Monday, 5 February 2018

Two schooners of black saison and a portion of kimchi fries please

Last week, I received an exciting package. Contained within was the first freebie I have accepted (alright, the first I've been offered) in association with this blog. And I wasn't offered it, actually - I specifically asked after I was sent an intriguing press release. The contents of that package were three large bags of crisps, sent to me by a PR company on behalf of Walkers. 

What caught my eye was the suggestion that these crisps - three flavours under the Walkers Max Strong brand - have been designed specifically to pair with beer. The email reads as follows;

"Walkers has specifically designed its new range to be a strong, spicy accompaniment to a refreshing pint; so whether you're enjoying a craft ale, a pint of pilsner or a can of cold lager - Walkers Max Strong has you covered."

We could pick that apart, but that's not my intention. I'm mainly interested in the idea that Walkers needs to pointedly market their crisps as an accompaniment to beer.

Beer and crisps belong together. They just do. In this sense, the suggestion of pairing crisps with beer seems an odd thing to hang a marketing campaign around. I can't image a biscuit manufacturer emblazoning the words 'try me with a cup of tea!' across their packaging, though it would be a similarly obvious, common sense, automatic association to make. Pubs sell crisps, and if you're ever peckish in a pub, you're likely to buy a packet without a second thought.

So what might this branding exercise tell us about the state of beer and potato snacks in 2018? Well, perhaps that an increasing interest in the artisanal credentials of the beer we're drinking might extend to the way we snack. Pubs and bars that sell beer from small, like-minded breweries might well extend that principle to the rest of their offering, crisps included. If a craft beer bar sells crisps at all, you might find the words 'hand-cooked' on the packet; cheese and onion crisps that proudly name the specific cheddar in their recipe. Whether Walkers (part of the Pepsi conglomerate) actually feel the loss of this relatively small corner of the market I don't know, but the launch of the Walkers Max Strong brand does suggest that they might want a piece of it.

But, perhaps most importantly, I wanted to know how well they actually went with beer. Sadly, I'll never know the answer when it comes to the Jalapeno & Cheese flavour, since they contain rennet and so are not suitable for vegetarians. At least I appreciate the clear labelling me to tell me so. Oddly, the Hot Chicken Wings flavour are, as are Chilli & Lime. 

Alarm bells rang immediately at the focus on chilli heat - the crisps are labelled for their fieriness on a scale ranging from medium to extra hot. Beer (lager, at least) is often thrown at spicy food arbitrarily, presumably because it's served cold and chilli is hot, and perhaps because both constituent parts are generally thought to be good for the soul. Once a significant hop profile is involved, this pairing generally falters, with fiery chilli either obliterating the subtleties of the beer or, even worse, the beer's bitterness accentuating the scoville effect rather than calming it.

My road-test involved nothing more scientific that munching on a small handful of each flavour whilst drinking whatever happened to be in my fridge over the course of a weekend. The chilli and lime flavour is merely medium on the heat scale, but plenty hot by my standards. The citrus element gives a bit of zingy life to the peppery paprika depth. Brasserie de la Senne's Zinnebir was a surprisingly good companion here; though significantly bitter in a grassy, European way, if anything the beer tames the heat a little. The pairing doesn't particularly add anything to either the beer or the crisps, but they get along well enough. Burning Sky's Grisette didn't fare so well; it's a delicate beer with floral and herbal notes from additions of marigold and chamomile, with a gentle lemon note and a peppery finish. The heat in the crisps treads all over it, and I might as well have washed them down with a glass of sparkling water. Grand Imperial Porter, from Poland's Browar Amber went the other way, the big beer wiping out the lime and curry-like spicing of the crisps but gelling surprisingly well with the lingering heat for a kind of chilli and chocolate sensation.

I expected the spicy seasoning would be the dominant flavour in the Hot Chicken Wings crisps, but they taste very much like I remember roast chicken tasting (or, at least, they taste like existing roast chicken flavour crisps). The heat comes late but is fairly intense, reminding you that you've gone up a notch on the fiery scale as it pokes at the tongue and perhaps leaves a slight sting on the lips. Again, Zinnebir stood up to the plate, holding its own against the fire. The Grisette didn't have a chance - it's delicious, by the way, in other circumstances. The umami meatiness didn't gel with the Grand Imperial Porter, sitting uncomfortably alongside the beer's desert-like richness. One better suited to the 'cold can of lager' end of the spectrum, I think.

The trouble is, I think, that I thought too hard about all this. We don't need to think about what crisps we chomp on in the pub. The correct beer and crisp pairing is, within reason, any beer with any crisps. Because it just is.

Sunday, 31 December 2017

12 Beers of Christmas - Day Twelve - Burning Sky Trafalgar Wines Celebratory Stout

I've already written and deleted several paragraphs in which I try to summarise a tumultuous 2017, each time concluding that nobody a) needs to know or b) really cares. Suffice to say, I'm not really into New Year's Eve, but this one does have some significance. Not enough to prompt me to do anything other than sit drinking beer on my Grandma's sofa, but still.

One significant thing about the dawn of 2018 is that it roughly marks the third year anniversary of this blog. The past two years have been busy, and I haven't posted as much as I'd like. In the meantime, it's seemingly become a beer and travel blog, which wasn't my initial intention but I'll take it. And, out of character as it may be to say it, I'm very proud of much of what I have posted. So it meant a lot to hear my name called for the Silver award in the Young Beer Writer category at this year's British Guild of Beer Writer's Awards ceremony. I think this picture sums up my feelings pretty well (that's me on the left).

That goofy grin stayed glued to my face until the last train back to Brighton, when I plugged in my headphones, tied my scarf around my eyes to block out the harsh light and caught some much needed sleep. (Incidentally, another big congratulations to James Beeson, who deservedly took home the Gold prize). So, amongst all the uncertainty and loss, there's been plenty in this past year to celebrate. Which calls for a celebratory beer.

I haven't posted a Golden Pints round-up for this year. One of the reasons for this is the realisation that I wanted to nominate the same names in the same categories as last year, and/or the year before, to the point where it seemed ridiculous writing it all out again. My favourite brewery of 2017, for example, is Burning Sky, just as it was last year. And my favourite bottle shop always was, is, and always shall be Trafalgar Wines. To put my puny blog's anniversary into perspective, Steve is celebrating a staggering 35 years in the business. And for that, he got a very special beer, which he was kind enough to gift to me and other loyal customers to share the love.

Day Twelve - Burning Sky Trafalgar Wines Celebratory Stout (UK, 8.5%)

Even at arm's length whilst I poured, a huge aroma of coffee, dark sugar and clementine hit me, and I knew I was in for a treat. On the first sip, the bourbon barrel in which the beer aged is clearly doing a lot of heavy lifting. Often that means vanilla and booze, which is great, but the bourbon character here is far more interesting than that. It's very woody, with notes of pithy clementine and sweet cherry. 

I can't be sure if there's something just a tiny bit tart in there, or whether that's the power of suggestion because the only other beers I associate with such a strong oak character are lambics. There's certainly plenty of smooth chocolate in there to temper if, if it is there. A gentle booze warmth emerges the more I drink, which happens a little quicker than it probably should due to both its deliciousness and an appropriately minimal level of carbonation - nobody wants fizzy imperial stout, do they?

Another triumph for Burning Sky, and a fitting tribute to Brighton's best booze merchant. Happy new year, one and all!

Saturday, 30 December 2017

12 Beers of Christmas - Day Eleven - Struise Pannepot Grand Reserva 2011

Day Eleven - Struise Pannepot Grand Reserva (Belgium, 10%)

De Struise have a reputation as agitators, producing beer that tests the boundaries of traditional Belgian styles, and sometimes exists pretty firmly outside them. Pannepot, as strong beer by my standards, is one of their tamer offerings. This vintage edition further ages that beer on oak. The beer itself was bottled in 2016, which suggests a lengthy ageing process. And although the label doesn't tell us where this oak comes from, my guess based on the aroma would be sherry casks. 

If I'm wrong, then it's a huge coincidence that this tastes so strongly of sharp sherry. You could be fooled into thinking someone had poured a nip of sherry into the glass when you weren't looking. It verges on over-the-top, especially on the first couple of sips, but after a while I got used to it. More sweetness comes out as it warms, which balances the puckering, tannic quality somewhat. Tht sherry tartness recalls sour cherries, and with plenty of bitter chocolate, coffee roast and currants, it's not a one-note beer.

While it's certainly demanding - not an easy-drinker by any means - it never drinks anything like its ABV. Probably worth the five year wait, then.

Friday, 29 December 2017

12 Beers of Christmas - Day Ten - De Dolle Stille Nacht

Day Ten - De Dolle Brouwers Stille Nacht (Belgium, 12%)

This being the only yuletide-themed beer in my 12 Beers line-up, I should probably have drunk Stille Nacht before the big day. Luckily, it has a lot to offer beyond festive gimmicks, and not a pinch of cinnamon in sight!

A healthily lively pour, it's thankfully easier to wrangle into a glass than some other De Dolle beers I've encountered. Even before lifting the glass to my nose, there's a strong aroma of honey and sweet orange, but the first gulp surprises with a resinous bitterness. I wasn't expecting that, although bitterness is a noted characteristic in many De Dolle offerings, and it's especially notable in a beer that was bottled over a year ago. The sharp citrus quality, along with a tingling carbonation, adds a lightness to the syrupy Madeira booze underneath.

On the strength of this bottle, I should make Stille Nacht a Christmas staple.

12 Beers of Christmas - Day Nine - Westvleteren 12

Day Nine - Westvleteren 12 (Belgium, 10.2%)

Westvleteren 12 is probably the ultimate “saving it for a special occasion” beer. Often referred to as the best beer in the world (as if there’s any such thing), I’ve often thought I need a pretty good reason to drink the bottles in my possession. I also told myself I should age them for at least two years before cracking the cap. Well, the post-Christmas lull seems as good a reason as any to me now, and this was bottled at the end of March 2015. No excuses; just open the bloody thing.

It’s a bad start, as despite careful pouring, my glass is full of enormous chunks of sediment. They look like fat suspended in gravy, and I find it massively off-putting even if it’s unlikely to have much impact on the flavour. And actually, I soon forget it, because that flavour really is very good. Initially it’s very sweet, with notes of caramel and cola, and also strikingly boozy, leaving a warm feeling in the chest like a nip of brandy. Keep drinking, though, and these qualities are rounded out by smooth but bitter chocolate and dried fruit, figs and plums. The depth of flavour is massive, but in fact, it’s quite easy drinking; after that first initial shock of alcohol, it doesn’t really drink its strength.

Best beer in the world? I wouldn’t think so on a sticky summer evening. I probably wouldn’t even think so if I was drinking it in the pub with my friends. But right now, on a chilly winter evening where I have the time to really ponder it, it’s pretty much the best beer I could have in my glass.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

12 Beers of Christmas - Day Eight - Nils Oscar Barley Wine

Day Eight - Nils Oscar Barley Wine (Sweden, 10.4%)

The barley wine seems to have come to prominence in 2017, in seemingly direct response to Don't Drink Beer's 'barleywine is life' sloganeering. It's an interesting development; I've always considered the style as a little old fashioned, even if I like the beers, perhaps because I associate them with the dusty Michael Jackson books that first told me about the style. People like my dad, who remember drinking bottled Gold Label, adopt a slightly panicked, wide-eyed look whenever it's mentioned; "not barley wine!", this look seems to say; "not since the incident!"

Anyway, I like barley wine, but it's not a style I tend to reach for very often. If I'm in the mood for a +10% beer, it tends to be an imperial stout. As such, this poor bottle has been neglected at the back of the cupboard for the best part of a year, and the internet suggests that the brewery no longer make it.

The aroma is very, very sweet, suggesting raisins and, faintly, banana, but mostly dominated by sticky honey. That sweet honey is the dominant flavour to begin with, too, but there's more to it than straight-up sugary sweetness. It brings a massive floral, musty depth of flavour to the whole thing, propping up the more delicate wintery fig and plum notes. The finish keeps things in balance with a touch of liquorice and a gently acrid bitterness before a pleasant warm glow forms in the chest.

I'm not sure I agree that barley wine actually is life, but I should remember to at least let it be part of my life. One for my list of new year's resolutions.

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

12 Beers of Christmas - Day Seven - Mills/Oliver's Foxbic

Day Seven - Mills/Oliver's Foxbic (UK, 4.7%)

It's cider. No, it's lambic. No, cider. Actually, lambic. Or...

This is a near-accurate representation of my internal monologue as I drank Foxbic. A spontaneously fermented beer made with a traditional turbid mash - i.e. made using the lambic technique, but produced outside of the Lambeek region of Belgium and therefore not referred to as such - the wort is then fermented with apple juice and cider lees from Oliver's. It's as much cider as it is beer, I guess, and a clever idea since sour beers of this sort often recall cider in their dryness and acidity. Foxbic is brilliant because it offers the best parts of both drinks.

The aroma certainly recalls apple juice, with perhaps a touch of floral honey. The initial taste is lemony and tart, before giving way to apple juice and pips before an oaky finish. The aftertaste in incredible; it seems to last minutes at a time, with crisp apple skin drying the palate along with a tingle of sherbet. For all its complexity, Foxbic is unbelievably moreish.