Wednesday 24 December 2014

Tilting at windmills

Young Amerikaans: spritely enough, but
I've had my fill now
Brought to you by Mike Widdall

They say you should never look back, but sometimes that’s just exactly what you need to do. Worked a treat this morning.

Yet again I managed to wake up at 3am and find it impossible to get back to sleep. In the end, I just gave up and watched an episode of The Good Wife till the Today programme started on Radio 4.

Joyously, listening to that implanted a ‘Let It Go’ earworm that’s been a bugger to shift all day, so eventually I crowbarred myself out of bed and got ready to come in to work for the most pointless few hours imaginable. That it was drizzling thick and heavily outside was no surprise. I felt like shit.

Then I remembered who today’s beer sponsor was. I’ve known Mike since schooldays and have many hazy memories of reasonably drunken nights out in our hometown of Oldham. And in mid-November, we got the chance to reminisce about some of these as I was staying over before heading out on a mushroom-picking expedition in the New Forest the next morning.

I didn’t make the forage, unsurprisingly. Woke up too late. We went out for a curry – something of a tradition that started at the Noor Jahan in Oldham and has continued ever since – then returned to drink beer, listen to music, play guitars increasingly badly and talk utter bollocks.

Among many of the things we remembered – and something I again recalled this morning – was a night we’d been to see a local band called Lemonade. Both of us had played in this band on one occasion or another, so we went to see them an awful lot. But one night in particular stands out.

We’d had ever so much to drink that night – as was usually the case when seeing Lemonade as the lead singer positively encourages you to drink. But for some reason, we’d decided we hadn’t had enough (we clearly had), so went to the Chadderton Tavern after hours and persuaded the landlord who we both knew that it’d be a good idea to let us in for more beer.

It most certainly was not a good idea. We sat down at a table, whereupon I began talking and ranting about who knows what. When a suitable interval had been reached – me pausing briefly to take a long slurp of beer – Mike piped up as he, quite reasonably, assumed it was his turn to speak.

Now I have no recollection of this, but apparently I just sat there swaying slightly, drinking the beer and looking ever more queasy as a result. I’m told there was a look of bewilderment on my face that was beginning to turn to irritation as Mike continued his monologue.

Then it happened. I ralphed violently and copiously. The sick splattered onto the polished table, then scooted off the other side as if it were skating across a frozen pond. A lot of it landed squarely in Mike’s lap. Again, I don’t remember, but he wasn’t best pleased as you’d imagine.

Apparently, you could see the anger rising as his face reddened and he looked into his lap, then me, then at his lap again before eventually barking out something along the lines of: “You’re out of order, mate. I can’t believe you’ve just done that. Bang out of order.” He was quite justifiably furious as the vomit continued to dribble from the table onto his shoes.

I still have no memory of this, but apparently my response – and bear in mind Mike was utterly seething at this point and covered in sick – was: “Well, you will witter on.”

Remembering this had me chuckling, then cackling, then actually snorting with laughter as I trudged down the stairs at Honor Oak Park to catch the train. I’m sure the ragtag band of fellow commuters heard, but I didn’t care.

And on that uplifting note, it’s time to drink the beer. I’d like to thank everyone for reading, all those who chipped in to the Kickstarter campaign and anyone else who’s helped with moral support and encouragement. I notice I didn’t manage to mention Rob Crowther yet, so I’ll make amends now. Special thanks to Simon Green, who went a long way to ensuring I hit my target within a day. Hope you enjoy the beers.

Now, one last foray into beery meanderings before I hang up the bottle opener for another year. Cheers!

Beer: De Molen Amerikaans
Strength: A delightfully restrained 4.5%
Smell: Pine cones crunched underfoot in a continental evergreen forest
Tasting notes: In all honesty, I can't really taste anything. After the amount of beer I've had this month, I seem to have become inured to bitterness, which this feels like it has in spades. Everything now just tastes like milk. And I don't like milk. If I had to hazard a guess, loathe as I am to do so, I'd posit it has more than a sneaking suspicion of the wine gum about it. But all I'm getting is a grey-suited civil servant carrying a manilla envelope full of forms that I have to fill out, then lick the envelope gum so I can seal it and take to an office on the other side of town. There's more than a hint of needless bureaucracy about drinking this, but I suspect that's in part due to the fact I'm pretty much done in.
Session factor: Probably quite high under normal circumstances, but right now all I want to do is curl up on the sofa and sip mineral water. Which is a shame as it's doubtless got its time and place.
Arbitrary score: 221,214
Sponsor: Mike Widdall

Tuesday 23 December 2014

It's different for geuze

Drei man: I could happily pass the rest
of my days in this beer's company
Brought to you by Alan Freeman

Well, Christmas shopping can come and kiss me right where the sun don't shine, sunshine. Nailed the lot (barring one or two kids' gifts) at Rough Trade East in an hour this afternoon. Good job I love my family, eh?

It's been a funny old game over the last few years has Christmas shopping. Without a significant other for whom to buy, there really seems to be no pressure at all. As a result, gifts seem to just fall into place and present themselves as if a fait accompli. And consequently, I'm leaving it later and later every year.

The flipside (and there always is one, isn't there?) is that while scouring the shelves for suitable presents, you invariably chance upon stuff that would be ideal for no-longer-significant person x or potentially significant person y or even way-out-there-but-bloody-hell-why-not-you're-single-after-all-so-just-ruddy-well-go-for-it significant person z.

Came in waves and waves this afternoon. So many things I'd have bought for people whose potential has either disappeared into the ether, is apparently flatlining or has yet to even surface that, in a way, I was thankful my bank balance would have refused on my behalf anyway. But I'm glad I found all these things in one shop: shows I'm consistent in my taste at least. And it gives me confidence that, if I do ever end up with someone outside the family I need to buy for, I'll have had a fair few years' practice and will appear a complete natural.

With the pressure now seemingly off, I can begin to wind down and even start feeling festive, though in all honesty that still feels some way off. December, as I may well have intimated before, is a tough month for me. Consistent, daily 'beer-group' pressure meets Christmas party central up town with the rockers and brings loneliness into sharp focus. It's been less pronounced this year as I've grown used to it now, but it's never completely absent.

If there were some supreme being out there – and as far as I'm concerned, there isn't – then it has made its point that we're all ultimately alone. I've got that, OK. Twigged a while back; these further lessons are superfluous. The training for old age and feelings of isolation and alienation is now complete. You can stop now. Just wondering which class is next, though I've a fair idea given my time of life.

Anyway, back to that which keeps me deluded there's something you can rely on after all. If anything could persuade you that's a reality, it's Drei Fonteinen Oude Geuze. It's a beer I discovered earlier this year and, if I'm honest, have fallen for quite dramatically.

It doesn't really taste like beer. It's quite sour, almost as sharp as a Champagne. All its complex characteristics are hidden behind the fact it's called beer and viewed as such. And I think that's what appeals. There's in fact so much more to learn about things you think you know all about but haven't really given a chance and this beer screams it from the depths of its stomach and right into your unappreciative mouth.

This evening, the beer sponsor will be drinking the very same beer at the same time I do. He doesn't like beer, but I've a feeling he might like this one nonetheless.

Let's crack on with it and see, shall we?

Beer: Drei Fonteinen Oude Geuze
Strength: A fittingly ambiguous 6%
Smell: Gas, gas! Quick, boys. An ecstacy of fumbling and mustard but with the sweet promise of far-off paradise.
Tasting notes: I think I've just found my significant other, because I'm utter putty in this beer's hands. It's sparkling and sassy as Hell from the outset and makes me smile more than anything I can think of right now. But it doesn't stop there. No. It has far more to it than meets the tongue's eye. Wit, charm, intelligence, warmth and an understated yet obvious confidence, it's little wonder I'm enchanted. And I am. I can't wait for more. I laugh every time I sip. I drink in its aura every time I'm lucky enough to be in the same room. It's so sharp I fear I'll be shredded to ribbons every time we meet, yet it's a benign rather than malevolent presence and understands when I'm struggling to keep up. My word. And, stop press, the sponsor – who doesn't like beer – says it's delicious. This one's a serious keeper.
Session factor: Gladly now and for the rest of my natural life. There would never be a dull moment. So, pretty high, then.
Arbitrary score: 90,115
Sponsor: Alan Freeman

Monday 22 December 2014

The King of blissful drinking

Brown bottle: I fear a Viz character-like
transformation after this one
Brought to you by Paul Simpson

One of my enduring memories of this year is sitting in an extremely comfy armchair just outside the Sipsmith’s tent at Port Eliot enjoying a quiet moment on a Sunday afternoon and drinking a large Bloody Mary.

The festival itself had been a blast from start to finish. A stress-free drive down from London – accompanied by a tape I couldn’t be arsed changing that consisted of Aztec Camera on one side and Julian Cope on the other – was followed by an efficient tent erection (quiet at the back) and a relatively controlled night on the Thursday.

Friday was altogether a different matter. I believe I beat 'First Pint' Fowler to that title at a shade after 11am, then high-tailed it to the aforementioned gin joint, whereupon I was schooled in the art of Bloody Mary drinking by the delightful Jo and Abi at Ernest Journal. Stayed there for some time, drinking it all in, playing word games and generally becoming ever-more toasted.

The afternoon took a different shape. I cracked open my keg of homemade pale ale, distributed a fair amount, drank a whole lot more myself and promptly fell asleep under a trestle table in the green room backstage at the Caught By The River tent. This momentary period of rest wasn’t to last and I was ushered out of the way I was in, whereupon I sat swapping cheese-related puns with a group consisting of people who to this day I don’t recall, though I fear Andrew Weatherall may have been among them.

Clearly, there was only one thing for it. Head back to Sipsmith’s, drink gin, rant at anyone who’d listen (including someone to whom I’d taken a shine), then stumble off to locate food. That I lasted well into the night is a feat in itself, but the inevitable crash had to come and the following day’s baking under canvas was deserved penance.

Unsurprisingly, Saturday was rather more sedate, though I did manage to meet some lovely people and share in the early hours the most fleeting, briefest moment of what I considered the most genuine affection I'd felt in some time.

But Sunday was the day. A gentle wander along the river, another Bloody Mary, an audience with Julian Cope and then an exquisitely peaceful sit down, smiling like I hadn’t for some months.

A dishevelled-looking man approached, grinning broadly and pointing. I did not know why. Then a sudden flicker of recognition. Paul Simpson (today’s sponsor) wandered up and likened me to a flawed monarch surveying his kingdom in the only way he knew how: through the protective shade of a straw crown, sunglasses, bleary eyes and hidden behind a look of utter self belief. I felt at that moment the most relaxed and utterly contented man alive.

To follow was more mirth, the buying of a drink that might just have sown the seeds of a future book collaboration, some seriously flawed Northern Soul dancing and a high-speed ride through the night on the back of one of the festival’s little buggies; a proper treat.

Driving back to London was considerably less painful than it had been two years previously and the next month was to prove among the most joyful I remember in recent years. Safe to say that Sunday was something pretty special for me.

So cheers, Paul. Hope next year’s proves just as good. Though don't saddle me with one of these, yeah?

Beer: Kernel Imperial Brown Stout
Strength: A fucking royally decadent 10.2%
Smell: A really bloody good vintage port. Oh fuck. This doesn't bode at all well.
Tasting notes: Oh, sweet Jesus, I'm in trouble now. Some baseball bat-weilding miscreant is wandering menacingly down my alley right at me and I can't do a thing about it. The git is twirling it around like it's a Whirling Dervish and is evidently bent on bludgeoning me into malty obvlivion. I freeze. This is fucking frightening. Stuck fast and unable to move, all I can do is watch as the woody, brown club comes timbering down with the most almighty thwack that all my senses are knocked so far into next week they haven't had the time to renew their travelcard. Whole galaxies tumbleweed their ways past as I lie lifeless against the dank concrete, barely conscious and gasping for air like a landed brown trout enmeshed in a primitive landing net. It's pointless even twitching my way riverwards; I'm done for. Await the wooden priest and bid farewell to the world of the living.
Session factor: Just don't. OK? Don't. 
Arbitrary score: 27,714
Sponsor: Paul Simpson

Sunday 21 December 2014

Rumble from the jungle

Glass act: once poured, this ale performs
some quite hilarious theatricals
Brought to you by Michael Heap

Borborygmus. An excellent onomatopaeic word to describe the gugling noise caused by movemet of gas and fluid in the intestines. From the ancient Greek borborygmós.

It's a sound I've been getting used to recently as my diet has become ever more eclectic since the summer months. And in particular this month when richer food and expensive alcohol have combined to noisy effect.

Funny thing is, I'd heard the sound a few months before learning the word. I'm still taking as much time as the trek itself reading Patrick Leigh Fermor's The Broken Road, the third in his trilogy describing his walk from the Hook of Holland to what was then Constantinople. In it, he describes the sound of a Romanian hotel's plumbing system as a borborygmus and I had to look it up. Just perfect.

Looking up words has been a bit of a theme of late. I had to learn a whole new vocabulary while reading Nairn's London, a terrific guidebook to London in the early 1960s. The architectural features carry tremendously evocative names such as spandrels, entasis, reredos, corbels and soffits. I knew none of them before and had to make electronic notes so I'd remember what each meant.

It seems that's been the overriding theme this year. Learning new things or how to cope better with age-old issues that have returned to trouble me again.

For the most part, that's been good. Learning how to brew beer is a terrific skill to have acquired. Likewise, there's been a good deal of professional development that's meant my usual gruff temperament and tendency to speak my mind has been mostly overlooked by the powers that are at work. And I learned how to appreciate Bloody Marys for the first time ever; a tremendous development, I think.

Some things you just don't want to learn, though. Like how difficult it is to carry a car battery a mile or so while riding a bike. Or how easy it is to worry about largely inconsequential things. Or what its like to spend a month in a state of semi-permanent anxiety and paralysis.

While in many ways it's been an excellent year, I'm glad it's coming to a close – like I'm glad to be almost there with the calendar too. It will be good to look again at things from the perspective of a new year in a similar way that it will be nice to regain some clarity of thought afforded by a more sober couple of weeks.

Still a few to go, though. We're not there by a long chalk.

Beer: Mikkeller 'Ale'
Strength: A quite spritely 5.8%
Smell: A gargantuan gorilla made entirely out of grapefruit, but which has cheesy feet.
Tasting notes: Quite disarmingly charming. That is, once it's ripped your arms, legs and head off and shat pure citric acid down your neck. It's a minor miracle your senses can still operate; must be purely on impulse rather than actual feeling, because essentially, you are quite dead. But on feeling a tiny pang of guilt, said gorilla – in a way that reminds you of a child sheepishly trying to put the limbs back onto a daddy longlegs it's just dismembered – tries to make amends by forcing your head back on and giving it a good pat, as if it thinks you're made of plasticine and that this will help. It doesn't, of course. All that will help is if you have another swig.
Session factor: So outrageously high it'd give Danny out of Withnail & I a run for his money.
Arbitrary score: 61,114
Sponsor: Michael Heap

Saturday 20 December 2014

The long and winding road

Anything Gose: Siren's freestyling has
made light of the darkness
Brought to you by Nick Gilling

My regular journey to the south coast town of Seaford can follow a fair few routes, but none is more visually pleasing than the one I took today.

It's a stop-start affair through Sydenham and Penge before Beckenham beckons and I wend my way through West Wickham. After a swirling descent of Corkscrew Hill, I cross the divide that marks the edge of town and the start of the countryside. Layhams Road begins as a perfectly ordnary suburban lane, but just at the point where the speed limit ups to 40mph, the whole vibe changes.

Suddenly the trees overhang. The road surface mottles. Farmyard animals become more evident. As you cross Sheepbarn Lane onto Skid Hill Road, it's as if you've taken a wrong turn and ended up in the Yorkshire Dales. Hills hug and shape the road and a sharp right reveals a most gorgeous vale scarred only by the grey straggle of Beddlestead Lane.

That's the first pastoral phase of the journey complete. A succession of postcard villages such as Limpsfield and Crockham Hill punctuate the road to Edenbridge, then the tarmac rears up, twists its way through the woods and dips down over the border into East Sussex.

Watery tree-lined hollows abound along the way to Hartfield, one of my favourite spots on this route. It boasts two excellent-looking pubs, both of which offer accommodation ranging from simple bed and breakfast to 'en-suite' rooms. I'd like to stay over in one after a boozy night but have never found the opportunity. I think I prefer the sound of the simpler of the two.

A left out of Hartfield takes you almost two miles upwards through Chuck Hatch and Ashdown Forest, with its carpet of rusting ferns and promise of deer. I saw a stag crossing the road here once. It just bounded casually across the road as I applied the brakes and gazed in genuine awe.

Once atop the hill, the plain affords you many miles of East Sussex views and several times I've stopped in one of the landscaped car parks to survey the scene. It really is quite beautiful. And one day, I swear I'll stop at the Duddleswell Tea Rooms that are tucked behind a well-manicured green, neatly back from the road as it drops towards Maresfield.

The A22 drags on laboriously past Maresfield, Uckfield and through Halland and it's with some relief that I pull off towards Camberlot and Upper Dicker. The highlight of the journey is still to come and I sense it drawing nearer as I rumble over the level crossing at Berwick and strain my eyes for my first sight of the Wilmington Giant.

Plains flooded by the bank-busting Cuckmere River accompany the road to Alfriston, as does my eternal dilemma of whether to sing the village's name to the tune of either Galveston or Anchorage. It's usually Michelle Shocked's number that wins out. Once I'm through and past the Youth Hostel, I spy the white horse carved into Hindover Hill and hope for a clear run.

My poor little car doesn't like hills and struggles up towards High and Over (see what they did there?) car park if there's a slow-moving vehicle in its way. There isn't today and I get to the peak in third gear; an achievement for dear old Cleo.

The view that greets you as you crest the hill is quite breathtaking. To the left, the Cuckmere River meanders its way towards the sea, sheltered on its left by the first of the Seven Sisters. Seaford Head is clearly visible too and often, like today, the sun turns the English Channel into shimmering sequins that twinkle their way towards the horizon. Even Newhaven looks good from up here and that's some achievement.

Allowing for traffic, the whole journey takes just under two hours. It's a delight for the eyes and always gives me enough time to put things into perspective. I arrive at my parents' place soothed, not disturbed, by the ups, downs, twists and turns.

Now, all appears well. I've left the darkness behind me where it belongs: yesterday. Time for something black.

Beer: Siren Black Gose
Strength: A mercifully drinkable 4.2%
Smell: Slightly decaying Christmas cake.
Tasting notes: It pours like a bottle of Coca-Cola, so it's something of a surprise to discover that, instead of an overly syrupy soft drink, your tongue experiences a sensation not unlike that a sour, cynical regular turning on you in your favourite boozer. Completely unexpected. You thought it was your mate, but no. It lets you sit down next to it, then opens up, calling you out for practically anything it can think of and really getting under your skin. You can't leave; you've just bought a pint. Neither can you go and sit elsewhere. You've just got to sit and take it and hope he runs out of insults or gets bored. Just weird.
Session factor: It's one to acquire, this taste. But I'm getting there.
Arbitrary score: 111,074
Sponsor: Nick Gilling

Friday 19 December 2014

Sleep of the just

Sleepy hollow: err, something about
being tired
Brought to you by Marcus Hadfield

Well, it’s taken a whole 19 days for the darkness to kick in and finally it has. So much for yesterday’s post. All the optimism I’ve been feeling for pretty much the whole month has vanished. Gone. Black… black, etc.

I’ve never been particularly good at hiding my feelings and I really don’t want to learn how, to be honest. I like the lack of mystery. My heart looks good on my sleeve, I think. I like making it easy for people.

So when disappointment comes knocking at my door, as it often seems to do these days, it’s usually pretty simple to tell. It didn’t even bother knocking this time; just barged its way in uninvited and made itself at home.

I had thought I’d seen the last of it this year, but you can never really be rid of the fucker, can you? Always in the neighbourhood and seldom backward in coming forward. A right bloody pain in the arse and annoyingly never unexpected.

This afternoon was the work Christmas lunch. Predictably, my option was fucking risotto. Why is it always risotto? Because chefs can’t be fucking arsed putting some ruddy thought into it, that’s why. At least the cheeseboard dessert was up to scratch.

I had been due to go out afterwards with someone who makes me laugh more than anyone I’ve ever met, but she’d had a shitty week and wasn’t feeling up to it. Was going to be an interesting exercise staying relatively sober while my colleagues knocked back the cheap plonk, but on the bright side, it meant I didn’t have to. And I didn’t. But I was looking forward to laughing like a drain and grinning like an idiot instead of dribbling over my laptop keyboard and feeling decidedly nonplussed.

That came on the back of a slightly deflating change of plan for a project I’d been hugely looking forward to and that might have really given me something to which I could devote some energy. Not meant to be.

And in a way, that’s been the story of my year. Things with promise that just haven’t panned out the way I’d have liked for some reason or another. They say all things happen for a reason, but I’m buggered if I can work out what those reasons are, other than to make me feel a bit shitter than I did before.

It gets to the point where you think the only way to avoid disappointment is to completely avoid any expectation that things might work out well. I thought I’d shaken that mentality off for good earlier this year, but in keeping with the theme, that didn’t work out as planned either.

Oh well. There’s always beer. The only thing I can rely on. Today’s carries the name ‘Hibernate’, which I’ve always felt was something we could really have learned from bears. I’d love to hibernate, waking some time in the spring feeling refreshed and ready for the rest of the year.

Instead, I’ll just tuck in to the beer and achieve a similarly comatose if less prolonged state. But before I do, there’s time to publicise tomorrow’s Eventful, err, event at Rich Mix in Shoreditch. Greatcoats for Goalposts, which celebrates the centenary of the 1914 Christmas truce.

Now there’s something that is worth celebrating.

Beer: To Øl Hibernate
Strength: A sleepy, hypnotic maybe even soporific 6%
Smell: Really strong midget gems and those blue pastel lozenges that generally hang around in men's urinals.
Tasting notes: OK. I give in. I can no longer equate smell with taste. Because this is possibly the most contrary one I've had yet. I feel utterly powerless. Like it's disarmed me in an instant and is just whispering its story in my ear as if it knows I'm oh-so suggestible. And I am. I'm gazing up into its eyes like it's an angel reaching out its winged hand to save me from something I don't know I've done yet. It's gorgeous. I beam into its face like a grinning idiot that's had its brains bludgeoned out belligerently by a breezeblock of blissful, beery ignorance. Transfixed and damned to exist forever more in a permanent state of inability. That's forever, she said. And she was right.
Session factor: Veering between oh God yes and please no.
Arbitrary score: 70,714

Sponsor: Marcus Hadfield

Thursday 18 December 2014

Sturdy, Stronge, Committed

Gentle giant: a sheep in wolf's clothing
Brought to you by Justin Hancock

Well I had all sorts of stories and anecdotes to trot out today, but for some reason (read: boozy lunch), they've all fallen by the wayside. It's been one of those days.

Regular readers will no doubt be delighted to hear that I got a lovely night's sleep last night. And I think therein lies the problem. It's put me right out of kilter. Would appear I'm no longer able to function properly when all is well with the world.

Which doesn't half make me think. Every December since I can remember (OK, since 2009) has been utterly batshit mental in one way or another and, as a result, the Beer Advent Calendar that accompanies the month has been suitably animated.

It's almost like it no longer works if there isn't something or other wrong with my world. Take 2010 as an example (go on, have a look at the archives). A year of genuine catharsis that saw me persevere with this pursuit despite the fact my marriage was crumbling like the East Yorkshire coastline. Yet there was some terrific writing and genuine drama to entertain readers. It's been a similar tale since then – plenty of woe and heartache to add spice to the overall experience and keep the interest levels relatively high.

Somewhat disappointingly, this year has thus far had little to offer. I have no romance that's failing; no life-changing moments to dwell on; nothing majorly significant to distract readers in exactly the same way as would a road accident. Doesn't seem fair, really, does it?

Of course, there's always time. We still have a week left and, if that's a long time in politics, it's an aeon in my so-called love life. But this year's calendar has been unblemished by such traditional carping and, for once, I reckon I'd like it to stay that way.

“Where's the fun in that?” I hear the tens of you say. To which I reply: “Here. In my own head. Finally.”

Beer: Buxton Brewery Stronge Extra Stout
Strength: A painfully unhappy 7.4%
Smell: Malevolent. Like it's an evil force shadowing your every move. And following you home down dark streets.
Tasting notes: Would that everything in life were as contrary as this. In your mind's eye, you feared for your wellbeing with the constant spectre of danger breathing down your neck. We've all felt it; the shadowy figure audibly pacing behind you. Who is it? What does it want? Why doesn't it go down another street? Well, you know what? It's just going its own way and you happen to be a few paces in front. That's all. In all honesty, it's trying to slow down so as not to freak you out. It realises you're scared and it's doing everything in its power to reassure you while still going home to its own house. A sensitive, feeling, misunderstood soul that's probably had a few too many but is otherwise harmless. Different matter when it gets indoors, mind. Then it pinballs into all the walls and can't even find its own bedroom. But by that point, it's no longer your concern.
Session factor: How appealing does the above sound?
Arbitrary score: 4,914
Sponsor: Justin Hancock

Wednesday 17 December 2014

The Treat of Utrecht

All-day session: Rooie Dop have
brewed a blinder here.
Brought to you by Mark Love

First off, a public service announcement. If you're in the Chicago area tomorrow, you could do worse than head along to the Pusha T show, as promoted by Eventful.

Now, where was I? Oh yes. Today. Been a bit of a strange one if I'm honest. Woke up at daft o'clock again and couldn't get back to sleep – a ruddy annoying thing that's happening with increasing regularity lately. I appear to be developing into something of a crepuscular creature and I'm not enjoying it.

It was just about acceptable when I knew there was a damn good reason for it earlier this year – nothing like an extended bout of emotional angst to disturb the sleeping patterns. But now? Now I've no excuse, which is making my nocturnal awakenings all the more bothersome.

And it's not as if the alcohol is helping either. Time was a swift couple of pints followed by a calendar beer would see me through the night. Not any more. Either I need a couple of nightcaps too or, strangely enough, nothing at all before I'll get a decent night's sleep. The latter not being possible in December until gone Christmas.

The funny thing is, I'm not feeling particularly tired as a result of missing a couple of hours in the night. If anything, I was relatively spritely for most of today and have managed to work through the evening's chores with something approaching brio.

Now I'm going to carry that vigour through into this beer. It's a new brewery to me is Utrecht-based Rooie Dop. The city isn't, though. I've been a couple of times to visit one of my then clients, a large Dutch banking group. It's got possibly the ugliest station in the known world – and I've been to a few – but the canalside areas in the old town are worth a visit.

Tonight, despite the insomnia, in the new-found spirit of quasi-temperance, I'm leaving it at just one. At least I'm rattling through my book thanks to the waking hours.

Beer: Rooie Dop 24/7 Session Ale
Strength: A relatively sessionable 4.9%
Smell: Sweet, sweet beer. That's what it smells of. And an ever-so-faint whiff of catpiss.
Tasting notes: Interesting. And not in the mildly sarcastic way either. I thought it'd be much sweeter than this, but after an initial burst of fruitiness, it drifts slowly and inexorably into bitterness and insistent douleur. In a beer, this – for me – is a wonderful thing. This is a cracking little session ale that's got a fair bit to shout about and isn't afraid to speak its mind. Small it may be, but it has all the punch of a well-trained bantamweight in peak condition and, right now, it's pummelling the living shit out of my tastebuds. And, you know what? I don't care. I can take this and more. I've coped admirably in the past and, now I've developed a taste for it, am bang up for doing this all over again.
Session factor: With a name like 24/7 Session Ale, you don't really need to ask. But since you are, it's stratospherically high. If challenged, I reckon I could drink this all day.
Arbitrary score: 191,214
Sponsor: Mark Love

Tuesday 16 December 2014

Over a barrel

Export opinion: I think I have a
soft spot for this one
Brought to you by Mark van der Vord

As the marauding army of impending Christmas marches ever closer to the fortified town of Beer Advent Calendar towers, so does the alcoholic pawl ratchet up the pressure on the liver.

Take today, for example. Client entertainment at lunchtime (2.5 pints of Moor So’Hop), then a world of cack and conciliatory pints on the way home. It's done me in.

Luckily, this is the last of the full-on days before the wind down begins. There remains the thorny issue of the work Christmas party on Friday, but this year I’ve decided relative sobriety at that is the best option. In all honesty, I’m kind of fed up with drinking now. This happens every December; I reach a point when the last thing I want to do is drink anything, let alone beer.

And today, that moment has been reached. I yearn for an alcohol-free day. I’ve begun craving mornings when I feel fine. I long to look in the mirror and not see red, watery eyes staring back at me. The mineral water aisle of my local Sainsbury’s is looking ever more alluring with each passing day.

If this sounds like me complaining, I assure you it’s not. Rather I feel like I’ve got to a stage of my life when I’m starting to feel moderation is preferable to excess. Yes, it’s taken a while. But getting there at all is more important than how long it takes, right? This feels like real progress, especially since this time four years ago, when my marriage was breaking down, I was existing on a diet of calendar beers and Whisky Macs.

So for the remainder of this calendar, I’ll be tempering the intake and, hopefully, will be more capable of giving each beer a half-decent hearing. Whether or not that translates into more entertaining writing is anyone’s guess; my suspicion is it won’t.

But today, while the booze is seemingly still flowing and the creativity is gushing out of me like effluence from a ruptured slurry pit, I fortunately have a beer that’s genuinely worthy of attention. I haven’t had a bad beer from this brewery since I discovered them more than a year ago. I don’t think I’m about to start now.

Beer: Brew By Numbers Barrel Aged Export Stout
Strength: A particularly unwelcome 8.4%
Smell: Smells a fuck of a lot like my homebrewed stout. Thick with molasses, a hint of fermenting grapes and a suggestion of bad chocolate.
Tasting notes: Hahahahaha. This is the first beer I've ever had in all the time doing this calendar (and it's been a while) that has made me laugh immediately I've swallowed the first mouthful. And with every advancing year, I place more value on the ability to provoke mirth than practically any other quality. This is a big beer, no doubt, but so disarmingly hilarious you can't help but be prone to its charms. Dark, somewhat mysterious, but so joyously funny you'd gladly spend the rest of your days in its company without ever muttering any murmur of complaint. A real keeper of a beer.
Session factor: It's probably not all that wise to overdose on this; nevertheless it's one that makes you want it with every gorgeous sip. Both high and low and hugely confusing.
Arbitrary score: 21,114
Sponsor: Mark van der Vord

Monday 15 December 2014

Ben McCormick is unwell

Wax factor: for no other reason other
 than it has a candle on the bottle
Brought to you by Simon Hogg

For the first time in my life, I was taken ill on a train this morning. Just outside London Bridge, I began to feel distinctly unwell. In a Jeffrey Bernard way.

All was fine until the train lurched to a halt in sight of Tower Bridge Road. Perhaps it was the sudden stop that provoked it, but I began to feel extremely warm, then cold, then sweaty, then faint, then incredibly nauseous. At one point, I thought I was going to be physically sick.

It was all I could do to remain standing. I had visions of clutching my chest and falling helplessly to the floor. But instead of just being concerned for my own welfare, uppermost in my mind was the overwhelming sense of shame and embarrassment that would follow were I to succumb. A remarkably stupidly British thing to think, but what can I say? It felt real.

Luckily, I just about managed to hold it together. The train pulled in to platform nine and, once I felt the mild chill in the air on my head, I regained a bit of composure and shuffled my way along the platform with my fellow slow-moving, sloth-like commuters.

And it got me thinking. I’m approaching the age when I really ought to pay attention to warning signs such as this. OK, I’m at that age. And the kind of lifestyle I’ve been living for the past few months is just not sustainable any more. Assuming it ever was.

Time to slow down. Take more care. Heed my mother’s advice. I’ll ensure I do that as soon as this ruddy calendar’s finished. Right now, following an early evening of yet more Christmas drinks at the Draft House on Charlotte Street, I’ve a bottle of Omnipollo to drink.

Beer: Omnipollo somethingorotherwithacandleonthefront
Strength: A perfectly reasonable 5.6%
Smell: An awful lot of bubblegum and cheap detergent.
Tasting notes: OK, so I'll declare my disinterest: a couple of client entertainment drinks followed by a visit to an old haunt has rendered my tastebuds pretty irrelevant. Throw in a peanut butter sandwich and, frankly, I'm amazed I can taste anything at all. Yet this is a real curve-ball of a beer. It makes me believe I don't really like it, but has a distinctive charm all the same. It's like someone you fancy for no apparent reason other than they just have something you can't quite grasp. There are no seemingly redeeming features, yet oddly enough, you're drawn in almost despite yourself. The worst kind of allure; inexplicable yet utterly enchanting.
Session factor: Can I think about this and get back to you?
Arbitrary score: 51,014

Sponsor: Simon Hogg

Sunday 14 December 2014

The evil that men brew

The big yin: Yang is an absolute
brute of a beer
Brought to you by Rob Orchard

Let's just make one thing perfectly clear: I do not want to drink this beer. Not at all. It's just, well, evil. Yes, a malevolent sibling of an IPA that frankly wants your half of the inheritance.

Preparations haven't gone well today. 'Testing' another homebrew at 5am once I'd got back from the Purple Radio Christmas bash at The Castle wasn't ideal, but at least I got the chance to sleep that off.

Trouble is, I'd stupidly left my rucksack (containing laptop) at the venue, so had to drive to Streatham to reclaim it from the kindly souls who rescued it. Picked about the worst time to head southwestwards as well – Sunday drivers out in their droves didn't do much to salve my creeping hangover and general sense of nausea.

But duly reunited with technology, things began to pick up. A clear drive back and a parking space right outside my flat lifted the mood. Sometimes it's the little things that bring cheer. And so it was with almost genuine enthusiasm that I peeled back the cardboard flap marked 14. 

Then I saw it. Evil Twin Yang. A bloody ridiculous beer that weighs in at 10 per cent ABV. My heart sank. It was about as welcome as an open sore on your eye and I half considered swapping it for something else.

So instead of what I need – lots of water, perhaps some nice food and a good, old fashioned rest – I'm sitting here typing this while drinking something that should justifiably carry a government health warning.

I don't mean to complain, really, but 10 fucking per cent? For heaven's sake, why?

Beer: Evil Twin Yang
Strength: A tear-inducing 10%
Smell: I swear there's a hint of Parma Violets hidden among the overpowering alcoholic fug.
Tasting notes: I don't think I've ever had a beer that I fear will kill me, but this comes close. A mean Doberman Pincer baring its teeth and dribbling angry saliva onto the tarmac. It lunges forward, straight for the throat, pawing, clawing and fastening its considerable jaws around the windpipe till it senses you weaken. You drop to the floor – how can you not? Now it has you at its mercy, thrashing its head from side to side and biting ever deeper into the soft, vulnerable flesh of your neck. As the last flickers of life slowly drain away, you lift the glass to your lips and sip again.
Session factor: Zero.
Arbitrary score: 20,603
Sponsor: Rob Orchard

Saturday 13 December 2014

Green Flash monster

Social drinking: a flash of inspiration
at the West End's finest bar
Brought to you by Roger Clapham

Funny old sticks, these Americans. They spend millions of dollars on truly awful beer, then go and produce some of the most genuinely tasty examples of styles once popular on this side of the water. Weird.

I remember bumping in to a couple from San Diego one winters afternoon at the old Kernel Brewery on Druid Street, all of us huddled round the makeshift trestle table grouping together to shut out the cold.

We began chatting about the cultural differences between what some wag described as two races divided by a common language and eventually got on to a couple of subjects that brought us closer together and ensured we were still poles apart: beer and guns.

The beer talk went well – all of us were big fans of hoppy pale ales, porters, stouts, imperial stouts, imperial porters, imperial IPAs, double IPAs and anything else that sounds slightly over-the-top and experimental.

When the subject moved on to guns, it was as if we were talking to beings from another planet. Zack (had to be Zack, didn't it?) insisted bearing arms was not only a fundamental, inalienable right, but that it helped make the US a safer place.

Incredulously, we asked how that could possibly be. He posited the mutually assured destruction theory, in which I've never had a great deal of faith. We then asked whether he'd ever been shot, to which he replied: “Yes; twice.”

Once we'd stopped laughing at the ridiculousness of it all, we asked why.

It was after an argument over a parking space,” he replied. The English contingent looked at each other with what can only be described as intense disbelief before again collapsing in fits of hilarity. When we'd finally cried out every last tear of laughter, Gareth turned to him and said: “You do realise you've just proved our point, don't you?”

There was little else we could say on the subject as Zack admitted he probably had. So our conversation drifted inevitably back to beer and this is where the relevance kicks in (thanks for bearing with it).

Barbara, Zack's then partner, worked for a while at Green Flash brewery in San Diego. I've been meaning to try one of their beers for a while as a result. The trip to Clapton Craft at the end of November finally offered up that opportunity and I grasped it.

Then I took advantage early. Yes, reader, I cheated and drank it long before it was due. I've obviously since had it replaced with another bottle, which is what I'm about to drink now.

I already know how good it is. And I do feel guilty too, if that helps.

Beer: Green Flash West Coast IPA
Strength: A frankly fucking ridiculous 8.1%
Smell: Welcome to the cheap sweets. With a faint aroma of Edam.
Tasting notes: After the merest hint of Refreshers that tips a cursory yet defferent nod to the undoubtedly large grain bill, the extravagant hops kick in. Obviously, I've never actually done this, but it feels a bit like how I imagine drinking a sea urchin would be. That, or a tiny beer-flavoured hedgehog has been spooked and recoils into a ball that pricks every inch of your mouth. The beauty of it is, somehow the alcohol placates the little feller and he begins to relax, retracts his spines and gently crawls off in the vague direction of your epiglottis.
Session factor: Disturbingly high given the ABV.
Arbitrary score: 131,214
Sponsor: Roger Clapham 

Friday 12 December 2014

No sleep till Buxton

Peak beer: IPA at its finest 
Brought to you by Rachel Flatt

Hitting the wall. Having a jour sans. Bonking. Sport, and particularly cycling, has many terms for the feeling of having had enough. I’m living all of them today.

Barely halfway through the annual alcoholic marathon and I’m having a genuine Paula Radcliffe moment, not least as a result of my ill-advised experiment with a too young chocolate stout last night.

Whether it’s the cumulative effect of one beer after another combined with a particularly busy festive social diary this year, I’m not sure, but this morning – a morning off work at that – I opened the calendar and looked upon today’s beer with actual dread.

Doubtless fuelled by last evening’s creative team Christmas night out, in a display of sheer bravado stupidity (and egged on by Robin Turner, I might add), I stated I’d be drinking today’s beer before heading into the office this afternoon. Thankfully, common sense and an overbearing sensation of queasiness trumped the rashness and I’ve left it till much later.

But now, looking at the bottle, I’m struggling to work out how the Hell I’m going to manage it. Hasn’t helped that I sampled a few of the Purple Brewers circle homebrews earlier this evening, of course. Or that the works drinks trolley came out early today due to it being Christmas Jumper Wearing day, or some such.

The bottle is eyeing me as if it knows I can’t handle it. The glass vessel equivalent of looking down its nose and sneering as if to say I’m not worth its bother. I’m being stared down by a fucking bottle of beer. And what’s more, it’s working.

It’s moments such as these that I question the wisdom of this undertaking. All I want to do right now is drink mineral water and take milk thistle supplements, yet I’m presented with a ruddy great hulk of a beer instead. O me miserum, o me infelicem.

I’ll stop bellyaching now and get on with it. Bottles can stare at you all they like. I’ve got a bottle opener and I’m going to use it.

Beer: Buxton Brewery Ace Edge
Strength: A genuinely intimidating 6.8%
Smell: It smells of strong IPA cheese on a cocktail stick with a piece of dilapidated pineapple chunk. And faintly of unpasturised Stilton, though that's probably coming from my fingers after having eaten a rather large portion of it earlier at Mike's.
Tasting notes: Never judge a beer by its aroma is what I say. This is ruddy fantastic. I had a feeling it'd be much fruitier than I could face, but not a bit of it. For the beer nerds, it's an IPA hopped with Sorachi Ace, the Japanese hop grown in Hokkaido and originally used in Sapporo beers. Wasted on them, really. It's perfect for offsetting the kind of malt bill needed for a beer of this strength, cutting a fine citrusy figure with its lemony chin out and zesty shoulders pinned back. Right now, it's holding sway in the bar room that is my mouth. A bar room that's seen all sorts of flavours battling it out for supremacy tonight thanks to an early evening of homebrew tasting at Michael and Emma's place in Southwark. Among those vying for the title were the unpasturised Stilton mentioned above, two types of chutney, a saison, a dark Belgian ale, a Hefeweiss, a monster of a beer Andy brought over from Canada cut with biscuit syrup and a spoonful of biscuit butter from Belgium. I'm frankly amazed I can taste anything. But this cracker from the Peak District peers down from Kinder Scout in much the same way as the bottle did to me earlier and outranks the lot. I don't often give a money-back guarantee, but I will with this one. Seek it out.
Session factor: Mountainous. Forget the fells; this is Pyrenean.
Arbitrary score: 181,114
Sponsor: Rachel Flatt 

Thursday 11 December 2014

Ich trinke ein Berliner

Numbers up: a beer that delivers
a quiet death to your tongue
Brought to you by Sam Carrington

Last year, as the ‘Great Freelance Drought of 2013’ was hoovering up the last remaining pennies of my sinking fund, I received an email from an old school friend. He said he needed a writer. Specifically a beer writer.

Resisting the temptation to say I knew a fair few, I began to feel my big break had finally arrived. While it was never going to make me rich, I thought I might be about to carve out a career doing something I loved.

Wasn’t to be. I massively over-serviced in terms of hours worked on the project and was paid considerably less for it than my initial quote. Didn’t even get a complimentary copy of the magazine once it had finally been published, which I thought was a mite peevish.

But it did mean I got to speak to a lot of brewers, which finally set in motion the sequence of events that led to me making my own beer.

It also meant discovering a new, excellent brewery and a style of beer I’d never tasted before but which has since become a firm favourite.

That revelatory voyage didn’t start well, mind. I’d been commissioned to write a feature on home brewers who had made the step up to commercial brewing. I’d spoken to Hackney Brewery’s Pete Hills initially, then lined up an interview with Kernel’s Evin O’Riordann the following day – a Saturday when the brewery opens to the public.

Unfortunately, I mistakenly decided it would be a good idea to go to the Draft House on Charlotte Street the night before, with the result that I turned up at the brewery somewhat the worse for wear. My friend Tom had bought me a low-strength table beer that I really struggled to finish. Then things, quite unexpectedly, began to improve no end.

I bought a barrel-aged imperial stout (10.2%) that I thought would be the test of whether or not I could handle the rest of the day. It worked. I rattled through the interview with Evin, who then pointed me in the direction of Tom at Brew By Numbers, a relatively new outfit just up the railway arches in Bermondsey.

The rain lashed down as I picked my way along Enid Street trying to stay as dry as possible. On arrival at the brewery looking like I'd been in need of a Sou'wester, I wasn’t remotely surprised to be practically the only customer. I quickly identified Tom and managed to conduct an interview while swaying slightly under the influence of Kernel’s finest.

Tom ever-so-politely asked if I’d like a beer and suggested the lime Berliner Weisse. One sip of this sour, mustardy delight later and a new chapter in my beer drinking had begun. I could barely concentrate on the interview any more. This was delicious. I wanted more. I stayed late into the evening and had several more.

I’ve since recommended the brewery and this style of beer to anyone who’ll listen and plenty who would rather not. I don’t care. It’s unlikely I’ll shut up about it for years to come.

So you can imagine my delight when this double-strength Berliner Weisse from Brew By Numbers greeted me as I opened the cardboard flap marked 11 this morning. It’s just unfortunate I appear to have drunk an awful lot of gin in the build-up.

Though I like to think I’m approaching this in the same spirit as I did the first time.

Beer: Brew By Numbers Double Strength Berliner Weisse
Strength: A doubly exciting 5.6%
Smell: A four-year old packet of candied lemons with an extra dose of sourness. It's like the thing is giving you a massive look of disapproval.
Tasting notes: As the strains of Elvis Costello's I Want You snarl out in the background, so does the bitterness of a million angry tears trickle insistently across the exposed cheeks of your palate. Then mustard attacks. Subtly at first, as if it's just teeing you up, then all of a sudden it's being tattooed on your tastebuds by a rank amateur stabbing at the ink of your flavour receptors. The rasping pain is a vacuum, making your entire mouth pucker and contract like it's been fanged by a vindictive cobra bent on murder or exposed to the emptiness of outer space. As you die a hideous death, the flavour flatlines; all ECG indicators null. Lifeless, numb, beaten. The only serum is yet more of the same.
Session factor: Utterly preposterous. If you've ever eaten an entire pack of Tangfastics in one sitting (and of course you have), you'll understand.
Arbitrary score: 12,914
Sponsor: Sam Carrington 

Wednesday 10 December 2014

The old and the new

Neu star: a creditable take
on an old style
Brought to you by Ian

Well, it was bound to happen given my advancing years and beer-addled brain. And so it has. On the day sponsored by Ian, I have Sam coming round to sample today's calendar beer with me.

Not that it's really an issue. But first of all, on behalf of Ian, I'd like to wish Anne Palionis a very happy 89th birthday. Hope you've had a lovely day. If I get anywhere near that age, I'll consider it good innings.

Fitting, then, that today's beer is an Alt Bier ('old beer'), a style that's been neglected for some time but appears to be undergoing something of a resurgence.

I first tried it some years ago while on a romantic trip to the Hanseatic port of Lübeck in northern Germany. To tell the truth, I didn't really care for it much – too malty and sweet for my tastes even then – but it provided a welcome alternative to the ubiquitous lager.

The trip itself was more memorable than the beer. Our Ryanair flight from Stansted took a heavy landing – I genuinely feared for my life – and the passengers burst into spontaneous applause when they realised they weren't going to die either.

We disembarked to discover Lübeck was experiencing something of a second Ice Age. I believe it was minus 10 degrees; so cold the river Trave had frozen over. Neither of us had bargained for this, though quite why given it was February on the Baltic is anyone's guess.

On arrival at the hotel, I discovered I had lost all capacity to speak German and made up something that I thought sounded vaguely like: “I have a reservation,” but probably came out as: “Who won the 1966 World Cup?” judging by the look the receptionist shot me.

By the time we'd checked into our room and put on enough clothes to deal with the freezing temperatures, all the restaurants had closed, so we sat in a bar drinking cold lager and eating pretzels.

The next day was even colder, so fittingly we argued about whether or not to visit the Thomas Mann museum or go on a river cruise. We eventually did both; neither was much good. Later that evening we had a stand-up row in a restaurant that was open and, for good measure, I ended up losing the hat I'd bought that day.

Thankfully, the remainder of the trip passed off relatively peacefully, till I realised I'd left my passport in the hotel room when we were halfway to the airport. Cue insane levels of hecticness and a huge amount of dirty looks headed my way from my then fiancée. Should have taken it as a sign of things to come, but sadly I failed to learn.

But back to the beer. I indulged again the next time I visited Germany, tucking into a fine example of Altbier in a wood-pannelled old man's pub just off the Reperbahn in Hamburg. The pub was dire, though, so we left to drink lager at the Pudel, a techno haus on the banks of the Elbe.

And now I'm presented with another opportunity to see whether I can handle the malt in the form of Orbit Beer's Neu offering (I see what they did there). I picked it out mainly due to its similarity to a Krautrock band and because it has a record centre emblem on the cap.

I expect it's a new take on an old style of beer, but what they can have done with it, I'm not sure. Fortunately, I have Sam to help me out with it should it prove too sickly.

Beer: Orbit Beers Neu Altbier
Strength: A half-hearted 4.7%
Smell: Watery bread and PVC loose-leafed folders
Tasting notes: What promised so much sweetness at the outset, like a great many things, ends up leaving a sour taste in the mouth and a general sensation of prolonged bitterness. Actually it's not that bad. I'm mildly surprised at the smokiness up front – didn't expect it to feel as if I'd put a fag out in it – but that offsets the cloying maltiness quite nicely. I've a feeling they've over-hopped it too as it's quite sharp around the edges, but that's no bad thing. I actually quite like what they've done with this – a much more interesting Altbier than I was expecting. Sam reckons it's a nicer version of Pelforth Brune and I can see what he means. It's certainly a lot nicer than the ones I had in Germany.
Session factor: Sam says he might stretch to two if there was nothing else at the bar. Like my 'romantic' trips to Lübeck, I'm tempted to leave it at one, but on reflection, I think I might want to go back for another taste.
Arbitrary score: 13,202
Sponsor: Ian