Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Announcing The Session 120: Brown beer

A couple of weeks ago, I made my first contribution to The Session, a beer blogging community event held on the first Friday on the month in which bloggers all post on a selected topic. For February, it's my turn to set the agenda, and I'd like you all the write about brown beer.

The colour brown has certain connotations, some of which I won't dwell on. But used in reference to beer, it can signify a kind of depressing old fashioned-ness - to refer to a traditional bitter as 'brown' seems to suggest it belongs to a bygone corduroy-trousered era. As breweries who pride themselves on their modernity focus on beers that are either decidedly pale or unmistakably black, the unglamorous brown middle ground is consistently neglected.

So for Session 120, let's buck the trend and contemplate brown beer. This might be brown ale, or the aforementioned English bitter; it could be a malty Belgian brune, a dubbel or a tart oud bruin; even a German dunkel might qualify.

The date is Friday 3rd February, so please aim to post on or before then. Once you've contributed, please let me know either by commenting on this post or via Twitter. You can find out more about The Session here. I look forward to your posts!

Monday, 9 January 2017

A brief encounter with the beers of the North East

Between Christmas and New Year, I spent a few days in the North East visiting relatives, giving me a little bit of time to explore the area’s beer offerings. I thought I'd take the opportunity to indulge in the super-basic “I went here and drank this” style of beer blogging, a form I love reading and have only ever applied to trips abroad. So, simply enough, here’s what I found.

Our first stop was The Boat House Inn in Wylam, a beloved real ale-focused pub located right next door to the train station and attracting beer-loving visitors from miles around. As a pub, it’s a slightly odd place – the bar room wasn’t exactly intimidating, but had an oddly still atmosphere, possibly as a result of the lack of music. By early evening, the place was heaving and the atmosphere lively enough that it wasn’t needed, but in the quarter-full pub in the middle of the afternoon, I almost didn’t dare speak out loud. It feels cosy, with an open fire at one end, but in truth was freezing cold, and the lounge next door was even colder and dark, too.

But you come for the beer, of course, and the cellarmanship on show here is second to none. The ambient temperature probably helped, but everything was served beautifully cool, with a picture-perfect sparkled head and gentle tingle of carbonation. I rarely come across poor quality cask ale, but such jaw-droppingly brilliant examples are even rarer. On top of this, The Boat House sells Walkers’ rarely-spotted Pickled Onion flavour crisps which I have previously evangelised here and had to buy, though they clashed horribly with my beer.

Pedants will note that the eponymous Wylam brewery was never actually based in the town, initially brewing in nearby Heddon-on-the-Wall before their move into Newcastle. According to a conversation on the adjacent table on which I was eavesdropping, The Boat House was once a sort of unofficial brewery tap, but this is no longer the case. There’s still a Wylam beer on the bar, though – 004 Palisade, one in a series of single-hop pale ales and showcasing an American variety I’ve never heard of. Pouring an attractive amber, it’s perhaps just a touch too sweet, with a red berry flavour leaning heavily towards strawberries and a building bitterness. 

The pub is now reportedly a flagship for Newcastle’s Hadrian Border Brewery, and their Tyneside Blonde was pouring. Another simple beer, all biscuity Marris Otter with a gentle lemon hop character, livened by an unexpected sulphurous aroma. I’d like to meet this one again. There was also Trade Star from Firebrick in Blaydon, which was billed as an amber ale with New Zealand hops but drank like a slightly metallic English bitter with a very gentle background of tropical fruit. Pleasant enough. Best of all was Fyne Ales’ Jarl, from across the Scottish border – peachy, with a hint of oily, dank hops - simply superb, and far superior to the already very good kegged and bottled versions.

In Durham, we had lunch at the Head of Steam, one of a chain of Belgian-focused beer bars now owned by Hartlepool’s Cameron’s brewery. Stonch recently praised their Sheffield venue as an example of how craft and ‘normal’ beer can co-exist, and the same is true of the Durham branch, which was doing a roaring trade in San Miguel on our visit. The cask offering is top-notch here, too – I went for Reindeer Porter from Leeds Brewery, a relatively straight-up offering despite its festive name. It was delicious, mind – smooth and rich, with a big dollop of sweet caramel, milk chocolate, some mild coffee roast and red berries. And just for fun, I followed it with a St. Bernardus Christmas Ale. Though served too cold from keg, it was lovely, generous helpings of nutmeg and clove lightened by strong banana esters and zingy citrusy lemonade finish.

Sadly, I had time for just one stop in Newcastle, which was Wylam’s majestic brewery tap in Exhibition Park. The fifteen minute walk from the town centre was simple enough, but it was dark, and the council might consider installing some lamposts before the inevitable consequence of placing a drinking establishment on the edge of a poorly-lit duck pond occurs. Anyway, it’s a beautiful building and an amazing space inside, close to what I imagine the larger US brewery taps to be like – spacious, with drinking areas stretching over multiple rooms, and with a separate event space as well as the brewery itself. Even arriving three minutes after opening, we were far from the first customers, and it was heaving by the time we left, with a diverse crowd – a couple of young lads glued to iPads at one end, and my 87 year old grandma keeping it real for the older crowd. She loved her half-pint of Galatia. Most importantly, the brewery tap showcases the Wylam beers at their absolute best, which ought to be integral to a tap room’s purpose but isn’t always the reality.

I was desperately thirsty when I arrived, so opted for Solar Terminator, an unfiltered and dry-hopped pilsner. It has a beautiful tropical aroma, all mandarin and melon, and the flavour is clean as you like, allowing those fruity hops to shine. It’s also hugely bitter, which I may not have enjoyed if I’d had it in isolation, but led me into my next selection nicely. Nomi Sorachi is probably the best use of Sorachi Ace I’ve yet encountered. It’s very pale, minimising interference from the malt, and utilises all the tropical fruit flavours the hop can bring – tons of clementine, toasted coconut and lemon drops – whilst largely avoiding the savoury, herbal edge.

Almost everyone seemed to be drinking Jakehead, the brewery’s flagship IPA. I’ve tried this before, leaving a positive write-up as I checked it into Untappd, but had somehow misremembered it as overly sweet in the meantime. I figured it would taste best directly from the source, so ordered it anyway, and it turns out I was quite wrong. There’s a little residual fruit-chew sweetness, but it’s certainly not overbearing, and doesn’t prevent a big whack of pine and lemon zest from registering, with a little mint in the finish. Although it’s obviously far less intense, there’s a juiciness about it that reminds me of some of the Cloudwater DIPA series – high praise indeed. Finally, 3000 Gyles from Home, a cream porter. Some fun cocoa, caramel and chocolate milk flavours here, but the finish is a little metallic and the body a touch thin.

I'm well aware that Newcastle deserves at least an entire dedicated day of beering, but it wasn't an option. Next time, I hope, because it seems like a great city for drinking as well as being a great city for just about everything else. And in general, the North East seems to be in fine fettle for beer - besides the likes of Wylam making a name for themselves on a national scale, there's a healthy population of small local breweries, and not one but two relatives told me about the new micropubs in their towns. You can keep your Newcastle Brown Ale.

Friday, 6 January 2017

Wholly smoke

This post is a contribution to The Session #119, hosted by Alec at Mostly About Beer. The topic is 'Discomfort beer' - "which/what kind of beers took you out of your comfort zones. Beers you weren’t sure whether you didn’t like, or whether you just needed to adjust to."

I’m not just saying this to brag about the supremacy of my palate – I’ve rarely felt out of my comfort zone with beer, and hardly ever have to work hard to enjoy it. I’ve always enjoyed the taste – as a youngster, my grandpa would occasionally slip me a tiny portion from his stubby green lager bottles, and besides the ego boost that came from swapping Ribena for a grown-up’s drink, it was always delicious to me. Bitterness was probably the main appeal – my other favourite thirst quencher as a child was straight tonic water, which makes a lot of adults wince.

There are styles that test your perception of what beer is – acidic and sour flavours in beer took some getting used to, for example. But there is only one traumatic incident that really sticks out in my mind, and it’s the closest I’ve ever come to spitting out a mouthful of beer.

The brew in question was Flue Faker, a smoked lager from Camden Town, sampled at The Craft Beer Co. in Brighton some years ago – thank God I asked for a taster first. I don’t remember it tasting of bacon, the common descriptor for the niche lager sub-genre known as rauchbier. I just remember it tasting disgusting and wrong. “Urgh! No!” I exclaimed to the blank-faced barman, unable to disguise my horror.

I’m not sure how I went from this unpleasant experience to continually pestering my girlfriend about visiting Bamberg, home of the rauchbier style.  I’d read about the beer in books by Michael Jackson and Mark Dredge in the meantime, putting it in some context, which probably encouraged me to persevere and learn to like it. In fact, rauchbier is probably the ultimate discomfort beer. In Jeff Alworth’s The Beer Bible, Schlenkerla boss Matthias Trum says;

“At the first sip, the smoke flavour is extremely dominant on your palate. If you’re new to this taste, you will notice nothing but the smoked flavour. Only as you go through your first two or three pints does the smokiness step back in perception and then the malty notes come out, the bitterness, the smoothness.”

On my visit to the Schlenkerla pub, I do remember remarking that their famous marzen was a brilliant lager underneath the smoke, and this aspect is probably worthy of further contemplation. However, I love that smoky flavour – that’s the appeal of the beer, not a challenge to be overcome. As such, it’s rare that I’ll ever drink more than one rauchbier on the trot. So, I decided to do just that, and procured three bottles of Schlenkerla marzen.

Even on the first mouthful of the first glass, I realised that the intensity of the smoke didn’t hit me in the way it used to. I’ve heard of a ‘lupulin threshold shift’, the idea that we build up a ‘tolerance’ to hop bitterness, and perhaps there’s something similar going on here with smoked malt. I think I’ve drunk this beer often enough that I’m just used to it, which slightly undermines the idea behind this ‘experiment’. Not to say it isn’t smoky – it certainly is. I’d say it tastes like bacon, but as I haven’t eaten bacon in over a decade, I’ll say it tastes like bacon flavoured WheatCrunchies. The bitterness is notable from the outset, something like the slightly acrid malt-derived bitterness you sometimes get in stouts and porters.

Around a quarter of the way into the second glass, the smoke flavour has really faded. It registers mainly as a background savoury flavour, with occasional bursts of bonfire and meat on the palate. I’m starting to notice a bready malt quality too, which in combination with the bitterness suggests slightly burnt wholemeal toast. As interesting as it is to draw out the backgrounds elements of the bee, for me the most exciting moments are still those flashes of smoke.

By the final glass, the prickly carbonation is starting to irritate, putting an obstacle in the way of the smoothness Matthias Trum suggests is waiting beneath the smoke. It feels like it should be silky, but that fizz jabs at my tongue. I’ve never had a problem with the carbonation in bottles before, but the accumulative effect is distracting. The traditional gravity-tapped serving method would solve this problem, of course. Towards the end, I’m beginning to notice a woody, tannic element. Further complexity clearly awaits, and I’d probably have opened a fourth bottle if I’d had one. Who knew that a beer style I first found so challenging would prove so sessionable?

The interesting thing about all this is that, now that I’m past the discomfort stage, I miss it. It’s like watching a difficult film for the second or third time – I’m always jealous of those experiencing it fresh. Those who are new to rauchbier shouldn’t hold their nose and joylessly gulp down the first few pints, waiting for the smoke to fade – they should revel in the discomfort and enjoy the challenge.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

12 Beers of Christmas - Day Twelve - Burning Sky Saison Anniversaire

Day Twelve - Burning Sky Saison Anniversaire (UK, 6.2%)

I'm a day late again, either because I spent New Year's Eve partying wildly, or because I fell into bed, full of pizza, at 10:30. One or the other. I did manage to fit in a beer, though, and I thought it would be fitting to see off 2016 with something from Burning Sky. I named them as best UK brewery in my recent Golden Pints round-up, and Saison Anniversaire seemed a fitting example of what they do so well.

There's a powerful white wine aroma upon pouring, a product of the Chardonnay barrels used to age the beer - all white grapes, black pepper and passion fruit, and hugely inviting. The white wine note carries into the flavour, along with some lemon. There's also a burst of herbal flavour - the label tells us the beer is "lightly spiced", but doesn't tell us what with. My guess is chamomile, a flavour I could only recognise from other beers that have used it. There may also be some pepper in there, or maybe this is just an element of the chamomile flavour, but it works beautifully, accentuating the dry finish expected of the style. That finish is very tannic, too - a little woody, perhaps some grape skin, with a touch of quinine bitterness recalling tonic water. Although subtle here, I'm starting to think of this as a house character common across many Burning Sky beers. It's fantastic.

Billed as "a celebration of everything we love about saisons", its probably their most conventional example of the style to date - dry and peppery, well-carbonated for refreshment value - but at the same time has wonderful depths and complexities. A fine way to close the year, and a good reason to be excited for what 2017 will bring.

The start of the new year also marks this blog's second birthday, so I'd like to take this chance to thank everyone reading it. I'm still having a blast writing it, and doing so have definitely made me more curious, has developed my palate, and has put me in touch with some great people. My new year's resolution is to get out and meet more of them. Happy new year, everybody.