It seems kinda funny now this feeling I recall, but back in 2003 my taste buds were all shook up in a small room above a pub, whose name I’ve forgotten, in central London. It was one of the bi-annual beer tastings that Safeway’s, as it was known before being swallowed by Morrison’s, used to run for beer-writers and members of the trade. Orchestrated by the much missed Glenn Payne, then the supermarket’s beer buyer (and what a beer buyer he was — you could go to Safeway’s and see beers from the likes of Dogfish Head, Victory, Bosteels and Alaskan Brewing on the shelves, and it was all thanks to Glenn), the reason why I remember this particular event was the first taste I had of Goose Island’s IPA.
At the time I wrote: ‘on the nose oily hop sack and rich citrus (Seville orange, pastille fruit); soft malt in the background; stunningly hoppy nose. Rich citrusy fruit on palate, with soft malt and then a slow to develop bitter finish with plenty of citrusy fruit to soften the edges.’ I think most people in the room who tried it were equally impressed; I recall Mark Dorber, then still in residence at the White Horse in Parsons Green, telling me, almost wild-eyed, that he had to get a keg into the pub.
The impact of that beer has always remained with me — I had tried all manner of IPAs before, usually of the White Shield ilk (which is not a criticism), while Trafalgar IPA from Forest of Dean brewery Freeminers had impressed me several years back, but this perhaps was one of the most influential beers I had ever tried. I had started on my IPA journey (though it’s quite funny how we regard an IPA as something as murky as an old pond and as oaty as the kind of feed-bag you attach to a horse’s mouth).
As part of this mood of reflection and retrospection on the beers that have attracted me on this journey that is all consuming and forever on its way, Goose Island IPA was a bright beacon of a staging post. I occasionally still drink it, but I think so much has moved on that I cannot get that charge from it anymore. I still, though, expect a beer to knock me back, stop me in my tracks, hold me while I consider and evaluate it.
Another beer that worked like that was Tipopils, drunk at the brewery bar with the brewer Agostino Arioli back in 2008, when with three other beer writers I visited several Italian craft breweries (including Birra Baladin, whose flamboyant founder and brewer Teo Musso led me remark to one of the other writers, ‘I bet it takes all morning to make his hair that messy’). Of Tipopils I recall it being big and bold in both nose and flavour with a crisp and refreshing mouthfeel; on the palate it was bitter and aromatic, dry and sprightly, fragrant, resiny, powerful and punchy. The finish was dry and bitter and I thought (and still do) that it was one of the best I had ever tasted (and my taste-buds salivate at the thought of it now). According to Arioli, it was influenced by Jever Pils and ‘is my baby’.
I think part of the skill of a beer that really changes the way you look at the liquid in the glass is not just its quality, it is also the way it speaks of the beer’s place in the world. It doesn’t need to be the best beer in the world, but it is a beer that says to the drinker, ‘I am here’. I often recall Pivovar Kácov’s Hubertus Premium 12°, a classic Czech světlý ležák, which I sampled during a summer’s day sitting on a terrace at the brewery tap accompanied by a plate of traditional Czech cuisine. The beer was sublime, the River Vlatva drifted by and fishermen tried their luck as time joined the river in its eternal journey. I’ll never go back though, there are some moments in this journey you can never recapture.