Monday, 20 April 2015


Beer-braised sausages is one of the most straight forward and obvious ways to incorporate beer into cooking. Google it and you’ll find pages and pages of results; even Stella Artois appear to have a recipe for it (although the link doesn't appear to work in the UK. Probably no big loss; fizzy macro beer may be snidely referred to as ‘cooking lager’, but actually following through with that idea seems kind of nuts). I've been wanting to make a version since having a sausage dish cooked in cider. I wanted to make a similar meal at home, but didn't want to be stuck with the remaining half bottle; I don’t like cider, and it would most likely end up down the sink. And as my mind turned to beer alternatives, I remembered Harvey’s Priory Ale, a beer that has seemed to be screaming out for an accompanying banger every time I've tasted it.

Priory Ale is an interpretation of the kind of beers that might have been produced at a brewery at the Priory of St. Pancras in the Sussex town of Lewes in 1264. It uses only ingredients that would have been available to these brewers; these include hops, but also yarrow, rosemary and thyme, with a grain bill mixing barley, oats and wheat. I first picked up a bottle from Harvey's brewery shop on a whim, simply because I’d never seen it before. I expected little more than a dusty historical curiosity, but was caught out by how unusual this beer is; amongst other things, I taste shandy, Parma Violets and menthol eucalyptus in it, but in this dish, the odder flavours fade into the background and the herbal and citrus notes shine through, working perfectly with the sausages.

My base recipe is this one from the Waitrose website, though I've made several tweaks beyond my selected beer. Perhaps most significantly, I used vegetarian sausages, as I don’t eat meat. I say this knowing full well that Harvey’s beers, amongst countless others, are filtered with isinglass, and therefore not strictly vegetarian. I am personally happy to look past this tiny trace of animal produce in my beer and don’t consider this a contradiction – and in any case, this recipe isn't set in stone, and can be easily produced with a fully vegetarian-friendly beer, or with genuine pork sausages in place of the soya substitute. Whilst I do think the particular beer I used leant a certain richness to the dish, I think just about any ale with a decent depth of flavour will have something to offer.

I made another couple of minor changes – I swapped onions for leeks, for example, because I don't want too much sticky sweetness, and omitted wholegrain mustard from the beer and sausage broth. Instead, I stirred a teaspoon of it through the mashed potatoes than accompanied the dish but, if I were to serve it without mash, I’d include it as per the original Waitrose recipe. Another tweak I made, which might seem a little odd, is the inclusion of a splash of soy sauce. I always do this with veggie gravies, as it adds richness and a little seasoning but the soy sauce flavour per se is not detectable. Apart from anything else, it transformed this dish’s slightly anaemic translucent golden brown colour to something much more befitting a sausage casserole. This step may not be necessary if you're cooking with meat.

This is great comfort food, best consumed on the sofa in front of the TV. My one regret is that I didn't have the foresight to procure a beer to accompany the meal; as I ate, I wished I had a bottle of Fuller’s London Porter on the side.

Harvey’s Priory Ale-braised sausages
Recipe serves a greedy lone diner, but quantities are easily multiplied

3 sausages (vegetarian or otherwise)
1 ½ trimmed leeks, sliced
1 tbsp plain white flour
225ml Harvey’s Battle of Lewes Priory Ale
150ml vegetable stock
Splash of dark soy sauce

1. Heat oil in a frying pan or casserole with a lid, and cook the sausages slightly short of  manufacturer’s instructions, until cooked through but only just golden brown. Remove from the pan and set aside
2. Add the leaks to the pan and cook for 5 or 6 minutes until softened. Add the flour and fry off for a brief minute, then add the beer and bring to a simmer. Add the stock and soy sauce, then return the sausages to the pan and place a lid on for around 15 minutes. Taste a few times, adjusting the seasoning as necessary.
3. Remove the lid and cook for around 5 more minutes, until the liquid has thickened and acquired a rich, sticky texture. Goes very well with a creamy mustard mash.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Thornbridge vs. Schlenkerla: Battle of the Bocks

I’ve often thought that one of the Thornbridge brewery’s strongest suits is their respectful approach to beer styles, along with an interest in slightly more esoteric or niche styles less often attempted by other UK brewers. A copy of Michael Jackson’s Beer Companion and access to Thornbridge beers can teach a novice beer drinker an awful lot – I know, because I learnt a lot this way myself. Craft Beer Co. in Brighton seems to have at least two of their brews on at any one time and so as I read about, for example, kolsch beer, I was able to sample Tzara – surely the next best thing to a visit to Cologne, and way more satisfying than any imported bottle. Similarly, my first taste of Bière de Garde orginated not in Nord-Pas-de-Calais, but in the Peak District. When my dad returned from a trip to France with a couple of bottles of Dyuck Jenlain Ambrée, I was amazed at how true to style the Thornbridge example, still fresh in my mind, had been.

Considering this, I recently realised I had a bottle of both Thornbridge’s Bamberg and Schnlenkerla’s Urbock in my cupboard. This, I thought, could offer an opportunity to see just how well Thornbridge’s beers hold up in comparison to the classics of their style. And so, I decided to taste the two beers side-by-side. Now, I want to make it clear from the get-go that this is purely a bit of fun. There are many reasons why a comparison of this kind isn’t totally fair, not least the fact that strong smoked beer is kind of a palate scorcher. But the beers are both smoked bocks, with similar ABVs (6.5% for Schlenkerla, 6% for Thornbridge), and Thornbridge are acknowledging the influence of (if not inviting comparison to) Schlenkerla by naming their version after the city that famously houses that brewery. Still, the following is not intended to be anything other than a light-hearted experiment; apart from anything else, the tasting itself was really fun to do.

To help me with this venture, I enlisted the help of my other half, Sidony, who took me to Bamberg earlier in the year and became a Schlenkerla devotee in the process. We began by pouring each bottle into two glasses, after which I attempted a blind taste-test by closing my eyes and asking Sidony to hand me a glass without telling me which of the beers it contained. An unscientific element came into play immediately, however; whilst pouring, the aroma of the Thornbridge beer hit me very strongly. After smelling the two glasses, I predicted the one with the most intense, ham-like aroma was Thornbridge, but my guess was based on this prior information rather than a true blind test. The glass with the more powerful aroma unsurprisingly tasted stronger and smokier, too, and this glass actually turned out to be Schlenkerla.

Schlenkerla’s Urbock is, in every sense, a bigger version of their classic marzen. The meaty smokiness is just as strong, but more nuanced – flavours I haven’t detected in the marzen are apparent here, such as tobacco, oak, liquorice and certain herbal notes, and once the smoke subsides, there’s a poke of citrus sharpness. The elevated ABV is evident and, together with a fuller body and pleasantly oily mouthfeel, this slips down easily and leaves a warmth in the chest. Sidony uses an analogy rarely called upon in the beer world – make-up. There are many types of primer (something that is applied pre make up application). Some are gels & creams that often hit the skin and dry down almost immediately, making whatever comes after it apply roughly, whilst others have a more silicone feeling to them, which lets anything come after it glide on. Drinking the beer is a similarly seamless sensation; it's smooth and silky, slippery, easy drinking.

In comparison, Thornbridge’s Bamberg seems a little puny. To again acknowledge the flaw in this test, it is a little mean to taste this after such an intense beer as the Schlenkerla bock. I rinsed my mouth out with plenty of water in order to best compare them, but my palate was undoubtedly affected by the previous beer’s smoke. The smokiness is far milder here, but Bamberg also seems to me like a much cleaner (if stronger than average) lager than your typical rich, warming bock. The body is noticeably thinner, with more carbonation, and the colour resembles a Vienna lager, far lighter than Schlenkerla’s dark copper. Sidony doesn’t like it at all – for her, it neither warms nor refreshes and it’s neither a summer nor a winter beer. I’m much keener; admittedly, after Schlenkerla, it barely tastes like a smoked beer anymore, but then I think I’d enjoy an unsmoked version just as much, because for me it’s a robust but crisp lager. I’d prefer a slightly lower alcohol content, though, because I don’t feel the boosted ABV brings anything to the beer; the body is no fuller than your average lager, and you don’t get that tingling booze warmth.

As I said at the beginning, this was purely intended as a fun little experiment, and there’s no slight on Thornbridge intended – they remain one of the UK breweries I most admire, and to say that any brewery makes a smoked beer that doesn’t quite measure up to Schlenkerla is truly no insult. Apart from anything else, I really enjoyed Bamberg in its own right, and fully intend on trying it again on its own to appreciate it properly.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Spanish beer haul pt.2; Lupulópolis

The following beers were purchased at Lupulópolis in Seville.

A very lively pour from this bottle, with deep black beer foaming insistently into the glass and settling into a thick, lasting beige head. The aroma is richly savoury, an intense nose full of toasted malt, and the first sip is satisfyingly full bodied with a beautiful viscous mouthfeel. The trio of US hops (Amarillo, Simcoe and Cascade) bring bitterness, but not a huge amount of juicy fruit flavour, which is fine by me as they never threaten to step on that malt backbone. There’s a slight tonic-like tang in the finish, which only encourages you to go back for more, and the beer’s 8.5% ABV reveals itself in a lasting boozy warmth. It’s subtle for a black IPA, but it’s a well-made beer all the same.

A mid-strength porter although, amusingly, it says 4.8% on the front label and 5.6% on the back. The aroma is weak, with a hint of the tart, malt vinegar tang I associate with Harvey’s beers, and which is never inviting even if the beer is good once you taste it. Yunque has some very unusual flavours going on; I don’t get the usual treacle or coffee, with the roasted malt flavour taking a bit of a back seat whilst hazelnuts and big vanilla dominate. It tastes good, but I’ve never had a porter quite like it, and it’s not really what I’m looking for from the style.

Cárdenas Stout (Dos Hermanas)
This is the most local of all the bottled beers I picked up in Seville, brewed in Dos Hermanas just 15km outside the city. It’s an inauspicious start, as unfortunately there’s a lot of floating sediment in the glass, though the bottle has remained upright and I poured slowly. Even worse, the aroma is positively pungent, and not in a pleasant way. I don’t mean to be harsh, but it really does smell like a well-used chemical toilet, with a note of toothpaste in the background. I almost don’t want to taste it, though it’s not terrible when I do – just very, very strange. The roasted malt flavours are in the background, and the most prominent flavour is mint. As with the Kettal porter, it’s not that it tastes awful, it just isn’t anything like a stout should be. Compared to some of the other Spanish beers I’ve tried alongside it, this is, sadly pretty unaccomplished brewing.

I don’t mind admitting that I selected this beer from the fridge based mainly on the wacky label and the fact that I love guinea pigs. Words cannot describe the joy this label brings me; I want a print of it on my wall, I want it on a T-shirt. Anyway,  Guinea Pigs! is based in Madrid, but works as a contract brewer, and Hopvana was brewed at Domus in Toledo. Whilst it’s a broadly American-style IPA, some interesting and creative decisions have been made here; for example, the hop bill mixes German Herkules and Saphir with Australian Summer, with Cascade being the only US hop included. The beer’s unusually dark colour can be attributed to the inclusion of chocolate malt alongside pale ale and crystal. The resulting flavour is both familiar and surprising at the same time; mango and sweet oranges, pink grapefruit and candy floss, balanced by a solid malt profile. I may have chosen it for dubious reasons, but Hopvana was nevertheless a fine choice!

Guineu/BrauKunstKeller Collabrew Double IPA (Barcelona/Michelstadt, Germany)
Guineu is the only Spanish microbrewery I’d heard of before this trip, and this double IPA is a collaboration with BraunKunstKeller, a German craft brewery. Whilst there are obviously exceptions, the thought of double IPAs sometimes makes me wince, because they’re just too much for me; too bitter, too strong, too demanding. This is not the case here, as the juicy fruit flavour is prominent, but without lip-puckering bitterness, and with a solid malt framework, too. The hops are a mixture of European varieties – Mandarina Bavaria and Hull Melon from Germany – in the kettle, and US – Mosaic and Citra – for dry hopping. It’s full of mango, papaya and pineapple, but built on a  foundation of crisp malt which I’d like to imagine is the German influence. It’s excellent.

Not knowing any of the breweries on offer, I had to make my selections in the bottle shop on very limited data. So I figured, go for the beer with the personified cartoon hop on the label, and you can expect something really hoppy, right? Well, kind of. Take a sip and wait for that lupulin hit, and you’ll be disappointed, because the bitterness in this beer is surprisingly low. Nevertheless, it’s very flavoursome and fruity, with lots of juicy papaya and ripe white grapes. It hides its 9% strength very well, with light carbonation and a modest body that demands another gulp. It’s not at all what I expected, and I can imagine some people being really disappointed by it (the handful of reviews it has on Ratebeer are lukewarm at best, for example) but I loved it.

It would be arrogant of me to make any broad claims to know Spanish craft beer based on the beers I've tasted in these posts; the generously stacked shelves in Lupulópolis are testament to the fact that I've barely scratched the surface of a rapidly growing scene. This is all the more remarkable when you consider that Spain, as far as I'm aware, doesn't have much of an indigenous beer tradition.The best beers I sampled are good enough to compete with the best beers coming out of the UK and the rest of Europe, and the ones that weren't so good are hopefully examples from brewers still on a learning curve. I'll happily take a light lager in an ice-encrusted glass from time to time, but on future holidays in Spain, it's great to know that proper beer is out there waiting to be discovered.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Spanish beer haul pt.1 ; El Court Inglés

The Spanish department store, El Corte Inglés, stocks a small range of craft beer. The beers featured here are a selection from across the country, and were purchased from the store in the centre of Seville.

Cervesa del Montseny Luplus (Sant Miquel de Balenya, Valencia)
Though brewed with pilsner malt and possessing all of the defining features of a lager, Lupulus is actually top fermented. The motivation is, apparently, a reconnection with the brewing traditions of the Iberians of the Bronze and Neolithic ages. I wouldn’t know much about that, but the beer is surprisingly modern in style, with a flavour profile reminiscent of Camden Pils; clean, crisp and refreshing like a pilsner, but packed with fruity hop flavour. The complex hop bill includes Cascade, Fuggles, Nugget, Styrian Celeia and Target, though the US varieties dominate with juicy mango and mandarin flavours. I’m always partial to beers that combine the refreshment and citrus bite of a pilsner with the moreish complexity of hoppy pale ales, and found this one particularly enjoyable. Accomplished, inventive brewing, and an auspicious start to my exploration of Spanish craft beer.

Though I suspected a gimmick, I couldn’t help but satisfy my curiosity for a beer brewed with sea water. It’s unfiltered and unpasteurised, but even by these standards, the pour is very murky, and the yeast aroma incredibly pungent. I’m expecting it to be undrinkable based on the smell, but it’s a pleasant surprise, full of smooth, subtle yeast flavours reminiscent of wit beer, with notes of pressed apple juice, pineapple and raspberry, and satisfyingly full-bodied. Though you can’t help but search for it, no salt is detectable, though a certain aftertaste does leave you feeling like you’ve recently returned from a walk on the beach. I ended up really enjoying this, despite having bought it principally for the weirdness.

Sagra IPA (Toledo)
Yes, that’s Sagra, not Sagres – there’s no connection to the ubiquitous Portugese lager, despite branding so incredibly similar that I’m not sure how they’re getting away with it. This is the only Spanish IPA on offer on the El Corte Inglés shelves, and I’m immediately sceptical when I get a nose of the beer; it’s dominated by malt, mostly cereals, with no discernible hop aroma. There is a hop presence in the taste, but the overall flavour is cloyingly sweet malt. The bitterness is there in the finish, but the taste of the hops lacks a punch. It’s reminiscent of an English IPA – say, Bengal Lancer – but, although it’s far less robust in flavour, the ABV is 7.2%, which adds nothing but sickly booziness and ruins the beer.

A pale ale, which pours a hazy blonde with an appealing rocky white head. The taste is immediately quite underwhelming, if actually quite pleasant in its subtlety and easy drinking. There’s a little toffee with a strong mineral tang and, weirdly, the closest comparison I can make is the non-alcoholic version of Erdinger. The brewery’s website tells me they use Cascade hops here, but very little hop profile is apparent in my bottle. It’s fine, but not full of character.

Antara (Foios/Venta del Moro)
Antara appears to be the creation of a Valencian organic food company, Terra I Xufa, based in Foios, and is brewed at Fernández Ponz in Venta del Moro. It’s by far the best presented beer of the selection, with a minimal white and gold label that reminds me of Wiper and True’s classy branding. This only makes the strange mess of a beer inside the bottle all the more surprising. It pours an unappealing golden brown, like the colour of apple left out too long and oxidised. The aroma is floral, with perfume and strawberries. A chalky mineral flavour leads to an intense and unpleasant bitterness; it’s not a hoppy bitterness, though – it’s more medicinal, like an alka seltzer. Once this fades, the remaining flavour is a little ‘off’ – ‘barnyard’ might be the kindest way to describe it, but it tastes more dirty to me, especially with the smoky finish that’s closer to cigarette ash than it is to rauchbier. This is one to avoid.

Tor Quemada 25 (Palencia)
This beer is billed as a pale ale, and so I was a little alarmed to discover that it was bottled around a year ago, as the hop flavours I’m hoping for will have lost most of their punch in the meantime. Thankfully, this stretch in the bottle seems to have only improved the beer’s character, as, whilst it is technically and ale which is pale, it’s closer to a Belgian golden ale. Though it doesn’t quite reach the same heights, 25’s closest relative is Orval (small complaint as Orval is one of the best beers in the world), though the lactic tang here is sharper. It pours a dirty blonde colour with a big, lively, fluffy head. The aroma is sour apples counteracted by sweet pear drops, and the first sip is full of those tart apples amongst a bold yeast presence. The finish is very dry and moreish, accentuated further by brisk carbonation. It’s absolutely not to style, but it’s a very good beer nevertheless.

The Burro de Sancho range immediately caught my eye, as their labels quite flagrantly rip off Brewdog’s style prior to their recent rebrand. Closer inspection reveals that Burro de Sancho is a subsidiary of the Sagra brewery who, evidently, have previous in their blatant “inspiration” from other breweries’ branding. This is the first filtered beer of the bunch, and pours a clear amber with a quickly receding head. The initial aroma is a quite frightening combination of bitter chocolate and tomato. A little bitter chocolate flavour is apparent, too, along with some toast. There’s a spicy, very savoury quality here, and what little hop flavour is detectable tastes stewed. I find this is not uncommon amongst red ales, but I don’t find it very pleasant, and can’t recommend this beer overall.

The beers I bought from Lupulópolis, a more exciting place to buy beer in Seville, will follow in another post soon.