Tuesday, 31 March 2009

If you had to...

Right, I’m feeling mischievous so time for another ‘If you had to…’ This week it’s partly inspired by the BrewDog showcase which is happening at The Bull in Horton Kirby, Kent (I am so flipping excited about this that I’m considering leaving now and arriving early so that I don’t miss it!). From Thursday 2nd April until it runs out - probably Sunday 5th, at the latest - they will have the following on cask or stillage: Trashy Blonde, Zeitgeist, Punk IPA, Chaos Theory, RipTide, Paradox Isle of Arran and Divine Rebel. That’s mega cool!

I haven’t had Divine Rebel yet (it’s a 12.5% barley wine brewed with the gypsy beer warrior that is Mikkeller) but all the others I am very familiar with and some are among the best beers I’ve tried in the last few months (RipTide and Isle of Arran in particular, and I can’t wait to compare cask Punk to cask Jaipur). But I have only ever had BrewDog from the bottle so getting them from the cask is going to be a wicked new experience for me.

So, I’ve had these beers but I’m eager to drink them again (I’ve got a Punk open right now and it's goooood). I’ve got bottles of all of them in the house and whenever they run out they get topped up quickly. BrewDog have also got a few new beers on the way which I am really looking forward to - Zephyr, the Atlantic IPA, a collaboration with Stone and Cambridge and a Black IPA. All of these I will buy and try as soon as they are released. But the question is, in a round-a-bout way relevant to everything I’ve written…

If you had too… would you choose to never again have a beer which you’ve already had, or, never have a new beer again, only being allowed to drink what you’ve already drunk before? (and if you choose to go with only having new beers from now on then once you've had it you can have it again and again, if you wish)

In other words, are you happy to choose from what you’ve already had or do you want to try new things? But if you choose the new only then you have to give up all the beers which you've had before! This is a really tough one, I think!

I got a load of these but if you’ve got any you want to suggest then feel free and I’ll add it to the list! And if you want to come to the showcase then get the train to Farningham Road and use google maps to get there, it's pretty easy, about a 15 minute walk. I'll be there on Thursday (with the chaps from Ale Affinity) and Friday evenings I hope. Email me if you want directions.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Beer Ice Cream: Thornbridge Hark

A while back I made ice cream from BrewDog’s glorious RipTide stout. Ever since then I’ve been in the mood to try out different beers to see what kinds of flavours they bring to ice cream.

There’s so much potential for using different beers to affect different outcomes in dishes. Carbonade, stews, pies, breads, pannacottas and ice cream would all use the same base recipes each time you make them but the beer which is added will change what the final product is like, and that’s pretty cool – it’s something I’ll be experimenting with quite a lot.

Last weekend I opened a 9-pint mini-keg of Thornbridge Hark which I had brought back from my visit to the Brewery. Most of this was for me to drink but I also decided to do a bit of work in the kitchen. This ‘work’ was a carbonade, beer bread and an ice cream (plus this crazy experiment at Butterbeer). The beer is a 4.8% ‘winter warmer’ brewed with a little rye malt, crystallised ginger, coriander and caraway seeds and Seville orange zest. It’s fruity, spicy, zesty, clean and crisp and it’s all underpinned with a fantastic rye bread flavour which is just delicious.

The RipTide ice cream is fantastic. It’s chocolatey and packed with fantastic roast malt flavours, keeping the essence of the beer but fading out before the hops kick in. And in ice cream you don’t really want hops as they leave a dry, strange and unwelcome tang. Saying that, I will soon try a big IPA and see how that comes out, maybe Goose Island as it’s got that huge orange and caramel mix which could be very tasty (it’ll probably need some fruit going in though to emphasize the juicy hops, and it’ll want less of the beer).

When I first tried the Hark I wasn’t sure how it’d translate as an ice cream as it has a decent dose of hops in it, giving a little floral bouquet and some dryness, but what the hell, this was an experiment and I would still have 8 ½ pints left! So I made up the batch and you know what? It’s really good! What you get is like a brown bread/rye bread ice cream with hints of banana and citrusy spice. I gauged it just right on the beer front and there was no hop bitterness coming through to kick the back of the throat. A really good result. And it has left me wanting to try and ice cream sandwich with it in, maybe with a little strawberry jam too! Yum!

I am lazy when it comes to my ice cream base but I am also scared of getting scrambled eggs when making custard, so I simply combine condensed milk with double cream and then add whatever else I want. It’s so easy but it just works perfectly. This hardly needs a recipe but here it is, and it makes around a litre. But here’s a warning: the amount of beer that you add varies between each different one that you choose; 300ml is not a blanket amount that works for every beer and most will want slightly less than this so start at 150ml-200ml and work your way up, trying it along the way.
  • 1 can of condensed milk
  • 300ml double cream
  • 250ml-300ml Thornbridge Hark

Mix them all together and churn it in an ice cream machine then eat. I told you it didn’t need a recipe!

So Beer Ice Cream Take Two (well, technically Take Three as I made a tiny batch of BrewDog Paradox Isle of Arran which rocked) was a great success. I’ve got my eye on a strong Belgian ale next, probably Chimay. Then I’ll be testing out the IPA.

Any suggestions of other beers which could or do make amazing ice creams?

Thursday, 26 March 2009

FAB POW! Curious Brew's Brut and Fish Fingers

FAB POW! the call of the gay superhero and the Food and Beer Pairing of the Week!

Curious Brew are the beer side of Chapel Down wines and they make three great beers which I’ve written about here. The Brut is brewed with champagne yeast and it’s a super little beer, spritzy and lively and light and elegant. It calls out for delicate seafood so what better to put with it than fish fingers?!

Fish fingers rock. Simple as that. I love them. Fish fingers, chips and baked beans is a winning dinner every time and don’t even get me started on the fish finger sandwich! It’s one of the greatest things this world has to offer. I love them.

This match is a little bit of cheeky with a little bit of classy. That’s a good fun pairing. And it’d be even better if you’ve got a Deus Brut des Flandres to open...

What good FAB combos have you had this week?!

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Buying Beer 2: Beer Ventures

I posted about buying beer a few weeks ago. On the back of that I placed an order with Beer Ventures. I like their choice of beers which covers all styles and all of the world, including some rarer, or harder to come by beers: Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout (good price too!), Brooklyn Local No.1, Deus Brut des Flandres (I’ve had this once and loved it), magnums of Chimay Grande Reserve and Sam Smith’s Yorkshire Stingo. They’ve also got a lot of the BrewDog range.

The site’s really easy to use, ordering was no problem and the beer arrived super quick (maybe because I entered my company as Pencil & Spoon!!) and they were very well packed away. They also came with tasting notes on the beers that I’d picked, which is a nice touch. My order included: BrewDog’s Speyside, which I’ve never had before, a couple of Tullibardine 1488’s which I think is wonderful and kind of like a grown up Innis & Gunn, I got a Schlenkerla Weizen, an A Over T and a Schneider Aventinus after reading this post (which says hello to me!). There were also 6 other bottles in the case but they were for my boss – I’ve managed to get him into beer so we can now split the P&P on all the beer we buy... Clever!

Check out the Beer Ventures website and their beer selection. I'll be going back to buy from them again soon, I'm sure. Andrew also writes a really cool blog which focuses on food and beer, so he’s a chap after my own heart – and he’s bloody good at it too. And if you place an order tell him I said Hi!

Monday, 23 March 2009

Biere des Moulins or Beer in a Plastic Bottle



vBlog number 4 done. Just a quickie this time as I check out Biere des Moulins, or as the title will tell you, it’s a ‘Beer in a Plastic Bottle’. Ridiculous, I know. Anyway, you can check out my youtube channel here. There’s a load of other good youtube beer guys out there so give them a look too.

When I saw the curious green bottle in the booze section I just had to buy it and try it. I’d never seen beer in a plastic bottle with screw top before. Beer lives in casks, kegs, barrels, bottles, glasses and cans. Plastic bottles are the realm of fizzy pop and cheap cider.

But why isn’t beer stored and sold in plastic bottles? History, I guess, is the first answer – beer bottles have always been made of glass. And it’s the brown glass bottles which do better than green or clear bottles because it restricts certain light photochemistry from occurring and funking up the beer. Plastic suggests cheap and throw-away and it just doesn’t feel right in your drinking hand - the weight and solid grip of the glass bottle is so much more comfortable. And the plastic screw top, don’t even get me started on that one, it was like opening a bottle of Sprite. Literally. Maybe it’s environmentally better? No… I’m pretty certain that glass wins that one too. So why bother with plastic? Maybe it’s a question of price…

On to the beer then, the important stuff. I didn’t expect much from it, which was good because I didn’t get much. The bottle had a slight amount of ‘give’ to it before it was opened which suggested a lack of carbonation. It cost 99p for 500ml which tells me it isn’t out to challenge the premium beer crowd. It has a poncy French name and describes itself as a Continental Lager, and then it suggests that it’s good with light meats (light meat? WTF’s that?). It’s made by InBev, by the way. And the taste? Well, it’s like a 3.8% lager, bland and uninspiring, a bit insipid, slightly eggy and metallic with a faint biscuity base and hops which you can almost miss. It’s fine, I guess, if you drink that kind of thing. I didn’t finish the bottle and I won’t buy another one except for novelty value or to enter as a dud on a beer night. Still, it was an interesting little taster.

Anyone know of any other plastic bottles of beer and are they any good?

And why the bath I hear you say? Well, I thought I’d open it in there because I wanted new places to shoot videos. Plus there was some hope that it might inspire me (I get a lot of good ideas in the shower…). I wasn’t inspired this time but maybe I’ll try again some day. Maybe not. At least the lighting is good thanks to the gorgeous sunny day, the perfect kind of day for a lovely, chilled bottle of Biere des… Don’t even go there.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Butterbeer


Did anyone watch Heston’s Tudor Feast last week? (If not it’s on again tonight or you can catch it online, it’s well worth watching) I tuned in just in time to catch Protzy and Heston Blumenthal recreating a curious brew called Butterbeer. I then read this post over at Blog O’ Beer and thought I’d give it a try myself.

There is a Harry Potter link, supposedly, but I haven’t read any of the books and only seen a couple of the films. I looked it up in the only way I know and then I found a few recipes. It’s essentially root beer, butterscotch sauce and butter and leaves the drinker feeling warm. Blimey! That’s no drink for a wizard-in-training, is it?!

Anyway, the beery version is a little different to that. I got the recipe from here but there is another one here. It’s basically beer, egg yolks, butter, sugar and nutmeg. A curious combo if you ask me. And I’ve been looking for some of the history behind it but I haven’t found anything yet, anyone know about it?

I followed the recipe, as you do, and then poured it out into my glass (the beer I used was Thornbridge’s Hark as I had just opened a mini-cask of the stuff). The kitchen filled with the smell of buttery nutmeg, which is pretty nice I tell you. The drink itself is a waxy yellow colour and smells just like an egg custard tart. And the taste? It’s odd. Kind of like egg-nog with hops. It’s creamy, rich and warm, unnervingly eggy for a beer, spicy from the nutmeg and sweet from the sugar. I kept sipping it for a while but in the end it made me feel a bit sick.

To conclude: butterbeer is pretty rank. Stick to the beer on its own. I you want to try it it’s easy to make but just be careful you don’t curdle the egg yolks or you'll get scrambled egg chunks in your pint and that is proper minging.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Beer Snacks: Mini Toad-In-The-Hole

Hunger and thirst alert! I love finding good food and beer matches for all courses and all occasions, but sometimes the best pairings are the simplest ones, don't you think? They are the ones which live in all the best pubs, the foods which we can hold in one hand while we sup a beer in the other. It’s going to be warm and probably meaty. It harks back to childhood foods, to eating with our fingers, to wintry warmers and (kind of ironically/strangely) school dinners.

If I had a pub I’d like to think that I’d have a whole blackboard chalked up with bar snacks. My ideal list would include the following, all homemade, naturally: Sandwiches (fat slices of salt beef, sausage, fish finger, etc.), toasted sandwiches (ham and cheese is king here), big scotch eggs, sausages and mustard, meat and beer pies, pork scratchings and platters of cheese. I’d also like malted Maris Otter grain to nibble on instead of peanuts.

This Toad-In-The-Hole recipe would be right at the top of the list, perfect for any dark beer and the ideal snack for a cold day. The batter is crunchy and soft in different places, the onions are sweet and charred, the sausages hot and meaty and the gravy is thick and unctuous. And it’s all made with a can of beer (possibly my favourite canned beer right now – Twaites’ Dark Mild, which is smooth, nutty, light and fantastically roasty). This beer, with its minimal hop invasion, adds a great flavour throughout.

If you want eight huuuge individual puds and a monster pot of gravy, then follow this.

  • 3 fat sausages
  • 2 onions
  • 3 field or portabello mushrooms
  • 125g plain flour, plus an extra tablespoon for gravy
  • ½ teaspoon salt and pepper
  • 2 eggs
  • 150ml milk
  • 150ml beer (a dark beer, ideally a mild or light stout – check out Twaites’ Dark Mild)
  • 200ml beef stock
  • 1 teaspoon tomato puree
  • Olive oil

First you have to make the batter and leave it to chill out for an hour or two. Put the flour and seasoning into a bowl. In a jug measure out the beer (keep the rest of the beer on the side) and milk then add the eggs and whisk it together. Add this to the flour and mix together to make a creamy batter. Pop it in the fridge until required.

Turn the oven to 220C, place a small drizzle of oil into the bottom of each hole of a yorkshire pudding or muffin tray, and heat until smoking. Then chop the onions into thin slices and fry gently in oil (there’s no hurry – you want them sweet and golden), when soft add the finely chopped mushrooms and cook until they let out all their juices and turn dark brown. Chop the sausages into three or four chunks and cook with the onions and mushrooms.

When the oil in the oven is so hot that it sizzles violently when you flick some batter into it, pour the mix into each hole (three-quarters of the way up) and pop a piece of sausage or two into each, along with some onion and mushroom, reserving about half the onion and mushroom mix (just set this aside). Then bake for 30 minutes or until crispy and golden and cooked at the bottom.

To make the gravy, heat the remaining onions until they sizzle again (you’ll probably want an extra splash of oil here, or maybe some butter) and add a spoon of flour, mixing it around. Add the tomato puree and stir in for a minute or two. Deglaze the pan with the stock (don’t use beer or you get a nasty hop tang) and then add the beer and simmer gently for 5 minutes, stirring so that all the flour cooks out and isn't lumpy, until it is thick and rich. Season if you need to.

When the puddings are cooked just pile them high around the pot of gravy and enjoy with a pint of beer. I recommend any dark ales, stouts, porters, milds; anything like that. Particular beers of note, which come to mind, would be: Dorothy Goodbody’s Wholesome Stout, Meantime’s London Porter, Fuller’s London Pride or ESB or 1845 or London Porter, Wychwood’s Hobgoblin, Adnam’s Broadside, Gadd’s Dogbolter… beers with roasted flavours and a nice depth of sweetness which calls out for the meaty gravy.

This is a damn fine beer snack. If ever I saw mini toad-in-the-hole served in a pub then I’d buy it in a second.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

If you had to...

It’s Thirsty Thursday so let’s throw out another If you had to… conundrum.

It’s inspired by my evening at the London Drinker last night. The two beers at the top of my hit list were Thornbridge’s Jaipur and Fuller’s London Porter (cask!). Two fantastic beers with similar ABVs (5.9 and 5.4 respectively) but two completely different beers. So…

If you had to... would you rather drink Pale beers or Dark beers for the rest of your drinking days?

No arguments about the spectrum of brown, I’m ignoring that, this is: Pale Beer (lagers, IPAs, golden ales, etc. – anything lighter than amber) vs. Dark Beer (mild, dark ales, stout, porter, etc. – we all know Wychwood’s Hobgoblin, so anything darker than that). Go!

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

FAB POW! Okell’s Aile with Fish Pie and Spaghetti Bolognese

FAB POW! No. 2 coming at ya! That's the Food and Beer Pairing of the Week, by the way. And as it’s St Paddy’s Day it’s a pint of black stuff. But not Guinness. I’ve got nothing against Guinness, I just find it a tad heavy to be a quality food pairer. Instead, we’ve got one of the finest porters I’ve had this year (and I’ve had some good ones – Elland’s 1872, Meantime’s London Porter, the Porterhouses’s Plain Porter): Okell’s Aile, a smoked Celtic porter (which I first had here). The pairing is not just for one dish this week, it’s for two classics, both of which are spot-on matches.

FAB POW! Okell’s Aile with Fish Pie and Spaghetti Bolognese

The beer is a great looking deep brown with a cappuccino head. It’s got a sweet nutty aroma with hints of charcoal and burnt toast. It’s incredibly drinkable, the smoke is very delicate and smooth, there’s candy sugar sweetness and chocolate in there along with an earthy hop quality. It’s a real moreish glugger, packed with flavour and the perfect buddy for plenty of dinners.

It’s great with the fish pie because it pulls out all the sweet fishy flavours and lifts them up, especially if you use a bit of smoked fish in the pie. It also cuts through the richness of the white sauce and clears the palate leaving a really pleasant nutty, smoky flavour. Tomato-based pasta dishes, I think, are difficult matches, but the smoke in a porter like this softens the sweet sharpness of the sauce, bringing out the earthy nuttiness in the beer and grabbing hold of the charry flavours and seasoning (especially the black pepper) in the meat.

It’s a really superb and versatile beer for pairing or just for drinking. It also does the job against mild spice and with a barbeque. I got my bottle from Utobeer but you can also buy it from Beers of Europe and Hi-Spirits. The beer is definitely worth hunting down. Yum.

Anyone had anything good to eat and drink this week?

Sunday, 15 March 2009

My Visit to Thornbridge Brewery


What makes a few breweries rise up above all the others? What makes them special and unique? What makes them who they are? If you ever get a chance to visit Thornbridge Brewery you’ll find the answers to these questions.

I first met the guys from Thornbridge at The Rake a few months ago. I had a lot of great things to say about them. This week I went ‘up north’ to the brewery with Matt, the same Matt from this Beer Night, to have a look around.

It started early. Very early. I decided the best bet would be to train it there and back, but this meant eight trains overall. Eight. We arrived at Dronfield - home of the mighty Coach and Horses pub - at 10am and Kelly Ryan, the brewery manager, was there to greet us and drive us to work/the brewery (his car is so retro-cool, by the way, that he had Metallica on tape playing as we started driving!). Kelly is an amazing guy (he even sent me a text to remind me to bring a sandwich for lunch). He’s literally overflowing with beer knowledge, passion, love and enthusiasm. And he doesn’t stop. I think he only walked when we were there to slow him down, the rest of the time he was running (actually running). Reluctant Scooper has been to visit for a brew day (his article is so brilliant, you must read it) and he uses the term ‘ceaselessly bounding’. That works for me.

The brewery is in the grounds of Thornbridge Hall and it’s a stunning place to go to work. The brewery is tucked away inconspicuously out the back. There’s a small brewhouse, an office, a lab and a few storage units. Inside the brewhouse is all the stuff you need to make beer (I won’t go into all that, read it in a book or here). Dave Pickering was in there brewing and Matt Clarke was running around, sorting out casks. At Thornbridge they brew one beer a day and have up to six fermentation tanks doing their stuff. The best thing: this place smells amazing! It’s full of that gorgeous ovaltine malt from the mash and there was a constant orange and tropical fruit hop sweetness. Lovely stuff.

I couldn’t do math or science in school, it just didn’t stick. English was more my thing. After spending a day at Thornbridge I wish I’d been able to get the sciences because they make it sound so cool (they are number one in the periodic table of cool). I was completely fascinated by the whole scientific side to beer and it’s given me a greater depth of understanding about this stuff that I love to drink. And Kelly doesn’t make it geeky either. All the talk of science-stuff was glamorous; it wasn’t white coats, it was leather jackets.

They were brewing Jaipur while we were there and we got to spend some time with Dave as he was brewing. He’s a really great guy, full of that same Thornbridge passion and knowledge which fills the air. And he was patient too as we kept asking questions about what he was doing and getting in his way as he tried to do his job. (He fancies brewing a smoky beer to go with the summer barbeques and he also said about making a small beer alongside Bracia, here’s my idea: take the small beer and age it on smoked oak chips. I have no idea if that’ll work or if it’s even possible but it sounds mighty good to me!).

Dave managed to keep us quiet for a while as we cleaned out the mash tun. I went in with instructions of ‘push it towards the hole’. ‘I can do that’ I thought. I climbed a ladder and looked down. It was a pit of spent, hot, wet grain that looked like dark porridge. And it was pretty far down. It was at this point (the top of the ladder, no turning back) that a few things dawned on me:

1. I am terrible with heights.
2. I can go up ladders but not back down them.
3. I have a fear of sinking sand.

Shit. ‘Just jump in’ Dave said, which was easy for him to say standing on the hard floor. With vertigo making everything swirl, the heat from below increasing the tension and a certain amount of pride at stake, I clambered up onto the narrow rim of the mash tun. Completely unstable and fearing a rather nasty fall (which only exacerbated the vertigo) I jumped in and slowly sunk about a foot, encased in a round tank, hot grain closing in, still sinking, not stopping. I gripped onto the side for dear life, the heat engulfing me, pulling me down. I almost yelled for help. But thankfully I stopped sinking. I was stable. I couldn’t move my legs but I wasn’t going further down. And I actually started to like the comfort of the heat through the wellies and the sweet smell of the grain as I began pushing and shoveling. Matt stood at the other end as I shoveled the hot stuff at him, frequently overzealously, burning his hands and making a real mess. Oops. With the tank clean I had to get back out again and I remembered my fear/inability of getting down ladders. Oh boy. I still had to climb out of the mash first, precariously balancing on the edge, trying not to look down as I made an awkward crab shape and tried to shuffle on to the ladder. I pretty much burnt my hand on the copper but I wasn’t letting go. I got a foot on the top wrung, then the other foot made it. It was a pretty sorry sight seeing me sweaty, shaking, covered in grist and coming down a ladder backwards, but I made it!

We looked around the brewery some more and saw a few special things, including the sherry and Madeira casks that were used to make the Alliance trilogy. And you want to know something super-cool? These giant oak casks are now filled with Bracia! Yup, I know, how flipping awesome does that sound! We saw the special ingredients for one of their next brews: cocoa nibs, star anise and mandarin peel. We smelt plenty of hops (it may be geeky but I just love smelling the different hops). We tried some St. Petersburg stout aged on cocoa nibs which Stefano (the head brewer and all-round cool guy who had been busy in the office until then) declared to be very good (this declaration is a great sign for a beer; his tasting of it seemed to last forever, I was hoping that by saying I thought it was great I hadn’t made a complete palate faux pas, but a smile soon appeared and his eyes lit up. Phew.) We also got to check out some yeast which is analysed after every brew (fun science stuff which involved looking into a microscope!). They were checking some Jaipur yeast. Here comes a brutal yet beautiful truth of brewing Jaipur: the yeast dies to make it. It’s the ultimate sacrifice. It makes that beer and clearly realises that it has reached a certain pinnacle in its life and it can do no more. There’s something wonderfully romantic about that, I think.

And we were even part of a little beer tasting in the office which allowed us to try three beers by Odell’s in Colorado. There aren’t many of their beers in the UK so this was pretty cool. The star was undoubtedly the IPA. Great stuff. When Kelly and Stef taste other breweries beers’ it’s clear to see why the Thornbridge beer is so good; their palates are sharper than Gordon Ramsay’s knife (and his tongue) and they pick up scents like hunting dogs. They swirl and sniff and pull out what they get, one flavour or aroma after the other, chasing them around the glass, searching for them.

In the office we got to speak to Stef more. There were discussions of funk (Brettanomyces, that is) and barrel aging and I had a load of questions about the move to the new, bigger brewery. He is sorting it all out and the next few months are going to be crazy-busy for the guys up there. But the move will mean more beer so we’ll be able to get their stuff in more places and slake our thirsts much easier. They’ll also be able to knock out more bottles (they are playing around with bottle conditioning too, trying different yeasts, etc – more science stuff) which is a great thing. I am already excited about going up to visit the new place once it is up and running (eight trains you say?! I don’t care, I’d travel on double that to be there!)

After work we hit their pub, the Coach and Horses. This is a dreamy place which is run by Kelly’s lovely girlfriend Catherine. We were in awe of the beer selection - bottled and cask. There were five Thornbridgers (not a typo) on cask and we started, in the only way possible, with Jaipur. It was just simply perfect. Biscuit and toffee malt base and then tropical fruits and hops-a-plenty giving a crisp and elegant finish. I could drink this all night. It was served through a sparkler though, a thing curious to my southern eyes. I asked for my second beer without the sparkler and to be honest I couldn’t taste a difference. It did however look better with the sparkler fitted.

Kelly changed out of his work shirt and then it was just three mates at the pub talking about beer and music and TV and films and laser eye surgery and Korean food. Kelly then brought out his homemade lambic. Yeah, he ‘brews’ at home too. He’d taken some of their Blackthorn Ale (I was drinking that when he brought the lambic out, very nice indeed) and popped it into a bottle and left it to do its stuff for 18 months (there was some other detail to it, something about taking it from the pipes, I don’t know – Kelly, help me out here!). And it was really good. Creamy yet sharp yet sweet. Nice one.

Dinner came next. Kelly, Matt and myself ordered three dishes and shared it around (it was a sharing kind of day). The oxtail was rich and oh-so-juicy, the brisket was like butter and the belly pork with Toulouse sausage and beans (a deconstructed cassoulet, if you like) was just brilliant (wicked crackling!). The menu is great, the food is proper pub grub and delicious and the portions are huge - this is a must-visit place. With dinner I had a pint of McConnels, their vanilla stout, which was magical (and made with real vanilla pods). It’s smooth, rich and roasty with a sweet hint of the vanilla. I’d wanted to try this for ages and wasn’t disappointed. Sadly there wasn’t time for dessert because we had to go. We didn’t want to, that’s for sure, but we had to. We did have time to split a bottle of Bracia before we left - a great way to end the day.

And what an amazing day it was. A tiny insight into what’s going on up at Thornbridge and what’s to come. It was truly exciting and fascinating. It has made me taste better, think better and understand beer better. I now know the back-breaking effort that goes into making their beers, I’ve seen where it all comes from, I see everything that they do in the minute detail that they do it. I left invigorated and it has made me realise just why I love beer. Why it means so much. Why I spend the hours that I do searching for it, drinking it, reading about it, talking about it and writing about it. It makes all of that worthwhile when you see that there is so much passion on the other side and you see what the beer means to its brewers in places like Thornbridge.

Innovation, passion and knowledge are their tag lines and you cannot fail to go anywhere without these being entirely evident. They know so much, they clearly love what they do and they want to try new things. There is so much energy around the place, it just feels right being around them, it feels comfortable and we felt welcome even though we were interrupting their hectic day with silly questions. But they all had so much time. And they are so generous too. Beer is for sharing and when you’ve got such great knowledge it just spills out and you cannot fail to learn an awesome amount from them. And the beer stands up to all of this. It is second to none. You just have to see the piles and piles of awards they have stacked up in the office to know this. You just have to try the beer to know this.

On the train home I was sad to have left. I wanted to keep a piece of what I felt at the brewery with me. I wanted that feeling every day. But then I realised something. And it’s here as I sit down now with a Jaipur. We do get to feel a part of the brewery, we do get to experience it and we get it every time we drink their beer. That beer that we have in our hand is prepared with so much passion and enthusiasm that we taste the essence of the brewery, something special deep within it, something intangible, something missing from so many other beers. Their beers are ‘never ordinary’ - they are spectacular. They are special. The brewery is special. The people are special. Thornbridge is a remarkable place. And I thank them for allowing us that little insight into their world.

If you want to buy their beers then go to beermerchants as they have the widest selection available that I've seen, including the Alliances, Bracia and the ever-so rare barrel-aged St Petersburgs. You can also get mini-casks from the brewery. And Kelly Ryan has a blog which you should be reading here.

Friday, 13 March 2009

As-Live Tasting: BrewDog Hardcore IPA

21.05. Beer taken from fridge, bottle sniffed, poured out, photo taken.

21.10. Great colour to this beer, it’s a vicious orange-gold with a thin yellow chalk-coloured head. This is a 9% ‘explicit imperial ale’ for those not in the know.

21.11. Blimey it’s got a punch to the nose. It’s a booming glassful of oranges, distant grapefruits, pine and cold metal (cold metal? WTF? I don’t know.)

21.12. I’m holding back. I’m soaking it in. I’m letting the anticipation grow, the excitement build. This beer promises 150IBUs. That’s insane (is it even possible?!). I tried the last Hardcore but it wasn’t hardcore enough for me; not hoppy enough and too sweet. Apparently the hop shortage took its toll. Ok, I’m going in, stand back…

21.14. This mother bites. It’s BIG. A monster rising above its former self. The bitterness is clinging, scraping, unending. It’s caramel beneath but that joyously sweet pleasure is short lived before the hops mass-invade with citrus and pine and a dryness unexpected from anything liquid. To quote the BrewDog blog ‘It’s like being raped by a hop monster’.

21.18. I was writing about my brewery visit to Thornbridge but this evening’s beer has stopped that, plus I need a day before I edit that one properly - it’s looong (don’t let that put you off, dear readers).

21.20. Some background on my Friday night: I’m home alone and drinking IPAs (with one exception). I had ribs (using my own recipe designed for BrewDog – let me, or them, know if you want it) for dinner. The beers tonight have gone: 77 Lager (it was meant to be a Punk IPA but I didn’t have one cold), Thornbridge Jaipur then Stone IPA. I've always said I never write after I’ve been drinking… Tonight is different.

21.21. There’s massively condensed tropical sweetness in here, a whole spectrum of hop flavours, most of which my tongue cannot grasp because it has been smashed to pieces. But the important Imperial IPA thing is there: it’s addictively moreish. With each mouthful I want another. I want the sweetness to lull the bitterness but then I crave the bitterness to return.

21.24. I’m feeling good. Thank you beer.

21.26. Reading a few blogs: Reluctant Scooper’s evening BrewDogging sounds awesome. I’ll be all over that soon at The Bull. And Impy Malting, she’s a great writer (I wrote a few comments on the recent Session post when I was a bit drunk coming home from the pub after the Dark Star at The Bull – hey, The Bull has gotten a lot of plugs here!).

21.32. Been searching for food to try and pair. Gonna be a tough one.

21.34. White chocolate semi-works in a weird not-quite kinda way. I guess that actually means it doesn’t work.

21.35. Goats cheese is terrible with it. Avoid.

21.37. Mega strong cheddar okay but leaves a strange boozy flavour at the end, not helping either.

21.39. King of the cheese world next: Colston basset and Hardcore IPA = Nasty. I will conclude my little food and beer experiment with this: just drink the beer on its own, get a bit blurry headed and enjoy it.

21.41. Man the bitterness intensifies as you get down. It claws at your throat. It begs you to drink more but pleads that you stop. And it’s full bodied too. I’m making serial spelling mistakes and terrible typos; my brain and fingers are moving at very different speeds and I can’t tell which is going quicker. I fight it.

21.45. This is a challenging beer. It pretty much buggers you up. It’s unrelenting. Monstrous. Insatiable. It’s like a drug and you need the sweetness to ease the bitterness. But I’m feeling relaxed. I’ve got that warmth that the hops bring. I’m kinda sleepy. Chilled out. Probably a bit drunk now. It’s a real rollercoaster.

21.47. BrewDog Hardcore IPA done. It certainly is Hardcore. If you like hops then you gotta try it. If not then you’ll feel like you’ve been attacked by the personification of bitterness. Yikes. If you want it then get it here. I feel abused.

If you had to...

Would you rather never have a beer under 6% ever again or never have a beer over 6% ever again?

Make a snap judgement. Do you value the session beer over the non-sessionable?

Thursday, 12 March 2009

BrewDog Zephyr

There are a lot of beers on my ‘To Do’ list - a lot of wants. But since I first heard about it last year, one beer has been sitting right up there at the top: BrewDog's Zephyr. And good news came from their blog this morning: they bottled it today!

It’s a 12% Imperial IPA aged for 21 months in 1965 Invergordon whisky casks with masses of fresh strawberries. What a monster of a beer. They’ve also chosen to stick it in champagne bottles where it’ll be bottle conditioned. And the label is stunning too, designed by Johanna Basford (amazing designer!) who worked on the 1st anniversary Paradox.

I cannot wait to get hold of a few of these. And their new improved Hardcore IPA is out now too, with extra Hardcore and 150IBUs! Check it out here. I ordered that last week so it should be here soon! Whoop!

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

FAB POW! Thornbridge Halcyon with Extra Mature Cheddar

Here we go. A hip new serial feature for Pencil&Spoon which was dreamt up yesterday while I was having a run.

FAB POW! The Food and Beer Pairing of the Week!

Simple really, I just say a great pairing that I’ve had and you can tell me any cool ones that you’ve had. We can share the wealth of eating and drinking under a nicely onomatopoeic title that makes it sound camply cool like a comic book superhero fighting the bad guy (in fact it sort of is like a superhero and his sidekick, beer and food I mean, fighing together to save the world).

I’m starting with a themed choice as today I am going up to Thornbridge Brewery for the day (I'll be on the train when this auto-posts itself at 9a.m).

FAB POW! Thornbridge Halcyon with Extra Mature Cheddar.

The beer's a 7.7% IPA and it’s got that essential feature of the heavily-hopped beer: it drives you crazy wanting more. It’s a rollercoaster of sweetness and bitterness, one follows the other in a vicious circle, and it’s addictive. The caramel base lies beneath the citrusy fruit smack. Put this up against the kind of cheese which makes you wince with its strength (you know the one, it makes you mouth pucker) and you get a heavenly match. The cheese fills your mouth and the beer flows over it, mixing on your palate, lifting it up and away in different directions; tangy, sweet, salty, sharp, bitter, more sweet. And it’s BIG. It’s uncompromising. But it’s brilliant. The beer is fruitier and the cheese creamier. And don’t just take my word for it, here is what Kelly Ryan from Thornbridge says.

And if you want the beer then Beermerchants are selling it. It’s one of the very best IPAs you can buy in the UK (Beermerchants have also got Bracia and Jaipur which are stunners).

There it is. FAB POW! done. Anyone had anything good recently? I wanna know!

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Dark Star at The Bull

Do you have a favourite pub? Or a favourite place to drink? I’d find it hard to choose just the one, but The Bull in Horton Kirby is speeding to the top of my list with great velocity and ferocity. I just love the place. I’d kinda like to live there, maybe down in the cellar or out in the garden.

I wrote about the Thornbridge showcase they held last month, which was super-cool. This month was the turn of Dark Star. Garrett, the ebullient landlord, loves Dark Star. In fact he loves great beer in general (a sure-fire sign of a top-notch landlord). The beers on offer this time were: Hophead, Over The Moon, Best Bitter, Old Chestnut, Sussex Extra Stout, American Pale Ale and Six Hop Ale. Quite a selection.

I met with the guys from Ale Affinity again and they had a Six Hop lined up for me when I got there as it was running out (thank you!). The Six Hop is superb, incredibly drinkable and smooth with a mouth filling bitterness to end. My second beer was also a Six Hop through fear of it running out.

Old Chestnut followed which was, in all honesty, limp compared to the previous beer, but it was fine because I only had a half. Next I had the Stout which was excellent, all toasty and roasty and delicious.

It was at this point that Toby from Dark Star arrived to talk to the pub about brewing. He was billed as the entertainment for the night (as if the beer and company were not enough!). He explained the whole process and gave a load of really interesting inside info. It’s kinda cool to drink beer while a brewer tells you how it’s made. Especially when the beer tastes so good.

The pub has also evolved its bottle selection. Rochefort 10 now sits in the fridge behind the bar (the fridge, FYI, is turned up/down so that it isn’t too cold for the beer – I like that. A lot.) along with a few other Euro treats. In the cellar they had some Mikkeller beers too. We tried the Stateside IPA and All Others Pale and they are proper American-style hop rockets, flipping good and juiced-up with citrusy, piney hops. I think we also got a bottle of the Struise Mikkeller but by this time I was drinking a bottle of the Dark Star imperial stout and memories of it are a bit hazy!

The food is great too, served up by Lynne. One interesting thing. They don’t have a Cask Marque at the pub. The reason: for CM accreditation you need to serve your beers between 11-13 degrees. Garrett serves his (in perfect condition every time) at 15, and he still thinks this is too cold. I’ve got a lot of respect for this man. He rocks.

Oh yeah, big news (and I’m reticent to say because I want it all for myself, but Garret deserves to sell as much beer as he can humanly pump)… The next showcase is BrewDog! I have never had a BrewDog from anything other than a bottle so I am bloody excited. The beers that will be on offer (I think this is a preliminary list, so it might change, check out Ale Affinity as they’ll throw out a proper announcement sometime soon): Trashy Blonde, Zeitgeist, Punk IPA, RipTide, Paradox Isle of Arran and Divine Rebel. Bring it on! Paradox out of the cask?! Just let me at it! It’s the 2-5 April. You really should go along.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Westvleteren 12: The Psychology Behind Drinking the Best Beer in the World

What is the best beer in the world? Ever since I have known about beer, consumed it and read about it, the same beer has been championed as ‘the best’: Westvleteren 12 (see ratebeer or Beer Advocate). But is it really the best?

I think there’s a whole load of complex psychology surrounding these world class beers: We know their story, know their reputation, we expect something life changing from them. But do we actually get it, like actually actually get it?

Westvleteren has a story which raises it up into beer mythology (this post explains it well). It’s hard to get hold of. The brewery tells you what beer is for sale and when. They only make enough to sustain themselves at the monastery. You have to call the brewery/monastery between certain short windows and you can only pick it up between another short window of a few days. It’s limited to three crates per car per month. And you can’t buy all the beers at the same time (they also have a 6 and an 8). And you aren’t supposed to sell it on. It’s a tough one to get hold of. It is coveted. It is prized.

I’ve wanted to try this beer for, like, ever. Everyone wants to drink the best beer in the world, don’t they? But is its status self-perpetuating? And is there a deeper psychological process which makes the drinker expect something amazing and therefore they convince themselves that what they are drinking is amazing? Or on the opposite end - do we raise it up only to face disappointment?

As hard as I tried while drinking it, it is impossible to clear my head of thoughts of greatness. I’ve had the beer for a while now, just waiting, calling me, teasing me with promises. I’d built it up in my mind. I didn’t want to be disappointed. I wanted to be moved. But what if I wasn’t? What if I didn’t particularly care for it? Or didn’t think it’s as good a whole load of other beers? Does that make my tastes wildly different from everyone else? Does that make me – somehow - less of a beer drinker?

Maybe the only real way to try the beer objectively is to have it totally blind. But that’s no fun, is it? This is something that you want to know that you are enjoying. There’s an anticipation to it, an excitement. I want to know that I’m drinking it, I want to pop the golden cap off myself, I want to pour it carefully; I want to be involved with it. But then I am raising its status just by going through this process and loving the careful steps.

I opened a Westveteren 8 last week. It was a good beer but I expected more of it. Beer Advocate has it as the 8th best beer in the world and Rate Beer has it as 18. I thought it was just good. Good isn’t enough! Mind blowing just about suffices. The whole thing with the ratings websites is that they measure hundreds and thousands of votes. Any beer could score maximum points and any could score a big fat zero. What puts a beer in the top few is consistency: if a beer consistently scores high marks then it’ll rise up the list. This happens. Just look at Pliny the Younger. Where was that a few years ago? Where is it now? (Hint: high up)

So what about the Westvleteren 12? It’s 10.2%, brewed with pale malt and dark candy sugar, hopped with Northern Brewer and yeast from Westmalle. It’s unfiltered and bottle conditioned (this book told me that). Making the video was difficult. It’s hard enough saying the right things anyway but when your head is filled with ideas of ‘world beating brilliance’ while trying to be objective and trying to remember what you want to say, it’s tough. And in honesty I am affected by the beer. By the hype. By the lore. And I know this.

When its golden crown comes off it pops gloriously. A funnel of fog wisps out. It pours a russet brown and the aroma booms out the bowl glass. The carbonation is too much to begin, jumping around in my mouth; I want it less lively, I want it to slide around my mouth not bounce around. The nose is dried fruit (you might be able to tell that from the video!), cherry, rum, toasted brown bread and an earthy, woodiness. There’s a lot going on. In the mouth it’s equally complex and rich; rammed with dried fruits, dark cherries, hints of chocolate, booze, toasted grain, brown sugar and nuts. It’s a glorious beast of a beer.

Yet the whole time I was fighting between the thoughts of ‘the best beer’ and the enjoyment of the beer. If anything the pressure of drinking it affected my enjoyment. I wanted more from it but I was also always expecting more to come. Yes it’s a superb beer and just the opening of it feels special, but I genuinely think this affects how the beer is rated overall. And would this beer still score so highly if it was easily available, like the Rochefort or St Bernardus beers?

So is Westvleteren 12 the best beer in the world? It wasn’t the best beer that I’ve ever tasted. But it was excellent (I think it was excellent anyway, maybe my mind was playing tricks?!). In my honest opinion it was too young (much like the 8 I had – the use by date is 19.11.11 if that means anything to anyone?). It needed longer to develop. There was a tinny harshness at the end which would mellow with a few years in the cupboard, I’m sure. I’ll try it again in a year or so and share it with a few beer-loving buddies (I will accept shotguns on the remaining bottles that I have, that’s the fairest way!). Right now it wouldn’t make my ‘Top 10’ list or my own ‘Best Of’ but I’m very glad to have opened it; this was the most excited I was about opening a beer yet and the whole process fascinated me. Although I was left wanting more. I guess it’d be like finally getting a date Cheryl Cole/Sienna Miller and then they leave before dessert (and on the dessert menu is something you really want!). Something like that.

Have you had it and what did you think? Do you reckon the psychology behind opening it plays some part in the way the beer is experienced? And this doesn’t just go for Westvleteren, what about all the other ‘great’ beers? Or great books/movies/albums…

(FYI - and don’t think less of me - I got my beer from ebay! And the suit is because I was drinking the beer after graduating from my Master’s, read about that here. Oh yeah, and visit my youtube channel, it's a veritable hub of beery activity)

Friday, 6 March 2009

The Session 25: Love Lager

Time for The Session, which this month is hosted by The Beer Nut with the topic of ‘Love Lager’. I was unsure what to write and where to begin for this one, so I started start right back at the beginning…

I’d never tried it. It’s what the Dads drink. It’s for adults. They stand around with the stubby green bottles they picked up on cruises to France when my sister and I picked up cool crisps and loads of chocolate. Those little green bottles. Their horrible smell, the strange and nasty taste, the cool beads of condensation. He used to drink them most in summer; the smell of fresh cut grass and barbequing sausages. Me raking the lawn after he had cut it, me copying him drinking from my bottle of juice. Working together in the small garden. The satisfied gulp, the relaxed sigh. I’d never tried it.

Then I was allowed to drink some. ‘Eurgh,’ I’d groan as the men laughed back. ‘One day you’ll love it’ they told me. It started with lemonade. Then I’d add orange cordial. I didn’t like the funny taste, the bitterness, but it’s what the men were drinking. The men who were standing around chatting, laughing, talking about cars and football and work. I didn’t know anything about that. I was still a boy. I didn’t drink beer.

Then I started to drink it. All my friends were. It was about fitting in, belonging, brotherhood, growing up. Talking to girls, smoking, drinking too much, misbehaving. Experimenting and learning limits. It was the beer that my Dad now offered to me. Those little green bottles. I was starting to act like the men do. I was drinking their drink. Lager.
Then I drank it all the time. It was the first pint I got served in the pub. It was the second, third and forth… It was drinking from the can with friends. It was getting drunk. It was behaving like an adult but acting like a child. I was 17 and it was pints at lunchtime. It was the laughter and the fun. It was the getting away with it. It was the rock concert where I was pushed deep into the sweaty, bouncing crowd. The nightclub who served all drinks for a pound before 10. It was drinking in the park. Not being asked for ID. Being an adult, doing adult things, drinking lager: ‘Do you want a beer?’

And it never goes. It is everywhere. It’s part of being a man, of being a part of something, of becoming an adult, of belonging. It’s for celebrating or commiserating. It’s comfortable, always the same, it doesn’t change.

It’s the cans around the student house. The cold bottle on a hot day. ‘Something to drink?’ ‘A beer’. A bottle while cooking dinner. The nights out where lager was all they had. The drinking games. The parties where everyone drank the same beer because it was free and the bath tub was filled with cans. The making a fool of yourself, losing the drinking game, the throwing up; the bad times. Or the good. The time we won the cricket tournament and I drank beer straight from the trophy. The pint after the work is done. The taste of achievement. The lying around and drinking a cold pint in the hot afternoon sun when I should’ve been studying. The celebration when it’s all over.

It’s no longer the drink of choice, but it’s still there. And there are new ones. Better ones. Or just bottles of the old. The Budweiser which tastes so familiar despite never drinking it. The cold Kronenbourg from the fridge to slake a thirst without having to choose from the beer collection. The pint just because. Mythos in the hot Greek sun, a bottle while cooking meat on the barbeque, the stubby green bottle. Still being able to enjoy something simple. There is always a beer behind a story. Always a memory.

A pint of lager: something which has shaped the person that I have become; something that is very important. It’s about growing up. Learning. Belonging. Shaping ideas, making choices, becoming who I am.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Graduation

Today I graduated from my Masters degree. It felt kind of odd because I handed in my dissertation over six months ago, but it was still great to get all dressed up in the cap and gown and feel special for a few hours. Plus I worked damn hard to get that!!

After the ceremony I went a few miles up the road to the Real Ale shop. I hadn’t been there for a couple of years; it’s a little magic box of treats and I was inspired by this post over at Impy Malting. I picked up some crackers: the three Thornbridge Alliance’s and a Bracia, an Admiral’s Ale after watching this video, a Downton Chimera IPA which I tasted at the Battersea beer fest a few weeks ago, a couple of Stone IPAs (which have so far eluded me!), a Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier which I’ve read loads about recently, a Hog’s Back O.T.T (my Dad’s choice, but a great one) and a Saison Dupont, which I've never tried before and figured I should’ve. They’ve got a great selection over there at the shop or you can buy online; I like that place a lot.

I have also received a delivery from beermerchants. I’ll be picking that up tomorrow. Very exciting. I love getting beer in the post!!

Then I came home and recorded a quick video blog which will be up at the weekend. The beer: a Westvleteren 12. This seemed like a worthy-enough occasion to pop the golden crown off the bottle.

Later we ate, my mum made a congratulatory pie (pictured), we drank the O.T.T which was excellent, then a Meantime IPA with dinner and a Paradox Smokehead to finish.

It was a good day.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

If you had to...

Here’s a fun game. It's called ‘If you had to…’ aka ‘Would you rather…’ aka 'What would you do if...' and so on. Just read the question and answer it!

This question comes in response to the Brewers Association Style Guide for 2009 which lists a whopping 138 different styles! 138?! That’s nuts! Check out the list.

If you had to... choose only one style of beer to drink for the rest of your life, and you only had one minute to decide, what would it be? Go! (Don’t try and pick one from the list, you’ll run out of time before you even pass the British styles!)

Sunday, 1 March 2009

A Beer Night

Beer nights rock. A few of us get together, everyone brings a few different bottles, we share them, discuss them and then for a little bit of competition we score each out of 10 to see which beer ends up the highest. It’s a great excuse to drink a load of quality beers with your mates.

There will always be a few expected stars in there and a few duds (that’s how we do it), but you never can predict just how well any particular beers will do and often completely different styles of beer receive similar scores. You do find yourself basing marks on the other scores you’ve already given (‘how many did I give the last beer? Because it wasn’t as good as that…blah blah blah…’). There’s nothing too scientific about it, it’s just guys drinking beer and awarding each individual one they drink a score.

Here’s what we had in the order we had it. We didn’t plan an exact route through the beers, although certain ones were placed at certain points for comparative reasons. And we saved the really big boys until the end. There were three of us - Me, Matt and Sean – and we were in Matt’s flat.

1. BrewDog. Chaos Theory. 7.1%. Matt’s choice.

We all loved this IPA but it was marked fairly conservatively as it was the first one up (you don’t want to set too high a benchmarch). It’s hopped with just the Nelson Sauvin and all that mega concentrated fruit flavour booms out the glass. It’s got that addictive IPA quality about it. This was the prototype version.

Mark: 7.5
Matt: 7.5
Sean: 7
Total: 22

2&3. BrewDog Zeitgeist Prototype vs. BrewDog Zeitgeist ‘Real’. 4.9%. Everyone’s choice.

Us three Men of Kent spent the previous evening knocking back Zeitgeist at the beer’s launch so we wanted to do an immediate comparison between the old and new. The new was smoother, with a greater depth of flavour and topped off with those citrusy hops.

Mark: Prototype: 6, Real: 7
Matt: Prototype: 5.5, Real: 7
Sean: Prototype: 5.5, Real: 7
Total: Prototype: 17, Real: 21

4. Westvleteren 8. 8%. My choice.

I’ve had it in the cupboard for a while now and thought I’d crack it open to share (beers like this are so much better to share with fellow beer lovers). I wanted this early in the night while we were still fresh. We all knew the mythical status of the brewery and the respect it garners from the beer world so it was surrounded by discussions of psychology (which I’ll write about soon) and how we expect greatness from such beers which then affects our perceptions of them.

None of us had tried this beer before. It pours a deep ruby colour and the nose is all dried fruit sweetness and tea bread. It’s very complex with each mouthful picking out different flavours. It tasted very fresh and clean, a slight bitterness to end, lots of sweet tea, something oaky, candy sugar… there’s a lot going on. It’s really drinkable and moreish but despite the complexity it has a simple, fresh quality to it.

Beer Advocate has this as the 8th best beer in the world. Is it? We didn’t think so. Maybe it gets better with age, maybe we just didn’t fall under the Westy spell. It’s a very very good Belgian beer, just not the best.

Mark: 7.5
Matt: 7
Sean: 6.5
Total: 21

So it scored 21, that same as BrewDog’s Zeitgeist. Are they the same in reality? No. But Zeitgeist gets marks because it’s a beer that you can drink lots of, one that can be enjoyed all the time. Westvleteren is completely different, almost incomparable. Maybe we even marked the Westvletern down because it didn’t live up to the heights of greatness that we anticipated.

5. Becks. Alcohol Free. 0.05%. My choice.

A dud thrown in for fun and deliberately placed after the Westy 8. The marks speak for themselves but here were a few quotes: ‘it smells like arse’, ‘pointless’, ‘like licking copper pipes, but at least the pipes might have mould on that would taste of something, and probably the most succinct, ‘fucking shit’.

Mark: 0.5
Matt: 1
Sean: 0.5
Total: 2

6. Okell's. Aile. 4.7%. Sean’s choice.

A ‘Smoked Celtic Porter’. It’s got a great looking cappuccino head, there’s a hint of charcoal and bonfire in the nose but the smoke is really lulling and gentle. It’s very smooth and drinkable. We all loved this beer and we all were sad when the bottle was finished. Superb.

Mark: 7.5
Matt: 7.5
Sean: 8
Total: 23

7. Whim Ales. Dr. Johnson’s Definitive. 5.0%. Sean’s choice.

None of us had seen or heard of this beer before and we will probably quickly forget it; it was just okay. A fruity dark ale, some spice, cereal and dried fruits. Probably affect by following up the excellent Okell’s Aile.

Mark: 6.5
Matt: 6
Sean: 6
Total: 18.5

8. Stone Brewing. Ruination IPA. 7.7%. My choice.

I didn’t know when to bring this big gun out. It has a ruining effect (100+ IBUs!) on your palate and I didn’t want us to all just be tasting pine, orange and grapefruit for the rest of the night. So we had it before dinner, figuring that the food would clear our palates.

This is one addictively good beer. It’s brutally elegant in the cyclical nature that it makes you drink: sweet first then bitter which blows up in your mouth, then you want the sweetness again to ease the rampant hops and so on and so on… Incredible. Sean is a dark beer guy and Ruination IPA may well have changed his life forever (it changed my life when I first had it!).

Mark: 9
Matt: 9
Sean: 8.5
Total: 26.5

Next up: Dinner.

Matt’s lives right by a fish and chip shop so we just went there for something cheap and sustaining. I had burger and chips, Matt had sausage and chips and Sean devoured two huge battered sausages and chips (although did later complain of blurred vision). In keeping with the scoring, here’s what we gave the food:

Mark: 6
Matt: 6
Sean: 5
Total: 17

9. Desperados. 5.9%. Everyone’s choice!

A beer with huge sentimental value for all of us. We have demolished a fair few kegs and bottles of this trashy-delicious beer. It’s a tequila beer that you serve with lime. It’s quite unique, kinda sweet and limey. The flavour is just so familiar to all of us that we were gushing with Desperados-induced memories throughout. This scores highly because we love it for its sentimental value (plus it just tastes pretty good! Our trashy beer of choice!).

Mark: 7
Matt: 8
Sean: 8
Total: 23

Yes, it scored higher than Westvleteren 8!

10. Rogue. Dead Guy Ale. 6.5%. Sean’s choice.

A copper coloured maibock. Loads of apple and spice. Fairly drinkable but unfortunately it just wasn’t anything special, and by this time we were all getting pretty discernible, wanting nothing less than awesome (that’s what a Desperados will do to you/us!).

Mark: 6
Matt: 4
Sean: 4
Total: 14

11. Fuller’s. Vintage Ale 2004. 8.5%. Matt’s choice.

We stepped it up from here. This beer is older than the friendship between Matt and I which he bought it in our first year at uni together. We had two and opened one almost two years ago before we left uni. This is a sentimental beer that has been loving looked after.

It was bottle number 05325. Russet coloured with a big sherry and dried fruit nose with caramel and vanilla. It’s gorgeously complex with honeycomb, dates, marmalade, liquorice, oak, sherry and cherry… every mouthful gave us more and more flavours and complexity. We all agreed that it was probably the best beer that we’ve each tried. The sad thing is that we’ve had it for almost 5 years and now it’s gone forever!

Mark: 9.5
Matt: 9.5
Sean: 9
Total: 28

12. Goose Island. Bourbon County Stout. 13%. My choice.

I’ve had this knocking around for a while now and thought the beer night would be a great time to open it. If we thought the Fuller’s was unbeatable then this gave it a fair old fight. It’s an amazing beer. Black, oily, huge boozy bourbon nose, vanilla and coconut. It’s thick and rich, woody, vinous, chocolatey with a berry sweetness. It’s complex and warming and flipping good. I’ve got another hiding away for a few years time.

Mark: 9
Matt: 9
Sean: 9.5
Total: 27.5

13. BrewDog. Paradox Isle of Arran. 10%. Sean’s choice.

We probably should’ve had this before the Bourbon County as it’s fairly similar just a lot more mellow and toned down. It still stood up to the plate but it was stuck in the shadow of the beer before. But this is one of the best beers I’ve had this year and I love it. It’s chocolate and vanilla and coconut and cherry and ginger and berries and it’s superb. It’s like the Bourbon County’s little brother who may not be as strong and up in your face but is probably more intelligent and complex.

Mark: 9
Matt: 8
Sean: 8
Total: 25

14. Port Brewing. Wipeout IPA. 7%. My choice.

Another big IPA, this one to end off the night. This is hopped with Amarillo, Centennial, Cascade, Simcoe and Summit. It’s golden with a huge orange pith and juice aroma. It’s rich and boozy with hard-hitting, dry tangy hops which just keep getting more and more bitter. There isn’t too much sweetness either, which can be a problem with beers hopped to the eyeballs. A good IPA but after the glories of the Ruination anything big and bitter was going to fall short.

Mark: 7.5
Matt: 7
Sean: 7.5
Total: 22

And that was the end of the beer night. Although, there was still one bottle hanging around, but it only seemed fitting to have it in the morning with…

Breakfast... Sausage and black pudding sandwiches. Proper food and just the job to deal with the after effects of the night before. The breakfast scores:

Mark: 7.5
Matt: 8
Sean: 8.5
Total: 24

And with breakfast we had…

15. Mikkeller. Beer Geek Breakfast. 7.5%. My choice.

A rich coffee stout, bitter and roasted and full of proper coffee flavours. It has a great grassy/earthy hop finish which perfectly matches the coffee and dark chocolate notes. I thought this was a great (breakfast) beer, but it was probably marked down overall because of our slightly delicate states.

Mark: 7
Matt: 5.5
Sean: 6
Total: 18.5

So there it was. Great fun and a load of great beer. A strong and varied line-up and really interesting to compare so many different styles and flavours. The Fuller’s Vintage was champion of the night but the Goose Island was very close behind and the Ruination was right up there. I guess the big shock was Westvleteren not making the top five and Desperados being in there. The best beers are the best beers, and we agreed universally, but there is also something very important about sentimental value. The Top 5:

1. Fuller’s Vintage 2004
2. Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout
3. Stone’s Ruination IPA
4. BrewDog’s Paradox Isle of Arran
5. Okells Aile and Desperados (joint fifth)

In last place:

Becks Alcohol Free (that was kind of a gimme)

And breakfast beat dinner.

After breakfast we went to the White Horse in Parson’s Green and had a few great beers (Meantime IPA off tap was brilliant) and then out to a Belgian restaurant for dinner (I had Delirium Tremens off tap to start and a Rochefort 8 for main). Then we went to another pub and none of us ordered a beer. I’m guessing we were all feeling pretty beered-out!