Monday 27 August 2012

Down Deeper Part Two: The Return

On Saturday the 26th of May I took park in #DownDIPA a night where like minded beer maniacs cracked open several bottles of double IPA and shared the combined experience through Twitter. The night was organised by Simon, founder of CAMRGB and to complete the experience Arbor Ales of Bristol had brewed a double IPA for the event which was christened ‘Down Deeper’ and the excellent label artwork was designed by Simon himself.

There was an agreement that although on the night our bottles of Down Deeper tasted great that something wasn’t quite right due to the beer not having enough time to condition in the bottle. Simon was very kind to ask me if I wanted to write a follow up review after we had allowed our remaining bottles to age sufficiently which he has now published on the CAMRGB blog here. Before reading on you might like to read my original review to give you a bit of context which you can find here.

Thanks again to Simon of CAMRGB for inviting me to write for his awesome organization and as membership is free I’d highly advise becoming a member yourself which you can do by clicking here.

Thursday 23 August 2012

Old Worthy Brewing Scottish Pale Ale

When I started this blog back in January I never thought for a second that a brewery would want to send me a beer for free. I’ve since read a lot of different opinions on amateur beer writers being sent samples and have since formulated several opinions of my own. When I was contacted by Old Worthy Beer via twitter (at the same time as several other bloggers who I follow) asking if I wanted a bottle to try out I jumped at the chance.

So far every beer I have written about on this blog has been paid for with my own money, except perhaps those bottles I raided from my Dads fridge the last time I was over in Colorado. I write for pleasure and I am not on the take but if a brewery wants to send me a beer to review then I would never turn it down. At the end of the day Breweries must turn a profit to survive and if their marketing departments (assuming they are big enough to actually have one) think that sending out free samples to amateur writers will ultimately sell them more beer then so be it. In reality it’s no different to when in my University days I wrote for my student union magazine, got sent free records and got into lots of gigs for free. Plus for me personally it’s an honour to get sent a beer for free, it hopefully means that the brewery has read my blog and thinks that it’s well written enough to add value to their product.

A couple of weeks after said I’d love to be sent a sample a bottle of Old Worthy Scottish Pale Ale arrived at my door. Before I laid it to rest in my fridge I had a good look at the label and pondered it’s slightly old-worldly  but still refreshingly well thought out design, it’s not going to win any design awards and it’s not particularly eye catching but it’s an appropriate enough label. The label proudly states that this beer is brewed on the Isle of Skye and is brewed with peated barley malt from the Ardmore whisky distillery. This got me quite excited because I am very partial to a peat-laden malt whisky and so it wasn’t long before I decided to wrap my gums around this brew.

Old Worthy Brewing say that this beer is supposed to be enjoyed as an accompaniment to a malt whisky as this brings out the complex flavours and aromas in the beer but in moment of blind arrogance I decided to drink this beer on its own. I thought that by doing this I would have put myself in a customers shoes as if I saw the beer on a supermarket shelf but after reading some other reviews it looks as if I’ve cheated myself out of tasting this beer at its best.

After opening the bottle and carefully pouring it into my New Belgium branded snifter I take several large whiffs in an attempt to dissect the complex aroma of this pale ale. I immediately detected the peat laden aromas from the malt and as with whiskies such as Laphroaig I also detected a not-unpleasant hint of TCP but there was something else there as well, hints of smoky mesquite and barbecued pork also lingered in the background. Holding the glass up the window the beer produced a beautiful and very clear golden hue, there were plenty of bubbles busily going about their business producing a small, ever so slightly off white head.

Finally it was time to get into the tasting, maybe it was because it was my first ‘press release’ beer but I spent ages mulling over my first couple of sips. I definitely detected that peaty, TCP flavour I associate with good malt whisky but there were some really interesting ‘Umami’ like flavours of barbecued meat, glazed with honey. It wasn’t as full bodied as I had hoped, in fact with the high amount of carbonation and super dry finish it almost resembles a Pilsner or a Kolsch. It was refreshing, different but ultimately I found it a little bit lacking in overall depth. It also lacked the high amount of hop bitterness my palate craves these days but that’s a personal preference and shouldn’t take anything away from this beer.

Reading back over my tasting notes I find myself ruing the day I decided not to enjoy this beer with a decent whisky by its side. When this beer receives a full release (I believe at the time of writing this article that this still hasn’t happened yet) I will definitely purchase a bottle and try it again with a single malt in hand, I’m interested to find out how much a whisky will help those smoky flavours come out of their shell.

I’m not entirely sure who this beer is aimed at as I think it’s a little too specialist for the mainstream market and not exciting enough for the die hard beer geek. I guess it is aimed purely at the whisky connoisseur who is looking for a long drink to enjoy alongside their regular tipple but time will tell. Thanks again to the guys from Old Worthy Brewing/Isle of Skye Brewery for sending me this bottle and I’d like to wish you every success with your beer.

Thursday 16 August 2012

The 2012 Great British Beer Festival

In 2011 I made my first ever trip to the Great British Beer Festival with my good friend and fellow ale enthusiast Dom Green. The event was held at Earls Court and as it was the first time I was making an appearance at the event I went in with very few expectations and as a result had a stonkingly good time. The beer was great and in plentiful supply and as it was a Friday night there was a real party atmosphere within the venue, my only real complaint being the lack of space and seating.

'They pushed us through the gates and let us loose inside'
For this years event proceedings were moved to the Kensington Olympia as there was some sports event or other happening at Earls Court and for me this was a blessing in disguise. Thanks to a relatively new mezzanine level there was plenty of seating and there was a lot more room to move about between the bars which was a welcome relief. Once again Dom was joining me on my beery adventure but this year we were heading down on the Thursday and as it was my day off from work I made my way there a little earlier and spent the first hour sampling a few brews by myself and doing a spot of people watching.

The thing that strikes me hardest about the GBBF is the massive mix of different people that attend the event, and thanks to it being on during the Olympics there was a mix of people from all over the world (but noticeably more Americans, Aussies and Kiwis) that I hadn’t noticed the year before. There were your stereotypical ‘CAMRA’ members, ‘lads’ on the piss, boys and girls who looked to be barely over the legal drinking age all wearing Brewdog tee-shirts and many more besides. The GBBF genuinely has something for everyone and now that beer and real ale has shaken it’s 'old fashioned' label it’s a fashionable event to attend, in fact I would say that you don’t even have to enjoy beer to have a good time (although it helps, of course) and you’ll probably leave the event converted to the way of the ale.

So I arrived at 5pm and had a good look around, the event was in full swing and there were already people who had imbibed a little to much collapsed on the floor, excellent effort that. First things first I picked up a half pint glass and then headed to the nearest bar and acquired a half of Dark Star American Pale Ale which was nice enough and certainly lubricated my palate but still had that air of ‘Britishness’ to it so I wasn’t particularly blown away. While I consumed my first half I walked around the whole arena to take in the lay of the land but most importantly to locate the USA and Belgian bars where I planned to spend most of my time. When I arrived at the Belgian bar I noticed how small the barrel of Cantillon Gueuze was and as my glass was empty I immediately ordered a half lest the barrel be empty by the time I return. Those ridiculously sour apple flavours took me back to that heady weekend I spent in Belgium all of two months ago, I feared it was so sour my palate may be done for but I seemed to manage ok.

I won’t go in to detail of every beer I consumed, to be frank there were a couple not even worth writing about and I wasn’t taking tasting notes (but was doing a bit of cyber-ticking with my Untappd app) however I did taste some absolute stunners. Dom joined me at 6pm and he immediately fancied something big and hoppy so we headed straight to the American bar and bought one of the biggest, hoppiest beers at the festival, Bridgeport Hop Czar. The Hop Czar had huge flavours of mango and grapefruit but the malts were amped up a little too much and were almost sickly sweet. The beer was resinous and coated the mouth and all in all was very enjoyable but was a little too cloying to be classed as excellent. 

After this I was dying to get some Brodies Black IPA which I reviewed earlier in the year and is strong a contender for my beer of the year. Dom’s favourite beer is Thornbridge Raven and I had billed it to him as a Raven beater, not that I condone the beating of Ravens but if it’s in self defence then that’s acceptable. It was as stunning as I remembered, citrus and pine on a bed of chocolate and freshly roasted coffee, I’ve put quite a few black IPAs Dom’s way and although he didn’t think it was quite as good as Raven he did say it came pretty close. For me it was the beer of the GBBF and now I’ve had it in bottle and on cask I really want to try it on Keg which I reckon might just be the best way to serve a strong black IPA such as this.

Brodies might just be my favourite London brewer along with Kernel but sadly due to the short sightedness of the CAMRA no keg at GBBF policy I wasn’t able to make the comparison that evening as Kernel only package their beer in bottles and kegs. In fact I would say that the biggest negative of the GBBF is that some of the best breweries in Britain weren’t actually there. I strongly think that a keg bar should be introduced at next years GBBF, it’s the kind of step CAMRA need to take to get my membership, brewers such as Magic Rock, Camden, Summer Wine and ‘that Scottish brewery’ have every right to be there and if they did choose to have a keg bar at next years event I might even volunteer to work on it!

The return to the Kensington Olympia was a sound choice
Anyway, back to the festival and it was around this point I popped to Bar B7 to shake the hand of Chris, or as I know him @ckdsaddlers who was working behind the bar. Chris is one of the multitude of excellent people I’ve met through writing this blog and from being a general twitter beer geek. Chris recommended me a very pleasant pint of Yates Tropic Ale which was one of the better British ales I tried that evening, thanks again Chris! Dom and I then settled into seats with a few more friends where we remained for the rest of the evening taking it in turns to visit the bars.

I worked my way through a couple more bland pale ales which served as fantastic palate cleansers before I returned to the American bar and got myself some Sassy Rabbit Red Rye Ale from the Haverhill Brewery who are based in Massachusetts. I’m really acquiring a taste for Rye based beers and this was no exception, fantastic zingy notes of citrus and pine were held up by toasty, biscuity malts that were never too sweet, there’s something in the mouthfeel and finish of a Rye beer that I can’t quite put my finger on but it really works and it’s something that warrants significant futher investigation.

I was coming to the end of this years GBBF journey but there was still time to make sure Dom tried Cantillon which he compared to a ‘ridiculously dry cider.’ Coming from a man who was trying Gueuze for the first time I thought that was a pretty accurate description. I was also really impressed by another London brewery, I had never tried any Sambrooks beer before but their Pumphouse Pale Ale still shone through despite the pummelling my palate had already taken that evening. I then tried another Black IPA, this time from Netherlands based Bierbrouwerij Emelisse, it was good but not a patch on the Brodies.

There was still time for one more beer so I set off in search of ‘something ridiculous aged in a whisky barrel’ sadly these were all sold out but I was consolidated by a half of De Molen Rye IPA which more than made up for the lack of the huge barrel aged stout I was searching for. Before I left I picked up some bottled beers from Deschutes, Firestone Walker and Lagunitas, three USA breweries I know well from my trips to the States but had so far never seen their beer on sale in the UK. I was particularly excited about seeing the Firestone Walker beers available as along with Odell I think they are one of the top North American breweries so I hope we start to see more of their brews in the UK soon.

GBBF felt like a more relaxed affair than the previous year, once again I didn’t plan which beers I wanted to drink beforehand and played it by ear which I think is the best way to approach a festival with this many beers on offer. I must’ve drank far too much because I don’t remember much about the following day apart from being sat at my desk at work drinking lots of tea and not moving much or doing much work. Next year I’d love to see a keg bar featuring the new wave of British Brewing, I’d love to see some local London street food vendors and I hope that CAMRA decide to continue using the Olympia as it works really well as the venue for this brilliant event. Until next year, GBBF!

Sunday 5 August 2012

Thornbridge Halcyon Imperial IPA

Now, you know me, I love American IPA, it’s the holy grail of beer as far as I’m concerned so surely my absolute favourite beer of all time must certainly hail from the United States, right? Well if you’d asked me a few months ago you’d probably have been right but when it comes to lip-smacking hop-bombs the UK have upped the ante. Take a look at Summer Wine, Brodies, The Kernel and Magic Rock (to name but a few), these guys are setting the brewing world on fire with their stunning range of brews and I’m positive that these brewers will win international awards for their efforts in the not too distant future. Perhaps it’s because we Brits have a dryer palate that our breweries seem to produce a much more crisp, slightly more bitter version of American style IPA and it’s because of this that I think we are producing the best IPA in the world at the moment.

Halcyon and on and on
I’m a fickle man by nature and my opinion on things is always changing and so for me a piece of writing such as this is a snapshot of now and not set in stone but I believe the beer I am about to write about is arguably the best interpretation of my favourite style of beer. The brewery is Thornbridge, made famous for Jaipur which for the record DOES NOT SUCK and if you think it’s changed then maybe it’s not the beer but it is you that has changed. Your palate may have sampled so much hoppy delight that it’s simply risen to a higher plane just like Cordelia Chase at the climax of Angel season 3.

Before I go on I must enthuse that I have paid for every bottle of Thornbridge beer that I have ever drunk and have no association with either the brewery or any of the retailers that sell it, I just love their beer, plain and simple. That said I was a little bit mortified when I saw Simon from CAMRGB post a less than flattering review over on his blog this morning which for parities sake you can read here. I have had this review on the back burner for a few weeks while I worked on my Bruges write up and in answer to Simon I feel that today is a good day to post this review. That’s the wonderful thing about beer though, isn’t it, how it divides our opinion and inspires us to write. If we all liked exactly the same thing the beer blogosphere would be a terribly dull place indeed.

I pull the nicely chilled bottle out of the fridge and crack open the top and even before I pour I get a hint of the airy, zesty notes that are about to leap forth from my glass. It pours the colour of light golden straw and as the evening sunlight pours through the glass the beer appears to be almost luminescent. A nice head of foam forms on top of the beer which dies down pretty quickly leaving a healthy halo of bubbles indicating that this bottle is in great condition. The nose is big, no scratch that the nose is gigantic with notes of grapefruit, pine and lemon zest caressing my nostrils. These aromas translate beautifully onto the palate, a bitter medley of citrus fruits and a refreshing quality as bright as a spring meadow. The malts are present, holding this beer up but only in terms of creating a round, balanced mouthful and not making it overly chewy or sweet. The finish is crisp, dry and ultimately enticing, it’s almost impossible to resist taking another sip after you swallow and the 7.4% ABV is barely detectable.

Halcyon is a beautiful, fruity, zingy, bitter beer and is in a single word, superb. It has literally every quality I look for in an IPA and leaves no box unchecked. Perhaps Simon has found himself in a situation similar to when I reviewed Stone IPA a couple of months ago where the hops had deteriorated in the bottle, next time I buy some Halcyon I will be sure to (against my better wishes) let a bottle deliberately deteriorate and see if I get the same results as he did and I will be sure to let you all know what I find.

Thursday 2 August 2012

In Bruges (Part 3)

Before reading the third and final part of my ‘Bruges Trilogy’ I recommend that you read part one and part two first.

I awoke on Sunday morning immediately expecting the weight of an almighty hangover bearing down on me but felt surprisingly sprightly despite the large amount of beer that I had imbibed the day before. I’ll be honest I didn’t exactly feel one hundred percent but after I had consumed some savoury ham and cheese crepes I felt ready for another full on day of tourist action.

The weather was grey and miserable with occasional showers so we decided that we would make the most of our three day museum passes which we had purchased on the day of our arrival. Throughout the day we took in the Gruuthuse, the Goeningemuseum and the Stadhuis to name but a few, we made sure we got our moneys worth with our passes and so visited just about every place it gave us access to. The sun came out in the middle of the afternoon and after plenty of walking around I was certainly starting to feel my hangover encroaching but after sitting and eating some frites on the market square my resolve was strengthened and I was building up to what I expected to be the highlight of my holiday, Bierbrasserie Cambrinus.

Cambrinus is a 'must-do' in Bruges
Before heading to Cambrinus I loosened myself up with another bottle of La Chouffe which I was developing quite a taste for and so made sure I had a couple of bottles left to go in my suitcase for future consumption. We arrived at Cambrinus around 8pm and it was considerably quieter than the previous evening, we wouldn’t have needed our reservation but for peace of mind I’m glad we made one. We were ushered to our table and I was presented with an overwhelming wooden bound ‘beer bible’ with a list of the 400 beers that the restaurant had on offer.

I had no idea what to order as I was in awe of the choice of beer available and went with our waiters recommendation which was a very pleasant La Trappe Blond served on draught. Foolishly I didn’t take any tasting notes when I was in Cambrinus, perhaps because I just wanted to enjoy the experience without over analysing it or perhaps because I was very hungover and didn’t want to over exert myself. Interestingly enough this beer was the only non-Belgian beer I drank all weekend as the La Trappe brewery is the only Trappist brewery in the Netherlands. It was pleasant enough and had all the hallmarks of a good Trappist ale but I found it a little dull after all of the wonderment I had sampled over the past couple of days.

As I supped this beer Dianne and I ordered our food, Cambrinus specialises in traditional Flemish dishes, something that’s quite difficult to find in Bruges if you don’t know where to look. My French onion soup starter was quite frankly magnificent but this was merely a primer for my stunning main course, pork cheeks cooked in Rochefort 10. I decided to have a go at matching a beer with the dish I had ordered and fancied a Belgian brown, I plumped for a Moinette Brune from Brasserie Dupont who brew my absolute favourite Belgian Beer, Saison Dupont. My efforts at food and beer pairing were flawed, the sweetness of the pork needed something dry and bitter to cut through and balance the flavours but the muscavado sugar sweetness in the Moinette did not give this dish the balance it needed. The food was incredible and the beer was good but like most Belgian browns I found it enjoyable enough but a little too sweet for my palate which was currently craving dry and bitter flavours.

After I had finished both my meal and the Moinette Brune I plumped for one more beer, Hopus from Brasserie Lefebvre. This beer was seemingly a new addition to the Cambrinus ‘beer bible’ and was being heavily advertised in the restaurant, it came with the waiters recommendation and with a name like Hopus I was expecting it to appeal to my tastes. The bottle it came in had a swing top cap which is a nice change from the mountain of crown caps that you see on most bottled beers and like all Belgian beers it came in its very own glass. Most Belgian beer glasses are elegant chalices that enhance the already classy qualities of the beer within but the Hopus glass throws elegance out the window and stands there with an almost brash arrogance. The glass itself is HUGE, the stem has an engraved H for Hopus (duh..) and then it rises up like a glass tower from the table almost laughing as it interrupts the conversation you were having as you can no longer see your partners face.

Sadly, Bruges is full of annoying Tourists...
Hopus was incredibly lively, with a huge amount of foam forming atop the fizzy golden liquid but as the glass is so obscenely huge there was no fear of loosing any over the sides. The big question was would this beer live up to the heady expectations set by its fancy bottle, epic glass and lively pour? The nose was of freshly cut grass and had that typical Belgian yeastiness about it, I dived in hoping for the barrage of hops promised by the bines pictured on the bottle. The flavour was pleasant, that grassy aroma was there in the taste and the yeastiness had a tinge not unlike white flour to it. There was a little fruit, some lemon and perhaps a hint of orange peel but the flavours were quite muted and it was all in all a fairly pleasant, if not a little plain Belgian Blond ale. After the heights reached by the quite frankly fantastic Houblon Chouffe the Hopus didn’t quite cut it but it’s dry, refreshing qualities were very welcome after the sweetness of the meal and the Moinette Brune.

It was still pretty early when we finished at Cambrinus, just about after 10pm but Dianne (who had worked her way through the restaurants supply of Lindemans Cassis) and I were tuckered out and we headed back to the hotel for an early night, luckily there was still time for yet another La Chouffe before bedtime.

There wasn’t much time on Monday before we had to get our train back to London but we did get ourselves some frites covered in traditional Flemish stew from a stand on the market square and I did find the time to sink a couple more bottles of Duvel. Although Cambrinus was undoubtedly a highlight and is one of my Bruges ‘must-do’ activities my absolute high point was having some beers in Brugs Beertje and the excellent beers from Brasseries Achouffe and Cantillon that I consumed within its walls. I would have liked to do a little more drinking but it wasn’t just my holiday it was Dianne’s and she’s not a beer enthusiast like I am although I was proud of her for being a good sport and trying a lot of the beers that I put in front of her. My other highlight was visiting the Struise Shop which is a beer geek must do for anyone visiting the city.

Bruges is an interesting place, the museums and churches are both interesting and beautiful and the food and drink is superb but it is a very overcrowded tourist trap and so I didn’t quite get to relax quite as much as I would have liked. Also there is a lot of walking, I mean a hideous amount of walking, on hard cobbled streets so expect tired legs, especially if you decide to climb the belfry. I’d love to go back to Bruges again but perhaps in a different capacity, a beer geek weekend or stag do would give me a different perspective on the city and give me the opportunity to drink lots more beer so if I ever went again it would hopefully be in one of those scenarios. As a beer destination it goes without saying that it is highly recommended especially as it is so close to Brussels and so cheap and easy to get to, Bruges definitely gets my seal of approval and I look forward to the next time I am within its city walls.