Wednesday, 30 November 2011

A+ Australian Wine One Day Wine School

Five in the morning is far too early to be getting up and thinking about wine, but this is what I found myself doing this week courtesy of an invitation to one of Wine Australia's inaugural 'A+' One Day Wine Schools in London, as set up in conjunction with the Wine and Spirit Education Trust.

I was unsure about how to do a write up for this as a day. Nick Stock, one of the guest speakers (the  others being Andrew Jefford and Tim Atkin MW) was on Twitter earlier and described it as 'epic,' which is no overstatement. If there is any criticism at all it is about the level of ambition. Fitting so much into one day was always going to be difficult, and when you add guest speakers that encourage the audience to challenge them with questions and in turn enjoy answering, then a packed day becomes even more so. This blog post is about the day itself, rather than the wine, which I'll talk about another time.

After the introductions the first main speaker was Andrew Jefford, who treated us to a lecture which, I assume, is a first glance into what his forthcoming book on Australia must go into in unparalleled depth. It was a more detailed examination of Australian climate and geology than in the WSET diploma, and so not for the faint hearted, but superbly presented and illustrated - with plenty of information provided for us all to digest at our leisure afterwards.

The focus of the day was how wine is being re-assessed in Australia, and how there is a movement away from wine as a commodity and towards something genuinely invoking a feeling of place. Nick Stock suggested that during the first Australian wine boom exporters had 'forgotten to take the back-story' which left them struggling once people had tried those initial wines and then said 'What next?' This is why Andrew Jefford's lecture (and the information surrounding the wines later) was so geared towards terroir, the feeling being that Australia has proved itself time and again with regards to technology-driven fruit expression, and is now moving forward.

A great wine is always enhanced by a good atmosphere and good company. Australia House certainly provided the atmosphere, and the guests were great company. As a self-confessed wine geek I'd have been happy to pay the train fare just to sit and listen to these guys talk about Australian wine, but there was nearly fifty wines to taste too.


If anyone in the wine trade is interested is even vaguely interested in how Australia is pushing itself forward as a home of something more than supermarket wine, then I would highly recommend you try to get on this course. Even if Australia isn't your thing then it is fascinating to see something that is now coming to light, and it will be interesting to see if other countries follow suit. There are lots of great books and writing about the 'Classic' wine regions. but this is in many ways a whole new discovery, and it is that freshness that makes it inspiring.

Friday, 25 November 2011

'Premiumisation...' and Anchor Porter

Apologies for using a crass marketing term but it's something that's been going on in the industry for a while and it's also something that I think gets to the point often discussed in beer blogs and on the Twitter hop-vine. There has been a move, particularly in the spirits category, towards more interesting drinks, ones with provenance, history, and (at least according to the sellers) flavour. I would suggest that 'Fancier Pints' and the burgeoning UK 'artisan' beer sector are far more a part of this than they are a product of campaigning from consumer groups such as Camra.

Take an example like Grey Goose vodka, as made by a Cognac Master Distiller, with water filtered through volcanic rock (and however much marketing blurb you'd like to insert here). All well and good and it's good as far as vodka goes - I tried it a few years ago courtesy of a rep from the parent company, Bacardi (hardly a small artisan company). The fact is that it sells far more as a statement than a flavour choice. It's a bit like the vodka version of a Ferrari, everyone knows it, everyone knows it's expensive, but it's arguably a cosmetic thing. Another example from closer to home (for me) is in the wine industry where (anecdotally*) some winemakers have seen a big upsurge in sales by considerably bumping up the prices.

The Campaign for Really Good Beer has been attacked by some for not knowing what it stands for. Firstly I would have thought the clue was in the name. I think part of the charm, and maybe even its raison d'etre is the very fact that it defines good beer by something as simple as whether the the person drinking it is enjoying it. Although I'd suggest part of the fun is to be able to describe the beer and argue its merits - and maybe even cut through some of the bullshit?

So educate your palate so you can trust it. Try new things but don't be fooled, because people in marketing never miss a trick, they're coming for your microbrew.

* Remarked upon by the guests at an Australian wine day this week.

...and the beer.

I also tried Anchor Porter recently, and I really enjoyed it. Not too intense a flavour despite its 5.6% abv.

Good creamy-brown head that stayed around, not too fizzy.

Bitter chocolate, mocha, touch of sweetness on the finish. What I like about it is while it has plenty of character, nothing is too dominant, and so it has a lovely balance. Moreish to the point of being dangerously drinkable.

£1.85 (355ml) from Beers of Europe

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Bottle Variations

It strikes me as odd that there isn't more variation in bottle sizes.

I worked for a while in pubs in Queensland, where the tradition is to drink pots; about a third of a pint - so the beer doesn't get warm - as the pseudo-Australian rubbish lager ad says 'well you wouldn't want a warm beer' and, in the case of XXXX 'Gold', you probably wouldn't want it cold either. I can only imagine how horrible it would be warm. Brakspear 'Oxford Gold' is a decent enough beer but if you sold it in wee stubby bottles, like French picnic beers I reckon it'd go down a treat in the summer. Just a thought.

It was the  Oxford Gold that lead me off on this tangent, which might suggest that the beer itself wasn't all that exciting. Perhaps a bit unfair, it's not exactly a beer particularly suited to a November evening.  However my point was more one of whether tradition sometimes interferes with selling a summery-style beer in a different way that might appeal to new drinkers. The same applies to the Cotleigh 'Golden Seahawk' I tried recently too - a beer I've seen described as bland - which I would say is unlikely to appeal to many beer geeks who've seen it all before. Do we need more mid-strength pale ales with a bit of a hop-kick in the finish? They might though be good beers to entice lager drinkers away from their favourite fizz. But would the the packaging help or hinder that?


Brakspear 'Oxford Gold' Organic Beer 4.6% abv $1.87 from Waitrose (50cl)
Cotleigh 'Golden Seahawk' 4.2% abv £1.89 from Sainsbury's  (50cl)

Friday, 18 November 2011

Marramiero 'Inferi' 2003

This one's a bit of a blast from the past, and a blast it is. It used to be an old Oddbins staff favourite. One of those wines that used to be talked about on the company grape-vine (sorry, couldn't think of another phrase) before it came into the warehouse and invariably fought over by the managers who wanted allocation for their 'customers.' This really meant it was snapped up by staff on pay-day, if not delivery day, and customers' chances of getting to try some was rather less.

It's a Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, a big ripe inky wine, coming in at a whopping 14% alcohol. Even having mellowed a little over the years since I bought it the tannins are still grippy and there is still masses of black cherry fruit, tempered by smoky vanilla and spicy oak.

I'm sure some might argue that it's a bit load, and all this barrique ageing and fruit is too international a style, but I've always enjoyed this - and I think it's still got enough of an Italian accent to be proud of, rather than disrespectful to, its heritage.

One I've had for a while, probably somewhere around £15, although I'm not sure who stocks it now. If you see it, grab some, but don't be afraid to let it cellar.

The Big Book of Beer. Or not?

I recently used one of my favourite books for a class I run. It's about sherry, it's called The Big Book of Sherry Wines, and it's commissioned by the Conserjeria de Agrucultura y Pesca - I don't speak Spanish but I can work out that that something we used to have a parrallel version of over here; The Min of Ag & Fish (Now, I think, under Defra).

It is a beautiful book, full of absolutely stunning colour plates from the region. There are chapters on Land, Nature and Scenery and The architecture of Sherry Wines to name but two. It thus functions as a history, a wine guide, and perhaps most importantly, a stunning advert for tourists.*

So what has this got to do with beer? Well it made me think about what we have in this country by way of an equivalent, and, while there are plenty of beer publications on the market, is it possible to imagine a government department thinking that beer and brewing is that important as an industry to get behind it in this sort of way?

I think it'd be moving into the realms of Sci-Fi and beer, and that's someone else's blog.

* Or at least it would do if you could get to have a look at a copy - it's not exactly a Waterstone's bestseller.

Additional: It's not just me! This was c/o Melissa Cole on Twitter 23/11/2011: Beer and Britain's Rural Economy. This article about the NFU asking for more support was also tweeted by the guys at St. Martin.

Hop Cheese

I got some of this from a local farm shop yesterday and I'm still undecided as to the best beer match. It's faintly aromatic (citrus maybe a giveaway to hops) but generally quite a creamy, subtle, earthy cheese. It would get blown out of the water by my original thoughts which were all 'big IPA' related. Research will have to continue.

I've got a good selection of beers in at the moment since I was allowed to splurge because of a birthday. This includes a bottle of Deus Brut des Flandres, which is not a beer that's in my usual price range, and I'm very much looking forward to that.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Great Beer or Great Times?

A piece Mark Dredge wrote about pubs with views got me thinking about how the situation you are in can affect the enjoyment of the beer you're drinking.

I'm going to assume anyone reading this is generally on the look out for a quality beer. It could be a pint of something you've been looking forward to for a long time, one you've read about, even to the point where it's been recommended as the best beer in the land, and finally you come across it in in a pub. A pub with a hen party/football team outing/karaoke competition/insert pet hate here, or any number of other extraneous factors that might just cloud your judgement.

I would argue that tasting is a subjective thing no matter how 'expert' we become at it. This is not a bad thing - I don't want to read opinion from someone whose writing isn't born of a passion. There can't be many wine show judges who would say 'I discovered my passion for wine by tasting and spitting eighty samples of a morning' but I'd like to think their passion got them there. When I worked in wine retail we used to get customers that came in saying 'I had this great wine on holiday, do you have...' but while I might have been able to sell them the wine I could never transport them back to the place and time they had it, although I hoped the fond memories would return irrespective of how good the wine was.

I commented on Mark's blog about drinking Worthington's Firewater in the Cresselly Arms in Pembrokeshire. Tide permitting we used to potter up the river from Burton Ferry to the Arms in my uncle's little dinghy. We'd sit on the quay overlooking the river enjoying a beer served, via a jug, straight from the cask. A great beer, or a great situation? A beautiful pub in one of my favourite parts of the world with people I love, and love to be with. On reflection I'd take an indifferent beer in those circumstances over the world's greatest beer and a hen party, but maybe it's just me.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Notes on Notes

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it's normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take a while. It’s normal to take a while. You’ve just gotta fight your way through. - Ira Glass

Writing good tasting notes, by which I mean ones that people will relate to, understand, and be informed and entertained by, to the point where they will keep coming back and reading more, is a creative process. Like any other creative work, it isn't easy (hence the quote above). It's the old 'walk before you can run' cliché, and it's why I thought Victoria Moore's piece in the Telegraph back in September wasn't particularly helpful. I think she overlooked the fact that the Wine and Spirit Education Trust diploma course that she thought was so prosaic, and therefore dropped out of, was a matter of writing to demonstrate understanding of fundamental things  for an exam. It is a starting point. There is also a difference in a purely personal tasting, and tasting with an audience in mind. I doubt anybody at the WSET is suggesting that following their rigid guidelines is likely to get you a column in the Telegraph, but most of us, when we take our first tentative sips, need to have terms we can immediately relate to. When I am trying to get people to examine the flavours of wine for the first time, articulating their thoughts is invariably the most difficult part - they are usually convinced they're 'wrong'. I always tell people that tasting wine is a learned skill, there is nothing particularly difficult about it to start with, and once people practice as a matter of course they'll get better and enjoy a more rewarding experience.

To someone with a will to learn about, but not a knowledge of, wine, an expressive Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is a fantastic wine because the flavours are so up front and identifiable. A similar sort of thing can be seen with beer. Pointing out hoppy and malty flavours may not be that interesting to readers of beer blogs, but without knowing such fundamental style differences your tasting notes will never improve, and indeed sometimes overlooking the basics can be as bad as being unimaginative. There are parallels in other disciplines that rely on both the creative and the mechanical, not least beer and winemaking. It's perhaps stretching the point somewhat, but few would argue that there is no art or creativity in architecture and the architect certainly needs to know the building they are designing won't fall down. Picking out an American IPA and saying to a beer novice, 'try this, this is what a hoppy beer tastes like,' might lead to a similar revelation seen with 'try this, this is what wine people are on about when they say gooseberry flavours!'

Villa Maria 'Cellar Selection' Sauvignon Blanc was the first wine I remember ever remember feeling like I could in any way describe the flavours of - I picked it for a staff wine sales competition with Oddbins and won (although I am sure I had some help from sympathetic colleagues). Since then I have been working through the WSET qualifications - the prosaic mechanics of educating my palate - and I hope eventually to fight my way through to the point where my work is as good as my ambitions.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Goose Island 'Honker's Ale'

Been off radar for a while since I've been busy doing the uninteresting things that I am hoping will earn me the money to continue my exploration of all things beer-related. It's also been a rather indifferent week on the beer front after the excitement of Stout Day and The Session.

So this post is due to, but not really inspired by, Goose Island 'Honker's Ale' which is apparently inspired by visiting English country pubs. All well and good making beer in an English style, but there are plenty of English beers out there that, although they are faultlessly made, are in the end just not that interesting!

Lovely brown colour with a hint of orange. It has a vague roasted malty nose, and there's a sweetness to start, which doesn't linger into the finish since it's taken away by a kiss of hops.

Not the sort of beer that inspires, although it was more interesting than the Lone Star by Pabst, and Samuel Adams Boston Lager, both which almost made my hop-thirsty palate feel like I hadn't drank a beer. Again, not unpleasant, but indistinguishable from many of its contemporaries. In its defence the Sam Adams had some richness that reminded me of some German Oktoberfest beers, but lacked the punch that the real thing has.


Apologies if this all comes across as a bit negative, since I don't like posting negative reviews, but it strikes me that with the Craft beer scene in the USA thriving, and feeding a similar resurrection of interest in different beers over here, it would be a shame if these sort of beers are held up as examples of a new beer scene in the US. And perhaps more worryingly it did make me wonder what sort of beers are ending up state-side and our friends in the US are thinking 'this is OK, not exciting, but OK... I hope my Sierra Nevada's cooled down so I can have that next.'

Goose Island Honker's Ale, 4.3%, £1.59 (355ml) Beers of Europe
Lone Star (Pabst), 4.7%, £1.59 (355ml) Beers of Europe
Samuel Adams Boston Lager, 4.8%, £1.59 (255ml), Waitrose. Also £30 a 24 bottle case at Majestic.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Masserian Pietrosa Verdeca 2009

One of the reasons wine is put forward by some as the world's greatest drink is the rich variety involved in the raw ingredient – the grape. In a discussion on which was 'better' wine or beer, the fact that Italy alone has over 1000 different native grape varieties was used as an argument that wine was more varied than beer. While this may be a legitimate point, if you have to be a geneticist and DNA profiler such as Dr José Vouillamoz, a contributor on the subject in the Oxford Companion to Wine to tell the difference then really that makes absolutely no difference at all to us as consumers. The point of all this? Well, this is a single varietal wine, made from Verdeca, which is a pretty obscure variety – it's not listed in Oz Clarke's book Grapes & Wines and its entry in the OCW doesn't run as far as flavour characteristics (it's actually more of a suggestion that it doesn't really have any.) The question is I suppose one of whether wines such as these represent a genuine case for preservation of obscure varieties on the grounds of taste rather than purely academic interest.

The wine itself is a lovely colour, pale gold with green hints. Lots of lime on the slightly floral nose. There's plenty of fresh green apple and lemon flavours. I also thought it had a pleasant texture, a slight oiliness but since it was backed up with a decent acidity, which must have been a worry with a Puglian white, it seemed to work.

I don't think that Verdeca is ever going to take the world by storm (not exactly sticking my neck out there) but given it is declining in popularity as a crop in Puglia, it would be a real shame if were to die out entirely. I have certainly had plenty of Italian white wines that are far less interesting than this.

£11.99 (75cl) from Delilah Fine Foods in Nottingham

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Oakham Ales 'Bishops Farewell'

The spectacle of beer advertising aimed at women came up again today courtesy of Greg at The Pour Curator and an innocent question about Sunday dinner from Emma Cole on Twitter. I have mentioned it before and frankly the whole thing is hardly worth dredging up again because it should be fairly obvious to anyone with even half a brain how patronising most of this stuff is, but hat-tip to Melissa Cole, not so much dripping sarcasm as standing in quite a deep puddle of it. I've yet to try Chick Beer or Uptown Girl - don't hold your breath.

I have, however, tried Bishops Farewell (sic) from Oakham. It's a pale blonde, hoppy beer, along similar lines to many that I tried at the Nottingham Beer Festival recently. Floral and pithy on the nose. Lots of citrus on the palate, and with a slight soapiness that I felt knocked the clean edge off the finish. Although this is probably bordering on the sacrilegious I think I might have been better off drinking this one cold rather than at cellar temperature, and I'm pretty sure it'd come across better on tap. Still, one of the more interesting pale ales that's generally available at the moment.

5% abv, £1.99 (50cl) from Sainsbury's

Saturday, 5 November 2011

The Pipe & Glass

I was glad to see that the Pipe and Glass in South Dalton, East Yorkshire won the Michelin Pub of the Year award. I was brought up near there and it's a pub I've been visiting on and off most of my life since my parents still live nearby.

While it's generally had a good reputation locally, in the last few years it's really kicked on from there; good Yorkshire beer, an excellent wine list and superb food, which has earned it a Michelin star - and it's our venue of choice for birthday dinners and other celebrations. It also has good vegetarian options which, importantly, don't leave you wanting a snack by the time you have got home.

Highly recommended if you're ever in that part of the world. Friendly and unpretentious, proper Yorkshire hospitality.

More in The Guardian.

The Pipe and Glass

I was glad to see that the Pipe and Glass in South Dalton, East Yorkshire won the Michelin Pub of the Year award. I was brought up near there and it's a pub I've been visiting on and off most of my life since my parents still live nearby.

While it's generally had a good reputation locally, in the last few years it's really kicked on from there; good Yorkshire beer, an excellent wine list and superb food, which has earned it a Michelin star - and it's our venue of choice for birthday dinners and other celebrations. It also has good vegetarian options which, importantly, don't leave you wanting a snack by the time you have got home.

Highly recommended if you're ever in that part of the world. Friendly and unpretentious, proper Yorkshire hospitality.

More in The Guardian.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Guilty Secrets

My first contribution to The Session (#57)

I had to have a think about this one. I grew up in Yorkshire, where obviously all the beer was perfect (hmm). It wasn't until I went of to University that I got my first exposure to indifferent beer – and then that weird fizzy stuff which, I had to have explained to me, was lager.

It occurred to me to think about the guilty pleasure side of things. When I worked down in a London Oddbins which was next to a video shop, we used to try and match wines or beers with films, so I think what I'm asking is what is the ideal beer to go with the kind of film you might flake out of concentration (and probably consciousness) in front of, an accompaniment to the cerebral level required to fully absorb the delicate nuances of a mid-nineties Jerry Bruckheimer blockbuster.* The film you rent to watch with some friends, that you're probably going to talk across rather than actually watch.

The great thing about great beer or a deep, complex wine is that it encourages thought, reflection and deliberation. However, if at all times you are analysing or deliberating and, almost by default, ignoring everything else life has to offer, then you are missing what it really does best, which is enhancing life. Even us beer geeks should sometimes ignore the beer, ignore what's playing on the idiot box, and enjoy the company we're in.

Recommendations? Polskie piwo dobre – 'nuff said (that's the limit of my Polish, and even then it's probably wrong!)

* For the record, it was Pirates of the Caribbean which stopped this sort of thing. Un-watchable no matter how many beers I'd had.

The Session #57 is hosted by Steve at Beers I've Known

Williams Bros 'Profanity' Stout

This is one of the beers that was in the Sainsbury's British Beer Hunt earlier this year (some of which I blogged about here) and since it was Stout day yesterday (a sort of Twitter-hashtag induced beer holiday) it seemed like a good excuse to getting round to trying this. As I've said before I'm a big fan of Williams Bros - and so I've been looking forward to this one for a while!

A smartly-packaged beer that pours with a hint of brown to the head - it's a black beer with a reddish hint when you look through it at a bright enough light! Serving it cold, as suggested, did seem to restrict the nose at first, but more of the malty/coffee aromas did pop up as it warmed a little. Full-bodied enough to carry off the alcohol, with an interesting, almost grainy texture (potentially from the oats) which contributes to the satisfying nature of the beer. Lots of dark-roast coffee flavours that are supplemented by dried fruit as it warms.

Like a good wine it's a beer that invites you to dwell on it and savour it rather than knock it back. A cold and rainy winter afternoon beer, to be matched with a good book or the Sunday papers.

7% abv, £1.89 (33cl) from Sainsbury's (although since the beer competition is finished it's probably not available there any longer.)

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Victory 'Prima' Pils

Looks like a wheat beer - cloudy, straw-yellow and a short head retention, but got some big hoppy nose going on there, and when you taste it, there's a whole lot more. There's a herbal whiff of the more specialist Amsterdam café, and it snatches a bit of balance back from the big hop bite with a touch of sweetness in the finish. On further investigation, once you get past the hoppiness there is some spice (ginger) and lemon. Light bodied without overdoing the carbonation. All this contributes to a really rewarding beer, and it's refreshing enough to be deceptively quaffable.

I'm not sure how this is a 'German Style Pilsner,' I don't remember having had a German beer that was this intensely hoppy. The hops and malt may be German but the style? Although in the light of recent controversy surrounding the Oxford Companion to Beer (mainly surrounding Martyn Cornell's comments and how they were received) I think sometimes it's not that bad a thing to remain blissful in ignorance. I think I'll stick to drinking and thinking about it.

5.3% abv, £2.49 (355ml/12 fl oz - whatever they are) from Beers of Europe

I had to check up on the abv since it's not actually on the label. I'm surprised they get away with bringing it into the EU without it, but apparently there are reasons for this lack of information that go back to 1935 and post-prohibition laws, and some state legislatures still ban alcohol content labelling. Of course, the Surgeon General's warning about alcohol is still there despite them not telling you how much is in it. Crazy world indeed. More in this feature by Joe Strange.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Devil's Corner Pinot Noir 2010

As far as I can remember this is the first time I've tasted a Tasmanian Pinot Noir. Climatically Tasmania is well situated to produce good wines from cool-climate loving varieties, providing some shelter can be found from the winds.

As New Zealand Pinot Noirs seem to be getting more and more international recognition, and thus becoming more expensive, it was interesting to try this one to see if a relatively unknown area of a country not generally that well regarded for Pinot (apart from certain areas) could compete.

If you're a fan of the light, Marlborough style of Pinot Noir then I'd say this wine, from the Devil's Corner range of second wines from Tamar Ridge is well worth a go. Lots of perfume on the nose, violets and red fruit, and a tart raspberry and redcurrant palate with refreshing acidity levels.

£12.75 (75cl) from Weavers in Nottingham

PS. I'm going to duplicate blog posts to here in case I start to have issues again with fasthosts and their crazy bandwidth restrictions like I did at the end of last month.

Great Newsome 'Stoney Binks'

I picked this one up as part of a set while I was at the Beverley Food Festival at the beginning of last month.

I hadn't come across the Great Newsome Brewery before, and beer from a relatively new brewery (2007) from near where I grew up was far too tempting to pass up as an opportunity! The unusual name comes it being named after a local shale bank off Spurn Point.

This is one of their occasional beers,  an attractive amber ale with a malty nose and a hint of cinder toffee. There are toasty notes on the palate and a slight toffee sweetness which nicely balances the hint of orange. This isn't one for the hop-heads, don't be expecting a big hop kick, but it is a moreish, mellow, relaxing drop. Most enjoyable, and I'm looking forward to the others now!

4.1% abv, 50cl. Not sure on the price since I bought it as part of a set, although it's available for about £1.55 (£18.50 for 12 if you can collect) at the brewery.