Tasting Beer Under the Sea
Anyone who has ever been in a half-decent bookshop knows that the staff has a tendency to look like wine-drinkers. Nothing too expensive, you figure, just a fresh, fruity, unpretentious, slightly oaky chardonnay.
In my experience, it does not generally occur to bookstore managers to barricade the checkout with volumes on beer, rendering it impossible for even the most casual browser to escape without buying a substantial number of copies of the latest Michael Jackson (or Roger Protz, Charlie Papazian, Ray Daniels, Stephen Beaumont, etc.).
With the help of my unusually hip British publisher, I recently took part in an exercise to educate booksellers toward this end. We invited them for breakfast. And lunch. Dinner, too. And a few beers.
The breakfast was served on a train. My publisher’s PR lady, may St. Arnold bless her, booked two carriages and installed a bookstore owner or manager in every seat (apart from hers and mine).
The biggest logistical problem was quite simple: How to get breakfast and two beers down before the train went under the water. That is to say, the sea. The English Channel. Or the French Channel, as the people on the other side have an equal right to call it. They don’t. They call it La Manche, meaning “The Arm.” Very un-French of them not to insist that it is theirs, but what are we to make of people who cannot tell a sea from an arm?
As you may be aware, there is a railroad tunnel under the Channel. From the English viewpoint, the train starts from a station called Waterloo, on the south side of the River Thames. It then trundles through the south of England, eventually entering the Chunnel. It emerges in France, then faces a decision. One line stays in France and goes to Paris. The other heads north across the Belgian border to Brussels, and that was our intended route.
Waterloo station was named long before these services were introduced, and its name seems tactless today. Waterloo was a battlefield where the British were on the winning side, against the French, on a site that is now in Belgium. Things are more peaceful today, at least in the absence of English soccer fans, French farmers or Belgian truckers.
Breakfast on the train is pretty good. Eggs, bacon, mushrooms, tomatoes and black pudding (blood sausage). I especially like the last item, but I wanted the booksellers to scoff their food so that we could get on with some beer drinking. That is to say, tasting. They needed a lot of education and no time was to be lost.
Stout for Breakfast
Wishing to emphasize that the world is full of great local breweries and that beer always tastes best in its own habitat, I planned to start with a south London beer. There was an ideal candidate. The famous Young’s brewery is in south London. It makes a sweet stout, which is a traditional London style. Better still, its example is a variation on the theme, employing chocolate.
We could segue perfectly from the fried part of the meal to a popular breakfast item sold at coffee stands in British railroad stations—a bread known by the French name, pain au chocolat—and wash that down with the stout. Pain au chocolat has the texture and flavor of a croissant but is not crescent shaped. It is like a cushion of bread studded with chocolate chips. I can reveal that it makes a sensational breakfast if you combine it with stout.
The problem was the time it took to serve the fry-up, the pain au chocolat and the stout. Once everyone had the stout, I was keen to tell them something about it. Given that bookshops have coffee bars and often serve items like brownies and chocolate-chip cookies, I did wonder whether I might persuade one or two to provide stout for their more bibulous bibliophiles. I remember a cartoon in The New Yorker showing people drinking beer in a bookshop. It was meant to be a joke, an absurd notion. In fact, Kramerbooks in Washington, DC, has for some years had a beer bar. Unfortunately, it is more celebrated as the source of a gift from Monica Lewinsky to President Clinton.
In discussing the chocolate stout, I gave proper credit to Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver for having created the style. He uses only chocolate malt to achieve, superbly, the character he desires. I suppose some people might imagine that this is malt dipped in, or sprayed with, chocolate. It is not. The chocolaty flavors arise from the barley as it is dried in the procedure of malting.
Young’s uses both the malt and actual chocolate. With this in mind, its product is called Double Chocolate Stout. Connoisseurs of either beer or chocolate may have encountered this Eckhardtian combination, but it is not widely known or understood. Some of the booksellers looked a bit nervous but, perhaps surprisingly, others were already familiar with it. I suppose I should have been pleased with the latter, but they slightly spoiled my intention to surprise or shock. Nobody complained about the beer. I think they liked it.
Once the train was out of the London metro area, it entered the county of Kent and began to pass hop gardens. The hops had just been picked, but the nature of the local agriculture is announced by kiln-like buildings, known as oast houses. Once, the hops were dried in these curious-looking structures. Today, more modern, less distinctive kilns are used. Most of the oast houses have been expensively rehabbed as homes of executives who commute to London.
Kent’s best-known brewery is Shepherd Neame, and I had planned to offer its Spitfire ale. (The idea was to serve only beers featured in my latest book, The Great Beer Guide). Shepherd Neame went one better and offered a variation made with fresh hops, the Late Red sub-variety of the Golding. Its freshly leafy, earthy character was far bigger than I remembered. The booksellers loved it.
The rush to serve the first two beers was necessitated by our imminent disappearance down a hole in the ground. When we entered the Chunnel, I wanted to offer a beer that had origins under the sea. For this purpose, we had loaded Elgood’s Flag Porter. This beer is made in eastern England, but the yeast used in secondary fermentation was recovered from bottles of porter found in a shipwreck under the English Channel.
Booksellers love a good story, but they were already getting blasé about highly unusual beers. “Can you taste that woody, sooty, spicy note?” I asked. They were unfazed. My impression was that they were by now looking for something bigger and more aggressive.
Time for a Second Pour
As we exited the tunnel, and found ourselves in France, a suitable robustness was offered by Trois Monts, a winey bière de garde. The booksellers loved this one. We were at the time passing through bière de garde country, approaching the city of Lille and then the Belgian border.
The last lap, through the short stretch of Belgium before the city of Brussels, accommodated Rosé de Gambrinus, the famously cherry-tinged raspberry beer from Cantillon. Several of the booksellers were visibly discomfited by the acidity of this brew. Finally, I had shocked them, perhaps undoing all my good work in the process.
I would have liked to surprise them further, by taking them to the Cantillon brewery, which is close to the Eurostar terminal, but it was time for lunch.
A fleet of taxis took us to the old food market area of town, to the cottage-like restaurant, Spinnekopke. We had an intensely bitter Trappist ale, Orval, for our aperitif; a sweet and sour, reddish-brown Flemish ale, Bellegems Bruin, with a fish salad in a vinaigrette; a second Trappist ale, the fruitier Westmale Tripel, with Belgian endive and lamb; and the Flemish spiced brown ale, Gouden Carolus, with a sensational chocolate mousse.
One young woman who had held out against beer all morning was spotted asking for a second pour of the Gouden Carolus (and the chocolate).
After lunch, there was a reception at the Brewers’ Guild House, a magnificently gilded and gabled edifice on the Grand Place. We were served a “secret” beer, which I think was Passendale, from the makers of Duvel. Nothing to do with the battlefield. This beer is designed to accompany a locally well-known cheese from the same area.
We somehow found our way back to the railroad station without losing any booksellers. There was, of course, dinner on the train back to London. The booksellers decided to wash it down with Shepherd Neame Late Red rather than the wine offered by Eurostar.
Next day, I left for Stockholm, New York, Teaneck (New Jersey), Minneapolis, Denver and points West. I have been watching CNN for news of customers barricaded into bookshops by towers of Michael Jackson’s Great Beer Guide. Nothing yet, but I’m hopeful.
Michael Jackson is an internationally acclaimed author and expert on drinks and fine food.