Sunday 30 October 2011

Time well spent in search of a story

I travel three hours every day to get to and from work. Commuting sucks. Being surrounded by sleepy city workers who smell of coffee, perfume, mint and make-up (that’s on the way there; coming home it’s replaced with stale coffee breath, fast food lunches, cigarettes and sweat – the smell of hard work), who snooze through the stations until they get to theirs, who all read the same papers or look at the bright screen of an iPad or Kindle. There’s businessmen who furiously answer emails on their Blackberry, interns who tap and slide their finger over the Facebook app on their iPhones or those who just shut out the world and listen to music, probably dreaming of more sleep. When the National Rail ends and the Underground journey begins then the same thing happens just in a smaller space and with those not staring into a paper, book or Kindle staring at their shoes to avoid eye contact. The journeys are silent. Everyone too tired to talk yet, to disturb the sleepy silence, disturb the extra hour of rest we get before we work.

Despite this, the journeys are interesting. There's the occasional pretty girl, the guy dressed in an odd outfit or who sings aloud, someone reading a book you love or someone smiling as they read which makes me want to share the story, there's a familiar face, a quirky character, a rainbow of people, some dressed in pinstripe suits and others in the three stripes of a tracksuit. Who are these people? Where are they going? What job will they do at the other end? What will their day be like? How will we all combine to make sure the city keeps moving forward?

There’s also the reading time. Two hours a day set aside for reading is my idea of a well-planned day. The fact that it’s on an over-crowded carriage and costing me £400 a month is not ideal, but as long as I get that reading time then I don’t mind. I also don’t mind because I’ve just finished the best book I’ve ever read.

Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold had me gasping, laughing, breathless and speechless. Most of the time I had no idea what was going on around me because I was so absorbed in the 560 pages in my hands and I could’ve ridden the train to its final destination and back just so I didn’t have to stop reading. The book is a magic trick from beginning to end and that final page turn, late a few nights ago, kept me awake with excitement.

It was like the moment I sat in the plush velvet comfort of the cinema chair after the final frame of Inglourious Basterds snapped to black. I agreed with the final line: it was a masterpiece. Then I thought to 20 minutes earlier when I was open-eyed and open-mouthed as I stared in excitement as the on-screen cinema burned down. This is a film made to be watched here, I thought. An ode to how good cinema and storytelling can be. I wanted to watch it again, straight away, I wanted to be excited and moved, to feel the tension, to fall in love with the beautiful blondes, to be entertained and forget everything else around me.

I love beer because of the thrill of the chase, because I never know what’s coming next. It might be something new or it might be an old favourite. It might be something so good I have to order another pint of it. I might be alone in the pub or with friends. I might be at home. And whatever beer I drink it might just be the best beer I’ve ever tasted. Or a great beer. Or a good one. Or one so bad it makes me laugh.

I can now say the names of my favourite book and favourite film. Mr Brightside is my favourite song because it brings back so many memories and makes me want to jump around with no cares. The exciting thing is that I want to carry on reading, watching films and listening to music to have similar experiences, to be removed from the moment and absorbed in something; to be entertained, pleased, excited.

If I find that perfect beer then, like books or films, the search won’t stop because every beer has a different story that I want to know. And we make our own stories around them by where we drink them and who we’re with. The fact that we are characters in that story is the exciting part. The three hour commute is worthwhile when I’m transported to other places and times and emotions through the story. With beer the joy comes in the moment and the way we make that beer part of our story. 

Tuesday 25 October 2011

Show Boat Brown Ale - 26 October

This won’t happen often but I’m promoting the day job while I work on building a blog for the brewery… The thing is, Camden Town Brewery are tapping a new beer for the first time tomorrow (26 October) and I’d like lots of people to be there to drink it with us.

It’s at Joe’s in Camden and we’ll be there from 6.30pm – the beers are on us (and some hot dogs, too). If you are free and would like a few beers then it’d be great to see you there. There’s more details on the Facebook page including how we decided on the name Show Boat and how it’s made.

Wednesday 19 October 2011

Cooking with Beer: Spicy Scotch Ale Pork

The current stretch to my cooking skills is sandwiches. I’m always too late to make breakfast in the morning and I get home needing to lie down and sleep not stand around and cook. Sunday is now the day I get to spend in the kitchen. Needing to flex my over-relaxed culinary muscles, I wanted to cook something new. As usual, I didn’t know what.

It was cold outside and I wanted something rich and filling but at the same time I wanted it to be sweet and spicy. It also had to be a cure for a week of drinking far too much. I looked to see if I had any beers which I didn’t mind emptying into a saucepan – Founder’s Dirty Bastard was dusted off and put beside the oven. The inspiration came somewhere between a meat and ale stew and jerk pork: all the spices and flavours of jerk plus onions, stock and beer, slow-cooked so that it reduces into a sticky, spicy bowl of gut-warming dinner.

Take some pork, preferably a fatty cut which can handle a few hours at 200C. Season some flour with salt, pepper, paprika, thyme, cayenne pepper and all spice. Dust the pork in flour and then seal in a hot pan. Remove and then add thickly cut onions or shallots. Soften with some sugar. Add garlic and scotch bonnet chilli then a few sprigs of fresh thyme, more seasoning, paprika and a pinch of all spice. I added some mushrooms here. Then some tomato puree. Cook for a few minutes then return the pork. Add some beef stock (about 400ml) and then pour in the beer – I used the whole bottle (minus a few sips for the chef, of course). I added some little carrots to up my veg intake, plus a few shakes of Worcestershire sauce and a teaspoon of marmite. Put the pot in the oven, covered, for 45 minutes and then uncover for up to an hour (until it’s the thickness you want it to be), stirring every 30 minutes or so. Serve with whatever you want – rice, mash potato, green vegetables, roasted sweet potatoes.

The finished bowl of food is exactly what I wanted: deeply spicy but still a little fruity from the scotch bonnet, richly savoury from the stock and marmite, sweet and a little bitter from the beer. One of those dinners that you have in a big bowl and it leaves you feeling full and warm.

No beer needed on the side – this was about recovery from beer, recovering from a busy week.

Monday 17 October 2011

Fuller’s Vintage Ale: A 15-year vertical tasting

Every year I buy four or five bottles of Fuller’s Vintage Ale when it’s released. There’s one to drink fresh and the others to snuggle together at the back of the beer cupboard. I’ve got no plan for when I’m going to open them but going to the Fuller’s 15-year flight of Vintage Ales will probably push back the to-be-opened-on dates that aren’t-yet stuck to those claret boxes in my cupboard.

The recipe for Vintage Ale changes a bit each year – different hops, different malt – but they remain similar in colour, bitterness and ABV. I love about the Vintage Ales is how each one tastes different each time you try it; it makes them always interesting as sometimes they taste amazing while other times they seem reluctant to give away much, going through peaks and troughs. It also means from bottle to bottle things are different. Here’s how the bottles I had were tasting last week...

2011. Three months off the bottling line. Cointreau, pepper, peach. Fresh hops and burnt sugar. Sweet first, dry bitterness to end. Love the freshness in this.

2010. Dried cherry plus orange and marmalade. Noticeably reduced bitterness from 2011. Little sherry, marzipan and almond.

2009. Bitter orange, vanilla, almond. Brown sugar adds a sweet taste. Subtle carbonation is nice. Feels in a transition between new and old; it’s getting there.

2008. Blackberry, cherry and a fragrant spiciness which is like rooty, orangy turmeric and coriander. Really nice complexity to it (‘what is that flavour?’) which makes you go back for more.

2007.  Nothing jumps out the glass in aroma or flavour – it’s shy and not forthcoming. Seems to be asleep right now. Give it some time.

2006. Rich, crackery body which is going savoury. There’s a marmalade bitterness but it’s not very orangey. Like 2007, not much is going on at the moment. Try again later.

2005. Smells older suddenly. Sherried raisins and dried cherry. A definite sweetness which seems to lift everything. The finish remains dry. This is more like it – time is having its impact.

2004. Cherry brandy. The bitterness is more perceptible and the carbonation is lower. Not overwhelming in any flavour but it’s tasting excellent for its age.

2003. Two takes at this one as the first bottle was a little musty like second-hand shirts. Second bottle was like Christmas pudding – figs and brandy. Shows how different it can be from bottle to bottle.

2002. One of the best we had; one of the most interesting. Immediately it smells like fresh grain sacks. Then there’s some perfume which is backed up with a floral flavour. Cakey, fruity and still tasting so fresh – the perfumy hops are really pervasive. Complex and wonderful.

2001. Ribena and raspberry pips burst out the glass. This was probably my favourite of the flight with no signs of oxidation, a simple sweetness, a dry finish and that gorgeous fruitiness.

2000. Oaky aroma, some raspberries, vanilla and sponge cake – a little like arctic roll. So complex, so interesting. The last three bottles have all been stunning.

1999. Less aroma than the last two bottles but loads of flavour: full bodied, smooth sweetness, bitter tea, some sherry. Loads going on but restrained and interesting.

1998. You’d never know this was 14 years old as it’s aged so well. Complex but not challenging, smooth and clean but bitter and dry. Incredible depth of flavour to it.

1997. The original Vintage Ale. Lots of fruit still comes through and there’s little sign of oxidation. It’s rich and big and the bitterness lingers but it lacks the punch of those a little younger.

A flight of 15 Vintage Ales and all so different yet so clearly from the same family. Some of these have aged wonderfully, some less so. It’s hard to think that some could ever taste better while it’s exciting to think that others will definitely taste better soon (2006 and 2007 need to wake up). The best of these stood out as some of the best beers I’ve ever tasted; the fact that some were 10 years old is even more amazing.

I love to taste how these beers develop and change over time and I’m fascinated by that process. Before the tasting Fuller’s showed us some numbers on how the beers went into bottle compared to how they are now. For me, the most interesting thing on these lists was how the bitterness changed: they all dropped by around 25% and this occurs within the first 12 months. But where does the bitterness go? It doesn’t just jump out of the bottle... The sugars also change with complex sugars turning into less complex sugars which causes flavour change. These simple, fermentable sugars then kick on further action in the bottle.

This tasting was the last time that all the Vintage Ales made will be opened together. If you’ve got any 1998 and 2002 stashed away somewhere then there are very few of these left anywhere, so you’ve got some seriously rare bottles. The best I tasted were from 2000, 2001 and 2002. They are perfect examples of how well beer can age. Now I just need to work out how long to let the ones I’ve collected last... 

Thursday 13 October 2011

London Brewers Alliance Showcase 2011

This year has seen a boom in London breweries and there are more coming next year. That’s pretty exciting. What’s more exciting is that all of the current ones will be pouring their beers at BrewWharf on Saturday 22 October for their annual Showcase event.  

Tickets are £20. That gets you inside and it gets you eight half pints (you can buy extra if that doesn’t quench your thirst and everyone will be pouring samples, I'm sure). One of those half pints is for the special collaboration beer that all the breweries made at Windsor & Eton. It’s a big IPA with all kinds of different hops and hop additions in there, including a big sack of fresh green hops.

It’s the only chance all year you’ll get to try all the London brewery beers in one place and it’s a real celebration of London brewing. Last year it was a brilliant event and this year will be no different.

I’ll be there working on the Camden Town Brewery bar so if you go you’ll get to see my pint-pouring skillz.

Wednesday 12 October 2011

Cheers to three years

Today Pencil&Spoon is three years old! Happy birthday blog!

To celebrate being three, and in the abridged style of High Fidelity, here are some top three lists:

Top three things I’ve done because of writing this blog that I wouldn’t have done if I didn’t write this blog
1.     Travelling to lots of different places – New York, San Francisco, Boulder, Rome, Prague, Belgium. I may have gone to these places but I saw a different side
2.      Brewing a beer with BrewDog
3.      Craft beer list with Byron Hamburgers

Top three moments thanks to blogging about beer
1.      Any time someone sees me in a pub, or sends me an email, and says they read the blog and enjoy it – it makes it all worthwhile
2.     Winning two awards from the British Guild of Beer Writers (I was asked the other day if I think it made a difference to me and it absolutely has – it gave me opportunities to write properly, to write for print, and it gave me the guts to keep on going)
3.      Seeing my writing in print for the first time (and seeing the cheque I got with it)

Top three beers I’ve drunk while writing this blog
1.      Racer 5 in many different places – The Rake, my house, the brewery, The Toad in the Hole in Santa Rosa
2.      Pilsner Urquell in the cellars under the brewery
3.      Pliny the Elder, Toronado, San Francisco – first beer of my first beer trip

Top three places (excluding pubs and breweries) I’ve drunk beer while writing this blog
1.   A beach on a little Greek island as the sun’s setting. Icy Mythos and a plate of little fried fish. Perfection.
2.  On a hotel rooftop in NYC, having climbed up the fire stairway. We opened a can of 21st Amendment and watched the skyline in the distance
3.      Citi Field. A cold lager, a hot dog and baseball

Top three breweries I’ve had a beer in
1.      Cantillon. Magical
2.      Pilsner Urquell. Incredible
3.      Russian River. Mind-blowing
Honorable mention: Oskar Blues. Awesome

Top three pubs or bars I’ve had a beer in
1.      Toronado, San Francisco
2.      Barcade, Brooklyn
3.      Bir + Fud, Rome
Honorable mention: Moeder Lambic, Brussels

Top three strangest – what am I doing here? – moments thanks to blogging about beer
1.      A beer bath in Czech Republic
2.     Climbing into my first mash tun. It was at the old Thornbridge Brewery. My fear of heights peaked as I ungracefully tried to climb into the tank while fighting a fierce battle with my fear of falling
3.   Elizabeth Street Brewery. A home-brewery in San Francisco, a party for the Superbowl, lots of food, lots of people, lots of home-brewed beers on tap and the biggest TV I’ve ever seen. Not a strange place, just a brilliant thing to find myself at – a unique experience

Top three blogs – page views
1.      CraftBeer Co

Top three favourite blogs I’ve posted
1.      ChodovarBeer Baths
3.      Whybeer matters

Here’s some random facts:

Blogs posted: 530 (this is blog 531)

Words written in three years: Over 250,000

Total number of comments on all posts: 5,061

Hours spent every day writing this blog or reading other blogs: 1-3

Arguments I’ve had with Lauren because I’ve been on twitter/reading or writing blogs/out drinking beer/reading a beer book when I should’ve been spending time with her: Approximately 638. Sorry Lauren.

Cheers for reading this. If you didn’t read it and add comments then it wouldn’t be what it is. Most days for three years I’ve got up at 5am to write this, I’ve spent my weekends chasing beers and going to new pubs, I’ve spent all my spare money travelling or buying bottles or books or another bookshelf because I’ve bought so many (or buying Lauren presents because I’ve just put in another order with myBrewerytap/Amazon/Expedia). I do it all because I love doing it. And because beer is brilliant.  

Cake pic from here.

Sunday 9 October 2011

The Session #56: Thanks to the big boys

No geekery. No snobbery. No preciousness. Just beer. Beer with a name up in bright lights. Beer which is available around the world. Which always tastes the same. Consistent. Identical. Good. Not awesome. Not incredible. Just good. If it wasn’t good then how would it sell so much? Marketing might make you buy it once but taste makes you buy it again. Good means it makes you want another. I’ll have another Bud. I like Bud. It’s got a story. History. They pioneered pasteurisation and transporting beer; the first national beer brand. And as a light beer when most people drank dark beer. It’s a brewery which has grown, through family ties, expanded nationally then internationally. Beer Wars had them buying brands; ownership of the market was what they wanted. Buy-outs and mergers later, brands coming and going and changing. But Bud stayed the same. It doesn’t change. Wherever you drink it, wherever it’s made, it tastes the same. That’s an incredible achievement. It makes you trust, it makes it reliable. The present presence, overbearing for some, is a lifestyle for others. I’ll have a Bud.

Bit late on this one as it should’ve gone up on Friday... It’s been a busy week. This Session is hosted by Reuben at Tale of the Ale.

Tuesday 4 October 2011

Are dimpled beer mugs cool?

At home I drink most of my beer in a 12oz shaker glass. In the pub I like the pint version of the same shape. It’s the straight edges which I like about it. It’s uncomplicated. At home I also alternate between two other shapes – a pint, a snifter and a flute. Those four glasses cover every beer I could possibly want to drink. One glass I never use at home is the dimpled mug.

As reported in this year’s Cask Report, there’s a retro-chic attached to real ale right now and the dimpled mug is a part of that (every other picture on the Report also shows a pint in a mug). Visually I agree that they look good (as long as there’s still a good head on it – nothing looks worse that a pint pulled square to the top of the glass with no head) but as something to drink out of I’m less convinced: I find them too big to wrap my hand around comfortably, the handle makes me clumsy (especially after a few) and they are hardly great for swirling and sniffing, are they?

The dimpled mug stands apart from the other glasses. Only real ale is ever poured into the mug, so it says that this drink is different to your mate’s lager. But does it make them cool or does it just make you stand out and look like an old man? And given a choice in a pub, would you go for the straight up pint glass or the dimpled mug?