The Look

It probably doesn't matter what the beer was.

It could have been Mikkeller American Dream, either at the start of the tasting session or at its death two hours later by when it had opened its legs and showed its different class.

It could have been the Gruut Wit, where coriander was a sledgehammer to some yet a mere echo to others.

It could have been the Glazen Toren Saison d'Erpe-Mere, an exercise in needlepoint flavour, prickling & running across palates.

It could have been the Stift Engelszellaz Gregorious, in all its liquid Toblerone splendour.

It's the look.

On people's faces when they're confounded and delighted and surprised and fascinated and awestruck by the beer they're tasting.

I poured great beers for great people today at the foreign beer tasting at Norwich Beer Festival. Those looks... that's what makes it for me. Like IndyManBeerCon before. When people find a beer that isn't so much game-changing, more that it rips up their rule book and lets them start again.


Sunday Lunch

Beer and food.

Porter and fish.

Black Iris Great Eastern Transatlantic Porter and whitebait.

Whitebait sometimes dipped in tartare sauce. Head first.

Sometimes dipped in porter. Head first.

Sometimes just held between thumb and forefinger before being sucked up between now-slightly-salty lips. Tail first.

Sometimes, the simplest Sunday lunch tastes like a banquet.

Lunch today was at the ever-impressive Kean's Head in Nottingham. Beer by Derby's outstanding - and massively under-rated - brewing talent, Black Iris.


Accentuate the positive

Some of you know me. You know I'm a glass-half-full person. Anyone who says that's because I'm usually close to the bar will get a slap.

Sometimes, I feel like someone elbowed me on their way to the bar and made me spill my half-full glass.

I could rail on about how I had barely five hours of uncomfortable sleep before failing to make breakfast, failing to sort the laundry / washing up, got sod-cold freezing around town, had to listen to some gobshite down the pub prattle on and on and on about the problems with his mother / his boss / his boss's boss / his boss's boss's quality management system. About how lower back ache spreads with stealth, ruthless efficiency and a steady crescendo of pain as if God was torturing this heathen for sitting on an old pew. How I dragged myself home and burned the veg and planned a walk where all the footpaths are closed and became progressively more annoyed by idiotic internet hyperbole and ill-informed attitude and how X-Factor actually makes me feel physically sick.

Or I could make the most of this tactical retreat to the study. Play some Steve Reich and drink a world-class beer because... well, that's what world-class beer was invented for. Not to be stuffed in a box. Not to be shared around twenty freaks and rated by the thimble-full.

To be drank. To be enjoyed.

Tonight: Steve Reich, Music For 18 Musicians and Thornbridge / Odell Pond Hopper.

And a smile back on my face.

Got to go now. My glass is half-full again. It needs a top-up from the bottle in the fridge.


Tyranny of choice: take two

From 'Blink' by Malcolm Gladwell, relating an experiment by Sheena Iyengar, Professor of Business, Columbia Business School:

"... she set up a tasting booth with a variety of exotic gourmet jams at the upscale grocery store Draegars's in Menlo Park, California. Sometimes the booth has six different jams, and sometimes Iyengar had twenty-four different jams on display. She wanted to see whether the number of jam choices made any difference in the number of jams sold.

Conventional economic wisdom, of course, says that the more choices consumers have, the more likely they are to buy, because it is easier for consumers to find the jam that perfectly fits their needs.

But Iyengar found the opposite to be true. Thirty percent of those who stopped by the six-choice booth ended up buying some jam, while only 3 percent of those who stopped by the bigger booth bought anything.

Why is that? Because buying jam is a snap decision. You say to yourself, instinctively, I want that one. And if you are given too many choices, if you are forced to consider much more than your unconscious is comfortable with, you get paralysed."

Replace jam with beer? To an extent. I'd still buy a beer if faced by twenty-four taps. But I'd be feeling the tyranny and dread whilst drinking what I chose.

Sheena's original paper with Mark Lepper can be found here. If you have twenty-ish minutes to spare - make a cuppa, turn the TV off and make time - one of her greatest TED talks is here.


Reluctant Scooper Live! at Norwich Beer Festival

And now ... from Norwich... it's the Scoop of the week!

Next Tuesday (30th October) I'm running a tasting session of foreign beers - bottled and draught - at the Norwich CAMRA beer festival. That's right - I've been giving the pick of the list to present a beer range that will focus on classic styles from across Europe and the US.

Will I choose every sour beer I can get my hands on? Will we start and end on Orval, with a few bottles of Orval in the middle? Or will we spend a couple of hours comparing the subtle nuances of Jupiler and Heineken?

(OK, it won't be the latter. As I've never been to the Norwich beer festival before and I'd like to be invited back).

Well, there's only one way to find out. Reserve your ticket today.

It's only £15. There'll be plenty of beer. It's the sale of the century!


Not Sheffield but Zak Avery

My memory is sometimes dim and distant but also prone to moments of clarity.

My memory is that I promised Zak Avery a cash donation equivalent to what I'd spent on a Sunday out in Sheffield. After all, he was running a half marathon. I'd just be lounging around getting pissed networking with reprobate brewers industry professionals.

He ran it. So I didn't spend a Sunday in Sheffield.

(the fact that I spent a Saturday in Sheffield instead shall be a bone of contention between me and my bank manager later on this month)

He's almost raised a thousand pounds. Do one thing for me tonight. If you get the odd laugh from what I usually do here, bung Zak a few more quid. Let's carry him across that grand line together.


Nottingham Beer Festival: The Shock Of The New

With over twelve hundred beers on offer, many scoopers saw 2012's Nottingham Beer Festival as a tortuous paradise. One where they could not possibly try every beer they 'needed', not even with third-pints and bottling cartels in full swing. I'd no intention of scooping wildly; after a day of drinking North to South on Thursday, I needed a Friday plan.

That plan: to have no plan.

Instead, graze around and try a few beers from brewers that had crossed my horizon. And stick with them for as long as I dare. Here's three of the best. Albeit there's only one beer.

First up: Tiny Rebel. I first got to know about them via the Tweets of Glyn Roberts, everyone's favourite Womble. Their IPA, Urban, sounded like it would be right up my boulevard. And indeed it was. Sticky fruit salad, bittery biscuits, sweet start segues to dry finish. I had several of these. Several halves. And there was a point where (almost) every man jack in our posse of Men Too Fat And / Or Old To Be Seen Sat On A Wall Drinking Beer In What Is Obviously A Kiddies Play Area was drinking it.

Now, I like cider. I like dry cider. And when I say dry cider, I don't mean "really sweet but less sweet than the sugar suspension that we call our medium cider". So I'm wary about buying dry ciders that I know little about. Sometimes I'll ask for a taster. But a third-pint is basically a decent taster. And in the case of Salt Hill Urban Fox, it was more than bloody decent. Sharp flavour from the eaters/cookers mix. Sandpaper-itchy dry. Was worth more than one taster. Of the half-pint variety.

There comes a point at every festival where I end up choosing a drink based on its name. I try to kid myself that it's a cunning exercise is marketing analytics, comparing customer expectation with product deliverables. But it's actually because I've had a few drinks and I can't be arsed to choose anything any other way. Which is how I ended up becoming pleasantly surprised by Lustonberry Perry. Produced by the Marches Cyder Collective, it's another finely-dry drink with a plump pear flavour and an almost perfumed aroma.

Three drinks I learned to love over the course of a windblown festival afternoon. I drank a fair few glasses of each. Because I don't know if I'll ever see them again. I've never seen a Tiny Rebel beer in a pub in the Midlands / Yorkshire and the ciders / perrys are so vunerable to poor crops this year that the volumes produced for 2013 may be critically low.

My advice as always: if you like what you drink, drink it more. Enjoy the shock of the new; it may never get the chance to grow old.

Thanks to Ray Kirby and Nottingham CAMRA for the gen on Marches Cyder Collective. If anyone knows any more about them, I'd be interested to hear from you.


Royal Oak, green hops and mountaineers

I'm never too sure as to exactly what the Oread Mountaineering Group actually do in the function room of the Royal Oak, Ockbrook, Derbyshire, between October and April. Maybe they're fairweather climbers and just lounge around drinking great beer and look back on their summer escapades. Maybe they take the opportunity on that first Tuesday of every month to plan some fantastic adventure up a forgotten crag. Maybe they just climb Pythonesque around the room.

Well, if they rappelled into the room tonight, they'd find a beer festival.

Herefordshire and Worcestershire. Hop counties - just. And from them, some twenty brewers represented alongside a smattering of cider. All held up on a three-tier stillage down the end of the room that's often housed an am-dram stage.

A steady drift of locals for its opening night. Some hold court at the bar, some chance another pint whilst their beer widows feign interest in the finer detail of a brewery's proximity to the Welsh Borders. Some gruff at you for 'jumping in me grave' when you sit in their seat. 

I love the way Steady Steve chooses a county or two. There's the good: Teme Valley have that sessionableness that I long to find in a beer after a long country walk. This has just enough floral bitterness. Hop Nouveau sidesteps the oft-tasted green-hop vegetal backfire and delivers, well, a bit more than This. 

There's the bad: Shoe's Green Hop is a masterclass in how many beer faults you can fit into one glass.

There's the ugly: if Ledbury Gold is supposed to be a brownish Caramac-infused beer then they need to rethink. If it was their bitter mislabelled... they still need to rethink. And I'm surprised just how many people on Twitter remember Caramac. And was scared to find you can still buy them. One of the few chocolate bars that made me want to vomit half-way through eating it.

But there were gems everywhere; Friday Beer's Pinnacle Ale had a great rye edge that slashed through pithy hops; Wye Valley Hop 101 was elegant in its simplicity.

Barely an hour at a festival is not really long enough. Especially when you're sat near the kitchen with the waft of pan-fried haddock making you feel hungrier. It's a shame to say I can't re-visit this weekend, a pub that's only five fields walk from my front door. Such is the overly-hectic life of this reluctant scooper. So if you happen to be east of Derby this weekend, drop by. And if Mayfield's Hop Picker's Glory is on, let me know. I really fancy trying it and will be tempted to manipulate social expectations so I can score a pint of it.

More detail about the Royal Oak, Ockbrook can be found on their website and Facebook page.


Drinking England

Nottingham Beer Festival 2012: over one thousand beers by over three hundred breweries. An afternoon session. Third-pint measures. A plan.

Drink my way from the north-east to the south-west of England.

How hard can it be?

Northumberland: Anarchy Sublime Chaos, 7.0%  Soft coffee, liquorice twang, silky finish

Durham: Sonnet 43 IPA, 4.4%  Citric kick, punches higher than weight

North Yorkshire: North Riding Man In Tights, 4.0%  Pale, hoppy, that's about it really

West Yorkshire: Mallinsons The Five Hundred, 3.9%  Like most Mallinsons beers: pale gorgeousness

South Yorkshire:  Sheffield Festival IPA, 5.2%  Warm glue, tacky citric, chucked it

Derbyshire: Thornbridge Evenlode, 6.2%  Hedgerows and toffees and roasty cocoa

Staffordshire: Morton Jelly Roll, 4.2%  Orange nose, dry sweetness, massively under-rated

Warwickshire: Tunnel Trade Winds  Not the Cairngorm one. Bugger. Tasteless

Gloucestershire: Cotswold Lion Shepherd's Delight, 3.9%  Dull. Really, really, ball-achingly dull

Somerset: Ordnance City Mark II, 4.0%  Anonymous with a hint of twigs

Devon: Tavy Best Bitter, 4.3%  Achieves what best bitter should: balance

Cornwall: Rebel Managh Monk, 5.2%  Cloves, spice, hops? Tastes like... victory


In Nottingham

The Church of St Mary The Virgin succeeds to High Pavement Chapel. Although High Pavement Chapel morphed into a Pitcher & Piano some years ago. Sneinton Windmill's sails score the treeline. Beyond the taupe sandwich slab of the Arndale car park, six lanes of Collin Street belch around towards the fawn, grey and black chimney of the Eastcroft incinerator.

Nottingham railway station has its terracotta and sandstone clock tower peeking up among the long slanted canalside slate roofs. In the distance above the British Waterways warehouse, you can just pick out the slim floodlight gantries: Trent Bridge, Meadow Lane & City Ground with its ruddy girders round the Trent End warming in this late autumn sun.

New Castle House casts a blue glass fronted slant across the scene. HMRC's tented café seems plonked incongruously behind a streak of green thatch along the boulevard. Cars crawl on the A52, leaving a glistening windscreen snail trail away to the right. Beyond, the edges of the Queen's Medical Centre. Beyond that, Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station makes more little fluffy clouds on this cool, breezy, easy-going October afternoon.

I'm drinking cider with the sun in my face. Below me, backpacked tourists ebb and flow through Ye Olde Trip To Jerusalem. Behind me, a band play hamfisted rhythm & blues. Around me, several thousand drinkers are enjoying over 1200 different beers and ciders. When the wind blows, auburn leaves and the aroma of tikka masala waft over us.

Roughly speaking, I've been standing by this castle wall on occasion for almost forty years. My Mum used to hoick me up, my hands planted onto the top slabs, so I could peer down to Brewhouse Yard. Lovers courted and lost have been snogged and cried over all along its shadows. My brightest times and darkest days have been played out here. My rock. My castle. My city.

Here with friends and a hundred strangers, all standing south into the raging sunshine by the walls of Nottingham Castle, a beer festival in full flow behind our backs, a glass of cider perched precariously before me, I know this much:

There is no finer time to be alive. Right here. Right now.


IndyManBeerCon: Been there, drank that, got the T-shirt

As Alex Ferguson, the ruby-faced enforcer of Manchester United Ballet Corps Football Club never said; "IndyManBeerCon! Bloody hell!"

Since dragging my well-boozed body back from Manchester last Saturday, I've been trying to find the words that go some way towards explaining why this more-than-festival was one of the most significant beery happenings in England for ages.

These random observations will have to do.

Working the keg bar was bloody good.  I volunteered to work the first shift on Friday lunchtime and ended up back behind the bar for four hours in the evening, Just because it's fun talking to people who are interested in beer, telling them a little bit about what's on offer, watching their faces light up when they try something that tickles their special flavour places.

And if I couldn't answer their questions about a beer, I referred them to the brewer who was stood next to me. And so I learned stuff too.

Working the keg bar was surreal. At one point late on Friday, my fellow bar staff were Kjetil from Nøgne Ø, James & Andy from Summer Wine and Rich & Stuart from Magic Rock. The customers included James from Brewdog, Evin from Kernel and Dom from Thornbridge.

Victoria Baths was an outstanding venue.  A heady mix of restoration and decrepitude; terracotta and green glaze, paint peeling from the cubicles in a just-so style, glass-floored corridors that echoed past glory days, exquisite stained glass. And we were actually set up in a pool. Not on a floor scaffolded up over a pool. In a pool. Late on, drinkers actually gravitated down to the deep end.

Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name.  It drew in the old guard, the Twitterati and the hipster. It was great to meet the usual suspects on unusual territory. It was great to meet those who I see all too rarely. It was great to finally put IRL names to social media faces. And it was cool, if sometimes slightly scary, when total strangers walked up to me knowing me from Twitter and said hello.

Events and pop-up tastings gave the place an extra buzz.  There was a palpable sense of excitement - and a rush for the stairs - when tastings by the likes of Nøgne Ø and Brewdog were announced. Toby McKenzie of Headless showed how to ruin good beer by fermenting it with an atypical yeast for the style (something I've been curious about for ages and so was a session worth travelling to Manchester for in its own right).

As for the What The Hell Is Craft Beer discussion, it didn't move us any closer to a definition (thankfully - brewer size and ownership is meaningless even in a US context and any 'movement' defined by what it isn't is born to fail). But it did prove that Zak Avery should take over from Jezza Kyle as the Voice Of Reason, James from Brewdog makes more sense when he's not parroting his press releases, Tandleman is a softy at heart, John Clarke is a diamond and Toby Mckenzie really should have stood up and said "Fuck this for a game of soldiers, anyone fancy a third-pint?"

Dirty Dogs are hot.  I swear at one stage on Saturday the queue to buy one of their hot dogs was around forty minutes. Worth the wait? Well, the Dachshund was a mass of Polish sausage, sauerkraut and smoked cheese which didn't require eating as much as fellating. I wore my mustard moustache with pride.

The beers weren't too shabby.  Too many to mention, but props to Magic Rock Tequila Cannonball (for being peppery-herbal rather than raw-spirit flavoured), Nøgne Ø India Pale Lager (for the segue from sweet malt to grapefruit pith) and Brodies London Sour & Lovibonds Sour Grapes (for showing that the final frontier of contemporary UK brewing - superbly executed sours - has been well and truly breached).

Stuart Ross is game for a laugh.  I don't clown up many others and let them borrow the wig. But he looks born that way.

Port Street know the score.  An event of this nature and scale doesn't get designed by a committee yoked with misplaced tradition. It needs vision and ambition, bloody-mindedness and bloody hard work. So caps doffed to the organisers for shaping it. And to the volunteers for staffing it, the brewers for being such an enthusiastic part of it and the thirsty punters for loving every minute of it.

I don't think I stopped smiling. From Friday morning when I first saw the pool to Saturday when a bunch of us took a cab back to Port Street Beer House:

Taxi driver - "Where to"?

Jonathan 'Alcofrolic Chap' -"Port Street Beer House".

Taxi driver - "Where is it?"

Alcofrolic (deadpan) - "Port Street. That's P.O.R.T..."

Can't wait to do it all over again. Sooner rather than later. A Spring convention, anyone..?


Good beer. Good people. Good places

Some of my friends have been in Bodegraven.

Some of my friends have been in Stockholm.

Some of my friends have been in Cockermouth.

Some of my fiends were messing it up in Nottingham.

What did we all do? Drank good beer with good people in good places.

And some of us drew genitalia onto a rubber chicken.

It's where you find it. Good to know that you can find it all the way around Yerp.

And, maybe for just a few hours, we could stop the bullshit "this is" and "that's craft".

And remember why we do this.

Beer Is Good.