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Friday, 26 February 2010

Beer Roundup - 26/02

Another beer round. A selection of the beers I've consumed recently. These are picked more or less at random, so expect a selection of good, bad and indifferent.

The Coach House Brew Co - Blueberry Classic Bitter. A 5 per cent classic pale ale, flavoured with fresh blueberries. Terrible. The pour is deep golden straw with a small, loose, white head. On the nose you get a mass of hard-boiled fruit sweets and Fruit Pastilles, but "fruit" is as accurate as you can get, there's no discernible single characteristic, it's just synthetic fruit. On the palate it really is bad, it tastes like someone's dropped a spoonful of Calpol in a pint of cheap bitter. I'd forgotten what Calpol tasted like, all those childhood memories came rushing back. One to avoid.

Gadds' - Ancestors Whiskey Cask Porter. A strong brown beer that's been aged in an Islay Whisky cask for fifty days. The colour is a deep black with hints of ruby around the edges, the head is loose and tan. On the nose you get some metal, some big roasty flavours and some subtle berry fruits. It starts with some malty sweetness and then gets picked up by the roasty malt, before huge earthy, smokey, burnt, whisky-tinged wood powers it's way in. In the finish you get some subtle bitterness that leaves a slightly tangy flavour. This is good, not exceptional, but good. I'm so glad people like Eddie Gadd are making beers like this in Kent, it's great to be able to buy them so close to home. This doesn't taste like the finished article yet, it's a bit raw and rough around the edges, the charred wood takes over a bit and it would probably benefit from some more of those lighter, vanilla, sweet whisky notes. A few generations on and this could be exceptional.

Brewdog - Zeitgeist. Not a new beer, but one I haven't written about yet. This is Brewdog's attempt to make something that crosses over to the mainstream a bit more readily. A black lager at 4.9 per cent. Whenever I've had this beer, I've been in the mood for a black lager, and I've ended up disappointed. It pours an inky, oily black but the nose is all fruity American hops, not roasty dark malt. The taste is dry with no real sweetness, there's roastiness there but it comes mainly in the form of an overly bitter finish. For me this is either incredibly confused or just incorrectly labelled. There's too much bitterness and too much fruity hop for this to be a Black Lager. Maybe I'm putting too much emphasis on style, but you drink with your eyes in the same way as you eat with your eyes. When something misses like this does, it can be hard to adjust your palate.

Batemans - Dark Lord. Another dark one to finish off. This one is 5 per cent and branded as a "Dark Ruby Beer". The nose is dark malts, giving roasty-coffee notes. Behind that you get some fleshy fruit aroma, maybe berries or even an over ripe banana. The palate delivers on the roasted malt in the aroma. Bitter chocolate and coffee sit next to some serious sweetness, perhaps even too much sweetness. The finish then reveals some subtle spicy hop, maybe the suggestion of some citrus and a peppery edge. This seems to sit somewhere between a stout and an old ale. I've had Adnams Old before and there are definitely some comparisons you could draw with this. I wouldn't rush out to buy this again, but it was enjoyable.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Sautéed Portobello Mushrooms with Toast and a Poached Egg

I like to eat small(ish) evening meals during the week, and something on toast is often a perfect option. This is more of an autumnal meal, but it's delicious at any time of the year.

Heat a generous amount of butter in a pan until foaming and add crushed garlic. Allow the garlic to cook for a minute or two and then add thickly sliced mushrooms. Sauté until the mushrooms are browned, you don't want the mushrooms to cook for too long or they'll become water logged and tasteless. An undercooked mushroom is far better than an overcooked one.

For the toast, the only rule is that you need bread that you cut yourself. Cut it thickly and toast on a griddle. Bread you buy cut is almost always not very good. When the bread is toasted, allow it to cool in a toast rack for a minute. It sounds obvious, but if you put too hot toast on a plate, the underside sweats and any crispness is lost.

Poaching eggs is one of those things that a lot of people shy away from. You can do it in an egg poacher, but it's only slightly more difficult to do it properly and the results are far better. The technique I use is to get a deep pot of simmering water, add a splash of vinegar and create a whirlpool in the water using a large wooden spoon. Get the freshest egg you can and crack into a mug or small cup. Pour from the cup straight into the middle of the boiling water and simmer for three to four minutes. Use a large slotted spoon to take the egg out of the water once cooked and drain on kitchen paper. If you want to make it look pretty, you can tidy up any loose white with a knife or scissors.

Serve with a light sprinkling of cayenne pepper or smoked paprika.

I really like this with a black lager (or Schwarzbier). The roastiness in the beer grabs hold of the earthy, meaty mushroom and smoked paprika. The beer is quite light in body but so is the food, together they are nicely balanced. The sweetness in the beer accentuates the lovely natural sweetness of a runny egg yolk, and the slight lager-crisp bitterness is a wonderful foil for the velvety, rich egg and mushroom.

The beer in the picture above is Zillertal Schwarzes. In truth, this beer is a little too sweet and not quite roasty enough to make the pairing work. Try it with different black lagers and see how it works. I would suggest a Krusovice Schwarzbier or Brewdog Zeitgeist.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Sink The Bismarck! Tasted!

On Friday night I tried the much talked about "Sink the Bismarck!", a 41 per cent quadruple IPA by Scottish Brewer Brewdog.

The beer was debuted by Brewdog's James Watt at London pub The Rake, and is current holder of the "Worlds strongest beer" title.

See here for thoughts on the announcement and surrounding marketing of the beer. This is just a quick blog to talk about impressions and opinions, now that I've been able to actually taste it. Marketing, naming and controversy aside for a minute, this is about the beer and the concept only.

The beer is a marmalade-orange colour with some haze. The nose is massive hops at first and then a big toffee malt backbone reveals itself. Mark from Pencil and Spoon described it as smelling like putting your head into a sack of the freshest hops. He's right, but there is a definite background toffeeness there too.

The taste, as you'd expect, is massive. You get hops first, which build to masses of orange flavour. If you told me this had been flavoured with orange, I'd believe you, that's how pronounced it is. There's a nice amount of that toffee sweetness following through from the nose, quickly chased by punishing, brutal bitterness. The texture is thick, very thick and sticky. Cough medicine, syrup, you get the idea.

Imagine taking a piece of toffee, spreading thick cut marmalade all over it and then rolling it in hops. That's what this beer tastes like. Remember when you were younger and Soda Streams were all the rage? You used to buy concentrated syrups of your favourite soft drink and then dilute them with freshly carbonated water. The end result being something close to the bottled original that you just buy in the shop. Sink the Bismarck is exactly how you'd imagine the soda stream concentrate for a double IPA to taste.

I'm glad I've tried Sink! It's a cool experiment, that's unfortunately been distracted from slightly by the surrounding marketing. If you get the chance to try it, then do. If £40 is affordable for you, go for it. If you've got a group of mates that would be willing to chip in for a bottle, then get them round, open a bottle and discuss. It isn't a beer that you'll want to drink every day, but I don't think that's the point. It's cutting edge, it's something that hasn't been done before, it's thought provoking and challenging. It's an experience that I think every beer enthusiast will enjoy.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Brewdog Sink The Bismarck - World's Strongest Beer

Towards the end of last year, Scottish brewery Brewdog released an ice-distilled beer called "Tactical Nuclear Penguin". With an ABV of 32 per cent, it broke records and made headlines across the main stream media.

Shortly afterwards, German brewer Schorschbrau announced Schorschbock, a penguin beating Eisbock of their own that weighed in at 40 per cent ABV.

Today, Brewdog announced "Sink the Bismarck!", a 41% beer that snatches back the title of worlds strongest and, unfortunately, appears to say a lot about the Scottish brewery all at the same time. The announcement will provoke the media, Brewdog lovers and haters and Schorschbrau alike. For this reason, I've stayed away from the reaction until I have chance to think about and put down my own thoughts.

To prevent any confusion, I'll say now that I'm a big fan of Brewdog. I buy and drink their beers a lot, and I highly rate the vast majority of the beers they produce. When Tactical Nuclear Penguin (TNP) was announced, I saw it as another boundary pushing beer. The ice-distillation technique is not new, embracing that style and producing something unique and delicious at the same time is exactly what Brewdog have been about.

You can argue that TNP wasn't a beer and that by distilling a liquid in any way, you create a spirit or liqueur. But, frankly, who cares? Who cares if the result is interesting, thought provoking and delicious. Who cares how the ABV has been reached, or indeed what the ABV is? It's a nice novelty to try the worlds strongest beer, but that's all it is ... a novelty.

So why is it then that Brewdog bother to up the ante and produce a beer that's 41 per cent? Is it because they think their core customer base is bothered where the world record sits, is it because they think it will steal more headlines and create worthwhile publicity, is it because they genuinely believe that an ice-distilled IPA is a flavour experience that the world needs?

Everything from the way this beer has been hinted at, announced, timed and even named, suggests that the driving force behind its creation is nothing more than childish one-upmanship. A desire to stick one finger up at Schorschbrau and say "anything you can do, we can do better". It smacks of the exact same attitude that lead to Brewdog reporting their own product to the Portman Group, a move that resulted in criticism from even the most hardened of Brewdog supporters.

Without being closer to the brewery, it's impossible to cast judgment one way or the other, without making assumptions. Without knowing first hand what the thought process was behind the creation of Bismarck, all you can do is assume. I could assume therefore that Brewdog were inspired by Schorschbrau to make a world record breaking beer, in a style that has never (to my knowledge) been attempted before. Setting out to make a boundary pushing beer, with the bonus addition of being able to win back the world record. The two aren't mutually exclusive. The marketing campaign could be an unfortunate misjudgment, that distracts from the original goal.

Intentions aside, the end result is the same. The marketing and naming of this beer has been pretty badly misjudged. "Sink the Bismarck!" as a name is, quite frankly, a bit naff. The press releases and videos reek of an ego-centric product, more interested in a petty competition than the customer. I honestly believe that the vast majority of the customer base Bismarck is aimed at, couldn't care less about the world's strongest beer. Why then use this as the main focal point of the product?

It's difficult to disagree that a quadruple hopped, 40 per cent IPA is something you'd like to try. Despite this, at £30 a bottle I didn't buy TNP and at £40 a bottle, I most definitely won't buy Sink the Bismarck!. I appreciate that the process and ingredients involved, must make this an expensive beer to make, but the price tag is just too big.

A final point to consider is around bottle closure. One of the most consistent criticisms of TNP, that I personally read, was around the crown cap used to close the bottle. 300ml of a 30 per cent ABV drink is just too much in one sitting. If TNP had been closed with a swing top or replaceable cork, it would've made it a lot easier to consume over a prolonged period of time. Despite this consistent comment from consumers, Bismarck appears to be closed with a crown cap! If today's announcement is about innovation, creativity, outstanding beer and the people that devote so much time, effort and money to drinking it, how was this over looked?

There's a distinct possibility that Bismarck is an astonishing beer. I for one would love to try it, but will probably never get the chance. It's just a shame that some elements of this Brewdog release appear to have been quite badly misjudged. Imagine an alternative Brewdog announcement today, one for an ice-distilled IPA , at 41 per cent ABV, called "Tactical Punk". The attached marketing being something along the lines of "Strong competition is healthy. Punk spirit will always be best". How different would the reaction be?

Battersea Beer Festival 2010

Something I didn't do enough of last year was attend beer festivals. Great British Beer Festival and Thanet Easter Beer Festival were pretty much it. I made a resolution at the beginning of the year to make more of an effort on the festival front, so persuaded the other half to take a trip down to Battersea on a wet Wednesday evening with me.

The festival is quite modest in size with about 150 beers on a combination of gravity and hand pull, and about 20 Ciders and Perry's. It ran for three days from Wednesday through to Friday and offers the usual discounts for CAMRA members. A big plus was that you could buy full, half and third pint measures, something that you don't see at every festival you go to.

The venue was full but not so busy that you couldn't find a seat. All of the beer I tried was in great nick and there was hot food available at reasonable prices. The beer list didn't blow me away but there was more than enough to interest most people, with a specific focus on some smaller local breweries. A small selection was also dedicated to foreign beer, the majority of this being made up of bottled Belgian and Germany beers.

I've heard a lot about Moor beer, but I'd never tried anything they produce. First drink of the night was Moor Peat Porter, a deep rich porter at 4.5 per cent. A big, full, creamy mouthful of roasty malt and dark fleshy fruits. I don't fully understand this beer though, there's no real peaty note to the taste and (upon checking the Moor website) there's no reference to peat anywhere in the grist or tasting notes. It was a good porter don't get me wrong, I just don't know where they're going with the name.

Fancying something a bit lighter and easy going, I moved on to Dark Star Hophead. I've expressed my love for all things Dark Star (to some extent) here. They can't put a foot wrong if you ask me, everything I've tried by them has been exceptional. Hophead is a 3.8 per cent pale ale that just screams floral and citrus. For a low ABV beer, the mouthfeel is exceptionally full and smooth. On the palate you get a real lemon sherbet hard boiled sweet flavour and then subtle bitter finish that's slightly drying. Apparently there's an Amarillo version of this, which I'd love to try.

I missed out on Rudgate Ruby Mild at the Great British Beer Festival. It was awarded Championship Beer of Britain 2010, so naturally it sold like hot cakes. I took the chance to try it at Battersea and was impressed. Not blown away, but quite impressed. Very fruity, caramelly and some subtle roastiness. The third I had felt a little too carbonated though, something you just don't expect, and something that doesn't really work in a mild.

Otley 01 was beer of the evening by a distance. I like the flavour of hops and I enjoy DIPA's and IPA's, but I have to admit that I sometimes find them too much. I had Stone Ruination a while ago (see here) and I was very disappointed. I'd been looking forward to it for quite a while, but I just found it far too unbalanced. The nose was just over the top hop and the taste was just far, far too sweet. It's easy to put loads of hops in a beer, but it's not easy to balance that against sweetness. I sometimes find huge IPAs just too bitter and, consequently, quite difficult to get through. Now, I'm not suggesting for one minute that Otley 01 is in that style, but it does have bags and bags of the freshest hop flavour. The beauty being that this hop flavour is balanced delicately against some sweetness and some subtle bitterness. This beer showcases hops at their best, without the arse-clenchingly bitter footnote.

To finish things off, I planned on a Thornbridge St Petersburg, only to be denied by a cask that hadn't settled in time. Still grinning from the Otley 01, I thought I'd give their 02 a try. It was OK, a bit oily in texture, some malt, some hop, not great. I'd give it another try with my palate a bit less fatigued, it was always up against it after the 01.

All in all, a good night and a good festival. Efficiently run, good beer and well worth the trip out on a Wednesday evening. Well worth checking it out in 2011.

On the subject of mild, I've got a whole post planned where I express my love for the style. I haven't really touched on it here, but it's something I plan to do in the near future. On the Otely 01 front, I really hope it's as good out of the bottle as it was from the cask.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Radler

Holidays to Germany and Austria have shown me how differently cultures view low alcohol beer. Set alcohol free drinks aside for a minute, because I want to talk about good(?) old Shandy.

As a kid, I was often allowed Lager Shandy at the pub, it gives a child that sense of being the same as an adult but without the effects of alcohol. My Dad would often have Shandy when driving or when drinking pint after pint just wasn't sensible. Shandy is perfect for these occasions. You get some of the flavour of beer, some refreshing Lemonade flavour and no drunkenness.

Why then is it viewed with such disdain in England? Order a Lager top down the local and you find yourself checking over your shoulder to make sure nobody heard you. Modern day society enforces the belief that drunkenness is next to manliness. A notion that is completely absurd.

As a beer enthusiast, I wouldn't dream of putting a mixer in most beer I drink, through fear of diluting the true taste of the beer. But if you have a stock beer that you drink day in and day out, why not add a little something to it on the days that you're chasing refreshment without the alcohol?

This is where Radler enters the equation. A premixed Shandy you find on supermarket shelves, in bars and on cafe and restaurant menus throughout Austria and Germany. Major breweries all have their versions and proudly brand their products with the same labelling and logos as for their standard and premium beers. Ordering a Radler at lunch time is as normal as a beer or glass of wine with your meal ... and so it should be!

Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting that I'll start adding Lemonade to all the beer I drink, but there definitely is a time and a place for Shandy. Something the Europeans seem to have worked out, but that the English haven't.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Black IPA Update - Brew Day

I've written about the black IPA I brewed here. In that post I mentioned that by the time I got to brew day, some modifications and changes had been made to the basic idea. This is an entry just to update on what those changes were.

The ever helpful Mr Kelly Ryan gave me a hand with the recipe and hopping schedule (many thanks). He also persuaded me, in a round about way, to drop the Fuggles from the recipe. Centennial were called off the bench as a replacement, the thought process being that they would bring more fruitiness and less spicy-grass, to the table.

Amarillo hops, ready for action.

The grain bill also underwent some tweaking, the crystal malt being removed entirely. At the last minute my mind swung back in the direction of a more traditional IPA, and I just thought it might work better if it was little dryer and less sweet.

On the day, I was aiming at an OG of 1060, but actually hit 1063. I ended up two litres of wort short, so that'll probably be why. I stuck with the Belgian yeast and S04 as a control, both of which hit a final gravity of 1014, giving an ABV of roughly 6.7%. Estimated IBU's come in at around 60-65.

Wort being chilled.

It's been in the bottle for four weeks now, by my reckoning it still needs at least three more before it's ready to drink. I'll post an update when I crack open a sample.

Small update: Since writing this entry, I've opened a sample to see how things are progressing. At 5 weeks in, both versions are still very green. You get burning alcohol upfront, a massive hit of hop and then over the top caramel sweetness. It tastes like a lower ABV beer at 2 weeks. Based on this, 7 weeks might be a bit optimistic. I don't think this beer will hit it's peak for quite some time.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Sausage Casserole & Brewdog 5am Saint

Another food and beer pairing. This one perfect for those occasions where you want something wholesome, hearty, filling and warm.

The casserole is simple. Take your favourite sausages (any will do) and brown them in a very hot pan, don't aim to cook them, you just need to colour the outside at this point. Remove the sausages and (in the same pan), sweat down some onions, celery, pepper and garlic. Add to this some passata, tomato puree, chunks of potato and some quartered and peeled tomatoes. Give it all a big stir, season and add the sausages back into the pot. Leave this to simmer for an hour with the lid on, and serve with a sprinkling of fresh coriander.
Now for the beer. I love Brewdog 5am Saint. I first had it at the Brewdog tasting I wrote about here, and I've been a fan since. The beer is massive on the hop aroma and taste but lacks the big bitter finish you expect. It's so light, delicate and refreshing yet it doesn't disappoint on flavour.

The big, juicy, fruity hop flavour in the beer is perfect for the rich, fruity tomato flavour in the casserole. The slight earthiness of the hop wraps itself around the meatiness of the sausages and then everything is picked up and swept away by the subtle bitterness of the beer's finish. The beer has enough hop flavour to ride above the casserole, but not so much that it over powers and numbs the palate.

I've only included a quick summary of the recipe. It isn't massively complex, so there should be more than enough to go by. If anyone is interested, I can post a more detailed description with amounts.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Beer Roundup - 04/02

Another instalment of my beer round ups. Covering things, good and bad, that I've drunk since the last one.


Dark Star Imperial Stout. Mmm, Dark Star. I love, love, love Dark Star Six Hop, so whenever I see one of their beers, I go for it. This is one is deep black in colour with some tan bubbles on top. The smell is dark fleshy fruits, alcohol and (call me crazy if you will) ... coconut. It feels very smooth and creamy in the mouth with a big roasty, bitter finish. The fleshy fruit comes through in the taste giving a slight winey note but, rather oddly, there is way less roasted flavour than you'd expect. Very interesting and very good.

Stone Ruination IPA. This one had been at the back of the cupboard for a while. Based on it's self-confessed "ruinous" effect on the palate, I'd been avoiding it until I knew I wouldn't be eating or drinking anything afterwards. The colour is a delicious golden-amber with a small loose head. The smell is basically liquid hop with some very slight caramel/toffee in the background. At 100+ IBU's, you expect it to be bitter ... and it is. The biggest flavour by far though, is sickly caramel sweetness. You drink this beer and you think "maybe it will be too bitter to be any good" but, ironically, it was the sweetness that killed it for me. A few mouthfuls in and it's just too sweet. I know a lot of people rate this beer, but for me it isn't balanced. The nose is too much hop and the taste is too much sweetness. A real disappointment.

Robinson's Old Tom. Voted World's best ale by 'Beers of the World' magazine, I found this in Sainsbury's for less than a few quid, so had to give it a go. The colour is chestnut with red hints when held to the light. The nose is quite complex, at first you get dark malts giving you ripe dark fruitiness, this then moves into a woodiness and reminds of a barley wine. The taste has lots of malty-sweet fruitiness up front, this moves on to a woodiness and then a slightly tangy, subtle bitter finish. Very good. I kept thinking throughout that this reminds me of Brewdog's Divine Rebel, it really does have that barley wine taste to it. I can't help but feel this would really lend itself to cask ageing.

Victory Hop Devil IPA. I've heard people say they think this is great and I've heard people say they think this is rubbish. The colour is a lovely copper-orange, the head is quite fluffy and white, there's a slight haze. The nose is good, big orangey American hops with a background of sweet caramelly malt. The hops follow through into the taste and are accompanied by burnt sugar sweetness and a bitter finish that really grows on you. It's really imbalanced though, the hops come in and take over, leaving you with an almost over-stewed-tea flavour. Starts well, but lets itself down with the lack of balance.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Beer in Germany

I wrote this blog whilst on holiday in Munich and Nuremberg. I'm not pretending to be an expert on German beer history or drinking in Germany. This is merely the impression I took away with me and a collection of observations I made. It would be interesting to visit the north of the country to see how/if things differ.

Unlike in England, there doesn't appear to be any "free houses" here. Bars (or Brauhaus) are tied to a single brewery and only sell beer from that one supplier. As with tied pubs in England, that supplier tends to be localised and the product offering doesn't vary greatly from one place to the next.

This may be painting a slightly negative picture, so allow me to stop myself. Whilst you might know what's on offer before you set foot in the door, you also know that the quality of the beer on offer will be excellent. Such is the thirst for beer in this country, that you get the feeling the locals would accept nothing less.

Favoured styles form the trio of: Heles, Dunkel and Weisse.

  • Helles or Hell: A pale, clear lager with a crisp, clean taste and moderate bitterness.
  • Dunkel: Dark chestnut in colour, a sweet start leads to malty yeast flavour.
  • Weisse: Brewed with a high percentage of wheat in the grist and (more often than not) unfiltered. Sweet banana and clove yeastiness dominate the flavour.
Styles aside, for a drink to be called beer in the country, it must adhere to the Rheinhetsgebot (circa 1430 - 1490). Literally translated into English as "Purity order", this law states that if a drink contains anything other than barley, yeast, water and hops, it can't be called beer. This is in no small part responsible for the excellent quality standards I mentioned earlier. It appears to breed a reverence for beer, an attitude that beer is something special and must be kept sacred. What results are beers of character and distinction, always served in top condition.

But you know what? Attitude is something I also want to criticise. In a similar way to how most drinkers lazily pick up a soulless macro lager in the UK, I can't help but feel the same is sometimes true of the way a beer is ordered here. You drink enough quality beer in the way it's consumed here and you must begin to take it for granted. You must stop taking a second to dissect and appreciate that stein of beer in your hand. When I go away on holiday, that first cup of tea back in England tastes better than the ten I had before I left. It tastes better because I've missed it, I've looked forward to it and, most importantly because I'm concentrating on it when I drink it.

Maybe I'm being hyper critical, but I can't help but get a slight feeling that beer to a German is as tea to an Englishman. Love it dearly, can't live without it, but every now and again we're guilty of taking it for granted.

Negativity again. Let's talk about another big beer related positive that I've picked up on during my time here. Beer and food. Save for perhaps a can of lager in an unlicensed curry house, beer with food is pretty much non-existent in England. Not so in Germany. Walk in to any restaurant or Brauhaus and the beer is proudly displayed on the menu next to the main courses, with only a small section at the back reserved for wine. A Maß of beer with your Rostbratwurst is as run-of-the-mill as salt and vinegar on your chips. And why not ... the combination is, more often than not, delicious.

People here are beer lovers, they regard beer as a drink for everyone and for all occasions. The focus is on locality, provenance, quality and character. As a visitor, the appreciation of that culture and mindset is magnified. I recommend this part of the world to any fellow beer lover. Come and see it for yourself, you'll find it difficult to leave without having had a good time.