Thursday, 31 December 2009

Lager of the week, first in a new series — and why not?

Steamworks Brewing Company call Steam Engine an American style amber lager and whom I am to argue with that? Dark amber/chestnut in colour it’s got an aroma that reminds me of a Dime Bar that has been in your coat pocket for a while and started to get slightly melty. It’s not über-sweet though, there’s a roasted firmness on the nose that steers it away from the sort of sweetness that mentally rots your teeth. There are also hints of vanilla and that chocolaty nuttiness you get with some pralines. All very elegant. A swig from a glass (rather than the can) and it’s soothing and smooth with the aforementioned chocolaty nuttiness leading the charge; there’s a creaminess in the mouthfeel before a crisp biscuity (or cracker-like) bite in the finish, followed by a chocolate liqueur-like sweetness to round things off. Absolutely delicious and it’s its own man — Herold’s dark beer is a different and delicious kettle of Bohemian fish. My first craft beer out of a can and I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference in a blind tasting. Right that’s it I’m off down the pub. Happy New Year.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

A man walks into a pub and orders a Beast

An afternoon glass in the Bridge. Given the seasonal nature of now, it’s Exmoor Beast at the pumps, a dark, sweetish West Country strong ’un — a pint of which I always enjoy at this time of the year. A couple come in, holiday cottagers I suspect, as keen as mustard, smiling at several locals (I’ve done that in the long ago past when still a London lout), she going for a glass of red, he taking a glance at the ales. ‘Exmoor Beast, a pint of, please,’ he says. Blimey, I think, I hope he knows what he’s getting himself into — he doesn’t look like the sort of bloke who gets into raptures at the thought of Moor’s JJJ or Odell’s St Lupulin’s, both strong variations on a theme, glasses of which I enjoyed yesterday evening while eating time over The Day of the Triffids. Observation over, return to chatting at the bar with Mysterious John, who claims time spent in the Special Forces (‘hush hush, dear boy,’ though I reckon those who serve keep schtum). As we chat about this and that, subjects coming and going like the women in The Love Song of J Arthur Prufrock, I note the man back at the bar, his pint glass a third drained. He points as Otter Ale (rather a good drop I always think), gets a taster, orders a pint and leaves the Beast at the bar. Blimey. I’ll have that I’m about to say to the lad behind the bar, but it’s down the drain like a flash. Whenever I bemoan the lack of strong ales at the bar (and I do, I certainly do), I shall think of this chap and recognise that selling barley wines and their ilk meets a natural obstacle — most pub men and women do not like their beer ramped up (though having said that, St Austell’s barley wine Smugglers went down a treat at Woods before Christmas, even if it caused several casualties in its wake, one of which was myself).
PS the picture features a glass of one of my favourite strong beers, Zywiec Porter, this example being discovered on draught in a small bar in Krakow, cor it was lovely.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Getting all sentimental cause it’s Xmas

Back from my local across the road earlier on, Christmas drinks and all that (the barley wine is surprising quite a few folk) and I wanted to pay tribute (no pun intended) to a pub that has been one of the best in a life of pub-going — though I review pubs for a living, this is one I always come back to with infinite joy even if I have been searching out saisons in Wallonia or tracking down a Baltic porter in the east (and in 2010 I suspect when I come back from the US it will remain a haven). So at this time of the year I thought it appropriate to pen a few words about its joys — if you’re around this neck of the woods (so to speak) over the holiday pop in, I might be around. Happy Christmas.

Looking about Woods you would think it has been around forever — the interior is ancient wood fittings, exposed stone walls and a bar that seems to have been hewn out of oak. The walls are covered with all manner of traditional countryside paraphernalia (some currently sporting a Yuletide makeover: Santa’s hat sits on the head of a stuffed otter, tinsel is draped around antlers). However, this former bakery has only been a pub since 2004, but it rapidly became my local when I lived eight miles away on Exmoor. Now, I’m 200 metres around the corner and during the Christmas season there is no better place I would rather drink. There will be a log fire crackling in the corner, while the aroma of food will waft from the kitchen — try the slow roasted belly of pork, which comes from the landlord’s own pigs. Meanwhile a pint of St Austell’s gold-coloured Proper Job will glint and sparkle in the light and later on in the day when the temperature has dropped, a fiery draught of St Austell’s Smugglers barley wine is called for. Afterwards, stroll down to the River Barle and if you are feeling particularly energetic you can walk to Tarr Steps, one of Exmoor’s most famous beauty spots.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Berry interesting

I brewed Winter Berry at Sharp’s a few days ago and a small mini keg of what Stuart Howe and I devised was sent to me the other day. He tells me to see it as a work in progress — the berries have not been added but here goes: on the nose an earthy version of cherry brandy, minus the sweetness. On the palate this earthy cherry brandy character continues, but it is also almost woody. It’s a paradox: sweet but not sweet; woody but not woody; berries appear (the Bramling Cross perhaps) and there is the dryness of grain on the finish; on the palate it also has blackberry without the sourness, a rusticity and a whisper of caramel in the background. The palate is bright and friendly — it’s not meant to be hoppy, with the hops meant to be something in the background, the bass player rather than the lead guitarist. I like it. A stronger version would be even more interesting.
When we tried the wort it was not as sweet as the usual wort you get — my teeth are canaries in the mine for sweetness. Next update will include what it tastes like with the berries added (they’re cosying up to the beer in the maturation tanks as I write).

Friday, 18 December 2009

Keeping fit the Fuller’s way

When my publishers were researching visuals for 1001 Beers (out in the spring when you can criticise the choices) they came across this wonderful image for Fullers (sic) — I presume it’s sometime between the 1930s and the 1950s, almost like a golden age of beer advertising. I seem to remember some information being released earlier in the year that beer is the best refresher after sport, so this ad is spot on in its beer advocacy. If I didn’t do my runs at 7am then I would be quite happy to rehydrate myself with a glass of Chiswick rather than my normal water.
PS don’t let the Daily Mail or Liam Donaldson see this, they’ll be livid and probably — in the spirit of New Labour’s love of apologising for everything that has happened in the past millenium — want Fuller’s to say sorry for tempting some of the leading athletes of the day to forgo all for a life of rack and ruin orchestrated by the demon drink and all its imperious imps (or not).

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Game On

If you’re down the boozer with Aunt Sally then you’re in Oxfordshire, while on the other hand Ringing the Bull will see you up in the north. Skittles is simple isn’t it? Somerset farmers on the booze enjoying a night off filling in DEFRA’s devilishly fiendish forms. Hold on a minute, there’s also the Long Alley version, which is played with a hardwood 'cheese' in the East Midlands, while Hood Skittles, also involving a 'cheese', is found in Northampton (rather than Nottingham). I could go on but it’s better to have a look at Played At the Pub, a gorgeous and encyclopedic compendium of all the games that people play (and have played) down the pub. It rightly won its author Arthur Taylor a Gold in the National Journalism awards at the beerwriters’ beano earlier in the month (he’s won several over the years and his guide to beer in Northern France was essential, along with The Beers of France, when I researched Bières des Garde a few years ago). Taylor has been writing about pub games for three decades and he was very helpful to me when I was researching an article for the Field a few years ago — the book is just wonderful in a way that I could never have thought, full of some fantastic pics and as someone who occasionally enjoys the occasional game of skittles (it is always odd when I play it as the more I drink the better I think I am, which is totally untrue) I find it an invaluable addition to my ever growing library of books of beer, brewing, pubs and all aspects of the culture that beer sustains. It’s published by English Heritage and costs £14.99 — one for the Christmas tree if it’s not too late.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Sparrow’s fart

Crack of dawn, sparrow’s fart, daylight start — none of these phrases applied on turning up at Sharp’s last week to spend a day brewing with head brewer Stuart Howe. 10am is eminently sensible, ‘unless you want to see the grain being milled,’ Howe had told me a couple of days before. Having seen this noisy process several times at various breweries before I decline, there are limits to beer geekism. The invitation to brew included a chance to develop a recipe for the brewery’s seasonal winter ale— I suggested 7% abv (we ended up with 4.5%, which is another story), hops that were there for spiciness and fruitiness rather than big blasts of resin and citrus (Fuggles, Bramling Cross, Bobek and Galena, which ironically enough gave off great big blowsy pineapple notes in the rub); alongside pale malt, crystal rye came aboard for spice and body, while some chocolate malt and Munich malt (slightly sweet said Stuart, saying that it added sour and raisiny notes) also went into the mash — all to be finished with a yeast that was called Old English Ale (somewhat cheekily I had suggested a saison one). As the name of the beer is Winter Berry, there will also be rosehips, hawthorns and sloe berries added during the maturation, gathered by the green folk at the Eden Project. I’ve brewed before, first at Moor about 10 years ago and more recently on the micro plant at St Austell. On both these occasions I spent the afternoon digging out the mash tun and so expected the same here (isn’t that why writers are asked to brew, so that their lily-white hands of soft living are firmly grasped around a malt shovel). I was wrong (thankfully) as we were working on the main plant and there are men and motors to do that job, which made the whole experience very pleasurable. I added some hops and pitched some yeast but that was the extent of my back-breaking labour.

With Doom Bar, Sharp’s has one of the biggest brands going, though it doesn’t feature on many beerwriters’ desert island lists (I’ll be honest and say I prefer Cornish Coastliner, but then I’m also unmoved by White Shield). None of this bothers Howe, ‘It’s a good beer,’ he asserts. In the last couple of years however he has flexed his brewing muscles with a series of specials that have brought his capabilities to the fore. At lunchtime, I tasted some of them. Honey spice Triple with Brett (9%) was sweet and sour, in possession of grapefruit notes and sharp and refreshing. If I didn’t know, I wouldn’t have guessed this as a British beer. Massive (10%) was four years old and rich and liqueur-like, chocolaty and smooth. Kazakhstan Grand Imperial Porter was at 11% a big blast of flavour with an alcoholic cola-like nose, while the palate was fiery, saddle leather, soot, chocolate and more cola — a battle-cry of flavour. It was magnificent and apparently was sold out by lunchtime at the recent St Austell beer festival. 4 followed, a barley wine that possibly was too light after the Porter, while Stuart saved the 13.4% XV for the finale — a Cornish riff on Belgian strong ale. The nose was pear drops, cloves, hop and bubblegum, while these flavours resonated in the mouth like a big bell after it has tolled in the confines of Notre Dame; the finish was dry, grainy and alcoholic. So what does this all mean? Along with the likes of John Keeling and Roger Ryman, who also produce best selling brands, Howe is not content with going through the mash tun motions — he is restless, exploratory and challenging. In the past I recall brewers of successful brands seemingly almost Robinson Crusoe-like in their avoidance of what was going on in the wider world of brewing — not so these guys and I look forward to trying my Winter Berry and thank Stuart most fervently that he didn’t want me at that sparrow’s fart.

Friday, 11 December 2009


Three weeks of no caffeine, either tea or coffee (a regular purge to aid sleep and the adrenal system) and a liking for herbal teas established, it’s back to old habits and entirely in keeping with a glass of Insomniac from a brewery up north, whose name escapes me, a bottle of which was given to me by Zak Avery. It’s 12% (gulp, help, run away, it’s ‘extreme’; is it beer, is it liquid, is it responsible? who cares) and has an assertive nose of bitter chocolate and half crushed coffee beans before you put them into the caffetiere; there’s also a wafty floral undercurrent that tempers the gritty cop nightstick nature of the coffee beans and chocolate. The palate is roasted with more coffee and bitter chocolate, reminiscent of a stern espresso wake-up call; some sweetness but no bright citrus notes; just an unforgiving black coffee bean darkness before its dry finish.I like it. I took it as a nightcap, somewhat foolishly and paradoxically, but slept well. It’s a one-off Zak tells me but when I recall the name of the brewery (perhaps someone up in Yorkshire can tell me) I will be interested to see what else they’re doing. If you want a session beer you will have a session beer, and if you want a coffee beer you will have a coffee beer — that’s the beauty of brewing all across the world and Europe at the moment there’s a beer for every moment of the day. And why not…
PS I’m now told it’s Saints & Sinners

Wednesday, 9 December 2009


Have been reading the various posts and comments on brewing innovation (or lack of thereof) with great interest, but it wasn’t until going to a Fuller’s tasting conducted by head brewer John Keeling that the thoughts that have been swirling around in my head started to form themselves into a coherent mass. In over ten years of beer writing I have blithely chucked around the word ‘innovatory’ when discussing the likes of barrel-aging beers, blended beers or extreme beers, but Keeling helped to concentrate the mind and crystallize my thoughts — and this incomplete post (can anything ever be complete?) on what I see as the collective amnesia that spread through the brewing industry in the 20th century is the result.

The event at Fuller’s last week was a celebration of their Fine Ale Club which was set up 10 years ago. In front of about 40/50 people Keeling inspired and enthralled as he led the assembled through a taste of various Fuller’s beers. If you’ve ever had a beer palate that sometimes screams ‘give me a break!’, as I sometimes do, then this jovial dry-witted Manc is the man to perk things up, to deliver another perspective on beer. A revelation for me was the Brewer’s Reserve, something that I hadn’t tasted before, though I’d tried the various prototypes several years ago at the British Guild of Beer Writers’ seminar on wood-aged beer. The result is a superb beer, a soothing and warming beer with butterscotch and vanilla notes, as well as a whisper of whisky (nothing too fiery), plus a great orange marmalade character; having almost starting to become jaded with British brewers’ wood-aged beers (apart from BrewDog’s Springbank, one of the best beers I have tasted in the past 12 months), Brewer’s Reserve provided a welcome surprise.

Another thrilling aspect to Keeling is his willingness to experiment; London Pride may be his bread and butter but he’s eager to produce beers that a brewery of Fuller’s size would have in the recent past turned their noses up at (there are still some medium sized breweries, which started out as micros and are now small regionals, that look askew when you ask them if they like to up the hop rate or wood age their strongest ale). I remember when Fuller’s bought Gale’s and I asked Keeling if their Prize Old Ale would survive. He wasn’t sure, but perseverance and his open-minded attitude have led this beer to thrive and prosper. The 2007 vintage was brewed at Gale’s and matured at Fuller’s; now Keeling is blending fresh and stale beer together: there is still an amount of the original Prize Old Ale sitting in tank and each time a vintage is made the beer will consist of 35% of the original beer blended with a fresh version (ghost beer?). Innovation or just an example of brewers starting to remember what they used to do?

‘We are rediscovering the past,’ he said as he talked on another subject, the revival of amber malt in the 1990s by his predecessor Reg Drury (present in the audience) for 1845. ‘There wasn’t any available so we had to ask our maltsters to produce some.’ Interestingly enough Keeling spoke of how he and Drury discovered that as 1845 got older the more it improved. ‘This was a catalyst for us thinking about aging beers.’

For a while brewers forgot what they used to do, they lost the art of aging beer, they dismissed from their minds memories of how they used to blend old and new, how to let the right microbes in, keep the wrong ones out; they forgot that fruit, herbs and spices could be an integral part of the beer they brew; they forgot that beers could be strong or weak, could be left to ripen, to grow old and elegant, ready to be embraced and engaged by a younger generation of beer. Stock ales, running ales, porters, stout porters, stouts, all beat the drum for progress in the past — the last 20 years has seen the fog of forgetfulness lift and a rediscovery of and improvement on the past emerge. Barrel-aging might be old but to return to the theme of innovation, what is innovatory is the thinking of people like Keeling, BrewDog, Tomme Arthur, Roger Ryman, Vinnie Cilurzo, Mikkel Borg Bjergsø and even Jean-Pierre Van Roy in either sticking with the past or finding new ways of interpreting it. Let us make sure this is never lost again.
(Pic shows Fuller’s at night — on a par with Paris at night I reckon)

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

I nosh, you nosh

In a pub in the Surrey Hills doing a review for the DT; smart gastro-ish but still pretty impressive, good beer from local brewery, excellent bar snacks (herring roe on anchovy buttered toast, scotch quail eggs), friendly — as ever sit there listening to conversations. Couple of women on adjoining table, smart, middle class, but not overtly posh (anyone wanting an outbreak of Brownite class warfare can go elsewhere); one of them, the organiser, you know the sort, ‘what are you eating dear’ she goes to her friend. Guy on next table asks if he can borrow their menu. Organiser asks if he is local (why? Is she trying to assert some sort of local territorialism?), he says he works in village; she then says ‘have you noshed here?’ Noshed? Great use of the colloquial, for which I wholeheartedly commend her, though say it a few times and it starts to resemble a nonsense word — anyhow, noshed is my pub word of the week.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

What beer writers eat

The British Guild of Beer Writers dinner was last Thursday and you can read some of the thoughts of the well-deserved winners here, here and here, but you might be interested in the beer menu of the night (complete with tasting notes), which was brought together by myself and Mark Dorber.

Black Shetland Mussels and Margate clam chowder with chilli
With the clam chowder the Meantime Pilsner helps to highlight the clean fennel flavours and provides a counterpoint to the cream, while bitterness and carbonation scrub up the palate nicely.

Smoked venison with goats’ cheese, fig and apple juice terrine
The venison dish is über-complex with apple juice, fig sweetness, beetroot and red wine vinegar, smoke and cheese fattiness to deal with. An immediate flavour hook of acidity is needed to tie in, cut through and contrast. The Duchesse achieves this with its intensely fruity sourness balanced by aged oaky/malty flavours and spiciness.

Slow braised rabbit leg in a roasted rabbit saddle, white beans puree and chunky chips
An expressive and classic strong pale ale with buckets of complex apple skin fruitiness and layers of rich malt flavours. It matches the succulence of the rabbit perfectly and gives us the classic game and fruit/delicious savouriness.

Baked Camembert cheese with soused black grapes and breadsticks
This mature barley wine has marmalade malt richness and good underlying acidity to balance the high butter fat of the Camembert and some funky horse blanket/brettanomyaces acidity to add to the farmyard appeal.

Chocolate tower, walnuts, Tonka beans and caramel
Coffee, chocolate, cola, vanilla, plus an appetising bitterness, lifts the whole combination into a heavenly dimension.