Saturday, 28 January 2012

Oak Aged

In the wine world there are loads of meaningless phrases bandied about that are not tied down by regulation. Some of them are actually useful in context but others less so; old vine (how old?), reserva (only legally defined in certain countries so meaningless elsewhere), cuvée (on Champagne, meaning a blend - which all Champagne is.)

What has all this got to do with beer? Well the phrase 'oak aged,' as pops up from time to time on beer labels, strikes me as being a particularly good example. It is so vague it becomes simply another tool of the advertisers, used to infer some sort of adherence to tradition. How big is the barrel? How heavy is the toasting? How many times has it been used previously? Even the species of oak used can make a difference. The barrel on the right is from the cellars of Concha Y Toro in Chile. If you can't make out the detail it's specified as American Oak, medium toast.

On the left is a rather different Italian botti, this one's from the Petrolo estate in Tuscany. A huge container that may well have been used time and time again, vintage after vintage, to the point where any flavours gleaned from the oak are negligible. The wine could be described as oak-aged, but equally, if a similar container were used, you could refrain from using that description and it's doubtful anyone would be the wiser.

I'm running the danger of this becoming a post about the basics of oak's influence on wine, so I'll get back to the point. If a phrase which, at first glance, might appear to be quite a useful consumer guide* can be so easily shown to be so vague, or confusing, as to be almost meaningless, then could that happen with others as they are used more and more? I can certainly think of one example where the fact that the beer comes from an oak cask is only useful as an advertising slogan.

Craft beer anyone?

* Somewhat ironically, un-oaked has actually become rather more useful.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Burns supper

I'm not Scottish, nor is the wife, but I do love a veggie haggis (yes, there is such a thing), malt scotch and Scottish beer, so to let Burns night slip by seems like a wasted opportunity.

The first stage was to get the haggis cooking. Macsween do an excellent haggis, really lovely texture from the oats, and lots of different flavours vying for your attention once you get into it. We have in the past served it to meat-eater types, and they've really enjoyed it. A Scottish friend of mine who I spoke to today about his hatred of meat haggis and he said he fancied giving it a go after a lifetime of avoiding Burns supper. To cook it you need to wrap it in foil and put it in the oven in a tray with 2cm of water. Obviously I took this as meaning 'water of life' so out came the Laphroaig (18yo refill hogshead, ex-bourbon) and in went a generous splash, which gives an added peaty/smoky note to the haggis.

I personally prefer to vary the textures so we went for roast potatoes rather than mash, and we didn't have any swede so that idea went out the window too. You don't have to be a stickler for tradition when you're Welsh  and preparing a Scottish dish - that's my logic anyway. For the haggis toast (and for the amazing whisky sauce, recipe here) I had some rich, warming 21yo Mortlach (1st fill sherry butt). As an accompaniment to the meal we had a choice of three, but we went for Williams brothers' Cock O' the Walk, a ruby ale with a peppery kick that worked beautifully with the spices of the haggis.

Desert kind of slipped my mind but rather fortuitously there was a Famous Grouse* liqueur-filled chocolate knocking about as a leftover from Christmas (my wife can't stand whisky) and so that was a cheeky full-stop to proceedings.

Haggis, top tatties and the all important liquid accompaniment.
Decisions, decisions...

If you do celebrate Robbie Burns' birthday then I hope you had an enjoyable evening. If you don't, then good food, good whisky and good beer is its own excuse, you should think about giving it a go next time.

* OK I admit it, it was a straw, but I clutched it nevertheless.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Estrella Damm 'Inedit'

A strange beer this one, even aside from the fact that I was undecided as to whether I liked it or not. A Spanish-brewed Belgian-style wheat beer, supposedly specifically developed to go with food, and with the packaging to match (It's the 75cl equivalent to dinner jacket and bow tie I reckon). It looks as you might expect from a wheat beer. It doesn't have much aroma - a slight dustiness from the wheat but not much else.

It also didn't have an awful lot of flavour, perhaps a touch of ginger, and while that could potentially be put down to the style, I'm really not sure how it can be so amazing with food - I just can't see how it wouldn't get easily overpowered. After all you can drink water with a meal - and very refreshing it is too. On the plus side it has a pleasant texture and mouth-feel, it's carbonation level is spot on. There's also a hint of sweetness in the finish that makes it easier drinking than some Belgian wheat beers, some of which I really struggle to enjoy they're so dry.

It's pleasant enough but hardly exciting. I'd give it a go if you are a fan of Belgian wheat beers, but if not, it's a pass. Here's a link to the website but be warned, it's screen-smashingly pretentious.

4.8% abv. £4.89 (75cl) from Beers of Europe.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Bold Statements

A comparative tasting. Two IPAs with something of a challenge on the label. The first was Sainsbury's 'Taste the difference' (as brewed by Marston's) and the other was St Austell 'Proper Job.'

I thought I'd give the Taste the Difference a go as a sort of decider, having had both good and bad from the range in the form of their TTD Albariño (excellent) and Barolo (terrible). Anyway, since I had to go into a Sainsbury's Local to get bread I felt I deserved a reward for braving such a place.

I enlisted the help of my other half to ensure impartiality, the idea being to see if the beers lived up to their billing. And so armed with snifter glasses, we dived in. Both poured with an amber hue, the St Austell retaining its head a little longer than the TTD.

The Marston's, some choice quotes from the missus:
Initially: 'Bitter, not too keen.' 'Bland, generic. No character.'
In summary: 'It's like John Smith's, tastes cheap.'

There was very little on the nose, faint citrus (lemon) on the palate but bland summed it up nicely, the bitterness of the hops had no fruitiness to back it up, and so was hardly pleasant. This sort of thing annoys me. If you're trying to encourage people to drink better beer then this will do more harm than good, why pay the best part of two quid for this when a can of generic premium lager will cost you half that?

The St Austell:
'I much prefer number two.'

Pithy grapefruit on the nose and on the palate plenty of hop-power, and a real zingy, uplifting tang rather than being creamy. Pine on the finish. This was really good, just as you'd expect an IPA to be - you get flavour for your money. Powerfully Hopped? Yes. Proper Job? Indeed. And could you taste the difference between it and its pale imitator? Most definitely.

Sainsbury's Taste the Difference IPA, 5.9% abv £1.89 (50cl) and St Austell IPA 5.5% abv £2.19 (50cl) from Ocado.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Sierra Nevada 'Summerfest'

Once again the craft/keg/real/cask thing reared its head with Jeff Rosenmeier from Lovibonds sparking a debate by declaring he made 'craft beer' as opposed to real ale or the like. All of this is thrashed out on both sides over at Des de Moor's blog. The root of the issue seems to me to be beers that are good but aren't easily labelled (not literally) or placed into a category. What must the Campaign for Real Stout* be thinking about this?

Personally I think it's a problem that stems from labelling/categorising outliving its usefulness. If you are looking for a record in a shop (remember record shops?) it's useful to be able to look in a specific section; Indy (almost by its very nature), Drum & Bass, Metal etc. but when it gets down to rather pointless debates about whether something is tech-step or neurofunk, groove or thrash, grindcore or death-metal,  it all outlives its usefulness. If you don't know what I'm talking about then pick your genre on Youtube and read some comments, or better yet, don't - it gets very annoying.

All of which brings me back to a beer, the Sierra Nevada Summerfest. I've no idea if they are still 'small' enough to be officially defined as a craft brewery (I suspect they are, even if only to remain 'craft') but if their beer's good, then their beer's good and I'm happy to drink it.

Pours with a slight haze. Gentle hop aroma without pithiness; citrus. Light-bodied with grapefruit on the palate. Fine carbonation - here my beer vocabulary lets me down a bit - if it were a sparkling wine I'd describe it as a delicate mousse, which it isn't but hopefully you get the idea; small, delicate bubbles rather than big fizz. This, for me, sums up how a lager should be. Yes, it's easy-drinking, and not the most challenging beer in the world but it does have flavour, and no matter what category you might want to put it in, in the end I'd just go for it being good beer.

5.0% £1.86 (35cl) from Waitrose

A final thought: Is this a responsible beer to make? If all lager was this good we'd have nothing to moan about, and given it is one of the two great national pastimes we'd only be left with queueing. Damn these Americans, bringing their good beer over here... Back to Jeff I think.

*Yes, I made that up.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Cellarman or seller, man? A hypothetical question.

Boak and Bailey's post about four hypothetical pubs and drinking choices provoked an interesting debate about dogma over-riding taste buds and the like.

Here's another hypothetical situation. You want to set up a pub in what is undeniably a very competitive market. Like anyone with a bit of business sense you need to decide where your money goes when you start up the business. So you have to make a decision. Do you?

1. Use a sizeable percentage of your wage budget to employ an experienced, Good Beer Guide credited (for want of a better term) cellarman, who you know will make sure the cask beer comes to the bar in peak condition? Because of this your front-of-house/bar staff budget will not be as high.


2. Go with 'craft' keg, and spend that part of your wage budget on bar staff, training them up to really pro-actively sell your beer in your venue. Perhaps employ people with sales backgrounds rather than pub experience?

What are the pros and cons of the choices? I've got my own ideas but I'm interested in what people might think. As ever, opinions are invited.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Bristol Beer Factory 'Southville Hop'

As far as I can remember this is the first beer I've had from the Bristol Beer Factory, it's certainly the first I've had from a bottle. I'd heard good things about them so when I saw this I thought it was worth a go, and I'm very glad I did!

This is BBF's take on an American style IPA. Amber coloured and hazy - it's bottle conditioned and I wasn't particularly gentle when pouring. Not especially aromatic but it's lovely and pithy on the palate, stopping just short of bitterness which makes it really accessible, and very moreish. Medium bodied with a great creamy texture and bags of grapefruit and white nectarine flavours. There's a pleasant grassiness on the finish but again it stops short of biting bitterness.

All in all an absolutely superb beer, and if there is any doubt that 'craft' beer and 'real ale' fans have a common ground, then this is one beer that should dispel it. Perfect match for the darts final on the tele, and a great start to the week.

Weighs in at a surprisingly sneaky 6.5%, drinks more like 4.5. £2.39 (50cl) from Beers of Europe.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Ardbeg 'Renaissance'

This post, like many, was inspired by a conversation on Twitter, in turn inspired by a post by Ghost Drinker, who had been thinking about whisky.

As I mentioned before on my post for this month's session, I'm a malt fan. When I've had the money I've amassed something of a collection of the weird and (hopefully) wonderful, some of which I've drank, some of which I have lurking in the cellar.

Since the discussion revolved around Ardbeg, I was reminded of a couple of things. The first was was the Lord of the Isles, which I was lucky enough to try after we'd managed to get a bottle in for a customer. To show his gratitude he brought in a sample for us to try in the shop - which was much appreciated! The other story didn't have such a happy ending, we had limited runs of Cask Strength Ardbeg 'Renaissance,' which was a ten year old bottling that was also released at three previous stages of development; the 'Very Young,' the 'Still Young' and the 'Almost There.' These being new and exciting I parted with my hard-earned £30 or so, grabbed myself some of this stuff from the shop and consumed it with relish (well, a drop of water anyway). Current price of the 'Very Young' is now a cool £325 in Royal Mile Whiskies. Still, to quote the over-quoted Tennyson poem, 'tis better to have loved and lost' etc...

I've still go two of the expressions. The question is, should I drink them? Especially since now I know they're worth more a lot more than I paid for them (looks like being about £100/bottle), I no longer have ignorance's bliss as an excuse.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Liefmans 'Glühkriek'

Here was something that was a bit different to the norm; mulled cherry beer, a beer we had to pop into the microwave to heat up before drinking. It didn't look a lot different to other cherry beers, albeit quite dark, and the head did three rather different things in the three different cups we warmed up (one retained, one went flat, the other frothed up - go figure!) Serving recommendation was 70°C.

Lots of warm spice dominate the cherry flavours. Clove, cinnamon, a touch of nutmeg. Overall it's quite medicinal - kind of like the original cherry menthol Tunes - it probably helps you breathe more easily or something. There was also a herbal note to the finish.

I'm not particularly a fan of mulled wine, and really I didn't feel this offered enough variation on that mulled 'theme' to stand out on its own as a product. In a blind tasting I'm not sure, with the spices being so dominant, that you'd necessarily taste an awful lot of difference. I thought it probably needed something a bit more pithy in there to add interest.

I'd be interested to hear if someone is a mulled wine fan and has tried it, but of the three of us that tried it the other night none of us were very impressed (in fact my wife thought it was undrinkable.) Apologies if that's a bit negative - I'd usually shy away from doing a negative review like this - but it's the first time I've tried this as a style so it had to make the cut so to speak!

It came directly from a supplier so I'm not sure of the price. It's 6% abv, 75cl.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Marston's Pedigree (Sort of)

A post from Simon over at CAMRGB HQ got me thinking about the whole dispense thing - it was interesting reading stuff from Tandleman about Camra's apparent willingness to think about thinking about possibly maybe putting the idea of having a think about voting to concede that some, although not all, obviously, keg beers might not be the collaborative work of Pol Pot and the Golgothan shit demon.

I don't really care about the dispense system for a particular beer. I'd happily let the brewers chose how to serve their beer - the clue's in the fact that it is their beer. It seems a bit strange to suggest that they'd go to all the trouble of brewing a beer without a suitable way of serving it in mind. I am happy to defer to their expertise.

On the other hand, it would really disappoint me if a way of serving beer were to be dismissed out of hand, or disappear altogether. Tandleman also mentions that BrewDog* and others have decided not to bother with cask again, which, if it's true, is frankly quite pathetic for any brewery that claims to be innovative. Closing cask off entirely sounds more like sulking than innovating, why not keep your options open?

So what has this rambling got to do with Pedigree? I used to work in a pub that served Pedigree, and I didn't drink it in there, but I did drink it up the road at the next pub which had a much smaller turnover. Same beer, both kept 'correctly,' but tasted different simply because of the variables involved. Others much preferred it the other way round. Which was 'better?' Well, neither, and I suppose some people would see the variation as an irritant, but I think it made things just a bit more interesting, and interest, while a bad thing if you owe Tony Soprano/Mastercard/insert other loan shark's name here, money, is generally a good thing.

*Supported, however anecdotally, by my being told today that the new Nottingham venue hasn't got a cellar. I'm guessing a keg room  - used to have those in a couple of pubs in Australia I worked in, no casks conditioning in those.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

'Noe' Pedro Ximénez Viejo

If you take some white grapes, ones that would probably make a rather indifferent table wine, then you let them dry out in the sun, make a wine from the juice that's left, fortify it, and generally - in contravention of just about every other rule of wine storage/making you haven't broken yet - let it oxidise over thirty years or so, do you have any right to expect the stuff to be drinkable?

Well that's kind of what the folks at Gonzalez Byass have been up to with this superlative dessert wine. The wine itself is dark and syrupy. Unctuously sweet, viscous, treacly-brown and chock full of fig, date and raisin flavours. It was the perfect match for Christmas pudding, which of course no Christmas meal is complete without, or even just with a cheeky mince pie on boxing day.

At £15 for a half bottle it's obviously not cheap. But I think you've got to put that into some sort of context. Are there many better sherries on the market than this? I'd suggest not, and so what do you compare it to as one of the best examples of its type on the market? £15 won't buy you a lot of First Growth Claret, or Château d'Yquem, or even vintage port. All of a sudden it looks like a bit of a steal - a great treat for Christmas at least. I've already got one squirrelled away for next year.

15.5% abv. £15 (ish) from Majestic

If you're interested in discovering a bit more there's a great piece about sherry at the Wine Anorak.

Friday, 6 January 2012

'Z' de l'Arjolle 2005

2012 is upon us, and I'm hoping to get the opportunity to try more wines this year than last, although I have probably said that every year!

I just wanted to mention a couple of wines I had over the festive period (the next I'll cover in another blog post). The first I had saved for Christmas dinner. Since we had eight adults eating all sorts of different dishes I toyed with the idea of something non-controversial, but then I wasn't sure how much attention anyone would pay to it anyway, so dug this out...

Zinfandel from the Languedoc. I'm pretty sure there's not a lot of that about, it's not a wine that comes under QWPSR jurisdiction, which is probably all the better for us consumers. It also means the vintage has to be kind of disguised as a 'harvest/récolte' 2005 and the grape isn't allowed to be displayed at all - hence the rather cryptic 'Z.'

All EU-driven red-tape aside this is a really excellent wine, still lots of blackberry fruit and peppery spice even six years after the vintage. It's big and full-bodied, but it's not a 16% Californian fruit bomb, and the dryness brings an elegance that can be lacking with trends towards excessive 'hang-time.'

13.5% abv. The Wine Society are currently on the 2007 vintage, selling it for £13.95 a bottle. At that price, I think it's a bit of a bargain.

I Almost Always Drink Beer, But When I Don’t…

This is my contribution to The Session #59, as hosted by Mario over at Brewed for Thought.

The first thing to declare is that it's not necessarily true, or at least not all the time. Certainly at the moment while my other half is rarely drinking I am tending towards beer. For me beer offers a range of flavours to be explored and I enjoy doing the same with other things, particularly wine (I have spent two years studying for the Wine and Spirit Education Trust's Diploma) and, through personal preference, whisky. At other times I am happy to explore other things - a friend of mine became UK ambassador for Armagnac, which I found fascinating too.

If you regard this as heretical then that's fine, but I'd hope most people who really appreciate beer do so for the flavour, and so why close yourself off to other things just because they are made from grapes, or have been distilled?

So with this in mind I have already got a regret for 2012. I've had to let my membership of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society elapse because of that bane of all flavour explorers - cash! For those of you not familiar with the SMWS, they buy individual casks of whisky (occasionally other stuff) and bottle up those single casks as a one-off. So every whisky they put out (unfiltered, at cask strength*) is part of a genuinely limited run, when the cask is gone, that's it, it will not, and can not ever be seen again. Their tasting notes, as compiled by a tasting panel, are the most enjoyable stand-alone tasting notes I read anywhere (and that's across all genres). Having been a member for a while, and having been to some of their tasting sessions, I have had some of the most amazing whiskies, and I hope to be able to return to the fold soon. If you are interested in whisky at all, check out the website and have a look into joining - particularly if you think you'd be able to make their hosted tastings, they are fantastic evenings out.

I will continue to enjoy the whisky I have left, and to be inspired into running better wine tasting evenings and writing better beer tasting notes by these guys - cheers for the good times!

A Caravanserai on the Silk Road aka 35.58: 26 years in cask, one of 294 bottles.

* Geek note: All the bottles are packaged in the same way, simply with a number for the distillery, and a number for the cask, along with a few details of the cask itself. Between us, me and a like-minded friend managed to work out what all the distilleries were for ourselves (too much time on our hands.)

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

DeuS 'Brut des Flandres'

Happy new year everybody. I finally got round to cracking open the DeuS which I've had since the middle of November. It's been a rather hectic time of year, and I'm hoping (cash permitting) to be able to get some more tasting and blogging done now it's all calmed down a bit. Anyway, this seemed a good place to start after the rather unpleasant drive back from Yorkshire in the pouring rain on New Year's Day.

Pale amber, with a slight haze. It was extremely lively, a lot more beading than you would expect from a sparkling wine, which meant it had good head consistency. I didn't serve it quite as cold as they recommend (they say ice cold, but I did want to actually taste it) which probably contributed to how frothy it was. The initial smell on opening (pre-pour) was of hops, but once poured and smelled it was more yeasty, with a zestiness and a distinct herbal aroma (oregano) and ginger.

The texture is really excellent, and that carries the full body well. There was a hop-bite on the sides of the tongue but the biscuity yeastiness, and particularly the ginger came more to the fore on the palate, with a faint touch of piny soapiness. I thought the spice/ginger was a little overpowering, meaning it lacked balance.

So there we are. A beer unashamedly making itself out to be Champagne-like in style, but I felt it lacked the balance of many good Champagnes. In terms of the price it's hard to compare it. I got given some Champagne on New Year's eve which was probably at a similar price range to this which was hardly even drinkable (I didn't drink it) and so it's better than that, but if you compare it to most beers than it's really expensive - and it certainly isn't as good as, for example, Krug NV (OK, that's unfair, but it does say Prestige Cuvée* on the label).

The acid test is usually whether you'd buy it again, and I think for me the answer would be no. If I were buying for a celebration there are plenty of excellent sparkling wines about (even I, with my limited wine tasting recently, tried two really good ones at an Australia trade tasting back in November) and if it was just for me to indulge myself, then I think I'd rather go for a couple of bottles of something else. Still, I'm very glad I tried it.

11.5% abv. £14 from Waitrose

* Begs the question, blend of what? I'm assuming they must blend together different beers prior to the secondary fermentation.