Friday 21 May 2010

Beer Judging

It's everyone's dream job, being a beer judge. What could be better than sitting around, being brought beers all day, and asked to drink and pass opinion on them?

I took the pic on the left at the final round of the 2008 International Beer Challenge. I haven't judged a beer competition for a couple of years, and should really get back into the swing of it. Unfortunately, I'm missing the IBC again this year, as I'm going to be on holiday next week - I plan to drink a lot of Cruzcampo and eat lots of jamon and seafood in Chipiona, on the Atlantic coast of south western Spain. I'd have liked to have judged the IBC last year, but couldn't come to an agreement with last years organisers over expenses. Yes, I had the temerity to suggest that I should be paid for spending two days and an overnight stay in London, and when their offer just about matched my expenses, I still thought that wasn't good enough*. Inexplicably, the judging went ahead without me, and stranger still, they seemed to come to a sensible set of conclusions.

I've also received an invite to judge the World Beer Awards at the NEC on June 18th, held at Tasting Beers Live. That's one that I should take up, although again, there is no provision to cover expenses. Maybe I'll be there anyway - I should at least go along to see Stuart Howe's 52 Beers Roadshow - but there's still a bit of me that thinks I should be carried from my house to the NEC in a sedan chair, or at the very least get a rail ticket thrown in.

This might sound as though I've got a really high opinion of myself, and feel as though I'm owed a beer-drinking living. Maybe there's a bit of that in it. Maybe it doesn't matter who judges beer competitions. I haven't taken the Beer Judge Certification Program exams, and am a bit bemused by the number of categories they squeezed in this year, so perhaps I shouldn't complain. Maybe beer competitions in the UK should be judged by whoever can make it that day and do it for nothing.

But equally, if you were a brewer paying to enter your beers in a competition, who would you like to see judging it? Or like any right-thinking person, perhaps you think I should stop moaning and just suck down a few free cold ones?

*FOOTNOTE: The IBC has changed organisers this year, and I'm told things are very different.

Monday 17 May 2010

Beeramisu with Great Divide Oak-Aged Yeti Imperial Stout

I know, I know, what sort of a guy am I if I can't finish a bottle of Great Divide Oak-Aged Yeti Imperial Stout in one sitting? And more to the point, isn't 'beeramisu' the sort of thing that starts out as a play on words, and then someone thinks "hang on, I'll give that a go"?

The Yeti was left over after opening it the previous night to go with pudding - hot chocolate fondant and vanilla ice cream. The missus unexpectedly asked for a glass of stout, and I like to oblige, so it was opened anyway. I was fairly sure that I wouldn't finish it - it was the fourth beer I'd opened that evening, so I hoped that I wouldn't be finishing it on my own. And in my experience, these big beers tend to stand up to being left open overnight.

It was a delicious match, as American imperial stouts tend to carry a bit more residual sugar and seem a bit sweeter than any others. The oak ageing is apparent, not so much as a toasted vanilla flavour, but as a slightly wild edge. My note for it says "Black and unctuous. Creamy chocolate espresso on the nose, with a slightly wild note. Huge, sweet on palate, berry fruits (?) , liqueur-like – stands up very well to chocolate deserts with ice cream – but on its own, massive, complex, bittersweet and slightly funky. Huge, absurd, but very enjoyable. Persistent bitterness."

Beeramisu has been on the list of things to try for a while, and so I didn't feel bad about leaving half the bottle, In fact, I felt pretty damn good about it, as I knew it was going to make a great dessert. If youve never made this, give it a go - it's very simple, and doesn't require any fancy skills other than plenty of elbow grease.


You'll need: a pack of finger biscuits, two eggs, 200g mascarpone, 50g caster sugar (I used unrefined for a slightly vanilla edge), two eggs, and some imperial stout - the bigger the better.

Put a layer of finger biscuits in a shallow bowl, and add enough imperial stout to make them soft, but not too sloppy. They will soak up a surprising amount, so do this in stages.

Separate the yolks and whites of the eggs, and beat the caster sugar with the yolks until creamed. Beat the mascarpone into the creamed egg yolks. Clean the whisk, and then beat the whites until they reach soft peak stage - gently creamy, just stiff, but not yet lumpy. Fold the creamed yolks and the stiff whites together, and when they are a uniform mixture, pour over the stout-sodden base.

Top with cocoa powder or grated chocolate. Chill for 30 minutes, or anything up to 4 hours, and serve with more of the same imperial stout.

Friday 14 May 2010

Now Drinking: Birra del Borgo / Dogfish Head My Antonia

I remember the first time I heard the phrase "imperial pilsner". It was at 2008's Beer Exposed, an event that was such a success that it hasn't been held since. That's a shame actually, because I know that the organisers lost money on the trial run, but hoped to make it back on future events. I must call Des or Matt and ask about what is going on with it. But, as usual, I digress.

The first time I heard the phrase "imperial pilsner" was at Beer Exposed. I was organising my "extreme beer" walk, and was talking to Phil Lowry of He had a great selection of beers, including Mikkeler Black, a 17.5% imperial stout, which we both agreed would be a good beer to end on. He also said "if you want something unusual, I've got an imperial pilsner from ..." (I forget the brewery). As he said the words "imperial pilsner", I made a pained face, as though I'd just seen him sharpen a frozen dog turd and stab himself in the eye with it. "What makes it imperial?" I asked, wearily. "Shitloads of malt" was the enthusiastic response. I declined the offer.

How times change.

A few months after Beer Exposed's simultaneous debut and wake, Sam Calagione visited Leonardo di Vincenzo at his Birra del Borgo brewery, and they brewed the first batch of My Antonia (7.5%abv), a "continually-hopped™ imperial pils". I still feel slightly uneasy about the need for "imperial pils", but on the basis of this beer, I'm cutting off my nose to spite my face. Rather than being, as I initially feared, some sort of bastard hybrid of a helles bock and an American IPA, it is instead the delightful fusion of a helles bock and an American IPA.

Lustrous burnished gold in colour, and slightly hazy (I emptied every last drop into the glass), it has a big floral aroma, slightly perfumey, almost honeyed. In the mouth, the initial sweetness carries an almost savoury character (a character that the redoubtable Jeff Pickthall has described to me as 'celery salt' - you'll certainly find that in Pilsner Urquell now I've mentioned it). On the swallow, the sweet, honeyed malt character hangs there for a moment, and then slowly transmutes into a big, slightly herbal bitterness. If I'd been served this blind, I might have taken it for a good quality tripel from one of the new wave of modern Belgian breweries. Of course, the irony is that all the new wave Belgian breweries are making American-style imperial IPAs and barrel-aged imperial stouts. What is this, a beery remake of "The Empire Strikes Back"?

I'm not sure if this beer is a regular brew, or a seasonal special, but it's really very good indeed. Vertical Drinks (UK importers of Sierra Nevada) are also bringing in beers from Birra del Borgo and Baladin as an ongoing project. Both are very good, although with different aesthetics. If you like modern-styled beers with a hop-forward character, then it's Birra del Borgo for you - I've not tried a bad one yet. And I certainly didn't think that an "imperial pilsner" would get me so fired up - but I guess times change.

Thursday 13 May 2010

Liefmans on the Rocks - Part 2

Just as a follow up to yesterday's post, I thought I'd publish the exchange of emails between me and Rupert Ponsonby (pictured right). Rupert is a smashing geezer - he's "the ideas man" at R&R Teamwork, the specialist drinks PR company, and has done more than anyone else in recent years to promote beer in the UK.

Yes, it's lazy blogging. Yes, there's a lot to read. But there are also some interesting points.

----- Original Message -----
From: Rupert Ponsonby
To: Zak Avery
Sent: Wednesday, May 12, 2010 5:03 PM
Subject: Zak Avery -on the Rocks
Eyup, Thou Conservative (but obviously not very liberal) beer man
The proof of the pudding is in the eating..
We tried the Liefmans Fruit over ice last week with 13 people and it were great and novel and beautiful. Even one (a wine writer) who said it tasted too unserious at the start, went away with some in her handbag; and over ice it was the most requested beer of the day against (say) 10 others.
I thought you used to say that the (potential) customer was always right? They were my customers.
Today, in the office we drank Lindemans Framboise over ice. Interestingly, to our thinking, the ice allows the flavours of the fruits in the beer to open out and make an exhibition of themselves far better over ice than just chilled. Maybe it is the same as happens when you pour a smidgeon of water into a 40% whisky – it lets the drink relax and open out.
And I drank it again after 15 minutes on ice, and it was still succulent and enticing.
So what is so wrong about opening up a new chapter for beer, adding colour and theatre and arguably – a new range of flavours. Isn’t it about time that we had more fun in beer and allowed others into our territory?
It looked delicious and tasted not half bad - you old conservative you
Love and kisses
From my Old Labour soapbox
From: Zak Avery
Sent: 12 May 2010 17:23
To: Rupert Ponsonby
Subject: Re: Zak Avery -on the Rocks
Haha, enough of the political goading! As you well know, I'm a radical liberal to the core.
I don't doubt a word of what you say - it's just the serve that bothers me, although maybe it's also tied up with the new beer, the calorific info, and the changes that DM made to the brewery's output.
Maybe we are arguing semantics - how far removed from beer can beer be before it isn't really beer? Is there any difference between a malt-based fruit beverage and a beer? Maybe it's the disconnect between stressing the "traditional" aspect of the beer and the saccharine flavours - certainly in the one I tried, the saccharine was unpleasantly prominent. Should we be educating the drinkers up to a certain level, or dumbing the beers down?
And anyway, I'm not sure that I say anything positive or negative about it - the question I ask in my blog post is "Should anything and everything be acceptable in the quest to get more people drinking beer, or is there a line that can be easily drawn, that we can point to and say "No, THAT is too far"? And which side of the line does this fall?"
Why not leave a comment? Or can I cut and past your email?
Big love
Z x
From: Rupert Ponsonby
To: Zak Avery
Sent: Wednesday, May 12, 2010 5:46 PM
Subject: Zak Avery -on the Rocks
Cut n paste my email at your will..
Liefmans Cuvee Brut is their serioso beer and will stay as such. But Liefmans Fruit – tho based on the same trad brown kriek’d beer – is made in very different style. Same parent, but ‘wildly’ different characters and markets
Yup, I think that beer needs to shed its shackles of the past. When I was allowed to help design cask ales for Whitbread in 1994, we added juniper and chocolate and nutmeg and spice. We thought we were being brave and controversial, but looking at historic records it had all been done before.
Who is the most inspirational chef in Britain? Heston B. And does he mind being ‘untraditional’ and trying new flavours? No. His oysters on passion-fruit and lavender jelly with a Belgian Wit beer was one of the best dishes I have ever eaten; followed by Michel Roux’s rare seared tuna with chill, ginger, black pepper and sesame oil with Liefmans Cuvee Brut (how wicked?); and Heston’s roast belly pork with Innis & Gunn Oak aged Beer.
Anyway, try Liefmans Fruit by its lonesome over ice; and then with chilled blackcurrant cheesecake (Tesco) or cold choc mousse
Mmm, The Future’s Fruity – or was it Orange?
Have you perused – our new untraditional baby
From: Zak Avery
Sent: 12 May 2010 19:01
To: Rupert Ponsonby
Subject: Re: Zak Avery -on the Rocks
I agree with everything you say, except that I'm unconvinced that serving a sweetened fruit beer over ice is anything like as innovative as Heston. In terms of completely rethinking ingredients and processes, Thornbridge are taking that sort of approach to the EXTREME, with beers that incorporate herbs, spices, fruit, fairies wings and hummingbirds tears.
Setting aside the PR issues for a moment, I guess the real question is: How much of a compromise will you make to get people to drink beer? Can we talk people up to appreciating good beer, or do we need to take beer down a few notches first? With a decade of retail experience under my belt, and plenty of converts to good beer, I favour the the former. Maybe our goals and MOs are slightly different?
I like Beer Genie - it's worth it for the beer and BBQ tips alone.
From: Rupert Ponsonby
To: Zak Avery
Sent: Wednesday, May 12, 2010 7:10 PM
Subject: Zak Avery -on the Rocks
Not equating beer over ice to Heston; just equating to doing the unconventional
I agree with you in talking/learning up and not dumbing down
But ice is theatre, exciting, makes the senses quiver
and is nearly free
True Yorkshire

Wednesday 12 May 2010

Liefmans on the Rocks

As if summoned up by one of my comments in the Blue Moon post, recalling an incident where a barman nearly served a bottle of beer over ice, a press release for Liefman's Fruit Beer plops into my inbox.

When Duvel Moortgat rescued Liefman's, I expressed an opinion that Liefman's were probably in safe hands. They messed around a bit with the fruit beers, producing a saccharine fluff-fest of a beer, of which one of its chief merits appeared to be that it contains only 99 calories. Now the suggestion is to serve it over ice, to make a cool refreshing summer drink.

Am I being too grumpy about this or is this just a harmless bit of summer fun? If I think that serving a wheat beer with a slice of orange in it is OK, then who am I to complain that serving a saccharine sweetened fruit beer over ice is a step too far? Should anything and everything be acceptable in the quest to get more people drinking beer, or is there a line that can be easily drawn, that we can point to and say "No, THAT is too far"? And which side of the line does this fall?

Tuesday 11 May 2010

Blue Moon - It's All About The Serve

It's easy to be cynical about a beer that is supposed to be served with a chunk of fruit in it. When I asked about the fruit at the Leeds launch of Blue Moon (or rather, the "pre-launch" - so much more hip than the actual launch), I was told that it wasn't a marketing gimmick, but it was something that had come straight from the brewery. Being a fairly bright button, I realise that these things aren't necessarily mutually exclusive, and on paper, a Belgian wheat beer brewed by the Blue Moon Brewery (essentially Molson Coors) and marketed as American Craft Beer is such a confused, irritating and almost straight-up deceitful concept that one might justifiably ask "why bother?"

But bother I did, getting off the sofa as Brown exited Downing Street and Cameron visited the palace - what other response would be more fitting than going to the pub, I wonder? Blue Moon in keg form is an unfiltered, unpasteurised Belgian wheat beer. Well, it's more of a weissebier to my palate, having a fairly big body and a touch of digestive biscuit maltiness, and none of a classic witbier's tart spritziness. There's the biscuity malt, a pronounced orange and coriander note, fairly big and chewy on the palate, with some hop character showing up late in the day to keep everything in shape and lend a little more complexity. If you elect to have it without orange, it's a little flabby - the slice of orange peel in the glass adds a little zing of acidity and quite a lot in the way of aromatics. It has a certain freshness and vitality that isn't down to the peel alone. The beers are alarmingly perishable, with just 90 days to expiry put on them at the brewery, and a keg needing to be used up within 5 days of being tapped.

So what are we to make of a beer that actually needs to be served with a slice of orange to show at its best? Is it really all about The Serve? Certainly, the fruit isn't solely there to add flavour (like lime in the neck of a bottle of Mexican lager), although to my palate it improves the beer a bit, giving a faintly gin-like botanical edge to it. Is the slice of orange in Blue Moon Coors' equivalent to the sparkler - how do you like yours served? To be totally honest, unironic and straightforward, I quite liked it. It was a decent enough beer, and with a slice of orange had quite a nice bite to it.

Am I their target consumer? No. Is it worth trying if you come across it? Certainly, in my opinion, and in unfiltered, unpasteurised keg form it's a much more interesting proposition than the thin, watery flash-pasteurised bottles. Is Blue Moon here to stay, and will it become more than the flavour of the month? That is for the drinkers to decide. For my money, Grolsch Weizen (another beer in Coors' Different World Drinks portfolio) is a more interesting beer, but then that has no USP beyond just being a really great beer.

Saturday 8 May 2010


This is a train of thought sparked by the large amount of sediment in the two bottles of Thornbridge Halcyon that I drank this week, although it's not specifically about that beer or brewery. For the record, I think it's a great beer, and after having been lucky enough to have a couple of pints at the Sheffield Tap last night, think that Thornbridge are one of the most most focused, exciting and technically proficient breweries in the UK today.

My question is pretty straightforward: How do people feel about brewers releasing new beers that turn out to be slightly flawed in some way? I made my feelings clear about Gadd's Reserved a few months ago, and would point out that Eddie Gadd correctly (but still quite magnanimously in my book) offered to replace any beers that people weren't happy with. Also, I'm sure that it was awesome when it was bottled, but perhaps it wasn't stable enough for the long haul (or even the medium haul).

This year's Halcyon is a great beer, but speaking to brewer Kelly Ryan, it's clear that they didn't actively engineer or desire the loose sediment that has occurred. And there are a few brewers currently making small batch trial beers (3 or 4 brewer's barrels at a time) which are just that - trial beers. And every now and again, something will happen so that a batch of a signature brew isn't quite what it should be. Should they be selling them? As a retailer, it's easy to sell the first case or two of a new beer, but the real test is repeat sales - are people coming back and buying it again, or is it a bit underwhelming? And if it is underwhelming, should it even be on sale in the first place?

I'd love to know your thoughts.

Wednesday 5 May 2010

Beer and Curry (well, Halcyon and Kedgeree)

Because I'm such a frightful ponce, I like to try out food and beer combinations. I like to think that sometimes, you can get something that's greater than the sum of its parts - the beer and the food enhance each other, and you notice things in each that may have slipped by unnoticed. And of course, because I'm such a frightful ponce, I couldn't possibly do something as simple as compare a couple of IPAs over a chicken jalfrezi. No, tonight it's Thornbridge Halcyon (7.7%abv) and kedgeree.

I won't write a great deal about the beer, as I sort of cover everything I want to say about it in the video. But I will say that after a long chat on the phone with Kelly Ryan, one of the brewers who helped create Halcyon, it's clear that they are both a brewery who like to push the envelope a bit, and are quite open about what happens when they try to do that. Kelly didn't pretend to be delighted about having a lot of very loose sediment in the bottle, but neither did he think it was the end of the world. In fact, as I show in the video, there's nothing wrong with the sediment, and I'm almost sure it was more strongly-flavoured than the brighter glass of beer I drank afterwards. Who knows - maybe some of those flavour compounds are lipophillic and bound to the lipids in the yeast cells. Yes, I know I'm good, but I didn't figure that one out myself - egg-headed, Segal-bodied Stuart Howe of Sharps planted the seeds of it here.

The Halcyon wasn't a perfect match for the food - I think that maybe a hopfen-weisse would be a better match - but it did the job pretty well, acting as an admirably spicy, citrussy cut against the spice and smoke of the kedgeree. Irritatingly, a chicken jalfrezi with a load of mango chutney would have been near perfect with Thornbridge Halcyon

Kedgeree for two.

Cook a couple of handfuls of rice (I like basmati and wild mixed). Towards the end of cooking, add a couple of handfuls of peas. You can also steam the fish over this - 300g of undyed smoked haddock will do it. And you can either boil a couple of eggs in here also, or poach a couple of eggs to go on the dish at the end.

Fry two finely sliced onions with half a finely diced green chilli, until the onions are golden. Add ground cumin and ground black pepper to taste (about half a teaspoon of each). Add the rice, peas, flaked fish, the chopped boiled egg (or top with a poached egg), and a handful of chopped coriander. Stir, season, serve.

Saturday 1 May 2010

Extraordinary Brown Beer

I've got a terrible habit of scanning the beer aisles whenever I go into a supermarket. It's almost a nervous reflex, even if I'm popping just in for a pint of milk (yes, I know you get that from the corner shop, the supermarket is about 200 yards from our front door. The corner shop is half a mile). Morrison's have just got a lot of new beers in, including Worthington White Shield at £1.89 (about what it costs wholesale to the independent trade), and also featuring are a couple of super-premium bottled ales - Marston's Pedigree VSOP (Very Special Old Pale, 6.7%abv) and Wychwood Special Reserve King Goblin (6.6%abv).

They couldn't be more different. The VSOP is clearly a well-researched brand extension, sharing some of the similarities of Pedigree but adding a few bells and whistles in the shape of conditioning on brandy cask staves, and an extra hopping regime. Both of these add to the beer, making it more complex and oddly lighter at the same time. By contrast, the King Goblin just tastes like a bigger version of Hobgoblin - more malt, more hops, more alcohol - and as such seems to struggle under its own weight, especially when compared with the surprisingly spry Pedigree VSOP.

Ordinary brown beer with a little more oomph. Extraordinary brown beer.