Monthly Archives: October 2011

Careful with the Spoons

So, farewell then, another JDW ‘festival’, or in their own words The World’s Biggest Real Ale and Cider Festival. (Which, considering it featured 50 beers, 8 ciders and 2 (count ’em) perries, might be considered a bit cheeky. On the other hand, the overall total floorspace was massive.)

The last time round I worked my way through about half of the card and kept detailed notes, most of which (as I mentioned earlier) are now obsolete. I didn’t see that much of it this time, for a variety of reasons, and I can’t say my socks were knocked off by much that I did have. Generally the pale beers were more distinctive and more impressive than the dark – Brewster’s American Chopper, for instance, was a nice little hop-monster, and Everard’s Whakatu was worth checking out. I was pleasantly surprised by the draught Ginger Beard, as I said earlier; less so by the American ‘craft ales’ which were prominently featured. Kalamazoo Black Silk struck me as a rather laboured and unsuccessful attempt to do something different with porter, a style which can have tremendous depths of flavour if brewed without any messing about; Odell 90 Shilling was just a bit bland, and not believable for a moment as a “beyond eighty-shilling” dark beer. Bend Eclipse dark IPA (or Cascadian Dark Ale if you prefer) was good – although, again, it was a long way from being the most extreme or emphatic example of the style I’ve had, despite it being an ‘American’ style. (That would be Buxton Black Rocks. Mmm, Buxton.)

So far so lukewarm (figuratively, I hasten to add). But there was one beer I was seriously glad to encounter: Evan-Evans’ 1767. A brown, malty Welsh bitter, and a very fine example of the style* – also, a good example of the depth, richness and complexity that an ordinary brown session bitter can deliver, if done properly. On checking out Evan-Evans I discovered that its Chief Executive is none other than Simon Buckley, whose family produced the first real ale I ever had in a pub – and one of the standards by which I’ve judged beers ever since. Simon left Buckley’s in 1984, the last of the family to be involved in the business; the company was bought out by Brain’s in 1997 and the brewery closed the following year. Evan-Evans has been in business since 2003, but it hasn’t crossed my radar till now (possibly to do with the location of my radar in Saxon territory). Belatedly, welcome back to brewing, Buckley bach.

*Is it a style? Seems pretty distinctive to me – it would probably have its own encyclopedia entry in my ideal world (“historic brewers include Felinfoel, Brains, Buckley’s (until 1997); newcomers to the style include Evan-Evans, Conwy…”).

And speaking of encyclopedias… Actually I’ve got nothing to add to the great Oxford Companion controversy, except to say that Rule 1 of evaluating an encyclopedia (or any other wide-ranging work of reference) is check what you know. It’s not so much that finding errors in the parts you know about introduces the possibility that the rest of it may also contain errors; if there are errors you can identify, the question of whether the rest of it is any good doesn’t even arise, because you can’t afford to trust it. Entries on an area you don’t know may be the kind of Pattinsonian erudition you could stake money on, or they may be as mythical as the old three-threads story: you can’t know. Pace B&B, the errors identified by Martyn, Barm and others aren’t just individual errors in an otherwise trustworthy work – they make the volume as a whole impossible to trust. Which is tragic, and I hope that the reputation of the OCB will be salvaged in a future edition – although it has to be said that the initial reaction of the Companion‘s editor wasn’t particularly hopeful in that respect. Rule 1 of responding to criticism, incidentally, is to de-personalise wherever possible: if they read your book and call you an idiot, go to the bits they’ve quoted and show, politely and patiently, that they don’t support that conclusion. (If they haven’t quoted anything, point that out and let readers draw their own conclusion.) Sadly, Garrett Oliver’s response to Martyn’s criticisms – which focused entirely on the text of the OCB – took precisely the opposite tack: he inferred that only a dishonest idiot would make the kind of mistakes Martyn had pointed out and took umbrage at being called a dishonest idiot, before proceeding to attack Martyn personally. Really not useful.

Pints of ale and bottles of sherry

When I’m not drinking, baby, you’re on my mind
When I’m not sleeping, honey, when I ain’t sleeping,
When I’m not sleeping, you know, you’ll find me crying
– Jackson C. Franks

when I’m drinking, I’m always thinking,
And wishing that Peggy Gordon was there.
– Anon.

When I’m not drinking, and sometimes when I am, I’m often singing. Like Darren – whose Blog O’Beer has recently re-emerged under the name of Folk and Ale – I’m a bit of a folkie. I’ve been singing at folk clubs for eight and a bit years, generally unaccompanied but without a finger in my ear. (Nor do I wear sandals. I have got a beard, though, and obviously I’m fairly fond of real ale.) For about the last three years I’ve been a dedicated traddie, devoted to that great ocean of songs that you never hear on the radio.

Last year Jon Boden of Bellowhead put together A Folk Song A Day: a Web site featuring a different song, newly recorded, every day for a year. There were arguments in the comments about some of the choices, but by and large AFSAD was a magnificent project. (And is. The Webmaster is currently cycling through the year for a second time, re-upping the songs month by month; if you missed it first time round, check it out.) Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and AFSAD has had quite a few emulators: there’s An Australian Folk Song A Day (which has been going for eight months), A Liverpool Folk Song A Week (six months) and A Folk Song A Week (seven weeks).

And there’s my own project, 52 Folk Songs, which is just about to enter its eighth week. The idea of 52fs is that the revitalisation of old songs shouldn’t be the exclusive preserve of star musicians like Jon Boden, who have armies of fans, state-of-the-art recording facilities, multi-instrumental musical talents, encyclopedic knowledge and a pleasing and tuneful voice. No, we singers can all play our part – even if we have very few of those attributes, or none at all.

I therefore set myself to record and upload a folk song every week for a year. Common sense and good taste might have suggested limiting myself to one song per week, but if they did I wasn’t listening: there are quite a few extras there too, not all of which are even folk songs. Tenuous links between the songs chosen can be traced, for those with unfeasibly large amounts of time on their hands, at 52fs. The total for the first six weeks is 14 songs and three tunes:

1 Lord Bateman (FS01)
2 The Death of Bill Brown (FS02)
3 The Unfortunate Lass (FS03)
4 The Cruel Mother (FS04)
5 Lemany (FS05)
6 The London Waterman (FS06) + Constant Billy
7 Over the hills and far away
8 There are bad times just around the corner (Noel Coward)
9 My boy Jack (Rudyard Kipling)
10 Us poor fellows (Peter Bellamy)
11 Down where the drunkards roll (Richard Thompson)
12 Child among the weeds (Lal Waterson)
13 Hegemony (Green Gartside)
14 Spencer the Rover + Three Rusty Swords / The Dusty Miller

Not content with inflicting these assorted squawks on the world, I’ve now had the unmitigated audacity to make them available under the guise of an ‘album’: 52 Folk Songs – Violet. This is the first in a series of eight virtual ‘albums’ (I use the quotation marks advisedly) that will be appearing over the year, unless I’m prevailed upon to stop. It can be downloaded at 52 Folk Songs – Violet for a token payment of 52p (you see what I did there). This gets you 40 minutes of what can loosely be called singing and some frankly amateurish whistle-playing, plus a hastily thrown-together PDF file containing full lyrics plus assorted pictures, comments, musings and afterthoughts. The whole lamentable package is fronted by the most un-folk-like image you could imagine (“what’s the purple doughnut for?” – my wife).

Alternatively you can download the tracks individually and pay nothing at all, or simply listen online. It might be even simpler just to listen to something else instead.

But don’t let me put you off. 52 Folk Songs is at http://www.52folksongs.com.

The purple doughnut is here.

Share and enjoy.

Our ale it is brown

Getting the hang of hoppy yellow beers has had a down side, which is that I’ve gone off some of the sweet beers I used to enjoy. I’ve had some unhappy experiences with ginger beers, in particular.

But what is a ginger beer? When I was a kid I made ginger beer one summer using a ginger beer ‘plant’; it’s the closest I’ve got to home brewing (and there is yeast involved, which I guess makes it a distant relation of proper brewing). The trouble with making ginger beer is that at the end of the week you find yourself with a lot of ginger beer, and the end of the next week you make as much again: you need to drink it pretty hard just to stay on top of the production process. When we went on holiday that year we left a week’s worth of ginger beer in the shed; while we were away the (residual) yeast got to work on the (plentiful) sugar, and we came home to several bottles of something not particularly sweet, very fizzy indeed and quite noticeably alcoholic. I don’t know how he made it, but Brendan Dobbin’s alcoholic ginger beer reminded me of nothing so much as that accidental experiment with fermented ginger beer; it wasn’t especially hoppy but it wasn’t sweet, either, and it was a serious thirst-quencher.

So that’s one way to interpret “ginger beer”: as an [alcoholic ginger beer]. Alternatively you could go down the alcopop route, effectively make a ginger beer and spike it: alcoholic [ginger beer]. Or you could do a Ginger Marble, make beer and flavour it with ginger: that would be ginger [beer].

Lately, a lot of ginger beers I’ve tasted have tasted more like alcoholic [ginger beer] than like ginger [beer] – and, having effectively lost my sweet tooth, the former is a style I struggle with these days. The spring version of Robinson’s Ginger Tom fell right into this category; the bottled version was a bit better – more fire, less sweetness – but still rather sticky and cloying in a way that’s not true of either Old Tom or Chocolate Tom. More recently I had the bottled Robinson’s GB; better – more beer-like – but still a bit on the sweet side.

With the Ginger Tom disappointment in mind, I studied the label of Wychwood’s Ginger Beard long and hard before I put any money down: did it mention sweetness? did it mention ginger beer as an ingredient or additive? No and no; I was reassured. The beer, sadly, was a crashing disappointment: less like Ginger Marble, more like the light Ginger Tom (which is specifically described as a mixture of Old Tom and ginger beer).

But there’s hope, in the form (oddly enough) of Wychwood’s Ginger Beard – on cask. I had a third today in the local Spoons, just to give it one more chance, and I was apprehensive that I might end up bolting it and turning to one of the others to take the taste away. To my surprise, there was no sweetness or ‘ginger beer’ flavour at all – just a fairly brown, fairly malty session bitter, very pleasantly overlaid with a ginger burn. Refreshing stuff, and definitely ginger [beer] rather than [ginger beer]; I could drink quite a lot more than a third of a pint of that.

All I need now is for someone to get hold of Brendan Dobbin’s recipe for [alcoholic ginger beer] and revive it. Any volunteers?