Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Albion august

August azure

The pores of your skin dilate from the lurid heat. The way the light in the evening sends people’s shadows spilling across the ground, you’d expect to see a mushroom cloud on the horizon. God it’s hot. 

The lounges and snugs of St Alban’s public houses gape empty and still. The illuminated beer founts glow alone in the darkness. This void hasn’t come about due to the death of business but very much because of its health: everybody’s outside in the oven glow of August. 

When summer gives over to autumn in this country, it’s the sun’s last stand. Over the past few weeks we’ve witnessed its nuclear core in its final charge. It’s going over the top.

The customers sunbathe at picnic tables in the beer gardens. Pale-skinned people have finally darkened and the elasticity patterns and strap lines of June have been absorbed by these brown-hided herds. 

People move at a slower pace and pints of ale carried aloft navigating their way through the tables glow like nodes of clearest honey. Glasses of red wine become rubies, white wine refracts like diamond.

In the garden of the Mermaid, a beer festival/contest is taking place: Oakham Ale’s pale beers versus Titanic Brewery’s dark beers. The weather would suggest a bias towards the former but the victor hasn’t yet been called. A rack of twelve casks tilt respectfully towards the drinker. These precious pupae require reverse parental care whereby their nappies need to be kept moist. This keeps the contents of the casks’ bellies cool. Each time the diapers dry out, the pressurised hose comes out again.

My own leaning is in favour of Oakham Ales but the two halves I had from Titanic did give the Staffordshire brewer a little leap up in my book. The Cappuccino Porter tasted more like its eponym than the sweet caffeine froth itself and defeated the Peterborough brewer’s gingery Oblivion. But then Velvet Claws by Oakham saw off Last Porter Call - bold grapefruit, pine and lemon zest trumped dry roast coffee and malt.

The parks have also caught the sun and the sward is exhausted like the edges of burned parchment. Concrete pathways appear to have quartz marbling from the diffusion of sunlight through the canopies. Several weeks ago twitching clusters of ragwort heads glowed an impossible yellow - each petal imprinted like a mercury blade onto the retina when you shut your eyes. Now they’re reduced to faded crepe paper.

The townscape is seen as if through smoked glass, the buildings look like aged photographs of themselves. 

For the second year running, the Sopwell area of St Albans is running a Sopfest over the August bank holiday. Six pubs are taking part. The beer range has improved this year and become as varied as it’s possible for cask ale to get. It covers fruit beer, Saison, spirit aged, milk stout, black IPA, barley wine, porter, Belgian pale, wheat beer and honey ale. It even has the odd archaic bitter.

People are having halves in pint glasses because we’ve all turned from swillers to nosers. This used to be done furtively by appreciators of fine ale for fear of social ridicule. It’s now done proudly and publicly. With a beer aged in rum casks you’d have to be dead for your eyes not to swivel back with post-coital bliss into the back of your skull from inhaling the aroma. 

I hear my name called by a shape. You can’t recognise people right in front of you as they’re a pastel silhouette - you need to raise your arm in a hook over your brow to see them. 

Before the bank holiday weekend comes to a close, there’s live music on in the White Lion garden. I’m drawn in to an acoustic version of Cockney Rebel’s “come up and see me”  by a bearded man in his sixties wearing a straw hat. To shudders of glee from the audience he then tightens the pitch his voice and actually nails “kiss!” by Prince. I witnessed this within reach of the beer stillage. A pint of pale ale seeded with Belgian Saison yeast complimented the experience.

Young mothers dance barefoot with their toddlers on the grass and fat couples snog each other as the vault above us turns from white to golden to crimson. Darkness is finally creeping in though it’s still balmy. This is where I have my last beer of Sopfest - Bona Nox by the brewery I started this post with: Oakham Ales. The title is latin for good night and served as my august nightcap.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

that Fuller's feeling 2

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.

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?

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

The Oval Space

   beauty within and without

It’s just the name I don’t like. It’s too contrived. The Old Gasworks would’ve been better. I came here to experience the London Craft Beer Festival - just follow this sentence.

I hadn’t counted on the awe of the Oval Space. I’ve tramped up and down Mare Street many times completely unaware of the sleeping giant in the neighbourhood.

You see a gas holder cage as you approach the venue but it seems underwhelming, barely peeking over the low buildings you walk by. It’s only after you’ve crossed the threshold of the Oval Space that reality distorts with crab nebula beauty. Once you enter the building and go up a flight of stairs, the wall and roof are cut away. The sky becomes the ceiling and the wall becomes a breathtaking industrial panorama: you gaze directly at the metal skeleton of gas holder 5 in what used to be the Bethnal Green gasworks and the blazing azure summer framing it. You’re bathed by it. As you look up from your low elevation, it’s like you’re kneeling in its presence. 

Though we don’t think of them as such, Kentish oast houses and Norfolk windmills come from the industrial age. The gruelling days of physical labour we have the fortune never to have known in our own lifetimes have robbed these buildings of the oppression they once bore. in the 21st century, they’re the rustic postcard pin ups of the English landscape.

So it might be for gas holder 5 built in 1889 - the smaller tower - holder 2 that stands behind it is a couple of decades older. Though we still have working gas holders or gasometers, they’re gradually departing the scene splitting people between those that would love to see them demolished and those that nail their hearts to them. In just over a decade, I’ve experienced the same regard towards the buildings of Battersea power station. 

Some feats of architecture were never meant to stun but do so in their industrial largesse. Others diminish like Marble Arch. It’s now dwarfed by the buildings that surround it and seems so puny.

Gas holder 5 reminds me of something ritualistic - a circular standing formation. Arenas in the Acropolis, the Colisseum, the Calanais standing stones on the Isle of Lewis, a circle at Carnac, Stonehenge. 

I can imagine sacrificial offerings being made under its steel struts at the winter solstice.

I’m not sure of the age or origins of the Oval Space unlike the Pickle Factory behind it that reveals all in its name. Looking into it’s creation does turn up an irrepressible Lithuanian priest who tried to stop the change of premises to a music venue:

Maybe what makes this metal guardian so compelling is that it’s fading into history as you look at it like a relic in the making. You can see it turn sepia and the periphery of your vision curl and brown like an old photo.

The Oval Space has the biggest lounge conversation piece on the planet. Please let’s not demolish it.

London Craft Beer Festival 2016

    how the LCBF knocked me sideways

On Saturday evening I decided to go online and book a ticket for the London Craft Beer Festival at the Oval Space in Hackney. I hadn’t planned to do this but got tempted by seeing the brochure of someone who’d just come back from it.

I intended write a pros and cons assessment of this festival against the GBBF but that’s not possible - they’re not remotely comparable. 

This festival is free from any technical definition of beer. Developments in brewing, in its technology and in its process can all be accommodated under the craft banner. This is a project that just makes the sensory experience between you and the beer its goal - all else is irrelevant. 

When I entered the main hall upstairs I submitted to some mild panic. This happens every time I hear eardrum-throbbing music or sound in an enclosed space but this is just a reflection on me and my unoutgoingness. I soon got used to it as the rhythm entered the bloodstream but it did have another disadvantage: all the brewers whose beer you’ve been raving about - and whose produce has done things to you you long to thank them for - cannot hear your praise or anything you say. 

You end up mouthing the name of the beer to be lip-read or just pointing at it. I took a couple of photographs of brewers I hold in high esteem - I just wish I could have told them at the time. The ones with their backs to the window were slowly being bisqued in their own juices as the panes acted as a magnifier to the sun’s rays. 

You get the beer in shots - as many as you want so you can taste beer of all colours, styles and strengths. No money changes hands as all drink is included in the ticket. The dispense is fluid and uninterrupted meaning minimal queuing. I love the thought that’s gone into the little practical details: water butts have been put on the corners of bars so that you can open a tap, rinse out your glass and chuck the dregs into the bin underneath. This way you can switch from a Simcoe IPA to a chocolate coffee porter without their respective foams compromising each other’s taste.

The second half of this festival is just across the road in the Pickle Factory. Your glass needs to be empty before you traverse because of licensing detail - the Oval Space doesn’t lease the road so alcohol cannot be consumed on it.

This smaller venue is cut off from the light and feels clandestine. Fuller’s brewery is running it and has brought together some of the best breweries and a menu of delicious cask ales that span the ale spectrum. 

For the first time ever, I had the opportunity to sample the Imperial Stout, 1845, Vintage Ale, Brewer’s Reserve, Golden Pride and other heavy Fuller’s beers rarely seen on cask. 

Waddling back to the Oval Space (glass empty for the scrutiny of the security bods), you ascend up the stairs, come back out into the light and are ambushed by one of London’s most beautiful urban vistas. This could almost be an analogy about leaving the constraints of real ale in the little shed behind. Am I talking about the Pickle Factory or the GBBF?

I'm still turning this experience around and around in my head.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

should the GBBF just serve British beer?

further reflections on the GBBF 2016

In the autumn issue of CAMRA’s Beer magazine, the item of debate was whether the GBBF should only sell British beer (with my assumed emphasis on tap rather than in bottle). The question was also put out as a poll on Twitter. I voted but without much thought or verve and as ever, it’s retrospectively I actually start thinking about the question in the first place - only once it’s been and gone!

The binary question, alas, gets no binary answer from me but a swinging hinged one - the kind of answers I give when I overthink things.

I visited the GBBF on wednesday and made sure to visit the Bieres Sans Frontieres bars. There were three general clusters: German & Czech, Netherlands, Belgium and Italy and American & Nordic (Nordic meaning Scandinavian). The odd thing is that these clusters do actually represent breeds in a way. The first isn’t surprising - Germany and the Czech Republic border each other and have a shared culture of Lager styles. I believe that if I had to shoehorn Italian beers in anywhere, it would indeed be with Belgium & the Netherlands. The last one’s harder to explain but is true with regard to the style - Scandinavian breweries definitely emulate hop-heavy aromatic American beers. 

I tried American cask beer for the first time - a toasted brown ale (Aeronaut Brewery) left very little impression but then I spied a mild (Into The Mild - Cambridge Brewing Co) and recalled that American yeast clarifies malt and hop profiles in higher definition. I rolled it around my tongue trying to work out whether this was in evidence or just the power of my own suggestion. It did seem a bit less murky than a lot of our British counterparts. So maybe.

There was also a cask take on a Kölsch hopped like an IPA (hard not to just write this off as an IPA). It hadn’t yet come on but I would’ve been intrigued to see if a cask Kölsch could manage either the Rhineland’s effervescent carbonation or its gentle apply flavours. I wish I could’ve slaked my curiosity but I remain highly sceptical until proved otherwise.

If I really want to try something different, though, I’ll need to leave the comfort of cask.

My three favourite beers this year were Fullers Vintage Ale (cask), Prince of Denmark (Harvey’s - cask) and Alvinne Stout from Belgium - a beautiful tipple dispensed from an oak barrel. It was fruity and dark on the palate but smelt of red wine. It wasn’t particularly complex just a sensory joy. 

The Alvinne Stout was from the Belgian, Italian and Netherlands’ bar which offered to rinse out my glass each time - something very welcome, especially as I opted for Cantillon whilst a blanket of foam from a cask stout was still clinging to the inside of my vessel. This was mid afternoon however, so this service may have been “efficienced out” when it got busier. 

If I’d had more foreign beers - some Flemish red, Czech Pilsner or Belgian Gueuze, would the Alvinne Stout still rank as high? Or does it stand out just because it’s different to all the cask beers - a palate cleanser. And this is where I round on that overthought hinged answer I promised:

The best thing about the festival is it’s like a drinking banquet with as many overlaid dishes as possible. I want as much variety as possible to give my taste buds a comprehensive rogering and this can only be achieved through oases of beer - meaning different methods of dispense.

The question as to whether there should be foreign beers on tap at the festival is actually a Trojan horse. As far as I can see it was asked with no ulterior motive for a yes/no debate in the magazine but unwittingly, via the back door, it’s also the question about whether we should have craft keg in the festival. 

The very same reason that Alvinne or Cantillon, Früh or Rodenbach might stand out is because of the difference in style and most importantly, like Kölsch, like Pilsner, like sours or Lambics they don’t particularly cask well and aren’t therefore “real ale”.

Yes there should be foreign beers served at the GBBF if all the British beers are cask only.

No there shouldn’t be (or at least, it would be less necessary) if the beer styles are represented by British brewers via keg and key keg as modern brewers take inspiration for their beer from all over the world.

Friday, 12 August 2016

GBBF 2016

some thoughts on this year’s festival

This year I arrived at Olympia from Kensington High Street tube station. It’s just a fifteen minute walk and feels more free and breathable than getting the overland train. As I passed some of the borough’s street signs, it struck me that W8 mirrors E8 if London were a folded Rorschach blot. The former postcode marks creamy stuccoed splendour with wide avenues, the latter designates working class terraces but also an emergent brewing epicentre. Hackney’s leases are beginning to rise by as much as 400% as the city creeps east. London eh? It’ll catch up with you in the end.

When gaining on Olympia, you see the ambition in its Victorian stamp (built 1886). Massive steel-latticed arches haven’t been constructed like this since the monarch of empire passed away. The only problem is you can’t get the view the architect (the aptly named Andrew Handyside) intended because of the cramp of London’s built environment; the places where you’d stand to take a picture of Olympia face-on have been built on themselves. The only way is to get onto the upper levels of the buildings the other side of the railway track. I therefore have no image of Olympia as the oblique angle down the service road just doesn’t do the beast justice. 

I  love entering Olympia and getting bathed in its soft platinum light. At the same time, you enter its echoing sound bubble - something well-tuned as the day wears on as glasses break to local cheers. 

I like that the GBBF has come back down to earth this year with regards to its theme. This year each bar is named after a pub that has won CAMRA’s champion pub of the year so I felt a tingling feeling near The Harp bar. Last year the explorer theme felt a bit laboured - the banners hanging from the ceiling had curled up and there was a general feeling of fatigue. The circus theme the year before that was jolly but I couldn’t work out the connection it had with beer. But then again, I’m a grouch.

Harvey's Brewery has come up with a heading based on Sussex’ county motto - “we wunt be druv" (we won’t be driven). Maybe it’s a fitting tribute to the brewery’s impermeable stubbornness through three centuries but it does sound like it’s being said by someone with a lobotomy scar spanning their scalp. In their new, more minimalist branding, they’ve also added an apostrophe after the “y” to the delight of grammar pedants. This little change also differentiates them from the popular furniture storeroom. I had three glasses of beer from this bar - the Dark Mild, the Green Hop and of course Prince of Denmark - an ale worth the visit to the GBBF each year in itself. 

The Tiny Rebel bar demonstrates what can be achieved in such a small amount of time for a startup brewery (it started brewing in earnest in 2012). This presence is no doubt in connection with Cwtch winning champion beer of Britain last year. Following an article in the Autumn edition of CAMRA’s Beer magazine, the brothers are very careful to hold cask ale in high esteem and seem very much to want to keep CAMRA on their side in contrast to many new urban breweries. Maybe it’s about hedging bets: if British keg comes to Olympia they can exploit it. If it doesn’t, they can exploit that too. Their Loki Black IPA is delicious in any case.

One of the simple pleasures of the festival is aimlessly wandering around. I love the characters that are drawn out each year - many look as though they were created by Tolkien - Middle Earth’s most hirsute snd wobbly.

The upper gallery reserved 75% of its orbit to its VIP lounge, corporate, and other restricted events. In the 25% that remains for the general public, extra barriers have been erected to keep you about twenty feet back from the original railing. This is frustrating as it’s the only “aerial” viewpoint you can take of the festival by camera and you have to crop the barriers out of the picture later. You can’t take a shot downwards. 

My beer list this year was as follows:

Dark Mild, Green Hop, Prince of Denmark (Harvey’s), Menha Du (St Austell), Toasted Brown Ale (Aeronaut - American cask), Into The Mild (Cambridge Brewing Co - American cask), 1872 Porter (Elland), Cantillon (Cantillon - on keg), Loki Black IPA (Tiny Rebel), Alvinne Stout (Alvinne - oak barrel), Vintage Ale 2016 (Fullers) and Pine Porter (Rameses - Netherlands).

My top three beers of the festival in no particular order were Fullers Vintage on cask, the aforementioned Prince of Denmark and Belgium’s Alvinne stout served from an oak barrel - it had a tart red wine nose but fruity portery body. 

Third measures are definitely the way to go. I found that in the five minutes before Fullers vintage ale was due to be pulled through at 16:30 (and it was - on the dot). I ordered a third from an adjacent bar and then had plenty of time to drink it whilst waiting in the queue for Chiswick’s finest.

I left with a warm feeling that isn’t just the alcohol. It makes me think of when I was about nine years old and a keen palaeontologist (into dinosaurs). One year we took the trip by rail from my home in Bangor, North Wales to the Natural History Museum not far from this festival. I left with that same sensation of awe that I do when I leave here. The impossible size of the venue, the exhibits, the buzz.

I think CAMRA is increasingly putting the pub at the centre of its campaigning - even above the primacy of “real ale”. From all the differing opinions I’ve heard about The Revitalisation Project, everyone seems to agree that saving pubs should be paramount.

Maybe next year the bar names could either represent pubs threatened with closure or those that have been saved after a successful ACV campaign. Keep the focus on the pub!

Monday, 8 August 2016

Keighley to St Albans

Dark Mild & Ram Tam in Hertfordshire

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. 

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.