Ryan Adams – Ashes & Fire (2011)

Ryan Adams Ashes & FireRyan Adams has a new album out. A self-titled album, which seems a fair enough thing to do after fourteen officially released albums. And a few hundred more albums that never saw the light of day apart from the odd track here and there or through rare bootlegs, due to record company obtuseness / artistic stroppiness / poor quality / alien invasions (delete as appropriate).

But this post isn’t about Ryan Adams. It’s about Ashes & Fire, the one that came before, released in 2011. I may not even buy his most recent release. Like so many others I’ve gone from being a huge fan of Adams to falling out of love with the music; not least because of also falling into frustration with the man himself.

Be it due illness / drugs / uncompromising artistic values / alien invasions (delete as appropriate) Adams went from some great albums with Whiskeytown into a solo career that opened with two utterly superb albums but was then followed by; well, a mess of erratic albums and live performances.

But then in 2011, after taking some time off to get married and to recover his health, Adams returned with Ashes & Fire, an album hailed by some at the time (including myself) as a return to form, a return to the Ryan Adams that we first developed our musical crushes on a decade before.

Now, a few years later just as his next studio album hits the shelves (at least the second – if not third – he’s recorded since then, having scrapped the earlier efforts) I took a moment to put Ashes & Fire album back on. From adoring it on release, as time went by I played it less and less, and so I was interested to see what it held for me now.

Listening again, it becomes clear that what Adams has really done on Ashes & Fire is to return to what came before. The songs hark back to earlier Adams material, three albums in particular.

‘Come Home’, ‘Save Me’ and ‘Kindness’ could have come from 2005’s Jacksonville City Nights, carrying Adams’ more mature, tear-weary voice, lush countrified arrangements and luscious steel guitar.

Ashes & Fire also lifts from Gold, Adams’ 2001 commercial breakthrough, the gorgeous, tremulous yet lively part-heartbroken part-hopeful love songs Adams writes so well, in particular on ‘Chains of Love’ and the album’s title track.

And, from his stunning solo debut Heartbreaker from 2000, we can hear the live-in-studio feel, stripped back and acoustic guitar, in particular on the album’s open ‘Dirty Rain’.

If it’s possible to pick through the 11 songs on Ashes & Fire and place them amongst those three albums, it’s just as easy to pick what this album isn’t. This isn’t the raucous glam and brit pop influenced rock of Rock n Roll, nor is this album the commercial, full-on country rock sound of the last couple of releases he did with The Cardinals, nor is Ashes & Fire the twin-guitar led Grateful Dead revival that was Cold Roses (my favourite Adams album, by the way).

Adams is squarely in a comfortable country ballad space with Ashes & Fire, not straying too far from what is probably a very safe course for him. And yet, despite that, despite the near unoriginality of it, the album is gorgeous. Beautiful. Adams may’ve done this many times before but, when his voice creaks and rises and breaks within one of his ballads it’s confirmed again that he really is very very good at this style of music.

But beyond those things that Adams does so well, there’s two particular elements to Ashes & Fire that lift it for me, at least for as long as I listen to it, to a blissful musical experience. Long time Adams collaborator Norah Jones returns to provide backing vocals on three of the albums tracks, and as usual her and Adams voices meld to create something heartaching and bittersweet.

Jones also plays piano on many of the songs, providing a superb counterpart to Adams and his guitar, adding a timbre and tone that brings the songs to life. But even more than Jones’ contributions on the keys are those of Benmont Tench, founding member of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Tench plays piano, electric piano or sublime Hammond B3 on almost all of Ashes & Fire’s tracks, and it’s his contributions that lift this album beyond a pastiche or rehash of what Adams had done before to something quite special.

And, as I listen to ‘Do I Wait’, as Adams’ voice weeps and Tench’s B3 soars, I realise that I probably will go out and buy that new Ryan Adams albums. Because if Ryan Adams has even one song on it like this one, it’ll be worth it the price of purchase.

Beer match: This is a relaxed album, not too challenging but with little touches that reward you if you pay attention. The quality is in the details. And that makes me think of Yeastie Boy’s ‘Digital’ IPA; an IPA in the American style, but one that won’t always stand head-or-shoulders above the hop-monsters and sugar bombs that some other local brewers can put out within this style.  No, the Digital is well made, the right mix of fruity sweetness and gentle bitterness. It seeps on softly, and leaves you smiling gently. Much like Ashes & Fire.

Yeastie Boys ‘Punkadiddle’

IMAG2065I do enjoy drinking beer outside.

Maybe it’s because I’m not too much of a fan of a bar that’s very crowded and noisy inside – years of playing in or watching live bands in small rooms has damaged my hearing a bit, and when there’s a lot of hubbub, babble and music in a crowded bar, I often can’t make out a word that is said to me.

Maybe it’s because I’ve a few friends who are smokers, and so sharing a beer with them almost inevitably means drinking out in the (not-so) clear air.

But, mostly, it’s just I like the feeling of being in the fresh air, being able to see the sky while I sup a nice drink and chat with friends.

Being a hardened Wellingtonian, provided there’s some cover and a bit of hopeful shelter from the wind I’m happy to be in the outside area of a bar in all seasons. Sure, I’d prefer warm summer or dry autumn, but chilly winter and damp spring are fine, too.

But it does help if the bar does have some heating to take the chill off the August night air.

I’m a particular fan of those fire table thingys. You know, the tall ones with a gas flame in a central well, that you can stand around (or sit on a high chair at), with your beer in front of you and the warmth from the flame gently warming both you and the beer against the chill winter air. (Googles – ah, they’re called “fire pit tables”! See, you learn something every day!)

My beloved Bin 44 used to have one of those tall gas fire pit tables, but it stopped working a while back. But this week, when I arrived for a quick after-work beer before heading into town, I was delighted to see a shiny new table had arrived, with a happy orange flame dancing from the well.

To celebrate, my friend and I ordered two pints of Yeastie Boy’s ‘Punkadiddle’. It’s a lovely wee drop, and one that at 3.7% won’t throw your evening into a spin if you have a few. It’s described as an “English Red Ale”, and while it is certainly red in colour I get more of a sense of it being a well made, sessionable English bitter. It’s got a lot of sweet and fruity hops coming off the top of a well rounded, almost nutty malty base, a combination of flavours I tend to associate with a traditional bitter.

But, the malt’s doing something a little bit else, which I guess is the Red Ale element; there’s an almost-sourness. Not unpleasant by any means, but a play between the hops and the reddish malt turns out a flavour that reminds me of a slightly old walnut; where the oils have gone slightly rancid, but not so much that they ruin the delicious nuttiness flavour.

As the glass warmed though, warmed by the dancing flame, this nice little beer just got more charming, the flavours melding smoothly into something almost like a light and fluffy pecan pie; but less sweet. I love a beer with a good taste of nuttiness, and the easy drinking Punkadiddle certainly gave me that flavour.

A great beer to drink while chatting with a friend beside an open flame, fending off the cold of a Wellington winter’s night, watching the run pour down onto the Queens Wharf plaza.


P.S. And, on the subject of Bin 44, congratulations to their Duty Manager Kieran O’Malley and his partner Abigail on the birth of their daughter Eden. Cheers, Kieran, Abigail and little Eden!

SOBA Winter Ale Festival 2014

IMAG1623

Yeastie Boys ‘The Sun Before Darkness’ with my dearly departed notes, tasting glass and pen. RIP.

I went up to The Hunter Lounge on Victoria University’s Kelburn campus on Saturday, for the 2014 edition of SOBA’s Winter Ale Festival. Unfortunately, there was a bit of a disaster. A neglectful oversight threw a pall over the afternoon.

I left my programme with all my notes on the table we’d been drinking at! And, by the time I’d realised my mistake and rushed back to collect it, the table had been cleaned and cleared.

And, that’s about the only bad thing I have to say about this particular beer festival!

Fortunately, I’d checked in about 2/3 of the beers I tasted on Untappd, so I do have some idea about what I enjoyed (and didn’t) amongst a plethora of excellent and interesting ales. And I do mean ‘ales’, if my memory serves me correctly there was only one lager being poured that afternoon.

This was the first year I’d attended what had formerly been known as the ‘Matariki Beer Festival’, the winter beer fest put on for a number of years by the Society of Beer Advocates. But I’d heard many of my beery friends rave about it, about how well it was organised, how the focus was really on the beer first and foremost, and how brewers and drinkers alike mingled together in beery friendless.

It was all that, and more. Friendly, happy crowd, with each trip circling from our table to one or other of the taps being punctuated by running into brewers and drinkers worth having chats with.

Andrew Childs of Behemoth Brewing was there, looming large as only he can do, providing fun tales of his recent move into brewing and selling his beer full time. The fun and intensity he also puts into his full-flavoured beers – with their names straight from the inside of a fourteen year old boy’s locker – was also ably demonstrated, with Behemoth’s ‘Nut Milk’ hazelnut stout packed full of sweet hazelnut flavour. The play between the lactose smoothness and the woody bitter nuttiness was very more-ish; it’s the sort of beer that would be fun to have in a float with some vanilla ice-cream. Delicious, really, and I’m not just saying that because the brewer gave me a free t-shirt.

Stu McKinley of Yeastie Boys was also in attendance, mingling and joking and living up to his “one of the loveliest of New Zealand’s many lovely brewers” title which I just made up here and now (perhaps I should commission a trophy). Like Andrew, Stu’s also recently given up his day job, indicating that maybe there is a future in this good beer lark.

But putting it all on the line has not bought about a lurch into sensible conservatism for the Yeasties, because their three beers on at the Winter Ale Festival were all fascinating experiments, brewed with candi-sugar made from botrytised viognier wine.

The three ales are part of the Yeastie Boys Spoonbender series, the name coming from their idiosyncratic habit of describing collaborative brewing as “spooning.” This time, they were playing the big spoon to Australian winemakers Some Young Punks, who provided the sweet and tangy desert wine that was reduced down with added sugar to create the big crystalline slabs of candi-sugar.

Candi-sugar is often used in the brewing of Belgian beers, where it can boost the alcohol content without thickening up the body of the beer. And, with the sugar made from a fungus-infected sweet wine, all sorts of interesting flavours came kicking along with the alcohol as well.

‘The Sly Persuader’ lived up to its name, coming through at first as a very “business as usual” Belgian-style pale ale until, sneaking along at the end came a huge wine flavour, very dry and lingering, very much like the viognier itself.

The presence of the candi-sugar showed with a huge alcohol flavour in the notably boozy (10% abv)‘The Last Dictator’, an imperial porter. There was a nice complex richness here, but alcohol was the predominant note – I reckon this one could do with a bit of aging in the bottle to really come into its best.

The third Yeastie Boys Spoonbender, ‘The Sun Before Darkness’, was an odd beast indeed; certainly the most unique beer I tasted at the festival. The aroma was incredibly sweet; like sticking your nose into candyfloss. But in the mouth it was very tropical, full of sweet fruit flavours, and an intoxicating spice and saltiness. There were hints of rose petal and lime, and flavours I ended up as describing as tasting like chunks of mango stir-fried with a bit of fish sauce. I’m sure I’m not doing it justice, and I can’t wait to try it again to see if I can pin down further what on earth is going on here. Fascinating stuff – and quite drinkable!

And so many other excellent beers were tried, too. A pinot-barrel aged version of Parrotdog’s lovely Otis turned that milk stout into a beer that tasted of a robust and tannic pinot noir, if lighter and smoother.

North End once again hit their mark in creating another delicious take on an English style; with their ‘Southerly Front’ full of distinctly lemony hop flavours. Brewed to be faithful to a 1930’s style Burton Ale,  North End brewer and local beer identity Kieran Haslett-Moore turned up dressed to the era, with tie and shirt under a cardie, a Homburg perched on his head.

Baylands’ ‘Black is Black’ was chock full of Black Doris plums. I found it a bit dry and pummelling, but showing that it’s all subjective Black is Black managed to be voted the favourite beer by the punters in attendance – well done, Baylands!

And, despite its name, 8 Wired’s ‘Flat White’ coffee milk stout contained the richest coffee aroma I’ve yet encountered in a coffee flavoured beer. This was perfectly balanced with the smooth sweetness from the lactose, resulting in a beer with the aroma and flavour of an superbly made sweetened long black.

All these, and more, in a venue perfectly set out for a medium-sized beer festival.

I was particularly impressed by the way water was handled – if you wanted a clean glass (and, if you cared about the beer you’re drinking, you would) then you’d pop over to a counter where you’d exchange it for one containing water. An excellent way to encourage moderation and hydration from the festival goers, and to ensure that each beer had the best chance to show its wares when poured into a fresh glass.

A lovely beer festival. Would festival again!

SOBA Winter Ale Festival

The author at the SOBA Winter Ale Festival, complete with beer-geek-essential beard and t-shirt.

Yeastie Boys ‘Pot Kettle Black’

Or, let’s do another post about food!

PKBI tried making candied bacon last weekend, for the first time. A discussion over beer became a food inspiration, which became an attempt at something that I knew from the outset would probably be harder than it sounded, but it seemed worth the risk.

Of course, I wasn’t just going to candy the bacon with sugar and spices. No, I had to get beer involved. And the first beer than came to my mind when thinking of something robust enough, sweet enough, yet bitter enough to do well with sugar and bacon was Yeastie Boy’s ‘Pot Kettle Black’.

Right from mixing some of this rich dark ‘American Style Porter’ (i.e., hoppy) with the sugar I knew the flavour combination could work wonders. There’s an aroma of orange and chocolate from this beer that makes me smile every time I pour a glass, and the addition of more sugar gave the smell even more of that “orange chocolate cake” sensation I always detect in hoppy porters / black IPAs. I wanted a tiny bit of a kick so I added a dash of a scotch bonnet sauce, mixed it all together, then brushed it onto some streaky bacon that had already spent 10 minutes in the oven.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work out. The aroma that emerged from the oven every time I opened the door to turn the bacon was amazing, but I could soon tell that I’d got something wrong in the technique or equipment area – probably should’ve used a wire rack instead of a slotted roasting tray. Too much of the bacon ended up burnt, the sugar and beer accelerating the caramelisation with the fat, rapidly creating crispy burnt edges on most of the rashers.

Still, what wasn’t burnt was pretty damn delicious. So, I’m going to have a bit of a think about this, and try it again one day.   And there’s other beers I can imagine would go well flavour-wise with bacon…

Pot Kettle Black is “a real foodies” beer, as the Yeasties say on their website. It’s great with food, and in food. The bitter-sweet, orange chocolate cake flavours go great in not only sweet foods, but also savoury.

And, so, I was considering my bacon failure, sipping on the ale while I did so, making some final prep for the meal I was also working on that afternoon. Inspired, as I’ve always been by the interplay between bright citrusy hops and the rich, black, sweet-and-dark malt of the PKB. It was an easy decision to make – I screwed the top back on the bottle of red wine I’d opened, and instead dumped the glass of Pot Kettle Black into the venison and mushroom stew I was preparing.

I may’ve missed out on the rest of that glass of beer, but the effect in the stew was well worth it. Where a red wine adds a tannic tang and a bit of off-sweet vinegar-ish flavour to this combination of meat and vegetables, the Pot Kettle Black added a full, rich earthiness, solid and robust.

The malt flavour carried all the way through to tonight’s meal, where I managed to eat two servings worth in one sitting. I blame the cold. As is usually the case with such dishes, spending a few days in the fridge had just intensified the flavours, and the play between the dark malt of the beer, the chewy earthiness of the mushrooms and the melt-in-the-mouth umami of the venison was perfect. There was a little touch of fruity sweetness from the hops hanging around the edges of each mouthful too, adding a delicious little contrast.

I’ve cooked with Pot Kettle Black a few times now, sweets and savouries both. Never let me down. A beer I love to drink, and too cook with. One of my favourites.

Yes, I’ve got a lot of favourite beers!

Yeastie Boys ‘Rex Attitude’

A few Twitter storms in a pint glasses last week, which evolved in classic Twitter style.  Someone wrote something. Someone else responded.  Others saw, retweeted, brought their own agendas and prejudices to the Twitter pile-on, someone external to the original argument took it all a bit too far, and so on.  And that’s all I really want to say about that,

But, one of the storms involved someone tweeting their thoughts on Yeastie Boys’ ‘Rex Attitude’.  Like “liquid nail polish remover” they wrote.  And most offensively, they called it an Australian beer.

I’d been thinking a bit about The Rex lately.  I’ve three days to go on my “sort-of-Feb Fast,” which was delayed starting, then interrupted by last week’s conference and a birthday party, but now winding down to the 28th day without alcohol (and other things. For health, you know).

So my mind’s been turned a bit to what beer I’d like to break the fast with.  And I think I’d really like it to be a Rex Attitude.  That insane heavily-peated golden ale from the Yeasties, that uncompromising smoke bomb of a beer.  I love it.

Well, I love it now.  I didn’t at first.  Did anyone (apart from probably Stu McKinley)?

I went along to the launch of the beer at Regional Wines and Spirits a few years back, and immediately on walking into the room I could see something was afoot.  I could see Stu standing behind a counter, carefully eyeing everyone’s reactions as they took their first sip.  And, just behind him was Jed Soane, photographing as many first-reactions as he could.

And the first-reactions?  Well, best see them for yourself on Jed’s The Beer Project if you haven’t already.

Me, I took a taster and, when Jed’s camera was pointing elsewhere, sniffed then drunk the golden ale that seemed to almost cling to the sides of the glass. Burnt rubber and a bit of iodine.

It was full-on, confrontational, and I didn’t like it at all.  Very unusual flavours for a beer. I’ve since begun to explore Islay whisky, and I can now instantly link those smoky, salty spirits to what the Yeasties have done with this 7% golden ale, but back in April 2011 I hadn’t encountered those flavours before.

Before it even touched my lips it was confronting me.  Rex Attitude fairly punches you in the face with a huge whiff like a bottle of iodine broken into a beachside bonfire.  Smoke and medicine, almost ghastly.  But then when it hits your mouth there’s this massive sweetness, warm and sticky, that tempers the obnoxiously strong aroma with a more delicious undertone.  But, on that first taste, I found it very quickly replaced by an aftertaste that felt a bit like I’d imagine it would be like to lick the tar seal after a burnout has been done on it.

If it wasn’t for the strong sweetness carrying the smoke and medicine flavours I probably would’ve put the glass down and never tried it again.  But I didn’t.  There was something there, in the sticky sweetness and over-powering smoke that got me thinking.  Got me thinking that I should buy a couple of bottles.  Maybe not to drink, but perhaps to cook with.  “Sweet liquid smoke,” you see.  Could be useful…

And it was.  The next weekend I cooked a pork-and-bean chilli and added about half a bottle of Rex Attitude to the pot.  Worked brilliantly.  The sweetness and smoke of the ale buoyed the chilli, garlic and tomato flavours of the slow-cooked chilli; the end result was less smoky than if I’d used chipotle, but was richer, smoother and more “blended” due to effect of the sugars in the ale.

I drunk the rest of the bottle while cooking the chilli and, better prepared, I could see what this beer was trying to do.  Over-thinking, over-smelling, over-analysing is not this beer’s friends.  Over-anticipation probably doesn’t help, either.  But quietly drinking half-a-bottle while cooking, just sipping it into my mouth without thinking too much about it, it all made sense.  Rather than burnt rubber, I was getting bacon.  Rather than iodine, I was getting play between saltiness  and sweetness of the deliciously thick golden ale.

That’s really the genius of this ale.  Using the heavily-peated malt to make a golden ale rather than a darker beer just works.  The massive smokiness of the aroma is utterly balanced when the drink finally gets into your mouth.

By the end of that half-bottle I was really beginning to enjoy it.  So, of course, I had to open the second bottle.  And by the end of that, I was in love…

For a while there in 2011 I’d drink Rex Attitude as often as I could find it in bars; often simply for the reactions you’d get from others when the aroma crept out of the glass, across the table, into their nostrils.  Such a polarising beer, it wasn’t unknown for people to shift tables rather than smell it!

And many people still hate it. Try it once, and will never try it again.  I can’t see where “liquid nail polish remover” comes from, though.  If you’d asked me to associate that smell with a drink, it’d be cheap vodka, surely?  Not an incredibly smoky ale…

But, yes, come Wednesday, I’ll be looking to have a beer after work.  And I do hope that beer is a Rex Attitude.  (Or, even better, it’s stronger, smoother, more sophisticated relative, XerreX.)

I’m looking forward to it…

Yeastie Boys Golden Perch

Photo wasn’t taken today. You can tell by the clouds.

What a gorgeous day.  After a very mediocre January, summer’s finally hit Wellington.  No wind, clear blue skies, warm and joyful, perfect weather for the fun of the Island Bay Festival, going to the beach, sneaking good beer into The Basin to watch the test, or just relaxing on the deck with a book, a beer and some music.[1]

Some beers seem custom made for such beautiful weather.  Beers like Yeastie Boy’s gorgeous golden ale, Golden Perch.

I mean, just look at it, in the picture to the right. Gorgeous. Shining like gold.  All that glitters is not gold – some of it is beer, too.

Yes, that was a Tolkien reference, because this ale was brewed for the premier of The Hobbit, and is named after a tavern in The Shire, that serves “the best beer in Eastfarthing.”  A quality Frodo noted in The Fellowship of the Ring by choosing to avoid it on their journey east, so as to avoid the inevitable delay.

And I’m sure Pippin and Merry would’ve quite happily spent a day or more at The Golden Perch, if a beer as lovely as this sessionable little beauty was being poured.

Because despite clocking in with a very moderate 4.4% abv, this beer tastes huge.  The Nelson Sauvin hops explode out of the glass with aroma, bright fresh passion fruit and grapefruit.  In the mouth its sweet and malty, and very very smooth.

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Golden Pints 2013 – the beer

The idea of starting a beer-and-music blog has been long lurking around the back of my mind, from a suggestion planted by that creative madman Stu McKinley, of Yeastie Boys fame.[1] Good beer and good music.  Interesting beer and interesting music.  A pair of passions that take up far too much of my time and income, but they reward, entertain and comfort the attention I give to them.

I think about both similarly.  I’m always seeking out the new; new flavours, new sounds, new colours, new textures.  There are favourite beers and albums of course, brewers and artists I’ll always go back to, enjoy and discover (and rediscover).   But I’m not one to sit back and be content with the same beer every time I visit the pub, nor am I one of those people whose musical tastes ossify by their mid-twenties.

Others may be happy to drink the same beer and listen to the same music while doing so.  But it seems to me that such people are also those who complain that “there’s no good music being released nowadays.”[2]

Not me. I’m always seeking out tasty new beers and interesting new albums, and in this blog I’ll be taking turns to write about one then the other, linking the two when I can

But first, what better way to start this blog than by diving straight into presenting my favourite beer of 2013?  With no prior posts to establish any bona-fides or credibility, what better moment is there to pass judgement on the year’s best?

Of course, there’s no better moment.  I don’t claim to be any kind of expert – about either beer or music.  I just love them both, and want to share the love…

Gunnamatta

I went dry for a few weeks in the lead up to my 40th birthday. I broke the drought with this bottle of Gunnamatta, at Bin 44.

Yeastie Boys ‘Gunnamatta’– buzz and hum’s favourite beer of 2013.[3]

I didn’t like it.

I can’t remember exactly where I was when I first tried Gunnamatta, Yeastie Boy’s “dry leafed” IPA, flavoured with Earl Grey Blue Flower tea.  I’d certainly heard about it before hand, the excited reports coming back from the 2012 Great Australian Beer SpecTAPular – for which the beer had been specifically brewed – had New Zealand’s beer twitter community abuzz.

It was likely at Hashigo Zake.  And while I can’t remember exactly where I first tasted it, I can still recall my reaction.  Immediately, I felt my mouth tighten and go dry.  I might’ve gagged a bit.  I may not have finished the glass, as the intense tea bitterness had left me with a headache.

I’m just not a tea drinker, you see.  Tea’s tannic bitterness has always been difficult for me, and I find myself wanting to dump lots of sugar and milk into the cup.  Which is sort of defeating the point, really.  My reaction to my first tasting of Gunnamatta were clearly prejudiced by my “don’t like tea” attitude.  Almost certainly, I went into that first pint expecting not to enjoy it. And I didn’t.[4]

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my years enjoying Yeastie Boys product is that there’s always a method to the madness, and each beer they produce deserves a second chance – results may surprise.

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