Friday 29 May 2009

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale

Is there a better beer on a hot, sunny day? Does anything hit the spot quite like a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale? I don’t think it does. Does the perfect summer beer exist? If it does then I guess it’s quite close to this. You have to serve it cold. Drink it from the bottle if you like (but you’ll disturb that gorgeous moonscape at the bottom of the bottle - you can kind of see that below if you click on the pic and enlarge it) or pour it into a glass. It’s a golden glassful, the nose is juicy with citrus and tropical fruits, the body is all biscuits and toffee, the mouthfeel is spot-on and oh-so quenching with those nibbling hops. It isn’t challenging, it doesn’t demand you to pull out distant memories of forgotten flavours, it doesn’t want you to intellectualise it; it just wants to be drunk. Why do people drink cans of Carling when this is only a few feet further up the beer aisle? Sometimes only a beer like this will do. Sometimes only Sierra Nevada Pale Ale will do.
And have you tried their Torpedo Extra IPA? That’s one damn fine beer. It seems that Americans can’t drink an IPA unless it’s 7% so Sierra Nevada have made one. It starts with sweet malt, then the hops pound in, bitter first and then dry. Bread, caramel, pine, grapefruit. There’s something so addictively drinkable about this, it’s just ace.

Thursday 28 May 2009

'In The Bag' Broccoli and Blue Cheese Bombs

This is my first entry in the foodie blog-up ‘In The Bag’. It’s like ‘The Session’ for beer bloggers just with a bag of ingredients instead of a topic. Scott at Real Epicurean is hosting this month. It’s a super idea, plus it gives me a chance to try and infiltrate some beery words into the wine-dominated food spheres!

Now sometimes, as you’ll know, recipes just don’t turn out right first time. This is one of them. Luckily, getting things wrong lets us get it right the next time.

The idea: broccoli and stilton wrapped in parma ham and deep fried in a beer batter. Simple. It’s one of those perfect little pub snacks that’s warm and salty and rich and the ideal size for a couple of bites between big gulps of beer. And that was exactly what I wanted from this ‘In The Bag’: a beer-friendly treat.

Why didn’t it work? The little bombs start off great as you bite through light batter, through salty-sweet ham and into soft broccoli, then you chew and it’s good and then all of a sudden the fuse burns down and BOOM the stilton explodes, wiping out everything else with a wall of cheesy saltiness.

This BOOM was an issue.

But you know what? It gave me the chance to make it better. The cheese was the first change. I started with Colston Basset (the king of cheeses in my opinion!) but I replaced this with some much lighter choices and both Cambozola and Cornish Blue were excellent. I also had a counter-attack in the shape of a cherry beer. It was just a bottle of Liefman’s Kriek, the one you get from the supermarket that’s wrapped in red paper. The cherry beer was a triple attack: in the batter, in a chutney and in a glass to serve with it. This was a good move. The sharp-sweet, peppery-fruity beer swirls around with the creamy-mouldy-salty cheese and cuts perfectly through it, swaying between the salty and sweet. The chutney does the same thing – it balances the wallop of the cheese with some sweetness. And the batter was tweaked slightly too (first up it was pretty thick – it started too runny and then I over-corrected, so I found the perfect balance the next time). The beer also gives a great pinky-caramelised colour and a hint of extra sweetness (I also tried this with little fish fingers and it was gorgeous!).

To be honest this doesn’t require a proper recipe, it’s more of a compilation thing, just putting it together in the right order and then deep-frying. Make the beer batter by mixing plain flour, salt and beer (any beer is okay, preferably something with plenty of sweetness) until thick and creamy. Leave it in the fridge for a while, the usual routine, and get some oil on for deep frying (look here if you need more guidance on batter and deep-frying). Par-boil small florets of broccoli in water and allow to cool. Put a small piece of blue cheese with the broccoli and then wrap up in a thin strip of parma ham. Pop these parcels into the batter and then deep fry for a few minutes, until golden and crispy. That’s it, pretty easy.

The Onion and Cherry Beer Chutney was one of those throw-it-in-the-pan-and-mix-it-together jobs. I didn’t measure anything; it’s the simplest and laziest of condiments. But it was roughly the following (and it makes a jam jar full: four medium red onions, 50ml cherry beer, 50ml red wine/balsamic vinegar, 50g of sugar and a pinch of salt and pepper. Sweat the onions until super-soft and sweet, add the sugar, then the vinegar and then the beer and slowly warm it up (do it slowly or the hop bitterness will come through). Taste it after 15 minutes or so and then tweak according to taste. You know what chutney should taste like so make it like that.

So there we are. Broccoli and Blue Cheese Bombs. They were proper in-your-face first time around, but the improvements made these fun little things to eat, especially when lavished with that wicked Onion and Cherry Beer Chutney. And they don’t just work with the cherry beer, oh no. Cheese and beer belong together, the inherent malt sweetness and gentle carbonation lifts the fatty richness of the cheese. These Bombs are perfect for so many different brews: Wychwood’s Hobgoblin, Theakston’s Old Peculiar, Bath Ales’ Gem or Barnstormer, Fuller’s ESB, Worthington Whiteshield IPA, Meantime’s London Porter… A cider (not one that you serve over ice, for goodness sake) would also be a great choice.

Tuesday 26 May 2009

Brightwell Vineyard and a Few Bottles of English Wine

I don’t drink much wine. This is partly because I don’t know much about it and partly because I always have a fridge full of beer that needs drinking. When I was invited to go to a trip around a vineyard followed by a tasting I couldn’t resist (even though it was the same day as the Gillingham play-off final!). It was a blogger meet (and tweet) up arranged by Andrew at Spittoon and Spittoon Extra to celebrate English Wine Week. Also present were Helen from Food Stories, Niamh from Eat Like A Girl, Denise The Wine Sleuth and Jeanne from Cook Sister.
Having never been to a vineyard I didn’t really know what to expect. That was until I got there and it was exactly how you’d imagine it: rows of grapes arching across rolling green countryside. Brightwell Vineyard in Oxfordshire is where we went and it’s a gorgeous little place (the sunny weather helped!) which backs down onto the Thames. It was fascinating to see the different grape varities growing and learn more about the processes they go through, none of which I really knew about. They also have some really cute pigs. I love pigs.As I don’t know much about wine I was worried that I’d make a massive faux pas by saying completely the wrong thing (like trying a beer in front of the brewer and saying ‘it’s got a lovely buttery aftertaste’). I think I managed okay – beer and wine share many of the same flavour and aroma profiles. After the tour we tried five wines (check out Andrew’s blog here and here for much better tasting notes over the day). The Oxford Flint and Crispin were both a dry whites (a lot of whites are dry because there isn’t enough sun to make the grapes really sweet – I learnt that from Denise!), sharp and citrusy, although the Cripin was much fresher and easier drinking with lots of fresh granny smith apple flavour (good in wine, not so good in beer). Third was another white, Bacchus, which I thought had a really nice swaying balance between sweet and sharp with lots of peach and citrus, it also had a great, cheeky aftertaste of fruit salad penny chews. Fourth was Oxford Rosé which was full of cherry, raspberry and almond flavour and maybe even a hint of caramel (it was surprisingly like a lambic, for the beer guys). Finally we had Oxford Regatta, their red wine, and it was an unexpected hit: floral, spicy, pencil sharpenings, pepper, plums and the tang of blood. For me, the red was the best of the bunch.

After this we went back to Andrew’s place and a few more wines were opened. The best came from Davenport’s Vineyard. First there was Horsmonden, a dry white with a fruity nose of passion fruit, ripe tangerine, alphonso mango and fresh green peppers with the aroma following through to the palate. The other was the Limney Estate sparkling wine from Davenports. This was, for me and I think most of the others, the best wine of the day. It was yeasty and bready with lots of toasty oak and coconut flavour coming from the barrel fermentation. We followed this with Brightwell’s sparkling wine (which they didn’t open for us as part of the tour) and in truth the Limney smashed the Brightwell to pieces. Finally was a Balfour Rose with a nice peach, apricot, cherry and sweet coconut nose which didn’t quite come through so well in the mouth for me.
These wines were tasted alongside three cheeses and three gorgeous breads from a local deli. There was an organic brie from Simon Weaver’s Kirkham Farm (gooey under the rind and lovely), a Godminster vintage cheddar (so crumbly-rich and strong) and Cranbourne Chase Alderwood, a semi-soft cows’ milk cheese. Some of the matches were pretty good but as a beer and cheese maniac I couldn’t help but crave a nice bottle of Chimay Blue to go with these.

The most interesting thing over the day was how I picked out similarities between beer and wine in the aromas and flavours. For instance, some of the tangerine and tropical fruit aromas in the whites were very similar to good IPAs, the American oak aging of the Limney Estate sparkling wine gave off great coconut flavours that I’ve found in barrel-aged beers and the rosés both reminded me of a fruity-sharp lambic (I didn’t say this at the time though – Brettanomyces is not a sought after thing in wine!). This was a surprising find for me as I hadn’t ever thought of the two as parallels of each other. It also raises the question of why more people aren’t into beer as much as they are wine when there are these similarities…

I didn’t know what to expect from a day drinking wine (asides from getting a bit silly – that’s another thing beer and wine share!) but it was great fun and really interesting to try some English wines, something I knew very little about. I hope I managed to do the wines justice in my write up because I was pleasantly surprised by a couple of them and I’d want to drink them again. I enjoy wine but don’t know much about it so hopefully this will be the start of a new education for me. Now, is anyone up for a beer tasting?!

My camera packed in and wouldn’t work so I didn’t get many pictures. There are lots of pictures on Flickr though and you can check them out here and here and here (and yes, I did drink a can of super strong lager from the Spar on the train home!). The top two pics are mine. The group shot is Helen’s and the single wine is Andrew’s.

Sunday 24 May 2009

As-Live Tasting: BrewDog How To Disappear Completely

17.10pm. Evening all. It’s been a bloody lovely day here in Kent, I’ve just got back from Whitstable and now I want/need a beer. And it’s a new beer tonight – BrewDog’s How To Disappear Completely. A 3.5% imperial mild-slash-imperial IPA with a theoretical 198 IBUs. Yeah, 198!! This surely renders all hope of balance out of the question!?

17.14pm. It’s poured and the picture’s been taken. It’s darker than expected; a deep caramel colour. Time to get in there and see whether a superheroically bitter beer can work at 3.5%!

17.16pm. Wow, what a nose!! It’s an immense monster; a billowing tower of olfactory pleasure. The hops are properly condensed and turned up to way beyond 11. The first and most startling aroma is fresh tobacco and tea leaves; it’s a musty sweetness, intoxicating. Beyond that it’s grapefruit and tangerines roasted to just before burning point. There’s also caramel too, in a toasted sweet bread kind of way and possibly overcooked vanilla custard. It’s really something to dig your snout into.

17.19pm. Before I dive in, a word on balance. Balance in beer is good. It’s that delicate see-saw between sweet and bitter. Anything that tips the scales at either extremes loses some of its enjoyment, in my opinion. It’s pretty tough to get body into a 3.5% beer, and not that easy to get a heck of a lot of sweetness but it is easy to make it bitter by adding a lot of hops. What the hell will come of this beer?! I’m going in, watch yourselves tastebuds!

17.22pm. Oh my goodness… The words are in there but not coming out… need another mouthful… woah that’s HUGE! Bitter yes, but it’s got such a great mouthfeel (how much crystal malt did you use?!). It’s toasty grain for the smallest fraction of time before your tongue gets beaten into a hop submission. And it’s unabashedly unrelenting. It doesn’t roll in, it smashes in. It’s that super-condensed kind of bitterness, a tangy, clawing, fill your mouth bitterness. But I think it works…

17.26pm. I’m feeling a bit dizzy with that hop-induce fug of calm. This is another intoxicating brew from the furthest reaches of outer Scotland. It’s intoxicating because it flips your head inside out. It feels like 8.5% not 3.5%. It’s as bitter as a beer can go. And it’s got a roll-around-your-tongue thickness. Have you had Sierra Nevada’s Torpedo IPA? It’s like that in the mouth.

17.30pm. I just read the BrewDog blog about this beer and it was mash-hopped and first wort hopped, two virtually unheard of practices. The dry hopping was pretty epic too; 15HL of beer was abused by 20kg of hops! And it really does showcase the raw brutality of the hop in its most condensed form.

17.33pm. I said in a previous post that this is brewed with the same hops as Stone’s Ruination IPA (Columbus and Centennial) but that it’s half the ABV and double the bitterness. It doesn’t taste like Ruination IPA. It doesn’t taste like anything I’ve had before.

17.36pm. My Grandad, my Dad’s Dad, used to smoke a pipe. I remember going to his house and pretending to smoke it as a young boy. It had a very distinct smell. It was him, plus the pipe, plus its leathery case, plus the sweet flecks of tobacco. It’s a surprising olfactory madeleine; a re-enactment of 15 years ago and a memory which I didn’t know I had.

17.41pm. I’m listening to Radiohead’s How To Disappear Completely. It seems only right as that’s what the beer is named after. The combination of beer and song works strangely well in a juxtaposition kind of way; it’s a contemplatively haunting song while the beer is a 1,000 mile per hour hop rocket which makes you dozy. The lyrics have a haunting similarity too. Strobe lights and blown speakers, fireworks and hurricanes, I’m not here, this isn’t happening.

17.48pm. I’m fascinated by this beer. I love bitterness and its potentially innate physiological powers, which I wrote about here. It’s a beer which commands your attention; the fear is that it might just be able to kill you. But I like it (of course I do, it’s a BrewDog for goodness sake). I like how it has got just enough sweetness to make it drinkable and I love how it hovers just below the that’s-too-bitter threshold; it’s an unbalanced balancing act.

17.55pm. I can’t decide if I want another now or not? Half of me does (the pleasure-pain loving Id) and half of me doesn’t (the sensible side, the Ego). I can smell the barbeque from where I sit so I probably won’t; it’s possibly the least food-friendly beer I’ve ever tasted (remember the Hardcore IPA As-Live?). Just don’t bother having it with dinner unless it’s a meal you hate.

17.58pm. As the BBQ is getting nearer I think I’ll open a bottle each of 77 lager and Zeitgeist to eat with it. And if you didn’t read it, check out the latest food and BrewDog stuff that I did here (believe it or not it’s 77 and Zeitgeist with a BBQ!! – what a coincidence!). Oh yeah, you can buy How To Disappear Completely from the brewery here. Give it a try and let me know what you think.

Bonus Features... I also shot a video of me opening this beer which I have posted on my youtube channel. I’ll probably start uploading a few videos over there which I don’t put on this blog. There are some pretty cool video beer reviewers out there on youtube and they are worth a look.

Thursday 21 May 2009

Zephyr Let Loose

It’s out. Brace yourselves. BrewDog have finally set free the 750ml bottles of Zephyr. But be quick. There are only 100 bottles on sale in the UK and only 40 of them from the BrewDog website. Check out their blog here.

I can honestly say this is one of the most remarkable beers I’ve ever had. It has this amazing see-sawing quality between elegance and brute force and it has a depth unlike anything else: truly unique, a beer masterpiece. It also inspired one of my favourite blog posts.

It’s a beer which has got a big story (imperial IPA, whisky barrel, strawberries, time) and now that it’s been released we see that it’s got a big heart too: all the proceeds go to the RNLI. Nice one BrewDog. I think they could’ve easily cashed in on the rarity and brilliance of this beer but they are supporting a very worthy cause with it.

You can buy the beer here and it’s something that everyone who loves beer really must try.

Wednesday 20 May 2009

Carrot Cake and Beer

Cake and beer?! Cut the tomfoolery. Who wants a slice of cake with their beer? The two are so far opposed that it seems slightly ridiculous. You’ll want a cup a tea with that, you might shout. Well not me, naturally. I’ve made cupcakes with stout here and now I’m pairing beer with carrot cake, which is one of my favourite cakes ever, ever, ever.

I used to be all ‘eurgh’ about carrot cake during the years when I thought vegetables were evil (0 through 17, yeah honestly, even at 17 I didn’t like vegetables?!) but now it’s my birthday cake of choice. Last birthday I was eating it and had a beer on the go at the same time (I had a beer in my hand most of the day, naturally) and thought I’d see if it worked. And it was bloody amazing. I’ve been working on my cake recipe since (this is the best yet, all stick-to-the-roof-of-your-mouth gorgeous), trying it with a few different beers to see how it matches up and there are some great pairings.

The beer I had the first time up was Sam Smith’s Yorkshire Stingo. An 8% strong ale aged in oak. It’s rich and full flavoured, fruity and complex, chewy, full of toffee and roasted oranges and has a great creaminess from the barrel aging. And it just worked so well with the cake. My next experiment was with an IPA. BrewDog’s Chaos Theory stepped up (hence the bottle cap in the picture which came from this). The earthy spice and orange flavours in both the beer and the cake sing the same song while the big-hitting hops wipe the palate clear of all the thick cake texture. Awesome. Big, fresh and juicy IPAs, with lots of sweetness and lots of refreshing hops and their biting bitterness, are also brilliant. Ruination IPA should be great here or Meantime’s IPA, which would come from an earthier angle. I also think a decent barley wine would be great - Fuller’s Golden Pride, Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot, Anchor’s Old Foghorn. And maybe some strong stouts too, stouts with notable hop presence - Great Divide’s Yeti or BrewDog’s Coffee Imperial Stout.

Here she is. My wicked carrot cake recipe, which is delicious with or without the icing and will last brilliantly for a few days.

  • 300g grated carrots (about 4 really big ones)
  • 150g dark sugar
  • 150ml light/plain oil
  • 200g plain flour
  • 1 teaspoon each of bicarbonate of soda and baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon each of nutmeg, ginger, turmeric and salt
  • 1 teaspoon of cinnamon
  • 3 eggs
  • 100g chopped pineapple (tinned is fine)
  • Zest of one orange and juice of half

    For the icing:
  • 1 tub soft cream cheese
  • Juice of half an orange and zest of a whole orange
  • 50g icing sugar

Turn oven to 180C and butter a large cake tin. Mix all the dry ingredients together then add the eggs gradually. Stir in the grated carrot (squeeze out most of the liquid first) and pineapple and then add the oil and the fresh orange juice. Pour in to the cake tin and bake for around 60 minutes (or until a knife comes out ‘clean’ from the centre – it’s a very moist cake so just be patient and let it do its thing).

For the icing just mix all the ingredients together, adding more sugar if you want and then spread out over the top of the cooled cake. This is one juicy, moist and stodgy devil of a cake and I love it. And here’s something controversial… you don’t have to have it with a beer - I’m not completely beer-and-food-mental – a cup of tea really is a great choice too (I’m thinking we need a builders’ tea mild…).

Do you have any good cake and beer combos?

Tuesday 19 May 2009

When Video Beer Reviews Go Wrong...

I wanted to shoot a video of me opening the Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA. I wanted to do it at my girlfriend’s house - she has a great garden, it was sunny and I was going to be there for dinner anyway. While she was cooking I set up outside, trying to keep the dogs (she has three) inside. The dogs hadn’t been around for ages so I hit record. As you can see I stop talking soon after I start as one of the dogs, Jess, approaches. See what happens next (I only wish I had her in shot the whole time so you can see what I saw.)

She stood next to the full bottle and empty glass (a very nice glass it was too) and just kicked back with her right leg, shattering the glass!! I couldn’t believe it, as you can probably tell by my angry/worried face (my girlfriend’s going to shout at me!). Anyway, I cleaned up and then went and shot the video inside and was gutted that the beer was not as good as expected – the malt was super sweet and the hops had faded super fast into a dry, floral and pithy finish that was the shadow of what it could and should have been. Don’t you just hate that? Never mind, at least the dog didn’t kick the bottle over and break that, so I still got to try the beer. I hate to think what my reaction would’ve been if the dog had smashed the bottle! This is why I have a fish.

Sunday 17 May 2009

If I Were a Brewer...

…these are some of the fantasy beers that I’d want to brew.

A 4%ABV mild brewed with fresh cherries. Just because there aren’t enough 4% milds brewed with fresh cherries.

A 5%ABV oatmeal stout with a decently thick body, lots of chocolatey character and hopped with Santiam, Cascade, Crystal and a heck of a lot of Centennials. A chocolate orange bomb. I would also develop a 10%+ version of this.

A porter with peanut puree in, around 9%ABV, lots of toasty-bready-dark chocolate flavour and aged with fresh raspberries. Peanut butter, jam and chocolate sandwich in a glass. (And yes, I am aware of the Shorts Uber Goober beer which is similar to this and I really want to try it!)

Carrot cake beer. Somewhere between 6%-8%ABV, a malty base with lots of dried fruit sweetness (probably from the combo of pale malt and dark sugar), fresh carrot juice, some spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, clove), citrusy and earthy hops and fermented with a Belgian yeast.

A breakfast beer. Coffee oatmeal stout with blueberries, maple syrup and a smoky-savoury note from some smoked malts.

A quadruple-IPA. Super-strong and super-bitter (circa 15% and 150IBUs). Served with a teabag of more fresh hops in the glass for those who want even more bitterness (maybe I'd even develop a special dry-hop glass with a mesh compartment at the bottom to hold the hop bag).

A perfect lawnmower beer. 4%, best served ice cold and drunk from the bottle, a pale ale with plenty of sweet caramel and biscuity malt base and quenching citrusy-juicy hops. There should be so many of these beers around but I’ve yet to find one that I love.

I’d like to develop a mixing project quartet . They’d all be different (probably an IPA, stout, fruit beer and barley wine) called something exciting like 1, 2, 3 and 4 and the idea is that they're made to be mixed so that the drinker can create their own beers and experiment with mixing. For example, they might want to mix 1 and 4 to create a super hoppy barley wine, or maybe 2 and 3 to have a fruity stout. And if there were four beers to blend then there’s a lot of potential outcomes. Could be a fun and creative concept? And of course, the beers would work as single brews in their own right if the drinker didn't want to mix.

I’d perfectly combine Pliny the Elder and Ruination IPA to create Pliny the Ruinator!

As a homebrewer I would create perfect clones of some of my favourite beers so that I could drink them any time I liked. Or as a commercial brewer I'd want a regular range which included an IPA, a ‘house’ or best ale, a mild and a stout, with super-sized versions of all of them (for example, there'd be a 5% IPA and an 8% IPA, a 4% best ale and a 9% barley wine…), plus seasonals that include a Belgian-style ale, some barrel-aged experiments (including cherry brandy casks and calvados) and a fresh hop beer.

What would your fantasy (home)brewery make?

And if any brewery does any of these already then let me know. Or, if any breweries want to try these then go for it, just let me know when they are done so that I can try them!

Friday 15 May 2009

Eurovision Beer Contest 2009

So it’s Eurovision this weekend, a big old camp cheese fest of dodgy music, weird acts in strange costumes and political voting. It occurred to me three days ago that I should’ve held a Eurovision beer contest, taking 15-or-so Euro countries and finding a beer from each and having a little competition. Like a beer night but with slightly more co-ordination.

Anyway, I’ll try and remember to do that next year, but today let me ask you this: Of the European beer you have drunk this year (or beer from any of the countries competing in Eurovision – I mean Israel, seriously? European?! – also you can have England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as four separate countries instead of lumping them together as the UK), which gets Full Points and which gets Nil Point? In other words, which was the best and which was the worst. And, of course, where did it come from (this is about place as much as it’s about beer)?

Just one beer for each. It doesn’t matter whether it was an ultra-rare Belgian lambic, a pint of brilliant pilsner in the Czech Republic or just a nasty bottle of fizz from some obscure Eastern European country, it’s about that one great beer which stands out in your memory (and is therefore worthy of Full Points) or the one terrible beer that is blighting your memory (and deserves Nil Points).

Notes: Try not to plump for the obvious big name beers like Carling or Stella for the bad ones. And consider that it is a one-off rating, it doesn’t have to be the worst country overall, just the worst for one particular beer, because as we know, sometimes these countries put forward completely mental acts when I’m sure there must be at least one other person in their country who can actually sing.

Wednesday 13 May 2009

A Beer Night: Number Two

A few months ago we had a beer night and it was a proper riot. This weekend we had another. The main purpose, other than just drinking lots of good beer, was to open the mini-keg of Thornbridge Halcyon that I picked up from my brewery visit in March. The night was as before: we open a beer, drink it and give it a score out of ten. Yes, it’s a really simplistic and reductive way of marking beer but that’s how we do it. It’s only a bit of fun. Although it’s hard rating beer like that and far from scientific; it’s simply a reflection of what we enjoyed (or didn’t) on the night, scored by four guys with different tastes in beer.

This beer night was enjoyed by Me, Matt (who was with me on the brewery visit and co-owned the cask, and whose flat was ground control for the evening), Sean (who was also at the last beer night) and Lee (who wrote this fine piece about San Francisco and City Beer Store).

This is how the night went, in this order.

1. Sakara Gold. 4.0%
Egyptian lager brewed by a subsidiary of Heineken. Matt recently returned from a holiday to Egypt and brought a few beers back with him. This one was pretty nasty. Fizzy, soapy, bland. No distinct flavours. The sort of stuff which probably tastes great under the Egyptian sun but which tastes bloody shit in a basement flat in Camden.

Mark: 1.5
Matt: 3
Lee: 4
Sean: 4
Total: 12.5

2. Stella. 4.5%
No, not that Stella. This was another Egyptian bottle, presumably trying to cash in on the name of the other one. This is also brewed by a Heineken subsidiary and has apparently (according to the bottle) been brewed since 1897. You would’ve thought in that time they would’ve been able to make it taste of something. Nope. My notes read: ‘tastes the same as Sakara - maybe a nastier tang, maybe more sweetness’.

Mark: 1.5
Matt: 3
Lee: 4
Sean: 4.5
Total: 13

3. BrewDog Zephyr. 12.5%
I wanted to get this one in early before our palates started getting knackered. There’s not much more to say about this beer that I didn’t say in this post. It’s just incredible. Everyone was blown away by it. There is just so much going on in this beer that sharing a 330ml bottle between four was just not enough. It’s got biscuit grain, so much tart (a Cantillon-esque quality) and sweet strawberry flavour, loads of character from the whisky barrel (smoke, oak, vanilla) and the boozy ABV only comes through in the warm glow that it leaves behind. Just wow. Better than a fine Champagne. I can’t wait to see what a year or two does to this beer (which I accounted for in the marking by knocking of a ½ mark).

Mark: 9
Matt: 9
Lee: 7.5
Sean: 8.5
Total: 34

4. Adelscott. 5.8%
It’s one of those beers you see in France in cans or little stubby bottles. This one was from the can. If you remember Desperados from the last Beer Night then this is a fair equivalent (minus the Proustian feelings on my part). It’s a ‘whisky beer’ in the loosest sense. And it’s another Heineken brew. Ridiculous. A beer night and three of the first four beers are made by Heineken?! Anyway… this is super-sweet but some hints of bourbon (really?! bourbon?) are in there, mainly a nutty-cherry flavour. The beer has no finish. Pretty crap, although knocking back one is no problem.

Mark: 4
Matt: 4
Lee: 5
Sean: 5
Total: 18

5. Stone IPA. 6.9%.
This had been in my fridge for too long and I feared that it was going to be past its best. And it was, which was a real shame and the marks are no reflection on how good this beer really is. But that’s how beer nights work – you mark it on how good it tastes there and then. Tonight it was fairly sweet, plenty of the C-hop character was there, it was just dulled down and instead of its usual juicy, fresh bitterness at the end it was dry and piny and missing an oomph. Even though it wasn’t as good as it could be it still did pretty well.

Mark: 7
Matt: 7
Lee: 6
Sean: 6.5
Total: 26.5

7. Gadds’ Oyster Stout. 6.2%.
Sean and Matt’s local brewery and it’s the brewery which made them who they are. This is a great looking stout with milk chocolate, roasted grain and candy sugar in the nose. In the mouth it’s chocolaty, toasty and coffee-bitter at the end with a great earthy and oaty sweetness. I love this brewery and they are doing some excellent things. Eddie the brewer has a blog here and if I were to stick my neck out I’d say that Gadds’ brewery could be one of the next big things in British brewing (ssh, say it quietly…).

Mark: 7.5
Matt: 6.5
Lee: 8
Sean: 7.5
Total: 29.5

8. Mikkeller Beer Geek Brunch Weasel. 10.9%.
I picked this up at the Planet Thanet Beer Festival last month. I was there with Matt and Sean and thought I should share it. Crudely put, it’s brewed with coffee beans that have been eaten by, and then crapped out of, a weasel (here's the Mikkeller blog about the poo beans). You might think that Zephyr couldn’t be beaten? Well I’m going to go right out there and say something big: this is one of the best beers I’ve ever had. I absolutely loved it. It looks so sexy in black with a creamy, tan head. It’s all chocolate and coffee and earth in the nose. The body is smooth and rich and thick. It’s oaty and going savoury and there’s earthy-lemony hops at the end. There’s bitterness from the coffee and loads of dark chocolate. It’s so addictively drinkable. I am so glad that I bought two beers when I got the chance. Just mind-blowing.

Mark: 9.5
Matt: 8
Lee: 8.5
Sean: 9
Total: 35

9. Thornbridge Halcyon. Mini-keg. 7.7%.
What a superb beer this is and we had 9 pints of it to share. Lots of caramel beneath a huge floral, earthy, dry bitterness. For its strength it’s very easy drinking, balancing on that knife-edge between sweet and bitter, calling you back in for more sweetness to ease the bitterness. This beer is something special, but then everything Thornbridge do is mighty fine. Halcyon is Jaipur on steroids, as Kelly Ryan describes it here.

Mark: 8.5
Matt: 7.5
Lee: 7
Sean: 6.5
Total: 29.5

10. Thornbridge Halcyon. Bottle. 7.7%.
I wanted to try the mini-keg and bottle side by side to look for any differences. This bottle is the 2008 vintage green-hopped with Targets. It’s similar to the mini-keg just with more fruitiness and pine bitterness in the hop bite at the end. I got oranges, pineapple and tropical fruit in there on top of a big bitter kick and that sweet toffee base. The other difference that we felt between the two was that the bottle was slightly less bitter than the keg (the keg is dry-hopped and the IBUs are bumped up a few points) and fruitier. This is one great bottled beer. I really can’t wait until Thornbridge can get more bottles out when they move to their new brewery.

Mark: 8.5
Matt: 7.5
Lee: 7.5
Sean: 7
Total: 30.5

11. BrewDog Paradox Springbank. 10%.
Another fairly rare beer (to go with the Zephyr, Beer Geek Brunch Weasel and mini-keg of Halcyon), this was brewed for the Japanese market and only a small number were sold in the UK. It’s a great barrel-aged stout, chocolate, smoke, cherry and coconut. It’s earthy and packed with dried fruit. A proper good barrel aged imperial stout.

Mark: 8
Matt: 7
Lee: 7.5
Sean: 8
Total: 30.5

12. Meister Max. 8%.
Another Egyptian beer. For this I will simply type in exactly what my drunken notes say. ‘Boozy, ethanol, over-sweet, odd. Egyptian stuff of earlier plus more booze. Very undrinkable – not good. Too strong and not enough flavour. Stupid. (Heineken again).’ My favourite part is ‘stupid’ because it describes the beer so aptly. This was horrible. And considering the beers which came before it it was lucky to get the high scores that it achieved.

Mark: 1
Matt: 1
Lee: Missed this one as he had to get the tube home, no great loss for him.
Sean: 0.5
Total: 2.5/30

There we go, another little beer night enjoyed. We were trying to decide whether this one or the previous one was better for the beers but we couldn’t come to a decent conclusion. I think that the better few beers on each night were just so good that it didn’t matter about all the other ones in between. As a recap on this one, the top three were:

1. Mikkeller Beer Geek Brunch Weasel (the best shit beer in the world)
2. BrewDog Zephyr (the most complex beer I’ve ever had)
3. Thornbridge Halcyon Bottle (surprisingly the bottle just edges it, but neither Lee nor Sean are hop heads so preferred the less-bitter bottle) and BrewDog’s Paradox Springbank

These nights are great fun and we have plans for a couple more - one for a stout and dark beer night (probably when it gets colder) and one for a Belgian special featuring a battle royale between year-old versions of some classics. The best thing about these nights is that we always have a great time and get to share great (and some terrible) beers. Opening the beers, talking about them and enjoying them together has the ability to make a great beer that much greater. Beer is made for sharing, it's the most social drink in the world and there's nothing else like it.

Notes: we served everything in over-sized wine-glasses like total nonces and we opened the keg at the very beginning and drank it throughout the night. We didn’t rate dinner this time (for those interested, it was pizza from Somerfield and was average at best). And for the record, Sean wanted it known that he was massively hung over from the Reading beer festival the day before. Pussy.

Monday 11 May 2009

On Writing a Novel

You may or may not know that I’ve been trying to write a novel. I started in January (this year) and I finished the first draft in the middle of April. Now I’ve got the formidable task of editing. The from-the-heart free-flowing creativity is over and I’ve got months of the from-the-head think-like-a-reader/publisher and make-it-as-good-as-you-can objectivity. It’s where I make sure that I’ve chosen exactly the right words in exactly the right order. And I need to do all of this without losing the essence of the piece, the heart of it. I don’t want to make it a science project; it’s a work of creativity, a piece of love.

It is my routine to get up and write in the morning before work. In those two hours at my desk with a cup of coffee I am taken to a different place and time; I am here in body but there in mind. The story plays like a movie in my head.

I planned the story for a couple of months before starting. I worked out who my main characters were and I started to get to know them (although it was only when they started living in the actual piece that I fully knew them). I decided what was going to happen, where and how (although things changed on the way to THE END), I worked out the best tone and voice, I did some research and I spent about three days trying to decide on the main characters’ names (names often take me ages to choose). Yet I still surprised myself with the things that happened. I had times where I was so excited that I couldn’t physically type quick enough to keep up with my imagination. The ending was planned to be in one place but it turned out that it took place somewhere else and the final ‘battle’ was both fiercer and more delicate at the same time, more emotional and moving, harder hitting. These things, the actions you didn’t plan or anticipate, can be very exciting.

I’ve started on the editing now and this morning I re-read one of the scenes which was a favourite to write. It honestly hit me deep inside when I read it back. I created that. It found the exact right tone and pace and emotion. And the final line of the chapter is just perfect. I was pretty proud with that. And the astounding thing is that when I re-read these things I have no idea how I created them or where they came from. It’s a mystery.

But writing is such an up-and-down kind of thing. Sometimes everything flows better than you can ever hope and you get the highest of rushes, a surge of happiness and excitement that can last for hours. Those ‘wow, did I really create that?’ highs are worth all the lows. And there are plenty of lows. The days when your fingers just won’t do anything. When your creativity is a vacuum. It’s the self-doubt, the ‘what’s the point’, the ‘this is shit’ (Hemingway - who I named my goldfish after for inspiration - said ‘Every first draft is shit’, so that’s some comfort.)

But I cannot not write. That’s why I keep this blog, that’s why I get up stupidly early every morning, that’s why I’m writing this now. Writing is like an addiction. But the creative process constantly fascinates me. The way ideas are generated (literally five minutes ago I thought of a new way to develop an idea I’m working on – I’m pretty excited by this little burst of inspiration already…), the way ideas develop, how the story forms on the page and how powerful words can be.

I truthfully don’t know if what I’ve got is any good or whether it is something that could sell. There’s a lot of work to do and lots of changes to be made. I need to work on character a lot, motivation, emotional drive, the whys and hows. I’ve got lots to do on the voice and tone. I need to make everything believable. I need to make an essentially bad character and his actions sympathetic. I probably need to do a lot more research, maybe talk to some experts about some of the stuff I’ve written about (I probably should have done more of this a few months ago rather than relying on an over-active imagination and wikipedia). I’ve got pages of notes to wade through and interpret and use. I also want to cut the words down and just make it sharper, cutting the flab. ‘Art is the elimination of the unnecessary’ said Aristotle.

Here’s to a few months (hopefully not years…) of hard editing and objective thinking (the plan is a quick edit followed by a few weeks away from it completely and then a comprehensive edit). I can’t wait to read it all the way through to see what I’ve really got. And if it’s no good and no one wants to publish it (a grueling task that I’m really not looking forward to!) then I’ve got my next few ideas ready to be worked on, including one based around a brewery…

I am aware that this post isn't about beer. I just fancied putting up something a little different. Plus I wanted to try and document part of the writing process for me and maybe learn about how other writers associate with their own pieces. If you come here expecting beer today then I'm sorry, but I will tell you that I had a simply glorious glass of Stone's Imperial Russian Stout in The Rake on Saturday. That is one helluva beer and if my story were to be likened to any beer out there then I think that could be the one.

Sunday 10 May 2009

Asparagus Risotto

My asparagus binge continues and I’m cashing in while I can. Last weekend it was in a risotto, something I love to cook and eat - it’s spoon food and spoon food is what I like best. This recipe is nothing fancy, nothing complicated, just flipping delicious.

As with the previous asparagus recipe, it goes with a decent range of beers. Zak Avery tried a similar risotto paired with Sneck Lifter which seemed to go really well (I couldn’t find the beer when I was shopping). I served two beers with mine to see if either worked - Bath Ales’ Gem and He’Brew’s Bittersweet Lenny's RIPA (these were just the beers which I planned on opening that night, they were not chosen by design). Neither were any good so don’t try them - Gem was too malty-sweet, RIPA too citrusy and hoppy (check out the link to the beer above though if you're interested in brewing as they put the beer recipe on there). Ideally I’d have earthy IPAs with this; Meantime, White Shield, Downton’s. Or maybe a wheat beer, something oaty and smooth with some nice clove and citrus spiciness; St. Austell’s Clouded Yellow, Sierra Nevada’s Wheat/Kellerweis or Anchor’s Summer Beer. What makes all the difference in this dish is the addition of cream cheese at the end which makes it so rich and creamy and smooth and unctuous and acts as a wicked bridge across to the beer, and we all know that beer loves cheese.

Asparagus Risotto

The stuff you need for 2 hungry people

  • Risotto rice, 350g
  • Asparagus, 12 or so fat spears
  • Stock – chicken or vegetable, 1 litre
  • Onion, finely chopped
  • Garlic, 2 cloves
  • Butter and oil
  • Pack of cream cheese (full fat is best, calorie-schmalorie)
  • Strong, hard cheese (I used Lincolnshire Poacher like I did for the last asparagus recipe, parmesan is also good)
  • Lemon juice

Prepare the asparagus by peeling the lower halves and add the peelings into the stock which is simmering on the hob. Chop the asparagus and fry in a little butter and seasoning (I usually cut a few small rings, 2mm-ish thick, off the end of each spear and set aside to fry with the onion and garlic). When almost cooked remove from the pan and place on a covered plate. Into the pan add the finely chopped onion, the little rings of asparagus and some more butter and a little oil. When this is soft add the garlic, stir for a minute or two and then add the rice. Most packets tell you 50g-75g per person. This is rubbish. I use 150g-200g of rice per person (but then I like my portions BIG). Anyway, stir this until it snap, crackles and pops in the pan and then add the stock bit by bit, making sure that none of the peelings get in the rice. Keep adding stock until it’s cooked, which takes about 20 minutes. Then add the almost-cooked spears and some cream cheese, about 40g-50g per person will do it. Then just add the hard cheese, the juice of half a lemon and leave it for a moment to relax and then serve in a deep bowl and eat with a spoon.

Brilliant. I love this. It’s a taste of spring, just so asparagusy and cheesy; tummy-filling, uplifting, fresh and heart-warming all at the same time. That’s good eating.

Friday 8 May 2009

If you had to...

Sandwiches are probably my favourite food group. This If you had to… is dedicated to the glory of the sandwich, which is one of the best things there is to go with a beer.

For me, a sandwich works for any meal, at any time. This is a trait that it shares with bowls of cereal and slices of cheese on toast; they are all any time foods. Sandwiches can be savoury or sweet, hot or cold. They are the perfect use for anything leftover. In fact, there are few things which can’t be made into a sandwich. Seriously, think of anything and then think of it in between two slices of bread… it just kinda works universally.

But, If you had to... choose only one sandwich to eat for the rest of your days then what would it be?

You can have any sandwich you like and you can have unlimited quantities of it, but you can only choose one.

Wednesday 6 May 2009

Plin Love

Just a midweek quickie about a brief love affair I had with a gorgeous Californian babe. I’ll never forget her. Although I’ve heard that her Younger sister is pretty tasty too...

Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger were top of the ‘I want these beers’ list I gave to my mate Lee when he went to San Francisco. To my supreme delight he managed to get me a Pliny the Elder and soon became my hero. I opened the beer a few weeks ago and oh-my-goodness let me tell you this: it was one of the finest beers I’ve tasted.

It’s 8%ABV with a deep gold colour and a beautiful oh-so alluring aroma-vault of juicy citrus, tropical fruit, pine and grapefruit pith. The balance over the palate is what makes this beer special: it’s so fruity and this dives quickly into the bitterness - the sappy dryness of pine, loads of citrus, loads of tropical fruit - but beneath all of this freshness is a huge malty base of biscuit, bread and caramel; a sweet buffer for all that quenching and clinging bitterness. It’s so smooth to drink too. Fizz pisses me off and I have a low threshold for it, but this was just brilliantly, elegantly clean. My tasting notes are peppered with superlatives, ending with ‘an amazing beer’.

While we’re here, Pliny the Younger is currently the 2nd best beer on the BeerAdvocate best of list (PtE has risen up to number 8! And PtY is pretty high up Rate Beer's best too). Of course this is because so many drinkers have rated it so highly, but why is that? It can’t just be because it’s such a good beer, can it? Look at the rest of the list (Westvleteren 8 and 12, some Dark Lords…) and you’ll see a mystique surrounding a lot of the beers. But why PtY? Well, I read over at The Beer Nut’s place, in this post, that the Younger was only released on draft this year. Ah, now I see why. This means that drinkers have to go in search of it which instantly raises their anticipation of it (hunter-gatherer style) – it is coveted. Add to this that the hype is already huge (the hype is very affecting) and the fact that an 11% IPA is going to leave you feeling pretty happy (the fun-time/drunkenness/remember-the good-stuff-and-make-it-better proportional scale) and I think you get the drift. Although, if it’s anything like the Elder - only better! - then I totally get why it’s there in that position.

Oh, and I also got Russian River’s Blind Pig IPA. A 6.0% beauty along the same lines at the Elder. It’s a glass of orange, pine and grapefruit, fresh and juicy but dry and bitter. The malt isn’t in-your-face which means it isn’t cloying, but it still has a mouth-filling thickness which is addictively moreish. It doesn’t get top billing in this post but it’s still a super beer.

I really hope Russian River start shipping beers to the UK soon…

Monday 4 May 2009

Ode to Zephyr

I’ve been waiting for months. Desperate to try it. The idea put me in a whirl. An IPA, 12.5%. Whisky casks from 1965. Fresh strawberries, tart and sweet. Time. I wanted it. I needed it.

I finally got it.

Sentences are redundant with this beer. Unnecessary. Frivolously time consuming. It promises a zephyr and you get the cool breeze of elegance. Have I ever had a beer with so much going on? Will I ever again? Complexity is too weak a term. Complex squared. Each sip is a cotton candy minefield, a padded spike, a punch and a kiss. It defies language. It twists your mind. A dirty secret. A dichotomy.

A zephyr. A hurricane. A beautiful dance between the two.

Golden pink. Strawberries. So many strawberries. Biscuits. The finest champagne you’ve tasted. But better. There’s more going on. A lot more. It’s an IPA. It’s got hops, but only just. They linger in earthy, oaky dryness. A whisky barrel. The strength hides until the end. A warm afterburn. How many other things? It’s a challenge. More with each sip. A rollercoaster. A rare moment when beer is more than beer. Tart strawberries. Sweet strawberries. Vanilla. Smoke. Coconut. Oak. An unmissable creaminess. Electric carbonation. Wood. Fresh fruit. Will it get better? What will happen to this masterpiece in a few years? Will it grow bigger, better? Will it mellow and sweeten? Could it develop more complexity? Complex to the power of three? I must have another. Dare I open it? Maybe I should save it. Can I wait? The big bottles come soon. I’ve been waiting for it.

Once is not enough.

It’s a work of organic art; so many variables placed together at their own mercy and given time. What if…? Is it magic? Is it fate? Free will verses determinism. Layers of life, of history, left in the end to create itself and rise into something new. Something even more complete than its glorious parts. A work of art packaged inside another work of art. Something incredible.

This post was in part inspired by this wonderful piece at Impy Malting. The beer kind of does this to you. It has a magic all of its own. And look closely at the picture. My tattoo says it all.

Friday 1 May 2009

The Session 27: Beyond the Black & Tan

"The whole mixing thing opens up a new sphere of beer drinking, a realm of creativity for the drinker to play brewmaster - a bonus level for the extreme beer fan". I wrote this a few weeks ago in a vblog about mixing beers. In this I blended Fuller’s ESB with their Golden Pride to create a Peacemaker. And it was pretty good. But I am unconvinced by mixing beers, yet still I’m curious about the possibilities.

For this month’s Session (hosted by Beer at Joe's), which asks us to look beyond the Black & Tan, I wanted to try something I’ve been thinking about for a while - mixing a strong stout with a cherry beer. I had a bottle of Sam Smith’s Cherry beer that’s been lying around for ages (too long - it was a year past the drink by date!) and was going to be used in the kitchen. I also had a Guinness Foreign Extra in the cupboard so I thought, ‘hey, why not?!’ I wanted to pour it so that there was a divide between the two liquids, or at least a blending of colour from black down to red. I’ve seen and done this before in a bar where I used to work. This mixed (in a truly hideous cocktail) a clear, citrusy alcopop with Guinness. If it’s poured correct (over the back of a spoon) it stays as two very separate colours in the glass and looks amazing (like this), even if it tastes like hell. Here’s the video of me pouring it and tasting it.

As you can see, my pour didn’t work out perfectly but there was some difference in colour between top and bottom (I think the carbonation in both may have encouraged the two to come together more willingly, I’m not sure - I think the nitro Guinness was better for sitting on top of the alcopop than the bottled stuff). But how did the beer taste? Well, it was ok. The first few mouthfuls were interesting but fairly good, lots of cherry, a little sourness, roasted notes, vanilla and chocolate bitterness. As I drank on it got more and more cloying and to be honest it had this weird tangy astringency (maybe the year too-old beer was to fault?!). It could’ve worked and I think a 70-30 blend, top heavy with Guinness (or another strong, thick stout) could be great.

So another interesting mix. It didn’t work as well as I’d hoped in terms of the way it looked or the way it tasted, but it was worth trying. And that was the purpose of this Session - to try something new. As for my thoughts on this mixing beers game? I’m still sceptical but I won’t give up just yet.