Saturday 31 December 2011

Top 11 Beers of 2011

I’ve drunk a lot of beer this year. I’ve been to Rome, New York and the Czech Republic twice, plus travelled around the UK a bit. Here are the best 11 beers I've had in 2011. 

Unfiltered Budvar Dark in the cellars at the brewery. It's usually the pale 12-degree Budvar which you taste in the cold cellars, but this time we also got the Dark. Rich, roasty, deep in flavour but with more body and texture than the packaged version. Incredible. 

Unfiltered PU at Bloggers Conference and unfiltered PU in Pilsen. It was on the list last year and hopefully (somehow, anyhow) it'll be on the list next year: I love this beer. I love the story the brewery attaches to it, I love how a mug of it looks when poured with a huge head, I love the elegant body of the beer, the bite of Saaz hops. Most of all, I love the rounded, smoothness of the unfiltered version.

Avery Maharajah in Rattle n Hum. It was late and we had drunk lots already but a shared 4oz sample of this convinced Matt and I to order a pint each. It's a 10.5% DIPA with balance in it's strength, like a body building ballerina. So fruity, so juicy, such amazing hop flavour.

Ithaca Flower Power. All the fruit juice in the world seems to make this beer. Incredible hop flavours, such clarity to them rather than the beer equivalent of five people shouting at you simultaneously.

Sam Adams Lager at Burger Joint. A moment of perfection when the beer in your hand couldn’t taste any fresher. Cold and crisp and a lip-smacking hop flavour, plus a killer burger on the side.

This year I've had three different jobs. The third of them is thanks to Camden Hells Lager, Camden Pale and Camden Wheat - the beers are fantastic and they've given me the opportunity to work in the beer industry. They are now the beers I drink most often and that's definitely a good thing.

Being asked to make a beer with BrewDog is a highlight of the year. I remember reading the email proposing it and bursting with excitement. Avery Brown Dredge is the result. An imperious pilsner, bold, different and brilliant, if I do say so myself.

Troubadour Magma showed me the best of Belgium and America in one glass and I love it. I veered away from Belgian beer for a year or two but I might head back that way in 2012.

Rhubarb lambic made from a deliberately funked-up APA, brewed by Chunk. We shared one bottle; if we'd shared a gallon we still probably would've wanted more.

Dark Star Tripel, a year-old, at the Beer Bloggers Conference. Just amazing. Such a well-developed beer which still had that big hop bite and an incredible flavour of peaches and apricots. Mind-blowing stuff.

Toccalmatto Stray Dog with a pizza in Bir & Fud, Rome. Amazing, fresh beer; crisp and light pizza. Bir & Fud rocks.

The thing with all these beers is that I remember the moment I drank them as much as the taste; few flavours return to me as I think about them, but the experiences are still clear and bright. The beers were all great but the moment, the memory or the experience, is what matters most.

It’s been a great 2011 and I hope 2012 is even better!

Wednesday 28 December 2011

Nightmares from my notebook

I keep a notebook for writing beer notes for the bottles I drink at home. Not all the beers I drink are good. Here are some of the outtakes...

“...sugary sweetness, little chocolate, cigarette ash. Like weak, shit coffee with too much sugar.”

“Minty, herby but a little like damp towels. Slightly odd, sicky, damp taste. Sweetness but it’s sugary. Floral, lemony, bit cheesy?”

“Light struck. Caramel, ice cream. Shockingly sweet then a woody dryness to it, a lasting mismatched finish of sweetness and dry/bitter/oak/whisky. It’s not very nice.”

“Cheesy yogurt aroma. Little butter, little burnt, little dry at the end. Lifeless.”

“Blackberries, like fruit pastille sweets. Lasting roasted bitterness and dry hops. Little funky sourness? Or just blackcurranty hops? Port-like, winey, barnyard, like odd, cheap red wine. Something isn’t right.”

I won’t ask for guesses (one might be recogniseable) but I’m sure you’ve all had a few bad beers this year to go alongside the good ones. Do you suffer through them or chuck them in the drain? I’m a thrower.

Tuesday 27 December 2011

Christmas Day Drinking 2011

I wasn’t prepared for Christmas this year; it jumped out of nowhere from behind boxes left unpacked from moving house. Suddenly it was Christmas Eve and I hadn’t even decided what beers to drink on Christmas Day, the most important eating and drinking day of the year. In the end I pulled myself together and pulled bottles from boxes stacked up in the garage.

Christmas Day obviously started with strong, dark beer. It’s usually a coffee imperial stout with breakfast but this year was a Thornbridge Bracia because it’s one of the best beers made in Britain, I think. A thick, oily pour. Black. It’s rich and dark, there’s chocolate, coffee, toasted nuts, booze, a berry sweetness, a floral flourish. A year old and it’s still brilliant. Gooood morning.

A Camden Hells Lager came next. I wanted something light and crisp to follow the beastly Bracia and lead up to dinner. This nailed the job as I sat and flicked through a pile of new books.

BrewDogAB:03 came before the food. AB:03 is Zephyr plus raspberries and more barrel time. It’s a deep copper colour and the sharp raspberry aroma that burst from the glass when this beer was first released is now subdued and subtle, mixing with strawberries and toasty oak. It’s full on, the bitterness is still there, the barrel is still giving flavour, it threatens sharpness but isn’t sour - it’s just a trick of the tongue - and there’s also some oxidation, although it adds interest rather than spoiling it. A spritzy and jammy raspberry flavour flows through the whole thing. It’s unusual and fantastic. If you’ve got a bottle then drink it soon because I’m not sure it’s getting better (Note to self: that bottle of Zephyr you have is also not getting any better. DRINK IT!).

With the turkey came Marble and DarkStar’s Saison. As happened last year (with Monsieur Rock), I announce my beers of the year and then I open something which should be on the list. This beer is sensational. It’s the juiciest, fruitiest British beer I’ve ever had. Pineapple, mango, mandarin, all in the aroma and the flavour, like fruit juice with attitude. At 9% it’s a big beer. Normally I don’t like the mix of US hops and phenolic Belgian yeast but here it works so well: the spiciness of the Saison yeast adds spike to the fruit, adds pepper and tannin, but also brings bubble gum and then mint – it could be a cocktail it has the balance of fruit, booze, sweetness, spice and bitterness. And there’s a lot of bitterness. It’s an amazing beer. It didn’t work with turkey and the trimmings but I didn’t care because it was such a joy to drink. I ate dinner and then finished the bottle off afterwards (it was surprisingly good with Christmas pudding!).

That was Christmas morning and lunch. There was a booze break for a few hours after to try and recover, then I got back on the beer with a Fuller’s Vintage 1999 to go with cheese.

A very good day of Christmas drinking. How was your day? Any brilliant beers with the turkey?

Wednesday 21 December 2011

The Golden Pints 2011

It’s the annual beer blogger awards! This is the best of my drinking from 2011 and it’s taken me weeks to put this together as the whole year has passed in a beery haze...

Best UK Draught Beer
Dark Star Tripel, aged a year, served at the Beer Bloggers Conference. Just a stunning, beautiful beer. Dark Star’s Six Hop at the Planet Thanet beer festival takes second. Dark Star are doing good things – Saison on keg is also a winner.

Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer
Fuller’s Vintage. Somewhere between 2000 and 2002. Second place goes to Avery Brown Dredge, of course.

Best Overseas Draught Beer
Avery Maharajah IPA with Ithaca Flower Power a close second. Pilsner Urquell gets an honourable mention because I can’t help but love it and I’ve had a few great glasses of it in 2011. 

Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer
For the moment: drinking a can of 21st Amendment Bitter American on the roof of a New York hotel looking over the stunning skyline.

Best Overall Beer
Avery Maharajah. We’d been drinking all day in New York. We stopped in Rattle n Hum and ordered four samples. Maharajah was so good that Matt and I both ordered a pint of it, even though it was 10.5%. I can still taste it now.

Best Pumpclip or Label
I’m obsessed with Oh Beautiful Beer to the point that I lose hours a week looking on there. The world of beer packaging can be sexy and exciting and really beautiful (as opposed to horrific, as shown here). Some favourites are the 21st Amendment’s cans, Uinta’s rebrand and Fullsteam.

Best UK Brewery
For innovation, quality and consistency I’m going for two: Adnams and Fuller’s. For kicking off and kicking on it’s Magic Rock and Kernel. And for what I know is coming in 2012 and for what I’ve spent most of the last four months drinking, it’s Camden Town.

Best Overseas Brewery
I don’t drink consistently from many overseas breweries, but I’ve always had good beer from Odell.

Pub/Bar of the Year
If I could go and drink anywhere right now then it’d be Barcade in Brooklyn or Bir & Fud in Rome. Closer to home then I’m going for Craft Beer Co for all the times I’ve realised that if I don’t leave immediately then I’ll miss the last train home (it’s happened far too often).

Beer Festival of the Year
The Snowdrop Inn’s festival in Lewes which Mark Tranter from Dark Star chose the beers for.

Supermarket of the Year

Independent Retailer of the Year
The Bottle Shop in Canterbury – great place!

Online Retailer of the Year
I spent most money at myBreweryTap so it goes to them.

Best Beer Book or Magazine
Adrian Tierney-Jones’ Great British Pubs is superb. Anyone drinking in London should definitely have Des de Moor’s book which is also excellent. CAMRA’s BEER magazine is always a great read.

Best Beer Blog or Website
Oh Beautiful Beer for the website but a lot of blogs have been great to read this year and the ones I never miss are Beer.Birra.Bier, The Good Stuff and Boak and Bailey.

Best Beer Twitterer
@Simonhjohnson. Just to see how much he’s drunk and where he’s drunk it. @caskcrusade is also a great read from Italy (again to see how much he’s drunk or where he’s drinking it).

Best Online Brewery Presence
Adnams do a brilliant job all round.

Food and Beer Pairing of the Year
Pizzarium pizza and a bottle of Brewfist’s Milk Chocolate Stout. An amazing, surprising pairing while sitting on a Rome backstreet with the most delicious pizza I’ve ever had. Second place goes to Toccalmatto’s Stray Dog with pizza in Bir & Fud. Pizza and beer did well this year.

In 2012 I’d most like to...
Start homebrewing (I now have a garage so I can!), travel more, write more things for print and drink in more pubs (I don’t drink in enough different pubs).

In 2012 I’m most looking forward to...
Going to the World Beer Cup!

Best beer I’ve drunk in a brewery in 2011
Unfiltered Budvar Dark straight from the tank. Incredible.

Tuesday 20 December 2011

Top of the Hops in 2012

The UK currently grows 16 hops for commercial use. The current acreage for UK hops is around 2,500 which is just 2% of the world hop-growing market. At one point in history, the UK grew 77,000 acres worth of hops. What went wrong?

M&B are releasing a new beer across their pubs call Top of the Hops, brewed by The Great Yorkshire Brewery at Cropton. It uses 2012 different hop varieties and all of those hops were grown in Britain. The majority of these are varieties not ready for commercial use yet, bolstered by the ones which are available.

Using 2012 different hops is a bit of a statement. Personally, I think it’s a brilliant idea, not for the story of using so many varieties, but because it’s highlighting the British hop industry at a time when American and New World hops are getting all the attention. The fact that only 16 British hop varieties (Charles Faram currently stock 35 different US varieties) are available for commercial use is a bit sad, but that there are almost 2000 which aren’t yet ready, but might be one day, is very exciting.

The last few years has seen the Americanization of British beer but I hope that 2012, alongside the delicious US-inspired stuff, could see more British hops from the more prominent British brewers, showing the great flavours they can give. It’s also interesting to know that new UK hops are being developed specifically to have similar citrus and fruity flavours to American varieties.

Top of the Hops is available in December, January and February from M&B pubs. I haven’t tried it yet but in support of the British hop industry I want to and I will. In a few years we could be seeing a lot more variety in British hops and that’s exciting. British hops used well is a great thing, right?

The Man of Kent, Rochester

The Man of Kent, in Rochester, is one of my favourite pubs. Since I first drank a pint there, probably eight years ago, I’ve loved it.

Away from the Dickens-themed high street lined with antique shops and restaurants, where tourists go to visit the cathedral and castle, the Man of Kent stands on a corner, ornately fronted, in the sort of housing area you’d usually hope not to visit but often find yourself in search of a good beer.

Inside, when it’s cold outside, a fire warms. The chairs are worn but comfier for it; it feels lived in, homely while having a rock music edge thanks to the staff and landlord. It's dark and better for it. There’s a vacant slot waiting to be filled by a live band who somehow manage to fit inside the small interior. Things hang from the bar and the walls, all sorts of MoK curiosities: t-shirts, flags, blackboards, photos. To the back of the pub is an extra seating area and a selection of battered old board games, no doubt missing most of the pieces. Beyond that is a garden, decked above and below. In summer the landlord hushes the drinker because his kids are asleep in the rooms above.

The bar takes up most of the space, reaching around the corner almost uncomfortably and inefficiently. There’s nine or ten handpulls and all of them are for beers made in Kent. Goachers is permanent, Gadds, Hopdaemon, Old Dairy, Royal Tunbridge Wells, Whitstable, Abigale and all the rest. The fridge is filled with Belgian and German eccentricities. There’s imposing lager fonts – Kuppers Kolsch and two others (a friend once asked for Foster’s here and was told to fuck off) – a Fruli tap, a trio of Meantime and a couple of lines for cider. There’s also a huge Jager dispenser and a wide selection of wine and spirits.

Busy, great beer, Kent-centric (which as a Man of Kent myself is appealing) good atmosphere and just a little bit different. I’ve always liked it. I especially liked it when mates were told, brashly, to go to Wetherspoons if they wanted a fucking Fosters. It's not pretty or nice, it's a backstreet boozer which does great beer. The Man of Kent has always been one of my favourite pubs and I wish I drank there more than I do.

Saturday 17 December 2011

Founder's KBS and moving house

I've spent two days moving house. Moving sucks balls. I've packed boxes badly; I've lifted badly packed boxes; carried furniture in ways which can only be bad for me; lugged a sofa down three flights of stairs; loaded and unloaded the car far too many times; driven far too many miles; spent hours dismantling and chopping and dumping crap furniture; I've even been to Ikea. Now I don't know where anything is and I can't move without falling over a box, so it's time for beer. The one thing I had foresight to do was put some bottles in the fridge; technically, that's the only thing that's been put away so far.

I also need food but there is none in the house except cereal. Breakfast was Subway, lunch was KFC and because dinner won't follow the first two it's cereal in a Tupperware container (because I can't find any bowls). Founder's KBS is in the fridge. About to eat muesli, the pairing is obvious.

The match is irrelevant. It's also not great. It's probably good that it doesn't work or every morning I'd be wanting to open a beer with breakfast. The important thing is both food and beer do their job: one fills me up, one lifts me up. 

The beer is special. Imperial stout with chocolate and coffee and aged in bourbon barrels. Blacker and thicker than any beer I can remember. Bourbon hits first then mellows and the whole thing relaxes and opens up - hot then round then elegant. The chocolate and coffee add fullness and depth plus that dark bitterness which is so good with the coconut and vanilla from the oak. The barrel gives a lot, almost too much, but only almost; you know this beer has been around bourbon and that's a good thing. By the end of the glass I'm left wanting more.

It's the diversion I need. It's the lying on the floor, ignoring the boxes, ignoring the mess, ignoring the fact that tomorrow there's so much to do, just lying there with a beer and a note book and feeling the stress and aches and demands of the day going away.

Friday 9 December 2011

BrewDog Camden

BrewDog Camden is open.

A corner bar, on a Camden side street by the tube and away from the over-crowded market (Bayham Street - less than a minute walk from the underground), it's industrial, simple and smart and bright light shines out onto the passing street, above which the familiar blue shield glows. There's a bar upstairs and one down. It has the potential for 26 different draught lines, though most of the time it'll be a little less (26 is the reserve for special events, of which a few are already planned). As for beer, there's all the BrewDog range, amazing draught imports (when I went the Port Brewing's Wipeout was superb, as was Stone's Sublimely Self Righteous) and fridges filled with some of the best beers in the world (bombers of Racer 5!). Want more? The kitchen does burgers and pizza. And the sound system is cool. And the staff are great.

Draught BrewDog is from £3.50 a pint (Punk is £3.95); draught imports can be double that but will mostly be drunk by the half; samples are freely given (my advice: exploit this); bottles peak just under £20 but most give change from a tenner. It's not cheap but it's not unusually expensive for London, especially considering that some beers are only available in the UK at the BrewDog bars (and more great beer from around the world is in various states of transit BrewDog-bound).

With The Black Heart just around the corner (and Camden Town Brewery 10 minutes away...), Camden just got a whole lot cooler for great beer.

Will it immediately become the go-to beer bar in London alongside Craft Beer Co? I definitely expect so.

Thursday 8 December 2011

An alternative origin of porter

I like stories about the history of beers. For me, the interesting side of it comes when there’s a human element: why a brewer decided to do this or that; how the drinkers liked the beer; where they drank it; processes which brewers went through.

So when looking through The Curiosities of Ale and Beer by John Bickerdyke, first published in 1889, I was excited to read that an alternative origin for porter is written (thanks to Mark from Real Ale Reviews who found it). It’s probably the most unusual and outrageous origin of a beer I’ve heard…

It first points back to Ralph Harwood in 1730. As he “brooded over the inconvenience and waste occasioned by the calls for the ‘three threads’, which become more and more frequent, he conceived the idea of making a liquor which would combine in itself the several virtues of ale, beer, and twopenny.” So he brewed a drink called Entire or Entire Butts which was tasted and approved and “became the fruitful parent of a mighty offspring.”

So far nothing unusual, a perfectly acceptable beginning for London’s famous dark beer. But it continues, a little off-piste:

Visitors to the great brewery in Brick Lane are shown a hole from which steam issues to the accompaniment of awful rumbling noises. ‘In there once fell a man,’ they are told – ‘a negro. Nothing but his bones were found when the copper was emptied, and it is said that the beer drawn off was an extraordinary dark colour. Some say this was the first brew of porter.

Yes. It actually says this.

Asked the obvious question, the brewery guide replied: “Oh yes… we soon learnt how to make it without the negro.” Which is of some relief, no doubt.

The author adds his thoughts, although the tone is a little wishy-washy and unconvinced (italics are mine): “We must confess that we have some doubts as to this account of the origin of porter. We do not believe that brew could have been much darker on account of the accident, though no doubt, under the circumstances, it contained plenty of ‘body.’”

Two pages later is a versed legend called Patent Brown Stout. You must read it.

Not your usual beer history lesson…

Sunday 4 December 2011

Beer and Food and the Best of British Beer Writing

This week I was awarded the prize for best beer and food writing at the BritishGuild of Beer Writers annual dinner.

I write about beer and food because I think that if anything is able to change the way people think about beer then it’ll be because it’s linked to the dinner table; it gives a point of reference to something familiar to try something which they are unfamiliar with. I also like to have fun with beer and food and my kitchen adventures were part of what got me the gong: shoving a can of Punk IPA up a chicken’s arse; cooking sausage, chips and beans and drinking nine beers with it to see which works best; making ketchup from beer to go with chicken crusted in malt; ‘mashing in’ pale malt with double cream and milk to make custard for ice cream and creme brulee; pale malt cookies; beer jelly and ice cream; imperial stout chilli; working on a beer list for Byron Hamburgers; and, of course, a few FABPOWs, including one with a Big Mac.

The award ceremony, as ever, was brilliant, but this year was the best I’ve been to in the last three years. The venue, the food, the beer, the timing, all worked so well. It was also good that I helped out with the beer and food pairings for the meal this year. And while they weren’t all perfect, the point is that the beers and the food were individually excellent and they bring out conversation about whether they work or not and why and what would be better. That’s what makes pairing beer and food more fun.

Congratulations to all the other winners: Evin O’Riordain from The Kernel for Brewer of the Year; Des de Moor for Travel Writing for his excellent book on London; Pete Brown for Corporate Communications; Martyn Cornell and Mark Charlwood for Online Media; Marverine Cole and Gavin Aitchinson for Regional writing; Ben McFarland and Glynn Davis for Trade; and Adrian Tierney-Jones and Will Hawkes for National Media. Ben McFarland got the big one and was Beer Writer of the Year for the third time. Ben’s writing is brilliant and always inspires me to write better.

Here’s to the best of beer writing!

As Steve points out, London did pretty well this year. 

Tuesday 29 November 2011

No-Beer Bar Crawl

For months my mates and I have been meaning to do a bar crawl around London which involved no beer. As we always go from bar to bar drinking beer after beer, it seemed like a fun idea to try something different and see what the city had when we weren’t chasing hops.

It didn’t start off entirely successfully. We met in The Ship, a Fuller’s pub in Borough. The front row was on cask: Chiswick, London Pride, Bengal Lancer, ESB and Black Cab. A concession was made that the first drink could be a beer. It was Friday night and everyone had come straight from work, so we were thirsty and only a beer could slake that thirst. Besides, it was still early...

We started proper on cocktails at The Hide on Bermondsey Street, a piece of London which feels lifted from the backstreets of Brooklyn. A cool place, a bar lined with spirits and a thick menu to choose from. Mine was an Old Fashioned in a chunky tumbler. Others sipped from martini glasses, something virtually impossible to drink from without looking like a twat or an extra from Sex and the City. All tasted great but at £8 a glass it’s not something I’m drinking all night.

Next was gin. We decided to walk across Tower Bridge and get the tube from there – we were going to Barbican. This took longer than expected and was probably a mistake: we were very thirsty. Getting to The Larder, aka (to us, at least) ‘The Gin Bar’, I drank a great G&T in about 12 seconds and my thirst only increased. “Where next?” Wine? Whisky?

We ended up at The Old Red Cow. It was only around the corner. They don’t just do beer, someone said. Only the third stop and all six of us ordered a beer. We needed a DRINK. Some chased it down with whisky but most just had a pint while we battled it out over Connect 4. We’d started over two hours earlier and only had about a small volume of liquid. This was not what we’re used to.

Next it was The Lexington. A wall of 50 bourbons plus good beer. We order the bourbon but Sierra Nevada Celebration was also on tap and no one can resist that, can they? Another bourbon followed while we play foosball, plus a few mint-infused bourbon shooters. The bourbon and the beer are both excellent. And it’s a cool venue.

Others went on to a sherry bar before last orders while I jumped on a tube for the last train home feeling somehow like I’d failed as I’d ultimately not managed to last a night of drinking around town without going to beer.

The night wasn’t what I expected. I had a classic cocktail, a London-made gin, fantastic American bourbon and all were excellent and I got to see a few different bars, but such small measures were so different from what I’m used to when drinking with mates. And while everything tasted great, it just didn’t do the job that a pint does of being something uniquely satisfying to drink in volume. That’s what makes us able to drink beer all night long; it’s low ABV, it’s thirst-quenching but also thirst-inducing, and there’s also a more social aspect around it – a pint lasts a while and it just feels more friendly, more 'let's sit and talk shit' than a shot of vodka.

Sitting at home or at dinner with a bottle of wine is fine, sipping it through an evening, but out in the pub or in bars was a different experience. Maybe it was just that I was with my beer drinking buddies but it just felt weird. And while I love a wide range of drinks, it’s the variety which makes it most interesting and I think we’ve all learnt our lesson and that when wandering around London drinking it’s probably best to focus on beer and choose the others as extras. 

Sunday 27 November 2011

Where shall we eat?

We meet straight from work. Pints all round. How’s work? How was your day? Where shall we eat? All I’ve had today is a sandwich. Where shall we go next?

To the next pub. Pints all round. This is good. How’s yours. What you up to tomorrow? Did you see... have you heard...? I’m hungry, where shall we get food? Fancy a decent burger somewhere? Maybe that new place everyone’s talking about.

To the next pub. A couple of halves each. Try this one, it’s great. This isn’t so good. What did you order? What are the girls up to? How’s things with you two? Did you see the game last night? I need to eat something – where shall we go?

To the next pub. Just grab a half and go. They got any crisps? The barmaid was fit but the beer here is shit. No hanging around. Where next?

To the next pub. Pints all round. Fuck that. What the shit. She did what? Oh my god. I’m fucking starving. Need food.

To the next pub. Final pints all round. Stumble out, look around. Sandwich at the station or take away on the train?

Thursday 24 November 2011

Great British Pubs by Adrian Tierney-Jones

I read books because I want to go places and do things I’ve never been before, to learn new things or to see the things I know in a new way via the words of someone else. I love travel books, recipes books, history books, reference books, picture books, fiction and non-fiction. The best books make you feel part of the action or they make you want to be involved in it and experience it. A good recipe book makes you go to the kitchen, a great story makes you want to live a fuller, more exciting life. And a great book about pubs makes you want to sit in pubs and enjoy each of them for how unique it is.

Great British Pubs by Adrian Tierney-Jones, more than any other beer book I’ve read, has made me want to get up off the sofa and go places and see and do things. A book like this will list the familiar pubs which always get listed but what makes it different is that you see the places in a new way, you appreciate them differently. Adrian didn’t look to simply list 200 pubs, he looked for what makes the pub a great place.

It’s a book about what happens in pubs. It includes what the places are actually like in a physical sense but it goes beyond that and it tells you what makes it different, it tells of the things that happen inside, it paints the scene in the surrounding area, it’s about the local beers drunk at particular moments, it shows off the enormous variety of places to drink and a narrative runs through it which forms a patchwork story of the life of the pub: conversations overheard, stories told, pints poured, barmaids, landlords, tourists, local communities in action. And that’s what makes this so interesting and separates it from other pub books - it's a travel book as much as a reference guide.

Reading this book makes me want to go to every pub in it. It makes me want to sit at the bar and sip a pint of local beer while listening to what’s going on around me. It makes me want to understand for myself why the pub is such an important place.

GreatBritish Pubs is definitely one for the Christmas list. 

Tuesday 22 November 2011

Troubadour Magma

I first had Troubadour Magma at the Snowdrop Inn beer festival, one of the best beer events I’ve been to in a long time. It was the last beer of my day, downed as we were walking out the door. The first mouthful made me stop, take another gulp, then sit down. I immediately wanted to finish the glass and order another. It was incredible. Why had I never had this beer before? It’s a strong Belgian beer dry-hopped with American hops. Imagine a Tripel meets an American IPA.

But I was drinking it as I was leaving. Lauren had hold of my empty hand and was pulling me out the door. She’d already sat and watched me drink beer for too many hours and it was time to go. With one hand in hers, the other was rooted in the pub through the grip I had on my pint glass. Lauren versus a 9% beer, with me stuck in the middle. Both had the potential to knock me out but one was about to do it before the other had the chance...

Then for my birthday last week Lauren puts a big box in front of me. Ripping off the beery wrapping paper, it contained all of the best beers from the Snowdrop – Saison Dupont, Anchor Bigfoot, Odells IPA and Troubadour Magma (it also had some Mikkellers and more Anchor – Lauren did good).

Magma (9% ABV) had two days in the fridge before I busted it out. Tropical fruit, fruit salad sweets, vanilla ice cream with raspberry sauce, a perfumy fragrance, mango, roasted pineapple... Not many beers smell like this. The body has a sweetness to it but that balances the bitterness at the end. The hop flavour rocks, there’s a dry finish to it all, and each mouthful is different and interesting and exciting. A brilliant beer. It’s the best Belgian beer I’ve drunk all year, in fact.

When Belgians do American hops well, they really do them well. This, Vivan Imperial IPA, IV Saison, Chouffe Houblon. Delicious.

Sunday 20 November 2011

Wasting hops

The day has come.

I didn't think it ever would.

I definitely didn't think it would be so soon...

But I now think there is such a thing as using too many hops in a beer.

And there are breweries out there wasting perfectly good hops in search of loopy lupulin levels.

I love hops. I love it when a beer uses lots of them. But some beers just use too many. These beers, otherwise perfectly excellent, are thick and tangy and overpowered with hops. They sting the tastebuds, blunt the enjoyment and they bring a wow that is on the shocked side of the reaction rather than the pleased side.

Hops are incredible little things. They make beer exciting whether used liberally or with balance. And I want to be able to taste the hops. I want that hit of aroma, that quench at the end of the gulp, that clinging bitter feeling that makes me want to drink more, but I don't want to feel like I've just licked a hop sack or sucked on a handful of pellets. The thing is, when you use too many hops it just tastes too intense, too muddy, unclear. That’s what I don’t like. It’s great to use lots of hops but I want a clarity of flavour from them, not just an upper cut to the uvula.

Hops are aggressive in a way that malt can’t be. Malt can be big and soft and cuddly whereas hops can be fighty and screamy. Skill from a brewer is finding a balance, even if that balance is weighed down on one side or the other. Getting that balance right means I’ll drink more than half a pint of it or order another bottle of it.

I love hops but recently I've tasted too many beers which use too many hops.

Am I alone in thinking that hops are being wasted unnecessarily or have others find beers that are just too bitter to enjoy?

Sunday 13 November 2011

Beer with a view

The insides of pubs are fascinating places. Each unique with their own quirks of personality whether from the people or the way it's decorated. It makes pub going interesting and varied. The outside of pubs are interesting too: crusty old buildings with a big back story, new bars which shine under illuminating lights, pubs that look wonderful or horrible and then deliver the opposite inside. But what about the view you get when facing away from the bar and at the things around it.

Yesterday we went to the Free Trade Inn in Newcastle and the view was as amazing as the beer list. A flat stretch of the Tyne, bridges, big old buildings, a setting sun. A fantastic city centre view. Other pubs, The Bull in Horton Kirby or The Thatchers Arms in Mount Bures, have views of unending countryside. Some hang into the sea like Whistable Brewery Bar or, just along the beach, the Old Neptune. Some sit at the foot of mountains, some at the top of big hills, some show the city off while others are surrounded by green.

What better than a great pint with a stunning view. There must be so many other pubs with incredible views, backdrops and surroundings. Where are the best?

Thursday 10 November 2011

Trust in the pub

There are over 800 breweries in the UK – how many would you like to try a beer from?

My answer is over 800. I’d love to drink a beer from every brewery in the UK. Even better would be a couple of beers to see the range of what they make.

I’m guessing that some of it will be incredibly good, surprising, interesting and beers that I’d like to drink again and again. That’s why I’d like to try them all. But there will be a lot of beer made which isn’t delicious. Some will be badly brewed and should never be sold while others will be boring or lacking quality. And some beers will inevitably suffer at the hands of the pub serving it.

It’s a lottery of whether that pint you order is going to be good, which is why drinking in pubs you trust is a good start.

There are three London pubs I drink in more than any others: Southampton Arms, Craft and The Rake (there are others I trust but go to less often - I guess I'm too busy chasing hops in the beer bars). I trust these pubs to not put crap beer on the bar: they order beer from breweries which they know are good, they look after the beer and they sell it fast which is good for tap turnover. I know that I can go into one of these places and always get good beer. It’s not about the number of taps either: if these bars only had one keg line and one cask handpull then I’d still be confident that I’d get a good beer. And the selection isn’t just about finding new and over-hopped beers to drink, if a pub will always look after their beers and serve them in perfect condition then that’s as good as anything else. Finding places like that make me want to return regularly.

It’s hard to know if you can trust a new brewery or not (branding is a good start – if care and attention has gone to that then there’s more confidence in the beer) but by finding a good pub who you know chooses the best beer, there’s the safety net against a bad pint. It’s good to be able to walk into a pub and know there’ll be too many beers on that you’d like to drink.

At the same time, one of the great things about drinking in different pubs is the unexpected: the unexpected great pint, the unexpected great pub or the unexpected which happens inside them. Sometimes you have to take a hit with a bad or boring pint but there’s always another pub around the corner and you never know what you’ll find there.

Do you return to the pubs you trust for good beer more than searching out new pubs? Where are you most likely to drink beers from new breweries? 

Tuesday 8 November 2011

Beer at Weddings

Last weekend I went to my third wedding of the year. There were three casks of beer there (the groom loves beer – that’s how we met); two from Kent Brewery and one from Brodies. That’s a great thing to arrive and see because weddings so often have rubbish beer (the other two weddings this year were pretty good, too – I guess I’ve been lucky).

It did leave me thinking something that often rolls around my mind: what beers would I want at my wedding?

The thing is: when I’m at a wedding I don’t want anything crazy or complicated. It’s a wedding so it’s not about the beer, even if I do want to still drink nice bottles. That means the beers need to be simple.

I’d like to brew a special beer for it, either commercially or on a homebrew kit. It’d be something which could age for a few years – a Tripel or barley wine. This would just be available in big bottles for sharing and just for the wedding speeches (if I couldn’t get my own beer then the speeches would need a favourite, probably Orval).

I’d also want bottles for everything else. I like drinking from bottles and think they’re easier to carry than pint glasses, especially when jumping around on the dance floor. I’d want a good lager. Something for everyone to drink (because not all my friends are beer geeks) and something cold that I can gulp all night – Camden Hells would be it. Then I’d want something pale and hoppy because I love hops. It needs to be fresh and super fruity, so a good pale ale or IPA – Racer 5, Odell IPA, Sculpin IPA, Blind Pig IPA (I’d pay a small fortune to get my favourite beers there). I wouldn’t pair anything with the dinner but might have a couple of cases of something big and strong with dessert just because it’s my big day and I can.

Moving away from the beer as the night ends, I’d want some spirits – a bottle of bourbon (Maker’s Mark works) and a whisky (something smoky like Laphroig or Ardbeg). And then I’m done and the late-night fish finger sandwiches and pizza arrive for everyone to eat.

Lauren doesn’t drink booze so she’d want Coke Zero. She’ll be in charge of organising everything else while I make sure the bar is fully stocked. Sounds like a good deal to me.

At the brewery we get regular requests for beer for weddings so it’s something that people want, and why not? I don’t want to drink crap beer on my wedding day – I want the best beer I can get and the beers which mean something to me; they aren’t the centre piece but it’s good to have a nice beer in one hand and your bride in the other.

 What beer did you have at your wedding? Or what would you want at yours?

Friday 4 November 2011

The Session #57: Guilty Pleasures

Guilty pleasures are wonderful things. There's a simplicity to them which makes you feel like you've misbehaved at the back of the classroom or stolen a biscuit while your mum isn't looking. It's a big bowl of pink Bird's trifle, fish fingers and oven chips on a Friday night, a bag of pick n mix at the cinema. It's being a kid whilst being an adult.

With beer it's different. It requires a grown up approach because there's no link to childhood. It’s then about doing the things you probably shouldn't and taking a lot of simple pleasure out of it.

For me that means one thing: drinking a beer straight from the bottle. Cold from the fridge, the crown cap is flicked off and the glass middle-man is left out, favouring the direct route. It makes beer feel different, feel naughty, like I'm a poorly behaved beer geek.

It’s not for every bottle and every beer. 500ml handfuls are not cool, bombers or 750s just make you look like a desperate alcoholic, bottle-conditioned beers get a bit roughed up and strong beer just feels like driving too fast in the opposite direction, but 330s of lager or pale ale are perfect. Forget the glass, the swirls and the sniffs, take it straight from the fridge, a kiss of the bottle opener and then one on the lips.

And even better than bottles? Beer straight from the can. What's your guilty beer pleasure?

This month's Session is hosted by Steve at Beers I've Known.

Sunday 30 October 2011

Time well spent in search of a story

I travel three hours every day to get to and from work. Commuting sucks. Being surrounded by sleepy city workers who smell of coffee, perfume, mint and make-up (that’s on the way there; coming home it’s replaced with stale coffee breath, fast food lunches, cigarettes and sweat – the smell of hard work), who snooze through the stations until they get to theirs, who all read the same papers or look at the bright screen of an iPad or Kindle. There’s businessmen who furiously answer emails on their Blackberry, interns who tap and slide their finger over the Facebook app on their iPhones or those who just shut out the world and listen to music, probably dreaming of more sleep. When the National Rail ends and the Underground journey begins then the same thing happens just in a smaller space and with those not staring into a paper, book or Kindle staring at their shoes to avoid eye contact. The journeys are silent. Everyone too tired to talk yet, to disturb the sleepy silence, disturb the extra hour of rest we get before we work.

Despite this, the journeys are interesting. There's the occasional pretty girl, the guy dressed in an odd outfit or who sings aloud, someone reading a book you love or someone smiling as they read which makes me want to share the story, there's a familiar face, a quirky character, a rainbow of people, some dressed in pinstripe suits and others in the three stripes of a tracksuit. Who are these people? Where are they going? What job will they do at the other end? What will their day be like? How will we all combine to make sure the city keeps moving forward?

There’s also the reading time. Two hours a day set aside for reading is my idea of a well-planned day. The fact that it’s on an over-crowded carriage and costing me £400 a month is not ideal, but as long as I get that reading time then I don’t mind. I also don’t mind because I’ve just finished the best book I’ve ever read.

Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold had me gasping, laughing, breathless and speechless. Most of the time I had no idea what was going on around me because I was so absorbed in the 560 pages in my hands and I could’ve ridden the train to its final destination and back just so I didn’t have to stop reading. The book is a magic trick from beginning to end and that final page turn, late a few nights ago, kept me awake with excitement.

It was like the moment I sat in the plush velvet comfort of the cinema chair after the final frame of Inglourious Basterds snapped to black. I agreed with the final line: it was a masterpiece. Then I thought to 20 minutes earlier when I was open-eyed and open-mouthed as I stared in excitement as the on-screen cinema burned down. This is a film made to be watched here, I thought. An ode to how good cinema and storytelling can be. I wanted to watch it again, straight away, I wanted to be excited and moved, to feel the tension, to fall in love with the beautiful blondes, to be entertained and forget everything else around me.

I love beer because of the thrill of the chase, because I never know what’s coming next. It might be something new or it might be an old favourite. It might be something so good I have to order another pint of it. I might be alone in the pub or with friends. I might be at home. And whatever beer I drink it might just be the best beer I’ve ever tasted. Or a great beer. Or a good one. Or one so bad it makes me laugh.

I can now say the names of my favourite book and favourite film. Mr Brightside is my favourite song because it brings back so many memories and makes me want to jump around with no cares. The exciting thing is that I want to carry on reading, watching films and listening to music to have similar experiences, to be removed from the moment and absorbed in something; to be entertained, pleased, excited.

If I find that perfect beer then, like books or films, the search won’t stop because every beer has a different story that I want to know. And we make our own stories around them by where we drink them and who we’re with. The fact that we are characters in that story is the exciting part. The three hour commute is worthwhile when I’m transported to other places and times and emotions through the story. With beer the joy comes in the moment and the way we make that beer part of our story. 

Tuesday 25 October 2011

Show Boat Brown Ale - 26 October

This won’t happen often but I’m promoting the day job while I work on building a blog for the brewery… The thing is, Camden Town Brewery are tapping a new beer for the first time tomorrow (26 October) and I’d like lots of people to be there to drink it with us.

It’s at Joe’s in Camden and we’ll be there from 6.30pm – the beers are on us (and some hot dogs, too). If you are free and would like a few beers then it’d be great to see you there. There’s more details on the Facebook page including how we decided on the name Show Boat and how it’s made.