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: 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).