Sentimental Journey

Sentimental Journey

What on earth is nostalgia, is it a good thing, a bad thing, a thing itself? Adrian Tierney-Jones muses on what constitutes nostalgia and spends time in a bar in Mons

 

Nostalgia is everywhere, it permeates every aspect of our lives. Some of us praise it, others pray that it goes away, but that is a prayer (like all prayers) that is never answered. I see nostalgia as a longing for something that never really existed, on a par with a creation myth, a national mythology that a nation lives by, the stories that we tell ourselves to pass the day, to pass the time, to wear away the year. 

On the other hand, is it such a bad thing, this need for nostalgia? It could be if you’re the sort of person who believes that the beer you would rather not buy is nowhere as good as it used to be and that the absence in the pub of the smell of cigarette smoke and the shouts directed at those perceived to be different is a change for the worse. 

Nostalgia could be something a bit more benevolent, though. I have a nostalgia, a longing for when the world of beer was young to me and a Bavarian Weizen was a rare creature and the Trappist Tripel an unknown quantity, glinting and winking at me from the glass, the world of beer unknown and ready to be discovered (or should that be re-discovered?). Then there are times, moments perhaps, that continue to exist long after time has moved on, recordings or etchings of life as it is lived and is that a nostalgia for something that has passed?

Is this nostalgic this moment? It is noon, Sunday lunchtime, in the Excelsior, a bar on the main square of Mons. A few weeks ago. There is a glass of St-Feuillien’s Grand Cru in front of me, a glow of amber, the scent of spice, honey and citrus and an elegance of dryness, bitterness and sweetness on the tongue. There is a silence in the bar, a Sunday silence, the slow tick-tock of time silence, all of which creates those gorgeously reflective and unhurried moments only to be found in a bar or a pub in those early minutes after opening time. I am a lone drinker, in a space surrounded by wooden panels indented and engraved with the names of Martin s Pale Ale, Guinness and Gordon Scotch ale, while at the end of this long high-ceilinged room a confessional-like bar stands, a red neon sign for St-Feuillien glowing above. 

Beyond the windows of the Excelsior, the glass coloured and latticed, people scurry along, but here in the wooden womb-like centre of the bar I am a slow sole drinker, unconcerned about whether the glass of beer in front of me (another sip and it reveals more richness) is rated or tapped or the best or the worst or whether its spell will burst like an unruly balloon at a children’s party. It is moments like these, silent, soothing, subtle moments like these, that makes a place like the Excelsior a haven and a hidden place and turns a glass of beer (any beer that you like) into such a valuable companion. The door opens, a young couple, all giggles and long scarves, tumble in, and with my beer finished I return to the world, determined to hold onto the silence that my time in the Excelsior has created. 


Original Gravity’s writers remember 2019

Original Gravity’s writers remember 2019

We asked some of our favourite Original Gravity writers (actually, all of our writers are favourites) to try and sum up their beer-flecked highlights of 2019, here is what they had to say (ok, write if you’re going to be pedantic about it)

 

Apparently — Jessica Mason

Whether a story is false or factual, once retold in a pub, it becomes an anecdote. But over time, recounted chronicles grow rich with embellishment. Fables become refreshed. Re-spun with more colour. The once apocryphal tale gains the authentication of becoming pub parable.

At least, this is what I gleaned during the start of the year in a pub known by some as The Bell in Ticehurst. A place famed for its storytelling and rumoured to have been Rudyard Kipling’s local. A pub that calls itself: The Bell, Apparently. 

Scribed upon the entrance is an explanation for why the pub’s name has been adapted. It is a simple nod to the art of a good yarn. Anything can be told and retold if the word ‘apparently’ is added. Say it and no one can question your statement. 

For example, apparently, Kipling wrote A Smuggler’s Song while sitting in his favourite chair at The Bell. It makes us look back around the pub with fond eyes, feeling very much like a part of history ourselves when we walk on the same stone floor or drink beer drawn from its cellar.

The word ‘apparently’ reminds us how pubs are places of folly. It reminds us the most tantalising revelations are rarely borne from phlegmatic fact, because people play the central role in public houses. Narrators of lore convene in bars and, with active minds and kind hearts, have a readiness to believe in more than the daily grind. In pubs we hear the voices of others. They can help bridge all sorts of social divides. They give us perspective.

As a nation gone asunder, we need to remember that we may all grasp different viewpoints, but we are all still people. And we care.

But let’s also remember that pubs aren’t just about stories and chatter. They’re also the absorbers of secrets. As much a witness to what we obsess about, cry over or oft reconsider. They retain the unrepeatable. They capture the whispers left unheard. They guide us while we quietly etch out a path for our future, setting the world to rights over glassware.

In the countless pubs I’ve visited — around 200 this year alone — I think of the adage: ‘If these walls could talk.’ And I think of all the people who unburden themselves in this way. Those who divulge all to those who they trust. Each confidential admission nullified or righted by the nod of a head or the unequivocal warmth of a friendly returned gaze. 

I won’t tell you any more about The Bell. In many ways I don’t need to do that. Just visit for yourself. Whether you share your viewpoint or reveal your secrets, I’m confident that the pub will honour both story and silence. 

And, I hear that there’s happiness found in both, apparently.

 

I Travel — Eoghan Walsh

I’ve done more beer-related travel this year than has been good for my health, but I’ve been rewarded with some fantastic memories. In June I made it to Amsterdam for the Carnivale Brettanomyces for the first time — a festival dedicated solely to the far-out world of wild fermented beers.

The whole weekend was an eye-opener, but sitting in the upstairs parish meeting room of a canalside French protestant church listening to Ulrike Genz of Berlin brewery Schneeeule and avid home-brewer Benedikt Koch guide a roomful of beer drinkers around the history of Berliner Weisse through their own beers was not somewhere I ever thought I would find myself. I think it most sticks in my mind because I was slumped asleep in my chair before even the first beers were passed around. No shade on the quality of their talk, but on my own overindulgence the night before.

2019 was also the year I finally made the pilgrimage to the home of Czech lager and drank Pilsner Urquell tapped directly from the barrel, underneath the brewery in the gargantuan den of cellar tunnels once used to store the beer. Czech beer was what brought me and my wife together when we were drunken students studying abroad in Czechia, and this would have been an even more resonant moment to savour had it not been for the 30 or so other tourists lining up behind me for their drop of unfiltered světlý ležák.

 

Bride ale — Kathie Mather

This year some of the best beer memories I made were in Cumbria. At our wedding in Grizedale in April I drank pints of Bluebird Bitter and Hawkshead Gold in my muddy wedding dress, poured from our own ramshackle bar put together by friends. We spent the following week or so in Grasmere, and visited as many brilliant Lakeland pubs as we could. Drinking dark ales looking out over the fells from The Kirkstone Pass Inn is always an afternoon well-spent. The best windows let you watch cyclists reach the top of The Struggle, and if you like, you can wave encouragement to them as they puff and blow their way past. We also travelled all the way to The White Swan in Cockermouth because we’d been told on some authority that they had Jarl. They did. It was perfect. It also had a landlord willing to tell us about local ghosts, and show us witch marks scratched into the ancient beams.

 

 

Where brewers drink — Joe Stange

In mid-summer, visiting the Schönramer brewery — which, over the decades, has been dialling in its beautiful beers in its beautiful sub-Alpine setting — and heading with the brewers after their shifts to a nearby lakeside watering hole, to drink more cool Pils and watch the locals swim.

 

Still waters — Lottie Gross

I drank a lot of beer this year, but one of the finest was sipped in Rwanda on the terrace of my lodge, overlooking Virunga National Park and the various volcanic peaks that spread out before me. I asked for whatever the local brew was and, just my luck, I got a 6.5% dark ale called Virunga Mist. Glorious. Elsewhere, I sipped American craft beers in the sweltering sun at Flying Dog Brewery in Maryland, USA, and Dutch booze brewed by Brouwerij ‘t IJ inside a windmill in Amsterdam. There’s nothing quite as gratifying, though, as cracking open a trusty Old Speckled Hen just after lunch while in the proverbial driver’s seat of a canal boat. My dog, my dad and I went cruising on the Kennet and Avon on his 38-foot narrowboat on the hottest weekend of the year and the promise of pints at the end of the canal kept us moving. No one else in the family loves it quite like we do, so beer and boats are our bonding mechanisms.

 

Friedenfelser Zoigl, drunk at the Blockhütte Waldnaabtal, a beer garden in the Oberpfalz, Germany — Will Hawkes

In the middle of the Waldnaabtal, a nature reserve built around a winding, rock-strewn stretch of the Waldnaab river, is the Blockhütte, a log cabin with a large shaded beer garden. I arrived at just after 3pm on a hot June day, having walked 15 miles with a pack on my back. It was almost comically tranquil. A young woman served me as her children played on the steps of the hut; the river gurgled gently in the background; a few cyclists rode up; a few others left. Half-an-hour of absolute calm. The beer was quite nice, too.

 

Harvey’s Sussex Best — Adrian Tierney-Jones

Lots of memories from this year: the trip to BrewDog’s new brewery in Ohio, Indie Beer Feast, finally visiting Magic Rock and Brasserie de L’Abbaye des Rocs (not at the same time obviously), the staggering immensity of the Guinness brewery in Dublin, craft beer bar hopping with my son in Seville, Prague (twice) and several small breweries in south and north Bohemia and organising the Exeter Beer Weekend. However, what stands out in such a sharp focus that it makes me catch my breath is a couple of pints of Harvey’s Sussex Best one quiet Saturday lunchtime in the Hourglass in Exeter, an old corner pub, one of whose windows still has the ‘City Brewery Ales’ slogan of the long-gone Norman & Pring Brewery etched into its fabric. I sat on a stool, around the corner from the bar, book in hand, mesmerised by the pub’s stillness, but it was the beer that turned my world upside down. Over two pints, I forgot my book and drank deeply of this unyielding interplay between English hops and English barley. There was a pungency, an urgency in the flavours, a muskiness, a maturity, a bittersweetness and the bitter finish collaborated with my palate in demanding more. Two pints was enough, I was sated, the glass was empty, I said cheers to the bartender and went out as if in a dream. 

 

Birmingham vs Leicester, a cautionary tale — Laura Hadland

2019 has been a unique year in my beer journey. Having spent some 90% of the year pregnant (long story), this has been the year that I have really got to know alcohol free beer well. What was borne out of necessity apparently couldn’t have come at a better time.

Breweries around the world have really got to grips with low and no alcohol products that are full of flavour and character. I tip my cap in particular to Adnams, Krombacher and Brooklyn Lager here. They have produced booze-free beers that I would happily choose over their ‘full fat’ cousins.

However my beer experience of the year is an event that took place in the short window when I fell off the wagon. It was the day of the CAMRA Good Beer Guide Launch and it sticks in my memory because great beer is made so much better by great company.

I had received an invitation from one of CAMRA’s National Directors, Ash Corbett-Collins, to celebrate the book’s publication in Birmingham. We’d chatted a bit on Twitter, but never met in person so I thought it would be a great opportunity to put a face to the tweets. What I hadn’t realised was that all of the CAMRA regions were celebrating the Good Beer Guide at the same time.

This meant that I was put in a bit of a quandary when I received an invitation to the East Midlands launch from my friends at Leicester CAMRA. Not wanting to let anyone down, I decided to go to both. After all, Birmingham and Leicester are only separated by a 50 minute train journey. Admittedly that tiny, packed, sweaty Cross Country Train can be uncomfortably akin to Dante’s Seventh Circle of Hell (Violence). But still, only for 50 minutes.

The West Midlands crew had assembled in the cavernous Head of Steam, conveniently located at literal spitting distance from Birmingham New Street. CAMRA members, branch committees, brewers, publicans, National Executive and more gathered to shoot the breeze. In particular, I was delighted to meet Cy Day – West Midlands Regional Co-ordinator. A more amiable, humorous and generally genial person I have not met in a long time. My chat with him was accompanied by the nicely balanced Ground Patrol NZ IPA from Maldon’s Bad Seed Brewery, an easy going beer with a skilfully blended hop profile.

After a couple of hours of friendly banter, it was back on the Hades Express and a quick scout of some of Leicester’s finest real ale pubs to find the East Midland contingent on their more active celebration. Discovering them in the Rutland & Derby, before moving to the Two Tailed Lion followed by the Blue Boar I was in plenty of time to discover my home crowd in good spirits. They had been joined by the great Gillian Hough (above), another CAMRA National Executive member and notable champion of cider and perry. Gillian was another Beer Twitter pal who I had not had the pleasure of meeting IRL before — the magic of social media!

I enjoyed a few good halves over the rest of the evening, but Northern Monk’s Eternal stood out for me. I loved the session IPA so much that ‘Tasty shit!’ was the only note I made. But when you’ve got fantastic pubs, beers and wonderful people to share it all with, who needs notebooks?

 

I Travel, part II — Pete Brown

2019 was a year of unexpected and largely unplanned travel. It’s the kind of concentrated, turbo-charged year that has never happened to me before and is extremely unlikely to happen again. I haven’t been to so many countries in one year since I wrote Three Sheets to the Wind back in 2006. 

The world has changed a great deal: back then I had an amazing procession of fantastic beer experiences, most of which consisted of drinking mainstream, commercial lager brands because there wasn’t much else available, although the beer-drinking cultures I explored were no worse for that.

These days the availability of a wide range of beer styles is simply unbelievable from an early noughties point of view, but the unwelcome side effect of this is a sort of global blanding out of craft beer: you can get a hazy IPA anywhere in any big city in the world now. Great. But the quirkiness and local character I used to enjoy seems to be under threat as a result. 

It was great then, to go on a number of different trips that reconnected me with the joy to be had drinking beer around the world. 

Grimbergen may not be best Abbey beer to have come out of Belgium, but in the café behind the big clock-face in the Musée D’Orsay in Paris, it was enough to turn a cheese plate into the most memorable lunch of the year. Accidentally booking an AirBandB opposite the Monk Café in Brussels gave me a new favourite place in a city full of them, the Spag Bol threatening to eclipse the range of ‘social’ beer bottles. And £20 for a bottle of Westverletern 12 is not a rip off if you’re spending the money knowingly to create the perfect interlude to the sparking Christmas markets in an ancient, fire-lit pub. The most relaxed, blissful afternoon of the year was spent chilling with At Hops End, a new brewpub in a national park on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Two weeks later I was presenting to a roomful of craft brewers in Melbourne at BrewCon 2019, the annual conference of Australia’s independent brewers, and judging their beers. Three weeks after that, it was Lagunitas in Kerouac’s favourite San Francisco Bar, and Pliny the Elder at the new Russian River brewery. Jackhammer IPA at BrewDog’s amazing Doghouse Hotel in Ohio, and a range of special brews to commemorate International Stout Day with Guinness in Dublin, all added up to a year spent rediscovering the perfect beer moment: micro or micro, old or new, mainstream or weird – all that matters is sharing good beer with good people.


You must remember this

You must remember this

You might be surprised but that stripped down metallic ko aesthetic and bald brickwork of your favourite craft beer bar or tap is actually an exercise in nostalgia as Pete Brown explains

 

Nostalgia – literally – ain’t what it used to be. 

A word we now associate with a wistful longing for times past was originally coined in 1688 to describe homesickness among Swiss mercenaries fighting in France and Italy. It’s derived from Greek nostos, meaning ‘returning home’, and algos, meaning ‘pain’ or ‘ache’. It was seen as a debilitating condition at the time, a real illness that could even lead to death.  

In its modern usage, the past we yearn to return to often turns out never to have been there at all. We misremember it at best: at worst, we invent it. 

Christmas is a time of nostalgia. White Christmas is the best-selling Christmas song ever, with its yearning for Christmases ‘like the ones we used to know’. But did we? The snow is fake in the original movie – even back in the 1940s, it’s doubtful whether the Christmases were white, but we’ve been dreaming of them ever since. 

Charles Dickens pretty much invented the idea of a traditional Christmas, one we yearn to get back to. While researching a book about the George Inn in Southwark, I discovered a story in The Times from 1936, when members of the Dickens Fellowship feasted on boar’s head, venison and game pie, accompanied by carol singers and mulled ale. The account depicts a desperate pain of separation from a past no one there is old enough to remember, in a pub that has been a node of Dickensian nostalgia ever since.

I’m currently researching a book about the concept of ‘craft’ in its broadest sense, exploring what – if anything – we can learn that might inform the ongoing debate around craft beer. 

Nostalgia is central to craft, which is a direct product of the Industrial Revolution. It began as a reaction against the production line, deskilled labour and the standardised products it created. The Arts and Crafts Movement aimed to give workers back their dignity, returning them to a pre-industrial era of skilled craftsmanship for the many. 

In reality, the Industrial Revolution never deskilled a population of happy artisans. Less than 10% of the UK population were engaged in trades that could be described as craftsmanship – the vast majority were peasants performing menial tasks. Richard Blauner, in his book, Work Satisfaction and Industrial Trends, claims the typical medieval worker was ‘practically nothing more than a working beast’. As Christopher Frayling, author of On Craftsmanship observes, ‘The history which underpins much of the “craft revival” is, in fact, nostalgia masquerading as history’.

Frayling wrote this in response to the craft revival of the 1970s and 1980s, when stripped pine floorboards, floral prints and the Diary of an Edwardian Country Lady coalesced as part of a widespread reaction to consumer capitalism and automation. Suddenly, anything rustic or rough around the edges was considered superior to machine-built perfection. 

It’s no coincidence that the Campaign for Real Ale began around the same time. The yearning for ‘proper beer’ rather than ‘industrial fizz’ was part of a much broader yearning for the artisanship of a pre-industrial age, just as the modern craft beer boom is just one small part of yet another reaction against the dominance and homogeneity of global brands and corporations. 

Looked at in this context, it’s surprising CAMRA wasn’t CAMCA – the Campaign for Craft Ale. I guess it doesn’t scan as well. The choice of ‘real’ shows that our eternal quest for authenticity in what we buy is nothing new, the choice of the then-antiquated word ‘ale’ rather than ‘beer’ demonstrating a similar nostalgia for a misremembered past (especially given they were trying to preserve – if you want to be pedantic about it – hopped beers rather than unhopped traditional ales.)     

Frayling tells us that craft comes adorned in rural and pre-industrial imagery, and in most cases, it does. But modern craft beer forms an interesting exception to this rule. The imagery of the industrial estate and railway arch, of exposed heating ducts and stripped-back bare brickwork, is central to the aesthetic of craft beer. It suggests something post- rather than pre-industrial, taking the detritus of the industrial age and repurposing it, reshaping old components into something new.

Craft beer combines that eternal longing for pre-industrial artisanship with a nostalgia for the industrial age itself, and a relentless urge to create something new. To paraphrase Will Rogers, the American movie actor, cowboy and vaudeville artist, who originated the famous phrase, ‘Craft beer ain’t what it used to be and probably never was’. 


Original Gravity 2020

Original Gravity 2020

When Daniel Neilson created Original Gravity at the end of 2014, his vision was for a different kind of beer magazine, one that was like ‘your slightly more knowledgeable best mate, full of interesting, readable stories that appealed to both beer novice and expert’…

 

When Daniel Neilson created Original Gravity at the end of 2014, his vision was for a different kind of beer magazine, one that was like ‘your slightly more knowledgeable best mate, full of interesting, readable stories that appealed to both beer novice and expert’. It has always been singled out for the design by Adam McNaught-Davies (lindoneast.co.uk).  

Pulling together a quality print magazine that consistently lives up to expectations is a lot of work — too much for one person. So at the start of 2017, Daniel brought on board award-winning beer writers Adrian Tierney Jones and Pete Brown, as editor and editor-at-large respectively. As a team of three, we raised our ambitions even further, with a lofty mission of attempting to become ‘the New Yorker of beer’. Big goals should always be out of reach — you have to try much harder to reach them, and we think we made some big strides, introducing fresh and incredibly talented voices to beer who had real human, engaging, often moving stories to tell.

OG is distributed to quality bars and pubs and is free to pick up. Every penny of production costs has to be met by advertising. We pay the writers we commission and hopefully, there may even be some profit left to split between the three of us. Achieving the required amount of ad revenue has been getting increasingly difficult. We don’t press the ‘Go’ button until we know there’s a surplus. Original Gravity #23 was due to drop in September, but it didn’t hit that surplus.

For the moment then, the UK print edition of Original Gravity is temporarily on hold (the Canadian edition launches in Alberta as well as Ontario next year). We still believe the model works, but we need to take time out and rethink it in the UK. In the meantime, we’ll be publishing original content on originalgravitymag.com, including commentary on issues in beer that we feel we want to talk about (as well as continuing with occasional Original Gravity Live events). At the moment there is no budget for new writers, so it will be Pete Brown and Adrian Tierney-Jones who will be putting in the words, which means that the message of OG that has been there from the start — independent, asymmetrical, unconventional — will still be heard.

A big thank you to all the advertisers, distributors, stockists, writers and readers who have supported us so far. We’re not giving up. And we’ll let you know as soon as OG is ready to return to print.


Brewers Congress 2019

Brewers Congress 2019

For the third year in a row, Original Gravity was thrilled to be invited to the Brewers’ Journal’s Brewers Congress. Instead of a report or an un-report (see last year) or a podcast or a major movie about the event, OG has decided to let some of the participants speak for themselves.

 

Miles Jenner, Harvey’s Brewery
Staying relevant in a changing industry
My father was an incurable romantic when it came to beer and brewing

I love standing at the mash tun and thinking of how this is where others before me stood and watched over the mash

We in beer need to remain a broad church

I believe in using local hops in local beers, and we have also been using the same hop growing families for years 

I was in a pub in Nottingham and ordered a couple of glasses of a beer with Citra hop in it and my wife said that it reminded her of the lager and lime she used to drink in the 1970s 

 

Dawn Maskell, International Centre for Brewing and Distilling at Heriot-Watt
Dispelling myths around (ir)responsible drinking
Beer is the drink of moderation

It is a myth that you can get drunk by putting your feet in a bath of alcohol

 

Roger Ryman, St Austell Brewery
Tribute at 20
Tribute was my first born.

 

Nigel Sadler, Learn2Brew
Panel discussion: Education: Why we need to increase awareness and understanding in dispense and distribution
Brew it well, keep it well, serve it well. 

 

Gabe Barry, Brooklyn Brewery
Community and craft beer: The positive impact beer can have on people and place
The smell of brewing is reminiscent of the smell of baking which equals home. 

You always find money to go to the pub

Make our breweries more environmentally, socially and economically holistic parts of the communities they serve

Where there is beer, there is people, where there is people, there are communities

 

Carlos de La Barra, Omnipollo
Why taking a step back can help you take a step forward
Sometimes we fail but we always try to get better.

 

Mark Tranter, Burning Sky
Why new beer releases should only be a starting point
Barrel ageing was an audacious move for me, I had never done it until six years ago 

Saison à la Provision is still only in its nappies, it is still growing 

You keep plugging away to create your identity

Constant refining of your skill makes you a better brewer

 

Anders Kissmeyer, Kissmeyer, Royal Unibrew
How to succeed as a craft brewer in 2020
Define, demonstrate and strengthen what makes you different

The geeks will not sustain you anyway

Do not scorn the big brewers embrace them

 

Yvan de Baets, Brasserie de la Senne
Believe in yourself and brew the beers you want to drink
Believe in yourself and make the beer you want to drink (and refuse the tyranny of the geeks and the marketing department)

I never met anyone who was proud of making a NEIPA

I think sipping is wrong, gulping is cool 

I love bitterness but the balance is about malt, hops and fermentation. I always try to feel what my yeast feels 

No penis contests!

 

Christian Townsley, North Bar and North Brewing
Why people are your brewery’s great asset
We created North as somewhere we wanted to drink

We became militant about beer that wasn’t being brewed at source.  


Context is all

Context is all

You’re in a far away bar with the sun streaming down, in a happy place, and naturally there’s a glass of beer to hand. What’s it like? Hoppy, bitter, dry or sour? I dunno, comes the reply from Pete Brown, who explains that context is essential when considering the best beer you’re ever drunk

 

What’s the best beer you’ve ever drunk? 

I’ll go first.

I remember it so well. We were on honeymoon in Zanzibar, in Stone Town, and there’s a bar there right on the harbour that goes out over the water on a wooden pontoon. When you sit right at the end you’re in the middle of the water, and the dried palm roof above the deck puts the table half in shade and half not. Except the situation is never fixed: the sun slowly creeps round, and if you’re there long enough, you find yourself directly in its crosshairs.  

This happened more than once. We didn’t notice at first, because we were sitting there with our shades on, alternating between reading our books and drinking in the view. The water was bright, the sun was sparkling off the ripples like twinkling stars. I’d never seen anything so blue, so pure. Every 30 seconds or so, a shoal of flying fish would break the surface and skip along it. We couldn’t take our eyes off the water, and suddenly we realised we were baking in the sun and viciously thirsty. 

We ordered a couple of beers, and two minutes later there was a waiter in a white starched jacket with a silver tray. There were two Pilsner glasses, frosted because they’d obviously just come out of the freezer, and two bottles of beer with chunks of ice sliding slowly down the sides. The waiter poured the beer and it had a thick foam on top of the gold, and we. Just. Necked. Them. 

The best beer I have ever, ever had.

At this point, you could be forgiven for responding, ‘That sounds amazing. What was the beer?’

I’m afraid I have absolutely no idea. The local beer. Doesn’t matter.

‘What did it taste like? Was it particularly bitter? Clean? Watery? Strong?’

Sorry mate, can’t remember.

I’ve asked this question of many other people, and while I haven’t yet met anyone else who can corroborate my experience that Blues Bar in Stone Town harbour is the best beer bar in the world, their answers are otherwise very similar. Variations involve weddings, infinity pools — lots of infinity pools — hotel roof terraces, significant birthdays and toasts to lost friends or relatives. 

So far, they have never involved evaluations of hop bitterness, head-shattering sourness, or the subtle interplay of balance and flavour. 

The beer is a catalyst for a magical moment that can be recalled in incredible detail, in every respect — apart from the beer itself. Without the prompt, the cue, of the beer, the memory wouldn’t be so complete. But the memory is of the moment the beer created, a memory shaped like a big fat doughnut.

A cup of tea a is always better if you’re outdoors. Guinness tastes better in Ireland. And Ouzo cannot be drunk outside Greece.

We all know this. But often, when we have these experiences, we dismiss our impressions as sentimentality. When we bring that bottle of Ouzo, or whatever that bottle of Zanzibari beer was, back home in a suitcase, open it under leaden grey skies and find it severely lacking, we beat ourselves up for having been so impressionable. 

But we weren’t being stupid: these things really do taste better in the right situation. 

Context is everything. What we see, hear and feel has a massive effect on our perceptions of flavour. On top of that, all this sensory information isn’t just splashing onto a blank mental canvas. If you’re happier or more relaxed, if you’re comfortable and warm, if you have less noise going on in your head, there’s simply more capacity to truly experience what you’re tasting, and a more favourable environment in which to appreciate it.

So stop feeling guilty that you once proclaimed Mythos lager, or that fruity young red that only cost you two euros from the market, or even grappa —yes, grappa — to be the best thing you’d ever tasted. At the time — in the context you tasted it in — it really was. 


It means nothing to me…or does it?

It means nothing to me…or does it?

To cut a long story short, if beer is punk then cocktail beers could be the new romantics of our time,
as Anthony Gladman discovers

 

Above the houses a long line of human figures is silhouetted by lights, bright in the rainy dusk. They stand on the raised platform like statues looking down from their niches as I approach from below, a pilgrim nearing his journey’s end. A train speeds behind them. In the archways beneath there is a taproom.

I have come for cocktail beers. The bar in the arch next door serves actual cocktails. But here I am, glasses spangled and misting, ordering a kettle sour that’s been made to taste like a martini at half the price and a fraction of the ABV. It’s one of two cocktail flavoured sours on tonight. The other is inspired by a Manhattan. Both are available by the pint for masochists or the unwary, but I’ll stick to a half. I’m not sure I wouldn’t rather be having a pale ale on cask or a proper martini next door.

Often, when a beer tastes like spirits, it’s the result of hunkering down in wooden barrels and picking up the ways of the previous occupant. That’s for the heavy-hitting beers though. This one is fresh and dainty. It swirls with lime and botanical flavours, its sourness tempered. Without knowing, I ask myself, would I guess this was meant to be a martini?

People come, people go; a post-work parade ducking out of the rain for one drink on the way home. The young woman at the other end of my table sniffs over her novel, head resting on one hand, elbow on the table. A bearded 30-something pays for drinks with his phone. Which of these drinkers are those cocktail beers for?

Cocktails are adult playtime writ large. Creative, showy, sophisticated, exotic. And strong. They’re not for workaday drinking. Cocktail beers have got my mind muddled. This martini beer, I could be disappointed that it’s not a cocktail or I could embrace and enjoy it for what it is: an homage. A fun experiment. A brewer’s flourish. The trill of a violin breaking free from dutiful scales and arpeggios.

New to the table, a mismatched couple grinds through a bad first date. He asks what her favourite thing is only to take the piss out of it. His conversation brims with ego and extremes. Everything he asks her is secretly about himself. Is my drink all about the cocktail or the beer? It leaves me with more questions than answers.

I try the Manhattan sour next. It is a deep ruby red, lustrous and enticing in its glass. It has more or less the mix of flavours you would expect; the vermouth and bitters plus a cherry on top, but no whiskey kick.

I drink. I muse. The red concrete floor is stippled with black. Distressed trestle tables. Bare wood and corrugated white steel. The rumble of wheels overhead. Oversized bulbs dangling on thick black wire. My tongue explores a tooth and finds a ghostly maraschino cherry. It’s in the aftertaste that these beers really pull off their trick. Phantoms of spirits whirl around my palate. Chimeras of mixed drinks conjured by the brewer’s art. Castles in the air. Gone as fast as they appeared. Leaving just an impression. It’s clever, but is it good?

 Before too long the couple are both hiding behind their phones. Then come accusations of mansplaining, more forced attempts at humour, and finally an apology of sorts. They’re gone five minutes later and I still don’t know what I think of the beer. It’s clever, certainly. And pleasant to drink. And without play and experimentation nothing moves along. Still I’m left feeling that cocktail beers fall between two stools.

 Then again why not? The place has dozens of taps, a couple of hand pumps, fridges. There are plenty of beers here that ‘taste like beer’. Why shouldn’t there be one or two that strain at the leash? No one’s forcing you to drink them.

Eventually the coming and going slows. Drinkers settle in for a Thursday night session, grabbing chips and burgers from the food truck outside to line their stomachs. I head back out into the rain, the ghost of a manhattan on my lips, cocktails swirling in my mind.


Gateway to heaven

Gateway to heaven

Much is made about gateway beers, though what about punk as a gateway music to a world of different sounds, movies, authors, and even clothes styles? That’s what Adrian Tierney-Jones reckons anyway

 

I have of late come to the conclusion that punk is what Blue Moon is to beer. 

It’s a gateway music, whose noise and fury and DIY ethos opened up my mind and many others’ to different sounds, aspects of culture, movies, authors, clothes styles and just a way of living your life. It was not a full-point but the opening of a book, a chapter, an essay, a song cycle. And then I went exploring. 

When I now listen to the music I worshipped after ditching flares and long hair for Levi’s drainpipes and a spiky, short-haired barnet, I just hear nostalgia and music that set me on the way. Yes, there’s a certain frisson in hearing the tinny dramatics of the Clash’s first LP or the drone of the Buzzcocks’ Boredom, but it’s my youth and I’m not young. 

More positively, I also hear music that brought me to Joy Division, Franz Kafka, semiotics and Elizabeth David (I was already with the Stooges, MC5 and Motown). Heaven knows I might have been miserable without punk’s clearing of the way and still be listening to prog rock (gulp). 

All this is why I have never felt that destroyed or bothered when a certain Scottish band, sorry I mean brewery, does something its fans declare to be un-punk (talking of which Punk IPA seems to have become a gateway beer). Was it John Lydon who yelled at the final Pistols’ concert: ‘ever got the feeling you’ve been had!’ Mind you, PIL’s Metal Box was fantastic. I digress. 

What do we mean by gateway beers? For some, they are beers that are not explosively flavoured and certainly not on-trend opportunities for Instagram or Twitter, though some contrary souls might like the idea of letting the world know how down with the people they are as they pose next to a man-sized can of Blue Moon (surely there must be one). 

So that means gateway beers are mass-marketed beers, produced by a large brewing operation? Anheuser-Busch as EMI, Heineken (think Maltsmiths) as CBS. That’s easy and worth a punk-like sneer. However they can also be part of a smaller brewery’s portfolio, a seductive outreach to the beer-drinker who always plumps for a pint or glass of the same. 

They can be beers as different as the aforementioned Blue Moon’s Belgian witbier, a pleasant and inoffensive thirst-quencher, or instead Thornbridge’s Tart, an ideal starter sour beer for anyone who pulls a sour face at the very idea. 

Without punk, though, would we have had Burning Sky, for instance (there might be no Original Gravity either or dirty burgers). For founder and owner Mark Tranter, punk ‘was about doing it for yourself, about being able to take control and operate independently, to make what you want to make, regardless of outside influences. I also liked the sort of misfit nature of it, the ideas, the music, aesthetics and the fact that although the first wave of punk quickly became a commercial operation, what happened afterwards was more of a network of friends, going DIY, fans doing fanzines.’

Which was presumably why he left Dark Star and set up Burning Sky, whose beers are some of the most creative and boldly flavoured in the country. Could the likes of Coolship #1 and Saison à la Provision be called gateway beers? Possibly, but only In the same way Cantillon Gueuze was my gateway to that most enigmatic and envious of beer styles, Gueuze.  

On the other hand, I would like to think that Tranter’s custodianship of Hop Head down through the years made it into a gateway beer. Punk as what Hop Head is to beer? That’s more like it.  


The imperfect smile of beer

The imperfect smile of beer

About to ’gram that beer and post it online? Don’t. Beer, like punk, like the beer-drinker, is imperfect and that’s the way Jessica Mason likes it

 

I’ve poured out a beer and set it upon the table beside its bottle. And, although I can tell that this composition is visually pleasing, my lonely beer looks back at me, despondently. The shadow, created by the glass and the sunlight from a nearby window is beautiful. No one can deny that. Aesthetically, the scene is perfect. So perfect in fact that I immediately photograph it.

But beer isn’t about all of this, is it? It isn’t about staged images. Beer is the opposite. It’s chaotic enjoyment. It’s chatter. It’s the spill of a pour. Or the way a flavour can linger and dance on your tongue and provoke a memory or a thought that can make you stand up, leave a room or talk and talk and talk with enthusiastic glee. 

Beer is not a flat image. It is too multi-faceted for filters. It’s the eye contact made over clinked glasses. It’s the start of the evening. It’s the end of the night. A comfort for a lonely heart. A day trip for the taste buds. Beer has the unique quality of reflecting real life (with all its ups, downs and sideways glances) with a fistful of emotions that can raise a smile. It isn’t neat, or preening. It’s why I like it so much.

So, I destroy the scene. And, suddenly, with its positioning now not being choreographed for anyone else but me, it makes me beam an anarchistic grin. My glass leaves an imperfect ring of wetness upon the table. And, I put some music on. Loudly. I’ve heard it once said that imperfection is a form of freedom. And it is something that I can’t seem to forget.  

I’m not keen on sparseness. I find it lacks the authenticity of the accidental. I find it clinical. And a little contrived.  Others, I know, find clean empty spaces calming. Orderly, in fact. Some say that kind of thing helps them to relax. But that isn’t the case with me. I’d rather loll on a battered sofa than perch upon a high stool. And I wonder — am I part of a misfit generation? Part analogue, part digital: a contumacious anachronistic punk. Someone who longs for the confines of an old boozer more than the pretension of bar glamour. A place where things make sense.

I miss the winding of spools on that once much-loved mix tape. Or doctoring the errant tear in a cigarette paper with careful Rizla origami. I look for the imperfections. Always. Because, I want to see life in everything. In beer. In people. I want the unvarnished truth. The unfiltered and the honest.

I look around my tiny kitchen and it makes me smile. Pans hang, books crowd shelves, the wooden table surface is uneven. An immortal voice belts out gravelly lyrics from a nearby speaker. There is distortion. All of it is over-the-top delinquency.

And my beer waits. Its head quivering amidst the din. It looks appealing. And I love this beer, I really do. It’s asymmetrically exquisite. Soft and full. Rich and moreish. All the contradictions. 

Pour yourself a beer now. Any favourite beer.  Your favourite beer. And reread from the top. Each time a sentence begins with a word someone might have declared against the rules of grammar, take a sip of your beer. And allow yourself a mutinous grin. 

Because we’re renegades. The lot of us. We are rule-breakers. We are beer drinkers. And, sometimes, simple is dull. And tasteful is, paradoxically, empty. And it is no bad thing to crave a little florid complexity now and again. Especially if it keeps life interesting.


Magic Rock acquired by Lion

INTERVIEW: Magic Rock acquired by Lion

Australia’s Lion Acquires Magic Rock in 100% Buyout

In an interview with Pete Brown, Magic Rock’s founder Richard Burhouse explains the take over

It was announced today that Magic Rock had become the latest British craft brewer to sell to a large international brewing concern. Australian-based food and beverage company Lion acquired London’s Fourpure in a similar deal last year, and also operate Australian craft beer brands including Little Creatures. In turn, Lion Australia is part of the Lion Group, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Kirin Holdings, a global, multi-industry food and beverages company headquartered in Tokyo.

Richard Burhouse, who founded Magic Rock in 2011 along with head brewer Stuart Ross, will remain in charge of the company and describes the move as fuelling ‘a shared promise to keep making great beer, on a bigger scale’. The brewery has a cult following among craft beer fans and is the winner of a great many awards. Burhouse describes the acquisition as ‘the best way for us to build on this legacy over the long term is to introduce Magic Rock beers to a much wider audience’.

While rumours of the buyout have been circulating on social media for days, the staff of Magic Rock were only informed of the move today, so it remains unclear whether there will be many changes in its 45-strong workforce, but in an interview Burhouse argued that the staff and the local community of Huddersfield were key factors in the decision.

“The brand we’ve created is a bit of a monster — it’s been really successful and now we need to step up to the next level, and I simply don’t have the skills on my own to do what’s required next. We’ve been approached by a few people over the last few years and none of them felt like the right fit. Lion did — they feel right for our shareholders and for our staff. We need a new brew system, new capacity, more space, and it’s not often that this kind of investment comes into Huddersfield.’

Coming less than a year after Lion’s acquisition of Fourpure, Lion’s Global Markets managing director, Matt Tapper, and regional director for the UK, Toby Knowles, didn’t rule out further acquisitions.

‘There aren’t that many brewers that have the X-Factor Magic Rock have,’ said Knowles.

‘Today we’re just enjoying this relationship,’ said Tapper. ‘We’re enjoying working with Fourpure and we’re opening a Little Creatures microbrewery in King’s Cross soon. But we’ll keep our eyes and ears to the ground and see how things progress.’

Pete Brown