Thursday, 10 March 2016

Unfiltered = better?

When I started this blog at the beginning of 2006, beer was yet to be done to death as a subject for amateur journalism. I started it after my mate Dryzee encouraged me to do so. He's clued up about computers and works in IT (or "tech" as they try and call it these days). It gave me something to do during down times in the office.

Now Dryz featured in the blog quite a bit at the beginning, and was something of a fellow traveller as I began to explore the world of beer a bit more. Something he used to take the piss about in those heady days was how often I would praise a beer because it was "unfiltered and unpasteurised".

Dryzee and myself smashing Tipopils in Rome back in 2007.
His little pea-shaped head is cast in shadow.
No-one would say pasteurisation improves the flavour of any given beverage. In fact, treating beer like that invariably makes it less tasty. What it does do is kill bacteria (including yeast) and make it more microbiologically stable, meaning you don't have to worry about storing the beer at an appropriate temperature. It's a necessary evil in lots of cases.

But what about filtration? Does filtering a beer always make it worse? Real ale isn't filtered to any great extent. If it was, it wouldn't be cask conditioned. However, the overwhelming majority of bottled and keg beers - including those considered craft - do undergo a process of this nature.

I've spoken to brewers with very different opinions on this. Agostino Arioli of Birrificio Italiano, who visited my then pub the Finborough this time last year, is of the view that filtration is neither desirable nor necessary. His legendary Tipopils lager is more or less pin bright and glorious in flavour, so he has some standing on the subject.

However others have argued that filtering beer can actually help bring to the fore the flavour the brewer is aiming for. I visited Jim at Little Beer in Guildford, Surrey, and tried his tasty and interesting range of beers early this year. He's very much pro-filtration for his own beers, and it's part of the reason why he concentrates on bottle and keg.

Unfiltered Pilsner Urquell at U Veverky, Prague.
Good pub, that. Go for the filtered tankovna PU thoughbut.
In November I had a mug of unfiltered Pilsner Urquell on tap at U Veverky in Prague. I had it immediately after a jar of the regular stuff. I know which I preferred. The unfiltered tastes as it looked: a bit yeasty, indistinct. The filtered was sharp and satisfying.

So after years of trying beers from all over the world, I'm now of the opinion unfiltered is not always better. Others may disagree, but remember: Stonch knows best.

I wrote this post ages ago. I didn't publish it because my heart's not really in this sort of stuff anymore, but here it is anyway.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Gandalf's Grapes

Those who, like me, originate from the North East tend to be very fond of sculptor Antony Gormley. His signature work the Angel of the North is one of the best things to happen to the region in my lifetime. Public art really can lift people's spirits, even if economic regeneration is at best painfully slow.

I was keen to see another of his works, here in London by the Grapes in Limehouse, a pub I profiled here on the blog in 2009, but haven't visited for ages.

"Another Time XVI" stands on a pillar in the Thames and is best viewed from the Grapes' own terrace. It was installed in 2013 in memory of Eastenders actor Paul Cottingham.

Mr Cottingham was a friend of the Grapes' current owner, Sir Ian McKellen, who bought the lease (Punch own the freehold) from long-time landlady Barbara a few years ago.

Now, Sir Ian has a very positive public profile, as both a supporter of modish causes and a bit of a party boy. I served him a drink at my then pub the Finborough last year, and he's certainly a gentleman. But I can't help thinking this once great pub is worse off under his ownership.

I don't know how involved he actually is in the running of the place, but the Gandalf staff (presumably a genuine prop from the Lord of the Rings films) behind the bar and statue of the wizard smack of vanity. The walls, once full of interesting frames, are almost bare. The place has lost a lot of character.

Worst of all, the ale was absolutely hopeless. My companion Peter, until recently a Grapes regular, said his flat Pedigree was the worst he'd ever had. My Tim Taylor Landlord was no better. It was midweek and mid-afternoon - never the best time to form a fair view of a pub's fortunes - but apart from three ladies and a lovely dog finishing their lunch, we were the only customers.

The Grapes has a fine history - with a possible Dickens connection - and a wonderful setting, but it's no longer a pub I'd steer people toward.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Good Old

Earlier this week I walked from Eastbourne to Lewes, choosing the inland leg of the South Downs Way via the Long Man.

It was a marvellous afternoon, the 18 mile ramble offering magnificent hilltop views and gorgeous Sussex villages.

A highlight of the day was seeing the 10th century sculpture of Christ - thrusting a cross-shaped sword into the Devil's mouth - on the wall of Jevington's Saxon church.

I bookended the walk with pints of what must be the last batch of this winter's Harvey's Old Ale.

A noon sharpener at the Lamb in Eastbourne's Old Town was followed five hours later by a triumphantly necked jar at the John Harvey Tavern in Lewes, right by the brewery itself.

Harvey's Old is surely the best beer of its style brewed today, and I think one of England's finest dark ales.

In 2008 I was shown around Harvey's by head brewer Miles Jenner. I wrote about the tour here.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Umbria's valley, outstretched like a chart

I've never drunk Paulaner in Munich, where its made. It's perfectly good beer, but when I'm there I'll always go for Augustiner or Andechs. They both do better lager, frankly, and moreover they're very rarely available on draught here in the UK.

One place I did drink, and enjoy, Paulaner was in Ravello on the Amalfi Coast, as attested to in this 2009 blog post: Closer to the sky than the sea.

Much the same thing happened to me again last week: an encounter with this Bavarian staple in Italy, and once again I had a spectacular, lofty perch. It was quite the coincidence.

This time I was at the very highest level of the hilltop city of Perugia, on the terrace of a bar overhanging the ramparts. The soaring towers of Assisi, familiar but distant, were clearly visible, far away across the Umbrian plain.

Note the little plate of food. Free and unsolicited, obviously. That's another thing that's so tremendously civilised about aperitivo time in Italy. I really should start drinking spritz, but I'll always be an Englishman, and we just don't do lurid drinks.

Monday, 29 February 2016

Birra Perugia Calibro7

In other Italian towns of similar size, Assisi's surviving Temple of Minerva facade - dating back to the 1st century BC - would be the centre of civic pride.

Here it's a fine monument, but nothing more. That's because it's unrelated to the life and work of Assisi's most famous son, who in the early 13th century would quite simply change the world.

There's a bar opposite with good beer where this and other great things can be contemplated.

On tap they have the beautiful Premium and punchy Sixtus Bock from Forst (a German brewery in Italy's extreme north-east). In the fridge, there are bottles from a more local producer.

Birra Perugia shares its name with, and claims to be the successor to, a brewery that operated in the Umbrian capital between 1875 and the 1920s. In fact, it's another new wave micro that began production just a few years ago. They don't currently export, but the beer can be found locally and also in Rome.

Calibro7 would be right at home in Bermondsey: even with the orange flash, the brown paper label recalls Kernel. The concept behind the recipe does too: throw in loads of punchy New World hops, bottle condition it, and hope for the best.

The seven varieties promised in the name present us with a positive roll call: motueka, galaxy, citra, mosaic, calypso, chinook and sorachi ace. It works very well: lots of pine, juicy citrus and pleasing bitterness. No palette could pick apart the flavours from that medley, but that's not important: this is the hit extreme hop lovers are addicted to.

I ordered a second bottle of this very modern beer as I gazed at antiquity, all the while thinking about the little man who laid the foundation stone of the Renaissance.

Friday, 26 February 2016

Insult to injury

It must be annoying if the only pub in your village closes, even if it is a bit shit. After all, up until the point it becomes a des res there's always the hope someone will take it over and make it into a decent boozer.

On a recent walk to the north of Oxford I passed through a fairly large village where a pub was still marked by the Ordnance Survey with one of those lovely, reassuring beer mug symbols. I'd broken the back of my yomp so thought I might have a jar.

No joy: it had become a house since my map was published.

To add insult to injury, the residents were proudly displaying the pub's old sign in their brand new porch, and had a last orders bell installed by their door.

Surely this could be taken as an invitation to disappointed passers-by to ring on their doorbell and demand a pint?

Monday, 22 February 2016

Donnington Brewery

A 16 mile circular walk in the Cotswolds - starting and ending at Moreton-in-Marsh - took me past Donnington Brewery and several of their pubs. I drank in three of them, trying all of the brewery's three current cask ales for the first time.

Donnington has been owned by the Arkell family since it was founded in 1865. It's never been troubled by buy-outs or mergers, and still ticks along today making beer for its own small tied estate. The brewery - which includes equipment powered by watermill - is situated in picturesque buildings down a country lane by the little-known River Dikler.

I enjoyed the BB (3.6%, amber bitter) greatly. The newer Cotswold Gold (4%) is a pleasingly well-hopped effort, considering the conservative and traditional nature of the brewery. The SBA (4.4%, premium bitter) was my least favourite, being a touch too sweet and indistinct.

The Fox Inn, Broadwell.
First beer: SBA. So-so beer, tremendous little pub.
The Queen's Head in Stow-on-the-Wold.
Cotswold Gold - a lovely pint. 
Donnington Brewery itself, tucked away down a narrow lane.
Closed to visitors, but still a lovely sight.
A few pints of BB at the Black Bear Inn, Moreton-in-Marsh, before the train back to London.
The pub was lively and the footy was on. Great.
There's a 62 mile waymarked route - the Donnington Way - that takes in 15 of the brewery's 18-strong pub estate. My walk covered some sections of that. It's a nice idea but if you stopped to appreciate every one of those lovely pubs, you'd take days to finish the whole thing.