My life is far too deadline-driven. Fortunately the unexpected is always to be expected. On Saturday Jay Brooks, one of California’s top beer writers and beer bloggers, booted my schedule off course with an email saying he was flying in to London, arriving early Monday morning, and catching a train up to the Midlands in the afternoon – any chance of a meet-up?
Jay is accompanying Matt Brynildson, brewmaster at the Firestone Walker brewery in Paso Robles, California, who has been invited to brew a Californian-style pale ale at Marston’s brewery in Burton upon Trent, which will then be one of the beer available at this year’s Wetherspoon’s International Beer Festival, running at ‘spoons pubs from October 30 to November 16 (other brewers coming to the UK to brew for the festival are from Japan, Australia and Denmark, apparently).
The wrinkle or link is that Firestone is the only other brewer apart from Marston’s to use the union fermentation system, where the beer is run after primary fermentation begins into oak casks to finish fermenting. It’s an expensive set-up to construct and maintain, which is why everybody else who once used it apart from Marston’s has abandoned it. But in the many years that all the other brewers of Burton upon Trent used the union system it was reckoned, along with their gypsum-impregnated water, to be one of the prime reasons for the excellence of their pale ales. Firestone, which was founded by one of the members of the family that owns the tyre makers Firestone, is also a pale ale specialist, with a string of awards for its beers.
Jay asked me to suggest a pub where we could get good beer and food in a congenial historic atmosphere before the train to Burton. My first choice of pubs turned out to have been gazumped by Stonch, whom Jay was meeting on the way back down from Burton. However, my fall-back position, the Lamb in Lamb’s Conduit Street, only a short walk from St Pancras station, seemed to please Jay, Matt and their travelling companion, Annalou Vincent from Beer Northwest magazine . in Oregon, who was coming along to take pictures. (Now there’s a difference between the UK and American beer scenes – there’s a big enough market in the US for a beer magazine covering just the north-west.) They loved the snob screens and the engraved mirrors, and the beer – Young’s ordinary, Courage Director’s – was up to scratch.
I though for a contrast we’d try the Perseverance up the street, which has attempted to invent itself as à gastropub but which spoilt its impact with a vinegary pint of Flower’s IPA (brewed these days by Hall & Woodhouse in Dorset – by coincidence there used to be a Flower’s brewery in Dorset, but no relation, AFAIK, to the Stratford upon Avon brewers whose beer this once was before Whitbread, and then Interbrew, acquired it). The Tim Taylor’s, however, was acceptable, and so was the steak and ale pie. After that, with the three travellers visibly wilting – it was about 6am their time, and they hadn’t slept on the flight from the West Coast – I took them to the Betjeman Arms at St Pancras station itself, another sharp contrast of a bar, for a pint of Adnams before they bought their tickets to Burton.
I was sorry to leave: I’d had three hours of hugely enjoyable conversation with people who were highly enthusiastic and deeply knowledgeable about one of my favourite subjects. Matt revealed that he had sent parcels of American hops over from California to Burton to brew his Californian pale ale with (Cascade and Centennial, IIRC – I wasn’t taking notes, I’m afraid), though the Marston’s brewers have apparently balked at using them in quite the quantities he wanted to, feeling (and I suspect they may be right) that British drinkers aren’t ready for the “stick your head in a hop pocket” impact of an American brewer’s vision of an IPA. The yeast used is likely to be from Wychwood, rather than Marston’s own Burton union yeast, to hold back on the sulphuriness, I believe: whatever, this is one of the beers I shall definitely be aiming for when the ‘spoons festival opens.