Monday 31 January 2011

New Beers from Coniston Brewery

I do get a bit bored with the super-abundance of session ale in Cumbria. In my home county, by and large, I can only dream of the exotic beers of Belgium, the USA and elsewhere.

Nonetheless, a session beer I do always look out for is Coniston Bluebird, winner of CAMRA's CBOB in 1998. Bluebird is high art. A light biscuity malt background carries a layer of Challenger late-hop in a particularly elegant way. A bottled version is contract-brewed elsewhere but we get the real thing brewed at Coniston. All their beers are created by brewing consultant David Smith, a former Sam Smiths man, who favours simple single-hop recipes with relatively low bitterness.

Last November Pete Brown was in Cumbria doing a couple of readings. I took him on a all-too-brief tour of some of the region's pubs. We called in at the Black Bull Inn, home of the Coniston Brewery. We discovered a newcomer to the Coniston portfolio – a keg beer, "Thurstein Pilsner"*. Naturally, we gave it a try. Wow! If only all keg lager was this good surely "keg" and "lager" wouldn't have such negative connotations amongst certain beer-drinking types. In keeping with the house style we found it to be biscuity with a floaty hop character – Hallertau in this instance. A six week cold-conditioning ensures the beer is especially coherent and integrated. Some gentle lemon-ness redolent of Robinson's Barley Water and a hint of white pepper contributed to what adds up to be a tremendous new thirst-quenching addition to the Cumbrian beer landscape.

I have subsequently discovered another Coniston newcomer – Number 9 Barley Wine. This is an 8.5% beer with, what is to me, an old-fashioned flavour profile. At first I didn't quite get it. All I got was a sweet toffeeish beer with a hint of sherry that reminded me of countless indifferent mid-winter offerings from countless UK breweries. But I persevered. As the beer warmed up I became more aware of the key Coniston flavour characteristic – floaty hop character. While the liquid lingered on my palate aromas delivered themselves by mysterious internal passageways to my olfactory sense. Deliberately breathing in simultaneously through nose and mouth confirmed the flavour (or rather, aroma) of a generous late addition of Fuggles  Challenger.

Now here's the exciting news: I had a good old chat with brewery boss Ian Bradley. He's happy to give some samples to bloggers who'll promise to give the beers a review. If you write about beer, either on the internet or dead-tree media, you can have a couple of bottles. All you need to do is leave your details here.

* A note to pedants: Yes, the brewery knows "Top-fermented lager" is an odd description. They really wanted to call it a Kölsch, but that's a protected designation. It was thought preferable to use the term Pilsner as it would make more sense to the potential consumer. Awkward, yes.

Sunday 30 January 2011

Microbreweries on BBC Telly This Morning.

Here's this mornings piece on microbreweries from the BBC.

It's only short but at least it's positive.

Monday 17 January 2011

The Brazilian Job: My Hops and Glory Adventure (Part One)

 In October 2007 I had an adventure. You may have already read about this adventure in Pete Brown's "Hops and Glory". If you haven't, I urge you to buy the book pretty sharpish to put what follows into context.


My Blackerry beeped. 

It was Thursday lunchtime, I was carrying two tins of paint, just leaving B&Q in my blustery hometown of Barrow-in-Furness. I plonked the tins in the boot of the car and myself in the driver seat. A quick check – is that email anything interesting?

I read it … and read it again. It wasn’t making sense. My natural scepticism was telling me it was a wind-up, but the sender, Pete Brown, had never struck me as a joker. Quite the opposite really. He seemed a somewhat more taciturn character – at least until he had some beer inside him. He wasn't the sort to wear a water-squirting flower, a spinning bow tie and gadget that gives an electric shock with a handshake – nor send spoof emails promising freebie trips to exotic climes.
At home I pondered the mysterious email:
"Help save my book! Earn literary immortality!

I’m looking for someone who would be prepared to fly out to Rio at my expense - this weekend – with a very special piece of luggage.

Story so far – Barry, the barrel of traditional IPA that I was taking to India by sea, blew up in Tenerife. 

Coors have a replacement keg ready to go in Burton. I’m in Brazil, and will be on a ship out of here next Wednesday, 31st October. Brazilian customs are some of the most difficult in the world. It has proven impossible to have this keg sent by conventional DHL/normal import-export channels, because they like to hold on to it for ten days (we don’t have ten days) and they would open it to take a sample (meaning the remainder wouldn’t last until India).

We have three potential routes left – we’re waiting to hear if it will be possible to go in a diplomatic bag. We’re also waiting to hear if a specialist courier company will be prepared to touch it. Our final alternative is to have someone bring it in as personal luggage.

There is a small element of risk involved in this – you’d have to come through nothing to declare and hop not to get stopped. If you did get stopped, there would be duty and a fine to pay, or the beer would be confiscated. However, foreigners are hardly ever stopped coming into Brazil – they’re usually after natives returning with contraband. The journey time out here is tortuous, between 14 and 18 hours with one or two changes (Lisbon, and maybe Sao Paolo) with the final destination being Rio. Once you get to Rio, I’m in a hotel two blocks form Copacabana beach which still has rooms free at the time of writing! I’d meet all expenses.

We’re not yet sure whether we need someone to do this – we’ll know one way or the other in the next 24 hours - but I’m looking for a volunteer to stand by in case our other options fail. You have all been selected for admirable qualities such as steely determination, general derring-do or simply having the flexibility and attitude to be able to say, ‘fuck it, why not?’ I’d say flying Friday or Saturday night would be the best idea, have a few days on the beach, fly back maybe Weds or Thurs.

Do we have any interested parties? 

Cheers Pete"

I already knew of Pete’s epic journey and slowly the email started to make sense. A lightbulb lit above my head: it had dawned on me I’d been granted the chance of an adventure. The inner sceptic was banished.

I’d had an idea that for my fortieth birthday I’d have an exotic holiday – not specifically beer-related for a change, possibly music-related. A strong contender for special holiday was Rio de Janeiro where I could hear a Samba School for real, preferably at Carnaval. My fortieth birthday had been and gone. Limited finances precluded the exotic holiday. So here I was ten months after the significant birthday being offered a trip to Rio de Janeiro! Was I going to volunteer? You bet.

Here’s my email reply sent eighteen minutes after Pete’s plea:

Brazil! Blimey, my top fantasy location (that doesn't have a particular beer connotation).

I lurv Brazilian music! I was hoping to go there for my 40th birthday earlier this year (almost Carnival season) but finances wouldn't allow it.

What are Brazilian jails like?


You know already I’m a beer geek. You may not also know that I’m a music geek. I like (indeed, obsess about) very rhythmic music. I love jazz, soul, funk and latin In fact I love just about all the “Afrocentric” music forms … and that includes Brazilian music. If you’re also a music geek, here’s my iTunes libraryI don’t really understand how my particular musical interests came about. In my formative years in the Eighties Barrow-in-Furness was (and still is) an indie-focused town. Not me though, I’d had several musical Damascene conversions. About the time O Levels were turning into A Levels it had dawned on me that black people made music too. I hammered my local record library. I was exhilarated by what I discovered. That feeling hasn't left me.

I still had a very slight nagging feeling that I was just missing the point of a joke. An hour or two went by and another email arrived. That particular email eludes me but it said something like this: “It looks like it’s you; nobody else can do it. Get a bag packed and await further instructions.” The sense of elaborate joke was gone. 

Emails flew back and forth the following day. I emailed an old school friend at the local newspaper – would he be interested in a story? Of course! Preparation continued and a few beers helped counter the surging adrenaline.
The Big Day. My flight wasn’t until nine in the evening so I had plenty of time to drive the 350 miles to London via Burton-on-Trent where I was to collect Kev the Keg. My trusty Mondeo delivered me to Burton in time for lunch where I tracked down the legendary Steve Wellington who was mission control for Pete as well as the brewer of the beer. I can imagine the call from Tenerife: “Burton: we have a problem.” Steve was most hospitable. We chatted beer and had lunch while my inner sergeant-major shouted “GET A MOVE ON YOU’VE GOT A PLANE TO CATCH!” Steve had the replacement keg and a magnum bottle prepared. The magnum was for my hand luggage and the keg for the hold. Should they keg go astray – or be confiscated – hopefully the magnum would get through.

I help myself to few samples of the Hops and Glory special beer.

I headed for Wandsworth in South West London. My old Barrow friend Steve Bassett lives there. He has been graciously putting up with my regular invasions since I left London. He puts a roof over my head – I give him bottles and bottle-openers scavenged from beer events. I had an hour to spare. I parked the car in the only unrestricted space in Wandsworth (it’ll cost you big money for me to tell you where it is) and flopped in to Steve’s flat. Enough time for a cup of tea and a bag check before heading for Heathrow. I left Steve with four bottles of Pete’s IPA.

En-route to the airport my phone rang. A crackly Pete sounded stressed. He explained his ongoing ship’s departure had been brought forward by three days. It was now due to leave at 11.30am the following day. That would give me an hour – sixty whole minutes – to get through immigration, customs, baggage return and travel across an unfamiliar city where I don’t speak the language. Pete’s worried tone was understandable. I was worried too.
The wheelie keg-carrier being closely guarded at Heathrow

I was flying with the Brazilian airline TAM. Not being a member of the jet-set I wasn’t familiar with this airline. This lack of familiarity didn’t exactly calm my nerves. I’m not a relaxed flyer. Being stuck in a fragile aluminium tube miles in the sky is not something I relish.  A myriad of disaster scenarios flood my mind, each one provoking a sharp jab of panic-laden adrenaline. Accidental missile strike; bird-strike; terrorists; pilot error; technical failure; storms: they all scare the living be-Jesus outta me. People from Barrow don’t tend to be travellers. For us, a day trip to Manchester airport is a holiday. Skiing? Our town is freezing for eleven months of the year (and just chilly for the other one). Why would you want to have a cold holiday? Barrow’s at the end of a thirty mile peninsula: beaches – "if beaches is want you want I’ll give you beaches Sunny Jim" the voice of cultural baggage nags . And why would you want to encounter foreigners? My late grandfather’s attitude was “I went abroad once, it’s all flies and powdered egg and Rommel lobbing bloody shells – you won’t catch me going there again in a hurry.” And he never did

I checked in the contraband, er, I mean luggage, without a hitch. The notably heavy, solid bag didn’t raise any eyebrows and was within the weight limit. With half an hour to kill I did the usual things – buy some fags for my mate and browse the reading matter on offer. In W.H. Smith I became aware of a man standing alongside me. Seventy-ish and exuding an air of education, his name quickly flashed into my mind. It was Kofi Anan. No minders, no hangers-on, no VIP lounge and an anorak shorter than his suit jacket. I rapidly tried to think of a way of striking up conversation with the former Secretary-General of the United Nations but he had the good sense to wander off before I could bend his ear about the CAMRA situation. I later saw him with the economy-class hoards at the gate for a flight to Nairobi. 

On the flight I sat next to Nicky (or more probably, Nikki), a fitness trainer and nutritionist from Hertfordshire. Post-divorce, she was having a big holiday touring South America. Gaining altitude through clouds I closed my eyes and repeated to myself the mantra “they’ve got radar, they don’t need to see; they’ve got radar, they don’t need to see … ” A soon as the seatbelt lights went off Nikki rooted in her bag. She popped a couple of pills and nothing much was heard of her again until we landed. On my other side was that most satisfying of luxuries – an empty seat. Well, it was empty until I spilled my books, magazines and iPod on it. The flight was uneventful apart from a raging storm of panic hormones. 

We were to change at Sao Paolo. Nicky was awake, or so it seemed, her eyes were open. Craning my neck I could see the rubber-streaked concrete coming up to meet us. Thump. We were down. The captain interrupted my sigh of relief by slamming on the brakes. Our seat belts strained as we all lurched forward. My forehead banged into the seat in front. Several hand-luggage lockers popped open. My initial thought was “THE RUNWAY’S BLOCKED: WE’RE DOOMED!” But no, we were just attempting to break the record for the world’s shortest landing by a commercial airliner. Nicky perked up. “I thought it might be like that. Two hundred people died in an over-run at this airport a couple of months ago.” As we taxied to the terminal in the distance I could see a big aeroplane-shaped hole in the perimeter fence. Beyond it I could see charred buildings.

At Sao Paolo my phone beeped with a text message from nervous Pete. I updated him. “On time, landed at Sao Paolo, transfer on schedule.”

I would have been quite happy to travel the two hundred and fifty miles to Rio de Janeiro by road. Not even in a motor vehicle, a donkey would do. But no, we were flying. I calmed myself by a feat of self-hypnosis. The morning sun blazed as we boarded the transfer plane. Over its P.A. I could hear the music of Tom Jobim*, Brazil’s most celebrated songwriter and musician. The man who put Brazil on the world’s music map. One of my top musical heroes. Perhaps my body’s supply of stress hormone was exhausted but I experienced the transfer flight to Rio in a state of bliss. The reassuringly new and shiny Airbus, the music, the tiredness, the golden beaches below, the thrill of being a million cultural miles away from Barrow-in-Furness – I was high. The feeling didn’t leave me until at least a week after I got home.

My airborne bossa nova reverie must have contrasted with Pete’s land-borne tension. Months of effort and thousands of pounds spent putting the venture into action – all hanging by a thread. A mono-lingual inexperienced traveller was about to attempt to evade customs with the illicit cargo the book depended on.

I made a hasty exit from the plane at Rio’s Tom Jobim Airport. If there were any seconds to gain, I was going to have them. I texted Pete that I’d landed. There was a queue at immigration, only twenty or so people. Fortunately it moved fluently and the immigration officers were quite friendly and welcoming. Next stop baggage. Kev the Keg was in one of the new-fangled bags with a built-in trolley. My own stuff was in a large rucksack. Hopefully both items had made friends and were travelling together. The luggage carousel chugged into life. I drummed my fingers on my trolley as I watched other people’s luggage do a couple of laps. I was the first passenger at the reclaim; as Sod’s Law would have it, Kev the Keg and my bag were launched through the rubber-flapped hole pretty much last. Quickly I scooted off in the direction of Customs – the hurdle over which I could trip and put the kaibosh on the whole operation. Scurrying through the airport corridors my heart pounded. Vivid images of Brazilian prisons, twenty to a cell flashed through my mind. The very worst that could happen is that I would have some form filling and a fee to pay. No, on second thoughts the very worst thing that could happen was confiscation of the cargo … and me in prison. Practically running, I headed for the green channel. My phone rang. It was Pete.

“Where are you?”
“I’m in Customs”
“No, I’m in just in the queue for customs. Gotta go, it’s me.”

As I put the phone back in my pocket a cheery customs officer with his hand resting on his gun in its holster wished me “Bom dia” and waved me through. Phew. I texted Pete the good news.

In front of me were three cubicles, local taxi concessions. I asked the three simultaneously “which of you will get me to Copacabana the quickest?” The three lovely  ladies chorused “we will sir”. Momentarily flummoxed, I opted for the firm on the right purely for the flawed reasoning that’s its cubicle was closest to the line of waiting cars. I gave the address of the hotel to the girl and explained I was in a hurry. She summoned a driver to whom, I presume, she described the need for speed. He nodded, turned to me and used the International Standard Body Language Gesture for “come on it’s this way, let’s get going.” He grabbed the bags and darted off to a red Peugeot. 

11am and Pete rang. The driver taking him to the docks was insisting they leave. Panic was certainly not over. We had a brainwave. We’d meet in the middle. I handed my phone to the non-English speaking driver – “por favor?” Pete did likewise at his end. The drivers chatted to each other like old friends. Mine handed my phone back with a wink and a thumbs up. We accelerated away from the airport down the road past the docks. Pete rang again “they’ve decided it’s better if you come all the way to the hotel – too many potential problems doing it the other way". We sped along the highway. Hot and humid air ruffled what’s left of my hair. My heart pounded whilst bossa nova bliss conjured up images of Swinging Sixties caper movies. I saw myself as an on-the-run diamond thief evading justice in tropical Brazil or a spy tracking down an international ne’er-do-well. Rio’s ranks of near-derelict colonial-era buildings adjoining the road added to the sense of far-away exoticism.

After ten miles or so we turned off the freeway onto city streets. Of course, the traffic got considerably slower and denser. I informed Pete of the first half of this development. My driver, who I think may have been related to Emerson Fittipaldi, lit a cigarette and emitted a long sigh. Nudging bumper-to-bumper we edged through the streets. I was struck by the general calmness of Brazilian traffic. No horn-leaning, no tyre-screeching, and oddity for a city known for its lawlessness, everybody calmly obeyed traffic lights. And cheery customs and immigration officials. I was starting to like Rio. 

After we’d passed through a tunnel under one of Rio’s many hills the road opened again into a dual carriageway lined by hotels and important-looking office buildings. My driver pointed to the other end of the road. He turned to give me another grin and a thumbs-up. The dense traffic nudged its way along. Not really knowing where to look I scanned ahead. I’d told Pete to look for a red Peugeot. I was looking for a fretful Yorkshireman.

I think we spotted each other pretty much at the same time. He spotted a taxi; I spotted a strange phenomenon: like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis and discovering its wings, I saw a man coming to life, emerging from an agonised former self. We pulled up at the kerb. I jumped out by Pete. Very British, we did one of those is-it-handshake-is-it-a-hug things. I think I may have punched the air. While the drivers shifted the liquid cargo Pete and I had chance for a quick chat and a couple of photographs. That was it. Our Rio meeting lasted about three and a half minutes. Looking relieved, though not entirely stress-free, Pete was off to catch his container ship. My supporting role in Hops and Glory was over. My three-day surprise holiday in Rio wasn’t though – I was determined to make the most of my adventure.

End of Part One.

Antônio Carlos Brasileiro de Almeida Jobim wrote the song “Girl from Ipanema.” If at this point you are cringing, then you are a philistine. Ok, I concede the song has been tortured by every talentless crooner and half-competent cruise-liner band that ever existed. This doesn’t make it a bad song. It’s a brilliant song. It’s a work of art. And Tom Jobim was the genius who wrote it. On the plane to Rio we didn’t get that tune but we did hear a selection of his other equally brilliant tunes: Corcovado, Agua de Beber, Chega De Saudade, Wave, Stone Flower, Desafinado, Insensatez and more. Just ask, I’ll burn you a CD.