Monday, 13 October 2014

Beer East Anglia

Beer East Anglia

Guiding the discerning drinker to the best places to drink in East Anglia

In the beginning there was the Good Beer Guide.

This fine book is an accomplished record of where you can arguably buy the best real ale in the country. A compilation of possibly the finest pubs in the United Kingdom where you can drink some of the best kept cask beer that can be found.

But do you only drink real ale?

In April of this year, those esteemed bloggers and authors Boak and Bailey reminded us of Pub Guides on the Blogs section on their website. At the time the East Of England section was looking a little sparse as Clive Stonebridge's top Suffolk pubs and the Pints and Pubs Cambridge Pub Guide had yet to be added. There was, and still is at time of writing no listing for Essex at all. Was it that much of a beer desert?

Having been a resident of Essex all my life, I knew that this was not the case and I was determined to put the record straight. Compiling a list of likely candidates drawn from my experience of drinking all over the county I soon had a decent sized list but I wasn't sure that I was entirely happy with. They were all good pubs but I didn't want to simply re-hash the Good Beer Guide into a 'Justin's Top Ten Essex Pubs' type format, I wanted something different.

Fortunately I wasn't the only one who was feeling like this.

Just before Easter I travelled up to my parents in Suffolk, stopping at the way at the Swan in Stratford St. Mary in Suffolk, literally a stones through across the border from Essex. It's a great pub, one that really cares about beer and choice, and just happens to be managed by all-round decent chap Ed Razzall. I had previously been to the pub at the beginning of February for a particularly beery day that has been referred to both before and since as the first, and you'll have to excuse my language here, #CraftWankerDayTrip . Ed was an excellent host to what was a particularly fine day drinking some wonderful beer.

On this particular occasion, my second visit, I was at the bar talking to Ed about beer in general when I happened to mention the need for a different kind of beer guide for our area. He looked straight at me from his side of the counter and said that he had been thinking of doing the self same thing. Without a moments hesitation we agreed to pool our resources and work together to write a guide to the area that would guide the drinker to places we considered to be the best places for beer in all its forms in our respective counties. Email addresses were exchanged and we both went away to plan and think of pubs and bars that really deserved inclusion.

Ed had mentioned that he had experience in setting up a website and take care of that side of things which was a huge relief to me, but before we could start writing we needed a set of criteria which we both agreed on and which we could use to ascertain which pubs were to be featured. Several emails later we had a framework which could hang this guide on.

The pubs should include:
                                        Local beer from an independent brewer
                                        At least three cask beers, at least of which one should fit the above criteria
                                        Keg beer, local if possible, but definitely not a macro-lager
                                        A good bottled beer selection including overseas beer
                                        A range of glassware, with the correct glassware for the beer served (optional)
                                        Staff that care and are knowledgeable about the beer they serve

We came up with a name, Ed asked a friend to design a logo for us and suddenly it was happening and the hard work began.

Compiling a list of likely pubs is one thing, many of them were pubs that I was familiar even when I asked local drinkers for suggestions via twitter, however getting round to visiting them all, seeing if they fit within our particular limitations and then deciding how and what we were going to write were another thing entirely.

I'd never done anything quite like this before and visiting pub after pub on holidays, weekends and straight after work, being objective and inquisitive, drinking and writing is actually far harder work than it sounds. Time and again I was disappointed as pub after pub didn't meet up to the strictures we had imposed however when one did it was hard to resist, and every pub that I visited that made the grade I paid another visit to within the space of a few weeks, quality control is important after all.

Eventually, after much discussion, writing, reviewing and co-ordination, trying to fit visits around our day jobs and daily lives, we had a core of pubs and reviews that we were happy with. This was all well and good, but we wanted something more so decided to include mini-biographies on all the breweries in our respective counties with Ed taking Suffolk and me Essex. Twenty-four mini-biographies later I was done and emailed it all off to Mr Razzall, the master compiler, to begin the mammoth job of assembling the whole thing.

It may not have escaped your notice that we have called our work 'Beer East Anglia' and you may well be wondering why we haven't included Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, and even than part of Lincolnshire below the Wash that constitutes the area we refer to geographically as East Anglia. This is simply because 'Beer East Anglia' is a work in progress, in fact there will be some more content and a few 'extras' appearing over the next week or so. We want to make this as fully comprehensive a guide as possible so if you'd like to contribute a review or even feel like taking on a county and think you can write in the same style and format, applying the criteria we have then please get in touch with either Ed at @edrazzall or myself at @1970sBoy . The reason we have decided to release this now is that we felt it was important to set this animal free and see where the ride takes us.

I hope you enjoy what we have done, so without further ado we give you:

                                           Beer East Anglia

We'd love to know what you think of our guide, the pubs we have chosen or anything else connected to it, but most of all we hope you use it and enjoy it for what it is, a guide for the discerning East Anglian drinker.         

Friday, 3 October 2014

And The Wheel Turns. Craft / Post Craft.

And the wheel turns.
Craft / Post Craft.

Sometimes you experience something, read something, hear something, not necessarily all at the same time, but they all come together in a pleasingly harmonious way.

First of all, before I start I'd like to point out that I'm not going to be drawn into the "What exactly is craft beer?" debate.

I'd like to point that out but I can't because I am. Well, sort of.

I've been thinking about what I enjoy about beer recently. What turns my head, opens my wallet, makes click on a link or keeps me reading right to the end of a blog, or indeed a book? What changed me from someone who liked a few pints of good beer down the pub with a group of friends after work, to someone with an obsessive need to know everything there was know, to drink all that could be drunk beer-wise, to travel with an eye on where and what to drink, striving onwards as though beer was my one beacon in the darkness? What made me take stock of this situation, realise that I couldn't be everywhere, taste everything, and actually not really mind that much (well, maybe just a little bit)? Where am I now and where am I going next?

Age and responsibility play a big part in this of course. Things move on and you have different priorities, that is the way of things, none of us are stationary even if we wish it as the world around us is constantly changing and we can't hold on to a moment forever. Strip it all away and what we are left with is memories and desires. Memories of how things were, good times and not so good, and desires to push us forward, motivate us, keep us going. What is it that you remember fondly? What motivates you now, feeds your desire?

And the wheel turns.

If you've read my last two blog posts, or indeed have happened to have had a conversation with me in the last month of so then you'll be aware that I got rather excited about my holiday to Lille. If you didn't you'd like to then you can read Part One here and Part Two here. It's not essential to this post but it is pertinent so I hope you will excuse me for posting the links. We had a great time and I was both amazed and delighted with what I found there. I returned buoyed with enthusiasm and wrote a mini-guide of sorts contained within my blog offering a hopefully rounded view of both the place and its beer culture.

It ignited something in me, much as my trip to Rome had done two years before had done (you can read about it here and here should you wish). Something that made sense, something that eluded me. I couldn't quite put my finger on it, unpick the singled thread of thought from the muddled yarn, bring it into focus.

Then I saw this on twitter.

Now you might well think that I am referring to Joshua M. Bernstein's article for Imbibe (which you can find here) but you'd be wrong, it was in fact what Ramsgate Brewery had put on the label for Gadds' No. 3 that had caught Will's eye, and indeed it did mine.

This is what it says:
                               'THIS IS FRESH BEER - DRINK IT NOW.
                                Truly fresh beer, delivered direct from the brewery, is beautiful
                                thing and totally unlike the nationally distributed supply-chained
                                charlatans hoping to be tasty. It's for that reason we 'bottle condition'
                                our beer, keeping it fresher, and put only 6 months on our best
                                before date, so you know it hasn't sat on a shelf for months on end.
                                And it's also for that reason we only sell GADDS' No 3 in Kent, so
                                you know it hasn't been carted round the counties before you get it.
                                When it comes to beer... LOCAL is FRESH is TASTY.'

The statement itself is aggressive and self-assured, and up until the penultimate sentence you could be forgiven for thinking it was on the label of a BrewDog beer such is its arrogant tone. But in the same way it's proud. Proud of what it is and proud of where it's from.
"You want some of this?" it challenges, "then you'll have to come and get me!".

Still musing on the connection between my experience in France and that post, I was fortunate enough to be invited to Matt 'Total Ales' Curtis' first foray into public speaking at the Dukes Head in Highgate last week. Entitled "An Introduction To Craft Beer With Matthew Curtis", Matt acquitted himself admirably, leading us with clarity and passion through various beer styles and their histories, encouraging us to make our own tasting notes and share them with each other, ably supported by some of London's finest beer and all brewed within 8 miles of where we were drinking it.

I had joked prior to Matt starting to speak that I would ask him to define craft beer to those present, after all, I reasoned, how could you have an 'Introduction To Craft Beer' without actually stating what craft beer is? What I wasn't expecting was that when I put this to him at the half way point, he said that he already had an answer to that question prepared. As he had already talked about US beer and its evolution I expected him to quote a similarly US size/independent-type definition but he didn't, what he actually said switched that light back on in my brain, squaring the circle that I had been struggling with.

Stupidly I didn't write it down at the time but Matt kindly emailed it to me, taken from his notes. This is what he said, in essence if not verbatim:

                      'Craft beer is beer that is brewed using only the best quality ingredients
                       available and by the most skilled brewers who can straddle the fine line
                       between artisan chef and scientist. Craft beer should not be defined by
                       the size of the brewery but by the quality of what rests in the glass, a
                       summation of hard work and skill. The beers we drank tonight were all
                       local and of the highest quality, and were the embodiment of the spirit
                       of craft beer'  

Experience, read, hear.

Looking at the three things together I had found precisely what I had been looking for. A definition of sorts that worked for me, made sense of what I was feeling. I wasn't looking to examine my relationship with beer, we've always got along rather well thank you, but rather to explore what I really enjoyed most about it in a wider context.

I am old enough to remember when great beer from all over the country, or indeed all over the world, wasn't available in your local bar or off-licence. Other than beer festivals where the beer could, and in many cases still is, hit and miss, the only way to discover new beer was to travel and experience it. The thrill of going into a pub and finding a row of hand-pumps in front of me bearing the names of local breweries and beers I hadn't heard of previously led me to travel all over the country, stopping on route where necessary, intrigued as to what I might find.

I wasn't obsessive, and I was often disappointed, but the holy grail was always a local, fresh, clean-tasting, delicious pint of beer. Brewery visits and tours a particular joy.

My palate began to evolve, and suddenly everything that I ever wanted from beer seemed to be available in vast quantities and from all over the world. I was the kid in the sweetshop, and in many ways I still am. I was getting an information overload from Twitter, Ratebeer and latterly Untappd and lapping it up, a cellar full of bottles and I was spending my evenings with my eyes fixed firmly on my laptop or iPhone screen.

Don't get me wrong here I don't really regret any of this although perhaps you think I should, but it wasn't really satisfying me. I found myself wanting more.

However, when I went on out to a London brewery event, went on holiday or visited relatives in other parts of the country my taste buds came alive, my brain switched on and my senses heightened, I was getting that thrill again.

My parents moved to Suffolk, not far from Southwold, about 15 years ago and I have taken great delight from drinking Adnams beers in the shadow of their Sole Bay brewery. There aren't many thing much better in life in my opinion than a pint of fresh Adnams beer standing outside the Lord Nelson on East Street facing the sea, a gentle onshore breeze bringing a salty tang to the nostrils that seems to work in perfect harmony with the contents of the glass. Similarly, and probably because of this I am also of the opinion that Adnams beer, the core range at least, doesn't travel that well on cask. It doesn't taste quite the same, and whilst the flavours are all there and can still be a fantastic beer, it lacks a certain vibrancy the further from Southwold I drink it.

Whilst I'd thought this for some time, it was only in light of my recent soul-searching that I realised that this was the essence of what of I was looking for all along.

You see, and I'm sure you already have, that what I thought I'd lost I actually had all the time. I'd taken myself, as I have taken you in this post, on a jumbled confusion of a wild goose chase, running up blind alleys in my brain and over-analysing  the whole thing.

Full circle.

So here I am, back at the start. Enjoying beer, that hasn't changed, but enjoying it more now that I've worked through and cleared out the unnecessary clutter, the detritus of my own making.

I've found my definition, and it is most definitely my definition, but I also realise it doesn't really matter.

I'll continue to drink and enjoy beer from all over the world, especially if its fresh as recent tasting events at Ales By Mail and Mother Kelly's (Left Hand) have shown me, but knowing what I need to do to get that big big buzz again will keep me travelling, exploring and drinking in my native Essex and beyond.

Turning, turning, turning.