Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Improving the quality of on-board beer on trains

Perhaps I shouldn't post this, but one of the joys of beer festivals is smuggling your last pint out of the venue and drinking it on the train home.

Well, if trains sold draught real ale, straw-coloured and sparkling in the sunlight, cold as a mountain stream with an intense hop bitterness and beautiful grapefruity aroma, we wouldn't be forced into such desperate measures.

Maybe Fast Cask will improve things in this respect, but I rather doubt it.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

The most glamorous beer

What's the most glamorous beer you can get? Chimay? Jaipur IPA? Blue Moon? You must be joking — surely the most glamorous beer is the one with a genuine Hollywood pin-up who once dated Elvis? I'm talking about the legendary, the incomparable, Sweetheart Stout.

I was in my favourite jakey pub recently and the landlord told me that Sweetheart Stout in bottles has been discontinued. It's a terrible shame to see one of the last few remaining iconic bottled beers disappear from Scottish pubs; although realistically, I expect it disappeared from most of them ages ago. There's nothing iconic about the Peroni or Miller Genuine Draft that's replaced them.

But in the pubs that fashion passed by, Sweetheart Stout miraculously clung on, soldiering on on dusty pub shelves while all its contemporaries were quietly rationalised away: McEwan's Blue Label, Fowler's Wee Heavy, screwtops of Whitbread and McEwan's Pale Ale, victims of declining sales and the brewers' indifference to their own heritage. It was never modernised or brought up to date, and precisely that was its charm. It certainly wasn't the taste, which is reminiscent of a mixture of flat cola and the unfermented malt drinks you get in African food shops; nor was it the laughably low alcohol content of just 2%.

You can still get it in cans — the bottles had been restricted to the on-trade for years already — but it's just not the same. Its whole appeal is the bottle with its charming retro label, essentially unchanged since 1958 and still carrying the name of the brewery that created it, George Younger of Alloa, even though that brewery has been closed for almost as long.

And of course, adding somewhat faded Hollywood glamour is the pin-up picture of sometime starlet Venetia Stevenson, making Sweetheart Stout the drink of choice to sip in Glasgow's equally faded Art Deco bars like the Steps or the Portland Arms.

In 1957 Venetia was chosen as "The Most Photogenic Girl In The World" in a publicity stunt run by Eastman Kodak and Popular Photography magazine and judged by Ed Sullivan. On seeing her on Sullivan's show, Elvis invited her to, ahem, "visit" him at Graceland; modestly, he took her to see one of his own movies. She also played alibi girlfriend for Anthony Perkins and Tab Hunter when they were up-and-coming filmstars.

Miss Stevenson appeared in several B-movies in the 1950s and was also in demand for general modelling work – see her here demonstrating how to assemble your own hi-fi. Presumably a similar run-of-the-mill modelling job is how she ended up lending her face to a provincial brewery on the other side of the Atlantic.

Ungenerous critics claim that her acting talent did not match her beauty, and she retired from the screen in the early 1960s after marrying one of the Everly Brothers.

Miss Stevenson is, happily, still with us. I wonder if she knows her picture is still being used on cans of beer in faraway Scotland, over fifty years on?

For those like me who have spent a lifetime dreaming of seeing the Sweetheart Stout girl in her underwear, here she is.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Black Pale Ale

What's all this about Black IPA? I find it amusing reading the argument that a pale ale can't be black, when the horse has long since bolted. Not specifically black IPAs, but black Pale Ales have been brewed for years. Where? San Diego? Denver? No – Edinburgh.

In the remaining jakey pubs of Scotland you can sometimes still find (in between the bottle of lemonade on the bar and the charity collection box shaped like Sooty) a draught beer called McEwan's 60/–, "light" in the vernacular. I think the "60/–" label appeared on it when the stuff was relaunched as a nitro-keg product in the 1990s, but I'm not sure. This beer is the remnant of a time when McEwan's principal products were Pale and Export ales. Export, originally India Pale Ale, is still Scotland's top selling ale, apparently, but Pale Ale has gone into steep decline. Once it was popular in screw-top bottles and cans, but I haven't even seen the packaged version for years.

An old advert seems to show a dark amber version. Today it's as black as Guinness. Actually, it's blacker than Guinness is these days; it certainly tastes better, though taste is a rather abstract concept when talking about these nitro-keg beers. What there is seems mostly roast barley. Fascinatingly, despite the colour, the marketing people have left the words Pale Ale on the packaging for all these years. I wonder why?

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Good luck with that

A. Look at these poor oppressed Germans suffering under the Purity Law. The poor things have never tasted a Vanilla IPA or a Pumpkin Ale.

B. Despair not! Beer geeks are here to show you the way to the brave new world. Don't all rush at once. Join us in a gloomy tent and sip soapy beer from plastic cups. This could be your future, if you dare. Come on then, what are you waiting for?

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Paisley Beer Festival II

There's a beer for every occasion, which means there's a beer for when you don't really feel like a beer … such as when you've already been out drinking every night for the best part of a week. That's dark mild. Nutritious and restorative, the gentle flavours of Timothy Taylors Dark Mild soothe the hop-wearied senses. Still, I wanted to take it easy and just have a couple. This wasn't difficult as there were none left of the beers I especially wanted to tick, and I'd been lucky enough to get most on Thursday, Neuzeller Porter will just have to wait for another day.

By Saturday afternoon the number of beers on offer had slumped dramatically, the foreign beer bar was completely sold out and there were no festival glasses left. Luckily there was still a strong line-up of Scottish beer. First, though, I wanted a Theakston's Best Bitter from the wood. It wasn't very good, only marginally more flavoursome than Friday's Tartan Special, and it does pain me to say that. A little bit of acid fruit, some sulphur. Just goes to show that cask conditioning isn't everything. Even from a wooden cask.

Next I went for Tryst Blackjack IPA, a name which neatly side-steps the question if whether Black IPA is an acceptable name. Bread, liquorice, the typical US hops are there but they don't dominate. It's also really rathercsweet. The brewer says there's too much chocolate malt in it and the next batch will be drier. Next beer was Highland Light Munro, thinnish but that's not a surprise at this gravity, with some chocolate notes. Orkney IPA from the same brewery was
much more satisfying, less hoppy than the Tryst beers but still enjoyably bitter.

I finished off with a sausage and a half pint of Tryst Carronade IPA. Lovely stuff and the perfect finish to a rather beery week. Off the sauce for a few days now.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Paisley Beer festival I

I always start with a weak beer at festivals, partly as a thirst quencher and mostly because you hardly ever see them otherwise. Thornbridge Light Ale went down quickly, so quickly I didn't make a note of what it tasted like. Staying with weak beer, 60/– light beer is almost extinct in cask form and I'm pretty much convinced that some of the surviving ones are only ever brewed for beer festivals. I have gone for Belhaven 60/– as my first beer often; tonight it was Fyne Cairn Dhu; thin in body, with molasses, toffee and roast malt.

Thus fortified, onto the urgent ticks. Have you ever had a beetroot beer? It's much nicer than you'd think, if the brewer knows what he's doing. Tin Pot Beetroot and Black Pepper Pot tastes, amazingly enough, of both. It's pretty good but I don't think it's going to catch on. From the same brewer, Tin Pot Gold Pot 70/– is buttery and spicy, with noble-tasting hops and slightly peppery sweetness. Very nice indeed but more reminiscent of witbier than any 70/– I've ever encountered before. Tin Pot is a cuckoo brewer, currently brewing occasionally at the old Bridge of Allan plant and I hope he will keep it up, as these beers are more impressive than any of the other new Scottish micros of the last year or so have yet produced.

A real 70/– next, from Belhaven. Grainy, husky, sugary, winey and malty all at the same time. Much better than Belhaven 80/– is these days and I'd happily drink several of these if you could ever actually find it. Belhaven is a big pub operator in Scotland but the hand pumps in their pubs are inevitably dominated by the tedious bilge from the Bury St Edmunds mothership.

Onto Thornbridge Seaforth. I've wanted to try this for nine months. Basically Jaipur made with English hops, its gravity gives it sweetness. It's very like Jaipur, rather more so than I expected but with more orangey and minty flavours; the finish is grassy and bitter. A stunning beer.

Every beer festival I go to there seems to be a new micro that I haven't heard of before. Angus Ales Mashie Niblich is rather astringent, which is a refreshing change when so many 4.2% beers are boring and toffeeish. But it's not ready to drink; loads of green apple and it's still cloudy. Sorry Angus, it went down the sink. Elland Bargee next has a malt-forward nose, perfumey hops and a little too much crystal malt. It's a straight-ahead bitter, quite austere in its way and would possibly be at its best in the pub and not at a beer festival. Disappointing, but not because it's all that bad, just because I expect Elland's beer to be life-changingly good.

Time for a visit to the foreign beer bar. I've heard lots about De Ranke XX Bitter and was keen to try it. The beer list blurb says "Essentially a Dutch take on an English Bitter." My arse. You only have to look at this to realise it's not a Dutch Bitter, just a bog standard blonde beer. Smells of apricots and yeast; tastes of yeast. Most of the bitterness also comes from yeast. Still, at least it's not warm and flat like an alarming amount of the beer here.

Sadly the promised Thornbridge Murmansk never arrived; it seems that I am fated to spend my life hunting for their more elusive beers. Fortunately there was Halcyon: syrupy, honeyish beer, nearly 8%, with an odd note of sauerkraut to it (not in a bad way), a splendid strong IPA, and yet even a half at that gravity became too much for me. I was starting to long for some lager so went for Bernard Světlý Ležák which poured with a huge amount of foam, almost too much as the beer underneath seemed to have lost a little condition. Sweet, just enough hops for a bitter finish, creamy butter and cowpat aromas. I missed the promised kvasnicové. Cry.

We were going to have another but it was closing time. Paisley is really a great festival and it's grown too big now for just one session.

Sunday, 2 May 2010


I haven't finished writing my post about the Paisley Beer Festival yet. In the meantime, here is a picture. This is what 12 Thornbridge beers on draught at the same time look like.

This was taken on Thursday. By Saturday there were three left.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Market Gallery Pub

That was a tremendous night. The climax of Eric Steen's Glasgow Beer and Pub Project, part of the Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art, was a one-night installation turning the Market Gallery into a "pub". The doors opened at 6pm and within half an hour the place was rammed, or hoaching, as we say in Glasgow.

It's not just any pub. All the beer was free, and most of it was made by homebrewers. Around 12 private brewers contributed 20-something different beers, ranging from imperial IPA to Vienna lager. Harviestoun and Williams Bros had also donated beer, and the product of the Pub School brewing demonstration four weeks earlier was being served.

I seem to have lost my copy of the menu, but I remember having Geoff's very chewy Vienna lager and his Rauchbier which was lightly smoky and rather buttery (I quite like that in lager). I also tried a very good hoppy stout which would put plenty of commercial versions to shame.

By 7pm the place was so full that there was a queue forming outside, so we nipped out to Mills Bar down the street for a couple of ironic pints of Tartan Special and Younger's Best. Glasgow is full of extremely unfashionable, but amazingly friendly little pubs like this; it's just a terrible shame that drinking in them almost always means having to consume dreadful beer.

Back to the gallery, and it was already clear that the event was a triumph. Even though the venue had no toilet and people had to walk 50m up to the office to queue for the loo, it worked. The volunteer bar staff were working hard pouring beers. All the crowd — art students, CAMRA types, brewing professionals, cyclists and hipsters — seemed to be having a great time.

It was also a tickers' paradise. Part of the fun in tickers' pubs is when a new beer comes on and you have one of the first pints. This was even better, as only ten of the beers were being served at any one time, so there was something new literally every time you went to the bar. Rare stuff you'll never see again, too; most of these beers are not available in any shops, as they used to say on the K-tel adverts.

With an hour to go it got exciting as the beer started to run out. Each beer had a little wooden sign and the bar staff crossed them out as they were finished. We ended up with a full pub at closing time and still with beer to spare. It was amazing. Let's do it again next year.

It was still only 10pm, so a bunch of us headed down to West for a nightcap. The long-awaited Kölsch was finally ready and it's great. More perfumey and aromatic than most Cologne versions, but recognisably a Kölsch and closer than most attempts brewed outside Nordrhein-Westfalen. Mitchell Krause American Pale Ale was a decent effort, with all the right elements but somehow less than the sum of its parts. I'll give it another go next time I see it though.