Thursday, 28 October 2010

West/Schanzenbräu opus:e

This is a collaborative beer with Schanzenbräu from Nürnberg, brewed at West in Glasgow to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the two cities’ twinning. The first sniff gives toffee, malt, floral hops. CO2 is a tad high but it doesn't detract too much. Very nice beer. The colour is amber, unfiltered. Splendidly rich, has the malty body that lacks in most British lager. I am imagining a touch of smokiness in it. They have switched to all Bamberg malt after a dalliance with British base malt and the brewers say they like it better. The glory of this beer is the substantial hoppy bitterness that makes it satisfying, a lager to drink with relish. Prost.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Manchester Twissup

I’m fortunate enough not to have to get up at 5.30am on a regular basis, but I will do it for the sake of beer. I'm soon in a panic, paranoid that I will miss my train. I missed the first two Twissups and am convinced that the fates will conspire to make me miss the third. If my local train doesn’t arrive on time, I’m screwed — but it does arrive, and I have enough time to stroll on to the 7.10 Trans-Pennine Express, and it’s only later that I realise how unconsciously Kraftwerkian that name is. The journey south is only three hours which passes quickly. By the time we are approaching Manchester I am already besotted with all the lovely Victorian buildings. Red bricks everywhere.

We are meeting in the stiflingly hot upstairs coffee bar at Picadilly station. Some people I recognise are there and more that I don't. Eventually we figure out — somehow — that everyone who is going to turn up has done so, and move off through the back streets towards the Northern Quarter and the Marble Brewery.

Such is the demand for Marble beers that they have had to construct a new brewery underneath a railway arch about 300m away from the Marble Arch pub where they started. We get in and get to take the edge off our thirsts with bottled Dobber. Then it's on to a quick tour of the brewery. It's surprisingly small. Dom tells us the entire brewery was built for £150,000. And yet they are producing some of the finest beer in the country, though Dom is unjustifiably self-deprecating about it.

In the cask room, we get invited to sniff and rub some of the stash of Summit hops. "If you can't make good beer with these, you're an idiot," says Dom.

Then it's back up the road to sample the beers at the Marble Arch. The crowd at the bar is unbelievable. The other bloggers have managed to drain the cask of Pint just as I get to order it. I have W90 instead. It's superb even though I have ruined my palate by chewing Summits in the brewery. I go dry for a few minutes because I suspect that just as I order a second pint, a fresh cask Pint will come back on. And sure enough, within minutes it is and I get the sublime Marble beer. Without a sparkler, of course. The problem is, though, that here when you ask for an unsparkled beer, the staff assume you're just a tightwad who wants his glass filled to the brim with no head. Actually, I do want a head, I just don't want it sparkled. But the beer is so good that it doesn't really matter.

It's like a party in the pub and the beers just disappear. I haven't been to the Marble Arch for five years and wouldn't mind in the slightest staying here all afternoon. But that wouldn't be much of a pub crawl, and we go around the corner to the Angel. The last time I was here it was called the Beer House. Everyone dives on the Pictish Centennial and drinks the cask dry. Well, nearly everyone. Some enthusiasts at the bar are getting stuck into the cask-conditioned Harviestoun Old Dubh and offering tastes. It tastes like whisky-flavoured soy sauce to me but I nod and smile.

At Bar Fringe, the barmaid throws up her hands in horror at the unannounced deluge of customers. "I'm on me own!" she exclaims. Somehow, though, we all manage to get beers in our hands. I have Leeds Gathering Storm stout which is pretty crap. Then before we know it, we're all being herded out of the pub again and back to the railway station.

Although I’d like to spend more time in Manchester, I’m glad the group is making a move so early. This is because I’m taking a train back to Glasgow at six and I’ve figured out that if we leave Manchester by four, I can travel as far as Stalybridge with the others, have a drink and get back in time for my train home.

Stalybridge is the next stop, because, as any fule kno, there is a bar on the platform. It’s an amazing bar, magnificently cluttered, with a decent range of beer. I’ve made a firm decision to spend a solitary hour in here again some time, just soaking up atmosphere and ale. You would never be bored waiting for a train in here, there’s so much old railwayana to look at. But it’s not at its best when a large group piles in; there are about 25 of us and by the time everyone has managed to get served, it’s almost time to leave again. I get a half of Millstone’s True Grit and a portion of the famous black peas. They are rather like chick peas in flavour and taste pretty muddy and dull until Janine tells me the secret of dousing the little buggers with loads of Worcestershire sauce. What’s the beer like? No idea, we’re all chatting and having far too much fun to start writing tasting notes.

The train to Huddersfield draws in and most everyone else gets on, and I cross to the other platform to get the train back to Manchester instead.

Later on, I realise how remarkably little beer I've consumed. Oh well. I can have fun without getting drunk.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Tip of the day

CHEAPSKATES. Avoid shelling out for fancy imported American stout by just adding Centennials when making your morning coffee.

(Only works with french press method, hops may clog up a moka pot).

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

BrewDog’s Aberdeen bar

If I’d known it only takes two and a half hours to get to Aberdeen, I’d have gone before. As everyone probably knows, BrewDog have now opened a bar there, so I went up for the opening night.

The North East of Scotland is prettier than its reputation as the train swooshes through Arbroath and Montrose. Aberdeen station feels more like a German airport than it does like any other Scottish railway station (this impression is strengthened by the branch of Peckhams' selling Oktoberfestbier from the big six Munich breweries). Outside, the whole town has a distinctly retro feel. There's an indoor market featuring Hughie's Country & Western Music Store. Even Marks & Spencer has the slightly cramped interior that I remember department stores having when I was a child.

Aitchie’s Alehouse across from the station is evidently an oil rig workers' pub. Bags are piled in the corners, and the place is filled with men presumably having a last pint before going offshore, or a first one on returning. Some still have a train journey ahead of them and are buying cans of McEwan’s Export at the bar. The staff, older men smartly turned out in white aprons, helpfully add a plastic tumbler to each carry-out bag. The “alehouse” sells only one cask beer — Orkney Dark Island is on. A plate of stovies or a pie and beans each cost less than a pint of beer.

Aberdeen has a number of remarkably tatty, run-down pubs slap bang in the city centre.

In contrast, shortly ahead of where the Gallowgate turns into a mass of 70s concrete, BrewDog now have a smart modern bar:

In some areas, it still smells of fresh plaster. The bar staff are cool and friendly, wearing uniform black Punk IPA t-shirts. There is no music until later on. The guys from Aitchie's Alehouse wouldn't, I think, feel comfortable here. The crowd is slightly older than I’d expected, mostly under 40 rather than mostly under 30 — and overwhelmingly male. The number of women barely reaches double figures.

In advance of the opening James had once again made waves by announcing the bar was only going to serve kegged and bottled beer with no cask-conditioned beer whatsoever. I don’t know whether this is deliberate contrariness, or just an infatuation with doing things the way the Americans do — this goes as far as spelling draught “draft” on the beer list. The irony here of course is that American craft brewers generally love playing with cask conditioning these days.

Since I’m hardly going to be a regular there anyway, I’m relaxed about it; it’s their brewery and their pub. I just find it hilarious that they have chosen to abandon real ale just at the precise moment when it’s finally becoming fashionable after nearly forty years. Later, standing at the bar, I overhear another customer “asking if it’s cask” and the barman explaining. I suspect the staff will be doing a lot of that.

The last time I drank kegged BrewDog I wasn’t impressed: Punk IPA was not even as good as the bottled version and certainly not a patch on the cask; 77 was a shadow of itself, merely good rather than the superb beer it is in the bottle. But I’m not a bigot, and happy to give it another shot. On my way between the railway station and the BrewDog bar I had dropped into Musa, where female staff wear chunky woolly jumpers and male staff look like members of Kraftwerk, and get a half of Punk IPA. Served in the rather nice BrewDog half pint tulip glass, it costs £2.20. It’s excellent, tighter, leaner, harsher than the cask version, with more soap and urinal-cake aromas. It’s not over-carbonated either, which lets so many kegged beers down.

At the bar itself, it’s already open well in advance of the announced 6pm start and there are no speeches, just a dimly lit bar which gradually fills up.

On the beer list, there are Dogma, Vanilla Porter, Punk IPA, Zeitgeist and Hardcore IPA. I don’t like Dogma so go for the Vanilla Porter. It’s decent, not the best thing they’ve ever done. The vanilla varies from restrained to hardly noticeable, which is preferable to it being overwhelming.

There’s one draught guest beer, 3 Floyds’ Pride and Joy Mild Ale. It’s fizzy, tart and lemony.

Back at the bar, they are selling shots of Tactical Nuclear Penguin and Sink the Bismarck! for a fiver a pop. I was intrigued by the description of Bismarck when it came out, but never bought any because of the pathetic Kraut-bashing that accompanied it. Thank God I didn’t — it’s a boozy, syrupy mess.

As well as the draught, sorry “draft” beers, the entire Brewpooch range is available in bottles. There is also an extensive guest bottle list from the likes of De Struise, Stone and Alesmith. They’re not cheap. Guest bottles start at £6 and many are in the £12–16 bracket, with the likes of Older Viscosity and Dark Lord going for £30 and £45 respectively. I suppose some of them are big bottles, at least I certainly hope so — it doesn't say on the menu. Yes, these are strong specialist beers, yes it is expensive to ship beer across the Atlantic, but I wonder who is going to pay these prices. Norwegian tickers I guess. Draught beer, on the other hand, is much more affordably priced: a pint of Punk is £3.50 which is not bad for Aberdeen. It seems odd, though, that there are only six draught beers.

I finish off with some Hardcore IPA. Wow! What a beer. One to restore your faith in these guys. It's too cold and overcarbonated, but still superb. I can still taste it on the train home.

BrewDog are certainly onto a winner here. Definitely a place worth visiting if you happen to be in Aberdeen.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

My favourite pub jukebox

This week’s trend in beer blogging is the pub jukebox. It’s an easy post to write and it’s either this or the development of the Prussian beer market in 1869, so here goes.

I’ll be upfront and say right at the start that I don’t like canned music in pubs. I go to pubs to chat to my mates, not to listen to someone else’s CDs or iPod. There is no appropriate level for pre-recorded music in pubs, it seems. Either it’s so quiet that you subconsciously strain your ears trying to figure out what the hell it is they’re playing, or it’s so loud that you can’t hear what your pals are saying.

Clubs are different. There the music is the main event and I’m in the frame of mind to appreciate (or not) a playlist that, say, follows Autechre with the Just Joans and the entire side three of Metal Machine Music at ear-splitting volume, seguing into Klaus Wunderlich’s instrumental cover of “Good Vibrations” before finishing with a twelve-minute mash-up of Lady Gaga, Jandek and the Wombles mixed by a drum ’n’ bass obsessed madman in his bedroom in an unfashionable suburb of Lisbon. But I don’t want that in the pub.

In the pub, I want live music if there’s to be any at all, and music to complement the chat rather than dominate it. There is still a bit of folk music in Glasgow pubs and I quite like that. What annoys me, though, is that although a couple of guys with fiddles and guitars were for years loud enough to entertain a pub without amplification, for some reason the two guys nowadays appear to need a 200 watt PA system in the same pub. It’s too much, too loud.

There is one pub jukebox I like. It’s the one in the Laurieston Bar in Glasgow. It’s free to use, but that’s not why I like it. I like it because it doesn’t quite work properly (which is the reason it’s free). Most of the time it functions normally, but occasionally, rather than playing the song you’ve chosen, it just plays “This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius” from Hair instead. Really rather charming in its own way.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

I owe you a beer

Are people these days really so busy that they can't make time, even occasionally, to go for a beer in person?

An interview on the blog of the US Beer Bloggers Conference in Boulder caught my attention.
“My interest in beer grew exponentially since I started working with a company called Beer2Buds. They built a variety of methods for people to send a real beer to friends online to be redeemed at a local bar or restaurant. I love the concept because I can’t tell you how many times someone said to me, “I owe you a beer.” Now they have no excuse not to pay up.”
I don't want to be harsh about a service that I'm sure the owners and users regard as a nice gesture and a bit of fun. I will, however, do exactly that because the sentiment “Now they have no excuse not to pay up” makes me sad.

“I owe you a beer” is a great phrase. I use it a lot. And, obviously, I like hearing it. But it’s not about just settling a debt. It means more than that.

We have drinking rituals, like buying each other drinks, for a reason. They create social obligations and bond us together as people. When I say “I owe you a beer”, I am really saying: I recognise that I have obligations and responsibilities towards you. I recognise you are not a stranger. I respect and trust you enough to drink beer with you.

Reasonably erudite beer drinkers already know the story in the epic of Gilgamesh of the wild man who drank beer, thus becoming a cultured human; and about the elaborate drinking customs medieval artisans had that created, or enforced, loyalty to the group.

When we drink beer together, we recognise that we too have social connections that we cannot escape, that we are part of society, that the beer we drink is only possible by human beings cooperating. That's more important than the £3 a pint costs, and might be the reason why, no matter how short of cash we might be, we always seem to be able to scrape up enough for some beer.

Sending someone an electronic voucher they can redeem at a bar just doesn't do it for me. You might as well just give them money.