Michael Hardman MBE – Mighty Beer Enthusiast

Congratulations to Michael Hardman, one of the four founding members of Camra, appointed an MBE (that’s Member of the Order of the British Empire for my overseas readers) in the New Year’s Honours List “for services to the Campaign for Real Ale and the brewing industry”.

Since Michael has probably done more, in his way, to promote the cause of good beer in Britain than almost anyone else alive or dead, and yet remains remarkably little known even in the UK, an MBE is the least recognition he could get from his country for 37 years of service to the national drink, with Camra, with Young & Co as the London brewer’s long-serving PR man and, until very recently, as PR man for Siba, the independent small brewers’ organisation in the UK. An MBE is what they give you for being school lollipop lady*.

Without the pioneering efforts of Michael Hardman, first chairman of Camra, first editor of What’s Brewing, Camra’s newspaper, editor of the Good Beer Guide from its second edition in 1975, when it became a proper, professional effort, to 1977, there would probably, today, be fewer than half a dozen small breweries in Britain making cask ale, less than a thousand pubs selling it, and there certainly wouldn’t be the 550 or more new breweries in the UK that drinkers can currently enjoy, all direct beneficiaries of the good beer movement that Michael Hardman helped push-start.

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What ale will you be leaving out for Santa?

We don’t leave sherry out by the fireplace for Santa on December 24 in our house: not that I dislike an Oloroso or Amontillado myself under the right circumstances, but this is a beer-oriented home, and anyway I reckon the old boy would like something refreshingly hoppy after several tens of million glasses of sweet-and-sticky and around 5,000 tons of mince pie as he and the reindeer fly west dropping off the presents.

This year I thought, as he lives in the Far North, Father Christmas might like a beer from close to home: Haandbryggeriet’s excellent Norwegian Wood, a tribute to Norway’s farmhouse brewing traditions, which is made with juniper berries and juniper twigs, and smoked malt along with Munich, chocolate and crystal malts.

Odd Nordland’s book on Norwegian home brewing, Brewing and Beer Traditions in Norway, is one of my all-time favourite beer books, with its incredibly detailed mapping of the different methods used by Norwegian farmers to make beer. Norwegian Wood is probably the closest most of us will get to sampling real Norwegian homebrew, but it’s a good introduction. Neither the juniper nor the smokiness are pushed too far forward: it’s a lovely, well-balanced dark ale with an attractive tang that almost insists on being drunk with tasty snacks such as smoked salmon or that strange brown Norwegian cheese, Gjetost. I’d probably better leave some of that out rather than the mince pie: if Santa doesn’t like it, Rudolph can have it with his carrot …

An early ad from the 1930s Best is Best campaign
An early ad from the 1930s Best is Best campaign

Christmas is a good time to be a beer drinker, since there’s no part of the traditional British celebration where you can’t enjoy a beer. I laugh myself silly reading articles by wine writers on what wines to have with Christmas dinner, as they struggle to find any sort of match to the turkey before sighing and admitting that sauvignon blanc is about the best you’ll do. Personally I think turkey is too often itself a waste of space, being frequently dry and tasteless, but I can name you at least three or four different beer styles that will leave you, after the dindon, merrily on high.

Strong porter is what I’ll be having this year: the chocolate/coffee flavours of a stout or porter will complement the roast bird, and the crunchy roast vegetables, and also the baked ham that is an essential pairing with the turkey. I’ll probably have a small glass of Gale’s Prize Old Ale as well, since its sourness is a good match to any good gravy-meat-and-veg meal: I’ve said this before: British beer and British food evolved alongside each other, and one naturally pairs up with the other. But if you can’t get POA, a Belgian geuze makes a similar match.

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Bracia: great beer, shame about the dodgy history

Ping! It’s an email from the chaps at Thornbridge with details of their Bracia chestnut honey beer, the one raved over by more than just me at the Guild of Beer Writers dinner last week. The press release details exactly what goes into the beer, and also reveals where they got the name from: Bracia is, they say, “the Celtic name for a beverage brewed in Iron Age Europe with reference found on a Roman inscription at Haddon Hall, Derbyshire … [made] with cereals and, most probably, honey”

Aargh, ooh, er, cripes, well, no, actually, very sorry, guys, you’re wrong. Bracia isn’t the name of a type of Celtic beer.

There is a word, bracis, which was known from Pliny’s Natural History, written around AD 77, and which he says is the Gallic name for a “ genus farris“, or type of grain.

Thornbridge's Bracia
Thornbridge's Bracia

The word was largely unknown apart from that one reference until the discovery of the Vindolanda tablets, wooden writing boards dating to the last years of the first century and early years of the second century AD found at a Roman fort a few miles south of the later Hadrian’s Wall, close to the modern English/Scottish border.

These tablets reveal, among many other fascinating facts about the lives of Roman soldiers in Britain around AD 100-120 (such as they wore socks with their sandals – very British), that they were supplied with locally brewed beer, which was made from bracis.

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The XXX factor

The name of the Hilton London Tower Bridge is a triumph of marketing over geographical accuracy, since it’s actually far, far closer to London Bridge, in the More London development, about a minute from London Bridge station and easily 12 to 15 minutes or more by foot from the more iconic Gothic bascule job down-river that narrowly missed flattening Courage’s Anchor brewery when it was built in the last years of the 19th century. I hope nobody at the British Guild of Beer Writers’ annual dinner on Friday believed the back of their ticket, which claimed the hotel was “a short walk” from Tower Bridge Tube station: that would have added another three or four minutes to the walk from the bridge itself.

They’d have had some appetite-sharpening exercise, though, and it’s an increasingly spectacular night-time view across the river, with the lit-up new buildings, such as the Gherkin, and the thumb-like City Hall: I’m a middle-class Londoner who, perhaps unusually, welcomes new tall buildings to the cityscape, if they’re well-designed and not boring slabs.

Similarly Tooley Street, where the “Tower Bridge” Hilton is, makes a better scene, much less gloomy, now it’s lost many of the warehouses that once dominated the thoroughfare. The hotel is an oddly shaped structure, and the interior looked blandly corporate. But the grub’s good, on the evidence of the food served at the Guild’s dinner: respect to Brian Turner, who was in charge of the kitchens for the previous two BGBW bashes, but this was, taking all the dishes into the scoring, perhaps the best meal I’ve had at the annual BGBW awards in the dozen or so years I’ve been attending.

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Bing-drinking at the parsonage

Bing-drinking at the parsonage – no, that’s not a typographical error.

“Bing-ale”, according to An Alphabet of Kenticisms by Samuel Pegge, the 18th-century vicar of Godmersham, Kent, was “the liquour which the fermor [farmer] of a parsonage [that is, the parson/farmer] gives to the fermours and to the servants, at two separate entertainments, servants first and masters afterwards, at the end of the year, when he has gathered their tythe.”

Undoubtedly the “bing-ale” given to the farmers of the parish by the parson in return for their handing over their tithes (the one-tenth of their produce due to the Church of England) was brewed at the parsonage, for this was still the age of domestic brewing.

Almost every farm, many rectories, vicarages and parsonages, most stately homes, and other country houses besides, from villa to cott, brewed ale and beer, for family and servants. So, too, did university colleges, schools, hospitals and poorhouses.

Until the very last decade of the 18th century six in every 10 pints of beer and ale drunk were brewed by private brewers. Only from 1790 did beer for sale creep above 50 per cent of consumption. Even in 1830 private brewers made one fifth of all the country’s beer.

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Mixing Fuller’s porter

I like most of the beers produced by Fuller Smith & Turner, my nearest big brewer, but I’ve never got on with their London Porter. I know, from recent comments on Stonch’s blog that it has some big fans, but I’m not one. Too sweet, too often: not just too sweet for the style (though I’d believe someone who told me it’s from an authentic recipe: there are hints porter became quite a sweet beer in the 20th century) but too sweet per se.

Some sweet beers can work very well: Cain’s, for example, produced a Bonfire Night beer a few years ago that was hugely caramelly and quite delicious. But sweetness in beer needs careful balancing, and to me Fuller’s porter, certainly when new, doesn’t have the balance. And I don’t like that much chocolate front and centre, either.

Give it a little time in cask and it gets better: I went into the Fuller’s pub close to the Tower of London, the Hung Drawn and Quartered, early in November, when the London Porter arrived, and confirmed to myself, as I sat surrounded by homeward-bound bankers, that it was just as sweet as I remembered it. However, on a return visit last week the sweetness had died down and a pleasing hint of tartness was coming through. All the same, it still fell far short of knocking me out.

My visit was actually to see what the London Porter tasted like as a mixed drink. Despite what you will read elsewhere, porter itself was not born as a mixed beer. However, way back in the 1830s it was common to mix ale (pale, strong and “mild”, that is, unaged and quite sweet) with porter as a “half and half”. I wondered what a “half and half” of porter with other Fuller’s beers might be like.

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