Saturday 30 April 2011

Rome Beer Trip: Veni, Vidi, Vici, I Got Drunk

Here’s a video of my trip to Rome, including some of the sights and some of the beer bars. The music was a choir singing in the Pantheon – an amazing sound.

Rome is an incredible, awesome place. It’s impossible not to be struck with a sense of wonder as you walk the worn streets, to be filled with the stories, shadows and shapes of history, to wonder how many great men have walked here or seen this or made that happen, to get philosophical about life and work and play and feel tiny at the base of giant and beautiful monuments.

The Trevi Fountain is stunning, a story in stone; the Pantheon makes you marvel, the huge columns holding it steady are impossible to forget; St Peter’s Basilica is the sort of place where you forget to look down only to miss something amazing under your feet, but then you look to the side and see a statue or a painting that you’ve read about or seen in books and there it is in the real world; the Colosseum makes you think harder than any other, think about the eight years it took to build, the lives of the 30,000 slaves, how they made it to be over 50 meters high, and then the fights themselves, the raw brutality of it all, the savage entertainment of it; Palatine Hill seems overgrown now, a different place to the history books, but the stories that are set there are the beginnings of the city. (There’s also the Spanish Steps which are a bit shit and can easily be skipped).

It all combines to be a powerful, almost overwhelming, experience in looking at the past and seeing it in the now. It makes you philosophical, which is where the beer comes in; there’s nothing better than a few glasses of beer to make you more loquacious about life and history and philosophise about the past and the present.

And Rome has lots of good beer. Bir&Fud, Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fa (or the Football Pub which is far easier to spell and remember), Open Baladin and Brasserie 4:20 are the four places that anyone interested in beer should visit in Rome. It’s in these bars that you’ll find the best of Italian beers and the best of world beers, with each bar standing out in their own unique ways: the pizza and Italian beer in Bir&Fud, the drinking atmosphere in the Football Pub, the cool interior and the long list of Italian beers in Open and the smart dive bar brasserie with casks and kegs of world beer in 4:20.

And then there’s the food. The great thing is that food and drink is central to everything and they always go together. Buckets of home-fried crisps, aperitivo, impossibly thin pizza bases, rice balls, gelato everywhere (I am now obsessed with hazelnut ice cream), bowls of silky pasta. Our favourite place to eat was Pizzarium and the pasta in Brasserie 4:20 was incredibly good. We ate very well in Rome.

There are two warnings. The beer costs 5 euros a glass and most places serve it in 330ml glasses (6 euros for a pint). The glasses change size and shape depending on what’s in it, and the beer is well cared for and well chosen, but that’s a lot of money even by big city standards. Yet if you know it’s coming and are happy to pay, which I was, then it’s not so bad. The other is that none of the beer bars sell Diet Coke. For most people this is a good thing (I think it’s a good thing), but when you are dragging your girlfriend who doesn’t drink anything but Diet Coke around these bars until as late as she can possible bare them, she turns grumpy and you (I) have to drink very fast...

Rome is the sort of city that is hard to take in, hard to understand, hard to appreciate. It’s epic in all senses, it’s busy, it’s as exciting looking up as it is looking side to side or down. It’s also a sad place to visit; nowhere has ever struck me as so rooted in history, so important historically, with so many lives and stories played out on its maze of streets. There is also sadness that I could never tell what was real, or original, and what was new or preserved. Was I looking at something made 2,000 years ago or is that just a recreation? You also get used to seeing such enormous and beautiful buildings that they no longer surprise you and you even expect them (oh look, there’s another piazza, another church, wow that’s a big one).

As for the beer? I loved it all. It was all great, all interesting, all delicious. Bitters, pale ales, saisons, sours, beers with fruit, wheat beers, stouts. A mix of it all, all with a classy Italian stamp. I went expecting to be impressed with the beer and it beat my expectations.

For a mix of amazing sites and sights and great beer bars, Rome has to be high on the list of places to visit.

Wednesday 27 April 2011

The Meaninglessness of Tasting Notes

Tasting notes are hard things to get right. Here’s some which don’t quite get the job done...

“Good bitterness levels...” As opposed to bad ones, presumably.

“The flavour has a good balance of malt, fruit and hops...” Any particular type of fruit? What about the malt and hops?

“Hoppy finish and aroma...” Phew.

“A strong copper coloured premium bitter with a good malty taste and full hopped aroma.” How to describe a beer I don’t want to drink.

“A well balanced and traditional brew.” That’s all you’re getting for this one.

Here’s one for the IPA police: “An authentic strong India Pale Ale, brewed to a traditional recipe. Beautifully pale with an intense grapefruit hop flavour.”

“A single delicate hop added...” Not one for hop heads.

“A sprung beer, triple hopped, with a complex fruity taste.” I love complex fruit.

“...a gentle bitterness.” They didn’t put enough hops in it then, did they?

“...this strikingly malty beer...” Strikingly malty?!

“Ideal for St George’s day.” With love from the Marketing Department.

“A smooth, medium-strong bitter, full of malt and hop flavours with a sweet aftertaste.” Mmm, I love those delicious generic malt and hop flavours.

“A speciality beer with fruit and hops on the aroma and in the taste. Dry and faintly astringent on the palate leading to a strong, dry and moderately astringent finish.” So it’s dry and astringent? Exactly what I look for in a beer.

There was, however, one note which stood above all the others as the epitome of a lame tasting note: “A gold-coloured beer with an aroma of malt and hops. Well-balanced malt and hops taste is followed by a hoppy, bitter finish with some fruit notes.”


These were all taken from the Planet Thanet beer list. With over 200 beers on for the weekend there are a lot of tasting notes to be compiled, written and edited, and it’s a difficult job given the limited word allowance for each. Aside from these, most of the others were good and gave some interesting information (A classic: “Pale, straw coloured. Strong citrus aroma. Well balanced bittering, long dry finish. A fruity, zesty character.”), so it’s not a criticism of the writing, because it’s a thankless job pulling those together, instead it’s a look at how meaningless some tasting notes can be when describing beers.

I’ve also noticed that I didn’t try any of the beers used as examples above. I wonder how many others didn’t order them because they had no idea what the beer would actually taste like. Ultimately, a tasting note has to make a person want to drink the beer, whether it’s a long form ode or just ten perfectly ordered words. If it doesn’t give some indication of what it looks and tastes like, or some push towards why you should try it, then it’s essentially meaningless.

What are the worst, funniest or most meaningless tasting notes you’ve read? (RateBeer and BeerAdvocate aside)

Last year I wrote about the 10 words used too often to describe beer and they are all on display here. I’m also sure that if you trawl back through the 450+ blog posts on here you’ll find some terrible examples which I’ve written. Consider them circled with a virtual red pen with the words ‘must try harder’ scribbled beside them.

Monday 25 April 2011

Open It! Reminder: 29 April – 2 May

Don’t forget, Open It is this coming weekend. It’s a reason and an excuse to open a bottle of beer you’ve been meaning to open for ages and enjoy it. And whether you do it alone or with a group of friends, make sure you tell others about it on twitter (#openit), facebook or in blogs (but don’t use it as a willy-waving competition – it’s for sharing the experience of a beer you’ve wanted to try for ages and saying whether it met, exceeded or failed your expectations).

29 April – 2 May. Just Open it!

Friday 22 April 2011

Planet Thanet 2011

...It was another good one!

If anyone asks me what my favourite beer festival is then Planet Thanet is always my first answer.

It's where I spend Good Friday every year; in the Winter Gardens, a large venue with a long line-up of beers, a stage filled with activity, a room out the back where you can chill out and drink and eat (and listen to Michael Buble, which is seemingly on repeat) and a sloped garden to sit in the sun (unless it's snowing, which it was a few years ago, in massive contrast to today's sunshine).

This year the beer list was top-heavy with treats to tick off. Gadd's Low and Behold, a 2.8% up yours, was the festival beer, a deep amber, over-hopped, low-abv anomaly that's full bodied and bitter yet barely registers on the boozeometer. A strangely brilliant achievement.

There were many other stunners on the list this year and DarkStar owned a large section of awesomeness: Six Hop was a nose of mandarin and a faceful of hops; Tripel was dry, bitter, botanical and peachy; Maibock was caramel malt and smooth, puckering with lemony and floral hops, really tasty.

As it was hot, and because I love the style, I wanted a lot of pale and hoppy beers, the best were Whitby Abbey Ale from Black Dog, Brewsters Hophead, Yakima Gold from Crouch Vale, Blackwater Surrealism, Dorking Dry Hop Gold, Hornbeam Top Hop Best Bitter, Marble Manchester Bitter, Phoenix Ressurection and Kent Pale. I'd happily drink every one of these again.

Some of the bigger beers included Summer Wine's citrus juice Apache APA, Raw Brewing Grey Ghost IPA and London Brick brewed by a combination of Redemption, BrewWharf, DarkStar, Kernel, Brodies and Zerodegrees. All good, but pale and hoppy was what I wanted.

And as it's Planet Thanet, Ramsgate Brewery also bring out the big guns to go alongside Low and Behold: Bock was brilliant, a caramel and chocolate treat; West Coast IPA was a hop ripper; No.3 was a pint of Kent, all malty and spiked with local hops leaving a lemony finish; and Black Pearl Oyster Stout was sweet, salty, roasty and bitter in one dark package.

The festival is a tickathon of new beers and old favourites (plus a few grim ones which aren't worth mentioning), in a great venue next to the sea. There are few better ways to spend a very good Friday.

Thursday 21 April 2011

Win a trip to Pilsner Urquell

Going to Pilsner Urquell brewery was one of my favourite moments of last year and drinking the beer in the cellars was stunning and unforgettable.

Next month, at the European Beer Bloggers Conference, Pilsner Urquell are sponsoring the Friday night session and will be bringing traditional oak barrels filled with unfiltered, unpasteurised beer. If that’s not exciting enough, they are also holding a competition to take one blogger to Pilsen to see the brewery.

All the details for the competition are here. You just need to write a blog post on ‘a legend related to brewing or beer’. Make of that what you want. The closing date is the 8th May. The only requirement Pilsner Urquell have specified is that you must already be signed up for the Conference to enter (you can still sign up before you enter the competition!).

It’s a chance not to be missed – I would go back to the brewery in an instant. I also can’t wait to spend a night drinking the good stuff from oak barrels at the Conference.

Sorry this is quite a specific blog post aimed at only a narrow audience. It’s just too good an opportunity and I had to pass it on!

Cooking with Beer: Chicken MaltNuggets and Beer Ketchup

After making beer jelly and ice cream I wanted to beer-up another kids classic and it didn’t take long for me to stop at chicken nuggets.

Chicken nuggets are brilliant. But imagine them with an extra-crunchy coating of pale malt breadcrumbs and then dipped in some ketchup made with beer... Now you’re talking!

I’ve no idea why I’ve never made chicken nuggets before as they’re so easy. Take a chunk of chicken breast, dip it in flour and then into egg, roll in breadcrumbs and bake for 20 minutes. The beer pimp comes by adding grounded pale malt into the breadcrumbs (about twice as much bread to malt – I used the same malt as for the crème brûlées but not the same malt as the cookies...). The finished nugget is fantastic – really crunchy on the outside with a hint of sweetness from the malt.

And what to dip them in? Beer ketchup, of course. I made a small batch so no firm recipe but I softened onion and garlic, added some herbs and spices (paprika, mustard, a little clove, bay, thyme, pepper), sugar and salt, then a few handfuls of tomatoes and let them bubble down to mush. Then I added equal amounts of beer (for this I used Thwaites Very Nutty Black) and vinegar (balsamic as that’s all I had). I cooked it for about 20 minutes, strained it and pressed all the good stuff through the sieve, then reduced it further to get the right consistency. And it’s really very good. Just like ketchup but with a beer kick – it’d be great in a big burger. I made it with the mild on the first attempt as I didn’t want bitterness; I now want to try making this with Schlenkerla and Rodenbach (instead of vinegar) as I think both would also work.

Chicken MaltNuggets and beer ketchup. A bit of kitchen beer fun but also really tasty!

What else could I give a beery tweak to? And I’ve still got lots of malt left – any suggestions? (there’s not enough in there to brew with...)

Tuesday 19 April 2011

Beer Festival Fortnight

Is there anywhere which isn’t having a beer festival in the next two weeks?! (Just look at this list on Ale Talk) Our livers are likely to be pickled come the end of the British bank holiday bonanza that’s between Easter and May...

My favourite beer festival (outside of GBBF, obviously) is Planet Thanet and that always starts on Good Friday. It’s got that great mix of good venue and atmosphere and an excellent selection of beers, including stuff from most Kent breweries. It’s an unmissable festival, I think, and a direct train from London will get you to the seaside in two hours.

Some others which have caught my eye are: The White Horse, Parsons Green, are holding an Over the Hop festival (a festival of IPAs and hoppy beers!); the Thatchers Arms are holding a 12-day-long festival with a London focus; Egham Beer Festival has a good list – it’s also where I went to university and they only started the festivals after I left; a little further around the M25 is the Reading Beer Festival which always looks great. And these are just the ones that aren’t miles away from me; there are so many others, some in pubs, some big CAMRA fests.

What beer festivals have you got pencilled in for the next few weeks?

Monday 18 April 2011

Cooking with Beer: Pale Malt Crème Brûlée

Wort, the sweet liquid that yeast turns into beer, is made by mashing malt in hot water for an hour. A thought: what if you attempted the same process using cream and milk and use it to make a custard? As soon as that burrowed itself into my brain I had to find out.

I popped to my local brewery – Royal Tunbridge Wells – to pick up a few handfuls of pale malt. Back in the kitchen I loosely repeated the brewing process by heating some cream and milk in a cast-iron casserole to roughly (i.e. I guessed and when it started bubbling I moved it onto a smaller gas ring) 70C and then added the malt and a vanilla pod, stirring it every few minutes for an hour and hoping it stayed at a regular temperature. From there I followed the typical recipe for a crème brûlées.

And did it work?

Hell yeah! The finished brûlées are fantastic. Even better than I hoped they’d be. Creamy and smooth, the malt is subtle but definitely there, adding extra sweetness and a different depth of flavour, almost white chocolate-like and somehow wonderfully comforting. If you’ve got any pale malt lying around (or if you pinch some from your local brewery like I did – you don’t need much) then I definitely recommend this.

This will make six brûlées (or four brûlées and some ice cream):

900ml double cream
500ml milk
150g pale malt
1 vanilla pod
8 egg yolks
100g caster sugar

Heat the double cream and milk to around 70C (there’s a lot more than a usual recipe but you lose some to the malt), then add the vanilla and malt and heat for 45-60 minutes, stirring to avoid it clumping together. Strain the creamy wort into a clean pan, pressing as much liquid through the sieve as possible.

Whisk the egg yolks and sugar then gradually pour the hot cream over it while still whisking. Strain into a pouring jug and then fill some ramekins. Bake in a bain marie at 150C for 30-40 minutes (or until it is set on top but still wobbles), chill in the fridge for at least six hours and then before serving top with sugar (I tried a sugar and malt topping but the malt burnt before the sugar caramelised) and caramelise it with a kitchen blowtorch or under the grill.

(To make ice cream... save back some when you fill the ramekins and put this into a clean saucepan, stir with a wooden spoon until it thickens – you are making custard – and then let it cool before freezing or churning in an ice cream maker – the ice cream tastes amazing!).

Not quite cooking with beer, more cooking with pre-beer, but it's a fun little beery recipe but one which works generally and isn’t just for beer freaks like me – the malt genuinely adds a fantastic flavour to it. I’m also guessing that this would be great with a massive imperial stout on the side, something like Bourbon County Stout or oak aged Yeti – the bigger the better.

Inspiration for this came from BeerBirraBier’s malted pancake post. And while at Royal Tunbridge Wells Brewery I also picked up a few bottles, of course. I drank Royal, their best seller, while I cooked, and it’s a really decent easy-drinking best bitter.

Sunday 17 April 2011

Pizzarium, Gradi Plato Beershop, Domus Birrae

We’d had lunch at Pizzarium as quickly as we could after arriving in Rome. A small by-the-slice pizza place not far from the Vatican City walls (go here after visiting the museum as the exit puts you right where you want to be), where impossibly thin pieces are cut from large slabs of pizza and where the bases are incredibly light and crisp and yet still keep a chewiness to them and the toppings are piled perilously high. They also sell good beer, though not as much as I expected; I got the last bottle of craft beer that wasn’t 750ml on our first visit (it was so good we visited the next day as well and Lauren wanted to go back again on the last day). The bottle was an excellent Milk Chocolate Stout from Brewfist (some good info on the brewery here), all chocolate, nuts and fudge and great with pizza – I like the depth of dark beer with tomato and cheese.

Gradi Plato Beershop is about a 10 minute walk from Pizzarium or from the centre of Vatican City. Hidden down a side street, it’s filled with bottles and fridges inside with a selection from around the world and lots of Italian beers. It’s a really good shop with more than enough for a thirsty traveller to choose from – I got some really interesting things to bring home.

The other beer shop I visited was Domus Birrae, about 5 minutes from Termini, the main train station (it’s also only about 10 minutes walk from the Colosseum). This place is excellent: big, filled with mostly Italian beers alongside a few from Denmark and America, plus a homebrew section with ingredients and equipment. I spent about half an hour (probably longer...) looking at everything, asking staff for recommendations or to explain what the beers were. The selection is larger and broader than Gradi Plato but both are definitely worth visiting if you want to bring bottles home from Rome. I bought nine bottles from Domus Birrae, somehow stuffing them into my backpack, and struggling onto a very full bus back to the hotel.

These three plus Open Baladin, Bir & Fud, Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fa and Brasserie 4:20 made up my three days in Rome and filled them with great beer (there's a map below with them all on). If you are going to Rome then I recommend fitting all of them in, if you can. And don’t miss Pizzarium for lunch one day – it ended up being the best place we ate at in our four days in Rome, huddled over chopping boards and greedily stuffing our faces while sitting on the bench outside. Rome is a good place to visit for beer. There's also so much else to see and do while you're there, so, like me, you can veil a beer trip with the lure of a city trip to see the sights!

View Drinking great beer in Rome in a larger map

Friday 15 April 2011

Brasserie 4:20, Rome

The final of the Big Four Roman beer bars is Brasserie 4:20. You’ve walked across the bridge from Open Baladin to Bir & Fud and you’ve then crossed the bustling cobbled street to Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fa, all within 10 minutes of each other. 4:20 is another short walk, hugging the Tiber as you head south through Trastevere.

It’s located in a railway arch with a line of kegs and scooters outside as noticeable as the cool neon green sign. A hole in the wall with dark wood floors and stone walls, the bar takes up the left hand side and food and drink takes up the right, with two giant blackboards listing the offerings. All around are hops and bottles, funky jazz plays, green lights glow at either end, extending the electric entrance inside.

The beer list is, like Ma Che Siete Venuit a Fa, mostly imports. The cask list would instantly make it my favourite pub, if I lived nearby: DarkStar, Moor, Gadds, Boon. The keg list would make me travel a long way to get to it: Mikkeller, Southern Tier, Pizza Port, Nogne.

There were two Italian beers on tap, both by Revelation Cat, which is the brewery attached to the pub (attached in spirit; it’s a gypsy brewery). West Coast IPA and West Coast DIPA were the choices (possibly brewed at Gadds?) so I started on the IPA at 6.5%: Super fruity and bursting uncontrolled out of the glass, a tangy body of malt and sticky hops; citrus mango and pine; not a kill-your-tastebuds bitterness which makes it easy to drink. Nice.

We chose dinner from the menu which was patiently explained and translated by one of the staff in much-appreciated English. All the dishes feature beer in some way, which I like a lot, and they focus on fish, which not many other places do. I had a bowl of crab fettuccine made with a dubbel which enriched a light tomato-based sauce and it was perfect apart from the fact that I wanted another few bowls after as it was so good. Also on the menu were home-smoked ribs which looked amazing. If you go then make sure you eat.

We had a Tiramistout (tiramisu make with stout) for dessert and it was fantastic. I ordered a Pizza Port Z-Man Stout to go with it which had a handsome cappuccino head and was smooth and rich with chocolate, nuts, sweet coffee and cocoa. It was a great stout but slightly overpowered by the dessert (which I think was made with Nogne Imperial Stout) so better alone than with the food.

The Revelation Cat DIPA came next, arriving in a pint glass, and for something over 9% that scared me a bit... It had a similar aroma to the IPA and in many ways was an intensified version of the IPA: intense mango, pithy citrus, dry and piney, booze and bitterness. It’s a big beer and a whole pint became a challenge – a half would’ve been great. Needing something to recover with before rushing for the last train I had the cask Boon Lambic Foeder #10, a sharply sour but really refreshing bite of Belgium.

Brasserie 4:20 is another very cool Italian beer bar. The food is really delicious, the beer list is excellent and it’s got a fantastic atmosphere, especially the roof terrace upstairs. For me, on a Roman beer expedition, I wanted more Italian beers, but take me back there tomorrow and I’ll happily work my way through everything on the exciting beer list (especially as I rarely see casks of Moor and Gadds near me). 4:20 is another place, like Ma Che Siete Venuit a Fa, for proper drinking; it’s a bar you could spend all night in and never get bored. 

Thursday 14 April 2011

Open It!

Grab your diaries and put a big red circle around the Royal Wedding weekend (29 April – 2 May) and inside that circle scribble the words ‘Open It!’ because it’s time to go into the dusty depths of the beer cellar and open something good just for the sake and fun of opening something good.

Open It! is there for those bottles that are set aside for a special occasion which invariably never comes. It’s for those bottles that take pride of place in the cellar but never end up getting opened before sadly replaced by shiny new bottles. It’s for that one beer you’ve been waiting to open but just didn’t know when to open it. Or, it’s just for sitting down and opening something different, something you’ve always wanted to try or something brand new.

It’s about drinking a good beer and sharing it with others, whether in real life or online in blogs, twitter or on facebook. Maybe you’ll open that prized old ale, perhaps it’s a brand new release, maybe you want an Open It! party to get through a few special treats, whatever, let’s just open some great beer and drink it!

Do it any time over the weekend of 29 April – 2 May. Feel free to use the logo (designed by Rich from myBrewerytap and Magic Rock Brewery) and use the #OpenIt hashtag on twitter. Let’s drink some good beer!

Who’s in?

Wednesday 13 April 2011

Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fa (aka: Football Pub), Rome

If the journey from Open Baladin to Bir & Fud was short and easy, then the one from Bir & Fud to Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fa is even easier: turn right out of Bir & Fud and the Football pub is the first bar on the left, the one with all the people spilling out onto the street.

Tiny inside, it creeps back from the tightly filled bar past to-be-used-soon keg and opens into a small box of a room with football on the TV and beer posters all around. Downstairs is another small room, dark and cool, a great late-night drinking spot. And that’s definitely what this place is: somewhere to properly drink. Bir & Fud is for chilling out, eating and enjoying a few beers, the Football Pub is where it kicks on.

The beer list is more imports than Italian, including some American, Belgian and Danish beers, ranging from little and light to big and dark, although the front line of the beer taps are led by two A-list Italians: Italiano Tipopils and Bibock. I start on Tipopils which was one of the must-have beers on my list before we arrived. I’ve had a few bottles before, I’ve enjoyed it with homemade pizza, and I like it a lot, so wanted it on tap. It arrived in a chunky pint glass, very pale in colour, and smelt like fresh noble hops, zinging with grassy, subtle fruitiness. However, I must’ve got a bad batch because it tasted like hopped wort, which was gutting.

Moving on, I had a Italiano Bibock and it was sensational. A caramel-red colour, smoothly malty underneath and then the most incredible hop flavour I’ve tasted in a beer in a long time – so fresh, so clean, so fruity and grassy, vibrant and pronounced and delicious, plus a bitterness that gets your full attention. I could still taste it the next morning.

Then we had to go home and sleep because it was past midnight and we’d been up since 4am. But we did return later in the week and I had another Tipopils and it was fantastic. Cool and crisp, simple yet wonderfully complex and interesting and tasty, with those noble hops showing who is boss. I must’ve got unlucky with the first one because this was brilliant.

The Football Pub is for drinking in, a ‘spit and sawdust’ kind of place, as Zak Avery says, compared to the clean temple of Open Baladin. It’s for groups of friends to hang out and order beers and talk shit until you can’t drink any more. Some bars are just made for that kind of thing and this is one of them. It’s a great place (the 2nd best bar in the world, according to RateBeer’s Best Of list).

Tuesday 12 April 2011

Bir & Fud, Rome

Turn left out of Open Baladin and walk to the end of the narrow cobbled street, then take another left and follow the street lined with high buildings and small shops to the bridge which is at the end. Cross the bridge, taking a few photos on either side, especially if you time it at dusk, and you’ll step off opposite some steps in a busy square lined with trees, scooters and new roads to go down. Choose the correct road off of here and you’ll find Bir & Fud.

Shuttered doors are open to show the Bir menu as the bar inside glows under a line of taps. Narrow, the space winds back passed the bar and gradually opens up into seating for the Fud side of things, past some beer fridges on the way. We arrive at 8pm on a Wednesday and it’s quiet except for a few young families and a few beer sippers at the bar. We take a table.

The beer menu is excellent and not overwhelming. Around 18 to choose from tap, all Italian, all listed by the brewery, beer name, style and strength, with some assumption that they’ve been hand-picked for their quality so you know you’re getting something good. The food list is equally simple and tasty-looking, although I didn’t get past the pizza page...

I started the night on Toccalmatto’s Stray Dog, a 4.7% bitter with an amber body and a tight creamy head. I chose it at 4.7% because I’d just had a 13.5% beer and didn’t want to pass out in my pizza. The beer was the best beer I drank all weekend, or at least the beer I’d want to drink most of – I loved it. A massive aroma of sweet and tangy citrus mixed with an intoxicating array of other fruit; bold and bitter but smooth and light, very fruity but never sweet. English-inspired with new world hops. A perfect beer.

Also a perfect beer for the pizza which was sitting in front of me. Bir & Fud is known for their pizzas. Big wood-fired domes, bubbling up in dark blisters, crisp at the edge, soft and chewy in the middle. Everywhere which sells great beer should also sell great pizza like this, I’ve decided.

Next beer was a Bi-Du Artigian Ale, a 6.2% strong bitter with that familiar and good-looking head rocking over the rim of the glass. Held in that head is a big US hop aroma which leads through to the taste – smooth and a little toasty then the hops jump out, fruity and bitter, some spiciness like you’d expect from English hops to meet the citrus of the Americans.

Then a Montegioco Garbagnina. A couple of years ago at GBBF my favourite beer was Montegioco’s Mammia, which was pulled straight from the barrel it aged in, so I wanted to try more from the brewery. Garbagnina is 6.5% and made with cherries and pours a hazy red under a thick ice cream foam. It’s like a Belgian blond, dry and a little spicy, but the cherries are there providing a background shading of fruit, with cheeky extra bursts every few sips.

No, this isn't in focus...
Getting itchy feet for what was opposite (more tomorrow...), we left after that beer, but we returned a couple of days later and sat at the busy bar in the evening where the staff constantly pass us carrying trays with glasses of different shapes and sizes filled with many different colours of beer (all glasses, by the way, are around 330ml in here). I ordered a Toccalmatto Zona Cesarini (because Stray Dog wasn’t pouring right, they said) and it was delicious. Big tropical aroma in this 6.8% IPA, loads of Citra-esque fruit, a squeeze of lime, a little floral and a lingering bitterness beneath the mango juice fruit. Lovely.

Then an Italiano B.I. Weizen with a bucket of home-fried crisps. Handsomely hazy, banana and spice start it off, the body is very clean and smooth with lots of delicious creamy banana, a little lemon and some vanilla, before a dry, crisp finish. Great with the crisps, although any beer would be great with those crisps. Not a style I drink much of but this was great. And then I got itchy feet again and headed opposite...

Bir & Fud rocks. Small, cosy, a great atmosphere and a simple but interesting and exciting beer list to drink from. Add fantastic pizza to that list and you aren’t far off beer heaven. More of a restaurant than a drinking hangout, it’s one to relax in, order food and work through the beer list. I loved it and would go back every week if I could.

Monday 11 April 2011

Open Baladin, Rome

We jumped off the Metro at Barberini to see some sights, starting at the sun-drenched and stunning Trevi Fountain, walking to the awe-inspiring and awesome (classic meaning, not the Americanization) Pantheon and then Piazza Navaro, plus a while just wandering and exploring and seeing what we could find (churches, piazzas, amazing statues; the usual). Conveniently this left us just a few minutes away from Open Baladin...

Hidden down an alleyway, it's made easier to find by a small sign on the old stone wall pointing the way. An open, colourful place packed with chairs and tables for eating the simple food (burgers, home-fried crisps, rice balls). The bar, backed by a wall of empty bottles, takes up the whole front of the space while there’s also another back room, past the kitchen, which is quieter and more intimate. Cool music plays, changing tempo and tune at different times of the day to suit the custom (lazy jazz at 5pm, upbeat and toe-tapping at 10pm). The beer list makes it a hard place to leave with around 40 choices, mostly Italian and mostly kegged.

I started on Scik Pils by Birra del Borgo, needing a thirst-quencher from the hot Roman sun. It arrived with a big rocky head, pillowing over the rim of the glass (this will become the normal – beers are aggressively poured, allowed to settle, then topped up, giving that handsome head in a glass). Lemony, grassy, a quenching bitterness. A damn good start.

Baladin Open was next; floral, a little spicy, dryly bitter and a touch savoury. Not what I was expecting but still good. Then a beer I couldn’t ignore: Xyauyu 2004. A barley wine, 13.5%, old. This beer is a masterpiece that belongs in the museums around the city; as astounding as the Roman architecture. Amber colour with a subtle aroma of caramel, spice and orange pith which opens up as it swirls around the glass. The body is thick and syrupy but somehow so light that it never becomes cloying. For a beer that was made in 2004 it’s not slightly oxidised and of remarkable quality with so much flavour making it so interesting to drink. Incredible.

Two days later we returned after dinner and sat at the bar while diners filled all the tables behind us. Lambrate Ligera, a 4.7% US pale ale, was a glass of lemon and lime, easy drinking with a quenching sort of bitterness; a great beer to start the night on. Then Borgo’s Re Ale Extra, which was bursting with fruit – mandarin, tangerine, peaches, mango – plus something cakey and vanilla-like in the body. I loved every joyous gulp of it. Then I spotted something in the beer menu which caught my eye: Baladin Super Bitter. I don’t understand a word of Italian, nor do I read it, but things like ‘collaborazione’ ‘Americano’ and ‘Stone’ formed an exciting translation in my mind (although I can’t find anything about it online so maybe it was all a dream...). I couldn’t not order it, choosing it instead of a Xyauya 2007. At 8.5% it drank like a supersized glass of bitter with some spicy character similar to Belgian yeast, some nuttiness and a little orange pith. It was a glugger, though not what I was expecting and not hugely bitter, but still good.

On the day we travelled home we decided to take a long walk around the city which conveniently I managed to route right past the open doors of the bar... San Paolo’s Pecan is a crisp kolsch, completely opaque like orange barley squash, with a big creamy head and it was delicious – unfiltered, smooth, a bitter bite and perfect for the warm day. Then a Troll Dorina, a herby (mint, rosemary) blonde, crisp and dry, a little unusual in the flavour but really intriguing all the same. And then we had to leave for the third and final time.

I loved Open Baladin. I loved the long beer list, the friendly staff (something wonderfully refreshing from the gruff services you get everywhere else in Rome – though not in any of the beer bars), the cool atmosphere and the great selection of beer. It’s a great introduction to Italian craft beer.

Tuesday 5 April 2011

Avery Brown Dredge: The Video Blog

I might not have mentioned this, but earlier this year I made a beer at BrewDog along with Zak Avery and Pete Brown...

We could’ve brewed anything we wanted; the only limitation was nothing spontaneously fermented (though Stewart Bowman, the Head Brewer, would tell us that he’d like to play around with wild yeast in the future). I was interest in brewing an imperial lager (“dry-hopped to oblivion,” my email says), a butch oatmeal stout (perhaps with coffee and maple syrup because that’s a beer I’ve been obsessed with and wanted to brew for years) or a saison with lots of US hops, all of which I thought would work well in the BrewDog range as well as being beers I really like. The others made their suggestions, including another strong lager-style and we politely emailed our way to the happy ending we settled upon.

An Imperious Pilsner it what we brewed – it was designed to be like that lager your mate drinks, just bigger. We decided on 100% Saaz hops while we were at the brewery – before that we were swaying between a variety of different hops and different additions. It was to be 7-8%, as pale as possible, as unfiltered as possible (if we could), and an amplified showcase of noble hops.

Tradition. Homage. Revolution. That’s how the bottle label begins and that’s the inspiration. It’s about the long lager traditions, about using the same ingredients, having a period of lagering, and tipping our glasses to the lagers that we love. It’s also an homage to beers like Monsieur Rock, My Antonia and Tilted Smile; lagers but different. And revolution because this isn’t just a normal lager and we made it at BrewDog who aren’t just a normal brewery. The label, which is Carlsberg green, encapsulates the whole idea.

And we did actually get stuck in with the brewery instead of just standing around scribbling in our notebooks. Lugging 53 sacks of malt and mashing it in was hard work, shovelling it out of the copper mash tun was even harder work (or so it looked – Zak had that job), and I was the lucky one who got to stand above the boiling kettle and continuously throw handfuls of hops into it.

After two months, including the lagering and dry-hopping, it’s ready and tasting great; it’s exactly what I wanted it to be. It’s subtle in its punch, it’s an exploration of the Saaz hop, it’s a simple beer expanded. The body is golden and the head is full and fluffy, so it looks great. The aroma is slightly sweet, a little breeze of yeast, then into floral and orange pith, peaches and apricot, a distant herb garden, all subtle. The body is smooth, the bitterness is dry and crisp, botanical like gin but with bursts of distant fruit, like little surprises to keep you interested. It’s like a lager but different; all the qualities are there, it’s just amplified and bigger, meaning it stretches in different directions.

The beer is currently on sale on the BrewDog website for anyone who wants to try it – I suggest you drink it young to get the burst of Saaz freshness, though I’ll be keeping one or two back to see what happens in a few months. The beer isn’t cheap but then we used a ridiculous amount of malt and hops, plus took up two months worth of ultra-valuable tank space at the brewery.

Avery Brown Dredge is finally here. If you’ve had the beer then what did you think?