Friday, 7 December 2018

One Last Beer

So, The Session is coming to an end, and for the final installment, we've been asked to think about "a beer for the end of a life, an end of a meal, an end of a day, an end of a relationship."

Now, there are some obvious truisms about the last beer of the night. It's got to be big. It's probably dark. It's likely to be expensive, too. However much we like to praise beers for their subtlety, elegance and drinkability, the last beer is the time to reach for imperial stouts and barleywines.

This makes sense purely in terms of tasting, of course: it's relatively unappealing to go from a very big beer to a lighter and subtler one. The temptation is always to make each beer one-louder than the last, so naturally you're going to want the biggest, baddest beer available to be the one you finish with. But there's also a another component to it. Time stands still while you're drinking a big, rich beer. Last orders has come and gone, you know that the time is coming where you're going to be turfed out into the dark and the rain, but until then you're living every moment in a boozy kaleidescope of rich flavours and high spirits.

What goes for the last drink of the night goes a thousandfold for your last drink on the planet. You've heard the bell, and you know that you haven't got much longer in this bright, cheery place, but you've got one more glassful to get what joy you can. But for this most final of final beers, there's another element in play, too. It feels somehow wrong to ask for your last beer to be something rare, exotic, seldom tasted - to me it feels like it should be something comfortingly familiar, a connection back to many happy nights before.

Big and rich, yet comfortingly familiar? For me, the beer that covers that, with a slight hint of something beyond the temporal is St Bernardus 12. See you on the other side!

Sunday, 25 November 2018

Within You Without You

The small but intense world of traditional lambic is often good for microdrama, and the latest storm in a tasting glass is the news that Drie Fonteinen and Girardin are leaving HORAL, the association of traditional lambic producers. There's no official statement from either brewery that I'm aware of, but it's tempting to speculate that their reasons might be similar to the reason that Cantillon never joined in the first place - the belief that HORAL's position as the protectors of traditional lambic is undermined by its inclusion of breweries like Belle Vue and De Troch the bulk of whose output is exactly the sort of sweetened industrial lambic that many people would argue the traditional drink needs saving from.

Meanwhile in the UK, SIBA, the Society of Independent Brewers, has had some back and forth over the last few years over its membership criteria. A motion to apply a stricter upper limit on capacity was nearly passed last year, while this year a motion in the opposite direction to significantly increase the upper limit was rejected after vigorous campaigning from smaller breweries. There are some reasonable arguments on both sides - on the one hand, more involvement of larger independent brewers would have added clout to some of SIBA's operations, on the other hand, larger brewers with sizable estates of tied houses are very different businesses from the small breweries who make up most of SIBA's membership, and have interests that would often be at odds with them.

In the US, the Brewers Association has long been the butt of jokes for its habit of increasing the upper capacity limit for what it considers to be a craft brewery to match the capacity of Sierra Nevada and Boston Beer Company. This year, it's further proposing to remove one of the three basic components of its definition of a craft brewery - essentially, that the majority of a craft brewery's output must actually be beer - in a move which it admits is prompted by, if not solely for the benefit of, Boston Beer Company, which is getting an increasing amount of its income from sales of non-beer products.

At its AGM this April, CAMRA members voted to change their articles of association. While still keeping the promotion of real ale as an objective, they added an updated one, "to play a leading role in the provision of information, education and training to all those with an interest in beer, cider and perry of any type." A motion to also including acting "as the voice [...] of all pub goers and beer, cider and perry drinkers" to also campaign on behalf of all drinkers of "quality beer" achieved a clear majority, but failed to reach the 75% majority necessary for a constitutional change.

It feels like there's a common thread to all of these stories. As long as no two people or businesses are the same, any mutual interest group is going to involve a union of disparate elements. And the question of where you draw the line - how broad a base is too broad, and when do you decide that it's actually better to have at least some people outside the tent pissing in - is almost always vexed. There's seldom an easy answer to this and I doubt that people, either within or without the strange little world of beer, are going to stop arguing over it any time soon.

Thursday, 20 September 2018

Restaurants, beer and comfort zones

Matt Curtis has raised the subject of beer in restaurants again. It's always a popular topic; most beer people would love to have a choice of interesting beers to drink before, during or after a meal, but the fancier restaurants get, the more obstinately they seem to stick to extremely un-fancy beer.

One bit of writing where a smart restaurant does sell beer is in Dorothy L Sayers' 1933 novel Murder Must Advertise. A middle-class advertising clerk doing some rather incompetent detective work has clumsily tailed his quarry to Simpson's in the Strand, a restaurant well above his pay-grade. There he sits, tense and irritable, struggling with the business of ordering his lunch and an accompanying drink.

“What will you drink, sir?”
“Lager,” said Willis, at random.
“Pilsener, sir, or Barclay's London Lager?”
“Oh, Pilsener.”
“Light or dark, sir?”
“Light—dark—no, I mean light.”
“Large light Pilsener, sir?”
“Yes, yes.”
“Tankard, sir?”
“Yes, no—damn it! Bring it in anything that's got a hole in the top.” There seemed no end to the questions that could be asked about beer

I think that maybe this hints at one reason - beyond tight margins, beyond lack of knowledge, beyond, in a narrow sense, snobbery - that restaurants might chose not to serve better beer and coffee.

When we go out, we tend to want to go to places where we feel at home, places that give us constant little reassurances that we belong there and should feel at ease. Offering people stuff that they don't understand - even if they don't have to order it, even if your friendly staff are eager to help them to navigate their way through it - undermines that. It says, this is a place for people who understand about this stuff - people who know and care about the difference between wit and weizen, or between a long black and a batch brew. Look at the way that people say "I just want a black coffee" or "I just want a pint of beer" - it isn't just a request for a drink, it's a prickly, defensive statement of identity from someone who feels challenged and excluded by a list of options that they don't understand.

People with the money and inclination to eat in a fancy restaurant are paying, at least in part, to feel like they're epitome of good taste. But in practice, while they can probably be expected to know enough about food to navigate the menu, and at least enough about wine to know that asking the sommelier for a recommendation isn't an admission of defeat, they are currently relatively unlikely to know or care much about craft beer of third-wave coffee. And when a traditional fine-dining restaurant restricts its beer list to a macro lager and a well-known bottled bitter or offers catering-grade dark roast coffee rather than single-estate Arabica, it isn't just cutting costs, it's reassuring the majority of their customers that there's nothing wrong with their lack of interest in either.

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

The Session 136 - Roundup!

For this months instalment of the Session, I asked the world's beer bloggers to think a bit about Farmhouse Beer - what does it mean, and why do people care? Now the time is up, I've got some great responses, and a fascinating range of perspectives.

To Gary Gillman, "farmhouse beer" really just means saison or saison-inflected beers, and it's actually not something he's particularly into.

Other contributions talked about farmhouse breweries in a more literal sense. Al at Fuggled talked about a change in the law that's sparked a new wave of farm-based brewing in Virginia. Stan Hieronymous at Appellation Beer posted an excerpt from his book, Brewing Local - an in depth profile of Piney River brewing in the Ozark mountains of Missouri. Meanwhile Jon Abernathy discussed the historic farmhouse brewing traditions of Oregon, and pondered how a modern homebrewer might draw inspiration from older them.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Boak and Bailey considered English farmhouse brewing traditions, and how, if at all, they could relate to modern commercial brewing. Ed Wray snuck in a post that I suspect he was going to write anyway, but it's good stuff so we'll have it. It's a summary of a talk by Lars covering long-established farmhouse brewing traditions in Norway, Latvia and (briefly) Suffolk. Finally, for my own piece I wrote about a much newer brewery from Suffolk, and why a 21st Century style like New England IPA seems to me to be a plausible thing for a "farm brewery" to produce.

So that wraps it up for this session. Thanks to everyone who took part - it's been a pleasure and a privilege to have so many good beer writers acting on my whim. The next few hosting spots still seem to be open, and I'd encourage any blogger who wants to get involved to pick a topic and grab one as soon as possible!

Friday, 1 June 2018

Session #136: Farmhouse Brewing - Not Looking For A New England

Before I opened the can of Green Path, the flagship IPA from Suffolk-based brewery Burnt Mill, I had a good idea of what I was going to get, and I had a good idea of how this post was going to go. It's a New England IPA, of course. Burnt Mill describe themselves as a "farm brewery", and the design of the can - field, windmill and sky, all in impressionistic green and blue watercolour - anchors them solidly in the Suffolk countryside. While the phrase "farmhouse beer" and the associated rural imagery have traditionally conjured up images of saisons, spontaneous fermentation and complex, subtle beers aged in dusty wooden barrels, to me it increasingly feels plausible when applied to soft, hazy, juicy New England IPA, too.

This is, on the face of it, strange. There's no obvious lineage linking Trillium or Cloudwater to historic farmhouse brewing traditions, or even, beyond a shared appeal to beer geeks, to new-wave farmhouse breweries like Jester King. Maybe, then, it's something to do with the the hazy appearance of NEIPA as visible evidence of the presence of oats or wheat in the grist, cereal crops making themselves visible in a class of beers where they've traditionally been kept firmly out of the way of the hops. You can also read the haze as a signifying the work of a simple rustic artisan rather than a scientifically precise industrial technician. The particular importance of freshness to the style maybe suggests a sort of pre-modern utopia, before industrialised distribution, with beer going from field to fermenter to glass. The connection might also be influenced by the association of New England IPA with rural Vermont, and hence Hill Farmstead, even though that brewery isn't actually one of the drivers of the style.

This clearly a loose and rather fanciful association - style defining NEIPAs are currently being brewed with scientific precision and meticulous attention to detail in Boston, Manchester and New York, among other places. But it goes some way toward explaining why I knew without opening the can that this beer was going to be a soft, hazy, juicy IPA.

But it wasn't, of course.

As I'd have known if I'd bothered to read the can rather than just admiring the pastel-shaded artwork, Green Paths is brewed in the classic West Coast style. And it's really quite fantastic. It pours clear-ish, at least by modern standards. Big juicy hop aromas follow through with a prickly citrus-toffee body, creamy mouthfeel and a long bittersweet finish. It's bold but it's balanced. Green Paths tastes like the IPA that first got you into this whole craft thing, updated to make an impression on your DIPA-fatigued 2018 palette.

Subsequent beers I've had from Burnt Mill - their lighter pale ales, Pintle and Steel Cut, and their full-blooded DIPA, Solar Light - have all brought the haze, though. Maybe there is something in all this after all?

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

100 Words: Yeast

The fanfare in craft brewing often seems to be around new hops, exotic malts and experimental adjuncts, but for me yeast is where the real magic lies. Everything else is additive, linear and predictable - add strawberries, get strawberry flavour - but yeast is transformative.

I often joke that you can divide homebrewers into cooks and DIY-enthusiasts, but when it comes to yeast-driven styles, they have to become football managers. You don’t just pick your players, you have to coax and cajole them, controlling their environment, understanding their quirks and knowing exactly how to push them to get the results you want.

(Thanks to Boak and Bailey for suggesting the 100 words format - it was fun to write and other bloggers should try it too!)

(Another thing that other bloggers should try is writing a piece about "farmhouse brewing" for the next issue of The Session, which I'm hosting on June the 1st.)

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Session #136 Announcement: Farmhouse Brewing

The Session, a.k.a. Beer Blogging Friday, is an opportunity once a month for beer bloggers from around the world to get together and write from their own unique perspective on a single topic. Each month, a different beer blogger hosts the Session, chooses a topic and creates a round-up listing all of the participants, along with a short pithy critique of each entry. (You can find more information on The Session on Brookston Beer Bulletin).

Whether it's about the success of modern craft breweries like Jester King and Burning Sky, the worldwide spread of saison or the revival of international interest in Northern European traditions, farmhouse brewing is an recurring theme in the beer world. It's a very resonant idea but also one that invites many perspectives, so it seems like an ideal topic for the collective conversation that is The Session.

I'd invite people to approach the topic however they like - the more creative the better - but here are some ideas to get you started.

You could talk about how the word "farmhouse" is used in modern craft breweries, or about historic brewing traditions. You might want to think about how, if at all, the two are related.

If you think that farmhouse brewing or farmhouse beer refers to something meaningful and relevant in modern beer, you could write something touching on what it means to you. What's its defining element? Is it about style, ingredients, location or something else? Would you call a crisp, clean pilsner or a hoppy IPA a farmhouse beer if it was brewed from local ingredients in a medieval barn? What about a mixed fermentation barrel-aged saison brewed in a light industrial unit in a suburb of Manchester? Why does any of this matter?

If you want to get specific, maybe talk about one or more beers or breweries that you think embody some aspect of the idea of farmhouse brewing. Or if you're a homebrewer, you could talk about ways that your own beer has been influenced by it.

Conversely, if you think that the modern idea of a farmhouse brewery is largely just about marketing and aesthetics then you could have a go at dissecting and deconstructing it. Where did it originate and what are its roots? Who popularized it? How is it constructed and signalled? Most importantly, why are people so keen to buy into it?

The date for this Session is Friday the 1st of June - add a comment to this page on the day (or as soon as possible afterwards) with a link to your contribution. I'll probably write a roundup post over that weekend.

Cheers!