American Craft Beer Week = Hooray for Everything?

beerisbestNot being American in the national constitutional sense, though somewhat in the continental Vespucci sense, sometimes I find things like American Craft Beer Week and a Declaration of Beer Independence all seem a bit too hooray for everything for me. You remember “Hooray for Everything” don’tca? They were in one episode for about 17 seconds of the Simpsons fifteen years ago, a youth musical group of “clean-cut youngsters” who sing about “the dancingest hemisphere, the Western Hemisphere.” In this case, however, it’s apparently about the greatest “beverage of moderation” instead. And keep tea out of this, wiseguy!

Andy was wondering a bit about the promotion as well, especially the part in the Brewer’s Association material that states their members “want the week to inspire beer enthusiasts to declare their independence by supporting breweries that produce fewer than 2 million barrels of beer a year and are independently owned.” I don’t know about you but I would expect that beer made by an operation making 2.5 million barrels a year has a lot in common with those making say 1.25 million a year. Hardly a reason to distinguish one from another and, frankly, hardly the hallmark of “an artistic creation of living liquid history made from passionate innovators.”¹ But, to be fair, this is a PR effort that, like the recent craft brewer pep rally video, is really aimed at someone other than me. It seems to me that it’s aimed at the brewers themselves and the clients that have yet to commit to a relationship. Me, I just want a tasty beer. It could come from anywhere for all I care… or could it:

During the discussion portion of Beer Wars Live Greg Koch pointed out that Stone Brewing’s Arrogant Bastard Ale is the nation’s top-selling craft 22-ounce package. How’s that for a target? If Anheuser-Busch could brew that beer for less wouldn’t they? So to the line I’ve heard so often: “The big brewers could brew whatever they want if they chose to” I say “Poppycock.” I’m of the opinion they can’t brew the beer at any price. It’s not in their DNA.

beeril² I don’t know if it is about DNA but I get Stan’s point – it may be within their technical capacity but it is not in their business model. But is it really in the business model of the brewer that makes 1,999,999 barrels either? Does the recently released lists of both the top 50 brewers and top 50 craft brewers really provide that much of a distinction? And what about Yuengling anyway?

So, if you don’t buy into brewers as celebrity… or brewing as nationalistic jigno… or can see “not quite mass industrial” as being fundamentally different from “mass industrial”… well, it all makes for a yearning for the simpler approach to ads in the England of the 1930s like “Beer. It’s Lovely” or “Beer is Best.” Such short simple sentences. All the everything with a bit less of the hooray.

¹[Ed.: that’s rather plummy… a bit ripe… where is my cravat anyway?]
²[Ed.: image brazenly nicked from Pete’s blog. Buy his books. Now I feel better.]

Book Review: “Beer and Skittles”, Richard Boston

bas1This arrived from a used book shop in the UK yesterday and, today being off sick, it was a great opportunity to rip through this book in record pace. Richard Boston was the columnist for the then Manchester Guardian whose weekly “Boston on Beer” is credited as being as important as the early days of CAMRA in raising public awareness of the impending loss of real ale that England faced in the early 1970s. He passedaway late in 2006.

I had hoped that this book would be a reprinting of his columns but it is more of a reworking from the point of view in 1976 – not a bad thing but it covers a lot of ground later beer writers like Cornell, Brown and Haydon dealt with in more detail. That being said, it is still a real treat. Boston left beer behind and went on to many other things in his life with a engaging eccentricity but his 1970s beer writing played an important role in preparing the public appetite for the writings of Michael Jackson whose first book, The English Pub was published in the same year.

The book includes information on the history of beer; home brewing and cooking with beer; a guide to where to find real ale 32 years ago as well as a handy discussion on the elements of the pub. This section includes descriptions of games such as Toad in the Hole and Bar Billiards– and contains a passage of incredible value, a description of both the rules and manners required to play shove-ha’penny. Through my tireless (but somewhat fruitless) efforts in relation to The Pub Game Project, I have placed shove-ha’penny on the list of those games I might actually get to play. Manners, as is the biggest part of any game, are critical:

How do you decide if a coin is in, or if it is just touching the line? Some boards have sunken brass dividing lines that can be raised to see if they move the coin or not. Some players run the edge of a piece of paper or the blade of a knife or engineering feelers between the coin and the line. This is poor stuff. The rule is that the coin must not only be in, it must be clearly seen to be in. If you have to ask a scorer for a decision, then it’s out. A good player will never argue the issue.

Throughout the book, Boston is both grumpily entertaining and keenly critical. Of CAMRA he writes “it has been said that some of their members would drink castor oil if it came from a hand pump and would reject nectar if it had no more than looked at carbon dioxide.” Filled with relevant poetic quotes, illustrative anecdotes as well as charm, it captures a moment in time that has turned out to be critical to the development of real ale in the UK as well as North American craft brewing. Long out of publication, Beer and Skittles is well worth the sort of price you will pay if you find it second hand

PGP 4.0: Is There An Anti-Pub Game Movement?


I think the Pub Game Project is the only beer related movement which has taken off with less haste than Lew’s recently reinvigorated Session Beer Project, now with its own blog and Facebook group. No time for social networking with the PGP as the only digital handiwork it should ever give rise to is a good round of shove ha’penny. Yet apparently (but much to my surprise) the PGP actually has enemies in very high places in Maryland:

A veteran state senator has abandoned his effort to ban drinking games such as beer pong and flip cup in Baltimore City bars in the face of a growing online lobbying effort. Sen. George W. Della Jr., a Baltimore Democrat, said such games encourage excessive drinking, which leads to raucous behavior in city neighborhoods. A bill he introduced late last month would have outlawed any games that award drinks as prizes in city taverns.

Wow! And the synopsis of the proposed law provided by the State Senate is even grimmer characterizing it as: “prohibiting a holder of a retail alcoholic beverages license or owner or operator of a bottle club from allowing drinking games or contests on the premises.” What is a drinking game? Darts where the loser buys drinks? What other pub games could fall under this law?

Sure, this is aimed at beer pong and is stoked by incidents like the banning of the game by universities. But this clearly goes further as the text of the bill itself indicates: warning, pdf! The proposed section 21-105.1(B) states that no license holder may allow the playing of

…a game commonly known as beer pong or any other game or contest that involves drinking alcoholic beverages or the awarding of drinks of alcoholic beverages as prizes.

I read that as very broad and going well beyond beer pong or drinks as prizes. Oddly, the proposed law applies only to Baltimore but, if violated, a licensee could be fined or even have their license pulled for allowing this somewhat commonplace if not traditional pastime. People playing games as they are enjoying drinks – even games involving drinks. Must be wicked.

It all reminds me of the steps taken in mid-1600s England to ban the toasting to the health of this politician or that member of royalty – not because it was unhealthy and led to over drinking and not because it was loud. It was because it was suspected as being seditious. Whisperers. Pamphleteers. Are these beer pong players, these darts for beer gangs, these shove ha’penny men not the same thing, the beginning of a modern day thin edge of a wedge? Never mind of what the wedge consists. Those kinds of questions might raise eyebrows. Best to know your place if you know what’s good for you. Wouldn’t want to be known as a pub gamer.

Another Reason To Not Visit A Wetherspoon Pub

Pete and Jeff and most of the other British bloggers I follow regularly trash the JD Wetherspoon chain. I may never have the chance to go to one but this story from Portsmouth, England gives us all another reason never go if you could:

Two Marines were refused entry to their local pub the day after fighting on the frontline in Afghanistan because their military ID wasn’t good enough. Dan Buchanan and Kelvin Billings were gagging for a homecoming pint and brandished their ID – which includes their date of birth – when they were stopped at the door. But the pair were then stunned to be told it was not acceptable. Buchanan, 21, said: “I was putting my life on the line for Britain a day before and that didn’t count for anything. We were disgusted and angry.”… A spokesman for JD Wetherspoon said it only accepts a passport, driving licence or UK citizen card as valid ID.

I am a little surprised that beer and the military seems to have become a minor theme around here. I wonder if it is because we are an army town here, too, and I am used to seeing young people in camouflage walking around town and sitting in the pubs all the time. Plus, there is nothing more irritating that an organization deciding that it will determine when you are what you plainly are in law and in fact. These two people were clearly of age, were able to identify themselves as being in “their local” and likely could have established their age in a bazillion different ways – never mind the fact that they were just back from the front and likely ought to not have paid for one beer that night. Shame.

So, like them, why not consider yourself barred by Wetherspoon as well. Badge of honour as far as I can tell.

Porter 2006, Burton Bridge Brewery, Burton-Upon-Trent

Time. For the most part beer’s enemy is time, specially for a beer with only 4.5%. But in 2000, as I’ve mentioned a few times, I clearly remember having a Burton Bridge Porter that was overwhelmingly bitter and pleasantly foul due no doubt to its utter mishandling and disregard. Some time ago I resolved to recreate the effect through the powers of experiment and stuck away two bottles for aging. Tonight, I pop the older of the two, this one carrying a best before date of December 2006 to see what is what.

Findings? The bottle pops with a merry pffftt! and gives off a little of the aroma of an East India sherry. The cream head quickly dissipates to a floating froth. In the mouth, the beer is more watery than a fresh bottle but pleasant enough though sadly not soured. There is a Orval quality to the bittering hops, lacy and lavender-ish, with some residual milk chocolate but none of the roasti-toastiness.

Verdict? Pretty much an entire waste of the effort which went into this experiment except for the fact that it really cost me nothing in terms of time, money or energy. It is somewhat impressive that it was so stable as to be more than drinkable. I am, however, not that impressed with stability as a general thing.

The Pub Game Project: Pub Conkers!


I think I only know about conkers because I am the child of immigrants. When I was little, grandpa came over from Scotland and was quite pleased to see that the schoolyard had a chestnut tree. Away he went picking up the windfalls and – all personal ethics and the Conkers Association rules being apparently damned – he soaked them in vinegar and baked them in the oven. After stealing all my Dad’s shoelaces, he drilled a neat hole in each horse chestnut and sent us off first to teach the game in the playground and then destroy hopes of all our elementary school classmates through unleashing the doctered nuts on the unsuspecting.

Apparently, some dreams are harder to dash as this story shows:

The Eagle pub in Askew Road, Shepherd’s Bush, held the tournament on Sunday which was attended by around 20 people…General manager Linda Sjogren said: “People were cheering the contestants on, there was lots of enthusiasm. “One of our regulars had collected about 60 conkers from a secret location. We still have some left over.”

The winner got a free pint a week for a year. Note: 20 contestants. Good news that it does not take a large crowd to actually pull off something so pleasantly batty in any given pub. Good also to know that there is a World Conker’s Championship held each fall in case your ambitions aim even a bit higher still.

The Sort Of Pub I Wish I Lived Near

278I have to admit that I am not exactly a guy with a regular pub. Frankly, when I head to the States on holiday with our pals like I will tomorrow for ten days, I am more likely to have a favorite bar I go to regularly than I would have here. But none are like the pub mentioned at the BBC today, “The Pigs” at Edgefield:

Locals at a village pub in Norfolk are beating the credit crunch by bartering home-grown produce for pints. The Pigs public house, in Edgefield, near Holt, encourages drinkers to contribute to its traditional food menu in return for free alcohol. A sign placed inside the pub reads: “If you grow, breed, shoot or steal anything that may look at home on our menu, bring it in and let’s do a deal.”

Who wouldn’t want to go to a pub where this could happen: “someone will say ‘that rabbit tasted great’ and we say ‘here, meet the person who shot it’.” But it’s not the food that particularly attracted me when I checked out the pub’s website, it’s the games. Sure there are quizzes, darts, billiards, dominoes and even shove ha’penny but right there to the lower left of the page so generously titled simply “drinking” it says you can play “I Spy“. What better indication of a genial spirit than the invitation to spy with one’s little eye something that begins with “J”.

Big Hop Bombs: India Pale Ale, Meantime, London, England

I picked up a couple of big format bottles of Meantime beers at some point in my travels last year. I needed a Stonch-like moment to try this micro from the centre of the known universe like the one from last March when he tried this beer on an English spring afternoon. Apparently, this first Wednesday evening in February with a blizzard coming was it.

The brewery has given me some confidence that this beer is fit for the Big Hop Bomb category, if we go by this description on their website:

Jam packed with English Fuggles and Goldings, the beer is brewed with as many hops as we can physically get into the copper. We then fill the lauter tun with hops for a further infusion and then we dry hop with the beer with even more hops using our own unique circulation process to ensure maximum contact between the hops and the body of the beer. All this gives us a final hopping rate of well over 2lbs of hops per barrel.

What a gorgeous beer. Orange straw ale under a rich cream mousse head. French bread and herbed lemon curd nose. Very rich and one has visions of slow roasting chickens that have soaked whole in a bucket of this. Plenty of hop floaties like I last saw in a Founder’s Harvest ale. A succession of quickly changing hop effects spark. None burn like in a big US IPA but there are garden bitter greens, tangerine zest and something like licorice. The body is lighter than a full throttle DIIPA, say, but there is plenty of mildy apple and sultana raisin pale malt balancing this 7.5% brew. A bit of arugula to dry the lightly sweet malt finish. Big BA support.

Ontario: 666, Devil’s Pale Ale, Great Lakes Brewing, Etobicoke

A very strange thing has been happening lately. I am going out to a store in my own town and buying the same Ontario-made beer week after week. I wrote about Lake Ontario’s (not Lake Erie’s) Great Lake Brewing’s take on a winter ale a few weeks ago. That beer was a bit frustrating as, while I liked it, I had to buy it in a presentation pack for more than a bit too much. This beer, however, if anything is under-priced at $2.50 a tall can. Better than that, 666 has turned out to be a bit of a puzzle to my mind and in the brewer’s description:

Brewed with 6 select malts and 4 premium hops, it has a rich mahogany colour, reminiscent of early English pale ales. The wonderful hoppy aroma is revealed even before your first sip, followed by a hearty malty body, and culminating with a pronounced bitterness. Prepare yourself for a devilishly good time…

Hmm…six percent…hearty malt body…English hops. Is this a Burton, the elusive Georgian and Victorian bad boy of pale ales before the advent of barley wines? My only possible comparator could be Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome, itself a likely pretender, reviewed back here and happily sampled every year. The only thing I think might be against that 666 is claim of final hoppiness but I won’t know until I pop the caps.

As you can see, the Winter Welcome 2007-08 is much lighter, the dark amber orange ale sitting under white foam and rim. By comparison, the 666 is darker – chestnut with a fine rich tan rim and foam. On the nose the 666 speaks of roasty nuts with dark raisin, with a nod to oloroso sherry. The Winter Warmer leans more to orange marmalade but there’s plenty of biscuit in there, too. In the mouth, the two have about the same mouthfeel and, if anything, the Sammy Smith offering is more bitter: fresh green salad herb mixing with twig blended throughout the orange-kumquat biscuit malt. A sip of 666 is more about a rougher bitterness framing the darker dried winter fruits.

Martyn Cornell, the Zythophile himself, recently summarized Burton’s style in a few words – “a recognisably Burton Ale profile: red-brown, bitter-sweet, fruity and full-bodied, with a roast malt aroma.” It’s certainly hard to exclude this Canadian-Satanic joint enterprise of a beer from the categorization even if it were to turn out to be unintentional. It certainly is a lush brew, fruit-ridden with hop and a true roastiness within the grainy malt. Loverly. But is it Burton? Who knows? It fills a similar place in the pantheon but I would likely have to mail Martyn a sample. For now this side by side will have to do.

Book Review: Pub Games Of England by Timothy Finn

pubgamesThis finally came from after ordering it not long after mid-February, right around when I decided to create The Pub Game Project. The roaring silence that followed was lesson enough that this book was very much needed in the library.

And what a treat it is. Now I can trick the children and push the weaker willed of the family, inducing them into playing Knur and Spell, Aunt Sally, Daddlums, Lawn Billiards and Dwyle Flunking. Rules, diagrams, hints to play and photos of the games in action. First published in 1975. Excellent.