Sunday, 13 December 2015

Golden pints 2015

After a couple of day's worth of extremely gruelling battles with Microsoft Word's "jazzy" formatting of my text - only resolved by typing the whole thing out again - I present my first ever Golden Pints round-up.

Best UK cask beer
The one cask beer that really knocked me out was Cloudwater's Special Edition IPA. Reportedly made with 22kg of hops per litre and yet surprisingly mellow drinking, this is the perfect example of the kind of 'tropical fruit juice IPA' that Mark Dredge identifies here. It may not be a style usually identified with cask, but this format is brilliantly suited to the beer, rounding out the hops and accentuating the juiciness. You know when you take a first sip of a beer and realise you'll always remember that moment? This was one of those.
Honourable mentions - Dark Star's American Pale Ale was a cask staple throughout the year - an important beer for me which continues to impress. Brighton Bier's cask offerings were a pleasure, too - they've become extremely accomplished at cramming juicy hop flavour into beers of moderate strength.

Best UK keg beer
Burning Sky's saison l'ete is a beautifully judged beer - tart and complex yet clean and refreshing, endlessly interesting but never hard work. Their seasonal saisons have always been good, but they're seemingly better year on year.
Honourable mentions - Other keg beers that stopped me in my tracks this year included Magic Rock's Cannonball and Siren's Life's a Peach peach cream IPA.

Best UK bottled beer
This category should go to a beer that actually benefits from the bottled format, rather than one that I only tasted in a bottle at home or that was only released in bottles but might have been even better on draught. Another shout out to Burning Sky, then, for their Vatted Porter. Quite ordinary when I tried it from keg, possibly because it was served far too cold, but the bottle was something else entirely - a beer whose mysterious flavours you chase with every sip, somehow eluding you and demanding another taste.
Honourable mentions - the second of BrewDog's Born to Die bottles, released in November, was one of the year's best overall beers - so fresh and vital.

Best UK canned beer
Fourpure Pils has almost constantly been in my fridge throughout 2015. I loved its assertive hop character and bitterness at first, but I swear it changed throughout the course of the year, becoming cleaner, less bitter and more floral with noble hops than before, and even better for it. I'm all for cans in principle, but the quality is still hugely variable - some beers I know to be excellent have really disappointed in this form. A beer that's consistently good in canned form is all the more commendable.
Honourable mentions - the aroma of tropical fruit on popping the tab on Vocations' Heart and Soul session IPA is inviting, and the flavour delivers, too. One of the best session-strength beers of the year.

Best overseas draught
I was lucky enough to travel a lot this year, and there are many contenders, but Schlenkerla Marzen straight from the barrel at their Bamberg pub is unbeatable.
Honourable mentions - I think about the house pils at Berlin's Eschenbrau brewpub shockingly often; its creamy body, bitterness and savoury depth of flavour, the gorgeous, tight, fluffy head which tastes of lemon pith. I'd give anything to have a litre in front of my right now.

Best overseas bottled beer
I loved 2015's Duvel Tripel Hop, this year with Equinox. When fresh, it was vibrant with lemon and hemp, and a little age allowed for a harmonious union with the classic Duvel taste.
Honourable mentions - Birrificio Sorrento's Syrentum - another beer that makes a virtue of the bottled format - made a lasting impression on my summer holiday this year. I tend to daydream about it a lot.

Best overseas canned beer
I can't think of any spectacular examples, but canned US IPAs seem to reach these shores in better shape than their bottled equivalents. Westbrook IPA, Oskar Blues' Pinner and Ska's Modus Hoperandi all vastly exceeded my expectations in the can.

Best collaboration brew
I only tried Magic Rock and Siren's MRS Brown in a bottle as the keg version was (understandably) prohibitively expensive, but it was a stunning beer. For an idea that sounds wacky on paper (bourbon-barrel aged imperial brown ale with pecan, maple syrup and vanilla), it all came together beautifully. Sipping a glass of this beer is a fun experience, exploring the flavours as they slowly reveal themselves one by one. Considering the attention paid to scandalously rare, imported barrel-aged stouts, by rights everyone should have been losing their shit over MRS Brown.

Best overall beer
Of those mentioned so far, it would be the Cloudwater cask IPA. But in truth, their DIPA was the best beer of any kind I tasted in 2015. Achievements like this suggest a shortening of the gap between the UK and the US, and it's extremely exciting.

Best branding, pump clip or bottle label
Something about the design for Thornbridge and Brouwerij 't IJ's American Wheat Ale is irresistible to me. Luckily, the beer is also very good. I loved the simplicity and elegance of the original Chorlton branding, and it's a shame they've now changed it. I also have to mention Hopvana from Guinea Pigs!, which I drank in Seville. Confronted with a fridge full of unfamiliar Spanish beers, I chose this purely because of the audaciously goofy label and ended up loving the beer.

Best UK brewery
Something tells me Cloudwater will be doing well out of this year's Golden Pints. The beers are excellent, the seasonal approach is original and really works, and they're making exactly the kinds of beers I want to drink, to the point where it's almost like they're reading my mind. UK hopped lager, cream ale, hopfenweisse, brown ale - these are all styles I wish more breweries were attempting.
Honourable mentions - The aformentioned Chorlton would have been my choice for brewery opening of the year, but I just checked and they actually opened in November 2014. Still, they've had a great run. Sour beers were a persistent trend throughout this year, but nobody took such an interesting and creative approach as Chorlton. The Woodruff Berliner weisse is a great example - a simple idea, but ingenious, and a great beer. They're also doing interesting stuff with yeast strains salvaged from DDR-era Berliner weisse bottles and canning their beers. I can't wait to see what they come out with in 2016.

Pub/bar of the year
I've always loved the Evening Star in Brighton, but throughout this year it's become the pub I visit the most. The beer list is always great, even better now that they've installed more keg lines, and the atmosphere is uniquely interesting whilst always hospitable and friendly. A proper pub serving a variety of great beer.
Honourable mentions - Visting Kulminator in Antwerp was a highlight of my beery year, even if I was unfortunately pushed for time. Just sitting in the cluttered bar, flicking through the jaw-dropping beer list and sipping on a draught Avec les bons veux was pretty much beer perfection.

Supermarket of the year
Marks & Spencers. Some of their new 'craft' range is god-awful, but some are excellent, especially where Adnams are involved, and they're the only supermarket stocking a good range of British craft beer. Yes, we all prefer to buy our beer from independents, but supermarket beers were an important step in my discovery of great beer, and I'm sure there are shoppers stumbling across Buxton and Fourpure in M&S and embarking on a wonderful beery journey.

Independent retailer of the year
It's still Trafalgar Wines and it always will be. They always have what I'm looking for, the prices are the best in the city and you've got to love the sheer unpretentiousness of the place - it's all about the beer here.

Online retailer of the year
I've only ever used Beers of Europe - it's good enough that I've never wanted to try anywhere else. The website can be a pain to navigate, but the range of (especially German and Belgian) beers is excellent, the delivery costs are reasonable and they get your order to you in no time.

Best beer book or magazine
Obviously it wasn't released this year, but Michael Jackson's Beer Companion has been constantly by my side this year, always an inspiration. The Best Beer in the World by Mark Dredge did come out this year, and was a great read from another writer who has been a massive inspiration to me. A far more interesting book than it sounds, its really the antidote to the proliferation of 'best beer' list books - a thoughtful meditation on what makes a beer great, giving equal attention to the Orval monastery and the 'proudly macro' Budweiser facility in St. Louis.

Best beer blog
I've lost many hours of my life to Ron Pattinson's Shut Up About Barclay Perkins this year. This stuff should be required reading for anyone with an interest in beer, even if many of the details in the table he's so fond of go right over my head.
Honourable mentions - Chris Hall writes eloquently and seriously about beer without veering into Pseud's Corner territory. Mark Johnson's output has been funny, insightful and affecting.

Simon Johnson award for Best Beer Twitterer
Twatty Beer Doodles, for a (very funny) taste of reality whenever the beer world takes itself too seriously.

Monday, 7 December 2015

The best beery advent calendar

Beer advent calendars are all over Twitter this year - it seems there's scarcely a small brewery or mail-order bottle shop that hasn't put one together, not to mention the bloggers working their way through them. The more restrained amongst them, such as the Beer O'Clock Show, won't start until the 20th, and open a bottle for each of the 12 days of Christmas. Some ambitious writers are well under way with a 24 bottle run - notably Mark Johnson, who has collected an impressive collection of all festive seasonals to work through (and, incidentally, these posts are a master class in tasting notes - superbly written).

I was lucky enough to enjoy a beer advent calendar last year. I didn't buy it, or assemble it myself - Sidony put it together for me. After a couple of months of all but swearing off beer so that I could actually afford to buy Christmas presents, the revelation of this collection was a practically religious moment. Here it is;

And it was a very tastefully selected calendar, too - all my favourite beers, some I had yet to try, and finishing up with some special bottles as the big day drew closer. Amazing as this was, I suggested that this year, we opted for more conventional calendars (I had also put together a gift-based calendar for Sidony last year). But there was still a surprise in store for me.

In January, we visited Bamberg. One of the many wonderful things about Bamberg, aside from the beer, is its love of tacky tourist merchandise. At the Schlenkerla tavern, the two tendencies collide in a merchandise stall in what looks like a converted broom cupboard selling everything from mini-kegs of Marzen to branded tote bags. On the 1st December, I was presented with this;

"Recognise that building?", Sidony asked. "Looks a bit like the Schlenkerla pub", I thought, but didn't say out loud. Except it is the Schlenkerla pub, and those masters of marketing have produced this pretty advent calendar with a tastefully illustrated Bamberg scene behind each door. I may not be able to drink it, but I'm still convinced that this is the best beery advent calendar doing the rounds this year.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

A date with Darkness

Whilst I do my fair share of thinking about (and drinking) beer, I don’t really do very much beer-related stuff. I don’t even go to pubs as often as I probably should, never mind travelling the country to do so; I have never been to a tap takeover, beer dinner, or even a beer festival. There are many reasons for this, but after breaking this drought at Dark Star meet-the-brewer event at Brighton’s North Laine Brewhouse last week, I'm determined to change that pattern.

The North Laine is a great space – part US-style brewpub and restaurant, part Bavarian beer hall, and can hold a lot of people, so it’s great to see them putting their extra capacity to good use with events like these. As we arrive, there’s already a small group clustered around the hand pumps at the end of the bar. Initially, we’re greeted with bad news – Dark Star’s head brewer Andy Patterson is in bed with the flu and won’t be making it. Luckily, one of the other brewers, Amir (new to the brewery after stints at Beavertown and Hackney), and director Paul Reed are here instead.

These are exciting times for Dark Star. For as long as I've lived here, their beers have been ever-present on bars across Sussex, but their reach is far greater than that of a small regional brewery. Alongside the Partridge, near the brewery, and the Evening Star in Brighton, they’re looking to open several new pubs – the first site, in Horsham, is scheduled for early next year. They also reveal this evening that they've outgrown their facilities in Partridge Green and are starting to look for new, larger premises.

Equally exciting for me is the launch of their new seasonal – Rockhead, an American brown ale, and I dive straight into a pint as people continue to arrive. I’d tried this recently from keg at the Star and was very impressed – served this way, the body is full and creamy, thick without becoming hard work. The cask version this evening is even better – it’s in fantastic condition and the hops taste hugely fresh and vibrant without threatening to wash out the foundation of warming malt. This balance isn’t always there in US-hopped brown ales, which can often come off more like black IPAs, but at the base of Rockhead are all the flavours I’m looking for in the style – caramel, cola, a little chocolate. The only American hop here is Amarillo, which lends a peachy sweetness, whilst Australian-grown Citra and a trio of British fuggles, Goldings and Admiral bring citrus bitterness.

Once everyone’s here, Paul and Amir each give a brief talk, giving some background on the brewery and their range of beers. There’s a raffle draw, in which I win a pint – I choose Revelation, which tastes all the sweeter as it’s free. Amir tells us that they use a device called a ‘hoptimiser’ in making this beer – it’s like a giant tea bag which infuses the beer with hops without directly adding them, giving the beer a smoother quality. Makes sense to me – my pint is full of juicy hop flavour, but is in no way spiky or dry. It’s fantastic.

After some plates of food are brought out for everyone to share, we hear from Laine’s head brewer Nic Donald, who talks us through the beers made in-house here, along with a quick brewery tour. When Sidony asks a question about sour beer, he’s even generous to share a sample of a pink grapefruit beer, soured in the kettle with Greek yoghurt and a dunk from some grain sacks, that he’s brewed at one of the company’s London pubs. It’s very good and I’d be delighted to see something similar on offer at the North Laine.

Beer is, quite obviously, best in a social situation. That social situation needn't be anything more complicated than a group of people talking. Beer is also good at enabling such situations, and not only through its inhibition-lowering qualities. A glass of beer in everyone’s hand is a great leveller and conversation starter, and that’s why these kinds of events can offer as much to the greenest novice as they can to the hardened beer nerds. My new year’s resolution for 2016 ought to be to do more of this sort of thing.

Monday, 9 November 2015

Who shares wins

Sharing beer with friends is great. That sounds obvious, I know, but I hardly ever do it. I sit down to drink with friends often, of course, but beyond the occasional “here, taste this”, or, “can I try a taste of yours?” we don’t share beer, and usually sit together drinking different things. The phenomenon of the bottle share clearly appeals to this desire for a group to experience the same beers together. It’s also a great excuse to actually open some of the special beers in your collection. It’s a near-universally acknowledged truth that once beers have been squirrelled away for a special occasion, this occasion never arrives. Some beers improve with age, but it’s a lot more fun to drink beer than to hide it in a cupboard.

In the absence of a more formally organised bottle share event, I recently invited a couple of friends round for a small but perfectly formed gathering of my own. The idea was to bring a beer that you wanted to share – not necessarily anything expensive or rare, though larger bottles are best, but something that you might not casually crack open and might benefit from some discussion.

We kicked off with Wiper & True’s plum pudding porter. I usually wouldn't start with a dark beer, but before I’d had a chance to raise the issue of sequencing, my friend Scott had eagerly popped the cap off with a lighter. An astringent, roasty bitterness is my first impression – this is something I enjoy in dark beers - followed by a boozy, brandy-like warmth. The plum and other additional flavours are far from overpowering, and in fact I might not have picked them out without being told they were in there. The fruit comes across as a general richness and depth of flavour, and whilst there’s some warming spice in the finish, it stops well short of tacky novelty Christmas beer territory. Classily done.

My own headlining contribution was BrewDog’s latest Born to Die double IPA. Despite having said I wanted to open something from my stash, I decided to go out and buy this instead. I've been reading a lot about US IPAs recently, and reports of fresh pours of the likes of Pliny the Elder and Heady Topper, legendary hop-bombs which I have never been lucky enough to taste, provokes a state in me which I can only describe as anguish. A beer like Born to Die is, I figured, the closest I’ll get for now. And, whilst I find the blundering BrewDog P.R. machine extremely tedious, they do pale and hoppy very well.

Born to Die smells like Haribo, and tastes like fruit juice. It’s very pale – IPAs of this strength are often closer to amber in colour. The object, it would seem, is to produce a beer as pale as possible, with little malt character, to further accentuate those fresh, juicy hops.  It’s citrus zest, pineapple and mango and, despite the hop dominance, to me it’s not excessively dry or bitter or extreme. The slick mouthfeel only makes it more drinkable. This might be my Platonic ideal of an IPA, or as close as I've come to it thus far.

Next was Wild Beer’s Ninkasi. I’ve tried this before and was distinctly impressed, and this occasion is no different. It’s instantly reminiscent of Orval in it’s peppery yeast character and dry effervescence. There’s more tropical fruit hop presence than I remember – as Scott points out, it actually tastes a bit like Lilt. It’s an indulgent, decadent beer, and I'm happy to have another bottle in my possession.

I’d also previously enjoyed Mikkeller’s It’s Alive! –specifically the Grand Marnier barrel-aged edition, which is exactly what my friend Ollie brought along. That was around two years ago, and got me very excited – it was probably the first beer I’d tried with such a prominent Belgian yeast character, and I remember exclaiming “this beer tastes like champagne!” Unfortunately, tonight’s bottle is an example of time being unkind to a beer. All the complexity I remember is gone, leaving behind a beer that’s flat, overly musty with Brett, and tasting overwhelmingly like sherry.

Thornbridge’s Rhubard de Saison followed. The recipe comes from a homebrewer who won the chance to have Thornbridge brew his beer. It smells bizarrely like Sprite (the second fizzy pop comparison of the evening), and my first mouthful seems to taste of almost nothing – it’s unbelievably bland. But the flavour builds and builds, and a beer of significant complexity reveals itself. The ever-so-slightly tart rhubarb and dry, spicy saison yeast is a perfect marriage, and a medicinal, herbal quality (eucalyptus?) adds depth. The body is a little thin for my liking, but that’s a small gripe.

I stopped taking notes then, though a few more bottles were opened. They were, from memory, Thornbridge and Wild Beer's Tart (disappointingly bland, especially as I really enjoyed it on keg), Duvel Tripel Hop 2015 (still great, though the hemp-like hop dankness has mellowed since I last tasted it, and more of the classic Duvel flavour shone through) and Buxton’s New World Saison (simply a beautiful, harmonious beer).

So if, like me, you haven’t made time to share beer with your friends in too long, clear a Saturday night and fill the fridge. It’s a lot of fun.

Monday, 12 October 2015

Sorachi onion soup

French onion soup with IPA – that was the idea that leapt into my head one afternoon, whilst daydreaming at work.  Not French onion soup accompanied by IPA – I mean with the beer in the soup, as part of the broth. There’s nothing new, of course, and as I googled the term I discovered I’m not the first to have the idea. But I did come up with a twist that I figured was worth a try – what if I was to use a single hop Sorachi Ace IPA? It’s an unusual and divisive hop that, to me, is a big burst of citrus (lemon and clementine) with a herbal edge which recalls dill. The fruitiness will match the tang of the cheese toasts which sit, oozing on top of the broth, whilst that savoury element is a natural partner for the herbs in the soup.

Beers showcasing Sorachi Ace aren't as unusual as they used to be, though they tend to stick to the saison style (the eponymous examplefrom Brooklyn Brewery, Wild Beer’s Epic Saison, or Adnams' version for Marks & Spencer – all great beers). The only beer I've come across that fits the bill is Weird Beard’s Sorachi Face Plant, so that’s what I'm using here.

As a guide, I referred to Felicity Cloake’s ‘perfect’ French onion soup recipe, making certain changes where necessary. I'm not using any cider or brandy, as I don’t want to confuse the flavour of the beer, and I'm using vegetable stock in place of beef, as I don’t eat meat. I'm also using cheddar cheese for my toasts – not very French, I know, but I love cheddar with sweet onions and I think it’s a perfect foil for hop bitterness.

The Ginger Pig, whose recipe I initially found, suggested that the chosen beer shouldn't be “too gutsy”. This is clearly not the case for the 8.6% beast I'm using. There is a lingering, boozy bitterness in the finished dish but, I would suggest, no more than there would have been had I added a nip of brandy at the last moment, as many recipes suggest. To me, it isn't too much, especially in combination with the cheese toasts, and a taste of the beer on the side pulls everything together beautifully. If you don’t want this bitterness, something like Adnams' Marks & Spencer saison, or Bristol Beer Factory’s Sorachi, a more subtle golden ale, might make a good substitute.

This recipe takes time, but it’s not labour intensive – most of the time, you can be elsewhere while the dish cooks.

INGREDIENTS (makes 2 small, starter-sized portions or one main course)
80g butter
5 onions (based on the medium-sized ones in a kilogram bag)
1 tsp plain flour
1 tsp balsamic vinegar
Pinch of dried thyme
1 bay leaf
300ml vegetable stock
200ml beer (Sorachi Face Plant or other Sorachi Ace beer)
1 tsp sugar
6 medium-thick slices of baguette
Grated cheddar cheese


  • First, prepare the onions by peeling, halving and finely slicing.
  • Melt the butter in a large pan over a low to medium heat. When it’s melted, add the onions. Fry for a few minutes, then sprinkle with a generous pinch of salt. Stir frequently for about 10 minutes, until they begin to become soft and translucent.
  • Stir in the thyme and bay leaf, then turn the heat right down and put a lid on the pan. This will retain the moisture and help the onions to soften and caramelise quicker. They’ll still need at least an hour – 90 minutes if possible – until they’re a rich caramel colour.
  • Add the flour to the pan and stir for a minute or so. Now add the vinegar and roughly half of the beer along with the vegetable stock. If your flour has gone lumpy, you may need to use a whisk at this point. Simmer the broth for around another hour until it has significantly reduced, which will allow for the addition of the remaining beer at the last moment.
  • While the soup reduces, heat the grill and toast your baguette slices on both sides. Set these aside. Grate as much cheese as you dare to top the toasts later.
  • When the soup is looking thicker, heat the grill again, ready to grill the cheese toasts when the soup if finished.
  • Add a teaspoon of sugar to the broth, which will counteract some of the bitterness in the beer. Check the seasoning, and then stir in the remaining beer. Keep the heat very low, and stir just long enough to heat, but not reduce any further.
  • Ladle the soup into bowls. Top with the toasted baguette slices, then cover in grated cheese. Place the bowls under the grill until the cheese is melted and bubbling.
  • Serve, ideally with a glass of the same beer you used to cook as an accompaniment.  

  • Monday, 5 October 2015

    Two brown ales; Brighton Bier and Fourpure

    Usually, I wait until I've tried five or six new brown ales and post a bulletin on my latest finds, as I did here and here. On this occasion, I thought I’d better get in quick with my thoughts on two (I think) limited edition beers whilst they’re still around.

    Brighton Bier are having a great 2015. Having installed a brand new brewery, they’re going from strength to strength, and at this point have gotten extremely good at packing juicy hop flavour into their beers. Tasting Free State in cask conditioned form, I felt like the beer in front of me just could not possibly taste any fresher – the hops are so upfront, but at the same time, don’t smack you around the chops with bitterness. My guess, at the time, was the hop bill was a mixture of US and Southern Hemisphere hops – “something like orange and lime pith which seems like a Southern Hemisphere thing”, I wrote in a note on my phone, whilst also picking out a lychee tang that suggested Citra. I was wrong on both counts – this is a single hop beer made with Equinox, a new US variety from the same breeders that brought us Mosaic, Simcoe and the aforementioned Citra. The citrus pith thing is a kind of lingering fizzy sensation on the tongue, slightly dry and always encouraging another sip. A complex malt base brings a full, mealy body that’s pitched perfectly for my liking – not heavy going, but never feels like it’s slipping away too easily.

    I do have one slight issue, though. Had I been accosted in the pub, blindfolded and asked to taste this beer without knowing what it was, I would have confidently told you it was a pale ale. It’s brown in appearance, sure, but it’s a strange experience whereby the image of the glass you’re drinking from and the taste of the beer in your mouth don’t seem to match. Maybe, once the glass has warmed a little and once I go specifically in search of it, I can detect a hint of caramel, a little chocolate. Don’t get me wrong – this is a great beer, probably the best I've tasted from this excellent brewery and one I could drink endlessly. I just like a suggestion of something dark in my brown ale.

    In one of my first posts on the subject of brown ale, I featured a seasonal from Fourpure called, simply, American Brown Ale. This beer served as a prototype for Beartooth, an improved version under a new name and in a new can. I enjoyed it a lot first time round, though my review seems to dwell on a dryness that isn't really there in the new version. It’s still bitter, but well balanced, and full of juicy hop flavour as well.

    It’s a very handsome pour – dark brown, bordering on black, with a thick and creamy beige head, and an enticing aroma of fresh citrus fruits hits you immediately. The flavour is a delicate balancing act between malt and hops – there are husky, cereal-like flavours in the background, with a little roasted bitterness that brings coffee and the faintest hint of smoke. The hops, which recall grapefruit and small, sweet oranges – satsumas or tangerines - are harmonious with this malt backbone, neither element threatening to overpower the other. It’s wonderful, and you should drink it whilst you can.

    Monday, 14 September 2015

    Weird pubs in Brighton and Hove: The Neptune

    I've been living thirty seconds away from the Neptune for the past six months. Now, with just a few days to go until I move house, I thought I’d better satisfy my curiosity and finally take a look in the first in an occasional series of weird pubs around the city.

    Several weird things about the Neptune are noticeable in a glance. The cool ornate sign is one, and the general weather-beaten appearance (it’s just off Hove’s seafront) another. When the front door is shut, which weather dictates it usually must be, you can’t see in very clearly. Pubs like this always look shut even when they’re open, and always have me anticipating an American Werewolf in London-style entrance. The Neptune also bears the branding of a Courage tied pub, intriguing since this brewery no longer exists. I had assumed that there were no more Courage pubs, though an internet search suggests there are – the Courage beers are, after all, still available, now brewed by Wells & Young. But none of them are on sale here.

    Not that I was interested in drinking them anyway, especially since the cask selection in the Neptune is pretty solid – ignore the Abbot Ale and you can choose from Harvey’s Best or beers from Kissingate and Franklins, also local. My pint of Franklin’s Smoked Porter isn't brilliant – there’s a little acidity that I'm not convinced should be there, even if the smoke flavour is bang on – but whatever this says about my prejudices, I expected a rancid pint of unlovingly selected, uncarefully kept, twiggy brown beer, so I was happy.

    The place is small. Not too dingy, not too much stale beer smell. Harvey’s towels not doing much to soak up the spilt beer on the bar. Reasonably busy – mostly locals, I guess, since most seem to know each other. Lots of saucy Sid James-style laughter around the room. The bloke next to me has something to say to his mate about my beer selection, but I can’t quite catch it. At first I think he’s saying its expensive - £3.50 a pint – and then that it’s a strange choice for a first pint. I'm just having the one, which might put me in the minority in this venue. The atmosphere isn't unfriendly anyway. I take a seat at the bar, far from the only singular male drinker adopting this position, whilst half-reading my book and soaking up the ambience.

    I've been sat there a while, minding my own business, when the lights behind me dim. A lady in silver trousers has stepped up to a microphone on a corner stage.  There’s  live music here twice a week. “Hello”, she says in a thick Irish accent, “is everybody feeling alive?” The following account of what happened next is pasted verbatim from a text conversation I had with a friend immediately afterwards. It’s not my best writing but I feel the breathlessness of the prose communicates the situation well;

    “They had some Irish woman about to sing on stage in there and she said “is everybody feeling alive?” and then some bloke said “we will be”. Then the barman said really loudly “we will be when you get that kit off” and I drank my drink really quickly and left.”

    This is the thing with these slightly down-at-heel locals pubs – the people romanticising their existence and role in the community and the people defending them from the threat of closure of pubco buyouts aren't, I suspect, often the same people drinking in them. I want places like this to exist, but I’d be lying if I said I was comfortable here. In any case, pubs need custom to survive, and the Neptune has plenty of that this Sunday afternoon, so I doubt they could care any less whether I'm in there with my head in a book, killing the vibe. 

    10 Victoria Terrace
    East Sussex
    BN3 2WB

    Monday, 7 September 2015

    A brief history of brown ale

    In my last post about brown ale, I mentioned a post on Ron Pattinson’s Shut Up About Barclay Perkins blog which alluded to certain historic brown ales as bottled versions of mild. Most beer books will contain a fairly brief summation of brown ale’s past, but this was a new one on me, and made me realise how little of the style’s history I actually knew. What details I stumbled across were initially confusing and hard to piece together. The answer was, obviously, to search the term ‘brown ale’ on Ron’s blog and sift through the results. If you want to know the facts about the evolution of a historic beer style, Ron Pattinson really is your man. His research is based on extensive trawling of brewer’s records and, whilst some interpretation may occasionally be required, I think it’s safe to assume any information posted at Barclay Perkins is documented fact.

    For my own benefit, I decided to compile a brief history of brown ale as I now understand it, based on Ron’s blogs on the subject. I may have misinterpreted certain things, and I don’t claim to understand the tables of numbers or certain technical information he posts, but the basics I’ve discovered there have helped straighten the story out in my own mind and are hopefully fairly accurate. If you’re a more seasoned beer expert than I or have a head for figures, Ron’s work will be right up your street.

    Brown ale began life in the 18th century, when it was available as either Common Brown Ale, or the stronger Stitch. At this time, ‘ale’ and ‘beer’ were distinct from one another – beer was stronger, and heavily hopped to prepare it for a keeping period of 9-12 months. Ale was lightly hopped, and drunk as soon as the cask cleared. Common Brown Ale and Stitch were both made from brown malt. Around the turn of the century, the increasing popularity of porter saw these styles died out. Brown ale ceased to exist for around a century.

    Mann’s were the first brewery to revive the style, and it returned to the mainstream again in the 1920s. Though all were very different to the original brown ales, these modern versions were stylistically diverse. The commonly accepted split between weaker, sweet beers from the South and strong, drier beers in the North is quickly debunked by Ron’s findings – many Northern brown ales were low in alcohol and Southern beers strong. Newcastle Brown Ale was one of the few stronger brown ales to survive, whereas Mann’s, one of the strongest brown ales in the 1930s, ended up with an AOV of just 2.8%. When writers like Michael Jackson later came to write about the style, these were the principle examples on the market, which may have contributed to this imagined divide.

    There is a link between brown ale and mild, especially in the South.  Many breweries bottled their dark mild as brown ale, though the beer was primed differently for the bottle. This could explain why brown ale was almost exclusively bottled, and mild usually draught. Exactly why bottled dark mild wasn’t simply called dark mild isn’t clear. Brown ale is absent from the brewing records of certain breweries who are known to have sold them, and this is because it was brewed exactly as the breweries’ dark mild. This was far from the case for all brown ales, though – many were far stronger than any mild and brewed to their own recipe. Some breweries also brewed a stronger version known as Double Brown Ale. The colour of these modern brown ales was not imparted by brown malt, nor roasted malts, but from dark sugar or caramel. In cases where mild was bottled as brown ale, caramel may have been added.

    And finally, an expression that always confused me - Nut Brown Ale, which appears on beer labels to this day. This describes the colour of all kinds of brown beer - it does not specifically refer to brown ale, and is certainly not a distinct sub-style - and was used in traditional poems and songs, especially those heard at public feasts.

    Conversation for your next dinner party, eh? I've often noted how vague the definitions of brown ale are and how different one can taste from another, and it would seem it has always been this way. Please do let me know if I'm confusing any of the details here, and thanks to Ron for his invaluable research.

    Tuesday, 25 August 2015

    The Meantime/Grolsch controversy

    Meantime is not blending London Lager with Grolsch, it was revealed today. This rumour, first reported on Beer Insider, always seemed too weird to be true. The truth is still pretty weird, though - as reported by the Morning Advertiser, a "liquid" is, occasionally, brewed at Grolsch's brewery in Enschede in the Netherlands and sold as London Lager. It is, reportedly, identical to the beer brewed at Meantime's facility in Greenwich. Except that Greenwich is in London and Enschede is in an entirely different country.

    I have many thoughts on this subject, and I'm sure I'll be just one of hundreds of bloggers expressing their disappointment. For what it's worth, I like/d Meantime. Some of their beers were important 'gateway' discoveries for me and, even if I don't drink many of them any more, a few remain absolute corkers, especially the IPA. About 18 months ago I went on their brewery tour, and the beers all tasted amazing from the brewery tap. I reserved judgement when they were taken over by SAB Miller (interesting reflections on which here and here), reasoning that it wasn't necessarily an act of evil if it didn't affect the quality of the beer.

    Meantime's branding relies heavily on its London roots. The brewery name refers to their Greenwich location. As well as London Lager, they also have a beer called London Stout and another called London Pale Ale. They sell merchandise with the word 'Londoner' emblazoned on it.  If you make a geographical location an integral part of your brand, customers will inevitably be disappointed to learn that the beer in their glass was brewed elsewhere. Meantime must know this, and that's why we're just learning about this now.

    This is particularly worrying because it smacks of big, corporate business. Meantime are far from the first craft brewer to contract brew at other facilities. But why not be upfront and honest about it, especially if, as they claim, the arrangement is only temporary? Because they know their loyal customers won't like it, and because they know it looks like a money-saving measure imposed by SAB Miller.

    But amongst these heartfelt concerns, a more trivial issue troubled me when I first heard the rumours of the London Lager/Grolsch blend. I didn't like the idea that I might have consumed a beer which contained Grolsch, in however small proportion, without realising it. Surely a big, important craft beer connoisseur like me, I reasoned, has a palate refined enough to instantly reject the slightest hint of macro lager in my glass. Had I been handed such a beverage, I'd have instantly thrown my glass against the wall and rinsed my mouth out with Rosé de Gambrinus. I doubt I'm the only drinker to have arrogantly concluded, "that can't be true - I'd have noticed" when they heard this rumour. Or perhaps the craftiest of craft drinkers wrote off London Lager as bland and undistinguished a long time ago. I've always quite liked it myself.

    Just to be totally clear, again, London Lager has not actually ever contained Grolsch, But, if Meantime had been even more dastardly and decided to blend their beer with Grolsch, could they have got away with it? Would drinkers tell the difference? Would the better beer elevate the cooking lager, or would the macro fizz overpower the 'craft'? I decided to conduct a little experiment. I would pour half a bottle of London Lager into one glass, and, in another glass, blend the Meantime beer with Grolsch. Then I'd close my eyes and ask Sidony to hand me a glass without telling me which was which. I didn't taste either beer prior to conducting the experiment, and it's a long time since I drank either.

    I'm happy to report that I correctly identified the London Lager/Grolsch hybrid. It was more watery and less crisp. London Lager has earthy English hops, a slight honey note and warm, soft malt, but the version with Grolsch lost all of these subtleties and gained an unpleasant metallic tang. A glass that was 90% Grolsch to wasn't improved by the inclusion of 10% London Lager, and a glass that was 100% Grolsch was very ropey indeed.

    What is my point? Confirming the superiority of my palate, of course, and having a little fun. I can say, from experience, that I'm very glad that London Lager has not ever been blended with Grolsch, because the results would have been very poor. But I also doubt I'll be buying another bottle of this, or any other Meantime beer, in the foreseeable future. You can be absorbed into a multinational corporation if you insist, but it might not help you understand your own brand.

    Monday, 24 August 2015

    Imperial brown ale

    In the months since I started this blog, I've paid particular attention to brown ale. I try to order brown ale or buy a bottle whenever I see it, because it’s an interesting style that I think is underused and underrated. Few brown ales I've tried taste alike, and the style is very loosely defined, which leaves more space for brewers to get creative – hence the existence of ‘imperial’ brown ales.

    Style pedants will hate this term, of course. ‘Imperial’ refers to the extra-strong stouts brewed for export to the Russian imperial court in the 1700s. Brown ale never made such a journey, but the term has come to denote a stronger and altogether bigger version of just about any style from pilsner to saison. So imperial brown ale isn't a style with any tradition behind it, but one that’s been invented by brewers looking to experiment with the humble brown ale.

    The two examples in question here are big beers – Nøgne Ø's Imperial Brown Ale is 7.2%, MRS Brown 9.5%. The brown ale story begins with Mann’s, now just 2.8% (though originally stronger), whilst encompassing big boozy beasts like these, and that’s just another example of the diversity I love in the style.

    This beer contains vanilla, pecan and maple syrup. Sounds like a recipe for a delicious breakfast cereal  rather than a great brown ale, but I’ve often found where Siren are involved, the wackier ingredients do tend to work with the beer. Not only that, but it’s aged in bourbon barrels, too, so we can expect flavours far removed from your average brown ale.

    The beer pours very dark, almost black. There are translucent brown edges around the glass when held up to the light, but otherwise this looks much more like a porter or stout. The aroma is strong bourbon, vanilla and appetising, fresh chocolate. My first impression after a tentative gulp is of the sheer complexity of the beer – there are so much flavours going on at once - more chocolate and vanilla, toasted marshmallow, dark berries. The maple syrup only comes through as the beer warms, and is sweet and earthy and delicious, a little like caramel. The pecan is present towards the second half of the glass, too, and brings a certain bitter and dry quality. There’s warming whisky and a bitterness like dark chocolate in the finish.

    It’s a beautiful beer, harmonious despite its complexity. The high ABV works with the bourbon flavours – yes, it’s boozy, but then it’s a beer with a pronounced whisky influence. Approached as a brown ale, though, it doesn't offer much – in fact, it almost begs the question of whether you can blow up a brown ale in this fashion without leaving the style behind. If this had been labelled a porter instead, I doubt it would have raised any eyebrows, though there isn't a roasted malt quality in MRS Brown. In any case, the style is really only used a base for the additional flavours – you’re never going to drink this and think “this is a great brown ale”, because the experience of drinking it is all about taking a sip and saying “oh I get the maple syrup now… and there’s a bit of pecan.” In any event, the most important thing is this – it’s a great beer.

    Turns out you can inflate a brown ale whilst staying true to the style, as that’s exactly what Nøgne Ø have achieved here. Its colour is far more befitting a brown ale, and the aroma of caramel and currants is familiar although the ‘imperial’ nature of the beer brings a big whiff of booze, too.

    Though it's brewed in Norway, stylistically this is somewhere between British and American takes on brown ale. The hops, for example, are a mix of East Kent Goldings, Chinook and Columbus, and the yeast is a traditional English ale strain. Honestly, I didn't get much of the C-hops, not even much bitterness. At the same time, it’s not sweet, just dominated by malt flavours rather than hops. Sherry, vanilla and toffee along with the elevated ABV give an impression of a soft and warm beer, and it’s satisfyingly full-bodied without being viscous and oily as strong dark beers can be.

    Monday, 17 August 2015

    Brown ale roundup

    In my last brown ale round-up, I linked to a Beervana article about the use of caramel colouring in Newcastle Brown Ale. I may have misunderstood the situation - I thought the controversy was based on the use of an additive to obtain the beer's colour, but in fact it was based on health concerns around the colouring in question, 4-MEI. In any case, we hopefully all agree that artificial colourings used in the likes of Coke and Pepsi don't belong in beer.

    Another thought-provoking development in the world of brown ale is this post from Ron Pattinson, in which he shares a recipe for Adnams XX mild from 1950. Here, Ron says that Adnams Nut Brown Ale would likely have used the same recipe, though primed differently for the bottle. This reminded me of a conversation I had with @WestBromEL after my initial brown ale posts. He'd always been told that brown ale was essentially bottled mild, and it is true that mild is rarely bottled. No beer books on my shelf mention any such link between mild and brown ale, but clearly there was such a relationship at one time. Anyway, here are some brown ales I've been drinking lately, starting with an old classic.

    For months, I couldn't find Mann’s Brown Ale anywhere. I wanted to include it when I did my initial brown ale round-up in the early days of this blog, but nowhere near me stocked it. Eventually, I found myself in one of those enormous ASDA superstores when I clocked Mann’s bottles on the shelves, and became consumed with excitement which I knew, even at the time, would inevitably outstrip the quality of the beer. I was mainly just curious – Mann’s is often cited as an example of a now near-extinct breed of brown ale, a counterpart to the likes of Newky Brown. You’ll find little bitterness and no dry finish to Mann’s – it was reportedly considered close to a soft drink at one time, which I can understand. It’s not just the meagre 2.8% ABV, it’s also the sweetness and easy drinkability. It is refreshing and thirst quenching, but in much the same way water is, and not very much like beer is. It also tastes an awful lot like cola to me, with a finish that recalls sparkling mineral water, and hints of treacle and toffee flavour.  I can’t imagine anyone ever thinking “I think I’ll have a nice beer” and then enjoying drinking this.

    Thornbridge Charlie Brown (peanut butter brown ale)
    My hand has often hovered over Charlie Brown in bottle shops, but something always stopped me taking the plunge. It’s a brown ale with peanut butter and, whilst I love brown ale and love peanut butter, I somehow couldn't quite believe it could be as great as it sounds. Still, I eventually had to try it. Upon pouring, the peanut aroma is immediately evident – it doesn't really smell of peanut butter, but more like raw peanuts with the husk still on. I was expecting more peanut on the initial taste – this is more like a brown ale that heightens the peanut butter flavours that are usually to be found somewhere in beers of this style, rather than providing a massive peanut butter hit. That’s fine – I still want it to taste of beer, otherwise I’d just eat a peanut butter sandwich.  Trouble is, I'm not overly enamoured with the base beer – the body is too thin to work with the peanut butter richness, and there’s an unpleasant, slightly vinegary acidity in the background that also clashes. I was a little disappointed, but not because brown ale and peanut butter don’t go together – I just don’t think this is a great brown ale to begin with. 

    North Laine Brewery Deadwood
    This one is currently available in cask-conditioned form at Brighton's North Laine brewpub so, if you're interested, you should probably get over there and try it while you can. And it is definitely worth a try, even if my pint wasn't without flaws. The beer is aged in bourbon barrels (edit: it's actually aged on bourbon-soaked oak chips, not in a barrel), which in principle is an excellent idea - it's usually stouts that get this treatment but, since your average brown ale is a little lighter-bodied, you're less likely to end up with anything so thick and oily as certain barrel-aged stouts. The bourbon profile in Deadwood is expertly judged, never overpowering the beer - the whisky brings honey and vanilla, and the time in the wood brings a dry, red wine-like finish. The further down the glass you get, the less prominent the bourbon notes, and bitter chocolate and grassy hops come to to foreground. Unfortunately, my pint was let down by a lack of body - it lacked the smooth, substantial mouthfeel I'm looking for from cask ale, and felt thin and watery. I'm hoping to try it again while its around - perhaps my complaints are simply due to the inconsistency of the cask, and it is otherwise a very good beer.

    So far I've mainly been interested in British-brewed brown ales but, since there aren't huge numbers of them, I'm going international with this time. I’d heard some good things about Norway’s Lervig, but unfortunately, their brown ale is a dud. There’s a little toffee, a little chocolate and, if you swill the beer around in your mouth desperately looking for it, a touch of hop bitterness. But overall, it’s watery and bland.

    I was expecting a powerfully hopped American brown ale from this, but it’s actually a more nuanced beer. The recipe is inspired by brown ales from the brewery’s past which, in turn, shows a strong British influence – liquorice, treacle, caramel and fruit cake are all in there, bringing to mind something like Harvey’s Bloomsbury Brown if it were twice as strong. A more modern twist is the use of Citra hops, which didn't exist when Anchor was brewing these early beers. Initially, I couldn't get any of the hop flavour at all, but it comes out as the beer warms, with a subtle gooseberry tang. It may not have the hop hit I was expecting, but this is a great beer.

    I have a big soft spot for Triple fff, as they are responsible for what I think was my first ever encounter with cask ale, many years ago. Whilst a little south of legal, I once entered an establishment in the brewery's home town of Alton, Hampshire and, in a bid to convince the barman I was surely of proper drinking age, asked for a beer recommendation. He suggested Moondance, their Best Bitter. I professed to love it at the time, though I wonder now how much I truly liked it and how much I was just pretending to be a grown up. I’d certainly love to try it again.

    And, perhaps fittingly, Triple fff are the outfit behind what I think is my first taste of cask brown ale – all the others I’ve tried have been from kegs, bottles or cans. In fact, I think hoppy brown ales might work best from casks; I’ve always found well-hopped beers softer and more rounded in cask form compared to the spikier, punchy keg equivalents. Both versions have their merits, but the smoothed-out hops in this beer work nicely with the malt flavours – the balance is perfect. The malt brings caramel and toffee along with a big hit of wafer biscuits, with tangerines from the hops. It’s excellent.

    The Kernel Brown Ale
    The Kernel's interpretation of brown ale pours disappointingly black. I'm worried I'm in for a thin-bodied porter. But then, as I go for a sip, dark ruby colours slosh around in front of me - that's better. The nose is a big whack of cereals, and the first sip is full of roasty, toasted malt flavours. It actually is a little like a porter, though perhaps medium-bodied where a darker beer might be thicker. In fact, it's the perfect body for a brown ale according to my preferences. Some caramel and toffee inch the beer away from porter territory, and there's a citrus zing in the finish; although the label doesn't tell us which hops are included, I'd guess something American and beginning with C. This is delicately done, though - it's not an American brown ale, it's a modern British version which looks to the US for influence. I like it a lot.


    I've also recently come across a couple of brown ales with the audacity to call themselves 'imperial'. They'll get their own post next week.

    Sunday, 9 August 2015

    American Pale Ale, three ways

    Dark Star’s American Pale Ale is an important beer for me. I remember my first pint well – bored with the selection of ‘premium’ lagers at the pub I was in (most of which tastes much the same as the cans of Holsten Pils I used to drink at home), I observed as a friend approached the bar. She ordered an American Pale Ale. I’d heard good things about Dark Star, and figured I could probably manage a pale ale. So I went for it and, obviously, was knocked out. I couldn't even tell that it was the bitterness of the beer, much less the flavours from the hops, that I was enjoying – I just knew it was good, and different from any other beers I’d tasted. Even if it took a while longer for me to take a real interest in beer, I would always excitedly order a pint of American Pale Ale whenever I saw it, and that excitement continues to this day.

    When Dark Star announced they’d be releasing cans of their APA a couple of months ago, I was curious. How would it differ to the cask version I've always known? And then an idea hit me; I could go to the Evening Star and sit down with a glass of each version to see how they compared. In fact, the Star also often has the APA available from key keg, so there are three distinct versions of the same beer.

    As I set them out on the table in front of me, I was amazed at how different each glass looked. The cask beer is clear and golden, still and with a small, frothy head. The glass from the keg is a little hazier, possibly unfiltered, and with an extremely lively effervescence that almost looks like someone’s dropped a Berocca in the glass, and with a tight white layer of foam. The beer from the can is somewhere in between, golden-amber in colour, with a small head and the odd jet of carbonation.

    A sip from the cask version first. I'm so familiar with the beer, it’s hard to analyse its flavour. The hops are Cascade and Centennial  and, whereas the newer breeds of US hops (Citra, Mosaic etc.) tend to be tropical-tasting and fruity, these classic varieties primarily bring citrusy bitterness. Grapefruit is the dominant flavour here, and it’s a big hop hit. The beer is in excellent condition, with only the very softest carbonation but a silky-smooth and satisfyingly full bodied.

    Moving to the keg beer, I'm initially disappointed by its blandness. That smack of hops isn't there at first, but there is a lingering bitter aftertaste. The more I drink and the more I switch between the three beers, though, it ended up as my favourite incarnation, precisely for this subtlety.

    The canned beer is different again. That citric bitterness is even further delayed here, but crisp, warm Marris Otter malt is there in spades. So whilst it comes on like a golden ale to begin with, the hops creep up on you. It’s probably the most balanced of all three beers, the least assertive and my least favourite. Don’t get me wrong, I'm not writing the APA cans off, though – I’ll be sure to try it in its own right soon, as I expect I’ll find much to enjoy.

    I don’t think much about methods of dispensing or packaging beer – I usually just drink whatever takes my fancy regardless of whether its cask or keg. Bottled or canned beers are rarely as good as those on tap, but I usually don’t think of them as being markedly different. This experiment shows me what a difference these things can make – ostensibly the same beer in three different glasses, each distinct from the next. Dark Star American Pale Ale remains one of my all-time favourite beers regardless of which of these glasses I reach for.

    Monday, 3 August 2015

    Two Lithuanian beers

    Lars Marius Garshol, of Larsblog, is responsible for the most fascinating beer reading I've undertaken this year. In a series of blog posts and subsequent e-book, he has undertaken a thorough investigation of Lithuanian beer culture, travelling to Vilnius and beyond reporting his findings from tiny regional breweries and traditional beer bars. Due to my own ignorance (perhaps, even, the ignorance of Western Europe in general), Lithuania seems an impossibly obscure country, one I know next to nothing about. And yet it is home to a singular tradition of farmhouse brewing that owes little to the brewing cultures of the rest of Europe. Lars’ findings suggest that traditional Lithuanian brewing practices are not always as well preserved as we might like, but they still exist for the curious beer hunter to discover.

    Enthralled though I was with this subject, I doubted I’d ever taste a traditional Lithuanian beer. Not many make their way to the UK and, even if they did, most authentic farmhouse beers travel very poorly. Even the journey to Vilnius can reportedly affect the quality of these brews, and they are best tasted at the breweries. I can only imagine my very patient girlfriend’s reaction if I were to suggest we take a tour of Lithuanian farmhouse breweries in search of unusual, challenging beers – let’s just say I won’t book the flights just yet.

    Having a quick poke around Google after reading Lars’ e-book, I was surprised to find that Beers of Europe, my favoured mail-order beer retailer, stocks a handful of Lithuanian bottles. They were, of course, out of stock, and I had to imagine they were unlikely to come back in. Still, there’s an option to receive an email alert when products come back in stock. I took advantage of this and then completely forgot all about it, whilst still daydreaming about these mysterious brews from time to time. And then, one day, I received an email informing me that two of the more interesting beers were back in stock after all. Given Lars’ warnings about the vulnerability of these beers in transit, I lowered my expectations a little – this wouldn't be a totally authentic Lithuanian beer experience, but the closest I could get without travelling. And in any case, these appear to be more industrially produced beers rather than small-scale farmhouse operations.

    Butautu Dvaro Alus Šviesus came first. The word ‘šviesus’ translates as ‘pale’ and, although the style isn't clearly defined, there are certain common characteristics, including a hazy appearance, a rustic, straw-like flavour and lots of diacetyl. Diacetyl, an off-characteristic in most beers which produces a slick, oily texture and buttery flavours, is reportedly a common characteristic in Lithuanian brewing, and considered a complement to the flavour of the malts rather than a brewing fault. Lars' e-book does warn that certain beers may use the word on their labels, but the contents of the bottle are closer to normal lager. I'm not sure where this would fall as I have nothing to compare it to - it pours clear and has a certain resemblance to lager, but possesses many Lithuanian peculiarities either way.

    The aroma is vinous, but also a little earthy, something like oxidised white wine, and there are also a lot of honey and lager malts on the nose. What initially registers in terms of flavour is the sweetness - the reason this sticks out is that, as a general rule, Lithuanian beers lack hop bitterness due to the low yields of domestic hop varieties. Honey is a big flavour here, alongside synthetic vanilla and icing sugar. Diacetyl is certainly playing a large role, too , revealing itself in strong butterscotch notes. The dry, earthy, straw flavours that are often described as characteristic of Lithuanian beers are there in certain mouthfuls, and so is just the tiniest hint of vinegar. Carbonation – again, as it apparently the norm in Lithuania – is low, and the diacteyl contributes to a slick and oily body. If that sounds like a sloppily brewed mess, think again – oddly, it works, whilst the flavours are so unusual and so unlike other beers that I'm constantly drawn in for another inquisitive sip. 

    The second beer is Kanapinis Alus Šviesus, brewed by Taruškų. Certain internet sources make reference to the use of hemp seeds in this beer but whilst there are beers in this range that use hemp, I don’t think this is actually one of them. It pours hazier than the Butautu example, with a fluffy white head which vanishes quickly. The initial flurry of carbonation also fades fast, and the beer ends up practically still, like a traditional German kellerbier. The aroma is dominated by honey, with caramel and something like buttery pasty in there. Again, my initial impression on taking a sip is of an unusual sweetness, with those honey notes continuing, although there is some sort of concession to bitterness here – not quite enough to balance that sweetness, but it’s there. The one predictable flavour is of standard lager malts, although these are mutated by a big dose of buttery diacetyl. There are also stewed apples, cereals and an ever-so-slight sour vinegar note far in the background, and it finishes dry and chalky in a way that’s reminiscent of sparkling mineral water. Lars’ e-book often talks about a nutty, oily flavour which is unique to Lithuanian beer – exactly what causes this is not yet known – and whilst I didn't get much of this in the Butautu beer, I can pick it up here – it’s something like peanuts, and the oiliness is only compounded by the slickness the diacetyl brings.

    "The first thing you should do, before having your first sip of Lithuanian farmhouse ale is to reset your brain. The beer in front of you may look like a saison, or a zwickel, but it is in fact neither. It belongs to a completely separate beer tradition that has developed its own frame of reference, and you have to treat it as such. You should, in a sense, expect the unexpected."

    The above is Lars' advice on how to approach Lithuanian beer for the first time, and they're wise words. The two that I've sampled here may be some of the tamer examples out there, and even these were plenty weird in comparison to what I'd normally drink. But beer is like that - imagine, for example, that you'd never encountered, or never heard of, the tradition of British cask ale. Your first pint might seem tepid and flat - but then, it's supposed to be that way, and the condition of the beer is the result of very deliberate and complex decisions on the part of the brewers and publicans. The same is true of these Lithuanian beers, however bizarre they seem at first. You can order them yourself from Beers of Europe here. They're also available in litre bottles, and would make great sharing beers.

    Monday, 27 July 2015

    Birra artigianale a Sorrento pt. 2: Birrificio Sorrento

    Before we left for Sorrento, whilst scouting around on the internet looking for beer information, I made an exciting discovery – there is actually a microbrewery based in Sorrento – Birrificio Sorrento. I couldn't wait to try their beers, and even emailed them for a list of stockists so that I could make sure I did. The full list is included at the end of this post.

    Birrificio Sorrento has been in operation since 2009, although it appears that they initially brewed using other breweries’facilities for several years. They have had their own small kit since 2013 from which they produce two core beers – Syrentum, a golden ale made with local lemons, and Minerva, a red ale with oranges. I love the use of local ingredients which is, as I understand it, a hallmark of birra artigianale – in the absence of an indigenous beer tradition, modern brewers look to their bountiful produce for inspiration, approaching their beers as part of a wider culinary landscape. This creativity is, to me, far preferable to simply aping Belgian or American brewing. Like many Italian craft beers, which are rarely housed in your basic glass bottle, Birrificio Sorrento’s are beautifully presented in bottles that look more likely to hold sparkling wine. This, again, seems part of a strategy to have beer taken seriously at the dinner table and, in my experience, local restaurants serve them in an ice bucket, the only time I have ever been served beer in this way.

    Sorrento is justly proud of its enormous, gnarled lemons. Images of the fruit appear on most of the merchandise on sale in the tourist shops and, of course, they are used in limoncello, the delicious local liqueur. Peel from the lemons also makes its way into Syrentum, which is a magnificent beer. It pours golden orange with a dense, moussey white head, and an aroma bursting with fresh citrus. It tastes, unsurprisingly, of lemon, but not in an extreme or obtrusive way, and tastes fresh and natural, far removed from a synthetic radler. The citrus flavour works because it complements the fruit flavours already in the beer, which seem to be primarily from the yeast, with that faintly sulphuric note you find in Belgian tripels. These ester flavours add depth to the beer beyond the lemon. Syrentum is the easier of the brewery’s beers to find in Sorrento – I found that restaurants that do stock Birrificios Sorrento's wares invariably opt for this over Minerva. This could possibly be because the beer’s clean citrus body compliments the local seafood, but since I don’t eat fish this is pure conjecture.  I've thought about it a lot since returning home, and I sincerely hope I can drink it again someday.

    Minerva, a red ale with oranges, doesn't move me so strongly, good though it is. A familiar yeast strain from Syrentum instantly reveals itself, and the two beer’s profiles are quite similar. Here, though, the freshness of the lemon is replaced by a marmalade-like spiciness. The zest treads delicately across the tongue, with a faint prickly sensation, but finishes sweet. I couldn't help but crave the cleaner, more refreshing taste of Syrentum, though I’ll acknowledge that if I was being truly fair, I wouldn't even compare the two.

    These two beers form Birrificio Sorrento’s core range, though they do make others, presumably on an occasional or one-off basis. One of these is Parthenope, which I found in bottled form in Vizi e Sfizi, a shop in the centre of town. This beer is quite unlike the other two – it’s a stout made with nuts. In contrast to the beers I’d been served in ice buckets, this one chills in cold water in a bidet – no fridge in the hotel room, you see. It does the trick, anyway, as I don’t like dark beers to be too cold. Parthenope is very bitter and dry, in much the same way that nuts are. The effect recalls the oak tannins picked up in barrel-aged beer, or even red wine. It’s rich and full-bodied, drinkable and satisfying, but some softer chocolate notes might have balanced out the aggressive bitterness. It’s a good and interesting beer either way, and one you should try if you do happen to find it.

    I was very impressed with Birrificio Sorrento – all three beers are very accomplished, and Syrentum is an absolute cracker. Sorrento is a lovely town, one well worth visiting regardless of any beer recommendations. But if you’re there, I’d urge you to seek out Birrificio Sorrento with your evening meal.

    Birrificio Sorrento stockists (as per an email sent to my by the brewery in June 2015) - Restaurants: Ristorante Pizzeria Aurora, Ristorante Il Buco, Ristorante The Garden, Ristorante Tasso, Ristorante Antica Trattoria, Ristorante Le Basilica, Pizzeria Acqu'e Sale, Ristorante Inn Buffalito. Shops: La Botegga della Birra, Vizi e Sfizi, Bottles Shop, The Garden, Inn Buffalito Concept Store

    Monday, 20 July 2015

    Birra artigianale a Sorrento pt.1

    Last year, at my suggestion, we spent our summer holiday in Edinburgh. We had a great time, visiting the zoo, taking a late-night walking tour of the city’s haunted spots, checking out the art galleries and drinking lots of very good beer. But it was very cold and rainy – during the trip, I purchased not only an umbrella, but a wool hat, too. We had to move hotels on the last night because there was a mouse in our room. So whilst we had an excellent trip, glamorous it was not. When Sidony suggested a more Mediterranean climate for this year’s holiday, I wasn't about to argue.

    We settled on Sorrento, a beautiful town on Italy’s Amalfi coast. Not much of a beer destination, but then this wasn't a beery holiday. But when I stopped to consider the cool, refreshing holiday beers I could enjoy, I shuddered at the idea that I might have to drink Peroni. It’s not an awful beer, but it’s not a very good one, either, and the holiday beer novelty would be diminished by the fact that it is inflicted on us in most Italian restaurants in the UK. With this in mind, I couldn't resist digging around for a couple of leads towards good beer in Sorrento.

    It didn't take long to find a good drop, as it happened. On our first night, tired and hungry, we wandered into pretty much the first pizzeria we foud. On the beer menu there, sticking out like a sore thumb amongst Heineken and Peroni, was Super Baladin. The name rang a bell, though I couldn’t quite place it (I later realised that it was from this post from Jeffrey Bell, and that Baladin are actually one of Italy’s early pioneering craft breweries). Caramel-coloured, with a big, fluffy white head, smell of caramelising sugar. The taste is very sweet, with marzipan and toffee apples alongside stone fruits. At 8%, it’s surprisingly light drinking, and a savoury malt profile and very high carbonation make it super refreshing.

    The next afternoon we visited Bar del Carmine, in the town’s bustling Piazza Tasso. It's a pleasant but fairly ordinary touristy bar, except they have a small birra artigianale section on their drinks menu, so you can sit and take in the sights of the Piazza – mostly people almost getting hit by cars – whilst enjoying some excellent Italian beers. There are more from Baladin here, so next I tried their NazionAle, the first ever beer brewed with 100% Italian ingredients. Whilst there is a good hop bitterness which balances some rather sweet malt, my overriding impression of the beer was of a Juicy Fruit-style Belgian yeast flavour. When I looked it up later, I was surprised to find that it contains bergamot and coriander – I’d like to think my palate hadn't let me down completely, as coriander is often used in Belgian wit beers (Camden Town’s interpretation uses bergamot, too).

    Baladin Super Bitter is also on offer at Bar del Carmine, a version of Super Baladin spiked with American Amarillo hops. Amarillo’s peachy flavour gels perfectly with the caramelised fruit flavours in the original beer, and it gains a moreish bitterness which is not overdone. I like it even better than the original.

    One intriguing recommendation from my internet research was La Botegga della Birra, a bottle shop and bar in Sorrento, which we visited the next day. It’s a funny little place, with the vibe of a sports bar or, worse, an Irish pub – check out the leprechaun on the beer menu. It is neither of these things, of course – draught La Chouffe and La Trappe dubbel occupy the bar rather than Guinness, and the likes of Peroni are thoroughly absent. We were offered a beer menu but, if you visit, you may as well ignore this. The proprietor was most apologetic, but explained that transporting imported beers to Sorrento isn’t easy, and he can’t reliably stock everything listed. His response when I asked for a good Italian beer couldn’t have been more enthusiastic, though, and he brought a selection to the table, none of which were on the menu anyway. For best results, I’d suggest going in with this question from the beginning.

    I chose Nora, another from Birifficio Baladin. I’d heard of the beer before (it was featured on the Beer O’Clock Show, if memory serves), but hadn’t made the connection to Baladin. The initial swig is a big surprise – the word ‘spicy’ may be overused in beer tasting notes, but to me, this is a big mouthful of hot black pepper. There’s a tremendous depth of flavour to this beer – it seems to stimulate all areas of the palate at once. A savoury note recalls tomatoes and herbs - though I realise it currently sounds like I’m describing a pasta sauce rather than a beer, it does taste of beer, too. Peaches and sweet oranges complete the picture. As it happens, the spice is ginger, not pepper – should have guessed that. Nora also contains Kamut, a grain used in ancient Egyptian brewing, and myrrh – not going to beat myself up about failing to identify those ingredients.  It may sound unusual, but if you see it, I’d urge you to try it. I might not have if I’d read that description but, going into it with an open mind, I was taken aback.

    Back at Bar del Carmine one afternoon,  I opt for Sumera from Birrificio Karma, based in Alvignano, about 25 miles to the north of Naples. Spelt makes up a portion of the grain bill here, and the initial impression is a sweet, vinous quality. There’s a touch of dry, Belgian-like yeast, along with honey, candy sugar and oranges. It’s satisfyingly full-bodied, with a bitter bite of the sort you find in good lager. These qualities, alongside lively carbonation, make it extremely refreshing on a hot, sunny afternoon.

    I'd also seen Il Chiostro beers in a few shops and was keen to try them. This microbrewery is based not far away in Nocera Inferiore, and their range appears to stick more to classic styles - wheat beer, Belgian blonde, but also some more niche styles like Scotch ale and Irish red - than the inventive approach of breweries like Baladin. One evening we stop for a drink at The Garden, a lovely restaurant with a seperate wine shop cum bar on the busy Corso Italia, and here I have the opportunity to sample a couple. First, I choose Once Upon a Time. There's no clue as to the style anywhere on the label, and the lady at the bar can only tell me that it is an ale. It pours black with patches of dark, translucent red around the edges of the glass, and with a big and persistent beige head. Surprisingly, it's quite tart, like a Flanders Red, but with roasted malt flavours like a porter. (Confusingly, Google the name of this beer and most information refers to a 13% Belgian-style quadrupel. This beer was 8.5% and, whilst I'm not sure exactly what style they were going for, quadrupel was certainly not it.)There's sour cherry and tobacco going on here, with a dry finish like red wine. The Belgian bruin which I try next is very similar, but those fruit flavours are less tart here - more like glacé cherries, providing a little sweetness to counteract the sour bite.

    But only a true dullard would go on a holiday like this and insist on the finest craft beers at all times. One place I was determined to visit was the dodgily-named Foreigner's Club. I'd loved this place when I last visited Sorrento as a ten year old boy, pestering my parents to return again and again. Returning now, I can see why - the view of the Mount Vesuvius on one side and the coast jutting out on the other is beautiful. Birra Moretti will never taste better than it does up here - so good that I had to stay for another.

    Then, of course, there is Sorrento’s own craft brewery, Birrificio Sorrento. More on their beers in a second instalment soon.