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What's new?

What's new?
Pledges for my new beer book - Miracle Brew - are now closed. Book is out 1st June and available for pre-order here.
I've been accused of attacking cask ale. Here's what I actually wrote - decide for yourselves.
News about my next books!

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Why do trumpets taste like hops?

Five years ago I read an article about a study at Heriot Watt university that had found different styles of music could 'improve' the flavour of wine. In a controlled experiment, wines paired with the 'right' style of music tasted 40-60% better than those paired with the 'wrong' style.

Obviously I stole the idea and applied it to beer. There's a broader range of styles and flavours to play with, and music and beer as I know them go together much better than music does with wine - both have a communality and approachability to them, with the option of going for more obscure, difficult stuff if you prefer.

I started having fun matching things by theme, season and mood, but also terroir, attitude and a slight smidgeon of taking the piss.

Eventually though, I was put in touch with neuroscientists who showed me there's much more to it than that. Neuroscience in its current form has been around for less than twenty years, because contemporary brain imaging technology, which shows us what bits of the brain light up in response to different stimuli, is very new. Incredibly, in the 21st century we are only just starting to figure our how the brain really works. And we're learning that there's much more to our so-called 'five senses' than previously thought. They overlap, support each other, and sometimes become confused or blurred. Unwittingly, I'm conducting experiments that are not too dissimilar to what's happening in the new field of neurogastronomy, or would be if I conducted them more carefully and with less mucking about.

This has set me off on an exploration of the senses and how the brain works. I never did any science subjects at school or college after the age of fourteen, and now I'm learning to love the laboratory all over again, reading up on everything from soundwaves and molecular gastronomy to the philosophy of aesthetics and the 'Proustian effect' of sense memory.

My talk on beer and music is sprouting all sorts of new tentacles. I rewrite it after every single show, taking on board what I've learned, bolting on new experiments, refining the pairings, polishing up the presentation, ditching the bits that don't work. Having gone from ditching most of the show each time and starting from scratch, it's now starting to feel pretty solid.

I've no idea where this will end up - as a book, radio show or event at the Edinburgh Fringe (all have been suggested to me) - but right now it's becoming one of my core obsessions. At the heart of it are six pairings of great beers with music tracks that I love. They go together in different ways had tell us different things about how we perceive the world around us.

Some audience members think the whole thing is rubbish. Others find it seismic in changing their perceptions. Some cynics are won over; some enthusiasts go away confused and unsure. Whatever happens, and however much you buy the central conceit, it's an enjoyable hour of great beer and great tunes, with added science, anecdote and trivia.

I'm doing my next event at Bristol Food Connections on Friday 2nd May, in front of a very special audience which you can be part of. Tickets are still available and are only £5 including beers.

The following week I'm repeating the event in London, at the Ivy House. This pub hit the headlines a couple of years ago when it was seemingly doomed to closure, but was saved when the community bought it. It's now a thriving craft beer-focused pub with a legendary musical heritage. I'm honoured to be be matching beer and music there on 8th May. Tickets have just gone on sale here.

Please come along and help me create a beer tasting event quite unlike any you've witnessed before.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014


In February I was in Chicago for the US Cider Conference. It was massively exciting, because craft cider in America is where craft beer was twenty years ago. It's impossible not to draw some parallels between the two drinks. 

Because of the way the two scenes have grown in the States - with all the energy and hunger of new discovery and a bold ambition to push flavour into new places that sometimes, just occasionally, outpaces the brewer/cidermaker's level of skill - they are much closer than they are in the UK. 

Sure, over here CAMRA represents both beer and cider to some extent, but at the craft end of things the two scenes seem quite separate - almost hostile to each other at times, as I have discovered since I began straddling both. 

In the US, craft beer and craft cider walk hand in hand to a much greater extent. Many ambitious young cidermakers have a craft brewing background. The growth of dry-hopped cider is only the most visible example of this. 

But cider still has a way to go, and that's what makes it so exciting. 

One session we had at the conference was titled "Defining cider style by flavour." It as based around this booklet:

by a guy called Dave Selden, who runs a beer blog and creates these stylish publications for a range of drinks. I enjoyed hanging out with Dave at the Cider Summit - a public event the day after CiderCon finished - talking among other things about how you define style.

This is something that obsesses Americans more than anyone else. In beer, before there was a debate about the definition of craft beer, there was a debate about beer styles that was just as tedious and pointless. I ridiculed it and said my final word on beer style back in 2010, but anyone who thinks there are nearly 200 different styles of beer (or is it even more now?) has far too much time on their hands.

On the other hand, I have to agree that cider needs more style definition than it currently has. The whole point of writing World's Best Cider was that no one had looked at cider from a global perspective before, comparing the different traditions that exist around the globe. With a few exceptions, everyone has been defining cider within their own cultural frame of reference. The good thing about the Americans getting involved is that they instinctively look everywhere they can for inspiration and education. America already has a better range of international ciders readily available in craft bars and good bottle shops than you'll find in any other country. A little bit of that rigorous analysis of style - not too much mind - might be very useful.

So back to the event where we were using Dave's new cider booklet to try to analyse style by flavour. 

It was an open session, with each table sharing several different ciders and trying to agree on what they were like. The booklet gave us a flavour wheel and a bunch of other classifications for pinning down what was in the bottle.

It was improvisational, spontaneous, and very enjoyable. One cider was described by one table as a 'porch' cider, because it was the kind of thing you wanted to drink on a rocking chair while watching the sunset. The guy from Angry Orchard was clearly miffed when few people agreed that the cider he had brought to show was 'French farmhouse' in style. (To me, it was nowhere near tannic enough and had a hint of Spanish-style sourness.)

The highlight of the session though was when we got to one table who, after some conversation, pronounced that this cider should be classed as 'Imperial', with little explanation as to why. Immediately, various other tables rolled their eyes, sniggered and said, "Huh, brewers!"

It was a perfect moment: highlighting the various different factions that exist within craft cider; craft brewers parodying themselves by showing how utterly meaningless the 'imperial' classification is when divorced from its context; and revealing that none of us really had a clue about what to call this decent, drinkable but unmemorable cider.

By the end of the session we had picked various faults in the tasting wheel (which can be easily fixed). We were no closer to a framework of cider style by flavour. I wasn't sure that Dave's approach was right, but the session had convinced me that my own attempt to devise a set of cider styles was hopelessly inadequate - a mishmash that defines some styles by their region of origin, others by production methods or ingredients, and still others by flavour.

Back to the drawing board for all of us then. But taxonomy has never been so much fun.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Barcelona II: This Time it's Sidra

Food of Los Dioses

Around the corner from La Cerveteca in Barcelona's Bari Gotic I stumble (literally) upon La Socarenna, a small bar built into an arch, offering productes asturias y catalans. They make cider in Asturias, and sure enough, the front window is piled high with thick green bottles. I go in.

An ancient transistor radio behind the bar gives football commentary that sounds like it's being broadcast by bees. A grey haired man outside on the step takes his time finishing his cigarette before slowly walking back in and heading behind the bar to serve me. There's one other customer standing at the bar.

I ask for sidra and there's one choice: Camin, a brand from Trabanco. Mainstream stuff as far as the Asturians are concerned, but a far cry from Bulmer's, Magner's or Woodchuck. It comes in 660ml bottles. The bartender pops the cork and hands me the bottle and a traditional sidra glass, thin and delicate with a wide mouth, perfect for 'throwing' the sidra in the traditional Asturian way. I order a bowl of cockles to go with it, and am in heaven.

The other guy at the bar is throwing his sidra properly. This is the Spanish tradition: sidra is flat and very acidic compared to other cider traditions. The idea is to throw the cider into the glass from a great height. It explodes onto the side of the thin glass, which sings with the impact. This aerates the cider, giving it a champagne-like moussy texture and softening the acidity to something pleasant. That's the first swig anyway - anything left in the glass after thirty seconds is poured away.

This means traditional sidra drinking is an active pursuit: small mouthfuls poured and drunk quickly, so you soon lose track of how fast you are drinking.

The floor of La Socarenna is tiled, and right at the foot of the bar there's a neat drainage channel. But this must be for show: it's perfectly dry, and the guy further down the bar has a black wooden bucket at his feet. He throws his sidra confidently from above his head, over the bucket, spilling a few drops.

I know how it should be done. I compromise, carefully pouring from about a foot over the glass. It's not a bad first effort.

The sidra tastes beautiful, more like the easy end of Somerset cider rather than the traditional ascetic Asturian liquid some cider makers insist is just vinegar. There's that lovely soft, woozy apple you get from scrumpy, and the acidity is perfect for me - enough to make your palate perk up without attacking it. Similarly, the farmyard notes are strong enough to suggest character, not so much that your palate is transported to the cowsheds.

Together with the cockles, it's perfect: seafood and clean, crisp acidity together are so simple yet so right. One urges you back to the other, until you're stabbing with your cocktail stick in a frenzy. As typical bar fayre, it beats the crap out of lager and crisps, and is no more expensive.

While I'm writing about drainage and buckets, three very heavily made up English girls stop to look at the menu outside. The surly barman is transformed, drifting over to the window with a big grin he has kept well hidden until now. The girls move on and the grin disappears. The other guy has finished his sidra and left. The barman goes back to conspicuously ignoring me, standing with his back to me, the only customer in the bar.

The sidra is 6% and it's doing its job well. Half a bottle in, from nowhere I'm completely pissed. And in my half-hearted, very English attempt at throwing my cider, I manage to pour it all over my notebook. My cover is blown. I've gone from 'Obviously I'm not from Asturias but I am aware of the tradition and I'm trying to demonstrate that even though I know I can't do it properly' to 'Basically, I'm just a twat.'

I now have about a quarter of my bottle left. Another couple arrive and order a bottle of Camin. A Spanish couple. They sit at a table and she throws the cider from about a foot over her glass, without spilling a drop. He pours his nervously, right over the top of the glass. They both look uncomfortable and transfer their attention to a bowl of olives. The methodical spearing of shiny green morsels is a skill they are both proficient in, and it becomes their entire world. Meanwhile I stand behind them, writing furiously in my sodden notebook at 11pm on a Saturday night, pretending to myself that I look inconspicuous.

It's brilliant that this sidra tradition exists, and that people are aware of it but have different levels of comfort with it, they're not quite sure about it. It feels more authentic somehow that something that is ruthlessly observed and policed.

I pour the last of my sidra timidly, like the guy at the table, neck it and make the universal sign for la cuenta, secretly pleased that my new notebook is now impregnated with smelly booze, and stagger, soused, into the night.