31 May 2011

Duvel and Liturgy

The beer

Duvel. The iconic Belgian ale.

Inspired by Scottish ales of the time, it started life in 1923 as a dark beer and stayed that way until 1970, when the Moortgaat brewery opted to use paler Pilsner-style malts to create the beer I hold before me today.

Ritualistically poured into the distinctive Duvel tulip, shimmering golden haze is contrasted against thick, pure white head. Bubbles effervesce from the etched ‘D’ in the bottom of the glass as if I’ve tossed in an Alka Seltzer.

Museli, breakfast cereal-like smells are punctuated by hints of pear and orange zest. A snap of perfume from the Saaz hops demands to be noticed.

As I drink, pear drop sweetness moves seamlessly into apple sourness, before fading into the signature Belgian dry white wine finish that leaves you gasping for more; truly the devil’s work.

The music

For all intents and purposes, Liturgy is a black metal band. Tremolo-picked guitars, blast beats and shrieked vocals seem to tick the relevant musical boxes.

However, the black-hole nihilism that is a key – some would argue essential – component of more traditional black metal is consciously replaced on ‘Aesthethica’ with a soaring, transcendental outlook that drags the form screaming into the sunlight. And there are some orthodox black metallers who are not happy about being taken there – especially by a band from New York that kinda look like The Strokes.

Raw and exuberant, ‘Aesthethica’ builds on what previous album ‘Renihilation’ established: a life-affirming, relentless onslaught of sublime, harmonious joy.

The match

This pairing has been partly inspired by the tedious, circuitous discussion and pointless pontificating that seems to be dominating beer talk in the UK at the moment.

I need to escape this cycle of ludicrousness and return to what I know is good in beer.

Duvel was a gateway beer for me. I knew Duvel was good before I even knew what good beer was.

Drinking it reminds me of a time when I was on the cusp of discovering a world of unknown complexity and intense, glorious flavours. Wide-eyed and eager, and without a guide, I stumbled innocently into an incredible world that captivated and enthralled.

I need something to take me beyond the petty quarrels of man and up above the clouds to the edge of space.

Liturgy can take you most of the way there, but to burst through that final barrier of airborne mist and vapour sometimes something more is required.

This evening it is Duvel that helps take me there. There is something shared between this beer and this music.

The white and gold artwork of 'Aesthethica' is echoed in the glass. Religious symbolism adorns both beer and album. They are united by an almost whimsical, celebratory attitude that masks intensity and focused, studied precision.

What once was dark has now become light.

Maybe there is hope somewhere in this destructive whirlpool of antagonism that threatens to drag UK beer to the murky depths of annihilation...

17 May 2011

The Kernel Suke Quto Coffee IPA and Twin Peaks

The beer

I’m not sure how long Evin O’Riordain has been brewing in his railway arch, but it seems that over that past few months I’ve come across The Kernel Brewery beers being sold in an ever-growing number of outlets throughout London and beyond.

The critical acclaim has matched the apparent increased distribution, and with good reason – the beers are distinctive, bursting with flavour and a joy to drink.

I've picked out a slightly unusual beer for this match: Kernel Suke Quto Coffee IPA. Brewed in collaboration with Square Mile Coffee, I’m intrigued to see how flavours I normally associate with porter will work in an IPA.

The series

I’ve grown a little obsessed with the Pacific Northwest region of North America. It’s becoming like my adult Disneyland – a place you dream of going to but are not sure you’ll ever quite make it there.

My obsession can be mainly attributed to what I’ve seen of the scenery and geographical features: spectacular mountain ranges, ancient temperate rain forests and incredible river gorges that cut through the landscape. These things appeal to me. I like to look at them. I like to be amongst them.

However, it’s also the idea of living in isolated communities in this wilderness that I find attractive, and my notion of what life would be like in a small town in this part of the world has been largely shaped by cinema and television.

First Blood – yes, the first Rambo movie – was the film that initially brought the landscape and experience to my attention.

But it was Twin Peaks that really sold the Pacific Northwest to me.

Framed within a soap opera-style narrative and set against a backdrop of breathtaking natural beauty, David Lynch and Mark Frost’s serial drama combines tragedy, surrealism, humour, horror and more to create something that transcends the medium.

It is unlike anything that has come before or since – though it may well have changed television forever.

The first season connected with me in a way that I didn’t believe was possible for a TV series to do, and so it’s with some apprehension that I sit down to begin watching episode one of the second...

The match 

Watching Twin Peaks always makes me want coffee. It appears frequently, appearing to take on symbolic significance. For central character Agent Cooper, drinking a good cup of hot, black coffee is a moment of pure elation.

Similar feelings are evoked as I pour the beer and prepare myself for a period of complete self-indulgence.

Kernel Suke Quto Coffee IPA is deep amber in colour with a thin, off-white head. Pine-like sap aromas waft from its surface.

Angelo Badalamenti’s familiar soundtrack strikes up and I’m instantly summoned back to the mountains, back to that waterfall, back to Twin Peaks.

The opening scene is agonisingly awkward and slow-paced, but expertly executed.

I sip my beer to get me through it. Orange citrus hops boss proceedings. I await the coffee hit. Then wait some more.

Then just as I begin to abandon hope, there it is: a wonderful chocolate, cocoa bitterness right at the end. It gives the beer a warming, comforting quality, and, combined with the hop flavours, makes me think unexpectedly of Terry’s Chocolate Orange. But in a good way.

I'm glad to have something comforting to hand, as the unrelenting, brooding darkness of the first few minutes of this episode are leaving me feeling a little uneasy. Disturbing things are happening on screen. Tragic events unfold. Ominous, throbbing synths hint at some unknown evil.

Then a moment of humour here. A smidgen of hope there. Light in amongst so much darkness. The contrast is striking and the sense of relief is intense.

I think of Agent Cooper and his coffee. So many horrendous things happen around him, but he still makes a point of taking time out to enjoy a simple pleasure – and it becomes clear to me that this is how I drink beer.

My life isn’t so bad, but the world can be a dark, ugly place, with malevolence and suffering an almost inevitable aspect of human experience.

So I allow myself the opportunity to enjoy a beer, bask in its aromas, admire its flavours and talk an immense amount of bollocks about what beer-drinking means for me.

I hope you are able to do the same once in a while.

9 May 2011

Sharp's Monsieur Rock and Match of the Day

The beer

When I heard a whisper on the wind that Stuart Howe was brewing a beer with Orval brewmaster Jean-Marie Rock I got excited. If you saw me at the time you wouldn’t have known I was excited – I tend to keep any positive emotions buried deep beneath a façade of sneering cynicism – but I was.

My first sample of Monsieur Rock was supplied by a good friend (the first one’s always free). I remember it being exceptional, but can’t quite recall why – we drank a lot of incredible, complex-tasting beer that night and my memory of it kind of got lost amongst the onslaught of massive flavours.

How I let this happen, I’m not sure, as Monsieur Rock is undoubtedly one of the best beers I’ve drunk over the last six months.

Shimmering gold in colour with fizzing lemon zest perfumes, it’s a thing of beauty when it hits the glass.

Biscuit malt flavours melt away to let peppery, lager-bitterness caress the back of your mouth.

Hidden in the background is a distinctive Belgian sourness that, unless you know what you’re looking for, you might not find, but it’s there alright – and it subtly shapes this beer into something dangerously desirable.

The show

I love football, but I don’t particularly follow a team (not sure I could cope with the stress); I love the complexity and subtleties of the skill, strategy and psychology involved in a way that you can only really appreciate if you have played the game, and immersed yourself in the culture and experience of the sport, from an early age.

Match of the Day is my perfect television programme and the only one I really watch with any regularity. 

It’s often film-length at an hour and a half plus, and the drama, action and (frankly awful) dialogue captivate me in a special way. No talking is allowed when Match of the Day is on in our house. It’s my time; pure unadulterated pleasure and unbridled joy. Pair that with an outstanding beer and you’re about to witness some serious façade-slipping.

The match

Sharp’s: an English brewery, supported by foreign investment, with legions of devoted fans. In Monsieur Rock they have a beer that matches British brewing traditions with continental flourish.

The Barclay’s Premier League: an English football competition, supported by foreign investment, with legions of devoted fans. The teams match British tactics with continental....fuck it – you can see where I’m going with this. I won't labour the point.

Basically, beer – particularly lager – is intertwined with football culture in the UK. 

Unfortunately, it tends to be utterly shit 'lager' that’s sold at football grounds, sports bars and ‘Sky Sports Here!’ pubs. I am completely fed up with watching football while drinking beer-flavoured water. Luckily, in my home, I have a choice.

Really, drinking any great beer while watching something you appreciate is never going to be anything but enjoyable. 

However, for me, drinking Monsieur Rock while watching Match of the Day works particularly well, because it takes my memories of drinking Foster’s out of plastic cups and stomps them into the fucking floor. 

It’s cathartic and cleansing, and the refreshing characteristics of the beer augment this sense of well-being and rebirth.

I’m guessing the elation I feel when drinking an absolutely superb beer while watching my favourite programme is similar to the feeling Javier Hernández has when he scores thirty-six seconds into the crucial title-decider against Chelsea, or when Steven Flecther slots home his team’s third goal against West Brom to give Wolves some hope of staying in the Premier League.

Mick McCarthy said Fletcher had ‘ice in his veins’ when he scored his second goal of the game; I reckon if he’d had a bit of Monsieur Rock in his system he might have had a hat-trick.

8 May 2011

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Echtra

The beer

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is an American classic and the archetypical west coast pale ale.

Its flavours and aromas have been written about thousands of times, and there are tasting notes out there that communicate the characteristics of this beer better than I could ever hope to.

I’ve chosen this beer for this match because it is the ultimate showcase for the Cascade hop.

Sierra Nevada use Cascade as a finishing hop in their Pale Ale, and they set it against bread-like, almost savoury, malt flavours.

The bottle-conditioned beer pours an exquisite deep amber colour, with a pure white head that hangs around till you’ve finished drinking it.

The music

There’s a collective of musicians in the Pacific Northwest that are shrouded in mystery. Centred on the ritualistic, atavistic black metal of Fauna, they have been derided by some for their ecological, spiritual and philosophical outlook...but certainly not by me. 

In fact, Fauna’s albums ‘Rain’ and ‘The Hunt’ triggered something deep within me, reignited musical passions, and took me down a path that I otherwise may not have stumbled upon. They appeared in my life at just the right time, in just the right moment.

Fauna, and the bands and projects associated with them, are sometimes described as being proponents of ‘Cascadian Black Metal’. However, I would hasten to add that this appears to be a description that has been thrust upon them, rather than one they have adopted themselves.

Echtra, as far as I can tell, is a member of Fauna. He has two previous solo releases, Burn It All Away (on Faunasabbatha) and A War for Wonder (on 20 Buck Spin). All of his songs are exactly 23 minutes long. I’m not sure why.

‘Paragate’ was released by Temple of Torturous at the end of March 2011. Thanks to Hammer Smashed Sounds for drawing it to my attention; it came in totally under my radar. The idea of matching Cascade hops with Cascadian Black Metal had been on my mind recently, so when this release revealed itself to me it seemed like a good idea to use it in this experiment.

The match

I haven’t drunk it in a while, and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale doesn’t smell like I remember it smelling. 

Pine aromas, rather than the citrus I had been expecting, hit my nostrils, but I’m happy; I’m instantly transported to boreal forests. This is working. 

As with previous Echtra releases, acoustic guitar parts are set against black metal distortion. Vocals drift in and out. Percussion is minimal.

This music feels expansive, vast even. There’s a hint of some ancient menace in there, a dark time at the dawn of man.

The grapefruit bitterness in the beer is crisp and sharp at first, but lingers long in the mouth as I let the first of the two 23-minute Echtra movements draw to a close.

There are passages here of sheer, transcendental beauty. 

Bliss. Euphoria. 

Is that the alcohol, or the music? I would like to believe it’s the soothing, meditative effects of both combining to take me somewhere else. 

I long for wide open spaces – forests, fields, mountains – and to escape the smog and bustle of the city.

I may be forcing it a little, but there does seem to be something extra at work here that goes beyond listening to Echtra and drinking Sierra Nevada Pale separately. 

The inextricable link between beer and music is in rude health.

Nøgne Ø Tiger Tripel and Knut Hamsun

The beer

Nøgne Ø (prounounced ‘non-yay’) was founded in 2002 by two Norwegian home brewers on a mission to create ‘uncompromising’ craft ales.

Located in the small maritime town of Grimstad, around 250km south west of Oslo, the brewery makes no bones about the influence of US brewing on their beers, particularly when it comes to hops.

The beer I’ve selected for this match is a bottle of Tiger Tripel, Nøgne Ø’s take on – you’ve guessed it – a Belgian-style tripel.

I could have chosen a style that was more Norwegian, but the shelves at my local beer shops aren’t exactly spilling over with bottles of juleøl, and I wanted something that gave a hefty nod in the direction of historic brewing traditions.

Tiger Tripel pours a murky, dark orange colour with minimal head. On the nose it’s mostly honey and orange, with a pleasing hint of banoffee pie.

Honey is a dominate taste too, alongside biscuity, cake-like malt sweetness. However, it’s not quite as sweet as I would have expected and the alcohol content (9%) comes through strongly. Any sweetness soon gives way to a dry, white wine-like finish.

The book

Knut Hamsun was a Nobel Prize-winning Norwegian author. He wrote what is probably my favourite novel, Hunger, but that’s not the book I’ve selected for this match.

Growth of the Soil, the novel that secured Hamsun the Nobel Prize in Literature, is an epic tale of man’s struggle to cultivate the land, the link between humanity and the earth through agriculture and, to a certain extent, the modern world’s encroachment upon personal freedoms.

The match

This is my first reading of Growth of the Soil. I’m immediately struck that the intense, Dostoevsky-esque first person narration of Hunger is replaced here by a steady, even-paced third person.

I re-read the first line as it’s a mind-blower. I take another sip of the beer.

My mind wanders briefly, and I take my eyes off the page and onto the beer. This drink is only in my hand thanks to a series of natural processes, and man’s ability to shape and guide those processes. I’ve heard brewers talking about ‘working for the yeast’, that living, dynamic organism that makes beer possible. The best brewers work with nature to create incredible beers; the worst bombard their beers with chemicals and artificial procedures to force the mass output of bland bullshit. This beer I hold now exists only because of man’s willingness to learn, through the ages, about the world we live in and the bounty the earth has to offer when treated right.

I return to my book. A truly harrowing, disturbing event takes place and the plot takes a dark turn. The beer tastes a little flat. I decide to call it a night.

Tiger Tripel is a good, but not great, beer. I don’t think I've ever drunk ‘a take’ on a Belgian ale that was really outstanding – why not just drink the real thing? But what I like about Nøgne Ø is that on the label they seem to acknowledge that this shit is hard:

“It is very difficult to brew a complex and balanced Belgian-style tripel ale, but we have made an attempt at brewing one anyway! Our respect and admiration for those who master the skill and art of brewing excellent ale of this style is limitless.”

Real talk.

Hamsun is one of the greatest writers of all time. Read Hunger, and then everything else he ever wrote.

Reading and drinking beer (in moderation) works. Get into it.