Tuesday 31 May 2011

Byron Burger Craft Beer List

For the past few months I’ve been working on the most exciting project I’ve been involved with since I started writing about beer: putting together a beer list for Byron Hamburger.

The brief was to come up with a selection of the best beers from around the world to be part of a “Summer of Craft Beer”. Easy, right? Not quite. We needed a mix of beers, we needed beers which work well with burgers, we needed them to be in 330ml bottles, they had to look good in the fridge and on the table, we needed them to be always available to fulfil orders to all the branches (the 15th location is opening soon with more to follow later in the year), they had to be affordable, they had to appeal to the drinker who had never passed Peroni but also had to stand up to the critique of a beer geek, and they all had to taste great.

A wide choice of beers at the first tasting; some just to show the variety of beers, others for serious consideration for the beer list
We began by holding a huge tasting of beers with senior members of Byron staff at Camden Town Brewery (Camden started working with Byron and suggested I get involved as well). This also featured a brewery tour to understand beer and a talk about why beer is important and how it works with food. We poured about 40 beers, talking through each of them and allowing Byron staff to taste and experience a breadth of good beer before choosing some favourites.

We narrowed the selection down to about 15 and tasted again. Then the list was cut down to a final 10 based on all of our favourites and the ones which stood up best in the taste tests.

The final list of 10 craft beers is:

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
Brooklyn Lager
Camden Town Hells Lager
Camden Town Wheat Beer
Goose Island Honkers Ale
Odell Cutthroat Porter
Little Creatures Pale Ale
BrewDog Punk IPA
Flying Dog Snake Dog IPA
Kernel IPA

These will now sit on the menu alongside Peroni, Negro and London Pride, which have been on the drinks list since Byron began (SNPA and Brooklyn are also carried over from the original menu).

There’s a mix of British (mostly London because all Byron locations are currently in London), American (because it’s an American-style burger joint) and Australian (because everyone loved Little Creatures); a lot of beers using US hops because we felt these worked best with burgers; an approachable pale lager from Camden, a dark beer from Odell and some bigger beers for the braver drinkers in the Flying Dog and Kernel: it’s a taster of some of the great beers which are available in the UK.

I’ve since been training staff from all restaurants so if you go and any of them come out with pearls of wonderful information about these beers then I’ll take the credit... It’s also been great to talk through these beers with people who have never tried anything like them before to see what they think and how they react: Little Creatures always gets a good response, so do the Camden beers, the Kernel impresses people with flavour and aroma they never thought could exist in a beer, the Punk and the porter divide people with many being surprised by the porter.

A massive Byron feast - the only thing missing is craft beer!
As a starter beer list I think it’s excellent and if the summer of craft beer is a success then hopefully it will develop into a permanent fixture of the Byron offering with a broader choice of brews. The beers are in the fridges from today so if you want a great beer served with a fantastic burger (because Byron hamburgers are brilliant) then you know where to go.

What do you think of the list?

I've written about beer and burgers a few times before. There's venison burger with Czech cherry lager, a trip to California where I survived on burgers and beer alone for over a week and then a beer and a burger whilst watching baseball.

Monday 30 May 2011

CAMRA's Self-Harming

CAMRA vs Bloggers. A fight kicked off by a provoking jab from CAMRA’s chairman. But it’s a fight which shouldn’t be happening, especially not from CAMRA’s point of view.

We might not blog about bad beer too often, as Tandleman grumps (life’s too short to blog about bad beer, I think), but we’re quite happy to jump into battle and blog about things which annoy us in the beer world. And Colin Valentine has just mobilised a small army against him and CAMRA.

And why? What does he stand to gain from it? If anything, he’s got more to lose, especially with his bitter tone and the way he spits out the ugly term Bloggerati (even if it does compliment blogger power as one complete unit).

What CAMRA needs to do, and they really should do it quickly, is get beer bloggers on their side and work on some blogger relations. They are alienating the people who spend their time drinking and writing about beer – all bloggers promote beer and the more people who are interested in good beer, the bigger the potential audience for CAMRA. Bloggers berating them is only doing CAMRA more damage.

And guess what? All bloggers love cask beer. All of us. We all drink it, we all talk about it, we all blog about it. It’s churlish and childish to poke bloggers with sticks because we also talk about kegged beer and bottled beer, or that we use the term craft beer (which, by the way, can be real ale and doesn’t have to just contain a sack of C-hops per half pint and be poured from a keg...).

For me, the thing which connects beer bloggers is that we all love beer and we love all good beer. We don’t want CAMRA to change their focus on real ale (we do know that CAMRA stands for the Campaign for Real Ale – we aren’t idiots) but I think we would all agree that we want something which focuses on good beer above a form of beer. If that isn’t CAMRA then so be it. It’s not keg vs cask and it’s definitely not real ale vs craft beer, but it is forward-thinking vs backing-looking.

Real ale is incredibly important; really tasty, well-brewed beer is more important, however it’s dispensed. An argument over a container is stupid. It’s got to taste good and I couldn’t care less how it gets from brewery to glass as long as it tastes good when it gets there. To only be interested in one or two routes from brewery to glass is to have a closed mind on the huge potentials of what great beer can be.

CAMRA need to make some friends among the online writers and not push them further away.


I’m late on this one and lots of people have already discussed it. Zythophile kicked it off, then Tandleman and Glyn from Rabid About Beer jumped in, Pete Brown has had his say, as has Sid Boggle, Reluctant Scooper and Mark from Beer.Birra.Bier.

And for the record, I am a CAMRA member. I have been for five years. I pay so that I can get BEER magazine (plus the occasional cheaper entry to beer festivals). 

Photo from here

Friday 27 May 2011

The Bottle Shop, Canterbury

Canterbury is a great city to get drunk in. Lots of history and interesting places to visit, two universities, loads of pubs and bars, breweries nearby… It’s not been the best place for great beer, despite the breweries, but getting drunk is easy and fun.

Taking beer a little more seriously are a few new spots in town. The Foundry is about to open a brewpub and there’s La Trappiste, a sister bar to the Belgian Bar in Ramsgate which used to be the home of Ramsgate Brewery (I’ve got some stories about that place from my early drinking years, the short version includes a naked giant, some cigars, too much Delerium Tremens, being sick on the beach and a pizza…).

There’s also the Bottle Shop. At home inside The Goods Shed, it’s one of the most interesting and fantastic locations for a beer shop going: it’s a farmer’s market meets a restaurant plus an off-license, with the day’s freshest ingredients sold during the day and also cooked in the restaurant on site. Tucked on one side is the Bottle Shop, a tiny enclave of beer from around the world, with lots of British bottles, a good selection of Americans and a wide choice of Mikkeller and Struise, plus many other interesting Belgians.

Beyond just shelves lined with take-away bottles, it also becomes a bar at night, so if you arrive after the market finishes then you can buy your beers and sit down and enjoy in a really interesting space, surrounded by cooking and food products – it’s the sort of place that makes you really appreciate the small producer, like watching an watching an independent film in a tiny art-house cinema.

Andrew Morgan runs the place and he could talk until you’ve drunk the bar dry, recommending this or that, explaining beers, chatting about them with real enthusiasm and knowledge. He also hosts regular tastings – there’s one coming up with 19 single hop Mikkeller beers taking place at Kernel Brewery and when I’m there he’s got a table of 15 people clearly enjoying their way through 15 different bottles of trappist beer.

As beer shops and bars goes, the Bottle Shop is one of the best I’ve been to: the beer range is excellent, it’s in a place which needs a boost from better beers (but also has lots of people who are drinking), it transforms from simple shop into barn bar after the market tidies up for the day, the venue is different, interesting and unique, you can always get good food (try the gouda with cumin and mustard), and they really know what they’re talking about and love what they do.

Wednesday 25 May 2011

The vanguard of modern beer media

Despite being laden with a heavy bag filled with too many bottles of beer, despite the lack of sleep and excess of everything else, and despite the prospect of a bus for the last leg of the journey home, nothing could stop the smile muscles from getting a good workout as I left the Beer Bloggers Conference on Sunday.

As weekends go it’s hard to find one better: great beer, great food, great company, great entertainment, great fun, all multiplied ten-fold because it all pulled together perfectly. As a prospect the weekend was an odd one: what the hell is a Beer Bloggers Conference?! Ignore the name, look at what we did, look at how everyone reacted to it as that’s all you need to know.

But as I was leaving, as the beer haze was lifting and being replaced by the bastard behind the eyes, it became clearer that what we’re doing – writing and reading blogs; loving good beer – is incredibly important.

There is slim space for beer appreciation in traditional media and it seems to be getting harder and harder to place articles, despite the fact that more and more people are discerning drinkers and that Britain has got a brilliant brewing past, present and future. And people want to read about it. This lack of printed word opens up the online space and opportunities which don’t exist elsewhere, and this is key (although, with newspaper readerships serially in decline, and online use ever on the up, does this lack matter to all but the ones who live off writing?)

When I want to find out something the first place I look is Google. When I wanted to learn more about beer as a thirsty 21-year-old with pint in hand, I learnt about it through Google first and books second (plus I needed to Google what books to buy). With mobile technology and the daily draw of social media making the internet ever-more pertinent in our lives, it’s natural that we spend more time online and use it in different ways; the declining print runs of newspapers is concurrent to the increasing hits on their websites, kindle books now outsell physical books two-to-one on Amazon. Things are changing.

And this change is important for beer. Anyone can now easily create their own online content and we can all choose exactly what we do and don’t read: web 2.0 gives us power as content creators. Why is this good for beer? Because it’s allowed anyone to have a voice and the more voices there are the more people know about good beer and the bigger and better it will become.

There’s also an audience of drinkers online who want to know more about beer. For every one person who writes a blog there are a handful who comment and hundreds more who just read (it’s the 90-9-1 idea). The readers are every bit as important as the writers because you are the ones who go out there and drink the beer and tell your friends.

The internet is beer’s medium and it’ll be through the internet that it is able to grow beyond the borders of the printed page. The word ‘vanguard’ was used a few times over the weekend and it’s a good choice: the internet is still young, blogs are still young, and the people who are writing about beer online, and those who are routinely reading about it, are, as Darren from BeerSweden writes, “the vanguard of modern beer media.”

If drinkers want to search for information about beer then they go online. What they tap into Google will often return links to blogs on the first page. And with bloggers based around the world there’s so much coverage and potential, way more than could be achieved offline. This also means we’re a worldwide community, an army ready to mobilise at any time and loft our pints into the air; together we’re stronger.

Beer lovers should be excited about the future because it’s only going to get better and blogs are a very important part of that – we are not just sitting in our bedrooms sipping free beer and crap tasting notes. A post-Conference blog from Bad Attitude Brewery about the importance of blogs is brilliant and everyone who is interested in beer should read it. Ultimately, we are telling a never-ending story where pints and bottles are the characters in an always twisting-and-turning tale, punctuated by the occasional low but with many great highs and where readers can take part in the story themselves by picking up that pint and drinking it.

Brewers create the words, bloggers tell the stories, drinkers bring them to life.

Thursday 19 May 2011

Brooklyn Beer Bars

Brooklyn is a very cool place to drink beer, eat and hang out. Manhattan is big and busy and tall; Brooklyn is its relaxed, quieter neighbour; chilled out, interesting, charming, cool.

Both of our ventures across East River from Manhattan were to meet up with Lee from Hoptopia and Stevie from all sorts of beer things. Our first trip was Mugs Ale House, Barcade, Fette Sau and Spuyten Duyvil. The second trip was Brooklyn Brewery, Mugs Ale House and Barcade. This post squashes everything together into one round-up.

Mugs Ale House is an open two-room corner boozer with drinking in the front and dining in the back. The bar is lined with colourful beer taps and the ever-present chalkboard listing all the day’s choices.

It’s here that we had the best beer of the trip (and possibly the best, most perfect beer I’ve ever drunk) – Ithaca’s Flower Power. A juicy tropical fruit punch, a mix of mandarins (from the tin), peaches, mango; a smooth and gluggable beer with a bitterness that teases but never terrorises. We returned later in the week and drank more of it. And I’d fly straight back to New York in a heartbeat to get another pint of it.

We also had pints of Captain Lawrence Pale Ale, Bear Republic’s Apex 7, an experimental IPA series which allows the brewers to play around with hop combinations, and Smuttynose IPA, so it was all about the hops.

Jumping on the subway we went to Barcade. It mixes great craft beer with 80s arcade machines in a wide open space with a few pub benches in the corner. It’s a real hipster hangout with people clutching a pint in one hand and a pile of quarters in the other while tattoos wrap up their forearms. If ever there was a bar I wanted to franchise and open in London, this is it...

The beers were really good, too. Victory Prima Pils was excellent, although I didn’t like the Schwarz Pils so much – it was also more like a hoppy brown ale to me and I didn’t want a hoppy brown ale otherwise I would’ve ordered one. Sixpoint’s Bengali Tiger, a local beer, was the spiciest IPA I’ve ever drunk, with some tea flavours, herbs and spices and lots of tannic, oily hops. Founder’s Centennial IPA was exactly what I wanted: a fresh kiss of Centennial hops and a hug of booze. Sixpoint’s Diesel stout was the winner though: intense, oily, rich, roasty and bitter. A super stout.

We finished our first visit (we went twice we liked it so much) by stepping things up and ordering Hudson 4-Grain Bourbon and some of Rogue’s whiskey (because Barcade also has a good spirit list, including those made by breweries – although not Dogfish Head’s, which I was looking for). The bourbon was rich and smooth but hot as hell and the whiskey was delicate and fruity. We washed these down with a magnificent monster imperial stout, as one does when he’s drinking terribly irresponsibly – Black Xantus.

Wobbly legged and in need of a late meal, we stumbled around the corner to Fette Sau just as they finished serving dinner… which, luckily for us, coincides with when they start serving their evening menu. Five minutes later we were sipping beer and stuffing our faces with pork and burnt end beans (the beans were so incredibly delicious!).

Fette Sau is pretty much my dream place: a BBQ joint which sells great beer and bourbon. Set back from the street, its bare-brick walls are warm and filled with the aromas of cooking meat, while a few benches are lined with diners. The beers are poured from the best tap handles I’ve seen – butcher’s knives and utensils. We had an Arcadia Sky High Rye and a Sixpoint Vienna Pale, but all I remember is how good the beans were, how awesome the bourbon bottles looked, how cool the cleaver tap handles were and how much the Vienna Pale tasted like biscuits. My memory turns to a meat-filled, booze-fuelled fug around about here...

More bourbon next. Not knowing what the hell we were ordering we gave the barman a mission: up to $10 each, we want two very different bourbons to try. We got Eagle Rare 10 year old bourbon and Elmer Tree Single Barrel. One was rich and sweet, the other was light and floral; both were fantastic. I think we could’ve hung out in Fette Sau all day and night without getting bored.

Stumbling and bumbling more than we were an hour before, we crossed the street to Spuyten Duyvil. All I remember is being too drunk to know what was going on and that the beer I ordered wasn’t all that. I did, however, have the journalistic foresight to write down what were ordered. Apparently we had Two Brothers IPA and Smuttynose Single Star. I don’t think I did the place justice on my visit…

Then, thinking we knew where we were, over-confident from over-consuming, we decided to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and get a night sight of Manhattan. About 45 minutes later, and still drunk, we were halfway over Williamsburg Bridge, which has no good views of the city and is just noisy and nasty. We then had to find a subway and schlep our way home. I don’t remember what time we got in but we climbed up the stairwell and out the fire exit of our hotel to see what the view was like from the roof. It was pretty damn awesome (I remember that part!).

And then there’s Brooklyn Brewery (visited on day two, not at 4am). The open-to-public part is an expansive beer-filled warehouse, lively with a cool mix of drinkers in their twenties and thirties. All the beers were on tap, served in half-pint pours, plus some bottles of the Locals in the fridge: the Weiss was excellent, all creamy and bananary with just a little clove, and the EIPA was delicious, the only thing I didn’t drink... Lager. And I don’t know why I overlooked it. Silly me. They put on a tour which is fun and simple, just a discussion of the history and the present expansions, which is really interesting and free.

Brooklyn is an amazing place to drink and eat. Barcade is very cool, Mugs Ale House has a wide choice of beers and the best beer we drank in the week. Fette Sau is unmissable if you like meat. Brooklyn Brewery is must-see for the beer geek. There’s also a really nice feel about Brooklyn as you walk around. We only wished we could’ve seen more of it because there’s so much we didn’t see.

Monday 16 May 2011

Manhattan Beer Bars

Rattle N Hum is easy to find as long as you can get to the Empire State Building, which can be a little like finding the end of a rainbow given how frequently it appears on the skyline from wherever you are in New York City... Once you get to the Empire State you’re only a block away.

Long and narrow as you pass the bar, it opens out into tables and benches at the back, with TV screens showing sport and bright beer signs hanging all around like trophies of conquered victims – it’s busy, lively, colourful and there’s a great atmosphere. The beer list is chalked onto a large blackboard with a selection of 40 to choose from, almost entirely American.

Our first visit was fresh off the plane, complete with luggage and that dizzy haze of what-time-is-it jetlag, so that chalkboard had our heads spinning. Freaking out with excitement at the number of beers on offer we each start with a flight of four 4oz pours before moving onto a couple of pints. Troegs Dreamweaver Wheat, Pretty Thing’s Jack D’Or Saison and Coney Island’s Mermaid Pils were all good. Stone’s Ruination IPA smelt amazing and was super fruity, then the kickass bitterness pummelled in; they call it Ruination for a reason. Founder’s Double Trouble was the standout choice, with oranges, peaches, apricots and tropical fruit before a lingering bitterness.

Later in the week we timed our visit perfectly to get a great seat right by the TV showing baseball. A Cigar City Maduro Brown and an Oskar Blues Dale’s Pale Ale were both good and then another flight between us to try a few different brews. An OK Dogfish Head 60 Minute, an excellent black IPA from Barrier called Oil City, Pretty Things Once Upon a Time Porter, which Ron Pattinson helped out on, was dry, roasty and smoky with lots of hops, but they were all overshadowed by Avery’s Maharajah IPA which was so good Matt and I both ordered a pint of it (at 10.5%) and enjoyed every last gulp – amazingly good.

The Ginger Man is a short walk from Rattle N Hum and it’d be silly not to visit one without the other. An English-style pub inside with dark wood all around, complete with tables scratched with the names of past drinkers adding a hidden texture and story, there’s a long bar lined with bar stools and a lounge area out the back.

The beer choice is excellent in range and quality. Crossroads Outrage IPA was that desired smack of citrus we’d flown 3000 miles to get while Lake Placid IPA was the weirdest IPA I’ve ever tasted, being more like a beer made with berry syrup added... Odd but strangely good. Later in the week Anderson Valley Oatmeal Stout was super and Matt said Oskar Blues Gubna IIPA was one of his top beers.

Pony Bar is a fun place to drink. It’s a few blocks over from Times Square and you pass the excellent 5Napkin Burger and Shake Shack if you get hungry on the way. ‘All American Craft Beer’ is the banner you walk beneath to get in and they list the beers on two large blackboards. Wooden floors inside, old barrels as tables, benches and bar stools – it’s like an old Western tavern uprooted and brought forward to NYC 2011.

It’s busy when we get there, standing room only, and we squeeze to the bar to order. Ithaca Cascazilla was a big, red, hop monster and Ballast Point Sculpin IPA was all juicy tropical fruits and delicious with a bitterness to keep it interesting. Another Ithaca beer was the worst of the week – Apricot Wheat. Why the hell did I order an apricot wheat beer?! Probably because it was the only thing under 5% but I should’ve known better; it tasted like yogurt. Captain Lawrence’s Captain’s Reserve DIPA restored the balance back towards awesome. Matt had Sixpoint Sweet Triple Action and Left Hand Warrior which were both really good. All beers are $5, which is great value.

We left a little lightheaded and decided to walk to Blind Tiger, figuring it wouldn’t be that far... it was pretty far. Hugging the bright lights of Broadway, we crossed through the city seeing a few sights on the way, gawping at the Empire State Building by night, marvelling at the Flatiron and stopping to ride the wooden escalators in Macy’s (in desperate search of a toilet pit stop).

Blind Tiger is in a cool area of town and there’s a village feel to the place. It’s packed when we arrive, lit by candlelight and a few uplights at the bar. It’s a saison showcase the day we go, with almost half the beers being of that style. The Bruery’s Seven Grain Saison was spectacular; stunning to look at as a hazy lemon colour with a thick foam, it was dry and clean and a little spicy; perfect after that long walk. Lagunitas Pils was equally good to refresh.

We liked Blind Tiger a lot. There’s a cool atmosphere to it with groups of friends chatting animatedly or people on dates chatting intimately; it’s the sort of bar where everything works together. And the beer list is fantastic. Stillwater’s Cellar Door, Southern Tier IPA and Blue Point Rastafa Rye were all good.

And then there’s Heartland Brewery, which have a few places around Manhattan. Walking through Times Square in the rain, one light shone brighter than any others: Brewery. We took shelter from the constant shower (which thankfully stopped when we left the bar) and ordered a flight of the beers. All of them were weird and none made us want to order a pint. It’s worth stopping in and trying the beers, especially in a flight to get through them all, but I was expecting better things.

That’s our beer drinking in Manhattan. The main four bars are all great places to hang out, to drink and to try lots of really good beer.

Here's a map of all the bars, which I'll update with other places as I blog abuot them. These are just the places we drank at on Manhattan and I'm sure there are other great places. We also spent lots of time in Brooklyn; that post is coming soon. I’ve put some photos from the trip on the Pencil&Spoon Facebook page.

Saturday 14 May 2011

Bombardier gets it Bang On!

This week Wells & Young’s launched a new marketing campaign and video for Bombardier, their flagship brand. It features Rik Mayall playing the animatedly gung-ho English hero, The Bombardier, single-handedly wooing women and beating armies and celebrating accordingly with a pint of himself.

There will be TV slots running from Tuesday as well as an integrated online campaign featuring Facebook, Twitter and Youtube, where you can get longer versions of the ad.

I think it’s brilliant, and as their Marketing Director, Chris Lewis, says: “Marketing in the ale category needs a creative shake up...” Now any other brewery or brand that’s running campaigns better start thinking harder (or search deeper into their pockets).

It’s using the byline of “English, ever reliable and damned tasty” and this fits perfectly with how the brand positions itself, yet it manages to be current and not cheesy. It’s funny, it’s memorable and it’s loaded with catchphrases which will become synonymous with Bombardier (Bang on! Huzzah! Enjoying a quick one down the Bush & Fiddle). It reminds me of the John Smith’s ‘Have It’ adverts featuring Peter Kay, which I think are the best beer adverts made, but unlike the John Smith’s adverts, the Bombardier one makes me want to drink a pint of it (and say Bang On after I take the first gulp!).

I hope there are more videos to come and I hope they can make a lot out of the online content because it’s a fun and memorable concept.

What do you think? 

Thursday 12 May 2011

FABPOW! Sam Adams Noble Pils with a Shake Shack Burger at Citi Field

I’ll always remember the first time I went to a football stadium to see a live game. I don’t know where it was or who was playing, I just remember seeing the pitch and thinking how much smaller it looked in real life, how much closer the players were and that they were real, how green it was, how it sounded (cheering and swearing) and smelt (cigarettes, frying onions, piss). Most of all I just remember being in awe of it all and I’m sure I vowed to go back every week after.

Walking onto the concourse of Citi Field, the home of the New York Mets, I had that same feeling I did when I was a 10-year-old boy: amazement, excitement, wonder; how it’s smaller in real life than on TV, but how impressive the stadium is as it hugs the gleaming emerald outfield; how bright and colourful it is; the hum of chatter, the call of food sellers ‘Hot dogs here!’ and the smell of fresh air and frying food.

It was my first baseball game after being a fan of the sport since university, and I’m there with Matt, the guy who got me into good beer, who also shares my love of baseball and eating and drinking too much. As we walk around the open concourse, past bars and food vendors, the excitement only grows in a sea of fans dressed in white, blue and orange.

Spot the baseball...
Our first beer was an odd but easy choice: Rolling Rock. It’s a look back to the uni days when our housemate Jess would bring us cases of Rock from the off-licence her dad ran (she also brought us a 6-foot inflatable Corona bottle...).

The second beer was an easier one: Budweiser (with a hot dog, of course). What is everyone else drinking? What beer is synonymous with America and sports? We had to have one while we were there. And you know what? It was exactly what we wanted while we watched the game: cold and crisp, easy to gulp, not distracting as we sat there like excited boys staring out at the game before us.

As this trip was specifically to see baseball games (as well as to eat and drink New York into a state of famine), we emptied our wallets and paid for shit-hot seats. This meant a great view, plush leather chairs, and, even better, a waiter service for food and drink so we didn’t miss any action (even better still, it meant access to a different bar which included craft beers!).

We ordered beers, going to the bar ourselves to see what was on. I had a Sam Adams Noble Pils and it was excellent; exactly what I wanted and expected, only better.

Then the burgers arrived.

Shake Shack burger have a few locations in America and, more recently, two in the Middle East. One of their outlets is at Citi Field and when we passed it earlier it had a huge line waiting to be served. We’ll get it later, we decided, before we knew about the perks of our expensive ticket purchase.

Juicy meat, oozing cheese and the softest, sweetest bun I’ve ever tasted, melting like candy floss into the warmth within, becoming chewy and working so well with the salty char of the beef and the sharp cut of the condiments. A mouthful of the Noble Pils to follow it down (FABPOW!) while we look around at the bright green playing field and things, I think to myself, don’t get much better than this.

Beer, burgers and baseball. That’s why we went to New York. This moment brought the three Bs together in the perfect way: our first night in NYC, our first baseball game, a great beer and a brilliant burger.

None of these pictures do it any justice...

Wednesday 11 May 2011

The Beer Bloggers Conference is almost here!

Next weekend sees the first European Beer Bloggers Conference and the final plans are now being put in place while a world of beer descends upon London for us to drink.

We’ve now passed 70 sign-ups (the who’s who is here) and there’s still time for more people to get their names down. It’s mainly aimed at beer bloggers and writers but food and wine bloggers would also get a lot out of it, and you can also attend if you don’t blog but just like the look of it all and want to be there – here’s the agenda.

The sponsors are now also secured. MolsonCoors are going big for us and for the Friday night meal will be present with Steve Wellington and Stuart Howe, who have both made special beers for the occasion. Wells&Young’s are providing the dinner and beer on Saturday night and they’ve got some fun plans, and then Fuller’s on Sunday are giving us a brewery tour, some lunch and a tasting and talk on aging beers. Pilsner Urquell (the competition to win a trip to the brewery is still open and has been extended – the winner will also travel whenever is good for them) have taken the Friday night slot and are bringing oak barrels filled with unfiltered PU. That’s oak barrels filled with unfiltered Pilsner Urquell, for anyone who was skim reading.

The other main sponsors, some of which are also talking at the event, are: The Beer Academy, SIBA, the British Guild of Beer Writers, the British Beer and Pub Association, Budvar, Adnams, Shepherd Neame, Brains and Hall and Woodhouse.

Then we’ve got the Saturday (drinking) sessions of the Live Blogging and the Night of Many Beers. Live Blogging is one beer from each brewery and the Night is a selection of beers so we can try lots of different stuff. Pouring at these will be...

Night of Many Beers

The Italian beers are being presented by Alessio Leone from Hoppy Hour. Swedish beers by Darren Packman from BeerSweden. And Czech beers were gathered by Mike Cole to be presented by the Czech Tourist Board. (We might also be adding Marble to the NOMB – we’re just awaiting confirmation).

I’m now really excited about it all coming together (it’s been a lot of hard work!). And I can’t wait to get there and start drinking – we’ve got some great beers and breweries involved, some of which haven’t been available in the UK before. It all kicks off on Thursday 19th May with a mini pub crawl if anyone is in town early.

If you haven’t signed up but still want to then you can. Those who are going – see you next week! 

Tuesday 10 May 2011

A Real Ale Lager?

I picked this up from Waitrose a few weeks ago. It’s an ‘Organic Real Lager’ but comes with the CAMRA stamp of a real ale. As a beer geek I know that lager isn't ale. Is it in fact an ale? Or is it a bottle conditioned lager? (And would that qualify for CAMRA?). Anyone got any ideas?! 

Monday 2 May 2011

Open It! Four Great Bottles

This weekend’s Open It saw a burst of beer-opening excitement (check out the twitter hashtag #openit for all the action). Here’s what I opened.

The first beer wasn’t strictly there for Open It but it was so good that it’s getting a promotion. Buxton Brewery’s Moor Top is 3.6% and 3.6% of bottled British beer usually makes me sigh in expected disappointment (too thin, too weak, not enough flavour), but this one is very different. A looking-loving pale gold pint, this one takes off when you get your nose nearby and take a faceful of Chinooks for the effort – lime, grapefruit, tangy tropical fruit, ginger. It’s clean, refreshing, light and so, so drinkable, plus a poky bitterness to keep you going back for more. I’ve heard good things about Buxton and now I want to try more!

Coalition Ale, the Thornbridge and DarkStar collaboration, has been waiting for a special occasion and it didn’t disappoint: it’s one of the best beers I’ve drunk this year. Brewed in February 2009, hopped with Atlas, Aurora and Liberty, and bottled in October 2010, it pours a handsome hazy orange with a head which drops to a fine lace. The aroma is a subtle, pastel-coloured spectrum of oranges, and the taste is the sort of thing that has your tongue dancing. It’s so simple yet there’s so much interesting complexity to it, so much depth. It’s bitter at the end but never overpowering, mellowing marvellously into the beer, there’s a dryness to it, lime oil, citrus zest, liquorice, and no negative signs of aging, no greys around the temples. It’s stunning and I want more bottles.

Next was Kernel and DarkStar’s Imperial Marzen, a 9.1% nightmare for style pedants. A hazy red-amber pour, malty and full bodied as you’d expect from a Marzen, especially one supersized in strength. There’s lots of orange blossom, orange pith, peaches and a bunch of fresh flowers in the aroma, probably from something other than noble hops, and it’s got that gorgeous slick body I love from Kernel beers. There’s not much bitterness but lots of hop flavour, and it’s very easy drinking – the sort of beer you chase to the bottom of the glass to try and understand it, never quite managing it and needing another straight after. It’s so interesting, so tasty, so nice to drink, even if it does defy every style book written now or in the future.

Another Kernel topped off my Open It weekend – Imperial Brown Stout 1856. A 10.1% beer monster packed thick with chocolate, a little coffee bitterness, some booze around the tonsils, a chocolate ice cream sweetness, a puff of smoke and char and a plum skin fruity bitterness. It’s mouthfilling, intense, rich, darkly delicious and very good. Absolutely brilliant.

Four of the best beers I’ve had in a long time, especially the Coalition, which is a masterpiece. What made these beers stand out is how balanced they all are and how drinkable, despite some lofty ABVs, they are, with each of them having a depth of flavour that makes each gulp more interesting than the last. And that’s a great quality to have in a beer.

Who else has had these beers? What did you think? 

Sunday 1 May 2011

Life goes on

This is my entry into the Oxford Brookes and Wells&Young’s Beer Writing Competition. I started writing three different stories but the submission date coincided with my first week at a new job and so I barely spent any time on them, sending this in on the cusp of the deadline. I’m not especially happy with it and it could be improved, but this is the version I sent in for judging. Zak and Adrian have both posted their entries. The winning entry by Milton Crawford (you should read his Hungover Cookbook – it’s excellent) is now online and it's very good.

Image from here
He finishes his tea, cleans the plate, knife and fork under the hot running tap and checks his watch: 5.45pm. A nod to himself – he’s right on time – and he takes his coat, fixes his cap to his head, picks a small pile of coins from a row of other identical piles, takes the keys off the hook by the door and leaves.

George spends the day in his workshop working on a few projects or passing time, or he’s fetching some items from the town. He’ll normally take a nap in the afternoon following a sandwich and reading the paper, then later he eats his tea and leaves at 5.45pm for a drink. Walking down his street, the hanging sign is like a star in the sky; the pub on the corner like his second home. 

George had his wedding reception in this pub. That was 53 years ago. He wet the head of his three children and six grandchildren here. His wife worked here behind the bar and cleaning some mornings, until she couldn’t work any longer, and then they held her wake here. He’s seen the owners change and while he might not like the latest couple’s curry nights during the week and loud music on Saturday nights, they kept his beer on so he won’t complain.

“Alright George!” the barman calls as he collects himself from the cold and enters the cosy comfort of the pub, his pub.

He nods before taking off his cap. He doesn’t need to call his order as a pint is poured for him. He stands at the bar and looks around to see who’s in tonight. It’s quiet. The landlord and his pretty young barmaid, a couple on the way back from work, some young lads making a noise in the corner, a chap at the bar minding his own business.  

“George, how’s that rocking horse coming along?” A voice asks from behind as the door closes. George turns to see the familiar face of Michael. “Make that two, Gary.”

“Oh, you know, it’s getting there,” he nods to himself.

Michael sides up to George at the bar, leans back against a stool and then leans forward to speak softly.

“Say, George, did you hear about Mrs Randall?”

George hadn’t; Mrs Randall runs the Post Office and has for as long as George’s memory will recalls. He’d always had a soft spot for her.

“She’s not good. Doctors haven’t given her long.”

George drops his head.

“It gets us all, you know, that’s one thing to be sure of.”

Two pints stand full on the bar. A glowing amber with a crown of creamy foam.

George takes the exact change from his pocket, without looking, and hands it to Gary.

“Thanking you, sir!” says Gary.

George has the pint to his lips and takes a long, slow gulp before moving across the pub and taking his seat opposite the bar. This is where George sits every night. Every night. Before the last owner left, in gratitude, he built a plaque for above George’s seat. “Here sits George”. Michael joins him on the next table over.

From here, George just sits. A man comfortable doing nothing more with his time than sitting, watching and listening. Passing time. Drinking his beer.

Another slow gulp on his pint. The news is starting on the TV hanging in the corner. Bad news, sad news, unwelcome news, money, governments, death and taxes. He listens but he heard the stories on the radio earlier.

The group in the corner finish a round and start another, calling their order from across the pub.

“Four more, mate!”

“Coming up, lads.” Gary returns while clearing plates from a table of diners.

Another couple have arrived and they order their drinks before sitting silently.

The group of guys have had a few already. They laugh and talk too loud, talking about things they shouldn’t say at that volume. Young lads.

Michael has opened an old address book, tatty and dog-eared, and he flicks through it. George watches and his stare alerts Michael, who speaks without looking up.

“Half of these names aren’t here anymore.”

“Life goes on.”

The barmaid leans back against the bar, typing fast into a phone. The lads stare, dreaming. She looks up embarrassed, hearing them talking about her. Flattered, blush cheeks.

The noise lulls, backed only by the TV reporter and the chatter coming from the corners of the pub.

The silence is pierced by the tinny, high-pitched beeping of a mobile phone. George only notices when he realises that it’s coming from his pocket.

“Bloody phone,” he says, fumbling for the shiny black thing his son bought him last year. Retrieving it he looks over the top of his glasses at the glowing screen. One new message.

He pushes a few buttons but nothing happens.

“Bloody...” Michael looks up.

“I’ve got one of those things, too. I can use the internet on it and check emails.” He takes a phone from his pocket. “Apparently.” He shakes it like an old brick.

George’s large, wood-worked fingers press heavily, inaccurately, on the keys as he tries to press the right combination to unlock the thing. On the fourth attempt it works.

“‘Hi grandad, I played rugby today and scored a try. See you soon.’ Ah, wouldn’t you know. He’s a good little sportsman that one.” Michael looks up, eyebrows raised. “My grandson – little George.”

He attempts to lock the keys but it doesn’t work, instead opening up another menu. He eventually gives up and puts the phone back in his jacket pocket.

He sits back, a proud smile creeps across his face as he takes a mouthful of the beer.

Time passes. People come and go. Some have food, some settle back with beers, bottles of wine, orange juice. The news is still on in the corner. Michael finishes his beer and leaves – “See you, George”. George runs a list in his head of the things to do tomorrow. It doesn’t take long. He remembers to get the old news stories of his rugby playing days to show to little George next time he sees him.

Another couple arrive to be greeted by the barman. Two chaps perch at the bar silently sipping pints. Another guy reads the paper in the corner obsessively checking his phone every few seconds. The barmaid flirts with the rowdy group. They invite her out after work. She might, she says.

Just as George is finishing his beer and looking at the lacing of foam down the glass, the door whooshes in cold air from outside and a familiar voice orders a pint while looking around.

“Dad, there you are!” George looks up. “Make that two pints,” David, George’s eldest son, says to the girl who is now back behind the bar.

“I just came to see you,” he says to George.

George gets nervous at unannounced visits. It usually means bad news. He shuffles on his short wooden stool and plays with some bar mats on the table as David places the glasses down, sits back, sighs and takes three long gulps of beer.

“That’s better,” he says. “How’s things, Dad?”

“Oh, you know, still going.”

“I went to the house but you weren’t there so I figured you’d be here. Anyway, we’ve got some news...” He takes another gulp of beer through a barely-stifled smile. “I’m going to be a grandad. And you’re going to be a great-grandad!” George looks up, relieved, shocked, delighted. “Ali and Joe are expecting.”

“Wonderful. Wonderful.” George’s face awakens, stretches wide with a smile. “Wonderful news.”

They talk, they drink their pints slowly, sipping between stories and news, catching up on the grandchildren, the family. Around them the TV still plays, the barman still serves, the lads in the corner order more pints, the girl plays on her phone, a couple order dessert, people come and go, life goes on.

When David’s phone rings he answers it quickly: “Just in the Moon Under Water with Dad. Yep, I’ve told him the news, he’s delighted. Ok, see you later.” He hangs up, finishes his beer.

“Right, do you want another pint?”