Thursday, 25 February 2010

FABPOW! Beer and Burgers

My California trip was pretty much fuelled by burgers and hops. I felt that I had already gained a good understanding of a successful burger (and of course the accompanying chips, for a burger without chips is like a Corona without the lime) but now I know its fundamental importance.

The first clue was being asked how you want your meat cooked, which aside from a terrible euphemism, is a great question of a burger; the day McDonalds ask that question to me is the day I’ll pass under the Golden Arches for anything more than a McFlurry. The standard is medium-rare which is perfect for me; charred on the outside and blush in the middle. The bread ranged from cake-sweet and heavy to the freshest seed-topped bun going. Accompaniments always included lettuce (essential), tomato (essential) and gherkins (essential) and ketchup, mustards and mayonnaise are on the side. Cheese was almost always present, but that’s because I ordered it to be there. Any number of extras can be added from the menu (bacon, Cajun, mushrooms, blue cheese – the burger lists are as long as the beer lists). Chips, an art in themselves, ranged from thin fries to proper unpeeled fat little fingers.

These burgers always came with a beer, or beers. There was: an Alesmith IPA (picture directly above); a Lagunitas IPA; a Russian River Supplication (because I was feeling particularly lavish); a kegged Spud Boy’s IPA (in Magnolia, pictured at the very top - that was a particularly good one); a flight of Marin beers; and a flight of Bear Republic beers (plus a pint of Racer 5). The wonderful beauty of the burger is that it will work with any beer, and by this I literally mean any beer. The bread, the meat, the cheese, the sweet-sour-hot sauces, the chips; together they create a mouthful of flavour which compliment whatever beer you have. Big hops, imperial stouts, sours, delicate milds, golden ales, anything you like. Having a couple of flights of beers proved this. But if I had to choose just one beer, or just one style, then it’s going to be the American IPA. We’re talking something 7-8%, dosed with a decent level of caramel sweetness and packed with fruity, citrusy hops (not tongue-splitting bitter, though). The malt matches the meat, cheese and bread, the hops balance the cheese and provide a fruitiness to mirror the sauces and the salad and the cool fizz washes it all away. For me, Alesmith IPA and Racer 5 were the best pairings – the beers are delicate while still packing a significant punch of flavour (and they happen to be two of the best IPAs out there). In the UK, where the beers asren’t available, I’d go with Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Flying Dog Classic Pale Ale or Dogfish Head 60 or 90 Minute.

I really want a burger now; a big, fat, juicy, finger-licking stack of meat, bread and cheese. I’d take one of those beers on the side too. A glorious FABPOW.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

I want a brewpub

I want a brewpub. A US-style, beer-brewed-out-the-back-and-poured-out-the-front place, with good food and good music. I want to be able to walk into the bar and see the brewer working, I want to be able to smell the fresh hops and the sticky-sweet wort, I want glass behind the bar so you can see the fermentation tanks, I want a line of taps on the bar serving the freshest beer possible. I want a decent line-up of site-brewed beer, a range of styles, a few regulars and a few specials. I also want guest taps of some of the best beer around. I’d happily serve this from the cask and keg and I’d want a good bottle selection for drinking here or taking out. For food, it’d be classic beer sponges: fantastic burgers, sandwiches, chillis, stews, curries, plus a selection of cheeses and chocolates. And I want all of this in London.

I wanted this before I went to California but now I want it even more. In the UK we just don’t do brewpubs the same way (and if there are any like that then tell me, because I want to go). Marin Brewing Company and Bear Republic are the ones which grabbed me the most. You walk in and you smell freshly brewing beer. Behind the bar you can see the tall silver tanks. Both had between 9-16 of their own beers on. Both served large food menus. Both served wonderful beer, super fresh. We got tours of the breweries and the set-ups are similar, although Bear Republic, who have rapidly become one of my favourite breweries, also have two other sites to make their beer, one just across the complex and the other a short drive away. As far as I remember, Bear Republic serve their Racer 5 direct from the tank and it was wonderful, I also got some Citra single-hopped Rebellion straight from the tank which was just delicious (the first time I’d had the Citra hop on its own and it’s bloody lovely – peaches, apricots, tropical fruit) and the stack of barrels aging out the back filled with treats. The lasting memory of Marin, aside from Arne and Kim the brewers, is their Point Ridge Porter, which was one of the best beers of the trip - a velvety, roasty, dark chocolate and smoke-filled beer, modest at 6% but punching above its weight in flavour (I had a bottle last weekend, which I'll likely write about soon). Neither of these bars are in San Francisco city. Marin is a short boat ride away and Bear Republic is a longer drive (which passes Russian River on the way there and/or back and that's another great brewpub with a beer-geek's dream line-up on tap and a teasing tower of oak barrels out the back). Both (all, including Russian River) are essential beer stops in North California, I think.

I want a brewpub. I want to serve great beer in a great place and have people leave my bar feeling the same way as I felt when I left Marin and Bear (happy, that is, not drunk). One day...

I wrote this last week but it ties in neatly with the question Woolpack Dave is asking on his blog about the place you’d want to open if you could. And the top two images are Bear and the bottom three are Marin. That's Kim the brewer. He's a cool guy.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Inside Beer Twasting

Jeff Evans, over at Inside Beer, is hosting a beer Twasting on Thursday 25th February. A beer tasting/twitter mash-up where everyone is invited to drink a couple of bottles of beer and tweet their thoughts on them, while seeing Jeff’s own thoughts. This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while so I’ll be playing along on Thursday. Just buy the beers, sit down at 7.00pm GMT, open them and tweet about them, directing them to @insidebeer and/or using the #ibtwasting hashtag. The two beers are Wychwood’s Hobgoblin and Brakspear Triple, so bottles which should be easy for everyone to find. Check out Jeff’s post on his website about the event for more details.

Interestingly, Ales by Mail attempted a Virtual Beer Festival on Saturday which I think was a great idea too – a box of beers, opened and enjoyed while discussing it on the internet; similar to a ‘real’ beer festival, just at home. I like it and I like the online interactivity of it all.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Drinkability in Beer

The word 'drinkability' has struck a chord over the weekend. As so frequently happens, it started on twitter and went from there. Woolpack Dave, Beer Reviews Andy and Pete Brissenden have all posted something; here are my thoughts (Warning: I freely add –ability to words it doesn’t naturally belong to).

Drinkability is one of the most important qualities of a good beer, but semantically it can be interpreted in different ways. Firstly, I don’t think ‘drinkable’ and ‘drinkability’ are the same thing. ‘Drinkable’ is something which is palatable but not necessarily something you will want much of - warm lager, cold tea, vodka and diet coke, for example. ‘Drinkability’, for me, suggests three qualities, which work (sometimes uniquely, but typically) together: something which is enjoyable in itself; something easy-drinking; and, something you’d want more of.

Enjoyability and drinkability go hand-in-hand, whether it’s a crisp lager or a full-on imperial stout. Lagers pride themselves on drinkability, especially the big brands which use it as a selling point (Bud Light's website tag line is the 'Official Home of Drinkability'). Imperial stouts, not known for their sessionability, can be wonderfully enjoyable and delicious. If a beer isn’t tasty then it won’t have drinkability and it will almost certainly fail in its main goal – to be enjoyed.

An easy-drinking beer is often labelled as having great drinkability. This is the main context in which I would use the term ‘drinkability’ and it’s often reserved for the stronger beers which retain a particular lightness and a quality which makes them very drinkable. To be easy drinking suggests that you can, and will, want lots of them, or, in the case of strong beers, it suggests that a serving will be enjoyed throughout.

Drinkability also means you will want more of it; it means re-buyability. If you have a nice pint in the pub then you’ll likely want to buy another one. It’s the same with a decent bottle, whether it’s 1.4% or 41%, and regardless of cost. This is probably the most important aspect of drinkability for me and will often be the culmination of the combination of enjoyability and easy-drinking. Re-buyability is key. If you won’t buy the beer again then it’s not successful. You might not want to have another one straight away, but the desire to have it again is important, even with the most extreme beers. I remember Garrett Oliver (somewhere) saying that a good quality of beer is the desire to want four pints (or servings) of it and neither be wasted nor unsatisfied. I think this is central to drinking British beers but the example can go beyond that for stronger beers which retain enjoyment and which you’d like a few servings of, either immediately or in the future.

Of course, on top of these three qualities there’s a time and a place for everything and context plays an important part. The example, and the beer which started the drinkability discussions, is Sink the Bismarck. It’s an extreme beer experience, boozy-hot, oily, rich, bitter to the upper limit, strong; an insane beer mind-fuck, creating new definitions. It’s a beer to sip in small quantities, to share around and to discuss, but it doesn’t have much drinkability. It’s a one-off-experience type of beer, best reserved with a special occasion or to whip out unannounced and poured around to see what people think. Its price point and the esoteric flavour do not make it the beer you buy in six-packs to keep the fridge stocked. One bottle is enough for anyone who can get it.

Drinkability is central to the enjoyment of beer, but context plays an important role. In its essence, to say that a beer has drinkability is to say that it is easy-drinking, tasty and something you’d want again. Drinkability is a quality which the majority of beers need but, sadly, some miss out on – I’ve had many average pints which are drinkable but do not have drinkability (blandness, lack of condition, lack of flavour, wrong temperature, served in the wrong context... all these affect drinkability and enjoyment). It’s also a very subjective thing dependant on time and place and context. It’s a complex issue, largely undefined, but very interesting. And it’s something brewers should be very aware of.

What does drinkability mean to you? How would you define it?

The Hop Press: Something Sour; Part of the Journey (Take 2)

This is the Hop Press post which mysteriously didn’t auto-publish while I was away and it’s about my new and growing love for sour beer. It also looks at a progression of beer drinking, which I think goes a little like this: lager, ale, dark ale, strong ale, imperial stout, big IPAs, sours, session beer and lager. It’s a list of the developing tastes of someone who loves different beers and a natural step from one to the next finishing up back where it all started with a new appreciation of the wonderful simplicity of good session ale or lager. Read the full post here.

Friday, 19 February 2010

I've Sunk the Bismarck

Maybe the hoppiest beer I've ever had, earthy, citrus, floral, imperial. So thick and full bodied, like syrup, like honey. It smells like a hop sack, so fresh, uniquely fresh, like hop resin, hop oil on the finger tips. It's sweet like candy but hot like bourbon, it's smooth but jagged, it's bitter, it's intense, it's astonishing. Five months in the making, this is insane US Extreme IPA meets Scottish whisky, an unimaginable blend.

I've bought a bottle and I'm glad. Sink the Bismarck, whatever you think about the name and the marketing approach (it's a bit of fun, nothing more - initially the name is shocking but it's more of a jovial up yours than a vicious fuck you), is a special beer. It might not be to everyone's taste - in all senses - but it's a remarkable achievement.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Beer and Wine

Pete and Dave both discussed this last week and I thought I’d add my piece to this interesting and complicated issue.

First of all, never tell anyone that beer is the new wine. Those old-school beer chaps don’t like it and jump right down your throat, aghast at the mere thought. But beer and wine, whatever you say, can be comparable and through a certain necessity, I think, need to be comparable.

In this I am not addressing John Smith down the pub supping his bitter. To him, beer is beer and nothing more. I’m also not addressing Jonty Smith, swirling and sniffing his vintage plonk. To him, beer is common man’s liquid bread. This is pitched down the middle at the discerning others. The way I see it, if you want to talk about beer then you need to use a certain type of language and that language has already been established: wine speak. Sure, we can ‘bloke’ it up, but we are essentially using the same technique to talk about what a beer tastes like and why it tastes that way. To most it probably doesn’t matter how it tastes or why it’s like that, but it does to me and I’m hoping, as you are reading this, that the way the beer in your glass actually tastes is important to you (whether you wish to describe it or not). To say that the aroma is fruity or the body is full or the finish is dry is to use wine speak. It’s something which beer has, like it or not, inherited.

A movie is a movie, some are better than others, some people intellectualise them, others watch them as pure release. I have a degree in ‘watching films’ so I often look a little deeper into them. To use Woolpack Dave’s examples, I like books too, and certain types of music, but I don’t care for cars or electronics. Beer is not the new wine. New wine is the new wine, if you get what I mean. Beer is beer - it always has been and always will be - but there is an interested section of drinkers who want to talk about it in a different way to others and just because they use a wine-established language does not mean that the two drinks are mutually exclusive.

Many argue that beer doesn’t want to be intellectualised, but why not? Why not add an element of understanding, a degree of interaction with the beer? The majority, as Pete Brown points out, don’t care beyond whether it’s red or white, lager or bitter, but sometimes a little nudge of information can go a long way. Did you know that grape only grows in Northern Italy? Did you know this beer is made using water drawn from an ancient well? Did you know those hops are a new variety? I’m all for people having more of an understanding about what they are putting in their mouths because it naturally creates a more discerning mentality.

Take food. If you understand it, how it works, how to cook things and how ingredients taste then there is a natural progression in what the eater chooses and that dish made with exotic ingredients suddenly becomes accessible. If you know a little about wine then you can also attempt to choose something to compliment the food. And how many books discussing beer and food compare a full-bodied red wine to a stout, a pale ale to a chardonnay, or discuss how hops in beer are equivalent to acidity in wine? This is because wine and food pairing is an established and appreciated practice. It’s not raising beer to a different level, it’s merely levelling it with wine on a flat playing surface: the dinner table.

Why can’t we look at beer in the same way as wine? Does it really matter if beer is held in greater esteem, if people talk about it like they talk about wine? To be honest, if someone wants to care about beer then they will, if they don’t then they will order their pint blissful in their ignorance in the same way that someone will order a glass of white because they are eating chicken and want some wine – neither are right or wrong, it’s the consumer’s choice. Ultimately it’s about the audience you are trying to reach. I can talk about beer in comparison to wine here because someone who wants to know more about beer is willing to search it out on the internet and if my language is familiar to them then hopefully I can be successful in championing beer.

Beer is changing. For most progressive breweries it’s no longer just four house ales and four seasonals. Brewers are doing more and expanding into different markets: look at corked bottles, 750ml bottles, bottle labels, the use of barrel aging, fruit, spices, different brewing techniques and increased levels of alcohol. Drinkers are changing too. It’s not the same as wine but it’s not a million miles away.

A good example of this is Sam Calagione and Marnie Old’s He Said Beer, She Said Wine book - the image at the top. It takes a beer guy and a wine girl, a number of different foods, and they each choose a beer or wine each to go with it. The book not only taught me more about beer but it also taught me more about wine.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

My Englishman’s Survival Guide to Beer in San Francisco

1. Drink lots of water. This is essential.

2. Don’t joke with customs. They don’t have a sense of humour, they don’t understand irony or sarcasm and they carry guns.

3. The first bar will be overwhelming. Go with an exact idea of what you want. If your first stop is the Toronado (which it almost certainly should be), then know exactly what you want when you get to the bar and don’t be a dithering Englishman. Those barmen don’t find it cute.

4. Your first beer will taste like nectar and you’ll drink it in no time. The second will be equally as good. After travelling all day, and with your body still being on English time, the third pint (which is of course an 8% IPA, as the other two have been) will render your legs and mouth useless.

5. You have to tip. This is silly, I know, but customary. When they slap your change down on the bar just leave a dollar there or they won’t serve you in a hurry next time, even if you are sitting at the bar waving a fistful of fresh dollars at them.

6. Jet lag is a bitch. Waking up at 4am with a bastard of a hangover in a horrible, cheap little room with no fresh air is no fun. Sleep is very important or the full effects of the beer will hit you harder. Drink Red Bull and eat bananas.

7. Nearly every beer is over 9% in alcohol. This does not make for session beer so do not treat it that way. A pint of 10.5% Double IPA with lunch might seem like a good idea at the time, but watch out.

8. Eat lots. I took the approach that a sandwich per beer was adequate.

9. Don’t sit on your girlfriend’s camera in City Beer Store and break the screen on the first day. She won’t be very happy and you can’t see the pictures you are taking, meaning that most of those wonderful shots you thought you got are in fact out of focus or missing people’s heads.

10. Everywhere will offer you a taster of their beer. Utilise this freely but don’t take the piss. Eight samples is not cool unless you want to buy a couple of pints and will tip freely.

11. Sample trays are great but they are not to be treated in the same way as a tray of shooters. Plus, although it might look like little pours, 16 2oz servings adds up to two pints.

12. Everyone gives you water, especially if they see you stumbling around with blood-shot eyes. But be warned, if you speak like me not many Californians understand ‘water’. One reply, at the Double IPA festival, was (in an incredulous tone), ‘No, we don’t have any porter’, with a silent ‘you douchebag, don’t you know where you are?’

13. The BART transport system is easy to use. The MUNI is not. Take good walking trainers and not an old pair of Converse. Also take a good map. And preferably a phone with Google Maps.

14. The bottled beer selection in many stores is mind-blowing. Try not to get over-excited or you get weird looks as you are taking photos of the beer in Whole Foods at 8am because you can’t sleep thanks to the jet lag. Buying $50 worth of strong, rare beer at 8.30am also gets weird looks.

15. Almost everyone talks to themselves out loud in San Francisco. Do as the locals do and no one bothers you.

16. Smoke actually comes out of grates in the street. This is cool.

17. Breakfast is split between a few choices: pancakes and syrup; omelettes; fried meat, eggs and potatoes; or all of the above on one plate.

18. If you are wasted by 3pm then you are in for a rough afternoon and evening. Looking for a pint of sub-4% mild is fruitless. Get some water.

19. Burgers are universally wonderful. Eat as many as you can.

20. Brewpubs are awesome. The smell of wort and fresh hops is just about the most welcoming smell there is.

21. Over-sized backpacks filled with jumpers and coats and water and other survival essentials are not well received at busy, cramped beer festivals.

22. People ask ‘where are you from?’ a lot. When you say London they say things like ‘Ooh, expensive’, or ‘I love London’. Most people are interested in talking to you, especially if you like good beer, which is nice.

23. The view of San Francisco from Alcatraz is great. The Alcatraz tour is also good if you fancy some beer-free time.

24. Beer is not cheap but dollars are like Monopoly money and you are on holiday so it’s okay.

25. Don’t buy 20 bottles of beer when you don’t know how to get them home.

26. Take a spare, smaller suitcase in your luggage and fill this on the return journey with beer and bubble wrap. It’s cheaper than shipping beer to yourself (although, somehow through a locked case, customs checked my bag and left a note to say they’d opened it and then locked it back up again).

27. If you didn’t take your girlfriend with you, and you broke her camera, then buy a very nice present to make up for it. Also, girlfriends like bar mats so take them as many as possible.

28. Sit by the window on the right-hand side of the plane flying home – the view is simply stunning.

29. The flight home is horrible and it can be made worse if they show The Invention of Lying.

30. You will miss San Francisco, the beer and the cool people when you get home. You will start saving straight away to return.

UPDATE: 31: I forgot to mention the difficult task that is ordering eggs. 'How do you want your eggs?' They ask. 'Fried and with a runny yolk', I reply, obviously. Cue blank stares from the waitress. Seriously, research methods of cooking eggs, find your favourite and remember it. Failing that just say scrambled.

Monday, 15 February 2010

As-Live FABPOW! Pancakes and Apple Wood Cider

20.08: I believe in the new media circles this is what is known as a mash-up: it’s an As-Live Tasting meets a FABPOW.

20.10: It’s Pancake Day tomorrow and not doing something would be simply unthinkable, so this is it. Pancakes mixed, fried and flipped; apples sliced and fried in cider; ice cream dolloped on top; cider poured into my glass; ready to go.

20.12: First of all you are all probably thinking the same thing: why the hell is he drinking cider? Especially during a Food and Beer Pairing of the Week? Well, if cider is good enough for CAMRA then it’s good enough for me. Plus, this particular cider is made by Thatchers for Badger’s, the brewery, so that’s doubly okay.

20.15: I made the pancakes mix with the cider in the batter (70% milk, 30% cider, or something like that) and then I fried the apples in butter, vanilla sugar and cider, until soft and sweet and sticky. If I do say so myself it's damn good. The pancakes are thin and crispy on the edges and light and floppy in the middle. Perfect. The apples make a great topping too (although, to be honest, can you really beat sugar and lemon?!).

20.18: Writing is distracting me from eating. I can see why I’ve never done an As-Live FABPOW before, logistically it’s awkward.

20.21: On to the cider. It’s Apple Wood Cider, 6%, oak aged and medium dry (so the bottle says). It pours an electrifying orange colour with those fast-paced bubbles that hurry to the top. It’s not one of those Grandpa's Ballbag Scrumpys that smells like horse shit and comes with a few stray pieces of straw in the pint glass, this is one of those apple-core and apple-skin ciders, woody and, thankfully, fruity. It’s clean and just-sweet, I want to say it’s bitter but then I remember it’s cider, so that dryness I taste is from the barrel, and it manages to retain a certain rustic character, which is nice.

20.25: The pancakes are gobbled down. They worked a treat with the cider; the apples in each matching up perfectly. FABPOW!

20.28: You know what I’ve always wanted someone to brew for me? A 10% imperial oatmeal coffee stout, rich and thick, flavoured with fresh blueberries and maple syrup (maybe a little oak to add texture). I want that beer with a huge stack of fat American-style pancakes, bacon and maple syrup. If I could find Founder’s Canadian Breakfast Stout then that might be the closest thing out there. The trouble is I can’t find CBS, dammit.

20.30: I just spilt some cider on my chin.

20.31: Oh yeah, I’m doing this a day early because if I did it tomorrow and posted it at 9pm then it’s too late, of course. And you could make these pancakes with beer, that’d be great. I only used cider because I’m running low on beer in the flat (beer that's suitable for cooking with, anyway) but have some cider, I also had some apples which needed using up. Ta-da.

20.36: I like a drop of cider. My drinking days began with turbo snakebites – strong and cheap lightning cider, crap and cheap lager, blackcurrant cordial and vodka (that was killer stuff). A few years later it was always the last drink we chose at the end of a beer festival and I’ve had some dodgy old pints of scrumpy over the last few years. Perhaps the most memorable (or not...) experience was a snakebite made from Old Tom and some 8% cider. After that there was some dancing. At a beer festival. Ooof.

20.42: Being distracted by the terrible TV that Lauren is watching...

20.45: I did this thing last year with BrewDog’s Hardcore IPA and their Coffee Imperial Stout. Neither were perfect but not too bad. And I’ve just realised that I haven’t done an As-Live Tasting for AGES!

20.49: Cider gone. It’s pretty good; better than I expected, it just needs more hops. As for the pancakes... they were bloody delicious! I think pancakes might be on the menu a few more times this week (and whenever I make them I’m always surprised how easy they are – just 125g plain flour, two eggs, 300ml of milk, or 200ml milk and 100ml booze).

20.53: That’s me done with an As-Live FABPOW Mash-up. Relocation Relocation is now on.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

The Hop Press: San Francisco Beers of my Week

I’m back! After a week of drunken (or hungover) posts, blurry pictures and general bleurgh, this blog should return to its usual state. As it’s Sunday it means something on the Hop Press (I did line a post up last week but it didn’t publish itself and is still in the draft folder, which is annoying). I wasn’t in much of a writing mood this morning so I put some words down about the best beers I had on my trip (and there were a lot of good beers). Here's the full post!

I think it’s fair to say that you can expect a few more posts in the next weeks about my trip. This one just lazily gets it rolling with a few favourites (and you know me, I like to list my favourite things).

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Hopping out of California

I'm drunk. But it's my last night in the US, so fuck it. The picture above is the full flight of Russian River beers at the brewpub. I also had a Supplication (seriously fucking awesome) and a Pliny the Elder (seriously fucking awesome). Before these I spent the day at Bear Republic, where my lunch was a flight of 16 beers (2oz pours, not pints, thankfully) and a burger on the side. There was also a PBR in the middle and after Russian River we finished at The Toad in the Hole, a cracking pub in Santa Rosa run by ex-pat Paul Stokeld. In there I had the best pint of Bear Republic's Racer 5 (love that beer, it's seriously fucking awesome) and a crazy wormwood and horseradish thing from Sonoma Brewing. I also got to drink with Ken Weaver and his other half Ali, plus Joe Tucker from ratebeer all night and those guys rock.

Now it's time for bed; I have to fly too-many-bastard-hours home tomorrow, preceded by a two hour bus journey and ending with a tube and a train whilst carrying three bags. Thankfully those bags are filled with fantastic beers, and great beer is the reason I came out here in the first place. Beer is lovely.

Selected as America's Best in 1893

I couldn't come all the way to America and not drink one of the classics: Bud, Miller, Pabst Blue Ribbon.

The one I wanted the most was PBR so I picked up a 24oz can for $1.49. It pours (into a lovely snifter) a near-colourless gold, the aroma is almost there and when I do find it it's a swirl of corn; it's smooth in the mouth, totally inoffensive, clean and crisp, almost displaying something similar to hops but not quite. The can proudly states that it was 'America's Best in 1893'. (I've read the fascinating history of the beer and others of that time - check out Maureen Ogle's Ambitious Brew - and it was that win which added the Blue Ribbon to the name.)

I'm drinking in my hotel-motel which is the kind of place that could drip blood through the wall at any time (the just-under-filled kidney-shaped pool outside looks like a cess pit). To me this place-beer combo is quintessential middle America, straight out of the road movie, and after a week of face-smacking hops, cheek-puckering sours and mouth-filling imperial stouts this actually doesn't taste all that bad, in fact it's refreshing to sit back and drink something without having to think about it. My only worry is hearing a beat-up old station wagon roll into the parking lot late at night. I'm living the American dream.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Anchor Brewery Tour

Anchor is probably the most important brewery in the US. Fritz Maytag, the owner, was at the forefront of a changing beer scene and helped to shape the future of US brewing. Arriving there today I meet a big, off-grey building, only suggesting it's a brewery through a few barrels of beer and a pick-up with the familiar logo on the door.

Inside the first thing that hits is the smell: freshly brewing beer - malty and sweet, fruity, delicious. It leads through to a bar and then the tops of three copper tanks, like upside-down beer chalices. This then moves through to the fermentation vessels, down to the cellar and then back to the bar to drink the beer.

They brew five days a week and Steam is 70% of the output. They can fill 100,000 bottles a day. Their output is 60% bottle and 40% keg. They also - which I didn't know before the tour - make three whiskies, two gins and have a winery across the street which makes wine from grapes grown at Fritz Maytag's vineyard (the whisky is Old Potrero and the wine is York Creek).

Onto the beer. Steam was super fresh, clean caramel malt and a dry, quenching finish. Liberty, which is dry-hopped, is lovely and floral and citrusy - a classic US pale ale. Humming Ale, the only one in the range which uses hops other than US grown varieties (Nelson Sauvin), is distinctive of the hop, tropical, dry, clinging and bitter and very drinkable. The Bock is like sweet toffee with a dry finish (too sweet for me). Porter is smooth and roasty with a berry sweetness and lots going on for its relatively modest ABV. And Old Foghorn, the barleywine and the star of the tasting, was amber-red, fruity, c-hoppy, balanced between big malt and big hops and really very good.

The tour is fun. It's also an unmissable stop on a beer trip to San Francisco, as without Anchor Brewery who knows what world beer would be like now.

Super Bowl at an Extra Special Brewery

I happen to be out here on Super Bowl Sunday. This is a big deal, I understand. Frankly, I know nothing about American football and have no clue about the rules, so when I was invited to a Super Bowl party the deal had to be sweetened with the promise of good beer. Thankfully, that's exactly what I got.

It all started in 21st Amendment's bar (which is a very cool place). I was in there drinking stupidly strong beer (it's Strong Beer Month) before midday. At some point I hear the lovely twang of a fellow British accent (albeit fairly Americanised). This happened to be Richard from Elizabeth Street Brewery, a homebrewer with bigger ambitions who serves beer in the garage of his house (for those on twitter he's @ESBale). Long story short, I ended up at his Superbowl party two days later in one of those serendipitous, of the moment, moments.

The football was shown on three TVs, including a 72" beast. There was great home-cooked food everywhere and three beer stations: one station for homebrew, one for a brewery called Cherry Voodoo and one for Rich's beer, including one he brewed with 21st Amendment. The homebrew was literally astounding. A 10% IPA was incredible, a Double Red rocked and a Belgian ale was very, very good. Cherry Voodoo had a few great beers too, including a 19% imperial stout (imperial stout meets cherry brandy). The ESB ESB (that's not a typo) and a 21A imperialised ESB collaboration were both fantastic. The football, however, I have no idea. I figured watching a game would clue me up but it didn't. In fact, I was more interested in the adverts, which were brilliant (check out the Simpsons and Coke - yes, together - ad, some of the Bud Light ads and the Google ad about a traveler to France).

I took along a bottle of Marble Special to share around and that's one special beer. Taking an American barley wine to the Americans is like ice to an eskimo but people liked it a lot. I thought it was truly excellent - big but smooth and easy drinking, hoppy and fruity and bitter, so well integrated and balanced for a beer like this drunk fresh.

Richard from ESB wants to open a commercial brewery and I truly hope he does - beyond the beer he's the perfect host and face of a brewery. He's a great guy and from what I hear a lot of people know his beers and know him. I think he'll do very well.

Sometimes cool things happen. This was one of those times. A chance meeting in a bar, a few beers, an invitation, a one-off experience. Beer is good like that.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Hoppy and Roasty

Double IPA festival yesterday. It was pretty nuts. Most beers were around 9% and bragged tongue-wrecking IBU levels. Everything was served in 4oz pours; enough to enjoy it but not enough to pickle you too quickly (though there were a few stumbling around early afternoon - that's another thing, it started at 11am).

Pliny the Younger was the big one (in many ways). An 11% triple IPA released once a year (the Friday of SF Beer Week) by Russian River. But this came alongside an overwhelming list of big beers. Of course, I had Younger as soon as I arrived (it's good but I need some more of it now). Ballast Point's Dorado was excellent, Bear Republic's Five Zero and 11 were very good, a couple from Drakes were superb (Drakes are a very good brewery, one I didn't know about until the trip), Moylans' Hopsickle (140 IBU!) and Triple Rock's IIMAXX were hop bombs.

The interesting thing was the difference between these beers of the same style. Some were sickly sweet and jaggedly hoppy; some were citrus and fruit; some were floral and herbal and dry; some just drop-kicked your face; some were a confusing mix of the above. Drinking just one style is a great way to pick out the subtle differences in each brew (although these beers are not especially subtle...), even if towards the end they did start to converge towards just 'hoppy'.

After the DIPA fest I went to an Alesmith event at City Beer Store (that's an awesomely cool bar). The Alesmith IPA was spectacular but I was there for Speedway Stout - the regular one and barrel aged. They are both sexy looking beers, darkest brown with one of those chocolate milkshake heads. Regular is silky smooth and rammed with roasty coffee flavour and dark chocolate; the barrel aged is an incredible oaky, vanilla, bourbon, chocolate monster with subdued coffee and great depth. Amazing beers.

After this I went to the Toronado where New Belgium's La Folie tasted like a bloody mary and then I nearly fell asleep at the table (jet lag sucks).

That was a good day drinking. I met and got to drink with so many cool people, which is the best thing about this trip. And a lot of people there are brewers from the area, proudly pouring their stuff while also happily drinking other breweries beers. It's good to have that in the beer scene.

The Hop Press: Something Sour; Part of the Journey

This entry to the Hop Press is rolled together last-minute and talks about my new love for sour beer (surpassing tongue-ripping, hop-heavy beers) and how I crave them in the middle of drinking sessions. It also looks at a progression of beer drinking, which I think goes a little like this: lager, ale, dark ale, strong ale, imperial stout, big IPAs, sours, session beer and lager. It’s a list of the developing tastes of someone who loves different beers and a natural step from one to the next finishing up back where it all started with a new appreciation of the wonderful simplicity of good session ale or lager.

This is set to auto-publish as I will be computer-less while in San Francisco (but I'll still be blogging via my blackberry). While we’re here, today is Superbowl Sunday. Apparently this is a big deal, like FA Cup Final Day, or something. Personally, I don’t get American football. The stop-starting bores the hell out of me. I think I’ll try and watch the game though, maybe I’ll learn something. Anyway... as long as I’ve got a good beer all will be well!

Friday, 5 February 2010

And so it begins...

I made it to San Francisco. Wake up at 4.30am; drive to the airport; a delayed flight; a short layover in snowy, grey Germany; 11 hours in a shitty, cheap plane seat with crap food and terrible movies (made bareable by two very good books and some good music); a landing which I thought was going to be in the bay; a BART ride made interesting by a weird trampish guy with gangsta hair; lots of rain; the smallest hotel room ever seen; a shower shared between 20 (not simultaneously); something called the MUNI; a few wrong turns; and finally, sweetly, wonderfully, I arrive at the Toronado.

The Toronado: I love it. I'm here now. Grungy, dark, beer memorabilia everywhere, a dizzying number of pumps, a board full of beer, cool tattooed barmen, rock music. I choose Pliny the Elder, of course. It's incredible. Racer 5 next. Incredible too. This is the beer I was drinking before and after I won the award which paid for this trip. It's a special beer to me because of that. Right now it tastes perfect. Absolutely perfect.

I've been awake for 24 hours but fuck it, I don't care. I'm drinking great beer in an awesome bar. So begins my week in San Francisco.

(By the way, expect swearing, excessive use of exclamation marks, bad or non-existent grammer, woeful spelling and general silliness from these gonzo posts, most of which will be in a bar when I'm half-pissed)

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

A bitch of a week so far

This week has been crazy: work has been nuts; a presentation of the communications plan to all the managers at the college last thing tomorrow; an email inbox that won’t stop growing; too many meetings; the car failed its MOT, got an expensive repair, had to have the re-test abandoned and go back to the garage for another expensive repair, which has meant running around like a blue-arsed fly; I'm stressed; I’m tired; I haven’t written; I have nothing to write; I’ve been washing up, washing clothes, ironing and packing all evening; I haven’t spent enough time with Lauren; I’ve spent too much time looking at beer lists and Beer Week events; I don’t know what’s for dinner tomorrow; I can barely tell my arse from my elbow; I’m almost certain I’ve forgotten something very important; I have no cereal for breakfast tomorrow; I’m worried about taking pencils on the plane in case they are judged as weapons and I have to throw them away; I have discovered that I only own four pairs of white socks; I have a headache; I can’t decide which books to take away with me; I don’t know what the MUNI is but I expect to spend a lot of time on it in the next week; I’m going to miss Lauren a lot; I’m going to miss sitting at my laptop writing a lot; I don’t know what to have for breakfast tomorrow instead of cereal; what if the bottles in my luggage smash; how many notepads do I need; should I shave; have I got enough clean pants; what time do I need to leave for the airport on Thursday; how many pairs of shoes do I pack; what can you do on a two-hour lay-over in Frankfurt; what if my hotel is in a dodgy area; what if I get drunk and lost; what if I forget to tip a barman; what if I meet a bunch of internet beer-nutters who just want me for my Penguins; what if I don't sleep on the plane; what if someone steals my money; where is...; what’s the best way...; what if... Oh dear... I’ve just realised I’m a bad and nervous traveller.

Thankfully, I’ve just finished a Flying Dog Raging Bitch which has got me in the mood for awesome beer. It’s incredibly fruity, like dunking your nose in apricot jam or a bowl of fresh peaches; it’s juicy like pineapple; esters swirl around beneath bitter hops; something phenolic lingers. I thought it’d be better than it is (it had hype), to be honest, but it’s still good. The spoiling factor is an elastic-band twang. It makes me want more beer.

FYI: This will probably be my last post before San Francisco (did I mention I'm going?) but I will be blogging daily via email on my blackberry, so expect it to be an extended version of twitter complete with blurry photographs, terrible grammar and woeful, drunk spelling. Still, at least it’ll be a fair reflection of a beery travelogue.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Sand and Storytelling

This isn’t about beer. But I recommend you watch this video while drinking one. And turn the sound on too. It’s the winner of Ukraine’s Got Talent and it’s one of the most mesmerising things I’ve ever seen. There is an art to telling a good story and this is the most unique way I’ve seen, like an evolving comic strip, organically moving from one scene to the next, constantly surprising the viewer, while the skill and sleight of hand is just dazzling. I wish we had entries like this in our version of the competition. It beats Susan Boyle and dancing dog acts any day.

I posted this on twitter earlier and it got a big response. I think it’s a few months old but I only saw it for the first time today. I’ve got many words inside about it, I’m sure, but they aren’t coming out. There’s some more about the power of story, how it’s like a physical animation and things like that.

Beer and Soup

I think only soup can match the variety of flavour and texture that beer has in its spectrum. Beer can be pale gold or darkest black, it can be thick or thin, fragrant and zingy or rich and intense, light or heavy, smooth or textured, sweet or sour. Soup can do all of that too.

When it comes to matching beer and soup I falter. It’s a texture and temperature thing. A mouthful of warm, thick soup followed by a mouthful of cold, fizzing beer. I imagine the liquid vs. liquid battle to be like oil and water and that’s not something I want in my mouth. It shouldn’t work... But it really can.

With soup, beer works as an enhancement of flavour, as some balance, or as a bridge, as well as a palate cleanser and I’ve had some great recent matches:

French Onion Soup with Lost Abbey Inferno. Rich, sweet and beefy soup with a cheese-topped crouton and a sprightly Belgian-style blonde. The simplicity of the beer works well with the onion, the spice mirrors the pepper, the sweetness balances the savoury. A surprisingly successful pair.

Bouillabaisse and Orval. Delicious, homemade fish soup, swimming with prawns, fat white flakes of cod, juicy mussels and a garlic crouton on the side. It’s a perfect soup for beer and the lemony lift of Orval cuts the fish richness while the near-savoury peppery hop character is a great tongue tickler.

Clam chowder with chilli and Meantime Pilsner. I can’t take credit for this match but I did enjoy it. We had this at the British Guild of Beer Writers awards and it was very good – rich, saline chowder livened with a spike of chilli and lifted effortlessly by the gentle, floral carbonation in the beer; a great match which was the inspiration behind this post and other recent experiments.

Spicy butternut squash soup and Meantime IPA. I love this soup. Velvety, heart-filling, spiced but not enough to blow steam out of your ears. With the big citrus-pith, earthy, spicy beer it’s great; they hit the same notes and one finishes then the other carries on seamlessly.

Leek, potato and cauliflower soup and mustard croutons with Duvel. Let me be controversial: I don’t like Duvel. I don’t get the hype that it has. I bought it again to try with this soup and I nearly got to like it, with the caramel, apples and honeysuckle flavour, but the dry finish is just astringent and a little unpleasant on its own. Luckily, it works a treat with food and this was a good match, picking up on the earthy flavours and giving enough sweetness and lift to balance things out. This soup is also fantastic with added curry seasoning and works equally well with the beer.

These matches have gone some way to changing my mind on the possibilities of beer working with soup. The texture/temperature clash is still a worry but when you get it right it really can be wonderful.

I have another issue when it comes to soup... I can’t say the word without breaking into the Mighty Boosh’s soup song. “Soup, soup, a tasty soup, soup, a spicy carrot and coriander..., chilli chowder...” It’s a mild affliction.