Tag Archives: Beer

Budget brilliance: ICIP reviews Wetherspoons’ International Real Ale Festival

ICIP is coming around to Wetherspoons.

Sure, we’ve gone there for a quiet pint and wound up giving witness accounts of the bar brawls that erupted within feet of our sun-soaked boozing to the Met’s finest. But more recently, we’ve been drawn in by the promise of cut-price Punk IPA and This is Lager, tempted to stay by cans of exclusive (and delicious) Sixpoint.

Now Wetherspoons, possessed as it is of some considerable clout,  has put together a superb international festival. International offerings from Birrificio (Italy), Sixpoint and 10 Barrel (USA) and Brewmoon (NZ) – among many others – sit alongside some 40 beers from UK Brewers (among them Harviestoun, Thwaites, Adnams). The autumnal range focuses on spicey, amber-y, chewy-caramel beers, but has also – in a welcome move – made an effort to showcase beers brewed by women (five international beers and two from the UK).

Read the full list

Not only that, but in a London ‘Spoons a festival pint cost £3.20, a good pound less than one of these beers would cost in our local craft pubs, and you can get three thirds for the same price. Some of the beers are of decent craft strength (around the 6-7% mark), and will still set you back just over a quid for a third, or less than a high street coffee.

But there is a price to pay for this breadth of range, even if it’s not financial. Lows we experienced in our mammoth, four pub tasting session included some dire service, occasionally atmosphere, and a lack of coordination across pubs in an area.

For example: every bar we visited stocked Bath Ales‘ Prophecy, but nowhere could we find the elusive Elysian Night Owl Pumpkin Ale we were so desperate to locate. Arch-rivals Nicholsons told us last year that their pub managers co-ordinate festivals so a locale isn’t saturated with the same beers – if ‘Spoons wants to attract the craft crowd, they’ll have to do the same thing.

line of beersBut all that aside, beer tasting at a Wetherspoons festival is genuinely great fun.

“…you have to engage in a Pokemon-slash-Indiana Jones-style quest as you sprint, increasingly weavily, across quadrants of London”

Unlike a static, course-of-the-weekend festival you’re armed with a mouth-watering tasting list but no guarantee you’ll find any of the beers. There’s no schedule per pub, which means that if there are certain beers you’re desperate to try you have to engage in a Pokemon-slash-Indiana Jones-style quest as you sprint, increasingly weavily, across quadrants of London, dipping into cavernous branches of ‘Spoons as quickly as you dip out again once you realise they haven’t got one of the elusive beers you circled on your tasting notes.

We started at The Crosse Keys on Gracechurch Street, which supposedly has the most taps of any Wetherspoons. A former bank, its roughly canteen-y entrance gives way to a circular bar solid with taps and a gorgeous – if somewhat hotel-receptiony – private lobby behind, where ICIP and our guest taster Miranda sank into some comfortable sofas.

IMG_20141026_150615This is where it got difficult. The taps at The Crosse Keys are all assigned a number, and – v helpfully – the beer list perpetually scrolls across big flatscreen monitors throughout the bar. When you order, you do it takeaway style – a third of 13, 18 and 25, please.

liz wetherspoonBUT: the numbers on the taps do not match the order the ales are listed in Wetherspoons tasting notes. So once you’ve chosen your next drink based on the tasting notes (or the abv, wink wink), you have to sit and watch the scroll-y screen until (if you’re lucky and they have it) the beer you want flashes up. Then you have to very quickly scribble down the number, and then later remember what the hell beer that number referred to.

It goes without saying that this raucous game of beer bingo gets more and more difficult the more you drink. Try doing that across 12 thirds.

We exhausted the circular bar at the Crosse Keys (actually, the scroll-y screen of beer bingo was replaced with an ominous warning that the pub was closing early because of “a gas fault” so we ran for it) without nailing down some ales we were desperate to try, so embarked on a brave mission across the city, taking in Hamilton Hall at Liverpool Street Station, Goodman’s Field in Aldgate and finally The White Swan in Islington, making it through 20 of the beers in total (less than half!)

IMG_20141026_160306Some of the beers were excellent, some mundane; some of the pubs were stunning, others less so. But probably the greatest testament to ‘spoons endeavour is that Miranda and I are now physically incapable of passing one without popping in to see if they’ve got any of that damn elusive pumpkin beer.

There’s bound to be one near you, so if you’ve some spare change, you’re counting pennies until the end of the month or just want something new to drink before a Halloween do, drop in any time before 2 November.

ICIP’s TOP THREE

10 Barrel O.G. IPA, 5% ABV, USA

Honey-coloured, almost lager pale ale with good lacing and a thin head. Citrus and biscuit nose. The light malt leaves loads of room for the citrus-y Australian hops, which render it hoppy but not bitter. Very drinkable.

Adnams 1659 Smoked Ruby Beer (4.7% ABV)

Pours a rich, dark ruby with a thin head. Chocolate and biscuit on the nose. Then smoke! In gusts! Wood, ash, nuts. Good long mouthfeel: the smoke dominates, but enjoyably so. “It’s like there’s a peat fire in my mouth”, said Miranda.

Wicked weedWicked Weed Freak of Nature (7.5% ABV) USA:

WHOAH. Very unusual beer, this. Sour and grassy, with tobacco notes and a hint of gooseberries. Incredibly smooth mouthfeel and lingering savoury and somewhat soapy taste, it is surprisingly and inexplicably moreish.

MIRANDA’S TOP TIPS

Brewster’s Brewers Dozen (5.5% ABV):

Very sweet on the nose – smells like candyfloss and toffee apple. Fresh tasting, with hits of lime and coriander. Good amber colour – very nice to drink.

Bath Prophecy (3.9% ABV): This is a nice light pale ale with a lot of flavours going on – on first sip you get a hit of sweet Murray Mints, followed by a nice clean pine finish.

Banks beerBank’s Botanical Beer (4.2% ABV):

This unusual beer has a very floral and perfumey aroma. There are herby notes and it has a nice mouth feel – quite soft with a hint of mango. Strong lemony finish. Very tasty. This beer has added flavours from  “Gruit”, a herb and spice blend commonly used in medieval times when ale was brewed without hops.

BEST OF THE REST

Batemans Colonel’s Whiskers, 4.3%

Somewhere between a mild and a stout, this pours a thick, impenetrable pint with a slightly off white head. Molasses and black treacle, good mouthfeel.

Moorhouse’s Black Cat Reserve, 4.6%

Pitch black. Thin off white head. On the nose nutty, roasted, smokey. Gentle first mouthful, good thick mouthfeel, winds up a bit thin but then hits you with late, palette-obliterating liquorice.

Arundel Autumn breeze, 4.6%

Red ale, very dark, notes of biscuit, honey, amber. Tastes of caramel, burnt toffee and creamy dark chocolate.

Brouwerij’t ij isa, 4.6%, Netherlands

Very light Belgian-style, with burnt piney resinous nose. Caramel, light mouthfeel, medium body

Marston's Oyster stoutMarston’s Oyster Stout, 4.1%

Has a peaty aroma and tastes mildly of coffee – quite bitter. Very dark beer with no head. Tastes creamier than it looks with mild fizz. Easy to drink but a bit bland – probably wouldn’t drink a whole pint of this.

White Horse Camarillo, 4.5%
Sweet and spicy yet light – good for a summers day and yet warming enough for a winter pint. Strong grapefruit finish. Clear with small head. Thoroughly enjoyable, slightly wheaty beer.

Ian Ramsay’s Village Elder, 3.8%, NZ

Initial aromatic hit of Parma violets and geranium, this is a well balanced beer, creamy and biscuit to star with a touch of burnt toffee that lingers. Lovely to drink. 

Heather HoneyWadsworth Heather and Honey, 5.0%

Good golden colour – quite clear. Has grassy undertones in flavour and aroma of freshly cut grass. Subtle sweetness shines through from the honey as well as slightly floral hint.

Brew Moon Antipodean Ale, 4.0%, NZ

Strong hoppy, flavour and citrusy aroma. Starts off with sweetness before leaving an unusual after taste of black tea – this is quite pleasant and cuts through the initial sweetness.

Two Birds Golden Ale, 4.4%, Australia

This ale doesn’t offer much in the way of aroma – subtle flavours of green apple and melon come through – a little bland but pleasant all the same. Good golden colour.

Abbaye Du Val-Dieu Abbaye Blonde, 6.0%, Belgium 

This is a nice, slightly cloudy pale beer. Slightly watery but fresh taste, with hint of coriander and slight sweetness of honey. Strong herby-camomile nose.

Birraficio Lambrate Ligera, 4.8%, Italy

Nice clear amber beer. Good head and lacing. Tropical nose – hints of pineapple followed by apple and sweetness of almond. Quite nice and dry.

Wetherspoons 17-day festival runs until the end of Sunday 2 November. ‘Spoons gave us vouchers to use during this tasting, but as ever, our review is completely objective.

– ED

Beer writing – past, present and future

20141023_152154As we approach Hook Norton Brewery in rural Oxfordshire, the Victorian tower brewery comes into view through the trees, its five storeys looming above us. We are here for a seminar jointly run by the British Guild of Beer Writers (BGBW) and the Brewery History Society on the topic of “beer writing – past, present and future”, and this historic setting of the 160-year-old brewery could not be more perfect.

Our education begins with an introduction to beer writing in the Victorian era by Dr James Sumner, who has recently published a book on the history of brewing science and technology between 1700-1880.

James informs us that although there were a few publications about beer prior to 1800, these tended to be few and far between. When cheap mass printing took off with the dawn of the industrial revolution, everything changed, and there was a much wider scope to print about a variety of topics. One organisation who took advantage of this new technology was the Society for Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, a Whig-supporting organisation who created pamphlets to educate the increasing numbers of literate members of the public on a variety of subjects. This included the 1829 publication The Art of Brewing, and marked a point where it could no longer be assumed that the basics of brewing were common knowledge, especially for those living in a more urban environment. Another example of this came in 1851 when Percival Leigh – commissioned by none other than Charles Dickens to write for Household Words – wrote The Chemistry of a Pint of Beer. This light-hearted piece used a comic narrator, Mr Saunders, to subtly pass on information whilst not appearing to question the reader’s level of understanding:

“Now for the malt. What is malt? Not many of you, I suppose, are such Cockneys as not to know that malt is barley, steeped in water, laid out on a floor, let be there till it is just about to sprout, and then dried on a kiln, at a heat high or low, according to the colour you want it to be; pale, or amber, or brown.”

f4Another trend during the Victorian era was that of brewers and engineers writing to promote their inventions, and these took the form of very long, technical manuals such as William Tizard’s Theory and Practice of Brewing (1850) and Henry Stopes’ Malt and Malting (1885). There was a sense at this time of the professionals drawing together against outside forces such as taxation, the temperance movement and the “pure beer movement” which claimed that beer was a bad and potentially dangerous product. In 1852 Allsopp’s were forced to defend themselves in print against claims that their beer contained strychnine. In 1900 there was an arsenic poisoning epidemic in Manchester when brewers sugar bought from Bostock & Co sugar refiners turned out to be made from sulphuric acid containing the poison and this lead to further writings, including humorous cartoons in Punch.

James reminded us that at this time there was no real national distribution of beer – it was nothing like today where we can be anywhere in the country and drink the same product. So a lot of the writing focussed on overall quality and safety rather than specifics. We were still a world away from tasting notes or reviews.

Ray Anderson, President of the Brewery History Society, took the baton from James for his talk on beer writing between 1900 and 1960. Apparently a staggering 500 books on beer were published over this period, with over half of them focussing on pubs. Specialist journals also began to take off during this time, including trade titles such as Brewers Journal and Country Brewer’s Gazette, and also technical titles such as the Journal of the Institute of Brewing. So there was definitely an increase in the amount being written about beer.

Ray pointed out that the people really making a living from beer writing at this time were the consulting brewing chemists such as Edward Ralph Mortiz and Alfred Chaston Chapman. The arsenic poisonings of 1900 meant that brewers had to start analyzing their beer, so there was plenty of work for the chemists. They were prolific in their writing during this time, with Mortiz writing more than 40 scientific papers, and Chapman a staggering 120.

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Pubs were certainly the hot topic during this period. While a lot of urban pubs had degenerated into either “gin palaces or hovels”, country pubs were still written about and regularly appeared in idealised forms in literature. In an attempt to reform the pubs, in 1916 the government began the Carlisle Experiment, taking control of five breweries and a total of 363 pubs. They changed these dramatically, making them bigger, providing table service and food, gardens and sporting facilities such as bowling greens, and even pull ins to encourage more middle class customers to visit by car. There was a huge backlash against this, as many people found the “improved pubs” austere and lacking in personality. The Journal of the Institute of Brewing launched an attack in 1932 stating that many historic pubs were being torn down for rebuilding in the new Carlisle mould, destroying heritage. This led to a trend for writing sentimental nostalgia about the traditional English inn, such as Maurice Gorham’s The Local (1939). Publican’s memoirs also became popular during this time, both genuine and fictional, with John Fothegill’s Innkeeper’s Diary (1931) being one example.

Between the two World Wars, British beer was in a dreadful state. Compared to 1914’s beer, 1933’s brews were 23% lower in gravity, and had 20% less hops in them. Both breweries and pubs were run down and failing. This seemed to galvanise writing on what was going wrong with the product, such as John L Shimwell’s series of papers on brewing microbiology between 1935-39. He stated he wished to bring “order out of chaos”, and explained in scientific terms why beer went bad, and what to do about it.

Towards the end of the period we finally saw what we might be able to call the first real piece of beer writing as we know it now in the form of Andrew Campbell’s The Book of Beer (1956). Interest definitely seemed to have grown in the topic by this point, to the point where The Times ran a special edition about beer in 1958.

At this point Ray Newman, one half of blogging duo Boak & Bailey and co-author of the recently published Brew Britannia, picked up the reigns as we passed into our final period: 1960 to the present day. Here, Ray told us, the trend began to drift towards writing for popular audiences, with less technical information. Most writing was sponsored by the industry itself, and after a rough ride through the two world wars, there was a desire to raise beer’s profile with the public without encouraging anyone to be too critical of the product.

untitledIn 1963 the Chancellor removed the requirement for home brewers to have a license. This led to a dramatic increase in popularity for home brewing as people sought to make their own cheap beer at home, and there were a huge number of manuals published during this period. Some, like Ken Shale’s Brewing Better Beers (1967) boasted sales of over 250,000 copies on covers of subsequent editions, and went on to sell even more. There was also a sense during this time that the accountants at the breweries had too much control over what was available, so home brewing was seen as a rebel alternative.

The 1970s, of course, marked the birth of CAMRA, and sparked a revolution in the beer world, holding brewers to account and highlighting the closures of so many family-owned regional breweries and pubs. In 1974 CAMRA published the first edition of the Good Beer Guide, which of course is still published annually today. From the 1980s this began to include beer essays on the issues of the day, which provided a valuable outlet for beer writers who were struggling to get their voices heard elsewhere in print.

Another big turning point for beer writing came when Michael Jackson published The World Guide to Beer in 1977. It was the first time that someone had talked with authority about the taste and quality of beer and the first attempt to elevate beer to the status of wine. Many books throughout the 1980s mimicked Jackson’s style, and although there was nothing ground-breaking or particularly new, the community of beer writers had begun to grow. In 1988 the British Guild of Beer Writers formed, bringing with it a statement of intent – a demand that beer would be taken more seriously.

The 1990s saw a cultural shift as beer’s image continued to evolve. Laddish, blokey travelogues heavy with beer references had their moment of popularity as beer continued to raise its profile. After the millennium, interest had grown and list-based books such as Roger Protz’s 300 Beers to Try Before You Die!, really took off. This style seemed to suit beer, and publishers quickly snapped up variations on the theme. They were light and engaging, with tasting notes which were brief enough not to alienate more casual drinkers. Pete Brown’s writing, starting with Man Walks Into a Pub in 2004, really nailed it in commercial terms, showing personality and humour could engage even those without a deep interest in beer. This really set the template for a lot of beer writing which has come since.

Across the pond in the USA, Garrett Oliver published The Brewmaster’s Table (2010), the first book on beer and food pairing. It was a sign that beer’s reputation was beginning to change, and in 2011 the drink was finally honoured with its very own Oxford Companion. Although many complained that it was full of inaccuracies, it was a sign or respect for the craft of brewing.

Ray wrapped up by pointing out that the renaissance of ebooks has been important for beer writers, as now there is less of a barrier to getting work out there – no reticent publishers. Beer blogging has also taken off in a big way, with many authors such as Pete Brown and Mark Dredge writing blogs as well as books.

Beer sommelier and broadcaster Marverine Cole took over at this juncture to ask whether beer is getting its fair share of voice in the media today. In her view, she said, a lot of people have stopped reading print media. Now the focus is on radio, TV and web content, and beer is not being sufficiently represented.

Marverine’s belief this that there is still a misconception that beer is loutish and uncouth whereas wine and spirits are more sophisticated. While the passion is obviously evident in the industry – there are huge numbers of events and festivals across the country – there is not enough pressure on the media to get that message across. She went on to share some insider tips on how she felt fellow writers and broadcasters could maximise beer’s coverage and begin to affect change in how it is perceived in the media.

historypinAfter a quick lunch break we return to hear from Nick Stanhope from HistoryPin, a new website where contributors can pin photos, videos and anecdotes on an online map to share history and foster intergenerational relationships. Nick said that in their work they’ve noticed how pubs have time and time again been focal points of communities, and that the loss of so many pubs over the past few decades has been a recurring theme in their research. They have recently been working with over 5,000 pictures rescued after the closure of the Charrington Brewery and investigating how the information can be used to help pubs reconnect with their lost history.

Our final activity for the day was a panel discussion on how we can ensure that beer writing has a postitive future. This featured all of the previous speakers and was chaired by BGBW Secretary and author, Adrian Tierney-Jones.

Adrian sparked off the discussion by ask pointing out that beer writing is a renaissance of sorts, incorporating many different subject areas such as travel, food and history. Ray Newman pointed out that there have not really been any breakthrough books on beer in past few years, and that much of the writing tends to be a variation on the same old material. He wondered whether we need to accept that it will never be a mainstream subject and just address the niche, or do we need to challenge ourselves as writers to come up with something new and refreshing, as Pete Brown did so successfully in the mid-2000s.

Marverine agreed with this point, saying that what we needed to do now was engage young people. The craft beer movement has introduced a whole new generation to beer, and what is needed now is for them to take on the mantle and try to put more pressure on the media to show that the interest is out there, and get more coverage. She pointed out that we have to start shifting our focus to digital mediums such as ebooks and the internet.

Adrian asked whether the panel thought that it was our role as beer writers to act as a cheerleader of sorts for beer, and educate the public. Marverine believed that it’s important to mix education with entertainment in order to remain engaging, and cited Ben McFarland and Tom Sandham’s Thinking Drinkers as a good example of this – mixing comedy and beer, and presenting something different.

Ray Anderson pointed out that it was very difficult to convert an enthusiasm for beer to actually reading about it. He had just returned from a trip to Berlin where he went to a bookshop and found a mere seven books on beer in the whole shop, despite being in the beer capital of Europe.

James said that in his experience as an academic working on the topics of brewing and beer, he found that people tended to be dismissive and treat it as a bit of a joke. It was only when he could show them the academic hooks and connections in history, industry, or science that they begin to be drawn in and begin to take it seriously. He believed that a key to gaining a larger audience was to get more academics on board to help give the subject more gravitas.

Nick agreed with the idea that beer has to be seen as inextricably linked to our history and society. He said that his experience with HistoryPin has shown that people don’t just want facts, but that stories, history and a narrative thread are powerful tools to engage people.

imagesAdrian pointed out that, like HistoryPin, digital appears to be the way forward, with apps such as Will Hawkes’ Craft Beer London proving hugely popular. Ray Anderson agreed that he tends to go to Google before he goes to the bookshelf nowadays.

At this point the debate opened up to the floor, where one contributor pointed out that in the UK we have become “far too good at celebrating orthodoxy”. He believes that we celebrate beers that are of poor quality and that there is still a feeling that we push cask as being best when it is not always true. Ray Anderson agreed with this, saying that we now have as many breweries in the UK as we had in 1929, but it’s a similar situation – many are small and producing a substandard product.

Ray Newman said that it was certainly true that beer writers do not generally challenge the brewers on beer quality and have a tendency to keep writing light and positive, which could have contributed to this “celebration of orthodoxy”. Adrian acknowledged this but said that it is very difficult for beer writers to maintain independence. If breweries send them samples, it is hard for a writer who does not want to damage their relationship with that company to be critical of the product. Ray responded by saying that the Guild needs to push back collectively, and let the brewers know that they have to grow up and accept criticism. They could also be reminded that controversy breeds interest.

It was pointed out from the floor said that with the advent of beer blogging there is actually a huge amount being written about new beers and breweries, but it doesn’t seem to be influencing public interest all that much. Marverine said that we have to remember that quality varies a lot online, and this could be part of the reason why the movement has not been more influential.

Another contributor said that we are shying from controversy. If breweries invested more in their PR they could get more coverage in the media, like the wine industry, rather than relying on advertising. This could change beer’s image and also increase its profile.

20141023_152553After the debate we broke into groups to take the opportunity to tour the magnificent Victorian tower brewery. This remarkable building was powered by an enormous steam engine on the ground floor, installed in 1899 and still in use as recently as four years ago. This powered the machinery all the way up the tower and even provided heating for the brewery workers. While there have been many modern innovations over the years – including the abandonment of the vast copper flat cooler at the top of the building – the incredible Victorian machinery and architecture is still evident throughout.

After climbing up and down all those stairs, we retire to the Visitors’ Centre to enjoy a few well-earned glasses of some of Hook Norton’s offerings, including Old Hooky (4.6%) and Flagship (5.3%).

We thoroughly enjoyed the seminar and learned a huge amount – massive thanks to the BGBW and the Brewery History Society for organising it, the speakers for taking part and giving such informative talks and to Hook Norton for being such gracious hosts.

If you wish to visit Hook Norton Brewery you can find details of their tours on their website. You can also find information on the Brewery History Society and details on how to join online.

– PS

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How should CAMRA campaign? Group responds in ‘sexist leaflet’ row

  • Organisation offers apology over leaflets some deemed sexist and says it wants to work with young members on new campaign.

The beer drinkers’ club CAMRA has apologised for any offence caused by recruitment leaflets it circulated to universities, which featured images of women in low-cut tops and dressed as pin-up models.

More: Read our original story on the leaflets

Keith Spencer, CAMRA’s Director of Membership, said that the leaflets had been withdrawn. “CAMRA’s recent young membership campaign has been met with both positive and negative feedback since its launch a few weeks ago. However, as a number of people have informed us they find the imagery sexist and are offended by this campaign, CAMRA has decided to withdraw this material from circulation.

“CAMRA takes all complaints very seriously and we would like to apologise for any offence this may have caused”

The campaign was discussed with young marketing professionals within CAMRA’s Young Membership Marketing Group, which is made up of men and women, and they supported this creative. However, CAMRA takes all complaints very seriously and we would like to apologise for any offence this may have caused,” he said. “Now that CAMRA has decided to remove this campaign, it will work with CAMRA’s young membership to create a new campaign. If any CAMRA members would like to feed ideas into this campaign then please email marketing@camra.org.uk

– ED

CAMRA offers to pull ‘sexist and insulting’ recruitment leaflets, but young drinkers demand public apology

Young beer drinkers have expressed outrage at a “sexist and insulting” series of recruitment flyers CAMRA has distributed to universities across the country.

The flyers, which aim to recruit new members to the real ale society, feature pictures of women in low-cut tops and dressed as pin-up models.

A copy of the leaflet reproduced on a website petitioning CAMRA to withdraw it

A copy of the leaflet reproduced on a website petitioning CAMRA to withdraw it

They were sent to university real ale societies to be distributed at Freshers’ Fairs.

The CAMRA Young Members board expressed their disapproval when they were consulted before print, but said they had been ignored.

Rowan Molyneux, a young beer blogger, said that she originally thought the leaflets were a hoax.

“What sort of people do they want to attract? Slavering ‘lads’, drawn to the organisation because of the use of attractive women as window dressing?”

Members who contacted CAMRA to complain were “brushed off”, she added, and the organisation rejected claims that it was being sexist because it had women in its board.

CAMRA has offered to withdraw the leaflets, but young members have called for a full public apology to the university societies that acknowledges “the sexist nature of the flyers”, an apology to the Young Members Board and the creation of a transparent complaints process.

A petition calling for action from CAMRA currently has 77 signatories.

Samuel McNamara, of the York University Real Ale Society, said: “We welcome everyone as an equal participant. Women are not window dressing for a boys’ beer drinking club.”

Matt Jones, who has worked on the committee of a university ale and cider society, said: “This campaign, with its sexist imagery, perpetuates the image of beer drinkers of lewd, old men that we have worked so hard to get rid of. Ale is for everyone, regardless of their sex, sexuality, age, race, creed and background.”

ICIP has approached CAMRA for comment.

-ED

Brewhouse, in the middle of our street

We get it ripped out of us here in Islington. People make fun of our biodegradable yoga mats, our bespoke tofu and our eco-friendly soap nuts. Yes, we love our green initiatives as much as we love our hummus. So where better to open up a pub where the booze travels beer-millimetres, instead of beer miles, from tank to tankard?

In fact – why not open two?

islingtonwindow

That’s exactly what Simon Bunn and Kris Gumbrell, the team who pioneered street-level brewing at The Lamb in Chiswick and The Botanist in Kew, intend to do. They opened London’s first Brewhouse pub at the Angel this week, with a second planned for Upper Street, about a ten minute walk away, in 2015.

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ICIP is used to our craft bars being stuffed into tiny converted local boozers, so we were blown away, when we visited Brew House in Angel on its pre-opening opening night, by the sheer size of the joint. So blown away, in fact, that the magnificently conceived interior gave us pause: was there something of the chain about this enormous craft bar? Don’t get us wrong, we loved the atmosphere, but was it a bit too themed? Quaint, reclaimed and bespoke: diners and drinkers can huddle into street-level wooden booths or perch around enormous tables. “Tables” doesn’t do them justice: the enormous, circular tabletops are actually glass-topped wedges of hops and barley. Staring down at them through your crystal-clear pint, you could hardly get closer to the roots of your drink.

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Except you can: because look up, and you’re seated in the middle of the magic. Right in the brewery. Like its predecessors in Portsmouth and Dorchester, the Brew House’s core range of original beers are all brewed in open view – and this is what takes it above and beyond your average well-funded craft initiative.

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Having your kit bang in the middle of the bar is a lovely concept  – and, as we found out in conversation with head brewer Pete Hughes, it’s much more than just decoration. Here, Pete brews Brew House Islington’s core beers on site, often at night, three times a week.

And what a core range.

Arc Angel, a 3.6% English bitter, poured a mouth-puckering pint that mellowed into a British classic. Dominated by (we think!) Goldings and Fuggle hops, it would sit well alongside anything from the Fullers range. “A nice dad beer”, ICIP decided.

Myddleton, a 4.5% blonde IMG_20141002_211739ale, with its bright white, lasting head and sweet, banana-and-clove aroma, was a lovely Belgian-style brew.

Spandau B, the pub’s 4% session IPA, was so popular it ran out by 9’o’clock. One of our favourites, its floral, Mosaic and Amarillo dry-hop packed more punch than we expected from its (relatively) low ABV.

Watchmaker‘s deep caramel colour gave it away as a deliciously easy-drinking amber ale; this strong, 5.5% bitter was smooth, well-balanced and surprisingly sweet.

Finally ICIP was a huge fan of Black Swan, a black IPA, with mouthfuls of roasted nuts and enough fizz not to taste overwhelmingly chocolate-y or smooth.

(The menu promises a couple more that we didn’t get to try – Britton, a 5% American brown, and Chaplin, a 6% IPA.)

These were early days for Brew House: while this, the core range, will remain mostly the same, two of the pub’s eight taps will be dedicated to seasonal and special beers when it opens to the public. At the moment these include Suffragette Ninja (this could become ICIP’s signature beer), a 4% milk stout, a spicy winter beer called Vlad and a smoked porter. The Angel pub will continue to be dedicated to cask beers – its sister on Upper Street will handle the kegged side of business.

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“They gave me complete freedom,” says brewer Pete Hughes, of the core range. A man who has literally just landed his dream job, he dreams big: of pressurised vats to brew lager in, of specialised and novelty brews. Which is what you want in a head-brewer, really. Chairman of the London Home Brewers, Pete worked in construction and brewed at home before a friend suggested he apply for the Brew House gig.

IMG_20141002_204003“Really I’m just a home-brewer who’s been allowed an outlet for my hobby,” he tells us.

And what an outlet: “If we wanted to brew something crazy we’d do it,” he promises, when I wonder if the range might include some riskier numbers. “They’re [owners Simon and Kris] more adventurous than I am. I’ve had some impractical requests!”

The beers are totally handmade, he explains, making the set up much closer to homebrewing. This is something Brew House looks set to capitalise on: for £99 you can buy a Brewing Experience Day, which includes a crack at the various pieces of kit, a tasting, lunch and a 5litre keg to take home, and for an undisclosed sum you can commission your very own beer.

“This can be as diverse and darlingly difference as chamomile flowers, lavender or even horseradish,” the press release promises. But don’t get too nuts because the minimum buy is 750 pints, and even ICIP isn’t sure it could get through 750 pints of horseradish beer.

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ICIP walked in ever-so-slightly worried and walked out converted. Our corner of north London is stuffed with great craft beer pubs, and normal pubs, and we wondered where this would fit in.

Lovely beer-loving Brew House spokeswoman Su-Lin Ong painted us an attractive picture of an Islington crawl, taking in the Hops and Glory, the Earl of Essex, the two Brew Houses and the local branch of Craft.

Even the ladies' loos were a beery work of art.

Even the ladies’ loos were a beery work of art

We might not survive that, but we’ll certainly be back to the Angel brewpub. Yes, it has all the trimmings: good food (high on the manifesto), acres of space and a well-thought out theme. But more importantly, at its heart is a passionate home brewer. And he won’t even be working behind the scenes – he, his brew kit and his beers, take centre stage.

Brew House Islington opened on Monday 6 October. You can find it next to Angel tube, on the corner of City Road and Torrens Street.

– ED

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Reap what you sow – return to Stocks Farm

DSC_0111We can scarcely believe it’s been five months since we last visited Stocks Farm in Suckley, Worcestershire to learn all about hops. Back then there was still a slight chill in the air, the apple trees in the orchards were mostly bare and the hop plants were tiny green shoots not even a foot high.

What a transformation.

The dark green of the apple trees are punctuated with thousands upon thousands of shiny red apples. In the distance, against the backdrop of the Malvern Hills, the hop yards are flourishing, the plants towering above the ground and creating shaded, almost mysterious passageways between the poles. The ground is littered with the lime green of stray hop flowers, and the air is pungent with that distinctive zing of grass, pine and tart fruits.

DSC_0104A decent crowd of interested locals of all ages has gathered in front of the beautiful farm house and old hop kiln to be greeted by Ali and Richard Capper, who have thrown their farm open to visitors for their first open day to increase awareness of the British hop industry. The afternoon kicks off with an introduction by Ali about the 200 years of hop-growing history on the farm and some basics about hops and their usage. We head off through the apple orchards – stopping to enjoy a Gala straight off the tree, which is just amazing – and come to the low trellis hop yards.

DSC_0187These are unique to the UK and a recent innovation designed to save labour on both tending for and harvesting the hops, as we reported earlier in the year. Down the hill, a large red machine is chugging through the rows. “The machine is picking both hop and leaf, and it’s being conveyed into a trailer in the row beside it,” says Ali. “The harvester is actually based on a blackcurrant picker.” Richard points out that the harvester is only used for one week a year, during which time it “has its guts thrashed out”. There is certainly a bustling atmosphere on the farm – you can feel the frenzy of activity. “People say ‘I’d like to grow some hops; it can’t be that difficult’,” he says, “and actually, the growing part isn’t that difficult, it’s the harvesting and drying that provides the challenges. All the hop growers in the area are picking at the same time, so there’s no spare capacity to loan out.”

Passing through the low trellis hops we come to the more recognisable tall hop yards with their tunnels of pendulous green flowers. Ali passes around some fresh flowers for the visitors to break open and sniff, taking in all those intoxicating aromas. There is something quite humbling about standing beneath these vast, lush plants, and you really feel a sense of the centuries of heritage and tradition of British hop growing.

DSC_0165“The life of a hop plant is indefinite,” Richard tells us. “I know of hop yards that are nearly 100 years old. Usually it’s when a market changes that cause you to dig them out and change the varieties.” Stocks Farm grows several types of hop, including newcomers like Endeavour, and more traditional varieties. “We have a contract with Fullers for all of our Target hops,” says Richard. “Because they are such a reputable brewery, others will follow their lead and that helps us keep some of the older varieties alive.”

DSC_0190We finally reach the bottom of the hill where we are about to meet the hop picking machine. When we visited the old hop kiln back in April, Ali showed us an original old-fashioned hop press, manufactured at the Bruff in Suckley. In the 1960s the same manufacturer made the hop picking machines which have since been exported all over the world, and Stocks Farm keeps it local by still using theirs today. “We love the Bruff because it’s a gentle way of picking the hops,” says Ali. “We decided to reinvest in it. Although it’s antiquated and old, it works! Basically, it’s a series of rollers, belts and blowing air, and it’s all about separating a heavier hop from a lighter leaf.”

We pass the unloading trailers and enter the huge barn which houses the Bruff. The noise is deafening as the machine chugs away, the hops being ferried up and down and around the vast space in a blur of conveyer belts, lifts and cogs. It’s like something out of Willie Wonka’s laboratory, but with hops.

DSC_0230 DSC_0235 DSC_0236 DSC_0261We follow the little flowers’ progress around the room until we climb the stairs up to the kilning area. Here workers are sliding enormous flat baskets of hops into giant furnaces, while huge piles of dried hops loom in the background. “The dry hops are tipped into piles to condition them for 24 hours,” explains Richard. “This allows them to take a bit of moisture back in, so they don’t go to dust. The challenge for the driers is to get the moisture just right: too wet and they get packed like a compost heap, too dry they could combust and you’d lose the whole kiln.”

DSC_0311DSC_0306On the way back downstairs we pass enormous hessian sacks which are stacked up to the ceiling. “The hops are a huge volume, they’re all air, so in order to pack them we need to press them,” Richard tells us. “We create 85kg packs, and when we’ve made the bale, we probe it to check the moisture. Every hop dries a different way, for example the Sovereign we’re doing now, are a light, fluffy cone, which will dry quite quickly. Some years, we’ll need 3 presses to get 85kg, last year because of the weather, they weighed heavy and we only needed two presses.”

DSC_0287As we leave the barn and begin the walk back up the hill, Richard reflects: “all of this kit is used just five weeks a year, and in that time we burn about £25-30k of diesel to dry the hops. Which is quite irritating because as soon as the brewer gets them he throws them in water again!”

As we enjoy tea and cake (apple, of course) on the lawn in front of the farmhouse, we look out across the valley and at the sea of green hop yards below us. It has been fascinating to be able to follow the journey of these hops from shoot to bale, and in doing so we think we have begun to understand the passion felt by the British hop farmers for the heritage and preservation of the industry. We certainly have a much greater appreciation for those British hop names when we read them on a bottle label or pump clip.

On our return journey we once again pass through picturesque Ledbury for a return trip to the Once Upon a Tree Three Counties Cider Shop we pick up, amongst other goodies, some hopped cider by Oliver’s. This, my friends, could be a dangerous new chapter…

– PS

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Malt: getting the grist

The Reinheitsgebot would have you believe that the raw ingredients needed to brew beer are very simple. On paper, it’s just water, barley, and hops (and yeast, they begrudgingly conceded in 1993). Basic raw materials transformed through the magical process of brewing into our beloved tipple of choice. Or so it seems.

After ICIP’s trip to Stocks Farm in April, we learned that the humble hop is anything but simple. There were lupulin glands, alpha acids and myrcene levels to learn about, extensive scientific breeding programmes being developed and multi-million pound hop picking machines chugging away beyond the hop yards. We were amazed by our own ignorance about what we thought was a simple component of the brewing process, and it made us wonder where else our knowledge fell short.

Enter the Maltsters Association of Great Britain (MAGB), who kindly organised for us to tour Bairds Malt plant in Witham, Essex. This is the largest plant under the Bairds umbrella, producing nearly 50m tonnes of malt a year, mostly buying in barley from the “granary of England”, East Anglia. We meet with MAGB’s Executive Director Colin West, who is going to be our teacher and tour guide for the day. It soon becomes apparent that we have a lot to learn.

DSC_0002Giving us a bit of a background to the UK malt industry, Colin explains that we’re pretty unique for having the two big markets of beer and whisky: “whisky around the rest of the world is usually made from other things, whereas Scotch legally has to be made of malted barley, so it’s an important market.” Malting has historically been an active and productive industry in the UK, and the MAGB itself is around 180 years old. “When it was founded, every village and every town would have had a maltings or two, and the 1,800 members were only a fraction of the malting industry in the UK at the time,” says Colin. “There was a malt tax in place and the government were imposing more and more regulations, causing disruption to the production process, and the maltsters were pretty aggravated about this. It took them a while, but they managed to get rid of the malt tax by the early 1880s.”

While we are aware of the decline in British hop farming over the years, we are still surprised to hear that despite the recent beer boom, the malting industry has not grown in recent years. “The maltings sector in the UK is almost exactly the same size as when I joined the industry in 1976,” says Colin. “I remember in those days we grew 10m tonnes of barley in the UK, and 2m tonnes went for malting and the rest went for animal feed. Now we grow about 6m tonnes, 2m still goes for malting and a smaller amount goes to animal feed because they use wheat for that more now. There’s been rationalisation: smaller plants have closed, we’ve got fewer companies than we used to have, and we just haven’t expanded.”

But in the same way that Germany and the US have overtaken us in hop-growing, our continental cousins have been expanding rapidly in the grain business. “The two largest malting companies in the world are now French: over the last 40 years the French have grown between ten- and twenty-fold,” says Colin. “A lot of the grain trade marketing in France was run by farmer’s cooperatives, which were strong through CAP after the common market was formed in the 1950s. They realised that milling wheat into flour or malting barley were ways of adding value to the grain, so they took a long-term view and invested in malting capacity. They own companies all over the world now. I don’t think we could grow quite that big, but it’s a bit of an oddity that we’re exactly the same size after all this time.”

DSC_0003This seems strange when the brewing scene at least appears to be booming globally, but according to Colin total beer consumption is falling despite the proliferation of new breweries. And while cask ale is the winner – growing from 9% to 12% of the market – it’s the big name lagers that are noticing the drop off. He also points out “in some markets they use other materials. As an example, Budweiser in the states has 40% rice in it. Once you’ve got that rice in, and you’re a brand the consumer knows, you don’t change it back at that point. At that point, the customers know what they want.”

The maltings industry is having to adapt to accommodate the new breed of microbrewery, putting in packaging lines to produce 25kg sacks of product rather than sending off 29 ton lorries, and installing mills to provide grist for breweries who cannot mill their own malt. “What Bairds has done recently is set up an autonomous subsidiary, Brewers Select, which mills separately in order to service the craft market. It doesn’t change the way anyone services the big market, they just have to service the smaller guys too,” says Colin.

WIthout further ado, we’re thrown into the science bit. Colin starts us off with Beer 101: at the brewery, enzymes in the malt break down the starches into sugars, which the yeast uses to make booze. The barley’s job is to provide nutrients for fermentation. The reason we malt the barley is that in it’s raw state it doesn’t have the enzymes it needs.

We move on to a very complicated cross-section of a barley grain. This is a seed, and there is an embryo of a new barley plant inside as well as the endosperm, which is a food store which will feed the plant until it has leaves and can get energy from the sun.

In short, and avoiding a lot of jargon – the energy in the endosperm is mostly starch contained in rigid cell chambers. When the seed germinates the embryo sends out a signal asking to be fed, and enzymes are produced which break down the cell walls to release the starch and begin to convert the starch into sugar. This has to be kept in check because the maltster wants to deliver these starches and enzymes to the brewer, so the process cannot be allowed to go too far. This is why although you may see rootlets on barley when it is being malted, you never see any shoots. Indeed, in ye olde times the maltsters would sometimes judge whether the malt was ready by breaking open the grain and seeing how far the shoot had grown inside before making an appearance.

DSC_0017Basic knowledge acquired, we don hi-vis vests and hard hats and intrepidly set off to follow the grain’s journey around the site. We begin at the barley intake, where they do quality control on the incoming lorry-loads of barley. Gatekeeper Maggie explains: “I use an automated scoop to take a representative sample. I can check some things visually – I want to make sure it’s the right  variety and I want to make sure I’ve got malting barley and not another type of grain. I also look for a fungus called ergot, which is hallucinogenic, so we don’t want to see any of that in the barley!” She gleefully shows us a little pot of the offending substance, conspiratorially adding: “this is our personal supply!”

“If you see one piece of ergot you’ve got to reject the whole truck,” says Colin. “The maltsters have rejected about one load in 150.” This isn’t the only instant rejection, as Maggie explains: “There are insects that would damage the grain by eating away at the embryo inside, like weevils. which are tiny. If I find any one of those – alive, dead or a body part – it’s an instant reject. All would suggest there had been an infestation somewhere along the line.”

After this initial inspection, things get more technical, and Maggie has a proper mini lab in her office. “I look for moisture and nitrogen levels using the infrared machine. There’s also a machine which gives us a breakdown of how many whole corns, broken corns and extraneous material like husks there are. If it falls outside the parameters we take a bit of a claim against the cost, but if it’s way off, we start rejecting the lorries.” And there’s more… “That is a grain stain machine – we cut a corn in half to reveal the embryo and the machine stains it bright red. As it degrades or starts to grow, it becomes paler to the point of being white. If it’s white, it’s dead, so if you haven’t got a red embryo, we can’t do the malting process. We look for a 98% parameter on that and we reject on anything less.” It’s beginning to sound like some sort of barley X-Factor. “It is frustrating, and ultimately it’s the final customer, the beer drinker, that’s paying the extra transport cost for the rejected load,” says Maggie. “So if we can work with the merchants and farmers to make sure everything’s accepted, that suits us. It keeps the maltsters’ costs down which helps when the breweries are negotiating to get the malt price down. But we could be losing half of what comes in, we just happen to be extremely good at it!”

DSC_0009As we move towards the huge conical steepers, Colin points out Bairds’ water recycling plant. Bairds is only the second maltings site in the country to recycle its water. There have been problems with attempts to do this in the past with remnants of materials in the water used for steeping which meant that it could not be reused, but treatments have been developed to solve this issue. “The expectation is that processing waste water will become more expensive in the future,” says Colin, “so this will make a huge difference. All maltings use fresh, drinking quality water for the steeping. At Bairds they also use a barley washer to pre-steep and to get dust off the grain.”

It can take almost two hours to transfer a batch of grain into the giant steeping conicals. Bairds has six of these, each holding 35 tonnes of barley. The reason the capacity is split is to help spread the hydrostatic pressure on the grains more evenly to encourage it all to accept moisture and germinate. “Each batch is four thousand million grains of barley and the aim is to make sure each grain sees the same conditions as the next,” says Colin. “It’s impossible… but you try your best!”

DSC_0033When the barley goes into the steeper, it is usually at about 12% moisture. It is then covered in water, drained and covered again, and in between these wet periods it also has ‘air rests’ where it is allowed to breathe, absorb some of the moisture and begin its biochemical processes. Air is also bubbled through the water for a few minutes every half hour while the grain is steeping to keep it aerated. “When the maltster takes the batch out to steep, he’s looking to raise the moisture content to about 45%, that persuades the embryo that it’s been rained on and that it’s time to grow into a baby plant,” says Colin. This process takes two days. “By the end of those two days, the respiration rate has gone up quite a bit and each grain is generating heat from its own metabolism,” says Colin. “In bulk that’s quite a lot of heat, so it’s important the maltster can move that into an environment where he can accurately control the temperature.”

This marks the beginning of the second stage – germination. “In the germination vessel, the whole point is to keep in at a constant temperature,” says Colin. “If it was left in a steaming heap, it would go well above 60°C. So we both blow air through to keep the temperature down but we also keep up humidity so that it doesn’t dry out. The aim is to make the air 100% humid.”

DSC_0057Traditionally the malt would be spread in a thin layer on the floor and raked over by hand. Today the grain is still turned, two or three times a day, but it’s now done mechanically by a boom that sweeps around the circular vessel. “The goal is to make it flat,” Colin points out. “The resistance at 1m is different from that at 1.1m so you’ll get more air coming up and it’ll affect the grain differently. Obviously, as all the grain moves around, it’ll average out over the 4 days it’s in here.

From around of 3 days onwards, the rootlets realise there’s no extra nutrients out there, so they start thinking about withering.”

During the four days of germination the enzymes are produced, the cell walls begin to break down, and the malster has to stop the process at the right time. “There’s not much the maltster can do during this process to see how it’s going, so he’s relying on experience,” says Colin. “They are constantly testing the end product in the lab, so they can tweak the next batch to correct anything that didn’t go as well last time.”

DSC_0060Using a long cup on a pole, Colin fishes out some grains from both the two- and four-day-old batches of germinating barley. “If you pinch off the end of the corn to get rid of the embryo, then squeeze out the contents and rub it between your fingers, you can feel the texture,” he says, passing us a four-day-old grain. The contents comes out like toothpaste. “That’s perfect. That means the protein and cell wall are gone and what is left is pure starch.” We repeat the process on the younger grains, and the contents are much firmer. “It’s coming on, it’s just not quite as smooth. The maltster will do maybe six to ten corns from different places to get an idea,” Colin explains.

The final stage is kilning, which stops the germinating process. “We started with 210 tonnes of barley, we added 80-90 tonnes of water, and then in the kiln we’ll drive off the added water but also bring down the moisture content from 12% to 5%, so we’re evaporating around 100 tonnes of water!” says Colin as we enter the sweltering kiln. “It has to be a gentle drying process because the enzymes are temperature sensitive, even more so when there’s a lot of water around.”

DSC_0073Below the drying grain is a chamber about 6ft high which helps balance the pressure: “what you don’t want is the grain nearest the fan to get more airflow, so if the fan blows into a big area it equalises the pressure across the bed so the air comes up evenly,” says Colin. “So you start between 50-65°C, and because moisture is evaporating the grain is cooler than that, around 25°C. After about 12 hours of blowing the air through, the temperature in the grain starts to increase, but because the moisture has reduced to about 15%, the enzymes are more stable, so it’s safe to bring up the temperature.” Coloured malts can be made in the same kiln by upping the heat, and the maltster ends up with a grain with a moisture content of about 4-5%.

At this stage the little rootlets (or ‘culm’) on the grains drop off, and they are collected to be sold for animal feed. Astonishingly, they contain more protein than the original raw barley, and this is all extra income for the maltsters – very important given the huge outlay in energy costs. “Traditionally, everything was manual,” says Colin. “Shoveling, barrows, raking, water it with cans, feel it by hand… but now you could run this whole site with just a few people. It used to be labour was the second highest cost after barley, but now energy is far higher. It’s mostly heat, but it’s also electricity on driving the fans.”

DSC_0086The final stage of the malt’s journey is the roasting plant. “At Witham they have a roasting plant so they can roast in much smaller batches than in the kiln. That takes 210 tonnes of barley whereas the roaster takes just two.” Each type of malt gets a different treatment in the machines, which are based on the same technology used for roasting coffee. “You take white malt and then take the temperature up to about 180°C for brown malt and 220-230°C for chocolate and black malts. This makes it very dark and bitter,” explains Colin. “Colour is the critical control, and the guys here have got decades of experience. They take samples; and at the end of a darker roast they’ll be doing that every few minutes because the end point is critical. They’ll grind some into a flour and compare them against standardised samples which have been tested in the lab.”

The oddball is crystal malt, which is treated a bit differently. “You take green malt, direct from germination, and raise the temperature up to 65°C, which is the equivalent of the brewer mashing it. Each grain is its own mini mash vessel – it’s got a moisture, enzymes and starch in there, so when the enzymes break the starch down so you end up with a liquid package. It’s like liquid caramel inside. The temperature is increased up to about 130°C and the moisture is driven off, and that’s what gives you the lovely toffee character of the crystal malt.”

Our heads spinning from our quickfire introduction to the world of malting (and the ever pervading scent which is making us crave Horlicks and Maltesers), we remove our hard hats and decamp to The White Hart in Witham to enjoy malt in its most delicious form – a pint.

Just as after our hop farm visit, we’re amazed at how much history, technology and science has gone into this basic building block of our favourite drink. We’re glad we took the time to expand our knowledge – the next time we visit a brewery and they casually make reference to their mash tun, we’ll understand exactly what’s going on in there, why, and what all the work that had already gone into those little grains.

Now, someone, please… get me those Maltesers.

-PS

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