Friday 31 August 2012

Stale mild

And so a glass of mild it is, a dark sensuous looking creature with a collar of foam the colour of freshly exposed apple flesh after one guilty bite. Regulation toffee and mocha notes with a thin skein of orange existent just over the taste horizon. The mild is 4.3%, so there is also a weight of alcohol that you don’t normally find in weaker milds. However, there’s also an acidity, a twang of sourness, a slight tartness suggestive of apple, which suggests to me that the beer is the first one pulled today (it was early afternoon) and that it also might be a slow seller. So do I take it back? No, as I don’t actually mind the staleness in the beer, in fact I think it makes it more interesting and that leads onto another question. Would this have been something similar to what stale porters tasted like in the 1800s? Who knows but it was enjoyable — and this then begs another question, is it a case that some British cask beers retain a level of palatability (or even improve) when they are on the turn? 

Saturday 18 August 2012


You have to laugh
I first thought this said
Ale Cider Mead…
When I was young I had a credo about London: live there in my 20s and move out in my 30s, which is what I did. My time in London coincided with the rise of Wetherspoons and I used to spend a lot of time in the White Lion of Mortimer in Finsbury Park, a place where I discovered to my surprise that I enjoyed cask beer. As for London beer though, I think one of the few places I was aware of it was at the Fuller’s pub The Ship in Soho, otherwise that was it though I do recall driving my motorbike past Young’s at the end of the 1980s and being enthralled by the smell of brewing. Now of course, London is undergoing a massive brewing renaissance and you can read my take on it in today’s Daily Telegraph here. Oh and while I’m at it, Will Hawkes’ Craft Beer London app is also well worth getting, and you can find more info here.

Friday 17 August 2012

Ampleforth Abbey Ale

Here’s Ampleforth Abbey Ale, a couple of bottles of which I was sent and jolly glad I am too that I was sent them. Abbey Ale? I’m not going there and I’ve said my thing about the beer style here. So let’s just see what the beer has to say to me. Dark chestnut in colour, I’m reminded of hazelnut influenced chocolate on the nose; as if a hazelnut had met a piece of chocolate while out on the pull and decided that the two of them might be good for each other. Hold on, there’s a sarsaparilla note coming along to muck things up; thankfully all live happily ever after a civil ceremony that David Cameron agrees to following a pub lunch with Nick Clegg. On the palate it’s rich and varnished, vinous and virtuous, with its palatable sweetness kept in check by a raisiny caramelly and nutty character that shows what good malt and yeast can add to the mix. There’s some alcohol but not too much, just enough to get a sense of lift. There is also chocolate and very ripe dark plums with some sugar on them, all of which produce a bittersweet character that enables this companionable beer to dovetail totally with a Thai jungle curry I’d made on the evening of the tasting — the spice of the curry hits the bittersweetness of the beer and all retire happily to a tent in a clearing and discuss future relationships.

Thursday 16 August 2012

Beer and food once more

Come and enjoy a gastronomic beer menu said the invitation. Come and enjoy a menu worked out by Pete Brown and Charles Campion (see below for a few words from him to the night’s MC Nigel Barden) at Great Taste at the Cadogan, a plush old school hotel in the middle of Knightsbridge. Come and enjoy some of the stars of the recent Great Taste Awards. Come and enjoy food and beer in a place where wine is the preferred tipple on the table most of the time. And so I went to the press launch of a menu that included beer in both the dishes and as accompaniment on the table.

Cider, however, instead of beer opened up the evening as glasses of Aspalls’ Premier Cru were handed out as an aperitif before the dining room yawned chasm-like to swallow the diners.

To begin at the beginning there were three starters which each table were encouraged to share: mosaic (ok terrine) of rabbit in beer jelly, along with pickled Scottish girolles and cabbage, cooked in Sunshine from Monty’s Brewery, was paired with Otley’s O-Garden, whose jingle-jangle of spice got the terrine’s spice and sweetness singing along with the unity of the Millennium Stadium as they watch Wales surge forward time and time again. Treacle cured salmon with a beer glaze of Ola Dubh 16 was a tough call and I found the O-Garden bowing down in surrender before the oiliness of the fish (restrained as it was); it was almost as if the beer and fish cancelled each other out and all I was left with was a memory of the texture of the superbly cured salmon. Harmony reigned supreme however with the third starter Cornish Blue cheese, cobnut caramel and beer roasted shallots (Riggwelter). It was almost as if the cheese could not wait to wrap itself around the beer and announce to a waiting world when the baby was due.

Mains: squab pigeon pie with spinach parcels and butternut squash cooked with Hobsons Old Henry. This was served alongside Purple Moose’s Dark Side of the Moose, which all dark chocolate flavours that encircled themselves around the dark meat and added another layer of flavour, almost as if acting as a sauce. This was a good one. However, I had issues with the roasted sea-bass that had a Quickes Vintage Cheddar and herb crust. I loved the accompanying Bristol Hefe beer broth as the light bitterness of the Hefe meant that there was just enough in the foam-a-like broth for it to work like the sort of dream you don’t want to wake up from. The accompaniment was Bitter & Twisted, which I felt lost out to the cheese and herb crust; my thoughts were that there wasn’t enough carbonation to cut through the dairy-like fattiness of the cheese.

Then it was all the way to the puddings, three of which each table had a taster of: the Beer float Dark Island Reserve was divine when drunk in conjunction with the Ola Dubh 16 as all manner of dark flavours plus a vanilla smoothness and tobacco box adulthood encouraged an air of contemplation. The chocolate, prune and ale brownie (Old Engine Oil) also flew in the face of the oft-repeated assertion that dark beer and dark dessert shouldn’t be on the same table. Rhubarb crumble with beer jelly (Meantime London lager) was a welcome surprise, as the zinginess of Schiehallion lifted the flavour of the crumble and spun it into another dimension of being (and that’s saying something for me as due to being afflicted with a lot of it when young I’m not the greatest fan of rhubarb).

Verdict: a fabulous menu, another step forward for beer and food though a fellow beer-writer made the point to me that maybe it’s generally accepted that food and beer works, and now it’s a question of what beers to use? I thought of Byron Burgers and their craft beer selection for starters. This is thoroughly recommended bit of upscale dining with beer on the table — why not treat yourself?
The menu is priced at £18 for one-course; £23 for two-courses; and £28 for three-courses and will run until the end of September 2012.  There will be an ongoing beer theme running at Great Taste at The Cadogan for the rest of the year, along with the usual wine list.

Tuesday 14 August 2012

The pub used to be a gastro

The pub used to be a gastro I am told, which makes complete sense when I look around the d├ęcor: stripped down oak floorboards the colour of sand, Farrow and Ball style paint scheme on the wall (lamp room grey perhaps?), lots of light coming in through the large latticed collection of glass panes, an ironic mix of old school pub tables with metal clawed feet, seaside fish and chip restaurant red banquettes and a couple of stools and their accompanying tables that might have been made in the workshop at the local tech. The music at the moment is In The Midnight Hour, not Wilson Pickett but more of a Commitments’ version perhaps? Outside London passes by, buses, mopeds defecating their shrill sound of two-stroke hell, off-white van man, Boris bikes and Londoners going about their way, large, tall, fat, thin, small and in-between. The bar is L-shaped, and I hazard a guess that before it was a gastro it was a traditional boozer, the place where the racing might have been on all day, the beer dispensed with a minimum of fuss and food limited to whatever the licensee could forage in the local cash and carry. Outside the Grand Union canal stills itself, a long dark green rippled skin of water larging itself through this part of west London. The beer? I’ve just had a glass of Redemption Pale Ale, and spent what felt like an eon (but was probably only a couple of minutes) evalutating the ‘fruity’ nose. In the end I think of sensual ripe apricot skin with wisps of berry (raspberry) floating into the action as well. The malty sweetness is caramel influenced and I also pick out an edgy spike of spiciness reminiscent of rye; the finish is a dusty and grainy dryness that turns the mouth into an agreeable sort of Sahara. For 3.8%, this is a beer that really makes me want another. But there’s a lot of choice so (while watching a man spear his salad into his mouth with the sort of lust that I imagine only happened on some medieval killing field) I have a glass of Kernel’s Centennial Columbus IPA — I can smell it across the bar as it is poured. We are looking at a fragrance that I can only imagine as a cross between a hop field where all the hop devils are hard at work night and day and the early morning descent I once took, windows open, gentle breeze off the Med, after a night crossing the Maritime Alps, into the town of Grasse. Oh and I’m in the Union Tavern, Fuller’s tremendous take on a craft beer bar. Love it.

Friday 10 August 2012

At this year’s Great British Beer Festival…

I enjoyed Braustelle’s Schwartz Bier and Amarillo Hop so much that I went back for another helping, but I didn’t enjoy the same brewery’s Cedarwood Alt (what next maturation in sandlewood?). I also enjoyed Coniston’s No 9 Barley Wine, this being the first time in years that I had made an effort to try the champion beer (though I was underwhelmed by the cherry mild that won an award — good idea but a bit flaccid in my opinion). Another British beer that I enjoyed was Greene King’s 5X, a sherryish, woody, spirituous experience that made me ask the question — why don’t we see this more regularly? It was one of the beers of the festival for me. And there was one other British beer that I enjoyed, Redemption’s Urban Dusk, a bright citrusy bitter then kept me company during a meeting over a possible next book. I also enjoyed Lowell Beer Work’s Sour Red, Left Hand’s Black Jack Porter, Klein Duimpje’s Xtreme Baltic Chocolate Coffee Mocha Porter and a beer that I always like to start the festival with, Lowenbrau’s Kellerbier, a fresh and frisky colt of a beer that knows how good the simple life can be sometimes. I suspect I tried several other beers but for the life of me cannot remember what they were. On the other hand, I was disappointed by the food choices I made: the wild boar and mushroom pie went half-eaten, saved for the dogs when I got home, while the bratwurst wasn’t bad though the roll it slipped into felt as stale as an aged vat of porter. And that was what I did at the Great Beer Festival.

Monday 6 August 2012

Wild Beer

Andrew Cooper and Brett Ellis at Wild Beer Co,
come back in the autumn and the place will be rocking

Picked up at a small rural station, Castle Cary, where Glastonbury gloamers have their own Dunkirk every June. Down the lanes we go, the warm sandstone of the area glossed onto the houses, hedges, high, hiding, totally appropriate it seems given the name of the brewery I’ve come to see: Wild Beer. In the car sit the brewery’s founders Andrew Cooper and Brett Ellis (he’s the brewer and from California — another appropriate name given the mission of the brewery). Into a yard, where Westcombe Cheddar is made (one of Slow Food’s three designated Cheddar producers along with Keene and Montgomery) and into an empty space, formerly where pickles and chutneys were made (the smell of all-spice and vinegar seems to cling to the air, as if reluctant to leave). Three large wooden barrels stand all alone (and in them the brewery’s Modus Operandi sleeps the sleep of the just), athletes on a plinth, all at equal height; elsewhere there’s more space or to put it another way the lack of equipment is the dominant theme. There’s no brewing yet, stuff is on its way and you can expect beers to emerge sometime in the autumn (appropriately the start of the old brewing season in the past). And then we’re off again through these lush lanes to the Three Horseshoes in Batcombe (they do a mean Ploughman’s). Beer is brought out of a bag by Brett, in small bottles, some capped, some in PET containers, all brewed on a small system at home, and we’re off. A grapefruit zing in the glass, some acidity and a farmyard earthiness (think of that indefinable link with the earth, that erotic charge, that sense of connection you get when you recall the moment you smelt the aroma of the farmyard, that you get with a great Burgundy). This is a prototype I am told; ‘we are going for a way to make a lambic inspired beer’. It’s zesty, pithy, with grapefruit and orange peel and a wrap around fullness — I think of throwing ripe fruit against a dry stone wall on a hot summer’s day and deeply inhaling. Welcome to a west country lambic. Next up is Fresh, an APA, with canned mango, fresh ripe papaya and a hint of banana on the nose. Orange marmalade rushes forth on the palate and I think of a sun-warmed bowl of tropical fruit in a nice kitchen. It’s not a wild beer but ‘it’s a beer we love to drink’. We have more beers, all of them excellent, infused with Brett, others barrel aged. Ah here’s Modus Operandi, ‘the beer that says what we are all about’ beams Andrew. Brett-infused and barrel aged, it’s a 7% beauty that is a marriage of sweetness, vanilla, grapefruit, lush tropical fruit, plus a dark malt cloak thrown over the shoulder in the manner of Zorro. How romantic. I think I love it. There are saisons with Brett, an imperial vanilla espresso chocolate stout and a mellifluous DIPA — and then it’s time to go back through the lean lanes, the hidden lanes of East Somerset and take the train west. This is a brewery I am excited about and I respectfully suggest that you should be. 

Sunday 5 August 2012

Post-alt alt

Some beers sent to me came from Fordham of whom I don’t know that much. They’re not rock’n’rollers, sommeliers types, explorers whatever, they just brew beer. Some of these beers aren’t that bad. Take Tavern Ale. Let’s start at the end: cracker dry, rye dry and bitter in the finish, but beforehand there’s a soft palate, some crunchy grain and citrus notes that all remind me of an alt. The stern backbone features dark malts; I’m thinking rye chocolate toffee, then orange flavoured toffee. It has a Schwarzenegger of a body — a beer with bar bells. And there’s a fragrant featheriness on the palate — lavender butter on a crispbread perhaps? I read it’s designated as a pale ale but part of me wonders if it’s more of a post-alt alt…