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Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Lovibonds VAT 69 IPA

Yeah, so anyway, I’m walking into the shop on the way home from work, it’s Friday and I’m grabbing the essentials for the evening. I can’t be arsed with anything new tonight, I just fancy something to sit back and enjoy, something I’m familiar with, something I don’t need to think about. Bottle of white for the missus and some ice cubes; yeah I know I’m paying for frozen tap water but life’s too short for those little trays, I always end up with more water over the floor than in the freezer anyway!

Something looks wrong with this bottle. Why would they change the label? Whatever, it doesn’t have those three words on it so it must be the same inside. “New and improved”.

Glass out, ice in, feet up, sip. Ahhhh.

Arghhh, what the hell!

Where’s that buttery sweetness, vanilla and woody oak? I’ve got a mouthful of American hops! This doesn’t taste like whisky at all. If anything, it tastes like beer. Wait a minute, now I look a bit closer, it is beer! Lovibonds 69 IPA, I thought I’d bought Sanderson VAT 69 Scotch Whisky.

An easy mistake to make. I mean, if I’m being absolutely honest, the labels do look completely different. One of them is based on a red and white American road sign whilst the other is black and gold with stencil font, but they’re still easily mistaken. The beer was found in the beer aisle – of a specialist beer shop, in a beer shaped bottle, at a typical beer price with a beer ABV; but apart from that it’s identical to the whisky.

Ah well, having made this easy mistake, there’s absolutely no way I’m going back to that shop to get that whisky. Nope, my mind’s made up. I’ll never buy that whisky again! Why would I when the 69 IPA tastes so similar and I can just buy that instead?


This post was written in response to the news that global beverage company Diageo have taken exception to micro brewers Lovibonds using the number 69 in their marketing. Apparently the "69 IPA" brand is easy to confuse with their own "VAT 69" whisky. See here.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Punk Off - Punk vs Punk

For a lot of us, Brewdog Punk IPA is an important beer. Love them or hate them, in many ways Brewdog spearhead the good (craft?) beer movement in the UK and, as the brewery flagship, Punk is symbolic of the whole ethos behind the brewery. Punk is a statement of intent, and as a lover of good beer it’s something I feel a kinship for. When I put a bottle of Punk in my supermarket basket I feel like I’ve done more than buy beer; I’ve made a point, I’ve left the cheap, tasteless crap behind and I’ve paid a little more for a quality product, crafted by skilled people that care about flavour above all else.

Changing the Punk recipe would therefore be insane, right? A wise man once said: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. But that’s exactly what Brewdog have done, determined that they can make it a better beer they’ve lowered the bitterness and alcohol and increased the dry hops in the recipe. They’ve made Punk better than it was, simple as that.

Taking that last bottle of original Punk out of the fridge, prising the cap off and pouring it into a glass, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a slight twang of sadness. The last time I’d ever drink Punk! Ever! Breaking open a bottle of the new version alongside it felt like the right way to see the old girl off; a passing of the baton, a changing of the guard.

Original Punk is filtered so, naturally, it pours a much brighter gold then the new comer. The aroma is actually quite reserved with currant skins, some white grape and elderberries. The malt is really there, bringing a toasty quality to the finish and the faintest hint of nuttiness or smoke. Then in floods that trademark bitterness, brutal and unforgiving. It’s a beer I know and love, perhaps lacking the impact it once had but still great.

New Punk is a completely different beer. The aroma is masses of satsuma, grapefruit and pine that follow through to the taste before giving in to a bitterness that feels perfectly in proportion. It’s dry and it’s light, perhaps a touch thin if being hypercritical, but it’s wonderfully refreshing. It feels like a move towards 5am Saint, it’s less aggressive than the original but it’s packed full of flavour and it’s effortlessly drinkable - exactly the type of beer I want to fill my fridge with.

Variation between batches has been a problem for Brewdog in the past, the Punk I drank here for example was far from the best I’ve had. I hope the same problem doesn’t hit the new recipe because, with it now being available in cans, it’s something I can see myself wanting to drink a lot of. I’ve tried the new version from a bottle, keg and cask; whilst all very different, they’ve all been great. It’s a brave move to change the product you built your company on, but I think it’s the right one.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Brood: Why Craft Beer Means Something

Some beer is brewed purely to make money. The flavour of this beer and the processes used to make it are irrelevant; they are necessary cogs in a money making machine, and if the brewer can change them to increase the money he makes then he will, regardless of the impact it has. A production process driven by profit alone, we call this beer “Macro Beer”.

Some beer is brewed for experimentation, for investigation, through interest and enthusiasm, for the love of flavour. When this beer is made no consideration is given to cost or complexity of process; if there’s a way to make that beer better, the brewer will find it and will use it. A production process that’s enabled by skill and knowledge, driven by the quality of the final product. We call this beer “Homebrew”.

And then some beer finds itself sitting between these two groups. It’s made with the passion, skill and love that defines the homebrew, but it’s also sold to make the brewer a living. Profitability is critical, but it isn’t to the detriment of the finished beer. The brewer strives for balance, to achieve both a quality product, and enough money to live. What do we call this beer?


It's a tough environment over on that macro side. Massive marketing budgets, corporate sponsorships, endless pounds to spend on research and the economies of scale. The only way that our plucky middle-group-hero can compete is by carving out a niche, identifying himself as something a bit different, something worthy of attention. That niche is quality, and his weapon is the reassurance that it's ok to pay a premium for something of significant quality. His identity, his banner, is "Craft Beer".

Appealing to this niche is critical if a foothold is to be established in that left hand group. The macro cannot be matched for price; the moment quality is brought into question or a beer is viewed as too expensive it fails, and the customer reverts to the cheap slabs piled high in the corner.

So slap the words “Craft Beer” on any old product and the jobs a goodun then? No. Branding, packaging, promotion; all critical in denoting a product as being one of quality. Take supermarkets; you see a black packet in Marks & Spencer or Tesco and you immediately think quality. Whether the banner is “Taste the difference”, “Finest” or “ASDA Extra Special” isn’t important, you’ll judge a beer on the appearance of the pump clip or bottle label way before you get a chance to read the small print. And all these things are only worthy of investment if the product’s right; the skill and expertise of the brewer have to be there in the first place, the proof of the pudding is in the eating they say, there’s no point in polishing a turd.

A banner does allow us to tie things together though, we with our natural human instinct to group, categorise and classify. It’s an enabler for providing us with a way to write and speak and communicate with more accuracy than by just saying “beer”. It’s an identity and a statement of intent.

The specific name we use isn’t the important thing here. “Craft Beer" or "Micro Beer or "Artisan Ale”, each would work equally well, and any preference for one over the other is exactly that - just a preference. A preference which is irrelevant, irrelevant for the reasons discussed and irrelevant because, like it or not, “Craft Beer” has become the de facto standard. “Craft Beer” puts emphasis on the craftsmanship behind the beer, on the skill and expertise of the brewer, on quality; as a banner, “Craft beer” works.

This blog was posted as part of "Brood", see here.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Pretzels and Dips

Pretzels in England suck. Those tiny little bronze knots, baked to a crisp, sandpaper-dry; they’re the snack you buy for Christmas and eventually throw away in February, they always disappoint. In the US and in Germany it’s a completely different story. Over there, a pretzel is a snack as big as your face; it’s doughy and leathery, it’s chewy and tangy, it’s aggressively studded with enough salt to make your mouth water, it’s perfect for beer.

For my money, the key process in producing a great pretzel is the boil before the bake. You bring a large pan of water to the boil and add a tablespoon of bicarbonate of soda; this is then used as a bath for each pretzel before baking. Keep the water at a boil and just throw each pretzel in for one minute, making sure that the whole surface of the dough gets contact time with the water. Easy. The science behind this defeats me, but what it does for the finished snack is add that characteristic leathery exterior, whilst leaving the inside soft and doughy.

Next on the critical list is the shaping of your unbaked pretzel. Roll between hands to form a long strand and then twist into that familiar shape - remembering to leave sufficient space for rising. Whilst this is easy enough for those face-sized-monsters we touched on earlier, smaller, dainty, bite-sized versions would need the kind of dexterity and finger girth that only Tinkerbell could boast of. For this reason, I made Pretzel bites by cutting the pre-shaped strands into thumbnail chunks with a sharp knife; maintaining the flavour and texture of the pretzel, just in a mouth sized morsel.

And to partner - a selection of beer themed dips; all starting with a foundation of mayonnaise, based on a recipe by Richard Fox (via Mark Dredge).

Having split the batch, the first version got three teaspoons of Young’s Bitter folded through it; giving a sharp bitterness to the finish and a feint hop-spice upfront. A generous pinch of mustard powder and a drizzle of honey to the second attempt seemed like a good idea at the time, but the mustard combined with the beer to give a two-punch-combo of astringency and heat; quite frankly horrendous. Attempt number three, beautifully fresh garam masala, enough to flavour without leaving a grainy texture, wonderfully fragrant, almost floral, earthy and spicy; tempered by the rich, velvety mayonnaise, a clear winner.

Finally, a dip inspired by the Mexican sauce Mole Poblano - a dark and luscious combination of chocolate, chilli peppers and as many as twenty other ingredients. I very finely grated some onion and garlic, sweated this off in some olive oil and then added a spice mix of smoked paprika, cumin, salt, black pepper, chilli powder, cinnamon and clove. To beer-it-up and add that essential chocolate flavour I deglazed the pan with Young’s Double Chocolate Stout, followed by enough tomato puree to leave a thick, velvety sauce. Intense but delicious.

So, pretzels and a selection of dips. Beer snacks are the way forward my friends.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Saison du BUFF & Focaccia

What do you pair with a beer like Saison du BUFF? An American saison that’s flavoured with parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme! The cogs churn through the extraordinary: chocolate, coffee, red fruits; but settle on something a bit more safe.

I’ve always had something of an addiction for baking bread; if not for the early mornings, crap salary and shiny allure of IT, I might even be a baker today. The classic combination of rosemary, sea salt and olive oil pops into my head; combine with that safety net of flour and water and we’re focaccia bound from here on out.

My recipe for bread goes something like this:

How much do I want? Lots! Then I’ll need a lot of flour! One packet of yeast, salt, some olive oil if it suits and then enough water to bring it together. Knead it to the point that you think you’ve kneaded it enough, then knead it some more. Stick it in a bowl, leave it for an hour. Punch it in the face and then knead it some more. Shape, leave to double in size, bake.

When making focaccia, I use the handle of a wooden spoon to push holes into the surface of the bread just before it goes into the oven. Salt, rosemary and good olive oil are pounded together in a pestle and mortar, then rubbed all over the bread.

Saison du BUFF is an interesting beer. Oddly interesting. I’m not really sure I like it. The flavour profile is dominated by the herbs, mainly rosemary in fact, then in comes a Belgian yeast character that feels grubby and dirty, it’s sulphurous and bitter and not very nice. The two elements clash badly and you’re left thinking: nice idea in theory, not so great in practice.

On the other, the bread turned out brilliantly; lovely peppery olive oil, fragrant rosemary and an assertive saltiness. Delicious.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Dot Com

You can now access this blog via http://www.beerbirrabier.com

From under the familiar, comfortable wing of Blogspot.com, it's time for this Blog to emerge and take its first steps into the world of adulthood. If you see it cowering in a corner, wearing unwashed clothes, surrounded by Pot Noodle and Rustlers packets - spare it a moment please. Feed it some baked beans and tell it to have a bath.

You can still use the beerbirrabier.blogspot.com URL and old links will automatically redirect to the new domain - no worries there.