Wednesday 31 March 2010

Now Drinking: Hopdaemon Skrimshander IPA

I love my wife. Well, she's not my wife, but we've been together for a decade, and we have a kid together, so she's as good as a wife. Perhaps even better. I don't know what that means.

She's credited as being 'a reluctant beer expert' in the acknowledgements of my book '500 Beers', which she flatly denies. With characteristic wry humour, she read the dedication and said 'That's nice - I've had very few books dedicated to me. Very few.' She gets to try a lot of beers, and even drinks the ones that she enjoys. One of my proudest moments was when I came home and found her on the sofa drinking Crouch Vale Amarillo straight from the bottle. A mother and a beer enthusiast - such an enthusiast, in fact, that she couldn't wait to find a glass.

Anyway, part of my role as husband and father is to make sure that there is always a beer on hand that she'll enjoy. Quite often, she'll have a sip, wrinkle her nose and say 'I don't like that'. She rarely turns her nose up at good, crisp session ales and lighter Americana, and quite often will refuse beers that are merely OK. There are quite a lot of beers that are just OK, so I actually get quite nervous pouring her a new beer. So it was with Hopdaemon Skrimshander IPA (4.5%abv), a copper-gold beer with a spicy aroma and robust poke of hops in the dry and bitter finish. Happily, the beer passed the toughest test - being enjoyed by someone with a demanding but relatively conservative palate. Even better, I think that it's good too, albeit in a slightly agressive way - the dry rasp of hops in the finish could use a bit more sweetness mid-palate for my tastes, but that's just picking nits. It's worth a few quid of anyone's money.

The downside is that I had to share the bottle. But every cloud has a silver lining - I got to open a bottle of Hopdaemon Green Daemon Helles (5%abv) while she cooks, and I write this. Green Daemon has a lovely tropical fruit sweetness on the palate before a gently bitter finish. Rounded, bittersweet and alarmingly drinkable - to my palate, a very modern, drinkable and praiseworthy golden beer.

Monday 29 March 2010

Cask Ale Week

It's Cask Ale Week. It's about good beer, cask beer, real ale, whatever (thanks Adrian). It's a week that is a celebration of one of our finest British foodstuffs, and so what I want you all to do is stop reading this blog, writing your blog, watching Glee on the iPlayer (whatever Glee and the iPlayer might be, I'm not quite sure), and go to the pub and drink some cask ale. And be thankful.

I'm as guilty as anyone of not promoting cask ale, but in my defence, I do run one of the best beer shops in the UK, and consequently am more of a bottled beer man. But I do love good beer in all of its forms, and one of its most unusual, exciting forms is that of cask ale.

I'm sure you know this, but cask ale is a uniquely British product. On paper, it's lunacy: it's an unfinished food product that is turned over to a pub landlord to complete. If you've ever seen Michael Jackson's "The Beer Hunter" TV series, you'll know that he makes the same point while interviewing Mark Dorber, then of the legendary White Horse on Parson's Green. Part of the skill of cellaring beer to peak condition is what makes a good landlord, a good pub, and happy customers.

Good cask ale has a completely unique taste and texture. It's live, unfiltered, and refermented in the vessel from which it is finally dispensed. Served at cellar temperature (10 to 12 degrees Celsius), and with a gentle prickle of natural carbonation, there is nothing like it. Done right, it should be cool, refreshing and moreish.

Of course, the brighter amongst you will have spotted a problem. As an unfinished product, there are various things that can go wrong with it. Cask ale isn't a magic bullet, and it doesn't guarantee good beer. There are many filtered and kegged (or bottled) beers that can kick the arse of poorly kept cask ale. Like any artisanal food product, it needs to be treated right to get the best out of it.

There we are. Do what you must: join CAMRA: buy the Good Beer Guide: visit Cask Marque: read the Cask Ale Week website. But above all, go out and drink some cask beer.


Sunday 28 March 2010

Sharp's "52 Brews" Project: Trappist IPA

This is a bloody boring video. Looking back at it, I seem to be dragging the words out one at a time, forcing myself to say something about a beer that I appear not to be enjoying. This is not the case. I think I might have been a little tired after a couple of days in Ceske Budejovice, so apologies to you if you sat through the video, and special apologies to Stuart Howe at Sharp's for my lacklustre review of his beer. I'll try to pep the prose up a bit.

Stuart's project, to brew 52 different beers in a year, on top of running Sharp's brewery is, frankly, a bit mental. I've met Stuart a couple of times, and have been impressed both by the bloody great holes in the plasterboard next to his desk. Who knows what caused them? Well, it's obviously Stuart's fists that made the holes, but what provoked them? A bad set of lab hygiene analysis results or something else implying that he has somehow taken his eye off the ball for a nanosecond, I'd guess. Last time I saw him, he had a huge purple bruise on his forehead. I didn't say anything at the time, expecting to find a fermenting vessel (perhaps one that had produced substandard beer) with a perfect imprint of his forehead in it, but he ruefully confessed the cause later in the day: Extreme Gardening.

Trappist IPA (10%abv) is Staurt's first brew of the series. It seems like I've cleverly chosen it for that reason, but it was just a coincidence - I wanted to drink something strong, full-bodied and slightly oxymoronic, and this fitted the bill pretty much perfectly. The big, sweet maltiness has a classic Trappist character - it reminds me of Chimay Blue - but then also has a big wallop of bitter hops arriving late in the day. The fruity malt trundles along nicely, but then the hops show up after the swallow, giving the beer a big, spicy, chewy character. It's unique and unusual, which sounds like a contemptible cheery-beery-ism, polite shorthand for poorly thought-out and barely drinkable, but as I finished it, I wished I had another bottle.

This beer is intense, powerful, unique, and touched by madness and genius in equal measures. If it's true that dogs and their owners can look alike, then this might be the first example of a beer that is a partial embodiment of its creator.

Tuesday 23 March 2010

Now Tasting: Mystery Beer (Sharps)

I don't know exactly what this bottle is. It came from a mixed case that Stuart Howe at Sharps sent me ages ago. It's not one of his current "52 Brews" series (I still have them to taste/drink and write up), but I thought I'd give this a go.

Pin bright, copper-gold in colour, with a slightly wild note to the nose - I don't think it's infected, but it might be the aroma of a load of hops ageing disgracefully. Busy carbonation, quite dry, slightly dirty orange squash and toffee finish. Maybe a hint of beeswax? Aftertaste has a suggestion of Orval about it - again, I think it might be hop-related rather than anything else. This has been knocking around for a couple of years, in pretty good cellar conditions, and what has emerged is deep, slightly sherried, and enjoyably complex.

I think I just remembered that the B stands for Bobek - so this might be one of Stuart's prototype barleywines, hopped with Bobek. Maybe he'll remind me.

I played a variant of this game at work the other day. I got my co-worker Will to pour me a mystery beer, and I tried to identify it. I got that it was dark Belgian ale, about 8%abv, but couldn't nail it. It turned out to be Corsendonk Noel, which pleased me as I didn't immediately think "GAH! Of course it is!" - I remember Corsendonk Noel as being a bit more chocolatey, whereas this was more plummy and spicy. If you want to sharpen your tasting skills, this is a fun way to do it. And of course, a fun way to spend a few minutes at work (although may not be totally appropriate should you drive a vehicle or perform surgery for a living).

Right, that's it for now. I'm off for a couple of days in Ceske Budejovice as a guest of Budvar, along with a posse (a tankard? a round?) of half a dozen other beer writers. I hope to come back on Friday slightly fatter, but much happier.

Friday 19 March 2010

Fuller's IPA and Bengal Lancer: The Facts

This is just a follow-up to the previous post, after a quick phone conversation with John Keeling, Fuller's head brewer, where he very kindly explained the genesis of the Fuller's Bengal Lancer and how it relates to Fuller's IPA.

I won't keep you in suspense any longer – they are different beers. I was going to say “totally different”, but they're not TOTALLY different – they are both IPAs brewed by Fuller's, around the same strength, with similar grain bills, so you'd expect them to share some similarities. But they are from different eras, and created by different brewers.

Fuller's IPA is a beer that dates from Reg Drury's tenure as head brewer. It was a fairly traditional take on IPA*, being produced at 4.8%abv on cask, and also a version that was brewed specifically for bottling. This brew used only one hop, Goldings. It was produced on and off for many years, as a special and for the export market. It wasn't a tremendously successful beer, but it added variety to the range.

Bengal Lancer is the result of a few factors, but mainly a result of John Keeling and Derek Prentice's tendency to tinker, and brew beer that they themselves would like to drink. Bengal Lancer for cask is brewed with Goldings and Fuggles in the copper, and then dry-hopped with Goldings and Target in the fermentation vessel. An identical version is brewed for bottle, but slightly stronger, and it is chill-filtered and pasteurised before being bottle-conditioned [UPDATE 6TH APRIL 2010: John Keeling just got in touch and explained that Bengal Lancer is NOT pasteurised, but the original IPA was].

A UK supermarket wanted an own label IPA, and they were shown a prototype of Bengal Lancer. They liked it, and asked Fuller's to jump through all the hoops required to gain a British Retail Standard Certificate. For what we shall euphemistically refer to as “various reasons”, but mainly relating to time and money, Fuller's decided that they didn't want to arse about completing this box-ticking exercise, and so the supermarket's own-label IPA didn't make it to their shelves.

Around the same time, the System Bolaget held one of their regular competitions to list a new beer. Unlabelled samples are submitted to System Bolaget for evaluation, and Bengal Lancer was the beer that was chosen by them. That's quite a big contract (about 600 brewer's barrels a year, or 172,800 pints), and so Bengal Lancer went into production. If you're brewing a beer, then I guess it makes sense to try it in as many markets as possible, so Bengal Lancer was launched in the UK, to tremendous success – so far it's selling about twice as much as anyone expected it to.

And that's the story, straight from the horses mouth (except for the phrase “arse about” with relation to the British Retail Standard Certificate. In a fit of writerly creativity, I inferred that from the tone of the conversation).

* if you've read Pete Brown's “Hops and Glory”, or read anything by Martin Cornell or Ron Pattinson, you'll know what a lot of nonsense this statement is. But I'm not getting into that here. I maybe should have said “a fairly conservative take on IPA”.

Saturday 13 March 2010

Fuller's Brewer's Reserve: Numbers 2 to 4

I was at Fuller's earlier last month, and the ever erudite John Keeling gave me a great tour. He's a passionate, knowledgeable and garrulous chap, with an interesting take on the nature of brewing, the history of Fuller's, and how one goes about making great beer. If time allows, I'll write a post about him and his take on brewing, but that's for another time. This post is about Fuller's Brewer's Reserve.

I wrote about the current release of Brewer's Reserve here, and the observant among you will notice that this beer is referred to as Number 1. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Fuller's have a series of them lined up for release, although they are very much still works in progress. They are works in progress not in the sense that Fuller's are going to release anything that they aren't 100% happy with, but in the sense that they are still being aged in cask - they're not quite ready yet, but the release schedule is more or less mapped out.

Walking round the brewery, it's impossible not to notice all the wooden barrels littering the place. John Keeling said that they'd filled every nook and cranny with barrels; nook and cranny my earhole, they've filled the damn brewery with them. Every corridor, every spare bit of space, has a spirit barrel filled with Golden Pride shoved into it, or more often than not, a pile or a line of them. They're moving towards creating a special room for the barrel ageing, but until then, it's all endearingly makeshift.

The next releases, Brewer's Reserves 2, 3 and 4, will be Golden Pride that has been aged in Courvoisier, Auchentoshan and armagnac barrels respectively (I didn't get the name of the armagnac producer). Having tried barrel samples, which will be indicative (but not totally predictive) of the finished beers, I can say that No. 2 is softly rounded, with a fairly dry finish. No. 3 has a big spirit character, with a lot of smooth sherry notes, and a lot of the underlying beer hidden under the influence of the sherried character of Auchentoshan (which has a heavy sherry-cask finish itself). No. 4 has only had a few weeks in barrel, so it's hard to tell what will emerge - rum and vanilla is quite prevalent at this stage.

As if that wasn't enough, John and colleague Derek Prentice also wheeled out some experimental samples. Some of these I wrote about here - for example, the Golden Pride in bourbon barrel, which was incredibly smooth and rich, really rounded, but starting to show a bit of brettanomyces stinkiness. Perhaps it was at it's peak, but alas, we'll never know - this was the last bottle of that particular beta test of the concept. The example aged in a Glenmorangie cask was much wilder, a little tarter, but with a lot of depth and complexity. A sample aged in a Bowmore cask had a characteristic Islay note of ozone and beach at low tide - complex and enjoyable, but in a slightly threatening, elemental way.

It's hard to summarise what Fuller's are doing with these beers. On one hand, they are so complex, so interesting and so different that all I can do is urge you to seek them out and try them. Conversely, these beers are produced in such limited numbers, and are only available from the brewery shop, that they are only ever going to be the preserve of the curious and the dedicated. What I will say is that these beers really are worth seeking out, and if that means making the journey to the Chiswick brewery, then so be it. It will be good practice for when they release their next project - that really is going to raise a few eyebrows.....

Wednesday 10 March 2010

Now Drinking: Fuller's Bengal Lancer

At the start of February, I spent an action-packed couple of days in London. In the space of 24 hours, I attended a committee meeting for the British Guild of Beer Writers, went to the Drinks Retailing Awards at The Dorchester, slept, met friends for breakfast, and visited Fuller's of Chiswick. The Fuller's visit was great fun, and I'm going to write in more detail about it over the next few days. But I'm going to start by talking about what I didn't get to do at Fuller's.

The tour and tasting that John Keeling and Derek Prentice laid on was so enjoyable that time flew by unnoticed, and by the time we got to the end of it, I had to literally run to the tube to make my train back to Leeds. So what I didn't have time to do was (a) visit the Fuller's shop to buy Vintage Ale for my birthday (I ended up getting it couriered to Leeds), and (b) stop in at the Mawson Arms for a pint of the newly released Bengal Lancer IPA. However, being a decent bunch, Fuller's forwarded a couple of bottles to me.

The beer is a copper-gold colour, and pin-bright in the manner that Fuller's beers tend to be, despite being bottle conditioned. The aroma is classic Fuller's - so classic that having visited the brewery, I can say that it smells like a cross between their brewhouse and hop store. If you haven't visited Fuller's, that's not very descriptive, so I'll try a bit harder. Bengal Lancer smells of spicy whole leaf hops (although they use pellets), toffee, ginger cake and ozone. On the tongue, there's an initial burst of medium-bodied malty toffee, which is slowly reeled in by a dry, spicy bitterness, finishing with bitter flourish and a faint puff of geraniums.

I like this beer a lot - it's got a lot of understated hop character which might fool people into thinking that it's lacking in hops, but when you actually pay attention to what is going on, there's a huge wallop of spicy dryness in the finish. It's a worthy addition to Fuller's roster, rooted in history, but produced with an eye for the quality and consistency that are Fuller's bywords. It's got that classic Fuller's character that reminds me of gingerbread and, most importantly, I've got another bottle of it that I'm going to eat with this burger and onion rings that has materialised miraculously next to me.

Sunday 7 March 2010

Hop Back Summer Lightning: We've Come a Long Way, Baby

Last week, I visited my family in Salisbury. I was looking forward to it - of course, too see the family, and for our son to see his grandparents, but also because Salisbury is the home of the Wyndham Arms, the brewery tap for the Hop Back Brewery.

Last year, I wrote effusively (but briefly) about the Wyndham Arms (or "The Windy", as it's known locally) for an article in the Guardian about great Christmas pubs. My take on it is that the Windy is a great pub, and that it doesn't let anything get in the way of what a good pub should be. It's a classic pub in the truest sense - a public house, it feels like someone's living room (albeit with a bar and a shedload of awards on the walls).

Another reason I love the Windy is that the people who go there are the sort of people you want to find in a pub. They aren't there for drinks promotions, or karaoke, they are there for the no-nonsense pub, the beer, and the other pubgoers. But mostly the beer.

When Summer Lightning (5%abv) hit the scene in the late 1980s, it was a revelation - an unusually pale ale, stuffed full of dry citrus and spice flavour. It's still a bloody great beer, with a signature flourish of spice in the finish, and repeated samplings justify the scores of its awards that decorate the walls of the Windy. It's a benchmark beer, even after all this time.

But it is, to some degree, an old style of beer. These days. it's unusual for a pale golden beer to be so restrained. How hop character is expressed in beers, and pale beers in particular, has developed radically in the last ten years. Beers of this style are today as likely to taste of guava, passion fruit, grapefruit and lemon sherbet as they are to taste of pale malt and subtly spicy European hops.

This beer isn't a hop bomb, and it isn't absurdly strong, although it does have a bit of a kick to it. It's a beer that has incredible balance and poise, that is woven together from delicate flavours that don't rely on heavy hopping, or on a fancy malt bill. Like a good meal, it relies solely on the quality of the ingredients and the skill of the person who is putting it together. It's a beer that, to me, illustrates how the English brewing scene has changed over the last twenty years, and how drinkers' tastes have changed. Summer Lightning is a great beer, and although it is from a different age (I wonder how long a generation is in brewing terms?), it's still a classic.