Sunday, 22 September 2013

Just Beer

My name is Matthew Curtis and I have a problem. I regularly buy and horde far more beer than I can physically drink and I am often overtly precious about some of the bottles in my collection. I often question myself, why am I like this? Not just with beer but with several different genres of booze. I often have to have strong words with myself, booze is created to be drank, simple as, there is no need for ceremony or occasion, it's just a drink so why am I so often over protective of my stash? I always like to keep some bottles of Cantillon gueuze in stock, it's one of my favourite beers and it's the perfect aperitif on a Sunday afternoon before a big feed. At upwards of a fiver for a 375 millilitre bottle it's not cheap for a beer but when you think about how it's made, barrel aged in different batches for between one and three years and then skillfully blended and primed for refermentation in the bottle, it's creation is no mean feat. At the end of the day is something that takes so long and such a degree of skill to make still just a beer? Of course this is, that's why I like to crack open one a week, if this was wine it would be three times the price so it's best just enjoy it while you've got it, right?

Firestone Walker Parabola. Just beer?
Recently I've had a few beers that I thought were more than simply just beer, they've transcended their beginnings of hops, malt, water and yeast and metamorphosed into something different, more elegant and more spectacular. At this years European Beer Bloggers Conference I was handed a glass of 10th Anniversary Samuel Adams Utopias. Now Utopias starts life just like many other beers with grain and water and noble hops but instead of an ale yeast a strain normally reserved for Champagne is employed and in order to ramp up the alcohol content to a massive 29% maple syrup is added to the brew. The beer is then separated and aged for varying degrees of time in a variety of bourbon, port, cognac and sherry barrels before being recombined to create the finished article. The syrupy, bronze liquid loams around the glass, notes of sherry and oak leap out and stick to your nostrils. The taste is a surprise to me, I was expecting a car crash of unbalanced flavours but what I get is a little oak, a little honey, ripe figs and a whole heap of well refined port like flavours. Surprisingly the whole thing is underpinned by a slight effervescence which serves as the only reminder that this is or was at some point just beer and it's this that lifts it up to being a brilliant drink. This is not beer any longer though, this is something else, it's not port or sherry because no grapes were involved, it's not eau-de-vie because no fruit was involved and calling it 'fortified beer' doesn't sum up the grandeur that this beverage manages to conjure. Is it worth $250 a bottle though? You could get a stupendous bottle of whisky for the same amount of money and I know which I'd rather have in my drinks cabinet.

Earlier that very weekend I was in The Hanging Bat on Lothian Road and they had tapped one of only two kegs in existence of this years Magic Rock Bourbon Barrel Beaded Lady. This year Magic Rock have taken their superb imperial brown stout and aged it in Wild Turkey Barrels for ten months. Wild Turkey has always been a favourite of mine but it's a monster of a bourbon so I feared that the Bearded Lady would have been blasted into oblivion by this powerful beverage. This was not the case though, I may have been three sheets (plus a couple more, perhaps) to the wind when I took a sip but I was overwhelmed by how mellow and how smooth this initially intimidating stout was. I had nothing to fear, the vanilla rich bourbon notes intermingled perfectly with the flavours of rich roasted coffee and molasses from the beer. This vinous beer slid down the throat like liquid velvet, not a note was out of place and every flavour was in perfect harmony, it was quite simply wonderful. It straddled the line between beer and something else entirely, this was special no doubt but was it just beer and should it be treated as something different, more special? Or should I just open another bottle this afternoon just for the hell of it, it's just beer after all...

This August bank holiday weekend I was away with friends and on the last night of our stay I brought out the most prized bottle of beer in my collection, a 2012 Firestone Walker Parabola another mighty whisky barrel aged imperial stout. The fact that I'm even referring to the vintage of this bottle as if it was a wine is surely evidence to suggest that like the Bourbon Barrel Bearded lady this is more than just beer. It cost me fifteen dollars but I imagine if I kept it long enough I could sell it on for much more but that's not why I bought it, the sole purpose of it's existence is to get inside my belly so sod stashing it it away for aeons to come. There were ten of us present that evening, only one other person, my friend Dom was interested in giving it a taste. The others were tucking into a bottle of 2008 Sandeman LBV Port, I was disappointed by this (not by the Port, that's very good), I wanted to see peoples reactions as they tasted what is regarded as one of the best beers in the world. To them though, this was just one of my 'weird beers' and they were probably wishing that I'd just shut up and drink the damn thing. No matter, this meant there would be more of this special brew for my own consumption. Where the Magic Rock slid eleganty around the glass Parabola sat their like a quantum singularity, absorbing any light in its path. I stared into the oubliette and massive notes of booze and charred oak wrapped their tendrils around me. This 'beer' has been in wood for twelve months and boy can you tell with ridiculous amounts of oak in the finish, the bourbon notes are massive and overwhelming at first, it's a challenge to wrap your brain around the sheer ferocity of this beer. However a few sips in a you realise that this is a lion that is willing to be tamed if you have the courage. Despite being from the same genre of beer as the Magic Rock this is an entirely different creature and the fine line between beer and something else becomes even more blurred. 

If I'm drinking beer, do I want to be challenged? Surely that defeats the object of drinking alcohol, it's a relaxant not a stimulant after all. Thinking back to my first taste of Cantillon Gueuze, that was a challenge but now it's an utter joy. Sadly it's unlikely I'll ever get to taste that particular vintage of Parabola again but if I did would it make that moment, that spectacular drunken brawl less special? I've asked myself more questions than I've answered but I think the answer is that it doesn't matter what you decide to call it or what you take from your experience of drinking it, what matters is that whatever's in your glass is always good.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Beer and Food Matching with Pete Brown

Last month I was invited by the kind people at Meantime Brewery to attend a beer and food matching dinner at The Old Brewery which is their brewery tap inside the beautiful grounds of the Royal Naval College in Greenwich. The evening was co-hosted by Alistair Hook, owner and master brewer at Meantime and well respected beer writer Pete Brown and would be featuring a selection of British inspired cuisine paired with some classic and some very modern beers. I was also asked if I would like to bring a guest so I dragged my long suffering girlfriend Dianne along with me, Di claims she doesn't like beer but that's not true because she loves fruit Lambics and I've witnessed her throwing down pints of Brooklyn lager and laughing manically with joy on a Friday night.

We arrive at the Old Brewery and make our way to the restaurant, we're a few minutes late and Pete is already in full swing regaling the crowd with tales from his time in advertising. We were soon ushered to our table and the first two beers were brought over to us, the first was Meantime's Pilsner, a crisp, zesty and slightly herbal aperitif to kick the evening into gear. We're then presented with a glass of Timothy Taylor's timeless British bitter, Landlord. Pete starts waxing lyrical about how this is probably the bitter that got him into bitter and my mind drifts back some ten years ago to drinking pints of Landlord with my Dad at the Bottle and Glass in Scothern, Lincolnshire where I grew up. It may well be the bitter that converted me into a bitter drinker too, even Dianne found it's robust, yet drinkable bitterness enjoyable. 

They started to bring out the first course, smoked eel with a carrot and beetroot salad and a horseradish cream. Before the food arrived the beer that it was to be matched with was delivered, Hobsons Mild which was deliciously drinkable and had mellow notes of chocolate and hazelnuts on the nose and produced delicate flavours of raisins and a little roasted coffee. The eel was the food highlight of the evening for me, rich smokey flavours mingled with the delicate heat from the creamy horseradish, it was delicious. Pete explained how the mild would help cut through the fatty fish and this it certainly did but the smokey flavour overwhelmed the delicate flavours in the beer and after a few mouthfuls the mild had become very mute indeed. I would have personally chosen something like Thornbridge Tzara, a Koelsch style beer to go with this dish as I think that the floral, fruity quality of this beer would have complimented this strongly flavoured dish better and the extra carbonation would have cut through the rich, fatty fish.

The main course was a fantastically huge plateful of beef wellington with an ale gravy and a massive slab of welsh potato cake, it was far too much food for one person but the beef was so beautifully cooked that I just couldn't stop eating it. The beer Pete chose to go with this dish was the wonderful Redchurch Great Eastern IPA and I couldn't have chosen this pairing better myself. While Pete talks to the diners about the history of IPA, and you can tell from his enthusiasm the passion he has for this subject, I let the bitter grapefruit and tropical mango flavours mingle with the rich beef, it's a heavenly combination. 

I'm stuffed after this dish and I'm not quite sure how I'm going to manage a pudding and a cheese course but in the spirit of the evening I soldier on. As they bring out the next beer, Meantime's London Porter, Pete says something that baffles me and that I strongly disagree with; "Craft beer is about two styles of beer, IPA and Porter." Sure, these are two styles that are steeped in history and we wouldn't be where we are today without them but for me craft beer is about innovation, pushing the envelope and striving to create something that's always better than just 'good'. It's about 100% Brettanomyces fermented hefeweizens, IPA brewed with fresh blood oranges and imperial porters aged in Tempranillo barrels for a year with a load of grape must and that's just for starters. Craft beer should encompass each and every style of beer and still leave room for those that haven't even been conceived yet. Of course this isn't just what craft beer is about, but let's not get into that now, or ever, if I can help it.

That said the apple pie with custard and vanilla ice cream we're served pairs beautifully with the London porter, the sweetness of the pudding is balanced nicely by the bitter roasted coffee and dark chocolate notes this beer produces and the slight astringency balances out the sweetness of the dessert. This leads us nicely on to the cheese course which Pete has paired with St. Bernardus Pater 6 which is a solid Belgian Tripel. Cheese and Belgian beer, you can't really go wrong with this and the only complaint from me at this point is that I'm so full that I have to avoid the crackers entirely and practically have to force myself to eat the selection of British cheeses in front of me, the things I do for this blog, eh?

The evening is nicely rounded of with a welcome digestif of Kernel Export Stout, it's full of coffee, a hint of molasses and has an almost pine sap bitterness in the finish. It's been a thoroughly enjoyable evening and despite me disagreeing with one pairing and that one bold statement I feel like my beer knowledge is richer for it and I'm also a little bit pissed as at no point did the beer cease to flow. It was good to see that Dianne enjoyed herself too, she probably found the beer talk a little bit boring as it's in no way relevant to her interests but the food and drink was good enough to keep even the non beer geeks present satisfied, recommended.

The Old Brewery has a beer and food night with a guest speaker once a month and tickets are sold in advance usually at around £50.00 per head. You can book a table on their website here. 

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Doing It Wrong

A couple of weeks ago I went to the 2013 Great British Beer Festival (GBBF) which was back at the Kensington Olympia for the second year on the trot. It's the third consecutive year I've attended the festival and the first time I've been on the opening day. My usual attitude towards beer festivals is thus; ignore any beer lists, coerce some mates into coming along with me and then concentrate on working my way through as many beers that come my way that evening until eventually staggering homewards a little worse for wear.

This time was different, I'm not sure if it was accidental or deliberate but when I clicked on the link to the beer list for this years GBBF I instantly took my festival experience down a notch. I sat at my desk at work and poured through the draught list, coo-ing at the offerings that would be available from the likes of Cantillon, Ninkasi and Deschutes and then made a plan of the beers I hoped to try when I made my way to the Tuesday evening session. I didn't have to convince any non-beer geek friends to attend with me this time because I knew that by buying a ticket for the opening day I would bump into a bundle of the wonderful people I've met through writing about beer.

My GBBF Glass 2011-2013, Evolution of a beer geek?
Conveniently, my office is in Willesden which is a whole two stops away from the Kensington Olympia on the London Overground which means I left my desk at 5.30 and had a glass of beer in my hand at 5.47. When I arrived at the spacious Olympia I bumped into CAMRGB 'El Presidente' Simon Williams who had been at the trade session for several hours and we were in matching CAMRGB t shirts. We embraced like long lost brothers, it was a beautiful moment, he recommended me some beers and then had to dash for his train. I was soon inside and to my delight I noticed that in addition to the usual pint and half pint glasses a neat new tulip for holding a third of beer was available. This is what I plumped for and this was the second decision I soon lamented, some beers are just not meant to be sipped in thirds. 

I wandered over the the Belgian branch of the 'Bieres Sans Frontiers' bars and plumped for a glass of Girardin Oude Lambik to whet my appetite for the onslaught of awesome beer I was anticipating. It didn't set my world on fire, Gueuze on cask doesn't really work for me, it's a style that's best appreciated out of a bottle. It didn't have that Champagne like spritzyness that lifts this style of beer and the cider vinegar notes were allowed to dominated this flat and tepid glass of beer. Whilst supping away on my first beer I bumped into Mark and Tony and chatted for a bit before departing to have a wonder and work out the lay of the land. This year, instead of using two levels on one hall they had opened up the second hall and hadn't really used the first floor. I found the order in which the bars were strewn about the place completely random which often meant a bit of a trek if you wanted to try beers from different bars that were quite a ways apart from each other. Apart from that there was plenty of space and the bars were long and well staffed so it was easy to move around and it never took long to get served.

On my way to the American beer bar where I had intended to set up camp for the majority of the festival I wandered past the Thwaites stand and picked myself up a third of 13 Guns, which bills itself as an American style IPA. I was fooled for a few moments by it's deep auburn appearance but the pine and lemon zest on the nose soon informed me that I was going to enjoy this. It was all citrus and sitka with a rich vien of chewy biscuit and caramel underpinning the whole thing, it was arguably the best beer I drank that evening but I was kicking myself for not getting a bigger glass, this beer deserves to be drank by the pint.

I eventually arrive at the USA beer bar and bump into a whole gaggle of friends, so many in fact that I can't remember exactly who was there but I know there was an Andrew and a Chris and a Crema and a drunk South African gentleman who had spotted my t shirt and wanted to talk to me about CAMRGB which seems to happen every time I wear the t shirt in public these days. Glasses are passed around, I get a sip of Ballast Point Sculpin, one of the best West Coast IPA's in the world but certainly not THE best in the world and Icon Green from Houston, Texas' Saint Arnold Brewing. Icon Green is a Hefeweizen dry hopped with Amarillo and it was one of the most interesting and more likable beers I tried that evening, a brewery I'll be seeking out again no doubt.

I then come over all nostalgic for my home from home, Colorado and order a Flashback India Brown Ale from Boulder Beer Company. It fills me with joy to see beers I discovered over the pond make their way over here and even though I've tried this beer before it was nice to try it served from a cask under gravity. It had all of those resinous, chewy caramel and pine notes that I remembered but it was lacking the effervescence of CO2 to lift those flavours to the next level. Like most of the beers I tried that evening, it simply hadn't been in the cask for long enough and wasn't ready to be served, a bit of time and conditioning would have lifted both the quality of the beers I drank and my mood. I thought to myself that if I'd gone on Thursday or Friday the beer would have been in better nick but then cast these dark thoughts to the back of my mind and attempted to get on with enjoying myself.

I found a seat at a table in the corner of the venue and joined forces with my stalwart drinking pal Justin and his wife Sarah before heading back to the bar. Smuttynose Finestkind IPA was a delicious citrus and tropical fruit treat but like the Flashback lacked a certain something as did the strange and interesting Confluence from Allagash Brewing. It's billed as an American Wild Ale and the guys serving behind the bar couldn't tell me much about it, I immediately detected the unmistakable funk of Brettanomyces which underlying hints of watermelon, again, a little extra gas could have taken this beer to the next level but I soldiered on nonetheless.

The next beer I tried went on to win the best USA draught beer award at this years show which is a shame because I thought that it was either in poor shape, a not terribly well made beer or more likely a little bit of both. It was bourbon barrel aged Cryptical, an imperial stout from Virginia's Starr Hill Brewing Company. I've had the pleasure of drinking several barrel aged beers over the last couple of years and some of them have been up their with the best beers I've ever drank but this was not one of them. For starters it was totally flat and stank of booze, now I love whisky and the feeling of alcohol burn as it warms my throat but in an 8% beer this should be a side note and note the main attraction. Barrel ageing is a tough act to pull off, for me it should enhance and metamorphose the beer into a different beast while never taking away from the fact that it should still taste like a beer. All I got from this was cheap, paint stripper bourbon, a little malt vinegar and not much malt or sweetness. It wasn't terrible but I fail to understand how this is the beer that walked away with the award when there so many USA beers were on draught that I personally thought were much better.

Speaking of beers on draught, the evening was steadily drawing to a close and I hadn't managed to try a single one of the beers on my tasting list. The reason why is that not a single one of them had been put on yet, the revellers who were due to arrive over the next few days would be the lucky blighters that got to try these beers and they probably didn't have them on a list, they're probably just there for a good time, I am jealous of these people.

I make my way over to the Empire Bar where my friend Chris is working his thirteenth Great British Beer Festival as a volunteer. I have a third of Redemption Hopspur which again is lacking in a bit of condition and again I'm longing for a long, cool pint rather than a pissy little third. I briefly catch up with Jack and Sophie before I wander to the USA bottle bar for a few takeaway treats to try and cheer me up. I leave with the disappointed feeling that I've not made the most of my festival experience and I suspect that's because I'm still painfully sober. I've missed the point of GBBF, nay every single beer festival entirely. These events are put on for people who love beer so that they can have FUN, entering this building with my poor preconceptions of what I wanted to get out of my evening was the worst mistake I could have made. I approached the car crash that was the London Brewers Alliance festival with completely the opposite attitude which I why I had such a good time. Lesson learned, I won't make this mistake again. That said GBBF was once again impeccably well organised and I shall return next year with no clue of what beers are on and attempt to get utterly shitfaced. 

As I make my way out of the Olympia with a disappointed smirk on my face I turn my head upwards and see a giant advert for the misguided 'Let There Be Beer' campaign projected on the wall opposite. I turn my head away and give it the total ignorance that it deserves, board the train and make my way home.