I’m a real beer lover, possibly even a beer geek. I enjoy craft brews from everywhere – I loved them in England, now I enjoy them in Northern California. The microbrewery revolution has resulted in great ales being available in abundance, so I talk about great microbrew beers, beer culture and history. This is not just a review site, it’s about the love of well-crafted beer and how best to enjoy it. Browse and enjoy. Cheers!
It’s fairly well known that I generally prefer the malt to the hop, which is unsurprising given the beers I grew up drinking; thinner, sweeter beers like the browns and milds popular in old-fashioned British Midlands pubs in the 80s. Even when I moved into the pale ales and bitter beers, I was happy enough drinking them as session beers.
I didn’t mind a little hoppiness, after all it’s what makes a good ale. That said, I came to realise that I loathed too much hop, and I can even tell you where I was. It was a Saturday afternoon, at the Bell pub in Norwich, a debauched post-rugby drinking binge with a vast number of rugger buggers intent on swilling as much beer as possible as quickly as possible. Not a pretty sight, and not an easy one for me, given that they dragged me into their foul antics. It was during the early evening that someone bought me an IPA (possibly because they’d drunk all the bitter). It revolted me. Not oly that but it sent my poor belly into spasm and gave me heartburn. Honestly, it wasn’t the several brews I’d downed beforehand. This was astringent, sharp, and it burned.
When I moved to California, I delighted in finding many beers I could enjoy from a multitude of microbreweries, but as I ventured further afield and pushed back the boundaries, I came across a new phenomenon – the overhopped beer. With names like Hoppy Face Brewery and the Big Ass Hoppy Amber it became clear that many breweries were jumping onto a hop bandwagon and there were many who followed them. Having tried a few (Racer 5 being notable) I decided that I would eschew the hop and stick with my malts.
But I was scorned, and scoffed at, and abused by the hopheads who insisted that unless a beer burned one’s gullet, it was a no-good beer. But it seems that I am not alone in my observation that the hop madness has gone too far. The excellent Samuel Smith writes: ”…there’s a disturbing trend that needs talking about: a runaway obsession with hops…” Please, good brewers, leave it out, and bring me a good Nut Brown Ale. Oh, and a nice pork pie.
Finally I am getting to completing the ideal beer backbone of the bar at Monticello in Davis. It’s been a long haul, waiting to see what would sell and what wouldn’t. Actually everything has sold well. Especially so, to my delight, the dark beers. I knew that we’d sell pretty much any IPA we could lay our hands on, and the Green Flash has pleased enough people, that I’d keep it as a baseline brew.
The bar is almost finished – the top is done, and the lights are installed. One day I will get video to show off their psychadelic nature, but for now, stills and your imagination will have to suffice.
Pale Ale – North Coast Brewing, Acme
Now I wanted to replace the Poleeko Pale Ale that we couldn’t get from Anderson Valley. Short of going out-of-state, I could think of no better solution than to obtain Acme Pale from North Coast. Now I’d tried this before and really enjoyed it, but that was on tap in Fort Bragg, and I felt I was taking something of a risk getting it in bottles. My standby had been the excellent Sierra Nevada Pale, but I need not have worried – this is a lovely pale ale, which is well suited to serving at “cellar temperature”, which turns out to be 54°F from the wine chiller.
Whilst I’d rather serve it at around 50°, it responds well, with a good head, bright colour and a great nose, a little floral hop backing up a nice biscuity malt, and a little caramel. The sweetness is in the flavour too, with a refreshing citrus in a fine medium body.
Very refreshing and easy to drink, it’s well suited to drink with pale meats, salads and the nuttier cheeses.
Belgian Dark – North Coast, Brother Thelonious
I’ve been a fan of this as long as I can remember, which is basically since I drank it at the brewery. It’s a fruit-cake of a beer, rich and dark, redolent of rum-soaked plum pudding, and with a flavour to match. It’s moderately sweet and with a little hop bitter at the finish, perfectly matched to strong, dark meats and sauces. The mouthfeel is generous for a beer that’s described as “medium strength”, well-rounded and warming too.
Equally, I’d drink it by itself as a winter warmer, but it’s in my favourite category of fully-flavoured-without-being-cloying. Not to everyone’s taste, it’s more like an old Zinfandel, but everyone should try it at least once.
Belgian Dubbel Style – Lost Abbey Brewery, Lost and Found
This is one of those beers that I felt every bar should have – made in the Dubbel style, it’s a great sharing brew in its 750ml bottle. Not that you shouldn’t enjoy it alone, but at 8% ABV, be careful if you do.
It’s a fascinating beer, made with a wide variety of malts as well as a custom-made raisin puree. It shows in everything – the spicy fruity and heady nose to the rich, fruit-chocolate flavour in a full body. Stop and listen carefully and you’ll get notes of nuttiness, cereal and fruitiness from citrus, figs and raisins. Not to mention toffee…
Pair with hearty meats or powerful cheeses. Or chocolate cake – who knows?
For My Next Trick…
I’m not quite sure what the future holds for me at Monticello. There’s not enough call for me to man the bar full-time in the evenings, at least not yet, so for now I’m acting as a consultant, picking beers and writing notes, and back to freelancing without a
safety net day job. Anyone who wants to hire a charming Englishman, with lots of chutzpah and the ability to write, let me know!
Vic’s was probably last decorated in 1945 in that special paint colour that is guaranteed to look like Gentleman’s Club Brown after a hundred thousand smokers had drunk and smoked their fill. Somewhere under there I’d often imaged a nice ivory, or at worst, magnolia. No-one had dared clean the paint for fear of the stand-out clean spot.
It wasn’t even really Vic’s bar anymore – poisoned by the tobacco miasma, Vic had succumbed to some heart-lung thing in 1973, and his brother-in-law had inherited it all, from the brown-stained ceiling to the ancient oak floor and a bar that could have been a London pub émigré from the ’50s.
It was one of those quiet nights at the bar, a night for me to set to polishing glassware and organising the many bottles. I’d had my traditional quiet-evening double malt whisky when he came in, shaking rain from his coat. He was tall, I remember that too, with a face like a young George Sewell. He sat down, as many had done before him, and looked around, pondering on the dusty Stubbs pictures and the railway clock that Mike had stolen from the waiting room in Stamford the weekend of the 1978 cafe race from London to Edinburgh. Mike was full of such tales, but this man knew none of them yet.
Mike was behind the bar, a cube of a man. Ex-Army, ex-wrestler and professional Cockney. He waited patiently for the chap to complete his recce, then caught his eye and gave him an up-nod.
“What are you having?”, asked Mike, putting down his own double Scotch.
“Thank you, I believe I’ll have a Guinness.”
Mike have chatted with him as he poured a nice cream-headed pint. He chatted with everyone, whether voluble or taciturn. Barkeepers do this; it keeps them sane and helps to pass the time, and once in a while, earns one a free drink (tipping being almost unknown in English pubs). It failed on thisoccasion, for the trench-coated man merely gave Mike a curt nod of thanks, and his back.
“That’ll be sixty-nine pence, please”, said Mike.
The man turned, a frown of puzzlement framed by the collar of his raincoat. “Did I misunderstand you? I thought this was on the house.” He took another sip of his Guinness, and kept his dark eye on me, still at the back of the bar.
This rather took me aback, if not aghast. I wracked my brains, seeking a clue as to what he might have heard. I looked at Mike, who was, I suspected, about to become a humourless bar steward. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what you mean”, he said, and leaned away from the bar top.
The man licked his lips through the half-smile of a jackal, and something in me started to worry about the outcome of this transaction.
Mike look at him, and I watched as the mild-mannered barkeep bristled like a pit bull.
“This is a bar, we make money by selling beer and spirits. Sixty-nine pence, please.”
The customer leaned forward.”Where I come from, ‘what will you have?’ is an offer to buy a drink”.
“Under different circumstances, I might agree”, said Mike, “but you might have noticed that I am on one side of this bar, and you, Sir, are on the other! I am not another customer, I own the place!”
Shit, I thought, he called him “sir”. Next would be “sirrah“, and then the shit would hit the fan. I watched carefully as the duellists observed one another with equal care.
“So what you are saying is that you are reneging on your offer? That saddens me; I’d heard this was an honourable establishment.”
“As indeed it is, and notice one thing – in this establishment, on this side of the bar is a cash register. That contains the money that I take from customers in exchange for beer and spirits. We are not a charity!” Arms were folded, and Mike settled some, having felt his point hit home.
Or so he thought. Trench Coat raised himself off the stool, to his full height. He towered a head and a half above Mike, though they probably weighed the same, Mike being built like a brick shithouse. The few regular customers raised their heads above their booze and business to take note of the interchange. There was a certain tension, one familiar and fearful to me.
Trench Coat smiled again, and turned to the scant but intent crowd. “Am I right? Does this phrase not imply a friendly offer of a drink?”
Mike drew himself up. It didn’t take long. “You speak of implication, sirrah. There is an implied contract when you walk into a bar, the same as when you walk into a shop. There’s a price list…” (here he waved at the stained list taped to the bar mirror behind him) “…and you are expected to pay that price. ‘Implied contract’ is, I believe, the correct term.”
Impasse. Trench Coat sipped at his beer, put it down, watched as one man detached himself from the tables and started to walk over. Mike was started to vibrate. As I said, tension was in the air.
As Mike was opening his mouth, the third man (a regular here; I knew him slightly), reached the duelling ground. “I say, Mike, why don’t I buy the gentleman’s drink? He may be the victim of, ah, cultrural mistakenness.” He carefully placed a small pile of change on the mahogany. Mike, equally carefully, scooped the money, counted it by feel and made the appropriate change. For the first time since the man had started his argument, Mike look away as he gave the diplomat his change, nodded thanks.
“Okay, here’s the thing. You may finish your drink. You may take a piss in the Gents’ if you need. You may then take yourself outside, and never come back. In other words, drink up and get out. You’re barred.” Immobile, immovable and incensed, steely gaze on Trench Coat. Who smiled, raised his glass to his benefactor, and drank slowly and with great satisfaction before nodding graciously to Mike and walking out.
Mike looked at me. “You fucking believe the cheek of that twat?” I made a moue and shook my head, slowly. He scurried off to do his mysterious things in his office, and the Sirrah Moment was passed.
And of course, in a normal life, that would have been it. But Mike was grumpy for days, which passed creakingly slowly into weeks before normal service ad good humour was restored.
It was about three months later. It was again, a quiet night. Mike was working his magic in the cellar, I was chatting to some random bar fly. It was late. The door opened, and in walked a tall, trench-coated man, who battered the drops from his coat before walking toward the bar. The familiar pocked face was to me, unmistakable. Unwilling to tackle this, I dived under and behind the bar, opened the cellar door and called to Mike. “I think it’s him again. Trench Coat”.
A frantic moment of wooden-cask movement later, and Mike stood next to me. I knew the look on his face, saw the two sets of eyes meet, felt the same atmosphere. Ignite blue touch paper and stand back – thus it was printed on every British firework, and having started the fire, I withdrew.
Mike made the opening thrust, as I knew he must. “You’re barred! I told you once before, and I do not expect to have to repeat myself!”
No half-smiles from Trench Coat, rather, surprise. “I’m sorry?”
“You. Are. Barred. Like I said, leave, and don’t come back. You are not welcome.”
Trench Coat placed his hands on the bar top. “I’m sorry, you must be mistaken. I’ve never been here before. In fact, I only arrived in Norwich for the first time, yesterday.” A gentle voice, again familiar, and surely there could be no mistaking this face. but now I was uncertain, and so, it seemed, was Mike. He leaned closer, scaned the visitor’s features. Maybe the hair colour? Maybe less facial scarring? Jaw line a little different?
“Although if you really want me to leave, I’d gladly do so. I’d hate to be the cause of any upset…” He began to button his coat and turn away.
Mike looked quickly at me. I shrugged a little; my memory is fallible. I made a gesture to Mike that I hoped said “I may be wrong, it’s a quiet night and God knows we could use the business; your call”.
Mike’s a tough nut, not to be messed with, but he does like a full till at the end of the night, and this fellow did appear to be well-heeled, looked tired and in need of several drinks. “I’m sorry”, he said, smiling, “but your face is familiar. I apologise, I didn’t mean to offend you.”
Trench Coat unbuttoned again, sat on a stool. “Thank you.”
“It’s uncanny”, said Mike, “You must have a double.”
“Very kind”, was Trench Coat’s response, “I believe I will have a whisky.”
“…the true American lager…”
I suppose that sooner or later it had to happen. I’ve been living in California for most of six years now, and despite drinking possibly hundreds of brews, had never tried two classic American favourites – Budweiser and malt liquor. Well that’s not strictly correct. Let me say that I have not tried them over here. I do recall having a Bud in one pub back in England that (if memory serves me well) sold nothing but lager, and a friend once gave me a Colt 45. I did not have great memories of either.
Still, that was in the past, in a different life altogether, and as people frequently remind me “you’re in America now”. It was also before I had read an article shared with me by one of our current houseguests, in which the author waxes both polemic and lyrical in support of this, the “King of Beers”. Sometime when you have ten or so minutes, have a read of it.
This same houseguest decided that I needed to sample the delights of Budwesier, and I will give you that story in a short while. Meantime, I will give you a precis of the writer’s arguments before proceeding with my taste test. His major arguments run thus:
- Budweiser has been around a long time – longer than most British breweries, beginning in 1876 (before the Budvar brewery), and has been using the same recipe ever since.
- It’s brewed with all-natural ingredients, barley, hops, yeast and rice ( with beech chips for conditioning). It is then filtered and pasteurised (common to many other beers).
- “Adolphus Busch in 1876 was a German master brewer of exactly the sort that beer nuts go gooey over, he was trying to make a high quality beer (as proved by Budweiser’s use of expensive Saaz hops), and he decided that the best way to brew a lager was to use rice.” I quote, because I can think of no better way of putting it.
- It neither tastes like piss, nor it it a cissy beer. Apparently it has a lower pH than urine, hence is “definitely more acidic than piss”.
- He argues that the modern microbreweries are a product of the Industrial Revolution, and their beers are not “artisanal” in the sense that they are under industrial quality control, just as Bud is, presumably.
- Budvar does not have a right to call itself the original, Busch neither stole the brand nor sought to copy (given that they were brewing before Budvar, who began in 1895). The original Budweiser Bürgerbräu was, according to Wikipedia, founded 1785, and imported to the US in 1871.
Let the Judging Begin!
First up, Peter (the instigator of this whole enterprise) bought a rather large can of the true American lager which were dutifully poured into glasses. It was crystal clear, a pale straw colour, exactly as I’d expected. As is my wont, I then stuck my schnoz in to get a good hooterful (the “nose” of a beer, as a wine, is an important part of the enjoyment to me, as regular readers will know). My first reaction was that there was a little yeastiness in the nose, but it was momentary. This was replaced by a slight musky aroma, but again, just for a moment. I took another snootful. There was something there, a little sweet malt, and sipping it didn’t do much for me.
Peter, bless his heart, agreed with my analysis despite his bluster that it would be a good drink. We tossed the undrunk portion in the sink and poured a snobbier brew for ourselves.
Is it refreshing? Well, yes – but then pretty much anything served at close to freezing point is going to provide that. Is it disappointing as a stand-alone beer? Well, frankly it is. But then I’m not about to be a snob about this - Budweiser is not a beer to drink and enjoy as a beer, it’s a beer to quaff on a hot day, or after a hard day’s work, or in front of the television. It’s not for nothing that Anheiser-Busch sells a lot of this to a mass audience, one that their marketeers knows well. The pitch is clear – simple beer, a standard and reliable recipe that never changes. Maybe the beer snobs should just suck it up and allow the drinking masses to enjoy it.
The Seven Dwarves
So finally, after what seems like months of planning, discussion and some intensive research(!), we have our first beer selection coming to the restaurant tomorrow! I have ordered the first small batch of bottled beers, seven in all. As with so many things, it’s best to start small and simple, and so I cut down my original 30-strong dream beers to just these seven.
Now you may notice that this list is heavy on the North Coast Brewery, and there is a very good reason for that. It seems to me that North Coast can almost do no wrong – I discovered this when I stumbled across their restaurant in Fort Bragg and worked my way through their sample flight. Simply put, they were all excellent, and some were, frankly divine, and I have to say that having them as the backbone of the bottled beer selection pleases me very much indeed.
We decided to start with a small selection that covers most of the beer types, all in 12-ounce bottles, all well known names, and all good examples of their type. Inevitably, there are things I’ve had to drop during the selection process; there is no hefeweissen, no American lager and no imports. Neither are there any of the really “big” beers yet – as time goes on we will be adding to this list to expand choice both for food pairing and sheer beer enjoyment.
So without further messing about, here are the seven on the shortlist:
Every beer geek has a dream. Among other things (hot air balloon ride, Grand Canyon, nude hang-gliding) I have long dreamed of getting together a list of my favourite beers, and freely admit that I never quite got around to it. This blog is a start, given that I’m listing the beers I’ve delighted in (and sometimes not), but it never really had much meaning in the Real World™.
When I was recently offered a job as the barman in a new restaurant venture in Davis, I realised that I had the opportunity not just to create such a list, but to realise it in the flesh, or at least in neatly serried ranks of bottles. I have spent the past few days not just imagining it, but meeting with distributors and enthusiasts (often in the same person).
The bar will be opening soon, I hope – the Monticello Seasonal Cuisine has just opened in Davis, and their website will be up and running soon. In any restaurant opening there are priorities, and the kitchen is obviously the first. In this case, wine was second – the bar is almost complete at this time of writing, just a few minor details to finish (like the completion of the bar top, the keg system and coolers). I’m by turns excited and frustrated, eager to start work and getting to the grist.
So, without further ado, here’s the story and the list:
My Dream Keg Beers
Given that it’s winter here (albeit a mild, California winter), my first thought is to turn to the darker brews. I’d love to carry a porter, a stout and a brown, followed by some paler brews, but the system we will have needs to fit the space available, and that limits me to three keg beers.
The Dark Side
Currently I am caught between a porter (nice and warming) and a brown (a good starting point for darker beers, a little less challenging for some American palates). The brown ale came to a choice of three – the excellent Riggwelter (a personal English favourite), Lost Coast Downtown Brown and North Coast’s Acme Brown. Here was my first dilemma – the restaurant is specialising in seasonal, local food, and the plan is to be as local as possible in all things. Riggwelter was therefore out. Acme brown, it turns out, is not available on tap from my favoured distributor, which leaves the lovely Downtown. This is not a bad thing, given that Downtown Brown is one of the better-known browns, and is superb at its price point.
Now for the porter. Deschutes’ superb Black Butte is available, is a sweet and warming ale, and then there are offerings from both Anchor and Sierra Nevada. The sad thing is that for the time being, I am not carrying any porter, despite its being an excellent winter beer. It’s a problem for me, I admit, but until I’ve seen what the regulars will be drinking, I’m playing it safe. If requests for porter (or stout!) are many, I may switch, but for now, there’s the “bottom end” sorted out.
A Bitter Brew
The top end has to be a nice hoppy brew. Not because I like the hop, but there are far too many people around here who do. After all, this is the West Coast, land of Lagunitas, and Russian River. Here was a real dilemma – one of my distributors (Southern Wine) recommended an ale unknown to me, one Nightstalker IPA. The other highly placed horse was the wonderful Russian River’s excellent Pliny the Elder. I have tried this one (though I regret I have not written up my notes) and found it good, if a little high in the hop for my palate. My favourite in this field would have been the fruity Sunflower IPA from McMenamins, but given that it’s not exactly a local beer (and would be almost impossible to get!) I’m settled for Pliny.
The Middle Way
Now the centre is tricky. In the summer, the middle may well be a pilsner, but in the moist and misty Davis winter, I felt that we should have a local brew, light but not pale. I’d considered having the brown in the middle and the porter as a dark base, but finally I settled on Sudwerk’s Märzen, largely because it’s well-known locally, is a good example of the type, and for me, Sudwerk’s best. But this is, of course, all subject to change.
Not only subject to change, but all rather academic at the moment, given that the bar is not yet open, although I am seriously hoping that I will at least have some bottled beer to serve by the weekend of the grand opening on 22nd January. Meantime, updates on the bar (oh, and the restaurant) are at their Facebook page.
Monticello Seasonal Cuisine are to be found at 630 G Street, Davis, CA 95616.
There’s a sorry, sorry tale I have to tell. It’s a saga of English pride fallen into a puddle of shame, of mightiness fallen and foul deeds. It’s a story of British spring weather in normally warm California, and the best and the worst of beers. But first, a little history. Bass Pale Ale has been brewed since God were a lad, in Burton-upon-Trent in the noble Midlands of England. In some manner and form, this beer has been in production since the eighteenth century, and Bass properly call it “the original Pale Ale”, and it probably was. The water in Burton was perfect for this slightly hoppy, light ale.
So I recall Bass Pale as a cask beer in old English pubs, drawn slowly from the wood (cooled only by a damp towel) – it was a succulent beer, bitter and summer-fragrant with enough maltiness to balance it out. The head was thin, aye, but the experience was heavenly. These were the halcyon days for the English drinker, before total science stepped in and the yeasty brews of yore were replaced by the consistently mediocre, gassy beers that were Watney and bloody Double Diamond, and Boddingtons was still brewed by grizzled craftsmen with Mancunian accents, and was genuinely creamy-headed and yummy.
For now, I’m please that Bass is still about, although InBev have taken over. This is for me still the Pale Ale that others must be measured by, and despite the export beer being made in sterile stainless vats, doubtless somewhere in bleedin’ London, it still has some of the old magic.
I’m drinking this one in the Capay Valley, on a mid-spring day that looks and feels more like an English spring day. It’s overcast and cool, and I imagine myself outside the Queen’s Head or Fox and Goose in some picturesque English village, replete with quaint and tired after a long hillside walk. It’s still good, despite the bottles being hauled five thousand miles through goodness knows what. Still a little bitter without the hops taking over (and these days in a pale, that’s increasingly rare) and sweet enough to give one the strength for the final push to walk home.
It gets a B from me, mostly for still being refreshing, and whilst there are many excellent (and better) pales around, it’s still a favourite of mine. Just allow me my moment of nostalgia, and yes please, I will have another.