Thursday, 29 January 2009

RipTide Ice Cream and Cupcakes

Beer with dessert is the finest way to end a meal and there are so many great matches out there: stout and strawberries, cherry beer and chocolate, barley wine and blue cheese, massive IPA with mature cheddar... Sometimes it can be a challenge (a fun challenge) to get a really great match without overpowering either dinner or drink, but when you get it right it can be awesome. For these recipes the beer was an essential part of the dessert.

I made these with BrewDog’s RipTide and it's a fantastic beer to use. It's rich, strong and packed with chocolate and coffee flavours which means that it’s got plenty of character to shine out and not get lost in the baking or the freezing.

The ice cream is glorious; it’s thick and creamy and it has this absolutely perfect depth of chocolate from the stout. It really is stunning. The cupcakes are light, moist, chocolatey, chewy. The best things about both of these treats are; 1) you can make the ice cream and the cakes at the same time, from just one 330ml bottle of stout; 2) they taste great together, especially if the cakes are still warm, or are delicious on their own; and 3) my girlfriend - who hates beer - absolutely loved both of these. That shocked me and made me smile - I finally won her over with beer, even if it was in dessert form. I challenge anyone who ‘doesn’t like beer’ to not like either of these.

If you wanted to use another beer then I’d suggest a fairly robust stout full of roasted grain flavours, rich, sweet and strong, but not overly hopped (too much hop bitterness in the ice cream leads to a dry tannic finish, which is odd). I reckon Thornbridge’s St Petersburg Imperial Stout would make incredible ice cream, as would Samuel Smith’s Imperial Stout and Oatmeal Stout or the Foreign Extra Guinness. I tried making the ice cream with BrewDog’s Isle of Arran (10% imperial stout aged in whisky casks) and that worked well, just use less beer to compensate for the extra ABV strength. I really want to try an IPA ice cream, probably with fruit juice added to sweeten the hop bitterness, I just don’t know if it’ll work?! There’s only one way to find out…

One note before we jump in. The beer should be poured and rested before you cook with it. You don’t want it cold and you don’t want bubbles in it.

RipTide Ice Cream

I favour the simple approach to ice cream which avoids any of the worrying custard making. I just use condensed milk and double cream and it’s perfect every time.

  • 400ml can condensed milk
  • 1 pint double cream
  • 150ml-200ml stout
  • Splash of vanilla extract

Mix the milk and cream and add the vanilla and 150ml of the beer, stirring it all together. Give it a taste. You’ll get all the sweet roast grain flavours in there and if you think it needs more beer than add more – make it to your taste (bear in mind that once the ice cream is frozen the flavours will be less pronounced, so don’t err on the side of caution). Next just churn it in an ice cream machine. It goes from nought-to-frozen in half an hour, but you may need to give it extra time in the freezer to set it hard, depending on your machine. And that’s it.

RipTide Cupcakes

Makes 12

The cupcakes:

  • 125g softened butter
  • 100g dark sugar
  • 100g caster sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 175g plain flour
  • ¼ teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 150ml stout
  • 50g cocoa powder
  • 50g dark chocolate

The icing:

  • Tub soft cream cheese
  • 25g icing sugar
  • 25g cocoa powder
  • Drop of vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 180C. Cream the butter and sugar. Add the eggs and beat in. Fold in the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and salt and stir together. Add the stout bit by bit and work it in to make a thick batter. Grate the dark chocolate into this batter. Pour the mix into muffin cases and bake for 18-20 minutes.

When they are done allow them to cool while you make the icing. Do this by mixing the tub of cream cheese (low fat is fine) with the icing sugar, cocoa powder and vanilla (the cocoa powder isn't strictly essential if you don't fancy a chocolatey icing). Taste it and add more of each if required – you want it just sweet but not sickly and overpowering. These cakes are great without even adding the icing.

The best beer to serve with this? That’s obvious; the beer you cook with. RipTide is ideal as it’s got the perfect oomph of strength to stand up to the sweetness in each (it’s especially good with the cakes). You will want a big strong beer because if you’ve been making little cupcakes all afternoon and there’s flour in your hair/beard then you will need something to toughen you up again. Enjoy.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Cool Beer Ad

I just saw this commercial over at Hop Talk for Heineken. Check it out there or follow this link to youtube. It isn't English, but it's universal in it's message. It's very funny!

His fridge looks a bit cold to me though - it's going to give his bottled conditioned beers a bit of a chill - and where's his cellar?!

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Guilt-Twinged Beer Hoarding

I keep my beers in three places: a box for the ones that I can/will drink at any time - ‘standard beers’; a cupboard of beers which I don’t have ready access to, rare beers – ‘special beers’; the other place is a special cupboard for vintages.

The vintage cupboard and the box are fine. They don’t bother me because the box I can raid at any time and the vintages I won’t touch yet. It’s the other cupboard which gets me the most. In there are the beers which I most want to drink, but they are the ones which I am most reticent to open. I suffer from a worrying complex. I fret about it. I place the beers in there excitedly, knowing that I’ll open them soon, but once they get in there I get scared. It’s like stage-fright. I take a bottle out every now and then, I look at it, I read the label, I think about it, then I put it back. I often choose a beer from the box when one from the cupboard is what I really want. I’m afraid of it, in a strange kind of way. I feel guilt.

I’m worried that I’ll love it and won’t be able to get another or, conversely, that it’ll underwhelm and disappoint. I use the ‘it’ll improve if I leave it another month’ line. I think that today is just not special enough to open a ‘special beer’. And I just like seeing the bottle in the cupboard as part of the ‘collection’. It’s a terrible affliction.

Am I alone in this guilt-twinged beer hoarding?

Friday, 23 January 2009

It's Friday and I'm Thirsty

It's Friday afternoon and the weekend is so close, but I'm still in work and all I can think about is the first beer tonight.

I'm planning on opening a Stone Oaked Arrogant Bastard ale first, but I've also got a craving for something dark. This craving stems back to a few beers which I've had in the last week which have all been excellent - Thornbridge Brewery's St. Petersburg Imperial Stout in The Rake (Borough Market), Orkney Brewery's Dragonhead Stout in the Market Porter (also Borough Market) and a Theakston's Old Peculiar in The Gunmakers (Clerkenwell - Stonch's pub). I can still taste the St. Petersburg now and am seriously craving something dark, chocolatey, thick and rich.

I have a thirst that needs slaking.

Speedball Update...

BrewDog have written a response to the Portman Group's ruling on Speedball. It's a great piece, sharp and vindicated, intelligent, clearly fueled with anger and disappointment.

Hopefully the beer will re-emerge under the same guise as its American-self - Dogma - and go on to sell enormous volumes in the media debacle that has raised it into infamy.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

BrewDog Speedball

BrewDog’s Speedball has been banned by the Portman Group. There are stories here and here if you want to read them. Here’s the Portman Group press release.

It’s about drugs. Did you know that a Speedball is a potentially lethal cocktail of cocaine and heroine? I didn’t until I went to wikipedia. It’s dangerous because cocaine raises the heart rate and heroine slows it down. It sounds pretty crazy to me. As a sensible, law abiding, Englishman of 24 with a decent education and a job and a car and a girlfriend and two pet fish and a love of good beer I consider myself fairly normal. There is no way I would ever inject myself with cocaine and heroine. That’s insane.

I will however happily drink a beer that has the same name, a beer which contains guarana (a tropical berry full of caffeine, thought to increase alertness and mood), kola nut (a stimulant) and California poppy (California state’s flower and a mild sedative). Plus the natural depressant qualities of the hops and the alcohol in the beer. It’s fast/slow, it’s different, it’s unique, it’s provocative, it’s BrewDog.

The attack is not on the beer itself. It is on the naming and marketing of it. BrewDog is a brand and we recognise them because they have built up such a great brand image. It’s what makes them who they are. They are punks. This is a punk rock beer. It’s a punk rock craft beer, which is sold at a premium price at specialist retailers. The type of person who buys this kind of beer – I may be over-generalising here – is educated in beer, is interested in good beer, is willing to pay the price for it and (most importantly) is not going to associate it with a killer cocktail. This sort of beer can not be considered alongside a standard premium lager; they are very different beasts aimed at massively different markets.

So what it has drug connotations? So what it’s called a ‘Class A Strong Ale’? And yes it was probably designed to get this kind of response (that’s good marketing), but so what? Let’s not forget that alcohol is a drug itself. And hops are related to cannabis (and have you ever had Cannabis beer? I have). We know alcohol is a drug and we make the conscious decision about whether or not we want to put it inside our bodies. We make our own mind up. We are not forced to drink it.

I think the Portman Group are silly. Why are they punishing an exciting young brewery for being provocative? Why are they punishing individuality? Does the beer glamorise (or even mention) the Speedball cocktail? And does it make you want to inject yourself with cocaine and heroine? If it does then it is you that needs to be taken off the shelf, not BrewDog.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Thornbridge Brewery

Yesterday I met Stefano and Kelly from Thornbridge Brewery. It was a meet the brewer event held and arranged by lovebeeratborough. Basically, we beer fans turn up and get to listen to the chaps from the brewery talk about their beers while we sit there drinking them. It was brilliant fun!

Thornbridge Brewery’s tagline is ‘Never Ordinary’ and I like that; it’s fun, playful, open, experimental, forward-thinking. Hearing these guys talk about their beers, enthusing passionately, eloquently, intelligently, articulately, is fascinating. They are more like rock-stars or movie-stars, with their good-looks, cool dress sense and long, dark hair, than they are brewers. Stefano, the Head Brewer, is Italian and has this shy-blasé-cool thing going on, he’s softly spoken but everything he says I want to listen to. And Kelly, the Production Manager, a New Zealander, is like a mate you haven’t met yet, instantly friendly and a guy you’d love to sit down with and ’chat beer’ for hours. Seriously, these guys make the whole science of brewing super sexy and they know so much; they speak the language of beer like poets.

The first beer we tried was Seven Heron, a 3.8% pale golden ale created by Melissa Cole (a partner with LoveBeer and a cool beer writer). The beer is light and quenching with plenty of nibbling hops to finish. A good way to ease us in to the sampling session.

Next came Jaipur, their most known beer and a quality drop. It’s a 5.9% IPA hopped with Chinook, Centennial and Ahtanum. There’s a big malty base beneath the biting hops, with lots of grapefruit and tropical fruits. I’d had the bottled version which was ‘softer’, fruitier and more buttery caramel malt, but the cask stuff was super. Jaipur is one of the best British IPAs around right now (Punk IPA, Meantime and Skrimshander are up there for me too). They call it dangerously drinkable and have even verbalised the name - I am Jaipured – as an expression of drunkenness.

A special edition of Halcyon, a very gluggable 7.7% IPA, followed. It was a 2008 vintage of a new idea at Thornbridge (the idea, if my fuzzy head remembers correctly, is to take the big base of Halcyon and add a different hop to it each year creating a vintage which shows off the qualities of that individual hop and the hops’ terroir). This beer is wet hopped with Green Hereford Targets (there’s some Derbyshire Fuggles in there too and they use a Belgian yeast) and was fantastic; unbelievably fresh with citrus fruits and strawberry aromas, biscuity malt and then great aromatic hops.

Things stepped up from here and went into awesome mode. The chaps brought out Alliance, an 11% strong ale which was only bloody brewed with beer mega-star Garrett Oliver! But they didn’t just bring one, there were three… The normal Alliance; one which was then aged for another two months in Pedro Ximinez Spanish oak casks; and one that was aged for three more months in American oak casks which previously held Madeira. We had them in a vertical-style tasting and that was insanely good. The base beer is stunning, fruity and bold; the sherry cask took on a dried fruit quality and a big richness; the Madeira cask was nutty and full of juicy stone fruits. Matt, my date for the event, loved the original one best, while I was torn between the other two, changing my mind with each sniff and sip of the gloriously intoxicating beers. This was an incredible and unique experience and fascinating to see how barrel-aging imparts its own characteristics. Wow-inducing.

We valiantly continued. Next came Handel which was around 6% (I don’t remember the specifics; I was already reminiscing about the Alliance) and created in collaboration with a young American girl who visited the brewery to try her homebrew on a larger scale. This was another special beer, a one-off. It had all the qualities of a Belgian beer with the spicy fruit aromas suggesting it’ll be thick and syrupy, but it’s actually wonderfully light and drinkable, surprisingly so. It’s a Euro-American mix and a damn good one.

One more. And it ended with a bang: Bracia. I had tried this the week before and adored it. It’s 9%, thick and dark, brewed with Italian chestnut honey (which is surprisingly bitter) and bottled conditioned with Champagne yeast. This is one of the best looking beers I’ve seen in ages with its deep brown head (excuse the poor picture quality; I was in such lusty admiration of the beer that I had to hurriedly snap it). It has amazing aromas of chocolate and honey, loads of nuts and coffee. My tasting notes from home even features the word Pfwoar! There’s a load of dark chocolate in the mouth, bitterness, some berries, smoke and a hint of something zingy and fresh. It’s boozy and strong, rich and complex and there’s a fascinating earthy/beefy/savoury note which will make it a brilliant match for chocolate desserts.

And that was that. We stayed around after chatting to Stefano and Kelly which was great. They are so friendly and approachable and hearing them talk about their beer is brilliant; they speak with pride and love and their enthusiasm is contagious. It’s fascinating to hear about the brewery and their set-up, the way they have progressed and the way they think as brewers. They stand behind the terms ‘Innovation’, ‘Passion’ and ‘Knowledge’ and spending just two hours with them and their beers, these terms shine through: when you hear about it from these guys, beer is not just beer, it’s a whole lot more than that.

Afterwards we went down into the Rake to drink some more of their beers (they are on tap in there all week so make sure you hurry down, if not you can buy their stuff from Utobeer in Borough Market). Between us we had a Seven Heron (lovely), a Halcyon (fantastically drinkable, big), Jaipur (much hoppier off cask compared to the bottle, but brilliant for that reason) and we were lucky enough to grab a cheeky half of Saint Petersburg Imperial Stout (7.7%) which was mind-blowing: rich and creamy, smoothly chocolaty, just gorgeous.

Then I had to go home and I left for the train suitable Jaipured. Thank you Thornbridge and LoveBeer, I had a fantastic time.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

As-Live Tasting: Belgian Style Triple Ale

20.10pm. This is an as-live tasting of the Belgian Style Triple Ale which is a collaborative brew between Stone Brewing Co., Mikkeller Brewery and AleSmith Brewery.

Basically I decided to open a beer tonight and thought I’d write my notes straight into the computer and publish them right now, unedited.

Allow me to set the scene: Location, Location, Location is on in the background (I love Kirstie Allsopp) and I’m at my desk. The beer is downstairs. I do currently have better things to be doing, but I’m feeling lazy and I want a beer. Let’s go!

20.13pm. Beer opened and poured, photo taken and back to desk.

20.14pm. Pale gold colour, not a massive head and few bubbles. Aromas of bread and oranges; an oaty-ness; subtle spice; citrusy fruit developing with more oranges, maybe lychee too. Some booze.

20.16pm. Let’s drink! It’s so smooth and creamy (there must be oats in it?), feels way below its 8.7% ABV and it’s light. Loads of malt; clove spiciness; toned-down American-style hoppy finish; orange pith and peel. The booze is coming through more now.

20.20pm. I’m reading the bottle… It has a tag-line of ‘Triple the Breweries, Triple the Brewmasters, Triple the beer…’ That’s pretty cool. The whole concept is good; I like it. These are three of the most forward and progressive breweries in the world so a collaboration is really interesting.

20.22pm. I’m distracted by Kirstie Allsopp.

20.24pm. I get back to the beer. More fruit comes through now and it’s more mellow, creamy. There’s something biscuity about it, maybe the malt-yeast combo? I get some pepper and pears too. There’s spice, there’s malt and there’s plenty of hops to finish and it’s Europe meets America. It has a definite Belgian twang, whatever that indeterminate description may mean. It’s very drinkable for a beer of its strength, but I’m wondering when it’ll blow my mind?

20.30pm. Masterchef begins (goodbye Kirstie), I notice Southend are beating Chelsea as I skip channels. I laugh heartily.

20.33pm. This beer is sliding down quick. But it feels a little flat, as if the carbonation has let it down.

20.35pm. Is this as-live thing working? It’s doubtful. I’m cruising Beer Advocate right now. I’m desperate to drink more AleSmith beers. I’ve got some Stone downstairs but I won’t have another now. I’m going to Utobeer on Saturday (before/after the Thornbridge tasting at the Rake) and I think I’ll pick up some more Stones.

20.40pm. I’m enjoying the beer-buzz, that airy sensation of feeling relaxed after the first beer (especially a strong one).

20.44pm. The beer is gone. I’m left kind of perplexed and undecided by it. I enjoyed it but I wouldn’t buy another one. It’s very drinkable and light for its strength - fruity, spicy, bready - but I have a feeling that it’ll be soon forgotten (except that it’s been posted here for eternity, or so).

20.47pm. Right, let’s get this thing online. As-live tasting done!

20.59pm. We are live.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Beer and Fiction

I don’t just write about beer. I own two pencils: one for beer, one for fiction. I’ve worked on a couple of screenplays and I’ve just started a novel. Generally I write fiction in the morning before work and I write about food and beer in the evenings. What I’ve realised recently is that the two are not mutually exclusive.

When I write fiction I’m creating whole worlds: entire cities of characters; moods, tones, emotions; plot, drive, pace, desire; laughter, tears, sex, violence; places, colours, sounds, smells, temperatures; heroes, villains, lovers. And I do this all with the words that I order on the page.

A lot of my beer writing comes in the form of tasting notes. Sometimes I write these up for the blog, other times they stay in my notebook for my own reference and because I’m a beer geek. But writing tasting notes is not just an exercise in beer geekyness; it wakes up my creativity: when I smell and taste a beer I have to connect something real and physical with memories I have of flavours and experiences and then put words to them. And I think about potential food pairing too, matching flavours, ingredients, combinations, textures, temperatures, recipes.

Beer writing is me experiencing something tangible that is in front of me; fiction is created within me. Yet both beer and fiction have colours and flavours and textures and smells; both require me to think creatively to be able to describe what I experience – real world or story world; both describe the sensations of the senses; both need to be written well to be best understood; both have my own style. Both allow me to flex my bulging writing muscle.

(Please Note: I am not a washed up drunk wannabe screenwriter or novelist who uses the title of ‘Beer Writer’ to excuse myself, and I never write when I’ve had more than one beer – that’s a slippery downward slope! It is perhaps worth noting that some of the greatest writers of all time have been tremendous drunks: Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Truman Capote, William Faulkner…)

Friday, 9 January 2009


“Never succumb to the temptation of bitterness.” Martin Luther King.

I’ve found myself more and more drawn towards getting a huge smack of bitterness in my beer drinking. The hop is an addictive little chap, calling me back for more and more. But when I was drinking a particularly gorgeous but aggressive American IPA last week it got me thinking…

The beer was Ruination IPA from Stone Brewing Company in San Diego. It’s incredible. The bottle announces it as ‘A liquid poem to the glory of the hop’; it’s more of an anthem. It scores over 100 in the International Bittering Units scale and that’s a lot (lager scores 5-15, a ‘standard’ IPA around 50).

It pours a sexy bronze colour with a large lacing head; it’s a great looking beer. The aroma is huge with fresh oranges, grapefruit, pineapple and pine - the nose is intoxicating on its own. Sweet malt hits the tongue first and this is bready and full of caramel, but it’s soon overtaken by the massive hops: oranges and grapefruit; juice, flesh and pith; a long, clingy-bitter, dry, zingy, zesty finish. It’s just so drinkable, gluggable, well balanced. An awesome beer, but certainly not for those who are aren’t hop-lovers; it’ll blow your socks off!

All that bitterness got my brain going. Now I’m certainly no scientist, but here’s my basic understanding, with a beer slant put on it.

As kids we hate that bitter twang at the back of our mouths, but we love sweetness. As our palates develop we acquire the taste for bitter flavours, such as citrus, coffee and dark chocolate. It is innately within us to avoid bitter tastes. To our distant ancestors bitterness (usually when tasted from a plant) was bad and it signaled the possibility of poison; if it tasted bitter we avoided it incase it harmed us.

So what happens when we drink an aggressively bitter beer? Our bodies innate response would be to throw out warning alarms to let us know of potential danger. The chemical mechanisms would say: ‘Watch out, that could be poisonous!’ and then the brain and body need to make a life-critical decision about whether it’s safe to continue or not. The trouble is that underneath the bitterness is a whole load of sweetness, and sweetness = good. So there’s even more chemicals and decisions flying around: it’s good/bad, life/death.

We take another sip to be sure. We experience it like this: sweet first on the tip of our tongue, brief but powerful, but then as the beer moves over the tongue it hits the bitter-taste receptors right at the back of the mouth and down the throat. The bitter area dominates that part of our palate (it’s the last thing we taste before we swallow) and so the bitterness stays around for the longest, especially in a strongly hopped beer.

Now, whatever it decides, the body is flooded with chemicals simultaneously. It gets a ‘Go’ signal from the sweetness, but a ‘Stop’ from the bitterness. On top of this, sweetness actually dramatises the sensation of bitterness. So a beer that has a high ABV will generally have a depth of sweetness which then impacts upon the sensation of the bitterness. Here’s what your brain might be deciphering: ‘If this is bitter - which it most certainly is - then it could be poison. Maybe I’ll take another sip to be sure. Wait a minute! It’s sweet too… and it tastes so good, so how can anything bad be so delicious?’ Again there is a flood of chemicals, a mass of decision making.

Yet we know that it’s alright. We bought it from the store. It’s made to be enjoyed. It’s just the body isn’t fine-tuned to think that way.

As I see it, we have a delicious beer which is intoxicating, strong, sweetly malt but bitterly hopped. It tastes mighty fine but the chemical mechanisms still aren’t convinced, they’re still on alert. So your brain is caught in between two ways of thinking: fight or flight (fight means drink and enjoy!). This double-trouble, dual thinking can surely only be a good thing for our enjoyment of the beer. We’re on high alert over the flavour, but we’re also alertly enjoying it because it is so full of flavour. The life-critical decision is to fight it, to drink that highly-hopped masterpiece and to enjoy every last sip, even if your brain is still having niggling doubts. It also gives us a burst of adrenaline and everyone loves a bit of that.

Drinking an exceptionally bitter IPA is like being on a roller-coaster: you love it, but your body is in a state of heightened arousal, worried for your death, which then increases your enjoyment even more, in a masochistic kind-of way. Maybe I love the smack of puckering bitterness, maybe I’m addicted to the thrill of it.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

BrewDog’s IPA Adventure

The awesome guys at BrewDog are at it again, this time they’re going back to the origins of the IPA.

They’ve found a 200-year-old IPA recipe made with English malts and English hops, which they’ve brewed, placed in big oak casks and sent it to sea along with James, BrewDog’s Managing Director (it should be in safe hands as it’s his dad’s trawler - the one in the picture - and James himself used to be a captain!). When it returns it’ll be further conditioned in Champagne bottles and sold to celebrate their 2nd birthday.

IPAs are big business now and the style has developed massively from its simple origins (brewed strong and hopped heavily to survive the long sea journey from England to India). There are loads of IPAs being brewed in England and around the world, but they can hardly be associated with the beer that would’ve been tasted 200 years ago. IPA is now the name for a beer which is around 5-6% ABV; full of biscuity, caramel malts; has a load of tropical fruit flavours and a big hit of crisp hop bitterness at the end. The American C-hops have seen the style develop even further - first over there and now over here - with their zingy citrus flavours, pine and grapefruit. And these new style IPAs have been vamped-up into double and imperial monsters, testing the limits of bitterness and strength.

This BrewDog beer will be a huge rewind in the tradition of the style: it’ll be an Old IPA, the first that we’ll be able to taste as modern beer drinkers. It’s certainly a beer with a big story!

BrewDog are charting the adventure on their blog and the first update went on today (the original announcement is here). Keep following the blog, it’s a great one; funny, witty, intelligent and the videos are great!

And if you like this… Pete Brown did a similar thing last year when he recreated the original journey of an IPA and took a cask brewed in Burton-on-Trent, England, to Calcutta, India via sea. He’s writing the book about it now, which I can’t wait to read. He also has a tremendous blog that you should be reading (he's got all about his journey on there).

Sunday, 4 January 2009

A Curious Brew

Kent has long been known for its beer, with the pointing white tops of the oast houses popping up throughout the countryside. It’s probably hops which Kent is most known for beer-wise. It was there, in the 15th century, when hops landed in Britain from Europe. They weren’t taken to kindly to begin, but growth soon spread and fast-forward over 500 years and the county is still growing them now. With the abundance of hops it’s no surprise that many breweries operate in Kent, ranging from the grandaddy of English brewing, Shepherd Naeme, down to the idyllic Swan on the Green brewpub in West Peckham, with other notable examples being Westerham, Hopdaemon and Ramsgate.

All this beer is a wonderful thing (and I say this as a born and bred Man of Kent) but recently the grapes of the county have been receiving their own recognition, particularly Chapel Down Winery, near Tenterden, which is rapidly gaining an excellent reputation, especially for their sparkling wine. I visited the winery (a very handsome place indeed) because I was told something pretty exciting about them… they brew their own beers too!

Chapel Down is the name of the winery; the beers are made under the name of Curious Brew. They have three beers so far - Cobb IPA, Admiral Porter and Brut – served in 330ml bottles. Their design is the first thing that points you towards their wine heritage, with a simple logo and a blurb of wine-like information on the back; it’s cool, classy. All three of the beers are truly excellent examples of their style, brewed exceptionally well.

Brut 5%
Lager fermented with French sparkling wine yeast and hopped with Saaz and Cascades. A pale amber colour with plenty of bubbles. Simple aroma with some apple and grain. It’s rich and full flavoured, creamy and incredibly light with a tickle of fizz. There’s loads of caramel and biscuit from the malt, then a crisp finish with apple fruitiness. It’s a fantastic lager, one of the best I’ve had in a long time.

Cobb IPA 5.6%
Brewed with rare Kent Cobbs and hopped at 4 different stages, it’s a light amber colour with a nose of tropical and citrus fruits. It’s a classic IPA in taste: creamy toffee malt underneath a big hop finish. There’s loads more tropical fruit inside with some papaya and melon. The sweetness is gorgeous and it’s all so well balanced. Fresh and refreshing.

Admiral Porter 5%
Matured in oak and unpasteurised. Black with a creamy head. Dark chocolate, smoke, wood and berries in the nose – a great aroma. It’s bitter from the roasted malts with coffee and dark chocolate, more smokiness, a berry sharpness and an underlying woody sweetness. Roasty and toasty, light and easy drinking: as porter’s go, this is a beauty.

The beers are also very food-friendly, in fact whatever flavours you can’t find in the Chapel Down wines you’ll be able to get out of these beers. Have the Brut where you would choose champagne – it’s perfect pre-meal or with a light fish starter. The Cobb IPA (with its underlying caramel sweetness – wait, you mean wine can’t achieve a caramel flavour?!) with more robust chicken or fish dinners, or when you would otherwise choose a light, zingy-fresh white – the inherent sweetness works perfectly with spice or Asian foods. And have the porter (which has roasted flavours… hold on, wine can’t do roasted either?!) with roast or barbeque meats or even a light chocolate dessert or post-meal instead of a port.

If you go down for some wine then be sure to pick up some beer too. You will hopefully be surprised by just how good they are – especially if you try them with your dinner.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

Bye 2008 and Hi 2009!

I’ve had a good beer-year. I’ve drunk a lot of great stuff, I’ve learnt a lot about beer, my tastes have developed and my palate has matured and all of it has left me thirsty for more.

The best thing about beer is the memories which it helps to create. I can remember the worst beers I’ve drunk as fondly as the best; I remember days out specifically by the beers I tasted; I remember particular nights in the pub with friends where the beer was gulped between laughter and conversation; I remember being massively undercharged for a very expensive double IPA at the Pig’s Ear Beer Festival and it being beautiful; I remember the pork scratchings at the Great British Beer Festival; I remember finding two Greek craft beers on a tiny Ionian island; I remember ordering a beer and diet coke on holiday and receiving them together, in the same glass; I remember heated discussions about beer with beer lovers, excited ramblings, and lectures directed at my lager-loving chums; I remember all the times that I’ve told my girlfriend just how good my current beer is (and I remember how she always listens and how she always remembers what I say). I've also forgotton quite a lot of stuff too...

This isn’t a ‘Best Of’ kind of list; it’s a compilation of those beers which have stuck in my mind because they have been the most enjoyable and memorable throughout 2008.

Anything IPA from BrewDog. Punk IPA is the best IPA currently being brewed in Britain. And one of the best bottled beers available in the supermarket. Massive American C-hops and as juicy as a tropical fruit salad with a big backbone of maltiness. And Chaos Theory - a prototype beer that’s going into production for 2009 - an aggressive copper-coloured IPA with a sweet tropical fruit nose, a load of toffee and caramel malt and then a tidal wave of tangy hops to finish, with pineapple and grapefruit dominating. It’s so good because it’s so addictively moreish.

Anything black from BrewDog. The collaboration with Danish Beerhouse for their Coffee Imperial Stout is a brilliant beer: thick and creamy, rich and strong. Sweetly oaky flavours, some berry sweetness, loads of coffee and dark chocolate, smoke and leather and a hint of zesty citrus to finish. It made my day when I cracked open the first bottle of this. RipTide was the best ‘standard’ stout I drank all year (by standard I mean a stout that isn’t imperial, barrel-aged or which doesn’t have anything else in it, e.g. coffee). It’s liquid velvet – the beer equivalent of a big Californian Zinfandel. Then there’s Tokyo which is a glorious beast. And how could I leave out the Paradox beers. The Imperial Stout base is so drinkable, but when added to different whisky casks it grows into something altogether new and exciting.

Cains' Fine Raisin Beer. In the bottle this is a really good beer, malty and sweet and very easy drinking, but it qualifies for this list because of the Great British Beer Festival where it was on tap. It was the most memorable beer of the day, so easy drinking, clean and delicious.

Curious Brew’s Brut. Lager fermented with sparkling wine yeast and made at Chapel Down winery in Kent. It’s a pale amber with champagne-style bubbles; light but full flavoured; biscuity, creamy and clean; an apple sweetness comes through and the hop finish is crisp and smooth.

Badger’s Poacher’s Choice. This beer wasn’t one of the best that I’ve had this year, but it’s on the list because it made me smile from first sniff to last sip. It’s a moreishly fruity beer, giggle-inducing, full of creamy berry sweetness which was like blackberry crumble and blackcurrant chewy sweets. Intriguing and fun.

Stone’s Ruination IPA. A monstrous hop explosion and probably the freshest, juiciest tasting beer I’ve ever had. A mouthful of oranges and grapefruit and a brutal slap of bitterness.

Robinson's Chocolate Old Tom. A crazy-tasting beer rammed full of sweet milk chocolate. I had this after the Pig’s Ear Beer Festival and it was all I could taste the next day!

Fuller’s London Pride. Always will be on the list. My go-to beer and the beer I opened to celebrate finishing my Master’s (at 2.30 in the morning while I was watching baseball). Golden Pride out of the cask at the Jugged Hare was pretty special too.

And the ‘most interesting beer’…

BrewDog’s Storm. An 8% IPA aged in Islay whisky cask. The aroma was a punch of smoke, medicinal and harsh, although I thought I could detect the faintest suggestion of tropical fruit in there, as well as some oak. It’s a mindfuck. Insane. It’s so smoky and peaty from the barrel, then there’s a big hit of tangy hops and a long, earthy, woody, dusty, smoky finish. It’s intriguing in the same way as a car crash in that you can’t stop looking and going back for more. And it’s somehow moreish. I still haven’t really decided if I like it or not. The best thing about it is the way it makes me think and how it challenges what I thought I knew about beer, giving me flavours that I’ve never before experienced in a beer. I’ve got another bottle in the cupboard which I’ll try again soon.

While I’m at it here’s another category.

Best beer books…

To write stuff you need to read stuff. Looking up at my shelf I thought I’d give a nod to the books which have impressed me most this year.

First is Ben McFarland and Tom Sandham’s Good Beer Guide West Coast USA. This is like beer porn to my young eyes. I read about these glorious delights that await me but I cannot yet get to them – I become a beer voyeur; watching, waiting, reading, fantasizing. New Years Resolution – to save really really hard to be able to afford a trip myself.

Next are two older books, but ones which I have only read this year. These are Michael Jackson’s Beer Companion and Garrett Oliver’s The Brewmaster’s Table. Michael Jackson is simply the greatest beer writer ever (who sadly died in 2008). He can express his thoughts on beer in the most succinct and fabulous way, in a style which leaves me feeling awe at how he manages to place one word after another to create such perfect sentences. And Garrett Oliver, which I’ll admit that I’ve only read a few chapters of so far, but as soon as I started on the introduction I could feel myself easing into his big open arms with his fantastically simple, warm and effective prose and evocative writing skill – it’s a big old book and one I can’t wait to get totally lost in.

Bring on 2009 and all the beer it has to offer me.