25 Jul 2011

Stone Brewing Co. Oaked Arrogant Bastard Ale and The Fountainhead

The beer 

On the cusp of brown, but just about on the red side of maroon, Oaked Arrogant Bastard Ale is instantly appealing.

As you draw closer and lift the glass towards your mouth, pine sap and maple syrup scents fill the air.

The flavours move from milk chocolate sweetness to apple juice tang, before drifting seamlessly into a dry, herbaceous bitterness.

A subtle whisky character whispers from somewhere deep within it, presumably spurred on by the oak chips it’s aged with.

The book

The Fountainhead is a novel. It was written by Ayn Rand in 1943.

While the story is ostensibly concerned with architects and architecture, there’s little doubt in my mind that the narrative is a device to communicate Rand’s own ideological, political and philosophical beliefs.

Nevertheless, the plot is compelling and speaks to me in a way that only the best works of fiction can.

I find allegory is more powerful than candidness anyway.

You can feel Rand’s fierce intellect and unswayable principles pulsating from every page.

The match

Say you had a complete vision – no, not vision...knowledge – of what the perfect beer should be.

Not even perfect, beyond perfect.

A beer that exists on a plane way above what the world conceives beer to be, but fulfils the role of beer so succinctly, so effortlessly, that it changes the meaning of beer.

And what if humanity rejected your notion of beer, hated you for dreaming to create something so different from the norm, and despised you for what they saw as conceited arrogance.

Would you still go ahead and brew it on a massive scale?

What if it crippled you financially, isolated you from everyone around you and ruined your life?

In The Fountainhead, this is the struggle protagonist Howard Roark faces with his own pure, creative vision of architecture.

He pursues it anyway.

Not through choice, but through compulsion.

In spite of the name and the claims the brewery makes, I don’t believe that this is what Stone were doing with this beer. It’s too good. Too many people like it a great deal. I am one of them.

Another question then: who is beer for, brewers or beer-drinkers?

Seeing as most of the former are the latter, I would suggest both.

Is this right though?

Should brewers just brew whatever they want and beer-drinkers either get on board with it or they don’t? Or is that what is happening in craft brewing anyway?

Obviously, there are commercial concerns, but the commitment to individual creativity, the disregard for public opinion and the wonderful variety of beer that would result from the widespread adoption of an individualistic, objective brewing philosophy aligned to Rand’s thinking is appealing to me.

However, it might result in a lot of beer knocking about that no-one likes.

24 Jul 2011

Mikkeller 1000 IBU Light and Vorticism

The beer

Mikkel Borg Bjergsø has no brewery to call his own.

He is a ‘gypsy brewer’, travelling from brewery to brewery to create an extensive range of distinctive, sometimes challenging, beers.

Mikkeller 1000 IBU Light is not for the causal beer drinker, even with its Average Joe 4.9% ABV.

To the eyes it brings clouded, deep orange and a creamy white head; to the nose, freshly-sliced pineapple and squeezed lemon.

To the tongue it brings devastation.

Intense, marauding bitterness is all that you experience during the first couple of mouthfuls. Your taste buds are under attack.

But then, and especially when paired with spicy food, other flavours do emerge.

Buried amongst the almost impenetrable, drying, hop bitterness, a lemon drizzle cake sweetness pokes its head up, albeit momentarily.

The finish decapitates any fleeting moments of sweetness with further punishing bitterness that lingers, leaving you in no doubt that this is the bitterest beer you have ever drunk.

The radical art movement

Named by poet Ezra Pound (mentor to T. S. Eliot and others) and announced to the world by artist Wyndham Lewis in 1914, Vorticism was an ephemeral art movement ended by the outbreak of war.

Centred around the Rebel Art Centre on Great Ormond Street in London, Vorticism seems closely aligned to Futurism and Cubism, but was considered by the artists and authors involved to be entirely separate.

It was a movement that sought to be fully-engaged with the modern, industrialised world and is characterised by dynamic, oblique forms that elegantly express movement, and by vehement, vociferous energy.

I am no art critic, so if you would like to learn more about Vorticism I suggest visiting The Vorticists: Manifesto for a Modern World at Tate Britain, which is what I did, or picking up a copy of Blast (which is something I also did).

The match

I’ve strolled round the corner from Tate Britain to one of my favourite pubs in London: Cask.

I order a half of Mikkeller 1000 IBU Light.


I’ve had it before. I wouldn’t ever say I’ve ‘enjoyed’ it in the conventional sense of the word.

I choose it because I want to challenge myself.

Not challenge myself in a I’ll-have-the-hottest-curry-on-the-menu-please-mate way, but to refresh my thinking about what beer is.

Why does this beer exist?

This is really a question for Mikkel of course, but sitting here mulling over the exhibition of radical art I’ve just seen, it’s a question I want to find an answer for myself.

It is so bitter it’s almost difficult to drink. That makes it diametrically opposed to the singular goal of most beer.

I don’t believe this beer was brewed to be undrinkable (which it’s not) – I’d rather speculate that it was about investigating what was possible with beer.

How bitter can beer get?

That’s an abstract question that can only be answered by brewing beer.

Mikkeller 1000 IBU Light is almost an abstruse sculpture, made to answer a question that no-one was asking but provokes thought and inspires discussion by the virtue of being something that occupies space in the world.

If you look at Mikkeller’s website, it tells you that provoking and inspiring people is exactly what the brewery is trying to achieve.

It does seem that Mikkeller, influenced by events in the US over the past two decades, is at the spearhead of a modernist, radical brewing movement that is happening right now.

Whether you like the taste of Mikkeller 1000 IBU Light is almost irrelevant.

It’s whether you believe it should ever have come to be that is important.

19 Jul 2011

Schloss Eggenberg Urbock 23° and intoxication

The beer

Described as a ‘pale double bock’ on its opulent label, Urbock 23° is sparkling gold in colour as it hits the glass.

The lightness of its form belies the strength of this beer, but cognac, malt liquor and Christmas pudding fragrances combine to produce a concentrated aroma that adroitly communicates its 9.6% ABV – just in case you were in any doubt about its power.

Indeed, it is billed as ‘one of the strongest beers in the world’.

However, I’m reasonably sure I could reel off 20 beers from the top of my head that eclipse the alcohol content of Urbock 23°.

Caramelised, burnt sugar flavours are most prominent here, supported by nods to golden syrup and honey, without any sensation of thickness or gooeyness.

Bitterness, for me, is negligible.

Oh, and you can definitely detect the alcohol.

The effect

Okay, gonna keep this fairly light, a) because I don’t know enough about the topic, and b) because I don’t want to send anyone to sleep (I’ll let the beer do that).

Beer contains ethanol.

Ethanol is the specific type of alcohol that’s present in alcoholic drinks.

When you hear people talking about alcohol concentration in beer, they are talking about how much ethanol it contains.

Ethanol is a psychoactive drug.

Without conducting any comprehensive global research or referencing any sources whatsoever, I’d speculate that it is one of the most popular recreational drugs on the planet, and has been for some time.

It is a central nervous system depressant.

Depending on how much you consume, what you’ve eaten and your physicality, effects can vary.

With a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of between 0.01% and 0.06% you’re likely to sense an improvement in mood and feel more relaxed.

Get above 0.40% and you’re in serious trouble. Death cannot be ruled out at this stage.

The match

Why do you drink beer?

If you’re reading this blog, I would imagine one of the reasons is because you enjoy the unparalleled range of complex, exquisite flavours that beer offers.

Some of those flavours will have been brought about through the process of fermentation, where sugars are converted into alcohol.

However, I would respectfully suggest that you also enjoy the feeling of intoxication.

As I write this, I am certainly feeling the mild effects of the 9.6% alcohol concentration in Urbock 23°.

It’s not an unpleasant sensation.

Alongside my appreciation of the appearance, aroma and flavour of the beer, I feel happy, relaxed and can perceive the stresses of the working day diminishing.

I’m not really sure why I’m writing this, other than that I feel this element of drinking is under-represented in beer writing. It’s marginalised in wine and spirit writing too for that matter, but I’m less interested in those things.

Drinking beer has a psychological and physiological effect on you. Drink enough of it in one session and you will be drunk.

I’m not going to drink any more tonight because I don’t want to get drunk, but I’m enjoying the effects of the ethanol in my bloodstream right now.

For some reason, I had to get this out there. It’s the elephant in the room for beer blogging and writing; the dirty little secret that everyone knows implicitly but nobody talks openly about.

I imagine brewers (well, certainly Schloss Eggenberg) and beer advocates in the media won’t necessarily thank me for making this connection explicit, but I feel it has to be acknowledged.

I’m not in any way promoting drunkenness or anything but moderate drinking; I'm simply seeking to state that beer is sometimes about more than just the flavour.

Ask yourself this: would you drink beer if it contained no alcohol?

11 Jul 2011

Dark Star Hophead and my hunt for a local

The beer

If you’re looking for the perfect summer beer to drink in pub gardens over the next couple of months, I urge you to consider Dark Star Hophead, a pale ale from one of the most exciting breweries in the UK.

Drink it in a pub garden and watch as sunlight illuminates its fluffy pure-white head sitting atop a glistening straw-gold body.

Breathe in its freshly-cut grass aromas and understand it is the smell of the English countryside.

Revel in its soothing, fresh-out-of-the-oven bready malt flavours and refresh your senses with its lingering lemon bitterness.

Recognise that Dark Star Hophead is a beer to be enjoyed over and over again, especially while the days are long.

The hunt

I’ve written about my work local on this blog before, and while this is a crucially important pub to get right, I believe it to be secondary to your actual local – the pub that’s stumbling distance from your place of residence.

I've lived in this part of South London for around 3 years, but have yet to find the pub that satisfies my strict criteria for the perfect local:

1) Within easy walking distance (no more than 1 mile from my house)

2) A decent selection of good beer – doesn’t have to be outstanding, but enough to keep you coming back

3) Welcoming staff, whom I can envisage greeting me by name

4) Friendly regulars (ideally older gentlemen)

5) Traditional pub interior and exterior design

6) Reasonable pub grub

7) A quiet, relaxed atmosphere, without being lifeless

There are some reasonably decent boozers round here, but none of the pubs I’ve investigated have come close to ticking all of these boxes.

I had started to believe that my romanticised vision of a local did not exist near me. I had almost given up hope.

That is until I picked up a copy of Des de Moor’s The CAMRA Guide to London's Best Beer, Pubs & Bars.

The match

The Dog and Bell. A name whispered on the wind. Down a back street somewhere in Deptford. Kinda near Greenwich. Maybe I’d seek it out sometime. Filed in the dusty recesses of my mind.

And then there it was: The Dog and Bell in Des de Moor’s top 25 pubs and bars in London, alongside some of my favourite drinking establishments.

Des is an extremely knowledgeable man. I once shared a taxi with him and it was like having a fascinating, private, guided tour of London – a city I’ve lived in for a number of years and feel I know well.

Needless to say, I trust his judgement.

From Des’s map it looked like the pub was relatively close to my house. I hurriedly entered the postcode into Google Maps.

One of the best pubs in London is 0.9 miles from my house.

Sunday is the perfect day to test a local’s credentials. I don’t know why, it just is.

It’s also important that I go alone. If you don’t feel welcomed and comfortable when you enter a pub by yourself then it will never be your local.

I set off. The route from my place to The Dog and Bell is not great, being that it requires passing by some slightly dodgy housing estates.

A peaceful, stress-free stroll was always going to be unlikely though – there’s been four murders within 200 yards of my house since I moved here.

As I near my destination, I’m filled with apprehension.

My journey takes me through another housing estate. The pubs around here are, to make a sweeping generalisation, dodgy as fuck.

As I turn the corner onto Prince Street I’m convinced this is a mistake. I anticipate swinging saloon doors, silence and furious stares.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I push open the door and am greeted with the pub I've been waiting for all my life.

‘Hello. What can I get you?’

I'm still closing the door behind me.

There are older gentleman sitting on stools at the bar. There is a range of very respectable draught beers on the bar, one of them being Dark Star Hophead. I instantly order it, bewildered by the combination of interesting, modern brewing and this idyllic, traditional pub.

Wait. The fridges behind the bar are full of exceptional Belgian beer bottles. What?

I'm giddy. My head is spinning. I pick up my pint and look for a comfortable spot suitable for a couple of hours spent collecting my thoughts. There are numerous options. I’m overwhelmed.

I almost stumble into the serene little garden at the back of the pub. Someone has kindly left the sports pages on a chair for me. My chair.

Once finished with my pint I head back to the bar and ask for a bottle of Rochefort 6. There’s a little buzz of excitement around me and the regulars chat for a bit about Trappist beers.

I sit at a well-weathered two-person table inside and absorb the flawless atmosphere.

Young couples scoff roast dinners, older couples debate crosswords, community events posters dot the walls, Bass and Harvey’s mirrors augment the subtle, tasteful decor. And like all the best pubs, I feel like I’ve been invited into someone’s living room to have a drink.

Trying to distil all that is wonderful about this pub into a blog post is just not possible. I could write a dissertation about The Dog and Bell and still not capture its greatness.

You might think this is another beer and pub matching, and in a way it is.

In a way it's so much more.

Hunt over.

4 Jul 2011

Otter Bitter and getting away from it all

The beer

Otter Bitter is produced by ex-Whitbread man David McCaig at the Otter Brewery in the heart of the Blackdown Hills in Devon.

Milk chocolate browns mix with hazy orange shades in the branded pint glass. Intricate, dotted lacing lasts all the way down.

Subtle orange zests on the nose are followed by marmalade sweetness – not unlike Fuller’s London Pride – in the mouth.

There’s a hint of stewed apple and brown sugar before a dry, refreshing bitter snap hits.

The escape

London is an incredible place to live.

Whatever obscure, marginal interest you might have, it will be fully catered for here. In fact, there’s probably a club night devoted to it.

There’s so much history behind every street that it’s almost unfathomable, almost inconceivable.

Even amidst the current economic slump there’s plenty of work here if you know where to look.

Not enough for everyone though, which means there are also severe crime problems and citizens trapped in hopeless cycles of poverty.

And there are seriously fucking loads of people here.

You are never alone. Out at 5.30 a.m. on Sunday? You’re guaranteed to have a bunch of people hanging about on the streets to keep you company.

The transport system creaks under their weight. You are forever squeezing your way through crowds. There’s no space.

‘London weighting’ may mean salaries are increased, but the cost of living here is so high that it cancels out the few extra pounds in your pay packet each month.

In summary, London is a brilliant, vibrant city, but not without its pressures.

Which is why, once in a while, you need to get away from it all.

This weekend I’ve headed out to the Cotswolds to gain some perspective.

The match

Leaving the better half to enjoy the comforts of a spa hotel, I head out into the wilderness (slight exaggeration alert) with no map, a compass and a confidence in my own sense of direction to guide me.

I hope I get a phone signal out here because I can see a frantic Google Maps search on the not-too-distant horizon.

As it happens, after approximately a mile of slightly anxious walking, I stumble upon a signpost that tells me that it’s 3 miles to the next village and I see a reasonably clearly marked path.

About a mile or so later, I realise I am completely alone.

I’m sure for people that don’t live in cities this is nothing new, but for me it’s striking. There’s no-one in any direction for a couple of miles.

All around me the world teams with non-human life. Brightly-coloured birds dart across my path, fluorescent insects buzz about me, abundant plant life towers over me and the occasional rabbit bobs away as I approach.

It’s a picture of rural England that differs greatly from my own day-to-day understanding of English life. I can’t help but hear the phrase ‘green and pleasant land’ go round and round in my head.

I feel completely at peace and London seems a long way away – even though it’s only an hour or so by train from here.

Eventually, South Cerney appears through the trees.

Of course, I’ve already done my research – there are three pubs in this small village and I have a rough idea of where they all are.

I make a beeline for The Old George Inn, a 17th century coaching inn.

Just over 4 miles isn’t exactly a strenuous walk, but it’s been unrelentingly humid and muggy, so I feel I’ve earned my first pint.

With no deliberation I just go for Otter Bitter because the pump clip appeals to me.

I’m glad I do, as I instantly feel rewarded and my tranquil state is enhanced.

As I absorb the calming influence of beer, pub and people-watching, a number of things go through my mind: how the pub is crucial to local communities, why delicate flavours in beer are just as important as bold ones and what it would actually be like to have a life where you don’t feel wound like a tightly-coiled spring 24-7.

Maybe if I hadn’t just walked through the countryside this beer may have passed me by.

There’s so much noise in my life, and so many sensory experiences demanding my attention that a subtly flavourful, 3.6% ABV, traditional English bitter might get drowned out if I had drunk it anywhere but here.

You could argue that it was only this sequence of events, simply this contrast against my own regular existence, that made this beer any good.

If you did, I would be ecstatically happy – that 100% legitimises what this blog is about.

See you at work tomorrow.