16 Jan 2014

BrewDog Old World IPA and Craft Beer World by Mark Dredge and Boutique Beers by Ben McFarland

The beer 

Focused groups of tiny bubbles press their faces against the glass, begging for help to escape the dusky, orange fog that engulfs them, so that they may join their off-white brethren gathered far above their heads.

Aromatic crème brûlée-promise and old world spiel on the label makes me hopeful that this will be a turbo-White Shield.

Sweet, fizzing sherbet runs throughout, but as you drink it’s like someone turns down that fader on the mixing desk while simultaneously bringing up over-brewed tea tannin bitterness until it dominates the song. The effect is not unpleasant.

And turbo-White Shield is actually not too far off.

I love a proper English IPA, me. What I love about those beers is the subtlety, the hidden depths. This has complexity, but it’s more aggressive, more overt.

Maybe BrewDog Old World IPA is a modern, Scottish take. It knows its heritage, acknowledges its roots south of the border, but c’mon guys, it’s 2013, and fuck me, it’s cold up here. It fucking rains all the fucking time and we need something a bit more fucking robust to get us through the bleak, grey winters (that last from September to June).

The books 

There are some things that just shouldn't be digitised, that today’s technology is just not capable of replicating digitally.

I’m no Luddite – I embrace, for instance, digital music formats. There’s already too much stuff in the world. I don’t want to be contributing to the landfills just because I insist on my entertainment being tactile.

Similarly, when it comes to books, I am a Kindle advocate.

However, not all books work on Kindles; beer books do not work on Kindles.

Specifically, the beer books that list and describe hundreds of beers with accompanying glossy bottle and glassware photography.

I am, you may think somewhat unsurprisingly, a fan of this type of book, and I have yet to see anyone be able to create anything that even remotely approaches replicating the physical interaction I enjoy with these books online or in a digital format.

Craft Beer World by Mark Dredge and Boutique Beer by Ben McFarland are two books that were added to my library over the festive period. The former a present to myself, the latter a gratefully-received gift from a family member.

Books of this type are not intended to be read cover-to-cover. They are to be flicked through, dipped into, and perhaps referenced ahead of a visit to a specific region.

I must admit, I generally skip through the introductory sections to get into the beer porn, but I proceeded more linearly through both of these titles.

You’d be hard-pushed to find a beer book in 2013 that looks better than Craft Beer World.

The hand-drawn illustrations look great, and layout and design choices are understated and easy on the eye throughout.

And there’s enough engaging and unique content early on – such as the beer and food matching section – to even make delaying the porn worthwhile.

Mark’s selection of beers is intelligently-curated; I like the device of selecting a single classic of the style followed by the best the modern world has to offer.

Some of the beers I’m reasonably confident I will never drink, but that’s the game, right? That’s the dream, that’s what keeps you hunting.

There are plenty of familiar favourites here for me too though, and it’s comforting to see beers that I’ve enjoyed but never really discussed with anyone cropping up, such as Nils Oscar Ctrl Alt Delete and Santorini Brewing Company Yellow Donkey.

Ben McFarland’s World’s Best Beers was one of a number of catalysts that accelerated my love for, and appreciation of, good beer.

My eyes go a bit watery when I think about it, think back to those early days when everything was strange, new and exciting.

However, now I’m cynical and jaded, I’m not sure how useful beer selections grouped by country are to me – I often think authors feel compelled to include beers that just aren’t that good for the sake of international completeness.

That’s why it’s great to see that in Boutique Beer, Ben has opted to group his selection into his own categories, then by style and then by country.

Punctuated with insightful profiles of breweries that make beer I love – such as Brasserie de la Senne and 3 Fonteinen – Ben’s selection has plenty of beers that have me nodding in agreement, believing this is a man whose judgement I can trust.

Anyone who has written about beer will tell you this: the more beers you describe in print, the harder it gets to avoid repeating yourself. It takes imagination and enthusiasm to keep things interesting.

Qualities that these two writers have in abundance.

The match

Don’t drink average beer when reading beer books. Drink something, punchy, limited, and interesting, something you’ve laid down, or just something expensive.

Otherwise you’ll just end up hating yourself and everyone else. Yes, more than you already do.

My turbo-White Shield is doing the job.

As I flick through Mark and Ben’s pages I realise my relationship with beer books has changed.

Where before they revealed a world with intricacies I could barely comprehend, hinted at a knowledge beyond my reach, now they do something different.

They trigger glorious memories which I haven’t accessed in a while, such as the time spent with the Icelandic beer documented in the second-ever post on this blog that appears in both books.

But one thing remains the same: I just cannot get bored reading well-written descriptions of beer.

Three hours have just slipped by and I barely noticed.

That’ll be time for another beer then.

3 Jan 2014

Stillwater Sensory Series v.1 – Lower Dens and 2013’s best music

The beer 

‘The Stillwater Sensory Series is a collaboration between Stillwater Artisanal and singular musical artists.’

This is a concept I want to work with all my heart, as beer dwells in the same cavern of my mind that music does, but all too often the execution of this type of thing is nothing short of abysmal. No names mentioned.

v.1 – Lower Dens is the first in the series.

Dusky, golden, cloudy apple juice-like visuals raise expectations.

This is brewed with hibiscus. I don’t know my hibiscus scent from my rose, but the most detectable aroma here is one I’ve encountered with Stillwater beers before – a combination of fresh country air and damp wood. Not unlike Duvel.

A gentle bitter caress and languid raspberries invite you to take a seat and relax.

There’s boiled sweets towards the end, but nothing cloying. In fact, the sensation is uplifting, cleansing. The freshness you get from good basmati rice followed by a hot towel.

This is how to execute a concept.

2013’s best music 

I bought more music in 2013 in than I did in any previous year.

At least 100 albums. Probably more. I don’t want to think about it too much.

Of those, these are the ones that really stood out. And – because it would be a massive fail not to – I’ve suggested beers to drink while you listen to them.

True Widow ‘Circumambulation’ 
The soundtrack to a lonely night in a bar in Nowheresville, Middle America. Dark, brooding and hazy. Think doomed Sonic Youth.

Listen to it.
Drink AleSmith Speedway Stout.

Inquisition ‘Obscure Verses for the Multiverse’
Syrupy, luxuriant black metal created by swamp-dwellers from a far off-planet.

Listen to it.
Drink Golden Carolus Tripel.

The Weeknd ‘Kiss Land’ 
Broadly dismissed by critics as being self-indulgent – which is weird because as far as I’m concerned the best music ignores the concept of an audience – I embraced this as the cinematic, regret-laden modern RnB masterpiece it is.

Listen to it.
Drink 3 Fonteinen Armand'4 Oude Geuze Lente.

Botanist ‘IV: Mandragora’
Transcendental, hypnotic combination of distorted dulcimer and disarming, croaked vocals. Strange and unfamiliar, but deeply rewarding.

Listen to it.
Drink Saison Dupont Biologique.

Beyoncé ‘Beyoncé’ 
Ambitious and sprawling, yet intensely intimate, this is the best ‘pop’ record of 2013 without really having an obvious single on it – it has to be listened to (or more accurately, viewed) in one sitting to fully appreciate its majesty.

Listen to it.
Drink Partizan Single.

The Ruins of Beverast ‘Blood Vaults – The Blazing Gospel of Heinrich Kramer’
The music undead mediaeval monks from another dimension would make were they released from their submerged crypt and handed guitars.

Listen to it.
Drink St Bernardus Abt 12.

The match

This is a bit of a match within a match: I listened to ‘In the End is the Beginning’, the song v.1 – Lower Dens interprets, keen to understand why Brian at Stillwater had made the choices he had with this beer, how the music had informed his process.

I found it hard at first, as the song is not something that would normally hold my attention. But the insistent repetition of the bass, the slightly jarring wail and interspersed discordant guitar lines began to make more sense as I sat, listened and drank my beer.

It goes nowhere, builds to nothing, and that seems to be the point. Motion without moving.

I can’t pull apart how and why the beer and the song relate to one another. I’m not sure I want to.

Beer plus music is a universal truth.

Solitary deep listening. Shared auditory experiences.

I decided against doing a ‘why I haven’t posted much here this year’ 2013 reflection (not least because I already did that at the midway point in my solitary post of 2013), but I still feel compelled to look back over the last 12 months as the New Year’s Eve fireworks fade from the memory.

Music was the pervasive extra-curricular activity of 2013.

The way I consume music is similar to the way I consume beer.

Yes, there are the beers I go back to over and over again – tried and tested classics that will deliver exactly what I’m looking for.

But there is also the insatiable hunting, hoping for some new beer that will come along and overwhelm my senses before lodging itself in my addled psyche for years to come.

A beer that I will connect to a special moment in time, to a feeling.

A beer that will make me take up the hunt again just so I can feel the way I felt the first time I drank it.