Jesus was a beer drinker

Beer can feel like a club that doesn’t want me as a member and I’m no Groucho Marx.

I wish I liked beer more. It has a fine sense of humour; names such as Electric Nurse and Anarchy would look ridiculous on a winery. But I’ve always considered it wine’s poor relation, so Ben McFarland, the author of Boutique Beer, is out to convert me.

We meet at the Craft Beer Co, where the fridge glows with brown glass and the gleaming taps could blind you. I’m the only woman here. I’m surprised my arrival doesn’t trigger a mass exodus. This is one of my gripes: beer can feel like a club that doesn’t want me as a member and I’m no Groucho Marx.

While Ben goes off to drool – I mean, order – I open his book and read about Bernard Leboucq of the Brasserie de la Senne, who named his brewery after a buried river in Brussels and thinks the Bruxellois are deluded to claim they have great beer. They used to, he reckons, but nowadays . . .

Maybe that’s the difference between beer and wine, apart from details such as contents, history and method of manufacture. Beer looks back to a glorious past. It was probably the first drinking alcohol and at one point it was considered a healthier substitute for water.

Yet it has taken longer than wine to consider the future. The standard picture of a beer-lover is a whiskered pot belly, peering into his oversized glass for a glimpse of the good old days.

Beer is catching up. In 2006, London had only a handful of breweries, one of which produced Budweiser. Today, there are 30 microbreweries in the capital and many more beyond, all making boutique beers with just hops, grain, water, yeast and inspiration, some of it rather odd, such as the Australian who brews using boiling-hot boulders from Fiji.

Ben returns with our pints. I dislike pints: simply too much drink in one place. Ben, oblivious, starts telling me about Thornbridge, which comes from Derbyshire but is made like a Kölsch – a light style of beer brewed in Cologne. The city forbids other places to use the name.

My ears prick up. Convoluted, terroir-based rules are, so to speak, my territory. And there’s more concern with place in beer than you would think, because hops taste of where they’re from, although they’re so light – you dry them – that you can pitch your brewery wherever you like and import them. (Unless you want to call the resulting brew Kölsch.)

There are national tastes in beer, apparently. Americans are bigger and brasher, while Britain historically prefers a gentle, lower-alcohol beer – one reason it can be served in pints. Kölsch, Ben tells me, usually comes in a tiny glass. I regard my transparent tower of beer and think predictable 21st-century thoughts about the German gift for economy.

The beer is soft and toasty and rather moreish, unlike Ben’s Dark Star, made with American hops, which has a bitter citrus kick that I find interesting to try but easy to leave.

We sample Kernel Export Stout, an 1890s recipe produced in Bermondsey by an Irishman. It’s malty – chocolate on the nose and tar on the tongue, like boozy Marmite. Ben’s Evil Twin seems rather too well named. He’s now muttering darkly about how Jesus actually turned water into beer, because he was poor and only rich Romans drank wine. He clinches the (one-sided) argument by pointing out that Jesus had a beard and wore sandals, so was obviously a beer drinker.

Jesus the hipster. Nobody ever concocted a theory like that while downing fermented grapes. But beer’s greatest mystery remains –why can I consume champagne until I overflow, yet a couple of beers fill me up? Is the flaw in me or the beer? I can see Ben biting his tongue (not easy with a mouth full of beer), so I consign the Holy Trinity to his care and depart, sober: Kernel’s 7.2 per cent ABV may be hardcore for beer but it’s nothing compared to your average grape-based beverage. They get Jesus, we get drunk. Not much of a contest, in my jaundiced view.

Next week: John Burnside on nature

Roll out the barrel: Dogfish Head Brewery is attempting to recreate a Neolithic-era Chinese beer. Image: Andrew Hetherington/Redux/Eyevine

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iran vs Israel

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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State