Sunday, 31 December 2017

12 Beers of Christmas - Day Twelve - Burning Sky Trafalgar Wines Celebratory Stout

I've already written and deleted several paragraphs in which I try to summarise a tumultuous 2017, each time concluding that nobody a) needs to know or b) really cares. Suffice to say, I'm not really into New Year's Eve, but this one does have some significance. Not enough to prompt me to do anything other than sit drinking beer on my Grandma's sofa, but still.

One significant thing about the dawn of 2018 is that it roughly marks the third year anniversary of this blog. The past two years have been busy, and I haven't posted as much as I'd like. In the meantime, it's seemingly become a beer and travel blog, which wasn't my initial intention but I'll take it. And, out of character as it may be to say it, I'm very proud of much of what I have posted. So it meant a lot to hear my name called for the Silver award in the Young Beer Writer category at this year's British Guild of Beer Writer's Awards ceremony. I think this picture sums up my feelings pretty well (that's me on the left).

That goofy grin stayed glued to my face until the last train back to Brighton, when I plugged in my headphones, tied my scarf around my eyes to block out the harsh light and caught some much needed sleep. (Incidentally, another big congratulations to James Beeson, who deservedly took home the Gold prize). So, amongst all the uncertainty and loss, there's been plenty in this past year to celebrate. Which calls for a celebratory beer.

I haven't posted a Golden Pints round-up for this year. One of the reasons for this is the realisation that I wanted to nominate the same names in the same categories as last year, and/or the year before, to the point where it seemed ridiculous writing it all out again. My favourite brewery of 2017, for example, is Burning Sky, just as it was last year. And my favourite bottle shop always was, is, and always shall be Trafalgar Wines. To put my puny blog's anniversary into perspective, Steve is celebrating a staggering 35 years in the business. And for that, he got a very special beer, which he was kind enough to gift to me and other loyal customers to share the love.

Day Twelve - Burning Sky Trafalgar Wines Celebratory Stout (UK, 8.5%)

Even at arm's length whilst I poured, a huge aroma of coffee, dark sugar and clementine hit me, and I knew I was in for a treat. On the first sip, the bourbon barrel in which the beer aged is clearly doing a lot of heavy lifting. Often that means vanilla and booze, which is great, but the bourbon character here is far more interesting than that. It's very woody, with notes of pithy clementine and sweet cherry. 

I can't be sure if there's something just a tiny bit tart in there, or whether that's the power of suggestion because the only other beers I associate with such a strong oak character are lambics. There's certainly plenty of smooth chocolate in there to temper if, if it is there. A gentle booze warmth emerges the more I drink, which happens a little quicker than it probably should due to both its deliciousness and an appropriately minimal level of carbonation - nobody wants fizzy imperial stout, do they?

Another triumph for Burning Sky, and a fitting tribute to Brighton's best booze merchant. Happy new year, one and all!

Saturday, 30 December 2017

12 Beers of Christmas - Day Eleven - Struise Pannepot Grand Reserva 2011

Day Eleven - Struise Pannepot Grand Reserva (Belgium, 10%)

De Struise have a reputation as agitators, producing beer that tests the boundaries of traditional Belgian styles, and sometimes exists pretty firmly outside them. Pannepot, as strong beer by my standards, is one of their tamer offerings. This vintage edition further ages that beer on oak. The beer itself was bottled in 2016, which suggests a lengthy ageing process. And although the label doesn't tell us where this oak comes from, my guess based on the aroma would be sherry casks. 

If I'm wrong, then it's a huge coincidence that this tastes so strongly of sharp sherry. You could be fooled into thinking someone had poured a nip of sherry into the glass when you weren't looking. It verges on over-the-top, especially on the first couple of sips, but after a while I got used to it. More sweetness comes out as it warms, which balances the puckering, tannic quality somewhat. Tht sherry tartness recalls sour cherries, and with plenty of bitter chocolate, coffee roast and currants, it's not a one-note beer.

While it's certainly demanding - not an easy-drinker by any means - it never drinks anything like its ABV. Probably worth the five year wait, then.

Friday, 29 December 2017

12 Beers of Christmas - Day Ten - De Dolle Stille Nacht

Day Ten - De Dolle Brouwers Stille Nacht (Belgium, 12%)

This being the only yuletide-themed beer in my 12 Beers line-up, I should probably have drunk Stille Nacht before the big day. Luckily, it has a lot to offer beyond festive gimmicks, and not a pinch of cinnamon in sight!

A healthily lively pour, it's thankfully easier to wrangle into a glass than some other De Dolle beers I've encountered. Even before lifting the glass to my nose, there's a strong aroma of honey and sweet orange, but the first gulp surprises with a resinous bitterness. I wasn't expecting that, although bitterness is a noted characteristic in many De Dolle offerings, and it's especially notable in a beer that was bottled over a year ago. The sharp citrus quality, along with a tingling carbonation, adds a lightness to the syrupy Madeira booze underneath.

On the strength of this bottle, I should make Stille Nacht a Christmas staple.

12 Beers of Christmas - Day Nine - Westvleteren 12

Day Nine - Westvleteren 12 (Belgium, 10.2%)

Westvleteren 12 is probably the ultimate “saving it for a special occasion” beer. Often referred to as the best beer in the world (as if there’s any such thing), I’ve often thought I need a pretty good reason to drink the bottles in my possession. I also told myself I should age them for at least two years before cracking the cap. Well, the post-Christmas lull seems as good a reason as any to me now, and this was bottled at the end of March 2015. No excuses; just open the bloody thing.

It’s a bad start, as despite careful pouring, my glass is full of enormous chunks of sediment. They look like fat suspended in gravy, and I find it massively off-putting even if it’s unlikely to have much impact on the flavour. And actually, I soon forget it, because that flavour really is very good. Initially it’s very sweet, with notes of caramel and cola, and also strikingly boozy, leaving a warm feeling in the chest like a nip of brandy. Keep drinking, though, and these qualities are rounded out by smooth but bitter chocolate and dried fruit, figs and plums. The depth of flavour is massive, but in fact, it’s quite easy drinking; after that first initial shock of alcohol, it doesn’t really drink its strength.

Best beer in the world? I wouldn’t think so on a sticky summer evening. I probably wouldn’t even think so if I was drinking it in the pub with my friends. But right now, on a chilly winter evening where I have the time to really ponder it, it’s pretty much the best beer I could have in my glass.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

12 Beers of Christmas - Day Eight - Nils Oscar Barley Wine

Day Eight - Nils Oscar Barley Wine (Sweden, 10.4%)

The barley wine seems to have come to prominence in 2017, in seemingly direct response to Don't Drink Beer's 'barleywine is life' sloganeering. It's an interesting development; I've always considered the style as a little old fashioned, even if I like the beers, perhaps because I associate them with the dusty Michael Jackson books that first told me about the style. People like my dad, who remember drinking bottled Gold Label, adopt a slightly panicked, wide-eyed look whenever it's mentioned; "not barley wine!", this look seems to say; "not since the incident!"

Anyway, I like barley wine, but it's not a style I tend to reach for very often. If I'm in the mood for a +10% beer, it tends to be an imperial stout. As such, this poor bottle has been neglected at the back of the cupboard for the best part of a year, and the internet suggests that the brewery no longer make it.

The aroma is very, very sweet, suggesting raisins and, faintly, banana, but mostly dominated by sticky honey. That sweet honey is the dominant flavour to begin with, too, but there's more to it than straight-up sugary sweetness. It brings a massive floral, musty depth of flavour to the whole thing, propping up the more delicate wintery fig and plum notes. The finish keeps things in balance with a touch of liquorice and a gently acrid bitterness before a pleasant warm glow forms in the chest.

I'm not sure I agree that barley wine actually is life, but I should remember to at least let it be part of my life. One for my list of new year's resolutions.

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

12 Beers of Christmas - Day Seven - Mills/Oliver's Foxbic

Day Seven - Mills/Oliver's Foxbic (UK, 4.7%)

It's cider. No, it's lambic. No, cider. Actually, lambic. Or...

This is a near-accurate representation of my internal monologue as I drank Foxbic. A spontaneously fermented beer made with a traditional turbid mash - i.e. made using the lambic technique, but produced outside of the Lambeek region of Belgium and therefore not referred to as such - the wort is then fermented with apple juice and cider lees from Oliver's. It's as much cider as it is beer, I guess, and a clever idea since sour beers of this sort often recall cider in their dryness and acidity. Foxbic is brilliant because it offers the best parts of both drinks.

The aroma certainly recalls apple juice, with perhaps a touch of floral honey. The initial taste is lemony and tart, before giving way to apple juice and pips before an oaky finish. The aftertaste in incredible; it seems to last minutes at a time, with crisp apple skin drying the palate along with a tingle of sherbet. For all its complexity, Foxbic is unbelievably moreish.

Monday, 25 December 2017

12 Beers of Christmas - Day Six - Tilquin Oude Pinot Noir á l'Ancienne

Day Six - Tilquin Oude Pinot Noir á l'Ancienne (Belgium, 7.7%)

Why are grapes used so rarely in beer? Cherries, raspberries, plums, mangoes and countless other fruits seem to jump the queue. Is it because they're expensive, or just because wine is made with grapes? Can't cross the streams, right? Well, I think it's a shame. Grapes have a lot to offer beer. Were I ever to be let loose on a brew kit, the overly ambitious concept I would attempt to realise is a saison with white grapes and Nelson Sauvin hops. Doesn't that sound great? There might be a good reason why it wouldn't work, but until then, I can dream.

I was excited upon finding this grape lambic from Tilquin, hence saving the bottle for the biggest food and drink day of the year. Things got off to a bad start, though, because this beer stinks. Generously, it has an air of mature cheddar about it it. More accurately, it smells of sick. The fact that this doesn't carry over into the flavour is a bit of a Christmas miracle.

On the first gulp, my first impression is that this is dry. Which makes sense - lambic's generally dry, fermented as they are with hungry wild yeast and then aged in oak barrels. Add in grape skins and you can expect a buttload of tannins. It's acidic and tart too, of course, but as it warms, a sweet and rounded raspberry note grows and grows. It's really delicious, and an invigorating pick-me-up after a traditionally excessive Christmas dinner.

Sunday, 24 December 2017

12 Beers of Christmas - Day Five - Cuvée De Ranke

Day Five - Cuvée De Ranke (Belgium, 7%)

Day five's entry finds me pondering further on the artistry of the blending process, as today's beer is another blend. For this example De Ranke, one of my favourite Belgian breweries, brew and age a sour beer in-house and then mix it with Girardin lambic on a 70/30 ratio. 

The lambic dominates the aroma, with notes of lemon juice and oak, and it pours almost still with a frothy head that fizzes away to almost nothing. Many hallmarks of lambic are instantly apparent in the taste, too - green apples and lemons, leather and wood. Sharp tropical fruits - pineapple and kiwi - are in there, too, perhaps a quality of the original De Ranke beer. Yesterday I noted quinine/tonic water as a common flavour amongst sour, oak-aged beers, and it's certainly present here. It actually comes off more like grapefruit in this instance, with the kind of dry, puckering sensation you get when you chomp on the skin of a particularly tart green apple. 

Pure sophistication, this, continuing an unbroken run in which I utterly love every De Ranke beer I try. 

Saturday, 23 December 2017

12 Beers of Christmas - Day Four - Wild Beer Beyond Modus 2014

Day Four - Wild Beer Beyond Modus 2014 (UK, 8%)

"Smells like cherry cola. That's been kept in a shoe."

This was my brother's assessment of Beyond Modus' aroma, and I have to hand it to him - it's pretty spot on. It's very fruity, but equally funky, veering towards cheesy. And whilst the flavour is plenty funky, it's thankfully more barnyard straw than festive cheeseboard.

The label calls this beer "a study in blending", and it really is a brilliant expression of that art. It's beautifully balanced between sweet cherries and acidic red wine, hitting a complex sweet and sour equilibrium. That vinous quality is striking - often evident in the Flanders red style that Beyond Modus could loosely fit into, here it is boosted by ageing in Burgundy barrels.  There's a huge, almost savoury depth of flavour to this beer, and it's also both extremely tannic and very bitter in the finish. This combination, which I often find in barrel aged sour beers, reminds me of tonic water; it makes you pucker your cheeks, and I love it. 

The process of blending has always kind of blown my mind. The principle of mixing young and old beer for a balanced middle ground is simple enough, but in practice, how do you actually go about that? I wouldn't feel confident enough in my palate to make such judgements. But the good folk at Wild Beer have clearly nailed it.

12 Beers of Christmas - Day Three - Bruery Terreux Saison Rue

Day Three - Bruery Terreux Saison Rue (USA, 8.5%)

Apologies for the late post - although I was able to drink my beer and make notes yesterday, I was without my laptop. There'll be two posts today to catch up.

'Gusher' is the term usually used to describe beers that foam up aggressively when opened. We've all experienced this - they fizz from the neck of the bottle, out the top and all over your kitchen counter. In this case, the word is inadequate. When I popped the cap, this bottle didn't simply 'gush'. It sprayed energetically, recalling scenes from crap comedies in which someone tries to hang up a picture and drives a nail into a water pipe. It was like a Freudian water feature, except dispensing expensive farmhouse ale rather than water. I was more impressed than disappointed and, in fairness, the bottle had been jostled around a bit in transit, evidently agitating the volatile saison yeast. Eventually I got a couple of glasses under it.

It pours a lot darker than your average saison, with an amber hue. The aroma reminds me of health food shops, which all smell the same - nutmeg, patchouli? The flavour has much of what you'd expect of a saison, including bubblegum, pepper and chamomile. The malt bill marks it out; it includes rye, and brings a background of caramel and some spicy joss-stick. The finish is dry, and also has a suggestion of alcohol heat which, together with some of the herbal/botanical flavours in there, kind of reminds me of gin.

Like the best saisons, its simultaneously complex and refreshing, though less than sessionable at such a high ABV. The explosive bottle is forgiven.

Thursday, 21 December 2017

12 Beers of Christmas - Day Two - Wiper and True/Partizan XK

Day Two - Wiper and True/Partizan XK (UK, 6.8%)

London's Partizan brew an impressive range of milds based on historical recipes. This particular beer blends a Lovibond X ale from 1864 with Wiper and True's Keeper Beer, a barley wine. It's an interesting concept however you look at it, but the most fascinating thing about this beer is that the combination of two heritage British styles would come off something like a Belgian ambreé.

After a little over a year maturing in the bottle, it's an insistent, nerve wracking pour in the way of the liveliest Belgian beers. There's a tight, rocky head which sticks around until the very last drop, and an enticing aroma of caramel, orange peel and chamomile. These are all there in the flavour, along with a little tannic black tea and a sugary note suggestive of candy floss. 

The brisk carbonation and light body continue the Belgian parallel. Sold at least partially as a Christmas beer, the label promises the usual festive nutmeg. Happily, I get none of that at all. What could be a claggy, over-spiced mess is, instead, sophisticated and easy drinking; a sipper, and wintery in its warming malt-driven way, but not a chore. 

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

12 Beers of Christmas - Day One - Omnipollo Noa Bourbon

The decorations are up, the overbearing cinammon-scented Yankee Candle is lit, Phil Spector is on the turntable, and there are twelve bottles of beer lined up under the tree. Yep, it's time for the 12 Beers of Christmas. Overseen by Steve of the Hopinions podcast, this is simply an opportunity (excuse?) to drink and discuss, and for me, it's a particularly good way to clear the backlog of beers that were too strong or too special for casual drinking and lend themselves to the air of festive decadence. 

Day One - Omnipollo Noa Bourbon (Sweden/Netherlands, 11%)

Omnipollo's Noa seems emblematic of a certain trend in beer. It tastes very much like an imperial stout with Betty Crocker cake mix stirred in, and that may not be too far from the truth. It's easily dismissed as infantile and gimmicky, but I'm a big fan. Sweet as it may be, it has enough stark, burnt bitterness to balance it out. This edition incorporates bourbon in some way (barrel ageing? Soaked wood chips?) and I imagined the experience to be a bit like tucking into a gooey chocolate brownie with a glass of bourbon on the side.

Well, that's not too far from the reality. Imagine taking a mouthful of sticky chocolate cake and washing it down with whisky; there are elements of the flavours that will marry, but also nuances in both constituent parts that will be lost in the combination.

The aroma is powerful, evoking childhood memories of licking the spoon after baking. But there's a hint of something more adult in there; somewhat woody, perhaps a little tobacco. From the first sip, it's clear that this beer is more austere, less goofily fun than the original Noa, as the confectionery is softened by a musty honey note and something savoury - water biscuits or maybe the advertised pecan nuts, stripped of their maple glaze. That burnt bitter finish I remember is still there, like the crisp corners of a chocolate brownie, and it leaves a lasting bitterness. 

It never tastes, to me, exactly like bourbon, but this addition adds a complexity that isn't necessarily welcome. It's more grown up than the classic Noa, but less indulgent as a result, and I like it less for that.