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Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Enjoying Cask Ale For Cask Ale Week

I'm just back from the local where I've been proudly supporting National Cask Ale Week. I say supporting, really I've just been drinking good cask beer and talking about it to anyone that will listen. Still, if ever there was a reason to get out down the pub and try some good beer, Cask Ale Week is it!

Living in Central London I'm in the enviable position of being able to call some fantastic pubs my "local". Tonight I went to the absolute local; a Wetherspoon's about two minutes walk away. Sounds terrible, but isn't. Love 'em or hate 'em, you can rely on the local 'spoons to always have a minimum of two guest ales on hand pull. These are almost always served in good nick and are very reasonably priced. Wetherspoon make decent cask ale accessible to main stream drinkers, and for that they should be applauded. With the idea behind Cask Ale Week being to champion and promote the wonder of Cask Ale, it seems fitting to me that I drink it in a Wetherspoon's pub.

Tonight I had Sambrook's Wandle and Theakston Old Peculiar. Sambrook's are a local brewery based in Battersea. Wandle is their flagship beer; it's a beer I've had a few times now and it always takes me by surprise. It's billed as a thirst quenching English session bitter, but there's something unusual going on. It starts off with bready malt but that's quickly overtaken but something spicy and peppery; there's something estery about it and there are notes in there that seem characteristic of Belgian yeast being at work. The bitterness builds to a crisp finish, doing a good job of leaving you ready for the next mouthful. This is one of those beers I drink and spend the whole time trying to unravel, I'm not really sure if I like it or not. It definitely isn't what you expect it to be.

Old Peculiar is a mahogany brown colour with hints of ruby around the edges. It's big and boozy, at times growing to become almost varnish like. Underneath that there's dark fruit: raisins, plums and ripe cherries. A vein of sweetness runs through the beer, leading to a subtle bitter finish.

I only had the two halves but could've easily gone back for more. Good cask ale served in top condition is fantastic, almost irresistible in fact. Get out and drink some yourself!

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Favourite Beers

The debate about the World's best beer is timeless. People will always have their own personal favourites and will argue endlessly about the reasons as to why they're the best in the World.

For me, what makes a beer the best in the World is far more involved a subject than just what a beer tastes like. Memory is something I think is important to consider. Unless you're tasting one beer directly against another, you're always relying on your memory when making a judgement as to what's best. How can you accurately and fairly compare the beer in your hand with the beer you had last week, last month or last year? You can't.

A truly fair test would be blind and would involve you tasting every candidate against each other. In reality, this just isn't feasible.

For reasons like these, and the pure subjectivity around taste, I shy away from the argument of the World's best beer. I do however tend to keep a mental list of my favourite beers. This of course changes wildly with time, depending on anything from time of year, recent holidays and beer festivals I've been to, brewery specials that have been released and so on.

In my eyes, "Favourite" and "Best" are two completely different things. To be a favourite, it has to be something you can drink often and easily. Racer 5 is a beer I've tried once. It's one of the best beers I've ever tried, but it isn't a favourite. I might visit this differentiation in a more detailed future blog. This entry is more of a personal record, just to see how my own favourites change over time.

#5: Thwaites Nutty Black
I love mild, and judging by CAMRA's Champion Beer of Britain award 2009, other people love mild too. A shame then that it's so unfashionable and rarely praised, even among the more ardent of beer enthusiasts. Nutty Black (formerly Dark Mild) is one my favourites. Lovely toffee and caramel flavours combine with some subtle dark maltiness. Who cares if the ABV is low when it's this drinkable and tastes this good?

#4: Guinness
The local (back home) sells Shepherd Neame Masterbrew, Old Speckled Hen and Courage best. Outside of that, you're in Lager or Guinness territory. Despite the price tag, the result of this is that I drink a lot of Guinness when there. It might sound a bit naff and might get the beer snobs tutting, but served with the right people, I love a pint of the black stuff. Nice creamy head, roastiness and a subtle bitter finish. It might have its problems, but down the local with mates, it works for me.

#3: Orval
I can take or leave the Trappist ales, all with the exception of Orval. It's such a great favourite to have because it changes so much with age. Each time you drink it will be slightly different to the the last. The Brett character gives you a real talking point when trying to introduce people to craft beer and the beautiful dryness makes it so moreish.

#2: Erdinger Weiss
The first Weissbier I ever drank, and still my favourite. Lovely Banana and Clove flavour and really refreshing. Fond memories are attached to this one too, I first tired it whilst camping in Italy with the family.

#1: Shepherd Neame Spitfire
I think this will always be my favourite beer. By no means innovative or ground breaking, but will always hold a special place for me. It's synonymous with Kent and cricket in Kent, and is intricately linked with many happy memories. I can't help buy feel a tiny sense of pride whenever I drink Spitfire, it's silly but true.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

The Kernel Brewery

Last week I visited The Kernel Brewery in central London. It's a four barrel micro brewery that's run by a guy called Evin, tucked away under a railway arch, sharing space with a cheese maker and a salami producer.

Entering the brewery, I'm immediately met by the smell of warm malt, passing the hanging meat and ageing cheese, the copper comes into sight and is just hitting rolling boil. Before the bittering hops go in, it's time for a beer. A US style IPA with a single hop - this one being Nelson Sauvin. Evin's only been brewing here a few months and you get the feeling that he's keeping things quite simple for now. He doesn't appear to be cautious or worried about veering off the planned brew schedule though, joking that "there's no point keeping a third of a bag of hops, so you might as well chuck the whole thing in!"

It's obvious that Evin's a fan of the US craft brewing scene. Most of the beers he describes having made are US style IPAs with a basic malt bill, US yeast and a tonne of hops. There's bottles of various age all around the place and, having been given the brewery tour, we crack a few open to try.

"Centennial Pale" is a 5.7% per cent pale ale that features a single hop - Centennial. The beer is a golden amber colour with medium carbonation and a medium white head. On the nose you get loads of hop, giving some orange and zesty fruit aroma. It starts off with a very slight sweetness that's quickly overtaken by grapefruit and citrus peel. The bitterness comes in and cuts across your palate but isn't as big as you'd expect. It's a fantastically drinkable beer, that I could easily consume a lot of. The hop flavour is big but the sweetness and bitterness aren't so great that they hamper drinkability. By way of slight criticism, I'd say it could benefit with a touch more sweetness, and some dry hopping could add a freshness that's slightly lacking.

Next up is a similar beer, this time brewed only using Simcoe hops and to a higher gravity - giving and ABV of 7.9 per cent. This one is a lot deeper in colour and has a far more resinous, piney nose. You also get some floral aroma and the slightest hint of some malt in the background. Evin gave me this with the disclaimer that it's not really ready and could do with a bit more ageing. He's right, it's a bit rough around the edges, the bitterness is still quite aggressive and there's a slight burn from the alcohol. Putting that to one side, this beer is jam packed with fruitiness. You get loads and loads of citrus fruit and then, specifically, grapefruit in the finish. This is like the Centennial ale but turned up to eleven, I really need to try this again when it's a bit older.

Keep your eye out for The Kernel Brewery. I'm not sure what plans there are for distribution and sale of the beer, but if you ever get the chance to try some of it, go for it. I'd like to say thanks again to Evin, for sharing his beer and his brewery. I'll be popping in again soon for more beer!

For the sake of completeness, I'll just add that the tasting notes above are actually from a few bottles that I took away with me. The beers were the same, I was just able to scrawl things down a bit more easily at home.

Home Brew Bottle Labels

When I brew a beer, I pluck a random shape or symbol from the air and scrawl it on the brew plan. That symbol then acts as an identifier for the beer. When it comes to bottling, I label each bottle with a small sticker that bares the same symbol. Previous examples include a black spot, a pink spot, dashed lines and a triangle. It's a low-tech solution to a problem that any home brewer will face.

With the aim of brewing a bit more regularly, I think it's about time I improved upon this. Above is a label I knocked up as an example. It's loosely based on the black IPA I brewed (which was identified by an asterisk), but only for the purposes of designing a label - it isn't the actual label! All future brews will be labelled in the above style, the information changing as necessary but the layout and design remaining the same. The box in the top left will give a nod to the old symbol labelling, whilst the extra information will make it easier when sharing the beer with other people, and keeping track of alcohol content and bottling date.

It's quite plain and simple; but I kind of like that. It'll make it easier to print and to re-design when I bottle a new beer. Below is an example on a bottle. What do you think?

Monday, 22 March 2010

Innis & Gunn - Cask Aged Beer

I'm a big fan of Innis and Gunn Oak Aged Beer. There's nothing subtle about it, but it's delicious. Big, huge, buttery-toffeness meets vanilla sweetness and then a woody finish. Fantastic. You can call it one-dimensional, over the top, samey, maybe too sweet. Whatever, I'm a fan and I'd happily drink it everyday.

I also think it's brilliant for introducing lager drinkers to the wider world of beer. It's not hugely hoppy or bitter, it won't turn people off with a low ABV and it doesn't have an image or reputation attached to it that will deter the people who care about that sort of thing. It's smooth, it's sweet, it's really easy to drink, and most importantly, it's a bit different. Let them try it, enjoy it and then go into the fact that it's aged in oak, that this lends a woody-vanilla character, most beer isn't aged in oak, and so on. Before you know it, you've got another beer geek on your hands!

I've just had a limited edition version that was aged in navy rum casks. I've always thought that rum and beer is a combination that could be exploited to yield some special results, I've even attempted a few things on my homebrew kit. The beer started life in plain oak and then after thirty days was racked into casks which previously held navy rum. After a further thirty days the beer was blended and finished for forty seven days before being bottled.

I was a bit underwhelmed. I was expecting in-your-face rum, over-the-top and big; in the way that the standard Innis and Gunn is. Unfortunately not. The beer had the same sort of bitterness level you get from the standard version, the vanilla and toffee notes were still there but the big rum hit had been severely tamed by the wood. A meaty, smokey, rum-like dry finish powers through but you're ultimately left wanting. You're promised bug rummy, boozy notes, but you just don't really get them.

Whilst I would recommend the Innis and Gunn beers to anyone, the hunt for a truly great rum enhanced beer goes on.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Dry Hopping Bottled Macro Lager

Yesterday I did something very cool with hops.

Hopdaemon Pete says that if you open a bottle conditioned beer, re-cap it straight away, let it rest over night and then drink it, the flavour is enhanced. The principle is the same as tapping a cask and exposing the beer inside to oxygen. For reasons I don't fully understand, drinking beer shortly after exposure to a little oxygen actually helps to improve the flavour.

When he told me this, it gave me an idea. Could you open a bottle of beer, add something and then recap it, without harming the flavour of the original beer? Could that something you add actually be a flavour which complements the beer and takes it in a new, possibly improved, direction?

Take something awesome, like a US hop, with all it's fresh, grassy, grapefruit aroma. Take something crap like "bland, tasteless, apathetic, liquid cardboard" (James Watt) and combine them. What you get is an Amarillo bottle-dry-hopped Carlsberg.

I bought two standard bottles of Carlsberg. One went into the freezer until it almost started to freeze, this moves as much of the CO2 into solution as possible, meaning that you save more of it when you open the bottle. Once open, the heat is on. In go five whole Amarillo hop cones followed by a new crown cap. The bottle is then periodically shaken over it's twenty four hour fridge-based lifespan.

Tonight I opened both bottles and tried them against each other. The hopped bottle was very lively indeed. The hops swell up and plug the neck of the bottle, giving the added bonus of the beer being filtered through hop before it meets glass. The downside being froth, a lot of froth. It could've been this that killed carbonation, but it was more likely the fact that the beer had been opened once already.

Carlsberg is a terrible beer. There's just nothing to it. There's no alcohol, no real hop bitterness or hop flavour. The nose is subdued, you get some bready malt and a sort of metallic tang, that's it. In the mouth it's watery and thin, it's about as forgettable as a beer gets. The bottle-dry-hopped version, on the other hand, is very different. The only accurate way to describe the aroma, would be to say that it wreaks of hop. Massive grassy, piney, citrus hop aroma that then moves into a slightly herbal, almost menthol character. Of course the body and flavour of the beer is largely unchanged, some of that hop aroma has bled through into the beer, but nothing more than that.

As I've alluded to, the carbonation had almost totally left the hopped version. This was a real shame because you need that lively effervescence to just pick the hop flavour up and move things on. Flat Carlsberg is flat Carlsberg, it doesn't matter how great the aroma is.

A cool experiment, and one I'd like to repeat. You might ask why, but why not? Ultimately the hopped version didn't quite work, but the concept of taking something so ordinary and making it into something a bit different and a bit special, is one I really like the idea of. I've got some ideas about saving the carbonation a bit more effectively. I won't go into it in this post, but it's based on some of the techniques that are used in Champagne production. In the mean time, if you've got some hops hanging around, why not have a go yourself?

Low ABV US IPA (Single Hop) - Brewday

I wrote here about my latest homebrew beer. In a nutshell, it's a US style IPA, using a single hop variety but with an ABV of 2.5 per cent. The idea being that it's something you can easily drink a couple of pints of, without having to compromise on flavour. It's essential that the beer doesn't become hop tea, so a high percentage of specialty malt was used in the grist, whilst aggressive dry hopping will provide a massive hop aroma up front.

The hop was a toss up between Amarillo and Centennial, with the former just winning out in the end. Both hops are awesome, hopefully Amarillo will lend a grassy, citrus flavour and a grapefruit, pithy bitterness. The photo above is a little dark, but I think the colouring was pretty much nailed. There's already amber, dull-copper tinges around the edges and when this drops bright, with any luck, it'll be a glowing, vibrant, flame colour.

I stayed true to the plan in my original post, the only slight modification being an (accidental) increase to the gravity. I planned on 15 litres at 1027 but ended up with 14 litres at 1030. Given an approximate attenuation of 70 per cent, and therefore a final gravity of 1009, I should end up with a beer around 2.8 per cent. A little higher than planned, but I wouldn't be surprised at all if primary fermentation finishes above 1009. I mashed high on purpose and 1009 is a pretty low final gravity to hit.

The [terrible] photo above shows the measured mash PH. This is the first time I've treated water when making beer. If you ask me, a lot of people talk a lot of hot air about water treatment. I've made perfectly decent beer using some of the hardest water you'll find, without even the merest attempt to treat it. None the less, the chance to improve the beer you make isn't something to be sniffed at, with that in mind I'm attempting to find the best treatment for the water I use. I dipped a toe in the water with a middle-of-the-road treatment and the end result was a PH still above 5.5 ... I'll increase the dose next time!

So this is now fermenting away quite nicely. I'm expecting primary to be faster than usual, but I'll still give a week to ten days before racking to secondary and beginning the dry hopping. My guess is that this will be one to drink young, so it should be chilling in the fridge before long.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Sam Smiths Raspberry Beer & Chocolate Patisserie

Sometimes you hit upon a food and beer pairing that just blows you away. Something so harmonious that you just can't put into words how great the flavours are. With that in mind, I won't really attempt it. Instead, I'll just blog the pairing and some minimal thoughts.

Sam Smiths Raspberry Fruit Beer. Chocolate Torte from Patisserie Lila at Borough Market. Job Done.

The sweetness meets the sweetness. The fruitiness meets the fruitiness. The carbonation in the beer picks everything up and dances it off your palate, leaving you ready for more. If you get the chance to try it, go for it. Fantastic, say no more.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Homebrew Black IPA - Update

This is more of an update than a real blog entry. I brewed a Black IPA a while back and blogged about it here.

For completeness, I thought I would update on progress. I've now tried both the S04 and the Belgian yeast versions of the beer. Both are still a long way off being ready. Both have huge, in-your-face, raw alcohol on the nose and on the palate. Behind that you get the hop and you get slight roastiness. I think both could mature into decent beers, but they'll need a while yet. They've had about two months in the bottle and they could probably do with at least that amount of time again.

Other observations include a slight lack of hop aroma and flavour. In the case of the Belgian version, this could be down to the yeast dominating, but either way, I think the beers would benefit from some dry hopping.

Overall, I'm happy with progress and with the beer I made. I've had Bashah a couple of times since the blog I wrote [about black IPA's]. I have to admit that I've sort of fallen out of love with it. I find the Beligan yeast just takes over, and that American hops can easily clash with dark malts, if not balanced beautifully.

This beer is heading back into the cupboard for a couple of months. I'll pull it out and write an update blog when I next taste it.

Monday, 8 March 2010

New Home Brew - Low ABV, Single Variety, US Style IPA

For a long while I've been planning my next homebrew recipe. When I wrote about Brewdog Nanny State, I talked about how interested I am in the concept of a low ABV beer with plenty of balanced hop flavour. Brewdog 5am Saint goes some way to achieving this. The ABV is low (compared to an IPA), but the beer still manages a big hop flavour and aroma, whilst remaining refreshing and thirst quenching.

The other beer style that interests me a lot at the moment is single hop variety beer. When you know that a beer only contains a single type of hop, you can really get to know what that hop brings to the table. You can educate your palate with the flavour and bitterness profile that the hop provides, and you can then search for and define those flavours in subsequent beers that you drink.

With that in mind, I want to make a single variety, low ABV, American style IPA. A beer that I can keep in the fridge and crack open when I get home from work after a long, hot, sweaty, summer-month tube ride across London.

I want to let the hops shine through as much as possible, but with a low ABV it'll be difficult to balance that hoppyness against any sweetness or mouth feel. For that reason, I plan on using a high percentage of specialty malt in the grist. 10 per cent crystal should add sweetness, colour and some fullness to the mouth feel. To complement this, I'll add Carafa III for colour and flaked barley to aid head formation and retention.

The hop will either be Centennial or Amarillo. It'll be added at 60, 15, 5 and 0 minutes. I want the beer to be around 25 EBC's (a lovely warming flame colour), 25 IBU's and 2.5 per cent alcohol. Once fermented out, I'll move to a conditioning vessel and leave for two weeks before bottling. In this conditioning vessel, I'll also dry hop the beer with more of the same hop.

I realise that a beer like this is incredibly difficult to make well. For that reason, I'm sure it will take a couple of iterations to get right. I really do think it's worthwhile though, I can see myself drinking a lot of a beer like this.

This beer should be in the fermenter now! I'd planned a brewday and set the time aside, only to go and badly cut my thumb on a piece of glass. The dressing and sterile strips holding the cut together have to be kept dry, so I decided against an eight hour brewday involving copious amounts of liquid and too many opportunities to make a mistake. As soon as humanly possible, this beer will be made!

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Bangers & Mash with Chimay Bleue

Who doesn't like bangers and mash? I mean, come on, seriously, it's bangers and mash! You've got to have it with onion gravy though, onion gravy, peas and mash that still has some texture left in it.

To make onion gravy, I heat olive oil in a sauce pan and throw in sliced onions. Cover with a lid and allow to sweat for a minute or two. Now add a good slug of cider vinegar, a small amount of water, some sage leaves and season. At this point, cover it, turn the heat right down and let it sweat away.

Brown some of your favoured sausages in a very hot pan, then add to the onions. This can be left covered on a low heat for fifteen minutes or until the sausages are cooked through.

Mashed potatoes will always divide opinion. For me, it needs a good whack of white pepper, a small amount of milk and butter and a very light mashing. If you prefer it really smooth, I think a potato ricer and large balloon whisk are the best way to go.

I've successfully paired this with Chimay Bleue in the past. Its a big beer, but the food is almost as big and can stand up to it. The beer starts with a sweetness that accents the sweet onions. There's a spicy, prickliness to the beer that cuts through any fat in the sausages. The woodiness of the sage and earthy quality of the meat is met by an underlying malty, earthiness in the beer. You then finish with a peppery tang that picks up the white pepper in the mash, and enough bitterness to clear the palate for the next mouthful.

This is simple stuff, but great none the less. I think the Chimay Bleue in the picture above might've been a bit past it. You'd assume it would age quite well, but this one was a bit flat and lifeless.