Sunday, 9 December 2012

North Norfolk's Happiest Journey

I first came to the North Norfolk coast as a child. I recall it well; it was 1960. The Mini was recently released and our family friends Thelma and Archie had one. We met up with them in Cambridge and journeyed on through Breckland, with its haunting gnarled pines, through Swaffham to Fakenham for a coffee and then on the Dry Road to Wells and to our destination at Holkham Bay. Mum, Dad and I trailed behind the smart Mini in our dun coloured Ford Prefect. Mum was the driver, as Dad hadn’t learned to drive at that time. In those days Lady Anne’s Drive was the start of a long heavy trudge through fine silver sand leading to Holkham Bay. It sapped the strength of little boys who struggled with picnic hampers and deck chairs. On arrival at the beach we had a further half mile to reach the sea, for when the tide was out the bay was an open expanse of golden rippled sand and whispy shell banks. What a contrast today now that the marram grass has helped to build up sand dune barriers that enclose the bay and in their shelter the mud has settled and samphire and sea purslane has grown up. It makes you feel old when you witness coastal change in your own lifetime.

In my teens I was a bird watcher and frequently came to the North Norfolk coast to visit Cley Marshes and Salthouse and the pines at Wells. Since the late nineteen seventies I have made my home here and now I have become a brewer in Cromer.

As a member of the East Anglian Brewers Cooperative I am able to buy malt directly from the farm where it grows. As part of the Barley to Beer Project, Teddy Maufe sends his prime barley from Branthill Farm near Wells to Crisps Maltings at Great Ryburgh near Fakenham. They keep his Maris Otter barley separate from everyone else’s. They malt it separately too and send it back to him. So I regularly find myself travelling my favourite road – the A149 coast road from Cromer to Wells. Past the ducks at Salthouse, past the Walsey Hills where I camped as a teenager with Kevin Baker (now with the BTO), past the East Bank at Cley, that legendary spot where so may rare birds have turned up and where the equally legendary Richard Richardson once entertained the bird watchers with his mimicry – taking the Mick out of other bird watchers, as well as imitating bird calls.

Onwards I drive, with a boot full of beer to sell to Teddy for his Real Ale Shop, the financial saviour of his farm. Once there I deliver my beer and have a look at what the other Norfolk brewers are making and I may buy one or two, just for market research you understand. I load up my crushed malt from the barn and pay the man in the shop. Then it is the return journey. I stop in Wells and buy pork chops and other delights from Arthur Howell’s butcher’s shop in Staithe Street. The pigs are slaughtered on the premises. They only come from Wighton just down the road. They walk into the yard at the back of the shop thinking they are on a day out to Wells. No stress, before they are despatched and their sweet succulent meat is out in the front shop in no time. All his meat is good and it is little wonder that the top restaurants around here use him.

At Cley I call in on another of North Norfolk’s food heroes. Cley Smokehouse isn’t the last one left (I use one in Cromer for smoking malt and hops) but there aren’t many and it does have some lovely produce. I am very fond of their buckling – hot smoked headless herrings that just melt in the mouth, or various tubs of seafood such as potted shrimps or taramosalata. It is a joy to park on the flint pebble pavement outside the shop; maybe I will look in at Picnic Fayre and a real treat is to call in and say Hi to Sarah in Pinkfoot, the wildlife art gallery across the street.

It is such a happy journey, a green journey, carrying beer in one direction and bringing malt and delicious food on the return. It brings me entertainment and gladdens the heart. A sideways glance may bring a glimpse of a marsh harrier quartering the marsh or a skein of a thousand gaggling geese. Today I think I shall visit Steve at the Binham Chequers to see what he has been brewing. 

I am so glad I am a brewer in Norfolk.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012


Of the many wonderful things that autumn brings soft herring roes is fairly high my list of favourites. I am looking forward to some of this comfort food for lunch on this rain-sodden and blustery day. Washed under the hot tap, rolled in seasoned flour and fried in butter, then served on hot buttered toast with a mug of tea and plenty of black pepper, my mouth is watering in anticipation. Autumn is the herring season and that means local bloaters and kippers too. There are still a few traditional smokehouses in North Norfolk and I am blessed to have one of them just down the road from my brewery in Cromer. John and Frances Jonas have a 165 year-old smokehouse in their fisherman’s yard in Chapel Street. We have known them for years and Mrs Brewer is good friends with Frances. So it occurred to me that I could make good use of this asset by smoking some malt to boost the Poppyland Brewery retertoir. But then I had a further thought.

Bamberg of course is famous for its powerful rauchbier, made with beech-smoked malt. Various breweries especially abroad offer beers made with some smoked malt but sometimes I struggle to identify its presence, either because they didn’t use enough or the flavour has died away since leaving the brewery. Or maybe its just me. So, smoked malt is not all that unusual in beers but I don’t know of any that use smoked hops. It promises to offer a different, fresher smoke experience.“Smoking hops?” said one wag, “That sounds like something I used to do at college”.

My first experiment was to take one kilogram of crushed pale Maris Otter malt down to Frances, spread out on our largest roasting tin from the kitchen. It went into her smokehouse for just 24 hours to see what effect that would have. It was a kind of calibration exercise, although I have no idea what units smokiness is measured in. It came out smelling fresh and smoky, nice and sweet from the burning of oak sawdust. It was a good flavour (not fishy!) and significantly different from either the Bamberg malt or the peaty whisky malt I had smelt before. It had great promise but it wasn’t enough, neither in quantity nor in smokiness. It went into the first beer that Edoardo and I made in the Poppyland Brewery premises. Not un-naturally I called it Smokehouse Porter. But one kilogram in a grist of some 70 kg wasn’t going to have too much impact. That was when my imagination turned to smoking hops and dry hopping with them.

I had about 1 kg of wild hops that I had collected early one sunny October morning from a bank in Upper Sheringham. I had not dried them but put them straight into the freezer. From experience I knew that these hops would have a mild peppery, grassy, noble flavour. What would they be like when smoked? There was only one way to find out.

I took the whole carrier bag to Frances and she smoked them alongside her fish for 36 hours. The beer wasn’t quite ready for dry hopping when they came out, so they were left in the brewery for just over a week before they were used. They filled the brewery with their wonderful smoky scent. Being damp they began to molder before I could use them, so I put them into a kilderkin – all of them – and steamed them for about a quarter of an hour with my steam generator to ensure they and the kilderkin were sterile before running in the fermented beer.

I was thrilled with the result. The dark, molasses and malt-flavoured beer became suffused with a fresh and gentle smokiness that transformed it from a nice sweetish porter to a really great tasting beer. I bottled off 90 bottles.

Today I took down some commercial dried hops to Frances – US Centennial and NZ Wakatu. This time they are in large laundry bags and they will hang in the smokehouse for two days before I use them for dry-hopping two more kilderkins of porter for a couple of days. Then the last of the Smokehouse Porter will be bottled off, just in time for Christmas.

Now autumn has one more blessing to offer us – Cromer smoked beer.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Black IPA

Emelisse Black IPA

8% 33 cl

What actually is a black IPA? The answer is, rather a contradiction in terms and not actually defined anywhere, so far as I know. Well, let’s find out what this is like, if it thinks it is a Black IPA.

There wasn’t must fizz when I took the crown cap off but in pouring there was a reassuringly deep cappuccino-coloured head. There is an aroma that reminds me of gravy browning or Oxo cubes but without the savouriness. It comes from the malt I think and lots of it. There is chocolate aroma too, bitter chocolate, you know that 70% cocoa stuff. The first sip confirms that this is a beer to be reckoned with. The flavours are assertive and there is plenty of alcohol to entertain the tongue. It is bitter sweet, malty and hoppy (malty first, followed by the hops). It really is lovely. On smacking it around the mouth every millimetre of my tongue is being entertained, sweet at the front and on top, bitterness around the sides and at the back. Then a wave of alcohol soothes and reassures the palate that this is a quality beer.

This beer is as black as your hat and it retains a nice ring of foam and lacing on the surface. It just invites you to imbibe some more. So I do and it just gets better. I indulge myself and glug several drafts in one go, throwing it around my mouth to extract the maximum flavour on every taste receptor, all at the same time. Crumbs, this beer is a goer. It is so eager to please and to satisfy. I only bought one. I wish I had bought a crate but that would have set me back £46.20 for a dozen 33 cl bottles from René at Beautiful Beers in Bury St. Edmunds.

Well, is this a Black IPA or is it an Imperial Stout? To be honest it reminds me of Guinness Extra Foreign Stout, which is a lovely beer and very good value for money because you can often find it discounted as it doesn’t seem to sell for some reason. I love it.

Surely an IPA needs to be both high in alcohol and assertive in the hop department. In fact the hops should be dominant over the malt in my opinion, although the malt needs to be pretty solid to support those hops. I reckon in this excellent beer the malt is actually the dominant partner, probably plenty of specialty malt too. There are plenty of hops but the flavour and sweetness of the malt actually carry the day. So in my book that places it into the stout bracket. It is not a beefed up pale ale/bitter, it is a beefed up stout, or even an Imperial Stout. God, it’s lovely. But nah, it ain’t an IPA in my book, black or not. On second thoughts I gather that American East Coast IPAs do favour the malt over the hop-bomb, so maybe it is an IPA. It is academic really.

Now we are down near the bottom I had better consider some of those elusive flavours. In the burp the hops are subdued, not your big in-your-face American IPA hops, not citrus but quite well mannered English or maybe American hops that would make a good modern-day session bitter but plenty of them and balanced with sweetness from the malt. There is bitter chocolate as I have said; a touch of coffee and cocoa. Am I imagining fondant cream? Maybe I am. It reminds me of one of those indulgent chocolate ice cream concoctions, but on stilts. I wish I had brewed this (You will Martin. One day, you will). It is the bottom of the glass now and there is just a dessert spoonful left. It is so lovely I don’t want to finish. I want to come back for more but if I do it will be gone. There, it is gone and all I have is the memory and the scrumptious flavours that are still playing around in my mouth.

They are still there.

Ooh. That was a good beer. Thank you, Emelisse. I am not sure this is a Black IPA but it is fantastic.

I went back to the bottle and found a couple of millilitres in the bottom. It was enough to give me another little hit of that flavour. Aah.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Winston's Temper

‘I am not enjoying myself very much’, said young Winston Churchill in a letter to his mother.  It was a Wednesday, the second of September 1885 and the 11 year old boy was staying at my house, Chesterfield Lodge, in Cromer that in those days lay on the edge of town, close to the newly opened Cromer Beach railway station. The weather had been fine and he was looking forward to Saturday when his mother would join him and then he would have her all to himself for a whole ten days. He was not getting along at all well with his governess, whom he felt was very unkind, strict and stiff. Adding to his woes he had a stomach upset and a temperature, which he put down to some liver he had eaten.

Chesterfield Lodge, Cromer about 1900 very much as it is today

“My temper is not of the most amiable”, he wrote. “I am counting the days till Saturday. Then I shall be able to tell you all my troubles.”

Young Winston in 1884, aged 10

Those troubles included a contretemps with his governess when he petulantly threw an ink pot at her with damaging effect. She may well have met Dr Robert Fenner when Winston was ill, but she summoned Cromer’s only doctor, to act this time in loco parentis. Young Winston was led upstairs by Dr Fenner “who played an active part in making ‘the punishment fit the crime’”.

Dr Robert Fenner, (right) and his partner Dr Herbert Dent, who recorded the incident in his memoirs.

No doubt this episode will one day help to sell my house, as it is documented by Winston himself that he stayed here and augmented by the memoirs of Dr Dent, who was partner to Dr Fenner. I thought I would commemorate the fact back in 2010 by brewing a dark and brooding beer which I called “Winston’s Temper”. This was before I had the Poppyland Brewery but I wanted to brew it again. So yesterday, I did. This was only the second brew on the premises and the first I had done solo. I have to say that I am pleased with my efforts as, despite the shenanigans of the Russian Doll kit, I produced 240 litres of what promises to be a very tasty strong and black IPA. It should be in the bottles shortly after Winston's 138th birthday, on 30th November. Cheers Winston.

A couple of other little things link us to Winston. Firstly, he died (by then a great statesman) on my thirteenth birthday, 24 January 1965. I can vividly remember watching his state funeral on our old Pye television. Secondly, there is a brick in the back wall of the kitchen that is carved with a large letter W. I can’t prove it of course, but I like to think that Winston was showing off to his little brother Jack and getting his own back for the unhappy time he had at Chesterfield Lodge.

Who carved this initial many years ago?

Like all my beers, this one is based on the amazing Maris Otter malt that I obtain from Branthill Farm near Wells next the Sea. This is what gives the beers such amazing depth of flavour. This and the variety of hops - Centennial principal among them.

The Barley to Beer Project is funded by:

Saturday, 17 November 2012

The Russian Doll

The shelves were pretty bare in the shop where the Russian dolls were on sale. It was Moscow on Friday 29 July 1966 and the next day I would be heading home, back to school in Stevenage. I had better get my Mum a present, I thought, before it was time to go. I just had enough pocket money left. They had fair-headed dolls dressed in some sort of silky national costume and they had those traditional  hollow wooden dolls – kulkas – that fit one inside another, nested 5, 6, 7 or more deep (according to your pocket) until the baby one in the middle was solid. Brightly hand-painted and all subtly different they stood in serried ranks. There wasn’t much else to choose from in those days. I couldn't decide which to get, so I bought both. They sat for many years in the china cabinet that Dad had made at the end of the war. The mahogany was salvaged from a bombed-out pub, the sunrise stained glass was originally fitted upside down – shining downwards – but Dad didn’t have the heart to tell his friend who had fitted it as a favour. So Dad had turned the doors upside-down to compensate and so for ever more we had to turn the key as if to lock the cabinet, when we wanted to unlock it because the lock too was upside-down. Now I have lost the key and the cabinet sits upstairs, unwanted, unused but it is one of a number of items that have survived the numerous rounds of de-cluttering after Dad died. I never had the heart to dispose of it. Not like the Russian dolls. They must have gone in a car boot sale years ago. You can’t keep everything and probably one day soon the china cabinet will go too.

The other week a Russian Doll came back to haunt me. Brendan drew up outside my house with a trailer carrying some brewing kit. Out jumped Edoardo, our younger Italian brewing friend and we hugged. Before I knew it, Brendan was assembling a line of little wooden dolls on the brewing kit in the trailer. “It’s a Russian Doll”, he said, “And so it this”. There on the trailer was a fiendish looking contraption of stainless steel and plastic piping. In the back of the pick-up was a fermenter. This was the brew kit for I had been waiting so long. Well actually, it wasn't really my brew kit at all. It was just a temporary measure to get me brewing at Poppyland Brewery, just in the nick of time for Christmas. It was Friday 2 November. “ I'll get a move on now with your own brewing vessels”, he promised. “ They've got a good welder at the engineering works now”. It was exactly two years since I first met Brendan and told him I harboured a desire to become a brewer.

The Russian Doll brew kit was hauled into the brewery and assembled. The gantry was attached, the electrics checked over and the thing was plumbed-in. I had all the ingredients and a recipe in mind, so we were ready to go. The next day Edo and I brewed what I thought was going to be Winston’s Temper, but actually it is now called Smokehouse Porter (see another blog for the explanation).

The Russian Doll is a very clever design for a portable brewery, very space-saving and self-contained. It has three vessels – a 1.5 barrel mash tun, a copper and a hot liquor tank and as you may have guessed they fit one inside another. The copper is a permanent fixture in the centre and surrounding it, in the space between the circular copper and the rectangular outer body shell is the hot liquor tank. The mash tun is suspended by a wire and can be wound up and down the gantry with a winding handle. At one end is a control panel with electrics, numerous valve controls, and slung underneath a numerous bits of plumbing, a pump and a heat exchanger. Liquids can be moved from anywhere to anywhere, either for cleaning or for brewing. All it needs is connection to the mains water and electricity and you are in business. I have been getting to know its intricacies as I have brewed in it with Edo and cleaned it afterwards. I look forward to brewing solo quite soon.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Beautiful coincidences

Sometimes my two businesses - geology and brewing - cross over and customers of one become customers of the other. So it was that Andrew Noakes came on a geology walk and later purchased some beer. He was my first mail order customer in fact and has become an enthusiastic fan of my saisons. He took a couple of my beers along to a tasting at his local home brew club hosted by René van den Oort from Beautiful Beers the specialist beer shop and René was very interested - real cork and muzzle he commented. He couldn't sample them though as he was driving. So, thanks to Andrew's lead Poppyland beers came to René's attention. As it happened, I was already following René on Twitter so I contacted him to ask if he would be interested in stocking Poppyland beers in his Bury St. Edmunds beer shop. Possibly he said, but not before he had tried one or two. So I took three down for him to try and he was impressed. 'Superb' he tweeted about "Seafood Lovers' Ale". "Must try", he said about Over the Hill, my collaboration IPA.

So I took Mrs Brewer on a shopping trip down to Bury St. Edmunds and delivered my beers. René and I chatted for much of the afternoon and not un-naturally I bought a lot of interesting stuff from his huge selection of Belgian and continental beers. Quite by coincidence, who should come in to the shop to buy a few bottles? None other than John Bexon, the head brewer of Greene King's brewery in Bury. To my delight he bought an "On the Edge" saison of mine, even before René had unpacked the box. Who would have through it? After years of consuming theirs, it was good to think Greene King were returning the compliment.

Apologies to René for such a poor likeness of him captured on my phone. He is much more good looking. John, looking very swarve, I am sorry I didn't get to chat with you longer but look forward to swapping notes with you one day.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Pilot takes off

It's not every day that you start a new career. When you start up as a microbrewer it is difficult to know exactly when you have started. Is it the day you told someone you wanted really to be a brewer? Or when you came home from the Brewlab course? Or the day you found your premises. Or lashed out more money than you dare tell you wife about in starting the business? Or the day you mashed-in to make your first commercial beer beer? Or the day you bottled it off?

No, I reckon the day you really start your new career is when you stand in front of the public and offer your own beer for sale, that you have planned, brewed and bottled yourself and designed the label and marketed it and talked about on the radio and you got it into the papers, with pictures of you leering at the camera. Then you are brought up short. People say, 'How much?' and you say "£5.99 a bottle" and they say "Oh..." And you think, "Bugger, I've overpriced it". And he says, "Ah...well. Mmm...OK then. I'll have 6 please." And you smile to yourself and think, "Yes! I am a real brewer now."

So the day came. Saturday 30th June 2012 dawned bright and clear and I donned my new pink-striped shirt and a pair of pale Fat Face flairs and I waddled down to the Cromer Farm and Health Shop wearing my name badge: "Martin Warren, Poppyland Brewery". This was my first outing. I was a debutante. Poppyland Pilot was a virgin and un-tested beer. So was it good enough? Would it gush all over the customer's living room carpets? Was it too bitter? So many anxieties. Edoardo was there (on a return work placement from the White Dog Brewery near Modena, where I had been for experience of the Italian market last year) and he approved of it.

It actually turned out to be a wonderful day. The customers in Andrew and Lisa's shop were intrigued, engaged, inspired and delighted by Norfolk's newest brewery and not only bought the beer but one or two of them came back and bought some more the same day, which was a shrewd move, as it proved to be very popular. I only released four cases to each of the retailers (Cromer Farm Shop and The Real Ale Shop) but I relented and brought another two in for the launch day in Cromer. We sold five and a half cases in the Cromer Farm and Health Shop that day and the other 6 bottles went the next day. It was small beer really, as the brewing industry goes. Small beer, but my beer. That was a result. Now, I am a brewer.

All the feedback so far about the beer has been positive. "A classy ale, well done", said Teddy Maufe, the farmer who grew the barley that it was made from. "Superb", said Steve Downes, of the Eastern Daily Press.


The Barley to Beer Project is funded by:

Saturday, 16 June 2012

I am sure I should be telling you about something else but I have to get this off my chest. This goes back to November 2010 when I was working-off a rather extended period of redundancy notice from the Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service. It was Price Waterhouse Coopers, the management consultants,  who fingured my post - Collections and Information Manager - as the one member of middle management who could be laid off without any apparent break in front-line service. My boss, the Head of Museums could see that this would be very wounding to the service, as I was reaching the end of a 20 year project. I was only 18 years into it and still had some final goals to deliver. We do take the long view in museums. Modes had been a life's work (don't ask, it's a museum thing). It would have been heart-breaking to leave it un-finished. She very kindly agreed to allow me to get as close to the finishing tape as possible and complete some vital work before I departed. She found some funds from her back pocket (real managers always have something in their back pocket) and I had a lengthy extension beyond my due redundancy date.

Well, I was 6 months into my notice and by that time I had been thinking of what I was going to do, post-redundancy. My early-retirement pension would be reasonable but a big step-down from a full salary. So that's why I was thinking about all of the things I could do to supplement my income. Geology, consultancy, maybe writing or publishing but the strongest dream was to become a microbrewer. That's why I went onto Amazon and ordered '"The Microbrewer's Handbook" by Ted Bruning (Beers of the World, Second Edition 2009, £9.95 or less). So I found myself going Hell for Leather to finish my 'Modes' work and worked all the hours God sent (was I crazy?) but occasionally while commuting I would put the laptop down and pick up "The Microbrewer's Handbook".

On one occasion I clambered onto the homeward train, hot and lumbered with laptop. I dis-robed, took out my handbook and laid it on the table while I put my coat and baggage into the rack. Being rather a private person I didn't want to show all-and-sundry in the carriage that I was reading a book for wannabe brewers, so I placed it face down on the table while I did this. But, just as I had feared, the man opposite began to take an inordinate interest in the book that I was being so coy about. Bloody cheek, I thought.

I sat down but didn't turn it over. "That's the Microbrewer's Handbook, isn't it?" said the stranger opposite. 'Ehm, yes, it is, as it happens." 

"I thought so", he said, "I am its publisher."

That wasn't strictly true. He was the actually the originator of the idea for the book and had done all the groundwork to make it happen and then sold the idea and the rights to the actual publishers who brought it to market.

Isn't it curious? It's another one of the amazing co-incidences that has occurred in my recent life. Who would have thought that the prime mover of the very book that has influenced and encouraged my headlong flight into brewing should be a resident of North Norfolk and get onto the very train that I did and sat opposite me on the very occasion that I had decided to take this book to work to read on the train. And I had got it out and stuck it right down in front of him. Scary.

When he was considering a new edition of the Microbrewer's Handbook, Rupert Wheeler contacted me to find out how I was getting on. Unfortunately, at that time I had nothing to report, as it was early days and I really hadn't made any progress, nor demonstrated any real commitment to starting a brewery of my own. He must have thought I had whimped-out. So I told him about the newly (re-)started Panther Brewery at the old Reepham Brewery (run by Martin James, with whom I have brewed - a tiny bit).

Well Rupert, if you are reading this, I have a real case study for you now. The Poppyland Brewery is about to burst upon the scene and take the world of microbrewing by storm!

Let's hope so.

If you are a wannabe brewer (Dale), don't do anything else until you have read "The Microbrewer's Handbook".

Thursday, 31 May 2012

Pilot is on the runway

This is a milestone. No longer a wannabe, I am a brewer! Yes! [Punches the air in triumph]. With plenty of work still to do in the Poppyland Brewery, and licences still to be issued, not to mention more brewing equipment to make, I felt I urgently needed to get some beer to market for the summer season in Cromer. Hence I became a cuckoo brewery (well if it's good enough for Mikkeller, it's good enough for me). With much help and support from St. Brendan of the Iceni and the loan of two breweries I have brewed my first commercial beer and it is resting quietly in the back of the Poppyland Brewery now, ready for sale on 30 June 2012.
A lovely krausen from the US-05 yeast taken on Brendan's phone.
At Brendan's suggestion I made a 90 litre mash tun from an old whisky barrel and it made its debut at the Elveden Brewery where I mashed-in (twice) and boiled the wort. It fermented a week there before it was racked into a couple of 18 gallon casks (or kilderkins) and was taken to the Iceni Brewery for dry hopping and secondary fermentation under air-locks. Today, with Kathy's help (Brendan's assistant) we bottled off 200 x 660 ml bottles of Poppyland 'Pilot'. This is a big IPA based on Branthill Maris Otter malt, with a predicted abv of 5.9% and packed full of hops (Columbus, Cascade and Summit). Two thirds of the output was dry hopped with American Summit hops and one third dry-hopped with Columbus (which Mrs Brewer suggests should be called 'Co-Pilot' - nice one). This has huge aroma and grapefruit flavours and a long hoppy finish. Just the sort of thing to please the beer connoisseur on a summer's day. Enjoy. You can get some from me or The Cromer Farm and Health Shop in Tucker Street (behind the church).

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Discovering new beers

On most occasions when I go to Norwich nowadays I call at the Two Brewers Beer and Cider Shop in Magdalen Street. It is up near the traffic lights at The Artichoke end. I would encourage you to do the same as it is lacking in customers. Use it or lose it, as they say. Good craft beer isn't the cheapest way to drink but once again it is a question of quality versus quantity and the difference between price and value for money.

In Carlos Branquinho's tiny little shop you can not only find Norfolk Square's excellent ales but a whole host of beer from other craft breweries in Norfolk. I especially go for Green Jack's big swing-top bottles of Baltic Trader Imperial Stout, the fantastic Ripper barley wine and the last time I bought Gone Fishing ESB (£7 for 750 ml). Furthermore, without the expense of travelling to the Continent or even America, you can enjoy beer from world famous breweries like Dogfish Head, Uinta, Goose Island and Mikkeller.

A new brew on me was Smiske natural ale from the Smisje microbrewery in Mater, Oudenaade, Belgium. I lashed out £3.50 on the little 33 cl bottle (7% abv) and hoped for the best. When I got home, I drank the Gone Fishing while I made a (fantastic) lamb curry and it was a wonderful example of a strong English ale or extra special bitter. Then I moved on to the Smiske. On opening it, I sniffed the bottle. Oh, surprise. TCP! But when I poured it the aroma all but disappeared. This phenolic flavour in beer is usually considered a fault but in this case it most certain is not! I poured it into a nice stemmed glass and it built a fine white head and had a golden colour. The first taste was unusual. Mmm. Yeasty, but in a good way. Slightly smokey, coal, medicinal; bitter from noble hops, flavoursome, phenolic, TCP again, dry and that long, long yeast. Wow, I liked it! This golden Belgian ale had plenty to say. It was assertive and I am sure you won't have had anything quite like this, except perhaps real Pilsner Urquell (with its pitch-lined barrel aging), only this was more so and better for being bottle conditioned. This was well-aged I suspect. Coor! Are those Hallertau hops, or Styrian Goldings perhaps? Full-flavoured and stonking. Smiske shows what a good yeast can do for beer flavour and I really recommend it. Get on down to Magdalen Street and get some Smiske, while stocks last.

I am cultivating the live yeast from the bottom of the bottle and multiplying it up with the intention of pitching it into a 5 gallon batch of home brew sometime soon. Watch this space.

Street art and graffiti

There is a difference.

Near the Centre Pompidou, Chatelet, Paris I was astonished by this incredible image:

Sorry, don't know the artist. 20 April 2012
Street art inspires romanticism, stirs patriotism, spreads revolution, even breeds anarchy.

In West Street, Cromer the spray-can anarchist evidently approved of my revolutionary new idea - the Poppyland Brewery:

1 September 2011

Not like in Colombia, where a microbrewery in Bogota received a deadly message of disapproval, delivered to one of its pubs in the form of a hand grenade.

I keep out of politics and just let the beer do the talking.

Friday, 27 April 2012

A Dirty Weekend in Paris, with beer

"Here are the keys", he said. "I changed the sheets on the sofa bed and now I am off  to the South of France. See you next week." And with that we found ourselves alone in a 'Cute little apartment in the best district of Paris'.

We didn't know him from Adam but his name was Frederic. His food was in the fridge, his dirty washing was in a pile in the bathroom. There was a ring of dirt around the bath. No vacuum cleaner (though there was a pipe from one) not even a dust pan and brush. All the wardrobe doors were bike-padlocked up. Just two drawers to put our stuff in. There was more but I won't bore you. Mmmm. Cute.

But it certainly was central; the 1st Arrondissement. The Louvre and Notre Dame were just a few streets away. The Gothic gargoyles and flying buttresses of the Eglise Saint Eustache loomed over us as we looked out of our first floor windows. The street was quiet and the windows double-glazed, although the Pompiers de Paris had their station literally next door. Fortunately they don't put the siren on until they leave the street.

It was a rainy week and not quite the Springtime in Paris we had hoped for. We were grumpy at first but, for me at least, Paris began to get under my skin. I was warming to it's history and grandeur as the days passed. We walked the streets of the Marais, the Latin Quarter, walked around the Louvre, visited the Tour Eiffel (but didn't inhale go up it on account of the queues for the one serviceable lift). We ate a lot of cakes. Then, just as I was about to walk past it, Mrs Brewer saw a beer shop, a very special beer shop. Le Cave a Bulles. Proprietor Simon Thillou was happy to talk about beer and was delighted to hear that I was opening a brewery. Maybe I would bring him some when we were in production? Sounds like a good idea.

Also in the shop was Simon's American friend Jordan. "Don't buy the Mikkeller 'It's Alive'. This is better. If you only buy one, buy this" and he handed me a different Mikkeller beer. At €34 it ****** **** ought to be good. I looked at Mrs Brewer. "Go on then", she said. So I became the owner of the most expensive bottle I have ever bought. I don't suppose I can put it down as a business expense but it was certainly good research for where I need to go with Poppyland Brewery. These are the leaders and the competition.

It didn't disappoint. The Mikkeller Nelson Sauvignon is a very special beer. It was plastic corked and muzzled in a sensibly brown 750 ml champagne bottle, 9% abv and it had a wonderful deep orange amber colour. The aroma just climbed out of the glass, powerful, citrus orange from the New Zealand Nelson Sauvin hops. I knew what was coming: it was going to be big. Yep. It was. A lovely foaming white head developed as it was poured, sinking gradually to a persistent ring and lacing. The first taste was huge, stacked full of fresh citrus, orange peel, Cointreau, yeasty, bitter-sweet, cidery, gorgeous, more-ish. The aroma was still there an hour later, huge, bursting. I had never had a beer like it, now smelling of fresh tea and autumn leaves in warm sunshine. This was all balanced by good malt but really, it was the hops and the gentle brett that were the stars. Ooooh! Exquisite. A tiny sip just filled the mouth. Its three months in the Austrian wine cask had certainly been time well spent. That bottle kept me entertained for the rest of the evening as I read the excellent and stimulating resource book for brewers, 'Radical Brewing' by Randy Mosher. I won't forget that evening. €34 well spent and cheaper than a disappointing 2008 Chinon that we drank at Les Papilles later that week. The food there was good, but not such good value for money as lunch at the restaurant of Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester on Mrs Brewer's birthday. It's all about the difference between cost and value for money.

By the way, in London on the way home, I visited Cask and Kitchen's Pimlico joint and there I found Mikkeller's 'It's Alive' on tap, all-be-it on top pressure. It didn't disappoint either, but it was rather cheaper, £4.60 a half if I recall. It's a busy establishment but very good for craft beer. Go there.

Charles Babbage's Brain

When I heard James Gleick on Radio 4 he immediately commanded my attention. In conversation with his interviewer his relaxed tones had authority and I knew I had to read his newest book, The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood (Fourth Estate, London 2011). I ordered it from Amazon and waited expectantly for its UK publication.

When the heavy paperback arrived I devoured its contents. The Information connected so many strands of my life, information science and the IT revolution that has been going on around us for several decades now. Gleick writes with clarity and insight and I would recommend it to anyone that is interested in how the modern world ticks, running as it increasingly does on pure information, coursing through its electronic nervous system.

Gleick devotes a fair amount of space to the nineteenth century mathematician Charles Babbage (1791-1871) and his far-sighted ideas about pure information which were embodied in his Difference Engine and its more advanced successor the Analytical Engine, a design for the world's first programmable computer. I was also introduced to, and rather captivated by, the precocious talent of his young pupil Ada Lovelace (nee Byron) who is credited with conceiving and actually writing the world's first computer program. She was an insatiable mathematical thinker and very sure of her own abilities, nor shy of telling everyone so.

Babbage had an amazing brain which he used to solve numerous problems in his lifetime by rigorous analysis and the application of logic. He was also a great London socialite and though he held the Lucasian chair of Mathematics at Cambridge (a post held by Isaac Newton no less) he was not required to attend the university very often and so he remained free to pursue his curiosity wherever it led him.

Imagine how captivated I was then to come face to face, so to speak, with all that remains of Charles Babbage. Well almost face to face. For in an exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, suspended in a numbered glass jar, was the pickled left hemisphere of Charles Babbage's brain. I looked and looked, transfixed. It seemed a good size but not exceptional. The preparator had severed the two hemispheres through the brain stem and the knife had strayed off course, cutting into a fold in his cerebral cortex. What damage might that have inflicted had Babbage been alive! What path might the history of information science taken without the insights conceived in that colossus of an intellect that inhabited those delicate folds in this organ before me?

Such is the power of museum collections to connect and such was my amazing good fortune to have stumbled upon this artefact, while waiting for my appointment at the eye hospital along the road. I just love serendipity. By another coincidence Babbage also invented the opththalmoscope, a device which allows surgeons to see inside the eye but like his early mechanical computers his invention was forgotten and had to be independently invented by Helman von Helmholtz. I found myself seated before a modern version of one later that afternoon.

Seek out and your luck comes to you.

Monday, 9 April 2012

A surreal mammoth moment

The new season of my Geology Walks at West Runton (Norfolk, UK) began yesterday, which was Easter Sunday and I had a party of 23. There is a wealth of geology to see in this small compass but the highlight for most would be the grave site of the West Runton Mammoth, discovered in 1990 and excavated 1990-1995. This was an extremely well preserved skeleton (85% complete) of a large bull of the ancestral species, the Steppe Mammoth (Mammuthus trogontherii). It died in its prime at the age of 41 and its cadaver was eaten by hyaenas (Crocuta crocuta), their characteristic tooth marks being evident of the bones. Many of the smallest bones were missing, removed presumably by the hyaenas and there was evidence of a serious subluxation (displacement) of the knee joint with which the creature had survived for some months before succumbing.

A group on my West Runton Geology Walk on 30 August 2011 -
all ages and capabilities are catered for!

This is Britain's oldest and most complete mammoth fossil. Imagine my surprise and delight then when, as I was about to launch into a spiel about larvikites, I was hailed by a voice from afar. It was my old friend and colleague Professor Tony Stuart, who directed the excavation of the West Runton Mammoth. "Martin, good to see you. I'd like to introduce you to Dr Sergy Vartanyan and his partner Diana." I smiled politely and shook hands. "He published the discovery and radiocarbon dating of the relict population of mammoths on Wrangel Island". I stepped back in honour and amazement, beamed, took off my hat and bowed. Well you would.

It was widely believed that all trace of the woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) had disappeared by 9,500 BP, the victims of environmental changes at the Pleistocene-Holocene boundary, or by hunting pressure from humans, or both. But in 1993 Vartanyan and his colleagues demonstrated that the population of Wrangel Island, in the Arctic Ocean, had lived on, as they had found teeth dating between 7000 and 4000 BP. Mammoths almost made it into modern times. He also discovered that they were very small (180 - 230 cm shoulder height) on Wrangel, not 'mammoth' at all. Compare this with the West Runton Mammoth, estimated to have been 400 cm.

Where is Wrangel Island? Well, at West Runton we were just 84.2 km to the east of the Greenwich or Prime Meridian (the line of 0 degrees longitude). If you follow it northwards you pass between Greenland and Svalbard and on to the North Pole. At this point you are somewhere in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. Beyond the pole the line is called the Antimeridian. Keep going until you approach the northern coast of eastern Siberia. Before you get there the Antimeridian bisects Wrangel Island. It is 6,231 km away from Runton 'as the crow files' - assuming they fly by the great circle route. You can see where Wrangel is in this picture of Sergy and Diana in their St. Petersburgh apartment (courtesy of Tony Stuart). It is close to the top edge on the top right hand side.

It was a great honour to have the scientists who worked on the oldest mammoths and the youngest mammoths making a guest appearance on my Geology Walk!

Sunday, 1 April 2012

J.W. Lees Harvest Ale 2000

Limited edition 1 December 2000.

11.5% 275 ml bottle, crown corked.

I am celebrating the completion of the Poppyland Brewery drain. There were 5 days of traffic lights and delays in central Cromer but in the end it all went very smoothly. Tomorrow the new floor screed goes down.

I bought this little bottle of J.W. Lee's Harvest 2000 Ale, bottle conditioned, for £3.00 at a sale in Southrepps Village Hall (North Norfolk) last summer so I thought it was time for a libation in celebration and to placate the Trade Effluent Gods. As I poured this unctuous ale into a small stemmed glass it built a nice creamy head, then subsided to a ring in a minute or so. Thrusting in a nose there was a powerful, strange aroma of very aged malt. Against the light it looks dark red but it is very dark in the glass. The first taste was very sweet but malty (it was the first of the 2000 harvest of Maris Otter). Those East Kent Goldings died away years ago, so it had no real bitterness. The powerful greeting on the nose was not evident on the tongue. The flavour was dominated by cloying sweetness; so sweet in fact it that made my lips sticky. But the malt flavour lasted long after the sweetness has gone down the throat.  Considering how much alcohol there was it was very well behaved.

Has it been worth the wait – after 11 years and 4 months? Well, no not really. It was OK, but I wouldn’t rave about it. It’s certainly better than Gold Label barley wine, but not as much as it should have been. I can’t think there was much development after the first month or two. Why was it not drier after all this time? Either J.W. Lees’ ‘excellent Cervisiae’ yeast had given up the ghost in all that alcohol or the sweetness was down to dextrins, which cannot be fermented by ordinary yeast. So this beer has been in a state of suspended animation for over a decade and not getting any better. There's a lesson then.

I'll have another tipple now but the next one will be Humpty Dumpty's Christmas Crack 7%. We had a firkin of it last Saturday (a 60th birthday present from Mark and Neil - brill and thanks you guys). I bottled some off, just in case we didn't drink it all (and we didn't!). I'll tell you about the Humpty Dumpty Experience one day soon.

Friday, 30 March 2012

Ales Gas 'n Lager

When I noticed that the sign over the shop window was made of screwed-on plastic letters it reminded me of Fawlty Towers. I could move them around, I thought and save myself a few bob. So that's how ALLEN'S GARAGES in West Street, Cromer became ALES GAS 'N LAGER. That just about sums up the future output of my proposed POPPYLAND BREWERY. The gas of course has nothing to do with the effects of too much beer on your digestion but everything to do with the by-products of fermentation. As are real ales and lager of course.

Among beery aficionados lager has earned itself a deservedly poor reputation in Britain for the ultra-cold, insipid, gas-laden yellow liquid that spurts from keg taps the length and breadth of the country. Ubiquitous, bland and over-priced. Some people seem to like it but do they have any idea what real lager should taste like? And that there used to be black lagers and flavour-some lagers and all kinds of different lagers besides Pilsners, stored for months in cold cellars and caves before coming to perfection and being released by the proud brewer to quench the thirst of a grateful public?

When I eventually do brew beer for sale I want the drinker to think, Wow! That's extraordinary. A different drinking experience and worth every penny.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Lucky breaks

The building work on the brewery has moved on a massive step this week. We have our very own hole in the road, complete with 4-way traffic light system. Don't try this at home folks. It's very expensive but it has to be done to get drainage into the brewer and get a flue liner up the chimney. Our apologies to our neighbours, the good people of Cromer and travellers for the noise and delays.

Mackinnon Construction sent down a great team, including three Pauls-in-a-pod, all in identical orange overalls and all with shaved heads: Paul Newton, Paul Kelly and Paul Fulcher.

We have been blessed with brilliant weather, which always helps but yesterday two strokes of luck helped the project on it's way. Firstly a problem with a jackdaw's nest in a crank in the chimney prevented Swiftair from completing the new flue lining.

A frantic call to two local chimney sweeping firms found one of them busy and the other one not answering the mobile. I left a message and set about trying to find a solution to clearing the flue. A few minutes later a call came in. It was the Dean Knowles the chimney sweep from Woodburners of Gresham. He had been in Overstrand and out of signal range. But as he was coming through Cromer he found himself sitting in a queue of traffic, waiting to go through some traffic lights where the road was up. He checked his voice mails while he waited and got my desperate message. He was actually queuing at our very own traffic lights: how lucky is that? He came straight on site and in no time he and his colleague - another Dean! - had the chimney cleared of sticks and the brush poking triumphantly out of the chimney pot.

  Dean Knowles (right) and Dean Patrick his assistant. Thanks guys.

So Swiftair could get on, completed their flue lining and all was well. The second stroke of luck came when the Mackinnon digging team, having picked their way carefully around numerous buried services - power cables, phones, water main, gas pipe and old sewer - eventually found the main sewer running down the middle of the street at 2 metres depth. To everyone's astonishment they found that the Victorian constructors had provided a junction ready for us to connect straight into the sewer, so no cutting was needed. How lucky was that? Our hole had landed right on it, purely by chance, or maybe it was providence.

It just seems that this project was meant to be and that's not the first time I have said it. Someone or something seems to be guiding events and it is shaking my atheistic beliefs to the core.