I’ve been meaning to do this for a while now. Drink a beer and write about it I mean. But time and again, as sip followed sip, I found that the bottle was sunk well before I was ever able to reach for my pen.
Now though, I am resolute. There are great beers being brewed right across the North – there always have been, of course, but now there seem to be more than ever – and it’s time that I subjected a few of them to forensic analysis. Or rather, to the slurred metaphors and hazy images that flow from my fingers when I type while under the influence of drink.
I’m calling this series Brew North, and the aim is simple: to sample beers from Northern breweries and write about them as I slurp. There are plenty to choose from, but I’m starting with what I think is probably the closest brewery to my house: the Mad Hatter Brewing Company, based in the far corner of Toxteth, Liverpool. It sits just yards from the now defunct Cains Brewery – a symbol, if ever there was one, of how tiny craft brewers are now flourishing where once-mighty regional beer giants have fallen. There’s an economic loss here certainly, given that Cains employed many while Mad Hatter employs very few, but in terms of boundless beery wealth, we have never been richer.
I could have gone for one of Mad Hatter’s core products – beers like Penny Lane Pale or Toxteth IPA, both of which pack a powerful fruit-punch hop wallop, but which remain close enough to the mainstream to sit on the bar alongside more traditional British real ales. But tasty as those core beers are, what’s really interesting about Mad Hatter is the rest of its range. This is not a brewery that stands still. It experiments constantly, resulting in an ever-changing array of bottles and kegs that push the concept of beer to its limits.
My first Brew North selection, therefore, is a Mad Hatter beer called A Night Out, plucked at random from the fridge at my local bottle emporium. It is described as a ‘papaya, peach, coconut and chilli IPA’ so rather than a brown-bitter-in-a-pub-back-yard effect, I’m hoping for a tropical beach rave in a glass.
Launched in Liverpool in 2013, Mad Hatter clearly takes inspiration from Lewis Carroll – that much is obvious. There’s the name, of course, and the ever-present white rabbit that appears on its wonderfully witty label art. But let’s not stop there.
Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, along with the works of Jung and Freud, was a cornerstone of Surrealism, the 20th century art movement that traversed the borders between dream logic and the real world, conjuring unexpected collisions and extraordinary manifestations: lobsters met telephones; landscapes turned to stone.
In the mid-1970s, Liverpool caught hold of Surrealism’s elusive shadow and, following an extraordinary sequence of synchronicitous occurrences, pinned it to the Liverpool School of Language, Music, Dream and Pun – a Surrealist outpost in a city centre warehouse in which imaginations, and consciousness, roamed free. In a city that seemed to be approaching terminal collapse, it felt as though unfettered dreaming was the portal to a more vigorous mode of life.
From Ken Campbell’s Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool to Bill Drummond’s stadium-raving, currency-conflagrating career, the cultural currents set in motion by the school were many and multi-hued. Though it no longer exists as an entity, the building remains – now an Irish-themed pub called Flanagan’s Apple. And tucked away on the outside wall sits a bust of Carl Jung together with his dream-induced declaration that ‘Liverpool is the pool of life’.
It’s in this expectation-confounding tradition that I place the Mad Hatter Brewing Company. If the IPA – or India Pale Ale – is derived from the heavily-hopped ales that were brewed to survive the voyage to British India, A Night Out, with its peach, papaya and coconut, would suggest that the beer-heavy boat might have come a cropper somewhere in the South Seas. For the Surrealists, it was in the proximity of just such chance happenings that true beauty could be divined: Lautréamont’s phrase ‘as beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table’ was often held to be the movement’s defining statement of intent.
So, it’s time to leave reality behind. Popping the bottle’s cap, I pour its contents into my glass. My first thought is that, yes, it looks like an IPA, being a glowing tangerine-coloured liquid with plenty of fizz. My second thought is that it isn’t merely hazy; it appears to have clumps of yeasty sediment riding the currents, bobbing up and down on a stream of bubbles. I’m careful about storing my beer and the yeast usually stays at the bottom of the bottle, but the carbonation’s churn is such that there’s no restraining this stuff. It seems to ride the currents like a cowboy at a rodeo. This isn’t a problem unless you like your beer to be crystal clear, so be warned.
The head reminds me of that frothy residue that collects on the shoreline at suspect seaside resorts. As it begins to recede, it clings to the side of my glass like the skin on a creamy rice pudding. And then, while contemplating this effect, my eye is drawn back to the floating residue, which now makes me think of goldfish poo in a tank.
All kinds of deliciousness in store, it seems.
Time to take in the aroma. I inhale a lung full and promptly start coughing. The last time I felt like this was when someone set off a canister of CS gas in a tent at Creamfields. As a chilli fan, this is a promise of blistering treats in store. Often, when a beer claims to contain the fiery pepper, you’re hard pressed to discern its presence. But on the evidence of this aroma, this stuff is about to kick like Cantona.
I think of tinned peaches and sneezing powder, two childhood memories that I never expected to be combined. But that’s Mad Hatter for you. It seems that in their world, there isn’t a fruit salad yet concocted that wouldn’t be improved by covering it in clouds of that white pepper you find at the back of the cupboard in holiday cottages.
And now for a gob full. The beer is still cold, straight from the fridge, and it delivers plenty of juicy fruit up front. There’s a hint of standard IPA orange-peel zest before a stickier sweetness threatens to take over…but before the papaya and peach become cloying, there’s a catch in the throat and a scorching tingle burns through. While the overall bitterness is on the low side for an IPA, the chilli heat takes its place and stays for a satisfyingly long time on the tongue.
According to the label, A Night Out is ‘an IPA for sunny days’. On a sodden Monday afternoon in February, this seems very much like taking the piss. But if I shut my eyes very tightly I can imagine glugging back one of these in some sun-dappled garden, happily refuting any notion that summer beers should be flavourless and watery. As far as my palate is concerned, summer ale needs to be zesty, full-flavoured and capable of delivering a satisfying bite, and though the aroma of this one is a touch gluey, it’s a beer that’s full of sunshine – bleaching rather than golden – but always with that tingly chilli kick.
After a while, the fierce bubbling subsides and the residue sits at the bottom like river-bed sediment, to be churned up every time I take a sip. I’d go so far as to say it looks positively unsightly, but as my attention is now mostly on my laptop screen and the rain. The beer is warmer now too, which opens up a stickier aspect to the taste, and the chilli faces more competition from the…what was it again? Peach and papaya? Pomegranate and pumpernickel? With Mad Hatter, you never can tell.
A Night Out, they call it. A summer beer, they say. It’s now 4.24pm on a Monday in February, and basking in the afterglow of a 6.6 per cent ale is an unusual sensation for this time of the week. But that’s what happens when you come up against the brewhouse surrealists of Mad Hatter. Rat-race logic is turned upside down and you find yourself in a tangled world of your own mind’s making. It’s a fun place to be for a while but before long you realise you’re late, you’re late, for a very important date.
The kids are home from school and it’s time to make tea. And then I wake up, and it isn’t a dream.
Brewery: Mad Hatter Brewing Company
ABV: 6.6 per cent
More info: http://madhatterbrewing.co.uk/