The Seeking and The Stories

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In two weeks time, I’ll be in Dublin for the European Beer Bloggers Conference 2014. In fact, two weeks from when this post goes up, I’ll probably be cursing the name of Reuben Gray for hosting the Thursday night pub crawl and trying to unstick my eyelids, use rudimentary tools, make trousers work etc. Just you watch.

Edinburgh doesn’t know what to do with all this heat. Huge pockets of it are trapped in the cellar-like bars and cavernous pubs where folk would normally be taking refuge from the cold. Beer has been imbibed in ferocious and yet responsible quantities – a half here, a half there, sensory product and all that, yet consumed solidly all day. Now it’s starting to weigh us down, soaking through our skins and moistening our foreheads. It’s gone from being the fuel to our fire to the ballast against our senses. What do we do now, with such parched palates and beer-filled bellies? Gin, comes the answer from somewhere, a voice clear in tone and purpose. Gin.

It’s been a big year for me since the last EBBC – a year packed with opportunities – and I feel I’ve really ‘levelled up’ as a beer writer since that balmy weekend in Edinburgh a year ago. Once again, I’m pondering what I hope to experience at the EBBC. As beer gets better and the brewers increase in number, the world seems to gets smaller. So small, in fact, it could fit into a pint glass. Or should that be a third? Whilst it’s no International Conference by any stretch, the European Beer Bloggers Conference has a sense of community that beats our regular virtual interactions on Twitter and the like. Sharing a few glasses of world-class beer with seasoned companions in a foreign city is enough to get me onto a plane to pretty much anywhere.

Of course, there’s something about that word ‘Conference’ which implies a lot of dry content and classroom instruction. There’s a fair bit of sitting down and listening, certainly, but one’s experience of an event like the EBBC is very much self-determined. You get out what you put in. There’s plenty of interesting content in the programme this year, some great evenings with top brewers, and I’m really looking forward to finding out more about the beer scene in Ireland – a country so close and yet its beer scene feels so disconnected from the one on this side of the Irish Sea. The Scottish beer scene blew me away last July, and I’m hoping for a similar epiphany in Dublin.

You can’t take that in there. You just can’t. They’ll get angry. Put it down.

I’m convinced that the Shawarma takeaway is an unsuitable place to take a glass of Bourbon Barrel-aged Bearded Lady. I’m trying to explain this to a companion. It’s clear that he couldn’t bear to part with it at the pub, of that much I am certain. But more importantly: where is *my* glass of BBBL?

There’s another reason I’m so looking forward to Dublin. You see, long before I was a craft wanker, I was a Guinness wanker. Before I’d tasted Sierra Nevada or Jaipur or Punk IPA, I was very much a stout man. I grew up in Grimsby, a place where it’s still difficult to find well-kept real ale, never mind any other sort of craft beer, beyond the Wetherspoons. In my early drinking days I drank Grolsch because I knew it was somehow better than Carling, and I eventually moved to Guinness in a conscious effort to seek out different things and, if I’m completely honest, appear marginally more sophisticated. I went to university in Leeds in 2004, when West Yorkshire’s microbrewery boom was in full force. I tried a lot of different beers, and my tastes become more diverse and esoteric. I enjoyed tasting new beers, finding them, and learning the stories behind them.

Still, I would occasionally enjoy a pint of draught Guinness. Aside from the beer, I loved the branding, the history, the stories, those toucans (I still have ‘flying duck’-style Guinness toucans on the wall of my lounge). After time, travel and further exploration of the world of beer in those 10 intervening years (bloody hell I exclaim as I type that), only Guinness Foreign Extra Stout still gives me pleasure as a fully fledged beer nut/geek/wanker/obsessive.

The last time I was in Dublin was 2008, when I was still relatively fond of Guinness, and visiting St James’s Gate was a fantastic experience. Looking back, I can see a lot of things I would question, or even outright dislike, but there was still a real sense of Guinness there, whatever that is. I still have (and use) the keyring bottle opener from that 2008 trip. It’s opened a lot of great beers over the years and I’ve not come across a better bottle opener since, regardless of how ‘craft’ the beer emblazoned on it might be. My affection for Guinness itself hasn’t lasted quite as well, but FES still plucks several good notes whenever I return to it. So when I return to Dublin and visit St James’s Gate, I’ll be seeking that same sense of something historic, the story of something important. What I really want is that energising feeling I got from last year’s EBBC.

As I stand, beer in hand, at the front of Stewart Brewing outside of Edinburgh, I’m reminded of the opening line of Neuromancer: ‘The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.’ Only in this case, the sky at dusk is hitting a deep, flawless blue just a few shades darker than the Blue Screen of Death. It’s an ominous sign, but the night is too beautiful to see any darkness in it. The talk is also of a science-fiction theme: Blade Runner, then other things; among them the consumption of milk thistle, keeping up this lifestyle, being a craft wanker, topics flowing into and through each other, a sort of sparge if you will, rinsing the laughs and moments of significance out of the seemingly everlasting grains of the day. At a natural lull, we turn back towards the brewery. There are new beers to seek, friends to make, discoveries and moments and stories. We return.

The seeking is what I’m in this game for. It’s not the ‘ticking’, or even the choosing. The search, and that will to seek, to find, and to taste, is what this is all about. I’m in it for the stories too, because I’m a writer and beer is stories; because, when the weekend is over, the hangover sets in and the plane lifts off, the stories are what sustain you. They make it all mean something.

I’m going to Dublin in a couple of weeks for a few stories. I hope to see some of you there.

#EBBC13 – What did we learn?

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Attending the European Beer Bloggers Conference this year filled me with excellent beer and information. Well, mostly beer.

As covered in my past posts and on the unofficial Live Blog, it was a wide-ranging event that covered a lot of topics, each resulting in a lot of discussion. As bloggers and beer drinkers, what did we learn from this raucous, information-packed weekend of beer?

I learned that:

  • Edinburgh has interesting and unusual beer taps. Whether they’re the tall, brass examples with horizontally-twisting tap handles, shining chrome arrays of sleek modern taps, or wooden handpulls carved into the shape of bats, this city has some excellent species of beer dispense.
  • We must learn to laugh at ourselves, or everyone else will. “Was this contract brewed? I think I can smell the contract…”
  • “Beer is people.” Not tanks or pipes or ingredients, but the people who make it.
  • Garrett Oliver once took The Ramones bowling. Wow.
  • The people at Stewart Brewing are Good People… who will let you wander around their brewery, manhandle sacks of hops, and shove your face into open fermenting vessels. They even collaborate with Herriot & Watt brewing graduates.
  • Garrett Oliver’s hat is almost as much of a star as he is.
  • In America, there are some crazy new laws about blogging, meaning compulsory disclosures of anything you have been gifted, or you may end up in court!
  • Nobody could agree on the best beer and food matches, and after lengthy discussion, we decided that nobody necessarily should agree, either. The job of Beer Sommeliers, Cicerones, or whatever we choose to become, should be to guide, not instruct.
  • There’s a shortage of wood to age beer in. Beer could change to reflect that, too. If the amount of aged whisky barrels runs out, we could see new beer styles being used for less used barrels like wine, tequila or cognac.
  • We should think about whether we write what we want to write, or what our audience want to read.
  • You should always have a face that people can click on. At least, if you want your articles to more read if they appear in Google searches.
  • BrewDog have social media nailed down to the ground, and we can all use it to our advantage.
  • We are divided in our motives. Whilst some wish to make a living from their writing, others are perfectly happy to blog for the love of blogging. In Europe at least, we are still mainly what the US would call ‘citizen beer bloggers’.
  • A beer aged in a 40 year old sherry cask that last contained a 30 year old Highland Park whisky tastes as good as you’d think it would, especially when its made by Harviestoun.
  • Fraoch is best enjoyed with haggis. The floral, spicy notes of the heather ale blend so neatly and excitingly with the richly seasoned, savoury flavour of haggis that you will swear they were made for each other.
  • Finally, there is a bright, shiny future full of people writing excellent things about excellent beer.

What things did you learn from EBBC13?

#EBBC13 – Day 2 Highlights

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Read the highlights of EBBC Day 1 here.

The second day of the European Beer Bloggers Conference 2013 had a packed agenda, and featured really useful and insightful talks from some of the leading lights of beer writing. There was also the extremely exciting Live Beer Blogging event, which saw some incredible beers being poured. Below is a recap of what happened with some photos from the various sessions. As ever, you can read the in-depth coverage of EBBC13 on the Live Blog written by Sam Parker and I, built by John Read.

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Beer Blogging Around the Globe

The day opened with a panel of beer bloggers from Ireland, Poland, Norway and the USA discussing the challenges of beer blogging in their respective countries. There was really interesting explanations of the various legal difficulties that have recently cropped up in the US, such as disclosing whether samples were sent to you by breweries. This was met with what Craig Heap described as a ‘very British, quiet outrage’. Meanwhile, in Norway, brewers aren’t even allowed to use promotional images on their websites! There was an overall positive feeling to the discussion, as each panellist set out what they were most looking forward to in the future. I covered the panel’s discussion on the live blog here.

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Drinks Writing – When Every Word Counts

Susanna Forbes of DrinkBritain.com gave us some in-depth and detailed advice on improving our writing and our blogs’ effectiveness. There was really great information here, and I understand that Susannah’s presentation will be uploaded to the EBBC website for us all to enjoy. Sam covered Susannah’s talk in detail here on the live blog.

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BrewDog does Social Media

BrewDog’s in-house social media and marketing specialist Sarah Warman, formerly of agency Manifest, gave a really insightful and useful talk on the effective use of social media. We saw BrewDog’s strategy and the social media platforms they use, and Sarah was very good at identifying what works for BrewDog, and what might work for bloggers like us. Some of us even signed up to new platforms there and then! Read my live blog of Sarah’s presentation here.

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Becoming a Beer Sommelier

Beer Sommelier Sophie Atherton (whose blog is A FemAle View) hosted a double-edged talk, first discussing what a Beer Sommelier is and how it has benefited her career, and secondly hosting a beer and food matching event. There was a simple yet wonderful selection of charcuterie and cheeses provided by Vintage in Leith, and we were encouraged to find the best beer matches ourselves. The beers were the crisp and fruity Sixpenny IPA, Fuller’s classy Black Cab stout, and a slightly lifeless mini-cask of Adnams Broadside. Many noted that it was hard to find ‘excellent’ matches. However, a really interesting discussion then ensued about how all of our many different opinions prove the subjective nature of food and beer matching. Sam Parker covered the session on the live blog here.

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Live Beer Blogging

Beers from Traquair, Shepherd Neame, Inveralmond, West, Ilkley, Badger, Harviestoun, Innis & Gunn and Birra Toccalmatto were tasted, with bloggers posting and sharing their thoughts live. Sam Parker and I used our live blog to share our thoughts in real time. See the results here.

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Ilkley’s The Mayan (as modelled by Leigh Linley)

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Inveralmond Blackfriar

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Traquair Jacobite Ale

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Badger Roaming Roy Dog

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Harviestoun Ola Dubh 30th Anniversary edition (in 40 year old whisky cask, last containing 30 year old Highland Park)

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Toccalmatto Surfing Hop

Dinner provided by Williams Bros and Fyne Ales

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 Arguably the highlight of the weekend, the final dinner saw Williams Brothers and Fyne Ales go head-to-head at a sumptuous beer and food banquet. This was a non-stop delight. The starte of haggis, neeps and tatties was served with a whisky and peppercorn sauce, with matched sensationally with Williams’ Fraoch Pictish heather ale. The spicyness in both the beer and food met halfway, bridging the savoury haggis, sweet suede and potato with the soft, rounded herbal flavours in the beer. The Sanda Blonde from Fyne was too bright and citrusy to match this meal, but it did serve quite nicely as a palate cleanser or, as Gavin Frost put it, an amuse-bouche.

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The main course was double-whammy of chicken stuffed with black pudding, alongside sea bass and a sweet potato fondant. I wasn’t sure what the sauce was that came with this meal, but it was wonderfully savoury. The chicken was a little dry, but the sea bass was delicious, and went incredibly well with Fyne Ales crisp, hoppy, citric and sweet golden ale Jarl. Williams’ Citra Sitka was also served with the main course, but went best with the sweet potato fondant, where the sweetness in each boosted and the enhanced each other.

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Last but not least, for dessert we were served a traditional Scottish Cranachan, which was basically half a pint of clotted cream with raspberries, heather honey and whisky. Ours didn’t seem to have much of whisky character to it, but there was TONNES of cream, which is good if you like cream. The shortbread biscuits tasted a bit cheap, but it was overall a very indulgent dessert. For this we were served Stravaigin, a collaboration brewed saison/blonde ale from Williams and Stillwater, and Fyne Ales Superior IPA. The Stravaigin was a nice match, cutting through the cream and enhancing the fruitier aspects of the dessert. The Superior IPA didn’t really match at all, being way to overpoweringly hopped. It was just fine on its own as an after-dinner aperitif. As a competition, I think it was a score draw between Williams and Fyne. A great evening.

Afterwards, many bloggers headed back out into Edinburgh, and found themselves in the favourite venue of the weekend – the Hanging Bat (also now known as the Banging Hat). It’s a fantastic bar that any beer (or indeed gin) geek should visit. It was unseasonably hot in there, but I think all who visited the Hanging Bat would agree it captures Edinburgh beer-loving, party-hard spirit perfectly.

Cheers!

Next time in The Beer Diary – What did EBBC13 all mean, and what did we learn about the future of beer blogging in the UK and Europe?

#EBBC13 – Day 1 Highlights

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The first day of EBBC13 has been an intensive combination of sampling, absorbing information and talking to some of the world’s best brewers. So far it’s been a fantastic experience, and deeply useful to me as a writer and blogger,

Below are my brief thoughts on the main events of the first day of the conference…

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Keynote Speech (Garrett Oliver)

Garrett Oliver was his customary, affable, genial self. He dispensed anecdotes, philosophy, business advice and stories with ease, though the US craft brewing industry’s biggest star may have been overshadowed by his own hat. You can read a full live blog of Garrett’s speech here.

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Scottish Brewing History (John Martin)

John Martin, of the Scottish Brewing Archive Association, gave a wide-ranging talk on beer in Scotland. Unfortunately, the talk have been a little too wide-ranging, leaping from one topic to the next with barely a breath, but it still provided a massive amount of information to bloggers hungry (or thirsty) for Scottish brewing knowledge. Read Sam Parker’s live blog here.

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Whisky barrel aged beers talk by Stuart Cail (Harviestoun)

Stuart gave a great talk on the fine art of barrel aged beers. Given Harviestoun’s excellent reputation in this area (Old Engine, Ola Dubh, Engineer’s Reserve, all of which we got to sample), Stuart was the ideal host to guide us through the minutiae of this exacting and specialist aspect of craft brewing. Our live blog of Stuart’s talk is here.

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Pilsner Urquell Dinner

We were also treated to a very exciting dinner in the Edinburgh Council Chambers from Pilsner Urquell, who laid on several wooden casks of unfiltered pilsner for our delectation. Head brewer Vasclav hammered each cask himself, and poured foaming handled mugs of pilsner for all to wash down delicious meals of beef, salmon and dessert of strawberry shortbread. A grand meal in opulent settings, enhanced by the exquisite unfiltered lager.

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Stewart Brewing

The evening was capped off by a marvellous visit to Stewart Brewing, a forward thinking beer operation on the outskirts of Edinburgh, where bloggers were treated to collaboration beers between the brewery and Herriot and Watt students in the form of Natural Selection Brewing Co. The Darwin saison (featuring the Hop Beard Darwin logo as tattooed below) was bold and defined by its Belgian yeast. A favourite of several bloggers was the Radical Road Triple Hop IPA, which was absolutely bursting with clean, sharp, tropical fruit. As a growing brewer, it was great to be able to see the various stages of Stewart Brewing’s development, and the different brewing equipment they have used and evolved with. A great night had by all.

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Read the highlights of EBBC Day 2 here.