Monthly Archives: June 2012

The Bradford of the North

Quick bleg: where’s good in Leeds?

To put it another way: where’s excellent-to-unmissable, in the centre of Leeds, more or less in between the University of Leeds and the railway station? Pubs, mainly. I hear there is a particularly good offie in the town, but it’s a couple of miles too far out of the centre for me to fit it in this time out.

Suggestions in comments please!

Update: well, I’m back. I made it to Mr Foley’s (Red Willow Endless & Smokeless, Thornbridge Pollards) and, more briefly, North Bar (Kirkstall Aquitaine), where I spotted Zak at the bar and said hello. Unfortunately it wasn’t Zak. Oh well.

Mr Foley’s is a big town-centre pub with very comfortable seating and a lot of different areas; the only thing letting it down is the huge number of TV screens beaming Sky Sports in all directions. (It would be nice to have some acknowledgment that not everyone wants to watch rugby with their pint. And Wales lost.) The Smokeless (a smoked porter) was fab, one of those beers where the added flavour really blends with the underlying character of the beer. As for Endless, I commented the other day at Tandleman’s that Red Willow are stronger on sweeter and darker beers, and that what they really need to bring out is a really pale, hoppy beer. Well, Endless is that beer, but I’m afraid it confirms my impression that RW aren’t quite there yet; it’s a fine beer with a big hop attack, but there is just a touch of that characteristic Red Willow sweet heaviness in mid-mouth, which lets it down a bit. As for Pollards – a “coffee milk stout” – I didn’t really like it at all; far too sweet and very little beer character, more like a cold Irish coffee than a stout.

Later I headed out to North Bar, humming fragments of Armenian as I went. It’s a short walk from Mr Foley’s but a very different area – it looks as if the rents are lower, put it that way. The bar itself is a very different proposition: a long narrow room running back from the street, with a bar down one side and tables and chairs along the opposite wall. Four handpumps and a forest of keg fonts, all of which I overlooked in favour of the cask Aquitaine – an 8% old ale aged in wine casks. (I was tempted by the Magic Rock Curious, but I could only stop for a half so I wanted something a bit stronger.) It was only after I’d got my beer that I took a proper look at the beers on keg, which were quite remarkable – Odell’s, Flying Dog, Nøgne Ø, BrewDog, Thornbridge, Magic Rock… I really should have gone for some of that there craft keg, if only to continue my investigation of whether any of it is ever any good. (Results so far: not sure.) The BrewDog, incidentally, was something called “Everything in its right place” – a response to Simon? As for the Aquitaine, much as I love old ales, I don’t know if ageing in wine casks is a good idea; the beer was both sweeter and sharper than I expected, as well as having a kind of ‘meaty’ red wine quality. It was an odd combination which would take a bit of getting used to.

So that was Leeds. Then I came home and had yet another Red Willow (Heartless dark chocolate stout, another example of how to do beer-with-additives properly) and a Buxton (Bitter, a full-flavoured amber bitter but with that distinctive Buxton help-there’s-a-hop-teabag-on-my-tongue front-of-mouth attack). Good beer day.

Oh good ale (or possibly beer)

Aargh, terminology. One of the downsides of reading Martyn’s blog is that you lose any confidence in your ability to say what beer terminology means, let alone what it’s meant in the past; it was when I saw a reference to “mild bitter ale” that I mentally threw in the towel. (Mild ale was so called to distinguish it from old ale – and bitter ale was a different drink entirely from bitter beer. There, all clear now.) If I had to swear on a copy of Amber, Gold and Black I think I’d say that what we now call stout is historically an offshoot of porter, which is or was a beer rather than an ale. So what I drank last night was actually a very good beer, not a good ale at all.

But what a beer it was. I’ve had some excellent strong stouts in my time – I’ve still got fond memories of the original Marble Decadence – but Fuller’s Past Masters Double Stout eclipses the lot of them. I don’t generally write tasting notes – particularly not when I’m having a quiet drink at home – but last night I found myself compelled to make at least a mental note of what was going on. It went something like this:

Damson stout! Coffee porter! Quadruple old ale! All at once!

There was dark chocolate in there somewhere, too. And tobacco – I swear there was a tobacco aftertaste.

The previous Past Masters beer, XX Strong Ale, should have been made for me; two of my great beer epiphanies involved Buckley’s bitter (which was dark and big on malt) and Chimay Red. I’m quite partial to Fuller’s 1845, too, and XX can be seen as its big brother (or distant great-uncle). But for whatever reason XX and I didn’t really hit it off, so I was chary of paying the high-ish price for the Double Stout.

I’m glad I did, though. As those tasting notes suggest, it does something similar to what a really good dubbel or old ale does, in the sense of offering flavours that have an immediate richness but then continue to develop. What it also does is to play very effectively in the hop flavour register, bringing out bitter notes that shade those rich old ale flavours in some fascinating ways. It really is like drinking a damson stout and a coffee porter, but both at once and without the benefit of additives.

This is one mighty beer. (It’s also rather strong – 7.5% – and personally I’d have preferred a 330 ml bottle to the standard 500 ml size. At least it wasn’t 750.) Anyone with any interest in historical beers will have bought one already; now it’s time for the rest of us. Anyone who likes darker beers – anyone who’s ever enjoyed a Guinness Foreign, a Chimay Blue or a Young’s Winter Warmer – buy this beer at the first opportunity. You really won’t regret it.

PS This is an unsolicited testimonial; I paid for the beer with my own money and everything. I’m open to offers of free beer and will review it, but cannot promise that the resulting review will be anything like as positive as the above. In fact, I can more or less promise that it won’t be – beers like this one don’t come along very often. But if you want to ply me with booze in the hope of turning my head, I won’t stop you.

PPS The implicit invitation in the last sentence applies to brewers only.

Be silly with beer

There’s a famous essay by the American philosopher Harry Frankfurt called “On Bullshit”. To cut a long argument short, what Frankfurt refers to as “bullshit” is a wholly instrumental use of language – talking entirely for effect, without any regard for the truth of what’s being said. Bullshit isn’t lying, Frankfurt argues; it’s worse than that. Someone telling the truth will be able to back up what they’re saying, explaining why they think it’s true and how it relates to other true statements. (“I’m late because my train was delayed; they were fixing something before it set off, and it must have broken down again because we stopped for half an hour in the middle of nowhere. It’s never happened before, I hope it doesn’t become a regular thing.”) Telling a lie is the opposite of telling the truth, but the two things are also very closely related: somebody telling a lie is always conscious of what the truth is, and what they say will be guided by reference to the truth they’re not telling. (“I’m late because my train was delayed; I went straight from work to the station, and the thought of stopping for a drink never even crossed my mind. If you can smell beer it’s because somebody spilled a can on me on the train. Which was delayed, as I was saying.”)

Bullshit is worse than lying: the person bullshitting doesn’t care whether they’re telling the truth or not – or even whether they’re telling a consistent story. All they care about is getting the right effect. (“I’m late because my train was late again – it’s always late, it’s unbelievable. Well, not always always, but it’s always been late recently. I had to run, as well. I didn’t make it in the end, I was stuck in the station bar for ages. Of course I was on time getting there, it must have been running early, I don’t know. It’s just so unreliable, that train.”)

In other words, bullshit is using language purely to produce the right kind of impression. Bullshit pollutes debate and devalues language, according to Frankfurt’s argument. It’s not a new phenomenon: advertising is full of bullshit; political debate is an odd combination of reasonably truthful debate interspersed with steaming piles of bullshit. (In this country, at least; the bullshit-to-truth ratio seems to be higher in the US and some other countries, e.g. Italy.)

Changing the subject for a moment, I had a half of Acorn Gorlovka Imperial Stout last night which was superb – easily a match for the Red Willow Ageless DIPA I’d had just before it. Acorn is a brewery I hadn’t paid much attention to until recently, but they’re producing some terrific stuff just at the moment – the (very) dark bitter Legend and the self-explanatory milds Darkness and Lightness have all been excellent. Acorn, Red Willow, Dunham Massey, Marble – I love those guys. Really love them.

But I’ll chew my own hand off at the wrist before I call them “craft brewers”.

I’ve read Dave’s latest. I like Dave, I like his beer a lot, and the Fuller’s collaboration sounds great. But what is this actually saying?

Craft beers have a real story behind them. Real personalities. Real people. People who care about touching base with the drinker who buys the beer. People whose inspiration shines through not only in the beer itself but also the fact that they take time to communicate what the beer is about. People who are not just influenced by accountants, and shareholders who care only about their dividend, but are also influenced by wanting to inspire the drinker.

There are only two interpretations I can come up with.

  1. It’s a roundabout way of saying “Craft brewers are people who (a) make beer (b) talk about how great their beer is and (c) do it on Twitter.”
  2. It’s bullshit.

At the moment I’m leaning towards 2. All this stuff about passion and authenticity seems so subjective and unverifiable as to be beyond challenging – and if something can’t be challenged it can’t really be talked about. All you’re saying when you call somebody a craft brewer is that you want to hang the label of “craft brewer” on them, because they’re great and craft brewers are great. It doesn’t seem to add anything to discussion of beer and brewers, and I think ultimately it actually detracts from it. This vacuous, unchallengeable label is being bestowed as a badge of merit – and that means it can be used to justify poor performance (of course every bottle isn’t the same!”) and sharp practice (of course you have to pay a bit more!”).

“Craft beer”, in short, is bullshit. But I’m not using that as the title of the post – once is enough.

PS The actual title of the post is what you get if you start with “Craft beer is bullshit” and then play with Google Translate for half an hour. I think it’s a great improvement.