Monday, 25 May 2015

On tour with The Soft Walls - pt.1

For the past couple of years, I've been playing guitar in the live incarnation of my good pal Dan Reeves’ home recording project, The Soft Walls. In May, we were lucky enough to embark on an 8-show European tour supporting the excellent Viet Cong from Canada. As if this prospect wasn't exciting enough, my heart skipped a beat when the list of dates came through, as the tour took us through some of Europe’s most exciting beer locations, too. And whilst beer wasn't the purpose of the trip, I would surely have a bit of free time for a whistle-stop tour of the local brews between shows. What follows is a run-down of what I drank during the trip.

Tap list at Hoppy Days, Amsterdam. Just visible is the cat I befriended as I drank.
We begin the tour feeling a little haggard after a night on the Murphy’s Irish Red on the overnight ferry between Harwich and the Hook of Holland. Arriving in Amsterdam and driving around searching for the venue, we pass a branch of the Gollem beer café as well as an intriguing brewpub with fermentation tanks in the window. After breakfast and a stroll around the city, neither location can be found in a midst of issues with maps and depleted iPhone batteries. Instead, we settle down for a couple of glasses of La Chouffe at a local café, and I enjoy a glass of Zatte, a tripel from Amsterdam’s Brouwerij 't IJ, in a pleasant canal-side bar. This a beautiful beer, up there with Westmalle as far as I'm concerned. The venue hosting tonight’s show is next store to an Italian restaurant slash craft beer bar called Hoppy Days, so I head over there to wind down after our set. Many of their beers are Italian, though a few are Dutch, and the barman couldn't be more helpful in guiding me to a selection. I choose Heavy White Zen from Pampus, another Amsterdam brewery. It’s a wit beer hopped with Sorachi Ace, with an unusually tart finish which sets it apart from your average wit.

Foreground - Evil Twin Sour Bikini. Background - crazy traditional Danish band at Fairbar, Aarhus.
Hannover is all about bottles of Herrenhauser, the decent local lager, and Franziskaner dunkelweiss. I barely leave the venue, and have fun hanging out and watching Viet Cong play a blinder. The next show is in Aarhus in Denmark, as part of the Pop Revo festival which takes place in several venues across this small and pleasant student town. I didn't have any beery plans here, but there’s some down time after we play, and a quick internet search directs me to Fairbar, a stylish bar serving only Danish beers on tap. The vibe here is a marked contrast to the rowdy, drunken (though very friendly and accomodating) students attending the festival – a band is playing presumably traditional Danish music on acoustic instruments - including what I think is a lute – in period dress, whilst a respectful crowd watch appreciatively. The music might not be my thing, but it is at least an antidote for my ringing ears after our loud set. I opt not to ask the bar staff for advice as I don’t want to talk too much over the band, so plump for a beer I've heard of – Evil Twin’s Sour Bikini. This is the sourest Berliner Weisse I've ever had, dominated by lemon, but husky kiwi and tart raspberries add background, and it’s delicious. After that, I'm craving some juicy hops, so go for LagerManden from Humleland in Risskov, a US-hopped IPL. Perhaps the residual sour sensation from the previous beer distorts the taste, but it’s incredibly sweet at first, all candy floss and baked peaches. But the more I drink, the more zesty grapefruit bitterness I find, and the soft carbonation makes it incredibly, perilously drinkable. I end the night by watching Jad Fair and Norman Blake (of Half Japanese and Teenage Fanclub respectively) play some beautiful love songs together, accompanied by a bottle of the rich and complex Limfjords Porter, brewed by Thisted.

Berlin is our next stop. After our gig, we have a couple of days off here, and the band members are joined by our girlfriends/boyfriends/wives/children, wherever applicable. Amongst countless bottles of Rothaus Pils and Tegernseer Hell, a few of us travel to Wedding, across the city, in search of the Eschenbrau brewpub. I’ve been wanting to visit for a long time, and their pils doesn’t disappoint; it has a full, even creamy body, with a decent bitterness and deep savoury flavour. The aftertaste is husky and bread-like, with just the slightest hint of green vegetables. I love lager, but it very rarely knocks me out the way this one does. The woman serving is complaining that today’s beer is difficult to pour, and this may explain the lack of carbonation in the glass of dunkel that follows – I’d have liked a little more, though I enjoy its blend of caramel wafers, mocha and butterscotch all the same. Finally, the weizen carries the same husky, savoury quality as the pils, but with an aftertaste of tart green apples, and is delicious and very moreish.  There are reportedly countless amazing beer locations all across the city, but I’d highly recommend Eschenbrau for solid examples of classic German styles in a charming location. I’ll certainly be back some day.

To be continued...

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Smog Rocket baked beans

Though I reserve a special kind of disgust for the luminous-orange tinned monstrosity that is commonly sold under the name ‘baked beans’, the rich, tangy, home-made, cowboy-style version of the dish is one of my favourite things to eat. Piled on top of some thick toast with some strong cheddar grated on top, these beans are a perfect winter warmer. Stir in some smoked paprika and cumin and they make a great filling for a Tex Mex-style burrito, too. And whilst the worst of winter might be behind us now, as the weather warms up, I'm still craving those beans. In the US, Boston beans are often served as a side dish to BBQ food; there’s a similar depth of flavour and sweet and sour tang. As the smell of smoke in the air begins to signify summer barbecues rather than winter bonfires, I find myself thinking up ways to replicate the smokiness from the open fire in the dish. The answer is, obviously, beer.

Mark Dredge has made a version of this dish using Schlenkerla Marzen, which looks great.  Whilst acknowledging his idea, I want to use my own recipe for the beans, which is based on various different versions I've tweaked and compiled over the years. When it comes to the beer, I want something dark and rich, smoked but subtle with it. A porter should work with the treacle in the dish, so I'm opting for Beavertown’s Smog Rocket. This beer was originally conceived as a match for BBQ ribs, so it should be especially appropriate. Mark notes that even with a full on rauchbier, he didn't end up tasting much smoke in his beans, so I'm going to use smoked garlic in place of regular garlic, and season with smoked salt, too. I'm reducing the amount of treacle in the recipe, as the beer should add a similar depth of flavour, and whereas I’d normally add some vegetable stock, I'm getting rid of it here to account for the beer.

How does it taste? Beautiful. The smoke is there, just a hint in the background, and would complement barbecued food perfectly – I’ll be making this as a side dish for my back garden BBQs this summer – but the beer’s principal value here is adding richness and deep, moreish flavour.

  • 2 cans of borlotti beans, drained (the classic tinned version of baked beans are haricot, but you could use almost any variety. I particularly like borlotti beans and most recipes suggest them)
  • 1 tsp smoked garlic powder (you can used fresh smoked garlic, but I've found the powder to be more pungently smoky. I buy it in a resealable packet from the specialist ingredient section of Sainsbury’s)
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 150ml Beavertown Smog Rocket smoked porter
  • 200ml passata
  • 1 tsp black treacle/molasses
  • 2 tbsp tomato puree
  • 1 tbsp soft dark brown sugar
  • 1 tbsp Dijon mustard
  • 1 tbsp red wine vinegar
1. Preheat the oven to about 160°.
      2. Find a pan which has a lid and is suitable for both the stovetop and the oven – a cast-iron casserole or similar is ideal. Fry the onion until soft and golden, then add the garlic powder and fry off for another minute or so.
      3. Keep the beans to one side, and combine all of the other ingredients in the pan to make a sauce. Once combined, add the beans and bring to a boil.
      4.  Once the dish has come to the boil, turn off the hob, place the lid on the pan and put it into the oven. Bake for about 90 minutes, stirring every now and again. Be sure to scrape the stodgy, caramelised, crusty bits from the edge of the pan and stir them back into the sauce, as they’re full of flavour.
      5.  After 90 minutes, remove the lid and check the consistency. By now it should have thickened, with little excess liquid floating to the top. Once you reach this point, remove the lid and return the pan to the oven to reduce further. It may not sound appetising, but this dish tastes best when it’s gloopy, so put it back, uncovered, in the oven until it is a shade of reddish brown, thick and looking almost crusty on the surface. Remove from the heat and stir before serving.