Friday, 31 December 2010

The Golden Pints & 2010 Reviewed

Despite running one of the best beer shops in the UK, I don't really write about retailing a lot. The reason for this is that I want to be seen as a beer writer rather than beer retailer. That might make me sound insecure about the trophies on the sideboard, but that's why I rarely mention Beer-Ritz on here.

But being so close to the action brings you some fantastic insights into the beer market. I thought I might share some of these observations, based on what people have been buying at the shop. This isn't necessarily meant to be extrapolated to the beer-drinking populace as a whole, but there are some interesting trends apparent.

British beer is on the up: this year, people bought more British beer than ever before, particularly at Christmas, when they were buying presents for others. And I don't mean just from the usual suspects (BrewDog, Marble, Thornbridge - although they sell very well), but also generically as a category, from Hook Norton Old Hooky to Ilkley Mary Jane. I think that this signals a turning point for British beer, and people are finally realising that it is simultaneously a great national and also a local product.

Belgian beer is on the wane: fifteen years ago, Belgian beer (and I'm talking all across the board, from Leffe to Trappist to Palm to De Dolle) was new and relatively undiscovered. Five years ago, interested peaked, and today, it's a declining sector. There are certain niches that defy this trend, but overall, there isn't any growth left in Belgian beer in the UK.

American beer is on the verge of going stellar: Sierra Nevada have doubled the volume of imports into the UK each year for the last four years. People like American 'craft' beer because it is largely tasty and uncomplicated. I'm not talking Lost Abbey, I'm talking Odells, Flying Dog, Brooklyn et al. American craft brewing is also showing its most profound influence yet on British brewing.

My Golden Pints for 2010

Best UK Draught Beer - Roosters Nectar
Best UK Bottled Beer - Kernel Citra IPA
Best Overseas Draught Beer - Dogfish Head / Birra del Borgo My Antonia
Best Overseas Bottled Beer - Surly Furious (canned)
Best Overall Beer - Surly Furious
Best Pumpclip or Label - any of Johanna Bashford's BrewDog labels (although Kernel's no-design aesthetics are superb too)
Best UK Brewery - Kernel
Best Overseas Brewery - Sierra Nevada still do a wider range of things better than so many other breweries
Pub/Bar of the Year - The Grove, Hudderfield
Beer Festival of the Year - GBBF
Supermarket of the Year - Waitrose
Independent Retailer of the Year - modesty forbids
Online Retailer of the Year - modesty forbids
Best Beer Book or Magazine - anything by Adrian Tierney-Jones
Best Beer Blog or Website - Stuart Howe's 'Brewing Reality'
Best Beer Twitterer - @simonhjohnson
Best Brewery Online - BrewDog
Food and Beer Pairing of the Year - pigeon crostini and Worthington White Shied
In 2011 I’d Most Like To - get another book commissioned and brew more beer
Biggest Red Herring - the "keg revolution" and confusing modes of dispense with styles of beer

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Into The Dark

You might have noticed a certain chill in the air of late - -11°C has been my personal record. This unusual meteorological phenomenon is technically called "winter", and it has to be said, it has been kicking arse and taking names this year.

I have to admit to having sneaked the odd IPA of late, but I do succumb to the cliché of drinking darker beers in colder weather. It just seems to make sense. This pair of lovelies have been sent to me by their respective breweries. When better than the longest night of the year to tuck into some dark beers?

The Sambrook's Powerhouse Porter (5%abv) is described on the label as being "our modern take on this great London beer style". If by "modern" they mean "not left to go stale in a wooden vat for 18 months", then it's a great success - Powerhouse Porter is free from any trace of staleness and 'characterful' infection. I guess it's also modern in the sense that the hop character is pushed a little more to the fore than one might expect, but the dark malt lends plenty of backbone around which to build the gently leafy hops. It's nice, very drinkable, and if I had another bottle, I'd drink that too.

Sadly, it's a night of singletons, so onwards to the Windsor & Eton Conqueror (5%abv), a beer in that none-more-hip style of black IPA. Whatever you think of the oxymoronic name - black India pale ale? - it's a fun style of beer. The style seems to rest on the use of carafa malt, giving a dark malt flavour without roasted bitterness, and prodigious late-hopping with American C-hop varieties. Call it what you will - black IPA, India black ale, Cascadian dark ale - I like it, and I like this example too. It's medium-bodied, with the soft malty sweetness flick-flacking into heady hops on the palate, finishing with a hint of chicory coffee and IPA hop dazzle. Lovely.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

The New William Worthington Brewery

Worthington White Shield might be the ultimate comeback kid. It's a beer that has had a peripatetic history, but has in recent years found itself back on home turf in Burton Upon Trent. I recently went to Burton for the opening of the new William Worthington brewery that Molson Coors has installed in the National Brewery Centre.

Worthington White Shield is an IPA, of that, there can be no doubt - hey, it even says so on the bottle. In the world of beer, there is perhaps no other term that has been bandied about and applied to so many different beers that it has become almost meaningless. Depending on who you talk to, and IPA might be a pale, low %abv beer, it could be a coppery, mid-strength beer with a mouth-puckering dryness and complex earthy flavour, or it may be a high alcohol riot of sweet citrus fruit. You could argue that historically, White Shield, and other IPAs of that style, are the most 'authentic' (*alarm bells*). But of course, times change, and we, the 21st century beer drinker can cope with a bit of ambiguity. We don't drink labels, we drink beer, right?

That Molson Coors has slowly been investing in the White Shield brand (currently part of the Different World Drinks portfolio) can only be seen as A Good Thing. It's easy to view big brewing companies as nothing but industrial beer producers, but with White Shield, it seems that Molson Coors has cottoned on to the fact that they have a gold ticket - a heritage brand that is never going to sell gazillions of units, but adds an interesting thread to their story. So when, just before dinner, Mark Hunter, CEO of Molson Coors (UK) addresses the guests and says "Our roots, history and tradition help to define who we are today. We want to delight the world's beer drinkers, and make sure that we have the right beer for every occasion", it would be easy to view this as a lot of cynical marketing guff. Except for one thing.

I asked how long this £1million project had taken to complete - I mean, how long does it take to install a brewery in a museum, next to a glass case of breweriania? The answer staggered me - three years. It took three years to get this project completed - and there was more than a little corporate opposition. That's three years of people saying 'hmm, maybe' and 'hmm, I don't know' and 'ermm, I'm not sure'. Someone, or some people, drove this project to completion. By contrast, the Molson Coors take-home draught beer system was 6 months, start to finish - and that was a totally new concept.

But the result of this dogged determination is a stable of historic brands that are coming back to life. White Shield is now brewed on "the big plant", as brewing legend Steve Wellington (right) calls Molson Coors Burton brewery. So the new 20 barrel plant is going to be used to brew beers that Molson Coors want to revive - Red Shield, Worthington E, P2 Stout, and No 1 Barley Wine. In fact, for the time being P2 and the very rare No 1 will be brewed in the original musuem brewery - Molson Coors are yet to be convinced of the demand for such beers. I asked Steve if they were ready to take the leap of faith and brew bigger quantities of these beers, he said "Oh, I'll take any leap offered to me". Looking at that photo of him, it's clear that he's not short on fight, passion or enthusiasm for his vocation. Add to this the fact that Steve really wants this to happen - he's a man who has been known to 'mishear' a no as a yes - and it's only a matter of times before these rarer beers follow White Shield's return to prosperity.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

The Taste of Beer

I recently wrote a piece for the journal of the Brewery History Society. It's a special Michael Jackson memorial issue, and features some of the great and the good of beer writing (and myself, obviously). The roll call of other writers is: Pete Brown, Roger Protz, Martyn Cornell, Jeff Evans, Mark Dredge, Carolyn Smagalski, Tim Webb and John Richards. It should be out soon (I think it's the winter edition), so why don't you visit their website, have a look around, and perhaps even join.

But that wasn't what I was going to write about today - the title reminded me, as it's also the title of the piece I wrote for the journal. What I was going to write about, or more specifically ask about, is how people feel about flavour additions to their beers.

I've been mucking about with a bit of homebrewing recently, and have just made a creamy oatmeal porter. I tried to make a chocolate orange porter by adding tangerine peel to the brew kettle, but the flavour hasn't carried through. It's still a tasty beer, but it doesn't quite have the citrussy lift I was after.

Then I thought, hang on, maybe I can just dry hop this beer with a load of citrussy hops (Amarillo, maybe). Looking around a few homebrew forums, I saw that people were adding actual Terry's Chocolate Orange to get the desired effect, or even adding a shot of Cointreau at bottling. PAH! I sneered, PAH!, that's cheating. And then I realised that I was putting tangerine peel in the beer in the first place, so maybe I was cheating too.

So the question is, when does a flavour ingredient in beer become 'cheating'? Belgian witbier is customarily spiced with coriander and dried orange peel, so we all accept that. Does the point where the ingredient is added make a difference to your perception of it being acceptable? Do you like a little shot of espresso in your stout? Is hibiscus flower an interesting addition, or annoying frippery? If hops make a beer grapefruity, why not just add grapefruit juice? Barrel-ageing is becoming an accepted practice, so why not just add a shot of whisk(e)y to the beer at bottling?

Or do you not care a jot, and think as long as it tastes good, why would anyone care?

.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Open It! - Lexington Brewing Co. Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale

I promise this won't degenerate into a lot of virtual willy-waving about who has the most interestingly-stocked cellar, but I've just been down to mine and crikey, I've got a lot of old tat down there.

Sure, I have some interesting bits and pieces. There's some of the last vintage of Gales Prize Old Ale from the Horndean Brewery, a couple of aged Orval, a Marble Decadence, and so on. Arguably, any of these would be a better choice of beer for Open It! than the bottle in front of me. But in some ways, I have more curiosity about this beer than anything else in my cellar. I sort of know how the Orval will be, and that the Gales POA is going to be a disappointment - horribly flat and sour, a shadow of the great vintages that Gales produced through the 1990s.

The only thing I know about this beer is that it came from Andreas Falt at Vertical Drinks, after a trip to the USA. He handed it to me and said that he thought I might find it interesting. I even had to look up the brewery on RateBeer, although I didn't look at any tasting notes (although I couldn't help but notice the score - 65 overall, and 92 for the style). And so because I knew nothing about the beer, I kept looking at it wondering when I was going to open it, until Open It! came along.

Straight from the freezing cellar, it pours golden and pin-bright. As it warms up, a little vanilla oak and spirit lifts from the glass along with a faint hint of something bacterial - lacto? aceto? The palate is - as the admen love to say - clean and crisp, and the finish is vaguely plasticky, reminiscent of sucking air in through an old chewed Bic biro. Mercifully, the finish is fairly short.

Maybe I should go and grab that Marble Decadence?

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

COMPETITION TIME: The Winner Revealed.

Thanks to everyone who entered the competition. I can honestly say that I enjoyed reading each and every entry, from the poetic, to the prosaic, to the illustrative. Honourable mentions must go Neil Walker for his oblique (and, now I go to write it, unlikely-sounding) fusion of Bob Dylan and John Betjeman, and to Chris Cutting for the cartoon (you have to admire anyone who accompanies such a submission with the explanation “I know it doesn't comply to any of the requirements - please bear in mind I've recently taken on a job with a much longer train journey of late and have time on my hands.”)

However, like Highlander, there can be only one, and that one is Jeff Alworth. Jeff's entry was posted after the deadline, and so his win is sure to upset a few people, not least Matt Lovatt who submitted his entry 4 minutes before the competition deadline. To add further insult to injury, Jeff didn't even email me to tell me about his contribution, it just popped up in a Google alert (come on, we all have Google alerts on our names don't we?). You can read it here.

What I liked about Jeff's entry was the way that it made the story of beer seem like a long ribbon, simultaneously spooling into the past but also winding in from the future. It made me feel that each time we prise the cap off a bottle of beer, we make an imprint on history. And then because I got up to tend to our squalling child in the middle of the night and couldn't get back to sleep, my mind ran riot with that idea: the ribbon of time capped into each bottle, a story released with each hiss of carbon dioxide.

Each beer we drink may be a quasi-political act, determining which breweries will prosper, and who will perish. What styles will stand the test of time, and what sort of a Pandora's bottle are we opening when we release a double IPA onto the unsuspecting drinking public of the UK? Life may be too short to drink bad beer, but what kind of eugenics are we practising if we define our drinking habits too narrowly?

Like I said, my mind ran riot. So, it was nice to read every entry, and they all made me think, but Jeff's entry really blew my mind. Thanks everyone for entering, thanks to Greene King for the fascinating brewery visit and the bottle in the first place, and here's to more beer writing – may it continue to grow in stature, range and quality.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Beer Vs. Fashion In the Land of the Tall Dwarves*

You'd never guess it to look at me, but I quite like fashion. I used to work for a small producer of very high-end printed textiles – in fact, that was my first job when I quit school at 16 years old. I even occasionally look at a couple of fashion blogs – Swagger 360 is my favourite.

The fashion business is a funny one. High fashion (couture) is the bit that gets everyone excited. The press lap up London Fashion Week, New York Fashion week, Dolce E Gabbana. It gets column inches, it gets the press and fashionistas worked up into a lather, but it is about as far remover from what people wear on the street as it is possible to get.

But the top end is where the icons work. There is a bit of trickle-down effect, where what happens on the catwalk influences high-street fashion. It would be unkind to call this sort of influence 'knock off' – at least it shows that someone is paying attention, and that there should be a bit of attention paid to what we wear.

However, the majority of what happens on the catwalk has little or no influence on what people actually wear. Despite the column inches given to sheepskin, metallics and wide-cuffed ankle boots, the delirium induced by a zip-up-the-back dress, and the brouhaha about marble print.

Does this ring any bells for beer-lovers?

Inspired by Phil at 'Oh Good Ale'

*the 'tall dwarf' comment came up at the Guild dinner last week. It's a faintly disparaging way of saying 'in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king'.

.

Craft Beer Defined

Craft beer is what a craft brewer makes.

It's as prosaic a description as 'real ale', isn't it?

Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?

Friday, 26 November 2010

'500 Beers' Does Its Business

I'm delighted to report that last night I hoisted the category winner's tankard in the National Journalism category at the awards dinner for the British Guild of Beer Writers. It now has a slick of dried up Adnam's Tally Ho in the bottom, as a few of us stayed up drinking beer until the hotel threw us out.

Congratulations are due to the other category winners, particularly Simon Jenkins who, after winning the regional journalism category, was also named beer writer of the year.

I'll try to write a fuller report soon, but frankly, I need a big greasy breakfast like you wouldn't believe.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Master of Malt - Drinks by the Dram

It's not something that I blog about, but I'm quite keen on whisky. I'm not a collector, I just like to buy good whisky and drink it. There was a time when it would be usual for me to have few bottles on the go - maybe an Islay, a Highland and a blend. Sadly, it's a habit I seem to have got out of - I'm not sure why, but probably a combination of time and money (the old excuse).

So needless to say I was delighted when the splendid folks at Master of Malt got in touch to tell me about their Drinks By The Dram service. In fact, they went one further - they offered to send a trio of drams for my perusal, and very nice they are. Here are some tasting notes:

Bowmore 26yr Old Single Cask (53.4%abv): bright, tangy attack with - implausibly - notes of raspberry and lavender. Initial attack on the palate is more perfumed fruit, evolving mid-palate into smoke and sea spray. More raspberries in the finish, layered with smoke and lavender. Complex, and more confrontational than I make it sound.

Rosebank 1990 19yr Old (Douglas Laing) (50%abv): soft smokiness, marzipan, soft oak and tropical fruit. Faint perfumed/floral notes. Very appealing, right in my comfort zone. Soft, creamy, marzipanny core, with more soft oak, fruit and spiciness (pepper) emerging in the finish.

Elmer T Lee Single Barrel (45%abv): spirity, a bit hot, with vanilla oak and corn on the cob. One dimensional, and faintly turps-like, but in an enjoyably raucous way.

The Bowmore is stunningly good, incredibly classy and polished, with just enough Islay wildness to remind you of its origins, but benefiting from the slow rub of time, with layers of flavour slowly unfurling on the palate. Out of curiosity, I looked it up on MoM website, partly to check the price, and partly to look at the tasting notes - you can see both here. It's a £100 bottle of whisky. So the nice thing about buying by the dram is that you can see what a £100 bottle of whisky tastes like for only £6.45 for a 3cl sample. And as you can see, the samples come in cool little wax-dipped bottles.

Drinks By The Dram is a great idea, and for anyone with even a passing interest in whisky, a great way to expand your palate, and drink some fine whiskies into the bargain. The little 3-pack of whiskies I received would make a great gift for any whisky-lover, and in case you don't quite get what I'm saying, I'm saying that you should buy me some whisky now.

This is the solution to all your tricky dad/uncle/grandfather present-buying problems. Should you feel that picking out a selection of drams is too much of a faff, there is also a whisky gifts page (hint: the Japanese Yamazaki 18yr is an amazing whisky, at a great price) Now, if only there was some large pseudo-religious, gift-based festival on the horizon....

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Competition Entries

As promised, for people who don't have a blog to post their competition entries on, I'm going to add emailed entries here. [EDIT: Actually, I'm going to try to provide links to all the entries]

Pete Brissenden (on Twitter @petebrissenden)

Beer.

Time is a cruel mistress, warping memories, chewing it up and spitting it out, regurgitated as the good old days. But I think the purest memories are found in smell and taste. Beers provoke the best of memories, as most of my best memories involve having a beer in my hand.

There is that perfectly cool spritzy lager straight from the bottle with a lump of crusty bread, oozy, smelly cheese and fresh, herbaceous, yielding tomatoes drowning in oil, basil and black pepper in the shimmering sun on holiday in France. Crickets chirruping, the smell of hot, resiny pine trees, the prickle of the carbonation waking your palette up and slaking your thirst

There is that heavy, chewy, smoked porter for after a frosty winter walk, hands tingling, face glowing and feet thawing inside your boots. Sat by the fire, cozied up to someone you love on a Sunday afternoon.

There is that sour beer, served in a tulip shaped glass by a French speaking Belgian whose family has been making beer like this one for hundreds of years. You stand with a group of mates in awe of the building, the heritage, the guys serving you the beer. You sniff and swirl and peer at the beers; tart, dusty, a hint of lemony citrus and a slight hint of an acetic twang.

There is that beer that you love and is always in the fridge, it doesn't have to be an expensive craft beer or a high gravity Imperial Stout. Just something consistent, of good quality, that is easily available. Always there waiting for you at home expectant, like a faithful dog.

There is that beer after a long train journey to a new city to meet a bunch of strangers mainly from the internet. The beer is golden and shiny, it smacks of lychees, mangoes and peaches. Shaking hands, names to faces, smiles and banter, the making of new friends bonding over a common love.

All of these memories are mine, I hope memory hasn't twisted too severe. I'm sure the people reading this know of the occasions and the beer I'm speaking about. To them, I raise my glass. All of the shared times, the good beers and the bad ones, to the hangovers and all the greasy breakfasts shared.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Meer For Beer - Time For Another?

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Neil Walker - Time enough for one more beer

There’s four of us and three to come,
And five to meet before we’re done,
There’s one round here that’s worth a look,
And twenty more in Walker’s book,
There’s twelve inside, it’s non too crowded,
But six or sevens senses shrouded,
There’s half that left, we’re waiting Dan,
Not sure ‘bout this one from a can,
There’s five to go and three now done,
It’s for the best dad didn’t come,
There’s more to try we’re not done yet,
And few that’s gone we still regret,
There’s time to sample all but few,
And time for something strong and new,
There’s sculpted glass and country chic,
And grimy spots with punters meek,
There’s five on tap and two to come,
That queues too long for me my son,
There’s twenty types from sixteen years,
And he that looks, and waits, and leers,
There’s far few less than when we started,
It’s seems a few have since departed,
There’s those that dazzle, thrill, excite,
And those that get you through the night,
There’s hops, and malt, and is that soot?
And the smell of horse as some have put,
There’s time enough to meet friends here,
And time enough for one more beer.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Cooking Lager - "Competition Entry"

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Stuart Ross (on Twitter @crownbrewerstu)



-------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Flagon of Ale - On Time

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Chris Routledge - Beer for a Time

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Ghost Drinker - Why, why, why!

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Sean Inman - Flight of the Passing Fancy

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Tandleman - Then

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Beer Justice - Royal Wedding Beers

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Beer Sweden - Time Gentlemen Please

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Conor Gallagher-Deeks

History in a bottle? Immediately I get a feeling, a need to win the competition to be the one that gets the chance to claim the experience of drinking such a unique bottle of Greene King Coronation ale 1936. But when would be the right time to drink it? Making beer is art and therefore beer tasting is subjective to the person and to the circumstance he/she finds his/herself in. So how will I know when is the right time to taste this beer? Will I be able to do it justice, give it the necessary attention and gratitude for drinking history in a bottle.

On the other hand, it is and remains an old bottle of beer. Nothing more, nothing less. Obviously the weird and wonderful effects of time have been working on the beers chemical composition making it one of a kind. No one can repeat such a beer. Yet spending all this time on evaluating when is the perfect time to drink a beer counter productive? Hasn't beer become what it is; the drink of the people, because it gives you time? Isn't it not true of every pint? whether young or old, aged in a cask or travelled from a country a far. Every beer is a homage to history, every beer is unrepeatable, every beer has a story to tell whether you are interested or not, it gives you time to listen.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Phil at Oh Good Ale - 'Time Travel In Four Easy Lessons'

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Ed's Beer Site - Time Is Relative

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Matt Lovatt (submitted 4 minutes before the competiton deadline)

“What you doing?”
“Trying to write a competition entry. I'm attempting to win a 76 year old bottle of beer.”
“76? Is it good?”
“....I don't really know. Everything would seem to suggest that its past its best.”
“Eh? But its valuable right?”
“Couldn't hazard a guess really. I mean, it hasn't got a label. I doubt its collectable.”
“Well, its nice to have a hobby.”

My co-workers comments were momentarily irksome, but, on reflection perfectly reasonable. More than once I have been moved to ask of myself what interests me about this bottle. Do I think that I will perceive in its gently decrepit state the still living remains of great brewing? The brewers that I have come across would be appalled to face a similar scrutiny. Their concern is to bring beer to readiness, then ship it,hoping that diligent publicans will do it justice. Time and oxygen are their enemy.
Ageing beer is a funny business. I have been enticed into purchasing beers that, when specially aged, actually seemed to become a sliver of their former selves. At the Kulminator in Antwerp I experienced an assortment of my favourite beers rendered new again by careful treatment and time. This bottle of would-be coronation ale was never intended to make the passage of years. However carefully crafted, there have been beers brought up for the floor of the Baltic sea that have stood the test of time better (incidentally, I hear tell that BrewDog are intending to replicate this effect by scuppering their trawler with 20 cases of their hand numbered 'Screw the Lusitania' aboard.)
Perhaps part of the appeal comes from from the timeliness of its presentation. Having passed beyond its prime and out into the quiet waters of obsolescence and decay, here it is rehabilitated by the self-conscious whim of beer geeks. The ultimate tick. Perhaps. Or maybe its something else. The tug of history with a curiosity like this is inexorable. There is a transgressive pleasure in the idea of drinking a beer bottled before my pre-teen father was coerced into signing the pledge ( he reneged not long after). And there perhaps is the answer: there is only one answer to a paradoxical beer such as this one. Drink it.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Beervana - Great Moments in Beer (submitted after deadline, but you should still read it.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Chris Cutting - Beer & Thyme (click cartoon for full size original)

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

COMPETITION TIME! Win a Bottle of Greene King 1937 Coronation Ale

Earlier this year, I visited Greene King and wrote a couple of posts about it (here and here). In the second of those, I opened and tasted a bottle of Greene King Coronation ale, brewed in 1936 to celebrate the 1937 Coronation of Edward VIII, which of course never happened, as he decided he'd rather live in sin with Mrs Simpson than be monarch of these fair isles.

Greene King have very kindly given me another bottle of this beer, and in a flash of the sort of generosity and kindness for which I am known, I thought it might make an interesting competition prize.

To enter the competition, all you have to do is write something about beer and time, up to a maximum of 500 words. It can be about the oldest beer you've drunk, or the freshest. It can be a technical essay on the ravages of oxygen on cask beer, a treatise on the historical evolution of the term IPA, or it could be about a long-held yearning and search for a perticular beer. Anything, basically, as long as there is some relation to time in it. Although if you decide to write anything that uses the phrase "time at the bar, please" as the link to time, you won't win. Look, it's my competition, and those are my rules.

If you have a blog, put it on your blog and send me a link to it. If you don't have a blog, email me your entry and I'll put it on here. If you don't have email, post me a paper copy. If you can't write, then you can make a video or a recording of yourself and send it to me. Poetry and song are also worth a shot, but please note that interpretive dance will also stand a poor chance of winning.

The closing date for entries is Friday 26th November, so you've got a bit of time to think about it.

I'll package and post this bottle anywhere in the world, at my own cost. It will go surface mail, as I'm not sure what air mail will do to the very old cork. The bottle is the very one pictured at the top of the page, covered with a lovely patina of cellar dust. If you look at the second of my two Greene King posts, you'll see the racks of crates from which it was taken. It would make a lovely paperweight, and if you put a blob of wax over the cork, it would also last forever.

TERMS AND CONDITIONS: This bottle of beer is a historical curiosity and not a beverage. Neither I nor Greene King can be held liable for any consequences arising from the postal transit, possession or consumption of the beer. You must be of legal drinking age in your country to enter this competition. Entering this competition implies an acceptance of these terms.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Monsieur Rock

Yeah, I'm losing my edge.

There was a time when I'd have put on a clean shirt, sorted the lighting out, and cooked something to go with the beer (in this case, some robust seafood might to it - monkfish with lemon and caper butter, for example). As much as I respect Stuart Howe's endeavours, the added involvement of Jean-Marie Rock (brewer of Orval) should have at least made me wear a shirt with a collar, rather than a BrewDog T-shirt. But this was a hastily taken video, and with good reason.

You see, Leeanne only drinks a couple of nights a week. She doesn't like to drink on a work night, so getting this beer on a Wednesday happily coincided with an evening before a day off. The beer was delivered to the shop, and cheeky snifters were shared with Will and Tom - they both liked it, to varying degrees. I thought it was extraordinary - a 5%abv beer that drank like a session beer, and with a depth of sweetly herbal complexity that made it ruinously drinkable.

And I use the word ruinous with good reason - I couldn't stop drinking this damn beer. We killed the minikeg it came in - happily, I think it was a partly-filled minikeg, so maybe we only had a few pints each.

The incredible thing is, this beer was so compellingly drinkable without being overstated. Its soft, lemony character (hello Saaz) and light body meant that its aroma whetted the appetite, its flavour skipped lightly across the palate, and then after briefly lingering, disappeared in a faint puff of lemon, honey, ginger and fennel. And it did so in a manner that made you think 'hang on, did that really happen?'. And so you have another drink, and another. And then your glass is empty. And then the minikeg is empty.

I don't think that Monsieur Rock will be released for a couple of months yet, so that gives you plenty of time to pester the brewery and find out where it will be distributed. You really want to try this - it's classic British ale, filtered through the minds of a couple of great brewers, and making a virtue of such old-fashioned values as elegance and understatedness.

Just show some respect, and wear a shirt and cufflinks when you drink it.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Kelly Ryan, Begone!

Hairy-handed and Hobbit-like, Antipodean refugee Kelly Ryan has struggled to fit into the UK brewing scene. After years of ham-fisted attempts at brewing something drinkable, he finally hit paydirt by somehow falling into a recently-vacated job. He was lucky to somehow gain the confidence of brewer Stefano Cossi - perhaps it was his fancy double degree in Microbiology and Food Science and Technology from the University of Otago. Clearly Thornbridge Brewery are not in the habit of checking references - there is in fact no such place as Otago.

After two long years of woeful incompetence, Thornbridge were forced to invest heavily in automated technology in an attempt to prevent Kelly from ruining any more beer. To this day, it is a mystery how Kelly's mere presence in a brewery can have such a detrimental effect on the beer that is being brewed, but it does. A programme of international mentorship, under the guise of a series of collaborative brews, all failed to stop the rot. Sadly, all the costly investment in brewing technology, not to mention endless hand-waxing and lessons in walking upright, have come to nought. In a last-ditch attempt to save what reputation he has, Kelly is returning to New Zealand.

This momentous event has seen a great outpouring of emotion in the blogosphere. No more shall we have to suffer exotically-monikered beers stuffed awkardly with crude hop character. No more absurd diatribes on forcing carbon dioxide into beer. And finally, no more tedious innovation and pursuit of some mythical, elysian notion of brewing. Frankly, it's been exhausting, and I think I speak for every beer-lover in the UK when I say that we're glad it's over.

Kelly Ryan, begone. You are dead to us already.

(For a more detailed exploration of the sort of contempt in which I hold Kelly's abilities, see Halcyon, Larkspur, and Jaipur & Bottle Conditioning)

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Properly Proustian - A Brooklyn Flashback


The usefulness of the experiential descriptor "Proustian" rests on the reader knowing that it refers to Marcel Proust's retelling of an experience of smelling and eating tea-soaked madeleine cakes, and the memories that this evoked. It tends to be viewed as a bit pretentious, largely, I think, because it sounds (and indeed is) French, something that the entire non-French world dislikes intensely.

I had an unexpectedly Proustian moment the other evening with a bottle of Brooklyn East India Pale Ale. I was absent-mindedly putting the beer to my lips, and vaguely thinking about having visited the brewery in 2007. Garrett himself showed me round, and coincidentally, EIPA was in one of the kettles that day. As I breathed in, pre-sip, the big burst of floral and toffee aroma snapped me instantly back a couple of decades, to my first ever trip to New York. It was probably 1989, a time when New York was still the sleazy and dangerous city of filmic lore. I was visiting an American guy I had met while he was travelling in the UK. The precise scene evoked by this inhalation of aroma was a party at his apartment on Hoyt Street in Brooklyn. I'd been drinking black and tan for the duration of my visit, and like most Brits abroad, complained loudly about how crappy the beer was. In an attempt to shut me up someone handed me a bottle of the brand new Brooklyn Lager. I wearily, sneerily took the bottle, had a gulp, and was dumbfounded.

It was like the first time I ever tasted whisky. Laphroaig was my malt of choice back then, and what I liked about it was that the flavours were so different, so unfamiliar (and remember, I was only 19) that rather than being dispensed from a bottle, they may as well have been beamed directly onto my cerebral cortex from an alien craft orbiting the planet. That bottle of Brooklyn Lager was the most unexpectedly pungently floral beer I'd ever tried. The way the hops and the slightly toffeeish malt lingered was a revelation. I still moaned about the beer for the rest of my stay - hey, I was an English teenager back then - but I also had a new secret infatuation.

It clearly made a great impression. The beer that evoked those memories wasn't even the same beer, but maybe there was something about the house style, and the concentation of aromas as I breathed in that set off that little memory circuit in my brain. The whole reverie probably lasted for less than a second, before my conscious brain barged in shouting "WHOAH, DUDE! YOU'RE HAVING A PROPERLY PROUSTIAN MOMENT!". Stupid brain.

I've always been sceptical of this sort of thing, largely taking beer-related Proustian experiences with a pinch of salt - sure, I remember drinking this beer on holiday, but that's it. But this was so vivid that, like the bottle of Brooklyn Lager over two decades ago, it almost took my breath away. This wasn't reminiscing over a beer, it was more like a sensory hiccup, a deja vu projected 20 years in the wrong direction. Has anyone else ever had this, or am I special? [NOTE: these are not mutually exclusive]

Friday, 29 October 2010

CANCELLED: World Tour (Birmingham Leg)

I'm really sorry to have to cancel my tasting at the Birmingham Beer Fest. The common cold has got the better of me.

Banks's motto, 'fide et fortitudine' means 'by fidelity and fortitude'. With truth and strength on my side, I hope to reschedule this for later in the year, or early next.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Gout & About: A Slow Walk Through the Northern Quarter

Pictured: (L-R): James Campbell (Marble), Kelly Ryan (Thornbridge), Colin Stronge (Marble), Dave Bailey (Hardknott)

Gout is a particularly painful condition, consisting of a build-up of uric acid crystals (or urates) in the joints. Gout can affect any joint, but classically it appears in the second joint of the big toe. I have classical gout. It was painful last week, but this week, it's eased up a bit, and I'm almost normal. Going for a walk through Manchester's Northern Quarter last weekend wasn't a great idea, but throw in a brewery visit and a great pub, and I'm powerless to resist, gout or not.

Marble Brewery have been brewing for over a decade, and brewing damn good beers at that. Until recently, all their beers were certified organic and vegan, happily defying my assertion that organic beers are always compromised on flavour. Marble's beers have flavour packed into them - in fact, they clearly have too much flavour, because as soon as their beer is poured, the excess flavour leaps out of the glass, filling noses, rooms, cities with happy hoppiness. The organic certification has been allowed to slide for a few beers, mainly due to hop scarcity and pricing. The brewery has moved from its (by all accounts) homespun location at the back of the pub to a smartly whitewashed railway arch just down the road. The beers are still great, and their pub, The Marble Arch, is a jewel.

If one thing characterises Marble's beers, it's the extraordinary hop characters they coax into their pale beers. Manchester Bitter (4.2%abv), Summer (4.5%), Lagonda IPA (5%) and Dobber (5.9%) are stuffed beyond belief with exotic hop flavour and aroma. Dobber is the apogee of how much hop character you can stuff into a pale beer - lime, mango, grapefruit, mandarin, lychee. If Dobber wasn't so good, it would seem ridiculous to shower it with so many descriptors, but it's totally justified. My experience is that this beer is slightly more intense in bottle than in cask form, but your mileage (and ideology) may vary. Marble make other beers too - their Ginger is roundly praised, Chocolate is a rich delight, and get comfy, because there's a great tale attached to their latest release (sadly now all gone) Vuur & Vlam.

Vuur & Vlam is a beer originally brewed by the Dutch Brouwerij De Molen. It's a hearty American-style IPA, all resinous hops overlaying toffeeish malts. For this year's Borefts beer festival, festival organiser (and brewer at De Molen) Menno Olivier made the recipe for Vuur & Vlam available to all the invited breweries, and the challenge was to brew the best version they could. Marble's version came second. You might think that there's no shame in coming second to a brewery like De Molen, but in fact, De Molen's version came third. Talk about beating someone at their own game....

The visit was part the latest Twissup organised by Mark Dredge and Andy Mogg. The brewery and pub were the highlight of the Manchester leg. Being of sound mind but unsound body, I sat out the Huddersfield leg, where The Grove will have undoubtedly been the other highlight. You can read other reports on the full event here: BeerReviews.co.uk Pencil&Spoon Tandleman IMHAGOB Oh Good Ale

The Michelin Guide uses its star ranking system to rate restaurants. These stars originally had a specific meaning. One star indicated "a very good restaurant in its category, worth a stop." Two-stars meant "excellent cooking, worth a detour," and three stars reserved for "exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey". Without even trying the food (which looked great), I'd pitch the Marble Arch somewhere between a two- and three-star rating: Great beer straight out of the brewery, an incredible tiled interior, and food that made me hungry when it went by on a plate. I'll be making a special journey back there soon.

Monday, 25 October 2010

World Tour (Birmingham Leg)

I'm delighted that the lovely people of Marston's have had the good taste to invite me down to the Birmingham CAMRA Beer Festival to say a few words about some of their venerable beers.

I'm going to be holding a tasting of Banks's Mild, Bitter, and Marston's Pedigree on the Banks's stage, for each of the Saturday sessions. Not only that, but in a fit of creativity, we are also going to attempt to Tweet it live from the stage, and there will also be video and photos of the event uploaded as it happens. That's the plan, anyway - I'm worried that it has the makings of an Orbital gig, with a couple of people huddled behind a bank of technology, but with more facial hair and beer, and less hands-in-the-air action.

I'm also going to lug a few copies of "500 Beers" with me for a 'guerilla book signing' (™ Pete Brown), so if you'd like a freshly defaced copy, do stop by the Banks's stage to catch me in full flow at 3pm and 6pm. After a slightly nervous flick through the index, I'm relieved to see that I have included Marston's Pedigree, and describe it as "an unreconstructed English classic". The whole tasting will be themed around one of my great loves - ordinary brown beer - and I might even have a stab at a beer cocktail, or as they used to be called, a mild and bitter.

Come along, it'll be fun.

TRANSPARENCY STATEMENT: I am being paid to host these tastings. If you think that means I'll say anything I wouldn't ordinarily say, or will prevent me from saying what's on my mind, then you've clearly never met me. So come along and meet me.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

AskMen UK: The Influencer Top 10 Beer Blogs

We all love lists. They're a great starting point for long rambling arguments and "I can't believe X isn't on it" type rants. That's why it's nice to see AskMen UK publishing a list of who they have found to be the 10 most influential beer bloggers. It's even nicer that I'm included, even if I did only make page 3 and, and wasn't credited with being the BGBW Writer of the Year 2008.

I think it's a fairly representative list on all the various takes that beer blogging has to offer. I'm particularly pleased to see Shut Up About Barclay Perkins and Tandleman included, demonstrating that neither age nor eccentricity* are barriers to fame and (lack of) fortune in the blogosphere. I'm surprised and a bit saddened that Zythophile and Brewing Reality are missing, but there we are, that's lists for you.

Should you wish to mention any odd omissions or inclusions, why not do it below?

*this is that dangerous beast, written internet irony. For the avoidance of doubt, it's meant to be funny by way of gentle joshing.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Now Drinking: Roosters Honey and Citra (Exp #28)

God bless Roosters. They are such an iconic English brewery, and yet it sometimes seems to me that they are only known to relatively small section of the beer-drinking public. They have forever ploughed a lonely furrow through a field full of pale malt and new world hops. And when I say forever, I obviously don't mean forever, what I mean is a long time for a brewery that make such a singular style of beer - soft, pale and golden, with a pronounced hop character. They even make a brief appearance in Michael Jackson's Pocket Beer Book, 1997: "In Harrogate, the Rooster micro is noted for hoppy ales, sometimes varietal".

Roosters don't really bottle a lot of beer, so being a person who doesn't get to the pub as often as he'd like, I don't drink as much of their beer as I'd like to. Conversely, my pub drinking is disproportionately swayed in favour of Roosters. A quick pint in Leeds' Mr. Foleys the other night had to be Roosters. In fact, now I think of it, almost every trip to the pub that I've had this year has featured Roosters. There aren't many, but at least I'm consistent.

Happily, Roosters bottle a few bits and pieces - mostly experimental and private-brew beers. The latest beers to fall into my lap are this honey and Citra hop beer. Predictably pale and golden, the honey makes it's phenolic, softly floral presence known on the nose immediately. The hops are there, but they battle for space a bit with the honey. The honey and hop play a weird trick, in that they seem to push a lot of pale malt character into the aroma. It takes a while for the palate to calibrate to what is going on, but when it does, the characteristic slightly savoury (green-pepper?) and citrus note of Citra is there, sitting in with the dry, phenolic snap of fully-fermented honey. That faintly savoury character carries into the finish too.

Roosters are incapable of making bad beer, and I love the creative spirit that they've been showing lately. Their trademark style is all about the hop, and Citra is the hop of the moment. I just can't help but wonder what this beer would be like without the honey.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Goddisgoode: Lagunitas Little Sumpin' Wild

Yeast is really the hidden ingredient in beer. I think it's safe to say that it is the part of the holy quadrilogy that is least talked about. OK, people might bandy about some talk of brett, erroneously conflating brett with sour beers (sure, it's a part of most sour beers, but the sourness is usually derived from lactobacillus - see here for what happens when the lacto runs wild). But you have hopheads, mild afficionados, and people who enjoy a Burton snatch, but I've never heard people express a preference for beer that has been fermented with a certain strain of yeast. Largely yeast is thought to be top-fermenting, bottom-fermenting, or wild.

The importance of yeast was brought home to me this evening when I had a bottle of Lagunitas Little Sumpin' Wild (8.85%abv). I've had a couple of Lagunitas beers recently. My good friend G brought a couple back from his trip to the USA, and I had a bottle of Little Sumpin' in the cellar, waiting for the right moment, which was now.

The bottle of Lagunitas Hop Stoopid I had a couple of days ago was good, but this bottle of Little Sumpin' Wild was great. Like an amped-up version of Little Sumpin', Hop Stoopid was big, chunky, malty and hoppy, with all of these things turned up to full volume. The malt was toffee, the hops were spice and marmalade, and to be honest, it was all a bit tiring. The Little Sumpin' Wild is just as full, just as punchy, but has some elegance to it. On the label it claims to be fermented with the Westmalle yeast strain. Having drunk Westmalle many times, I can't see any similarity, but what I will say is that this beer has gained character by having things taken out. The malt sweetness is present, but it is greatly reduced. The hop character has been released from playing a to-and-fro with a toffeeish malt character, and is left free to rampage across the palate in the same way as the hops do in Flying Dog's Raging Bitch (terrible name, great beer) and Green Flash's Le Freak.

There's a clean precision to this beer that you don't often find. It reminds me of two things; one is when I was lucky enough to visit the Italian wine estate Allegrini, and I tried their top wine 'La Poja'. I could only describe it as 'incredibly detailed'. It felt like someone was writing on my tongue, spelling out the word 'classy' across my tastebuds. The other comparison is that it's like a record that has been really well-produced; the work of the producer should be unobtrusive, and yet immediately apparent to anyone who looks for it. Quite often, the best producers turn things down in the mix, giving them their own space in the equalised mix, rather than turning things up and adding extra effects. Little Sumpin' Wild is like that; the yeast has worked to create more space on the palate, more space to allow your brain to identify the separate taste sensations.

But like a great piece of music, you don't need to analyse it. It's just a great beer.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Now Drinking: Birra del Borgo Castagnale

There's not much to add to this video, to be honest. Unusually for me, I sort of stay on message, cover all the points, and say what I set out to say. Maybe the only other thing to add from a tasting point of view is that the beer has a nice classic English hop character that comes through in late the finish. I was too busy wagging my tongue to pick it up while making the video.

Founder of Birra del Borgo Leonardo Di Vincenzo popped into the shop last week, along with Brooks Carretta, who is currently brewing at Birra del Borgo, but will shortly be heading off to oversee the brewing operations at the New York outpost of the Eataly group. It was a bit of a surprise to see them, to say the least. Obviously, they hadn't just got on a train to come and see me - they were in Leeds visiting Vertical Drinks, the UK importer of Birra del Borgo, Le Baladin and Gradisca beers.

I always get a bit overawed meeting brewers whose beers I like. I feel compelled to pump them for technical information about their beers, which is a crappy conversational technique because (a) the information is interesting to me, but perhaps useless outside of the context of my brain, and (b) I'm sure they'd rather talk about something other than work.

In the course of a conversation lubricated by Marble Tawny and BrewDog-Mikkeller Devine Rebel Mortlach Reserve, we chatted about the recent collaborative brew between Leonardo, Teo Musso and Sam Calagione (a shade too much wild thyme, apparently), techniques for making easy drinking session ales (if you're going for something low %abv and delicate, you can think about missing out the first hop addition all together) and late hopping techniques (I asked if they added hops after 'flame out' - 'sure, to the whirlpool. About a ton' was Brooks' laconic reply).

Anyway, Brooks and Leonardo were in the UK to do a brew of Castagnale (4.2%abv) at Everards. It will feature as part of the JD Wetherspoon's winter ale festival (website here), which has an interesting line-up of beers - plenty of trad, and a decent smattering of one-offs. And it will be coming to pub near you (if you live in the UK).

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Craft Will Eat Itself

I think we're at a really exciting time in beer appreciation.

The Cask Report shows cask ale holding steady in a difficult market. That's good news, although as has been mentioned elsewhere on the blogs, it's hardly call for celebration. It's not bad news, but neither is it good news. It's just news.

At this point, I'd love to write something like "cask ale is one of the UK's greatest gastronomic triumphs", but the problem is, that's only right some of the time. Cask is a form of dispense, it's not a style of beer, so to say that cask ale is holding its own in the market is talking about the success of a mode of dispense. Sure, with a great beer inside, a cask of ale is about as good as beer can get. But there is a lot of plain old boring cask ale about too. And no, I'm not one those people who has drunk too many American IPAs and suffered lupulin threshold shift. I still love ordinary brown beer - and there are good and bad ones of those too.

So how about talking about microbreweries? Again, this really just talks about volumes of production, without any reference to style or quality of the beer. There are good and bad micros just as there are good and bad macros. Sure, you can say you'd rather give your money to a small independent brewery than a large multinational, but again that's not really talking about the beer - it's about business ethics.

And what of craft beer? In the foreword to the latest Beer Advocate magazine, the Alstrom brothers started to describe their uneasiness about the word 'craft' as a designation of something good - essentially the same argument as above about microbreweries, but micros in the UK have a clear delineation along production volume vs. taxation lines.

Many people trumpet the rise in cask's market share as the victory of real ale over lager. Again, this is a bit lopsided, as lager is only a shorthand for industrial beer in this country. But of course, lager isn't really a description of a style, it's a description of a production process. If I was being cynical, I'd say that the victory of a mode of dispense over a brewing process is a low point in the history of beer appreciation in this country.

And bubbling away underneath all of this is the fact that volumes of beer overall are decreasing in the on-trade, and steadily rising in the off-trade. I think that volumes are presently about equal, but the streams are about to cross (sorry, poor analogy to use when talking about beer consumption). And in the off-trade, premium bottled ale growth continues to outstrip every other beer sector. Well, apart from the volumes of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale imported into the UK, which have doubled every year for the last three years, and seem set to continue in that vein. Who will write The Bottle Report, I wonder [*twirls moustache, waggles eyebrows suggestively*]

Sierra Nevada are really the holy grail of good beer. In SN Pale Ale, they found that holy grail, a crossover classic with both geek and mass-market appeal. They went from brewing it in converted dairy tanks to brewing it in an industrial production facility, without ever once compromising on quality or flavour.

So, to summarise: Nobody wants to drink bad beer. A cask of beer can only, at best, be as good as what the brewer puts in at the brewery, and can often be sub-optimal. It's easy to confuse dispense and process with what you are drinking. Craft and micro are no longer synonyms for quality, if indeed they ever were. Small volume production beers can be bad, and large volume production beers can be good. It's complicated, isn't it, this beer appreciation lark?

As I said at the start, I think we're at a really exciting time in beer appreciation. But there is still a lot of work to do.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Now Drinking: BrewDog Chaos Theory

I've just completed my revision for my talk at the Hay Ale and Literature Festival. Not that I'm much of a one for cramming, but I did think it was at least worth looking up a few hop varieties and brewery locations of the beers I will be talking about. Hey, none of us are born with knowledge - did you think I absorbed it by osmosis from the beer?

I was one of those annoying university students who paid attention in lectures, and so revision was just that - looking over my notes and saying 'ah yes, I know that already'. Whether I manage to retain the same composure in front of a group of real ale fans tomorrow as I rhapsodise about Vienna lager, black lager, extra IPA, trappist ale and weizen doppelbock is another thing. Oh well,they can but boo and throw beer over me - that hasn't happened since a particularly disastrous gig at Salisbury Arts Centre in about 1991.

I should really be in bed by now, but I just received an exciting beer-related invite that, should it actually happen, should be a few days of extreme fun. Sorry to be annoying and go "ooh, I can't tell you what it is yet", but ooh, I can't tell you what it is yet. And like anyone who is reading this blog, I decided to celebrate exciting news with a glass of beer.

BrewDog's Chaos Theory (7.1%abv) is back by popular demand. It was inexplicably delisted about 18 months ago, for who knows what reason. My guess is that Nelson Sauvin became too fashionable to piss away on an everyday beer, not that there is anything dreary or mundane about Chaos Theory. It's their single hop Nelson Sauvin IPA, and it's a great glass of beer. I really like beers that suggest things without actually forming a committee and going on a march with a banner that says "LOOK AT ME! I'M STUFFED FULL OF INGREDIENTS!" and despite it's strength, Chaos Theory manages to do that. It's just beery enough to appeal to regular beer drinkers, but has enough subtle hop-derived fruitiness to be appealing.

Grab some while you can.

Monday, 20 September 2010

The Circle Squared at York Beer Festival

There was a pleasing symmetry to a drinking experience this week at the York beer festival. No, it wasn't the surprise appearance of Saints & Sinners / Steel City Hopsession #2 at the festival (complete with shabby chic pumpclip), but I was surprised to find a cask of Birra del Borgo / Dogfish Head My Antonia. It was exciting because this has been one of my favourite beers of the year. From sampling it in 75cl bottle format, to drinking it on draught in Rome, to finally finding it on cask in Yorkshire, I'm starting to get the sensation that this beer just can't get enough of me. I half expect to turn on the tap to make a cup of tea and find it pouring out. That would be nice.

The first picture shows a couple of casks at the brewery in Borgorose. As I was being shown around, I asked who they were for, and the reply was a bit noncomittal - it was just to go to England. I can tell now why brewer Leonardo Di Vincenzo was so economical with the truth - clearly this had been casked exclusively for my enjoyment at York beerfest, and he didn't want to spoil the surprise. How thoughtful!

Seriously though, this is something of a coup, and down to Jamie Hawksworth and his sterling work in creating a series of iconic beer business in Yorkshire (Pivo, The Sheffield Tap, plus a wide and varied importing and wholesale operation). And while we're at it, thanks to Vertical Drinks for their importing of this great beer in a rare format. But still, it's something of a credit to Jamie that he came along and judged at the festival, toting a bottle of what I think might have been a pre-release of BrewDog's AB:03, a stunning, mellow red berry ale. BrewDog James had come to see me a couple of days previously and left me with a bottle, which I selfishly didn't bring to the beer festival to share with my fellow judges. Clearly to rectify this, I will have to travel with a bottle of beer about my person at all times - Jamie's generosity proved the maxim that beer is better shared.

But back to the point - casked My Antonia. It was a beautifully hazy golden beer, with an aroma of peaches and apricots. The Saaz snap that made the keg version so brilliant was there, albeit subsumed into a more rounded, fruity character. It was alarming easy drinking for 7.7%abv. I had a half, and then tried to slowly wean myself onto weaker beers, via Hardknott Infra Red (oddly chewy in cask), Crown Red Barron (again, weirdly full bodied - maybe red IPA is a blind spot for me), Marble Dobber (brilliant, but surprisingly bitter) and Five Towns Niamh's Nemesis (beer of the festival, but by my reckoning, not even close to the best beer I drank that day).

So, York beer festival - delivering beyond expectations, and providing closure to my peak beer drinking experiences. And I didn't even have to leave Yorkshire.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

When A Man Is Tired Of London, He's Ready For Yorkshire

I had a totally bonkers hour in Borough Market yesterday.

I popped into Brew Wharf for a quick refresher after a long afternoon's wine tasting (90 wines in about 4 hours - a new personal best). On the bar was Hopsession #2 (6.1%abv), brewed in collaboration with Steel City Brewing. Never one to shirk a challenge, I ordered a pint, and struggled through it. It's one of the hoppiest, bitterest beers I've had in a long time, deliberately unbalanced (we'll return to this later), and really close to being drinkable. I should have ordered a half.

After that, I needed a beer. Popping into The Rake, I found Dark Star Triple (8.5%abv). My notes read: "What madness is this? A limited brew that attempts to put all the mealy, hoppy goodness of a Belgian triple into a cask ale. Against the odds, it succeeds, with malty, yeasty sweetness leading, backed up by a brilliant herbal bitterness". My enjoyment of the beer was enhanced by an impromptu fitness session from regulars and staff - one-handed press-ups and door-frame fingertip pull-ups. Of all the things I expected to find at The Rake, the staff and customers all doing press-ups was fairly low on the list.

As I was finishing a second beer (Marble Chocolate, 5.5%abv, very nice too), who should arrive but none other than Gazza Prescott himself, of Steel City Brewing. We've never met before, so after quick intros, I told him I'd just had a Hopsession. He asked me what I thought, and I told him 'unbalanced'. Frankly, he couldn't have been happier. He hit the nail on the head by saying that it needed more aroma hop, and I suggested that they might have moved some of the hop additions from early to late. He gave me the sort of look usually reserved for the feeble-minded, and made it clear that there would be no funny business - the beer simply needed more hops, and later in the boil.

So, a crash course in mid-Atlantic pale ale design, and some low-key floor acrobatics in one of the best beer bars in London. You don't get that in Leeds on a Tuesday night (thank goodness).

Monday, 13 September 2010

I Am A Craft Beer Drinker

I love the Americans, and I say that totally without irony.

I love their earnest sense of straightforwardness. I love the way they are mostly without guile. I love the way they have so little holiday that they organise their fun so as to make best use of what little time they have. I love the way they know that they might only have time for a couple of beers, so they'd better be damn tasty, and medium-strong to boot.

I'm sure you've seen this video by now. I like it, but I'd love to see it remade with British craft beer drinkers. The dentistry wouldn't be as good, for a start. And I think quite a lot of us would struggle to stare into a camera and deliver the same sentiments with that sort of sincerity, that lack of irony, that wholesome earnestness.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Nightcap

At the GBBF this year, I bumped into Dave 'Hardknott' Bailey about 20 minutes after the festival opened. I was trying to ease myself into an afternoon's drinking with a few session ales, but Dave had waded into the bigger American IPAs already. 'I've got a bit of a thing for stronger beers' he said, somewhat ruefully.

I know what he means.

Higher %abv beers pack a certain punch that weaker beers don't, and I'm not just talking about the alcohol. Whichever way they go - sweet malt sugars left unmetabolised by exhausted yeast or fully attenuated spicy dry beers - there's a depth of flavour there that a creatively mashed, well-hopped lower %abv never attains. There's a sweet spot for me around 6 or 7%abv where beers start to get really satisfying. Satisfying in the sense that they do actually feel nourishing. Maybe it's just that I'm dog-tired at the moment, and my body appreciates the extra carbohydrates of a slightly sweeter beer. Or maybe it just likes the gentle flush of alcohol.

Either way, there's no getting away from the fact that JW Lees Harvest Ale is both sweet and strong. In fact, it's such a sweet beer that it almost doubles as a dessert - figs and toffees, bananas and brandy all feature. And it's such a strong beer (11.5%abv) that it only really makes sense as a beer that closes a meal, or precedes bed.

The latter, in this case.

Tags: JW Lees, harvest ale, strong beer, hardknott

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

International Beer-Geekery

I had a very nice evening out last night. I went for a beer with Rick Kempen of Bier & Co, who was in town for the night. He very kindly brought me the bottles shown in the photo, and I paid him back with bottle of Fuller's Gale's Prize Old Ale 2007. As we swapped bottles in the pub, his colleague Gaius Voûte commented that we looked like a pair of beer geeks. We were pleased, but I don't think he meant it as a compliment.

There's something nice about making a gift of beer from home, whether that's me taking some proper Yorkshire beer down to the family in Wiltshire, or swapping beers in person with a foreign visitor. It reminds of the time in the late 80s that I used to visit friends in New York - I'd always take some English beer with me as a gift, although the 4 pint carry-out keg of Tanglefoot didn't travel too well. They let me take it on as hand luggage. No, honestly, they did - it was acceptable in the 80s.

Taking it a stage further, there's always the trading forums on Ratebeer and Beer Advocate if you really need to swap something to get something (you need to be logged in to view them). I've never done that, and would be interested to hear if anyone has any stories of success or failure either way - not for any journalistic (bloggeristic?) reason, but I'm just curious. Plus a Facebook buddy who lives near to Russian River has suggested we trade bottles (hi Will, if you're reading this). Obviously the cost of postage doesn't make financial sense, but I like the idea that beer geeks on different continents will happily send each other rarities at their own respective expense.

It could be like the Cameron-Obama beer summit, only with good beer.

.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Now Drinking: Crown Brewery Brooklyn Heights

Damn. Forgot to ask them to take the sparkler off.

For me, one of the most exciting trends in British brewing in the last few years has been the resurgence of the hop, or more specifically, cask ales with big American C-hop character. I've said it before, but the transatlantic conversation between American and European brewing culture has never been more excitable or exciting. Despite not getting to the pub as often as I'd like, I still think cask ale rules.

Brooklyn Heights wears its affiliations proudly on its pump clip. It's an unashamedly ballsy interpretation of an American Pale Ale. Most American Pale Ales (and IPAs) are designed to be drunk cold and force-carbonated - nothing wrong with that, but when you serve them on cask, that lack of dissolved CO2 makes the whole thing slightly sweet and sticky.

Happily, Stuart Ross of Crown Brewery (for it is he) knows what he's doing when it comes to cask ale. So rather than making a beer better suited to a quick bit of chill and zizz, he knows how to meld the hop-forward character of an APA with just the right fullness of malt body. The end result is a classic English ale that is both traditional and modern. It's trad because there's just enough earthy bitterness to it to please your old man, but at the same time, it's modern in it's marmalade-pith fruity character. There's just enough sweetness to it to balance the big, spicy bitterness in the finish.

Another classic from Crown Brewery. Great work, Stuart. And great work North Bar.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Two From The Back Of The Shelf

One of the nice things about having a cellar - a proper damp, cool underground room in the bottom of the house - is that it keeps beer close to serving temperature most of the time. It's like a big cool room, about 10°C, and so I can just wander down and find something ready to drink most of the time. And the nice thing about working in the trade, and being sent beer, is that there's usually quite a bit of beer down there. Inevitably, beer tends to stack up on the shelves in good times, and in lean times the shelves get emptied. So it is tonight, when having exposed the bottles at the back, I find a couple of forgotten bottles: Badger Cricket (aka Lemony Cricket, 4.4%abv) and Fallen Angel Hopped Up Cider (4.8%abv).

I've had Badger Cricket on cask while visiting the family down South. It's an ordinary brown beer (and I mean that in a good way) with pretensions to being a spring/summer ale by virtue of having lemongrass added to it. I have to say that on cask it suffers a bit from a surfeit of lemongrass, like the other lemongrass beer I've recently tried, Hopback Taiphoon. Happily, this beer appears to have suffered a bit in the bottling process - all of the perfumed nonsense is thankfully knocked out of the beer by rough handling on the bottling line, and what emerges from the bottle is a brown beer with a faint hint of lemon balm in the background. It's really good actually, and makes me wish I had another bottle. Sadly, my signature move of reviewing the last bottle in a free case deprives me of that option.

I have to say that I had zero hopes for Hopped Up Cyder, "A strong cider brewed from pure apple juice but with the addition of malt and a large dose of Sussex hops to give a unique fresh flavour not found anywhere else". As if that doesn't sound bad enough, the labels on their beers are the most unreconstructedly offensive crap I've seen in a long time. It really goes beyond laddish, postmodern or even post-ironic. They're just crap. Offensive crap.

So it pains me to say that Hopped Up Cyder actually isn't bad. I'd suggest attempting to create something that is halfway between a beer and a cider is doomed to failure. The tart dryness of the cider is suggestive of beer that has gone bad. The earthy bitterness in the aftertaste hints at an overly tannic finish. But neither of these dominate, and the end result is clearly a cider with a bit of of a wild yeasty bite to the finish, although the hop note in the finish does send one for something of a loop.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Budweiser Budvar: The People's Brewery

Having the cream of British bloggerati twittering and blogging from the Czech republic has jogged my memory that in March this year, I went to České Budějovice as a guest of Budvar. There were lots of things that I was looking forward to about the trip, not least tasting the beers fresh from the conditioning tank in the brewery cellars. But what took me by surprise was the passion of the man who has become synonymous with Budvar: Josef Tolar.

Here is a man who has worked at Budvar for 43 years, 24 of those as the brewmaster. During the Velvet revolution in 18989, it was he who was instrumental in ensuring that the brewery remained in state hands, rather than be sold into private ownership. He has seen the brewery blossom under his stewardship, and has now handed his brewer's thermometer over to protegé Adam Broz. In theory, he should be retired by now, but he happily turned out to show us round the brewery. How many times must he have done this? And yet even if this was the 1000th tour he had taken, there was still a sense that he wanted to patiently show us everything, every nuance of the production that made Budvar be Budvar.

The huge sacks of whole-leaf Saaz hops. The exposed run-off trough where the wort was sampled. The ongoing trademark dispute with A-BInBev about the name Budweiser. All of these are integral to the character of the beer, and the spirit of the brewery. Having each of these calmly and thoroughly explained by an icon of brewing was a humbling experience. For the record, the run-off trough helps give the beer a slightly darker colour. I was tempted to ask about hot-side aeration, but (uncharacteristically for me) decided to keep my mouth shut.

For me, the real surprise in the conditioning cellars was the Budvar Dark. To balance the smoky coffee and chocolate notes in the darker beer, it is necessary to use a lot more Saaz hops. This gives a surprisingly American feel to the beer - never mind 'Cascadian dark ale' (gah, how I hate that phrase!), this was a Saazian dark lager. The floral, lemony notes over the top of the chocolate and coffee are an eye-opener, and a character that is sadly greatly reduced in the flash pasteurisation process. But you can still detect it in the bottled beer, and it's worth paying that extra bit of attention to do so.

Budvar Dark wasn't the creation of Josef Tolar, but of another of his protegés, Ales Dvorak. ('Ales' seems like a quite a name for a lager brewer, but it's pronounced 'Alesh'). There was famously something of a heated discussion between Tolar and Dvorak about whether a black lager was a good idea for the brewery. Dvorak won, and the brand is now well-established.

It was a toss-up for Tolar whether to appoint Broz or Dvorak as his successor. In the end, it seems that he opted for the safe pair of hands. Adam Broz has a similarly calm demeanour to his patron, whereas it transpires that Ales (or 'Mad Ales' as he is affectionately known) likes nothing more than driving tanks as an army reservist. And if you look closely at the picture on the left, you can see that he's also the sort of guy who likes to takes his own cutlery (or hunting knife) to a restaurant.

What I love most about Budvar is the unchanging nature of the brewery, the timelessness of the beer, and the unswerving commitment that is shown by the people who make the beer. Some might say that taking two and a half hours over a brewery tour that usually only takes one hour was a bit much. For me, it was an unforgettable pleasure, and a great privilege.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Now Drinking: Thornbridge Larkspur

I must be bloody mad.

The M62 motorway has a certain notoriety. It is a hideously busy stretch of trans-Pennine tarmac that carries the dubious honour of being the highest motorway in the UK. It is also featured in The KLF's "It's Grim Up North" - "Morecambe, Macclesfield, Lytham St. Annes, Clitheroe, Cleethorpes, the M62 - its grim up north", a list of everything that might be thought to be soul-sucking and lifeless in the north of England, set over a pounding industrial acid techno beat.

Had I planned my visit a bit better, I would have used public transport and taken a long afternoon over this visit to The Grove Inn in Huddersfield. The pub itself is nothing short of sensational, a beer geek's dream, featuring permanent hand pumps from the cream of the new wave of British brewing - Thornbridge, Marble, BrewDog, Dark Star, - alongside a smattering of classics - Timothy Taylor, Burton Bridge, Fullers. In fact, this pub demands a long and leisurely session. Why have I spent a torturous rush-hour driving here for a single pint?

I'll tell you why. I got severely twitchy that a certain beer would run out before I got to try it - there were only 35 casks made this year, and eight of them passed through the possession of Ian, landlord of The Grove. He very generously passed five of these on to Eddie at Gadds brewery - I can only assume he hadn't tried the beer before he agreed to that. The beer is Thornbridge Larkspur (5.2%abv), a pale gold single-hop beer based around the hop variety Citra.

I use the term beer loosely. I know that this is beer, because it came out of a brewery, and is made of water, pale malt, hops and yeast. But no beer has ever tasted like this. The first sniff and mouthful, and I'm transported back to my first ever visit to Leeds, in the early 1990s, and buying fresh samosas and Rubicon mango juice drink at Maumoniat's Asian supermarket on Brudenell Grove. That first ever taste of mango juice, perfumed and almost indecently musky, was a shock to the senses, but a discovery of a pleasure that has stayed with me. In fact, for a while, I cursed the empty years that I lived without Rubicon mango juice, and devoted my life to drinking as much of it as I could.

That's the beauty of great beer - it transports you to another place, or another time, while rooting you to the spot, forcing you to pay attention to what is happening on your palate. Thornbridge Larkspur is a riot of mango juice, passion fruit, musk, a hint of vanilla custard, tangerine, peach, a nameless floral perfume, and a snap of biscuity pale malt husk in the steadily building bitterness of the finish. It's there and then it's gone, intense, but fleeting, demanding you take another sip, when the whole hokey-cokey of exotica starts over again. And again. And again, until the glass is empty.

That's not a beer, that's a love potion.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Thornbridge: Bottle-Conditioning for the 21st Century

There's no question that Thornbridge are one of the most exciting breweries in the UK today. While they stop short of actually using hummingbird's tears as an ingredient, they push the envelope both with what they can get out of conventional ingredients, and what they can do with more unconventional ones. They rarely miss the mark.

Thornbridge recently moved over to putting live beer in half-litre bottles. On bottles of Jaipur, it uses the phrase "bottle-conditioned", although this has caused a bit of confusion among consumers - if it's bottle-conditioned, why isn't there any sediment? Being an inquisitive sort, I called Kelly Ryan at Thornbridge. The short answer is that there isn't any visible sediment because they don't re-prime the bottles. The long answer is a bit, well, longer.

When Thornbridge moved over to their new brewery, they had a new level of control available to them. The closed cylindro-conical fermenters meant that they could allow the beer to carbonate naturally under the pressure of its own fermentation. The same fermenters allowed them to take dead yeast out of contact with their still-fermenting beer. Centrifuges meant that they could control how much yeast was left in the finished beer, removing the need for filtration. The conclusion to the long answer is that they don't reprime their bottles because they don't need to. Not only is there enough natural carbonation in the beer, there is also enough yeast left in suspension to keep things ticking over nicely when they bottle it. The fermentation continues slowly, maintaining carbonation and scavenging oxygen.

For my part, I've often thought that bottle-fermentation can actually substantially reduce the character of a beer - it's as though that vigorous secondary fermentation actually scavenges some of the flavour compounds from the beer. Or maybe if the brewery filters the beer before repriming (a very common practice), a lot of the character of the beer is removed, and never gets put back in the second time around.

So what do we make of all this? Is this live beer? Bottle- or brewery-conditioned? Does it even matter to the ordinary drinker? My take on it is that if 21st century brewing and hygiene technology allow this to happen, and the beer tastes better for it, then great.

Either way, what I find really impressive is that Thornbridge have decided to ditch 40,000 Jaipur back labels that say "bottle-conditioned” and replace them with ones that say “May contain sediment”. Not only do they care passionately about the beer, they also care passionately about getting the right message on the label. The devil, as ever, is in the details.