Saturday, 11 April 2015

Brighton beer

I'm reading Brighton Rock by Graham Greene at the moment.

Throughout the book, set in the seaside town of that name in the late thirties, the characters are always sending out for or popping into public bars for bottles of Bass and Guinness, confirming a couple of things I think we already know.

1. The popularity of bottled beers, especially non-deposit pale ales, between the wars as an alternative to sometimes unreliable draught beers, prefiguring the arrival of keg beer in the 60's.

2. That Bass was a national brand and, as Guinness still is today with stout, had become almost a synonym for bottled pale ale.

Friday, 27 March 2015

King of the Belgians

I've just got back from Belgium, the first time I've been to the smallest of the world's great beer countries.

The main reason for the trip was to see the grave of my great uncle, who was killed fighting with the British Expeditionary Force just south of Brussels in 1940, but I also managed to get round a few bars and cafes.

One thing that struck me was the availability and choice of decent beer, in cafes in small towns and railway station bars. I also began to understand why the Belgians attach such importance to serving each beer in its own glass and pouring it in the correct manner.

Brussels has one of the most walkable city centres I've been to: all the bars and cafes I went to were no more than five minutes from the Grand Place.


I'd heard lots of negative things about Delirium before I went  touristy, expensive, slow, rude and uninformed staff, full of students drinking industrial lager  and intended to just pop in for one beer and move on; in the end, I spent several hours there enjoying beers from its massive range of Belgian bottles.

At between three and four euros a bottle, the beer is actually pretty cheap. The staff were friendly and happy to help those unsure what they wanted to drink. Most of the customers were in their twenties, many fellow travellers chatting to each. It made for a lively, fun atmosphere I thought.


In contrast to Delirium, I'd heard lots of positive things about Poechenellekelder. The Tripel Karmaliet I had was fine, expertly poured in the right glass, but I found the atmosphere just a bit too touristy: the Mannekin Pis is just across the street, giving them a ready made clientele of international snappers which is reflected in the slightly higher prices. I can't say the kitschy interior bedecked with puppets did it for me either,

A La Bécasse

In the CAMRA guide to Belgian beer, the authors claim that only a few people take to lambic beer straight away, some never do and for most it's very much an acquired taste. I thought about that as I sipped glasses of Timmermans Doux Lambic poured from a stone jug in A La Bécasse: appley and sharp, it's a refeshing drink which you probably wouldn't identify as beer if you didn't know what it was.

I liked the interior of this place: cosy and decorated with historic beer adverts, its bare wooden tables and panelled walls reminded me of a German pub somehow. Luckily I left just as a busload of tourists arrived with an energetic guide giving them a rather loud lecture on Belgian beer.

A La Mort Subite

This is the classic Bruxellois cafe, pretty much unchanged since it opened in the late twenties. I had the house beer, Mort Subite Kriek, and was impressed by the contrast between the sharp sourness of this spontaneously-fermented lambic and the tartness of the kriek cherries used to flavour it.

On the plane back from Brussels, I was amused to read in a Belgian newspaper a quote from fellow Mancunian Noel Gallagher that he hates days off in the city as it's always raining and there's nothing to do!

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Guinness Dublin and West Indies Porter

As it was St. Patrick's Day yesterday, I thought I'd try the bottles of Guinness Dublin and West Indies Porter I picked up the other week.

These beers from the Guinness Brewers Project have had mixed reviews, both for their taste, or lack of it, and also for being "inspired by" rather than brewed to the specifications of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century brewing logs in which they appear.

Dublin Porter struck me at 3.8% as a slightly weaker version of the ordinary, bottled Extra Stout. Maybe a few more caramel and chocolate notes but overall it has a very thin body and mouthfeel and little head.

West Indies Porter at 6% is better, with more body and head and a little more of a burnt, roasty flavour, but I'd still rather drink Guinness Foreign or Special Export Stout than either of these.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

A Trip Back in Time with Trumans

It being the Fifth Round of the FA Cup this weekend, the BBC showed a programme yesterday with highlights from this stage of the competition in the past.

One of the matches featured (at 42 minutes) is a tie between Wimbledon and Everton at Plough Lane in 1987. There are lots of things that will look odd to younger viewers: fans massed on standing terraces behind the goals and in paddocks in front of the stands; players in unnamed shirts numbered 1-11; floodlight pylons at the corners of the ground; passing back to the goalkeeper, and advertising hoardings for long-gone entities, such as Girobank, Danair and, on the half-way line in front of the Main Stand, one for "Trumans - London Brewers Since 1666".

Trumans - then part of the GrandMet conglomerate which had taken it over in 1971 and merged it with Watney Mann the following year - closed its brewery in Brick Lane, East London, in 1989. The 1983 Good Beer Guide describes their bitter, best bitter and mild as "full-flavoured", "distinctive" and tasty" and the 1990 one records their transfer to the, also now defunct, Ushers brewery in Wiltshire. I've never seen, let alone drunk, them so have no idea what they were like; I suspect they still exist among the unbrewed beers of some corporate portfolio.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Trouble in Broon Toon

Protests have been raised in the North East at the news that Heineken is changing the recipe of Newcastle Brown Ale.

Heineken, which bought the Scottish and Newcastle brewery in 2008, says substituting roasted malt for the caramel now used to colour the beer on health grounds won't affect the taste.

I haven't drunk Newcastle Brown for a while but I don't remember it having that distinctive a taste to start with, especially when served cold. A delicate wineyness and a slight nuttiness maybe (I know "nut brown ale" is poetic but I can still detect it: maybe it's psychological suggestion). The name is a bit of a misnomer too: unlike Belgian brown ales or the brown lagers you get in Germany, it's not much browner than a lot of bitters and hasn't been brewed in Newcastle since 2005. I doubt tweaking the recipe will have much effect on the taste, or sales.

I went to a pizzeria in Chicago about a decade ago and amazed the barman serving Newcastle Brown Ale by telling him it came from Newcastle in England, not the one in Canada as he'd always assumed and told his customers. I like to think he now quotes me as an authority when telling them of its true origin.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Was everything rubbish in the past?

This weekend's Guardian has a piece called A Brief History of IPA

The repetition of myths about India Pale Ale is pretty much to be expected and is rightly challenged in the below the line comments but the thing that really struck me - and is also challenged by one of the commenters - is the idea that decent cask beer has only become widespread in the last decade.

Maybe, as the writer claims, parts of London were a beer desert until then but in Manchester where I cut my drinking teeth as a teenager in the late 80's there's always been plenty of decent cask beer, mainly from local breweries Holt's, Hydes and Robinson's, and when I went to Stoke as a student in the early 90's pretty much every street corner had a pub on it selling cask, most of it, unsurprisingly, from Staffordshire breweries Banks's, Bass and Marston's. I can remember drinking well-kept cask beer in London back then too.

There's a word for this that I'm struggling to remember. You could call it new-ism: the idea that things are better now than they ever have been. The opening of new breweries and specialist beer bars and rediscovery of beer styles in the last few years is something to be celebrated, but not at the expense of claiming that the beer and pubs of the past were uniformly rubbish.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Manchester, so much to answer for

I went to the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival at the National Cycling Centre, a.k.a. the Velodrome, yesterday.

I blogged about the first beer festival there last year which, unfairly I thought, got quite a bit of flak on several fronts, including accessibility for disabled drinkers and beer shortages on the Saturday.

The organisers have responded to those issues by introducing bars and seating areas on the concourse level and substantially increasing the beer order. At the risk of repeating myself, I'm a fan of the new venue, both because it's impressive to see cyclists whizzing round the track as you stand in the middle with a pint and the ease of getting to it on a tram from the city centre.