Sunday 31 January 2010

The Hop Press: San Francisco Baby!

On Thursday I fly to San Francisco for a week of drinking beer, but I’m guessing you already knew that... This week’s Hop Press post is asking for local knowledge, trying to find the best places to go, the best places to eat, things like that.

I’ve got a map of all the main and well-known bars, breweries and stores and I’ve got an idea of my itinerary and the events I will be doing for Beer Week (which has the most amazing line-up of beer stuff going on). I just want to know the insider news on where the best burgers are, who does the best breakfast, the best place to drink a beer and chill out, and so on.

I’ve made a list of my must-find beers too. The top 5 (because I’m sad and geeky enough to do that), in no particular order, are: Pliny the Younger (it’s released once a year for about a week and I’ll be nearby when it launches so of course I will be having this), Pliny the Elder (it’s awesome and I want to see how it is from the keg), Anchor Steam (the beer which is integral to the kick start of craft brewing in America), Racer 5 (the beer I was drinking the night of the BGBW awards and the day after, so I want to drink it at the brewpub) and any Russian River sours, hopefully Supplication (just because). It’s not a ridiculous list and it’s not unachievable. Beyond these I just want to drink whatever is good in wherever I am.

If you know anything that I should know before going out there then tell me about it!

Thursday 28 January 2010

RateBeer Best Beers 2010

The results are in for this year’s RateBeer Bests. Based on almost 2.5million rates from last year, they show the highest ranked beers overall and then they are broken down in terms of style and place. Here are the lists.

In the Top 100 overall there is just one British beer, Old Chimney’s King Henry’s Special Reserve. It deserves to be there as it’s fantastic, but there are so many other great beers deserving of being in there too; it’s a little saddening to only find the solitary British entry. The UK list is interesting though and it’s great to see Thornbridge feature so well (13 of the Top 50 UK beers) and having Marble’s Dobber at number 5 is great. Punk IPA beats Jaipur by two places, which is an argument in itself, and there’s a spot for Gadds’ Black Pearl at 46. The list does lean towards big and strong with not many session beers making the top 50, which is a shame as that’s what our beer history is based around. What compounds this misery is that the Top 5 English Style Pale and Bitter is made up of four US beers and BrewDog’s How To Disappear Completely. Go figure.

The Best Bars list throws up a surprise to me: the Wellington in Birmingham being the 15th highest rated yet I hadn’t heard of it before this. The next highest UK pub is The Wenlock Arms, which truthfully, I think is a bit shit, unwelcoming and rough. The highest British breweries are Harviestoun, BrewDog and Sam Smith, followed by Thornbridge, which is a reflection on exported and ‘spoken about’ beers. Seeing Thornbridge there, as they hardly export, is a better indicator of the top British breweries as rated from ‘the inside’. Beermerchants make the Top 20 retailers in the world and that’s very cool and I think it reflects the ongoing determination to bring in different and interesting beers from around the world.

Whether you like or dislike rating sites and whether you trust them or not, it still reflects an interesting segment of drinkers and what was enjoyed, en mass, over the last year. The top beers have almost self-sustaining reputations, but to stay high up they still need to be damn good when it comes down to the taste experience (although rarity and hype do play a big part in the experience). For me, as it’s a collective opinion, it's largely a guide as to what geeky beer drinkers (you need to be a geek to want to rate – rating is hard work and takes real dedication!) like to find in their pint glass. It's not a list of the best beers to drink in a pub on a Sunday afternoon, it's a list of some of the most esoteric flavour experiences possible, dominated by imperial stouts, barrel aging, IPAs and sours.

What do you think about the lists? Anything else interesting in these lists? Do you trust them or not? Does it make you want to go out and find as many of these beers as possible and drink them? It certainly makes me want them a little bit more.

What this has also done is give me a ready-made list of beers to look for when I am in the US, because, yes, I do care about hyped-up beers, big beers and celebrated beers. I’m fickle like that. I’ve currently had 17 of the Top 100 and that’s just not good enough.

Tuesday 26 January 2010

@Sheffield, #twissup was awesome

Well that was fun. The pictures say it all (especially this one, although this is my favourite thanks to the hilarious caption). Take 30 people, a combination of bloggers, brewers and drinkers, mix them up inside three breweries and lots of pubs, soak in beer for up to 12 hours and it’s a good recipe for a cracking day.

Thornbridge and BrewDog lined the bar in the Sheffield Tap at midday (Black Dog is the best looking beer I’ve seen in ages); a pit stop in the Harlequin which broke up the long walk; a Kelham Island brewery tour where everyone was drinking Marble Brew No.14; to the current CAMRA Pub of the Year, the Kelham Island Tavern, for a Thornbridge Samhain; to the Sheffield Brewing Co, another tour, a couple of beers; to The Hillsborough Hotel, to a bar lined with Crown Brewery beers, a Marble, Thornbridge and a Pictish; the most to-the-point-brewery tour ever (that’s the mash tun, thanks); Ring of Fire 2009 being tapped; a tram and a bus to a sandwich eating competition and a pint of something from Abbeydale; back on the bus to the Devonshire Cat and a pub full of drunk people drinking Ruination and heading straight for just that; and onwards still, back to the Sheffield Tap, for more, and more; and then food, the missing ingredient of the night, some chicken things, chips and potatoes cooked in southern fried chicken batter; a taxi; a broken key; a shared bed; too-little sleep; the worst hangover ever experienced; a delicious breakfast that couldn’t be eaten as all focus was on controlling the body functions; and then to Leeds; a round of juice and tea in Wetherspoons; taxi to Avery at Beer Ritz; Rooster’s fantastic American IPA on cask got me back on track; a dizzying selection of bottles; bye to Zak, hi to North Bar, for cask, keg and bottles, for bread and fantastic cheese, for a Raging Bitch; then the best pint of Sam Smith’s OBB I’ve ever had; a quick Old Peculiar; another train; a couple of half pints in the Sheffield Tap; Burger King; a four hour train journey made into a five hour train journey by missing the connection by one minute; finally getting in and realising the text I sent to Lauren to tell her I’d be late didn’t actually send; unpack, sit down, pass out.

Damn it was a good time. I felt like hell all day yesterday but who cares, it was worth it. Sheffield is a seriously good place to drink seriously good beer (and if you go then stay at The Hillsborough Hotel, it’s a great place). Jaipur was my first and last of the weekend and just delicious; the Marble Brew No.14 was fantastic; Crown Pale Ale and Stannington Stout show how good a brewer Stu is and then his Ring of Fire blew me away with its green-chilli fruitiness (that was beer of the day); Ruination IPA was a glass of peaches and apricots that kicked my arse; bottles of Orval and geueze ended one day and left their wrath on the next.

A day spent drinking, talking about beer and enjoying it is always fun. Thank you to everyone who came, it was great to meet you or to see you again – I hope everyone had a brilliant day. Special thanks to Alex from All Beer for sorting us out a lot of extra treats and brewery tours and hurrying us along when we floundered. Now we just need to sort out the next one! So far we’ve had suggestions for Manchester (Tandleman, we’ll need a guide!), Oxford or Cambridge, Norwich, Derby, Newcastle (Jeff Pickthall offered to guide us around there), or even Belgium. Plus there’s GBBF, but that one’s a gimme. Where do you fancy going?!

Thanks to Matt for the photos. Check out the #twissup timeline too, it makes for fun and interesting reading! 

Monday 25 January 2010

FABPOW! Haggis Shit Storm

Sausage, chips and beans is a great dinner and this is my mashed-up English bastardisation in celebration of Burns Night, featuring haggis, swede and potato chips and whisky baked beans (literally a can of beans with some whisky in them - classy). I served this with the most ridiculous Scottish beer I’ve ever had: BrewDog’s Storm, the 8% IPA aged to buggery in an Islay cask which will bring tears to your eyes as your choke it down. Not many like this beer; it’s earthy and peaty and it has sweet citrus pith flavour beneath a scissor-kick-you-in-the-head barrel intensity.

Haggis is disgusting. Everyone knows it but we eat it anyway. It’s not just because it’s made from sheep innards but it also tastes rank; peppery and mushy, stick-in-your-teeth thick, musty. Baked beans are wonderful; spiking them with whisky is stupid but I wanted something a little smoky to bridge the beer. It was perhaps the worst smelling plate of food I’ve ever eaten. The chips, obviously, were delicious, although there’s a reason the potato is commonly used over the swede... The beer ungracefully jumped over it all like a sumo-wrestler attempting ballet. But it all works perfectly because it’s Scottish.

This may be my Food and Beer Pairing of the Week! but it doesn’t mean it’s a delicious one: this combination is horrible. Don’t ever attempt this. Happy Burns Night!

Sunday 24 January 2010

The Hop Press: Changing Expectations

I’m not here right now. This is set to auto post, as is the Hop Press post, so fingers are crossed that it all works out (if it doesn't then it won't get fixed until Monday). Currently, as this posts itself, I should be in Beer Ritz with Zak and a bunch of beer bloggers. This comes after a big one in Sheffield and before a big one in Leeds.

This week’s Hop Press blog is about a shift in expectation that comes after drinking good beer. You see, I want most beers to be a life changing experience (or at least for them to be very good) and that’s foolish. It should be more about the moment of the drinking and I’m sure we’ve all had crappy beers but enjoyed them (or at least remembered them) because of the moment. Not every beer will blow my mind so I shouldn’t expect it to. Not every pale ale will be pumped with tongue-tingling hops but it will have a subtle flavour to it that needs appreciating.

The thing is, if everything is levelled and it just comes down to the beer in the glass, I want it to be a good one and I’m not afraid to throw it away if it isn’t great – there’s so much good beer to be drunk!

Saturday 23 January 2010

Front Line Beer Blogging

Hillsborough Hotel, Sheffield. Four Crown Brewery beers on. A Marble, Pictish and Thornbridge. More than 25 bloggers, tweeters and brewers. This is beer blogging on the front line.

Friday 22 January 2010

There began an education

The Tap ‘n’ Tin. I was 17, thirsty to fit in, hungry to be different, eager to act like a grown up. I had dyed hair, the piercings had started. The pub was under railway bridges, heavy bouncers manned the doors. By day it’s a pub, relaxed, industrial silver, pool tables, free sandwiches, different rooms and levels throughout, big benches, great jukebox sound-system, a cool backyard in the shadow of an old, dark church. By night it transforms into a rock dive bar, loud music pumps, the crowd throb and push to DJs and live bands, hot, busy, fun. Fashion was a big thing, divided between the Goths, the Rockers, the Cool crowd and the wannabees. We went there to get drunk, to play pool, to hang out with friends and, later in the evening on the top floor, to dance wildly to great songs. The beer wasn’t good. One cask of Abbot Ale on gravity was always vinegary and stale; two casks of 8% cider which only the hardcore braved (vinegary and stale); the usual array of kegged lagers; a wall of spirits to get drunk quick; bottles of Bud and, thankfully, Newcastle Brown Ale. So there began an education in ale. Heavy bottle in hand, drinking it down, logo facing outwards to market myself as different, feeling super-cool. There was also Newcy Brown Girl. Tight jeans, funky hair, a piercing by her lip, tattoo on her back, dark eyes, one of those walks. She drank it from the bottle as she floated around, lots of eyes on her. And (this is the best bit) she had a belt made with the yellow-and-blue-starred caps, like notches or battle scars. She made us want to drink it more. And we did. Around we walked with our bottles, bumping in to people, feeling their sweat against us, our eyes stinging from the thick smoke, our ears banging from the music, our heads giddy and light from everything... So many great memories... Of playing pool, of dancing to the best songs, of going there on Christmas Eve and getting wasted, of going to a beer festival with two mates and my dad and then to the pub after, of afternoons spent there when we shouldn’t have, of pints of lager and cigarettes, of seeing people and things that opened my mind (it was there that I saw two girls kissing for the first time; it was there that I saw two guys kissing for the first time). That’s where we grew up, my friends and I, drinking bottles of Newcy Brown, trying to fit in, playing pool and dancing like we didn’t care.

I haven’t been back there for years and I really must. The pub is now flanked and linked to a laundrette, a tattoo parlour, a hairdressers and a cafe. It’s a pretty cool place to be. Pete Doherty played there once too, after he was released from prison. You will hear that story every time you mention the Tap to someone who loves it.

Thursday 21 January 2010

Where the wild hops grow

A sunny day, quiet. Let’s go for a walk. The birds chatter, the breeze rustles, the barley moves in a dance across the field, an old car chugs past, the driver smiles. Just a little further up, that’s where the wild hops grow.

Jade green leaves; perfect clusters of gold; thick, rubbery branches; berries behind ready to stain fingers purple. The hops; picked and pressed between the fingers they leave their resin, sticking with the soft, giving skin; fragrant with lemon pith, herbs, wood, grass.

What are they like?

Make a beer just for them. Something light, pale. Something to show off whatever it is, however it’ll taste. Will it be bitter, will it be aromatic? Will it be subtle or not, high alpha or not? Will it be citrusy or earthy, fruity or spicy? There’s no way to know. Not until it’s brewed, not until you can drink it.

It’s the unknown, that’s what’s exciting. There’s no control; it’s leaving it to that secret wild unknown to change the brew, to give its unique quality, to make it; a magic ingredient.

That’s the Romance of it. Not knowing what you will get. A blind date. A shut-your-eyes-and-hold-out-your-hands, I’ve got a surprise. It’s crafted but the result is a lottery and even the maker has no idea. Brew the beer, use the hops, wait.

When it’s ready you get the first taste. It’s pale and alive, the aroma is subtle but dig deeper and there’s strawberries, barley, a light floral quality. Taste it. Sweet, crisp, refreshing, a little dryness at the end. The hops nudge by, not big, not abrasive, but gentle. It’s saying ‘come find me’, it’s saying ‘come get me’. It’s so drinkable; chase it around the glass because there’s a hidden mystery to it. The hops seem illusive but they are there, playful. ‘Come get me’, they say.

Barry Bit the Bullet and made a Münsterlander Wild-Hopped Ale (with the addition of some Hallertauer Perle, just in case – I campaigned for 100% wild, but what do I know, I was just wooed by the idea of the unknown!). From the moment I knew about it I wanted to try it. I felt the Romance of it, the possibilities of the unknown. Thankfully, and very gratefully, Barry sent some over and I’ve now tried it. It certainly Romanced me!

Wednesday 20 January 2010

How Much Do You Drink?: Learning to Get Drunk, Temperance and Neo-Prohibition

How much do you drink? And, how often do you drink? These are questions I get asked a lot (usually by my mum). In light of the Neo-Prohibition series by Pete Brown (I’ve learnt a lot reading these in the last week) I wondered how much everyone actually drinks, when they drink and the way they drink.

My drinking habits are fairly routine. Friday and Saturday I’m on it and these are my dedicated beer days. Sunday is sometimes a few pints or bottles, sometimes dry. Monday to Wednesday I try to keep beer out and usually manage it. Thursday can go either way.

I try to have dry days as a way of balance; it’d probably be more sensible to spread the week’s worth of drinking out over the full week, but I feel more righteous not imbibing for a couple of days. On the drinking days, it’s usually a few pints or a few bottles if I’m at home. Sometimes it’s a lot more, but that’s quite rare – who actually enjoys the feeling of having too many? Not me.

I don’t think my drinking habits are unusual. I also don’t think they are unsafe because I know what I’m doing and I know my physical limits. When I was at university things were different. Every Friday night, without fail, we played monstrous drinking games. It was usually a crazy version of higher or lower where we ended up drinking ridiculous amounts of the cheapest gin and vodka. It was an organised, focussed attempt to get as drunk as possible. Then we went out and drank more in the student union. And we drank cheap rubbish - alcopops, spirits and mixers. That’s proper binge drinking. I’ve said it before, but it’s a mentality thing: drinking six shots of vodka to get drunk is different from drinking a bottle of wine at home to relax; one is a means to an end, the other is social and relaxing.

And we are, like most others, a nation of social drinkers. Social drinkers aren’t the problem here. It’s the ones who are anti-social with their drinking. Cheap deals on supermarket lager and three-for-one on shots mean that getting alcohol (getting drunk) is easy and very affordable but it’s no cheaper than a box of KFC and that’s equally ‘damaging’. As for anti-social drinking... that happens when your drinking directly affects someone else, physically or mentally (alcoholism, aggressive ‘social’ drinking).

Technically, whenever I choose to drink I binge, yet the thought never crosses my mind that I might be doing wrong. I think the unit scale is only relevant if people are driving, and even then it’s not an exact science. You see, I personally don’t care whether I consume 2 units or 20 units. It’s like worrying about 100 calories or 1000 calories. It’s not about the ‘label’ of units, it’s about the thought process behind the consumption and the mentality of it (plus, have you ever heard someone sitting in the pub saying, ‘no more for me, I’ve reached my four units for the day’?).

What do the government want to do? Is a temperance movement gaining pace? Will a pint soon cost £7? The trouble is, it’s not about the product but it’s how it’s used: use a car sensibly and everything is ok, use it stupidly and people get hurt. Before we can drive we have to take lessons and tests to prove that we are capable of driving. Drinking should be an education too, learning respect, how to act responsibly and the serious consequences (because, there’s no ignoring it, the consequences are serious). Scare-mongering is telling a one-sided point of view; education is about forming balanced opinions. Mark at Real Ale Reviews talks about the PR spin on things and that’s what it is: a quick cosmetic procedure that looks effective to a lot of people in a short amount of time. But it’s cosmetic and doesn’t fix the real, underlying problems.

Neo-prohibition is an easy and quick tick in a big government box; educating the nation is a difficult tick. Some people are terrible and unsafe drivers; some people are unsafe drinkers. Some people does not mean all people.

So out of interest, how much do you drink and when do you drink? Do you think you are unsafe and do you try and balance things out with good diet and exercise? Everything in moderation, so they say.

I found the picture by googling ‘drunk’. Most of the others, oddly, were of Paris Hilton.

Monday 18 January 2010

Sheffield Tweet-Up: The Details

Not much more to add, just one more reminder about this Saturday’s blogger Tweet-Up/Twiss-Up in Sheffield.

The plan is still the same: meet by 12 in the Sheffield Station Tap, have a beer and then hit the ground running (it’s likely that we will be running too, as the day is rammed full with beer, pubs and breweries). Between them, Alex from ALL BEER, Reluctant Scoop and Stu, will sort us out a route around the city, which I think currently includes three breweries and something like 84 pubs. There will be somewhere with the football on so the Leeds fans can watch them lose to Spurs and food will mainly be taken in the form of crisps. I don’t know how we are getting between pubs so expect to walk or some buses/trams (easier said than done in a city centre with a group of 15+). The last stop will be the Hillsborough Hotel (which will be an afternoon stop too, featuring some special beers on tap and a brewery tour) as that’s where some of us are staying. I’ve mentioned that some will be leaving from 8 onwards so we need to be in easy reach of the train station from then on.

In the last post we discussed a Beer Swap. If anyone wants to take part then just bring one bottle of local beer and swap it with someone on the day, then take it home, drink it and blog about it. I’m not sure if anyone is bringing any special bottles with them to open on the day... This is fine, but remember it’ll need to be shared between a lot of people (my current count is 18-21 people!) and some pubs might not like us opening our own stuff in them. As for buying the beers... it’ll be a bit like pub golf, I think, given the numbers, and a round (even at the lowly northern prices) will cost a small fortune, so we’ll just have to buy our own or do rounds in small drinking teams...

Leeds is still on for the Sunday. We’ll be getting there around 11 and making our way over to Beer Ritz (which opens at 12), then back in to the pubs. Everyone is welcome. I think there are 6-7 for Leeds so far, but I’m not certain. I need to leave Leeds about 4, so it won’t be another all-dayer (not for me anyway, but everyone else can!).

The important things: wear your drinking shoes; bring a bag for any bottles you want to buy/swap along the way; a sandwich might be good sustenance until we find somewhere to serve food for us all; and, bring a whistle in case you get lost. We’ve started using the #twissup hashtag in tweets and there is a group which you should join and follow if you are coming. You can DM or email me your mobile number too, just in case we lose anyone or need to call you.

That’s all. I can’t wait, it’s going to be a great weekend! If there are any other bloggers who haven’t said they are coming yet, but who want to, then just say and be there by 12 on the 23rd. See you all there!

Sunday 17 January 2010

The Hop Press: Beers to Talk About

This week’s Hop Press blog is about the beers which make you talk. I specifically refer to Westvleteren 12, Tactical Nuclear Penguin and Calcutta IPA, the beer Pete Brown had brewed for Hops and Glory. To quote myself, because it’s easier than re-writing, ‘Having [these beers] in your glass is a tangible experience; there’s excitement to them, delicate underlying tension, a sense of wonder. These feelings come from the rareness, history, age or the story (of the actual beer or a personal story of your own) of the beer.’

The full post is here. Tell me what you think. And what beers have made you talk?

Last week, when I was working on this BrewDog Dinner, I also shot a video of Tactical Nuclear Penguin. Here it is.


This is not a proper blog post.

Well, it kind of is, but there's not much substance to it... It's more of a test, since I just found that I can upload blogs via email from my blackberry.

The picture was part of my dinner last night and it was bloody lovely. Cantillon Gueuze with goats' cheese is a fantastic pairing because there is a similar 'goaty' character in both; the lemony sharpness and creamy-sharp cheese match perfectly; the savoury depth of the beer and the fizz hit the bottom and top notes. Fantastic.
Now I hope this email blogging thing works... Imagine the possibilities!

Friday 15 January 2010

Animated Beer

I’ve always thought that animated beer looks completely, totally delicious. When Moe pours Homer an amber glassful of Duff, frothing over at the top, it’s incredibly inviting. He lifts the glass and drinks the whole pint in a second or two, completely satisfied and wanting more, letting out a gasp of pleasure. I know it’s a made-up version of a mega-brand beer but I really want to drink one.

In my mind I can taste it - it’s very full bodied but not sticky or sweet, it’s dry but not bitter, it’s smooth and savoury like crackers or sponge cake (I don’t know why it tastes this way to me...). I think it’s the speed they drink them which makes them look so damn tasty and quenching. The same works for cartoon pizza – it get ravenously hungry when I see characters eating it. Those floppy slices, the disregard for manners, the huge and satisfied mouthfuls, big stomach-filling gulps, the lack of need to chew; I think it’s the lazy man in me that wants to be able to consume effortlessly in just the same way. While we're here, I also like the look of: cartoon chicken wings, cartoon burgers, cartoon steak and cartoon doughnuts.

You can actually buy Duff beer (to my knowledge you can’t buy consumable cartoon pizza...). The bad news is that the Mexican ‘entrepreneur’ behind this hasn’t signed any agreements over the beer and I’m guessing Fox will not be overjoyed at the label looking just like the one in The Simpsons...

Personally, I don’t want to ever try it. Duff is a fantasy beer of mine (which I’d drink when out for dinner with Marge, especially after seeing her Playboy shoot!). If I had to choose any one beer in the world to drink, real or not, it would quite possibly be Duff.

Mmm... Animated beer.

Tuesday 12 January 2010

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrel-Aged Beers

Barrel-aging beers has been the brewing in-thing for the last few years. I’ve had plain oak, god-knows-how-many whisky-barrels, rum-barrel, cider brandy barrel and wine barrel and each adds its own unique quality, some of it from the wood and some from what aged inside it.

Whisky barrels are the most common and the affinity of the grain makes them natural partners. BrewDog’s Paradox series is a great way of showcasing how one beer can be changed dramatically by aging it in different whisky barrels, and the finished beers are understated but still full of character. American versions tend to be more punch-you-in-the-face with bourbon - Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout is probably the quintessential casing point. Whether subtle or not, I have a bit of a thing for the barrel: I love what the aging can add if it’s successful; I love the extra texture, the wood flavour (oak, vanilla, coconut, a dryness), the spices and sweetness, smoke and earth. But what exact characteristics are transferred from the whisky into the barrel and then in turn from the barrel into the beer?

To try and find out I opened some beer and whisky side-by-side. First, BrewDog’s Paradox Springbank with the Springbank 10 whisky and then Harviestoun’s Ola Dubh 12 with Highland Park 12. Here’s a video (my first in ages) of me opening the Ola Dubh and Highland Park.

The Springbank whisky has distant smoke, a slight saltiness, a floral lightness, dried fruit, spices and ginger. The beer carries over the earthiness and the salty-smoky flavour as well as fruit beneath and some of that spice and coconutty wood to round it all off. I think this is one of the best in the Paradox range with a great balance of sweet and smoky.

The Highland Park 12 is so smooth, it has a great sweetness to it and then hints of earthiness and smoke. It’s incredibly well-balanced, I think. The Ola Dubh 12 is packed with raisins and smoke swirls around inside it adding great complexity. The woody barrel dryness also comes through, lending a near savoury touch at the end. It’s a great beer and a great whisky.

Tasting beer and whisky side by side is an interesting challenge. The barrel imparts certain characteristics into the beer, some of this is from the wood itself (a texture-thing as well as a flavour) and some is from the whisky; some of the whisky flavours are probably dulled by the wood, but others will be amplified. Oak, vanilla and coconut are prominent in barrel-aged stouts and these are from the wood. Smoky flavours seem to elbow their way through to the front of the beer, even when it’s subtle in the whisky, and extra sweetness folds itself in, balancing the roasty-bitter stout (for it is most often stout in the whisky barrels). As for other flavours... I guess I need to drink more beer and whisky!

I’m trying to learn more about whisky. My interest in it has come from drinking beers aged in whisky barrels. For me, it’s the wood character that interests me the most in the finished beers. I love the vanilla and coconut flavour and the toasted oak quality. Lovely. My enjoyment of gueuze is based on the savoury-woody quality that adds such fantastic depth to the beer. Gadds Reserved Barely Wine is a great example of a barley wine aged in an old red wine barrel, another twist on aging, this one with wild yeast character.

Monday 11 January 2010

FABPOW! Vegetable Chilli and BrewDog Zeitgeist

After yesterday’s post about food and beer and a weekend of eating and drinking (as well as Alan’s reply about the whole pairing game), here comes the first FABPOW! of the new year.

It’s bloody freezing outside and we wanted something warming but also healthy. As Lauren doesn’t eat meat we decided on a vegetable chilli. Nothing complicated, just onions, peppers, courgettes, carrots, mushrooms, tomato, spices (cumin, coriander, turmeric, paprika, black pepper, garlic, ginger) and beans, left in a big pot for an hour until rich and hearty and finished with lime and coriander. To cope with the sweetly acidic tomato, earthy-sweet vegetables, chilli heat and fragrant spice, you want a beer with enough balls to stand up to it all but not one that will knock it out with brute force. You want hops to tickle the chilli heat and you need something to soften the thick tomato sauce. BrewDog Zeitgeist is the answer. It’s smooth and roasty, chocolatey and has a lifting hop finish to clean the palate and play with the spice. Normal FAB logic is to go with an IPA but the roasted flavour in this dark lager just work perfectly with the vegetables and tomatoes and it also softens the chilli heat. A very worthy Food and Beer Pairing of the Week.

Sunday 10 January 2010

The Hop Press: Beer and food: Because it’s worth it

Sunday means a post on The Hop Press blog. There’s some really good articles over there written by a variety of beer writers, so it’s well worth checking out, especially if you are interested in the US beer scene.

Today’s post is about pairing beer and food and is a simple overview of the tricks which beer can play that makes it a great companion to your lunch.

Anyone had any good food and beer pairings recently?

Friday 8 January 2010

My Christmas Drinking

I drank a lot over Christmas. My usual hoarding tendencies were pushed aside as I (almost) freely pulled bottles from the cupboard and ripped the cap off before I could even think twice, which resulted in a festive-flurry of high-end beer-drinking.

This post is ridiculously long and basically a drunk-diary (for more of that see Rabid about Beer) but if I leave it any longer it’ll lose relevance so I figured that I might as well just get it all out in one big, horrifying splurge.

Christmas Eve: Back home at my parents’. I grabbed three big bottles from the cupboard to share with my dad. Mikkeller’s USAlive (Tomahawk, Cascade, Amarillo and brett – pfwoar) is fantastically fruity and peppery with that lift of brett funk, while all being quite understated and very drinkable. Moor’s Old Freddy Walker really was like Christmas pudding in a glass, just with some added chocolate and flowery hops (I’ve had the cask version of this and it’s even better). Port Brewing’s Santa’s Little Helper 2008 finished the night (I couldn’t resist – what better day to drink it on?). It’s a great stout. It tastes just how a 10% stout should.

Christmas Day: King of drinking days. Mikkeller Beer Geek Brunch Weasel kicked it off. It’s one helluva beer: massively roasty and full bodied, unctuous, smooth, rich. I love it. As a pre-Christmas treat I bought myself an Orval glass so I filled this next. It was bottled in November, so fresh, but it just confirmed it as (probably) my favourite beer. I like it so much because whenever I have it, it’s both familiar but always a little bit different and always interesting. Then, as it’s Christmas, I took out a Westvleteren 8 and drank some hype. I love the smell of the Westvleterens, this fruit-bready-appley-tea aroma. Flavour-wise it’s dried fruit, bread, chocolate and teacake. Dinner time! With the turkey I had a Chimay Blue 2008 (a Grande one). The fruity, spicy, bready flavour worked perfect with the bird, with the carbonation lifting the richness of it all and lending an earthy sweetness (that the Westvleteren didn’t have) to combat the vegetable mountain. After dinner came a BrewDog 77 Lager, then a Moor JJJ IPA, a 5am Saint and a Saints&Sinners Insomniac. The 77 perked me up. The Moor kicked my arse. The 5am continues to surprise me. The Insomniac finished me off nicely. Good day. I got lots of cool presents, spent lots of time with my family, Lauren and her family, and my 6-week-old nephew Frankie was dressed as santa.

Boxing Day: A let’s-allow-me-to-recover-a-bit day. A glass of red wine with lunch and a bottle of Delerium Christmas in the evening. The beer was like a vision on Santa – massive red body and a fluffy white head.

December 27th: I went to Faversham to drink with Pete and David Brissenden. I challenged them to find me a decent pint of Shepherd Neame. They failed. Then Pete took us to a pub which serves his beer. But that was pretty good, so I can’t complain. Then home for some bottles. Starting with Barry’s homebrew. His Wild Hopped beer, which I’ll write more about soon, had this fantastic hint of strawberry which I chased thirstily around the glass. His Schwarzer Peat Porter has distant smoke in the nose but then when you taste it it fills your mouth with a rich body, a billowing smoke, fruits and chocolate – very good (and again I’m constantly surprised by just how good his homebrew is... and it makes me want to brew, too). There was a Lost Abbey 10 Commandments, a 9% Belgian ale with honey, raisins, rosemary and – I think – brett. They were all in there, although the brett was hiding well away. It’s pretty good, estery spice, herby, fruity. A Hanssens Kriek came out to make us pucker our lips. We had some dinner of leftovers, which was delicious (I totally adore Christmas leftovers). After dinner we opened a Westvleteren 12. I wasn’t content with just having the 8 so went straight for the big dog. What made this interesting was that we poured it and then sat around the table for 20 minutes discussing it: what makes a great beer, what makes the best beer in the world, subjectivity, hype. For that reason alone it’s a great beer, even if it doesn’t taste like the best beer in the world. Then came some more of Barry’s beer, this time his Oaked Barley Wine, of which only 12 bottles exist (and we thought that drinking W12 was rare!). We universally loved it. Big, uncompromising, fruity-bitter but then with this current of vanilla-oak running straight down the middle, softening any hop harshness. And we continued... At this point came a massive cheese board with a bottle of 1985 port (those Brissenden’s know how to drink and eat!). And finally, just to top it all off, we had some Tactical Nuclear Penguin. I tried it before but this time I got a proper taste and got to think about it some more. The aroma is seriously good – fresh bread, berries, distant Islay. It looks great too as the long legs stream down the glass. Taste-wise it’s an intense experience. It’s fun but challenging, it’s beer but it’s not. There’s a richness to it, a lot of fruit, that earthy Islay quality and a boozy kick. Pretty damn incredible.

After this came a ‘quiet’ day when I just drank a few bottles, the highlight was an E.S. Bam (currently a bargain at beermerchants) was like a mini-Orval, all peppery and bretty.

Then another big day. Lauren and I met with Mark and his girlfriend Sarah and Pete and his girlfriend Heather and we took our beer widows on a beer tour of London. We started in the Market Porter (can't remember what), then the Princess Louise (OBB of course), the Porterhouse (Oyster Stout, Plain and Hophead) and the White Horse. I literally spent a small fortune on beer that day, especially in the Pony where we opened bottle after bottle of great beer (I actually wrote it as a blog post but didn’t post it, the post was ‘I went to the White Horse and I drank...’ and it was like that memory word game). This is what we had between us in the White Horse (we were sharing, of course): A Baladin Open, an Anchor Christmas 2008, Little Creatures Pale Ale, Rodenbach Grand Cru, 3 Fonteinen Oude Geuze, Orval, Otley Notso, Rochefort 10, Goose Island IPA, Cantillon Rose de Gambrinus, Gales Prize Old Ale 2007 and a Flying Dog Wild Dog Gonzo. That’s pretty good drinking. The highlights were the Baladin Open, the 3 Fonteinen and the Wild Dog Gonzo. Cracking. The fish and chips was very good too. As was the (wonderfully tolerant and beautiful and) lovely company.

I’m still not done. December 30th: I had to go to Bluewater. It was hellish. But on the way home I went to The Bull, Horton Kirby. There was some Thornbridge Brother Rabbit and Rakau and a lot of Marble Manchester Bitter. The Marble was just incredibly good, so vibrantly fruity, so drinkable. It inspired this post. At home that night I opened the three Williams Bros beers which I wrote about yesterday.

New Years Eve (getting there now): I went to Lauren’s parents’ house. I started with a Lindeman’s Cuvee Rene and it was perfect: sprightly, light, zesty, sharp, fruity and smooth with a woody dryness underneath. Fuck Champagne, drink Gueuze, that’s what I say. Then I just opened a few BrewDog’s: Punk, Punk Monk, Paradox Smokehead. And there was a just-past-it Port Brewing Hop 15, which still packed a delicious punch of hops. I saw in the New Year drinking Kwak, which was a little disappointing, but whatever...

New Years Day (still going): My dad’s birthday so obviously more beer. I cooked dinner too: Steak and ale (Fuller’s London Porter) pie and Pete’s chocolate pots for dessert. We drank: some of the Porter which is a roasty, smoky, rich treat; a Deus (why the hell not?); a Fuller’s ESB; and a sweet kriek with the pudding. Then my body pretty much gave up on me.

I’ve had one beer between then and now; a 5am Saint, which fascinates me more and more every time I drink it – I think it’s great.

So there we go. A prolonged period of excess (followed by January: a prolonged period of exercise). But what a great time it was!

Thursday 7 January 2010

Williams Bros Historic Ales

What did beer taste like hundreds of years ago, I often ask myself. What hops did they use in their double IPAs in the 1700s, what kind of whisky barrels did they age their imperial stouts in during the 16th Century? In fact, my enjoyment of lambic is in its olde rustic charm, a taste of beer from many years ago, a mythical-magical concoction of wildly and freely fermenting beers, sweetened with fruit. Luckily for me, Williams Bros have a range of Historic Ales, so I get to try a modern interpretation of what these beers may have been like.

Kelpie is made with seaweed, which isn’t half as horrid as it sounds. Years ago the barley was grown in fields fertilized by seaweed but to recreate that the brewery adds the green stuff into the mash. It’s a deep brown ale with a fruity, chocolatey aroma initially, but sneakily hiding behind this is a waft - a hint - of something saline… a distinct earthy, peppery aroma (and maybe I was just mind-tricked into thinking it, but I could’ve sworn I smelt deep fried seaweed, the stuff from the Chinese – which isn’t even seaweed at all!). It’s a really tasty beer, easy drinking, roasty with a nice background sweetness and some dark stone fruits.

Grozet contains bog myrtle and ripe gooseberries. It’s a pale gold with a fluffy white head. The aroma is light and fruity and inconspicuous which belies the first taste of pale ale with a kick of sour berries, not wild-beer-sour, but fresh fruit sour. It’s bready and clean with a kick of earthy, heathery, flowery hops and then that fruitiness, which mellows as you drink. I could probably drink a few buckets of this.

Alba is a tripel-style beer brewed with spruce and pine. Some of these lovely new American hops taste like pine. This is actually made with it. Pouring it I feared a strange mix of retsina and strong beer, thankfully this fear soon died as it poured an amber-red and wafted a great aroma of berries, fruit and yeast. It’s a big beer with plenty of cakey (Victoria sponge) sweetness, spicy malt, strawberry fruits and a dry, slightly-herby finish. The pine wasn’t sharp and in your face, but chilled out, adding a great depth.

Williams also brew the famous heather ale, Fraoch (I also have one of the 11% versions aged in ex-Sherry and Speyside whisky casks), and Ebulum, an elderberry black ale with a recipe from the 16th century, as part of the Historical Ale range. I don’t imagine that this is exactly (or even close to) what the beer tasted like hundreds of years ago but I like that they are using these traditional ingredients and making them available for the modern drinker – it adds an extra level of engagement to the experience. And they taste pretty good too.

I don’t think I’ve had any Williams Bros Contemporary beers on cask (maybe Midnight Sun?) so that’s something to look out for this year. And this is just another example to raise when I try and qualify the statement: Scotland, they make some of the best beers in the world right now.

Wednesday 6 January 2010

Sheffield Tweet-Up: Are you in?

Just a reminder… The beer blogger tweet-up is still on for Saturday 23rd January. Get your tickets booked and sort out your hotels if you want to go. A couple of us are staying at The Hillsborough. If you are travelling up from London then check the best prices from East Midlands trains (you can get £5 fares). The plan is still to meet at 12pm in the Sheffield Station bar (eight Thronbridge on tap... we might never leave!). From there we can work our way around the city – there’s a lot of good pubs to drink in. A few of us will be drinking in Leeds on the Sunday and everyone is also welcome.

If you are definitely coming then let us know. It’s going to be great fun – I’m really looking forward to it now! And if you know Sheffield then a possible route would be quite handy to those of us who don’t.

And how about a small beer swap with whoever comes: everyone brings one local beer and swaps it in person with someone else, then take it home and drink it and blog it later? Everyone up for that? Just one, good, local beer.

See you there!

I got the image from the Brewers Association website.

Tuesday 5 January 2010

The Wikio Wine and Beer Top Blogs: January 2010

This is the first chance I’ve had to announce the Wikio Wine and Beer list and here they are for January...
The Wikio list is based on links in and out. Some say that it it therefore means quite insular to our inter-linking blogs and the list is largely self-congratulatory, however, they are important for other reasons, looking beyond the beer and wine blogging community and focusing on the bigger picture.

Links – in, out, reciprocal - increase web-presence. Links to high ranking sites increase your web presence further (so twitter, facebook, youtube, etc. are good). Ranking sites according to their web-presence is important. When you want to find out some information, what do you do? I search google. The better the web-presence, the more chance there is of a website coming back higher up on the results list (which means more people are likely to click on it and read it...). Ultimately we all want to champion good beer. By linking in and out of other blogs and other websites we are pushing and promoting ourselves and therefore beer in general. The better web-presence we all have, the more likely it is that someone searching for, say, ‘Thornbridge Bracia’ will land on a blog to (hopefully) get some of the information they need (do a search for Thornbridge Bracia and see how many blogs come up...). We should celebrate this and support each other as blogs are often going to be searched for information before any other form of reference. This also makes my comments yesterday about bloggers more relevant.

Add links. It’s important (and not just to see you rise up the wikio list).

It’s still great to see so many beer blogs on this list (16 of the Top 20). Let’s make it our 2010 aim to support each other, read the other blogs and, importantly, comment and talk about what is there as much as we can. We are the voices of beer in the UK (and slightly beyond, in some cases).

Monday 4 January 2010

Predictions and Hopes for 2010

Last year I put down a few predictions for the year. Here’s what I think for 2010...


Cask beer will grow. I also think cask beer drinkers will start younger (as the Cask Report says) and that there’s a huge market of drinkers in British universities – some unis do cask, but not many, which is a real shame. This is an untapped (literally) area with massive potential (some expendable income, a drinking culture, ‘educated’ audience... Ask around and I bet a good number of ale drinkers - those with degrees, anyway - started while studying).

Breweries working to please two different markets: the real ale pub drinker and the beer ‘enthusiast’ who wants something a little different. This will mean a core range of cask beers and then a few specials, bottled in small numbers. This will in turn - for small, very specialist brews - create certain beers as commodities, pushing price levels higher and bottle numbers lower (see: BrewDog’s Abstrakt range). A few breweries already do this well, more will follow.

I say: Ban bland, brown bitters! Sessionable 4% pale ales and ‘bitters’ will get better. Bitter as a style needs to evolve and shake free from the negative shackles. We had bumper hop harvests last year so hopefully this will reflect in the beers we drink – better ingredients going in and better beers coming out. Also, I hope more breweries are happy to chuck extra hops in, especially American hops which are incredibly drinkable and fruity. Session beers are the daily bread in Britain and are incredibly important, but they should be better and they can be. They will be.

Following on from the session beers, I think there will be more adventurous beers under 5-6%. Beer doesn’t need to be 9% to be packed with flavour. I’m more impressed with low ABV beers which pack a punch but remain very drinkable.

As much as I like dark beers, I think 2010 will be all about pale and hoppy. I don’t know why, I just feel that’s where things are going.

I think barrel-aging will be more limited than previous years as that trend seems to be waning. I wonder what will supersede it...

Mario at Brewed for Thought on his Hop Press post makes the prediction that appellation will become important in 2010 and I like this idea. Make beers specific to where they come from: local malt, barley, water and hops creating a unique beer from its unique location. Westerham Brewery do this and the beers are very good. The Slow Food movement will have some impact and drinkers will appreciate local drink.


It’s interesting to see Shepherd Neame’s pilot plant where they can brew small one-off batches of beer still under the same brand. I’d like other big breweries to do the same and be a bit more experimental – it’s a great way to hit existing drinkers with new flavours.

Barm/Robsterowski says it well here: A better understanding of serving cask beers and cellarmanship. Real ale relies on the pub to serve it in great condition (assuming the brewery sends it out in a good state, which they should – and which is something else which should be improved). I’ve had too many disappointing pints in the past thanks to poorly kept beer. It just reflects badly on the whole industry and puts potential converts off.

Tandleman has a few wishes which are very interesting, particularly involving the industry (the need for one voice) and CAMRA (the need for a ‘purpose review’). I think he nails these two points and I hope something happens on both fronts to help update what we have.

Food and beer as partners will gain more appreciation. It deserves it. We need to champion it.

I hope a supermarket grabs beer by the balls and overhauls its selection. Marks & Spencer have done a good job and Tesco have listed some good new beers this year, but I’d love to see a few more, different, interesting beers in the supermarket and definitely more local beers available.

More US beer gets shipped over to the UK (because I want to drink it).

Better UK beer gets shipped to the US (because the stuff that goes that way isn’t the best we have to offer).

More kegged UK ale. Handpulls are, like, so 1970s. Let’s see some keg action and try to narrow the keg vs cask gulf (this is a mindset thing as much as anything else – warm, flat ales are pulled by handpump, cold, fizzy lagers are kegged...).

BrewDog concentrate on exciting our imaginations with excellent beer and forget the stunts.

A US-style beer bar in London. Please. Like The Rake, with more beer and beer that’s brewed on location.

And perhaps most hopefully… I’d to see some adventurous UK sours or just some really good UK lagers.

To beer bloggers:

Write whatever the hell you like. Talk about the good beers you drink; the beers you like to drink. Be passionate. Be bold. But be honest. We do this as a hobby and because we like doing it. There are no rules. Challenge when it's relevant, but remember: what we write is in the public domain so be fair and blog what you would like others to read and think about what you have experienced. And have some fun!

That’ll do for now. Any ideas or thoughts on what’s ahead for us this year?

Sunday 3 January 2010

The Hop Press: What’s outside the glass is important too

In his New Beer’s Resolution post, Reluctant Scooper writes about how place, time and company impact upon beer enjoyment. This is massively important and it’s pretty central to my latest Hop Press post. You see, attaching a numerical value to a selection of criteria based on a sensory experience is not easy, yet at the same time all you need to do is decide how much you like something and then score it accordingly (if you aren’t ‘rating’ then the same idea applies and there is still some kind of subconscious process in which you decide how much you like what you are drinking: How drinkable is it? What does it taste like? How refreshing is it? Shall I get another or choose something different?).

I care about what is outside of the glass: the mood of the drinker, the kind of day they’ve had, what the weather is like, the kind of thirst they have, who they are with and where they are. All of this is important. Drink a bottle of ice cold lager in your garage on a rainy February afternoon and it’s probably going to taste crap. Open the same beer on a hot tropical beach in the middle of summer and it’ll taste wonderful. Likewise, a barley wine shared with friends after a long, enjoyable dinner will be better than a lonely bottle drunk while watching TV in the evening when you are full of a nasty cold (that’ll clear the system!). Sharing experiences also attaches extra texture to the memories we have of something. You’ll remember the barley wine with friends because of the fun you had. You might not even like the beer that much as a taste experience, but as life wraps around the glass it becomes more enjoyable.

I’ve written about the taste of memories before. There’s a similar idea behind that post.

Friday 1 January 2010

The Session No. 35: New Beer’s Resolution

The New Year is here and after looking back at 2009, now it’s time to look forward to 2010 and everything I hope to achieve or do better than I did in the last year. This post is part of the latest Session project, hosted by Beer for Chicks, where they ask the question: What beer resolutions do you have for 2010? Here are mine...

To drink in different places. I don’t have a long list of pubs which I visit regularly and I seldom travel further than a train journey away. I need to go different places, drink different local beers and drink in new pubs. This extends to drinking abroad too, when I can.

To find new breweries. This year I’ve talked a lot about BrewDog, Thornbridge, Ramsgate and Marble. They brew great beer so they deserve it. In 2010 I want to find some more breweries to get excited about.

Go to more beer festivals. There are 3 or 4 festivals which I go to every year without fail. I need to go to more. I want to go to festivals further away than London too. The Weekend of Spontaneous Fermentation is high on my list. Leicester, Reading...

To drink new stuff or to drink familiar favourites? One of those difficult questions: you want one more beer, there’s two on the bar: a favourite cask beer or a new one you’ve never heard of. What do you choose? The old favourite you know and want to drink, the new one is unknown but there’s the hope it could be great. If you don’t try new ones then how do you discover new favourites? I want to strike a balance between new and old. I want to enjoy the old favourites but I also need to try new ones.

Say yes more/do more stuff. I’ve read Yes Man. It’s pretty inspirational. I get invited to events or to go out places and I need to say yes more. Good things happen at these places, interesting people are there and good beers are there.

Learn more about brewing and brew some beer somewhere. I understand brewing but I want to know it better and I want a deeper understanding of it. I also want to help brew some beer (home brew and professional).

Convert some lager or wine drinkers. Try and show the delights of craft brewed beer to people who don’t know about it.

Hold some beer tastings of beer and food dinners. Small groups, a few beers, tell people about the joys of great beer.

And a personal Resolution: To be more ‘go get ‘em’. I need to make things happen for myself and not just sit back, thinking about doing them.

Here’s hoping 2010 is a great year!