Friday, January 22, 2016

The End

I returned to Harrogate after my whirlwind tour and started back at Roosters.  With only a week and a half left in the UK, it didn’t take long to return to the familiar routine - up at 4:30am, Skype with my girlfriend at 5am, picked up at 6:20am to get to the brewery around 6:30am, then a full day of cask filling, cask cleaning, and other tasks at Roosters, returning back home around 4pm to fill the rest of my day with whatever came up.  It was nice to get back into the routine, and the guys at the brewery generously welcomed me back.

Back at Roosters.
With the time remaining, venturing out and exploring more of the UK was not out of question from a logistical perspective, but as far as I was concerned my travels had come an end and I just wanted to make the most of the place that I had called home for the past 3 months - Harrogate.  I needed to pay my final respects to the local establishments that had become my drinking spots - Old Bell, Swan on the Stray, and Harrogate Tap.  Also, from my visits to other breweries around the UK, I had collected my fair share of beer and there was no way that I was going to be able to fit them all in my luggage, so I had to invest a little time sampling the spoils of my journeys.  Finally, Oliver had expressed interest in spending some time with me before I left, so I was perfectly content letting my last few days in the UK slip away in Harrogate - one last fish and chips dinner, one last pork pie, one last Roast dinner and Yorkshire Pudding, a day of Harrogate Town football and drinking, a short excursion to Leeds to do some Christmas shopping, one last trip to Farrah’s to pick up some gifts from Harrogate, and some evenings of just catching up and collecting my thoughts on the things I had experienced in the UK.
Last fish and chips dinner - Old Bell, Harrogate.
Roosters crew.
Last roast dinner - Lamb & Flag, Leeds.
Harrogate Town football match.
One of the greatest highlights of my entire trip happened on the Thursday after I returned to Harrogate.  About a month earlier, Oliver and I had brewed a beer on the trial plant at Roosters - it was, in its most honest sense, a collaboration between Oliver and myself.  I had picked the style, an ESB, and had come up with a recipe for the beer.  After a few iterations of the recipe and some technical discussions with Oliver on what I wanted the beer to be, we settled on a very traditional malt profile and hop schedule featuring only English hops.  The brew day went flawlessly thanks to Oliver who showed me the ropes on the well-worn, but trusty system.  The iconic Fuller’s yeast worked its magic on the wort and after a week in the fermenter we sampled the beer and were more than pleased with the results - a medium bodied, perfectly balanced ESB bursting with well-rounded bitterness, ripe fruit sweetness, and very apparent, honest yeast character.  We filled one cask and twelve 660mL bottles with the delightful beer and Oliver made arrangements to release the beer at an event at Major Tom’s in Harrogate.

Early in the evening at Major Tom's
The event was released on social media as a special Roosters event at Major Tom’s - the world’s only cask of the special collaboration between Roosters and Present Tense Fine Ales.  On the night of the event, I walked into the pub before the guys from Roosters had shown up, and I ordered a pint of “The Purist and the Pioneer” - the name that I had coined for the beer as a reference to myself, the purist, and Oliver, the pioneer.  As much as I was amazed to see the beer that I had created being served in this pub in the UK, it was even crazier to see, as I stood at the bar, person after person order and enjoy my creation - the greatest joy for a brewer.  I took my pint, without anyone realizing that it was my beer that was being served, and I found myself a seat.  It took a while for me to realize that the majority of the people in the pub had come specifically to try my beer - obviously not because it was MY beer, but because it was a one off beer from Roosters - and I was incredibly grateful to have been given this opportunity by Oliver.  For anyone with a distinguishing palette, they could recognize that there was nothing characteristic of Roosters present in the beer, rather, it was distinctly traditional and characteristically English - that was my intention...a product of a purist approach.  The guys from Roosters soon showed up and had nothing but good things to say about the beer.  One of the most memorable critiques of my beer coming from Oliver’s friend Rob, a rep from Lallemand (a producer of brewing yeast) and a former brewer at Copper Dragon in Skipton, who undoubtedly had an incredible knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of English beer said that my beer precisely hit every aspect of a great ESB and was a fine example of real, traditional English ale.  And I was surprised to see later that night a Tweet from him, that as much as he left an impression on me, I left an impression on him…”An absolute pleasure to spend time with someone who understands ESB and the finer points of British yeast”...quite a compliment from a yeast expert to just an American who loves English ale.

The world's only cask of The Purist and The Pioneer.
As a result of my recent travels around Oxford and London, I had a clear idea of what a real ESB tasted like...I had lost track of how many pints of Fuller’s ESB I had consumed.  So, it was fresh on my mind how “The Purist and The Pioneer” stood up to the one and only Fuller’s.  But one thing was noticeably different about the beer that I had created as I finished my first pint.  The pint was beautiful - crystal clear, poured with the cascade of white aeration settling into a dark rust colored liquid and coalescing on top to a thick, dense foam head - the first drink was a mouthful of flavor - malt sweetness balanced with classic orange marmalade, slight spicy hop character - the feel - silky and smooth.  Then, the next drink, all of that flavor and vibrancy disappeared into a muddled, but smooth, indescribably drinkable liquid...the appearance remaining as brilliant as ever with the lacing telling the story of every sip.  As I contemplated the beer in my hand and thought back on how the beer had tasted as it was being racked into the cask, something came to my mind - the sparkler.

The Purist and The Pioneer.
I have mentioned the sparkler in previous blog posts and up to this point hadn’t quite made a conclusive decision as to what I really thought about them.  To a Yorkshireman, the only way to drink a pint is through a sparkler - the argument emphasizing the appearance of the beer as it is poured and the thick, creamy head that is formed on top of the pint.  However, the argument tends to ignore or overlook the flavor of the beer...if the flavor is addressed, the notion of the sparkler negatively affecting flavor is immediately rejected and, in its place, it is suggested the flavor is not different.  In all reality, though, most Yorkshiremen were born and raised drinking beer through a sparkler and the flavor that results is the flavor of beer that they expect - not necessarily better or worse, but familiar.  For the use of a sparkler to be questioned is to concede to a potential paradigm shift in their understanding of beer.  From an unbiased perspective, it is undeniable the difference that a sparkler imparts on the flavor of a beer.  For some beers it can have a positive effect, but for other beers it can really destroy the flavor and vibrancy of a beer.

So, as my peers at the brewery gathered around me, true Yorkshiremen no less, I suggested that maybe this beer should be sampled without a sparkler, since, in the South, where this beer originated, they do not use a sparkler.  Also, if my memory served me correctly, this beer had significantly more depth of character than I was getting from the pint I had pulled through a sparkler.  At first, the reaction was a bit of dismissal, kinda laughing and not really thinking I was serious, but then I reaffirmed my notion and insisted that my memory of this beer was much different.  So, one of the guys walked up to the bar and ordered a pint served with a sparkler and another pint served with the sparkler removed...not a common request at Major Tom’s and certainly a request that makes the typical Yorkshireman a little uneasy.  

Two pints sat on the table in front of us - the appearance of the beers not drastically different - no doubt, the sparkler beer had a thicker, creamier head, but the beer not served through a sparkler still had a head which was relatively thick and creamy.  Then, the first guy picked up the beer not served through a sparkler, took a discerning sniff, and then a generous sip.  Then, repeating the process on the beer served through a sparkler...saving his judgment until everyone could make the comparison.  It finally got around to me and immediately the first sip of the sparklerless beer triggered my memory of the flavors that I had been familiar with.  The difference was dramatic, in my opinion.  The sparkler took the life out of the beer, leaving muddled flavors and a less interesting character in the beer.  My presumptions had proven true, however, it was not a unanimous defeat of the sparkler, as one or two true die hard Yorkshiremen still preferred the sparkler and would not accept reality - to each their own.

The night went on and the collection of pint glasses grew on the table in front of us.  By 10:30pm, the world’s only cask of “The Purist and The Pioneer” had been emptied, and people started clearing out of Major Tom’s.  The UK premier of Present Tense Fine Ales had been a huge success, and I was incredibly satisfied with the beer that Oliver and I had created.

The end of the night at Major Tom's.
The last days at Roosters went by like every other day, save our final evening after work, we all sat down around the lunch table and I shared my gift of four beers that I had had shipped over from the US.  I said my farewells and caught a ride back home, where I spent the remainder of the evening sorting out my luggage and finding a way to stuff 30 bottles of beer, safely without any chance of breaking, into my two pieces of luggage.  They eventually fit after making a few compromises on my clothing and one bottle, and I resigned myself to the fact that I would have to lug around 86 pounds of luggage for my multiple flight itinerary home.

Last pint of cask ale - Black Sheep Special Ale at The Swan on the Stray.
My three months in the UK came to an end on Christmas Eve…or so I thought.  Little did I know how hard it would be for the UK to let me go.  As I was dreaming of Christmas with my girlfriend and family back in Missouri, the plans for my flight back home started falling apart all around me.  My flight out of Leeds was grounded due to a bloody propeller (a bird having become a victim of its landing into Leeds).  There was no way for me to make my flight from Dublin to Chicago, and since I had booked my flight through a third party website, the airline was warning me of the potential that there was nothing they could do about it.  For two hours, my stress level exceeded a point that I rarely experience – I called the website who directed me to the airline; then I called the airline who told me there was nothing they could do and that I should call the website.  I was stuck in an endless cycle of non-sense at an airport whose staff had absolutely no power to do anything for my situation. 

A glimmer of hope, my only hope at that point, came when I was told that I could be transferred to a flight to London and maybe get a flight back to the States on Christmas day.  With no other information available to me because of a complete lack of competence at Leeds Airport, I boarded a flight to London hoping that Heathrow Airport would handle my situation a little more professionally.  My hopes came true – a friendly woman greeted me at the Aer Lingus kiosk and I soon had accommodations for the night with dinner and breakfast provided and the booking for my flight home on Christmas day.  After a little frustration at Leeds, Aer Lingus came through and treated me to a peaceful Christmas Eve, albeit an ocean away from where I wanted to be.  I landed in Kansas City at 3pm on Christmas Day with the lyrics of “I’ll be home for Christmas” ringing in my mind truer than I ever could have imagined.

Flying into London.
Now back in Chicago, after enjoying the holidays with family, I have had plenty of time to reminisce on my time in the UK. The nostalgia of the last three months did not take long to resurface. On my first day back, I found myself sitting at a bar in Holland, MI. I ordered a pint of a non-descript English ale from a local brewery and my heart sunk when the waitress returned with a 16-oz glass of ice cold, over carbonated, murky brown beer - plenty of reminder that I am not in the UK anymore! But what I do have, that cannot be impaired by a dreadful pint, is the memory of the amazing English beer, the gratefulness in my heart of the incredible generosity and welcoming hospitality of everyone I met in the UK, especially everyone at Roosters - Oliver, Tom, Tom, Ben, Stu, Jamie, Dave, Stu, Ian, and Caroline; James Fawcett; Mick; and all of the breweries and pubs that treated me with such respect and freely opened their doors to me to help teach me what it takes to make amazing English ale. It was an amazing experience - one that I will never forget and one that has only reinforced my passion for brewing and rejuvenated my desire to bring the authentic English experience back to Chicago.