be raised. When I taste things, my mind can go a long way back and it often gets sent back here.

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mountain goats on the ruins of miners’ huts. All buildings here are made from slate. The edge of one of the bonks blasted out by gun powder can be seen in the background.

Being reductionist, I could split my childhood experience with fruit down into three categories: satsumas, tinned fruit and wild fruit. The first was widely available when I was growing up in North Wales and little has changed – they came in a little red net bag from the local Co-op. Satsumas were also what were given to us each Christmas at school once we’d sat on Santa Claus’ knee (a diminutive teacher called Mrs Owen wearing a beard). The tinned fruit was the “official” food. Peaches and apricots swimming in sugared juices were doled out from industrial sized cans in the school canteen. The third category is more clandestine: the fruit or berries we’d scavenge from the countryside.

During the lighter months, upon leaving school, after flying around on a tree swing, scaling the rock screes or building dens in the undergrowth, we’d go off into a wooded area and sate our appetites in the bramble bushes. We’d always reach for the higher plunder and pick the fattest blackberries and dewberries. Each was scrutinised for mould, maggots or money spiders and then ingested. We sounded like pigs jostling for swill. Our sweaty little hands would turn pink and purple from the juices; it was like fruit henna. Fat berries contained the sweetness but lacked the cut through, the zing you get from the rosy sour ones lent a little frisson to the spine. There’s still some tartness when I buy blackberries from the supermarket now but they’re blousy and uniform in a bland way. I miss that little forager. His tastes were developed in the scrub.

dscf4525 crabapples
fallen crab apples bletting and mouldering

Sloping back roads had slate-encased drains on either side to channel the rainwater away and prevent the tarmac disappearing under floodwater during downpours. These smooth gulleys were fantastic when it was cold – the running water would freeze and we’d have a slalom. We’d adopt the pose of the Silver Surfer and plunge down scoring the lichen, moss and ivy stalks along the dry stone walls on the flight down. I recall the vapour billowing from my mouth in the dusk like the clouds trailing a steam train. Above, the sky evolved into a violet nebula pierced by powder scatters of stars. The ice channels glowed in the dark.

img_2458 Dolbadarn Castle
the remaining turret of the Norman Castell Dolbadarn (Dolbadarn Castle) obscures Snowdon in the distant background.

Back home, our back garden was on a split level. The bottom half housed the coal bunker and the top half had a small lawn. There was also an old fish tank up there with gooseberries growing inside. Translucent and veined like mutant grapes, gooseberries are a shortcut to my childhood. The panes of the tank were broken and I tested the sharpness by gently teasing an edge with my index finger. There was a squelch as my flesh got unzipped by a shard. An inward gasp and I wrenched it free. Blood welled up immediately and I plunged the digit into my mouth. There was that rich taste of copper coins and that meaty sweetness of cytoplasm you taste when you cut into a joint. I still think about it when I write tasting notes. It can be found in beers as diverse as lagers and stouts as well as fruit sours. It’s not just the taste of fruit I remember.

I used to spend a lot of time at the lagoons. Like everywhere around Llanberis, the ground is a jigsaw of slate which makes it an ideal arsenal for for skimming stones across the still waters. Alder and willow trees border the lagoons. In the low canopies, siskins flitter. On the water, the silent aerodynamic goosander goes about its hunt. Clouds of midges congregate, each seemingly trying to get sucked up your nostrils. It’s where I used to go to swim.

img_2523 Llanberis lagoon
the edge of the lake where the lagoons are. I have watched siskins in this very tree

For my ninth birthday I got a pair of flippers and I used them at the lagoon. They were obviously completely useless in such a small pool. I’d already been wearing them around the house – they made it very difficult to go up and down stairs but I insisted they would.

I’d ease myself into the pool, edging carefully in as you could both slip on the subaqueous slate or get cut by it. The water was chilled. Submerging the core between the groin and the chest was the point of no return – if you could push that under, you could swim but often my breath would hitch in shock hiccups from the cold. My abdomen used to display the tube map of green and blue veins under my pallid skin. Goosebumps would render my body the coarseness of sandpaper.

Below a certain depth, the slate became carpeted in green which was like walking on velvet. We were also aware of dangers in the waters of this post-industrial town: the water could hide the metal carcasses of ancient mining machinery. It could also harbour spools of rusting barbed wire. I know of one pupil at my school that got tetanus after such an encounter. I remember vividly the smell and even taste of the lagoon water. Submerged so just my nose and eyes were above the water, I got my own breath deflected back off the surface. It reminded me of salted vegetable soup. The salt was the mineral-rich lake, the vegetables the plants and algae. This recollection, believe it or not, comes back to me when I sample Goses.

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roseships or haws – the seeds are perfect for stuffing down the clothing of pupils you don’t like

After trying underwater somersaults and seeing my swimming trunks inflate from the bubbles I churned up from the floor’s organic bed, I came up for air and surfaced to an audience: there was a small group of little boys in perfect little suits pointing at me. They stared at me in disbelief – I could only stare back at them. The adults appeared behind them and I witnessed my first ever Sikh family identified by the father wearing a turban. The mother gave me a smile like aunties do and I recall finding comfort in it. That was the stand off: the little boys in suits gawped and the creature in the lagoon leered back. All I needed was a large lily pad to squat on. The thing that bound us was our common fascination. I went on to show off by doing forward rolls and when my quivering pot-bellied form emerged dripping up the opposite bank, It was Schwarzenegger’s torso from Commando.

I’ve taken you on a little detour here. What does this have to do with sour fruit? Let me take a few back steps. These lagoons were home to wild strawberries – small red bullets of sweetness in the undergrowth. The strawberries I buy from the supermarket suffer from gigantism and have no resemblance to their diminutive kith I knew from Llanberis. Wild strawberries are the size of a pea – concentrated sweetness unless they were still green in which case they tasted the same as their stalks and a bit like celery. There was a local government/council warning on sign posts about foxes and dogs urinating on or spraying strawberry plants which unfortunately always grow at ground level. We just never really paid much attention.

On the roads leading up the mountainside, rosehips or haws were everywhere along the fences. You can get rosehip tea and it’s been brewed with beer. However, we loved them because you could tear the flesh open and scrape out the fluffy seeds and dump down the back of the T shirt of the boy in front. As an itching powder, it’s unsurpassed and can actually leave welts.

As a rite of passage, you’d learn to tell the difference between stinging nettles and dead nettles by the drooping flower heads. This enabled you to show off by pretending you were so hard you didn’t care about getting stung. It could backfire sometimes if someone else thrashed you with real nettles thinking you were impervious. The best was when an uninitiate plunged his hands into a crop of real nettles to join in. A boy screaming from the pain and realisation has its own special pitch. From the welts caused by rosehip seeds to the swelling and hives from stinging nettle acid, why are young boys such bastards?

dsc_0003 sloes
sloes – the bitterest sourest flesh in the hedgerow

A vanilla pod nucleates anything you cook it with and dominates. It can be beyond sweet – sickly so. A Jamaican scotch bonnet sends the heat of spice soaring and can even be deadly for some people. In a similar vein, sloe berries sit on the throne for sourness. They were abundant where I was brought up. Visually they’re dull blue/green and absorb light through a fine coating of powder. They’re the most sour, bitter thing you can put in your mouth. I can recall my first foray – you bite into the matt flesh and there’s a pause. Then you can’t feel your mouth. Then as your tongue panics and searches for moisture, it finds fur growing on your teeth and gums. Try it yourself. The effect lasts quite a while too. My cousins and I used to chomp on these!

Is it any wonder I’m so comfortable with sour beers in my adulthood? Beers like these. Every beer has a backstory about how it came to be, but every drinker also has a backstory that can match it in taste. This was mine.

that Fuller’s feeling 2

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Fuller’s Imperial Stout (bottle conditioned 10.7%) 
 
This is the only beer I bought from this year’s Great British Beer Festival at Olympia in west London. 
 
It was brewed with the help of journalist and consultant Melissa Cole. She’s been very helpful to the brewery; Oliver’s Island – their light golden hoppy staple on the bar top (now that Chiswick bitter’s been relegated to being a seasonal) was also an ale made with her collaboration. 
 
I paid £8 for this bottle. It’s made with Centennial hops and rose buds.
 
Back home, I spend a half hour in my loft looking for my Fuller’s balloon glass – tradition requires it not just for the images but because it really shows off the glow and aroma of the heavier beers. These are little adult pleasures.
 
The liquid is rich but not treacly. A nourishing froth rises like a churned khaki milk.
 
I swirl it a few times to get a nose and it’s much less roasted than I’d imagined – it’s tarter – more like stewed red fruit – a plum and cherry compote. Like every strong Fuller’s beer I’ve ever had, there’s a permanent Cognac edge to the nose I associate with the yeast.
 
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It washes down the consistency of carnation milk. I get the spiritous warmth of red and black fruit pastilles. Dryness follows this up on the roof of the mouth.
 
That “red fruit” edge starts to tease you. What is it? The rose buds? I can’t say as I don’t know what they taste like. Whatever it is, it gives this beer a dimension which is akin to a strong dessert wine or a port. It actually reminds me of the wine gums with “port” stamped on them.
 
It rends a heat to the palate from the booze at the same time as reminding you of the strawberry centres in Christmas Quality Street chocolates – though not in a sickly way.
 
As you adapt to it, there’s a creme caramel smoothness. It glides, it soothes. This beer has smoothness, sharpness and satiability.
 
I love it though £8 is a bit too much. The label states that it tastes of Turkish Delight. It does but could that be the power of suggestion?

Keighley to St Albans

 
 
Dark Mild & Ram Tam in Hertfordshire
 
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Keighley and St Albans are roughly 190 miles apart. The former’s in West Yorkshire, the latter’s in South Hertfordshire. Timothy Taylor’s Landlord is ubiquitous down here and as far down as the south coast. Boltmaker, after winning Champion Beer of Britain 2014, is also seen in pubs across the Thames valley and beyond. What isn’t seen are the other staples from Timothy Taylor’s portfolio. They seem tucked into their West Riding bolthole in the Pennines.
 
A few days ago, these rare gems were showcased in the Six Bells during an evening of food pairing. I had to work that evening but today I finally managed to down a pint of two beers I’ve been aware of for years from the brewery website – but that have never been within my grasp: Dark Mild (3.5 ABV) and Ram Tam (4.3 ABV).
 
The dark mild isn’t as good as I’d hoped – it’s much better. Topped with a toasty brown froth (more often now seen crowning imperial porters), it has a chocolate note on the aroma. Drawing it down, it’s as smooth as milk but feels so much more nourishing. The carbonation tingles without inveigling on the creamy mouthfeel. It just tastes so grown up. A coffee bitterness lingers on the roof of the mouth and I’m left with a sensation like I’ve just eaten liquorice strings. 
 
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The Ram Tam (above) is jet black with a brief light beige foam. It has more of a roast coffee edge on the nose but on the palate still reminds me of the mild. It’s more tangy though – a bit like a stronger, tangier, sweeter version. There’s cocoa but it’s a dark brooding note in the background. There’s also a treacly aftertaste.  Towards the end, this ale’s a headless black oil oozing with aroma and taste. There’s reason for this that Timothy Taylor might not like….
 
As Jonathan Meades once illustrated, Britain has an irony curtain that terminates somewhere in the Midlands above Birmingham (start at 3:35). Where does the sparkler curtain stand? I sense at about the same latitude. These beers were served without that sprinkler head so didn’t convulse in an orgy of impounded oxygen and as such, had no head to speak of. Depending on where you live, it’s either heresy or good practice.
 
The Dark Mild gives me faith for a style I too often write off as porter-lite. I hope these ales make their way down here again. The mild’s smoothness can’t be matched.

Getting a brew on: tea-infused beers

 
Coffees with heads you could stick flakes into have usurped our dainty cups of tea. When visiting people’s homes, tea was always the default offering. Coffee was a backup choice – back there with cocoa, hot chocolate and Ovaltine. Perhaps Britain’s decline in the world correlates with the dearth of raising our little finger. 
 
Beer and coffee hybrids can be quite special. The alcohol relaxes and loosens you out, the coffee stimulates and hones you to a point. I find that on occasion the mixture of booze and caffeine can bring on a headache – especially if its ABV pounds into double figures.
 
This vertical tasting sees beers from Siren Craft Brew in Finchampstead, Hammerton Brewery in Islington and Pope’s Yard Brewery in Watford. Each different beer style has been blended with the herbal, the relaxing and the invigorating: tea.
         
 
 
Siren Craft Brew – Vermont Tea Party – bottle conditioned 3.6%
 
loose leaf pale ale with earl grey tea and lemon zest 
 
 
This beer is based on Siren’s original tea beer – Love of Work. The yeast is from Vermont. Citrus zest has been used to complement Chinook, Citra, Equinox and Amarillo hops. 
 
Decanted, the colour is lemony and turgid. The head rocks up like white nougat. You can hear it popping like Rice Crispies as it declines.
 
On the nose I certainly get the lemon zest but also some dark gritty malt like pumpernickel bread. The carbonation is zinging. 
 
The malt in the aroma isn’t reflected on the palate. Lemon is the strongest taste that comes through. It’s easy-going, maybe not surprising considering its svelte ABV.
 
I like it. The beer made no claims of having a complicated character. It’s perfect for sipping outside in the summer – ideal for watching Wimbledon. The refreshment’s similar to a lime cordial or a lemon squash with the added “herbal high” of the tea. I do get a calming feeling; my heart rate feels as though it’s slowing.
 
photo source: Wikipedia


The leaves of the traditional tea plant – Camellia Sinensis – contain L-theanine linked with reducing mental and physical stress, improving cognitive performance and lowering blood pressure. When brewers dry-hop, it’s virtually the same process as adding tea leaves to hot water. The heat teases out the oils and flavonoids.
 
 
 
Hammerton Brewery – Baron H – bottle conditioned 5.8%

earl grey black IPA
 
Baron H is short for Baron Howick, aka Earl Grey – the Prime Minister the tea is named after. This ale is hopped with Chinook, Cascade, Mosaic, Columbus and Summit. 
 
The colour of the ale is deepest cola burgundy. The head is beige and beautiful; it builds high into a whisked batter of mismatched bubbles.
 
The aroma is appetising: a mixture of bergamot, ginger and chocolate malt. It smells more like a seed-based or wholegrain snack bar.
 
First sip is like a draught of coffee but it harbours friends with benefits. You’re led through a solenoid able to shoot you down three legs: the calming tea earthiness, the buzzing roast caffeine hit or the sweet stout creaminess. In fact, you’ll travel down each simultaneously. 
 
It has a smooth malty mouthfeel too but the carbonation gives it vitality. There’s even a fennel note – presumably from the earl grey. There’s also a mild Marmite note (I’m a lover rather than a hater btw) and an zincy mineral water edge.
 
There’s loads going on but it’s well compiled and eminently moreable. You’l feel sated at the end.
 
photo source: Wikipedia


Tea today is a varied creature. For one thing, unlike coffee beans, it isn’t actually anything specific. Different teas (more accurately “tisanes”) are made from different plants, buds, petals, fruits, roots, leaves and stems. In the last week alone I’ve had peppermint, stinging nettle, popcorn and roast almond tea.
 
 
Pope’s Yard Brewery – LSP – bottle conditioned 10.2%

lapsing souchong porter 
 
 
This porter is made with many malts – Maris Otter, Crystal, torrified wheat, roast barley and black and chocolate malt. Target and Golding hops are then used with molasses.
 
The beer in the glass is pitch black and impenetrable to light. All I can see is the reflection of my nose made bulbous by the glass’ curves. There’s a brief head the colour of brown sugar that releases a sigh as it goes down; high ABV beers don’t often retain a mousse.
 
On the nose I get bitumen and liquorice. It smells like a rich dark dessert. It’s tantalising. The liquid when you rock it back and forth is viscous – again, no surprise for such a boozy heavyweight.
 
When I sip it with my schnoz almost touching the surface of the beer, I get peripheral minty notes on the inhale and get memories of Vicks VapoRub. You can feel the alcohol pixellate you but thankfully you can’t taste it. Bergamot comes through as you down it. It’s sticky on the lips like figs and there’s a taste a bit like biro ink.
 
On the palate it’s tangy with a fruity spiritous edge – stewed dark fruits – plums, blackberries, damsons, and black cherries. It reminds me also of the brandy you get in Kirsch chocolate liqueur sticks
 
It doesn’t weigh as heavy as you might think but considering the punch it packs, isn’t quite as interesting or intense as it could be.
 

Conclusion?
               
 
The Lapsang Souchong porter is still worth investigating but outmatched in this taste-off. With another palate, another mood and another climate these thoughts could change.
 
My runner up would be Vermont Tea Party for its sunlight. The brewery is building a portfolio of bold recipes that occupy each weight division. This beer’s been brewed at the right time of year and quite a few hours could be whiled away on this. I think it could also be great on cask. I will seek it out for this summer’s beer garden sittings.
 

Baron H definitely wins this session. There’s so much going on you can dine out on it but it’s not so heavy you couldn’t have a several of them. It’s just right for its bottle dose. Each sip is a short cruise around the senses. I love how none of the characteristics overwhelm one another. I think it would go really well with an evening of Scandi crime drama on TV and a slice of coffee cake.

Fade to Black

Left Hand Brewing Fade to Black (bottle 8.5%)
 

The bottle suggests serving this in a goblet so I do – it’s a Brakspears Triple goblet. That rare Oxfordshire triple has tragically just been discontinued by Marstons, U.K.

 
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The beer in the glass is obsidian black with a tight vanilla-hued head. Little rivulets of carbonation ascend up the glass. It smells like the black chocolate chunks in Battenberg cake or in Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food ice cream: those nuggets of thick full cocoa sticky sponge. When you breathe in the vapours, it recharges that chocolate cake glory across the palate. The mouthfeel is malty like liquid porridge; it’s like a food – a nourishing grain broth. There’s also a tubery starchy dimension but it’s not forward. There’s even a fruity edge like blueberries. 
 
Despite its strong character, the beer balances itself out and is drinkable for 8.5% The malt and luxurious flavour carry the alcohol and each other very well. No pungent ethanol comes through.

Oxymoron Smackdown

My first ever black IPA was a pint of Raven by Thornbridge Brewery at the Cask & Kitchen in Pimlico in about 2009 (the beer’s now been renamed Wild Raven). At the time, it seemed so aggressive I wasn’t sure I could handle it. The experience charged out in two conflicting directions: it had the bitter stimulating funk of ground coffee but equally the fluorescent citrusy notes of American hops – an addition that was becoming increasingly popular in Britain. Since then, I’ve had black IPAs across the range from around 3.5% to 10%. The style constitutes a core beer for most breweries now. 
 
Not everyone likes black IPAs nor the oxymoron in the name (Black India Pale Ale – both black AND pale) but it’s a beer I hunt down and that experience in 2009 wouldn’t be anywhere near as challenging now. That shock to the palate has been subsumed and habitualised. Black IPAs also suit both cask and keg dispense.
 

Buxton Brewery Imperial Black (bottle conditioned 7.5%)

 
A high rocky beige froth builds up when you hoy this in the glass. The colour’s darkest brown and opaque fooling you into thinking it’s black at first glance. The aroma is grassy hoppy like a spray of orange zest. On the dive it’s tangy and carbonated but mellifluous. It’s both roasted and sharp – vending machine plastic cup coffee from the malt and hoarse dryness from the hops. It’s actually quite spicy too like there’s a trace of black or red pepper in it (as far as I’m aware there isn’t). The strongest impression I get is of that citrus fruit mist that gushes from under the thumbnail when peeling a naval orange. The body’s not thick or sticky either but quite sloshy.
 
 
Bacchus here likes to raise the wrist too although the glass he wields looks like it would spill too easily for any serious downage. What does the look in his eyes reflect? It looks like he’s daring you to comment about what’s on his head. Maybe I discern indifference, or is it emptiness? If it’s the latter, perhaps it’s because there were no black IPAs when he was around at the end of the 16th century. With some gorgeous roasted malt and zesty hops, he might break into more of a smile. I’d take him out for a black IPA if he agreed to stop flaunting his man boob in public. 
 
The real reason I’m showing you him is because Caravaggio’s most famous is the poster boy for the birrifico (brewery) of our second beer; it’s his image on the bottle crown. The brewery’s website is beautiful too – beer, food and sun porn. This particular beer is listed in its “avanguardia” section.
 

Microbirrifico Opperbacco Deep Underground (bottle conditioned 7.1%)

 
I’m already annoyed because when I look at the bottle shape and artwork on the label, it reminds me that we rarely indulge in such aesthetic indulgences here. Why? Italy is new to the beer scene but the Italians immediately associate the craft with pleasure as much as they do their wine and food. The design of the bottle makes you want to nurse its sensuous curves in your hands but maybe that’s just the birra talking. When emptied, the bottle could grace a row of objets d’arts for posterity on a ceiling beam. There’s also a plastic seal under the crown that allows the bottle to be sealed again after opening. That won’t be necessary today. 
 
The beer decants like black treacle with trills of carbonation streaming up the glass sides. The high khaki head seems like velvet. The aroma is of treacle, molasses and a hint of liquorice. The taste then propels you the other way: though there’s a burnt Demerera sugar bitterness, it’s starchy and dry like an unsweetened water biscuit. I do get a cherry note too like a Ricola sucking sweet. The mouthfeel isn’t as thick as the look and nose would suggest – it sloshes silkily around the tongue. The palate and aroma also conjure a sawdusty edge like a workshop haze. It’s lovely, complex and grown up. The impression I’m left with is of a beer that, despite being 7.1% is actually light and dainty.
 

Odell Brewing Mountain Standard (bottle 9.5%)

My knowledge of American Geography is limited but when I think of Colorado – Odell’s home state – I think of craft brewing and mountains. This bottle label checks both.
 
Of all three beers so far it’s the most powerful on the nose. As I placed the glass on the bookshelf for the photo my nostrils were assaulted by an unctuous fog of limes, black Opal fruits and liquorice strings. It’s actually stronger than that, it verges on tar. If I shut my eyes, I can imagine distant roads being resurfaced and just catching it on the wind. However that sounds, the aroma is utterly appealing.
 

The beer is darkest walnut in colour rather than black. The head is the same light brown as you’d find on a macchiato and it’s thick and elastic. In the hatch, the body is highly carbonated but still viscous. You sip it and it buzzes on the tongue. The taste is of blackest full cocoa chocolate and and it desiccates the palate.
 
Aroma and dryness are what dominate in this ale. American breweries excel in making beers that are hoppy and heavy but still carbonated. It’s the kind of beer us Brits are trying desperately to emulate.
 
All three beers show how brewing is turning into an art form across the world including places where beer has never traditionally been the tradition. On that note, I’m declaring Deeper Underground by Opperbacco from Teramo the winner here. It has crafted a heavy beer that simultaneously manages to push new flavours and levity into a black IPA.
Check out some other vertical tastings: