Friday, 30 July 2010

Now Drinking: Moylan's Hopsickle

Look, I'll be totally honest here, the food in this video is what Alfred Hitchcock would have referred to as "the MacGuffin". I happened to be cooking the food that features in the video (yes, I know it seems like a eat merguez more often than is healthy, but I don't), and I happened to have a bottle of Hopsickle. And happily, they happened to be great partners (although the courgette fritters were a bit soggy - too much parmesan, I think).

I'm not really sure what to make of this beer. As you'll see in the video, the first sip goes down OK, and then about 5 seconds later, KABOOM!, a massive wave of bitterness comes out of nowhere and makes me go 'whoah!'. That's what this beer is like - it's one long 'whoah'. It's a 'w w w h h h o o o a a a h h h' of a beer. It's the antithesis of balance and elegance, it's a boot to the olfactory bulb and a punch to the fungiform papillae. In fact now I think about it, Hopsickle has all the grace of a couple of pool balls in a sock, as demonstrated by the young Ray Winstone in "Scum". You can see that scene here, but I warn you, there's an awful lot of violence and bad language in it.

I'm being a bit harsh there. Moylan's Hopsickle is a hell of a lot of fun to drink, but each mouthful stops just short of a physical assault. There is an initially sweet malty hit, then the chocolate/coffee notes hit from the malt (maybe crystal malt, but it tastes much darker). Then you get a burnt Seville orange character, then a wave of bitterness that is almost sensation rather than flavour. It's one of the hoppiest beers I've ever drunk - and that's not meant to sound like bragging, it's just a statement of fact. It's only just all in balance, but then I guess it only just needs to be.

Stand down Ray Winstone - Moylan's Hopsickle is the daddy now.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

My Words, Thrown Back In My Face.

I've swapped a few emails recently with Stan Hieronymous. He's reviewing a few books for 'All About Beer' magazine, including '500 Beers'. I'd been fairly frank in my discussion of a few things relating to the book, and he's extracted a few bits of the emails for inclusion in the article. One of these is the sentence "Beer's future rests on cultivating those curious amateurs, and, in the UK at least, home drinkers". When I saw it, I thought that it would likely provoke some interesting discussion.

A week rarely passes without being asked "is this an ale or a bitter?" or "is this a lager or a beer?". There's clearly still a lot of work to do at ground level in terms of education, and it's pretty clear where this education will happen. I'd argue that it's the job of specialist retailers to answer those questions, and educate people to the differences. the offering of even a great pub or bar is outstripped by the offering of even an average beer off-licence. The beer-curious could always look up information on the web, of course, but there's no substitute for spending 10 minutes with someone who really knows their stuff.

And what of my assertion that beer's future lies in cultivating home drinkers? Well, I certainly believe it, and although cask ale is best enjoyed in a pub (and let's not forget, it's the only on-trade beer sector in growth at present), and must surely be about to reclaim it's place as one of the UK's great foodie treasures, the offering on a good bar is limited. But as people learn more about beer, their curiosity will grow and their heads will be turned to the pleasures of bottled beer.

Here's the final paragraph of my column for the next issue of Off Licence News. I was hoping it might raise some interesting points for discussion:

"I think (and sincerely hope) that beer is about to undergo the same renaissance (or, given that it wasn't actually a rebirth, we might have to call it a 'naissance') that wine had in the 1980s. This decade was the one that really created wine as the thing to drink, at home and in public. It resulted in the creation of the wine bar in the UK, and shoved beer from the national consciousness. And crucially, this was a pleasure that you could enjoy at home. The last couple of decades has, for various reasons, seen a growth in home drinking and entertaining, and I think that coupled with the rise of interest in provenance and quality of food, the same is going to happen to drink. It's not going to happen to cocktails - they rely on the theatre of the serve - it's going to happen to our forgotten national treasure: Beer"

[Note: This post has had a re-write overnight - I hope the spirit of the original is still in place]

Monday, 26 July 2010

BrewDog Are Dead: Long Live BrewDog!

I shouldn't really be writing about BrewDog, and here's why.

When the whole thing around Tokyo* blew up, after a complaint was made to the Portman Group about the phrase "intergalactic fantastic" hinting at the use of hallucinogens, James Watt (MD of BrewDog, or Emperor Penguin, as he prefers to be known) asked if I'd like to write a defence of their 18.2%abv beer. I did so, and was pleased that it made a lot of online and print media. My take on it was that very strong beer is responsible for drunkenness in the same way that Michelin-starred restaurants are responsible for obesity. I still think that's true, and rather vainly, I still think it's a rather neat analogy.

Of course, when it came out that it was James himself who had complained to the Portman Group about the wording on the label, I was furious. I'd been made a pawn in their publicity machine, and vowed never to write anything about them again. Looking back, I still think it was a pathetic stunt, and when I explained to a friend what had happened, his response was "Christ, what a douche". Yes, my friend is American, but he's also right.

What I love about James (and BrewDog) is their total self-belief. It's not enough for them just to brew great beers - they want to be the coolest kids on the block too. I love their sense of "if you're not down with BrewDog, then it's because you don't get it, you square" mentality. I'm not saying I agree with it, I just admire their cussed enthusiasm for that marketing technique. For them, it's not enough to just like their beers - you've got to buy into the lifestyle as well. Again, a great marketing technique - it served James Lavelle well when he launched Mo Wax records, and made him rich and successful, and this same approach is going to work for BrewDog.They're not just selling beer - they're selling a lifestyle, an attitude, and if you don't get it, the you're part problem.

Now, with The End of History, BrewDog have installed themselves as the Turner Prize of the beer world. They know that as long as they can create a bit of controversy, they can make the front pages. It's the Sex Pistols crossed with Damien Hirst. It's Pete Doherty Lite. It's Sigue Sigue Sputnik for the 21st Century.

There are many reasons to be irritated BrewDog generally, and James in particular, not least his response to some of his critics (responded to here and in full here). My main beef with them is that they are so busy arseing around with 55%abv quintuple freeze-hopped eisbocks that they can't brew their other beers fast enough to keep up with demand. And make no mistake, the demand for their beers is immense. Even when I was furious with them, I still drank their beers, because their beers are great. Well, maybe I left off them for a few weeks, but as is always the case with BrewDog, resistance is useless.

I can see that many people find beer in a stuffed animal is a bit distasteful. No-one, surely, believes BrewDog's assertion that they did it to honour the animal - they did it for publicity, and not for the squirrel or the stoat, but for themselves. Don't get me wrong, I love a bit of taxidermy - one of my prize possessions is an albino mole that my grandfather caught when he was working as a gardener. It's a family heirloom, but I don't feel the need to sew a bottle of beer into it. It's sort of distasteful, sort of ironic, sort of postmodern.

It's not about beer, it's not about art, it's not about irony. It's about BrewDog.

Friday, 23 July 2010

BrewDog's Next Beer: Ahab's Undoing

"Ahab's Undoing is a Polydimensional meta-rauchbock, sealed in a Brazilian Rosewood kilderkin and implanted into the abdomen of a live sperm whale, named Billie Joe in honour of Punk pioneers Green Day. The whale then roams the seven seas for 50 years, monitored by satellite and armed with nukes to keep the sushi-eaters at bay, before being lured into an arena at Deep Sea World (Inverkeithing, Firth of Forth) where the beer is "tapped" with a harpoon gun and "poured" via the animal's blowhole, into sequin-encrusted replicas of Duchamp's urinal (customed-made by Damien Hirst, using telekinesis) which are then presented to a select gathering of truly open-minded beer lovers.

"In an attempt to subvert the capitalist structures propping up the ossified cadaver of the bland booze mainstream, we will not be charging money for the opportunity to sample beer history in the making - instead, interested parties will be required to hand over their firstborn offspring, to be used as fermentable material in our next opus-in-waiting, which is tentatively titled Brave New World.

"The beer itself is infused with an innovative mixture of protozoan zooplankton from the South Pacific and top-quality bespoke dogfood (reflecting the life-cycle of the whale), and is brewed to an unprecedented -50%abv. This singularly unique and uncommonly individualistic barnstorming tour de force of antialcoholic exclusivity will induce such a profound state of sobriety in the discerning rebel iconoclast that he or she will never think of anything the same way twice for the rest of their taboo-busting and preconception-immolating livespan.

It's a truly insurrectionary brew, the beer equivalent of the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs. Don yer sowesters, friends - thar she fuckin' blows!"

[Emailed to me by Dan Payne, Beer-Ritz employee extraordinaire, demon cinematic projectionist, and DJ of rare talent. Thanks Dan]

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Birra del Borgo: Coming for Your Taste Buds

A few weeks ago I visited Birra del Borgo's new brewery (pictured left) in Borgorose, about an hour outside Rome. As I rocked to and fro on the train, I pondered the truth of the fact that you can make good beer anywhere, and the question "Why?" kept popping into my head. Why Borgorose? When you are from Rome, a city that has an incredible beer scene fuelled largely by the explosion in Italian craft brewing in the last five years (a tenfold increase in breweries in that time), why would you locate your brewery in a remote village in the foothills of the central Apennines?

The answer that Leonardo di Vincenzo, founder of the brewery, gives is a touch prosaic, but with a romantic twist; it was cheap, and he had family ties in Borgorose (his grandparents live there). His attachment to the locality is so strong that he hopes eventually to open a bar in the tiny village, which is an impressively humble aspiration for someone who is also about to open a brewpub in New York in collaboration with Teo Musso (Baladin), Sam Calagione (Dogfish Head) and Vinnie Cilurzo (Russian River).

We start off the tour trying a few of the newly bottled 33cl offerings - My Antonia, ReAle, ReAle Extra and Duchessa are all about to be bottled in this format for export to the UK and the USA. My Antonia (reviewed here) is my favourite, now just pipping ReAle to the post. In small format, it loses a little of the foghorn-like blast of malt and hops, but it is still wonderful. We have a look at their new 25hl brewplant, which is in fact the old brewplant from Baladin. I ask Leonardo how production is increasing, and he says that they have brewed as much in the first six months of 2010 as they did in the whole of 2009. They've got great beers and, with the addition of ten new tanks later this year, they'll have spare capacity. Bottling, kegging and casking will all take place on site by the middle of 2011. Birra del Borgo are coming for your taste buds in a big way.

As impressive as all this is, at this point in the tour, I'm starting to feel that I've underestimated both the scale of the operation, and the drive behind it. This is reinforced when we take a drive through the cobbled square at the centre of Borgorose, to the original brewery (pictured right), fronting onto pastures at the edge of the village. It's being cleaned down ahead of the following day's Discovery channel shoot with Sam Calagione (see here for more info on the programme). The smaller capacity that this offers means that it will be kept on as the brewery's experimental plant - in fact, Leonardo mentions that he quite often sends one of the brewery team down here to make a beer of their choosing.

It's here that I realise how badly I've underestimated Leonardo. In a shed at the back of the old brewery, there is a cage pallet of their signature 75cl bottles, packed with a new beer, Equilibrista (Italian for tight-rope walker). This beer is a blend of regular wort and clear Chianti must. The pressed grape juice had no contact with the grape skins, and so is completely clear. The beer is surprising in many ways; it hides its 11%abv very well; it tastes both like a beer and a wine; and it is at once familiar and easy to understand, but does it's balancing act in a way that means your brain is constantly flipping back and forth between wine and beer. The remaining bottles are to be disgorged in the same way as champagne, removing the majority of the sediment. I ask where the disgorgement will take place, and naturally, it will take place right here. "Have you done this before?" I ask. "No, but we were shown how to do it, and I'm sure we can handle it" is Leo's predictably confident response.

We round off the visit tasting a couple of barrel-aged beers, the 2008 edition of 25 Dodici (25th December, their Christmas beer) and two barrels of Sedici Gradi (Sixteen Degrees, their strong, dark barley wine). The 25 Dodici is decaying more or less gracefully, exhibiting a lot of the same 'spoiled' character that Greene King's Old 5X has, an experiment waiting for a conclusion. The two barrels of Sedici Gradi (16%abv) are different from each other, one a new fill, one a refill. The plan is to blend the two barrels for a single release, and after trying the oaked, slightly tannic-textured new fill and the rounded, sherried notes of the refill, we blend them together in one glass for an impromptu preview of the final beer. Despite the 30°C heat in the brewery, I can't stop sipping at the enormous, voluptuous blended barley wine in my hand.

There's a higher force at work here, reflected in the symmetry at the heart of Sedici Gradi. The beer has sixteen months in oak, is 16%abv, and should be drunk at 16°C. The playfulness at the heart of everything - the devil-may-care blending of beer and wine, the blended beers done with Cantillon, the simultaneous production of My Antonia in two different countries by two different breweries - doesn't mask the fact that this is a world-class brewery gearing up to take over the world.

One final statistic that Leonardo gave me during the tour. As I mentioned earlier, in the last five years, the number of Italian craft breweries has gone from 40 to 400. In that time, production of 'industrial' Italian lager has dropped by 15%. If, as seems likely, the younger generation of Italian drinkers are rejecting wine as something their parents drink, and aren't interested in generic yellow fizzy, then as blogger Knut Albert claimed a few weeks ago, Italy really is set to become the new California.

TRANSPARENCY STATEMENT - I paid for my flights, but Birra del Borgo accomodated me in Rome, and made sure I didn't go hungry or thirsty.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Over-Hopped, Over-Powering and Over Here*

If you're a fan of American craft beers, you're in for a great couple of months, as there are about to be a few consignments of wonderful, interesting and rare American beers washing up on our shores. Well, not literally washing up - they've been carefully packed and shipped in the conventional manner, rather than pushed into the sea at Cape Cod with with crossed fingers and high hopes.

If you're not a fan of American craft beers, then I'm not sure what to say - why do you deny yourself this earthly pleasure? Succumb.

The American Brewers Association's Export Development Program is again ensuring a bumper crop of beers at the Great British Beer Festival. Not only are there an unprecedented amount of American beers available there (and you can read their full press release here), but the Bieres Sans Frontieres bar list is also looking pretty spectacular too - you can see that here.

As if that wasn't exciting enough, I've also been negotiating with the good people who supply and organise the BSF bar, and it looks as though Beer-Ritz (my employers) are going to purchase a portion of the left over beers. There are more details of that over on their blog.

And while we're at it, let's not forget (as I did for a few hours, and so am now adding this on) that Leeds' Ever-excellent North Bar are having an American beer fest. Bar manager Matt says (in the press release that I've cut-and-pasted this quote from) “We’re expanding our selection again this year and hope to get more draught products as well as loads of new bottled stuff. Alongside favourites from Brooklyn, Sierra Nevada, Goose Island and Anchor we will have brews from Great Divide, Flying Dog, Odell, Stone, Left Hand, Tommyknocker, Green Flash, Uncommon, Moylens, Butternuts, Rogue, Arkadia and Oskar Blues.” Contact them through the usual channels for more details.

*that's a reference to WW2 American GI's being 'overpaid, oversexed and over here'. Only not as catchy or amusing.


Monday, 12 July 2010

French Leave (pt. 3)

I have to be honest, I thought that a holiday in this part of France was going to be a beer desert. Not that I came on a family holiday with friends (and their child) with any intention of it being a beer holiday - that seems a bit like always being at work, and not giving time to friends and family.

But fortunately, I have a beer-curious guy with me (and that's not a euphemism), so today in Bergerac, as we spied a likely looking bar as we headed for a boat trip. After a picnic lunch on the river Dordogne, we headed back for a quick beer at Au Plus-Que-Parfait, and were delighted to see that they had La Chouffe (8%abv) on draught. I've only ever had it in the bottle, but on draught, it's a revelation - a strong blonde beer with a wonderfully spicy yeast bite to it. There are another half-dozen taps, and a beer list of maybe 50 bottles - nothing terribly unusual, but enough Belgian staples to show a serious intent.

So, Bergerac; although there isn't an indigenous beer culture (in the sense of an active brewing scene), there are enough beers this one cafe to keep the beer curious interested and satisfied for a few days.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

French Leave (pt 2)

Happily marooned in rural south-west France, there is little to to apart from eat, drink and sleep, although the heat is making it difficult for our son to sleep, so we don't either. This goat-branded curiosity turned up on the shelves of the local supermarket, brewed by the Basque Aker Beltz brewery. It has a map of the Basque state on the back, weirdly overlapping Spain and France, with an outline that is totally unfamiliar.

From the name, you might expect the billy goat to be playing a flute, given the similarity of the name of the beer to famed flautist Acker Bilk. The goat is also the symbol of a German bock beer. On the palate, the 5.5%abv is well-hidden, and the beer, rather than being a bock is actually a surprisingly light-bodied English ale. Toasty grain and caramel cross the palate, before a medicinal, phenolic hop finish. The caramel is a bit obvious, being also listed as an ingredient, and given this corner cutting, I wonder if the slightly medicinal hop note is because they've used hop oils rather than whole hops.

Better than this have been large, corked bottles of the Belgian wheat beer Blanche de Naumur (4.5%abv), spendidly fresh, with a big coriander perfume and an incredibly soft, fine carbonation, finishing short, dry and perfumey - a perfect aperitif on a hot sunny evening.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

French Leave.

I don't really lead the jet-set lifestyle that these last few posts suggest, but I am actually out of the country again. It's about 35C, and I'm holidaying in the French countryside, about to put my son to bed and fire up the barbie. We have some La Goudale biere de garde to have with dinner, but we're drinking little bottles of lager in this heat.

It's too hot, but fridge-cold Kronenbourg 1664 makes it bearable. If that sounds a little downmarket, then you should have tried the stubbies that were a welcome gift in the fridge when we arrived. They make the Kronenbourg seem so savoury-bitter as to be almost salty by comparison.

The pic has nothing to do with beer. Today I had one of the most mind-bendingly good ice creams of my life. Prune, red wine and Earl Grey tea. I remember being on holiday in upstate New York, hanging out with friends and reading old issues of The New Yorker magazine. An advert for Cointreau started with the phrase 'Those clever French'. My friend Ben laughed and commented on how rarely one hears that phrase these days. But in the case of prune, Bergerac and Earl Grey ice cream, the phrase is entirely justified.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Bir & Fud, Rome

This post is non-sequential, in that I ate at Bir & Fud the first night I was in Rome. Seated at the table are Leo di Vincenzo and Sam Calagione, apparently have an animated discussion over a jar of smoked humous. The rest of the diners are some of the Discovery channel team who were filming Sam. The guy opposite me at dinner was a definite convert to the craft beer cause. In fact, the whole crew had moved from drinking domestic industrial lager to drinking craft beer since the start of the project. Characteristically for recent converts, they couldn't believe how much of their life they had wasted drinking ordinary boring beer. So if you haven't made the change yet, think on.

If you've read the previous few posts, you'll already know that I'm quite smitten with Rome. The pizzas in Bir & Fud are proper wood-fired fellows, very slightly charred and blistered from the oven that you can see behind Leo. The food is great, the beer selection is great, and the staff are friendly and knowledgeable. Of course, sitting with a couple of world-class brewers undoubtedly helps in the service stakes, but even so, the place was packed full of happy diners. And on reflection, in a place with a beer list like this, I'd be perfectly happy if it took a little longer than expected to get my food - that leaves plenty of time for another beer.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fa, Rome

"I sit, rudely hogging space at the tiny bar, surrounded by people coming in and asking for a taster. Most of them go on to order a glass. The barman has seen me making notes on the beers, and starts to offer me tasters too. The tasters keep coming, and as I make more notes, so he pours more beers. We're trapped in a Mexican stand-off of politeness. I've only had 4 hours sleep in the last 40, and pray for him to blink so I can slip out unnoticed. He blinks, but I miss my opportunity. This isn't going to end well.

"Glasses pass back and forth over my head, and everyone is happy. The bar is packed full, and people are calling their orders in from the street. If you want to drink outside, then your beer is dispensed in the ubiquitous flimsy plastic pint pot. This bar is simultaneously a local for hundreds, and a destination for thousands. The barman serves a couple of Aussies, who he recognises from a couple of days ago. He remembers what they had drunk, and makes a recommendation accordingly"


That's transcribed 'as is' from my notebook, written in the raucous exuberance of Ma' Che Siete. If Open Baladin is the temple to Italian craft beer, and Bar 4:20 is a similar sort of shrine to the best beers globally, then Ma' Che Siete is a spit and sawdust style stand-up boozer that just happens to offer a mix of great beers from all over the planet. It seems to do this without any pretension to greatness, but just in the spirit that great beer is a right, not a privilege.

Friday, 2 July 2010

Bar 4:20, Rome

If Open Baladin is a temple to Italian craft beer, then Bar 4:20 is an attempt to take the concept to the global beer scene. Looking at what they have on offer, it's like a tick list of greatest hits - Mikkeller, De Molen, Struise, Thornbridge, Moor, Pizza Port, Smuttynose. If you've ever bought beer from, this is the bar that will make you feel as though you've died and gone to heaven (without all the tedious details of ceasing to live and the accompanying physical decline).

I'm not sure there's anything else to say about it. I walked there from where I was staying in Trastavere, about 20 minutes north of the bar, but you can get a Metro that will put you within a 5 minute stroll of the place. I could have happily stayed there all night, and the menu looked amazing, but I had to leave to attend a beer dinner with Leonardo di Vincenzo and Sam Calagione. Yes, I'm dropping names, and it feels naughty, but nice.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Bar Open Baladin, Rome.

Spurred on by Knut Albert's pronouncement that Italy is the New California, I find myself having a hell of a time in Rome. Yesterday saw a trip out to Birra del Borgo, about an hour from Rome. That was quite an eye-opener in itself, and will be the subject of a couple of posts in the near future. But last night was a corker - Leonardo di Vincenzo and I met up with Sam Calagione (of Dogfish Head), and his Discovery channel entourage. He's being shadowed for a month for a forthcoming documentary, which having spent an evening in Sam's company, should be a riot.

We met up at Bar Open Baladin for draughts of My Antonia, a collaborative brew between Sam and Leo, before moving on to Bir&Fud for great pizzas and more beer. I think everyone was too scared to order anything but My Antonia, which was fine by me, as it's a great beer, with the herbal, lemony Saaz character coming to the fore much more in the draught version than the bottle. Ruinously drinkable, we drank it until we, like Rome, were partial ruins.

Here's a quick snippet of video from Bar Open Baladin. Don't be so impressed by the huge wall of beers that you miss the fact that there are 38 taps and a couple of handpumps on the bar too.

Must dash - more pizza and beer for lunch. Ciao ciao!