Thursday, 31 March 2016

"Just beer"; struggling for words to describe pale lager

Recently, after enjoying a bottle of Hell from Bamberg’s Keesman brewery, I attempted to throw together some quick tasting notes for an Untappd check-in. Here’s what I eventually came up with;

“Fresh biscuits & steamed broccoli aroma. Tangy biscuit malt, refreshing carbonation, mineral bitterness in the finish. Wish I had another.”

I threw in the last sentence because I felt that those preceding it failed to a) communicate that I had actually very much enjoyed the beer, or b) make it sound like anything anybody would ever want to drink. Whilst these notes accurately represent my experience of drinking the Hell (I didn't claim to be tasting things I wasn't really tasting), the truth is I was desperately grasping for anything to usefully say about it. That doesn't mean it was boring or unremarkable – I'm just starting to realise that I have a hard time describing the experience of pale lager.

One reason for this might be that pale lager is pretty much my base point for what “beer” means. Since lager is the dominant beer in our culture, this is not unusual; a Google image search for the term ‘beer’ results in pages and pages of  images of foaming glasses of lager, sometimes joined by other glasses of varying ale-like colours but never absent. The first beers I ever tasted were lagers, and lager was almost all I drank between my teenage years and my early twenties.
The result of this is that lager is, often, “just lager”. In my discovery of good beer (revelatory pint of Camden Hells notwithstanding), it took a long time to separate good lager from bad, even if the contrast is night and day to me at this point. I would argue that the differences between macro fizz and properly brewed lager are far more subtle than between, say, Punk IPA and (what I then perceived to be) a boring cask bitter.

But then lager is subtle, even at its most sublime. And that’s definitely part of why I'm lost for words when it’s time to write about one – I recently had the same issue trying to write about mild, a similarly non-imposing style. The complexity of a barrel-aged imperial stout means that tasting notes write themselves. Drinking one, there’s so much going on that you hardly have time to jot down one thought before another hits you. Lager is comparatively simple – this is a large part of its appeal, but it doesn't make for great writing.

There are certain stock phrases and descriptors I keep going back to in my blundering attempts to describe the lager experience, of which crisp is probably the laziest. I know what I mean by it – a suggestion of freshness as well as refreshment, like biting into a juicy, crunchy apple. But in this context, the word has a whiff of corporate copy about it – words like ‘crisp’, ‘cool’ and ‘refreshing’ are often used in advertising macro lagers, presumably as they divert attention away from the lack of actual flavour in most of these products.

Similarly, I know what I mean when I say a lager is clean. A well-made lager given plenty of time to mature has a certain purity to it, and those brewed with less attention to quality don’t – they often have distracting notes of sweetcorn or cabbage, or are weirdly, synthetically sweet or metallic. But it doesn't apply to all great lagers; I love Pilsner Urquell, but it’s big ol’ scoop of diacetyl adds a complexity which, whilst it might not be exactly dirty, isn't clean either.

I mentioned biscuits in reference to the Keesman beer that prompted this post, and variations on biscuity seem to pop up often in tasting notes. There are probably more varieties of biscuits than there are styles of beer, making this about as useful a statement as ‘tastes like beer’. But it does, at least for me, mean something specific. Think of Maltesers. Now, ignore the chocolate (or imagine you've nibbled it off) and focus on the biscuit ball within. There is a specific malty tang within that biscuit that is exactly what I'm referring to when I say ‘biscuity’, and I find that particular flavour in a lot of lagers (obviously malt flavour is part of it, but there’s more to it than that). Until I can find a way to sum that up succinctly and pithily, lager will remain forever ‘biscuity’ for me.

So pale lager, much as I love it, probably won’t be inspiring any upcoming poetry collections.  

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Thornbridge Hall Double Scotch Ale

The impulse to hoard beer is a strange one. Some beers seem too special to just drink - they demand some ceremony, a special occasion, some good news. The trouble is that these occasions arise all too rarely and, when they do, you may find you're not in a position to transfer a bottle from your stash into the fridge and gather an ensemble of admirers to share it with you. And, if I'm perfectly honest, sometimes I'm glad about that. However much I might scan my beer cupboard wondering what the contents will taste like, the thought of eventually dropping the bottle into the recycling bin is a little sad. I want to have my beer and drink it.

You can justify the cobwebs on your bottle collection by telling yourself that flavours are developing all the time, that the beer you're not drinking now will be so much better by the time you finally crack it open. But if you find you're actually pushing the limits of best-before dates, as was the case with the bottle of Thornbridge's Double Scotch ale that I pulled from the cupboard last night, the only thing to do is to tell yourself you're worth it and pop the damn cap. This beer, a Scotch ale aged in Auchentoshan casks, was bottled in 2014 under the ultra-artisan Thornbridge Hall sub-brand produced at the original brewery site. It's technically almost two months out of date, but tastes so glorious I highly doubt I could have caught it at a better time.

The aroma jumping from the glass suggests a rich, port wine-like booziness, along with a big burst of blackcurrants. These are joined by raspberries on first taste, along with some musty, woody notes and some milk chocolate. Some whiskey flavour from the cask carries over, and the faint suggestion of peaty smoke is an element of this flavour, but the resulting toasted character is key to this beer's complexity as well as its moreishness. It seems to suggest a whole collection of flavours which aren't necessarily actually there - vanilla, coconut, fudge, coffee - which lighten what could be a heavy, overbearing beer. The complexity in this toasted finish has me coming back for more and more.

This is a master-class in barrel ageing - a simple beer made fascinating with time in the wood, neither element threatening to overpower the other. Thornbridge were an important brewery for me as I first discovered great beer, and whilst I often admire their beers as solid examples of particular styles, these days I'm rarely strongly moved by a Thornbridge offering. This makes the triumph of the Double Scotch all the more exciting, and I'm now determined to seek out Eldon, their latest foray into barrel-aging.

Another great excuse to open an interesting bottle is Open It!, a Twitter tasting event in aid of the Evalina Children's Hospital. It's on Saturday 16th April and further details are here.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Sussex CAMRA beer festival 2016

Last weekend saw the 26th Sussex CAMRA branches beer festival at Brighton’s Corn Exchange. Here are some thoughts on my experience of the festival and the beers I drank.

The beer

With over 170 beers at this year’s festival, the 13 mild ales on offer might not seem much. But I’d all but declared mild extinct in this part of the country - admittedly, many of the examples here are from further afield (further North), but there’s a certain type of beer geek that’s inexplicably drawn to such unfashionable styles, and I’d proudly count myself among them – so 13 milds in one room is pretty exciting to me.

That said, I drank only a few as there were so many other beers I wanted to try, but they were all very tasty and extremely moreish (mild isn't best suited to third-of-a-pint servings) and helped clarify my idea on what mild means. First was Leeds’ Midnight Bell, an elegant beer with a lightly roasty malt backbone and some earthy, vegetal hops adding depth. The hoppy bitterness is bigger than I expected from the style, possibly due to the unusual addition of Willamette hops. Kissingate’s Black Cherry Mild is, obviously, also atypical, though it does have a similar light roasty foundation. It’s too sweet for my tastes, although it does taste like real cherries rather than a sticky, syrupy synthetic flavouring. Arundel’s Black Stallion , a mild that actually does hail from Sussex (though they seem reluctant to refer to it this way), was another solid offering, and I really hope I get to become properly equated with a few pints of it some time. Finally, Summer Wine’s Resistance was the best of the bunch - beautifully balanced between sweet toffee-like malt and bitter hops, with a hint of vanilla adding depth. I've unjustly ignored this brewery for no good reason for too long, and I’ve clearly been a fool.

Stewart’s 80/, a Scotch ale, isn't so different to some of these milds – a little sweeter with next to no discernible hop bitterness, it’s a big, soft, fluffy, malty comfort blanket of a beer. Brighton Bier’s Freshman, an IPA in the Vermont style, is at the other end of the spectrum – super pale malts imparting as little character as possible, accentuating the big, juicy hop hit I’ve come to expect from this brewery. It’s all about hop aroma and flavour, and bitterness is consequently low – it’s exactly the kind of IPA I love, and Brighton Bier’s most accomplished beer yet.

There was also plenty to appeal to fans of smoked beer like myself. Gun Brewery, from Heathfield in East Sussex, have often impressed me, and the new Smoked Rye they've brought with them is excellent – an authentic swirl of Bamberg-style smoke, with a wonderful herb-like finish recalling oregano and rosemary. Langham’s Aegir porter also brings a hefty dose of smoke, alongside a smooth, slightly sweet malt character. Brigid Fire from Celt Experience is a smoked rye IPA that slightly disappoints in the smoke department, and doesn't present itself as particularly hoppy either. Its interesting feature for me is the bierre de garde yeast, which imparts the kind of honeyed sweetness you find in a beer like 3 Monts, or the marzipan character of Jenlain Ambrée. It’s a complex beer that I pondered carefully with every sip.

And finally, some big hitters. Hammerpot’s Baltic porter was smooth and full bodied, with a rich tang suggesting port wine. Kissingate’s Murder of Crows was my undisputed highlight of the festival -  a huge, double-mashed imperial stout, reportedly aged for a year before release. It’s rich and sweet with muscovado sugar and clementine flavours, but also slightly tart and tangy, resulting in a balsamic sweet and sour character reminiscent of a Flanders Red. It’s a very special beer, and one you absolutely must order if you’re lucky enough to see it out in the wild.

Alongside some great beers, the event was well organised – all beers in tip-top condition, very few not ready in time for the opening session – and the volunteers were great, everyone enthusiastic and friendly.

Room for improvement

There’s definitely room for improvement, though. I’d love to see the introduction of key kegs (as per the recent CAMRA festival in Manchester), especially as increasing numbers of local breweries are beginning to experiment more with kegged beers. Although I was happy to stand throughout the session and saw plenty of free seats, it’s a shame the seating has to be tucked away around the edges of the room, isolated from the atmosphere of the festival, and seats with tables would be especially practical. I accept that this is a necessary compromise given the space available at the Corn Exchange, and the choice of venue may well explain my other complaint – the food.

The food is, I think, provided by the venue’s in-house catering, and it’s possible that they won’t let the festival bring in outside food vendors, although that wouldn't make much sense considering they’re bring in hundreds of casks of beer from outside. Most of it looked fine, but the festival website and programme both promised vegetarian and vegan options. When I asked about the vegetarian option, I was given a choice of a cheese and onion pasty or chips. The pasty offering was a bit crap, but consigning any vegans to nothing but a plate of chips is just an insult, and especially annoying since it would have taken very little effort to knock up a vegan alternative to the food that was already there – a vegetable chilli alongside the meaty equivalent, vegan sausages (which are available in pretty much any supermarket) for hot dogs. Don’t claim to cater to dietary requirements if you can’t be bothered to do it properly, or even better, ask one of the innumerable vegan-friendly food businesses in Brighton to do it for you.

Whilst it’s not the CAMRA festival’s fault, it’s a shame that so many beer events in the city coincided in such a short space of time. Tiny Rebel’s ‘town takeover’ at various pubs across the city overlapped, and the Thursday night session that I attended clashed with a Siren tap takeover/meet the brewer event at Craft Beer Co. BrewDog Brighton also organised a Sussex keg beer event which I’d have been keen to check out if it wasn't for their continual childish CAMRA baiting in promoting it – there are plenty of us who like cask and keg beer and don’t drink the BrewDog Kool-Aid any more than we pay regard to the conservative faction of CAMRA, so why alienate these drinkers?

Several of these events stretched across the whole weekend if not longer, so in theory interested parties could have attended all of them. But if, as in my case, time and money are limited resources, this isn’t realistic. A little forward planning would benefit everyone.

Monday, 7 March 2016

Scandalously rare: an ode to Walker's pickled onion crisps

This post is not about beer, but it is about one of beer’s close companions – crisps.

Was it a distant memory, or a strange dream?

I'm sitting in my parents’ car outside a provincial post office, probably 6 years old. In my hands is a pale green crisp packet. At the time, Golden Wonder produced a spring onion flavour in similar packaging – itself an all but forgotten flavour – and I assumed that’s what I’d been handed. But on closer inspection, the brand wasn't Golden Wonder, but Walker’s. And the flavour was, in fact, pickled onion.

I can’t remember tasting them, although I'm sure I’d have been a fan since, even as a child, I loved sour flavours and rarely ate anything unless it was soaked in lashings of malt vinegar. But then Walker’s pickled onion flavour disappeared completely. It was at least a decade before I saw another packet and, in the meantime, I begun to question whether they’d ever existed at all.

What’s baffling about the Walker’s pickled onion situation is that a company of this size would bother to put a particular product on the market, but barely distribute it. At one time, their treatment of their Worcestershire sauce flavoured products revealed a similarly cavalier attitude; they were so scarcely seen that enthusiasts like myself were wise to purchase a packet whenever possible, because the next sighting might be months away. They seem to have seen the light in this instance, and Walker’s Worcestershire sauce crisps can now thankfully be found with relative ease.

Meanwhile, that lime-green packet that featured in my childhood memory remains scarcely seen. The rarity of the pickled onion flavour is such that some people baulk at the suggestion of it even existing. But it pops up in weird places; Brighton bagel shop Bagelman stocks them, for example, as does the student union shop on the Sussex university campus, but next to no corner shops or supermarkets. I found them in an off license in Hove once, but when I returned for more, they were gone. When a work colleague told me he had a friend who worked for a crisp distribution company, I asked him to enquire as to what the hell was going on, but I think he forgot. So no closure there.

I posed the question to Google one day and found I was not the only one frustrated by these fruitless searches. When some frustrated consumers set up a forum by the name Ripped Off Britain, it must have seemed inevitable that a brave user would eventually use this outlet to take on the pickled onion injustice. Surely enough they did, and their enquiry is worth quoting verbatim;

“I have recently tried to purchase Walkers Picked onion flavours crips [sic], but for some reason you can’t seem to get them anywhere now?

So I e-mailed walkers cisps [sic] and asked if they still produce this flavour, the first e-mail said, try asking your local store to stock this flavour! 

Not happy with this reply I e-mailed walkers again.


Are they trying to make a smoke screen to us all by actually not admitting that this flavour has been WITHDRAWN. Does withdrawing a flavour show weakness in the company?”

This post is pure poetry to me for several reasons. Firstly, despite strong opinions on the subject, the spelling of the actual word ‘crisps’ alludes this poster not once, but twice. But that can be forgiven, since he soon reveals that he is typing through a mist of sheer rage. To be fair, he was well and truly fobbed off by Walker’s with that reply – rare as they may be, the pickled onion flavour is absolutely not confined to Scotland. They just made that up.

A happier conclusion to my own pickled onion woes came at Christmas two years ago. I’d recently started dating Sidony, my girlfriend, and as is customary in early courtship, I’d regaled her with my opinions on various crisps and maize snacks, including a brief lecture on the inadequate supply of Walker’s pickled onion. As our first annual ‘fake Christmas’ rolled around (allowing us to exchange presents before returning to our respective families), she presented me with a box of 48 packs of the blighters. You know someone really ‘gets’ you when you receive a present like that.

As this is supposed to be a beer blog, I had planned some sort of analogy to a rare beer, but I can’t come up with one that works – most rare beers are released with some fanfare, and usually considerably more expensive than your average drop. Perhaps Walker’s pickled onion could be the crisp world’s answer to Westvleteren 12? A beer made in smallish quantities, not actively promoted by the brewery, not particularly expensive if you can find it. You don’t have to make a phone call and schedule an appointment to buy packets of the crisps, but if that was an option, I’d sure as hell give it a try. And there aren't legions of crisp geeks hyping Walker’s pickled onion as the best crisps in the world, but there ought to be.

How about a beer match for the crisps? Having found a semi-reliable source (Brighton folk – it’s the wonderfully named Well Done, at the bottom of North Street – leave some for me), I decided to give it a try. It’s more difficult than you might think – the vinegar tang isn't very appetising with most beers as it recalls the sour flavour of a stale pint. Pilsner Urquell’s full body and dose of buttery diacetyl seems to neutralise this somewhat, and makes a good match.

So, should a flash of lime-green catch your eye from the crisp display in your local corner shop, I urge you to act fast and embrace the oniony tang whilst you have the opportunity. And if Gary Lineker is reading this, then why not put some of that famous magnetism to good work and make pickled onion the staple flavour it deserves to be?