Tuesday 27 April 2010

Anchor Brewing: Keep Calm and Carry On

I've got a massive soft spot for Anchor Brewing. I love their Steam Beer - it reminds me of a passage in wine writer Hugh Johnson's memoirs. Talking about the difference between new world and old world wines, he notes that big new world wines are like being in a room with lots of printed fabrics - curtains, sofas, wall hangings - and everywhere you look, there is another big print. It's all a bit unrelenting, overpowering, suffocating. Old world wines, he claims, are like being in the same room, but then you look out of a window and glimpse something beautiful, something just out of the edge of your peripheral vision, and then it's gone. When you look for it again, you can't find it, but you know it was there.

That's how Anchor Steam Beer makes me feel. There's enough flavour in there that it's obviously a tasty beer, full of earthy, spicy Northern Brewer hops and a dab of caramelly malt, but always at the periphery there is something a little different. It's almost as though I'm actually projecting flavours into the beer - the flavours are familiar, but they are subtly changed by the weather, my mood, or what I had for lunch a few hours ago. In fact, now I write this, the phrase that John Peel used to describe his fascination with The Fall springs to mind: "Always the same, but always different". Either that, or there's massive batch variation, but such is my love and respect for Anchor beers, I can't truly entertain that as an option.

So news that Anchor has been sold came as a bit of a surprise, but I'm enough of a softie to believe that the beers are such icons in the history of American craft brewing (and perhaps even globally) that they are beyond change. One thing is sure; it is either the making or breaking of the brand. Either the beers will carry on unchanged, and the brewery will continue prosper in perpetuity, or the beers will change, and the love and support that Fritz Maytag has spent decades building up will evaporate overnight. For obvious reasons, I'm hoping for the former - the latter is not an option.

Thanks to Rick Kempen at Bier & Co for the bottle of Humming Ale.

Sunday 25 April 2010

Beer Movies: "Eddies: The Documentary" and "The American Brew"

This weekend saw me not attending the inaugural Rothwell beer festival as it raged a mere 200 metres from my front door. On Friday, the good lady had a night out planned with friends, so I was was on parenting duty. Saturday, the day I had earmarked for trying some of the finest small brewery beers that Yorkshire has to offer, was somewhat marred by my unexpected attendance at work - staff sickness, with no-one else available to cover. So rather than a breathless account of what I drank on Saturday, this is a report of what happened on Friday night.

Happily, I had a couple of beer movies to watch - "Eddies: The Documentary" (IMDB summary here) and "The American Brew" (IMDB page here), along with a quantity of beer to drink. The beers were good - St Austell Proper Job (5.5%abv) hitting the mark as ever, with its combination of biscuity pale malt and tropical fruit-accented hoppiness. The other two beers were homebrewed by a friend, Gordon McKiernan, who frankly needs to make a move to a bigger plant - a pale ale with a lovely spicy East Kent Goldings profile, and a smoked oatmeal stout with a whisper of blackcurrant fruitiness to it. Someone give Gordon a go on a bigger or better plant, please.

So, the movies. "Eddies" is about The Eddies, an annual competition to make a TV advert for the Big Rock brewery. I say TV advert, but the slightly weird thing is that these adverts are never shown on TV. In fact, they're not shown outside of the awards ceremony itself. It's a cult phenomenon, started in 1993 as a publicity stunt by the brewery. The fervour with which fans of the brewery make these ads can't be solely down to the $10,000 prize. Like a lot of niche cultural phenomena, people just want to say that they took part, that they were there. And like a lot of niche cultural phenomena, you either get the joke or you don't. I have to say that I enjoyed it, although it's also fair to say that the film isn't really about the beer - it's about the people and their devotion to The Eddies, which just happens to be connected to beer. It could be cheese rolling, dwarf throwing or badger taming, and the film would be just as much fun. But then I guess beer is really about people, so perhaps it is a film about beer after all.

"The American Brew" is a whole different kettle of boiling wort. It's a fairly thorough and well-made documentary about the history of brewing in America, with lots of cameo appearances from craft brewers, and the seemingly odd inclusion of lots of talking heads from the bigger American macro brewing giants. Well, it seems odd until you find out that this film is sponsored by Anheuser-Busch (as was, now A-BInBev), and part of the "Here's To Beer" initiative. When I found this out, I tried my very best to find something to dislike in it, but failed. It's a really well-made, well-produced and even-handed history of brewing in America.

If I have any criticism, it would be for the prominence given to Budweiser, although that might be slightly exacerbated by having recently had lunch with Josef Tolar, retired head brewer at Budvar. Overall, it's a great romp through the facts and the stories, enhanced immeasurably by great archive film and photography, and I really liked it. To be honest, it's worth it alone for seeing Fritz Maytag do an impersonation of an angry German restaurateur refusing to buy Anchor beers, something it's fair to say wasn't on my list of things to see before I die, but turned out to be strangely satisfying to witness.

Thursday 22 April 2010

Bitter End Brewing Co.

Quite some time ago now, those nice folk at Bitter End Brewing Co. sent me a mixed case of bottled beers, and a glass from which to drink them. The glass is still in the cellar (I need to get clumsy in the glass cupboard to make some room for it), but the majority of the beers have now passed through the evaluation process.

Before they sent me the beers, they messaged me explaining that they didn't want to change the world, they just wanted to brew good honest beer, and I have to admire that modest ambition. It's somewhat at odds with their claim to produce innovative, progressive and exciting beers, but that's the nice thing about beer - you can try it and make up your own mind. There's more than enough innovation, progression and excitement in beer at the moment, and although it makes me sound old, it can just be bloody tiring and annoying. One thing that a few years working in restaurant kitchens taught me was that it's better to achieve consistency, than to over-reach and be erratic with occasional flashes of brilliance. That sounds like I'm already damning them with faint praise, but consistency is a much overlooked attribute.

Lakeland Bitter (3.8%abv) is a good ordinary bitter, with some soft toffee malt character working well alongside a brightly bitter hops. Lakeland Amber (4.2%abv) is a good example of the maxim that you should always try two servings of a beer before passing judgement - the first bottle seemed slightly flat and phenolic, although the other two are softly nutty, rounded, with hops serving only to add structure rather than to dominate. Lakeland IPA (5%abv) is a pale golden ale, with some floral character on the nose, a citrussy palate, and a snappy finish - "solid but unexciting" say my notes, and I know better than to argue with my notes. The best of the bunch, to my surprise, the Lakeland Honey (5%abv). Starting out with a softly floral aroma, becoming sweet mid-palate, and then finishing pleasantly dry and spicy, the sweet-dry double whammy is interesting and enjoyable, with the honey contributing significantly to the character, but never being overpowering or cloying.

So there we have it - good, solid beers, brewed with an eye to the modern style, and on this showing, not a duffer among them. Will they set the world alight? Unlikely. Will they become a cult, sought out by beer geeks everywhere? Unliklier still. Are they the sort of beers that you'd be delighted to drink after a long day on the fells? Absolutely.

Wednesday 21 April 2010

Community Beer Festivals

- in which we move from a discussion of the specific, to the generic, and muse upon the phenomenon of community beer festivals.

A couple of events to plug, which may be of interest if you happen to be local to Leeds. This weekend, there is a beer festival in Rothwell. It's for charity, which is why it's a fiver to get in, but for me the reason that this is a big deal is that it is about 200 yards from my front door, and obviously I'd be a fool not to go. The beer list looks OK too. I'm particularly looking forward to trying some beer from the Five Towns brewery, run on a part-time basis by a nursing assistant, and Mallinsons, whose beers I've tried in bottle but not from cask. That's a couple of pints right there.

Also this weekend is the inaugural LS6 Beer Festival. Leeds 6 (the postcode) has long been a hotbed of creative hipster activity, having a great concentration of students, musicians, and generally bohemian types. The line up of beers is pretty great, and they have a load of bands on too. It's got all the makings of a great day out.

What I find really heartening is that both of these events are charity fundraisers. The church hall in Rothwell has never hosted a beer festival before, but it's been selected as an event that will make people turn up and donate to a good cause. Perhaps in days gone buy, the event would be a fete, with a jumble sale, tombola, and WI stall. But this week it's beer. And the usual mode of fundraising in LS6 is a music all-dayer at the Brudenell Social Club. To see real ale at the heart of this event is great news.

So, in Leeds this weekend, the suburbs and the inner city will be hosting inaugural beer festivals. Is interest in real ale starting to become as widespread as these festivals might suggest?

Monday 19 April 2010

Now Drinking: Guinness Black Lager

I have to admit to being slightly bemused by the news that black lager is the fastest growing category in beer at present. Clearly starting from a base of next to nothing, achieving multi-hundred percent growth is pretty easy. I remember the Summer of Magners, when they recorded something close to an 800% growth spurt. So perhaps it's hardly surprising that the world's favourite black stuff should seek to bag a slice of the pizza. And given that their black stuff is the most famous black stuff in the world, it seems reasonable that they should launch Guinness Black Lager (4.5%abv)

I managed to get a huge and fairly persistent head on this, by pouring it from a height of about six inches. I wanted to knock a bit of carbonation out of it, and by happy accident, I got it about right - what I'm left with is a very acceptable gentle prickle of CO2. There is a bit of DMS/worty character on the nose, and if I couldn't see that it was black, I wonder if I would pick out the faint roasted and chocolate notes? I'd hope that I would, but I can't be sure. Ditto the palate - there is a burst of flavour just after the swallow that vaguely suggests a bit of roast grain character, and a suggestion of herbal hops, but on the whole, it's pretty anaemic.

It's easy to knock a big brewery when they try something new, just as I did when InBev launched Artois Bock five years ago. In some ways, I really like their attempt to brew something that tastes inoffensive, but looks like proper Guinness - maybe that way people will be less scared of trying dark(er) beers. At the same time, it's a bit of a shame that it's so dumbed down - there is a suggestion of a good beer here, but it's all a bit too dilute to really hit home.

But what really kicks this one in the nuts for me is the back label: "Guinness Black Lager is cold brewed with roasted barley to deliver a unique character and deeply refreshing taste. Enjoy ice cold straight from the bottle. Lager evolved" How many bits of innaccurate, unhelpful and meaningless bobbins can you count in those three sentences?

Sunday 18 April 2010

How Do You Drink Yours?

I was walking home from my new writing room the other afternoon - and when I say writing room, I mean the public library in Rothwell - having just finished a commission about ordinary brown beer for Off Licence News. True to form, there were various problems with various breweries getting in touch in time to be included in the article. This was, I would guess, a combination of idleness, disorganisation and breweries employing PR companies who don't seem to know anything about the breweries they PR for. But I digress.

Walking back from my new writing room, feeling happy and tired, I thought I might drop into the pub for a pint. Sadly, all the pubs in Rothwell seem to major in John Smiths cask or Tetley's, and ironically, given that I'd just finished an article on ordinary brown beer, I didn't fancy either. In the end, I went to the supermarket, bought a bottle of Bateman's XXXB, and after ten minutes in an ice bucket (hey, you can't take the ponce out of me, even with ordinary brown beer), I sat and had a reflective glass of beer.

I reflected on the fact that I was having a beer in the middle of the afternoon, and how great it is to have a job and a lifestyle that allows this. Drinking beer for me has always been partly about a delineation of time. If I'm having a beer, then that means I've discharged my duties for the day, and I can relax and fritter away a few units of time in a way that I find relaxing and enjoyable. Reflecting more on it, this makes me sound vaguely like an alcoholic, but so be it. I like to work hard, and I like to have a couple of beers. In my world, this is quite normal.

In times past, before being nearly married, and before parenthood, I'd think nothing of going to a pub on my own with a book, or a newspaper, and while away a couple of hours reading, with a few pints and a comfy armchair. Lately, I'm more likely to stake a claim on the sofa, fire up the netbook, and open a beer. Years ago, when I briefly dabbled with smoking, a roll-up would be like a punctuation point in the day. These days, the paragraphs are longer, and the punctuation is beer. Either a new paragraph in the middle of the afternoon, or the end of a chapter mid-evening. As well as loving the tastes, and not objecting to a little mild intoxication, a beer means I'm having a bit of 'me time'. Please don't think that I use beer in order to get 'me time' - that would be a sign of a problem. But conversely, these days I rarely stay in the pub until closing time - in fact, I can't remember the last time I had a night out where the bar stopped serving.

And so, I'm curious - does this ring any bells with anyone? Is there a point where you think 'ahhh, that's that taken care of, I'll have a beer'? Or do people pop to the pub for a couple after work, and then not drink at home? Or do you generally go home and then go to the pub for 'lasties'? (that used to be my favoured mode). As I ask in the title - how do you drink yours?

Monday 12 April 2010

Man Makes Living By Selling Beer

I'm not sure how this is going to work, but I thought I'd give it a go. Most people know that I manage Beer-Ritz in Headingley, Leeds (it says so in my "About Me" bit over there on the left). Well, it seems that a lot of people don't know that Beer-Ritz also runs a mail order service at www.beerritz.co.uk.

The mail-order service doesn't run from the shop, it runs from our warehouse near Wetherby. In an attempt to publicise it, they've asked me to select some mixed cases from breweries that I like, do some tasting videos about them, and see if we can add something to the online shopping experience in the process.

From my point of view, it's fun, because I get to do more of what I enjoy - tasting beer, and writing and talking about it. In fact, it's better than fun, because (smugness alert) I actually get paid to do what I enjoy. From my employer's point of view, it adds a point of difference to their online shop, potentially driving trade, and maybe for their customers, it allows them to make a more informed decision about the beers they buy.

I'm not going to endorse any beers that I don't personally enjoy, because that would be stupid, and would cost a lot more than they can afford would ruin any independent credibility I have. But I'd be interested in hearing what you, dear reader, think about it. You can have a look at what I've been doing here - or search for "zak" in the search box at the top of the page. Does it add value (without adding cost)? Will it help people make a decision? For the less beer-savvy, will it help point out good quality beers, or is it just more me-me-look-at-me nonsense on my part? More to the point, when we put mixed cases of Marble 50cl bottles on the site in a couple of weeks, will you break the internet trying to buy some? Will you read their blog that we've started, and I'm maintaining?

Rooster's Brewery Retain Gold at World Beer Cup

I don't really 'do' news. I'm not sure why - maybe others do it better and more consistently, or maybe just because I'm lazy and prefer to talk about myself. Whatever, sometimes you just have to get off the couch, put Jeremy Kyle* on live pause and pick up the phone to speak to a brewer.

I did just that earlier today, and gladly, because the brewer I was calling was Sean Franklin, MD of Rooster's Brewery, near Harrogate in North Yorkshire. They've had a run of luck at the World Beer Cup (WBC), and by luck I mean a deserved recognition for their years of hard graft and commitment to producing iconic pale beers with stunningly bright hop character. Not only did they take gold in their category (English Style Summer Ale, whatever that's supposed to mean) with Leghorn (4.3%abv), but they also took silver in the same category with Yorkshire Pale Ale (4.3%abv). As if this isn't remarkable enough, this is the third consecutive World Beer Cup at which they've taken gold in that category. If that's not cause enough for celebration, I don't know what is. I'm particularly pleased for them as not only are their beers great, but they're a lovely bunch of people. I chose Sean to help me with the judging at last year's awards for the British Guild of Beer Writers, and his thoughtful input was very valuable. Not only does he know his beer, he knows his writers too.

How will I celebrate their achievement? Well, Rooster's don't usually bottle their beers for commercial release, but had to do so to enter the WBC. Fortunately for me, they were also good enough to give me a few bottles of a couple of their private brews - two double IPAs, one hopped with Nelson Sauvin, the other with Chinook and Amarillo. They are bottle-conditioned and sealed with crown caps that contain a little plastic liner. This is the same closure that the latest crop of Italian imports from Birra del Borgo and Baladin are sporting. Clearly if a three-times World Beer Cup winner is using this unusual closure, as well as a couple of well-respected Italian breweries, then it must have something going for it.

Did I take my eye off the ball there and geek out, talking about closures rather than beer? Yes! Am I looking forward to opening one of those double IPAs tonight? You betcha! Are you going to join me in congratulating Sean and his team at Rooster's? You'd better!

Congratulations too to Thornbridge, Shepherd Neame, and BrewDog, who also brought home some silverware for the cabinet.

*for overseas readers: Jeremy Kyle is a cross between a TV shock jock and a relationship counsellor. He counsels the sort of people who think it's a good idea to go on TV to resolve their issues. It's the televisual equivalent of bear-baiting in a 19th century lunatic asylum.

Sunday 11 April 2010

Now Drinking: Stone Old Guardian Barleywine-Style Ale

In one of Douglas Adams' 'Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy' books, he creates a scenario where a spaceship lands behind the sight screen at Lords cricket ground, but nobody notices it because the human brain has developed a technique of filtering out anything that it thinks is Somebody Else's Problem (SEP). This is essentially what I've been doing with this bottle of Stone Old Guardian Barleywine-Style Ale (11.3%abv) - not filtering it out as a problem, but just as a beer for another time.

But not today. Oh no, today, I've earned a beer through honest toil. I've got my jeans dirty, my hands covered in soil, and have planted a lot of herbaceous perennials in our narrow border. Feeling faintly emasculated by knowing what a herbaceous perennial is, but more to the point, hungry and tired after a bit of fork-wielding, I decided I needed nourishing, not only with food, but also strong ale.

There's something about strong beer that really hits the spot. I wrote about Schneider Aventinus Eisbock as being nourishment rather than refreshment, and so it is here. Maybe it's the unfermented sugars acting as a carbohydrate load - certainly, Old Guardian is sweet, but with enough hops to give it a (more or less) balanced drinkability. That said, this isn't a beer for the novice - you really need to know what you're letting yourself in for here. But it's a great barleywine, showing that classic interplay of malt sweetness and hop bitterness. World class, in fact.

And the food? Well, cheese on toast doesn't sound like anything special, and maybe that's the point. Some dried bread, a bit of melted cheese and some good beer - it sounds almost monastic in its simplicity. Maybe that's what's going on here - an honest recharging of the soul, lifting the spirit after a day's work. Once in a while, it's good to feel like you've earned a beer.

Saturday 10 April 2010

Wetherspoon's Real Ale Festival

Just a quick round-up of the eight beers I tried, across three of Wetherspoon's pubs in Leeds city centre yesterday. I was of course hoping to drop on one of the holy grails of their festival - a beer by one of the foreign guest brewers that Wetherspoon flies in for the festival. As luck would have it, the 'Spoons at Leeds railway station had Zululand Zulu Blonde (4.5%abv) on, so this was my first tick (I've not taken up ticking, it's just a figure of speech). It was a perfectly decent pale golden ale, faintly floral, with a gentle bitterness, but nothing that would make me go back for another. To be honest, it was thrown into the shade a bit by my next beer, Elland Eden (4.2%abv), which demonstrated how far the pale golden ale category had come, all brightly fruity hops and creamy malt. Yes, I know that's not actually in the festival, but it had a festival pumpclip on it. Oh well, a happy accident.

Brains Honest Ale (4.5%abv) was solid, if unexciting, and frankly paled into comparison next to the creamy, spicy delights of Val-Dieu Abbaye Blonde (5.5%abv), a huge mouthfilling blonde beer, sweet and slightly worty, with a luscious, nourishing quality - beer as a foodstuff, no less. Budelse Capucijn (6%abv) seemed disgustingly buttery in comparison, but that's the thing about comparitive tasting - your palate needs a few sips to adjust. What seemed buttery to the point of gag-inducing was revealed to be a rich, spicy dubbel, with gingerbread notes and a spicy hop finish. Very good.

Sharp's Gentle Jane (4.8%abv) is unusual, having a slightly sherried edge (I thought fino or nutty dry oloroso), alongside the trademark Sharp's character. I think the brew is innoculated with a strain of peddiococcus bacteria, which would account for the atypical flavour set. I thought it was distinctive, different and enjoyable. By comparison, Banks's Morrell's Oxford Blue (4%abv) had a lot going for it, but was a bit too restrained on the hop front to make enough impact. Wadworth's Farmers Glory (4.7%abv) was sweetly nutty, with a surprisingly dry hop finish.

Overall, the beers were in great condition, and the three 'Spoons that I visited were all perfectly decent places to drink. Maybe it would have been nice to see a few more beers amped up a bit for the festival - the Morrell's beer in particular could have been great if it had a bit more poke, looking on paper to be a C-hop riot (Cascade, Centennial, Citra, Columbus), but just missing out in the glass. But generally, my experience of the Spoonsfest is that it's a lot of good beer, in good condition, at a great price. You can't knock that.

Thursday 8 April 2010

The Badger Technique: Premium Canned Ale

I'm writing an article (real writing! for real money!) about premium bottled ales (PBAs), which as we all know is the category that will save the beer market from ruin (tongue only slightly in cheek). The market for PBAs has bucked the trend of decline, and has been in steady growth, by value and volume, for the last several years (roughly 6-8% per annum). I went to visit Badger (aka Hall & Woodhouse) last month, and they are one of the breweries who have seized upon this statistic and run with it. I've mentioned elsewhere the tenfold increase in the proportion of their output that is bottled - in fact, checking the figures, they've moved from bottling 5% of their output to around 60% of their output. I find that quite staggering, and in fact I made myself look like a simpleton by insisting we go over that point three times, just to make sure I was interpreting the data correctly.

Not content with this, Badger are also trying to create a new category, that of premium canned ale. It's a theme that has been touched on here, by young Dredge and an awful lot of respondents, but I'm not sure that the concept of British premium canned ale is one that has been floated in the same way as American craft beers. Badger are perfectly serious about this - Tanglefoot in a can is their first effort, soon to be followed by other beers in their portfolio - First Gold seems to be the next likely candidate for the can treatment.

I'm not sure what to make of it. In much the same way as some people don't really drink bottled beer, I don't really go for cans. The last beer I drank out of a can was Bass, and it was four months past its 'best before' date - I was curious to see what had happened to it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, nothing had - it tasted exactly as I remembered Bass to taste. If it can keep average beer tasting perfectly average well past its expiry date, maybe Badger will make a success of creating a premium canned ale category.

Baladin Super (8%abv)

It's not super. Well, it's super in the sense of 'jolly nice'. It's a very well-made doppelbock beer with a faint sprinkling of spicy hops. Maybe it wouldn't sell so well if labelled 'doppelbock'. 'BockBock' might look nice, although maybe it would suggest chicken rather than goat.

Or am I taking this too literally? Should I also be upset at the lack of daemons in Hopdaemon Green Daemon? Should I be outraged that Carlsberg Special Brew isn't actually that special? Or the lack of urine flavours in the Mannekin Pis-branded Cantillon Gueuze? Wait, that last one's actually a fair representation of what you get.

Monday 5 April 2010

Now Drinking: Sharp's 52 Brews Series - Chestnut Porter

Stuart Howe, brewer at Sharp's, is a clever chap. I know to look at him in his gorgeous rowing outfit (and I'm sure he didn't take much persuading to model that), he looks like a bit of a bruiser, but frankly if I had triceps like that, I'd be modelling them too. As it is, if I wore what Stuart is wearing in that picture, rather than looking like a Cornish obelisk, I'd look more like a Yorkshire Obelix. Not that I'm particularly chubby, but I don't have the drive to look quite that chiselled. I'm going to assume that Stuart is pointing to the brewery name on his shorts, rather than any other noteworthy appendages he has in that area. Shall we have a 'phwoar' before we move on? Go on then - PHWOAR!

Anyway, enough of the irreverence, because I've just opened a bottle of Stuart's "52 Brews" series Chestnut Porter, and it's great. Although it doesn't quite have the body and sweetness to cope with this Hotel Chocolat easter egg I'm currently working through (and to be honest that's imperial stout territory), it is a great beer in its own right. Weirdly, it smells like a Sharp's beer on the nose - I'm assuming its fermented with Sharp's proprietary eat-anything yeast, as it has that tell-tale whiff of ozone and beach about it, alongside a nutty mocha aroma. On the palate, the spritzy carbonation keeps everything light but firm, with big chunky chocolate flavours to the fore. The chestnut character really comes through in the finish, with a nutty vegetal edge riding alongside a sweet coffee note. Great balance, great length, great complexity. If Sharp's don't put this out as next years winter seasonal, I'll model that rowing outfit myself.

Birra del Borgo ReAle and ReAle Extra

Over the course of the last year, since the deadline for '500 Beers', there have been a few times that I've tried a beer and thought 'damn, I wish I'd tasted and included this little beauty'. I didn't get a great deal of Italian craft beer into the book, just focusing on what I thought might be more widely distributed over the coming couple of years. Birrificio Italiano was my bet, and predictably, that is nowhere to be found currently in the UK. That same foresight made me list Budvar as being 'partially state owned' - I'd second guessed the outcome of this year's Czech elections, after which there is always speculation about the incumbent party selling off part of the brewery. Oh well, win some, lose some.

Happily, beers from Birra del Borgo and Baladin are about to hit the market, brought in by the ever-expanding (and ever-improving) Vertical Drinks. They very kindly gave me a few bottles for evaluation purposes, and so I quickly opened and evaluated a couple.

Birra del Borgo ReAle (6.4%abv, bottle conditioned) is a copper-coloured ale that is totally bursting with the sort of juicy orange and grapefruit character that I associate with Cascade hops, deployed in a classic American style. My first impression was that this beer out-punches Sierra Nevada Pale Ale in terms of balance, flavour and juicy hop character, an impression that was confirmed by opening a bottle of SNPA for comparison purposes. Really, it's that rounded, balanced and just damn tasty. Sweet malt, punchy hops, harmonious finish. Just brilliant.

ReAle Extra (6.4%abv, bottle conditioned) is a paler beer, quite different in character, all pale malt and Amarillo dry-hopping. It's a little leaner on the nose than ReAle, although that's not really a criticism, as if it were any fuller it would seem like a stoopid cartoon version of beer. Leaner on the nose, drier on the palate, with a spicy, slightly medicinal/herbal bitterness, pitching itself somewhere between one of the first generation pale golden English ales (that's to say, without all the C-hop histrionics) and a drier Belgian triple. It's a much more grown-up beer than the straight ReAle, less interested in playing a stadium gig than an intimate in-the-know venue.

The name is also a great play on words. 'Reale' is Italian for 'royal', as eny fule kno, but Birra del Borgo are obviously savvy enough to spot the potential to suggest 'real ale' in the name. Great beer, cool packaging, and a knowing name - what's not to like?

Sunday 4 April 2010

Cask Ale Week: The Badger Technique.

Yes, its the arse end of Cask Ale Week, and I've managed the princely amount of two and a half pints of cask ale. It's a bloody poor show on my part, although I will say that it's two and a half pints more than I drank in the preceeding few months. In my defence, all the draught beer I've drunk this week has been cask. As you can tell, for one reason or another, I don't get to the pub as much as I'd like.

But you don't have to go to the pub to drink cask ale. If you're very lucky, you can go to a brewery and do it. Last month, I was the guest of Hall & Woodhouse on a brewery day - a chinwag with the on- and off-trade brands managers, lunch, and then a brewery tour with head brewer Toby Heasman.

During the chinwag (which I'm using as a polite euphemism for a Powerpoint presentation, although I did enjoy it immensely - seriously), it emerged that Badger (which is used interchangeably for Hall & Woodhouse) has seen phenomenal growth in its bottled beers. Their bottled output has trebled in the last 5 years, and in the last 15 years they've seen a tenfold increase in the percentage output of their beer being bottled. Their bottled output is in growth by volume and by value, and they are even trying to create a new small-pack category: premium canned ale. But wait, this is Cask Ale Week, so let's move to their cask output before coming back to their bottled beers later in the week.

Badger ales are only currently available within their own estate of pubs, of which they have 260, all south of the M4 motorway (for overseas readers, that's an east-west line on the same latitude as London). They are probably best known for their strong golden ale Tanglefoot (4.9%abv), which during my teenage years was my nemesis on more than one occasion. I once drank a gallon of it, with predictably dire consequences on my sobriety. But such is Tanglefoot's soft, fruity drinkability that I can still drink it happily today. It's medium gold in colour, with a softly fruity aroma (pear, peaches and ripe melon, to my nose) a gently spicy finish. It's a bit of a classic and, in my opinion, does pretty well in the bottle. On cask, it is, as it's tagline proclaims, deceptively drinkable.

Badger's other permanent beery-beer (as opposed to flavoured beer, which, again, we'll come back to later this week) is First Gold (4%abv). It's a single hop beer, using the eponymous First Gold for both aroma and bittering. It's almost an ordinary brown bitter, having hints of toffee and even chocolate on the palate, but its robustly spicy hop character gives it a little lift. It punches well beyond its modest weight, and I liked it a lot - in some ways, it's more grown-up than Tanglefoot, with less sweetness and more chewy malt and hop character.

The last cask beer available was Hopping Hare (4.5%abv), their current spring seasonal, a pale golden beer that has a bright, sweet citrus hop character. It's clean and bright, gently zingy in the mouth, with some familiar fermentation-derived (as opposed to added) fruit notes - it has some peach and melon character in common with Tanglefoot, although the hop character is much brighter and vibrant. As with First Gold, I liked it a lot, and the bottled form of Hopping Hare also passed the crucial wife test - tasty enough to be worth drinking, but not so tasty as to be off-putting. That sounds like an insult rather than a compliment, but it isn't. Maybe that's the key to drinkability?

But I digress. That's a round-up of Badger's cask offering, as sampled at the brewery. Next week, we'll talk about their bottles. For Cask Ale Week 2010, this is Zak Avery, signing off.