Wednesday 30 June 2010

Hardknott Night at The Rake

I really liked the Hardknott Aether Blaec but that could’ve easily been a fluke. I know Dave but I didn’t know whether he could really brew or if he just talked (loudly and in depth) a good game. I had to find out for myself…

Thankfully The Rake did the leg work for me (saving a long round-trip to Cumbria for a pint) and arranged Hardknott Night. I arrived to see three beers on the bar, one in the cellar and two in the fridge. I start with Continuum, a 4% pale and hoppy made with Cascades, Centennials and Willamette. Dave wasn’t happy because it didn’t drop and had a slight haze. Haze doesn’t worry me, taste does. It’s good. Really good. A bitterness that won’t scare normal people but will still please the lupulin freaks, a solid body of caramel, a great aroma too. I drank more of this than I can remember...

Next was Cool Fusion. A 4.4% pale ale with fresh ginger and chilli. This was the first beer to run out on the night and it went by 9pm. On a cold day I’d say it needs more ginger and a peppery kick, but in the heat of the sticky London summer the gentle prickle and zing of ginger was incredibly refreshing.

Dark Energy is the Hardknott stout. At 4.9% it’s got a lot going on inside with earthiness, a little smoke, berries and hop fruitiness, chocolate and roast bitterness. As cask stouts go (and many don’t go far, if you ask me) this one was excellent. For me I’d want a little more body but then I like a lot of body in my stouts. As Sid Boggle has pointed out, the Dark Energy is ‘the obvious cousin’ of Aether Blaec and it’s hard to disagree.

Down in the cellar, hidden away, was Infra Red, a 6.2% IPA (I’d say it was an imperial red, not an IPA, but who knows what an IPA is anymore). It certainly was red and it certainly was hoppy, bursting with vibrant and bold C-hops bringing bright bitterness (lingering, not nose-clearing) and a body to carry it throughout. Dave was most pleased with this beer and I can see why. My only comment was that it needed more Amarillos. Dave replied: “It hasn’t got any in it.” “Exactly.” I said.

I didn’t get any Aether Blaec but I had a nip of Granite, the big barley wine. It’s big and has an underlying smokiness, a burnt edge, an earthiness, but no throat-searing booze – it’s something that you could get completely lost in and enjoy every sip. I’ve got a bottle at home which might get another few months before I open it.

So I finally got to try Dave’s beers and I’m glad I did because they were all excellent. I’m pleased for Dave because he’s a great guy and I hope for him and Ann that Hardknott succeed – they certainly deserve to.

It seems I wasn’t the only one who wanted to know how Dave’s beers tasted. Halfway through the night I realise I was surrounded by brewers: there’s Dave, John Keeling, Pete Brissenden (formerly of Hopdaemon, now of Hogs Back), Evin O’Riordain and Phil Lowry. When they talk about brewing in technical terms I nod along as if I understand and then ask what hops are in it.

Tuesday 29 June 2010

World Cup Beer Sweepstake: North Korea

The only things I knew about the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea have been ingrained in me by the singing, foul-mouthed puppets from Team America. That and they have never won the World Cup. Drawing them for the World Cup Beer Sweepstake was going to be a challenge…
The first thing to do was obvious: google ‘North Korean beer’. All the results point to one beer: Taedonggang. The beer has an interesting background. In 2000, Kim Jong-il decided that his nation needed a brewery. He seems to be the type of guy who gets what he wants and hearing that Ushers in Trowbridge no longer needed their brewing kit he offered to buy it from them. Cue panic that the leader was planning mash tun bombs and FV missiles. Eventually, via a German broker and £1.5million later, a team from North Korea came to Trowbridge and dismantled the plant, shipping it home and setting it up. In 2002, 18 months later, they were brewing beer.

The beer is around 50p a bottle but in a country which has suffered, and is still suffering, severe famine, it’s an expensive luxury aimed at the highest end of the market. This was reinforced in 2009 when the brewery launched a TV commercial – a rare move in a communist country. This one is two-and-a-half minutes long and has been shown three times in total on North Korean TV, spreading the brightly-coloured message that Taedonggang relieves stress, improves health and encourages longevity. Sounds good (or at least interesting) – but how could I find it?

North Korea isn’t famous for its exports (nuclear weapons aside), so that immediately made things harder. The backup plan of an Ushers beer was as non-existent as the now-extinct brewery – it was, therefore, more likely that I’d actually get Taedonggang than Ushers. I emailed a North Korean importer but they didn’t reply. I called a few Korean restaurants in London but they had no idea what I was asking for (how does one pronounce Taedonggang for it to be understandable by a Korean?). I asked people on RateBeer. I checked flights but none go direct and it’s complicated and expensive (and not a realistic option, let’s be honest). I even asked if anyone knew of any North Korean homebrewers. The tone of my search was exemplified by this response to an email I sent a guy who runs a website for Koreans in England: “There are some North Koreans in the Kingston/New Malden area but I've never met any.He’s never met any?!

But in this was a big clue...

New Malden is the most densely populated area for Koreans outside of Korea, with many restaurants, markets and the main warehouse for (South) Korean imports to the UK. If I was going to find Taedonggang anywhere, it would be in New Malden, surely?

On the train I prepare myself for Korea Town - like China Town in Soho but a bit different. The station itself is unremarkable but as it’s in Zone 4 I figure they can’t be too outrageous with signage. Immediately looking around I see few non-Caucasians. It’s fine, they are tourists like me, I think to myself as I pass through the ticket barrier. I leave the station and hit the main street: not much to the right, signs of a town to the left. I’m taking small steps, trying to take it all in, anticipating an explosion of culture. Immediately opposite there’s something I’m not expecting: Tesco. Curiously I cross the street and check it out; I expect a parallel version of the normal filled with Korean products. I walk around, I look at the food, I check to see what newspapers they have and then I check the beer aisle: nothing to suggest I’m anywhere other than a template Tesco. It’s disappointing. Back outside I look back across the road and see Bar Malden, a wannabee wine bar, a little further down there’s a Waitrose, looking up there’s ugly block buildings. It’s at this point I realise that New Malden is not Korea Town, it is, in fact, just a London suburb.

But I’m neither disheartened nor put off: I’m on a beer mission. Passing more familiar shops I finally spot what I was hoping for: a Korean flag hanging outside a Korean shop. Inside was a brave new world for me: colour, cryptic fonts on unusual products, aisles of food. I spot the fridge straight away and calmly dash towards it. They have beer but it’s only Hite, the South Korean brew. I scrutinise everything, looking closely. I pull out every drink in the fridge, turning it to try and spot signs of its Northern origins, but it’s impossible. I give up with the fridge but carry on looking around, fascinated, wishing I knew what everything was. There’s sweet stuff, savoury stuff, fresh fruit and vegetables, a fridge filled with plastic pots of tofu and kimchi, an aisle of snacks, an aisle of cans and cleaning products. And all of it is Korean. South Korean.

I also notice something else: I’ve developed a Korean shadow. A shady looking chap – short, eyes lowered, old baseball cap, bad trainers – is following me around or standing in front of me. In the space of three minutes I’ve apologised five times for passing in front of him or behind. He hasn’t picked anything up to buy, he’s just staring at me and following me. I decide to leave.

Opposite, just up from a Greggs, is another Korean store, this one is like a market. They have a meat counter, fresh foods, freezers, aisles of snacks and food and a fridge filled with everything – literally – except Taedonggang. Back outside I walk the length of the High Street, passing a couple of Korean restaurants. Hungry for at least some cultural experience, I turn back and go into Hamgipak, a restaurant I’d read good things about online.

It’s tiny inside, five or six tables, like benches, squashed in. I sit at a table for two, beside me a group of well-spoken English people sit eating mountains of BBQ and dumplings which looks and smells amazing. I’m given a menu and despite the English translations I have literally no idea what anything is. I go for C1 because it seems to tick a number of familiar boxes: pork, kimchi, ground bean curd. When I ask for this the waitress stops and looks up from her pad.

“Have you had this before?” she asks in good, accented English.

“No.” I say. “Why’s that?”

“It’s just not everybody like it.” I’m a little lost for words. It’s pork, kimchi and bean curd, what could be so strange about it?

“What is it?”

“It’s a thick casserole with pork. Not everybody like it.” She repeats before staring up at me with a caring mother look. But now my interest is piqued – I have to order it.

“It’s fine, I’ll go with that.” She disappears back into the busy kitchen which is being run by little, old Korean women in bright white Nike trainers.

I wait at my table wondering what the hell I’ve ordered, thinking that maybe I should’ve gone for something from the BBQ, maybe should’ve gone for something that doesn’t come with a warning. I decide that anything that comes with a warning from the restaurant you order it from is a good thing.

When it arrives I wish I hadn’t ordered it. I’m expecting a deep brown casserole in a thick savoury sauce but I’m handed a molten black pot, literally boiling in front of me, which looks like a blitzed up brain that has curdled under the heat. A heaviness sets itself in my stomach. I start on the four pots of side dishes: kimchi, a seaweedy-thing, some beansprouts and a cold potato dish. They are all great (familiar, at least) but they are all only filling inevitable time before I eat the still-bubbling pink, lumpy mush. Before I do so I look around again and see all the delicious looking BBQ and the other bowls of great looking food on the table next to me and then I look back at mine and can feel sweat bursting through my brow (the heat from this bowl could melt an igloo in seconds).

I stir it and it doesn’t get more appetising. I take some sticky rice and pinch some pork between the ends of the metal chopsticks. It doesn’t smell of much. I place it in my mouth and hope for the best. It’s hot, it’s deeply savoury, it’s comfortingly soft in the mouth and… it’s actually okay. Not really describable in terms of flavour, though. Soon enough I’m halfway through the monster-sized portion. It’s a hard thing to love being so hot, oddly textured and non-descript, but I don’t hate it. I finish it all, almost as a sign of defiance, and exhale deeply. I’m sweating heavier now, hot to the core with this Korean stodge. I pay (£8.50 for the food and a green tea – it’s a BYO policy which I wish I’d known before as I’d have taken a beer) and leave. The breeze outside hits me and sends a chill through to my core. Korean food, at least on this display, can best be described as ‘intense’. But if I ever find myself in New Malden again I’d definitely go back for more, I just won’t order whatever C1 is.

Waddling heavily now I need to at least attempt to complete my Taedonggang search. I go back into the first shop and walk up and down for ages, desperately hoping for something to jump out at me but it doesn’t. I take a can of Hite from the fridge along with something entirely unknown (it has no English on it at all except for a tiny-fonted website), I also grab a couple of bags of crisps, including one which are banana-flavoured (I couldn’t resist).

As I’m paying my heart starts thumping: I have to ask them for Taedonggang. I can't just flake out and not ask. But I have no idea if mentioning North Korea is big taboo. Just as I hand over the cash I blurt: “Do you have Taedonggang?” They stare back blankly. “North Korean beer.” I say. Two staff look at each other and say something I don’t understand then look at me again. “North Korean beer – Taedonggang?” I repeat as if it’s going to help. “Beer from North Korea,” I rephrase.

“No.” He says. “No North Korea.” It's said with blunt force. On that I leave, surrounded by a group of staring Koreans.

I grab a bag of Maltesers from the station to eat on the train, mainly with the aim of getting the lingering taste of C1 from my mouth. Mission Taedonggang failed. New Malden held the slimmest of hopes but it was unsuccessful. My only hope is that someone has brought a bottle back and it’s hidden in their garage somewhere. I’m not giving up just yet though, and there’s still time, but it’s not looking promising. To make it even worse, North Korea are out of the World Cup, although with a policy of only reporting good news in their media, I’m not sure how they’ll let everyone back home know. Maybe they could offer everyone a Taedonggang to soften the blow?


I have now drunk the two cans I brought from the Korean shop. Hite is a generic, pale lager, lacking everything usually associated with flavour, but there is a sense that it’d work wonderfully with fried foods. Just a sense though.

The other can was a different beast. I had absolutely no idea what it was as I poured it out. I certainly didn’t get what I expected... There’s a smoothie company called Love Juice. I immaturely laugh whenever I see their shops. This one could legitimately be called Love Juice. It poured a milky off-white, thick and to cries of ‘eww’ and ‘oh my god, what is this?’ It smells like milk stout, which is good, but it tastes like spoilt milk and booze, which is not good. There’s a tang to it, a wine quality, but it’s creamy and slightly rough-textured. Further investigations show that this is a rice wine. But it’s not very nice wine.

Monday 28 June 2010


Ok, ok, so I’ve done the exaggerated screamy hyperbole before, but this time I really mean it: Moor Revival is the best bottled British 4% pale ale in the galaxy.

A calm gleaming gold with a thin, creamy veil of head comes straight from the handsome bottle. Berries jump out first, shortly followed by citrus fruit, peel, pith and juice. One mouthful and you know you’ve got something good – a touch of sweetness to begin which is passed over by those hops bringing juicy fruit and fresh bitterness followed by pithy, grapefruity bitterness and a long, lingering finish to assert authority: I may only be 4%, it says, but I’ve got more flavour than all of your rubbish beers put together (it’s shouting back at all the boring brown bitters waddling aimlessly beneath it).

The joy of this beer is that it tastes just like a pint of perfect cask ale. In a blind taste test you’d struggle to pick it as a bottle; it doesn’t have ferocious bubbles and its flavours haven’t been dulled by the time spent in glass, instead it has the body, mouthfeel and freshness of something just-tapped and hand-pulled and that’s a great achievement.

Not many breweries succeed in bottling hoppy 4% pale ales and manage to retain this level of flavour and freshness. Moor Revival kicks arse (and it’s only £4 for a big bottle!).

I had this while watching the football yesterday so it could’ve been swept up under sadness but it shone as a beacon of light out of the mire of despair. It also went incredibly well with a packet of delicious Q pork scratchings, but then what doesn’t go well with pork scratchings? To qualify this further, during the game I also had a Crouch Vale Amarillo, a Marble Manchester Bitter and a Crouch Vale Apollo (the Apollo is deserving of a capital letter blog post, something along the lines of HOLY CRAP, CROUCH VALE APOLLO IS ABSOLUTELY THE MOST DELICIOUS SINGLE-HOP PALE ALE IN ENGLAND  – the fruitiest Um Bongo aroma and another one which tasted like a freshly hand-pulled pint) and the Moor was the standout beer from its immediate peers.

Sunday 27 June 2010

FABPOW! Jerk Chicken and Founder's Centennial IPA

Sitting at work on a Friday afternoon, having just finished what is always my busiest and most stressful period, and watching the Brazil-Portugal game on iplayer, my thoughts turn to my soon-to-be-growling gut. I’d already filled the fridge with the beers that I wanted to drink but I had no designs on the dinner yet. The beer was Founder’s Centennial IPA so I worked back from there.

Jerk chicken is something I’ve never cooked before but it’s easy: blitz up spices, marinate chicken, cook. Classic jerk contains allspice and scotch bonnet chillis, wikipedia tells me. In my marinade I used: fresh thyme, lots of garlic, thumb-sized lump of fresh ginger, a couple of chillis (I’m not brave enough for scotch bonnet), juice of a lime, paprika and smoked paprika (I love paprika and the smoked one is there to reenact the BBQ’d quality of classic jerk), fresh coriander, all spice, salt and loads of black pepper, oil. An hour to marinade left plenty of time to make coleslaw, something else I’d never made before – grated carrots, cabbage and onion mixed with mayo, mustard and lemon juice. Easy. I fried the chicken to get it going and then put it in the over for 30-40 minutes. When it was done, as I left it to cool for 10 minutes, I sorted myself some corn on the cob to make my dinner as close to a Nandos as possible.

Founders’ Centennial IPA is 7.2% and 65IBU, so it was primed to stand up to the heat of the chicken. It’s overflowing with floral aroma, the orange blossom, a little caramel, sherbet and some over-ripe strawberries but it’s the body which makes this FABPOW work – it’s full and smooth, mouth-filling but not sticky – it carries the hops all the way through with plenty of pithy orange and floral fudge. With the chicken it set off in a new direction: the caramel body loved the charred, crispy chicken skin, the hops and the spice were pitched right at the same level and the floral, herby quality in the beer was emphasised by the earthy hops in the rub (the coleslaw acted as a cooling extinguisher to the heat, while the charred, nutty sweetness of the corn makes it a great beer snack). It’s messy, it’s finger-licking, it’s spicy, it’s delicious, it's food and beer at its simple best, it’s a FABPOW!

Anyone had any good food and beer combos recently?

After this I had a Captain Lawrence Captain’s Reserve IIPA and it probably would have been even better with the chicken. It stands out as one of the best IPAs I’ve had this year: peaches, apricots and mango bursting out in all directions, it’s never too bitter nor too sweet nor too floral nor too citrus, just dangerously, wonderfully drinkable - I didn’t want the bottle to end. I bought it from beermerchants and I’ve just checked the website – sold out. The Centennial is still there though, for now.

Friday 25 June 2010

What’s in your fridge right now?

It happens, like clockwork, every Wednesday evening. The shopping we do on Sunday has disappeared, the planned meals have been cooked, tomorrow will be pasta because it’s quick and cheap and there’s no fresh stuff left, the fridge is bare except for mustards and some sorry slices of meat for my sandwiches for the next two days. It’s on Wednesday then, as thoughts turn to the weekend, that the fridge gets re-stocked with beer, and it’s consciously filled to go with the type of weekend ahead: will I be in on Friday or Saturday night? What is the weather like? Is there anything I want to cook to go with a beer? Have we got friends over? What bottles need drinking? What do I want to drink?

So, just a simple question: what beers are in your fridge right now?

Do you keep lots of bottles in there or just a few at a time? Do you plan ahead or just fill it whenever you need to? Do you have a fridge solely dedicated to beer?!

I’ve got two cans of Tanglefoot (my emergency beer reserve), a bottle each of Badger’s Blandford Fly and Golden Champion, a bottle each of Rothaus Hefe and Pils, a bottle of Mariage Parfait Kriek Gueuze, a Centennial IPA from Founders and a Captain Lawrence IIPA.

I’ve got plans on the Kriek and IPAs for this evening as Lauren is going shopping. The Hefe might find itself next to whatever I have for dinner. The others have been in there for a few weeks waiting for the moment they take my fancy. 

Tuesday 22 June 2010

Burton-on-Trent: Beer Town

“In the middle of the nineteenth century the name of Burton-on-Trent was world famous. Burton was the greatest brewing town the world has ever seen,” writes Pete Brown in Hops and Glory. It’s also the spiritual home of India Pale Ale, probably the most prominent beer style in the world right now, owing to its unsubtle ubiquity in the American craft beer scene. Choosing to visit Burton as our second Twissup (following Sheffield) was a no-brainer – this place is the heart of British brewing history and I wanted to see it for myself.

Burton is a strange town. It’s almost entirely dominated by Molson Coors but there’s a sense that no one actually mentions these huge Apollo-like (to steal from Pete Brown’s description) silver beer-making tanks, as if they refuse to mention them because by talking about them they’d have to recognise that they are there. Aware of the long beer history, the town feels like it’s lost something. Those huge, looming tanks scream of the high output production of the big brands in the Molson Coors catalogue, not of the breweries of centuries ago, but look a little deeper and their marks still remain.

‘Beer Town’ is an accurate description of Burton and you can’t open your eyes without a reminder: The Malthouse, The Grain Store, Coopers Square Shopping Centre, beer-related street names, old signs, Bass stones in the ground; beer is everywhere. Maybe we were looking for it, maybe we weren’t, but it was around every corner. And that heady, sweet aroma of wort mixes with the air and hangs over the town like a delicious fog.

Knowing the history I was like an excited school boy going on a trip to the museum to see the dinosaur skeletons. Burton is a near-mythical beer town which now sits in the shadow of Molson Coors. But Molson Coors being there isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s a good thing as it means that Burton is still an important beer landmark in Britain as a very significant volume of beer is produced there (Burton currently produces 15% of beer in Britain), including Carling, Britain’s biggest selling lager for 30 years. Marstons are also there, as are a number of smaller breweries – Burton Bridge, Black Hole, Burton Old Cottage, Tower Brewery and of course White Shield. Beer is very much still at the heart of Burton.

But Burton is a strange town. I can’t put my finger on it. It feels too quiet, too empty, yet there’s a lot of stuff there. The handsome old buildings sit next to modern, shiny-fronted bars and loudly-coloured shops; the stores usually found out of town are in the middle of town; there’s a vaguely unsettling mix of new and old which feels confused, almost like it’s stuck in a strange time warp, moving at two different speeds, entwining. But at the same time it’s a wonderful town. The sights and smells of brewing beer, the pubs, the reminders of the beer history, it’s all there.

The pub we started in, and the pub I liked the most, was the Cooper’s Tavern. A backstreet boozer with beery knick-knacks all around and a bar with a line-up of beer served on stillage, including Bass. This is where we set the meeting point for the visit and I don’t think they knew what hit them: over 25 beer drinkers in there from 11.00am on a sleepy Saturday morning.

About a mile out of town, Molson Coors have their own malting where they turn barley into malt ready to make their beer. This is the fourth largest malting in the UK and to tour it was to experience a fascinating mix of beer, science and industry. At different stages you get the aroma equivalent of a cuddle: fresh bread. A little later you get the aroma equivalent of a dead frog: the sulphorous and famous ‘Burton Snatch’. The maltings was a great insight to a side of beer production that we rarely see and it felt like a privilege to be allowed in and shown around (even if it did feel like a school trip for grown-ups).

One of the other reasons for visiting Beer Town was to see the reopened National Brewery Centre in the heart of what was once the Bass brewery. It was also here that we planned the highlight of the day: a tour around the White Shield Brewery with Steve Wellington. It’s a handsome old building, remarkably small, rusting in the most charming of ways; I can imagine it creak and groan as it brews, the sounds of a well-used brewhouse ready to retire. But an aging brewhouse is exactly what it is and a new brewery with four-times the capacity is being built opposite. This, to Steve, is a wonderful thing and he is filled with the enthusiasm of a boy on Christmas day. Steve has one of those voices – soft, calm, interesting – that lulls and inspires at the same time and I could listen to him talk for hours. The sadness of him leaving us was only replaced by the happiness at seeing a pint of Brewery Tap beer and a buffet. Brewery Tap is 4.5% and hopped with Centennials. It was the beer I enjoyed the most over the whole day and I could’ve happily finished a couple more, but by the time that had gone we had cask White Shield and P2 to drink, two beer institutions that cannot be eschewed for the modern. White Shield is a seriously good beer; bready at its base, spicy at its finish, each mouthful is as interesting as the last. It’s not an IPA in the modern US-inspired style and it won’t explode in your face with fiery hops, but it’s a wonderful beer. And the P2, with its luscious chocolate body and berry sweetness, was a rare treat. I’m sure there was probably more to see in the museum, but by this stage we’d kicked on a gear and were ‘on the beer’, so no time for any of that history guff.

Burton Bridge Brewery was a few minutes walk away. We arrived and a grumpy-looking Bruce met us, saying that he’d been waiting ages (a mis-communication from the Comms Director). He had the look of a child that had been woken early and then left alone for half an hour before getting attention, but that’s probably unfair because we had made him come into work on a Saturday to show a group of people around his office. It’s a quaint little brewery behind the pub and the beers are pretty good, although it was with the Golden Delicious that I put one and one together and worked out what Burton Snatch actually was – that aroma (eggs, arse) given off from the famous sulphate-rich local water (some think that it’s a good thing in a beer – not me).

A couple more pubs, some more beers, a slice of orange in a pint, more White Shield, more P2, a midnight curry in which everyone forgot their order as it was arriving and then a night in the Town House with unnervingly wonky floors, finished off the trip.

It’s a great town and a must-visit place for any beer lover. The best thing is that most of the beers we had over the day were brewed within a mile radius of where we drank them, some brewed within throwing distance. Burton is called Beer Town for a very good reason; it may have changed in many ways, but beer is still at its heart.

This is a very late post about the Burton Twissup. I wrote it the day after I got back but have only just got around to posting it. Cheers for the hospitality of Molson Coors – we couldn’t have done it without them. If you are up for a challenge then try and name everyone who attended in the picture above.

Now it’s time to think about the next Twissup. We need cities which are easy for people to get to en masse, where there is a good selection of pubs and at least one brewery or beer-related attraction for us to look around; ideally someone needs some local knowledge of the place and it needs to be affordable. I’ve been thinking and so far I’ve got the following:

London – plenty of breweries, no shortage of excellent pubs and we could probably organise some good activities

Manchester – Marble and a pub crawl

Sheffield – let’s go back there, it was great!

Dublin – Guinness, craft beer and craic

Scotland – somewhere?!

Brussels – Cantillon, chocolate and lots of bars

Amsterdam – drugs and hookers (it doesn’t always have to be about beer, right?)

A different event will be in the diary from the end of August/beginning of September and we’re planning on doing some hop picking in Kent followed by a few pubs.

Any other suggests for places and when can people go? We can probably get a trip in around October/November?

Monday 21 June 2010

A few pints of the same beer

A typical night out drinking will be planned ahead: we’ll know exactly where we’re going and we’ll be going there specifically for the variety of beers they offer. This means that a night out will involve drinking many different beers; a pint of something to begin, a couple of half pints in the next place, and so on. We do this because we like trying different beers and we like a variety (plus the places we go to offer the chance to drink differently with each round). But this isn’t, for many, a typical way of drinking. For a majority of beer drinkers an evening out will mean multiple pints of the same beer, back-to-back. When was the last time you did that?

For me it was Friday. I was in Wetherspoons to watch the football. They had a few ales on, the usual ones, plus something football themed and then a Westerham Challenger single hop. I went for the Westerham as the brewery is only a few miles up the road. It was delicious. Clean and light, just sweet enough, then bursting with Challenger hops, off-fruity, a little old citrus, earthy and pungent, properly English with a wonderfully long, clinging bitterness. I had a couple more (I would’ve had another but wasn’t in the mood for drinking after the game finished) and the beer was changing throughout; the first pint tasted more vibrant, the second more bitter, the third more pungently hoppy. That was the first time in I-don’t-know-when that I’ve just sat and drank a few pints of the same beer in a row. 

I like to try new beers all the time and this was a brief departure in my usual drinking habits, but I’m probably not alone in the fact that I seldom just drink the same beer all night on a regular basis. When was the last time you just sat down in a pub and had pints (three, five, seven, twelve...) of the same beer all evening (through choice too, not just because they didn’t have anything good on or because you got dragged to an All Bar One, or something)? 

Friday 18 June 2010

Style: I don’t get it

This week I had one of those ah ha moments. One of those moments when all of a sudden I got it. I've had a couple before this one: first there was Orval, then it was lambic. Now it’s tripels, a style I've previously never understood. To me they were just strong blondes; not something I'd drink to quench a thirst, not something I'd drink when I want something bigger, tasting vaguely metallic, strangely spicy and oddly hoppy. They were just not something I ever chose to drink, ever ordered or ever bought.

It was two separate revelations: Westmalle Tripel then Chimay White. Beers I've ignored until now, overlooked. I had them at an excellent Trappist evening at the White Horse. We tried a beer from each Trappist brewery then sat down to dinner paired with each of the Chimay beers. A trio of rabbit with the Red, salmon and asparagus with the White and Chimay cheese with the Blue. It was the White which stood out. What I got with the White, and with the Westmalle before it, wasn't what I expected: bold and hoppy, lively, clean, delicious. The previous conviction of it being boring and ‘just strong’ was gone. Each mouthful was different, each was interesting, each was exciting. I loved the big hops (it was the hops that did it), their aroma, their bite, the fruitiness of them, the peppery kick. I loved the fullness of body, the richness of flavour. And above all else I saw how they belong next to a plate on the dinner table. I finally got it.

There are inevitably styles which aren't quite your thing. Some don't like smoked beers, some don't enjoy gueuze and lambic, some don't like fruit, some prefer dark to light, some prefer strong to weak. Maybe they are styles which you actively dislike, maybe they are just styles which you never choose to drink. My particular 'meh' styles are Belgian blondes, strong Belgian blondes, Flemish reds, bocks and rauchbier. I just don't particularly enjoy them, in general (although a Taras Boulba is enough to turn anyone on to a feisty blonde). Until last night, tripels also fell into this category.

But the question is this: what styles do you either not like or rarely drink because they don't really do it for you? What don’t you get? What style could disappear from the beeriverse without you even noticing?

I think, and this applies to all styles, that it takes a eureka moment for everything new. The first DIPA, the first imperial stout, the time you realise sour beer is okay, the time you switch from lager to bitter, the moment you discover that Orval is meant to taste like that. This isn’t limited to esoteric styles, this works with everything, it’s just that some styles take a bit more work than others.

Thursday 17 June 2010


The air is sharp. Not as in clean and crisp, refreshing. It's razor-like. It hurts. The usual walk is different today. It's a sensory overload. It's louder, busier, worse. A Hitchcockian zoom-in/track back. Vertigo. Everyone looks like someone else, someone vaguely famous, someone I've never met. Eyes are sore. Saw. Like forgotten contact lenses, like beer goggles, the morning after. The morning after. The morning now. A too-familiar daily routine isn’t the same. It's warped. It's like a movie, a bad movie, one not worth watching, one I don't want to be in. This ungodly feeling caused by those godly beers. Forgive me father, or something like that.

What didn't make the final edit, in no particular order: At the same time acutely focused and blurry… A loose grip of dignity... Stomach is in limbo between here and there. I don't want to go there... Greggs is an oasis… There's a drumming noise inside my head, sings Florence, it feels like her Machine... There were some revelations, too many temptations.

Wednesday 16 June 2010

Drinking Beer Swap 2

It happened again. When the box arrived I was so jump-up-and-down excited to open it that I could barely contain myself. A box of surprise beers sent down to me in the spirit of sharing good beers. Ripping open the box the note on top told me my sender: Robbie (this is what he blogged about sending). A box from Scotland. Pawing through the packaging, the dry newspaper, the course card and the scratchy shredded paper, I found the cool touch of a bottle. Then another. Then a can. I pulled everything out, triple-checking I hadn’t left anything important inside, until I had six beers.

I’ve said it many times before, but I think Scotland have some fantastic breweries making some really excellent beers – Orkney, Cairngorm, Tryst, Highland Brewing, BrewDog, Harviestoun, Fyne Ales, Williams Bros – so this was an exciting box, especially as I hadn’t previously heard of a couple of the breweries.

Houston Crystal is made with ‘crystal clear Scottish water, crystal malt and crystal hops’. It pours an amber colour with aromas of bread, mango and peach. The mouthfeel is a winner and it’s rich and full without having that dry crystal malt bite. It’s fruity but that’s all peripheral and unobtrusive, then it finishes bitter and dry, quenching and encouraging you to drink more. Finely balanced and well brewed – I now have a new Scottish brewery to look out for. Anyone had any other Houston beers? If so, how are they?

Fyne Ales’ Avalanche is a zingy pale ale, light, a little biscuity malt beneath then the hops come through with lots of fruit – apricots, lemon, gooseberry. This is one of those beers to stock the fridge with for the summer, perfect to just pull out and drink on a warm afternoon or great with a Thai curry, as I've written here.

The Colonsay Brewery’s 80/- label stands out straight away; a sense of provenance, a burst of colour then a detailed description on the blurb explaining the local water. Bread and berries fill the glass to begin and it ends with a chalky, dry finish with  a distant wisp of smoke (I think, unless the mind is tricked by the blurb). The beer looks great in the glass throughout and a raspberry fruitiness pervades at the edges, mingling with the faint bonfire water. I liked it a lot – the terroir of the water really adds something different.

Traquair House Ale next, a ruddy-coloured, dried fruit-forward ale with a lingering almost-savoury earthiness at the end. It tastes really green (BBE Dec 2017?) and the bitterness wasn’t something I expected. The sweetness and bitterness seemed a little disengaged as if they hadn’t had enough time together to marry, but then this is one of those beers which will last handsomely in the cupboard for a few months and it’s a bit of a classic.

Next was South Side Mint, which, after searching for more details, I can only guess is one of Robbie’s homebrews? It’s a 4% pale ale brewed with mint ‘for added refreshment’. It pours a great golden colour, the aroma is immediately of hops but then lingering beneath is the herby mint - think the aftermath of a glass of Pimms. The beer has an excellent bitterness to it, quenching and calling you back to drink more, and it’s very well brewed, but the mint adds a flavour I’m not used to in beer - a smack of pungent herb and something deeply vegetal like nettles. It’s not toothpaste minty, it’s herb minty and maybe it needs a little more sweetness to balance it and make it something that you could drink lots of bottles of. If you like fresh mint then you’ll love this, if not then maybe it’s not your thing...

I’m fairly sure the can of Sweetheart Stout was a tongue-in-cheek wildcard, added thanks to my active championing of canned beer. I like the look of the can in a retro kind of way with the 50s pre-pin-up design, but I knew nothing about the beer except that it’s a 2% ABV stout (Robbie has written about it, or more precisely about, he's written about the babe on the can). It looks normal when you pour it out – a coca cola brown with the faint blush-coloured lacing of head. It’s sweet on the nose, like raisins soaked in water. Take a mouthful and it’s more like raisins soaked in glucose. It’s sweeter than any beer I’ve ever tasted - pure cane sugar which is powerful enough to hide the fact that it has no body or typical roast flavour. But at the same time it’s strangely interesting and I’d finished half the can without even thinking, just sitting there gulping and chuckling to myself about how sweet it is. Strangely drinkable.

Cheers for the beers Robbie – they’ve only gone to make me more interested in the Scottish brewing scene. I can now fly to Edinburgh from Manston airport and I see that the Scottish Real Ale festival is next week (and the beer list looks good)... 

Monday 14 June 2010

Guest Blog: World Cup Beer Sweepstake: Portugal

Here’s the first guest blog from the World Cup Beer Sweepstake and it comes from one of my best mates, Lee (@Lee_B on twitter). Almost everything he says isn’t repeatable when other people are around so thankfully he’s managed to tone it down, apart from the single mention of ginger pubes.

When Mr Dredge pulled my name out of the bowl and partnered it with Portugal, I had mixed feelings. Sure, Portugal had an okay chance of winning, and the beer wouldn’t be too hard to get hold of, but as far as I knew there wasn’t anything exciting about Portugal. If Spain is the cool guy you invite to the party, then Portugal is his ugly younger brother, sitting with the cheese board on his lap watching other people mack on chicks. 

Combine this with the fact that my knowledge of football teams stopped somewhere around the Liverpool ‘97 squad (come on McManaman!) and it becomes clear that maybe I wasn’t the best guy to be given this country.

Still, I had signed up for the Beer Sweepstake and now I had to make the best of what I was given. A part of me also hoped that in searching out the beer I would discover more about Portugal, and maybe even fall in love with the place. So the search began…

..and then it stopped pretty soon after. It turns out that the most popular beer in Portugal is Super Bock, and that the Oddbins situated 30 metres from my door stocked a ton of the stuff. This wasn’t going to be a particularly epic beer quest after all. 

After purchasing two bottles (and a cheeseburger from the McDonalds next door) I headed home to see if I could get more excited about the beer than I did about the country.

Pouring the beer into a glass I was struck by just how light it looked. I’ve had my fair share of pale ales but this looked more like water that had been sieved through some ginger pubes. But we don’t drink beer with eyes do we? What matters is the taste so as I wrapped my moustachioed lips around the fizzing yellow concoction I hoped for the best.

Super Bock is an extremely hard beer to review. It’s one of those beers I can imagine people fall in love with when they are holidaying on the beach, but when revisited in the cold damp English weather they can’t really remember what was so great about it. It’s not that is bad, on the contrary it is a perfectly adequate lager (and a lager is certainly what it is) but that’s all it is. It’s like someone read what lager was, and made some in the most mechanical way possible. There is no love, no passion, no life to it. I almost feel like I would prefer to hate it, because then it would have at least garnered some kind of reaction,  but this is just another one of those tasteless beverages that football fans will be drinking in pubs all over the country.

So sadly Super Bock failed to endear me to the Portuguese way of life. If at the start of this article I seemed to be ignorant of any cultural impact Portugal has made then I’m afraid that remains unchanged after this mini beer adventure.

Still, I hope they win though - I could do with a year’s supply of beer. As long as there is no Super Bock mixed in there.

The image is from here.

Sunday 13 June 2010

White and Red; Hope and Expectation

Earlier: the town is a scattergun landscape of red and white, flags and shirts; busy supermarket, trolleys loaded with snacks and boxes of beer; on TV some woman – fake tanned, peroxide princess – says it'll be a draw, everyone else says England win, the ex-players, the presenters, the guys outside the ground with a beer in one hand and a vuvuzela in the other, they all say England win because they know you never say it’ll be anything else. Later, to the pub: the town is alive like never before; red and white in all forms; crowns, capes, shirts, flags, horns blaring, faces painted, the singing has started, come on England; an 18-stone lad wrapped in a flag, a dressed-up Saint George with air horn and moped instead of lance and white horse, girls tarted up to still appeal at two, startling white flags on their over-bronzed cheeks; everyone leaves together heading in the same direction, tribal, uniformed, a team going to battle. In the pub: everything the extra cold kind except one unannounced hand pump of Harvey's Best; a nervy undertone to the excited chatter; the lads together in the corner, an order for six pints of Carling, three of Carlsberg, two of Magners, the teams are coming out. The game: emotive anthems followed by a cheer from within come on England; the tension is immediately calmed by Gerrard – the pub collectively jump, cheer and then fall back and relax, the chatter increases, there’s laughter, no worries now; a guy - the only one in the pub eating - his chair breaks, the crowd’s wheeey is almost as loud as the one for the goal, you've had enough chips, mate, they laugh; the laughter rolls around until the mistake brings silence. Change of pub for the second half: bigger, more people, all the ale is football themed (Fever Pitch, Back of the Net, Golden Balls), in here there’s singing to put on a brave front, to cover the increased tension, to feel a part of it, to make a difference; the air horns bring repeated cheers of En-gland, Three Lions is sung every 10 minutes; pints are swallowed between the action, never during; we rise and fall together, cheer or half-look away; we claw desperately to hope, 10 minutes is enough, we can do it in five, four minutes extra fine and we can still do it; it ends. A collective, heavy sigh; a group oh well, we’ll win the next two, (we have to), but it doesn’t hide the disappointment, the broken expectation; we did all we can from our little pub, in this little town, in our patch of England’s pitch, thousands of miles from the team; we came together in force, hope, pride and we found community, shared spirit. We do it all again on Friday.

Thursday 10 June 2010

World Cup Beer Sweepstake: The Big Draw

We managed to get 64 names down to take part in the World Cup Beer Sweepstake so we’ve got two separate competitions running, both with the chance to win free beer. The first 32 names who entered are playing for a year’s subscription to myBrewerytap’s 52 Week Beer Club. The second 32 are playing for a box of beer each from Ales by Mail, Adnams Brewery and Highland Brewing Company.

The same rules apply for both: everyone gets drawn a team and they have to find a beer from that country then drink it and write a blog about it. You can only win if you write a blog – no blog, no win, simple. And you can only win the beer if you can get it delivered somewhere in the UK, I’m afraid – if you can’t then the prize is forfeited to the closest runner-up (but you are playing for fun, not free beer, right). There are a number of guys who are happy to take guest posts, you can contact them yourself, don’t be shy – Andy, me, Chunk, Baron Orm, Robbie, Peter Olding and probably some others.

No rules about what the blog post is – it could be 50 words or 1,000 words, pitched any way you want – except that it needs to involve the searching and (hopefully) finding of a beer from the country you are drawn and then the drinking of it. Feel free to put in some other links to the beer - drink it while your team play, add some beer facts about that country or a food and beer link, for example.

I drew the names and posted it to youtube. I had the players in one bowl and the teams in the other – it was the fairest way we could think of and you’ll just have to trust that I didn’t cheat. The camera died just as I finished the first draw, cutting off the final name. Here’s who is paired with each team, in alphabetical order. And yes, I am aware that I look stupid while doing this but I’m trying not to look in the bowl.

Beer Sweepstake One

Andy Mogg   -   Nigeria
Arfur Daley  -   Spain
Baron Orm  -   Chile
Blair  -   Holland
Bob Arnott  -   New Zealand
Chris Barron  -   Italy
Chris King  -   Algeria
Chris McBride  -   USA
Ed Davies  -   Cameroon
Edward Wray  -   Brazil
Ian Powell  -   South Korea
Josh Christie  -   Ivory Coast
Kenny Hannah  -   Uruguay
Lee Bacon  -   Portugal
Lois Carter  -   Germany
Marc Stewart  -   Mexico
Mark Charlwood  -   Australia
Mark Dredge  -   North Korea
Mark Fletcher  -   Slovenia
Matt Taylor  -   Japan
Mitch Adams  -   Denmark
Nick Fenwick  -   France
Nick James  -   Argentina
Peter Olding  -   England
Reluctant Scooper  -   Paraguay
Richard Mackney  -   Ghana
Scott Edwards  -   Serbia
Sean Nordquist  -   Honduras
Simon Smith  -   Slovakia
Simon Tucker  -   South Africa
Steven Pejica  -   Switzerland
Uncle Wilco  -   Greece

Beer Sweepstake Two

Andrew Smith  -   USA
Andrew Todd  -   Paraguay
Andy Mackay  -   Serbia
Ben Steel  -   England
Benn Glazier  -   Brazil
Billy Clark  -   Italy
Calum Robertson  -   Ghana
Chris Kay  -   Greece
Chris Routledge  -   Cameroon
Dan Lloyd  -   Uruguay
Dan Pubs of Manchester  -   Nigeria
David Lozman  -   North Korea
Graeme Hood  -   Slovenia
James Allen  -   Ivory Coast
John Corcoran  -   New Zealand
Katherine Simmons  -   Japan
Mario Rubio  -   Denmark
Mark Jackman  -   France
Matt Stokes  -   Germany
Mike Biewer  -   Australia
Mike Box  -   Argentina
Oliver Dimsdale  -   South Africa
Richard Marriott  -   Portugal
Robbie Pickering  -   Holland
Roger Williams  -   Mexico
Sam Hill  -   Spain
Simon Reid  -   Chile
Steve Larson  -   Honduras
Steve Owen  -   South Korea
Steve Williams  -   Slovakia
Stuart Ross  -   Algeria
Will Miller  -   Switzerland

The competition is now live so go and find the beers! The deadline is the day of the World Cup Final – Sunday 11th July – and you need to have posted on or by then. Good luck (especially those with North Korea, Paraguay, Honduras and Ghana!).

Now if anyone knows of anywhere which stocks any North Korean beers, then please let me know!

Sunday 6 June 2010

The Hop Press: The Weekend of Spontaneous Fermentation

I've written about the Weekend of Spontaneous Fermentation on my Hop Press blog. It really is a unique and wonderful beer festival. You can read the full post here.