Some like it sour

A brewer never far from many beer geek's lips is mikkeller, that Danish crazy chap who likes to mash up beer styles for fun. A range I had been interested to try was his spontanale series, spontaneously fermented fruit beers, made authentically in Belgium. When they came into stock on the Brewdog online store I had to get some to try for myself.

The lineup.

 Starting off with the baby of the series at 5% and presumably the base beer, spontanale. It is a hazy blonde in colour with lactic acid and citrus on the nose with a hint of brettanomyces mustiness. Initially sweet the middle is long and sour with a brief flourish of bitterness from the hops in the long finish.

The kriek was sampled next. A gorgeous deep pink-red on colour with a candisugar nose with hints of cobwebs and cheerystones. Sourness muted by cheery flavours in this though it has a longer finish than the ale., perhaps due to the increased ABV (7.7%)

The highlight of the series for me was the framboos. Hazy mid-pink with rasberries prevalent throughout, the fruit balances the lactic sourness beautifully building to a lengthy sweet and sour finish.

The next beer, cassis, was unfortunately all flashy upfront but with little by way of fruit presence to back it up. Purple-red with a pink head and earthy brett nose. Fairly dull and muted sourness with a harsh finish.

The spontangrape was a similar colour to the base ale. Bretty nose with a hint of grape must, tasting like an oxidised wine or white wine winegar with a lactic finish. It was pretty refreshing and perhaps the most successful out of the non-traditional fruit usages.

Spontancranberry was red-amber and poured very lively with melon-rind, dry berries and least compost on the nose. Its sour, mouth-puckeringly sour especially in the finish; so decided to blend it with some homebrew woodforde's wherry which helped balance it out a bit.

An interesting range but probably the only one I'd drink again would be the spontanframboos and I'll sttick to the Belgian sours in the future. Has anyone else tried any of these beers?


Beer Tasting at Belfast Beer Fest

Earlier in the week I posted about my weekend working at Belfast Beer Festival 2011 and promised a later post about the tutored tasting sessions. Well here it is!

It was organised by branch chairman Phil Hernberg and jointly hosted with Rab Cowan from across the water (in that there Scotland) with tidbits of interest interjected by my good self. The beer lineup had to be tweaked slightly each day as casks ran out or others came into condition. The basic lineup was as follows:

Phil in full flow whilst Adrian and Rab discuss in the background
Wheat beer
Best Bitter

 Lager: we started off with Williams Ceildah but later switched to using Ossett Silver King. Its a shame we had no Schiehallion but the lagers we did have were nice enough. The assembled tasters were asked if they knew the difference between lager and "ale" amd some did know of the yeast differences. People said that they would have preferred it a few degrees colder. Alas the logistics which make it nigh on impossible for coolers. We have to resort to the "wet tea-towel" method.

Mild: B&T Black Dragon Mild was used first, then Ilkley Black, one of my own favourites. This one found a lot of favour with the female participants. Described as a beer that can range in colour and strength and named for its usually* low hopping rate. I suggested that it would pear well with good carby dishes as would be consumed by those after a hard day down t'mines.

mmm this mild has chocolate
Bitter: We had some good examples of bitter's on in the festival but in the end settled for O'hanlons firefly as it was well balanced between malt and hops and for its good mid-brown colour halfway between the lager and mild. Highlighted that the UK is great at making flavourful "session" beers.

Weisse: Little Valley Hebden's wheat: This is a bit of an odd one, uses a german weisse yeast but has corriander seed and lemon peel added. It has the wheatbeer haziness which alowed us to talk about other forms of haze/cloudiness to look out for in a beer.

Witbier: Hilden Barney's Brew. This was a real marmite beer. For some people it was the standout, for others only a sip was tried before declaring it foul. Spicy beers are just not some people's cup of tea.

Golden Ale: We switched best bitter for a golden ale when the dark star American Pale Ale ran out on the second day and the speciality beer became a witbier. Then hophead ran out and we had to use Oakleaf hole hearted. Talked about how American hop varieties had become more prolific in English brewing and how Golden Ale as a style is a fairly recent invention.

Porter: Did my best to dispel porter myths but I can't promise that some didn't get through when I was out of the room. We used Elland 1872 porter for a while but as it overpowered the stouts switched it for Coachhouse blunderbus [sic] old porter, which claims an "authentic" recipe. It certainly contrasted well to the stout.

Tasters start to feel it after 8 thirds
Stout: Talked about how not much separates stout and porter as styles these days, with stronger and lower ABV versions of both. We used Acorn Gorlovka stout so I was able to recount the tale of the rise of Imperial Russian Stouts, Baltic Porters and the recent great Baltic Adventure. There were inevitable comparisons to the ubiquitous black stuff from down south, but hopefully peopel's eyes were opened to the range of different stouts available.

The sessions finished with a final chance to ask questions and the three of us offering suggestions for what beers to try next. Was slightly embarassed when one tasting session gave a round of applause but it felt good to be appreciated.

I was pleased that the majority of sessions were oversubscribed (though this made my job a nightmare with only one hour between sessions trying to get 120 glasses and 8 jugs through the potwash and cool enough in time for the next session!). There was also a good mix of old and young, male and female, 2 Catalans and 2 Japanese visitors. Some people were pretty knowledgable and others just starting out in their beery journeys. I was surprised to meet a few peopel who had also travelled to the festival from Cookstown and hope to taste some beers with them later in the year.

I enjoyed helping out with the tasting sessions, maybe I'll be allowed to do one by myself next year, I reckon cheese** and beer would go down well as a talk ;)

**Any Excuse eh?



I had managed to amass a sizable collection of chocolate beers; so when the Hotel Chocolat monthly selection box arrived through the mail an idea for a blog post was born: Chocolate beer and chocolate pairing! I was aided by a fellow chocolate lover in this tasting session; so there's some comments from her too.

Top of the Chocs

 Young's Double Chocolate Stout(5.2%)
Pours dark black-brown with thin grey-beige head with aromas of cocoa powder, candi sugar and a hint of rum. Medium bodied with prickly carbonation and a fairly abrupt roasted barley finish and bittersweet aftertaste. For one that scores so highly on ratebeer we were a little disappointed with this one. Pairing this with a caramel macchiato brought out some of the roast malt flavours and chocolate.

A beer that highlights the need to taste the beer before attempting a pairing. The fruity notes in this beer meant that we picked the fruity chocolates from the selection for pairing purposes. Ruby black, fluffy off-white head. Hedgerow fruit nose and  blackcurrant flavour (I thought I was tasting Bramling cross, but ex-brewer Col informed me its 100% Goldings, must be the malt bill then!) with a hint of compost. Long roast barley finish. Sprightly carbonation. Not much sign of chocolate but a great beer nonetheless.Was paired with a summer berry chocolate and also mango sorbet in white chocolate which drew out the fruity flavours.

A triple chocolate attack in the form of chocolate malt, chocolate syrup and real chocolate make this one a bit of a chocobomb. Dark beer with fluffy beige head. Chocolate beige head. Chocolatey to the extreme, aroma, taste and finish. Not sickly, but we decided to pair this with any chocs may have caused death by chocolate!. Another opinion of the beer can be found here.

College Green Molly's Chocolate Stout (4.3%)
Garnet red-brown with minimal head. Noticeable legs for a beer at 4.3 unusual. Hint of beech-smoke then rich roast barley on the nose. Robust body with bitter coffee, dark chocolate and burnt toast. Finishes with a not unpleasant coffee astringency. This would pair well with a  high cocoa chocolate or contrast with something sweet and fruity.

Brentwood Chockwork Orange (6.5%)

Milk chocolate nose with lactose and crystal malt in the body. Roasted malt finish. This was paired with an orange and schnapps truffle, which brought out the orange flavour to great effect.

Robinson Chocolate Tom (in M&S regalia) (6%):

Surprisingly light amber in colour, bitter with sweet and dusty malt chocolate with an initial thin bitterness followed by a sweet chocolate and biscuit malt and lengthy sweet/ toasty finish.This was paired with a castello blue in wholemeal bread roll.

Bonus chocolate beer reviews:
(I rated these earlier in the year and thought you might want to know about them)

Bristol beer factory Chocolate stout (5%): produced for the "12 stouts of Christmas" selection, we were lucky enough to get it on cask at Factoberfest. Pitch black with a chocolate malt nose with spicy rasins with cocoa powder and a hint of peppermint. Very deceptive for its 5% with a chalky dry yet sweet finish.Very much looking forward to this in the bottle!

Southern Tier Choklat (11%): A luxurious thick black beer with nose of oatmeal, chocolate fondant and cocoa powder. Sweet up front with rich chocolate and slightly chalky roast barley. Medium bodied with noticeable but alcohol but it complements the flavours rather than hinders.One for sharing though!


Last fest before the Terrible Teens

I've just returned home from the 12th Belfast Beer Festival, held once again in the magnificent Ulster Hall in Belfast. This year marked the 30th anniversary of the Northern Ireland branch of CAMRA and we had some snazzy commemorative glasses made up as well as t-shirts for staff.

Set-up began on Sunday 13th with the unloading of scaffolding and errection of the stillage and bars. Construction work was finished by Monday afternoon and all cider secured however there was no sign of the beer. A quick call to the couriers confirmed that it was with them and due to a misunderstanding they had been planning to deliver on Tuesday! Luckily a driver was on hand to deliver ASAP and in the end all was stillaged Monday evening ready for tapping  and spiling on Tuesday.

By Wednesday evening most of the quality control had been done, leaving Thursday morning free for last minute checks and set up of the tables and glasses stand. 14 beers were selected by the bar managers for the Champion Beer of Belfast (CBOB) Competition at the final quality check stage and this was whittled down to six for a blind tasting by a group of staff, customers and invited experts. Results were as follows:

The other beers judged were Blue Monkey BG Sips, Houston Peter's Well and Brecon Pale Beacons. For a more detailled low down on teh judging see The Beer Nut's Blog. Yours truly foolishly volunteered to be the beer runner, bringing fresh jugs of beer up to the awaiting panel. This role was reprised for the 8 tasting sessions which had from 2 to 14 participants, resulting in one very knackered beer blogger by Saturday evening. I'll probably do a separate blog about this one or this will become too gargantuan.

Amongst beer running, glass washing, punter serving and the occasional burrito or pasty I managed to try a good few beers from my planned list. I posted the full beer lineup here before the festival and all beers were in attendance except the Hopback Entire Stout, which arrived but had an unfortunate mishap (read: blew its keystone and dumped 18 gallons over the stillage/floor).

Summerwine is a brewery I had wanted to try for a good while. Last weekend I had a chance to try the Covenant at #Twissup; so I was excited that both barista and diablo would be on offer at Belfast (at my suggestion)* Barista is an espresso stout. Its my kind of beer. Its how I remember the Dark Star Espresso used to taste before it became considerably less caffienated. The smell of cold coffee escapes the glass from the moment it is poured and a lovely hop bitterness contrasts the coffee astringency in the mouth.  Diabolo is a different beast. At 6.6% it was the strongest non-silly** beer on offer. A strong citrus nsoe continues into the taste with a good grapefruit and orange bite and long finish. Very refreshing and easy-drinking it belies its strength. Definitely one I shall be seeking out again.

The Cider Bar
Another beer high on my hitlist was the Ards Ballyblack (having interviewed the brewer for this here blog last month). It poured a dark brown black with a thinnish white head. It seemed a mix of a sweet stout and an Irish dry stout, with the roast barley and dark chocolate notes of the latter attenuated by a sweeter milk chocolate in the finish. Lovely stuff and very impressive for a first attempt at cask beer.
Other beers I enjoyed included the 3 CBOB winners, Bowman Elderado (from my old Stomping ground), Ilkley Black, Leeds Midnight Bell and Youngs Bitter. I also got to try Toby's Cider on draught and Tempted's special festival blend made with a higher percentage of cider apples, which added a tannic edge to the fairly sweet cider.

I met some fellow Beoir memebers and proudly received my membership card from John (#149). Reuben (Tale of Ale) kindly brought me a bottle of Franciscan Well Shandon Century, which I expect to crack open later in the week. He was pleased when I showed him the direction to Boojum burritos. I also had a special treat in meeting a fellow ratebeerian who had created his own braambes lambic. More on this beer later!

So exhausted was I that by 6:30 on Saturday evening I was ready for bed. I returned bright and early (read: 11am) on Sunday morning to help with takedown. Everything has to be done in one day, a mammoth task when everyone is so worn out after a long week. My bus was at 4ish; so I stayed until 3. The scaffolding had been sent on its way, the van of Northern Ireland kit loaded and the flying firkin dray had arrived. Only the CAMRA van needed fillng; so I'm sure everyone was finished up before 6pm.

It was another great festival, great to see new and old faces and see the hall so packed every day. It seemed to me like there was less leftover beer this year too; so will be interesting to find out how it all went at the wash up meeting next month.  Its a great wee festival which you should consider coming to in 2012 if you've never been, Belfast is a great city for a short (or long) break with plenty to see and do besides the festival.
*Beer orderer Adrian (branch secretary) believes in a democratic approach to beer selection, with the Flying Firkin being circulated amongst all interested branch members in order that they give their selections. He does his best to accommodate everyone (even those who go overboard and suggest about 20 beers...ahem) as long as price isn't too high. We aim to have as many Northern Ireland ebers as possible and to this end all local breweries are invited to supply. Unfortunately Clanconnel had just mioved premises and were unable to produce any beer in time and Innishmacsaint is having trouble keeping up with local demand. Hopefully we will see beery offerings from both of these next year.

**We have a silly beer on each bar. These beers above 7% ABV are only sold in halves and this year comprised Orkney Skullsplitter, Burton Bridge Thomas Sykes, Otley O8 and Green Jack Ripper Tripel. As with previous years, these four had no problem in selling out.


Five pubs and a brewery

 As many of you reading this may be aware, this weekend was the bloggers gathering known as twissup. If i tell you the first word is Twitter, I'm sure you can work out the second.
Living the isolated life in Northern Ireland I missed the first pub (Bacchus) and headed straight to the Tyne Bank brewery where a large number of unfamiliar faces were supping the free beers. We were treated to a talk about the brewery and the beer styles before returning downstairs for further beers.

Panda Frog Pandazilla
At this point people had started to wander in the direction of other various drinking establishments; so i stumbled toward the river where I was met with the sight of a gaggle (what is the collective term for a group of beer bloggers) spilling on to the pavement outside of the Free Trade Inn. Here we were not only treated to a fantastic selection of beers, (including Summer Wine Covenant, Hardknott Vitesse Noir and epic new effort from Mordue's Rob under alias Panda Frog - Pandazilla, 7%ABV) but a fantastic view across the Tyne too which became more stunning as the sun set. Rob of Panda Frog was in attendance and I collared him about the hops, but stupidly neglected to write it down. I met Hardknott Dave, Ann, Sooty and Alex along with their American brewer friends. Spent plenty of time outside too with tuff86 (Paul) and some tasty cheese courtesy of Mr Drink Match, though most of it had been demolished by the time I got any. Thanks for bringing that!

Team Hardknott out in force
Such was the choice of good beers that a good three hours were spent at the pub and could happily have stayed longer but there were plenty of other pubs to see. We strolled up the hill to the Cumberland Arms and found a good selection on cask and I selected the interestingly named Warlock. I also got a  cheeky sample of Camden Wheat whilst sat outside courtesy of Young Dredge (though being a full two years younger, perhaps my epithet should be Stephanos the Younger).

Time to move on again we caught a bus to the Newcastle Arms and I ran next door to grab some spring rolls to satisfy my growing beer munchies. Met with another great selection I went for the unusual sounding Boggart Walnut Porter.

The Toon Wall
A select bunch consisting Mnsr. Mogg, The Young Dredge, the brothers Pickthall, Mr Lozman and myself went to find further decent pubbage and ended up in the Town Wall, which does indeed have a Toon Wall (See Pic).  and a house beer brewed for it. The lightweights had to goto catch their train and Jeff and Steve put up with my company for a while longer so that I could get a chance to visit the fabled Bacchus. I was not disappointed and tried a couple of breweries new to me, Offbeat and Tempest. 

Mark gazes into the middle distance,
dreaming of the beer that got away.
At about 9:30pm we called it a night and I caught my metro back to the hotel, for I had to get up at 6:30 am the following morning. My first #twissup experience was great, everyone "behind the avatar" being very friendly and perfect beery folk to accompany an afternoon's drinking in a new town. If you haven't been on one before what's stopping you? I shall certainly be aiming to get along to the next one. 

Big thanks to Andy for co-ordinating the day, the guys at Tyne Bank for their hospitality, all of the pubs for putting up with so many of us and Jeff and Steve for putting up with me in particular. Cheers and see you next time!

I'll leave you with a pic of the aforementioned view and a caption competition of sorts!
Sunset over the Tyne


(I may even offer a prize if I get some entries!)

"to the next pub driver!"


Session #57 Round-up

I hosted this month's session. The topic was posted here.

I'm not one to judge, but some of you have some shocking revelations, but I'll name no names. Its up to you to read on and admonish/forgive/console/agree as you see fit on individual's blogs!

Simon over at Reluctant scooper shares a host of secrets, but perhaps the most shocking is he got sick after one pint of mild. Boak and Bailey temporarily demerge to share their individual beery confessions: Boak used to think Red Stripe was classy...whilst Bailey still drinks Becks when Boak isn't around to stop him.  David at Broadford brewer chooses to tell us about some of his University drinking mishaps. Mark owns up to enjoying beer straight from the fridge and still in the bottle and Sean at beer search party is similarly guilty.

Gareth from new blog beer advice has his first go at the session and tells us of beer and film pairing, sounds like a good idea actually and Leslie Lushtastic can't help it but to keep going back to Victoria! And another session newbie, Matt from beerandfoodandstuff seemingly has no end of confessions to get off of his chest. Jen at Berkley craft beer examiner confesses to self-abuse by malternative (alchopops in the UK) before progressing to real beer via something with blueberry floaties in it. Tom at Lugwrench similarly drank a malternative, called Zima. Mr Rabid Barfly thinks he has nothing to confess, but I think ginger beer for breakfast is something fairly unique amongst us beer bloggers!

Zac confesses to having recently enjoyed shandy, whilst yours truly used to survive on smoothflow. Mr Dredpenguin owned up to still drinking carlsberg and disliking cantillon the first time around. Jay at a beer in hand confesses to not one but three guilty pleasure beers whereas Stan (Appellation Beer) cannot remember his gateway beer; so his guilty pleasure is each and every new beer he gets his paws on.

I persuaded Simon from CAMRGB (Campaign for Really Good Beer) to post his and a great read it was too. He shares how he got into beer from being a shameless wine guzzler. The Beer Nut decided to do something guilt-inducing live, drinking a beer from Heineken, but it doesn't actually sound too bad. Bob at "It could do with a few more hops" sounds like a guy with plenty of secrets, he confesses to five consecutive weeks of beer smuggling. Win confesses a heinous crime and makes a good case for smaller measures. Rob at Beer PHXation overdid the beer on a Belgium trip.

Craig is embarrassed in a very rate beer way...he enjoyed a bottom ten beer. Reuben Tale of the Ale (who hosted the session last month) gives us a lengthy explanation of why he quit drinking for five years. Thomas at Yours For Good Fermentables is guilty of what a lot of us may be...not giving a beer a second chance and Jon at the Brewsite speaks his mind about why you shouldn't feel guilty. Craig at drinkdrank is a fan of heritage brands, particularly Schaefer.

Alan at a good beer blog enjoys beer with corn and in his usual verbose way explains why he doesn't feel one iota of guilt and Derrick, the beer runner, also enjoys blueberry beers. Jay of Brookstein Beer Bulletein (Who along With Stan makes up one half of the team that co-ordinates The Session) wishes to confess ten years of drinking bland lagers alongside tastier beevrages before making the switch, though I think his no beer admission is more telling...Phil of Beersay tells us about his first accidental intoxication which led to him being a more cautious drinker in the future...or so I would hope! Another session newbie in the form of Hardknott Alex tell us of his penchant for desperados, which seems to be the shame-beer of choice for a number of bloggers and Nick from Lautering.net admits to preferring beers with an adjunct such as rice because of their smoother texture.

That's all folks. Cheers for the contributions everyone, I've enjoyed reading them. There are 32 all together (if I've counted correctly!). Let me know if I've overlooked anyone and if you enjoyed this roundup! I duly hand over the baton to Phil of Beersay host for December's session. He's @Filrd on Twitter so add him on there too! Get in Touch with Jay Brooks or Stan Heironymous to offer your services for future sessions.

Stale Superlatives

Everyone hates to see bland and non-descriptive beer descriptions such as "hoppy" or "malty" (see Mark's post here for a great analysis) but there is sometimes a danger it can go the other way. Superlative descriptors and elaborate adjectives seem to do the rounds, I don't blame people for using them...maybe they've seen it used somewhere else and decide to shoe horn it into their descriptions or perhaps tehy've always used them but only recently become noticable. Here are my top 10 to avoid:

1. Unctuous: used in reviews to describe something moreish and silky, a better description would be to go for texture.

2. Hop Sack (dusty or otherwise): used by Zak Avery in his 500 beers book, how many regular beer drinkers know what a hop sack smells like? Is it just a slightly musty fresh hop smell, or  amixture of hops and hessian? Or do they use plastic sacks these days?

3. Funky (to describe a Brett fermented beer): funky means a bad smell, perhaps some people find the aroma unpleasant but surely if the descriptions of horse-blanket and mouth-puckering sour weren't enough to put people off then this would? Or is it a conspiracy to keep lambics for beer-geeks?

4. "In my top # beers" be honest, you don't have a fixed x number of beers that are your favourite, let the review speak for itself and leave the summing up for the end of the year

5. ...

I failed in my task to find a top ten, perhaps there aren't as many words as I'd thought, or maybe I haven't been remembering well enough! I open up the floor to other contributions and please leave the clichés and flowery language to the world of wine!

Of course it would be remiss of me to not include a disclaimer, as I'm sure I may have been (or possibly will be) guilty of using any and all of these at some point. Blame the beer.


Belfast Beer Festival Reminder

Just a quick post to remind everyone that Belfast Beer Festival is just ten days away. Easyjet now flys from Manchester; so its even more easy to get here if you're a Northern beer drinker type. 

The list as it currently stands can be found here. I'll be working the whole of it. Come and try the new Northern Ireland beer and local ciders. Hope to see you there!


#StoutDay reviews Harviestoun Ola Dubh

I originally planned this blog post for Thursday night, but due to being ill decided to postpone it until this weekend. 
Scotland has had a dearth of breweries until recently and one of the new breed is the wonderful Harviestoun. I have not had a duff beer from them yet from the super session beer bitter and twisted to their cask conditioned lager Schiehallion, they tackle every style with aplomb. Whilst holidaying in Scotland last year I found a bottle of their porter old engine oil in the Scone (pronounced scoon) Palace gift shop. I'm a big fan of porter and it looked lonely on the shelf; so took it home and, of course, they aced that too. When I found out that they had aged the beer in a selection of Highland Park whisky barrels it was a no-brainer that I had to try them.

I picked up the bottles from Beer Ritz at various times over the last year, four in all and decided to try them all at the same time to see how the barrels affected the base beer. The whiskys of course taste different with age; so how would this impact on the beer?
 All 8% ABV the beers pour a similar dark brown-black with thin brown head. This is where the similarities end. The tasting notes for each are below:

Interesting aroma of pineapple, and Christmas cake...rasins, fruit cake and marzipan. Hint of smoke on the palate and a musty rusk dry chocolate finish. Gentle carbonation and an oily texture.
Red wine and coconut with treacle and black pepper flavours.Less noticeably alcoholic than the other expressions. Zingy carbonation.
Grassy, grainy rye nose with a hint of a maraschino cherry. Overwhelming whisky flavours and quite thin bodied.
Alcohol and nutmeg nose with plenty of booze and chocolate raisins in the taste. Gentle carbonation.

Its interesting to see such a wide palate of flavours across the four beers, though they all undoubtedly have spent time in whisky barrels with subtle vanilla and boozy whisky notes across all of them. The 12 y/o whisky is known for having peat smoke and that definitely ended up in the beer.  I certainly hope to get hold of a bottle of the 30 y/o too and I reckon I'd enjoy the whisky.
Another view of three of the Harviestoun beers can be watched below. Its the ineffable Zak Avery (The Beer Boy) of Beer Ritz.


Buying beer in New England

 Time for a guest blog methinks. I met Andrew over 6 years ago now (is it really that long?) through mutual friends at Reading Festival. He's not averse to a good beer (or indeed whisky) and in 2009 he and a friend discovered some beers in the USA. You can find his blog here. Over to Andrew...

...Jim took us to his favourite off-licence/ liquor store. Sam and I were agog at the sheer size of this place; it was bigger than most wholesale warehouses I’ve seen. Jim was keen to show us the microbrewery isle. Calling it an isle just doesn’t do it justice, it was more like a small continent of ale, there are principalities in Europe smaller than this isle. Sam and I slowly made our way down the row studying every beer with a similar demeanour employed by folk slowly wandering through fine art galleries.

Just who is driving here?
Left to right is me, Sam Page and  our host Jim Reily
(I'm pretty sure Jim should have been holding a steering wheel, but...)

Each beer was only given a few bottles width of space on each shelf, and the racking was five or six shelves high, I have never seen so much beer in all my life, let alone real ale! One of Sam’s favourites came from the Frank Zappa brewery, and had the cover of ‘We're Only in It for the Money’ on the label.

We could have spent hours in that store, but as we only had a little while before we needed to pick Drew up we grabbed some half gallon flagons of milk stout and headed for the checkouts. On the way out I was stunned to see some St.Peters beers, they’re (made just a few miles from my house in Suffolk).

As I walked up the second isle of ale I was astounded to see countless more beers from England, mind you, they weren’t cheap ($20 for six bottles of Stella Artois my arse). While I was amazed to see more English beers than I’d ever seen in England my mind boggled at the logistics, let alone the food miles.

In the same way that I always look for my own band’s CDs in record shops, no trip to an off-licence is complete without checking out what single malts are in stock. Sure enough they had all my favourites, but oh my - they were expensive; with the odd exception of Bowmore, which worked out at just ten pounds a bottle. I rushed like a child to tell Sam of my discovery and had a short but enthusiastic chat about whisky with him before my eye was caught by an entire isle of vodka. I’m not a fan of vodka - in fact it’s probably the quickest way to empty my body of all bile in a most uncivil way - but I am a fan of gawping at obscure alcohol.

As I stumbled along the rows staring slack jawed at the pretty labels I suddenly became aware of the fact I was being followed. With the amount of childish running around that I had been doing I entirely expected the two large blurry objects in my peripheral vision to be security guards. I moved to the next isle. Each time I shuffled forward I heard the sound of stiff soles on plastic flooring echoing my own footsteps. I decided to face the music and casually turned round. I tried to look relaxed enough not to give off an air of guilt, but also so that I could try and feign some sort of innocent surprise when I got my collar felt. It’s very confusing being middle class, if you’ve ever felt guilty for no reason while being followed by a police car you’ll know exactly what I mean. Much to my surprise my stalkers were a middle aged couple who look more surprised than I when I turned to them. After a slightly awkward pause the man lent forward slightly and said in a low and quiet voice,

“The whisky is back over on the row by the doors.”

I guess he had heard me chatting with Sam and assumed I couldn’t find the whisky. I thanked him earnestly, and walked to the tills. This couple summed up the feeling I got from most people in New England - everyone is quite happy to give their neighbours the space to go about their business without interference, but are more than willing to gently help out if they think you are wanting for something. It’s a very endearing way to be. This couple will never know that they were the first piece of what developed into a great jigsaw puzzle of affection I feel for New England.

Entering Mass

Session #57: My guilty beer secret

I'm hosting the session this month. See here for the topic.
 When I first started drinking beer (about ten years ago) I liked lager. And not good lager, probably one of the c-words. Price wasn't the issue but perhaps lack of having tasted anything else was. My parents bought me a pack of twelve for Christmas in October and by December I'd decided I didn't like lager after all. I moved on to Worthingtons smoothflow. I drank this for about three years, including for my first year at university, by whhich point I'd had my eyes opened about the world of beer. 

Exhibit A
After moving out of halls in the first year I sought out a decent local and never again did a glass of the nitrogenated stuff pass my lips. I'll still drink keg buddweiser or Kronenburg if there's no good cask or keg available (and that's fairly often in the beer desert of Northern Ireland).

I don't feel particularly guilty about my formative beer drinking experiences, in the same way as that Linkin Park album led me on to much better music, those generic lagers and bitters pushed me to seek out better tasting beers and in the mean time I've found plenty that I'll happily go back to time and time again.


#StoutDay Black as...

...insert a very black thing here.
No brewery these days seems complete without an imperial stout in their line-up and I've managed to build up quite a collection; so its time to make use of #StoutDay to get some of them drunk.

Well that was the plan until I ended up having to take the day off sick, so just the one review in the end, the brand new offering from Hardknott Brewery (delivered to me yesterday morning) Vitesse Noir (11%). Billed as a Triple imperial vanilla mocha stout it was something I was keen to try. It looks lovely in the Hardknott snifter glass, which I have a feeling I'll be using fairly frequently in the future.

So on to the beer. It pours into the glass a luxurious velvety black with just a hint of a tan head. The aroma is immediately delicious and rich coffee, like walking into a coffee shop just as they've turned the percolator on. Beneath this coffee there are notes of juicy red cranberries and blackcurrant, inviting you to take a taste.I duly do so and find a lovely rich and aromatic coffee flavour waiting for me, followed in short shrift by plain chocolate and vanilla sweetness. As this departs the palate a bitter coffee and roast barley flavour appears briefly to be replaced by a lasting rich malt sweetness and a touch of orange peel. The alcohol remains well hidden throughout and its smooth, thick body slips down easily, resulting in the glass soon needing a refill. I heartily recommend you try this now!

I had planned to also review Mikkeller/Brewdog/NogneO Black Tokyo Horizon and a couple of others, but they will have to wait for another day!


CABPOM November: Bristol Beer Factory Hefe & Fresh Goat's Cheese

As I mentioned earlier in the week, this month's cheese and beer pairing takes the form of a wine vs beer "smackdown" which was held at Cheese School on October 30th. I've never been a fan of wine; so knew it would be interesting to see whether I immediately picked the beer as the best match in each case. It is worth mentioning that all beers were from a single brewery (Bristol Beer Factory) whereas the wines were from all over the shop. 
Andrew Cooper matched and was arguing for the beers, whereas Matthew Eggens of Averys Wine Merchants fought the corner for wine. There was some good banter between the two proponents and I tried to do my bit with helpful (annoying?) tasting notes and style descriptions of the beers for the drinkers on my table.

The pairings were as follows:

Fresh Ragstone goats cheese with Bristol Hefe (4.8%) vs Reisling

Old Demdike Washed-curd Ewes Cheese with Acer (3.8%) vs 2008 Zephyr Chardonay (13%)

Montogomery's Cheddar with Bristol Vintage 2011 (6.6%) vs Urbina Rioja 1999 Seleccion (13%)

Stichelton with Milk Stout (4.8%) vs Herdade do Esporão Vinho Licoroso (18.5%)

First up was the goasts cheese. This was a wonderfully fresh and creamy little number with a hint of lemon. The Hefe's bubblegum and banana yeast flavours helped to draw out this freshness and cleanse the palate of the sticky cheese. Riesling on the other hand, whilst a tasty drop on its own was too acidic, clashing terribly with the cheese. The beer won this one easily for me
The  vote showed the audience was largely in favour of the beer. 1-0 to beer

The sheep's cheese threw a spanner in the works for all concerned. A very tricky number to pair with and both went for a wild card choice. Acer from Bristol Beer Factory uses Sorachi Ace as its sole hop and is a lemon and bubblegum affair with a hint of hay meadow. The cheese somehow picked up on this hay (milk protein is ultimately from grass perhaps?), drowning out the fruity flavours of the beer and leaving the mouth rather dry. There was also an unpleasant bitter spike at the end. The wine, on the other hand pointed at the sweetness in the cheese and complemented the earthy flavours of the wine with a fruity freshness. Surprisingly I had found a wine I enjoyed and it had beaten the beer.
The vote in the room (read: tent) was overwhelmingly for the wine with only a few beers. 1-1.

The dead heat, beer just wins it!
Picture from Fiona's blog on the event

The next match saw the beer pull ahead again as the majority found Bristol Vintage to be the better match for the cheddar, though many people thought that both drinks overpowered the cheese. Bristol vintages fruity nose and caramel malt bill was less overpowering than the juicy raspberry of the wine. Perhaps a slightly more tangy cheddar could have stood up better. A number of people voted for both wine and beer in this round, with beer just pipping wine to the post. 1-2 to beer.

The final round saw Todd Schneider's blue cheese masterpiece Stitchelton. Unfortunately everyone tried the wine first (really a port) which didn't give the lowly 4.8% ABV milk stout much of a chance. As feared, people couldn't taste the stout after the wine and voted accordingly. I chose to abstain. Final score 2-2.

So an interesting experiment which shows that beer can hold its own against wine and in many cases better it in the cheese matching stakes. I was pleasantly surprised to enjoy all four of the wines in their own right, but think had beers been available from a few suppliers beer would have won every round (but then again, I'm biased!) A recent beer vs wine meal at Thatchers Arms was also declared a draw.

And this months cheese and beer pairing suggestion is different to any of my previous with a pale beer and a pale cheese, proving its not only dark beer and blue that pairs well!


November #TheSession Announced!

The Session this month was due to be hosted by Pete Brown, but due to some bastard stealing his laptop and thus losing a load of the work for his new book he's had to postpone for now and I've volunteered to move forward my hosting for a month.

So I shall be hosting session #57. Those who are eagle eyed will have already espied that the topic is "Beery Confessions: Guilty Secrets/Guilty Pleasure Beer" and are perhaps intrigued to find out what it will entail, well wait no longer!

One of the things I most enjoy about blogs and personal writing in general is the ability to have a window into another's life, in a semi-voyeuristic way. So I'd like to know your beery guilty secrets. Did you have a particularly embarassing first beer (in the same way that some people purchase an atrocious song as their first record) or perhaps there's still a beer you return to even though you know you shouldn't? Or maybe you don't subscribe to the baloney about feeling guilty about beers and drink anything anyway?

You're also welcome to write about bad drinking experiences you've had as a result of your own indulgence or times when you've been completely wrong about a beer but not yet confessed to anyone that you've changed your mind.

Its fairly wide open, take your pick. Variety is the spice of life as they say (and I hope there's more than 57 of them...) Blogs are due this Friday (4th November) but as its short notice I'll accept submissions until next Friday (11th November), but as soon as your blog is uploaded post a link to it in here, or send me an email stephanos1986 AT gmail DOT com if you don't have a blog and still want to contribute. Happy writing!

A less contentious beer book.

Image taken from Amazon.co.uk
With Christmas fast approaching (55 days in fact) a slew of new beer books are hitting the shelves in stores (and warehouses). Alongside these is Melissa Cole's new book: Let me tell you about Beer.

This is designed to be an accessible non-daunting entry-level guide to the world of beer, not necessarily aimed at someone like me who already knows a fair bit about beer but I enjoy reading Melissa's blog so decided to pick up a copy. It landed on my doormat last Friday, but I've not yet had a chance to read it in its entirety but look forward to doing so. My copy turned up just over a week ago and I had a chance for a good read of it on my journey to and from cheese school this weekend.

The first thing you notice is that its quite a hefty tome (though by no means anywhere near as thick as the Oxford Companion*!) with high quality glossy pages, hard cover and plenty of colour throughout. Its very reasonably priced too (RRP 14.99, though a bargainous 10.49 on Amazon!); so in terms of looking the part for gift giving potential it certainly stands up to scrutiny.

People often buy with their eyes, but of course its the content that these books should be chosen on. There is no quibble from me on that front either. A relaxed and down to earth style of writing feels like Melissa is chatting to you in a pub about beer, and making suggestions about what you might like. There's useful sections on matching beer with food for beginners, a good writeup of the health benefits of beer and a  whack of beer tasting notes, arranged by style.

 I always enjoy reading other people's reviews to see if I agree with them and from what I've read I certainly do, which makes me want to search out other beers that Melissa has recommended. I'm not going to give any of them away, you'll need the book for that! Its by no means a simple "x beers to try before you y" (phrase borrowed from beercast) kind of book though.

I can't say I learnt anything new about brewing or beer styles, but I wasn't expecting to and that's not what this book is about. If you're looking for a beer book to convince your lover/brother/gran the merits of good beer in non-patronising laymans terms then "Let Me Tell You About Beer" is the ideal gift!

The launch party for the book is tonight; so I hope all goes well. Follow Mellissa on Twitter.

*Which far too much has been said about already.

Perfection in a glass

Its not just the water and the limestone that the small town of Buxton in the peak district can be proud of: they now have a brewery too! I'm a bit late to the party as there have been a plethora of other reviews on the blogosphere (Beer Ritz Blog , The Good Stuff , The Good Stuff again , The Reluctant Scooper , Pencil and Spoon , Beer Paradise , A Swift One Reluctant Scooper again , The Beer Boy , Beer Reviews (Meet the brewer) , Tandleman , Eating Isn't Cheating,Broadford Brewer), but ever since trying Axe Edge earlier this year (I'm glad Beer Ritz were out of Burton bridge IPA!) I've been itching to try some of the rest of the range. This weekend I had my chance to sup my way through the bottles sitting patiently in my parent's garage since I ordered them last month.Would Axe Edge be an indicator of great beer all round, or merely a lone stand-out in an otherwise drab range? Lets find out...

 As I tend to do when out and about I chose to drink the beers in order of ABV, but with so many to get through I enlisted the help of my dad in the tasting, though he was too busy drinking to pass comment on many.

Moor Top was up first, a pale golden ale of very sessionable ABVwith subtle aroma of pineapple and yeast. Initial fresh bitterness becomes lemon and Passion fruit in the finish. Thirst quenching and one I'd love to drink a few of from cask.

Buxton Spa was next up. This mid-gold little beauty is packed full of juicy tropical fruit, like a beery Rubicon. A slight scent of cats urine (don't worry you can't taste it!) suggested citra and a quick website check confirmed that's the hop used in this beer. Mango sorbet with a hint of lime. Delicious and better than other citra-hopped beers I've tried!

Buxton Best is a brown ale but not a boring one by any stretch of the imagination. English hops assert themselves on the nose Peppery  with faint blackcurrant Bitter taste up front with marmalade hops and gentle carbonation. It has good malt backbone to stand up to the bitterness.

Then on to one I had a chance to try on cask in Manchester. I wasn't keen on the massive head on cask (sparkler alert) as the beer tasted quite dull in comparison.A much better affair in bottle. None of the roasted notes present in some Black IPAs. Wear a blindfold with this one and you'd swear it was pale.

And then on to one I was salivating for: Axe Edge. At 6.8% this double IPA is certainly not one you can knock back at a pace or you'd soon know it! Fairly unassuming citrus nose on this amber beer. Gentle carbonation, high bitterness but well balanced by mango, resin and lemon and a strong malt backbone.Plentyof flavour from the UK, USA and NZ hops and in my top three beers of the year (so far?). I wasn't disappointed.

No brewery lineup is complete without an imperial stout in its range and Buxton is no exception,  with Tsar at 9.5% being theirinterpretation of the style. Thick and opaque with an orange tan head thebeer certainly looks the part. Legs show the presence of high alcohol but its well disguised. Cola and chocolate nose. Thick body with treacle and a coffee finish. Very bitter which although not unexpected certainly hit my palate after the much sweeter IPAs! 

A great selection of beers then from one of my favourite breweries for 2011. Hopefully I'll get to try others of their offerings, though asever being based nowhere near and with a sea in between its none too likely unless a passing blogger takes pity on me! (I did get to try Old Big 'ead which was hiding in a Spar in Hope, but didn't really take any notes)

You can follow the brewery on twitter here and head brewer here. The website is also worth a look for some info on how the beers were named


I found Wild Boar (5.7%) and High Tor (6.3%) at the Vineyard in Belfast! Very unexpected but welcome nonetheless! I thought I'd include them in this post rather than do a new one.

Wild Boar is an award winner (Champion bottled beer SIBA North) for the brewery and its easy to see why. An immediate fresh and pithy grapefruit aroma on the nose from those New Zealand hops I didn't need the label to tell me are there in abundance. It pours a lovely hazy blonde with thick off-white head which hangs around for ages. In the mouth its fresh mango and pineapple followed by plenty of grapefruit and then the tongue-smacking bitterness I so love in these new zealand hops. Lurking in the background is a bit of drier bitterness too from those European hops used. On the finish the malt peeks its head through the bitterness before descending again leaving with your tongue bathing in pine resin and demanding another glug of beer, which I duly provided it. Drinking this beer is akin to drinking a regular IPA through a straw with several hops jammed in it. This is up there with Axe Edge and Spa as my favourite Buxton brews. Bottle conditioning gives it just enough sparkle to accentuate the hops whereas I think force carbonation may just send the bitterness up my nose and kill the moment.

High Tor as my second beer this evening has a lot to live up to then. At 0.6% stronger it certainly ha sthe alcohol to act as a follow up.On first inspection its disappointing, pouring a murky red-brown with no head whatsoever. On the nose is passion fruit and caramel, the complexity lacking in comparison to Wild Boar. My first thought is that its very sweet. Certainly plenty of toffee and there's some stewed plums in there too with a balancing bitterness which isn't anywhere near as in your face. I'm thinking perhaps that I drunk these in the wrong order. The malt bill is certainly king with this beer and I get golden syrup and raisins with
a few more sips. I reckon this beer may be a candidate for keg as the carbonation is quite sprightly enough to keep it vital. After a bite to eat the hops are a bit more noticeable, likewise the alcohol but I find myself craving more wild boar. A nice drop then but not in the same league as that earlier beer.