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New York Stories

November 11, 2010 2 comments

On Saturday morning I’m going to New York.  This might seem pathetic but, at 30 years old, it will be the first time I’ve left Europe.  When I was a kid I wanted to go to New York because it was where Spider-Man and the Ghostbusters lived.  I kind of still do.

But I’m also very excited about the beers.  When I tell normal people that I’m looking forward to trying lots of great beers in New York, they look at me oddly.  But since (repeatedly) going to North Bar’s North American Beer Festival and exploring the range of American beers in Beer Ritz, it’s been clear that America is the most exciting place in the world for beer.  It seems equally clear that the influence of American craft brewers has greatly contributed to the revitalisation of the British beer industry and to those beers that have sparked my enthusiasm for it all.

So I’ve been reading Lew Bryson’s New York Breweries and Andy Crouch’s beautiful book Great American Craft Beer.  I was keenly interested in Richard Burhouse and Pete Brown’s blog entries on drinking in New York.

I’ve discovered that, purely by chance, our hotel is only a couple of blocks’ (Blocks! Get me!) walk from The Ginger Man, Cask Bar + Kitchen and Rattle ‘n’ Hum.  Moreover, Rattle N Hum has offers on Stone Arrogant Bastard, Double Bastard and Lucky Bastard all week.  I don’t want to go completely mad and spend our entire holiday schlepping half-cut from bar to bar, but other options further afield I’ve considered are Blind Tiger; Mugs Ale House, Brooklyn Brewery and Barcade.

I don’t even want to get started on the beers I want to try, but I’ll be keeping a keen eye out for all the Brooklyn Brewery beers I haven’t tried, especially Brooklyn Winter Ale (recently reviewed by Leigh, with a lovely label) and also Bear Republic’s Racer 5 (recommended by Richard of MyBreweryTap, as well as Andy Crouch and many others).

So that’s what I’m most excited about.  Anywhere else I must go or beers I must drink?  Anything I’ve mentioned that’s not really worth it?

The Guinness “Surger”

October 27, 2010 2 comments

For reasons which I shall go into at length in future posts, Guinness is an important beer to me, in a way that isn’t necessarily connected to how good it is.  However, I do also think that it’s a good, comforting beer and in those (thankfully increasingly limited) number of places that I end up in with work or friends that has no cask beers, no interesting bottles and otherwise only lagers on tap, I’ll usually have a Guinness.

If you go to the Guinness visitor’s centre and read between the lines, you’ll quickly realise that Guinness has been brilliantly marketed over the years, going back to the 1920s at the very least.  However it does make the occasional misstep, usually when it tries to be innovative or expand its range.  These are rarely horrible disasters, but always seem short-lived and are presumably commercial failures (see Guinness Red).

The most successful Guinness innovation in my memory has been the widgeted can.  Guinness developed the widget technology, launched it in 1989 and improved on it with the floating widget in 1997.  It was an clever, scientific solution to the problem that draught* Guinness (i.e. the nitrokegged version which has been on bars since 1964) seemed like a very different drink to the original “fizzy” Guinness available in bottles or cans.

As an aside: I think my tastes may be changing as I learn more about beer.  I might sit down soon and compare widgeted and unwidgeted canned Guinness.  I suspect I might start to prefer the latter as I always remember it having a stronger flavour and being much less creamy, which put me off when I was younger.

However this does create a problem when there’s no Guinness on tap but you want to sell it from pub fridges.  We don’t seem to like cans in pubs.  I don’t know if they seem cheap, or perhaps fail to fit into the pub experience.  I’ve caught a little bit of the current debate about American craft brewers using cans and it possibly being the way of the future.  However I would say that, in my experience, beer out of a can always tastes slightly of the can.

Diageo’s (Guinness’ parent company) previous solution to this has been to sell widgeted bottles.  I don’t really know what to do with one of them: they’re covered in opaque plastic and usually presented without a glass, so you can’t see the beer.  Then you end up drinking from a glass bottle with a plastic widget (which is larger than the neck of the bottle) floating in it like a ping pong ball. 

A can of “draught Guinness” and a pint glass is a more appealling solution to me, as at least you can see it settle.  Diageo appreciate that the visual experience of a draught Guinness settling is something that is part of the attraction.  Which has resulted in a new and peculiar delivery technique which I’ve started to see in pubs: the “surger”.

A couple of months ago I went into the Lazy Lounge (Wellington Street, Leeds) with work colleagues and saw that, contrary to my expectations, they had Guinness on the bar.  I ordered it, except what appeared to be a Guinness tap actually turned out to be a “surger” point.  The barman went to the fridge and pulled out a slightly unusual can of Guinness and poured some flat black liquid into a smaller-than-pint glass.  He then put the glass of flat black liquid on a metal disc on the surger point.  Ultrasonic waves passed through the glass and suddenly the usual cloudiness and creamy head started to appear.

Except… when I tried it, it tasted exactly like widget-canned Guinness: mainly like draught Guinness, but a bit tinny.  Moreover, I felt I’d been cheated, as the thing on the bar looked like a tap from where I was standing.  I can see the point of the system in that it adds a bit of a show to ordering a can of Guinness and gets a lit-up bit of black plastic that says “Guinness” on the bar, in the customer’s face.   But frankly it just seems like an uneccessary piece of faffing – smoke and mirrors which doesn’t improve the beer in any way.

This Morning Advertiser article says that the that the Guinness surger was originally sold as a home device a few years ago but – and this is a wonderfully dry piece of journalism – “was dropped following ‘borderline’ success.”   Following success in bars in the Asian market, it’s apparently going to be rolled out more widely in the UK to many more pubs that don’t have room for Guinness in the cellar. 

As Tom Waits said:

I got the style but not the grace,
I got the clothes but not the face,
I got the bread but not the butter,
I got the window but not the shutter,
But I’m big in Japan, I’m big in Japan…

* Here’s where I show my ignorance: is it draught or draft?  Is this an American English/British English thing?  I’ve been trying but can’t identify consistent usage on either side. Guinness themselves use “draught”, albeit to refer to something which isn’t.

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