Thursday 30 June 2011

Thornbridge — variety is the Weiss of life

I first drank Weiss in a bar in Eindhoven in 1986. My mate was working out there then and it was his stag night (cor that was a night and a half) — I also drank Duvel for the first time and the hangover was a ferocious beast locked in a large cage aiming to get out and have a go at the first human it saw. At the time, my mate was putting a slice of lemon on the side of his glass, which I briefly followed as it seemed like the height of beer sophistication (hold on a moment is this sort of gimcrack gimmickery suggested for Blue Moon?). I don’t know which Weiss it was, but I enjoyed it, enjoyed the creamy, banana-like fullness and thus a love affair began. Later on in the 1980s I bought a selection of Weiss on offer in the Independent in conjunction with Michael Jackson’s beer column (to this day still the best ever regular beer reading in the printed press — that would be the first thing I turned to when Saturday came). I drunk Weiss throughout the 1990s and was shown the trick of turning a bottle upside down into your glass without it overflowing by a Peruvian barman in Aachen. I remember about 10 years ago when British breweries were making wheat beers, rather than Weiss, though Pilgrim did a pretty good approximation of one; can’t remember the name though (Springbok perhaps?). I even judged at a wheat beer festival in the White Horse sometime in the early noughties. This incredibly long preamble is not merely about stating how much I like Weiss, but as a way of getting to Thornbridge’s Versa Weisse, a couple of bottles of which appeared in the post this morning as if by magic (thanks guys). If you want to read more about the technical side of things (the yeast is Weihenstephaner WLP 300), then go here, but I’m pretty impressed with what Thornbridge have done — they’ve kept to a low IBU, so no big hoppiness, no passion fruit or lychees or grapefruit, just bananas and bugglegum. It pours golden caramel in colour, has banana, vanilla, bubblegum and some clove on the nose, though not as clove-like as sticking your nose in a jar of cloves. There’s a crisp carbonation in the mouthfeel and it’s superbly appetising (I suggest juicy Old Spot pork sausages); there’s a refreshing bite on the palate, more of that banana custard, a hint of clove-like phenols, some lemon — it’s 5% so you don’t get too much of the alcoholic fatness you might get from 5.5% or thereabouts, yet it’s impeccably refreshing (a cool linen suit in the hot sun), and the dryness in the finish with the reappearance of banana custard makes for a pretty impressive stab at a Bavarian Weiss. Give me this over the thin gruel of Erdinger any day. 

Oh and I got it in bottle but I think it is going out in keg as well and launched tonight at the Sheffield Tap. I think I would go if I was in the vicinity.

Monday 27 June 2011

White Shield — some personal thoughts and a mention of Holsten

Holsten for me mate! I can remember when I first came across White Shield. Third year of college. Several of us in a pub — for some reason I always think the Free Press, but am not sure; it could have been the Blue Ball or some god-forsaken hole en route to one of the climbing club’s weekends away. But all I remember is my mate Simon ordering this bottle of ale and the barman pouring it out very carefully — did he say so as not to disturb the yeast? I don’t recall. I do remember tasting the beer, pulling a face and going back to my Holsten (a popular choice in those days — 10 bottles on a Friday night and I’d come up smiling on a Saturday morning ready for a cooked breakfast, the Guardian and lusting after Sally James on Tiswas). Was it this one-sip stand the reason that I’ve always had a rocky relationship with the beer (I call it a beer rather than a brand, hope that’s ok…) — looking at my notes for the King & Barnes-brewed one in 1998 I felt it too ‘fizzy’ (email me if you want whole chapter and verse, the learning curve was yet to come). I was pleased when it returned to Burton (history and all that) and Steve Wellington became its curator — he was my first ever beer interview and I remember being nervous about what I would ask him, I mean I’d been interviewing pop stars for years, but brewers… Anyway, over the years I kept being disappointed with White Shield, it was ok, but… I didn’t get it. Fast forward to the end of last year and a chat during a Burton beer dinner saw some White Shield coming my way for ageing — my theory was that the beer is released too young, too frisky, too coltish, too prone to dancing the light fantastic on the palate and making you think: so what… So I have left my White Shield for six months and this is what I thought. Am I right?

Dark golden caramel in colour; on the nose notes of nuttiness, wood, a bittersweetness (almond hints), some marzipan, a brief flurry of sherry-like notes with a Cointreau like orange character though without the fullness; the palate is bittersweet with a dry finish if you want to be basic, but there are hints of orange (orange blossom even), that nutty woodiness, and a fatness from the alcohol. It’s a library of beer with a babel of accents and voices, but there’s also a subtlety of taste; I’m not interested in raising the ghosts of IPA but it is a pretty noble beer at this age; in the finish there is a hint of roast hazelnut — talking of which the finish keeps reverberating away like the last notes of a finished symphony moments in a concert hall (if you’ve experienced this, you sit there and have a struggle in reconciling the reality of the end of the concert with the almost physical sensation of the music still extent in the air — I think Mahler’s 2nd is best for this). The beer is refined, restrained but yet cleavage-like in its tantalisation (this is the article that inspired me here) — rounded, luxurious, voluptuous. I rather think I like it these days but I would always leave it for several months. As for Holsten? Whatever happened there?

Thursday 23 June 2011

Barrels Hereford Men telling pub tales

First there was one man with his pint in front of him, then another before the two became a group of six roistering, bantering, wise-cracking elderly pub friends who presumably meet like this now and again — every day, once a week, who knows, I’m not moving to Hereford to find out. But it was fun sitting with my glass of HPA at Barrels, in the bar where the counter rests on seven varnished wooden barrels. Big buggers they are, the barrels that is, cider or ale I’m not sure. I would say an 18 or maybe a 36 or maybe it’s cider. Someone will know. The friendly barman drops some ice cubs on the floor. ‘Sack the juggler’ shouts the man who was there first, taking a deep draught of his Wye Valley Bitter. Then the tales come forward, the stories (for what is a pub but a place where stories are told). The staccato bursts from the older drinkers, as opposed to the more leisurely drawl of the two younger guys who sit in another space at the back of the bar. ‘He had put his trousers on inside out and was trying to put his hands in his pocket,’ laughed another man, who a moment ago had been ridiculing someone else’s choice of horse for the day’s races. They all laughed, even I smirked and lifted my pint of HPA (light dusting of lemony sugar on the nose; on the palate appetising with a dry grapefruit/lemon sweetness, a crisp cracker-like mouth-watering  balance and a grainy dry finish) to hide the fact that I was listening, but then I thought it didn’t matter as I’m sure that they knew I was listening. The pub is the repository of tales and a place where drinkers act out their lives, upon these wooden floorboards the thespians of the glass do tread. And the Barrels? Old hotel opened up with the bar as a hub around which all the activities act. I leave the stage after Dorothy Goodbody’s Wholesome Stout (voluptuous and vinous, raisins, currants, slightly peaty, I could still taste it on the train back, perhaps the fact that Wye Valley founder Peter Amor worked for Guinness leaves a clue here), and the men are still talking and laughing and they bid me goodbye. I like this place. 

Wednesday 22 June 2011

Cooper’s Brewery — Vintage wizards of Oz

Sometimes I sit at home and drink old beers and marvel at the complexities on display — and that’s all I do. And so it has been in the last few days as my collection of Thomas Hardy’s Ale has diminished; a Fuller’s Brewers Reserve tucked into (I blame sitting next to John Keeling whilst judging at Cardiff last Friday, he just made me want to drink all my Fuller’s beers) — and then there were the two Cooper’s Vintages I perused at the weekend, one from 2002 and the other 2006. It’s not that I’ve been to Oz, but about five years ago the Covent Garden Porterhouse hosted a vertical tasting of all the Vintage Ales produced by Cooper’s. Present was the brewery’s Executive Director Glenn Cooper who told the assembled that the first Vintage was brewed in 1999. ‘I wanted to do something special, so the brewers made a quickie which proved to be a massive success in Australia and Vintage was born. The brewers then took ownership of it and they come up with variations on a theme every year — brewing this involves a lot of passion. We were the first in Australia to have a Vintage, the others just copied us.’ Cooper’s are best known for a Sparkling Ale, a brash and breezy, hopped and happy in the glass Australian ale, but I’m also over fond of their roasty-toasty stout that used to be in the UK. 

Anyway, there I was on Sunday, back from walking the dog and a pint or two of Tribute (us country folk have such benign pleasures) and I thought why not go vintage? Funnily enough first up was the 2006 (I thought I would only have one). This was tan/chestnut brown in the glass and offered up a clovey, medicinal, dandelion and burdock character on the palate, appetising, chewy, contemplative; there was brisk carbonation, not too frisky, a young dog who has learnt the rudiments of obedience but still carries within the spirit of puppydom; it was very refreshing for 7.5%. Then, wanting more, I tried the 2002 — this was still and limpid in the glass, had a darker chestnut brown colour. There was fruitcake, raisin, marzipan plus a hint of berry (raspberry?) on the palate; again this was very refreshing, while its finish was dry with hints of the raspberry fruitiness coming back again. These were great beers, though I do think that the 2002 was starting to lose its edge. And just for the sake of it, because it was Sunday evening, I opened the bottle of Turbo Yeast Utter Abhorrence from Beyond the Ninth Level of Hades II that Stuart Howe in his Christian kindness had sent me — in a brief nutshell of madness I drank deeply. It was dark plum in colour, whisky-like, medicinal on the nose; thick and tarry on the palate, with a hint of woodruff, long lasting in the finish like a big bell clanging away. An imperious beer that I rather liked though at 23% I don’t think I could drink many of these.

Out of interest, here are my tasting notes from the 2006 tasting 
Cooper’s Vintage Ale 1999, 7.1%
Reddish-copper in colour, it is cloudy in the glass. The nose is rich fruitcake, raisins, orange marmalade, warming alcohol and boiled sweets; a complex palate includes rich Bakewell tart, almonds, a dessert wine such as an orange Muscat. The finish is bittersweet and fruity. This is a rich and stately ale, which could be started to show its age.
Cooper’s Vintage Ale 2000, 7.4%
Saaz joins Pride of Ringwood in the copper. The colour is caramel brown; it is not as deep a reddish tint as the first beer. The nose is cherry, peachy and slightly peppery. There’s a big mouth feel, more sprightly conditioning on the palate and an almost gueuze-like orange fruitiness. Once again it’s a bittersweet fruity finish.
Cooper’s Vintage 2002, 7.4/7.5%
Pride of Ringwood plus Hersbrucker. The colour is orange-brown, deeper in colour than the last. The nose is perfumy, and joined by boiled sweets and a slight hint of woodiness. Toffee, caramel, flowery hints and sweet Muscat dessert wine all vie for attention on the palate, while the finish is dry and slightly sweet.
Cooper’s Vintage Ale 2004, 7.5%
Pride of Ringwood plus Hersbrucker, Saaz and Cascade. This light-chestnut red coloured ale is the most bitterest we have had. The nose is cherry, hop resins and the faint call of citrus orange. The palate stings with its bitterness, though balance is restored with fruit, hop resins and rich fruit jelly. The finish is dry and hoppy bitter. 
Cooper’s Vintage Ale, 2006, 7.6%
Pride of Ringwood and Saaz, while the yeast strain they use for Sparkling Ale is used. They should give banana hints to the flavour. According the Glenn Cooper, the yeast they used before was in the ‘reserves’. The beer is dark gold in colour, and is blessed with a very perfumey aroma that has hop resins, orange fruit and banana in its trail. The palate is a luscious little swine with banana and bitter orange, while the bitterness count seems higher than before. It is very rich and fruity with a stinging bitter finish.
Cooper’s Vintage Ale, 2007, 7.8%
Pride of Ringwood and Saaz. This is reddish-brown in colour with a muted bubblegum, bananas, and strawberry ice cream character on the nose. The palate features hop resins, a tingly fruitiness and excellent zingy condition. The finish is bittersweet. This felt very young and would improve with age.

Saturday 18 June 2011

Beer or wine? Come to Hay-on-Wye to find out

Cheese and beer at Marble — yum

Once upon a time I used to treat wine with the reverence that we treat beer with. In 1993 I went to several wine classes and tastings conducted by Serena Sutcliffe and David Peppercorn, bought wine magazines and laid down a few bottles. However, that time has long passed and I rarely have a glass these days — maybe the odd Rioja or a Cahors, but that’s it. It’s not that I despise wine, but I don’t have any room for it in my drinking life. Which is why I am looking forward to this coming Wednesday where I will be doing a wine vs beer tasting at Kilvert’s in Hay-on-Wye. We have a six-course dinner and I have chosen a beer for each course, while Julian Risby from Marston’s has chosen the same amount of wines. I’ve got Otley’s Saison Obscura, Anchor Steam, Aventinus, Orval, Boon Kriek and Hardknott Granite, while Julian has put up Riesling, Tempranillo, Semillon-Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Rose and Port. It should be fun and if you fancy coming along for an evening of good food, beer and wine then the details and the menu can be found here.

Tuesday 14 June 2011

Euston Tap eulogy again

Why is it that every time I visit the Euston Tap I am in a rush? First time I went I was desperate to catch a train westwards; the next time I visited was rather late in the evening but I managed to grab a couple of convivial drinks with former manager Yan. This afternoon I was heading out east but still managed to hoist 20 minutes — and I still think it’s a remarkable and aesthetically pleasing re-imagining of what constitutes a beer bar/pub. This time, as I was on my own, I managed to have a better look at the copper bar back with its taps sticking out and the narrow copper sink at the bottom (it all looks as if it were from the same piece of metal). It’s the sort of thing I reckon is inspired by what I have seen been used for run-offs of the wort during the mash at breweries such as Budvar and St Austell (I remember going to SA in 2006 to brew a Kōlsch style beer with Roger Ryman; it was also a normal brewing day and I was handed a glass of fresh wort — it was unbearably sweet, but some of the brewing staff loved it; at least I didn’t have the brewer’s breakfast: fresh wort with a raw egg in it). I also never fail to be amused by the tap handles poking out of the sheet of copper either. Very craft beer US brewpub meets comic book — and why not? 

I had time for a pint of Camden Pale Ale, which I have had before and been beguiled by the delicate floral aromatics and its general joie de vivre. This time I was disappointed by its limpid Sargasso Sea character while the boiled sweet (lemon) note at the back of the throat distracted me. On the other hand, the Thornbridge Colorado Red Odell collaboration was a magnificent rich old master of aromatic malts, plum fruitiness, grapefruit and alcohol all strapped onto a fulsome body. So last word: I do love the way that the likes of the Rake, the various Taps, the Port Street Beer House, Southampton Arms, Falmouth’s Hand and North Bar have all widened and evolved the beer drinking experience — having written features over the years about innovation in the brewing industry (which seems to look to the Simon Cowell crowd-pleasing mode of thinking, apart from the exception of Innis & Gunn, whom I still rate apart from their recent fruit beer expressions), these guys have come up with a truer sense of innovation that no one saw coming. 

Tuesday 7 June 2011

One night in Moscow

‘Beer please. I mean, Pivo…Piva? Pilsner? Pivo.’ Ah the international language of beer. I speak three words of Russian and the waitress probably does the same with English. Not to worry. Into the dining room at a Durdin beer restaurant (the one near Polyanka Metro) I go — great steampunk website by the way. There’s a small bar but I carried on through into the restaurant. Here, napkins on tables, long windows looking out into the heavy traffic that never seemed to stop in Moscow; a bit of post-industrial metal work tracing across the ceiling, there’s another space upstairs; in another city this could have done time as an atelier; brassiere-like, smoking allowed. Ah, here she comes, menu in hand. When she returns to take my order, sweet smile, no doubt a mask hiding irritation at having to deal with such a schmuck. Toothy grin, ingratiating, slightly embarrassed, horsy, from me. Point at the beer tester of five. Pilsner, Bohemian Dark, North Star, Cabinet Red and Weiss (and for a moment I think it how remarkable that Weiss went from being an old folks beer in the 1960s to one of the universal ‘speciality’ beers of the world these days — in a counter-factual universe imagine the same have happened to mild? Blue Mild? Mild Blue?). пиво it will be then. Sounds like a cliché but a long-legged blonde settles in the corner, lights up a cigarette and orders a Weiss. A few minutes later an older man, with a face like a more genial Putin comes in and they both move to a table in the middle of the room. Elsewhere, young blokes, suits and haircuts you’d see on bank lads and web designers in English cities come in and fill themselves with Pilsner. Talking of which: the filtered Pilsner is clean and crisp and has a slight hint of caramel in the body; the North Star is non-filtered and has a strange sarsaparilla character (you want style, but you’re not having style); the Weiss is thin, flat, calm and limpid with regulation bananas and custard. So far and the Pilsner is the only beer that really calls to me, only in the same way though as some bloke across the road waving cause I’ve dropped my paper. Bohemian Dark is filtered but has caramel, treacle and cough mixture on the palate — I rather like it. I don’t like the Cabinet Red — all sweetness and caramel and nothing in between its ears. I plump for a half litre of the Pilsner, which is served in a dimpled pot bellied mug (hold on this ain’t the Jolly Butchers is it?). Beef Stroganoff follows — an assault of cream on the arteries that decides that I will walk back to the hotel via Red Square and the Arbat. And on the way back I duck into a bar in the Arbat that promises draft Schneider. Pivo.