Cask Strength

I realise I’ve neglected this blog for a while – for various reasons but mainly because of the publication of my orthonym’s latest book, “Granny Griggs’s Pig and other tales”.

Thinking about beer this morning (I do tend to think about beer in the morning and drink it in the evening), it struck me that strong cask ales are becoming a rarity.

As I’ve probably said before, the strength of a beer is part of its character. Whilst there is nothing wrong with dark milds or pale hoppy ales at around 3.5% ABV – both can be admirably refreshing – certain styles of beer need that extra dose of alcohol to balance their full body and rich flavour. Indeed, body and strength are interrelated, both basically derived from the amount of malt used. (Yes, I know that’s an oversimplification and brewers can do clever things these days but I’m not into low/zero alcohol beer and suchlike).

In the “craft beer” world there are plenty of imperial stouts at around 10-11% ABV and double IPAs at 8-9% but these are invariably offered only in keg or canned format. When it comes to cask ales there seem to be very few over 5%. This wasn’t always the case, so what’s going on here? Some previously excellent beers have been emasculated – I’m thinking particularly of Young’s Winter Warmer which became literally a pale shadow of its former self a few years back. Others have just disappeared.

Is it that brewers have stopped producing them or that drinkers are less inclined to drink them and publicans are therefore wary of stocking them, given the limited shelf life of cask beer? Or both? Market forces being what they are, I suppose the latter would inevitably lead to the former.

I just looked up some strong ales I’ve enjoyed in the past. Owd Roger is now only available in bottles (and slightly reduced in strength at 7.4%). Likewise Old Tom. Exmoor Beast is apparently still in production, but I haven’t seen it for years. It’s been a long time since I visited the Sair Inn in Linthwaite, so I don’t know whether the formidable Enoch’s Hammer is still on tap.

You may wonder why I have such a strong preference for cask ale when many drinkers, including some highly respected beer writers, are unbothered by the method of dispense or even dismissive of the traditional hand-pumped or gravity dispensed pint. Well, the fact is that I like my beer to slip down easily; I actually dislike the prickly mouthfeel of carbonated beer. For that matter, I have long eschewed all manner of fizzy beverages, apart from tonic water suitably diluted with gin.

Last night I enjoyed three pints of Palmer’s Tally Ho! at my local. It probably won’t be on tonight and the next beer scheduled for that pump purports to be a “pale white chocolate stout” at 5.3%. I’ll try it of course but I’ll be pleasantly surprised if it’s any good.

Update – I tried the white chocolate stout and it’s not unpleasant, though possibly stretching the definition of stout somewhat. I could happily drink a small glass with, say, a slice of Bakewell tart – but it’s not a beer for drinking multiple pints of.

Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam

For almost as long as I can remember I have been wont to produce a quick mid-week supper consisting of sausages cooked in a garlicky, herby tomato and red wine sauce and usually served with pasta – or sometimes flatbread.

By sausages (in this context) I don’t mean British bangers but something of the densely textured, spicy continental variety. When I had access to an outstanding Italian deli, it used to be rosarios. Now it tends to be the Greek/Cypriot pastourma. But sometimes I have to resort to whatever is available.

The Turkish supermarket near my local (very convenient, especially when it’s time to go to the pub and I realise I haven’t yet made any provision for dinner) normally has pastourma plus numerous varieties of sucuk (which seems to be a generic Turkish word for sausages of any shape or form, although I’m given to understand that technically it’s a dry, spicy, fermented beef sausage). In another aisle are yet more sausagey things which are clearly of eastern European origin.

Whilst I’m always willing to try new foods, selecting one the myriad varieties of sausage on offer can be a bit of a gamble as there is little indication of the internal composition of the things, either from the exterior or the packaging (assuming I’ve brought my spectacles and the print is legible and at least partly in English, which it often isn’t). It’s not even obvious whether they are meant for cooking or ready to eat. I’ve tried asking the staff for advice but, helpful as they try to be, it usually transpires that their English is not up to discussing the nuances of sausagey textures and flavours.

And the outcome is, more often than not, disappointment, for it seems that the greater proportion of these cured meat products, whether of eastern European or Mediterranean origin, are decidedly spammy. That is to say they have the texture and flavour of that well-known brand of processed meat or its generic British equivalent, pork luncheon meat, rather than the dense granular texture and spicy/herby flavours that I’m looking for to complement my sauce.

So, it’s usually pastourma again – if they have any.

Cause for Concern

I was in my local on Friday evening and there were empty chairs. Likewise on Saturday. It used to be that Friday and Saturday evenings were the pub’s busiest times (probably for any pub) but, since the post-Covid resumption of trading, numbers have been significantly down.

Most of the “regulars” are there – indeed, on a Monday or Tuesday evening it’s pretty much like old times. The missing customers are for the most part the casual visitors and those who only showed up at weekends. Last night (Saturday) there was just one unfamiliar face among the clientele.

I have in the past written that Friday night is the worst possible time to go to the pub because it’s full of part-time drinkers, and I confess to having made disparaging remarks about such people on the grounds that they tend to be noisy, to obstruct the bar and take up an inordinate amount of the staff’s time with their fancy drink orders. But I have to admit that pubs need them. If it were not for their custom, the pub wouldn’t be there for us regulars to enjoy a quiet few pints on a Monday.

So why are they no longer turning up in droves? Clearly the pub isn’t as important a part of their lives as it is for those of us who are there nearly every day. If they’re still wary of social contact, they may well think a couple of drinks on Friday isn’t worth the risk while the virus is still at large. In which case, they may gradually drift back as things return to normal.

But what if they’ve found other things to do with their time? Or they’ve become accustomed to supermarket booze at half the price* of an over-taxed pub pint? If they’re not coming back, the pubs which managed to survive 18 months of lockdown alternating with severely restricted trading may still be in big trouble.

* That’s no exaggeration, in fact it’s a slight understatement. During lockdown I was buying supermarket beer – and decent stuff at that, like St Austell Proper Job or Adnams’ Ghost Ship – for as little as £1.50 a 500ml bottle (that’s almost a pint). The average pub price locally is around £4 a pint. And it’s not the fault of publicans or brewers. We have the third highest rate of beer duty in Europe – more than ten times the German rate.

Another Conundrum

Following my dissertation on the mechanics of pork pies last year, I’ve been pondering another conundrum.

Why, when you shake a few drops of Angostura bitters to prepare a pink gin, does the the first drop invariable overshoot the glass by a considerable margin? What causes it to emerge from the bottle on a totally different trajectory from the following drops, which just fall obediently into the glass.

And why does the same thing not happen with, say, Worcestershire Sauce, which comes in a similarly sized and shaped bottle?

I don’t know the answer yet but I’m thinking about it. Watch this space.

Thoughts From Another Dimension

Imagine a parallel universe, a world in which – as in our own universe – humans have for the most part been omnivorous throughout recorded history. However, there is a small but growing and increasingly vocal minority who for various reasons have committed themselves to only eating an animal-based diet. These people– let’s call them carnarians – are inclined to justify their choice on purportedly ethical grounds which may not always stand up to close scrutiny or extol the alleged health benefits of their diet despite evidence that some plant-based food might be good for them. The more outspoken of them may even be prone to lecturing others on the moral superiority of their lifestyle at the slightest provocation.

But here’s a curious thing. In this parallel world scientists have developed a potato substitute made entirely from meat which can be cut into strips and deep fried. Carnarians like to eat these with their steaks and burgers and refer to them as “carn chips” or “carn fries”. They may also have a side order of carnarian peas – little spheres of green-dyed chicken – or meat mushrooms. Perhaps they even wash it all down with a fermented animal secretion called carni-wine.

You’ve probably guessed where I’m coming from. In the real world, vegetarians have a tendency to describe plant-based dishes in terms which normally relate to animal-derived foods – veggie burgers, vegetarian sausages, vegan cheese, vegetable suet, almond milk etc. But why?

If people want to subsist on an entirely plant-based diet, I don’t have an issue with that. I’m not necessarily convinced by their arguments, but it’s their choice and it’s still (mostly) a free country. But why this compulsion to describe what they eat by reference to meat or dairy produce and even try to make it look and taste the same?

Is it because they – consciously or subconsciously – miss what they’ve chosen not to eat? It has been said that the smell of bacon is the thing most likely to cause vegetarians to waver in their convictions. Incidentally, I’ve never heard of “vegetarian bacon”; perhaps it would be too much of a temptation to return to the real thing.

Are they perhaps hoping by using these terms to persuade us carnivores to try the ersatz version? If so, it won’t work on me.

I read recently about a restaurant which claims to have produced the ultimate veggie burger. After hundreds of hours of research and experimentation they came up with a plant-based recipe which tastes exactly like – a Big Mac. Seriously! All that trouble to make a concoction of vegetables which were probably not unpleasant in their natural state taste like a mass-produced blob of mechanically recovered meat? I shake my head in bewilderment. Now if they’d managed to make it taste like a gourmet burger made from prime Wagyu beef, I might be prepared to give it a go but I rather doubt that would be possible.

And today my weekly email of recipe suggestions from OddBox* pointed me to a recipe for stuffed peppers. Of course, I have my own ideas for stuffing peppers, including wild rice and baby squid with the tentacles arranged like the Alien bursting forth from the hapless astronaut’s belly, but this was clearly a veggie recipe and specified vegan cheese. I must admit I’ve never tried vegan cheese. I would accept a morsel if offered it, if only to confirm my suspicions and because I’ve always poured scorn on those who claim to dislike a food without having tasted it, but I really can’t imagine it having the intense nutty flavour of a mature farmhouse Cheddar or the piquancy (let alone the variable texture) of a good Gorgonzola or the pungency of a ripe Epoisses.

Why try to turn food into something it’s not? I just don’t get it.

* In case you’ve never heard of OddBox, they’re a food rescue operation who supply their subscribers with weekly deliveries of fruit and vegetables which would otherwise go to waste due to cosmetic “defects” or over-production.

Some Thoughts About Beer

I’ve been thinking about a couple of beer related issues lately.

The first came up over a pint with Ben Viveur, who had been thinking along similar lines. We both agreed that most of the beers we like are either less than 4% ABV or over 5%. Those in the 4-5% range (and that’s probably a significant majority of British ales) we tend to find a bit lacklustre.

It’s no surprise when beers in the upper range are enjoyable. Greater strength generally goes with more body and more pronounced flavours. And they cover a variety of styles – IPAs, stouts and porters, old ales, barley wines – and that’s before we include Belgian dubbels and trippels, lambics, imperial stouts, Baltic porters and suchlike.

But I also enjoy some comparatively weak beers: milds, like Moorhouse’s Black Cat, and light hoppy ales like Dark Star Hophead or Oakham Citra.

What then is the problem with those in the middle? I admit it may be partly a question of taste (as in the preferences of one’s palate). My tastes have changed since I began drinking beer over 50 years ago and many of those beers are the type of traditional “bitter” that I cut my teeth on but now find overly sweet or bland. But I don’t think that’s entirely the answer. I’m inclined to believe that a lot of beers in that 4-5% range actually are rather poor quality. Though I now tend to eschew the traditional amber bitter, I don’t mind drinking a good example of the genre (e.g. West Berkshire Good Old Boy) occasionally, but most of them do very little for me.

And don’t get me started on those dreadful 4.5% Christmas specials with gimmicky names – as beer sommelier Sophie Atherton memorably put it a few years ago “with few exceptions they’re all turkeys”.

The other issue is related in a way. It seems to me that, while small “craft” brewers are producing all kinds of exciting new beers (and a few which stretch the definition of beer a little too far in my opinion), most of the long-established breweries are remarkably conservative in their offerings. When they do produce a new beer, it’s usually little more than a half-hearted attempt to embrace a new style.

Take for example Palmer’s Dorset Gold. Now, I have to say that I have a lot of time for Palmers of Bridport. I admire the way they’ve maintained their estate in west Dorset all these years without being taken over or getting too big for their boots. And I’m very partial to their strong dark ale Tally Ho!, which fortunately my local manages to stock on a fairly regular basis. With Dorset Gold, a newish addition to the portfolio, they had an opportunity to create a modern golden hoppy ale, but what they actually came up with (and I had a pint of it only yesterday) seems to me just a paler version of Palmer’s IPA*. And yes, it is 4.5%.

So why are established breweries reluctant to step out of their comfort zone? I appreciate that in many ways it’s easier for a small outfit to diversify and experiment. But most large breweries these days have a one or two barrel pilot plant where they can try out new ideas before putting the successful ones into mainstream production.

And another thing: when the big boys do come up with something a bit different, why is it so often only released in keg form? I’m looking at Fullers here – I’d love to see Black Cab and Wild River in cask again. It’s not only youngsters prepared to part with the best part of a tenner for a pint who enjoy drinking interesting beers.

* Which is of course nothing of the sort. The name, like Greene King IPA, is a hangover from last century when it was fashionable to call your best bitter “IPA”, even though it bore little resemblance to the original concept of “India Pale Ale” – a strong, hoppy beer designed to withstand the sea voyage to the subcontinent – or indeed the “real” IPAs being made today.

The Lives of Crustaceans

Today I made prawn sandwiches for lunch – mashed avocado spread on on slices of fresh corek, topped with handfuls of cold water prawns with a dash of lemon juice and a grinding of black pepper.

As I scattered the prawns, I was struck by the thought that each of those little pink things had been a creature with a life of its own, albeit probably a short and somewhat uneventful one.

And then I wondered whether whales ever have similar thoughts about the hundreds of thousands of krill they swallow every day.

Brewing in Space

The other evening Mrs QR and I were taking our post-prandial whisky and moaning about Lockdown and the associated tedium and lack of recreation which has become a feature of our daily lives. “Let’s get away from it all” said she, then added “Perhaps we could go to the space station”. “That might have its own drawbacks,” I mused “for a start, I doubt there’s much beer up there.” “Then we could set up the first brewery in space.”

I began to ponder this idea. Apart from the suspicion that it might not be high on NASA’s list of priorities, could it be a practical proposition? You’d have to ship quantities of malt and hops up there – perhaps Mr Musk could help with that – and you’d also need a fair amount of water, but I gather the space station is pretty efficient at recycling liquids so, once the operation was up and running, beer would be just another phase in the cycle.

The equipment might take up a bit of room. There would be a mash tun, a copper and a fermenting vessel and maybe, given the likely cosmopolitan tastes of astronauts, a lagering tank. I could foresee some objections from more abstemious scientists about such things competing for space and resources with their precious experiments, but maybe some ingenious brewing technologist could design a super-compact brewing plant with minimal footprint which cleverly combined all the above.

As for the brewing process, the initial stages shouldn’t present too many problems; it’s at the fermentation stage where things get interesting. As we all know, there are basically two types of brewing yeast: “top fermenting”, the vigorous strain used for making ale, and “bottom fermenting”, the more lethargic beast used in lager production. Without gravity to distinguish between the top and bottom of the vessel, might the yeast become disorientated, perhaps even suffer an identity crisis?

OK, let’s suppose the brewers develop a new, robust strain of yeast unbothered by such technicalities, the next issue is carbon dioxide. Fermentation produces a lot of CO2 as a by-product. Normally it just bubbles to the surface and is dispersed into the air, but that won’t do in space. Firstly the fermentation vat would have to be completely enclosed – you can’t have globules of partially-fermented wort escaping and floating around randomly, so you’d need some kind of semi-permeable membrane to allow the gas to escape while retaining the liquid. And it wouldn’t do to simply release the CO2 into the air – in the confines of the space station it might seriously alter the composition of the atmosphere with potentially disastrous results, so you’d have to pipe it to the exterior and discharge it through a one-way valve.

But therein lies another problem. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, so releasing a stream of gas from a vent in its side could subtly drive the space station off-course. It’s probably not a major problem though. I’m sure the station’s computers could monitor the drift and instigate a compensatory thrust now and then.

In other circumstances the effect could even be used to advantage. Just imagine, on a long voyage to Mars or beyond, a spaceship’s onboard brewery could provide additional propulsion as well as keeping the crew happy. Who needs ion drive?

Have I just come up with a stroke of genius? I think I’ll write to NASA today!

Meat Counter Mentality

A couple of months ago my esteemed butcher announced that he was retiring. I wished him well of course and was somewhat relieved to hear that he was selling the business as a going concern, but good traditional butchers are a rare breed these days so I was naturally apprehensive about what this might mean for my future meat buying activities.

The shop reopened this week, having been closed for refurbishment for over a month. In the meantime, a new butcher had opened a bit closer to home so of course I had to check that out.

There seems to be a growing, and to my mind unwelcome, trend for butchers to sell pre-cut and packaged meat. This was particularly evident in the brand-new establishment and to a lesser extent in the reopened one. I say unwelcome because I like the sort of butcher who, if I ask for a joint of pork, will bring out half a pig and say “Which bit would you like?” (OK, that’s a slight exaggeration, although it did actually happen when I visited a butcher in Penkridge whilst on a narrowboat holiday a few years ago).

I find myself pondering the reasons behind this new trend. Is it something to do with (regulations concerning or changing public perceptions regarding) food hygiene? Have customers become so accustomed to picking up plastic trays of meat in supermarkets that they think of it as normal? Are they so squeamish that they prefer not to witness the act of butchery? Or do they perhaps lack the vocabulary to articulate their requirements to a real butcher? (How many people nowadays know what hand and spring, a chump end or a Barnsley chop is?)

Whatever the reasons, I don’t like it. Not only does it tend to produce more unnecessary packaging which is bad for the environment (particularly non-recyclable polystyrene trays), but it restricts choice and it surely can’t be in the best interests of the business, except perhaps at unduly busy times. So why are so many butchers succumbing to the meat counter mentality?

As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog, by keeping a carcase largely intact up to the point of sale, the traditional butcher is keeping his – and his customers’ – options open. A whole loin of pork can potentially become a few roasting joints or a lot of chops or a mixture of the two. A sirloin of beef can similarly become several joints or a selection of steaks. But once bits of meat have been sliced up, boned (as they almost invariably are*) and wrapped in plastic there’s nothing the butcher can do except hope to sell them before their sell-by date.

And what happens to the bits that don’t make it into the plastic trays? I’m a great believer in “nose to tail” eating. If we’re going to eat animals, we have a duty not only to treat them humanely and ensure they have as natural a life as possible but to use all the edible parts, not just the most succulent or those that are least reminiscent of their origin when wrapped in plastic. Which reminds me – I must put the new butcher to the test by asking for a pig’s head and some sweetbreads.

* That’s another gripe – I like my joint, whether it be rib of beef, loin of pork or shoulder of lamb, on the bone. Not only does it tend to have more flavour but I then have bones from which to make stock (which normally ends up being reunited with any meat that’s left after the roast and the cold cuts to form an unctuous broth for a mid-week supper).

[Update – The new proprietor actually did the “half a pig” thing when I went in for my joint of pork the other week. I’m definitely warming to him.]