Thursday, 30 October 2008

World Series Beer: Game 5 (The End)

It’s all over. Philadelphia Phillies are the 2008 Baseball World Champions. I was rooting for the Rays; I can’t resist the underdog. The Rays were the worst team in baseball for all but one of their previous ten seasons (this is only the eleventh season that they have been a franchise). Then this year they finished at number two, in the only season when they have won more games than they’ve lost. What a fairytale turnaround. But the Phillies hold a losing record of their own: they are the only team in professional sports to have lost over 10,000 games in their history. Manchester United and the Phillies were formed within five years of each and I did some primitive adding-up to compare the records, for some perspective: Manchester United have only played around 5,000 professional games in their history.

Anyway, we’re not here to talk about rounders or football; we’re here for the beer!

Game 5 (the culmination). Beer 6. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (5.6%) Sierra Nevada Brewing Company (website)

This was one of the beers which I managed to get from the supermarket (that and the Anchor Steam) and it’s probably the best example there is of American craft brewing and its growing popularity: this Pale Ale is now available in the major supermarkets and is growing in number in pubs.

Pale ale was an aging style of beer, lost in the sea of big-name lager, but then Sierra Nevada started to brew it in the 1970s and the craft brewing scene was up and running. If it wasn’t for Sierra Nevada and Anchor then who knows what the American beer scene would be like now, and who knows how the British beer scene would be, for a lot of American influence is starting to make its way into the beers over here – ‘extremes’ of style, the renewal of old styles, attention-grabbing labels, barrel aging, etc. The boundaries of what beer is, and what it can be, are slowly being stretched in exciting ways. This won’t be for everyone, that’s for sure, and there’ll be ‘purists’ who’ll ardently stick to their pint of best bitter or premium lager, but there’s a whole world of beer out there and I personally think it’s a great time to be a beer drinker, wherever you are in the beer world.

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale pours a golden-orange colour with custard-yellow head. It’s brewed with pale and caramel malt, and this is clear from the bread and cake aromas, with a hint of vanilla. I also got some caramelised oranges, plenty of juicy fruit, citrus zest and berries. The creamy caramel malt comes first, then the Cascade hops add an almost dry grapefruit finish, with some tannic berries in there somewhere. The well-hopped finish just keeps on and on above the sweetness of the malt and that’s the main flavour difference between this Pale Ale and a lager – the dominance of the hops and the depth of the malt. It’s a bloody good beer, crammed with richness and flavour, and the stand-out beer of its kind.

So my week of American beer and baseball has come to an end. Next year I’ll plan it a bit better to get some more ‘unusual’ and uncommon beers in. For now it’s back to whatever is in the cupboard. Or the fridge. Or under the stairs.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

World Series Beer: Game 5 (The Beginning)

I say Game 5, but it is really only the part of Game 5 which happened before the rain finally made play impossible. Don’t you just hate rain? I can’t think of a single time when I’ve been happy to see it. Never mind, the suspension does bring some good news: ‘extra’ baseball and therefore extra beer. But I might need to pop back to the shops if it goes to Game 7.

Game 5. Beer. 5. Anchor Steam Beer (4.8%) Anchor Brewing Company. (website).

Now here’s a special beer from one of the pioneer craft breweries in the United States. In fact it’s probably the pioneer: a glorious trailblazer. Based in San Francisco, Anchor Steam is their trademark brew; it’s what they’re famous for. The bottles are sexy; a mix of old and new with a squat shape, perfectly formed for the hand, the label is immediately eye-catching with the Anchor prominent in the middle, and a neck brace of information to read between gulps. Their range is small compared to other breweries, but this is no bad thing, and they stick to tradition rather than innovation: their Porter is packed with chocolate, bitter roast grain and berries; the Liberty Ale is intoxicating with loads of malt and a smack of grapefruit and lychees; while the Old Foghorn is a big barley wine.

The Anchor Steam is an amber colour with a creamy yellow head. A big, clean aroma of bread, caramel and toasted grain wafts out. There is more of the bread and caramel in the mouth with plenty of malt depth and a peppery, citrus hop finish. There is almost something savoury about this beer with the perfect balance. It is rich and full of flavour; a classic and deservedly so.

Monday, 27 October 2008

World Series Beer: Game 4

Question: When you watch a game of baseball, what do you drink? Answer: Beer, of course.

Question: But what goes in your other hand, the spare one? Answer: Select from: A) a baseball glove, B) a large sponge finger, C) a cow bell if you are from Tampa, D) a white towel if you are a Phillies fan, E) a sign declaring your love for either, Evan Longoria or Ryan Howard, F) another beer, G) a hot dog.

Last night, being thousands of miles from the ball park (although there in spirit), I had option G.

It seemed completely inappropriate to go through the World Series without at least one hot dog. So I had three. Fluffy-chewy white rolls, meaty-thick sausages, sweet fried onions and a zig-zagging of mustard and ketchup; the image of fast food America. What could be better then beer, hot dogs and a game of baseball.

Game 4. Beer 4. Old Scratch Amber Ale (5.3%) Flying Dog Ales (website - you really should check this out).

The second Flying Dog beer this week, and another winner from the 2008 Great American Beer Festival earlier this month - silver in the Amber Lager category. Flying Dog are a pretty cool brewery from Colorado, with links to Hunter S. Thompson and Ralph Steadman, who is responsible for the iconic labels. Their range is awesome. Traditional brews (IPA, golden ale); a showcase of ‘old’ styles (porters, a biere de gardes and a barley wine); and some ‘extreme’ choices which challenge our conception of what ‘beer’ is, or can be (Double IPAs, and their Wild Dogs – 750ml bottled beasts). There may not be another brewery which so encapsulates the essence of the American craft beer scene right now.

The Old Scratch pours a deep amber with a creamy froth: it’s one good looking beer. The aroma is nutty-caramel-sweet with flowery hops. The malt comes with just-burnt caramel and toasted bread, then the crisp, but mild, hops cleanse the palate with dry citrus and grapefruit. It’s smooth, well balanced and easy drinking; a great example of an amber lager, which should be richer and gutsier in the malt department than its lighter amber-less friend. And I’ll tell you something, it’s bloody good with hot dogs. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that it’s the perfect beer to drink while eating a hot dog.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

World Series Beer: Game 3

The clocks went back last night and I’m feeling a little jet-lagged, either that or it’s the knock-on-effects of a baseball game which finished at 6.45am (5.45 if you take into account the time change, but as I hadn’t slept it was 6.45 to me).

I knew there was a chance of rain in Philly, so when I woke up from a short pre-game performance-enhancing power-nap to see a mist of rain sweeping over Citizens Bank Park I wasn’t surprised. But I stuck with it for an hour and a half of game build-up, which frequently snapped back to shots of a sodden ballpark. Eventually, at 2.30am, I decided to brush my teeth and get ready for bed. As soon as I got back in front of the TV, guess what – the water-proof tarps had been removed and the players were out on the field! Game on!

Game 3. Beer 3 (part 1): A&W Root Beer (non-alcoholic). (website)

I went shopping yesterday to look for more American beer so I can successfully complete this mission of mine (I managed to find enough bottles to get through) and while out I found some root beer, which I cracked open during the lengthy pre-game build-up. Root beer is one of those American things that I’ve heard so much about in popular culture, but have never actually tried for myself. But what is it?! It’s caffeine-free but heavy on the sugar and it’s made with high fructose corn syrup, fizzy water and some natural and artificial colours and flavours. That’s helpful.

It pours a deep red-brown but had no head; from cartoon images, I was expecting a frothy, creamy head to rise up out of the glass. The first thing that hits you is that it smells like antiseptic cream, not necessarily good for a drink as it just reminds you of falling over as a kid and the painful application of the healing cream. I didn’t really know what to expect from the taste, but it basically was like a glass of Dr. Pepper with a dash of coke and a slug of cough mixture poured in. Interesting.

Game 3. Beer 3 (part 2): Budweiser (5%) Anheuser-Busch. (website)

When the game finally began at 3am my time, I didn’t really feel like cracking open a beer, to be honest. Plus I’d just brushed my teeth and I had that minty tingle in my mouth. Luckily, though, earlier that day I had found a bottle of Bud sleeping in the back of the beer cupboard.

I took the crown of its shiny brown head and did something unique: I poured some of the beer into a glass. That’s right, I poured it out. This was for the sake of consistency, you see, because all the other beers I drink from a glass. It actually pours a very pale gold with a lime-cordial green hue. There was hardly any discernible aroma, apart from that of ‘beer’. The taste is clean and crisp (that must be the addition of rice?!), and I found it tasted surprisingly familiar despite rarely drinking it. I finished the few mouthfuls that I’d poured into the glass and drank the rest from the bottle, which was much more enjoyable. It’s hard to describe the flavours in a Bud; the malt is simple with a slight cereal hint, and the hops are so inoffensive that they barely register (even though they brew it using ten varieties of hops!). I did have a flash of excitement at one point when I thought I tasted a hint of apple. That was the highlight.

This bottle got me thinking. There’s so much good pale ale and lager being brewed in the USA right now (Samuel Adam’s Boston Lager. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, to name just two), and craft sales are on the up, but Budweiser is still the market leader. So is the branding more important than the taste for Bud, where the name has become synonymous with American beer (despite its European descent)? I read that Bud holds a 50% US market share, which is incredible, but what does this mean for the craft brewing section? How can they compete? I guess the answer is that they don’t compete. There are so many incredible craft beers being brewed that they have to be considered apart from the ‘King of Beers’: You don’t compare McDonald’s with Joe’s Bar and Grill, even if Joe’s burger is the juiciest you’ve ever tasted and his bar-brewed beer is the finest that’s caressed your lips.

Friday, 24 October 2008

World Series Beer: Game 2

Last night’s game started well for me with a thick slice of fresh bread topped with an unreasonably large amount of peanut butter and strawberry jam. Man it was good, but I tell you this, the World Series is going to make me fat: during the hours when I ordinarily should be sleeping, I am actually up drinking beer and eating lots of food to keep me awake. But, hell, I’ve got five months to work it off so I’ll enjoy it while I can.

Game 2. Beer 2. Summerfest (5%) by Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. (website)

I have never had a bad Sierra Nevada beer. And I’ve had a lot of them. Their Pale Ale is seen as the beer which kick started the American craft brewing scene and it’s popping up in pubs and bars in England now: it is paving the way for the rest to follow. The dominant characteristic of Sierra Nevada brews seems to be the hops, which sing of citrus. Even the porter, stout and wheat beer, along with their big boy Big Foot, all feature that hop presence.

The Summerfest (following on the festival theme from last night’s Dogtoberfest) is a golden, gleaming, bottom fermented pale ale. Lager-lovers wouldn’t believe you if you told them this was actually an ale. The aroma is the familiar citrus hops plus something a little soapy (although this might be subliminal as the beer is very ‘clean’ tasting). The flavour begins with a simple, cereal malt before tangy grapefruit and lime arrives from the hops. I wanted to get more out of this – more malt depth - but it never came. It’s a simple, but very good, lager-like beer. A classic summertime brew.

I’ve got a day off tonight as the teams travel from Florida to Pennsylvania. This gives me a chance to 1) catch up on some sleep, and 2) to go shopping for some more American beers, I just hope I can find some.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

World Series Beer: Game 1

I love baseball almost as much as I love beer. Enjoying them together is a sure-fire winner. This week sees the final games of the year, a best-of-seven series between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Philadelphia Phillies to determine the World Series Champions.

Yesterday morning, less than 24 hours before the first pitch of the series was thrown, I had an idea. This idea of mine was to drink a different American beer during each game of the World Series. It’s not the most amazing of ideas, granted, but it works just fine for me.

I checked the beer reserves in the garage and under the stairs and, sure enough, I had some American beers. Of course I had some. I have a real thing for beer brewed across the pond right now, loving their brash over-the-top-ness, the way they’re rejuvenating old styles and adding their own yankee twist, the sheer variety of beer being made, and just how good much of it is. It’s frankly quite exciting (there are those ardent oldies who dismiss the Americans off-hand, but I greet their brews with open arms and an open mouth).

The only trouble I can foresee for this little mission of mine is that I only have four bottles of American brewed beer in the house, and one of these I only want to open if there is a seventh, and deciding, game (to say it’s a ‘special’ beer is to place too high a value on it; I just want to save it for an ‘occasion’). There will come a scramble to find more beers over the weekend (if only this idea would have come to me a few weeks ago, I’d be fully prepared with a fridge well-stocked with state-side treats. Nevermind.).

Game 1. Beer 1. Dogtoberfest Märzen Ale (5.2%) by Flying Dog Ales (see their website here).

I had to start with this beer, it seemed fitting that the final acts of the ‘Hunt for October’ were watched with a special Oktoberfest beer in hand. Dogtoberfest won a Gold medal for best German-Style Märzen at the Great American Beer Festival just a few days ago, so I was expecting something pretty-damn good.

It pours a deep amber/flame colour with a whispy lace of foam. The nose is an ever-developing compendium of juicy fruits, berries and citrus, and a depth of roasted malt to begin, moving into sweeter candy and pastry-like malt. In the mouth there is burnt caramel to begin then this is swept away by the hops which grow and grow in stature, finishing well after the beer is swallowed. But unfortunately there is a watery-ness in the middle which makes it seem like it’s missing something important. If you’ll allow me a baseball metaphor, it’s like a ball which is hit deep for a home run: First there is the initial wallop of the bat against the ball, then the crowd freeze, not sure if it’s hit hard enough or not, then they slowly rise, getting louder and louder as the ball hits a fans glove for a home run, and the cheer continues until the batter has returned to his dugout.

It’s a pretty good beer. But not spectacular. However, it was much more enjoyable than the Backstreet Boys’ attempt at the national anthem.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Pumpkin Ale Soup

This week, while I was drinking a new bottle of beer, I read the bottle and saw, to my delight, a recipe printed on the label. The beer was Pumpkin Ale, brewed by Badger, and the recipe is for a Pumpkin Ale Soup.

First the beer. It’s a gorgeous autumn beer; flame coloured, smoky and spicy. It’s warming like a bonfire with a rich aroma which almost becomes whiskey-like, there’s some earthy spice, a roasted-fruit sweetness and there’s a hint of a wheat beer about it. The mouthfeel is creamy and smooth and the taste is biscuity to begin then the earthy hops come trick or treatin’ with a vegetal sweetness. It’s a really good specialty seasonal.

So with the beer drunk in the week, I made the soup today. Now I love butternut squash soup (check out a brilliant recipe here) and pumpkin ain’t all that different. The beer bottle recipe is simple and precise, all squeezed into a few lines of small text. All that was asked here was to boil pumpkin and potato, then add it to onions, chili, garlic and curry powder, then pour in some stock, a glug of the beer and simmer before blitzing and serving. Easy as pumpkin pie.

I pretty much followed the directions, except I cut out the middle man and cooked the pumpkin straight in the stock, and I didn’t add potato because I got a big pumpkin. The result, unfortunately, were slightly disappointing. There was a bitterness which didn’t quite work and the soup was a lacking a sweetness. Perhaps I added too much stock, or perhaps I over-seasoned it, I don’t know. It was perfectly edible, don’t get me wrong, just not delicious. I tried adding cinnamon and honey as pumpkin-friendly flavours, but they couldn’t pull it together. I think butternut squash would be a better choice of veg as it’d add a rich, velvety thickness to the soup. One positive was that the beer itself worked very well with the soup; the warming, creamy-smooth beer and the hot spiced soup sparked off against each other nicely. I’ll probably try it again; I liked the beer so much I bought some extra for the cupboard.

And top marks to Badger brewery for this; I think it’s the first time I’ve seen such a thing on a bottle of beer.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

A 'New' Recipe Book

I am a bookworm, and one of my favourite things to do is walk around second hand book shops. Many of the books I own are secondhand - some of the copies are sharply new, while others are musty and yellowing with crumbling hard covers - but I buy them because each book carries its own story, and has its own history outside of the one printed on the page. There may be physical reminders of its previous life – smudges, tears, fingerprints, even a photo or receipt – or it may just carry the idea that someone, somewhere has looked over the words before me, but I find it all rather romantic and intriguing.

I never shop with a book in mind, but I am always interested in the old cookery books. Shopping this weekend, I found a book imaginatively called Cooking with Beer, written by Carole Fahy in 1972. The cover looks all of its 36 years and there are a scattering of pictures inside (one of lobster on a silver platter and another of a fondue, both classic 70s). This book is an odd one. As someone who likes to pair food with beer I am always interested in recipes actually containing the good stuff, so as soon as I found this book I picked it up and popped it under my arm. Later, sitting on the beach drinking a cool pint in the warm sun (perfection itself), I read through the book and, well, I never would’ve dreamt of so many recipes!

Firstly, the beer styles are separated into Pale Ale, Mild or Brown Ale, Stout and Sweet Stout, Old Ale and Lager. There are no mention of individual beers in the recipes, just whether one requires, for example, ½ pint of sweet stout, or 1 cup of lager. Many of the recipes are classics: carbonnade, stews and casseroles, a beer batter, beer bread and rarebits. None of these would be out of place in any cookery book, modern or old, and as timeless a drink as beer is, the recipes which feature it at their heart remain constant.

Then there are some more unusual recipes: melon in beer, the alliterate bass boiled in beer (apparently, ‘you will find white fish, shellfish or even oily fish – whichever is your favourite – more exciting when cooked in beer’), cassoulet, beer ratatouille, beer scrambled eggs, beer potatoes (potatoes deep fried in the beer batter), a lager salad dressing, and the intriguingly named cheese muff, beer puffs and English monkey.

But then there are the recipes which are, to put it politely, interesting: beer soup with milk (brown ale, milk, eggs, sugar, cinnamon lemon and salt), beer omelet, banana welsh rarebit, and then the dessert section which includes a cheesecake with beer and suggests in the intro to ‘try experimenting with a little light ale or lager poured over your own fruit salad mixture’ – lager and fruit?! Sounds like a cocktail to me!

It is quite some book I tell you, but a really interesting find and great to compare how current tastes have developed. I will try out some of the more unusual recipes - out of intrigue more than anything else – and report back. If this has whet your appetite for cooking with beer, then check out An Appetite for Ale by Will and Fiona Beckett, or jump over to Pencil&Spoon and check out some of my recipes and the beers I suggest to have with them. I’m off for an evening snack of party beer tomatoes (page 78 of the book) which directs as follows (I won’t give exact measurements, use your finer judgment): ‘Wash and thinly slice tomatoes. Arrange on a serving dish and pour over beer (a light ale). Sprinkle with parsley. Serve as a side salad.’


Monday, 13 October 2008

My Beery Weekend

I’ve had a long weekend of excess, spread across the south-east of England in London, Brighton and Whitstable. Lauren (my girlfriend and chauffeur) and I had some ‘us’ time, which generally means I walk around the shops with her and then she sits opposite me in the pub and pretends to be interested while I talk about beer.

The first London stop, post-tourist fun, was the Fox and Anchor in Clerkenwell. This is one of the best pubs I’ve been to in recent memory: large choice of perfectly kept beer served in shiny silver tankards (although these did affect the aroma of the brew and made it tinny); a quirky snaking shape which leads back into small booths; and a food menu which features pies and scotch eggs as bar snacks (I love bar snacks – they are, for me, one of the gauges of a good pub). I had a pint of Adnam’s Old Ale which really was a thing of beauty.

Next we visited the Gunmakers, the pub run by this blogger and a fellow member of the British Guild of Beer Writers. Customers were spilling out onto the street and inside was buzzing. My pint of Timmy Taylor’s Landlord was super. The food menu was stomach-rumble-inducing, but we had a dinner reservation to meet.

Dinner was at Comptoir Gascon, which is pretty much right slap-between the Fox and Anchor and the Gunmakers. It’s a French deli-come-bistro which was serving one of my utter favourite dishes sur le monde: cassoulet; thick and sticky with duck fat, creamy with the beans and full of juicy meat. Food to die for, literally.

London done, we moved on to Brighton and the pub of note was the Basketmakers Arms, a Fuller’s-tied house just off the hippie-chic-smoothie-lined streets. The beer couldn’t be better kept and their range featured almost all of the Fuller’s brews, plus two Gale’s beers (including HSB, which harks back fond memories of the pub quizzes at the Beehive Royal Holloway University) and an autumn seasonal called Red Fox (which was stunning and both red and foxy).

The sunny Sunday was spent by the sea in Whitstable. The main purpose was to walk off the excesses of Friday and Saturday, but I had ulterior motives as it is also home to one of my favourite pubs: the Whitstable Brewery Bar, which juts out onto the pebbled beach and serves the beer spanking fresh from the brewery (the oyster stout is magical).

The only downside to the weekend was missing X Factor (read: Cheryl Cole on X Factor).

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Pencil&Spoon - The Future

So Pencil&Spoon has been around for over a year now and I’ve decided to change a few things. From now on Pencil&Spoon will live its life as a ‘proper’ blog as opposed to a website. I don’t know enough about these computer thingies to keep up a website, so this is the future. The old stuff will remain because it’s taken a lot of finger-tip-tapping to get all that on there, and I’ll be honest, I’ve grown rather attached to it over the last year. Pencil&Spoon (the website, not the blog) is not changing and there’ll still be recipes, beer, tasting notes and food and beer pairing, just now there will be more of it in smaller, tasty chunks.

I also have another blog now (I’ve been busy and needed the P&S downtime to sort myself out a bit!), with the glorious address of It does have a pseudo of Fade Out Boy and this is me trying to become a screenwriter (I also talk a bit about beer over there).