Tuesday 29 June 2010

Guinness: An Icon in Decline?

I've written a piece about Guinness for the Independent. It's an appreciation of a brand in decline, and you can see it here, and it partners a more general article about Guinness' decline - you can see that here. It was supposed to go into the print edition of the paper today, but I've been told that space has been squeezed to give coverage of the returning England football team. That's a shame, but at least it gives me yet another reason to be ambivalent towards the beautiful game.

As I was writing the Guinness piece, I chatted with my partner, and she told me that she used to drink Guinness with a shot of Tia Maria in it*. Apparently delicious, but ruinously expensive. And as I was trying to remember the last time I drank a pint of Guinness, I realised that it was probably years, and I'd had it with a shout of bourbon in it. Maybe that's the way forward for Diageo - market a series of pre-mixed spirit-enhanced Guinness editions. They certainly have a broad enough spirit portfolio to make that an easy option.

* you're right - she's a keeper.

Sunday 27 June 2010

Stonch Unmasked

Although I try not to blog about blogging (and I seem to type those words with increasing frequency these days), I note that Stonch's Beer Blog has recently moved from being a password protected, invite-only zone back to a publicly accessible blog.

Are we about to see a return to blogging by ex-lawyer, now successful landlord, Jeff Bell?

(For the avoidance of doubt, I haven't been looking every day to see if anything changed. I'm off to Rome in a couple of days, and was surprised that Jeff's notes on Rome were turning up on Google, and were accessible to all again)

Wednesday 23 June 2010

Now Drinking: Daas Ambré

I've got a vague mistrust of organic beers. It always seem to me that their flavours are somehow compromised by their reliance on organic ingredients*. And it's not just me - this article about birds preferring non-organic food to organic is food for thought.

I've tried the two other beers in Daas range (Blonde (6.5%abv), and Witte (5%abv)), and they've left me a bit cold. There's nothing fundamentally wrong with them, but they seem to have sacrificed body for elegance, and rightly or wrongly, I attribute this to their organic credentials. To me, they are a touch lightweight, although the importer tells me that the beers have been reformulated and now are a bit more full-bodied. Only tasting them will tell.

However, body is something of which Daas Ambré (6.5%abv) has plenty. This copper-brown beer has a big aroma of slightly scorched caramel, and a faintly spicy, yeasty note. On the palate, caramelly sweetness is the order of the day until a little earthy hop character shows up late in the day to keep all that malt in check.

For me, this is the pick of the Daas range, although I should say I haven't tried the new Blonde and Witte. It's a big, uncomplicated slab of Belgian abbey ale, perhaps a bit too big to drink in any quantity, but sure to shine if paired with food - I'd suggest bread with paté or rillettes (and a pile of gherkins, for preference). Best of all, I didn't even suspect it was organic.

*the exception to this rule is Manchester's Marble Brewery, whose beers are organic and uncomparably delicious.

Tuesday 22 June 2010

I'll Have an E Please, Bob

I've got a glass of Worthington E in front of me. It's a bottle conditioned beer from the White Shield brewery in Burton upon Trent, 4.8% alcohol by volume, copper brown in colour, with a deliciously complex aroma - nutty bread, baking spices, some caramel - and a similar set of flavours playing out across the palate, but finishing dry, spicy and nutty.

As anachronisms go, it's pretty enjoyable, but it's still an anachronism. Worthington E became a best-selling beer for Bass in the 1970s, when it saw widespread distribution as a filtered and pasteurised keg bitter. It was famous - notorious even - and like most keg bitter, production slowly declined until it became almost extinct. It's still been in occasional production, brewed by Steve Wellington at the Museum Brewery in Burton upon Trent on an as-and-when basis, mostly as a cask ale. But now it is about to be released in bottle, in smart blue livery.

And it's a great beer, classically dry and nutty, with that slightly abrasive hop dryness that is characteristic of beer brewed with the sulphate-rich waters of Burton. I'm enjoying it, but at the back of my mind, I find myself asking: Who is this beer for? Anyone who remembers the 'original' Worthington E (by which I mean the keg bitter) will be baffled by its reappearance - maybe they will buy it through nostalgia, and they will be pleasantly surprised. Anyone who only has a vague handed-down folk memory of it will probably steer well clear of it. I imagine that this won't be an atypical reaction to seeing the beer on the shelf again, and it will get passed over for something a bit more contemporary, a bit louder, a bit brighter. Which would be a terrible shame.

Sunday 20 June 2010

The Conundrum of Cask-Aged Beers

From a press release received this week, about a beer that has been aged in a Scotch whisky cask: "Please Note: Because the beer has been matured in a whisky cask HM Revenue class the beer as a spirit rather than a beer and insist that we sell the beer at the spirit duty rate rather than as a beer. Neither are we allowed any sediment allowance as the beer is re-classed as a spirit"

I love the plush texture and multi-dimensional flavours that cask-ageing gives to a beer, be it whisky, rum or brandy. In the UK, ageing beers in a wooden barrel that has previously contained spirits is something that is gaining in popularity. There are many reasons that you might want to do such a thing, but most brewers do it in order to give another flavour dimension to the beer. In the same way that malt whisky takes on the character of the sherry that was in the cask before it was re-used, so too does beer take on the character of whatever was last in the cask.

The problem is, in the UK, ageing beers in a wooden barrel that has previously contained spirits is also technically illegal. Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (the people who enforce legislation relating to border protection, taxes and excise duty) have a strict law that prohibits grogging. But there are two problems is that this piece of legislation.

The first problem is that it refers to a practice that is solely concerned with extracting spirit from barrels, usually by adding water. The concern for HMRC is simply that people are extracting spirits without paying duty on them. Put simply, if you put a gallon of water in an old whisky cask and leave it, after a few months, you'll get dilute spirit out - usually about 10%abv.

The second problem is that this legislation is applied inconsistently. Currently in the UK, there are plenty of people ageing beer in old spirit casks, but they are all being treated differently from an excise duty point of view. The taxation can be anything from straight beer duty (with appropriate reduction under Progressive Beer Duty, if the brewer is small enough), to duty taxation at a full spirits rate, to a flat refusal to allow the brewer to pay tax on the cask-aged beer.

The first problem is pretty straightforward. The legislation needs to be reviewed, and clearly any beers that have their %abv bumped up by a bit of casual grogging should be taxed simply as beers. The beers that undergo such treatment are a tiny fraction of a percent of the beers produced in the UK today. It won't create a wholesale resurgence in grogging, it will just allow brewers another option to add flavour and texture to their beers. Perhaps a percentage increase in %abv might be permitted.

The solution to the second problem follows on from the first. Review of the law will ensure that there is no longer any ambiguity, and so the application of the unambiguous law will not vary between local HMRC officers, as is the case currently in the UK

FOOTNOTE: The brewery in which I took the featured picture has no issue with HMRC, although they did have a long struggle getting their cask-aged beers to market

Thursday 17 June 2010

Birra del Borgo Beer Dinner

"I see you have some of the best Italian beers", said Leonardo di Vincenzo, brewmaster of Birra del Borgo, grinning and pointing at a range of Peroni beers. He'd popped up to Beer-Ritz, the shop that I manage (but don't own), the morning after the Italian craft beer dinner, and had decided to ignore the two metre long stretch of his own lavishly packaged beers on the bottom shelf for the rather less impressive trio of Italian macrobrews.

Earlier this week, I was lucky enough to be invited to the Italian craft beer dinner at Leeds' excellent Cross Keys pub. It was really a showcase for the astonishing beers of Birra del Borgo, although there was a pre-dinner aperitif of Amarcord Gradisca slipped in at the start, a perfectly decent dry, faintly herbal pilsner. Then the fun began.

The first beer, Duchessa (6.2%abv), is a pale golden ale made from spelt (a variety of grain). Leonardo was at pains to point out that the fruity character of the beer (and it really did taste of mango and pineapples) was largely down to the quality of the grain. The beer itself has a relatively neutral hop character, allowing this juicy fruitiness to shine through. It was paired with a delicious pea soup with shredded ham hock and a poached quail's egg, then on to the next beer: Baladin Open.

Open (7.5%abv) is an IPA-style beer, with two distinguishing features. It's a pale copper-gold IPA with a surprisingly easy-drinking character for its strength, full of tangerines, grapefruit and a faint pepperiness. It's other unique selling point is that it was marketed as the world's first open-source beer: the recipe was published and people were invited to make their own version of it. If anyone has done this, and got anywhere near the original (or bettered it), I'd love to hear about it. (Now I think of it, that may be as good a place as any to start with my home brewing - hey, why not reach for the stars?).

A royal pair of beers were served around the main course of chicken breast stuffed with goat's cheese, served in a wild garlic sauce (the recipe for that wasn't made available, sadly, but that would have made it an open source sauce). ReAle and ReAle Extra (both at 6.4%abv) are a demonstration of how sometimes mistakes can be good things. They are two beers brewed to the same recipe (give or take about 1% crystal malt), but ReAle Extra has the majority of its aroma hop load added right at the end of the boil. This was originally the result of a mistake in the brewhouse, when Leonardo was distracted from his honest toil of brewing by an unspecified distraction (there may have been beer drinking involved). The original version (ReAle, meaning 'royal', but clearly typographically altered to suggest real ale) is the winner, for me, being stuffed full of juicy marmalade notes, although the popular opinion is the the Extra is a better beer, having a drier, herbal, spiced lemon character. I can't imagine either would disappoint, should you track some down.

Pudding of poached strawberries served with strawberry ice cream and a black pepper tuile biscuit was good on its own, but was kicked into overdrive with a glass of KeTo Reporter (5.2%abv), a sweetish dark porter brewed with the addition of fresh Kentucky tobacco leaves (hence 'Ke To'). Yes, I know that it sounds as though you'd say "bleurgh, there's bloody TOBACCO in this beer!", but the sweetly spicy influence of the wicked weed is a background note, and although noticeable, never dominates.

Gosh, that's a lot of words about a small, new(ish) Italian craft brewery, and I still have about the same again to write about some upcoming events they have planned. Watch this space.

Many thanks to Giulio at Vertical Drinks, Leonardo of Birra del Borgo, and the staff at The Cross Keys for an excellent evening.

POSTSCRIPT: During the dinner, The Cross Keys was showing the Italy vs. Paraguay match on a big screen at one end of the room. Although I'm not a fan of big-screen TVs showing football at dinner, one of the more admirable things I've seen this year was Leonardo introducing one of his beers while Paraguay slammed home the opening goal against Italy. He watched it happen, but didn't bat an eyelid. Total class.

Saturday 12 June 2010

The Beer-Drinker's Cocktail

" 'Do you ever drink wine?' people ask me, as though beer was a prison rather than a playground. A day may pass when I do not drink wine, but never a week. Whatever is argued about other pleasures, it is not necessary to be monogamous in the choice of drink" - Michael Jackson's 'Beer Companion' (2nd edition), p. 7.

I was hosting a world cup-themed beer tasting last week, and someone asked me "Do you ever just go to the pub and have a pint of Carling?". The perhaps surprising answer is yes, I do - about twice a year, I have a pint of Carling, or Carlsberg, or Becks, just to keep my eye in. Most of the time, it's perfectly OK - not particularly exciting, but certainly not the hideous experience that many make it out to be. Ditto cask Tetley's, John Smith's and so on (although I can't remember the last time I had a pint of Guinness).

The truth is, I'm something of an omnivore (omnibev?) when it comes to drinks. I have maybe a hundred or so bottles of good wine (some of it very good) in the cellar, alongside a fair amount of beer - some of it sent to me for review, but some of it I actually paid for. I love beer, but I also think that to be a good beer writer, you need to experience lots of different flavours, sensations and textures in your drinks. So whenever I get a chance to try something new, I go for it, whether food or drink. My last food adventure was in the Czech Republic, trying some cheese that had been aged in a jar for three months with onions and (I think) chilli peppers. The first mouthful was hideous - choking and almost overpowering - but, mindful that it was a new flavour sensation, I went back for another mouthful. That was also hideous, and I called it a day after two mouthfuls.

I first had a negroni at Harry's Bar in Venice about five years ago. I was there with half a dozen friends, and everyone else had ordered a bellini (Harry's Bar is famously where the bellini was invented). Being a contrary sort, and knowing that Italy was famous for its bitter aperitifs, I went for something different. The intense, herbal, peppery bitterness of the negroni nearly knocked me off my feet, but immediately I could see parallels with some of the bigger, more bitter beers (and we're talking fresh Sierra Nevada Bigfoot here).

Making a negroni is pretty easy, although chances are that you will have to go out and buy at least one of the three ingredients. Mix equal parts Campari, sweet vermouth (the red one) and gin, and serve over ice with a strip of orange zest. Easy peasy, but a study in complexity - earthy herbal bitterness combines with pithy orange zest character, with a sweetness mid-palate that moves into a peppery dryness. A classic essay in grown-up bitterness, sure to test the maturity of one's palate, but also sure to lure you back for another. The perfect beer-drinker's cocktail.

Friday 11 June 2010

Friday Beer Quiz

This could be number one in an occasional series of quizzes, or it could be the first and last quiz. There is no prize, other than the admiration of fellow beer enthusiasts. But I will be running a competition in a couple of months that has a great prize - a bottle of very old beer.

But back to today. The laughably easy question is: whose handwriting is this? It's somebody pretty famous in the world of brewing. If you can figure out what it says, do a bit of sleuthing as to where and what it refers to, you might be able to have a stab at who it is.

Good luck!

Monday 7 June 2010

Drinking the Unobtainable

Much as I love getting sent beer that is both (a) free and (b) unobtainable by normal means, I do wonder what to do with it. Of course, the obvious answer is "drink it, you fool", and so I have. And to justify drinking it, I'm also going to tell you what I think.

I'm not sure that anyone, anywhere is indulging in the sort of heroic folly that is Stuart Howe's '52 Brews' project. Not only is he running an ever-expanding commercial brewery, he is pushing the limits of what one brewer can achieve in a year. So far, everything I've tried from this project has been great; in the last couple of weeks, Winter Berry Strong and ESB Barley Champagne been impressive, with their traditional-ale-on-steroids character, big but beautifully balanced.

So far, what I've enjoyed most has been the 50 Hop IPA. Not only does it sound cool, it tastes great too, with layers of different hop character unfolding in the glass and across the palate. Totally brilliant, and endlessly drinkable. Well, I say endlessly - I'd like to be given the opportunity to put that to the test. The whole project oozes the sort of unhinged brilliance that you'd expect from a chap who not only routinely wears cufflinks, but also knows who Angerfist is.

At the other end of the country, displaying a similar sort of inventiveness (only with less cufflinks), the Dandy BrewPunks of Fraserburgh have released a tiny amount of their latest test brew, Prototype 27. In the assumption that you can never have too much of a good thing, they're taken their World Beer Cup gold medal-winning Hardcore IPA and aged it in a 1982 Caol Ila cask with 50kg of Scottish raspberries.

Like a lot of their more off-the-wall beers, this has left me not really knowing what to think - yes, it's a complex and tasty beverage, but I'm not totally convinced that it's a complex and tasty beer. The raspberry character sits alongside the pithy hops quite happily in the aroma, although the Islay phenolics distract somewhat. On the palate, the dry raspberry character comes to the fore, masking the thrilling, hoppy drinkability of the original, and then more phenolic smoke comes creeping in. On their blog, they describe it as "almost like a little bonfire inside a giant raspberry bouncy castle". I'd agree with that, although whether that is a positive or a negative description, I'll leave to your imagination.

Saturday 5 June 2010

Clouded Vision Under the Andalucian Sun

I'm stood at the bar of one of the finest tapas bars in Andalucia, Casa Balbino in Plaza del Cabildo, Sanlucar de Barrameda. The lunchtime rush has started, and things are starting to move. People come in, place their orders, and thereby spark a chain of further actions. The barman starts pouring drinks, and barks an order for a small plate of ham ('medio racion de iberico') and a couple of crispy fritters made from tiny shrimp ('tapa de tortillita de camarones'). The guy carving ham nods and gets to work, the kitchen splash a couple more dollops of shrimp-flecked batter into a shallow pan of hot oil.

Behind the bar, I recognise several of the waiters from previous visits over the past decade. Unlike the UK, being a waiter is a vocation here, a career, and good waiting staff regularly get headhunted by rival bars. But not here - the faces are all pretty familiar, and they dance a well-rehearsed ballet of bending, serving drinks, rushing to and from the kitchen. Everything is done with the practiced ease of something that has become part of muscle memory rather than voluntary thought.

This also extends to serving the drinks. Everything moves at a tremendous pace. Tiny beers are drawn, little copitas of manzanilla are poured from a barrel-shaped font on the bar-back. The drinks are whipped onto the counter, and for a moment stand there perfectly translucent. Then, as if having a moment of realisation that they are not long for this world, the glasses slowly start to acquire a shroud of condensation. It only takes about 15 seconds for a perfectly clear glass of cold beer or sherry to fog up, but watching it happen, with a sudden itch in the throat and an increasingly restless tongue, it seems to take much longer.

Wednesday 2 June 2010

Ice Cold in Sevilla

When the heat is on, there's nothing better than a small glass of really cold beer. They have that figured out in southern Spain - the caña, or diminutive cañita (canya or canyita, should you wish to try it out and are unfamiliar with the tilde) is the standard measure of beer, equating to anything from just under a half pint to just under third of a pint.

The idea of serving cold beer in small measures is a smart one. In the UK, by the time you get to the bottom of a pint, the beer will have reached room temperature - not so much of a problem for darker beers, but not what you want if you're drinking a lager. You could just drink faster, I suppose, but that's a particularly English solution to a European problem. Just order the beers in smaller glasses, more frequently.

One of the innovations in the five years since I've been to Spain last has been the introduction of Cruzcampo Glacial, a super-chilled dispense of the Seville-brewed classic. In my memory, Cruzcampo was my holiday beer par excellence - cold, snappy, crisp, and perfect to wash down plates of jamon or gambas. In actuality, Cruzcampo is an ordinary mass-produced lager, tasting slightly oxidised and having a faintly sweet yellow apple note, neither of which are appealing or refreshing. But give it the Glacial treatment and what you are left with is just a sensation rather than a flavour, a cool, snappy, crisp crackle of biscuity malt and a faint impression of hops, and all of the sweetness and flavour flattened by serving it just above freezing. Perfect for purpose - to slake a thirst and cool you down.

All the while I was drinking tiny frozen beers, I kept thinking about how I would never do this at home, and how although I was having the best holiday ever, it would be quite nice to get back to cold, damp Leeds and tuck into the bottle of Moor Brewing's Old Freddie Walker that I have waiting in the cellar. I eagerly checked the weather at home - cold and damp, perfect for sitting down indoors and getting acquainted with Freddie. But I get home, and summer has sort of sprung - hell, I'm wearing a short-sleeved linen shirt and sandals as I write this.

The early summer season of crisply hopped, grapfruity, zesty, sherbety, golden session ales is upon us. Bring me cool pints of zing, and leave the ice cold cañas to the caballeros of Andalucia. The English summer has begun!