Monday, 29 March 2010

I'm in the pub drinking a pint of real ale because it's Cask Ale Week

I'm in the pub right now. I ordered a pint of British Bulldog from Westerham Brewery, a micro just up the road from here. It's a gleaming bronze with a thick head of foam. Not much on the nose, a little bread and some dried fruit. It's a real thirst quencher, full-bodied and smooth, a backbone of distant caramel and a finish of dry, peppery hops. It's not complicated, it doesn't need me to write detailed tasting notes, it doesn't challenge me in any way, it's just a great drink, a classic to-the-style best bitter, wonderfully kept and spot-on enjoyable.

There's a certain amount of pride which comes with drinking a pint like this. I look around and I see glasses of wine and pints of lager. I'm sitting here with my British cask ale, raising the glass and taking deep, satisfying mouthfuls. I am proud to be drinking it.

It's Cask Ale Week and that means we have an opportunity to champion this wonderful product. Sure, we can drink cask ale every week of the year, but that's not the point, this is about drinking British beer in the pub and celebrating the glory that is a pint of real ale.

I think I'll have another.

Friday, 26 March 2010

BrewDog Nanny State v0.5

I hated BrewDog’s first version of Nanny State (but then I think everything BrewDog do is either loved or hated - there's no middle ground any more), the 1.1% stupidly-hopped imperial mild. I liked the idea - a low ABV brew that still tastes recogniseable as a beer – it just tasted like over-stewed hop tea. I don’t think many others liked it either and BrewDog tweaked the recipe and brought out a 0.5% version with toned-down hops (though using a list which reads like lupulin erotica: Centennial, Amarillo, Columbus, Cascade and Simcoe and dry-hopped with Centennial and Amarillo). Still liking the idea and wanting it to work, I bought a couple of bottles of the new batch.

It pours a russet, fiery-ember colour with a thick, lacing foam. The nose explodes with brutal hops, charred at the edges, roasted citrus, a subtle berry sweetness. The nose shocks and delights to begin but the more I drink the more I pick out the over-done flavours, the burnt rubber, the singed tropical fruit. It’s more intriguing than inviting, a kind of dig-around-and-see-what-you-find aroma. It’s relatively thin in the mouth, as you’d expect, but for 0.5% it’s very impressive. There’s very little sweetness, a dry astringency and some nuttiness then the hops arrive with less grace than a pissed-off tap-dancing rhino. It blasts in and explodes, rasping, hot, super-dry. You need to drink some more to ease the hop burn but the sweetness isn’t there and those hops just pile-drive back through again, an onslaught of saliva-sapping bitterness. It’s not a great beer yet the whole time it’s strangely intriguing, like looking at a pretty pre-op.

The 0.5% brew is better than the 1.1% version but that bitterness is just a real killer (and I tend to like the hoppy beers, dontcha know). The £1.79 per bottle price tag (plus postage on top) is also just too much when I can buy Punk for £1 a bottle – I like at least a little bang for my buck. I would like more breweries to make good low ABV beers. BrewDog’s Edge is superb at 2.7% beer and Thornbridge have just brewed The Light, a 2.9% beer, so there are a few examples out there, but I think there’s space for more. Anyone else interested in low alcohol beer (so long as it's nice and tastes like actual, real beer)?

As an aside, I was drinking this while cooking a chilli-hot Quorn and vegetable curry, which, when you think about it, is probably the food equivalent of Nanny State.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

A Budget for Beer

I’ve had a couple of whirlwind-busy days with meetings, a full email inbox and different important projects flying around at work, hence I’ve been a bit quiet. While I was dipping in and out of twitter today I kept seeing people talking about their budget. During a long evening meeting I scribbled down some numbers to try and work out mine. Here it is:

Around half my wages goes into the joint account for rent, bills and food. I try to save a few hundred but in reality this just gets eaten up on paying off the credit card, overdraft or the holiday to Greece that’s booked for July. There’s some set aside for phone bill, internet and the monthly payments for the laser eye surgery I had two years ago. Then I allow myself about £100 a week for spending. Anything left after this just goes to make my student overdraft (it’s interest free so of course I still use it – free money!) less harrowing.

The important bit here is the £400 a month for spending. This is effectively my beer money. It used to pay for clothes and important things like that but now it just gets poured into a pint glass and swallowed. This is quite a lot of money considering I keep my drinking to two or three days a week but in this I have to factor train tickets, magazines and diet Coke for Lauren, snacks and meals, erratic drunk purchases, etc. I also have a list of places to visit, festivals to go to and events in the next few months, all of which need paying for. Plus online orders (maybe one every other month) and it soon adds up. I often wonder what I’d spend the money on if I didn’t like beer and I have fantastical daydreams about my lavish lifestyle, but then I realise that I’m putting my money into the best craft industry there is, enjoying unique and delicious products, loving hand crafted to give pleasure to others, best consumed with friends. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

But the industry has been socked in the stomach again with another tax rise and the promise of it increasing 2% above inflation for the next few years (that's a 5% rise overall). From Sunday that supposedly puts 2p on your pint. In reality it’ll be more like 10p – how many places currently charging £3 a pint will up their prices to £3.02? It’ll be £3.10 (see the end of this press release). The scary figure in all of this is that beer duty has increased 25% since 2008. That’s insane.

The taxes come to help curb binge drinking, apparently, but what they do in the real world is push people out of businesses and jobs. The community pub, already under great threat, will now have an even harder job. Breweries will be put under more financial pressure. The social drinker will be hit in the pocket. If this move is intended to push up the prices of cheap supermarket lager then why not just gun straight for those 24-cans-for-£8 deals and ban them or start using a minimum unit price. The sad fact is that a lager drinker who likes to go to the pub for a few jars will see a bigger rise in the cost of his pint and might even be turned towards buying that cheap multipack instead of going out to drink it, so it’s utterly counter-productive. And real ale and cider drinkers and makers are just being blindly shafted.

The big breweries who can afford to sell their beer that cheap will not feel the impact as much as a small micro-brewery. The big breweries will always have an outlet for their beer but the micros rely on local pubs to stock their beer. Fewer pubs, fewer drinkers and more competition for handpumps isn’t a good equation.

Binge drinking can’t be solved by throwing taxes at it. Binge drinking can only be solved through education. With a government only interested in tangible, year-on-year figures, this is completely reductive and ignoring the real problems in the dark side of our drinking culture. A quick fix this ain’t; a tick in a box it is. Britain is still broken.

I’m happy to pay good money for good beer and I want my money to go back into the breweries and pubs that make and sell it. I don’t want a large wad of it going into a government that is unfairly branding all beer as the same and all beer as bad. A lot has been done in this budget to help out small businesses but it seems the craft beer and cider makers have just been ignored. It’s so frustrating to see something you love suffer because it’s at the control of someone else who just doesn’t care.

There is a facebook group to fight back against the ridiculous rise in cider taxes. I haven't joined it because most of the people in that group are sad that their ‘Bows might get more expensive, but over 11,000 have signed up already. The artisan market could really suffer from this unless, as promised, the increase is specifically targeted towards certain brands. Perhaps more effective is this petition. It will be interesting to see if social media will be able to impact upon politics, although I doubt it will in this case.

I don’t really understand politics or money, but I do understand people and this is going to affect a lot of people.

And I got the picture from Arfur, here.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Dark Star Saison

In The Evening Star, Brighton. I‘d gone there wanting Dark Star's Saison, the brewery special for March, and it was on the bar. It’s a golden pint, foggy at the edges, a thin white lace winds down the glass. It’s a noseful of biscuity malt, of distant orange pith, pepper, a summer-day-in-the-country freshness. It’s 4.5%, clean and crisp, a wonderful mouthful of pale malt, smooth, a gentle earthy dryness, a rounded spice, a zesty spike, an uplifting finish of hops. It was so good I had to have another pint. If we didn’t have to leave for the train I probably would’ve had another.

Dark Star have done it again. I thought Six Hop was superb and this one ranks alongside it. The April special is their 6.2% IPA and I’m already thirsty to try it. I’m also looking forward to more Six Hop at Planet Thanet Beer Festival, as well as the APA (that's one of my favourite beer festivals and this year the beer list is looking very tasty - that's my Good Friday sorted).

Sunday, 21 March 2010

The Hop Press: A Fast Cask

For this week’s Hop Press post I’ve written about Marston’s new Fast Cask initiative. I’ve basically taken Pete’s, Roger’s and the Publican's posts and squashed them together, asking the most important question at the end: if this works with yeast, could it work with hops and could we therefore got ‘cask hopped’ beer?!

Friday, 19 March 2010

Announcing: The Next Beer Swap and Twissup!

Beer Swap and Twissup are back!

First, Beer Swap. The ‘let’s send each other beers we can’t get near us and then use social media to talk about them’ game. The same rules apply as last year and if you blog or use twitter to talk about beer then you can enter (it is probably still GB only until we find cheap ways to ship outside of our little island). Here’s the deal:

• You need to find four local beers (use your discretion on ‘local’ but try and make them small breweries, also, choose good beers).
• No more than two beers from one brewery. Feel free to send homebrew, but only two bottles and then send local beers too. Or you can send homebrew as an extra.
• You will send them to another Beer Swapper and you will be sent four beers from someone else (it won’t be the person you send to).
• You then drink them and tweet and blog about them – send messages to @beerswap and use the #beerswap hashtag.
The dates: The end date will be the 14th May. You have until the 28th March to join in and then Andy and I will sort out the sending. You will need to post out your beers by April 16th.
• To enter, go here and submit your details on the form (we need you to use the form to collect up all the names and details – your information will be kept secure, of course). We will sort them out and get them ready for the next stage.

Last time we had issues with postage and Collect+ didn’t really do it for us (the dreaded #collectplusfail). This time we need to do something different, so if anyone has any ideas then please let us know. We will advise on the best service when we announce the next steps after the 28th.

Who wants to swap some beer?!

And Twissup... Sheffield will be hard to beat but we’ll give it a damn good go! So, get the 15th May in the diary as we’re going to Burton-upon-Trent! (assuming the National Brewery Centre is all open and up and running). All the details will come soon but it will hopefully involve a brewery, a museum, maybe a maltings and definitely lots of pubs and beer! It’ll be a great follow-up to Sheffield! There's also a facebook group for #Twissup.

Now, there’s just two questions:

1) Beer Swap: Are you in? (If yes, remember to fill in this form!)

2) Burton Twissup: Are you in?

Thursday, 18 March 2010

FABPOW! Thai Red Curry with Thornbridge Kipling and Jaipur

If there’s one question I’ve been asking myself for the last god-knows-how-long, it’s what works better with a Thai red curry, Thornbridge’s Kipling or Jaipur...?

Thai red curry: Chicken thigh; onion; garlic, ginger and fresh red chilli; pinch of sugar, some paprika, and turmeric; Waitrose’s red curry paste; coconut milk; fish sauce, a big handful or coriander and some lime juice, in that order, allowing each to have five minutes before putting the next bit in. You can put vegetables in if you want - I just added more chicken (by the way, I’ve stopped writing recipes out in the typical way... this allows for masculine intervention and stubbornness, kind of like putting together a cupboard with the instructions – base, sides, top, door, handles).

I got the beers from myBrewerytap who are selling a mixed box of Kipling and Jaipur. I had a box from them last year and since then they’ve continued to grow impressively, increasingly featuring more interesting breweries. It’s great to see Thornbridge available now (with the hope of more beers coming soon) as well as Crown.

As I was cooking I put a message on twitter asking whether people thought the Kipling or Jaipur would work better. The answer was unanimous (out of four or five...) that it would be Jaipur. The curry was hot, creamy and sweet, salty, fragrant and juiced with lime to lift and lighten all the flavours. Kipling, at 5.2%, is lighter in body than Jaipur and hopped with Nelson Sauvins, which make themselves known immediately with a nose of creamy passion fruit, lime and kiwi. It’s smooth and fruity with a great bite of dry bitterness at the end and a beer I’d happily drink every day. With the curry, the hops hit the chilli first, perking them up just enough, then the lime and coriander come in and play with the fruitiness, then it sweeps to the end with a palate-cleansing bitterness. The joy in this is the passion fruit, citrus and kiwi quality from the hops, which really bring it to life and perfectly balance the spectrum of flavour in the curry, particularly the lime and coriander. Jaipur, at 5.9%, is bigger, slightly sweeter and hopped with American varieties giving a great tangerine and floral aroma. There’s more body and sweetness in the Jaipur and the finish is smooth and quenching rather than dry. With the curry it becomes earthier, there’s a herbal quality to it and then at the end there’s a hidden punch of bitterness from the hops which spikes the chilli heat. It doesn’t quite have the lightness to lift the creamy curry and the oranges and coconut don’t balance as well as the tropical fruit in the Kipling.

Kipling won the fight - the dry finish, the light and lively body, and the unique bridging flavours of the fruit made for a joy of a match. The Kipling also seems to fare slightly better in the bottle than Jaipur which was lacking some of its usual punch. I’m already craving this dinner again; it was one of the most successful FABPOWs I’ve had this year, plus, of course, who can resist beer and curry?

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

St Guinness Day

When I was 17 I worked at Gillingham Football Club. It was a good first job, fairly easy and I got to watch all of the home games. Over the summer I worked on the functions as one of a handful of regular staff who set-up the halls during the day (the hospitality areas at Gillingham are actually very nice). One day I’m talking to John. He was in the year above me at school, one of those kids you don’t mess with, a bit rough and ready, more mature than everyone else, more ‘experienced’, but a guy that opens up and softens when you get to know him. “I drink Guinness,” he tells me. “Can’t stand lager.” We’re making fans out of blue napkins and dressing the tables. “Did you know, if you drink eight pints of Guinness and then swallow some glitter, in the morning your shit will be black and glittery?”

I’ve never really done the St Patrick’s Day thing of going out, drinking lots of Guinness and wearing a novelty hat. It is quite appealing though... I wanted to post something for St Patrick’s Day. I was going to do some cooking right up until the moment, yesterday afternoon (the day before St Patrick’s Day), an email arrived from ‘Publicity Freelancer’ with a red exclamation mark of importance and started ‘Dear Blogger’. It asked, bluntly, if we might be able to post a recipe from a book about Guinness which they are promoting. Any cooking plans were abandoned right then.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Marin Brewing Co. Point Reyes Porter

One of the best beers I had in California. I packed up my case and jumped on the ferry to Larkspur to start the second part of my trip – Petaluma, Santa Rosa, Healdsburg. It’s a short ride across the Bay; a welcome respite to walking. I’m sad to leave the city behind, the sun bathing it and bringing it alive, but I know there are more adventures ahead. On the ferry I read a beer magazine, flicking through pages about the best beers of the year so far. Before I know it, and just as my tired eyes fall shut thanks to the relaxing rocking motion, we pull into the terminal. “Go over the bridge and you’ll see it.” Mario tells me as I’m pulling along my heavy suitcase, loaded with bottles. Eventually my nose pulls me towards the beer, the smell of toffee and citrus in the air. I’d met the brewers three days ago, lovely guys, they said to come and say hi. Inside, on the left, is the brewhouse and Kim is busy brewing, the whole bar smells amazing, so inviting, a powerful inducer of thirst if ever there was one. “Sit down and we’ll sort you out some beers.” I take a flight, a small pour of each of their brews, and sip while ordering lunch – a burger, of course. Mario knows these beers and goes straight for the Point Reyes Porter. Pitch black, an impossibly neat and thick head. He smacks his lips and nods his head. I sip through pale ales and IPAs, a wheat beer, a barley wine and then onto the porter. It’s astounding. It’s 6% but fuller bodied than something double that, it’s all dark chocolate, coffee roast and sweet smoke. Every sip is more impressive than the last, better than the last. Lunch comes, a charred burger covered in cheese, a hugely satisfying mouthful of that is followed by the last sip of beer - the sweetness of the smoke, the depth of flavour in the beer just echoes everything good in the burger and bounces off of it, enhancing it. Kim comes back, he has a couple of bottles for us: “Here’s the Porter, we bottled it this morning.” We leave through necessity more than choice, in truth I could’ve stayed there all afternoon.

Back home and I’m missing San Francisco. It’s the post-holiday blues, thoughts of things I missed or places I should’ve returned to. The memory of that lunch, seemingly innocuous, a short pit-stop on the way to Lagunitas and Russian River, moved me to remember that bottle and open it at just 12 days old. This is a big award winner for Marin and when Kim handed over the bottles there was obvious pride that this was the first time he’d brewed it himself (“I usually do the stout, Arne [the head brewer] does the Porter... this is the batch that’ll be going forward for competition this year”.) It pours a gorgeous, thick black with a creamy sand-coloured head. It’s dark chocolate, nuts, a hint of milkshake, smoked bacon as it warms. It’s smooth, it’s bold, creamy, intensely roasty, a berry sweetness, a lactic edge, smoke, dry at the end, incredibly drinkable, incredibly good. They do a lot of good things at Marin. If you are in San Francisco then go to the ferry port at 12.25pm and you’ll be sitting in the brewpub by 1.10pm. Order a porter and tell them I say hi.

I wrote about brewpubs here. Marin features in a number of the pictures, including Kim, the brewer.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Hop Press: A London Drinker

I went to the London Drinker Beer and Cider Festival and I drank... This week’s post is about that festival, a mention of the forthcoming Wetherspoon's International Real Ale Festival (the signs are up outside mine already) and a happy endnote about the current and future state of beer and brewing in London.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Fuller's Bengal Lancer

I had this at the London Drinker beer festival on Thursday and I loved it. I saw a bottle in Waitrose and I bought it. The bottle is open now. The aroma is deliciously enticing: citrus, spice, marmalade, grapefruit, sweet bread. It's very, very good, better than I expected it to be. Smooth, big, full, peppery marmalade, toast, bitter at the side of the mouth, a quenching, dry finish, come-drink-me-now good. I will buy some more bottles this week, you should too.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

IPA Night

Last time we had Stout Night, before that were two general Beer Nights, this time it was an evening dedicated to IPAs. Pete, Brad, Chunk and Matt (who is pretty much my only mate who doesn't have a blog or can't be reached by putting @ in front of his name - but he does feature 47 seconds into this video) came to my place last Friday with the promise of a fridge filled with hops and orders for them to bring pizza, snacks, and cheese, plus any IPAs they find.

The evening revolved around the IPAs I brought back from America, which I wanted to share with friends. These bottles had been in the fridge since then, teasing me every time I went in there. I also picked up a few bottles from the supermarket or beer shops to add to the collection. We did the usual thing of rating the beer out of 10 for a little interesting competition. Almost all the beers were IPAs, although a couple slipped in which weren’t, but we can excuse that. Here’s what we had, in the order we had it, and all scores are out of 50.

Why the hell not. We usually like to start with something middle of the road to set the benchmark score but Pete was driving over and we figured he wouldn’t mind missing this one. It’s an IPA because it says so in the name. It’s just not IPA as we know it to be now. Frankly, it was horrible. My scribbled notes say ‘it smells like a baby’s bib that’s got sick on’. Still, it was a fun start and made us all laugh. We saved some for Pete so he didn’t miss out. Score: 10.5.

This was an obvious one to use as we all know it so well. I have had indifferent bottles recently but this one was absolutely spot-on and perhaps the best I’ve had it in the bottle. It seemed slightly more honeyed than usual, less dry-bitter in the finish and better balanced. Score: 37.5.

We wanted a Punk/Jaipur-off but as soon as we poured them we noticed that something wasn’t right... when we checked we saw that the Jaipur had a best before date of November 2009 (despite the fact that I only bought it the weekend before – I also got an out of date Orval then, but that was a good thing... if you visit the Bitter End in Bromley, check the dates). It had suggestions of Jaipur but the hops had fallen in and the malt was pushing out. We stopped the side-by-side and didn’t give this a score as it wasn’t a fair representation (that same day a box of Jaipur and Kipling arrived from myBrewerytap, it just went to my parents' house, not mine).

Pete arrived, put beers in the fridge, caught up with the previous three and then we started straight on the big ones. Racer was my favourite beer in California so I was eager to see how well it bottled and lasted. Straight away, with that aroma of tropical fruit, mango and tangerine, I had a Proustian flashback of the Toad in the Hole on my last night in Santa Rosa. There’s so much fruit, a great long, dry finish and wonderful balance and drinkability. I need more Racer 5, I love it. Score: 43.5.

No messing around, straight from Racer to Pliny. This is a new Californian classic brewed a few towns away from Bear Republic. It was the first and the penultimate beer of my US trip and there were many in between. Bottled on the 2nd February, it was five weeks old. Pliny is full of pine and grapefruit, resinous and fruity with a long, dry, almost-herby finish. There’s less sweetness than the Racer and less ‘balance’ but that doesn’t matter, it’s a wonderful beer and that aroma-finish book-end is so inticing. Score: 42.5.

We jumped around between US and UK beers all evening. Old Empire may have suffered from coming after Pliny... although I was surprised as I didn’t expect much - it had a crisp, bitter finish which would work well with spicy food. This is more of an Old School IPA, compared to the US New Skool. It was perfectly drinkable, I just can’t imagine buying more and keeping them in the fridge. Score: 26.

This one left us divided with some hating it and others not minding it. It poured a murky gold and had a sweet, doughy nose of fresh bread which carried through into the taste. It’s big and warming, a little tannic and dry with a bitter finish and hints of slightly sour fruit. This was probably the most authentic IPA we had and I thought it was really interesting in a not-quite-right, sort of way. The initial taste reminded me of Pete Brown’s Calcutta IPA and if you left this long enough I think it would develop similarly. Score: 21.

This is a once-yearly release which I was given by Ken Weaver in California. This is also not an IPA, instead it’s an Imperial Amber. We can overlook that as it’s got shit loads of hops in it and was the same colour as all the others anyway. This was very good. Lots of caramel and c-hops to begin, fruity, piny and perfumed with a big hit of floral and orange in the quenching finish. The floral quality and extra sweetness marks this apart from the West Coast IPAs. Score: 41.

Another famous US IPA, this one from Ballast Point, a great Californian brewery. This one had a nose-full of oranges, peaches, apricots and sweet floral. Taste-wise it’s spot-on, clean and smooth and bitter-sweet and delicious. Score: 41.5.

Like Nugget Nectar, this is a once-a-year release, which came a few weeks before I flew out. The bottle is another courtesy of Ken. This is a biggie. The image on the front says it all: a man squashed by a giant hop. It starts with citrus and pine and then opens into mango and tropical fruit. I didn’t write much down because I was too busy falling in love. It’s just a wonderful beer and my personal favourite of the evening. Score: 43.5.

Last week I wrote about Black IPAs so it seemed fitting to have one in for the evening. This one is a Double Black Belgian IPA, a typically renegade style, given its brewers. Whenever I’ve had this it has tasted different and others agreed that they’ve experienced the same thing. This was nice, smooth, a good level of roastiness and estery, tropical fruit. Score: 33.5.

Pete is the brewer at Hopdaemon so of course he brought a few of his beers around. This is the bottle-conditioned version of their IPA and it’s straight from the brewery. It’s the first time I’ve had it bottle-conditioned and it makes a big difference. The flavour was fresher, smoother and had a delicious underlying bready-fruity quality. It wasn’t big-hitting like the others but it’s still a very nice beer and one that I will always serve with a curry. Score: 37.

As we are all from Kent (except Brad but he lives close enough now) we needed some Gadds in there. This is a fairly old bottle but it’s holding up well; the hops are integrating and adding lots of flavour without bitterness, a sweet yeasty quality comes through, it’s mellow with hints of sour fruit. This got mixed reactions. It’s another old school-style IPA and it’s interesting to see how they all develop in similar ways with the hops retreating, the body filling out, a doughy sweetness and stone fruits – if that’s how all the traditional IPAs developed then I imagine I would’ve liked them too. Score: 33.5.

I was looking forward to this one but left a bit flat and disappointed. There’s nothing wrong with it, I just wanted more. It has a simple aroma of earthy-citrusy hops, it has a base of caramel flavours and a little bite at the end, it just didn’t wow. Score: 35.

Lovely, cheeky nose of peaches and apricots, fruity and inviting, floral. It’s very drinkable, very tasty and very nice. We liked it a lot and it’s one of those beers to keep in the fridge, if you can find it. Score: 40.5.

There’s a lot of hype around this beer but I’m not sure I get it. It’s an IPA with Belgian yeast and it’s fruity, estery, interesting, but something in it doesn’t work. I want to like it more than I do and there’s something about the hops and the yeast which seems to clash. We split two bottles between us and talked about the beer the whole time, which added something to the enjoyment, even if we were trying to work out what didn’t quite work. Score: 36.

I had this in the fridge so we decided to try it directly after the Bitch to see a comparison between IPAs made with Belgian yeasts. This one was much better and I really like what BrewDog have done (I’ve written about it here). It works perfectly well and the spicy, fruity character from the yeast adds a lot to the final beer. Score: 39.

A big bomber of year-old IPA. This is a big beer all around: big malt, big hops, big bitterness, big flavour. You can taste that it’s old and we felt that it either needed to be drunk fresh or a couple of years old, as it was it was in a bit of a transition, but it was still very good. Score: 38.5.

Not an IPA but it’s an ale and it’s pale so it’s okay. I didn’t write anything down for this one so it must’ve either been very good or very bad. Judging by the scores we all liked it. Score: 38.

Bottle 191 of 1080. Matt brought this around because he’d never seen it before and we both love Mikkeller and De Molen. This is definitely not an IPA and it’s not even very pale and possibly not even an ale - it’s a wheatbock with US hops. It’s smooth and malty, spicy, and then big c-hops come through, fresh and juicy and then leave a long, dry bitterness. We couldn’t quite work it out (style-wise) but enjoyed it (we did have to rush this a bit as it was time for everyone to dash down the High Street to catch the last train home). A good end to the evening. Score: 36.

Not bad going – 20 beers between five of us in under four hours, and great fun it was too. Pete stayed over on the sofa and we enjoyed a Leviathon after the others had left. I haven’t liked this much in the past but (I think) he’s made some tweaks and this has a great dry finish to balance the sweet, malty body. It’s also worth mentioning the other stars of the evening: the pizzas. Brad was in charge of these and he spared no expense by going to Iceland. The classic flavours he chose were Bolognese, Fajita, Hot Dog and Cheese & Onion (just in case we had a veggie). It may have been the beer talking but the pizzas were disgustingly good. I can still remember cracking into laughter as I bit into the Bolognese pizza and it tasting exactly like Bolognese! The other revelation was squeezing French’s mustard onto the Hot Dog pizza before cooking. Incredible. We decided to rate the pizza too: Bolognese scored 39, Fajita scored 30.5, Hot Dog scored 40.5 and Cheese & Onion 31. If you have a spare pound go to Iceland, buy the Hot Dog pizza, put mustard on it, cook and eat with a smile on your face.

IPA is such an interesting and varied style. All these beers were different and shone in their own way. Some were big-hitting on the bitterness, some were full of tropical fruit, some were floral, some were earthy, some were fragrant, some were malt-dominant, some were imperial and some were not. The best beers were seriously good, the worst were totally forgettable. The overall winners according to our ratings were Racer 5 and HopSlam, which is a good result, I think. Now I just need to work out a plan of how to get some more of them...

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

FABPOW! Carbonnade and Chimay Blue

Ireland has beef and Guinness, England has steak and ale, Belgium has carbonnade. It’s that classic recipe which uses beer as the vital ingredient along with hunks of beef and lots of onions. I don’t know if there is a definitive beer to make carbonnade but a dubbel seems to be a popular choice, although I’ve seen everything from a bottle of geueze, to Orval, to a Flemish Red, to Westlveteren 12 and beyond into beers of all styles from all over the world. To be honest you can use any beer you want and each will add its own flavour, though it probably should be Belgian to qualify as Carbonnade (use a British ale and you’ve made a stew...). I decided to use Chimay Blue because it’s a great beer, it’s ideal for this recipe and I can buy it from Waitrose down the road.

The joy of carbonnade is the simplicity. Brown some beef, take it out, soften lots of onions, a little garlic and thyme, a couple of bay leaves, a teaspoon vinegar and of sugar, a little stock and then the beer and cook for a couple of hours on a low temperature until it’s thick and rich and delicious. Pile this high next to a mound of chips and a glass of beer. You can add mustard-covered slices of bread on top too. It’s great and hearty food, it’s warming, it’s tender, it’s intensely savoury with an underlying sweetness and it comes with chips: it’s proper man grub.

The Chimay adds a depth of flavour to it that can only be given by the beer and when you drink the beer alongside it you can pull out the caramel base, the dried fruit and the distant spice. Together they work perfectly; the beer is both dark enough to handle the carbonnade and light enough to not make it cloying, the carbonation is refreshing but it’s the bridge of flavours between the glass and plate that pulls it all together and makes it extra special.

Carbonnade is a great beer dish. It's so easy to make and whatever beer you open to put in will change the final flavour. My next attempt will use a geueze or Orval, I think, if I can bare to open one and not drink it straight down. Anyone used these or other beers to cook carbonnade? What has given the best results? 

Monday, 8 March 2010

Beer: We Can Do It!

Here begins my campaign for canned craft beer in the UK. The official slogan is currently ‘Cans are not just for baked beans’, but I’m still working on that bit.

In 2002, Oskar Blues started putting their beer into cans; they were the first brewery in the US to see a future for canned beer. Now over 50 are doing the same, including 21st Amendment, Anderson Valley, Maui Brewing Co, New Belgium and Surly ('Beer for a glass, from a can'). 21st Amendment have recently announced their Insurrection Series, which will be ‘a limited edition, four-pack release of a very special beer that rises up in revolt against common notions of what canned beer can be’. They started this series with Monk’s Blood. The beer in these tins are not your mass-market, corn-fed, yellow fizz.

There are significant pros to the argument for drinking canned beer, they are: Cans are lighter and more space-efficient than bottles (378g vs. 592g in a 355ml container); they are roughly the same diameter, but cans are stackable; there are no worries of smashed glass with a can; any light struck issues disappear in a can, so the beer stays fresher; cans now have a thin layer attached to the inside so any worries of it ‘tasting like tin’ disappear; aluminium is eco-friendly and recyclable; cans chill quicker than bottles; you don’t need to put labels on a can; cans suggest that you drink the beer fresh and in most cases fresh is best; and, you will also likely get away with drinking a can of beer in a public place or at work and people will just think it’s one of those loudly coloured soft drinks, if that’s of any interest.

For balance, there are some negative issues: The mentality of drinking beer from a tin is the main one as canned beer is seen as the cheap, mass-market stuff which you open, drain in one hit and then smash the empty tin against your forehead. This is a difficult mentality to overcome. Also, the addition of canning facilities to a brewery is an extra, initial expense alongside (or instead of) a bottling line. And here’s a point I’m unsure amount – we have cask and bottle conditioning, how about can conditioned? I don’t know if it’s possible, so real ale in a can may be a no-go, which some might not like (though real ale is not the be-all and end-all of good beer, of course).

Ultimately it comes down to taste. It’s easy to list reasons why cans are good but if, when that ring is pulled back and the beer is poured out, it doesn’t taste good then the argument is wasted. 21st Amendment’s regular cans are Hell or High Watermelon Wheat and Brew Free or Die IPA. They are great looking cans, bold and colourful. The Watermelon Wheat is literally a can full of fruit, it’s light and quenching, relatively low in alcohol and like sinking your teeth into a juicy piece of melon (just don’t try this if you don’t like watermelon). Brew Free is a fantastic IPA, bready-caramel base with a flood of tropical and citrus fruit and pine - very tasty and neither too-sweet nor over-bitter.

Two of the beers I brought back from California were in cans and I now wish I’d squeezed a few extra in. Maui Brewing’s CoCoNut Porter is 5.7%, comes in a great looking can and is made with hand-toasted coconut. It pours a dark chocolate colour and straight away that coconut comes through, like liquid Bounty. One sip and I was in love. It’s great fun, it’s fresh, it’s different and the mix of fragrant coconut with roasty, chocolatey, dry porter is a complete revelation (the brewer is currently in the UK doing something for the Wetherspoons beer festival... look out for it, you’d be coco-nuts not to). Oskar Blues Ten Fidy is the A-list superstar of canned beer. It’s a 9.5% imperial stout and it pours a gorgeous inky brown with one of those creamy, dark heads that you want to spoon up and eat. The aroma is the intoxicating mix of doughy sweet bread, oatmeal, dark chocolate and berries. It’s richly full bodied, a fresh bread flavour kicks it off which gets darker and darker passing through toast, cream, chocolate and coffee, heading into cocoa-covered roasted berries. It’s as good an imperial stout as I’ve ever had.

I’d like to see canned craft beer in the UK. But I don’t think we are close to that yet. Tins of Hobgoblin and Green King IPA don’t count, I’m afraid, but I think there’s real potential for others. The mentality of drinking canned beer might be the biggest thing holding it back, but times are changing and there are many pros to canning beer - brewing is constantly in evolution, the world is changing, the need for more efficient practices are gaining importance and this is one thing that the beer industry can do. Not all breweries could succeed to begin but there are some who definitely could. Maybe it needs a new brewery to come in with a radical game-plan to try and shake things up a bit... Whatever happens, expect my Can Campaign to be on-going – We CAN do it!

And here’s some proof that 21st Amendment use fresh watermelons... We didn’t break into the brewpub, by the way, that’s Richard from Elizabeth Street Brewery and he was picking up a keg of beer for a party, which I went to. And yes, I did quote Dirty Dancing as this picture was being taken.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

The Hop Press: In Dispense

This week’s Hop Press post looks at how some beers benefit from a certain dispense. For example, a 4% pale ale hand-pulled from the cask will very likely be better than the equivalent in a bottle, while a big US-style IPA will probably benefit from the extra juice given from a keg.

The post is inspired by drinking BrewDog’s new Hardcore IPA at The Rake. It’s a good beer and was dispensed from the keg, but in comparison to drinking similar IPAs in California, the temperature was just a little too warm to best show off the beer (or, the beer was a little too Hardcore for the English kegs). Then, out of the bottle it was different and worked well, maybe better.

Is some beer better from particular dispenses? Would something like Orval work from the cask? Would kegged Landlord appeal? Are some beers better from the bottle than draught?

Friday, 5 March 2010

Black IPA, India Brown, Imperial Brown, Cascadian Dark Ale...

It feels like every time I’ve read through the American beer blogs or looked at twitter this week I’ve been faced with the term Cascadian Dark Ale. Adrian Tierney-Jones wrote about it this week, linking back to a Hop Press post by Lisa Morrison, since then it’s popped up repeatedly (including another Hop Press post from Josh Oakes) with the name slipping casually into place as if everyone accepts, knows and understands what it is already... but I don’t like it.

I’ve grown to like ‘Black IPA’ as the name for a dark beer lustily bittered and flavoured with US hops. Yes, it’s an oxymoron if you look at it as being an India Pale Ale, but I’d sit down opposite you in the pub and happily argue the point (which I’ve written about here) that ‘IPA’ and ‘India Pale Ale’ are terms which can be used separately and that ‘IPA’ has become its own noun with different meanings to ‘India Pale Ale’ to today’s drinker. I’d argue this because the evolution of an IPA, in nearly all modern examples, separates it from its historical connotations in many ways: different hop varieties used; different mentality behind the brewing; the now-redundant use of ships and barrel-aging; the necessity to drink these beers super fresh rather than brewing them to taste one way and appreciating that it will change into a more drinkable beer. New-skool IPAs are not Pale Ales brewed to be exported to the Indian market in the 19th century, they are something completely new.

IPA has become the staple of US brewing and it’s almost a benchmark of how good a brewery is – if your IPA isn’t up to it then neither is the rest of it. Black IPA is a US thing, which is now being picked up by British brewers. As it’s a US thing, you need to look at the US understanding of an IPA, which for me, when suffixed onto a beer name, tells me I’ll be getting something pale in colour (usually golden, through caramels and into an orange hue) with a lot of vibrant, fruity, citrusy, piny hops and a bold bitterness. There is no link to a beer which has made a long sea journey to be enjoyed in India. A Black IPA tells me I’m getting a dark beer with the hop quality of a ‘regular’ IPA and I think it works. Plus the oxymoronic quality of the name somehow adds something, as if this style were a little bit naughty and rule breaking, which transfers into the taste.

But some people don’t like ‘Black IPA’, hence the push for Cascadian Dark Ale to be the style name. I would guess that this push is mainly coming from the Pacific Northwest, specifically in the Cascade region... To me, CDA means nothing. Sure that’s where most of the hops grow, but that’s not enough and the area is too specific for a ‘world style’. Lisa Morrison lists four reasons why she likes the name Cascadian Dark Ale. I’d argue against all of them. One, Black IPA and Dark IPA are oxymoronic, but I’m fine with that, as I’ve said, because the style is challenging and different, so the name fits. Two, she thinks CDA is a great bar call, as in “Two CDAs please”. I think it’s a terrible bar call. It sounds like a drug or an illness. Three, the story and history behind a beer style endear people to it, which is true, but you can’t magic up history in a couple of months, slap a new name on it and expect people to be interested. That’s called marketing and I don’t think the story behind it is interesting enough (‘Oh, that’s just where a lot of hops grow, then?’ I can hear them saying, but engage them in a discussion of Black/Dark IPA, the history of IPA, the evolution of style and the use of the Black/Dark misnomer and that’s interesting). Four, it celebrates an appellation, but would this stop hops grown outside of the Cascade area from going into a CDA? Does the water and barley need to be from there too? I will also add that Cascadian Dark Ale sounds like the name of a brew, not a style.

If the term Black IPA isn’t liked, and Cascadian Dark Ale doesn’t do it for me, then what about alternatives? Dark IPA is a gentler version of Black IPA, and I like that. ‘Dark’ doesn’t crash in like ‘Black’, instead it suggests that the beer is just a little darker than usual. What about India Brown? Or is this just a strange linking of styles between an IPA and a Brown Ale? Does the addition of ‘India’ to a name immediately suggest that lots of hops have been added? If so, why? What about Imperial Brown Ale, just like red ales have been Imperialised (and they taste like Red IPAs...), why not just intensify the Brown Ale?

I do think we need to have a name for this emerging style of beer but I hope Cascadian Dark Ale doesn’t stick. It seems to me that Black IPA is working so far, so I don’t see a need to change it, but if it’s going to change then my vote goes with Dark IPA or Imperial/India Brown Ale (IBA).

What do you think works as a name? And as a side note, which dark IPAs are good? I haven’t found Thornbridge’s Raven, which sounds like a winner, but I’m not a huge fan of the style yet as for me there’s something which collides somewhere between the heavy roasted bitterness and the citrusy hop bitterness...

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

How much alcohol...

I like to check what people are searching for when they land on this blog. The most common is 'pencil and spoon', as you might expect, and most searches are quite normal (Chimay comes up a lot, so do hits on Thornbridge, Marble and BrewDog). But then there are the weird searches. Some don’t really make sense, some make you question the state of mind of people, others are just strange ('pierced arse pics' was one a few months ago). And then there are the funny searches. I might get one or two of these a month, but they are always my favourites. Yesterday, at 4.45am, someone landed on my blog after searching ‘how much alcohol do you need to get 3 people drunk for 7 nights’. I am the second link down in the google search.

Obviously I hope that I was helpful and provided them with the answer they wanted, however, as I’ve never formally addressed the subject of how much alcohol you need to get three people drunk for seven nights, I thought I’d better put together a quick post, just in case the person is still searching for the answer, or someone needs to know in the future.

There are things to consider. Firstly, how drunk do you want to be for the seven nights? Do you want to stay drunk during the day or will the drinking be strictly limited to nights? Is there a maximum budget? What do you actually want to drink? Where will you be (do you need appropriate glassware or can you drink straight from a bottle, do you need to carry the alcohol somewhere for a trip)? And, will you have a fridge to keep everything nicely chilled? When you have thought about these then you are in a good position to answer the question.

Unfortunately I don’t know the definite answer to this, I’m afraid, but I’m hoping others will know. So, anyone, how much alcohol do you need to get three people drunk for seven nights?

If I were to guess, I’d say that three people could each drink a steady maximum of eight pints of beer a day (assuming it's not strong), which is 168 pints in total for the week. The logical suggestion is therefore to get two firkins as a starting point. Then, I would take a crate each, so 24 mixed bottles per person. And you will want a bottle of whisky each, of course. That should do it on the booze front. Then you might like a couple of bottles of water and I suggest some family-size packs of crisps. I hope this helps.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Dark Star Six Hop

Dark Star's Six Hop is one of the best beers I’ve drunk so far this year, whether in the UK or California, from anywhere in the world, dispensed from the bottle, can, keg or cask. It truly was a stunning glassful, a perfectly hand-pulled cask ale. It’s 6.5%, six-times hopped, a February special from the Sussex brewery. It shines in the glass, one of those pints that’s alive with colour and condition, a crown of frothing bubbles settling above. It’s a full bowl of tropical fruit, grapefruits, oranges and peaches, it’s fresh like spring, floral and grassy, it has hints of sweetness but never too much, the bitterness is bold but not brash, it’s smooth, it’s crisp, it’s dry and quenching yet and mouth-filling and lip-smacking. A complete triumph – if you see it, drink it.

I had this in The Bull where an Oakham Inferno was a great start and a Pictish Porter with a wonderful dry, roasty bitterness was on top form. I also got myself a bottle each of the Marble Decadence Kriek and Frambozen. That was my reward for following Lauren around the shops all day.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Pint Sized Pours

By way of an introduction to this observation, imagine for a moment that your dick shrinks by 20% overnight. Now consider that the British pint is 20oz while a US pint is 16oz...

I drink from a British nonic pint all the time; I have one by me now, the cupboard is filled with them and I have one at work for water. It’s the glass most pubs use, most of the time, and I’m warmly familiar with how it feels when it’s full, when it’s empty and all the way in between. There’s also a certain comfort to holding it, a feeling that it’s designed to snugly fit in the hand; the perfect size and weight to hold a drink. So, when a nonic of frothing, golden-orange beer slides across the bar to me in California, I think nothing of it, sensing a touch of the familiar with the excitement of the new... but that only lasted until I picked it up.

It was a 16oz nonic. Lighter, thinner, noticeably smaller and it didn’t fill the pocket of the hand. Imagine your dick shrinks by 20%... it’s weird. I can’t even remember what beer was in the glass, I was just fascinated by this slightly smaller glass in a very familiar shape (I was probably quite drunk at the time too, which didn't help).

This also, loosely, leads to the size of pours. The US doesn’t have the pint, half, third restrictions that the UK has, rather, you ask for a beer and depending on what it is and where you are it comes in a different and appropriate glass. Many ‘normal’ beers come in 16oz shaker glasses (which I like drinking beer from; they feel good in the hand, like a soft drink glass only more potently filled), but I was served 2, 4, 8, 10, and 12oz glasses, maybe other volumes too, in a wide variety of glassware. I like the freedom to pour different measures and it works perfectly for the wide range of beers on offer in many beer bars over there. To be honest, there isn’t the necessity to have this freedom in the UK, but I still like the idea of no preset amounts, which makes me think of a comment Zak made on this post about ordering beer in a financial volume rather than physical (£2 of beer, please). That’s an interesting idea.

I like that we have set measurements in the UK and I don’t want to change the pint, half and third. I would, however, like to see thirds more widely used in the pubs which need them (because they sell stronger beer) and more care taken over appropriate glassware, because, as good as a pint is, I don't always want to drink a pint of each beer I have and some beers are just better suited to particular shaped glasses.

I’m in a campaigning mood and want to kick off a few different ones... I’m thinking of starting one for a fifth-of-a-pint glass (about 4oz)... who is with me?! The day we get a one-fifth-pint in the UK will be the day extreme beer properly arrives. Bring It On!

The picture is a bit dodgy, I apologise. It shows two glasses from the Toronado, one of a just-finished saison (12oz glass, I think) and the other of an IPA in a shaker pint.