Sunday 29 January 2012

Cooking with beer: IPA, onion and cheddar risotto

American IPA is brilliant with strong cheddar. Risottos are awesome – rich, savoury, filling. Imagine how good a risotto would be if it was made with IPA and cheddar, plus parmesan and a delicious depth of sweet onion, leek and garlic. I had to find out.

The beer has to be chosen carefully because if it’s too bitter then it ruins everything and no one wants a bitter risotto. The safety net was the butter and cheese which wrap themselves around any bitterness and smother it. I went with Odell’s IPA because there’s loads of juicy fruit (mandarin and mango), a background sweetness and IBUs which don’t overpower (it’s also one of my favourite beers). And it’s delicious with cheddar and chunks of parmesan.

This is a classic risotto recipe, like this one. For one person, I used a large white onion, a medium-sized leek, sliced into half-moons, and a big fat clove of garlic, all softened in butter and a little oil with a sprinkle of sugar and fresh thyme alongside the salt and pepper. The beer went in during the middle of the cooking; I didn’t add at the beginning like you would with wine because I didn’t want to highlight the hop bitterness, instead I poured in about 100ml after three ladles of stock had been added. At the end, a mix of cheddar and parmesan went in.

An IPA on the side and it was delicious. The beer adds a lot in the cooking, with the hint of hop poking the flavours in the onion and cheese in new directions, which is fantastic. The fruit flavour that comes from the beer and cheeses work so well together while the sweetness in the onion, leek and garlic complete the whole thing. Damn good.

Now it’s got me thinking about other beery risottos...

The only trouble with a risotto is that I always go into it thinking that it’ll be wonderfully soothing and relaxing to make as I stand there and gently stir the rice and watch as it softens and soaks up all the stock, but the reality is that it always stresses me out – the constant stirring frustrates, the adding of stock annoys me, there’s the hope that the next taste won’t be crunchy (which always takes longer than expected) and I just end up getting hot from the hob and angry or drunk while I wait. 

Friday 27 January 2012

Open It! 24-26 February

Dust off the fancy bottles, it’s time to Open It!

It’s a reason and an excuse to open those bottles you’ve been saving. The bottles which you really want to drink but also really want to hold onto until a special occasion. The thing is, not all beer gets better if you leave it and the worst beer-thing ever is opening that bottle which you thought would be incredible only to realise that it’s now dead. Don’t let that happen. Don’t save it for that unknown special occasion; make this that special occasion.

Do it alone, do it with friends, do it in the pub, whatever, just open that bottle (beer, wine, whisky, hot sauce, it doesn’t matter what!) you’ve been saving and enjoy it and share it with others online using the #openit hashtag.

If you are in Leeds or fancy a day out, then Rick Furzer and some of the great beer venues up there are planning some cool Open It! events with beer and food and then more beer.

Let’s hijack the weekend of 24-26 February. A three-day excuse to drink the best stuff you’ve got. Go on, just Open It!

Open It! is something that Andy Mogg from Beer Reviews and I have run a few times now. Anyone and everyone can get involved and it can be any bottle you like. What bottle have you got in mind...?

Thursday 26 January 2012

The best beer in the cupboard

It was waiting for a special moment. A life moment. A time when I wanted to celebrate. I’d already passed a few chances up and didn’t know when the next one was coming. Could I wait another year? Two years? Will the beer wait for me before succumbing to the horrors of oxygen? That was the biggest fear: what if I opened the bottle and it tasted shit. What a waste. What a disappointment. I didn’t want the disappointment because this was the prize in the beer collection, something which excited me as much the day I bought it as it does today, the beer I’d been holding onto for the longest, waiting for that moment. But the moment wasn’t coming or I kept passing it. And I had to open it. I had to know. I had to know if I’d waited too long. I feared I had. Friends were coming over to drink beer. If it was brilliant then we’d share that moment; if not then we’d drink a lot more and I’d try to quickly forget about it, wishing I’d done it sooner, learning the lesson...

Taking it from the box - disturbing its long, cold sleep - was exciting. I was going to open Zephyr. The most beautiful bottle, the one I held in my head as the best thing in my collection. Unwinding the cork cage was like fumbling the bra of the girl I’ve always wanted to get into bed. And what would happen, what would I find, when I dropped what was in my hands?

It’s the colour of blushing skin, a beautiful peach with rose tint. Pouring it feels bad and brilliant. Could I have waited? Should I have done this a year ago? Two years? Did it peak fresh? It’s got life and foam for just a moment, then it drops to a fine lace. Cheers everyone. The glasses slide around the table. It’s not just a beer now. It’s been with me since the beginning of this. It’s always been at the back of the cupboard, that flash of white and pink label and the memory of how it tasted the first time. It’s more than just a beer. First sniff: I expected the worst and it comes first – some oxidisation. But that’s fine, it’s ok, it’s expected, it’s old now. Then the rest starts coming out: strawberries, vanilla, oak and the coconut I remember so vividly from the first bottle, then a boozy background, the ghost-like spirit of the barrel it was in. Sips and sighs and wows and oh my gods. I look up from my glass and everyone is doing the same as me: swirling, sniffing, chasing those elusive, incredible aromas, taking the biggest sips we dare so we can drink it properly but not finish it too soon. Complex, insane, brilliant. Those strawberries promise sharpness but it’s not there. Instead it’s like under-ripe fresh berries and strawberry chewy sweets, all so subtle, wonderful. The bitterness is clawing to the inside of the bottle and going nowhere. The barrel is still there, still giving oak, nuts, sweetness and spirit. It’s dry, fruity, lively and so interesting in the best of ways. Amazing. It tastes better than I hoped for. I was prepared for the worst. I was ready to take the hit, to suffer the woes of the beer hoarded too long. A beer to share and talk about and instantly fall in love with and have that bittersweet feeling that we’ll never drink it again. But now was the right time to open it. It’s hard to imagine it being better. I don’t need to imagine it being better. The last line I wrote in my notebook says ‘Just about the best beer I’ve tasted.’ I’ve probably understated that.

I also loved it the first time I drank it...

Sunday 22 January 2012

St Peter’s Whisky Beers

I love it when a beer makes you stop and completely rethink what you’d already assumed. I love it. That moment of ‘wait a minute...’ or that ‘holy shit’ reaction that just gets you excited. That’s what happened with these St Peter’s beers – The Saints and Suffolk Smokey.

They arrived in the post way before Christmas. It was probably October. It got bundled up in starting a new job and trying to move house and it got added to the list of beers to be drunk when I got the chance (even if they did look great and included peated malt and whisky. I love the peaty flavour in whisky – I can’t get enough of it, I want it to be pungent and intense and to sear through my sinuses).

They are both a modest 4.8% and both are deep gold in colour, so not your usual black beer with whisky. The Saints includes ‘a measure of whisky’ from the English Whisky Co while the Suffolk Smokey is made with peated distilling malt.

The Saints has that background and edge of whisky and smoke. There’s a big apple note, and stone fruit, some tutti fruity cheekiness, then a wisp of smoke through it all adding a brilliant depth and interest to it. As it warms the whisky gets more intense, more in your face, and I love that – it gets rougher, peatier, less fruity. It surprised me in the best of ways.

Suffolk Smokey is all about the smoke and peat – bonfires and earth. It’s more smoke in the nose than in the flavour, but it adds that back-of-the-mouth roughness of peat, an earthiness that mixes with the bitterness. It’s fantastic – the only problem was the lack of carbonation in the bottle (it didn’t pffft when the cap came off and felt flat, which dulled the flavours for me).

I couldn’t get enough of these. I love how the whisky in put was pungent yet still refined, I love what the peated malt added to it, love how the glug of whisky in The Saints gave a fruit depth you’d never get in beer alone and love how the beers were pale which allowed the whisky to play the starring role without the charry, dark notes of roasted malt. Whisky and beer done well.

Tuesday 17 January 2012

Hop Extract and Oils

When we think about hops, flowers and pellets come to mind first. Those little pale-green buds with papery, oily skins or little military green pellets which break open when pressed between thumb and finger. But what about adding hop bitterness, aroma and flavour from a jar?

Hops can go into beer as flowers, pellets, extract or oil. The Oxford Companion to Beer says that ‘more than 50% of all hops used by the brewing industry worldwide are processed into extracts.’ CO2 extract contains all of the good stuff you want from the hop – alpha acids, beta acids and oils – in a concentrated form. Hop Union explains that ‘the brewing characteristics of the original hops are maintained,’ so equivalent flower or pellet additions for bitterness or aroma will achieve the same results by using extract.

It’s possible to get a general extract which adds bitterness and aroma, as well as variety-specific oils. It’s also possible to get isomerized hop extract which is for the bittering addition and can be added instead of the bittering hops or to bolster an under-hopped beer. Then there are products such as Tetra-hop extract, which will give bitterness and flavour but have been treated to prevent lightstrike. This is, in my opinion, slightly different to the CO2 extract in that it is further processed and intended to eradicate a fault.

The efficiency of extract means that it’s used to reach the big levels of bitterness wanted in a lot of IPAs and other high-IBU brews. It’s also good for an extra lift of aroma. Russian River’s Pliny the Elder and Younger famously use hop extract in their production; Lagunitas use it in Hop Stoopid; Mikkeller uses it in the 1000 IBU beers. And there’s a nice, short overview from Mitch Steele of Stone Brewing on the use of extract here, where he explains the benefits which include a clean bitterness and less wasted wort through the trub of spent, soggy hop.

A few years ago, I think hop extract would’ve been a dirty word in craft breweries, some kind of cheat which doesn’t use the most natural of ingredients. Now it seems that it’s slipped into the smaller-scale of brewing without too much alarm, even if most breweries still favour the silver sacks of packed hops.

Part of me think it’s a bit strange to use extract but the other part doesn’t mind if it’s done to be able to give the best flavour or bitterness possible – extract seems to give a cleaner type of bitterness than flowers or pellets. It’s no different to adding chilli extract instead of chopping up fresh peppers – you just get a different type of flavour which you will struggle to match with fresh ingredients. Plus, when you taste a beer like Pliny, you don’t care how the hell it’s made because it’s so damn good.

Is hop extract one of those things which doesn’t bother you or is it somehow ‘cheating’? If you found out that one of your favourite beers used extract, would you think differently of it?

Saturday 14 January 2012

Dry Days

This week, the government said that we should have two dry days a week. This means no booze.

I always have a few dry days a week. I try to get three dry days between Sunday and Thursday, if I can. I will get home on time and then also do some exercise. It’s for balance. It’s easy to drink too much, to do damaging things to precious parts of the body. Dry days also make me feel better – I don’t wake up with a foggy head and I don’t go to bed late or have a restless sleep which means I can get up early and do stuff, like write this or go for a run. It’s like having days when I’ll have green food from the fridge instead of orange food from the freezer. Balance.

However, by having the booze-free days the drinking days seem to get heavier to make up for it. I won’t have one bottle while watching TV, I’ll have three or four or five, notebook open by my side ready to write anything which the beer stirs in me. The after work pint turns into three. The glass of wine becomes a bottle. The balance tips too far. It’s not a deliberate or spiteful ‘I’d better make up for the dry days’ decision to drink more, it just happens that way. This is Friday and Saturday drinking. So two dry days and two drunk days. The others will be a bottle of beer, rarely more. So for a couple of days I’m doing good, but for another couple I’m bingeing, which is less good.

I need the dry days to feel balance. If I drink every day of the week then I feel rough.

Are dry days part of your week or do you drink right through? When you do drink, is one beer where you start and finish or do you have a few (or a few too many)? 

Sunday 8 January 2012

Thoughts for 2012

Every year I write one of these posts. I never get anything right, but it’s worth a punt...

Keg beer will not rocket in general. A few breweries will expand into using kegs, and others will expand current keg ranges, and they will sell these to the destination beer bars around the UK. A 6.5-7.4% IPA on keg will become core to some brewery ranges. Only about 10-15 breweries will do this properly and do this well.

As some breweries make beers to satisfy the geek end of the market, and see success from doing it (whether cask, keg or bottle), so all breweries will need to look hyper-locally and nail their nearby market with whatever beers will sell best there, probably a sub-4% pale cask session beer. Given the massive competition of breweries in the UK now, these beers need to be really good for a brewery to survive.

Cask beer is very important to British beer and always will be. Kegs add to that and are not some kind of crazy, cask-killing beast. The cask vs. keg debate is tiresome now. The two need to co-exist because they do different things. With 900 cask breweries in the UK, why fear 10-15 breweries who want to use kegs to dispense some or all of their beers?

The Olympics are the big thing in 2012. I hope we don’t get a load of gold or bronze Olympic-themed ales released for the summer. I hate tacky ‘occasion’ beers – are any of them ever any good?

Because of the Olympics, plus Euro 2012, bottles will be important as more people want to drink at home. This summer will be the summer of home drinking. Breweries had better get filling those bottles.

This is an interesting one: big breweries taking a craft focus. Sharp’s are under MolsonCoors and I expect some good things from Sharp’s in 2012. As well as this, Brains and Thwaites are both opening smaller plants to brew beers outside of their core ranges. Shepherd Neame did this a few years ago but I rarely hear about it anymore, which is a shame. This approach from the regionals and nationals is good to see. I hope the beers are good.

Micro-beer festivals. The 400-cask beer festival is always fun but I love the idea of smaller-scale, better-quality festivals. The Snowdrop Inn showed how it’s possible. I also think themed beer festivals, or events based around certain beer styles, will work well, as was seen with IPA Day in 2011. Brewery showcases and tap takeovers are an extension of this – and they are events to get people to the pub.

Food and beer will make it big in 2012! I hope. It’s been a long time coming but we’re getting closer and closer to people really taking it seriously. If beer is going to be taken seriously in the mainstream then it’ll be alongside food to begin, in the same way that wine attached itself to the dinner table in the 1980s. To get beer to that point it will need a TV programme and major newspaper columns but there are people around who can do those things.

Now for the beers... We’ve had IPAs, we’ve had Black IPAs. Some breweries have veered towards Belgium or played with Belgian yeasts. We’ve had more IPAs, red IPAs, Belgian IPAs and double IPAs. But what beers will come in 2012?

I think straight-up 6.5-7.4% US IPAs will be big still. I’m certainly not done drinking them. I just hope they go into kegs and not casks (or at least go into both).

I think forward-thinking brewers will look backwards at old recipes and styles. Fuller’s do a great job with this already, The Kernel is doing it, Thornbridge and Otley have done some – it’s either taking old brewing records and bringing them back to life or it’s rejuvenating old beer styles like Burtons and old ales.

American hops are still hot but their supply is tight in 2012. This might see some more beers made with English hops. I think by the end of the year there’ll be a beer or two (probably IPAs) that are hopped with just English varieties that are getting us all talking. This might also connect with the previous point of rejuvenated recipes...

I’m personally going to try and drink more Belgian beer in 2012. I’ve let it slip out of my sight in the last two years but I want to drink more. As for British breweries playing with Belgian inspiration... maybe. I don’t think we’ll see a Saison explosion but I expect some brewers will experiment with styles like tripels and Belgian blondes.

Best bitters will get lighter and hoppier.

What do you think will happen in 2012? What beer styles will we see more of? What breweries do we expect to taste good things from?

Tuesday 3 January 2012

The BrewDog Prototypes 2011

The first time I ever bought beer online was to buy three BrewDog prototypes. I’d only just started this blog. I’d only just discovered BrewDog via a couple of bottles bought from Utobeer. The deal was: three bottles each of three new beers; you buy them, drink them, vote for the best and they make it. Those bottles cost about £6. I ordered them and a few days later a case of beer arrived at the door. Beer being delivered to my house was revolutionary in itself – I can sit at home and beer comes to me – but so were the flavours in those bottles.

There was Zeitgeist, Bad Pixie and Chaos Theory. The best two eventually got made. When I first had Chaos Theory I ‘discovered’ hops. It was rasping, bold, bitter and so full of aroma that it irrevocably changed my drinking. Those three beers and the fact that BrewDog had made them and were asking people to vote for them – that I had some kind of input into the choices made – was exciting, different, cool.

I love BrewDog. They’re at the forefront of a change in British beer. I look out for the new beers with excitement, wondering what’ll come next and how it’ll taste. That excitement is what I love. They also do stupid stuff which I don’t love. Sadly, the stupid has overtaken the exciting. Of all the beers they released in 2011, only one really excited me (apart from Avery Brown Dredge, of course): Sunk Punk. It had story, it was fun, it wasn’t just a beer made for column inches and it wasn’t a middle finger rammed into someone else’s face.

We have this awkward relationship now where I love them but feel constantly disappointed by them. It’s just a brewery so it’s irrational to feel this way but it’s like a first-love kind of thing, and like a lover hooked I still follow them around waiting, hoping, for the good moments to return.

And so when they announced the 2011 prototype challenge I had to get the four beers. It was the thing which got me hooked in the first place. This was a chance to bring it all back again. I get to drink four new beers, I get to taste what 2012 might bring, I get to vote.

Blitz! is 2.8%, made with just caramalt and then lavished with West Coast hops. It’s a dark caramel colour and it’s got this mad, brain-teaser of an aroma which keeps you puzzled throughout: it’s like walking into a cake shop with a sack of open C-hops in the corner - marshmallows, sweet caramel, candy and toast, then tangy American hops, piney and pithy. The bitterness is nicely done, it’s balanced and it’s easy drinking and the body is really good. A 2.8% triumph.

Prototype 17 (4.9%) is a pale ale (Trashy Blonde?) plus Belgian yeast and raspberries. BrewDog like raspberries, don’t they. It smells slightly funky with cloves and berry fruit. There’s not too much going on, which is a shame. The raspberries aren’t big, the yeast detracts rather than adds, the hops seem to have disappeared. Disappointing.

Scotch Ale (7.5%) looks incredible in the glass: a deep red-brown, like embers just about to burn to black. Take a mouthful and it shocks: sweetness, caramel, an over-powering aniseed and liquorice, as if some bastard mate tipped Sambuca into your other-wise delicious beer, then some peat, a medicinal twang and something floral wafting in the background. The body is full which makes it really satisfying to drink but it feels discordant with loads of stuff going on and none of it really coming together.

Hops Kill Nazis (7.8%) is like 5am Saint’s badass bigger brother. Deep red in colour, toffee, flowers, red berries in the nose and a bitterness which builds in the background. It doesn’t taste super-fresh but that’s probably because it isn’t. It’s a fine beer but I expect more from BrewDog when they add lots of hops to things – it’s just a little inelegant.

None of the beers made me jump up and shout wow, which is what I want from BrewDog now. Blitz! is the best and it surprised and teased me in a good way and I like that (so I voted for it), but the other three aren’t beers I’d buy again. But that’s almost not the point. It’s not what I went into it looking for. I went to see if we could work things out.

And we can. These beers are what BrewDog thinks are potentials to add to their range for 2012 and that’s interesting. One is low-ABV, one is all about the malt, one is about the hops and one is about experimenting with what they already have. That’s four beers covering four very different areas and all of them are approachable. They are all probably first-time brews; if brewed again then they’d no doubt improve.

I always look forward to what BrewDog do. With a bar 10 minutes from work, it’s where I’ll drink most in 2012, I’m sure. And in 2012 I’ll be looking at what BrewDog do: how they grow, develop, deal with the challenges they faced this year. With over 6,000 Equity for Punk members they’ve got to think about more than just themselves now. I also hope they make a few new beers which make me go wow and which get me excited. I’m pretty sure they will.