Friday, 31 January 2014

Winter Ales Of Our Discontent?

As mentioned previously I’m off this coming Saturday to the Dark and Delicious Beer Festival at the Cooper’s Arms, Crowborough. It promises to be a good do, and one I’m really looking forward to. Pub beer festivals always seem more homely, personal and atmospheric than events held in old town halls, exhibition venues and other large public spaces. Well certainly in this country that is.

The following weekend sees Dover, Deal and Sandwich CAMRA holding the 21st Festival of Winter Ales, housed in Dover’s historic town hall - the Maison Dieu. I’ve attended the event on several previous occasions, including last year, but with this festival following hot on the heels of the one in Crowborough, I’ll more likely than not give it a miss. Don’t get me wrong, the Winter Ales Festival is an excellent event, albeit a little dangerous. I say dangerous because all the beers are 5.0% abv or above, and I’ve returned from previous visits slightly the worse for wear. However, there are quite a few other things happening during February, not all of them beer related, that I would like to participate in, so it won’t hurt to miss the Dover Festival this time round.

I‘ve had a quick look through the beer list for the festival, and whilst there are some cracking winter ales that I would love to sample, there are also a significant number of beers that I wouldn’t class as winter ales. They may well be 5.0% abv or above, but IPAs, Red Ales or Amber Ales do not in my book warrant inclusion in a festival like this. Granted the organisers have stated “The festival features around 75 winter and strong ales, of between 5% and 10% abv, which have been selected from mostly small independent and micro-breweries from across the country”, but looking at the beer list, nearly half of the 75 beers fall into the aforementioned category of IPAs, Red Ales or Amber Ales, and whilst they are all strong in terms of strength, they are not “Strong Ales” in the accepted use of the word.

I know I’m being extremely pedantic here, and for the record I really like strong, hoppy IPA's. However, there's a time and a place for everything, and the place for the enjoyment of these beers is not a winter ales festival. But without sounding too churlish, I suppose that even with 35 or so of the beers not falling into the category of true winter ales, there are still some 40 or so which do, and surely this is enough to satisfy even the pickiest of beer geeks? Perhaps there's another reason though for the inclusion of the strong IPA’s , Red Ales etc., and that is are enough Winter Ales brewed to provide sufficient variety for a festival of this sort? Did the organisers struggle to find sufficient numbers of true winter ales, and then ended up having to supplement those they did manage to source with other types of strong beer?

I obviously need to get out more, but sometimes it doesn’t hurt to ask these sorts of questions. Does anyone know the answers though?  

For the record, CAMRA judges the following categories of winter beer styles against each other at its annual Festival of Winter Ales in order to crown the Champion Winter Beer of Britain. These Categories are:
  • Old Ales & Strong Milds
  • Porters
  • Stouts
  • Barley Wines & Strong Old Ales.

Monday, 27 January 2014

A Taste of the West Country

I mentioned before that I have quite a stash of beers left over from Christmas. The number is slowly going down, but there’s still plenty to see January out and last me well into February. Foremost amongst the beers which have so far lain un-touched, are five offerings from Cotleigh Brewery which were given to me for Christmas, by a friend at work.

I’d been saving these as not only is Cotleigh an old favourite of mine, but their beers are also rarely seen in bottled form in this part of the country. Come to think of it, we don’t see their cask beers here anymore either. Contrast this to 10-20 years ago, when a hand pump offering Tawny, Barn Owl or Old Buzzard was quite a common sight in local free houses, and you will understand what I am talking about. The same applies to Exmoor Ales, another West Country brewery whose beers were also once very common in Kent.

I’m not sure why this should be, although the explosion of much more locally-based breweries in Kent and Sussex probably has a lot to do with it, but I digress. Cotleigh were amongst the first wave of new breweries set up in the wake of the cask-ale revival, having been established in Devon in 1979. They started life in the old stable block of Cotleigh Farmhouse at Washfield near Tiverton, using a five barrel brewing plant, but a year later, buoyed by the success of Tawny in particular, moved operations to the historic brewing town of Wiveliscombe in Somerset. Ironically, in view of my previous comment about them, Exmoor Ales are also based in the town, in an outbuilding of the former William Hancock’s brewery, which closed in 1959.

Cotleigh’s original owner Ted Bishop, was succeeded in the early 80's by John and Jenny Aries, a husband and wife team, who built upon the brewery's success. The brewery expanded in 1985 in order to fulfil ever-increasing demand, and in 2009 celebrated 30 years of brewing excellence. It is now owned by  Stephen Heptinstall. Most of the beers are named after birds, primarily birds of prey, and these feature on  the distinctive pump-clips and bottle labels.

So what of the beers and how did my friend acquire them? Well to answer the last question first, my friend’s wife has relations living down in the Exmoor area and on a pre-Christmas trip to the region, he spotted them on sale at a local farmer’s cooperative. The beers are:

Tawny Ale 3.8%

Golden Sea Hawk 4.2%

Barn Owl 4.5%

Buzzard Dark Ale 4.8%

Peregrine Porter 5.0%

Buzzard and Peregrine are bottle-conditioned; the rest are brewery conditioned, (filtered and pasteurised). I shall enjoy drinking them over the next week or so, and will let you know how they stack up.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

In Search of Harvey's Old

Whilst writing my previous post about dark beers, I was acutely aware that I still haven’t sampled any Harvey’s Old Ale this season (autumn/winter). This is a glaring omission in my usual seasonal drinking patterns, and one which need rectifying pretty soon. Left much longer the Old will disappear to be replaced by other Harvey’s seasonal brews.

Kiss, springs to mind as the next seasonal beer to appear; definitely my least favourite amongst the brewery’s normally excellent repertoire, although the 1859 Porter which follows, makes up for it. Old though should still be available throughout February, and even into March, although by the end of that month it will inevitably have petered out.

So where to tack down some Harvey’s Old? The beer is sometimes seen in the free trade, but normally one has to visit a Harvey’s tied pub in order to sample it. There are two in the area; neither particularly close by, but both can be reached by public transport, (well it wouldn’t be a good idea to drive to them!).

The Brecknock Arms, at Bells Yew Green is about five minutes walk from Frant station, (one stop after Tunbridge Wells on the line to Hastings). However, the Hastings line has been affected by the recent adverse weather, with a landslip at Wadhurst causing all sorts of disruption. The other pub, the Two Brewers at Hadlow, is on the No. 7 bus route between Tonbridge and Maidstone, and whilst this service is pretty good during the week, on Saturday evening and Sunday, the two days when I would most likely want to go to the Two Brewers, buses are few and far between.

Social media is an excellent source of information about beers, and I've just noticed on their Facebook site that the excellent Royal Oak in Tunbridge Wells has Harvey’s Old on the bar. A pity then that I didn't see this earlier, as it’s a bit late in the evening now to walk down to the station and jump on a train over to the Wells!

I’m still fairly confident that I’ll manage to track some down before the winter is out, but why oh why aren’t local licensees a bit more adventurous in what they choose to stock? With a few honourable exceptions, such as the Royal Oak, Fuggles and the Bedford in Tunbridge Wells,  most pubs in these parts shy away from serving dark ales, in the mistaken belief they won’t sell. The trouble is they won’t know until they try, and I wouldn’t mind betting that few, if any, have actually tried. I know full well from when we had our off-licence that dark beers fly out the door, particularly during the winter months.

Many licensees around here seem to think that karaoke evenings and Sky Sports are what the punters want, then wonder why their pubs are half empty. It really is high time they woke up and stepped out of their comfort zone. There’s a whole horde of discerning drinkers out there who at the moment are stuck at home, like me. Although we are all enjoying a wide variety of bottled beers, many of us would rather be drinking and socialising with our fellow enthusiasts. Beer definitely tastes better when enjoyed in the social mix of a good pub, but present day entrants into the trade, (especially those taking on Punch or Enterprise tenancies), seem oblivious to this fact. Wake up and smell the coffee, or should that be the malt and hops?

Dark & Dreary January

It’s a funny time of year; the excesses of Christmas and New Year are now well and truly behind us, and we’ve already nearly seen January out. The weather has been damp, dull and miserable, but thankfully not too cold, so far that is! Work has been rather frantic as we’ve had staff appraisals to fit in alongside all the normal routine stuff, so I’m feeling somewhat cream-crackered at the moment. Thankfully I’ve only got one appraisal left to write up and a nice relaxing weekend to look forward to.

The weekend really started at lunchtime when, wanting to escape the madhouse for a while, I took myself off to nearby Chiddingstone and the wonderfully unspoilt Castle Inn. Sitting in the tranquil surroundings of the public bar, with just the ticking clock and a roaring log fire for company, I managed to regain my sanity for a short time at least, helped by an excellent pint of locally-brewed, Larkins Porter. This delicious 5.2% dark ale, is not that easy to come by, but the Castle is the nearest pub to Larkin’s Brewery, so if anywhere is going to stock the beer then this has to be it.

The Castle doesn’t come cheap at £4.20 a pint, but it was worth every penny so far as I was concerned, just to escape into a more peaceful and far less hurried world. This evening we all enjoyed a really tasty and rather filling Chinese takeaway, and now I’m sitting here tapping away at my computer, listening to music and wondering which beers would best wet my whistle.

Actually I’ve already decided to continue the dark theme I began at lunchtime, and chilling nicely on the back doorstep is a bottle of Budvar Dark, along with one of Bernard Cerny Lezak Dark Lager, brought back from Prague last month. Sunday sees our local CAMRA branch’s Good Beer Guide selection meeting. I shan’t be going along, but hope it all goes smoothly, and the selection process isn't too protracted. Instead I’m saving my energies for next Saturday’s cross-border foray into Sussex, to Crowborough’s Cooper’s Arms and their Dark and Delicious Beer Festival.

This event is a joint social with North Sussex and East & Mid Surrey CAMRA branches, and I’ve been told there will be getting on for a dozen dark and hopefully delicious beers on sale. The Cooper’s Arms is a stiff walk downhill from Crowborough town centre, but is definitely worth visiting. I remember it years ago, when it was Charrington’s pub, but now it’s a thriving, destination free house, which offers a good, and unusual, range of beers.

Three days later I’m heading up to London, as I’ve an invite for the re-launch of a beer from one of the City’s oldest “new-wave” breweries, followed by a guided tasting of some of their other beers. I’m not saying anything further at this stage, but watch this space and all will be revealed. After a month in the doldrums the local beer scene seems to be hotting up nicely.

Notes: Post originally written Friday evening, but not published until Saturday. The Cooper's Arms, Crowborough, doesn't have a website.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Last Rites for CAMRA's Good Beer Guide?

For the first time in many years there wasn’t a copy of the latest CAMRA Good Beer Guide in my Christmas socking. I’ve got a complete run of guides starting with the 1974 edition (the first guide to be commercially published) through to the 2013 guide, which was rightly celebrated as the 40th edition. Now enough is enough, and I have neither the space on my bookshelves (most of the earlier editions are in boxes up in the loft), nor the inclination to go on accumulating these volumes.

But there is another reason, apart from that of space, as to why I won’t be buying this year’s, or indeed any subsequent year’s Guide; and that is the book is no longer a Good Beer Guide.  Instead it has become a cross between a Good “guest beer” Guide and a Good Pub Guide. Unfortunately it can never be the latter, as that title was claimed by another, rival publisher back in 1982, so it appears stuck in limbo land at present, with no clear ideas as to where to go from here.

My views on this subject are well known, and I have argued for several years now that the Good Beer Guide cannot continue in its current form. The unfortunate thing is that when the Good Beer Guide first appeared in 1974, as a modest 96 page, stapled booklet priced costing just 75p, it really was like a breath of fresh air blowing through the stuffy world of guides. The Guide’s editors knew this, and the introduction went so far as to claim, It is not just another pub guide recommending the unsuspecting traveller to places cluttered up with horse brasses or landlords who won a medal in the 1949 FA Cup Final. It is for the millions of people who spend millions of pounds between them on beer – and deserve a product of quality.”

What was unique for the time was the breweries section at the rear. Nothing like this had been attempted before, and it provided valuable information for a growing audience of beer lovers, which was obtainable nowhere else, which inspired them to get out there and try something new. I was one of those early beer enthusiasts, and the Guide certainly encouraged me to travel around the country in an attempt to sample the remaining local brews. It is no exaggeration to say that in its time, the Good Beer Guide was truly inspirational.

What CAMRA should have done, at least a decade or so ago, was to separate off the breweries section from the rest of the guide. In effect publish two separate but complimentary books. However, they were either too frightened or too apathetic to innovate, and instead chose to stick with the status quo, preferring in effect to leave what had become a cosy money making machine exactly as it was.

CAMRA will argue that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, but my argument is the GBG isn’t so much broke, but damaged beyond repair. It has become vapid, boring, trapped in its own comfort zone, uninspired, more like a phone directory than a beer guide, staid, stale, way past its sell by date and in a terminal decline. What’s more, it is rapidly losing its appeal to REAL beer lovers, of whom I’m just one of many!

The lengthy timescale from selection of the pubs at the end of January, to the launch of the Guide at the beginning of October, in time for the all important Christmas book trade, does the book no favours at all. It means the Guide is already 9 months out of date by the time it hits the book shelves. This is all the more galling because members of CAMRA’s various branches do the lion’s share of the work, including surveying nominated pubs, inputting the data into a print-friendly format and then proof-reading the final drafts.
This process is normally completed by mid-March, but the Guide then disappears into a sort of limbo-land for a six month period whilst Editor Roger Protz, and his team at CAMRA HQ in St Albans, knock the final copy into shape. Exactly why this takes them so long is beyond me; especially in a digital age, but it is this exact digital age which has made the GBG increasingly irrelevant in this modern world.

CAMRA has taciturnly, and belatedly, acknowledged this by launching the website; but what the Campaign has failed to grasp is Whatpub effectively sounds the death knell for the Good Beer Guide; certainly in its present form. Whilst not outwardly admitting this, CAMRA Director Andy Shaw said “CAMRA has developed WhatPub to be the ultimate online pub guide for all pub-goers. It may even help encourage people who have stopped using pubs regularly, since WhatPub will help them find the ideal pub to suit their needs.”

Compiled over a two year period, by thousands of CAMRA volunteers, Whatpub features 47,000 pubs, around 36,000 of which serve real ale – making the site the most definitive online guide to real ale in the UK. Of the 35,800 real ale pubs featured, around 22,000 have details of the real ales being served, thereby taking the guess work out of a visit for real ale lovers. Another key feature is that Whatpub is designed to automatically optimise for use on laptops, tablets and mobile devices, and offers over thirty different search fields ranging from dog friendly pubs to those that offer newspapers or live music, making the results customizable to each person’s individual preferences. 
According to CAMRA’s own website, “WhatPub entries are written by local CAMRA members and then approved by dedicated branch volunteers. A full entry offers a description and pictures of the pub, the address, opening hours, who owns it, lists the regular real ales they stock, states whether the pub offers Guest Beers, highlights the pubs main features e.g. availability of food, gives a map of where the pub can be located, sat nav reference, OS reference and highlights the local transport available.” In other words, everything the Good Beer Guide does but without the £15.99 price tag!

Even more damaging to the continuation of the GBG in its present form is that Whatpub lists nearly 36,000 pubs which sell real ale; eight times as many as the Guide’s 4,500! Anyone wishing to make use of the site will therefore have access to far more pubs and bars than the Good Beer Guide could ever hope to list, and by using a modicum of common sense, they will be able to choose a pub to suit their individual tastes, needs and circumstances. They will no longer be at the mercy of local CAMRA branches whose whims, or sometimes even out and out skulduggery*, dictate which pubs are selected for the GBG and which are left out.

At present the GBG remains a cash cow for CAMRA. It is reported to make the best sellers lists every year, although having done quite a bit of research on this, I can find no evidence of it being a massive seller. In fact it’s far more likely to be the Campaign’s executive St Albans “bigging” the book up. However, in view of the new website, with its powerful search features and all the other advantages mentioned above, the question has to be how much longer can the Good Beer Guide survive in its present form?

*Every year CAMRA branches, up and down the country, go through the process of selecting pubs for the Good Beer Guide, and every year the procedure is full of pitfalls. I am not for one minute suggesting that brown envelopes, stuffed with tenners, change hands before selection meetings, but branch officers will always have their preferences and, as I’ve argued before, vociferous or strong willed individuals can often sway a selection meeting into voting for the inclusion of their favourite pub(s), even when there are obvious far better candidates.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

How to Taste Beer

Here, as promised, is the follow-up to last week’s post about the “tutored beer tasting” organised by West Kent CAMRA, at the Crown Inn in Groombridge.

So what exactly takes place at a “tutored beer tasting”? Well, the first and most surprising thing is not a lot of beer gets drunk. More on this later, but those of us who attended last Saturday’s session, at the Crown in Groombridge, were more than a little surprised by this.

On entering a pub, the normal behaviour is to quickly scan along the bar to establish what beers are on offer, and then to order a pint of whichever one takes your fancy. Most of us were about to do this last Saturday, when we were stopped in our tracks by branch chairman, Iain, and told if we bought a pint first, we would not be able to take part in the tasting. All a little harsh, you might think, but the reason is tasting needs to be conducted with a fresh palate, so not only were we deprived of beer to start with, we were also not allowed to eat until after the session had ended.

The pub knew we were coming, and had reserved their snug bar area for us. What Iain did next was to order a couple of four pint jugs of the first beer to be tasted (Black Cat Original), along with 12 pint glasses. He also ordered a couple of jugs of water, for palate cleansing purposes, and produced a packet of cream crackers, for the same end (so much for not eating!). After we were all seated, Iain talked us through the whole tasting procedure, whilst we sat there looking longingly at the jugs of beer, like parched travellers in the desert!

There are three parts to properly tasting a glass of beer: appearance, aroma and taste. There are also sub-categories and steps to each of these processes, and a whole host of different things to look for. CAMRA has usefully produced guideline cards on which the various stages are outlined, along with which criteria to look for, and how to score each one. Individual results are then recorded on the cards, and the overall results pooled at the end of the session. An example of this card is shown above.

First the beer style which the beer to be tasted falls into is selected. There are 10 styles in total, ranging from mild to barley wine/strong ale, with a host of others in between. The O.G. and abv of the beer in question is also noted and then, after the beer has been dispensed, the tasting can begin. I mentioned pint glasses earlier, but we were only given an approximate half pint each of beer. The reason for this is the beer needs to be swirled around the glass to release some of the aromas, and this would not be possible with a full glass.

Appearance is judged on colour, (black, dark-brown, red, brown, tawny, copper, pale brown, amber, gold, yellow, straw), clarity (bright, clear, hazy, cloudy) and head (tight, loose, clingy, big, medium small, none).

Aroma is next on the list, and to release the various aromas, the glass containing the beer is swirled and then sniffed. The following aromas are looked for: malt, roast, caramel, hops, fruit, sulphur and yeast. Obviously roast and caramel aromas will be more prevalent in darker beers, whilst fruit and hops are more indicative of bitters and pale ales.

Now comes the part everyone will have been waiting for, namely you actually get to taste the beer. Take a mouthful and allow it to swirl around your mouth and over your tongue. Then swallow; no poncy spitting here! Note the taste whilst drinking and record accordingly: malt, roast, caramel, hops, fruit, sweet, bitter, sulphur, astringent and yeast. Twenty seconds or so after swallowing, note the aftertaste, using the same criteria as for taste.

Whilst tasting, Mouthfeel (smooth, creamy, grainy, watery or other) and Carbonation (high, medium, low or flat) should also be determined; although the latter can also be partly ascertained whilst swirling the beer around the glass, prior to the aroma stage.

Finally the Body of the beer is scored on a scale of 0-5, with 0 being thin and 5 being thick, followed by the Overall score for the style (0-10), based on one’s impressions of the beer during the tasting. And that in a nutshell is it!

We tasted the two Black Cat Brewery beers on sale in the pub; the Original (a 3.8% Best Bitter) followed by the Black Cat (a 4.9% Old Ale). Obviously as with any beer tasting, the weakest one is tasted first, but both were first class brews which were served in peak condition.

Afterwards we got down to some serious supping of the two beers, and got some food  inside us as well. All those who attended found the session very interesting and extremely useful, and there are now a dozen or so of us who can say we are trained CAMRA beer tasters, which means we can officially taste other local beers  in order to provide tasting notes for the Good Beer Guide. Our thanks to the Crown at Groombridge for hosting the event, and to our branch chairman, Iain for guiding us through it.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Double Stout??

Question – When is a “Double-Stout” not a Double-Stout? Answer – When it’s brewed by Shepherd Neame and has an abv of just 3.8%!

This isn’t a beer I would normally contemplate buying. The facts outlined above speak volumes against something that masquerades as a strong stout, and yet is brewed to such a low strength. The fact that Shepherd Neame are behind it is like a red rag to a bull, so far as I am concerned, and even though the beer was seen on sale at Lidl’s, just before Christmas and priced at just 99p, none of this would have induced me to buy a bottle.

So how did I end up with three bottles? And why am I now trying the beer and writing about it? Simples, the beer turned out to be an unwanted gift to the husband of a friend of my wife’s, and she, knowing my fondness for the juice of the barley, as well as her husband’s rather conservative tastes in beer (he’s the type of bloke that will go out of his way to drink Doom Bar!), thought I would like them.

OK, it was a nice thought, and I shouldn’t be ungrateful, but I really wonder at the direction being taken by Kent’s largest, and oldest, brewer, where they see fit to churn out cheap, low-strength beers for sale in budget supermarkets, whilst flooding their pubs with umpteen brands of “brewed under licence”, international lager. I was in Lidl’s a couple of days ago, and noticed a so-called IPA from Shep's; strength, you’ve guessed it, 3.8%!

So, before I totally condemn the beer, what does this fine example of the “brewer’s art” actually taste like? Well, jet-black in colour, it poured with much more of a head than I was expecting. There was some roast and chocolate notes in the aroma, but taste-wise it was something of a let down as, although the balance was right, the stout was thin and lacking in body. On the positive side it was nowhere near as bad as I was expecting, and had it been brewed at say 4.8%, rather than a percentage point below, it would have been quite a decent beer.

So come on Shep’s, what do you want to be? A brewer of cheap, low-strength beers for supermarkets? A purveyor of ersatz international Japanese/American/Dutch/Swiss/Indian/Chinese lager brands or the proud custodian of Kent’s long and colourful brewing history, and the rightful heir to the title “Kent’s Best”?*

Footnote: Interesting and confusing at the same time.  Shepherd Neame produce another bottled Double-Stout; this time brewed to the much more respectable abv of 5.2%.  This beer is packaged in a proper brown glass bottle, rather than a clear one, and has a vintage-looking, beige-coloured label showing the brewery’s old logo of the super-imposed S and N. I must look out for a bottle and give it a try.

* "Kent's Best", was Fremlin's old slogan. It was richly deserved, as Fremlins beers were highly regarded and extremely poplar with the county's drinkers. Fremlins acquired the slogan following their takeover of George Beer & Rigden, of Canterbury and Faversham,  back in 1949.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

This isn't just any BCA - This is M&S BCA

I have written on several occasions in the past, about my wariness when it comes to bottle-conditioned ales, (BCA’s). To me they seem very hit and miss, and whilst at their best they can be up there amongst the very finest of bottled beers, all too often they are over-lively, so they fob everywhere making it impossible to pour the beer in one movement (as recommended, to prevent disturbing the sediment), or they’re flat, cloudy – due to non-flocculent yeast, and taste like someone’s very bad home-brew. There are even times when they are un-drinkably bad and end up being poured down the sink, an expensive way of buying drain-cleaner!

It was therefore like a breath of fresh air when I cracked open a bottle of Cornish IPA, from the M&S range, which was given to me by a work colleague this Christmas, as part of a selection from Marks and Sparks. Brewed by St Austell, to an abv of 5.0%, this BCA not only poured nice and bright, with just the right amount of head, but also ticked all the right boxes.

Amber in colour, with a biscuit-malt base, and loads of aromatic hops, this beer really was a pleasure to drink. Maybe I just struck lucky, but I suspect not. St Austell are a well-respected brewery who know what they are doing. M&S are also well-known for their high standards, and I am certain they would not tolerate a product which fell short on the quality front. I also think that bottle-conditioning is a process which is best left to the bigger players in this game. Fuller’s, of course, are the other brewery whose name springs to mind with respect to BCA’s, and the large number of bottles of 1845 I drank over the Christmas period, all of which were excellent, stand testament to this.

I will now give some of the other BCA’s in the M&S range a try; but in the meantime, especially when it comes to some of the smaller or newer participants in the bottle-conditioned market, I believe it remains very much a case of “buyer beware”!

Getting The Taste

On the Sunday before Christmas, my wife and I were at one of the neighbours’ houses. We’d been invited round, along with quite a few other people who live in our road, for mince pies and mulled wine, and whilst heated-up red wine, with a load of sugar and spices thrown in, is not on my list of “Desert Island” drinks, I am partial to mince pies. More importantly, it was a nice gesture, and a good chance to catch up with neighbours whom we rarely see during the rest of the year.

Not long before we left, I happened to mention to the host, that our local West Kent CAMRA branch were holding a tutored beer tasting event on the second weekend in January. Nick is a member of the branch, but due to work and family commitments is not able to come along that often. Even so, as I thought this event may appeal to him, it seemed a good idea to mention it. For some reason, the mention of "beer tasting" provoked some quite cynical responses, especially from several of the women present in the room.  The girl who lives across the road from us, and who was talking to my wife at the time, found the whole thing highly amusing and came out with the somewhat predictable remark that she’d heard many excuses for a piss-up in her time, but this one took the biscuit!

Although predictable, I found this response disappointing in so much that a group of people, who have organised a serious event to try and elevate the status of our national drink in the minds of the public, are ridiculed for their efforts. However, I’m not that much of a stick-in-the-mud that I can’t laugh at myself.  So what of the event?

First, a bit of background information.  As many people are aware, the Breweries Section  at  the rear of CAMRA’s Good Beer, gives details of all the real ale brewers in Britain. It no longer lists all the beers each brewery produces, due to space constraints and also because of the very fluid situation with some breweries, whereby they produce what are often an ever changing series of seasonal or “one off” brews. This aside, wherever possible the Guide gives tasting notes for most of the regular beers listed. These are either supplied by the brewery concerned, or by “Tasting Panels” set up by CAMRA.

The tasting panels consist of members who have received some basic instructions in how to taste beer.  Despite what our neighbour at the pre-Christmas get together suggested, there is  a lot more to tasting beer than just taking a swig and letting the stuff pour down one's throat. Like tasting wine, or tea, there are certain criteria to look for, including appearance and aroma before one has even taken so much as a sip. I won't go into all the details here, because I want to cover the actual tasting, and the processes involved, in a separate post. Suffice to say though, those of us who attended really enjoyed the session and all felt that we'd gained a lot out of it, despite some initial scepticism from one or two members to begin with.

The idea was to taste two of the beers produced by Black Cat Brewery, and thereby provide tasting notes for the GBGBlack Cat are based in the village of  Groombridge on the Kent-Sussex border, and are one of five breweries now operating within our branch area. The brewery operates on a part-time basis, because owner/brewer Marcus Howes has a full-time job as a pilot for Monarch Airlines. Nevertheless his beers are well regarded and very much in demand. The Crown at Groombridge, a 16th Century in overlooking the village green, is one of the few outlets which manages to stock Black Cat ales on a regular basis, and the pub offered to host the event by giving us use of their snug bar, which is separate from the rest of the inn.

The actual "tutoring" was conducted by West Kent CAMRA chairman, Iain Dalgleish who, as one of several branch members who attended a similar event last year, was qualified to do this. At last year's event, the attendees were guided through the process by an experienced "taster" from one of the other Kent branches.  Unfortunately, due to other commitments, I was  unable to make this, as were quite a few other members. The idea to hold another such event was therefore met with considerable enthusiasm,  and it is interesting, especially in view of the comments made earlier, that it was a female member of  the branch who was particularly keen on getting involved with this latest event and pushed to get it off the ground. (Not really just an excuse for a piss-up then!).

Fourteen members turned up for the tasting on Saturday, with most of us travelling to Groombridge by bus from Tunbridge Wells. The bus stops right opposite the Crown, which is situated towards the bottom of Groombridge hill. After all the wind and rain of recent weeks we blessed with a beautiful sunny day, and we found  that as the pub faces south the rooms at the front, and especially the snug where the tasting took place, are a real sun trap.

The tasting session took just over an hour, and I have to say that was the longest time it has ever taken me to drink two half pints of beer! Like the rest of my companions, I had a king-sized thirst by the end of the tutorial, and after being "teased" by the tasting samples I made short work of my first pint, but still made sure I tasted it good and proper. I stuck with the two Black Cat beers as not only are they both excellent but, as I mentioned earlier, they are in rather limited supply. The Crown  also stocks a couple of other cask beers; which at the time of our visit were Harvey's Sussex Best and Larkins Traditional.

It was nice and relaxing in the timeless atmosphere of this lovely old inn. With its bare-brick floors, low-beamed ceilings and substantial open fireplaces it seemed for a while that it really was a place where time has stood still. However, like most country pubs these days, the Crown has moved with the times, and as well as providing bed-and-breakfast accommodation in four period-style rooms, has a separate restaurant/dining area offering good home-cooked food. Most of us took advantage of this by sampling the delights of the pub's kitchen. My steak and ale pie was especially good and went well with both the Black Cat Original and the Black Cat - Old Ale.

There was a good crowd in both the bars and the restaurant, and it was good to see the pub so popular. The Crown has new owners, in the form of Steve and Louise, who have certainly breathed new life into this lovely old inn. Do make a point of visiting if you are in the area. We caught the 16.09 bus back to Tunbridge Wells, although there are later departures than this. Most of us ended up at Fuggles where there was an excellent range of eclectic cask and craft-kegs beers on sale. I did my supping slowly in view of the high abv of some of them, coupled with the amount of Black Cat beers I had consumed earlier. A full stomach from my excellent meal also served to slow down the drinking rate, but that perhaps wasn't too bad a thing!

Our thanks to Steve and Louise at the Crown for hosting the event, and to Iain, our chairman for talking us through the session and teaching us all how to taste beer properly.

Look out for the follow-up post about how the tasting process works, and what to look for when tasting beer.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Seasonal Tipples

As I said in an earlier post I went for quality rather than quantity in my selection of beers for drinking at home over Christmas and the New Year. I didn’t actually have any beers with Christmas in the name, but I still managed to pick beers a fine and well-varied selection. The odd one or two didn’t live up to expectations, but most were enjoyable, some were excellent, and one or two were spectacular. Here’s what I drank, along with my random tasting notes/thoughts on the individual beers and, in some instances, the types of food I enjoyed them with.

 Robinsons Old Tom 8.5% - More bitter, and with a slight lactic taste than I was expecting, but this was a bottle left over from last Christmas (Best Before May 2014). Still an excellent beer, I will buy another and taste it fresh.

Pilsner Urquell 4.4% - Chilled and refreshing, with good hop bitterness from the Saaz hops. This classic, original pilsner made the perfect accompaniment to our Christmas Eve finger buffet of smoked salmon, prawns, cheese straws, spring rolls and savoury rice.

Fuller’s London Porter 5.4% - Rich, dark and flavoursome. Packed full of roast and chocolate notes from the crystal, brown and chocolate malts used in the grist, and perfectly balanced with spicy, earthy Fuggles hops, London Porter proved the ideal nightcap on Christmas Eve.

Meantime Raspberry Wheat Beer 5.0% - A light wheat beer with raspberry juice added at the maturation stage. Fruity with a refreshingly sharp kick, the beer turned out to be the ideal aperitif, prior to Christmas dinner.

Fuller’s 1845 6.4% - Big, full-flavoured, and the perfect accompaniment to a traditional turkey dinner. Hit all the right notes, with lots of juicy malt flavours balanced by equal amounts of earthy, peppery hops.

Brakspear’s Bitter 3.4% - I can’t think of another beer which packs in so much flavour at such a modest strength. The beer formed the perfect late afternoon pick-me-up, after a large Christmas dinner and a surfeit of Christmas pudding and mince pies.
Back in November Lidl were selling this excellent beer at just 99p a bottle. I stocked up for Christmas by buying two cases.

Sharp’s Quadrapel Ale 10% - No.1 in the brewery’s “Connoisseurs Choice” range, this bottle was from the 2011 vintage, and was left over from last year’s Christmas stash. The extended maturation hadn’t harmed the beer, so far as I could tell. It poured clear and well-conditioned, with a deep ruby colour, an alcoholic fruity aroma and a full, rich bitter-sweet taste. This was definitely a beer to savour, and I enjoyed it with some strong, well-matured cheddar, plus a bit of Stilton. Full marks to head brewer, Stuart Howe for coming up with this one.

Meantime India Pale Ale 7.4% - I left this one chilling too long on the back doorstep, so it developed a slight chill haze. It’s still an excellent beer though, full-bodied with lots of chewy malt, expertly balanced with oodles of Fuggles and Golding hops. What’s more it doesn’t come in pints; it comes in 750ml champagne-style bottles!

Westmalle Dubbel 7.0% - A nice beer to follow the Christmas pudding. Dark, reddish-brown in colour, formed a very thick, but quite loose head when poured. Lots of sweet caramel from the malts and the candy sugar used in the beer, but still well-balanced and eminently drinkable. Not too strong for a Belgian beer at 7.0%.

Shoreditch Blonde 4.5% - A bottle-conditioned beer from Redchurch Brewery, which unfortunately failed to deliver. Pale in colour, but a bit thin and lacking in body. Quite bitter, but overall rather disappointing, although might be more appropriate for summer drinking.

Adnams Southold Winter IPA 6.7% - Brewed exclusively for M&S. A bit too drinkable, given its strength. Lots of juicy malt, balanced by plenty of hops. A complete contrast to the previous beer.

Bernard Svetly Lezak 4.7% - A lovely, clean tasting and refreshing, un-pasteurised pale lager, from one of the Czech Republic’s best brewers. Nice juicy malt, balanced by background bitterness from the Saaz hops. Very drinkable and most enjoyable.

St Bernardus Abt 12 Abbey Ale 10.0% - Classic, dark, Belgian Abbey Ale, rumoured to be brewed to the same recipe as the world renowned, and very rare, Westveleteren 12. Dark reddish-brown in colour, with tremendous depth of flavour, definitely a beer for sipping, rather than supping.  Best Before July 2018 – how’s that for an extended shelf-life?

Crabbies’s Spiced Orange Alcoholic Ginger Beer 4.0% - OK, not really a beer, but one I’d seen a while back, which caught my attention. Certainly refreshing, with a lovely orange aroma, but not quite enough ginger as far as I’m concerned. (I do like a bit of ginger, especially in a woman!). This drink is also rather on the sweet side, and I'd be concerned about ingesting too much sugar if I were to drink this product on a regular basis. However, on the whole it is a pleasant and refreshing alternative to the juice of the barley.

Batemans Mocha 6.0% - According to the label, this rich, dark creamy beer contains real Arabica coffee and Belgian chocolate. You can certainly taste both the coffee and the chocolate. Nice and smooth, and a past winner of the Sainsbury’s Great British Beer Hunt. However, whilst not unpleasant this is not a beer I could drink a lot of. This would be one of the few beers which would go well with chocolate.

Rocky Head Pale Ale 6.5% - A complete contrast to the previous beer; amber in colour with oodles of New World hops evident in both the aroma and taste. A real stunner of a beer, and the brewery’s inaugural brew. Definitely a “desert island” beer.

Bernard Jantarovy Lezak 4.7% - This is Bernard’s Amber lager, which although very drinkable, wasn’t quite as good as was expecting. Dark amber in colour, with a caramel base and a very slight lactic taste present in the background. Nicely presented in an attractive swing-top bottle, it would be interesting to try it on draught.

Asahi Original Black 5.0% - Unlike Ashahi’s pale lager, which is brewed here under licence by Shepherd Neame,  Asahi black is imported direct from Japan. A deep reddish-black in colour, with a nice contrasting white foamy head, I remember drinking this beer by the Maß in Japan, last May. According to the label, it is brewed with the finest hops, roasted barley malt, rice and maize for a rich and smooth taste. I wouldn't disagree with that!

De Koninck Anno 1833 5.2% - Antwerp’s favourite home-grown beer. A top-fermented, dark amber coloured ale, with a pleasing hop-bitterness to counter the sweet juicy malt base. Good to taste this Belgian classic again.

Innis & Gunn Bourbon Stout 7.4% - A rich red stout, matured slowly over bourbon-infused oak. So says the label on the bottle, and this stout certainly has plenty of flavour, in particular some mellow vanilla notes from the oak. The red colour comes from the rye crystal malt used in the grist, whilst Whitbread Golding Variety hops provide the bitterness lurking in the background.

Pardubicky Porter - 19° Originalni Tmave Pivo 8% - A real winner from the Czech Republic in the form of this excellent, strong, dark porter, and a good one to finish up with on New Year’s Day. Rich, dark and full-bodied, with a well-balanced bitter-sweet taste. Dispenses once and for all with the myth that only Pilsners and lagers come out of the Czech lands.

I’ve still got quite a few beers left over, including six from the M&S range, plus five Cotleigh beers. Both of these selections were presents from work colleagues, and I intend to work my way through them slowly during the rest of January.  There are also several Meantime and Fuller’s beers remaining, along with a case of Brakspear’s Bitter. In addition, here are a few Belgian ales remaining as well, so I won’t run short of the strong stuff either.

So which were the outstanding beers, I hear you ask? By category, the following beers stood out:

Pilsner - Bernard Svetly Lezak 4.7%, followed by Pilsner Urquell 4.4%. I probably drank more of the latter than anything else, being fairly low in strength, but big on taste. It also complemented many of the foodstuffs I enjoyed over Christmas. In addition, several supermarkets were selling bottles at three for £5, which was too good a bargain to miss. The Bernard Svetly Lezak was, if anything, more enjoyable, being unpasteurised; it’s just a shame I only brought one bottle back with me from Prague.

Pale Ale - Fuller’s 1845 6.4% and Meantime India Pale Ale 7.4%. Both “big”  beers and both equally good in their own way. Excellent partners with the Christmas dinner, plus the cold meats and pickles on Boxing Day.

Porter - Fuller’s London Porter 5.4%, tops for all round enjoyment. Pardubicky Porter - 19° Originalni Tmave Pivo 8%, more of a treat for that special occasion, or the perfect nightcap. Fortunately, I’ve still got a bottle left.

Dark Ale - Asahi Original Black 5.0% and Westmalle Dubbel 7.0%. Like with the pale ales, both good in their own way, but with the Westmalle having the edge.

Strong Ale - St Bernardus Abt 12 Abbey Ale 10.0% and Sharp’s Quadrapel Ale 10%. Both at 10% abv, and both world class strong ales. As a special, limited edition though the Sharp’s Quadrapel was first past the post, but only by half a length.

All in all, some excellent beers which helped make Christmas that extra bit special.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Clouding the Issue

This article is intended as a follow up to a couple of previous posts; one published by Ghost Drinker, back in May last year. The other published a few days ago by Tandleman. Both were about the vexed subject of cloudy beer, and both made the point, very eloquently, about the confusion arising from the actions of a small, but increasing number of brewers who see beer that is intentionally cloudy, as the way forward. I want to continue exploring the issues raised by the actions of these brewers, and look further at whether cloudy beer in general is good or bad for the brewing industry and the drinking public.

As a long standing CAMRA member I’m more than a little concerned over the issue of the cloudy pint and recent moves to present it as something we should all welcome and indeed embrace. This is especially true when the cloudiness relates to cask-conditioned beer. With the experience of over 40 years spent drinking the stuff I know what I like, and also what I dislike, and whilst I’m always willing to give new beers and new concepts in brewing a try, I’m more than a little sceptical about some of the motives behind recent developments.

Let me kick off by saying I don’t have a problem with cloudy beer, if it’s supposed to be cloudy, as with un-filtered Zwickelbier/Naturtrüb/Kellerbier in Germany and Nefiltrovaný in the Czech Republic – as these beers are advertised as being naturally cloudy, I do have a problem when as a customer I am not told, or otherwise informed that the beer is meant to be cloudy.

I experienced this for myself one Saturday evening, last spring, at a pub in Tunbridge Wells. The place was packed, as there was a mini-beer festival taking place. There was also a live band playing, so it wasn't particularly easy to make oneself heard, or hear what was being said. I was standing with a friend at the bar; he ordered one beer, whilst I ordered a pint of Notting Hill Amber Ale from Moncada Brewery. It came up cloudy, not soup-like but still cloudy. It didn't look like a chill haze, but given the situation I’ve just described I was going to give it a try first and see what it tasted like, before deciding to ask for it to be changed.

My friend had other ideas, and after managing to attract the barmaid's attention, pointed out my cloudy pint. She queried it with the landlady, who after muttering under her breath that there was nothing wrong with the beer, and that it was supposed to look like that, changed my pint for something else. She also turned the pump-clip round, (full marks for that).

I didn't think much more about the incident until the following day, when I looked on Mocada's website and saw that their beers are purposely un-fined. There was quite a lengthy explanation about the benefits of not using finings. Now I can accept this, and the next time I come across one of their beers I know what to expect. However, I didn't know this at the time, but I assume the landlady might have done. Given how busy the pub was I can forgive her for not being able to explain the beer was un-fined. I can also understand that not many punters would even know what finings are, or what they do. What I cannot forgive is there being no warning or indication from the brewery, preferably at point of sale, informing me, and other drinkers, that the beer was un-fined and would therefore look hazy.

The situation could have ended up far worse than it did, all because of a lack of information. If breweries want to sell un-fined beer and I respect both their right and reasoning for doing so, for heaven's sake please tell us at point of sale! Don't expect us to have to find this out by looking on the company website after returning what was probably a perfectly acceptable pint. This is bad for the brewery, bad for the publican, bad for the customer and bad for the image of cask beer.

Of course a cloudy or hazy looking glass of beer is not something which is unique to Britain. Our visit to Prague at the beginning of last month, revealed that unfiltered lager was definitely the “in thing”, with some of the big names in Czech brewing, such as Gambrinus, and Staropramen getting in on the act. Like most people I drink with my eyes, as for me the visual aesthetic appeal of a beer is an important one. I do find the sight of a cloudy glass of beer slightly off-putting. I accept this may be down to years of conditioning which tells me there is something not quite right about a hazy looking glass of beer, but whilst in the Czech capital I was able to carry out a side by side tasting between the unfiltered and filtered Staropramen. The restaurant attached to our hotel, sold both types. I was drinking the unfiltered version, whilst my son opted for the filtered. The former was definitely superior in taste, but in terms of appearance, the normal filtered version won hands down. I know this was drinking with one’s eyes, but the visual appeal of a glass of beer are important, otherwise one might just as well swig the stuff straight out of a bottle!

Unfiltered lagers are also increasingly common in Germany, with Zwickelbier or Naturtrüb available in many pubs and bars. Both types of beer are naturally hazy, and whilst they taste good they do not look particularly attractive when served up in a standard glass. The slightly off-putting visual aspect of a cloudy beer is not a problem in places like Franconia, where the local unfiltered Kellerbier is invariably served in a ceramic, earthenware mug. This of course, masks any cloudiness within the beer, but completely loses any visual appeal it might have, especially with regard to what colour it might be.

There are now several breweries in the UK that purposely plump for murky un-fined beer, as they feel it not only will be fresher, but will also appeal to the vegetarian/vegan market. They pose the question “do you really want dissolved fish-guts in your beer?” This, I feel is a somewhat disingenuous question, as whilst isinglass finings are indeed derived from the swim-bladders of certain fish, they are not exactly fish-guts. Isinglass is a form of collagen and the swim-bladders from which it is derived undergoes a lengthy process of being slowly dissolved in acid before it is in a form that is capable of clearing beer. Finings work by flocculating the live yeast in the beer into a jelly-like mass, which settles to the bottom of the cask. Left undisturbed, beer will clear naturally; the use of isinglass finings just accelerates the process. This is particularly important these days as most publicans expect a quick turn around on beers and will be disappointed if the beer hasn’t dropped bright within a day or so.

Finings though are not normally drunk, although if one is given a pint which hasn’t cleared properly there is the possibility of consuming a small amount of isinglass. Even so, this is not going to hurt anyone, and to say that people are drinking “dissolved fish-guts” in their beer is rather misleading to say the least.

The increasing availability of un-fined, or otherwise deliberately cloudy beer, is causing a major headache for consumer champion, CAMRA. Having spent the past four decades campaigning not only for the increasing availability of cask-conditioned beer, but for higher standards of cellarmanship and presentation of the finished product, the campaign is not best pleased by the appearance of these beers which, if you’ll forgive the pun, cloud and increasingly complicate the issue of what constitutes a good pint.

Up until now, when a customer is handed a pint of hazy or murky looking beer, unless it is the end of a cask and the bar person simply hasn’t noticed, it is normally the sign of a lazy or incompetent licensee; someone who can’t be bothered to take that extra bit of time and trouble to look after the beer properly. Upon questioning a hazy pint in such an establishment, the stock response will inevitably be, “Well it’s real ale, it’s supposed to be cloudy.” No it isn’t meant to be cloudy. The brewer who brewed this beer put a lot of time and effort into coming up with a beer which looks visually stunning. That’s why it’s served in a brilliantly clear, and clean, glass and not in a pewter tankard or a ceramic mug. The reason the beer is cloudy is because the licensee is an incompetent, lazy and often ignorant, arse!

Now, with the advent of un-fined or deliberately hazy-looking beers, our ignoramus behind the bar can say, in certain cases at least, “It’s supposed to look like that.” In situations like this when beer enthusiasts, like myself, are presented with a cloudy pint, there is often no way of knowing whether the person behind the bar is telling the truth or not, especially without prior knowledge of the beer, or some form of indication at point of sale that it is supposed to be hazy. If we don't know then what hope is there that the average person in the street will know either? An unscrupulous publican could pass off virtually any cloudy, hazy or otherwise unfit for sale pint of “real ale” using the old chestnut of “Well it’s supposed to be cloudy”, thereby un-doing decades of hard work by CAMRA and others. No wonder the campaign is extremely concerned about this.

I've bought too many pints from new breweries, over the past couple of years, where I don't know if it's yeast, hops, protein or wheat in my beer making it opaque. I am a beer enthusiast; most beer drinkers are not, so breweries it's up to you at the end of the day how you want to play this. If you want people to think your carefully crafted, über-hopped, Belgian IPA is at the end of the barrel, rather than supposed to look naturally hazy, then for pity’s sake do something about it and tell people! It really is up to you and NOT organisations such as CAMRA to do this, and it needs doing soon! Otherwise not only will you be undoing all the good work, unwittingly or otherwise, which said organisations have done over the years, but you will also be doing a grave disservice to all decent, honest and hardworking licensees, beer lovers and the world of brewing in general. The ball is in your court!

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Happy 2014

So another year dawns, and it’s in with the new and out with the old. To coincide with the start of the New Year, I’ve decided to go for a new look to the blog, giving it a more modern and contemporary feel. I’ve also decided to re-examine my blog list, (the blogs I follow). Quite a few of these blogs had become moribund, with nothing posted for months at a time. There were others where the writers had given up on their blogs altogether.

Blogs in both categories have had to go. Over the past month or so I have been trolling round other bloggers’ lists to try and get a taste of what else is out there in the world of beer, brewing and pubs; and my researches have thrown up a surprising number of interesting, well-written, witty and occasionally totally zany blogs which have been added to my list.

So without further ado welcome to Paul’s new-look beer blog and oh yes, a Happy, Prosperous, Creative, Fulfilling and above all Healthy New Year to one and all!