Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Chodovar Beer Baths

No, my bath wasn't quite like this...
“Get naked, wrap in sheet, don’t shower.”

Either it’s a crudely simplified translation by Jan, our guide from Czech Tourism, or that’s what the Czech woman has just said as she passes around crisply folded, thin white sheets.

Heavy, clearly audible gulps drop around the tiny changing room as the door closes behind us. Grasping at the sheet and clinging to our soon-to-be-unnecessary clothes, we look around at each other trying to work out what’s happening, as if we’d just been told that we need to strip naked and sit in bath of... oh, yeah.  

“We don’t wear shorts then?” I ask, gripping to a strange hope that the ones I’d packed would still be of use.

“No. Naked with the sheet.” Jan replies.

Usually this wouldn’t bother me. I don’t make a habit of getting naked in public but I’ve changed in front of blokes often enough to not worry, yet there’s something different about it this time, about being hurried into a room and told, rather urgently because we were late, to get naked ready for a bath. It must be the element of the unknown, unsure whether we’ll all be climbing into one bath together (that’s what I imagined, Jacuzzi-style, like below - image from here), or if we’d be alone, modesty kept slightly intact. Plus it’s a bath and I’m not in the regular habit of sharing baths with friends...

It’s as I slip off my shoes that I really wonder what I’m doing. The promise was a beer bath. Put another way, it was a bath in beer. Now we’re standing in a changing room, cold tiled floor beneath our feet and hand-painted pictures on the wall in a Ralph Steadman meets Quentin Blake kind of way. Barely a stretched-out arm from each other we silently and awkwardly undress, stuffing our clothes into a locker and wrapping our dignity beneath the see-through sheet.

The Czech woman – short, rather dramatically made-up – returns to collect us, opening the door in a way which suggests sees seen it all before and really doesn’t care. She leads us through to the baths, a small, open area with curtains closed around it, piped music playing quietly. Here, waiting for us, is Christiano Ronaldo’s rugged lookalike, a beaming smile and open arms, pulling across the curtain and revealing the squat bath.

On top of the bath is a thick foam spread across the water, literally like a giant pint of beer served in a silver tankard. My eyes immediately notice the golden glass of beer next to the bath, condensation dripping down the sides; a comfortingly recognisable beacon in the middle of a very unusual experience. The less pretty Ronaldo still smiles, his eyes directing me towards the bath, nodding towards it eagerly. Aware that this is a rare moment in my life which mixes awkwardness and brilliance in a perfect balance that must be captured on film, I take a quick photo, trying to juggling the sheet, a phone, a camera and a camera case, while Christiano Mark II watches on politely.

“Just don’t get a picture of me in here.” I laugh as I turn the camera off and put it on the chair beside the bath. To either side I see shadows of men climbing into their baths and reclining with ohhs and ahhs as the curtains close behind me. The top of the bath is thick, speckled with what looks like tiny hop pieces, slightly mottled brown at the edges, possibly sticky but I can’t tell until I touch it. I unwrap the sheet and lay it to the side, stepping into the warm water, slipping down through the foam as the smell of fermenting beer circles around, a lovely wort-like sweetness. Just as I disappear below the bubbles and with my shoulders and head still dry, the curtains reopen and the tanned chap with the greased-back hair returns, disturbing my recently-rediscovered privacy.

“I take your photo,” he says, smiling, while making the universal photo-taking gesture. Presumably, my ‘don’t take a picture’ comment was misheard and mistranslated, but how can I say no now? Slipping and splashing I hand him the camera and attempt (and fail) to create a foam-shaped shield in the water above my lower regions, before grabbing the beer and saying cheese. He nods to say the photo is good and returns the camera, pulling the curtain shut, leaving me alone in my beer bath.

The water is so satisfyingly warm without being too hot, while the foam gently pops against the skin, not sticky but still clinging. The beer in the glass is cold and delicious and a rare treat to drink in the bath. It would all be very relaxing if it wasn’t for the giggling that I try so hard to suppress throughout, a giggling that at one point threatens to break into a full-on laugh (one of those laughs that gets funnier and funnier inside, increasing with intensity as you think about how funny it’d be if you actually laughed, making you want to laugh even more, and so on). I’d never experienced anything like this before.

The bath is filled with mineral water, yeast, hops and at least 8 litres of dark beer. It’s proven to lower blood pressure and help with circulation. Around I can hear elevator music broken with the occasional splash, sigh of pleasure or swallow of beer. Finally relaxing, I feel my arms and legs getting lighter and floating to the surface, the hangover I’ve been fighting with all morning is finally drifting away, the aching behind my eyes dispersing. This is nice.

Avoiding the curious desire to take a gulp of the water I’m lying in, I finish the glass of beer instead.  Just as I’m ready to fall asleep the 20 minute bath-time is up and our guy returns, opening the curtain. I expect a nod and for him to say that I need to jump out and follow him, instead he walks in, takes my sheet and holds it out in front of him and waits. I don’t move. He looks out from over the sheet at me. I stare back, unsure.

“You get out now,” he says. I still don’t move.

Finally I get it. This guy wants me to get out of the bath and then he wants to wrap me in a sheet. Here we go. I stand carefully, not wanting to slip and fall. I climb as gracefully as a naked man covered in beer can and then back myself like a reversing tanker into the sheet, which falls across my shoulders, immediately turning more see-through. “Follow me,” he says to us as we all wait, walking off as I wrap the towel around me, ensuring nothing is hanging out beneath. With the patter of wet feet we follow him into the next room which is a dark, bricked red room. Another beer is served to us as we lie down for 20 minutes, air-drying, drifting to a gentle sleep, completely chilled out.

We’re told to dress again after it’s done and not to shower for at least four hours (for the full effect of the water, apparently). I leave totally relaxed, my skin cleaner and softer than before, a joy inside of me bursting out: the last hour was wonderfully unique, strangely excellent and so much fun. The awkwardness is just shocked Brit in me; in reality it’s tasteful, charming and sensitively done, more importantly it’s a bath in beer. We all return to the restaurant and sit down to eat, everyone delighting in the last hour’s entertainment, invigorated, unlike anything we’ve done on a beer trip before.

I can’t recommend the baths highly enough. For about £20 you get the bath, the relaxation after and the two beers. In fact, the whole of the Chodovar site is excellent with a range of good beers, two restaurants, a spa and hotel. One of the restaurants is in the old granite and sandstone cellars where the beer used to lager, filling the air with a wonderful clean mineral smell and mixing it with the roasted meat aromas of Czech food. The unfiltered 11° yeast lager straight from the cellar is delicious (and only served at the brewery), made even better as the barrel-chested brewmaster Jiri Plevka talked to us about the history of the brewery and his family before taking us on a fantastic tour of the grounds, including the cellars, leaving us to enjoy the bath and then a gut-filling meal with more beer (Pete has already written about the place). Not your usual brewery visit... and all the better for it!

Anyone for a beer bath?

(And here's the picture of me in the bath. I may have doctored it slightly to preserve a little dignity)

Monday, 30 August 2010

Prague and Pilsen: The Executive Summary

Airport and a pint with Jan, our Czech host, Adrian, Tim, Pete and Peter from the Porterhouse - we begin; flight with no working toilet making for an uncomfortable entrance into the country; hustle onto a minibus and into the centre, dump bags in plush hotel, bust a groove to Zly časy (Bad Times); meet Evan Rail, drink a fantastic selection of beer, a sherbety Tambor 10° with a big Saaz hop finish, a Kocour Pale Ale, snappy branding and bold hops, trays of food, cheese and chilli, sausages cooked in beer, ribs - fantastic place; to one of the best bars I’ve been to in ages, a trip simultaneously back in time and looking to the future, the První Pivni Tramway (First Beer Tramway), serving BrewDog and Matuška while playing football from the 80s in a bar that looks like a grubby cafe; to Jáma (The Hollow) for more Kocour, more Matuška, a whisky nightcap and a hot dog on the way home (hot dogs all round except for Adrian who had a can of Pilsner Urquell); wake up in the middle of the night and see Czech babestation is blaring light and lovelies my way, hit standby, go back to sleep; bitch of a hangover only kicks in as we jump on the minibus for an hour drive to Pilsen, hang my head towards the window in hope that the fresh air will revive me; drop bags at great, quaint hotel, back on the bus to Chodovar, a tour of the cellars, the tanks cheekily poking out like bare buttocks, a not-ready special beer was passed around, making for a one-off drinking experience; this was followed by the beer spa, one of those unforgettable life experiences, lying naked in beer while drinking it (a fresh one, not bath water); back to Pilsen, a tour of the grand square before another brewery, this time Pivovar Groll, brewing in the imposing shadows of Pilsner Urquell, making a ballsy lager, hop-forward and full-bodied, a tour of the kit made us all want to stay for the night; to Pilsner Fest where we attempt to break a World Record which is so ridiculously complicated that we have no idea what’s going on; dinner under the brewery, our first unfiltered Pilsner Urquell, a revelation; Jan meets his cousin and he takes us to the Small Breweries Klub which is like a taxi rank meeting an ineffective DIY-ers shed, but one which serves great beers to glass-chinking drinkers; morning breaks, a tour of the tunnels under Pilsen is extraordinary, a strange stage show tells us the history of Pilsner Urquell (to test the quality it was poured on a bench and if whoever sits on it gets stuck then it’s good – try seeing that acted out by two enthusiastic Czechs, speaking just Czech); more unfiltered Pilsner Urquell; a tour of the brewery, wonderfully done to appeal to everyone, the walk through the cellars is mind-blowing, almost as mind-blowing as drinking the beer from a giant oak barrel, deep underground, a mouthful of silky beer, as cold as the air around us, as intoxicating as a beautiful smile; a walk around town, a quick beer, another quick beer in Pivovar Groll; a tour of Gambrinus, the biggest-selling beer in the Czech Republic, where a guy is so happy that they’ve started tours (this is the first day) that he suggests we all sing; another unfiltered Pilsner Urquell; to Pivovar Pašák, a tiny brewpub with coppers in the corner, a deeply fried meal and some great beer; onwards we beer travellers go, to drink Kout na Šumavě at Pálavě, a delicious 12° unfiltered lager, smooth, a faint orange pith Saaz bitterness, delicious; to Zach’s Pub for 19° porter from Pardubice outside in a cool courtyard playing jazz-funk, then for more Kout (10° this time), then a spirit Becherovka which tasted like bitter Christmas Pudding; morning, urgh; a film crew, who have followed us all weekend, get us to talk to camera; we go to Pivovar Modrá Hvezda (Blue Star), a small brewpub out of town which leaves us all buzzing with excitement after trying 5-6 of their great beers - my favourite, the 10°; to Purkmistr for lunch, beer and a brewery tour, another cracking unfiltered lager, a real glugger, great with ‘Mouth Scorcer of Cernice’ (deep fried chilli, a great beer snack); to the airport; to England; to home; to bed: to Czech Republic, wow, that was awesome.

This is the executive summary. More to follow...

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Hangover: Prevention or Cure

It’s the strange void before the discomfort which strikes first. An eyes-closed where am I, what time is it? Swallow and your tongue feels like your last meal was a sandcastle. Eyes stinging as the beer goggles linger like left-in contact lenses. A sea-sick stomach, a sudden flashback of something from the night before, an internal groan, the possibility that someone is actually in your brain and trying to break out by punching through your skull.

Sadly it’s something that most of us have had the displeasure of experiencing, not through intentioned design, of course, more a product of a good time, a bit like the sluggish lethargy following Christmas dinner. But how do you approach this unwelcome inevitability? Can you stave it off using preventative measures or do you wake up and then deal with it? (Abstinence doesn’t count)

Pre-university, as a fledgling drinker from the ages 18-20, my cure was simple: a pint of water and a packet of salt and vinegar squares. This would work for all but the fiercest of evenings (when meat and chips was required). During university it was dealt with by volume: a full meal at 3am, often cold leftovers (the most memorable being a five-day-old ‘bread and butter pudding’ made from a reduced-to-10p pack of eight jam doughnuts eaten straight from the fridge as I swayed bleary-eyed) or a mass panic-buy from the 24 hour Budgens. Post-university and the method is in a strange limbo: drink water, eat lots, eat whatever, hope for the best, sleep.

Some say have a glass of milk before you drink. Some champion eating a booze-soaking meal. Some say to order light-coloured drinks over dark. Some call for a glass of water between alcoholic drinks. Most go for the pint of water before bed… These all aim to prevent, but do they actually work?

Then the morning after… Stepping shaky-legged across splayed trousers, pizza boxes and borrowed street signs, what feast can guarantee to pick you up? Is it bacon? A full fry up? Black coffee, paracetamol and a cigarette? A bottle of sports drink. A head-clearing walk? Hair of the dog? Or do you mourn under the covers until indecently late?

Drink responsibly. Deal with the after-effects tactically. Are you a preventer or a curer or do you need a bit of both?

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Engaging an Oxymoron

“What’s that beer?” He asks, while he sips his lager.

“How long have you got?” I ask.

“It’s a special beer, a blend of two brews with a few extra things added,” I begin; his brow faintly wrinkles wondering how many ‘things’ can possibly be added. “One beer is called Military Intelligence. It’s an oxymoron because it’s a Black India Pale Ale. It’s a fashionable style at the moment, essentially a dark beer brewed with loads of American hops, which are really fruity and bitter – you can’t mistake them, here have a smell.” I push the beer under his nose. He sniffs, not realising that a beer could ever smell like this – an intense, punchy citrus. “It’s full bodied, rich but not overly chocolatey or coffee-tasting, which many beers like this can be. It’s sweet first, it coats your tongue and then it’s really citrusy and bitter at the end.” He’s nodding. I continue: “This beer,” I raise the jug we’re drinking from to acknowledge, “also has a beer called Black Spot blended into it. It’s a best bitter brewed by a guy who won a homebrewing competition. He brewed it out there,” I point to the brewery opposite us. “Once blended, the brewer added oak chips and more hops. He used a variety of hops called Citra, that’s what gives off the amazing lemon, grapefruit and dried lime aroma and by adding them at the end you get the full aromatic effect. The oak chips add a faint vanilla hint but it’s kind of hidden beneath the hops, which are pretty confrontational.” He’s still nodding. “There aren’t many beers like this in the UK. Not many at all.”

“Right.” He says as I pass him a glass and fill it half way.

“Plus it’s special because only we are drinking it and no one else – it’s a one-off.”

“Right. It’s interesting, isn’t it.” He says, lifting the glass and sipping cautiously. His eyes widen as an explosion rocks his tastebuds in a way they’ve never been rocked before. I leave him, staring into the dark depth of the glass in his hand. He finishes it through slightly-gritted teeth (the bitterness feeling like it’s eating his tongue, no doubt) and then goes back to his lager.

A couple of hours later I see him return from the bar with a jug of the dark beer.

The beer was Ruby, Makin’ Bacon, a special put together by Saints and Sinners at Brew Wharf for Lee and Ruby, two good friends of mine, who were celebrating their engagement. I only asked for a pump clip so I did pretty well – we were happy to be the experimental white mice for the night! It's also got me thinking... as I got engaged last month, perhaps I should get a special beer brewed for myself!!

Monday, 23 August 2010

Twissup: We are going to...

The votes are counted and the unanimous winner for the Twissup on Saturday 23 October is Manchester and Huddersfield!

Some have suggested that two places in one day is too ambitious and won’t do justice to either destination, while others are happy with doing both. The thinking behind doing two places is that it’s a taster as much as anything else and by doing two we can just focus on the very best each place has to offer - we can visit any town, any day and drink, but this is a Twissup and we like to do things differently! The journey is also an integral part of the Manchester-Huddersfield trip, where we can stop somewhere on the way for a pint (the idea is 2-3 pubs in Manchester, 2-3 in Huddersfield and 1-2 on the way). If there are enough excellent pubs to keep us entertained in one place all day, without it getting samey, then that’s great and we can do that. There’s always the option to go somewhere else on the Sunday, too.

The form below is so that we can take down names and contact details so we can email everyone rather than blog it. Also vote on whether you’d prefer one place (and which one) or both. We’ll go with the winning vote – democracy rules! This is also posted by Andy over at Beer Reviews.

Sign up for Twissup
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Friday, 20 August 2010


The backstage secret is that not all of them work. Yesterday was a good FABPOW! but just last weekend I had a double failure.

Cauliflower cheese is one of my favourite meals (it’s a meal in my house, not just a stodgy, soggy side dish), so it makes sense that I’d want to find a good beer to go with it. Earthy, almost-bitter cauliflower baked in a cheese Jacuzzi of a sauce, a few leeks for sweetness, spiked with mustard and cayenne pepper for oomph and covered with grated cheddar to be browned under a grill leaving charred edges; it’s spoon food, deeply comforting and warming. I often have sausages with it, too, because my mum says that a meal isn’t complete without meat and I was taught to listen to my mum because she always knows best.

But what beer? I wanted to try a couple, one sweet and one bitter. I went with a Westvleteren 8 (oooh, look at me) and a Thornbridge Halcyon (it had been in the fridge for ages, winking at me every time I went in there). The thinking was that the raisin sweetness and earthy, dry finish in the Westvleteren would complement the cheese while finding an affinity with the cauliflower (plus cheese and raisin is a great combo and I love cauliflower and raisins together in a curry). The Halcyon was to see how the fruity bitterness worked given that the cheese (which had an unmissable apricot sweetness to match that of the beer) often works well with highly-hopped beers. The result? The Westvleteren was almost there but not quite and something towards the end seemed to fizzle out and crash rather. The Halcyon’s fruitness was spot-on but the bitterness steam-rolled and flattened everything else.

Failure is good – it helps to see what doesn’t work and why. Try and try again, and all that. After eating it I read a tweet from Adrian suggesting oatmeal stout and suddenly the flashing neon light bulb in my mind’s tastebud flicked on to OBVIOUSLY. Next time I know what I’ll be drinking when eating cauliflower cheese.

The question is: What recent food and beer combos have you had which you thought would work but just didn’t?

Another failed attempt was this Haggis Shit Storm, which was so catastrophically bad that I had to write about it. Image from here.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

FABPOW! Hardknott Infra Red with Cajun Salmon, Rice and Peas

What would you recommend to eat with Infra Red? I've got a bottle in the fridge and want it with dinner!” I asked @HardknottDave, figuring that I’d go to the man who made the beer and see what he suggested (the power and wonder of twitter at its best). Dave replied: “personally I'd go for something rich and spicy like a chilli con carne or rogan josh, spicy red meat and tomato, beef bourginon.” I didn’t fancy any of them so I completely ignored Dave and did something else.

Hardknott Infra Red is a 6.5% oxymoronic IPA (kind of an Imperial Red, or something). In the bottle it pours a great looking amber-edged crimson with a dense layer of fresh custard-coloured foam. It’s fruity and floral straight off with orange blossom and pith, beneath that there’s a little maple syrup, toast and strawberry jam. It’s a glugger of a beer with sweetness at the beginning and a lasting dry kind of bitterness at the end, with orange pith and floral hops, some herby spices and toasted nuts along the way. It’s a really nice drinking beer, really delicious. But what food to have with it?

Step up Cajun salmon with rice and peas. The idea was that the rich salmon would be charred in a cloak of herbs and spices while the rice and peas would be a coconutty counterpart to the heat and hops. The pairing was a cracker! The beer’s inherent sweetness was spot-on with the salmon and spice, the fruity heat in the chilli provided a harmonious finish with the hops, the ‘redness’ of the beer provided a toasty depth which was enough to temper the blackened (read: burnt) spices and not leave an astringency, while the coconut rice had a bridging nuttiness to the beer which loved the hint of jammy sweetness and the fruity hops. FABPOW!

The seasoning was easy to make (although perhaps not strictly Cajun, I’m not sure – I didn’t want it too hot to crash into the hoppiness, so favoured the savoury pepper flavour over the heat...): fresh thyme, dried thyme, loads of black pepper, paprika, smoked paprika, a pinch of all spice, salt, bay leaf, garlic, chilli and cayenne pepper. I put it in a sandwich bag with a little oil and the salmon for 20 minutes before cooking. The rice and peas is also easy: onion, garlic and thyme in a pan, add long grain rice, red kidney beans and cook with equal parts water and coconut milk, plus seasoning.  


Tuesday, 17 August 2010

The Next Twissup: You Decide!

We’ve done Sheffield (pictured below!) and Burton, now it’s time for the next glorious Twissup. The date will be Saturday 23 October but we haven’t selected the final destination yet, so we’ll throw it open to a vote. The idea is a good pub crawl between two different locations.

Here are the two choices:

Choice 1: Manchester-Huddersfield: We’ve talked about this one for a while. Start in Manchester as it’s easiest for most people to get to, head to the Marble Arch and maybe another stop in town, then to the station for the train to Huddersfield. We stop at a few stations for a beer on the way (on the Rail Ale Trail!), jumping on and off at the best places (this should help). In Huddersfield we have a few more pubs, probably ending at The Grove. Then back to Manchester or stay in Huddersfield.

Choice 2: Leeds-York: North Bar for starters and some other stops at Leeds’ finest, then over to York. Check out Blog O’ Beer and Andy’s post for a peek at what’s there. There’s also Pivo which is run by the same guys as The Sheffield Tap and we might be able to get York Brewery in on it, if we ask nicely. Then people can head home in the evening or stay in either Leeds or York.

What would you prefer?! We’ll go to the one with the most votes. Drop comments in the blog too if you’ve got anything extra to add, or if you don’t mind which one we go to (but still vote!).

We’ve looked at the Twissups for next year too. It’ll be London in February 2011, either the first weekend or the last. After that, probably May, we could do Newcastle, Cambridge or Oxford, maybe Brighton if we can arrange Dark Star/Harveys, whatever isn’t chosen for October, plus there’s Edinburgh for the Great Scottish Beer Festival (end of June), maybe with a stop in Aberdeen the day before or after (BrewDog bar, anyone?). And there’s also the option of an international Twissup - maybe Brussels, Amsterdam, Dublin - perhaps at the end of 2011.

Vote below but only vote if you intend on coming! The winner will be announced next week with all the details and a sign-up form.

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Monday, 16 August 2010

As-Live Tasting: BrewDog/Mikkeller I Hardcore You

8.10pm: Cap popped off and a routine sniff down the bottle neck gets the olfactory gland’s excited attention. This is an As-Live Tasting of BrewDog and Mikkeller's I Hardcore You.

8.12pm: Poured out and photographed, the beer is beside me at the computer and it’s billowing out aromas capable of inducing intense nosegasms.

8.15pm: Swirl, sniff and slurp. A massive pine attack, hop-overload; a jammy depth to it, something like strawberry chewy sweets; a peppery-ness, herbaceous like a forest during the summer after a flash thunderstorm rocks the earth and trees. It’s good looking, red like the very edge of a lick of flame, a thick head slipping down to a lasting lace.  

8.20pm: It should be noted that there’s a programme about Cheryl Cole on in the background so I’m liable to be heavily distracted during this as-live posting.

8.20pm: Somehow the bottle is half-finished. The mega dry-hopped aroma leads the way into the velvety body which bursts of summer fruit and even a hint of vanilla ice cream, then out with a bitterness not too big to clear your sinuses but big enough to claw to your tongue until the next eager mouthful. The balance in this beer rocks. The hops kick off but the sweetness beneath that is enough to calm it down.

8.30pm: The Cheryl programme reaches the adverts so time for a burst of typing... It’s diving down my beer hole in no time at all, dangerously fast in fact, as my head is feeling the distant buzz of booze. At 9.5% this beer is a monster, but it’s a cuddly, lovely monster that makes you want to play with it all afternoon, not run away screaming at its hideousness. Talking of hideous, the label is far from it, and is one of the nicest looking I’ve seen this year – a simple spearmint green, a girl and a boy (the boy looking at a chalice of beer, or perhaps the girl’s boobs; the girl looking into the boy’s eyes – go figure), a tree with an etched I Hardcore You. It’s printed in Danish but it’s somehow understandable to this English-only reader.

8.36pm: I just stood up and the button of my shorts burst off. Seriously. I naturally wailed like a small boy and Lauren promised to sow it back on for me (I’m only writing this as proof to remind Lauren of what she said).

8.40pm: It’s now pertinent to mention Zak Avery. He had this beer last week (I’m behind the times, I know, but I had the beer delivered to my parents house, where, incidentally, my little nephew took a keen interest in the lively box) and reported how to get the best out of this beer, which involves buying a case and burying most of them to stop you drinking them all in one ruinous attempt. It’s pertinent to mention it now because I’ve just opened another bottle (just as my fingers begin to miss the intended targets on the keyboard).

8.47pm: As is the zeitgeist, I’ve asked the internet what they think of this beer. @ThornbridgeKel called it “sublime”, @BeerReviewsAndy says “I love IHY I’ve not got much left”, @swbrewery says “I was really impressed with IHY like a rolling wave of hop heaven-pithy, piney perfection!”

8.50pm: I’m getting a bit dizzy. It’s 9.5% but somehow drinks like a devilish 5.9%-er.

8.53pm: When I first started blogging I got a bit BrewDog-heavy. I felt an affinity to what they were doing and the beers they were making. In the last few months I’ve barely mentioned them because they seem to have released nothing but expensive one-offs of the next strongest beer in the world. What I initially feel in love with with BrewDog was that they were regularly producing new beers, different beers, and interesting beers. I remember my first taste of Chaos Theory and was blown away. I remember my first zeitgeist, Zephyr, 5am Saint. I loved that they got me excited about new beers in the UK. Tokyo* rocked my world, I love Tactical Nuclear Penguin, Sink the Bismark was insane, End of History took it a lot further, maybe too far, certainly too far for my dusty wallet. The thing is, even if I’ve felt a little dispirited with them, I’ve still loved what they’ve done and they’ve kept the UK beer scene interesting in an outrageous kind of way.

9.07pm: That last bit took a long time to write. FYI, for context: The Cheryl programme has finished. Now Big Brother is on (Lauren is in charge of the remote).

9.09pm: I should probably explain what this beer is... It’s a blend of BrewDog’s Hardcore IPA and Mikkeller’s I Beat yoU plus extra dry hopping. It’s a mix of two beers with a little extra. I’ve never had I Beat yoU but I want it now. Hardcore IPA is an intense beast of an IPA so I imagine IBU has an underlying sweetness which somehow seems to balance everything out in this beer: two becoming greater than the sum of their parts.

9.10pm: I just shoved the glass under Lauren’s nose and demanded she provided an opinion: “It smells nice. It smells like summer. Does it smell like summer? I’m not very good at this... There’s a deep flavour I just can’t put my finger on. Is it quite high in alcohol? [I nod while typing]. Yeah. Smells like it. It’s got a lovely thick, rich... Isn’t it? Like, umm, tropical fruits. There’s something else there... Quite fruity. Here, take it back, I’m watching Big Brother.”

9.14pm: The 9.5% is kicking in. I’ve largely lost feeling in my face. It’s a wonder that I’m still typing with relative accuracy and speed.

9.15pm: @BGRTRob just tweeted: “It's a truly wonderful beer.” Touché my friend!

9.25pm: Holy shit, @ThornbridgeKel just said something big: “I think IHY is the new benchmark IIPA for Europe. It rules!” BOOM!

9.26pm: I’m being distracted by Big Brother. There are men dressed as tacos eating chilli which isn’t cool... One of them just hurled almightily.

9.31pm: The beer’s almost done. I’ve got four more bottles left. I might need to bury some of them à la Avery to stop me drinking them all in one go.

9.34pm: I Hardcore You is dangerously brilliant. It’s an arse-kicking IPA, a tongue-numbing assault on the senses, a face-slapping beer that just makes you want to drink more and more. I think it’s better than Hardcore IPA but I don’t know what makes it so complete; whatever it is, I like it (I think the combination of sexy, smooth body and dominant bitterness without overpowering is probably the winner here, plus the intoxicating aroma). Away from the high-impact thrashing of the boozy arms race, this beer puts BrewDog back on track. To BrewDog I offer a thankful man hug. To Mikkeller I offer the highest praise: a high five.

9.41pm: I’m done. In many ways.

10.07pm: Post script: Just said goodnight to Lauren. She said: “You were drunk Friday, Saturday and now Sunday.” I said: “A hat trick.” And now I’m going to read my book, which is currently Chuck Palahnuik’s Snuff. I will post this tomorrow, which, in the correct tense shall be today.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Another Beer Night

This is the (neatly lined-up) aftermath of a beer night from a few months ago (plus a bottle opener, it seems - I guess this was to add artistic effect, or something). I won’t go through every beer we had as the picture should do the hard work for me. Instead I’ll just tell you about the best ones.

Kernel Brewery Export Stout 1890 was the most handsome beer of the evening, a charcoal black and a creamy head. It’s smooth in the mouth, smoky, roasty and delicious – another Kernel cracker.

De Hemel’s Nieuw Ligt Grand Cru 2005 was a real playground of flavours: fruity, boozy, vanilla, pepper, plums, raisins, banana bread and rum. It was fantastically interesting.

AleSmith Speedway Stout was thick, dark and sexy, filled with loads of coffee and chocolate, a real tongue coating dark-beer-lover’s dreams. A wow beer (only bettered by the bourbon-barrel-aged version which is double wow).

Russian River Damnation 23 was another wow beer (cool label blurb too). An oak-aged tripel with so much going on it had three of us talking about it for the duration of the bottle: lots of apricots, pineapple, honey, huge vanilla oak presence which I really liked, stewed apple, roasted oranges, toasted nuts; very smooth bodied, a drying bitterness. It’s the oak that makes this and gives it something cheeky and playful, although there's nothing subtle about it being there. Where can I get more?

We threw a few wild cards in there and some duds too. Surprisingly Utenos did pretty well, unlike the Brodies Mint Choc Chip Stout which we had high hopes for – it neither tasted like chocolate nor mint and was disappointing (if you call a beer by that name then it has to taste ridiculous for it to work, if you ask me. See Saltaire’s Triple Chocoholic).

This lot was demolished between three of us. We did the usual scoring which you can sort of see below. There was a slight theme to this night of 'good beer and shit beer', although that was only very loosely followed... 

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Working Title: Pale and Hoppy

The term Mid-Atlantic Pale Ale seems to be bandying around after Gazza proposed the name for hoppy British ales. Mid-Atlantic pale ale... Seriously? It’s almost as bad as Cascadian Dark Ale.

Firstly, mid-Atlantic, unless it’s an ironic name, drops literally in the middle of the sea (and all the way to the sea bed, if you ask me), which couldn’t be further away from a pint if it were halfway to the moon. Secondly, this term seems to be a catch-all for the pale British beers made with lots of hops from America or New Zealand (which is nowhere near the Atlantic), but also including British hops too, I assume, so perhaps it lends too much credit to the US. Thirdly, styles naturally evolve and need to have a fluidity to them and it could be the case that in a few years time these pale and hoppy beers are the normal for the style in the UK. And point four is that it just doesn’t sound very cool.

The name applies to beers brewed with 100% pale malt, highly hopped, well attenuated with a yeast that doesn’t give off many esters or other flavours “to let the hops shine without competition,” coming out somewhere between 3.5% and 8% (5% is best, he says). It’s very pale in the glass and very bitter in the mouth. It’s a mix of British and American influence and it’s a style which I love – there’s something which just works so well in a simple pale ale with lots of fruity hops, especially from the cask – and it’s the style that I most want to drink right now. I also agree with what Gazza is saying and the whole point of the article (it’s firmly a British beer just with American hop influence), but mid-Atlantic? I understand the desire to classify – we all like to stick a label on something so we can understand it (or complain about it if it isn’t right) – but surely we can come up with a more compelling name than that?

Thornbridge Brewery call Kipling a South Pacific Pale Ale and Ashford a New World Brown Ale, which works well for those, but perhaps shouldn't be extended broadly to others. In 500 Beers Zak Avery uses the term International Pale Ale, which would work with this style – it’s International, brewed in one place, taking influence and ingredients from another, but it could then become a dumping ground of a term. What’s wrong with Pale and Hoppy, New World Pale Ale or just Pale Ale, after all, it’s not exactly a new style, it’s just British Pale Ale 2.0 with different hops used in it, a natural progression, the latest fashion. How about Trans-Atlantic or Cross-Atlantic or Anglo-American if there’s a desire to say that this style is somewhere between the UK and the US (which therefore rules out the rest of the world, presumably)...

Mid-Atlantic pale ales... what do you think? Do they need their own classification and if so, what can they be called?

Image from here. I did try and photoshop in a bottle of beer bobbing around in the sea but failed remarkably.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

The Origins and Fashions of Style

I’ve been reading a lot about style recently, in particular in relation to Michael Jackson. I’m interested in how they developed, where they came from, who drinks them and how they evolve and change. Thinking about this I was reminded of a post written by Brian Hunt, from Moonlight Brewing Co., on Mario Rubio’s Hoppress blog. Brian wonders what things might have been like if barley was native to the US and not the Middle East. He asks what pilsners would be without Pilsen, what IPA would be without Britain, how different lambics might be now. Instead he supposes that these beers might have originated in the US in what is a wonderful the-US-is-the-centre-of-the-universe type idea, but it’s still an interesting thought:
The World Book of Beer would’ve been written about the delicate beers of Denver, the hoppy ales of Seattle, Steam beers of San Francisco, roasted beers of New York, herbed beers of Ann Arbor, wheat beers of Kansas, Spruce beers of Alaska, sour cherry beers of the Columbia River Valley, Rye beers of Fargo, and on and on.
On the back of this Jon Abernathy posted about indigenous US beer styles – California Common, Pumpkin Ale, Wild Ales, Light Lager, American-prefixed Everythings (an Americanization of established styles by adding loads of American hops) and Imperial Everythings.

Many styles are - at least in their origin - inextricably linked to place, the beers the people there wanted to drink and to the ingredients readily available where they came from: Burton ales and Pilsners are famous because of the local water, lambics get their unique flavour from the airborne yeasts in the Pajottenland region, American IPAs get their huge fruity bitterness by being stuffed with American hops. This then flicks the switch in my mind to the beers styles which are uniquely British - pale ale, mild, bitter, porter, stout and barley wine, among others. Why did these styles develop and last in Britain? What do these styles say about Brits? Every American brewery needs a great IPA to stand out as their flagship beer but what’s the British equivalent that they need in their range? Best bitter, pale ale?

The globalisation of beers and styles, plus the ready availability of different ingredients, means that any beer can now be brewed anywhere. The origin of a style is telling of the time and area it first came from, while the developments it goes through show the current drinking fashions (look at India Pale Ale 200 years ago, then look at it 100 years ago, 50 years ago, then when it was adopted by the US, when North West hops were added freely, then it went Imperial, then Belgium found them, then back in the US it went Black...). It’s easy to look around now and see that we have British lagers, Belgian IPAs, Italian wild beers and American saisons, styles which have evolved and changed to suit different tastes and influences. It’s also good to look back sometimes too, to understand where they came from as there’s often a great story at its core. The origin of a beer style, whether it’s 2,000 years old or just two, is a fascinating insight into people (brewers and drinkers) and place at different times in history. How important is place to a style, old or new? How telling is the fashion when it comes to style? What styles will be next to get the US treatment or even the British touch? London lambic? Sheffield saison? American mild?

Image from CraftBeer.com. This post asks more questions than it answers and that's the point - I think style is a really interesting subject and it's something I'm trying to understand better and wrap my brain around. This is more a train of thought post than anything else.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

GBBF Week: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

The Good: The beer (obviously); the pork scratchings (obviously); seeing friends, old and new; third measures; the volunteers who deserve a standing ovation each evening; the location (big, brilliant); the speed to enter is incredibly good if you have a ticket; despite the hoards of people, the gallons of beer and mountains of food, it somehow never seems dirty or messy in there; the waves of Cheers which growl around the venue as the days progress.

The Bad: I think water should be freely available and encouraged, perhaps on a free water bar; on Saturday there was no cask US beer left and much of the other beer was sold out by 5pm (good for the festival, not so good for the drinker who can only attend on Saturday); and does anyone really listen to the music? (these are all minor - there's little to complain about, in my opinion)

The Ugly: The gents’ toilets towards the end of the day (a long time queuing followed by standing swaying-shoulder to swaying-shoulder with two other guys, aiming with considerable difficulty into the white hole surrounded by a frog chorus of farts and barely-stifled giggles).

The Best Beers: Portsmouth Brewery Bottle Rocket IPA was my favourite overall beer, a fruity, tangerine-juiced IPA, so deliciously good that it’s got my tongue doing excited somersaults just remembering it; the Portsmouth Oatmeal Stout was also exceptional and the smoothest mouthful of beer of the week; Fyne Ale’s Jarl was the best UK beer I had, its bright flavour blinds its bland 4% peers, firing out fruity hops and pithy bitterness; a passing gulp of Birrificio Italiano Tipopils was excellent and I’m glad I picked up a bottle to bring home; Fuller’s Chiswick and ESB were both in remarkably good condition and reaffirmed to me just how good their beers can be, while the Brewer’s Reserve No.2 showed the other side of Fuller’s, a side worthy of considerable attention (Kelly Ryan writes this great piece about it); Durham’s Hopping Mad, Arbor Beech Blonde, Marble Manchester Bitter, Thornbridge Kipling and Moor’s Revival all really hit the hop spot, vibrant and full-flavoured UK ales; Opa Opa King Oak Milk Stout was a great example of a style I don't drink often enough; a few good lagers were served to me by Tandleman, all excellent and cool with crisp flavours and just what I wanted as a little refresh from the US hops, even if I can’t remember what they were (there was a Zoigl and an unfiltered Kolsch among them...); De Molen’s Tsarina Esra Reserva was ridiculously delicious and dangerously good.

Photo by Jonas Smith
The Other Memorable Beers: Saltaire Triple Chocoholic really is a cocoa lover’s dream; four bottles for 50p each, two unlabelled, one from 1980 and one from 1981, all perfectly drinkable, all showing the results of careful aging, all interesting to try; Revelation Cat’s Single Hop Lambic was unforgettable in a bad way, clashing sour with big, citrus hops; Rogue’s Chipotle Ale had three of us all exclaim ‘smoked paprika’, which, while it may be my favourite spice in the kitchen, is not something I want in my beer (this was one of three bottles which Mark writes about, which had us talking for an hour about beer and food pairings for three out-there beers).

GBBF week is done. It’s a crazy, intense and brilliant week. It’s a time for meeting up with friends and drinking good beers, just because we can. If you went, what was good, what was bad, what was ugly?! The best beer you had was...?

I got the images from the CAMRA website.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

The Cheer

A rainbow of people, colours and sounds, all holding glasses filled with golds, blacks and browns. A chatter purrs happily, an ebb and flow of conversation, laughing, rising and falling as you pass through the groups. “Have you tried this one?!” Someone excitedly bursts out thrusting a half of something under his mate’s nose. “What do you want next?” Around a corner drinkers are three deep at the bar, stretched all along, looking up and down, all around, a constant passing back and forth of glasses, money and beer; an empty here, a pint of stout there, a half of pale ale, a fiver, another empty, another half, a couple of quid change. Another corner and the smell of food strikes. Another corner and it opens into a line of bars and a huge seating area, so big you can barely see the other end, a rock star stage in between. People everywhere drink their beers, they talk about their day, their week, the weekends ahead; they gossip, talk about the news, cinema, sport; they talk about what they drank earlier, what they’ve got now, what they’ll order next; they say this is good, this isn’t, this is great, this is incredible, this is insane, this is… All around are the interested eyes of friends in conversation; the glazed-eyes of seven hours of being there; the eager eyes of the newly arrived; the crosshair focus of the poacher eyes of the ticker. And then it starts. It begins later in the day, five hours in, maybe six. The grip loosens, the excitement fails the hand. We don’t hear the shattering tink of glass on hard floor, what we hear is the cheer. The ‘whay’ which grows and spreads throughout, getting louder, building like a wave as everyone joins in, passing it on, the growing smiles and whoops and then the laughter and then back to where we left off, talking about this or that. Then later, nearer the end, it happens more, a constant flow of crash and cheer breaks conversations for a moment to join in - a second to drop everything and shout with the crowd.

That cheer is the uplifting soundtrack to the beer festival. It’s more than laughing at the loose fingers of someone unknown and unseen, it’s about having a chance and a reason to stand up and just cheer and let it all out, to call out because you are having a great time, to express the joy and belonging and spirit of carefree drinking fun that we are all feeling, and to do it in the simplest, most primal of ways. It’s a shared, united ‘cheers’ to our fellow drinkers, a way of chinking your glass with a thousand other merry men. The cheer is not for the broken glass, it’s for the full ones about to be emptied and then refilled - it’s for us. I’ll drop my glass to that.

Monday, 2 August 2010

GBBF Survival Kit

My GBBF Survival Kit contains:

1 x beer list (tick, tick, tick)
1 x notepad (to remind me what I drank and how it tasted)
4 x freshly-sharpened pencils (my tools)
1 x pencil sharpener (in case I blunt the above-mention pencils)
1 x blackberry (to tell twitter what I’m up to; to take pictures; to send sexts on the train home)
2 x big bottles of water (stay hydrated!)
1 x big roll of bubble wrap (safety first for bottle purchases)
1 x pack of milk thistle (love your liver)
1 x pack of paracetamol (the morning after)
3 x bananas (potassium, magnesium, vitamin B6, energy)
2 x packs of salt and vinegar Squares (my guaranteed hangover prevention and relief)
1 x isotonic sports drink (to replace sugars and salts; to give energy)
1 x supermarket-brand Red Bull (stimulation for body and mind)
1 x pack of bacon (essential)

I’m ready. Have I forgotten anything?!

(Notes: The sports drink has been started because I had a lingering bitch of a hangover yesterday and the bacon is Jamie Oliver’s, it looks lovely. Not pictured is the huge wad of cash I’ll be needing to see me through Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday at the festival. For the action plan see here.)