Monday, 31 August 2009

Studied hiatus

Well folks, I'm signing off until the end of September to get hitched and try to catch some Italian sunshine.

Rome, then Umbria, namely Spoleto, Assisi and Perugia. Beer tips, of course, welcome. This place in Rome comes highly recommended and, would you believe it, is just a stone's throw from our hotel. What a stroke of luck!

Meanwhile, enjoy what's left of the summer, golden ales and hop monsters. Beer-wise, I'm ripe for thick, black malty stouts again...

Ciao for now.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Don't lose your bottle in facing the flu!

Many thanks to those who suggested Manchester watering holes; alas, the Marble Arch and suchlike will be for another trip. No sooner did I arrive for my beery weekend than I contracted the dreaded swine flu. Not to be recommended. Match abandoned.

Thankfully, the good friend with whom I was kipping looked after me (indeed, long after I was meant to have left), securing Tamiflu, discussing the world athletics hoo-hah and in countless other ways making a bad situation tolerable. Hats off to the lad.

By way of thanks, having returned to the land of the living and made it back to sunny Cambridge, I logged on to Beers of Europe to send up a thank you pack. My friend received, by country:

St Bernadus Abt 12 (10.5%) - a gorgeous, rich, thick, dark glugging, boozy Christmas pud of an ale; Gouden Carolus Classic (8.5%) - in the same ball park as the Bernadus; Girardin Kriek (5%) - a lambic and the best kriek bar none.

Germany: Augustiner Lagerbier Hell (5.2%) - a fantastically clean lager, fresh, pale and with hay, grassy hop tones.

USA: Flying Dog Snake Dog IPA (7.1%) - a textbook US-style IPA with ballsy American hops; Stone Brewing Co. Arrogant Bastard Ale (7.2%) - a real treat for the boy, as I've never tried it (nor any Stone beer for that matter - I'm keen for him to test it out).

Generous to a fault, I'm sure you'll agree. But what would you have sent? Do you, like me generally, go foreign with bottled beers (with the obvious exceptions of BrewDog and Thornbridge), or do bottle conditioned UK ales tickle your fancy?

And which ones work - any guaranteed UK bottle conditioned gems (I'll start the list with Worthie's White Shield)? And perhaps someone can answer this age old question - why does UK bottle conditioned sediment ruin a beer when Belgian/Dutch sediment, while offering a different experience, can be a positive addition?

Friday, 14 August 2009

As he opened a crate of ale...

A quickie this - will be in (central) Manchester this weekend catching up with an old friend and am looking for tips from my merry, if few, readers. Naturally, I have CAMRA's reliable Good Beer Guide, but your thoughts on, say, a top three unmissable pubs would be welcome, as would beer guidance.

Cheers - and have a great weekend.

Looking for pubs that blend beer choice/quality with decent pub atmosphere, I need hardly add.

I feel the need to stress that, while the GBG is not perfect (too much focus on whether beer is good than the atmosphere convivial is a criticism I've often heard and have some sympathy with), I do feel it cannot be beaten as a pub guide and it is a credit to CAMRA. For the traveller entering completely unknown territory, it is essential. Buy it here (er...or don't, wait a couple of months and buy the 2010 edition, but you catch my drift).

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Old Hooky, Amsterdam stylee

A recent Benelux trip yielded bizarre experiences and happy (moreover, it has to be said, boozy) memories. Not many weekends involve dinner with a notorious call girl and madam, but Van der Valk's stomping ground is a city of many delights.

'Happy Hooker' Xaviera Hollander, a publishing sensation in the early 1970s with her vivid account of days and nights spent turning tricks in the 60s, used to sell her body but now sells her image, running a B&B (self-styled 'bed and brothel', though it is thankfully nothing of the sort with regard to the latter) from her leafy south-Amsterdam pad. Her dinner parties are studied affairs in the art of hosting; Hollander regales guests with blue anecdotes in the manner of an XXX-rated Peter Ustinov. I owe my dear friends who organised this most postmodern of stag dos (ahead of my imminent nuptials) a great many thanks. It was an astonishingly executed and brilliantly conceived night out.

What's this to do with beer? Very little in and of itself, but the incident does strike me as a rich source of banter for pub-going sessions and should remind us all (as we wax lyrical over 18% hop monsters and the pant-wettingly arcane selection of beers at GBBF's BSF) that beer is a social drink over which to share tall tales and create new ones. Amen to that, reverend.

A round-up of the trip from a beer perspective would bore terribly. Suffice it to say anyone visiting Leiden should make their way to WW, an excellent and friendly locals/beer pub, and the terrific offie Bierwinkel.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Raking over the coals

As those following my Twitterpub wall will know, I did a non-GBBF pub crawl around Borough, London, last night. All in all, it was a splendid affair, made all the better by being chaperoned by an old friend.

There is, of course, nothing wrong at all with this - call a mate, arrange a rendezvous, and get some beers in. But I think there is a question raised by such a plan. After all, when many of us bemoan the dearth of 'real' pubs, I suspect we mean 'pubs where, if we went often enough on our own, spoke to regulars and didn't make a tit of ourselves, we'd become regulars, too'.

This kind of pub is becoming rarer and rarer.

The reason, simply, is that folk (especially young folk) these days don't have to rely on the pub for social interaction. School creates friendship networks, university or work enhances those. Facebook, Twitter and even the positively jurassic mobile telephone by itself facilitate easy communication - and pint-ahol sorties follow. The idea of nipping into a nearby pub with the paper and a pencil looking for a quiet pint and, perhaps, a chat with Bert on the off-chance, is not anathema to a young person - indeed, when I introduce friends to my local and exchange greetings with men and women of all types and ages, they often bemoan the lack of such an institution in their own lives. But the following is certainly true: while not anathema, it is totally alien.

There are, of course, exceptions. Without wishing to seem like a brown-nosing fanboy, Jeff Bell at the Gunmakers, Clerkenwell, heads up a pub facing forwards, with a genuinely mixed clientele that aims to foster a sense of identity for the pub and its drinkers. Similarly, my local, the St Radegund, Cambridge, while steadfast in its traditions, is the most welcoming place I've ever stepped foot into and many fast friendships have been made there and good times had. Students and old-time residents alike feel most at home.

But other great pubs such as the Pickerel, Cambridge, or the Market Porter, Borough, while superb and serving a wide-ranging crowd, never feel like places you could enter alone and finish the evening sharing laughs with strangers in.

Some will see this as not necessarily bad in itself. I disagree. The Rake, Borough, has a beer list worthy of the gods, but the hip young trendies working there, who can't even price a beer at the same level twice and look through you if you're not Bat for Lashes-cool, don't figure warm service among their job requirements. They don't care for convivial bar-stewarding when they're out and about; they don't want a chat with the barkeep, they want a round and back off to their chums. As long as they're with friends, all is well.

Maybe I'm a sad old fart long before my time. But I think the magic of the pub, for a punter, is its ability to surprise and create social bonds. Yes take your friends down the boozer - it's brilliant. Perhaps, though, a pint and the paper and a few words with Sally about her son's ballet class wouldn't go a miss, too, from time to time.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

25 and in need of booze? Barcode your face!

I'm 26 years old, making me a cool eight years older than I need be to score a hit of booze should I so desire. So, I ask myself, what's with Think 25, a Tesco policy to challenge whippersnappers in their youth to provide ID if they even conceivably look younger than a quarter of a century?

Apparently, this has been up and running since late March, so I'm obviously late to the party (though not as late as I would be if between me and the party were an officious bastard behind the counter at the store that loves to remind us 'every little helps'). According to the Daily Mail, Asda, Morrisons, M&S, the Co-op and Sainsbury's are all on board, either having implemented this demented fuck-wittery or planning to do so by September. Only Aldi and Lidl shoppers will be safe, in addition to those more refined youngsters frequenting Waitrose.

Now this is obviously preposterous. Were I intellectually challenged, I'd probably dub it 'political correctness gone mad'. Of course, given political correctness is simply a mechanism through which we collectively attempt to find ways of saying things without meaning to cause offence to segments of society, it isn't. But were I thick as pig shit, I'd undoubtedly say it and believe it.

The real culprit is - as ever in situations involving 'crazy' health & safety advice and paedo hysteria meaning school trips can't take place unless all the accompanying parents are either castrated or otherwise neutered - is the gut-wrenchingly risk-averse and litigious nature of British society, in part imported from across the pond.

Indeed, Tesco's jumping on the bandwagon stems from a lost court case in Blackpool (admittedly, a prosecution and not a civil case) after a 16-year old was able to buy brain-pop on three occasions. Of course, in the no-win-no-fee, knickers-in-a-twist country we inhabit, this particular government has routinely surrendered to supposed moral panic regarding the decline of the nation by legislating to ride the crest of the frothed up rage.

Tesco doubtless has a grey man in a grey suit, hired primarily due to his uncanny resemblance to Spitting Image's John Major puppet, tasked with establishing risk reduction solutions and due diligence compliance procedures by way of response. Think 25 is his idea. He has three children, called Julian, Sophie and Giles, and lives in Sevenoaks, Kent. He has not had intercourse for five years.

We have the whole young people and alcohol debate so sullied by poor representation in the media. It also has to be said that social atomisation in the UK, with fewer families than ever sitting down together for meals or enjoying inter-generational nights out, has reduced the number of opportunities to mentor teens into the ways of the drop.

But nothing smacks so much of wrong-headed pointlessness and rank human cynicism as this. I've always thought that, rather than 'is this person over 18?', a better and more useful question would be 'is this person really 17?'. Asking a person who's 25 to provide ID would seem crazy if this latter question were also in the mind of the shop assistant.

Anyway, there is one thing far more dangerous about this than the accessibility of alcohol in our shops. It's that this issue has put me in agreement with Stuart Maconie. Not a nice place to be.

This came up because my fianceƩ was asked for ID in a supermarket claiming it wants you to 'try something new today'. Those of you pondering whether I've bagged myself a child bride calm down - she's my age (well, give or take, your honour...)

I should add that things being dubbed 'political correctness gone mad' makes my blood boil. The left always gets it in the neck for this kind of dung, but nine times out of ten, western risk-aversion and litigiousness is at the bottom of it - as I've said, most prevalently in the states, which could hardly be considered communist. Stewart Lee (see video below) makes this point better than I ever could. And funnily, which is a plus.