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Thursday, 31 March 2011

Punk Off - Bottle vs Can

I’ve wanted to do a bottle vs. can blind tasting for a while now. There’s always just too much beer in my fridge to justify buying a four pack of London Pride though, so it hasn’t happened. The benefits of cans over glass are numerous: they’re less permeable to oxygen, they offer better protection against light strike, they’re easier to store and transport and they chill faster. But do they affect the way a beer tastes? And, if so, how?

With the change to their Punk IPA recipe (that I wrote about here), Brewdog also introduced the beer in 330ml cans. I bought a bottle and a can shortly after the new recipe was brewed, so I’ve assumed that the beer is either the same batch or from two batches that were made very closely together. Each had the same storage from the moment it entered my hands; back of the fridge away from any temperature fluctuations or bright light.

I turn my back whilst a lovely assistant* pours the two beers into identical glasses, labelling at random “beer one” and “beer two”.

Beer number one had a fluffier, more persistent head. The aroma felt like it was lacking something over the initial test batches of new Punk though. Those hops were there, sure, bringing citrus aromas and tropical fruits, but they felt dull and tamed. Mickey Rourke as Randy The Ram - they felt like they’d lost their edge. And the same was true for the taste, a more dominant wave of chewy malt sweetness quickly rushing in after a limp initial hop attack. Bummer, not what I was hoping for at all. A delicious beer in its own right, but not what I wanted from new Punk and certainly not what I remember from those early teaser batches.

In contrast, beer number two felt flatter and softer, less carbonation, a much smaller head that quickly disappeared after pouring. But we don’t judge a book, or a beer, by its cover; the aroma of this sample being worlds apart from the first. A plume of citrus-driven hop aroma meeting you from the glass, far more impactful and assertive than the first. That chewy, toffee, caramel malt backbone beaten into submission by the hops; you could pick it from the background but it felt like a canvas for those hops to be painted over, rather than a dominant flavour character.

So then, clearly one beer at the peak of freshness and one on the decline. How much can be put down to those factors outside of the closure method? Age, batch, storage before leaving the brewery and whilst in transit. Who knows? Short of visiting the brewery and drinking straight off the production line, it's difficult to recreate a fairer test than the one I carried out here. Whilst not definitive, hopefully it does give some insight into the can vs bottle debate.

And the big reveal ...... beer one: bottle, beer two: can.

*Girlfriend coaxed into it during a Dancing on Ice advert break.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Maris Otter & Crystal Malted Pancakes

Back here I wrote about using hops as a seasoning for fried chicken. Well, in combination with some ideas I heard the Homebrew Chef Sean Paxton talking about, it got me thinking about how I could use malt in a recipe. Mark Dredge has since used pale malt in a really cool way, enhancing the texture and flavour of a cookie, but my idea was driven more by the technique that’s used with malt for brewing beer - mashing. When you mash malted barely to make beer, you combine it with water at a very specific temperature in order to produce a thick porridge. Over time, the natural starches within the grains are converted to sugar by enzymes (also found naturally within the grain) and are dissolved into the liquid. The resulting sugary water is known as wort. This wort is usually then seasoned with hops and fermented with brewing yeast to make beer.

So what if you take milk and heat it to a very specific temperature, let’s say 67C, and then combine it with a small amount of pale and crystal malted barley? Leave it for an hour in a warm place and then strain off the grain with a sieve. The milky wort could then be used with egg, butter, baking powder and flour to make pancake batter. No?


That’s exactly what I did, and it worked really well. This recipe acts as a good base but you only need it as a guide. I left the sugar out and relied on the malt to provide all the sweetness, I multiplied the ingredients by 1.5 and used 20g pale malt and 10g crystal malt.

The sweetness from the grain replaced the sugar and added biscuity and caramel notes that you wouldn’t ordinarily get. The pancakes felt denser, richer and smoother than when I’ve made this recipe before; served with bacon and maple syrup they were absolutely delicious.

A cool way to get some of the flavours usually associated with beer into your food, using both a brewing ingredient and a brewing process. This is a technique that I plan to use on more recipes in the future, but what beer would you use to pair with these pancakes?


Full Recipe (makes 7 large pancakes) 200g plain flour, 1.5 tsp baking powder, 3/4 tsp salt, 200ml milk, 2 medium eggs (beaten), 2 tbsp melted butter, 20g pale malt, 10g crystal malt.

Heat the milk to 67C in a heavy saucepan, stir the malt in really well. Wrap in a few towels or place in an oven that's been set to low for an hour. Remove (lauter) the grain from the milk using a fine sieve. Whisk the egg, butter, baking power, flour and salt into the milk mixture until smooth. Get a heavy-bottomed pan hot and oiled, pour a ladle of the mixture into the pan and leave alone until bubbles appear on the surface, turn the pancake once and leave for a further minute or two. Sorted.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Pairing Good Beer with Good Food: Spring

My latest article for Thanet CAMRA's Ale of Thanet publication covers food and beer pairing with a spring theme. You can check it out below or find the original (for a limited period) here.


From the golden ales of summer to the brown ales of autumn and then the dark beers of winter; a year has passed and we complete our journey with spring. We’ve looked at the changing seasons and the way they impact what we drink, pairing great beers with great foods along the way. Spring is about anticipation and expectation; we’re done with winter now, no more snow delayed trains and no more icy walks to work. As the days tick by the evening sunlight teases us with its growing perseverance, that barbecue is in the back of our minds and summer isn’t far away.

Springtime is an overlooked season when it comes to beer; not quite summer and not quite winter, it struggles to be defined by an obvious beer style, many breweries choosing just to release their summer blonde ales a month or two early. Good food and good produce on the other hand begin to come into their own at this time of year, the more eager of the crop can be harvested giving us delicious new potatoes, spring onions and broad beans. One of my favourite things in the world is a bowlful of boiled new potatoes, tossed in olive oil, lemon juice and dill; served warm it’s difficult to beat.

May brings us asparagus, that perennial English favourite that just isn’t the same at any other time of year. It’s best served simply, allowing its wonderful natural flavour to take centre stage. Snap off the woody stubs, boil in salted water for four minutes or until tender with a slight bite and serve with a generous knob of butter. The classic beer accompaniment is a Belgian Tripel or strong golden ale; Duvel is a great example of the latter and is widely available in supermarkets. At 8.5 % ABV it’s an intense beer, strong alcohol notes combine with peppery, spicy noble hops and a firm bitter finish. There’s a sweetness up front in the beer that’ll find the natural sweetness of the asparagus, the abundant carbonation balances out the heaviness in the beer and helps to cut through the butter. Noble Saaz hops have a delicate herbal quality to them, almost vegetal when used in large quantities; this is a perfect match for the food and paves the way for the bittersweet bridge between the food and the drink. There’s a complex simplicity about this pairing that I just love, it’s unfussy, it just works, but it offers more every time you come back for a mouthful.

Duvel is available at all good off-licences and bottled beer shops. A 330ml bottle will cost in the region of £2.50.

Quite frankly, I’d feel a complete and utter fraud if I wrote an article about spring food but didn’t include lamb. And, whilst not certain, I’m pretty sure that when eating lamb it’s a legal requirement to have mint sauce and roast potatoes. People have been convicted for far less serious crimes to good food. How do you pair a beer with something like mint sauce though? Something so brash, with its sugary sweetness, tart acidity and menthol tang? It would take a big beer to stand up to that, but with something full-on you risk swamping the food or adding one flavour too many and making the whole meal feel muddled. I think a lighter beer is the best way to go, something that’s clean and simple and refreshing but has enough about it to make itself known. I like Wells and Young’s London Gold for occasions such as this. It’s a top fermented, bottle conditioned beer, but by the time it hits the glass it feels somewhere between an ale and a lager. Sporting notes of hay and bread crust it has a zingy citrus tartness to it and a crisp, snappy bitter finish. It’s full of flavour without being full-on, and it has a palate cleansing quality that I think makes it great with strongly flavoured food.

Wells and Young’s London Gold is widely available. A 500ml bottle will cost around £2.

A final offering, a personal favourite, crab cakes with chili and coriander. Fresh crab meat begins to come into season at this time of year and, whilst it can be difficult to find, it’s worth the effort to track down over tinned. If you don’t like the idea of buying live crab, a good fishmonger will happily sell you a dressed version. I combine this meat with some seasoned mashed potato, thinly sliced spring onion, chili and plenty of fresh coriander. Use an egg yolk to bring the mixture together and form into cakes in your hands. Dust each side of the cakes with some plain flour, gently fry in standard olive oil until golden brown and serve with a generous dollop of mayonnaise and some rocket leaves. I like this with a bottle of Brewdog 5am Saint, an amber ale from the Scottish brewers that’s packed full of new world hops. It has a toffee and caramel malt background that works with the natural sweetness of the crab; then overlaying that sits a wave of jammy-sweet tropical fruits that will find the fruitiness of the chili, before a crisp, bitter finish that will cut through the food like a squeeze of citrus.

Brewdog 5am Saint is available at selected Sainsbury’s shops. A 300ml bottle will cost around £1.90.

I love good beer and I love good food; when the two come together they can make for delicious results. Hopefully this seasonal series has showcased a few great combinations and made you think about the beers you drink with the food you eat. Its versatility, accessibility and variety makes beer the greatest long drink in the world, I think that’s something we’d all agree on. Let’s celebrate and enjoy beer throughout the year, not just when in the pub or at a festival. Set another place at the dinner table, a place for good beer.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

As Live FA Cup & To Øl

Here goes then. A little blog for fun. I'm settled down with a beer to watch the West Ham game. Some "As Live" thoughts on the beer I drink and the game as it unfolds.

13:59 Kick off after the break. The beer in the picture is a homebrew that's just reached condition. 4% with a load of chinook and cascade. Pretty decent, I think I've got the water treatment about nailed now.

14:01 Resting Demba Ba? Is that dodgy knee finally becoming an issue? Why the hell is Upson still wearing that captain's armband? Two words: Scott Parker.

14:04 Nice save Robert Green! A goal there? That's the last thing we needed.

14:08 This homebrew is pretty decent. The bitterness is huge but it doesn't linger. Hop flavour is almost all coming from the dry hop. In other news, ITV1 in HD rocks.

14:13 Booorrriinnggg! How can anyone be a fan of the way Stoke play? One down.

14:20 West Ham just need to calm down, hold the ball up and look to go forward. It feels like they're panicking a bit.

14:24 Some ridiculous acting from Obinna. Goes down like a lead weight, rolls around like he's been shot in the gut, only to pop up immediately as soon as the ref shows him the yellow card. I hate this side of football, you don't get this in cricket!

14:32 GET IN!! Great finish. Well controlled (with the shoulder ... or possibly arm). 1-1.

14:38 An injury on both sides just as the game starts to break loose and become a bit more exciting. I can hear the away fans singing bubbles. Goal-machine-spector is now on the field.

14:51 Half time and scores level. West Ham's goal was a tad lucky, but I think the score line probably reflects the way it's gone so far.

15:07 Second half has kicked off and Stoke have a penalty for a blatant dive. Scott Parker plays by the rules, simple as that, blatant dive. How much of that decision was down to the hand ball call in the first half?

15:07 Justice is done. Rob Green, beautiful penalty save. Get in there!

15:10 I found a beer during the break. It's something I picked up a couple of weeks back from the awesome Cask Pub and Kitchen in Pimlico. First Frontier IPA from the Danish brewery To Øl.

15:17 So, I don't know anything about this beer. I was told that the brewers behind it were apprentices at Mikkeller. The label says it's and American IPA at 7.1%. The hops are warrior, centennial and simcoe.

15:25 This beer is interesting. The aroma is packed with perfume and floral notes. I'm getting some ripe apricot flesh and some grapefruit in the background. It reminds me a lot of the hoppy Italian craft beers I've had. Birra del Borgo Re Ale Extra, Toccalmatto Zona Cesarini, that sort of thing. They all share a floral, perfume note that I've never had in an American beer.

15:26 And we're back to 2-1. This must be quite a game for the neutral.

15:31 I think it's yeast. This beer has been sitting still in my fridge for a fortnight and I poured it carefully to leave the sediment behind, despite that though it's really hazy. The main flavour I'm getting is very similar to the taste of US05 yeast that's just had beer racked off it after primary fermentation.

15:38 Refresher sweets and maybe some apple (but not in an oxidised way). I just read the last entry again and realised it sounds a bit odd. Yes, as odd as it sounds, I have tasted yeast after I've racked homebrew off it, what can I say ....

15:42 Fearing the result a bit, my mind has started to stray. Found this wonderfully abstract video on the To Øl website.

15:50 West Ham have a blatant penalty turned down and then hit the crossbar shortly afterwards. I think that cancels out any good luck in the first half.

15:53 Getting lots of yeast and apple now. Maybe this beer is slightly oxidised.

16:00 Well, looks like that Wembley day out will have to wait another year. 2-1 Stoke, a disappointing result and a slightly disappointing beer in First Frontier IPA.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Hopcorn Chicken

I like the idea of using hops in food. Picking out the flavour characteristics of a particular hop and using them in place of, or alongside, the ingredient they emulate. How about a lemon mousse with the enigmatic sorachi ace, or key lime pie with the vibrant, zesty notes of citra? It’s something that appeals to both the food and beer lover in me, all at the same time.

The difficulty comes in isolating hop flavour without also extracting bitterness. In “How to Brew” John Palmer tells us that: “The main bittering agent is the alpha acid resin which is insoluble in water until isomerised by boiling”. But put a hop cone in your mouth and bite down on it, make a hop tea using water at 60 degrees centigrade or dry hop a beer heavily and you’ll know that boiling is far from fundamental to extracting bitterness. And whilst that bitterness is essential to balancing the malty sweetness of beer, in food it’s almost always unwelcome.

Homebrew chef Sean Paxton talks about a technique for capturing hop flavour that involves salt. He makes a “hop salt” by layering together alternate bags of hops and sea salt. The bags are made from muslin which allows the aroma of the hop to slowly permeate the salt over time. Although it takes a while for that hop flavour to become strong enough, it eventual provides you with a hop flavour that can be added easily to food without the dreaded bitterness.

Whilst my own hop salt experiment slowly comes to life, I thought I’d have a go at something a bit quicker. We know that hop pellets taste bitter as all hell, but could you use them sparingly enough, combined with other ingredients, to give a hop flavour with manageable bitterness?

I took two columbus hop pellets, just two, ground them in a pestle and mortar and added sea salt flakes. Instantly I got a huge aroma of dank, wet leaves. In the background lurked a piney note and some lemony citrus. Working on the fly I added some coriander seed, thinking that the zingy, citrus freshness that they have would pick out and amplify the similar qualities in the hop. Boom! What an aroma resulted, delicious.

To test this seasoning I needed something quite subtle, a carrier that would provide a canvas for the flavour rather than mask it. I used some popcorn chicken by taking it still hot from the oven, throwing it into a plastic food bag with the seasoning and giving the whole thing a good shake. The coverage this gave was pretty much spot on; light, but evenly spread across each mouthful.

Did it work? Simply put, no. The smell coming off the food was great, the heat forcing those volatile aroma compounds into the air, massively enhancing the fragrance that the seasoning had when first ground. But the bitterness was still there, still there in spades. At first you got a great flavour following through from the notes in the aroma, but then in pounded the most brutal bitterness I’ve ever experienced. Massive, face puckering, ear curling bitterness. Clutching at straws, a light sprinkle of sugar did actually go some way towards tempering it, but ultimately nothing was bringing this one back from the realms of failure.

Interesting stuff. Let’s see how the hop salt goes.