Goose Island hopes it’s laid a golden egg in Balham

The Goose Island Vintage Ale House in Balham, South London

BAL-HAM, gateway, if the guys from Chicago’s Goose Island Beer Co are correct, to a new form of gastropub/craft beer bar: yummy grub combined with rare brews. The very first Goose Island Vintage Ale House had a goosedown-soft opening in a former Be At One cocktail bar in Ramsden Road, SW12 a week before Christmas, and ramped up the publicity last week with a “launch beer dinner” attended by Goose Island’s founder, John Hall, and president/general manager, Ken Stout. I would love to hope that they’re right: if there was just one bar like a Vintage Ale House per London borough, then the beer revolution would have ended in victory, and beer would be back at the heart of British gastronomy, from which it was brutally evicted in the 19th century.

It’s a big irony, of course, that John Hall took the idea of the British pub, and British beer, to Chicago after a tour of Europe back in the 1980s, turned his original Goose Island brewpub into one of the stars of the American brewing revival, and is now returning to the motherland with a take on the British pub that could revitalise the original concept. Ken Stout, in a simile he admits to have borrowed from someone else, compares it to the “British Invasion” of the 1960s, when groups such as the Rolling Stones and the Beatles took American music – the rhythm ’n’ blues of people like Muddy Waters and the country-influenced rock ’n’ roll of Arthur Alexander – back to the United States with their own twist on it, became a smash, and made music fans appreciate anew what they had. Now British beer fans are being taught to love the IPAs and heavyweight stouts their great-grandparents knew by American brewers who have reinvented these beers for the 21st century.

That analogy quickly falls over if you push it too hard, but it’s not totally wrong, and it has wider application than you might first think. The current Good Beer Guide lists more than 20 cask beers by British brewers called “American [something]”, another 20-plus that mention Cascade, the almost archetypal American “new” hop, in their names, and over a hundred IPAs, most, I’d give you short odds, inspired by American IPAs, that is, with big floral hop flavours. The American influence today on British cask beer is now undeniable – and let’s not even touch on the “craft keg” scene. So is Britain ready for what Goose Island says is the first dedicated exclusively American craft beer bar in the UK?

I’d love to believe so, because it provides a different and, I think, very good take on what a pub can be – and, actually, what a tied house can be. I’ve never felt having just one brewer’s products on sale has to be a barrier to complete customer satisfaction: choice is over-fetishised by beer geeks. What the Vintage Ale House offers is a place where beer, good beer, beer from a company that cares about beer, is absolutely central to the offer, but so too is good food – porter and molasses glazed beef cheeks, for example, enough to make any Hereford smile – that is designed to go with beer. Four Goose Island draught beers – IPA, Pils, Green Line pale ale and 312 Wheat – are available, but so are big 76.5cl bottles of the brewery’s seven different heavy-hitting barrel-aged Belgian-style ales, such as Sofie, a 6.5 per cent Saison, Matilda, a 7 per cent “Orval-alike” pale ale and Juliet, an 8 per cent Brett beer flavoured with blackberries. Other beers unique to the Vintage Ale House are promised, to maintain interest and bring people back. The vintage beers will hit you for between £18 and £23 a bottle, but that’s still (mostly) cheaper than the (limited) selection of wines, which start at £20 a bottle and climb to £35. At the same time, I am confident that if you like beer, you’ll love these beers in the context for which the originals styles were made: with food. If the Vintage Ale House finally encourages British pubs and bars to take beer and food pairing seriously as a core strategy John Hall should get a knighthood. I spotted Charlie McVeigh, boss of the small-but-expanding Draughthouse chain of gastropubs, at the launch, hopefully gathering some ideas, though since two of his ten pubs are in neighbouring SW11 he was probably mostly checking the new opposition: Draughthouse sells Goose Island beers. Continue reading

Snug beers and snug bars

Young's Winter Warmer as sold in the White Cross, Richmond earlyb this am

Young’s Winter Warmer as sold in the White Cross, Richmond early this am

Autumn, season of mists and mellow, fruity ales, as John Keats might have written, if he hadn’t been more of a blushful hippocrene, beaker of the warm South man. As the early evenings darken, and the leaves and the temperatures fall, it’s one of the joys of the season that we can start drinking strong, dark beers again, sitting by the fire in the snug – or by the fire in your own home, if you prefer. I often do. I have a place at one end of the sofa, close enough to the fire that I can toast my toes, with an old oak blanket box alongside that I rest my beerglass on, where I sit and read, or listen to music, while whatever the weather is doing outside can be ignored.

An advert for Dark Ale from Sunderland in 1929

An advert for Dark Ale from Sunderland in 1929

If you have been looking at national newspaper feature pages recently, you will not have been able to avoid articles discussing hygge, the Danish word meaning something allegedly untranslatable in between and greater than “cosy” and “comfortable” and “safe” that is the condition all Danes allegedly seek to attain. Of course, we actually have a perfect translation of hygge in English, or at least a word that describes the equivalent state of warmth and comfort and safety Britons desire: snug.

More than 230 years ago the poet William Cowper wrote: “There is hardly to be found upon the earth, I suppose, so snug a creature as an Englishman by his fire-side in the Winter.” He wasn’t wrong. And outside the home, some pubs provide us with a room where this blissful level of being can be achieved, a room generally only to be entered from inside the pub, with no street windows or doors, private and secure, almost always small enough that half-a-dozen will be a heaving crowd, and ideally with its own servery hatch to place orders at the bar. This room of happiness is actually named for the state of safe comfort, like the bug cuddled down deep in the protective tufts of his rug, that we seek between its enclosing walls: the snuggery or snug. Continue reading

Stock (ale) answers from Goose Island and Ron Pattinson

Brewery Yard Stock Pale Ale

Brewery Yard Stock Pale Ale

Let’s get one potentially controversial point out of the way first: this is a £20 bottle of beer. If that shocks you, you’ve not been paying attention to what’s happening in the market: there are more expensive beers than that. Some of Thornbridge’s sour creations sell at £15 for a bottle half the size. And £20 is barely leaving the foothills in the Land of Wine: even my local corner offie, which will sell you 24 cans of Foster’s for £20, has half a dozen wines for sale at that much a bottle or more.

This is also a very rare bottle of beer: Goose Island has brewed not much more than a couple of thousand litres, around 3,600 (UK) pints, of Brewery Yard Stock Pale Ale, and only 600 bottles have made it to the UK, where they are on sale in fewer than a dozen London outlets, including The Rake by Borough Market (where it was launched last Thursday), Mother Kelly’s, We Bought Beer, the White Horse in Parson’s Green and Clapton Craft.

So: is it worth it? Certainly the bar has been raised once again in the “authentic old beer reproduction” high jump, after Carlsberg’s effort earlier this year in brewing an 1883 lager with revived 1883 yeast. And BYSPA is a considerably more complex drink than Carlsberg’s straightforward 19th century sipper.

The back-story first: Mike Siegel, Goose Island’s “brewing innovation manager”, decided early in 2014 that he wanted to reproduce an old British ale of some sort, one that involved ageing in oak barrels and finishing with Brettanomyces. A great many people make the sign of the cross when Goose Island is named, believing that, since it is now owned by AB InBev, all its works bear the Mark of the Beast. But for me, any company that lets one of its managers say: “Hey – I’m going to spare little expense in recreating an obscure beer from 140 years ago” cannot possibly be totally bad. Continue reading

Carlsberg celebrates the ordinary

So, what was it like, the ancient lager Carlsberg spent two years and hundreds of thousands of kroner recreating, resurrecting yeast out of a bottle dating back to 1883, pulling out 130-year-old brewing records, growing an ancient barley variety, hiring a floor maltings, working out the most likely hop varieties to use, reproducing the original brewing water, having oak casks made in a Lithuanian cooperage, making moulds of vintage bottles so that new versions could be hand-blown, and then flying in dozens of journalists and beer writers to Copenhagen from as far away as Malaysia and California to drink the result. Continue reading

Baird beer and breakfast

Beer: so much motre thsn a breakfast drinkBeer’s not my usual breakfast tipple, though I’d agree with Tim Martin, founder of the Wetherspoon pub chain in the UK, that Abbot Ale is an excellent accompaniment to the traditional Full English. But I couldn’t keep away from an invitation to “brunch” with Bryan Baird, the American founder of the eponymous brewery in Numazu, 80 or so miles west of Tokyo.

The event was organised by the Globe bar in SoHo, Hong Kong and featured six different Baird beers, all paired with different dishes and introduced by Bryan Baird himself. Like all brewers, Bryan is hugely enthusiastic about his trade, and he was well served by the Globe, which delivered some excellent matches to his beers, to go with a six-course breakfast.

Single Take session beerWe kicked off with cured ocean trout, cream cheese and cucumber, served with Baird’s Single-Take Session Ale: a fine pairing, a little more classy than the traditional breakfast kipper, the only problem here being that I really, really wanted a whole pint of Single-Take, rather than a small glass. It’s a Belgian-style beer, according to Bryan, made with Belgian yeast, but “inverted” – low-alcohol, high-hop, rather than the other way round, 4.7 per cent abv and plenty of hop flavour from dry-hopping. The hops are whole-hop Tettnanger and New Zealand varieties, and the name and label are inspired by Neil “single take” Young: the label is meant to show young Mr Young performing “Rocking’ in the Free World” on Saturday Night Live in 1989. And if you look at that video, you can see the woman who designs Baird’s woodcut-style labels has indeed captured a clip from the show.

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Designed in Japan, brewed in Belgium, drunk in Hong Kong

Kagua Rouge bottleFor a young Japanese entrepreneur, Shiro Yamada has a perhaps unlikely-sounding hero: Baron Bilimoria of Chelsea, lawyer, accountant, son of an Indian army general, and the first Parsi to sit in the British House of Lords. Bilimoria’s establishment credentials were enough to get him in the Royal Box at the Queen’s diamond jubilee celebrations last year. “He’s like Steve Jobs to me,” Yamada says.

Bilimoria earned Yamada’s admiration for being the man who founded Cobra Beer in 1989, to be the curry eater’s beer: designed specifically to complement food, with lower carbonation and a smoother taste. Yamada, who had worked as a venture capitalist, and been involved in dot-com start-ups in Japan, was studying for an MBA at the Judge Business School, part of Cambridge University, around 2005 when Bilimoria, himself a Cambridge graduate, came to deliver a presentation to students at Judge on the Cobra operation.

Yamada had already become interested in beer after going drinking with fellow students around Cambridge, and taken trips to Belgium and Munich to widen his beery knowledge. Listening to Bilimoria talk about his desire to brew a beer that would match up with Indian food, Yamada had a revelation. What about a beer specifically brewed to match up with Japanese food?

Kagua Blanc bottleThe Japanese have been brewing beer since the mid-1870s, after Seibei Nakagowa came back to the town of Sapporo having spent two years learning how to make lager at the Tivoli brewery in Kreuzberg, Berlin. Today, despite a reputation in the West for mass-produced blandobeers, Japan is the home of a thriving microbrewing scene with some excellent products – Yo-Ho Brewing’s SunSun lager was one of my personal beers of the year for 2012.

However, no one seems to have thought to do anything for Japanese food what Bilimoria did for curry: design a special beer to fit in with and enhance the different dishes. That, Yamada, decided, would be his task. “I drank a lot of beer from all over Europe when I was in the UK,” Yamada says, “beer from Britain, from Belgium, from Germany, and what hit me was that beer had a history in each of those countries, but if you look at Japan, it’s not like that. So what I decided I would like to do is to develop an original Japanese beer with a taste to fit in with Japanese culture and food.”

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An evening with Eric Toft, Reinheitsgebot iconoclast

Rod Jones and Eric Toft

Rod Jones, left, and Eric Toft at the Old Brewery, Greenwich

Eric Toft – middle-aged, handsome, seldom seen out of lederhosen despite being born in the United States, passionate about beer in all its varieties – is an American with a mission: to drag German brewing kicking and screaming out of the 16th century.

After a career that would be the envy of – well, me, certainly – Toft is currently brewmaster at the 232-year-old Schönram brewery in rural Bavaria, just a few miles from the border with Austria.

There he produces the usual run of beers you would expect from a rural Bavarian brewery run by the eighth generation of the same family: a Pils, a Hell, a Weissbier, a Dunkel. Alongside that, however, Toft, the first and currently the only American to run a Bavarian brewery, also makes beers in styles you might fear a rural Bavarian beer drinker would never even have heard of: an IPA, an imperial stout, a porter, even a Belgian pale ale.

The idea, Toft says, is to show that the Reinheitsgebot, or “purity law”, firmly limiting the ingredients that go into beer, to which all Schönram’s output sticks as strictly as any German brewery, need not be a straitjacket forcing brewers into making bland clone-beers.

His motto is “Reinheitsgebot, not Einheitsgebot”, which doesn’t sound quite as good translated into English, “purity decree, not sameness decree”, but the message still comes across. “The Reinheitsgebot should be an inspiration and a motivation to creativity,” Toft says. “It’s blamed for making German beers bland. But the main reason for blandness is that the purchasing of raw materials has been taken out of the hands of brewers and given to the accountants.”

I met Toft this week because he was the speaker at the latest of the regular beer and food matching evenings at Meantime’s Old Brewery on the Royal Naval Hospital site in Greenwich, and Rod Jones of Meantime had been kind enough to ask me along as a guest. It was fascinating listening to Toft describe his career: he was born in Colorado and studied at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, which is next door to Coors’ brewery. That proximity helped Toft become interested in home-brewing, and after graduating he decided he was much more keen on a career making beer than spending years in, eg, Saudi Arabia prospecting for oil.

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Cooking with Stella – no, no, come back …

George Reisch: hugely enthusiastic

Where I come from, if you suggested cooking with Stella Artois, you’d be comprehensively jeered, by both the many fans of what is probably the fourth or fifth best-selling beer in Britain, for being a pretentious twat, and by Stella’s many haters, for promoting a mega-lager seen as, at best, bland and pointless. But where I am right now is Hong Kong. Here, the entire concept of cooking with beer is still so novel, so unheard-of, so likely to send Cantonese eyebrows rocketing up Cantonese foreheads, that any attempt to promote beer cuisine has to be supported, no matter what brew is involved.

That’s why I was at the Hong Kong Jockey Club in Happy Valley, to watch George Reisch, fifth-generation brewer and “director of brewmaster outreach” for Anheuser-Busch InBev, preach on the joys of beer and food, and beer IN food, to an audience of Hong Kong bar owners, restaurateurs, food bloggers, magazine and newspaper journalists. Plus me, ostensibly representing the South China Morning Post, and bemusing the Hong Kong food blogging community, who had never met a beer blogger before, nor knew such a beast existed.

A-B InBev might be the Evil Empire to some, but its products are big sellers in Hong Kong. In particular Hoegaarden is hugely popular with Chinese beer drinkers, especially women. I was in a bar called the News Room in Quarry Bay drinking something pale, American and very hoppy a couple of weeks back, and of the seven nearest tables to me, six were occupied solely by Hoegaarden drinkers, all Chinese, male and female. (Of course, the theatre of the big glasses helps, but primarily they like the taste: spicy, not over-bitter.)

Stella is also in almost every bar in Hong Kong that is likely to attract expat customers, for sale to homesick Britons who react well to a familiar face met far away. If you are going to push the idea of beer with food, and beer in food, to people totally unused to the possibilities of such a pairing, it’s much better to do it (I think, and so, obviously does A-B Inbev) using beers they are familiar with. Since Hong Kong restaurateurs and bar people and beer drinkers know Hoegaarden and Stella very well, then Hoegaarden and Stella are good beers with which to introduce the concept of beery cuisine to them.

And George Reisch is a great guy to do the introducing: American beer enthusiasts know him well; he’s a judge at the Great American Beer Festival, among other high-profile activities in the North American beer world. It’s immediately clear he is hugely enthusiastic about beer and all its possibilities, which makes me like him at once. Brewing is obviously in the family DNA: his great-great grandfather founded Reisch’s brewery in Springfield, Illinois, closed 1966, and his son is currently learning the trade while working for Spaten (an A-B Inbev subsidiary) in Munich.

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Matching Chinese food and beer

One of the opportunities I was looking forward to in Hong Kong was the chance to match beer with Chinese food, a surprisingly under-explored area. I believe strongly that most beers go with most foods: but that doesn’t mean some pairings cannot be particularly felicitous, and that’s especially true with Chinese cuisine.

China is easily the biggest beer market in the world, almost twice as large as the US, the next largest, and in 2010 China drank very nearly a quarter of all the world’s beer. But annual consumption per head, at around 30 litres, while rising at some five per cent a year, is still almost a third of the US figure (81 litres). In addition, most of that consumption is of pale, undemanding lager.

What that means is that the Chinese DO drink beer with food, but it will be Tsingtao, or Blue Girl (from South Korea) or something equally bland and dull. Fortunately, Hong Kong takes advantage of its position as one of the biggest trading centres in Asia by importing good beer from all over the world: you won’t find Gale’s Prize Old Ale in Chiswick right now, for example (there’s none in stock in the Fuller’s brewery shop and I bought the last two bottles they had in the Mawson Arms next door back in October) but you WILL find it in stock in Hong Kong bars run by the El Grande group, such as the Happy Valley Bar and Grill – or at least you will until I buy up their complete current holding and the 2012 version gets shipped out. And, amazingly, Prize Old Ale is a beer that goes fantastically well with Chinese food, so well it could almost have been brewed for it.

There is probably a proper expression for this, but I don’t know it, so let’s call it “food imagination”, or “food intelligence”: the ability to summon up in the mind two different tastes and decide how they would go together, even if you have never actually matched or paired them in life. I’m sure it’s possible to test “FI”, with questions like: “what beer would you recommend with fennel?”* Good chefs need “FI”: good brewers, too. Great chefs (and brewers) have “food imagination” in wagons. You need to have at least a little “food imagination” to match beer with food, to even be able to write about beer and food matching: someone like Garrett Oliver obviously has “high FI”, and I think I have a reasonable “FI quotent”, or I wouldn’t dare write about beer and food together myself. So some of this is based on experience, some on speaking to Chinese beer lovers in Hong Kong, and some on “FI”. Continue reading

Roast beef, plum pudding and ale

I blame Charles Dickens. If he hadn’t ended A Christmas Carol with the by-then thoroughly reformed Scrooge ordering the prize turkey to be delivered to the Cratchits’ home in Camden, perhaps we wouldn’t now be persuaded in Britain that a tasteless, monstrous bird should be the centre of the December 25 dinner, and we would have stuck to the traditional yuletide treat – roast beef, lots of it, accompanied by plum pudding and strong ale.

If you search through 19th century newspapers, it quickly becomes clear that the trinity of beef, heavy dried-fruit-stuffed pudding and good ale was at the heart of the Christmas festivities everywhere in Britain, literally from palace to poorhouse. Here’s the Liverpool Weekly Mercury for Saturday September 29 1855: Continue reading