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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

What's new?

What's new?
More new events added in Bristol, London and Edinburgh over April and May
I had a big piece in the Guardian this week about why publicans are unhappy
Click here to hear me talking about craft beer on this week's radio 4 Food Programme!
>

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Why do trumpets taste like hops?

Five years ago I read an article about a study at Heriot Watt university that had found different styles of music could 'improve' the flavour of wine. In a controlled experiment, wines paired with the 'right' style of music tasted 40-60% better than those paired with the 'wrong' style.

Obviously I stole the idea and applied it to beer. There's a broader range of styles and flavours to play with, and music and beer as I know them go together much better than music does with wine - both have a communality and approachability to them, with the option of going for more obscure, difficult stuff if you prefer.

I started having fun matching things by theme, season and mood, but also terroir, attitude and a slight smidgeon of taking the piss.

Eventually though, I was put in touch with neuroscientists who showed me there's much more to it than that. Neuroscience in its current form has been around for less than twenty years, because contemporary brain imaging technology, which shows us what bits of the brain light up in response to different stimuli, is very new. Incredibly, in the 21st century we are only just starting to figure our how the brain really works. And we're learning that there's much more to our so-called 'five senses' than previously thought. They overlap, support each other, and sometimes become confused or blurred. Unwittingly, I'm conducting experiments that are not too dissimilar to what's happening in the new field of neurogastronomy, or would be if I conducted them more carefully and with less mucking about.

This has set me off on an exploration of the senses and how the brain works. I never did any science subjects at school or college after the age of fourteen, and now I'm learning to love the laboratory all over again, reading up on everything from soundwaves and molecular gastronomy to the philosophy of aesthetics and the 'Proustian effect' of sense memory.

My talk on beer and music is sprouting all sorts of new tentacles. I rewrite it after every single show, taking on board what I've learned, bolting on new experiments, refining the pairings, polishing up the presentation, ditching the bits that don't work. Having gone from ditching most of the show each time and starting from scratch, it's now starting to feel pretty solid.

I've no idea where this will end up - as a book, radio show or event at the Edinburgh Fringe (all have been suggested to me) - but right now it's becoming one of my core obsessions. At the heart of it are six pairings of great beers with music tracks that I love. They go together in different ways had tell us different things about how we perceive the world around us.

Some audience members think the whole thing is rubbish. Others find it seismic in changing their perceptions. Some cynics are won over; some enthusiasts go away confused and unsure. Whatever happens, and however much you buy the central conceit, it's an enjoyable hour of great beer and great tunes, with added science, anecdote and trivia.

I'm doing my next event at Bristol Food Connections on Friday 2nd May, in front of a very special audience which you can be part of. Tickets are still available and are only £5 including beers.

The following week I'm repeating the event in London, at the Ivy House. This pub hit the headlines a couple of years ago when it was seemingly doomed to closure, but was saved when the community bought it. It's now a thriving craft beer-focused pub with a legendary musical heritage. I'm honoured to be be matching beer and music there on 8th May. Tickets have just gone on sale here.

Please come along and help me create a beer tasting event quite unlike any you've witnessed before.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

'Imperial'

In February I was in Chicago for the US Cider Conference. It was massively exciting, because craft cider in America is where craft beer was twenty years ago. It's impossible not to draw some parallels between the two drinks. 

Because of the way the two scenes have grown in the States - with all the energy and hunger of new discovery and a bold ambition to push flavour into new places that sometimes, just occasionally, outpaces the brewer/cidermaker's level of skill - they are much closer than they are in the UK. 

Sure, over here CAMRA represents both beer and cider to some extent, but at the craft end of things the two scenes seem quite separate - almost hostile to each other at times, as I have discovered since I began straddling both. 

In the US, craft beer and craft cider walk hand in hand to a much greater extent. Many ambitious young cidermakers have a craft brewing background. The growth of dry-hopped cider is only the most visible example of this. 

But cider still has a way to go, and that's what makes it so exciting. 

One session we had at the conference was titled "Defining cider style by flavour." It as based around this booklet:


by a guy called Dave Selden, who runs a beer blog and creates these stylish publications for a range of drinks. I enjoyed hanging out with Dave at the Cider Summit - a public event the day after CiderCon finished - talking among other things about how you define style.

This is something that obsesses Americans more than anyone else. In beer, before there was a debate about the definition of craft beer, there was a debate about beer styles that was just as tedious and pointless. I ridiculed it and said my final word on beer style back in 2010, but anyone who thinks there are nearly 200 different styles of beer (or is it even more now?) has far too much time on their hands.

On the other hand, I have to agree that cider needs more style definition than it currently has. The whole point of writing World's Best Cider was that no one had looked at cider from a global perspective before, comparing the different traditions that exist around the globe. With a few exceptions, everyone has been defining cider within their own cultural frame of reference. The good thing about the Americans getting involved is that they instinctively look everywhere they can for inspiration and education. America already has a better range of international ciders readily available in craft bars and good bottle shops than you'll find in any other country. A little bit of that rigorous analysis of style - not too much mind - might be very useful.

So back to the event where we were using Dave's new cider booklet to try to analyse style by flavour. 

It was an open session, with each table sharing several different ciders and trying to agree on what they were like. The booklet gave us a flavour wheel and a bunch of other classifications for pinning down what was in the bottle.


It was improvisational, spontaneous, and very enjoyable. One cider was described by one table as a 'porch' cider, because it was the kind of thing you wanted to drink on a rocking chair while watching the sunset. The guy from Angry Orchard was clearly miffed when few people agreed that the cider he had brought to show was 'French farmhouse' in style. (To me, it was nowhere near tannic enough and had a hint of Spanish-style sourness.)

The highlight of the session though was when we got to one table who, after some conversation, pronounced that this cider should be classed as 'Imperial', with little explanation as to why. Immediately, various other tables rolled their eyes, sniggered and said, "Huh, brewers!"

It was a perfect moment: highlighting the various different factions that exist within craft cider; craft brewers parodying themselves by showing how utterly meaningless the 'imperial' classification is when divorced from its context; and revealing that none of us really had a clue about what to call this decent, drinkable but unmemorable cider.

By the end of the session we had picked various faults in the tasting wheel (which can be easily fixed). We were no closer to a framework of cider style by flavour. I wasn't sure that Dave's approach was right, but the session had convinced me that my own attempt to devise a set of cider styles was hopelessly inadequate - a mishmash that defines some styles by their region of origin, others by production methods or ingredients, and still others by flavour.

Back to the drawing board for all of us then. But taxonomy has never been so much fun.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Barcelona II: This Time it's Sidra

Food of Los Dioses

Around the corner from La Cerveteca in Barcelona's Bari Gotic I stumble (literally) upon La Socarenna, a small bar built into an arch, offering productes asturias y catalans. They make cider in Asturias, and sure enough, the front window is piled high with thick green bottles. I go in.

An ancient transistor radio behind the bar gives football commentary that sounds like it's being broadcast by bees. A grey haired man outside on the step takes his time finishing his cigarette before slowly walking back in and heading behind the bar to serve me. There's one other customer standing at the bar.

I ask for sidra and there's one choice: Camin, a brand from Trabanco. Mainstream stuff as far as the Asturians are concerned, but a far cry from Bulmer's, Magner's or Woodchuck. It comes in 660ml bottles. The bartender pops the cork and hands me the bottle and a traditional sidra glass, thin and delicate with a wide mouth, perfect for 'throwing' the sidra in the traditional Asturian way. I order a bowl of cockles to go with it, and am in heaven.

The other guy at the bar is throwing his sidra properly. This is the Spanish tradition: sidra is flat and very acidic compared to other cider traditions. The idea is to throw the cider into the glass from a great height. It explodes onto the side of the thin glass, which sings with the impact. This aerates the cider, giving it a champagne-like moussy texture and softening the acidity to something pleasant. That's the first swig anyway - anything left in the glass after thirty seconds is poured away.

This means traditional sidra drinking is an active pursuit: small mouthfuls poured and drunk quickly, so you soon lose track of how fast you are drinking.

The floor of La Socarenna is tiled, and right at the foot of the bar there's a neat drainage channel. But this must be for show: it's perfectly dry, and the guy further down the bar has a black wooden bucket at his feet. He throws his sidra confidently from above his head, over the bucket, spilling a few drops.

I know how it should be done. I compromise, carefully pouring from about a foot over the glass. It's not a bad first effort.

The sidra tastes beautiful, more like the easy end of Somerset cider rather than the traditional ascetic Asturian liquid some cider makers insist is just vinegar. There's that lovely soft, woozy apple you get from scrumpy, and the acidity is perfect for me - enough to make your palate perk up without attacking it. Similarly, the farmyard notes are strong enough to suggest character, not so much that your palate is transported to the cowsheds.

Together with the cockles, it's perfect: seafood and clean, crisp acidity together are so simple yet so right. One urges you back to the other, until you're stabbing with your cocktail stick in a frenzy. As typical bar fayre, it beats the crap out of lager and crisps, and is no more expensive.

While I'm writing about drainage and buckets, three very heavily made up English girls stop to look at the menu outside. The surly barman is transformed, drifting over to the window with a big grin he has kept well hidden until now. The girls move on and the grin disappears. The other guy has finished his sidra and left. The barman goes back to conspicuously ignoring me, standing with his back to me, the only customer in the bar.

The sidra is 6% and it's doing its job well. Half a bottle in, from nowhere I'm completely pissed. And in my half-hearted, very English attempt at throwing my cider, I manage to pour it all over my notebook. My cover is blown. I've gone from 'Obviously I'm not from Asturias but I am aware of the tradition and I'm trying to demonstrate that even though I know I can't do it properly' to 'Basically, I'm just a twat.'

I now have about a quarter of my bottle left. Another couple arrive and order a bottle of Camin. A Spanish couple. They sit at a table and she throws the cider from about a foot over her glass, without spilling a drop. He pours his nervously, right over the top of the glass. They both look uncomfortable and transfer their attention to a bowl of olives. The methodical spearing of shiny green morsels is a skill they are both proficient in, and it becomes their entire world. Meanwhile I stand behind them, writing furiously in my sodden notebook at 11pm on a Saturday night, pretending to myself that I look inconspicuous.

It's brilliant that this sidra tradition exists, and that people are aware of it but have different levels of comfort with it, they're not quite sure about it. It feels more authentic somehow that something that is ruthlessly observed and policed.

I pour the last of my sidra timidly, like the guy at the table, neck it and make the universal sign for la cuenta, secretly pleased that my new notebook is now impregnated with smelly booze, and stagger, soused, into the night.

Monday, 31 March 2014

Barcelona discovers craft beer: becomes even more perfect

I can't believe it's a decade since my first visit to Barcelona, as part of the research for my second book, Three Sheets to the Wind

Back then any new city outside the UK mainland was a bewildering adventure for me. Anything that was marginally different from home was a marvel. I used to enjoy going into Seven-Elevens and Spar shops, buying any beer I hadn't seen before, good or bad, noting how the snacks were arranged differently, or appreciating that the ham roll was an international standard that took slightly different forms wherever you went.

Last weekend, as I got off the airport bus at the top of the Ramblas (I'd never have dared get a bus on my own that first time) I felt an echo of the old rush, conjured up by Barcelona's graceful architecture, the relaxed rush of the place. But I was nostalgic for that lost innocence. I've become a little blasé about travelling now. Once you've done a three month sea journey to India, a European city break is well in your stride and holds little that's unexpected. This makes me feel slightly sad and a more than a little old.

I feel even older when, after checking in to my hotel, I take my city guide out for a stroll around the Barri Gotic, Barcelona's old quarter. Stealthily, my eyesight has worsened since I was last here, and I simply can't make out the street names on the maps. 

I try wandering randomly instead. That first time I was here with the Beer Widow and my wingman Chris, this strategy brought us to Barcelona's Kojak tribute bar, and not one, but two pirate themed bars. The best thing was, these nautical oddities were just across the road from each other - the only two pirate themed bars in the city; in fact the only two I've ever seen. Getting slowly pissed on Estrella and full of jamon and pimientos de padron, we tried to imagine what the story was. Two friends with a vision of the perfect pirate themed pub, maybe, and after opening it together one ousts the other. In his rage, he opens a rival establishment across the road. "There's only room for one pirate theme bar in Barcelona, and by God, mine will triumph!" Images of cannon firing across the street, and people swinging on ropes across the narrow gap with daggers in their mouths.

It seems both the pirate bars and the Kojak bar are long gone, which adds to my building sense of nostalgia. But then I walk into a small square and discover La Cerveteca. According to the Craft Beer section in my copy of the Rough Guide to Barcelona (seriously) this bar offers the city's widest selection of beers from around the world, as well as a few local brews.  


Last time I visited Barcelona - about five years ago on a work trip - there was no craft beer. There is now. Ever since my Three Sheets trips, Spain has always been one of my favourite places to drink. Not because of the quality of the beer (although Spanish mainstream lagers are far superior to their British equivalents) but because of the way people drink. Small glasses, often with tiny bits of food, moving through the city until the small hours, ending up happy and sated but not completely pissed. It's the perfect way to drink beer.

Now you can do it with good beer.

I'd heard that Spain had discovered craft beer and considered reading up on it, maybe contacting a few people before I flew out. I'm glad I didn't. I can just be a punter again, on a new journey of discovery.

La Cerveteca is in an old building of exposed massive stone blocks, very high ceilings and mosaic floors. It's a very Spanish bar, which makes the shelves of Nogne O, BrewDog, Meantime, Dupont and Cantillon bottles lining the walls seem all the more incongruous. People stand around large hogsheads on which they drape their heavy winter coats (they seem to be feeling the chill of 15 degrees Celsius more than I do) and perch their beers.



I'm one of those people who usually speaks English slowly, assuming/hoping serving staff across Europe will understand. But here, ordering a pint of IPA in a foreign language for possibly the first time, I realise those three letters have become as international as 'OK' or the scribbly airsign you make when you want the bill. Even in languages where the phonetic pronunciation of the letters is different, they anglicise it for IPA, the way Brits sometimes say Zee instead of Zed if it's in an American context. Say those three letters in a craft beer bar anywhere in the world, and the bartender will nod, whatever languages they do or don't speak.



As well as 'Ipanema IPA', the bar boasts locally brewed beers including porter, saison, red ale and smoked marzen. Some of these are even cask conditioned. A half-drawn just behind the bar reveals an expansive cellar.  The physics-defying heads on the pints being poured suggest there might still be some work to be done there, so I stick to the keg taps.




My IPA is good: clean, fresh and quenching, with a slowly building hop fuzziness, just how I like it.

I'm absurdly happy that I can stand at the bar in a place like this and order a pint of saison with a plate of Jamon Belotta - the king of ham, at least within my budget - or just about. (The first time I had Belotta ham is detailed in Three Sheets in the bit about the Hamburglar in Madrid, who got me and my mate Chris pissed on Ballantyne whisky and tricked us into buying a €17 plate of ham each).

The ham simply melts around it's fat, sweet and salty. And although it's not a perfect match with the saison, it pulls the beer into interesting new shapes, making it bolder and more cheerful than a saison usually is.

Craft beer belongs perfectly in Barcelona's easygoing gastronomic culture, which is even now creating playful new fusions such as Asian-influenced tapas (unsurprising given the Japanese eat and drink beer in a very similar fashion). This is Ferran Adria's city after all.

The next day I find the actual address of Hook, the last pirate theme bar, and discover it closed last summer. Instead, a few doors down, there's a bar called CRAFT, selling BrewDog, Meantime and Brooklyn beers far more cheaply than I can buy them at home.

This prompts mixed feelings. The charm of researching Three Sheets was discovering the quirks of drinking culture around the world, realising that there was a universal template for what beer means, and what the beer moment is, and that this template gets dressed up in different national and regional costumes that are unique, and sometimes special.

In one sense it's fantastic that I can now get the craft beers I know - plus some new ones such as Holz and Aktien, that I'd like to get to know better - in one of my favourite cities in the world. In another, it makes me slightly sad that this seemingly comes at the cost of sitting in a pub lined with prints of Telly Savalas, drinking perfectly average lager, and laughing like a drain.

But maybe those days were gone anyway.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Guinness back to what it does best

It really is good for you.
Ah, St Patrick's Day: guaranteed to drive some angsty beer geeks to ask why everyone insists on drinking Guinness when there are so many superior stouts available, and explain to their friends that it's not really an Irish beer at all because it was derived from London's porter tradition, so really the whole of Paddy's Day is a sham, and anyway it's an Irish festival and we're not Irish so why are we celebrating this one instead of celebrating with real ale on St Georges Day?

And no one listens to them. Instead, everyone else sees it simply as an excuse to spend another boozy night in the pub enjoying themselves, buying into a version of the Irish craic that may not have anything true about it, but is perfectly good fun nonetheless, if you're in the mood for it.

Guinness is facing an interesting time at the moment. It's the very best illustration out there of our declining need for big brand reassurance in the beer market. In the late nineteenth century, when brewers floated on the stock exchange to raise funds to buy the pubs that sold their beers, Guinness followed a different path, building a singular, iconic brand rather than a tied estate of pubs selling a range of different beers. Throughout the twentieth century, it didn't matter whether you were drinking in a Whitbread, Courage or Watney's pub, a freehouse or a managed pub - you had to have Guinness on the bar. Pretenders like Murphy's came and went, but consistent investment in building a brand that looked like no other kept Guinness strong. There aren't many brands that enjoy seeing tourists actually spending money to buy copies of their adverts from seventy or eighty years ago.

Three for a tenner on Portobello Road
This brand strength has meant that Guinness can get away with charging pubs more than other beers. I've spoken to publicans who feel bitter, almost held to ransom, who believe they must have Guinness on their bar even if it means paying through the nose for it. And market research shows why: in the late nineties, more people claimed to drink Guinness than any other beer brand. Some of them may have only drunk it on one day of the year; others were simply lying - they liked to think of themselves as Guinness drinkers, or be seen by others as Guinness drinkers, even if they didn't actually like the taste. 

Things are different now. Brewers such as Brains, Fullers, and Wadworth are developing their own 4.0-4.2% nitrokeg stouts and discovering that Guinness is pretty easy to copy. When they put it on the bar, they're finding that these days, people who actually like the beer are OK not to have the brand - especially if their pint is a bit cheaper.

How did this happen?

Well, partly, it's that mainstream brands have become boring and commoditised across the board, and drinkers are increasingly confident to try something that hasn't been on the telly.

And partly it's that the iconic advertising lost its mojo. 

When you've made a commercial that is routinely voted as the best TV ad of all time (an early work by the director of this year's most talked about film) it's a hard act to follow.


The last decade and a bit has seen huge budget Guinness ads that have been very easily forgettable, with the possible exception of this one:


which always seemed to reappear a few months after the latest misguided spectacular had quietly disappeared.

But suddenly, the mojo seems to have come back. Possibly the two best commercials I've seen in the last year both turned out to be for Guinness.

The first one pulls you in and you hesitate, worried that you're going to like the film only for the rug to be pulled at the end and it turns out to be something cynical and cheesy. In fact the pay-off is quite moving, and fits perfectly with what Guinness wants to say about both itself and its drinkers.


And then there's this beauty, which starts off so good you think you're almost certainly going to be disappointed, and you're not - thoughtful, spectacular and bang on for a brand that's at least as popular in parts of Africa as it is in Ireland.


If you find this as compelling and beautiful as I do, you might also enjoy the five minute film they made:


These two are possibly the best beer ads we've seen in a decade. Whether they are enough to make Guinness as indispensable and irreplaceable as it once was, we'll have to wait and see. But I would imagine that the Paddy's Day toasts at St James's Gate are a little easier this year than they have been.

Oh, and there's one more beer bore cliché we have to get out of the way while talking about Guinness. If you think it's just a tasteless, bland brand produced by a big corporation that is scared of flavour and has no idea about how to get it into their beer, that's because you've fallen for the trap that there is only one Guinness. Last time I visited the brewery, we were given a tutored tasting of seven different Guinnesses that were all on sale at the time. If you do want a powerful stout that's up there with the very best, seek out Guinness Foreign Extra Stout:

One of the best stouts in the world.

At 7.5%, rich and complex with vinous notes and spiciness twining around the usual big blocks of coffee and chocolate flavour, it's a genuine classic that allegedly makes up over 40% of total Guinness sales worldwide. For those who take notice of these things, it scores 96% on Ratebeer and 91% on Beer Advocate.

Not bad for a dull, corporate global brand.

Slainte.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Will 'craft' change beer for good?

Guys from Five Points took this at the previous, shorter Masterclass.

There's something deeply wrong when you have to set the alarm on a Sunday morning and be out of the door by half past eight. 

But you wouldn't do it if it wasn't also the sign of something being very right.

At a time when I would normally be contemplating a long bath and a fry-up, last Sunday I was giving the introductory presentation at a 'Masterclass' on 'How to launch an independent brewery' being held by the Guardian in their north London offices. The event was a sell-out: a hundred people had paid £99 each and given up their Sunday to hear me followed by a succession of brewers and publicans, including people from Beavertown, Five Points, Burning Sky, Harbour Brewing and Pressure Drop talk about the perils and pitfalls of jacking in the day job to make beer.

I had been concerned that my own presentation erred on the negative side, and through the day the brewers' presentations seemed to focus on lists of things you had to think about and be careful of, and constant reminders that opening a brewery was not a route to riches. And yet on Twitter (#indiebrewery) and at drinks afterwards (which continued at the excellent and new-to-me Queen's Head pub in Kings Cross, who's guv'nor was another of the speakers) people said they had found it inspiring and motivating. Clearly an audience consisting mainly of home brewers who want to spend more time on that and less time in their current jobs were not going to be put off by the idea that this was hard work. They'd all given up their Sundays too. Most had come from outside London. I even spoke to people who are about to open breweries in Spain, Italy and Germany who had come along for tips.

The momentum around beer and brewing, the sense that we are in the middle of the best time in living memory to enjoy a decent beer, was palpable. I kicked off my presentation with this tweet, from someone reading my first book, which is now eleven years in print:


Things have changed beyond recognition, beyond hope, since I wrote that chapter. 

Against this, the questions that were asked most often were: "How long can this go on?" and "Will the bubble burst?" 

Entirely understandable if you are considering jumping off a career ladder and spending your savings on a brewery.

The bubble question is being asked with increasing frequency inside the craft beer movement. One of my slides on Sunday pointed out that in the last ten years, the number of breweries in the UK has more than doubled, while the total volume size of the beer market has collapsed by 23%. Craft beer is focused more towards the on-trade in Britain, and yet each week, on average two new breweries open for business while 28 pubs close for good.

And yet in the UK, real ale and other formats of craft beer together account for only 18% of the total beer market. The mass volume is still in mainstream, mass-produced commercial brands, and probably always will be. But it's those brands that are suffering the most, those corporations that see craft beer as a threat - or maybe an opportunity.

I don't know what's going to happen. No one does. But a follow-up question that helps determine the future prognosis is this: is the taste for craft beer (and if the definition of craft is still bothering you, forget that word and just use 'interesting, flavourful beer' instead) a fad, or more than that?

In my presentation, I had a slide saying 'Craft beer is a movement', which this picture on it:


This is from when a bunch of brewers went to BrewDog to make a whole host of collaborative beers that then formed 'Collabfest', where jointly made, jointly branded products were sold across BrewDog bars. 

When I looked at the slide while I was rehearsing my presentation, it made me wonder what I was going to say over it. I always use the words 'movement' and 'revolution' to describe what's happening in beer now. They are big, juicy, dramatic words. Am I right to use them? 

Other people talk about the craft beer 'fad'. Interestingly, the only people I have heard use this term are working for large brewing companies. (They are inevitably framing craft beer as an east London hipster thing, which is a whole other argument. Brewers such as BrewDog near Aberdeen, Thornbridge in Derbyshire, Dark Star just outside Brighton, Marble in Manchester and Moor Beer in Somerset, and bars like the North Bar in Leeds, the Bridge Bier Huis in Burnley, the Devonshire Cat in Sheffield, the Snowdrop Inn in Lewes and countless others up and down the country, who have been making and selling craft beer since Daltson's hipsters were drinking shandy, may feel justifiably aggrieved at that.)

So what's the difference between a fad and a revolution? Both, eventually, run out of steam. The momentum, the velocity of great beer certainly can't carry on at its current rate indefinitely.

I think the difference is that a fad comes and goes, and when it's gone, it's forgotten by everyone apart from Peter Kay, Stuart Maconie and Barry Shitpeas. It hasn't changed anything, or left any meaningful legacy.

When a revolution happens, it changes things for ever. The repercussions of a movement are felt long after it has disbanded. And whether or not the bubble bursts, whether or not there's a shakeout, consolidation or contraction in the number of people making beer in Britain, I simply can't imagine that the beer scene will go back to how it was when I wrote the megabrands chapter in Man Walks into a Pub

I can't imagine that people like Beavertown's Logan Plant or Lovibond's Jeff Rosenmeier will fail as brewers, or get bored of it and walk away. BrewDog, Thornbridge, Meantime, Camden, Magic Rock, Marble, Sierra Nevada, Sam Adams and Stone are not going to go bust, or suddenly start making pissy lager to stay in business. Yes, some will sell out to bigger companies at some point. But they've helped a lot of people discover a taste for beer they never knew they had. 

Tastes change. You might wake up suddenly one day and say "I'm bored of bold hoppy flavours." But you don't wake up and say, "I'm bored of bold hoppy flavours. I think I'm just going to drink Foster's from now on."

However it evolves, and whoever ends up brewing it, craft beer is here to stay.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Man V #BrewBurger

Burger condiments

The idea, apparently, was "to get as much beer in a burger as we possibly could."

"Ah, well, I like to chuck a bottle of beer into my burger mix," I smile.

Tom from Honest Burger looks at me oddly. "No, we don't actually put it in the burger itself. The beef is the main ingredient. It has to shine. We don't want to smother it."

Oh. This is more complicated than I thought.

Fair enough though: the meat for the burger is 35-day dry-aged beef sourced from The Ginger Pig, possibly the most adored meat supplier to the self-conscious London foodie. The only thing added to the meat itself is a light seasoning. My own preferred way of making burgers - buy whatever mince they have in Sainsburys round the corner, squidge it all up with salt, pepper, onion, beer, grain mustard and a bit of coriander or parlsey before chucking it on the barbie - suddenly seems crude and naive. 

This branch of Honest Burger, yet another new burger chain, is in King's Cross, and has been open about six weeks. "Oh, you're the beer blogger," says the person on the door when I give my name. I'm shown downstairs where a few people from BrewDog welcome me and get me a beer, and I slide into a booth constructed from bare wooden planks. 

London has been deluged by new burger 'concepts' over the last couple of years, and my 'hipster twat' alarm is on a hair trigger, ready to go off. 

The theory is sound: southern US cuisine is a perfect foil for craft beer, two complementary flavour suites just waiting to be fit together.

But Britain has a habit of appropriating brilliant concepts and executing them in a humdrum way. Last autumn I went to a 'street food festival' in Dalston. We paid eight quid to get in (which included a free pint of Meantime beer, but not the Meantime beer I wanted, according to the incredibly bad-tempered servers) then queued for 25 minutes to spend another £9 on a deeply average burger which we ate from wobbly paper plates on creaky benches in a disused factory warmed by open braziers. I fancied that two years previously, tramps had sat in this same spot eating very similar food in identical circumstances. All evening, this was my earworm:


A couple of months earlier, I'd joined Evan Rail, an American beer writer now living in Prague, who had been dispatched to London by the New York Times to review another trendy London burger joint. He's much kinder in the article he wrote than he was on the night, when he said, "Well... it's a burger isn't it?"

So tonight, I'm wary, ready for another 'concept' that promises everything and delivers only salt, fat and deflated guilt. I'm here for the #BrewBurger, a collaboration with BrewDog that allegedly contains so much beer you need to be ID'd as over 18 before you're allowed to eat it. I'm sceptical about this, as most of the alcohol surely burns off. I'm doubly sceptical when introduced to Tom and his business partner. They barely look old enough to get served in a pub themselves, let alone run one of London's most talked about new burger chains. Exactly half an hour after the appointed start time, the room fills instantly with fresh-faced hipsters and the burgers start coming out.

So if there's no beer in the burger itself, where does all the booze go? Well, the beef dripping in which the onions are cooked has been slathered with Punk IPA. The bacon has been marinated in 5AM Saint and brown sugar. And the barbecue sauce has been infused with the mighty Arran whisky barrel aged Paradox.  

With a billing like that, I decide to take a little more care with my burger than I normally would. 

Firstly, the appearance: the style of presentation could be summed up as 'Fuck you, Masterchef.' This is dirty and, yes, honest food. 

Detox buster.

It smells wonderful, complete in a way I've never thought about in relation to a burger before. It's all about balance, with sweet and sour, umame and caramel, strong yet surprisingly graceful.

The bacon on its own is so phenomenal you could be forgiven for forgetting the burger and asking for a bacon buttie instead. If it were possible for a flavour to transport you to a high ridge at a flaming Montana sunset to watch cowboys herd steers across the prairie, only you're sitting on the balcony of a Parisian Michelin starred restaurant at the top of that ridge, then this bacon would do it.

Onto the main event, and the burger is simply the best one I can remember tasting. You can taste the beef, and I realise how rarely beef tastes of beef, and that good beef tastes of a happy life.

When I get to the middle of the burger, all these elements finally come together - the onions and the bacon and the barbecue sauce - and suddenly the hype doesn't sound like hype any more. There's definitely booze here, spiritous and risky. Am I just imagining I can taste the barrel ageing of the Paradox through all those layers of barbecue sauce in the middle of everything else that's going on? I'm not sure.

If that's not enough alcoholic complexity, the burger has been paired with a fourth BrewDog beer, the newly released Bourbon Baby. It's been aged in Bourbon barrels - something that conventional craft brewing wisdom says only works for strong, dark porters and stouts, not a 5.8%ABV Scotch ale like this.

I tried this beer fresh off the bottling line just yesterday, 500 miles north of here in BrewDog's new brewery. Those bottles were then couriered down here and crash-chilled. This beer cannot possibly be on its best form.

And initially, the beer is less than the sum of its parts. It's doing what a beer does, being all cold and refreshing and helping out with a bit of palate cleansing action. Despite the temperature there's a big hit of chocolate and bourbon, but it becomes less interesting in the face of the onslaught of flavour the #BrewBurger is packing. And then, the retronasal action kicks in. Despite the trauma it's endured over the last day or so, the beer comes out punching, sneaks around the back of the palate and pulls in that boozy spiritousness, completing a whole chain of flavour elements and making them sing harmonies. Bourbon Baby is a very good beer, even this cold, even this agitated, even up against this burger. And there you are: dirty food and dirty beer together playing magic on your palate like an idiot savant virtuoso pianist made out of chopped beef and malted barley. Yet another BrewDog idea that sounds like it might be trying a bit too hard on paper, but makes perfect, stunning sense when delivered.

Last time I ate at McDonalds - which was more recently than I care to admit - I remember using the last of the fries to scrape up the dregs of salt and sauce. Even as the compacted aggregate of the food slumped heavily in my stomach, my palate was unsatisfied, overstimulated and seeking closure. With #BrewBurger the fries, nice as they are, are superfluous. The burger and beer together a complete meal without anything else, battering your palate into delighted submission.

I always feel guilty about eating burgers. They are not good for you. This meal is not a healthy meal, and doesn't pretend to be. I resolve that from now on a burger has to be this good for it to be worth the damage.