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For Christ’s sake, cheer up!

I googled ‘Calcutta IPA’ the other day to see if anyone else had written about the beer that was brewed for my trip to India, and it led me to a forum at where the White Shield Brewery was being discussed.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that one of the world’s biggest corporate multinational brewers is a curious fit with the tiny brewery sitting in the middle of one of its yards, but some of the ignorant, ill-informed vitriol aimed at the site in Burton made me laugh, then made me angry, then very sad.

I’m going to sound like an apologist for Coors simply because they made my trip to India possible (though just to make it clear, they brewed the beer – they in no way sponsored the trip, and they certainly don’t need my help). Anyway, it’s not just this one issue – this is merely an example of an attitude that sometimes makes me think of jacking in beer writing. I just don’t want anyone normal to think that I’m in any any like these sad, fanatical conspiracy theorists.

The subtext of the whingers is that because White Shield is now owned by Coors, it is therefore shit. Hmm. That’ll be why it won Champion Bottled Beer at GBBF in 2006, why sales are up by over 50% year on year, and why brewer Steve Wellington was named Brewer of the Year by the All Party Parliamentary Beer Group last year is it? Or are these just more examples of corporate cronyism?

There are some astonishing claims made on the forum: most astonishing of all is that White Shield is a ‘mediocre’ beer. But it’s also asserted that White Shield is not really brewed here at all, that it is made in a factory, that it has no individual character, and that what was formerly known as the Museum Brewery no longer brews small batches of individual and eclectic one-off beers.

As someone who brewed such just such a small batch beer there last year, I beg to differ. You don’t even have to go that far – just walk into the brewery tap and you’ve a choice of several beers not available anywhere else. If the people writing this garbage had visited the brewery or taken the trouble to find any out any facts about White Shield by any means whatsoever, they would have quickly realised what drivel they were talking.

The White Shield Brewery is owned by Coors but is given near-total autonomy. It still creates boutique beers for individual landlords, and White Shield is still an astonishing beer, all of which is brewed on the premises. Steve Wellington is a universally respected brewer of enormous integrity.

Rant over.

The point is, there’s an attitude in beer appreciation that’s the same as the one I used to have when I was a teenage indie kid: back then, we thought anything on a major label was shit, anyone who actually got into the charts had sold out. It seems lots of beer fans enjoy being just as miserable as I was then. Big brewers churning out bland lager are easy hate targets, but when they start to show some interest in characterful beers, the vitriol only increases. Why?

It was the same when Inbev launched Artois Bock. The beer hasn’t fared brilliantly, it could have been marketed better, but here was the world’s biggest brewer creating a characterful Belgian ale and getting a shitstorm from many sides of the beer community for its efforts. Inbev do some really, really scummy things and often operate against the interests of beer drinkers, but this was not one of those times. It’s basic psychology that if you want to change someone’s behaviour you praise the the good at the same time as you condemn the bad. Otherwise, how can you blame them if they just carry on as they were?

This attitude doesn’t exist in, say, the whisk(e)y world. Michael Jackson used to judge single malts owned by Diageo on their merits alongside those from tiny distilleries. It’s a blight on beer that we can’t do the same, and it should come as no surprise when people dismiss the entire beer community as whining Luddites.

I believe we should be trying to persuade Inbev, SABMiller and Coors to turn their huge drinker bases on to more characterful beers, to use their huge marketing muscle to help develop a more eclectic drinking scene.

But am I wrong?

Is there a case for saying that craft beer should be the exclusive preserve of small craft brewers, that it’s healthier and more attractive overall if great beer was kept entirely separate from huge corporations driven by shareholder value who may somehow taint it?

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The campaign for real ale is almost two hundred years old!

Where does the term ‘real ale’ originate?

Any CAMRA member or beer historian will tell you that in the early seventies, four discontented beer drinkers founded the Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale, before amending this to the snappier Campaign for Real Ale, coining a term to differentiate cask conditioned ales from what they saw as worthless, ersatz fizzy brews.

Whatever disagreements I’ve had with CAMRA in the past, I’ve always said that this was a PR masterstroke. So I was astonished to discover this loaded term being used long, long before CAMRA’s hated keg beers were even a twinkle in some demonic corporate brewer’s eye.

On April 13 1809, the Calcutta Gazette carried countless ads for beer. Most of these were for pale ale (not yet referred to as India Pale Ale), the majority promoting “HODGSON’S very best PALE ALE, Brewed for this Climate and warranted of a Superior Quality.”

But one ad was different. I couldn’t make a copy of it, as the paper would have disintegrated, but it read: REAL ALE
To be sold by Public Auction
By Williams and Hohler
At their Auction-room
On MONDAY next, the 17th April 1809,
ONE Hundred and Forty-three Dozen
of excellent REAL ALE, warranted
good, the property of an Up-Country Trader,
leaving of business. For the convenience of Purchasers, it
will be put up in lots of Three Dozen. So what was the ‘false’ ale they were seeking to differentiate from? Well, maybe keg ale, or something similar to it, is older than we thought too. W L Tizard, a Professor of Brewing, wrote the following in his account of how to brew beers for export in his 1843 book Theory and Practice of Brewing: “It is imperatively necessary that all extraneous vegetable matter which forms the yeast, lees &c. be removed; because the agitation during the voyage would otherwise produce extreme fretting, leakages and premature acidity.”
So ‘real ale’ is beer that still has yeast present in the cask, whereas other beers have the yeast removed. If IPA and other nineteenth century beers had all their yeast removed, does that mean they were not technically real ales at all, but the forerunners of the dreaded keg? And could the ad above therefore be evidence that some CAMRA hardliners have perfected time travel and gone back to protest against what might be an uncomfortable bit of trivia for anyone who thinks the only decent beer is one that is carrying on a secondary fermentation in the cask? Or is the fight for cask beer older than we thought?

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The Great Christmas Ale Hunt

Here’s a mystery – with Christmas and winter ales available from hundreds of British brewers, amply stocked in the larger branches of all major supermarket chains, where are the reviews of them in the press?

The food and drink supps of all major newspapers are, like every year, suggesting treats for the Christmas table. Observer Food Monthly had a page of festive wines and a selection of whiskies, but no mention of beer.

This must be a bit galling if you’re a brewer. You create a recipe specifically for the season, often using seasonal ingredients, and succeed in getting major retail distribution. Here are magazines with pages to fill, with writers and readers who are interested in more seasonal, natural food. And they recommend wines that are no different than those available all year round.

You could say people like me should be the ones writing, but I was away last week, and anyway, when I’ve tried before they don’t even return calls or e-mails.

Why do the press try so hard to pretend beer doesn’t exist? Have we done something to upset them? Maybe I’m wrong.

If you’re in the UK, and you have seen any Christmas or winter brews reviewed anywhere, please let me know!

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A blog entry and words

Wandering around the Euro-chic shopping mall of St. Pancras I was starting to get worried – there was the champagne bar, but where was the pub? Who ever heard of a huge city centre train station without a pub? Eventually I found it, far off in the corner, on its own, away from the main shopping concourse.

The “Baby Betjeman” is a fenced off area in the corner of the station and provides an interesting snapshot of what’s happening to British pubs. It’s by no means shit, but it’s a curious combination of things to both love and loathe that leaves you unsure of what kind of mood you’re in as you sup your pint.

The first thing you notice is that it’s not a pub. No, you see, mere pubs are naff. Too English, too old-fashioned, too working class for our modern, aspirational, solutions-oriented society. The Baby Betjeman is a “pub and kitchen”.

I’m confused by this trend in naming establishments – you see quite a lot of it in North London now. I’m confused because I always thought a kitchen was an integral part of a pub, so why is it now a separate addendum? Because it sounds posher. I’ve tried to adopt this to see if I can make my own like sound a bit classier and I’m not sure it’s working. It feels strange talking about ‘my body and arms’. When I leave my house and bedrooms to travel somewhere by car and engine, then come home to write this blog entry and words, I can’t help worrying that I sound like I’m talking out of my arse and rectum.

The BB has waiter service at its tables so it really isn’t a pub at all. (Pubs also have walls and ceilings in my experience). There are wine lists pushing champagne heavily on each of the tables.

And yet…

The draught lagers are Budvar and Amstel – an excellent choice of premium and standard strength brands. And even though they don’t mention them anywhere, behind the bar are two casks of real ale on stillage – London Pride and a guest ale – Sharp’s Doom Bar, which was excellent. There are further bottled ales behind the bar and an interesting-looking food menu, if you’re the kind of person who can splash out seven quid on a cheese sandwich. (The Doom Bar had the honour of being the first pint of real ale I’ve ever paid three quid for.)

And here’s a nice thing – as this pub has no walls and ceiling, it was bloody freezing. But over the backs of each of the chairs was a lovely thick blanket to drape over your knees. I’ve seen this before in Denmark, which has a thriving pavement cafe culture throughout the winter, and thought it was a lovely idea that would never catch on in the UK, so I’m delighted it has.

I’d say it’s worth turning up half an hour early for your train – if you can find it.

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London’s Brightest New Shopping Mall

St. Pancras station reopened a few weeks ago to great fanfare, so after a stimulating afternoon reading tables of import and export figures into Bengal in the nineteenth century at the British Library, I popped in for a look. For those who don’t know London, St. Pancras used to be a train station, and is one of London’s most iconic buildings. For those with a fondness for the solid, utilitarian yet still proud architecture of Victorian industry, it’s more awe-inspiring than any of the capital’s palaces or cathedrals.
It’s now London’s most tasteful shopping mall. There are trains still here somewhere – at least, there are signs pointing to them – but the magnificent central spaces is devoted entirely to accessories and candles and lotions and posh sandwiches. There are two branches of “your” M&S, among tasteful luxuries that are in no way useful for a train journey. These shops aren’t here for travellers to stock up; they’re here as a destination in and of itself.

Maybe we could turn St Paul’s into a huge Starbucks; Buckingham Palace into a Heat Magazine theme park, or County Hall, the magnificent former council facing Parliament on the south bank, into a lowest common denominator tourist trap. (Oh hang on, we already did that last one).

Shopping is the most important contribution any of us can make to our own and the world’s happiness. It doesn’t matter that you already have everything you need; doesn’t matter that your credit cards are up to their limits, get out there and buy. You can now cross London without ever being out of sight of a Starbucks, Pret, M&S or Tesco Metro. The Onion magazine once ran a spoof story with the headline “Starbucks opens new branch of Starbucks in Starbucks rest room.” That’s what it feels like in St. Pancras now.
St. Pancras is of course the new Eurostar Terminal, and if you look hard enough, you can find the trains. When it was at Waterloo I always thought it was a bit mean making the French arrive at a station that reminded them of their greatest ever military defeat. But St. Pancras has gone the other way. I’m not a Europhobe or Little Englander – that’s why I go to France and Belgium as often as I can to soak up the culture, food and drink. I just don’t understand why everything British has to be regarded as shit compared to anything non-British.
St Pancras has the biggest branch of “Le Pain Quotidien” (French baguettes) I’ve ever seen. The world’s longest champagne bar dominates the central concourse. If you look really hard you can find what just about passes for a pub tucked in the corner, far away from the main mall. I feel dispossessed. St Pancras makes me feel like we’ve been robbed.But as shopping malls go, it is a very, very beautiful one.

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The other journey – the journey through time

I didn’t see much of Kolkata – not its present day incarnation, anyway. But during my brief time in the city, I found something much more thrilling. And I believe there may be as many as a dozen people in the world who will agree with me when I tell you what it is.

In my previous books, where I’ve dug into history I’ve relied on the same secondary sources as most other writers. Maybe I’ve read around the subject a little more than most beer writers do, trying to put beer into its proper context, but I’m no historian, and I didn’t push back any boundaries of knowledge. For that, I always direct people to Martin Cornell’s book, which had the misfortune to be released two months after my first. Martin made a point of not including anything he couldn’t check from an original source. And while this means maybe some things that were probably true were not included because they weren’t definitely true, his book remains the most factually accurate history of beer there is.

Inspired partly by Martin, and encouraged by the fact that I had a tight niche compared to the whole history of beer, I though a bit of original research using primary sources would not only be fitting , but fun. And I’m hooked – it’s like being a time-travelling detective.

I spent my last day in Kolkata in the Indian National Library, persuading them to dig out their archived, worm-eaten copies of the Calcutta Gazette, the paper of record during the days of the East India Company’s rule of Bengal. Advertising today tells you the story of a society – what its obsessions and values are – and it’s no different in history. The ads in the Gazette from the 1780s to the 1840s tell the story of the evolution of India Pale Ale in a way it has never been told before. Added to what I’ve already found in the archives of the Museum of Brewing in Burton, and in the archives of the East India Company, I’ve managed to pull together a complete rewrite of the history of this wonderful beer style. The gist of the legend is correct, but some very important details of it are wrong – based on entirely reasonable suppositions, but different when you have all the facts.

Unfortunately, my book is now not due for release until early 2009 (publishing schedules being a mystery to any writer who is not the author of a celebrity kiss and tell), so I can’t reveal the juicy details right now.

But the man thing that stays with me is nothing to do with beer itself, and may impart some of the thrill I felt – as I was looking for the notice of auctions for the ale and porter that had arrived in 1790, I noticed the front page headline of the paper I was holding. It talked about updating the Gazette’s readers on “The Commotions in France.” No, not an early tour by Lloyd Cole’s criminally underrated band. I was holding the newspaper that was informing the British in India of the unfolding French Revolution.

I think that was the point where I fell in love with primary historical research.

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The Beer Part Two

We had an explosive end to my quest to take IPA on its traditional journey for the first time in 150 years – but it all worked out OK in the end.

Thanks to an enormous stroke of good fortune, I was in India at the same time as the British Beer and Pub Association were attending a trade show. Janet Witheridge, whose job it is to promote exports of British beer, and her husband Robin, very kindly stayed on after the show – instead of going home, they came to Kolkata with me, roped in the British High Commission and organised a press reception for the opening of Kevin the Keg.

After yet another last minute hitch – the hotel where the reception was organised turned round at the last minute and demanded complicated things like papers proving I’d paid excise duties and stuff, whereas in fact I had paid $275 bribes for which, funnily enough, I hadn’t been able to get a receipt – the reception happened at the Deputy British High Commission in India, and I was introduced by the Deputy High Commissioner himself.

Sadly the brewer of our beer, Steve Wellington, couldn’t make it because sales of Worthington White Shield are up by an incredible 67% this year and he’s brewing round the clock. So it was up to me to tap the keg. As the journos started to arrive, I attached the custom-built keg coupler and pushed down…

At this point I should probably mention that the function suite at the Deputy High Commission had just been extensively redecorated. The smell of fresh paint still filled the room. The suite wasn’t officially reopened yet, and was open early especially as a huge favour to us. As the beer shot ten feet through the air, taking out the back row of seats and giving a comprehensive sticky sheen to the shining new marble floor, few people seemed interested in my explanation of live beer. residual yeast and the effects of the journey. The staff looked on in uncomprehending horror, and the Deputy High Commissioner had to call on every ounce of the incredible fund of tact and diplomacy needed to do a job like his.

The beer in the keg was different again to that in the jeroboam. Unlike the bottle it was dry-hopped, and that wonderful fresh hop aroma was the first thing that hit. The tropical fruit aroma behind it was similar to what I’ve already described. The taste was much more mellow and complex, with the malt reasserting itself now against the hop attack. As well as the rich summer fruit, there was a thin stream of caramel, not thick and obvious, but the golden, gloopy kind you get in Cadbury’s Caramel bars, light and not too cloying. The elements of the beer ran into each other, finishing smooth and dry.

And when the catering staff finished mopping up spilt beer and started bring round the tandoori canapes, it cut through the heat and harmonised beautifully with the spices. In India, drinking a beer specially brewed for the climate, with food like that the boys of the Raj would have eaten while drinking the beer, I finally realised that, after a very wonky and jittery journey, I’d finally done it – here was a real IPA, back in its home for the first time in modern India. Words cannot describe the feeling.

It’s a bloody wonderful beer. I hope we haven’t seen the last of it – watch this space for news of any potential future brews.

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Back Home

Here’s something I could never have imagined saying until I stepped off the Heathrow Express at Paddington forty-eight hours ago: blimey, London’s quiet.

I don’t mean it was quiet for London; I mean the typical noise level in London, the constant buzz of traffic on the Euston Road punctuated by sirens, seems to me now an agreeable, soft, ambient hum. Does this mean I actually went completely crazy in my cabin on a container ship? No. It just means I’ve been in Delhi and Kolkata for a couple of weeks.

London, which had always seemed a bit too loud and fast for me before I went on my voyage, is like a sleepy Sunday afternoon in India’s major cities. The traffic in Kolkata is so bad cab drivers turn off their engines when they get into a queue at a junction, knowing they’re going to be there for some time. In Delhi, the buses try to never stop, knowing that if they do they might not get going again, and passengers throw themselves towards the moving open doors and hope for the best. Autorickhsaws and mopeds outnumber four-wheeled traffic a hundred to one, even when you include four-footed traffic – the oxen with their brightly painted horns pulling carts – among the latter. And talking of horns – everyone drives with them! The gaily painted trucks have no rear view mirrors, so all have the words “horn please!” emblazoned across their bumpers.

A game of cricket. Because the street wasn’t quite chaotic enough anyway.

India is relentless, an assault on all the senses that was only magnified by the fact that I came to it after months at sea. I love it, absolutely adore it, but you wouldn’t go to urban India for a holiday. It’s not restful. You need a holiday to recover from it.

I left London hoping to think my way through my antipathy towards the city I’ve called home for the last 16 years, sure that I’d find it unbearable when I returned, determined to sell up immediately and buy a cottage somewhere I could open the curtains and see the sea every morning. The cottage still seems like a nice idea, and the sea is simply something I now have to make more room for in my life, but after India, London feels manageable again, which is an unlooked for bonus. And when Liz and I reacquainted ourselves with each other over a couple of pints of Fuller’s ESB at the pub in Paddington Station, I realised it’s not quite time for people to start dragging out Dr Johnson’s most oft-quoted phrase just yet. It’s good to be home.

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Jerry the Jeroboam

A few days ago in Delhi, I opened the first bottle of IPA to travel around the Cape of Good Hope to India for at least 140 years.

Jerry the Jeroboam didn’t quite do the whole journey from the UK, having joined me in Rio, but he did do 10,000 miles by sea, braving storms and pirates, and did go round the Cape and through the Indian Ocean.

We opened him at IFE, a trade show where food and drink producers form around the world come to sell their wares to India. I did a presentation about my trip to an audience of press and curious delegates, and then we opened the bottle.

I was extremely nervous as I chipped away the wax seal, sending black shards and dust across the room, disturbing the pigeons in the roof of the conference centre. The cork didn’t explode out of the bottle. That was a good sign. I had a short corkscrew on my Swiss Army Knife (Chris insisted I would need one and he was right). I pulled out the cork… and it broke half way. Gently now, I eased out the bottom half, hoping I wasn’t going to get shrapnel in my beer, and it emerge with a satisfying pop and a whiff of vapour. As soon as I saw this silver tendril creeping up like cigarette smoke, I knew we were going to be OK – the beer was lively, but not too lively.

It poured a rich, deep copper colour, slightly hazy. It reminded me of American IPAs – you could almost see the weighty alcohol content. The nose was an absolute delight – an initial sharp citrus tang, followed by a deeper range of tropical fruit – I was reminded of mango and papaya. Later, after it had breathed for a while, it went a bit sherberty. On the tongue it simply exploded with rich, ripe fruit, a little bit of pepper, and a wonderfully clean bitter finish that left my tongue buzzing.

I’m a bit biased because before this, Brahma lager is by some measure the best beer I’d had in the last two and a half months – that’s how bad it’s been – so my palate was starved and desperate. But I’d say the journey has definitely matured it from what I can remember of when we sampled it in Burton. It was smoother and more rounded, the different elements blending into each other a lot more. Comparing this to Melissa’s tasting notes when she sampled the same beer back in the UK, I’d say the journey has done what we all believed it was supposed to do. I’ve found large elements of the IPA story to be myth, but this central fact – it wasn’t just the brewer but also the journey that created this beer – holds up.

And my God, it was drinkable for 7%. It’s damn hoppy, and proves you can get a really big hop character on a par with the American IPAs without necessarily using West Coast American hops. But it was much more balanced than American IPAs. To my mind it’s the best of both sides of the Atlantic – as punchy as the best American IPAs; as balanced as the best British ones. I can firmly believe that this was what IPA used to taste like in India 150-200 years ago. It just makes perfect sense for the climate – not to mention the food.

Opening the keg tonight. The bottled beer was bright; the keg still has residual yeast, so we’re expecting something different again. And then flying home! I’ll fill in the results – plus many of the gaps from the last three months – once I’m over my jet lag.