Advice for St. Patrick’s Day

Okay, so evidently St. Patrick’s Day isn’t just a day this year; it’s a whole friggin’ weekend. Which means that the madness and mayhem will commence tomorrow.

While I’ll personally be laying low this year, as I do around March 17 every year, many others will be running riot over the next four days, drinking beer and whiskey that they seldom if ever otherwise drink, calling anything that’s green “Irish,” including bog-standard lager dyed with food colouring, and generally using the feast day of an Irish saint as an excuse to get plastered. Which is fine.

But if you’re going to “do” St. Patrick’s Day, at least do it right! Which means paying at least a bit of attention to the following:

1) If you must shorten the name, repeat after me, St. Paddy’s Day. Not St. Patty’s Day or plain Patty’s Day. “St. Paddy’s Day.”

2) There are many more Irish whiskeys out there than just Jameson. Try one or two. You might just find yourself drinking Irish whiskey more than just once a year.

3) What I said above about whiskey? It applies equally to Irish stout.

4) If you must do shots — and on a day that is sure to be filled with drinking, I would counsel strongly against them —  limit yourself to just one or two. Five or six or more whiskey shots is a sure-fire route to drunkenness and eventual spewing.

5) Wear green, wear funny badges, wear silly hats if you wish, but accept that you are not, in fact, Irish. Not for a day or for a minute. (Unless, of course, you really are Irish.)

6) A cocktail made with crème de menthe is not by definition Irish. Neither is one made with Midori.

7) Imperial stout is not a beer built for all-day drinking.

8) The green-dye-in-lager thing? It shouldn’t need saying, but I’ll say it anyway: Just. Don’t.

9) Lining up to get into a bar is stupid. If there is a line-up, go somewhere else for a drink or two and return later to see if the line-up has dissipated. If it has not, just accept that it was never meant to be.. (The sole exception to this rule is when the line-up is covered, heated and licensed.)

10) That “Kiss me, I’m Irish” shirt? Leave it at home.

In Praise of Light Beer

No, silly, I don’t mean that kind of light beer, the “lite” sort of stuff. Rather, I come to sing the praises of simple 4% alcohol ale, what Lew Bryson has been championing as session beer and others have been alternately glorifying and vilifying.

Even more precisely, and at the same time more generally, I want to talk about the pint of Harviestoun Natural Blonde I enjoyed at the Tennents Bar in Glasgow just a shade over a week ago.

Before I begin, however, I should mention a couple of things. First off, what I remember of that fine pint of cask-conditioned ale is precisely that, what I remember. I had just come from a rather large dinner at an Indian restaurant and as such my palate was in less than fine fettle, so no written notes were made. And secondly, although I believe that the Summer Blonde to indeed be a very lovely ale, in this instance I see it as more a composite of many such ales on cask in pubs across the United Kingdom.

Now, back to that pint. It was, as its name suggests, blonde of hue. It had a bracing and refreshing, even stomach-settling, twang of American hops in its aroma and flavour, hops I later discovered – thanks to Harviestoun’s annoyingly slow-moving website – to be Cascades, although I would have guessed as much. It had a lightness of character that suited it equally to the consumption of several pints over the course of an afternoon or evening and the slaking of a pepper-and-salt-induced after-dinner thirst.

It was, in summation, the ideal beer for the moment. And for me, it proved several pints points.

First and most obvious of these is that it is entirely possible to make great-tasting, characterful beer at 4% alcohol by volume. Hell, it’s possible to do so at even lower levels of strength, although it probably gets quite tricky below, say, 3.2% or so. This is not to say that such beers are the be-all and end-all, or that they are what I want to drink all the time, but I’m happier knowing that they do exist.

(I knew this before, of course, from many trips to the U.K. and more than a few pints and half-litres of lower strength ales and lagers, but it’s nice to have that moment of pure clarity from time to time.)

Point number two is that British brewers tend to use American hops in cask-conditioned ales more effectively than do American brewers. This only makes sense, as they have more experience with creating cask-conditioned beers of all stripes, but it also reinforces the relative novelty of such ales on North American shores and their – again, relative – newness to brewers on this side of the proverbial pond. Nothing wrong with keg beers, says I, or the fact that it serves many North American ales much better than does cask.

Finally, and on a very much related note, the Natural Blonde reminded me that Cascade and other C-hop varieties work so well over here in part because of the quenching nature of their citrusy character. A well-Cascade-hopped ale can be a most a refreshing animal, whether poured from the keg or cask, and when the temperature soars well above normal Scottish or Yorkshire summer levels, or the three-pepper-symbol curry was the choice for dinner, that quality is very much appreciated.

Grant’s True Tales in Toronto

I attended a media edition of Grant’s True Tales over the winter in Toronto and have to say it was a pretty enjoyable night. Now, if you’re in the Toronto area over the course of April, you have the chance to experience it, too.

Here’s the skinny, straight from the press release:

Grant’s True Tales provides an antidote to our frenetic, 24-hour way of life, by bringing people together and connecting them through the ancient art of storytelling. Sharing personal experiences with close friends, family, and work colleagues is what True Tales is all about.

The theme for this round of storytelling is “family,” and you won’t be telling tales purely for fun, either. One person from Canada will be crowned our national champion and taken to Scotland in August to compete in the Grant’s True Tales Festival of Storytelling, part of The Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Grant’s True Tales will take place every Wednesday and Thursday evening in April, at The Brazen Head on Wednesdays and The Bedford Academy on Thursdays.

Gift Idea #4: Craft Beers of the Pacific Northwest

One more book, folks, and it’s a good one!

I’ve been friends with Lisa Morrison, author of Craft Beers of the Pacific Northwest, for many years and have been anxiously awaiting her literary debut for most of that time. Thankfully she doesn’t disappoint. CBPN, as we will henceforth refer to this paperback, is an engaging trip from south Oregon through Washington state and across the border into British Columbia. It’s a beery wonderland and Morrison is a most adept guide.

Much like Max Bahnson’s Prague guide, which you might also like to get, Morrison’s…okay, I’m going to get all unjournalistic here and call her Lisa…Lisa’s approach is to put together pub crawls, within cities, between towns and along highways and coastlines. It’s the way most serious beer travellers plan their trips and makes sense in the vast majority of instances. (In BC, Lisa somehow manages to include Surrey’s Central City Brewing in a Sea-to-Sky Highway crawl, which any Vancouverite will tell you is more than a bit of a stretch.) The maps could sometimes be better, but that’s at best a quibble.

The real allure of this book, though, is Lisa’s voice, which is less guidebook-y and more let’s-go-drinking-together. Like Max’s book — which, again, you really should also get — it makes the reading pleasurable and thirsty work, drawing the reader to the locations in question like a moth to the proverbial flame.

The one thing I don’t like about CBPN is the colour scheme, which sees the sidebar brewery profiles and feature pieces, as well as the maps, illustrated in a yellowish-green that is none too easy on the eyes. But like the garish shirt your beer hunting buddy insists on sporting, it is a small price to pay for such good advice and company.

Pubs in the News

The British pub has been in the news a couple of times lately, once for what it’s not, or at least not anymore, and another time for apparently what it is but shouldn’t be.

On the first front, the word “gastropub” has evidently now been exorcised from the vocabulary of the British Good Food Guide. The Independent on Sunday has the details:

But Elizabeth Carter, consultant editor for the guide, believes that the term had become a byword for an establishment’s ambitions and, at a time when pubs have been hit hard by the recession, this inflexible attitude was becoming a thing of the past. “Our feeling with the gastropub was that it was a bit of a bandwagon that a lot of people have jumped on to. A lot of chains have taken that gastropub style.

As usual, Martyn was on this story straight off, and his commentator Curmudgeon has, to my mind, hit the nail right on the head:

Perhaps it is more a case of “we are all gastropubs now” and so the term is no longer needed to distinguish some pubs from the general herd. I certainly don’t see any sign of a swing back towards a more drink-focused offer. If anything the pendulum is still very much swinging the other way.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, however you may feel about resto-wannabe pubs and places – real or imagined! – where drinkers are pushed to the side in favour of diners, the last two decades of the gastropub in the U.K. has resulted in an immeasurable rise in the quality of food offered at the average pub, and for those who might occasionally want a bite with their pint, that is an unqualified positive.

The second reference I’ve come across lately is in the usually reliable pages of Simon Difford’s Class Magazine. The latest issue features a “Hall of Shame” posting on pub cocktails:

While some have clearly upped their game in wines (including Geronimo), we still wouldn’t go near cocktails in most pubs. With the exception of a handful of venues, most pub staff we encounter wouldn’t know one end of a shaker from the other, let alone be able to differentiate a Martinez from a Martini. Apart from the attraction of higher cash margins and GP (our two highballs were £6 each), why they even bother is a mystery to us. The wider problem is they don’t exactly sell the whole cocktail concept to consumers making their first steps into mixology.

The commentary concludes thusly:

Pubs should stick to what they’re good at and leave cocktails to the experts.

Now, when I’m in a pub, I’m generally drinking ale, or occasionally a single malt. But I’m partial to a good cocktail now and again and I don’t for the life of me see why pubs should forego offering the option. You don’t have to be a cocktail “expert” to mix a decent martini or Manhattan or daiquiri, any more than you must be a beer expert to pull a decent pint.

What’s needed is not the abandonment of cocktails, but rather the training of bartenders so that they can mix their wares with precision. And so, in my estimation, rather than dissing the obviously lacking efforts of pubs like the Builder’s Arms, Difford and co. should be busy selling mixology training programs to the companies which own them. Then we can all be happy, cocktailian and beerophile together.

Back From Paris & London: Guess Where I Drank More Beer?

I spent the better part of two weeks in Paris and London, ending yesterday, which explains the absence of posts here. It’s not that I didn’t have my computer with me or experience things worth blogging about; it’s just that I frankly couldn’t convince myself that sitting in my hotel room blogging was a better idea that being out and about it two of the world’s greatest cities.

Were I to have blogged during my trip, I might have written something along the lines of what Ron just posted over at his blog, entitled, simply enough, I Love Pubs.

Because, while I might not be as much of a purist as is Mr. Pattinson — hell, who is? — I am a great fan of the British pub. I’ve supped in literally hundreds of the places, written stories about them, and hardly ever found a (studiously selected) one I didn’t like. The pub is a great, great part of why I have such affection for the United Kingdom in general and London in particular, even as pointless idiots try to burn both to the ground this week.

The pub is why I often find myself frustrated drinking in my home city of Toronto, since almost every pub in these parts is part of some cookie cutter chain or another, all of which believe that I pub starts with old brewery bric-a-brac and ends with overly cheerful servers in girl’s school kilts. (And what is up with that, anyway!?) Although difficult to explain, a pub is something much more than fittings and fixtures, more, even, that centuries of history and experience. A pub is a social entity, not a physical one, and that is something most patrons and, sadly, customers around these parts just don’t get.

Best first-time pub for me on this trip? Although there were many contenders, most notably the Prince Albert and Draft House, both steps from Battersea Park — and both proof that chains can run decent public houses! — I’ll have to give the nod to north London’s excellent Jolly Butchers, a recently transformed pub which provides ample evidence that cask ale and craft beer, old neighbourhoods and new interiors, families and ordinary punters can all co-exist quite happily.

I miss it already.