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Ashes to Ashes

ashesaleWell we actually beat the Aussies in the Ashes last Sunday, so it might be too late to write about Marston’s Ashes Ale (4.1%) – I’m sure there will be a few bottles of it around for a while, though, and I’d recommend you to try it.  Marston’s have been supporters of the England cricket team for some time – and are fiercely patriotic in their support – especially when it comes to playing the Aussies!  Remember the Marston’s Pedigree Marmite that I wrote about some time ago? (see Marston’s Pedigree – you either love it or you hate it).  The bottle declares (no pun intended) “Definitely not for Aussies” – and it is definitely a typically British beer, certainly not like the ice-cold tinnies beloved of our antipodean friends.

It’s a Pale Ale, very light and drinkable – ideally suited to those long hot summer days that we never seem to get any more.  It has a very biscuity, malty smell, and malty taste with a bitter finish – but a touch of caramelly sweetness.  It is hoppy – but bitter hoppy rather than aromatic hoppy if you see what I mean.  If I hadn’t already known it was a Marston’s beer, I might have been able to guess, as it is typical of their style, and reminded me of their Burton Bitter (which I like very much).

Back to the bottle notes – “Crafted using the finest English hops and barley with passion and desire to beat the Aussies and cheer England to victory”.  I’m just waiting for Marston’s to claim the credit for England’s Ashes win – I’m sure there were a few bottles of their beer downed on Sunday night!

Twinkle, twinkle

jh_logo2Exactly how much is a “twinkle”?  We tried a couple of bottles of Maple Moon (4.8%) from Joseph Holt.  The bottle says “Full bodied night time pleasure with a twinkle of maple”.  So how much is a “twinkle” and how does it compare, say, to a smidgen?  Joking aside, I wasn’t too sure about trying this beer – I don’t really go for beers that have flavourings added – I find them a bit gimmicky – and the taste of maple syrup is not one of my favourites, so I feared the worst.  Generally I prefer the taste of malt and hops – but I’ll try anything once.

It has a malty smell, and a bitter taste – there is the merest hint of maple, though the taste develops after a mouthful or two.  It’s actually quite tangy and altogether very pleasant.  I was pleased that the taste of maple wasn’t overpowering enough to spoil the beer for me.  By contrast Sarah likes the flavoured beers, and she thoroughly enjoyed her bottle.

At the third stroke…

Meantime London Pale AleNeedless to say (I assume) the name Meantime relates to the fact that this brewery is based in Greenwich.  The Greenwich Brewery, home of the Meantime Brewing Company, is located a mere 0° 2′ 12″ East of the Greenwich Meridian.  Their London Pale Ale (4.3%)  is the first of Meantime’s beers I have tried, but based on this one, I’ll be looking to try some of the others (maybe even the Raspberry Grand Cru, although I’m not generally a big fan of fruit beers).

The London Pale Ale is very aromatic due to dry-hopping with “bucketfuls of Cascade and Willamette hops” – in fact they claim that they add 4 hops 6 times – now that’s quite a recipe.  There is an orangey tang to the smell, and the sharp bitterness and orange zesty tang continues in the taste, and it finishes with a mild fruity sweetness.  Very tasty.

A bird in the hand is worth two at the track

bird-in-hand-logoA couple of weeks ago we had a company outing to Windsor Races.  It was an evening meeting, and as well as the horse racing we enjoyed an excellent supper of fish and chips – but unfortunately the choice from the bar wasn’t up to the same standard.  I risked a pint of Tetley’s Smoothflow which, to paraphrase the wonderful Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy, tasted “almost, but not quite, entirely unlike beer”.  I’m afraid I don’t see the point of these “widget” beers – the aim seems to be to remove everything that I enjoy about a bitter – the look, the smell, the texture – and the taste.

To  make up for this, on the way home we stopped off at The Bird In Hand at Knowl Hill.  This is a well-known real ale pub in our area, and has been CAMRA Berkshire Pub of the Year on a number of occasions.  They had five beers on hand pump – unfortunately (for me) it was my turn to drive, and Sarah notied that they had one of her favourite wines available, so I was limited to trying just one of them.  I opted for a pint of O’Hanlon’s Goldblade – a wheat beer and 4.0% – lovely golden colour, aromatic smell, sharp but citrussy taste.  Until recently I hadn’t gone much for wheat beers – mainly because they came in bottles with foreign-sounding names on them, and were quite expensive – but recently a  number of English breweries have started to brew wheat beers and put some of them in casks, and they are very very nice – apart from Goldblade I’m thinking of St. Austell Clouded Yellow, Hook Norton Summer Haze, etc.

Anyway, next time we visit the Bird In Hand, it’s definitely my turn to drink.  They will probably have a completely different range of beers on, but I’m sure they will all be worth a taste

Spoilt for choice

Sarah pic for webWell, the Great British Beer Festival was – great!  Actually, it was a bit overwhelming – with over 400 beers to choose from, it was difficult to know where to start.  We thought we would concentrate on beers that we weren’t familiar with, as this might be the only opportunity for a while to sample some of them.  I tend to aim for the lighter bitters, lower in alcoholic strength (so I can sample more different beers – at least that’s the theory).

We bought our souvenir glasses and started to explore – drinking half pints goes against the grain a little bit, but it does offer more opportunity to taste more beers.  Even by the time we arrived at about 1pm it was pretty much standing room only – there were tables and chairs around the place, but they had mainly been nabbed by people who intended to stay there for the duration and take it in turns to go for drinks – defeats the object of the exercise if you ask me, but then it takes all sorts…  Luckily, being CAMRA members, we were able to take advantage of the CAMRA Lounge up the escalator – a very welcome sit down later in the afternoon – and a very interesting chat with a chap who recommended the Derby Hop Till You Drop, which turned out to be an excellent recommendation.

Anyway, there were so many beers that we’d never tried before – many of them we’d never even heard of before – so we just wandered around until we spotted something that took our fancy, and tried that.  Between us we sampled: Greene King St. Edmunds (4.2%) and Bonkers Conkers (4.1%), Kelham Island Bitter (3.8%), Copper Dragon Golden Pippin (3.9%), Timothy Taylor Golden Best (3.5%), Clarks Classic Blonde (3.9%), Shepherd Neame Canterbury Jack (3.5%) and Whitstable Bay (cask version) (4.1%), St. Austell Proper Job (4.5%) – I know it’s a favourite, but I couldn’t resist – Cain’s Liver Bird (4.3%), Derby Hop Till You Drop (3.9%), and Jersey Liberation Ale (4.0%) – plenty of variety there.  I might write a few words about some of them in future posts.

We left the event at about 6pm – just as it was starting to get a bit boisterous as people were leaving work on a Friday evening and heading to the festival for a few beers.  Old hands had told us that it gets very busy in the evenings, and that it could take 20 minutes or more to get served at the bars – certainly wouldn’t be drinking halves in that case!

A couple of added bonuses during the day.  Firstly, we won a couple of prizes on the CAMRA tombola – a nice pint glass and tokens for two free halves of beer.  Secondly, when we got back to Paddington we realised that our day return tickets wouldn’t let us use a fast train to Reading until 7.30pm – so we decamped to The Mad Bishop and Bear – the Fuller’s pub in the station – and had a couple of pints of excellent Fuller’s Chiswick Bitter.


Hook Norton BeersSaturday before last, Sarah and I had a trip around the Hook Norton Brewery in Oxfordshire.  This was an event organised through the CAMRA Hook Norton Complimentary Club – there are a number of these clubs within CAMRA – generally signing up means that you get sent information, and occasionally special offers.  The event – which was free to Complimentary Club members – provided brewery tours for 3 groups of people (first come first served), free samples of the beer, and a buffet lunch (unfortunately, due to a broken-down caravan on the northbound A34, by the time we arrived there were only a few scraps left – but never mind, we were there for the beer and the brewery tour really).

I have to say that the brewery put on a good event, and were definitely not at all stingy with the samples of beer – it was unfortunate (for me at least) that it was my turn to drive, so Sarah got to enjoy more of the beer than I did.  We had time for a taster before the tour – I went for the Hooky Bitter (3.6%) – a good session beer, golden and hoppy with a fine malty taste – went down very well.  Sarah tried the Hooky Gold (4.1%) and was really impressed – I managed a slurp and agreed.  As the name suggests, it is a golden beer, light tasting nd very hoppy – apparently it is the first Hook Norton beer to use American hops – Willamette from Oregon – or so they thought, but when they looked through some old brewery papers from the late 1800’s they found receipts for … Willamette hops from Oregon.

The brewery tour was interesting – well, breweries are interesting – though to be honest, if we hadn’t already known a fair bit about how a brewery works, I’m not sure we would have learned a lot.  Maybe it’s the layout of the brewery, but the tour was quite disjointed and out of sequence – we saw the coppers and the hopback, then the mash tuns, then the malt store and the mill, then the cooler…then a brief look through the door of the fermenting room – for some reason we weren’t allowed to go inside – then the racking vessels and cask fillers.  Having recently been round the St. Austell Brewery, where you start at the top and work your way down the building and through the brewing process, this was a bit haphazard.  Anyway, our guide Barbara did her best – I don’t think she was used to a tour full of CAMRA members asking difficult questions!

Then to more samples and a look round the shop (unfortunately time did not permit us to look around the museum – that’s something for another visit).  I tried the seasonal beer that had just been released – Summer Haze (4.5%) – a wheat beer – the first that Hook Norton have brewed.  At first I thought it tasted a bit thin, but as I got down the glass I came to like it more.  Very refreshing and a bit fruity – very much a summer drink.  Sarah went for the Haymaker (5%) – a pale ale, with quite a bit of taste – again, quite hoppy (Goldings this time).  After that I had to stop so I could drive home – but Sarah kept going back for more – mainly the Hooky Gold – a definite winner with her.  We brought a few bottles back to sample, as you can see from the picture.  You might notice that one beer that is not there is Old Hooky – that is one Hook Norton beer that we can get quite readily in the supermarkets where we shop, so we didn’t think it was worth bringing any back with us.  I’ll let you know what the bottled versions taste like.

Beer to dine for

GK-Hop“The Beer To Dine For” was the former name of Greene King Hop (5%).  It was launched in March 2007, but I’ve only just come across it – and because I like hoppy beers, I thought I’d give it a go.  There is no mention of this beer on the Greene King website – but I wasn’t surprised about that, as there isn’t a lot of information about most of the GK beers.  I dug around the internet, and discovered that the original aim of the beer was to appeal to “younger drinkers who prefer lagers to ales and stouts” (according to Marketing Week).  Well, it looks like a lager – a pale golden colour – and smells kind of like a lager – light, slightly malty, slightly citrussy – and it tastes smooth, but not very citrussy – in fact I thought it had a slightly metallic taste.  It is more bitter than a lager, and I suppose it could be a way of enticing dyed-in-the-wool lager drinkers to try drinking ale – though at 5% it is a bit stronger than most draught/bottled/canned lagers which normally weigh in at about 4%.  It was not unpleasant, but not a beer that I’d go out of my way to find.

So what’s in the name?  I was a bit disappointed that it didn’t taste as hoppy as the name had led me to expect.  The bottle notes mention that Tettnang hops are used – these are more usually found in lagers and wheat beers, so perhaps this is another concession to the lager drinkers that GK are trying to attract.  I found the hop aroma and taste quite nondescript, though the beer is quite bitter, so I suppose the hops were having some effect.

Are you Experienced?

ALL-BeerDo I like all beer?  Well, most beers – there are one or two exceptions.  Do I like ALL Beer?  Well, yes actually.  The ALL Beer Experience is an “interactive guide to beer” – the ALL element refers to the fact that the guide covers the 3 most common types of beer – Ale, Lager and Lambic.  It’s an introduction to the range of beers that are available, along with their more notable characteristics, and explains the brewing process and ingredients, and how each of these is used to produce a range of beer styles.  I originally saw an article about it in an issue of “First Draught”, the magazine of the Fuller’s Fine Ale Club (if you aren’t already a member, go to the Fuller’s web site and sign up for free).  I thought it would be a good way to acquire a basic understanding of beers and  brewing, and it certainly seems to fit the bill.  If you know a lot about beer, you might find some of it a bit simplistic, but I think anyone can learn from it.

The kit consists of a hardback, spiral-bound colour book and an “experience pack” that contains a tasting glass, some barley and malt samples and a “scratch and sniff” card with hop aromas – a simple but quite effective introduction.  The book also has a section for the “tickers” where you can make notes on the beers you taste and give them a score – not really my cup of tea, but a useful insight into the criteria that are used to judge beers.  It has all been produced by Alex Barlow, who has loads of experience in the brewing industry.

I have to say that it isn’t particularly cheap – £19.95 (plus £3.95 P&P in the UK) – or £28.74 plus P&P if you want a kit with 2 experience packs.  Mind you, considering you get a rather nice glass and a hardback book it isn’t that bad.  And no, I don’t get any commission!

County set

ruddles_thepub2I’ve been a fan of Ruddles County for many years, but unfortunately I haven’t had much opportunity to indulge.  It was traditionally brewed in Rutland, and although it was an occasional guest beer in a few pubs, I didn’t come across it too often.  Ruddles is now a part of Greene King, and it seems to get around a bit more, although I still find it easier to get hold of in bottles and cans than on draught (at least not a hand-pulled version), even though we have several Greene King pubs in our area – they seem to mainly stock IPA, Abbot and Old Speckled Hen.  I suppose that now it’s brewed by Greene King in Bury St. Edmunds, the County referred to in the name must now be Suffolk?

Anyway, County out of a bottle tastes pretty good, although I’m led to believe (by a wikipedia article, so read what you want into that) that the GK brew doesn’t use the same recipe as the original – but I think it’s a lovely amber beer, malty and hoppy smell with a sharp bitter taste and with a touch of fruity sweetness and a caramel toffee taste.  It styles itself as “proper country beer”, whatever that means, but it is good.   I recently tried a few cans of County.  Initially I was a bit disappointed with it – it seemed a bit flat and lifeless – but after a while it began to grow on me, and the lack of gas became a benefit rather than a drawback.

X marks the spot

theakston-xb-bottlePerhaps “XB hits the spot” might be better.  This is Theakston XB (4.5%).  It’s a ruby coloured beer, quite a rich and full-bodied.  A very hoppy smell, and a bitter, slightly caramel taste – very nice.

A couple of interesting points about this beer – the first concerns the beer’s name.  Apparently, at the time when the brewery were deciding what to call their new beer, they used to stencil the side of the casks – Best Bitter was stencilled with “BBB” and Old Peculier was stencilled with “XXXX”.  Being Yorkshiremen, and not wanting to have to acquire a new stencil, they decided it would be either “BX” or “XB” – and “XB” it became!  Note – being a Yorkshireman myself, I’m allowed to use the  stereotype of Yorkshire folk being mean!  Anyone who is not from Yorkshire – well, who cares what they think anyway?

The other point is more about the brewery.  The XB bottle proudly states “under old management”.  The brewery was, for a few years, out of the hands of the Theakston family – it was taken over in 1984 by Matthew Brown of Blackburn, and in 1987 they, themselves, were taken over by Scottish & Newcastle.  In 2003 control of the brewery was regained by 4 Theakston brothers – a rare instance of a brewery going from being owned by one of the big brewers to being family-owned.  Details of the brewery’s history are on the Theakston website.