Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Turning somersaults in Tsinghua

It’s over a year ago that I last went to see a Chinese acrobatic show. I remembered it as being exciting, breath taking, and amazing that anyone could contort their bodies into such weird shapes that would surely bring tears to the eyes of any normal person…
 
The internal electronic mailbox in my office pops up with a new message from HR. There is to be another outing for its foreign staff to go see an acrobatic show given by the China National Acrobatic Troupe. Dutifully, I traipse along the corridor and go and collect my ticket…
 
 
… and find out it is to be held at Tsinghua University on the other side of town. Well, not right the other side of town, but a 20 minute subway journey to Wudaokou on line 13 and then another 20 minute hike. But I’d been to Tsinghua many months ago and had liked the campus then, so why not once more, I think to myself.
 
The Main Building, located in the eastern area of the campus, is composed of three sections and covers a total area of 76,871 square metres. Apparently it was jointly designed by the Tsinghua students and teachers from different departments after the “liberation” of China.
 
 
But this evening’s performance is not being held here. Instead it is taking place some 200 metres to the west in the new Mong Man Wai Concert Hall, which was designed by academician Li Daozeng and donated by an alumnus called … yes, you’ve guessed it … Mong Man Wai, the Chairman of HKR International Limited. It was built to celebrate Tsinghua University’s centenary celebration in 2011.
 
 
It’s a professional standard Concert Hall with all the normal facilities (whatever they are), according to the official blurb; and it is used for concerts, dramas, operas, ballets and other medium-sized performances, as well as various types of conferences.
 
 
I am reliably informed that it can hold 510 people and has a stage 12 metres wide and seven metres high.
 
 
But beautiful as it undoubtedly is, it appears no one has given much thought to the numbering of the chairs. Of if they did, then they did a pretty lousy job. For a start, all the even numbered chairs are on the east side and the odd numbered chairs are on the west. So seat 35 is between 33 and 37, whilst 34 and 36 are way over the other side. No matter. Even your favourite blogger can work out that little conundrum standing on his head!
 
Problem is in finding your seat – firstly because they have put the seat numbers at such a height and in such dim colours that everyone (not just me) peers at the numbers on the row in front to try to ascertain where they should sit. And then they do a double take because someone is already sitting in their chair! It’s Goldilocks and the Three Bears all over again, LOL! Only then do they finally realise that the seat numbers are not lined up row in front of row; and eventually it dawns on them that instead of looking at the numbers in front they should lean over and look at the numbers behind the chairs they are standing in front of. I mean… dughhhhh!!!!!
 
 
I am comfortably settled into my seat when a number of colleagues from the office arrive and stake out their positions. Everyone is clutching a programme in their hot and stickies, and it appears I missed out, being one of the first to arrive. But Bruno and his GF have each purloined a copy for themselves and so in the great order of things, I purloin one of theirs in turn!
 
 
It turns out that this performance goes under the name of “The Dream of Golden Clown”. According to the programme, Narrated in the traditional western way, "The Dream of Golden Clown" tells a succinct and moving story about a contemporary young acrobat who trains tenaciously and ultimately achieves the "Golden Clown" award, making his dream come true. The new interpretation of contemporary Chinese acrobatics from a western perspective demonstrates the pioneering spirit of Chinese acrobats and the profound cultural connotation of human fortitude and enterprise. Well that sounds pretty jolly!
 
The programme even invites us to go to their official web site for more information; but alas – it appears that it is behind schedule and lamely invites us to go back to try again in the near future.
 
 
Before the show begins, there is the obligatory speech that has to be made – this one from some official at SAFEA … the State Administration for Foreign Experts Affairs, which is hosting tonight’s performance. Apparently we are celebrating Labour Day (which actually isn’t for another 10 days, but what the hell…). Everyone continues chatting away as the said official does his duty; and then silence falls – or what passes for silence in a Chinese audience.
 
 
We are reminded yet again that unofficial photography is not allowed and the lights dim as the first of the six scenes unfolds. A vista of mobile phone screens lights up the auditorium as the audience happily snaps away. But in common with many Chinese theatres, the usherettes shine laser pointers at each of the recalcitrant happy shooters, in an attempt to name and shame, and the phone screens dim one by one.
 
Truth to tell, your favourite blogger is one of those named and shamed, until Bruno points out that you can put something in front of the iPhone screen to cover it totally and simply press the volume button on the side to snap away with impunity. He, however, has brought his Nikon D800 with him, and has switched off the screen, allowing him to snap away to his heart’s content. As my iPhone automatically sets itself to 1/15 sec while Bruno’s Nikon can grab the action at 1/200 sec, I am not too proud to beg for a few shots from him for the benefit of you, my dear blogfans!
 
To start off with, there are the usual juggling acts with some guy throwing his balls in the air or bouncing them on the floor (no comments please!); and on this occasion he only drops one or two on no more than five occasions. Well, I guess if I was bouncing a dozen balls onto the floor I might drop a few too.
 
I’m afraid juggling leaves me rather cold. I’m sure it is ever so clever, but when you’ve seen it once you’ve seen it all. I mean, can you imagine devoting your life to throwing things in the air and catching them again? I wonder what this guy talks about to his wife when they are snuggled up watching CCTV together in the evenings. Did you have a nice day at work dear? Yes. I managed to throw 12 balls in the air and only dropped three. Hmmm.
 
There are also girls contorting themselves into the most amazing positions which almost bring tears to the eyes. How can bodies be that supple and elasticated? Is this the ultimate advert for tantric sex? Or will they all suffer crippling arthritis in the future?
 
And of course there are guys diving over and under and through hoops which are spinning round slowly; and only one guy misses a particularly difficult trajectory; but no one seems to mind, and he gets a special round of applause for being such a plucky fellow!
 
Then there are the girls with diabolos. I am indebted to the web site oddballs.co.uk which tells me that the diabolo was invented by the Chinese for catching birds, as they can be thrown very high. In this performance they have lights inside their giant yoyos as the stage lights are dimmed, creating an eerie effect.
 
 
Of course, a Chinese acrobatic performance wouldn’t be the same without some clever smart-arse placing one little stick on top of another and doing handstands and headstands on it, before adding yet another little stick and doing it all again. And then another… and another … <yawn> <yawn>
 
 
Eventually, however, all good things must come to an end and, with a few more jumps and contortions and other acts of daring-do, the lights come up for the final curtain. For some reason the girls are now dressed up as flowers but that doesn’t detract from the overall spirit of the performance. Why, even the laser-usherettes are now snapping away with their mobile phones!
 
 
The performance is over. Everyone streams out into the cool night air. It’s been a pleasant evening, even if it wasn’t that earth shattering – for me at any rate. That’s the problem, I guess, of turning into a cynical old bastard. Once you’ve been there, seen it all, and got the proverbial t-shirt, you’re always on the look out for something just that little bit different. I wonder if that’s how we all end up. Is that what old age is going to be like? Well, I guess I have maybe a few more years yet to find out….
 

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Is This BJ's Most Boring Museum?

I first came across the name of Guo Shoujing on my visit to Gaobeidian just over a year ago. Many historians regard him as the most prominent Chinese astronomer, engineer, and mathematician of all time; so I guess it is better late than never!
 
I am wandering today in the area around Deshengmen looking for a museum (which I never do find) when my eyes fall on a local map:
 
 
Right near the top of the Sichahai lakes, which is where I am, is marked the site of Huitong Temple. Now, it turns out this entire area was demolished in the 1970s for the construction of subway line 2; and once the works had been completed it was decided in 1988 to rebuild the area – amounting to some 11,000 sq m – as a memorial to Gui Shoujing.
 
Guō Shǒujìng (郭守敬) lived from 1231 to 1314 during the Yuan Dynasty. He was an inventor as well as a mathematician and astronomer and applied his engineering skills to improve many of the instruments used to measure celestial bodies. Among these were the gnomon, square table, abridged or simplified armilla, and a water powered armillary sphere called the Ling Long Yi. About 27 major observatories were built during the Yuan Dynasty, many designed by him.
 
But Guo Shoujing also used his engineering skills on other projects, such as Kunming Lake, which later became the site of the Summer Palace and was designed both as a reservoir for the city and as part of a system of canals for transportation in the region.
 
Perhaps his greatest contribution was the development of the Shoushi calendar system in 1280 for which he used polynomial equations to the 4th order, the highest level equations ever used in astronomy and calendar calculation. The year was calculated to be 365.2425 days.

But none of this is much in evidence in the street along which I am walking. The first thing I notice is a sign to his memorial, and intrigued, I enter the complex.
 
 
In 1251, aged 20, Guo became a hydraulic engineer; and as a government official, he helped repair a bridge over the Dahuoquan River. In the late 1250s, Kublai Khan became the ruler of most of China, which was under Mongol rule in those days. Kublai Khan realized the importance of hydraulic engineering, irrigation, and water transport, which he believed could help alleviate uprisings within the empire, and he sent Liu Bingzhong and his student Guo to look at these aspects in the area between Dadu (Beijing) and the Yellow River.
 
To provide Dadu with a new supply of water, Guo had a 30 km channel built to bring water from the Baifu spring in Shenshan Mountain to Dadu, which required connecting the water supply across different river basins and canals with sluices to control the water levels. The Grand Canal, which linked the river systems of the Yangtze, the Huai, and the Huang since the early 7th century, was repaired and extended to Dadu in 1292–93. After the success of the project, Kublai Khan sent Guo off to manage similar projects in other parts of the empire. And this led him to becoming the chief advisor on hydraulics, mathematics, and astronomy for Kublai Khan.
 
According to chinabeijingtravel.com, GuoShouJing statue is located in Xingtai City of Fountain Park. 4.1 m high, weighing 3.5 tons. December 6, 1985 completion. It is by the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Professor, National Urban Sculpture Committee, the Secretary-General Fu Tianchou Design, Beijing Institute of Electrical and casting. GuoShouJing shaped statue, the second head, his eyes, like bears infinite wisdom; hard and slightly curling beard, reflecting Guo Gongjian strong will and spirit of hard work; carrying four rolls of drawings, representing the four aspects of Albert GuoShouJing Technology , that is, astronomy, irrigation, mathematics, and instrumentation manufacturing; astronomical volume four dots, representing the constellation; wind robes, floating in the air if the move, said he is not only scientists, but was a practice-oriented activists.

Well, I’m glad they made that clear!
 
 
It turns out Guo Shoujing was a major influence in the development of science in China. Through his work in astronomy, he was able to more accurately establish the location of celestial bodies and the angles of the Sun relative to Earth. He invented a tool which could be used as an astrological compass, helping people find north using the stars instead of magnets.
 
On top of one of the hills here is an ancestral temple; and engraved in the north side of it is an article entitled the Annals of the rebuilding of the Ancestral Temple of Harmony and Circulation written by Wu Liangyong – not that any visitor gives it the slightest bit of notice, at least not this afternoon.
 
 
There is also a pavilion behind the ancestral temple. A stele inscribed with poems by Emperor Qianlong is set inside it. (Whenever I hear Qianlong’s name mentioned these days, I cannot help but think of the Vogon Captain in Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy! – and if you have to ask what that is, then your education, dear blog-fan, is sorely lacking!) The poem tablet was erected when Huitong Temple was rebuilt in 1761 and measures 2.43m high. It has a square pedestal and a Kui-dragon design on its top.
 
 
Just beyond the pavilion is an armillary sphere, used to measure the equatorial and horizontal coordinates of celestial objects without interference with one another.
 
Guo has been credited with inventing the gnomon, the square table, the abridged or simplified armilla, and a water powered armillary sphere called a Ling Long Yi.
 
 
A gnomon is used to measure the angle of the sun, and determine the seasons, and is the basis of the sundial; but Guo Shoujing revised this device to become much more accurate and improved the ability to tell time more precisely. The square table was used to measure the azimuth of celestial bodies by the equal altitude method and could also be used as a protractor.
 
 
Right at the top of the hillock, above the astronomical instruments, is the museum dedicated to Guo’s work on water projects.
 
 
Two bored looking guards glower at visitors, as if they resent the fact that without these visitors, they would be out of a job!
 
 
I am given a badge as I enter – for what I haven’t the faintest idea. I suspect it is making work for the sake of it, since no one is the slightest bit interested in whether I wear it or stuff it in my pocket – which is what I end up doing!
 
 
In the courtyard is a statue of Mr Guo. Don’t you just love those shoes he’s wearing? I’ll bet he never bought those off Taobao!
 
 
On one wall is a marble tablet inscribed with… what? I search the web in vain for enlightenment, before ending up once again at chinabeijingtravel.com: GuoShouJing life performance of large-scale ceramic memorial in front of the screen wall is located in Xingtai GuoShouJing, 11.2 m long, 4.5 meters high. Positive side engraved "elephant admired pioneer generation" is in October 1986, the CPPCC National Committee vice chairman, professor at Peking University Mr. Zhou Peiyuan inscribed.
 
 
The memorial museum actually has three halls, displaying the achievements of Guo, with a heavy emphasis on water conservancy during the Yuan Dynasty.
 
 
To be perfectly honest, this must rank as one of the most boring of BJ’s 150+ museums. Maybe that’s because everything is written in Chinese and nothing is put into English at all. In fact laowais tend not to be seen here, but maybe that’s a chicken-and-egg situation.
 
The main room has an exhibit of "Guo Shoujing and Dadu water resources". Guo, after all, went around half of China and harnessed over a hundred rivers and lakes; and he played a leading role in Dadu’s water supplies, taking charge of the development of the Baifuyan and Huihe Rivers to provide water to the city of Dadu.
 
 
There are a few pictures stashed up on the walls…
 
 
and a few splurges of explanatory text..
 
 
and there are even some enlargements of stamps that our beloved hero appeared on …
 
 
but boredom soon sets in and with tears in my eyes at the very thought of having to leave this waterworld paradise, I hand back my pass to the security guard who gives me not even a second glance; and I exit to the real world once more and a view over the Sichahai lakes…
 
 
In common with many open parks and gardens, this place makes poetic appeals to its ecologically minded visitors …
 
 
but probably the most impressive sight in this Guo memorial park is what mother nature herself provides (this being the last week in March).
 
 
Who needs to explore museums when you have displays like this all around you?

Friday, April 18, 2014

A Visit to Marstons

I’m always amazed when talking to foreigners who have never been to the UK. They all want to visit London, of course; and many plan to visit other places on the tourist trails such as York, Wells, Brighton or even as far as the Lake District.
 
Never though will you hear a mention of anywhere in the Midlands, even for a day out; and it got me thinking that perhaps many miss out on some quite charming places simply because they don’t know they exist.
 
I can’t blame them of course. It wasn’t that long ago that I myself could only vaguely point out on the map where such towns as Lichfield were… Yet with its open spaces, historic centre and pretty views, it certainly makes for a nice day out…
 
 
It’s a very “green” place and one instinctively reaches for one’s camera, even on a cold November day, to capture the essence of the place…
 
 
It also has its quirky side, like most places I guess, if you keep your eyes open. This, for instance, is my favourite sign in the whole town. Need I say more?
 
 
So why am I telling you all this?
 
Well, first of all, it’s where my daughter Genevieve and her hubby have pitched up; and one of the reasons she lives there is that she works for a brewery company which, unsurprisingly, is located in the Midlands. If you go to the web site – www.marstonsbrewery.co.uk – you can see her smiling mug shot. Huh? Talented people? [I think this is where an emoticon for a proud parent should go!]
 
 
Marston's PLC is an independent brewing and pub retailing business operating around 2,100 pubs and bars situated across Great Britain and is the world's largest brewer of cask ale. It produces well over 60 permanent and guest ales from its five regional breweries stretching from the Lake District right down to Ringwood in Hampshire.
 
Marston’s Brewery started life as Marstons Thompson and Evershed in 1834 at Horninglow, a suburb of Burton on Trent. Its Albion brewery was built by Manns Crossman who came to Burton to use the local water, but then returned to London in the 1870s. What is now Marston’s moved to this brewery in 1898 owing to its superior size. By this time the brewery had a capacity of 100,000 barrels a year. What was Manns in London has now, however, turned into yet another Tesco supermarket; but Marston’s just keeps on brewing at the Albion.
 
 
If you’re a beer ignoramus, you might wonder what all the fuss is about with Burton-on-Trent. Well, it turns out that the town of Burton has several very successful breweries due to the chemical composition of the local water.
 
In the early 19th century, pale ale was being successfully brewed in London. But in 1822, the method was copied by the Burton-upon-Trent brewer Samuel Allsopp, who got a fuller hop character and ‘rounder mouth’ feel to the beer because of the sulphate-rich water he was using. The clean, crisp, bitter flavour of his beer became very popular and by 1888 there were 31 breweries in the town The characteristic whiff of sulphur indicating the presence of sulphate ions became known as the "Burton snatch" (no rude comments please!!!) which, it appears, is not dissimilar to the smell of struck matches.
 
A chemist going by the name of C. W. Vincent analysed the waters of Burton and identified the calcium sulphate content as being responsible for accenting the hop bitterness in Burton Ale. Many breweries outside the Midlands 'Burtonise' their water, meaning they add extra gypsum to get that fuller taste; and “Burtonisation” is used when a brewer wishes to accent the body in a pale beer, such as a pale ale.
 
Genevieve tells me there is nowadays an ever growing number of women who are coming to appreciate the taste of various beers. I often say to people what an awful job she must have – having to drink beer for a living! (Though in fairness there was a time when if she was asked what her dad did for a living she would say she didn’t really know, but she did know that I went to an awful lot of parties!) LOL!
 
 
Marston’s is probably best known for its priority products – Marston's Pedigree and Wychwood Hobgoblin.
 
 
I always used to think that one brewery was much like another. Sure, there will be subtle differences between different brews, but at the end of the day, brewing is all about producing beer through steeping a starch source in water and then fermenting with yeast, isn’t it?
 
Wrong! Little did I know that breweries like Marston’s keep what are basically recipe books containing upwards of 80 plus recipes for different types of beer. Everything from the type of grain, the hops used, the water, the yeast, the fermentation process etc etc etc has a part to play in the final product.
 
At Marston’s, a four roller Porteus mill grinds the barley and cleaves the husks off, crushing the innards into flour, revealing a starch/sugar complex inside. The crushed malt is called grist and this is added to hot water and the resulting mash is left to form a consistency of thick porridge.
 
The so-called wort is then boiled with hops for over an hour in a stainless steel kettle, called a copper (which is what they were made out of in the old days) to add bitterness.
 
Each of the three copper kettles here at the Albion holds 440 hectalitres - that’s 44,000 litres to me and other mere mortals.
 
 
The hopped wort is then pumped into a whirlpool where hops and protein 'trub' are removed. The bright wort is drawn off and cooled rapidly, ready for fermentation (the heat drawn off is used to heat the next batch of mash, BTW). Oxygen is also added to stimulate the yeast at the start of fermentation which then grows by feeding on the sugar converting it into alcohol.
 
 
They still have the old equipment used up until 2005 as a reminder of days long gone. The Mash Tuns go back to Victorian times…
 
 
 
as do the old coppers…

 
Outside in the still night air, the escaping steam gives off an eerie feeling to the place.

 
One of the things that makes this brewery unique, though, is something called the Burton Union fermentation system – a series of interlinked wooden union casks that has the beer dropped into them after two days of fermentation.
 
The idea was to prevent excessive beer and yeast loss through foaming, but one of the resulting benefits is that the beer is both in contact with more wood and in contact with more beer, as it ferments in a bigger volume, typically totalling about 100 barrels or 16 hectolitres; and this way it gets a more consistent oaky flavour and consistently good quality yeast. It’s used for Marston’s Pedigree which is one of Marston’s most popular brews.
 
 
The fermentation continues inside the casks and the CO2 that is produced by fermentation rises out through a swan neck on the top, taking yeast – that has been held in suspension in the beer – with it, and that way you separate the beer from the yeast, as well as getting some of the oak characteristics carried over into the final taste. The system was refined to separate any expelled beer from the wasted yeast, allowing it to flow back into the casks to continue fermentation.
 
 
As the yeast gets thick it collapses in onto itself and settles down. At this point it is raked off into a storage tank held at 4 degrees and the next week it is mixed in with the new brews and the recycling process starts again.
 
Here’s a pitching vessel ready for the yeast to be added to whatever it is needed for…
 
 
Marston’s has four storage tanks of yeast. If they get too much of the recycled stuff, it is shipped off to the Marmite factory down the road. (And that, I learned, is why Marmite is based in Burton on Trent!)
 
I mentioned Marston’s Pedigree, which is a bitter first introduced way back over 60 years ago. It is Marston’s flagship product, selling over 15,000,000 litres a year.
 
 
Some brews have stopped being made at Marston’s as I guess beer tastes come and go. But one of my favourite beers is an India Pale Ale, and Marston’s still makes its Old Empire which is one of the most popular styles in the UK.
 
But another is Milk Stout which is very high in calories, as it uses lactose sugar which cannot be digested by yeast, so it has a creaminess to it and does nothing (good) for your waistline! And it has been consigned to the history bins, unfortunately.
 
 
Another firm favourite is called Dogs Bollocks. My take on this is that the marketing guys know how to sell a beer regardless of its taste. OK, it might be quite nice, but I suspect most people buy it for its name.
 
(To my American and Asian followers, who might be a bit confused by this name… “Dog’s Bollocks” in British English means something which is pretty darned good. Hence the British humour inherent in the name!) It sure guarantees comments when I wear my Dogs Bollocks T-shirt!
 
 
I asked if this room is where they kept the dog, but it appears Dog’s Bollocks is brewed at Marston’s Wychwood Brewery in Oxfordshire… oh and there is no dog here either! Maybe someone at Marston’s has a warped sense of humour?
 
 
Now, you might think that pouring a glass of beer is something anyone can do. But Genevieve takes me across to Marston’s own little private pub in the heart of the brewery itself to educate me a little more. This is definitely the kind of place where you COULD organise a piss-up in a brewery!
 
I was totally unaware that different types of beers require different types of nozzles and gases to ensure the perfect pint. Gen clambers behind the bar and explains that for hand-pulled beer you need a really firm but steady first pull; and you need to position the sparkler just below the surface of the beer to get a creamy head.
 
The sparkler, BTW, is a diffuser which forces the beer through lots of little holes to ensure that lots of gas can break out of solution and give the drink a creamy head. The nozzle effectively aerates the beer.
 
And with keg beer, raising or lowering the glass as you pour affects how good a head you get on your pint.
 
 
There’s something almost poetical about seeing a well poured pint settling down waiting to be in a fit state for drinking. It somehow adds to the pre-gulp enjoyment waiting for that moment, don’t you think?
 
 
I’m about to reach out to ensure that the demonstration samples are put to good use; but am not quick enough off the mark before Gen matter-of-factly pours them down the sink, on the basis that those were the ones which hadn’t been poured that well. But… but… but… I protest helplessly to my strong-willed daughter…
 
 
Now you know how to pour a decent pint, Gen continues, I feel I can now leave you to practise your new found skills… and apologising that she has to leave me for a couple of hours to get some real work done, she leaves me in the bar and tells me to help myself!
 
It’s not long before I make a new discovery – Marston’s Oyster Stout. Forget about Pedigree! This is the drink for me!
 
Maybe I’m a cheapskate, but when you hark back to the days of Charles Dickens and Victorian times, stout and oysters were considered a poor man's hearty meal. Well it appears that Oyster Stout is a great tasting traditional English stout that is designed to bring back the flavours of those simpler times – or so the advertising blurb would have you believe.
 
The unique character of Oyster Stout comes from its fermentation with yeast, taken from the Burton Unions, that we talked about earlier. Aromatic English hops such as Fuggles and Goldings are added for a fruity, floral and spicy taste with the bitterness coming as well from the roasted malts. The final result is a rich, dark and extremely creamy smooth stout which is… well… more-ish. Not to put too fine a point on it, I would say this is my favourite Marston’s beer without a shadow of a doubt.
 
 
All too soon, Genevieve hurries back apologising that she has kept me waiting for so long. No, no… feel free to do some more work, I protest; but it falls on deaf ears. It’s time for me to inspect the new bottling line that has only recently been installed.
 
To get into the bottling plant requires everyone to wear protective clothing; and your favourite blogger is no exception to the rule…
 
 
First I am togged up in steel toe-capped footwear with steel mid soles so I can’t get broken glass into my little tootsies; not that there should be any broken glass, of course, but one can never be too careful. I wonder if they have steel-capped footwear in size 11, but it appears that the brewing fraternity has seen no shortage of real men passing through its doors, and my size 11s present no problem for the stores.
 
High viz vests are also a necessity as there are fork trucks moving around at a great rate of knots; safety specs too are obligatory, as there is glass under pressure so breakages are always a possibility. A bump cap, too, must be worn as there are palettes everywhere and the occasional bottle dropping onto your cranium might be a trifle boring without a cap on.
 
 
We enter the bottling plant, suitably togged up. A prominent notice tells the fork-lift truck drivers to be aware of pedestrians… not, you’ll notice, that pedestrians should beware of fork lift trucks. This is definitely fork lift country and they have priority at all times. It feels a bit like crossing a busy road in downtown Beijing! You wait for a gap in the traffic and then stride your way manfully across the flow hoping you leave enough room between yourself and the next vehicle.
 
 
In no time we are standing in the middle of the bottling line. It is still being commissioned and Gen warns ominously that I mustn’t touch anything. And she means anything. Cleanliness is important here and they don’t want the germs and other detritus that your favourite blogger brings in with him spoiling the output.
 
I used to work in Saudi Arabia where one of my clients was a famous dairy products manufacturer, whose production facilities I used to visit. So I have seen bottling lines before. I guess that although some would have you believe that once you have seen one, you have seen them all, I find the whole set up sheer poetry-in-motion … sex on a conveyor belt … call it what you will.
 
 
Empty bottles are fed down slotted conveyors where they are washed, sterilised, and chug round to have beer squirted into their innards, after which they are sealed, and three labels – front, back and neck – are brushed on.
 
 
The bottles clank their way along more slatted conveyors …
 
 
rushing along through the bottling hall…
 
 
as they push their way forward to a tray and shrink wrapping machine, known as a kister.
 
Helical conveyors are used for space saving when bringing the shrink-wrapped trays of 24 bottles to the robots, which gently shove and push their charges about.
 
 
The shrink wrapped trays are then collected together by another robot into palettes which are then stashed together and sent out for shipment.
 
 
The bottling line is like a well choreographed ballet… a ballet of robots with just the occasional prodding by their human operators to keep them on the straight and narrow.
 
Genevieve leads me out of the noise and into the peace and quiet of the sampling room, which is not normally open to the general public.
 
Along one wall are three shelves which have a display of bottles going back to the year dot, and featuring labels that haven’t seen the light of day for many a decade.
 
Apparently Marston’s has a book of recipes for over 80 beers, though they are not all brewed throughout the year, some being seasonal and sold only in the winter or over the Christmas period.

And some beers such as Hobgoblin have typically 24 different types of packs, depending on which country it is being shipped to, what time of year, whether it’s a 6-pack or 8-pack etc
 
 
In the sample room, there is also a pile of sample packets of hops from around the world. British hops mainly come from east Kent and Worcestershire; but now the rest of the world has jumped on the hop bandwagon and is now producing over 100 varieties.
 
Hops add bitterness and aroma to a beer. Technically speaking, they contain an alpha acid which is isomerised during the kettle boil which changes the flavour to bitter and also contains a volatile oil which can also be used to add flavour later in the brewing process.
 
 
My tour is over. As usual, there is far too much to remember of everything I have been told; but certain images stick in my cranium … the Burton Union with its recirculating yeast; the T-shirts featuring the bollocks of a dog; the sight of what look like perfectly good beer being poured down the drain; and the recurring image of yours truly practising the art of pouring the perfect pint while left on his own in the pub within the brewery.
 
Organise a piss up in a brewery? Hey, just ask the expert!