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.