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Saturday, 30 April 2011

As Live: Cornish Rattler Cyder

Not quite in the spirit of Open It!, but something I have been meaning to open for a while is the bottle of Cornish Rattler cider that the people at Healey's sent me.

18:55 I just tried to pour it with a head and stopped near the end for the sediment ... which isn't there. Old (beer) habits die hard I guess.

19:01 Bloody hell, feel a bit out of my depth with this. Makes you realise how much you get used to the flavours in beer. It's mightily refreshing if nothing else.

19:05 Bottle says it's a cloudy cider but it looks pretty bright to me. It's crisp in the finish with a very feint bitterness. Sounds massively obvious but the main taste is crisp, fresh apple.

19:07 Hopzine Rob is drinking AleSmith IPA. As much as this is hitting the spot right now, I'd probably trade.

19:11 The sweetness in this alongside the relatively simple flavour profile makes it incredibly drinkable.

19:14 I'm convinced I can taste something along the lines of sesame seeds or five spice in this. Something like that smell that hits you when you walk into a Chinese supermarket.

19:17 Maybe the bitterness isn't there and I'm just looking for it because I always drink beer? There's an alcoholic flavour in the finish for sure though.

19:21 Well that's the end of that. Opened as the first drink of the night when really thirsty; didn't last long as a result. I'm not a cider drinker but in the hot sun on a summer's day I would happily quaff the hell out of this! Very pleasant.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Hop Growing 2011

Step one in the production of my 2011 wet hop IPA: plant hop rhizome. Ok, maybe not, but I am giving hop growing a go this year. Just the one Cascade rhizome, starting out in a big pot so that I can control growth and move it to a sunnier spot if necessary. This post is more about the pictures than the words to be honest, but it’ll hopefully be the first in a diary that chronicles growth from planting all the way up to harvest. I’m not expecting many cones in the first year but you never know, might end up with enough for a late hop addition if I’m lucky.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Summer Sessions

A few beers have really caught my eye recently.

We’re experiencing unusually good weather in the South of England for this time of year. It doesn’t take much for the shorts and sunglasses to come out, nor the ever-eager Londoner that simultaneously sunbathes topless in the park whilst cowering from the chill-wind behind a tree trunk or hedgerow. It’s a funny sight, but a sight that fills you with the optimism of summer, the knowledge that those alfresco evenings and scorched afternoons aren’t far away.

Drinking habits begin to change too; the comforting warmth of a big, dark porter or stout is dethroned and refreshment becomes king. The golden ales and lager beers take over tap handles and fill fridges, offering us thirst slaking super-powers par excellence. We’re looking for beers that offer quaffability not sipability, something we can greedily chug down and draw a line under with a contented sigh and a table-bump of the pint glass.

Drinkability is a word that sparks debate; for me, when used in the context of a golden summer ale, it largely hinges on alcohol content. I don’t want to be drinking something that’ll rock me after a single pint, that’s not what I’m looking for, I want something that I can drink two or three of and still feel fine after. I want something to drink, not something to get me drunk. Extreme session beer*; a maximum of 4 percent ABV.

It’s a difficult style to brew because there’s nothing to hide behind. You get a slight off flavour in an IIPA and there’s a good chance you’ll get away with it, badly ferment an imperial stout and you can just apply a barrel-aged-bandage to cover it up. Easy. But when everything is subtle and turned down to a whisper the brewer isn’t forgiven so quickly, the slightest suggestion of a problem becomes deafening. And if that weren’t difficult enough, the window in which a balanced beer can be landed becomes increasingly narrow the smaller you go. What’s 10 IBUs when your total is around 90? But 10 IBUs when your total is 20, well that’s a different story. 5 gravity points in a 10 percent barley wine, but in a ... yeah, you get the idea.

Camden Town Brewery’s Inner City Green is one of those beers that have caught my eye. It’s one of the best beers I’ve had all year in fact. At only 3.9 percent ABV it manages to punch well above its weight; enough bitterness in the finish to balance out a subtle sweetness up front and sufficient body to carry a raft of exotic fruit flavours from the Nelson Sauvin and Southern Cross hops. Taking things even further is Redemption Trinity; a tiny ABV of only 3 percent is hidden by a massive citrus hop presence and a crisp, snappy bitterness that works to prevent the beer from ever feeling thin or watery. Old favourites in the same vein include Dark Star Hophead, Marble Pint and Thornbridge Wild Swan; but I could only ever finish with a nod towards Gadds’ Low and Behold, a beer that I simply cannot wait to try at Planet Thanet this weekend, a beer brewed in protest of continuing duty increases in the UK and the “generous” new legislation to remove duty on beers brewed at 2.8 percent ABV or below. Should be a good one!

* Yeeesss, I know. That was intentional.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Bite-Size: Malty Beer and Cheddar Cheese

Back with another bite-sized food and beer combination to blow your socks off.

I’ve written before about my love for simplicity, maybe the fact it’s a recurring theme says something about me, but it’s the inspiration behind today’s combination too. I love bread, a lot, maybe too much in fact; I could eat a good loaf of bread on its own, probably in one sitting if I really tried. But when you take a good, freshly baked loaf and combine it with some strong Cheddar, you move things on to a new level. Two of the simplest things in world, but together they’re like Mr and Mrs Perfection. Less is more they say, and in this instance, I’m inclined to agree.

A self contained plateful of delicious comforting nourishment that wouldn’t benefit from any further addition, beautiful simplicity. Blowing away any sense of occasion, need for meal table rule or even a knife and fork, leaving you with the joyful act of eating in its purest form. The more hungrily you can scoff it down the better, tearing hunks off the loaf with hands is essential and only thickly cut slabs of cheese will do.

And it's that nourishment factor that inspires my beer choice. Something thick and hearty, chewy and filling, bread in liquid form. Something like an old school English IPA, Worthington White Shield, with its substantial body and mouthfeel, its rugged malty backbone, enough to stand shoulder to shoulder with any loaf of bread. Residual sweetness in the beer that will accent the sweet creaminess of the cheese and spicy, peppery, dusty English hop varieties that will compliment the earthy, wild, mustard seed qualities of a traditional, unpasteurised Cheddar.

Those Trappist monks know what they're doing when it comes to nourishing beer. Michael Jackson wrote: "The notion of specialising in strong brews dates from the time when these [Trappist] beers were regarded as 'liquid bread' to sustain the body during lent"1, and if you fancy going a bit continental with this food pairing, you could do much worse than look to the monasteries of Belgium and Holland. Rochefort 8 for example will toe the same line as Worthington White Shield, substituting hops for a sweetness built around dried fruit, figs and plums. The carbonation lending a hand to cut away the creaminess of the cheese and add a lightness to the meal.

Or hop across the border for a German equivalent, a Bock or a Doppelbock, made with copious amounts of malt to produce a beer with lager roots but considerable substance too. Paulaner Salvator or Ayinger Celebrator are good choices, of the former Zak Avery writes: “Originally brewed as ‘liquid bread’ sustenance during Lent, Salvator (Latin for ‘saviour’) is an orange-brown beer with a luscious, nourishing malt character. Medium-sweet on the palate, with some dried fruit, toffee and a faint hoppy spiciness. For many, the textbook example of a doppelbock”2. The same themes of hop-spice, complex malty sweetness, bitterness and carbonation to play off the mustard, cream and sweetness of the cheese.

Malty, sweet, chewy beer and strong Cheddar cheese; a match made in heaven.

1 Taken from an article originally printed in The Independent, Feb 2nd 1991.
2 Tasting notes from 500 Beers by Zak Avery.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Coffee IPA - Mikkeller & Kernel

You know those people that can’t take anything at face value, the ones that always have to take things too far and go to extremes, have to know everything about something, become completely involved in their latest interest before flitting on to the next thing? Well, I’m probably one of those people. Actually no, I am one of those people. I couldn’t take up jogging without challenging myself to run a marathon, watch a film without seeing the rest of the trilogy or drink a beer without understanding how it’s made.

There! I’ve said it.

And this is why I stop myself before it’s too late. I don’t drink much wine or whisky because I know what would happen if I really got into them. The same goes for tea and coffee; reading the back of that packet is the first step on a slippery slope, before you know it you’re researching grind granularity and optimum brewing temperature. Too much money, too much time, too much liquid to consume!

I've always enjoyed good coffee though; after dinner with some dark chocolate, first thing in the morning with a bacon sandwich or as a flavour characteristic in beer. Whether it comes from beans added to the mash, espresso added to tank or just heavily kilned malt, I can't think of a single beer with coffee flavour that isn't dark in appearance. Well, at least not until I heard about Mikkeller Koppi and Kernel Brewery Coffee IPA; beers deliberately attempting to fuse the striking flavour of American hops with artisan coffee. The former was brewed in collaboration with Swedish roasters Koppi and uses a combination of Tomahawk hops and Ethiopian Guji Natural coffee beans, whereas the latter was made in partnership with Square Mile Coffee Roasters of London and features a coffee from the same region called Suke Quto.

The battle of appearance is an easy win for Kernel, pin-bright with a fluffy white head, dismissing the murky haze of the Mikkeller offering with little effort. Koppi has an aroma that's bursting with coffee notes, like wetted coffee grounds, used and allowed to cool, rather than the smell you'd associate with freshly brewed coffee. In the mouth it has a thick texture, milky and creamy, smooth, something that really works well against the coffee flavour. And then in the background lurks some distant hoppy fruit, locked out by a caffeine hit squad no doubt, forced to play second fiddle to masses of coffee flavour, fresh and zingy and light rather than roasty and burnt, exactly like a mug of coffee would taste.

The Kernel is a different beast entirely. Almost the polar opposite in fact. Its aroma is packed full of fruity hops, citrus and pine; it jumps out at you as a fantastic IPA before a slight hint of coffee appears. The same is true of the flavour, it’s like when Equatorial Guinea decided that Mr Moussambani should definitely enter the Olympic 100m swimming race; by the time the coffee flavour crosses the line, the hops have got out and hit the showers. But I don’t mean to sound negative here, the subtlety of the coffee flavour is great, it means it can work off the hop flavour rather than clash with it. The Kernel beer is thinner and drier than Koppi and the long coffee finish works well with that to add an extra dimension to the bitterness of the beer.

On paper, the idea of a coffee IPA is a stupid one; how could those two flavours ever co-exist? But both these beers are great, completely different, but totally delicious in their own way. I loved the full-on coffee hit of the Mikkeller but the subtlety of the Kernel was fantastic too. It would be great to see a beer that combines both elements and finds the middle ground; in-your-face fruity coffee being balanced out by assertive hopping.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Bite-Size: Stout. Porter. Burger.

Here’s a favourite of mine. A quick, bite-sized combination that might get you thinking next time you’re in the kitchen. I love a burger, from the hastily grabbed Big Mac that’s eaten on the train home, to the pseudo-sophisticated diner experience at places like Draft House and Byron; I love ‘em. They strip away pretence and deliver meat, veg and sauce all in an edible packaging that you can hold in your hands. What more could you ask for?

Now, many will say that when you’re eating a burger you need to be drinking an American IPA. And, there’s no doubting that that is indeed a great combination. But for me there’s something else that works equally well. You need to sear that burger hard and fast, you need to get it onto a smoking hot griddle and you need to force some black onto the outside. By all means turn the heat down and cook it through afterwards, but that flame-grilling or heavy-searing is what makes all the difference. It’s that colour that can build a bridge to the beer in your glass; the smoky, burnt, near-acrid flavour you impart on the meat can be mirrored by the flavour that heavily kilned special malts bring to beer styles like porter and stout. I’m talking chocolate malt, roast barley, black and brown malt. And once that bridge has been built and crossed, you’re in a land where natives include caramel and toffee, to compliment the natural sweetness of good meat, and spiky bitterness that will freshen and liven your palate.

Go with loads of fresh mayonnaise and try something slightly wild and sour like Harveys Porter, the acidity serving as a foil for the oiliness in the food. Or flip it around and try a flabby but delicious oatmeal stout like Sam Smiths alongside a burger piled high with slices of zingy gherkin*. And if you really can’t get past that IPA, then why not try a hoppy stout like Sierra Nevada or Kernel 1890 with curry-powder-spiked tomato ketchup; the beer beckoning that spice over, one finger raised and a shout of “wot you lookin at!”.

Food and beer pairings will always divide opinion, what’s fun is to take a basic, bite-sized concept and play around with it until you strike gold.

* Ok, so that one's a little more out there.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

London Beer at The Rake

Phil Lowry over at beermerchants.com posted this blog entry yesterday about brewing in the UK and the burgeoning craft beer scene that we’re seeing develop here. He throws out there that “I am starting to wonder if actually we have one of the best beer scenes in the world”, which is not to be taken lightly when you consider his traveling and beer knowledge credentials.

But enough about Mr Lowry and more about London. As a resident of the capital, I’m privileged to be in what feels like the epicentre of this beer scene. Something I attempted to capture in this blog comment:

It’s difficult for someone like myself to put all this in context sometimes. I’m in a fortunate position to have only ever been interested in good beer when its prevalence is on the increase. Something that’s out of my control, but something that I do recognise and understand.

That being said, even as an avid advocate of good beer, the seemingly endless number of craft beer bar openings, beer events and new breweries is bloody exciting stuff. For those close to London, you’re a stone’s throw away from a number of world class bars and breweries. There’s a mix of contemporary (Euston Tap, Cask) and traditional (Wenlock, Old Fountain, Sam Smiths etc) and a new sense of unity and community among the city’s brewers. We might be looking to places like the US for inspiration, but we’re melding it with things that we’ve always done well and the result must surely be a beer “scene” that’s comparable with that of any other city in the world!

A Friday night in The Rake to celebrate a new beer launch with the brewer, surrounded by people that love and enthuse about good beer. Saturday in the Euston Tap drinking world class beer from Denmark, Europe and the US. Sunday in The White Horse for cask Harveys and a roast; then Monday night for an LAB meeting – a homebrewers group that goes from strength to strength. Where else can you do that but in the UK and in London?

Love it!

And there’s no better time to celebrate and sample London beer than next week! Starting on Sunday 10th April, The Rake will be hosting a series of five meet the brewer events. Redemption kick things off followed by The Kernel on Monday, Meantime take control of Tuesday and then Camden Town have their turn on Wednesday. Rounding off the week will be (the slightly less London based) Windsor & Eton. It’s a great chance to meet the people behind the beer and sample their wares at the same time. There’ll also be a focus on London beer if the bar has any spare taps, including a rare cask of the Fuller’s Past Masters XX Strong Ale.

See you there.


Update (08/04/11) - some further details

Sunday: starts at 12 noon, 12 beers racked on the decking and 3 on the handpulls inside. 7 keg lines also inside. Meet the Brewers event with Andy Moffatt and Andy Smith of Redemption brewery starting at 2pm. The three handpulls inside will be exclusively Redemption for Sunday.

Monday: Kernel Black IPA on the handpulls inside, meet the brewer event with Evin O'Riordan at 7pm in the evening.

Tuesday: A visit from Steve Schmidt of Meantime and 5 Meantime beers on Keg for the evening! (Time TBC).

Wednesday: Jasper Cuppiadge of Camden Town Brewery, 5 kegged Camden beers and two casks. (Time TBC).

Thursday: London launch of Windsor & Eton's royal wedding beer 'The Windsor Knot'. There will also be three casks available either on the bar or outside on the decking.

There will also be beers available from Zero Degrees, Brew Wharf, Sambrooks and Ha'penny. Fullers are sending down their last cask of Past Masters No.1 and Brodies are sending 4 beers including The Revolution Red IPA that was brewed in collobration with Glyn Roberts.

Awesome! Note - I don't have any connection with The Rake, I'm just happy to shout about this because I love what they do and you should too!

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Rhubarb Lambic

What do you do with ten bottles of homebrew that you aren’t keen on? A beer that isn’t bad, but isn’t great either. Cook with it? Give it away? Stash it in a cupboard and drink it slowly over time? Maybe. I thought I’d try something a bit different.

Early spring means rhubarb; the most eager of the harvest, tart and acidic, yet to be tempered by the full warmth of the sun. It’s a classic, English ingredient that most of us are guilty of overlooking; something about it just feels old fashioned and, even if we did buy it, what would we do with it?

There’s a wildness about the acidic flavour of rhubarb that reminds me of lambic beer. Sure, we might cultivate it and force it to grow all year round, but it’s one of those foods that always feels slightly out of control. With its super-resilient rhizomes and poisonous leaves, it’s like a favourite son that Mother Nature keeps a bit more snugly under her wing. And lambic is a similar affair, the brewer kids himself that he’s the boss, but spontaneous fermentation does what it wants, when it wants. No amount of seasonal brewing or blending batches will give him ultimate control.

So why not bring these two things together? The sharp sourness of a lambic beer, bolstered by the acidic, fruity tang of fresh rhubarb. Makes sense to me.

Being careful to avoid as much oxygenation as possible, I siphoned the beer a bottle at a time back into a demijohn. In went two sticks of rhubarb that I roughly cut into inch long pieces, followed by the sediment and dregs from a bottle of 2005 Boon Mariage Parfait Gueuze.

Airlock on. See you in 4 months.

Yep, I do realise that the dregs from a single bottle is probably nowhere near enough. And yes, six year old yeast sediment is probably not the best way to go. The presence of all the oxygen I knocked into solution will probably result in a load of harsh acetic acid and the base beer had way too many IBU’s for any lactic bacteria to stand a chance. All very good points. But you gotta give these things a go though, right? What’s the point in being a homebrewer if you can’t mess around from time to time!?