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Off to the GBBF tomorrow

GBBF-logo-2010Just because I haven’t been posting to this blog as regularly recently it doesn’t mean that I haven’t been “carrying out research” in the background (i.e. drinking lots of different beers).  One of the best opportunities for this “research” is the annual Great British Beer Festival, organised by CAMRA, which is held at Earl’s Court in London.  Sarah and I are off up there tomorrow. 

I find the name a bit confusing – if you read it one way it implies that it is a festival devoted to British beer.  That isn’t the case, and there are beers there from all over the world.  In previous posts I have sung the praises of American beers that are finding their way over to Britain, so I was interested in an article in The Independent last week that said that there will be 180 American beers at the GBBF this year.  I’m hoping to sample one or two of them at least.

The Yanks are coming…..again

American BeersA few months ago I wrote a post about some American beers that I had been sent by the kind people at R&R Teamwork  who handle their PR (see The Yanks are coming).  I was very impressed by those beers, and I have been looking forward to trying some more beers from the same brewers, and also tracking down some beers from other American brewers.  I was therefore disappointed that I wasn’t able to attend a recent tasting that R&R Teamwork had arranged.  It sounds from the press release as though there were some really interesting beers to be tasted – ah well, maybe next time.

Here is the press release (PDF format).  Beers With Attitude

Which Wych?

Wychwood HobgoblinFortunately, although being busy at work makes it difficult to find the time to write about beer, I can usually find time to drink the stuff, so I’ve got a backlog (of writing, not beer) to catch up on.  I was horrified to see that my last post was on December 30th, so I missed the whole of January!  Never mind – happy new year anyway!

I’ve been drinking quite a lot of Wychwood beer recently.  Over Christmas we got one of their “selection boxes” – Beers Of Character I believe they call it – 3 bottles each of Wychcraft, Goliath, Scarecrow and Hobgoblin.  I enjoyed it so much, I got another box – at least the Procurement Department (Sarah) did.

Wychcraft Blonde Beer (4.5%) – “thrice hopped” – 3 infusions of Styrian Goldings hops – but it doesn’t taste particularly hoppy to me.  It’s actually a bit dark for a blonde beer – golden maybe.  It has a light and fruity smell – not overly bitter, but a bitter-sweet, slightly syrupy aftertaste.  I thought it was a bit disappointing compared to the other beers in the selection, but drinkable all the same.

Goliath (4.2%) – I hadn’t tried this one before – the bottle claims “a collossal taste”, and it is a satisfyingly bitter, refreshing drink.  The weakest of the four beers in the selection, and definitely the most quaffable.  Dark amber/ruby colour and strong malty smell.  Styrian Goldings hops again.

Scarecrow organic pale ale (4.7%).  This is fast becoming one of my favourite beers.  I think it must have been re-branded, as it seems to be described on the Wychwood website under the name Circle Master – I’ve drunk Circle Master before, and suspect it is indeed the same beer.  Golden and light, with a sweet malty smell, but a sharp, bitter taste.  Made with organically grown English barley malt, and whole-leaf Target hops, which “combine to evoke lazy, hazy days of summer in this serenely satisfying golden harvest brew”.

Hobgoblin (5.2%).  A long-standing favourite, though a little strong for regular drinking.  A dark ruby beer with a slightly toasty smell.  Full-bodied taste, fruity, not an overly bitter taste, but a lasting bitter finish.  A regular in the beer cupboard.

I’ve also recently had some Fiddler’s Elbow (4.5%).  Made with a blend of wheat and barley malt, it is quite dark for a wheat beer, so clearly a bit of a mixture.  It has a strong malty smell and taste, a sharp immediate bitterness, and a lasting bitter finish.  A very nice beer.

I’ve got a voucher for a brewery visit – Christmas present from Sarah – so I’m really looking forward to sampling some of these wonderful beers at the source!

While Shepherds watched

Shepherd NeameThere’s been something of a Shepherd Neame theme to the past few days.  We’ve been visiting Sarah’s parents in Bexhil, which is in East Sussex, but not far from the Kent border.  One of the local pubs that we frequent, and that we visited for lunch on Monday, is The Bull Inn at St. Leonards-on-Sea, and that is a Shepherd Neame house.   Normally, if I’m driving, I’ll have a pint of Kent’s Best (4.1%) or Master Brew (3.7%) – but this time Sarah was driving, so I was treated to a couple of pints of Spitfire (4.2%) to wash down a rather good steak and kidney pudding.  Spitfire is one of my favourite bottled beers (the bottled version is 4.5%) but I don’t get much opportunity to drink the cask version (maybe occasionally in a Wetherspoons), so I was happy to take advantage of the situation.  It’s a nice malty, fruity beer that goes down very well, especially with good food.  A bit of history – it was first brewed in 1990 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, and it has been one of Shepherd Neame’s most popular beers ever since.

I’ve also had a couple of bottles of their Christmas Ale 2009 (7.0%) which we picked up in Lidl.  I’m usually a bit wary of these Christmas ales – they are almost always very strong, and are often very sweet or flavoured with a variety of spices that are somehow associated with Christmas.  This one is not like that – it is certainly strong at 7%, but it doesn’t taste that strong (very dangerous, as it is very drinkable) – and although there is some spiciness from the hops, it is not overpowering.  It’s a very good, tasty easy-drinking beer, but treat it with respect!  I think I’ll go and see if Lidl have got any left to help to ease in the new year.

Thankyou Santa

SantaWell, Santa came on Christmas Eve, and left me quite a lot of beer-related presents.  A Wychwood T-shirt declaring “British Beer Needs You”, plus a voucher for a tour of the Wychwood Brewery, an Old Speckled Hen pack with a bottle plus a very nice pint glass, a selection of beers from Broughton Ales – a brewery I had not previously heard of, a copy of Pete Brown’s book Three Sheets To The Wind: One Man’s Quest For The Meaning Of Beer, and a couple of bottles of Farmer’s Plough plus a pint glass from Bradfield Brewery which is a few miles from my home town of Stocksbridge in South Yorkshire.

It looks like I’m going to have plenty to write about in the coming weeks.

Hoe, Hoe, Hoe

Hoegaarden wheat beerIt’s been a busy time over the past few weeks, what with preparations for Christmas, shovelling snow off the driveway and also having to go to work, so I’m afraid I just haven’t had much time to devote to this website.  However, that doesn’t mean that I haven’t been “researching” material – that mainly involves drinking beer, of course, and I’ve got quite a bit of catching up to do, although some of the things I wanted to write about are probably out of date – for example, I did want to write about some of the wonderful Autumn seasonal beers that I’d been fortunate enough to try, but they have probably been superseded in the pubs and on the off-licence shelves by the Winter seasonals and Christmas Specials.

One beer that I tried a few weeks ago for the first time is actually quite appropriate for the Christmas season – apart from the suitability of its name to being coerced into a naff blog title!  Hoegaarden has been available in this country for quite a while, but I had never got round to trying it until recently.  The bottled version is 4.9% – we picked up a couple of 750ml bottles from Lidl at a very reasonable price.  It’s a very pale straw coloured, slightly hazy wheat beer.  It has a spicy smell, and a very spicy taste – it is flavoured with coriander seeds and Curaçao orange peel – it certainly has the flavours I would associate with Christmas.  It is light and refreshing, but to be honest I was getting a bit bored with the spiciness by the time I got to the end of the large bottle.  It’s the kind of beer that I would probably drink one of just occasionally, but it wouldn’t be one of my regular tipples.

I’m grateful to the book Beer (Eyewitness Companions) and this Wikipedia article for some background detail – the Belgian town of Hoegaarden is located in the wheat growing area of Brabant, and it was famous for this style of beer until the 1950s when the popularity of golden lagers caused production to stop.  A few years later, Pierre Celis, avery prescient local brewer who had previously worked in one of the town’s breweries, reckoned that there was still some demand for this style of beer, and revived it, building a new brewery (De Kluis).  He found that it appealed to a new younger breed of beer drinkers, and it has proved to be a huge success.  It is now part of the Inbev brewing giant, and for a few years brewing of the beer was moved from Hoegaarden to the Jupille brewery near Liège, but since 2008 it has been back at its original home.

Take a Bath

Bath AlesI’ve sampled a few different beers from Bath Ales over the past month or two, and so I thought it was worth jotting down a few notes and thoughts about them.  They have all been bottled versions of the beers, as unfortunately we don’t see the cask versions in our area – or at least I never have, but then perhaps I drink in the wrong places, or have not managed to catch them as guest ales.  I’ve enjoyed all of them, so I’ll be looking out for them in the pubs that I do visit.

Barnstormer (4.5%) – a deep ruby ale, not as dark as a porter or stout, but with a similar taste.  A chocolatey, slightly burnt smell with a bit of caramel – bitter, slightly burnt taste as well, with toffee, dried fruits and maybe a hint of coffee.  Very tasty.

Golden Hare (4.4%) – I’ve really taken to golden ales this year – maybe I’m just falling for the marketing hype, but I do find them light, refreshing and generally very pleasant.  Golden Hare is a full-flavoured light ale, golden in colour as the name suggests, malty, biscuity smell (i.e. it smells like beer!), sharply bitter with a nice long bitter finish.  The bottle notes declare it to be “brimming with condition”, though to the best of my knowledge it is not a bottle-conditioned beer – but then I’m not one of those anal CAMRA types who will only drink bottled beer if it has half an inch of yeast sediment at the bottom of the bottle – it’s a good tasty beer, and well worth trying.

Gem (4.8%) – maybe not the jewel in the crown but a very good best bitter nonetheless.  Dark amber, malty, hoppy, and a bitter-sweet taste – maybe a bit sweet for a premium bitter.  I think the cask version at 4.1% would be very drinkable.  As for the bottled version – it’s good, but personally I prefer the other two.

There are a few other beers in the Bath Ales portfolio (including Natural Blonde, a Pilsener-style lager), and I’m hoping to get the opportunity to try those at some point.

I have been known to get upset about brewers who give the impression that they are from somewhere other than where they actually are because it sounds more exotic/trendy/historic (delete where not applicable).  Bath Ales is based in Warmley, just outside the Bristol ring road – but hey, it’s on the Bath side of Bristol so who am I to split hairs (or hares)?

Not so green as cabbage tasting

Adnams East GreenI might have mentioned this beer before, so apologies if I’m repeating myself – it’s such a rarity that I come across a beer that I really don’t like, that it is worth remarking on.  Adnams East Green Carbon Neutral (4.3%) is one such beer.  In fact, the first time I drank it, I really thought I must have got a bad bottle, and that the beer had somehow gone off – so I gave it another trya few weeks later, and again a few weeks after that – and they tasted the same.  It’s a straw coloured beer with little or no head to speak of.  It is described by the brewers as “a light golden beer with subtle citrus and grassy hop aromas” – for “grassy hop aromas” I would substitute “smells like boiled cabbage” and it doesn’t taste any better.

I have to give Adnams credit for their attempt to be environmentally friendly – they use locally sourced barley, grown and malted in East Anglia, and they use English hops – a variety called Boadicea that I haven’t come across before – maybe they are what give the distinctive “boiled greens” smell and taste.  The beer won a Carbon Trust Innovation Award in 2007 – I can only assume that the judges weren’t beer drinkers!

I really like other Adnams beers, so I was very surprised at this one.  It’s a good idea, but not executed particularly well I’m afraid – and that might do more harm than good to the environmental cause.

Many happy returns?

JDW Beer FestivalIt’s JD Wetherspoon’s 30th birthday, and to celebrate they are having a real ale and cider festival – it started on October 28th, and runs until 15th November, so you’ve still got a few days to sample a few good beers.  Their bars will be offering a range of guest beers, and some beers specially brewed for the festival, including some produced by overseas brewers (using facilities borrowed from UK brewers).  There’s quite a range of different styles, so there’s scope to experiment a bit – and to encourage that, JDW have produced a 1/3 pint tasting glass, so you can try more beers without getting too smashed.  Of course not all the bars will have all the beers, so you might have to visit a number of JDWs if you’re after something specific.  Also, it’s not that expensive to try a few of the beers, as they are selling some of them for as little as £1.69 a pint.

We popped into Reading to the Hope Tap last Sunday to see what they had – and to meet up with some friends for a meal.  I tried 3 of the festival beers, plus a pint of Loddon Hoppit (3.5%) – a lovely local beer brewed just to the north of Reading.  The festival beers I tried were:  Greene King Boss Hogg Bitter (4.1%), brewed specially for the festival, a very tasty golden ale; Adnams Pale Champion Ale (3.4%), another beer brewed specially for the festival – I think this suffered from following a more full-flavoured beer – I’m sure it’s a very nice drink, but after the Boss Hogg, it tasted a bit thin; Bath Hefewiezen Hare (4.7%) from Bath Ales in Bristol, another special brew for the festival, and absolutely delicious – a wheat beer with fruity, spicy tastes – definitely the best of the session.  The full list of beers, complete with tasting notes, is on the JD Wetherspoon website, along with a lot of other useful information.

I have mixed views about JD Wetherspoon.  They do a lot to promote good beer, and support local breweries, and that is brilliant.  Their pubs are usually quite clean and presentable, and serve a good range of reasonably priced food.  What bothers me a bit is that they are so ubiquitous, and they are such good value, that the smaller, more traditional pubs find it hard to compete, and I’m sure that JDWs, along with other similar chains of bars, contribute in no small way to the rapid rate of pub closures.  What confuses me greatly is the closeness of JDWs and CAMRA.  On the one hand CAMRA are bemoaning the closure of so many traditional pubs, but on the other hand are giving JDW money-off vouchers when you join or renew your CAMRA membership – doesn’t anybody else see the contradiction here?  CAMRA seem intent on blaming the supermarkets selling cheap booze for the demise of the pub – perhaps they should be looking a bit closer to home.

This doesn’t mean that I’m anti-JDW – you know what you’re going to get when you go into one of their bars, so if you’re in a strange town and looking for a decent pint, they are the safe bet.  They do champion the cause of proper beer, and of local small brewers (though I believe they screw them down on their prices – they clearly have the clout that independent pubs don’t have).  Maybe we get the pubs we deserve, and maybe the places we want to drink are changing to reflect our preferences – as has always been the case.  It’s a complex issue, and one that is best discussed over a pint.

Beer behaving badly

Morrissey FoxDon’t you just wish that some people would stick to their day job?  Neil Morrissey, of “Men Behaving Badly” fame, has teamed up with Richard Fox (of no fame whatsoever as far as I’m aware), not only to buy a pub (Ye Olde Punch Bowl Inn in Marton cum Grafton, near York) but also to start a microbrewery to supply the beer.  The pub looks nice, and the food looks good, but I can’t say I’m impressed by the beer.  On the bottle, Morrissey Fox Blonde Ale (4.2%) is described as “a hybrid – somewhere between a lager and an ale” – hmm, does that mean that the fermentation happens in the middle of the brew – no, apparently it just means that they use lager malts.  It’s definitely blonde, or pale golden in colour, but I didn’t manage to detect the “aromatic hops” that were promised on the label.  It has a malty smell and taste, but not much bitterness – and not much sweetness either – a bit insipid really.  It recommends itself as the perfect partner for fish – possibly, but then I don’t really like fish either!

The bottle also warns “expect another couple of equally individual beers soon”.  I can’t wait (imagine Jack Dee delivering that line).