Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Wray & Nephew Overproof White Rum

Last time I sat my WSET spirits exam I got this one thrown at me. Painful as it is to admit, I had had it before, although not so much as part of a tasting session as an end of night chaser in the pub I used to run. I didn't recognise it and the crazy aromas and flavours completely threw me off track - hence my 'revenge tasting'!

It pours clear and bright, as you'd expect from a white rum. There's no louching but there is a noticeable oiliness on addition of water, and there are strong legs for a white spirit. On the nose it's clean, without anything noticeably picked up from any ageing. The aromas are of dried banana and candle-wax tempered with a touch of lime. It's not as sweet as you might expect a rum to be, the alcohol is quite well integrated for such a strong (63%) spirit, although I did only taste it with water. The flavours are unsurprisingly intense, there's a load of molasses, with lime, cashew and more a banana. Perhaps a little too much of the waxiness and solvent-like paint flavours for me though.

Overall it's a decent quality rum, although I wonder if going for the extra alcohol as left it tasting a bit feinty to put it into the realms of real quality.

Expect to pay about £25 or so for a 70cl bottle.

Democracy In Action?

When the beer duty escalator petition hit the one hundred thousand mark the other day, some people were justifiably happy about it. Others were a little more cautious. I feel that it is now that the campaign ought to be stepped up. If you agree then it's probably a good idea to see if you can encourage your MP to get on board, in the hope that if the debate happens it will be worthy of the term and not something that is read to an empty House. It's a bit ambitious to suggest it will turn into a three line whip issue, but hopefully if enough noise is made some people might pay attention.

When I wrote to my MP (via email) I quoted from his April newsletter, something I blogged about not long after.

We need to keep an eye on how the beer duty system is structured, so that it does not advantage the mass production end over the bespoke and higher quality smaller brewers who we need to support as much as possible.

By way of a follow-up, I'll quote from the letter he sent me that I received today:

I certainly think we need to keep an eye on how the beer duty system is structured, so that it does not advantage mass production and supermarket-loss leading over bespoke and higher quality smaller brewers who we need to support as much as possible.

Rather more encouraging was:

I'll continue to press the Government to look at ways of supporting the brewing industry and community pubs, including addressing the Beer Duty Escalator. 
Make of that what you will. I'd be interested to hear what other MPs have to say on the issue if anyone else has been in touch.

PS: The escalator image came from the Summer Wine Brewery's Blog (well, originally somewhere else but the link on that post isn't working) who had a bit of bad news this morning in the form of someone breaking into and trashing the brewery. If you get a chance, have one of their beers this week. It's bad enough the government making things difficult without things like that happening. I wish them all the best with getting things sorted!

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Meantime IPA

75cl bottles of beer, a truly fantastic idea. They're great for sharing, and in the case of both the Punk IPA I had the other week (which I am pleased to say was back in tip-top form) and this one, they're even better to share with someone who wasn't that keen and so let me drink it.

For me Meantime brewery are ticking all the boxes. They're making good, well-packaged beer, which is widely available. I love reading about the weird, the wonderful, the eye-wateringly expensive, and the hard-to-find, but unfortunately that's often as close as I get. However it's reassuring to know that even in those monuments to mediocrity, the British supermarkets; decent, flavourful beer is getting a look in.

The IPA pours a coppery-orange colour. On the nose the Meantime IPA's fruit was restrained at first; grassy nuances of tropical and citrus fruit were there, but I served it pretty cold which I think subdued things a little. The punch came on the palate in the form of an explosion of pithy bitterness. For me some IPA can end up with so much forward tropical fruit that they end up being a bit cloying, more like pop than beer - or maybe Um Bongo? This has far more complexity, the biscuity malt doesn't just feel like an afterthought, although taking away some of the sweetness does seem to make it moreish and disguise the alcohol. Ah well, that's what Friday evenings in front of the rugby are for.

7.4% abv (75cl). I got this from Sainsbury's, I think I paid about £5.50 for it.

SMWS '93.34' Glen Scotia

This is one of the last three whiskies I got from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society before I had to let my membership elapse. As all SMWS bottlings are, it is from a single cask, and bottled at cask strength (55.1% abv. in this case). I'm a big fan of west coast whiskies as a style; Oban, Talisker and particularly, Springbank are some of my favourite 'standard' single malts. Glen Scotia is often somewhat unfairly forgotten as the smaller of the two remaining distilleries in the now sadly almost non-existent Campbeltown region.

The pack of three I got were all quite old sherry-cask matured whiskies, this one having been matured for sixteen years in a refill butt. The sixteen years have allowed the spirit to mellow, at least on the nose, which is all rich chocolate and caramel. On the palate though, the conventional 'age as a mellower' wisdom is thrown right out of the window. It really demonstrates the difference between a sherry finish and prolonged contact - it's less of a touch of sweetness than a full on bonfire effect, the lovely west-coast smokiness is still there but the sherry is no idle passenger, it really drives the toffee and dried fruit flavours forward, a sort of iron hand in a velvet glove.

This was the first of 176 bottles, and, as always, when it's gone it's gone forever, but I'm looking forward to seeking out whiskies like this as the winter nights draw in, with a bit of luck accompanied by some imperial stout and a good film.

A colleague told me about this video of Brian Cox (the actor not the the Professor) demonstrating how to pronounce, and indeed drink, malt whiskies. I can't embed the whole thing since I could only find it on You Tube in its separate parts but it's well worth a listen even if your pronunciation is pretty good. The best bit though is undoubtedly him trying his favourite; Lagavulin.

Enjoy. I am pretty sure Brian did. Sláinte.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Broughton Ales 'Dark Dunter'

This one comes from a brewery that I am familiar with from my pub days; one of Broughton's ales, The Ghillie, used to pop up occasionally as a guest beer.

I got sent this from the brewery by virtue of being pretty quick on cutting and pasting questions and answers for their 'Tuesday Trivia.' I claim no kind of expertise or talent for having won, so I'd say if you can get on Twitter and on a keyboard of a Tuesday Broughton (@BroughtonAles) are well worth a follow to get yourself all sorts of goodies, as you can see from the picture. The Dark Dunter is the bottle on the left without a label - it's a new brew and not on general release in bottles as yet so it was interesting to give it a try. I came across this from the pump-clip artist - not one for the faint hearted; it may well make you sprint past a garden full of gnomes at full tilt next time you're passing one at night. I'm sure there's some back-story to this one!

While I'm a massive fan of Scottish beer in general, 'Scottish Ale' as a style, isn't really one of my favourites, so I wasn't sure what I was going to make of this one. It pours an almost impenetrable brooding dark brown. As you'd expect the malt is dominant on the nose; there's loads of prunes and sweet spices. On the palate there's dried fruit, oats and dark chocolate. Generally I find Scottish Ale a bit sweet for my liking but this stayed away from being cloying; probably benefiting from both the medium body and not being too high in alcohol (5%). It'd be a great one for a haggis supper, along with a wee drop of whisky of course.

My wife's, rather more concise, tasting note was 'Yeah, I like that a lot; it's very easy drinking.' It sounds like I'm being forgiven for winning too many pint glasses in the trivia competition. Cheers Broughton, Black Douglas to follow!

Thursday, 13 September 2012

1000 Not Out

It was interesting to read today that the number of breweries in the UK has hit the one thousand mark. Is this number sustainable? My initial feeling is that one brewery per fifty pubs doesn't sound that sustainable, but maybe we could end up in a situation where almost every brewery supplies a network of a few pubs in their area, producing just enough to supply them, and keeping everything local. Or, perhaps even more attractive as a drinker, every pub effectively brewing its own beer? Of course the increase in brewery numbers might be sustainable regardless of pub numbers if the overall market trend towards drinking at home continues. Minimum pricing, 'beer tourism' and ease of access to export markets might also help small breweries compete with volume brands and further strengthen their position.

The biggest single factor behind the expansion is the Progressive Beer Duty (PBD) introduced in 2002. Since its introduction the number of breweries has more than doubled. Maybe PBD needs to be looked at before it's revoked entirely? I'd suggest some sort of voluntary change, a recommendation from the industry, might be better than hoping nobody in a think-tank somewhere decides that without PBD the government could recoup a lot of money that would be "Better off in the taxpayers' pockets rather than brewers'."

One of the reasons behind PBD is the promotion of diversity, but are we really seeing that diverse a beer scene? As Ed points out here on his blog, there are certain breweries that come up time and time again when people who are interested in these things are asked what their favourites are. It could be because of blogger insularity, but it could also be argued that there are actually rather few breweries that are doing something genuinely different, producing more than just a few core lines that are, fundamentally, rather similar to so many other breweries. After all, most beer isn't really a local product as such. Yes, it might be produced locally, but it's unlikely that all the raw materials are locally sourced. It's a simplification of course, but there's more to beer being different than a variation in label design.

I'm not writing as a brewer, or any kind of industry insider, and I'm far from the first person to ask them, but I think there are some questions that are worth asking. I'd say thinking about the implications of having so many breweries is something that ought to be done now rather than in the future. I'd hate to think that years from now we might draw a parallel with wine, where EU money ended up being funnelled into vine-pulling schemes and supply and demand were so out of kilter that wine ended up being turned into industrial alcohol. If the UK's brewing industry is, as some suggest, the envy of the world, then maybe exports are the way to sustain what people have worked so hard to put together?

Obviously the question of whether the 1000 figure (or more) is sustainable is a moot one, but without a direction for the industry to move in, a model for the future, I'd suggest things could go rather wrong. It wouldn't be the first time it has, hence why there is a Campaign for Real Ale. At the moment things look rather healthy for the brewing industry in this country, but I would hate to see complacency set in. In the mean time, here's to enjoying what we have!


Note: One piece that's worth reading on the subject is on the Adnams site here. If anyone has any more that aren't behind pay-walls then let me know in the comments. It's not something I'm claiming to know a lot about, and it's also a very broad issue, but I think this milestone raises some interesting questions. Comments are, as always, welcome.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Adnams 'Spindrift'

Having cracked open an old favourite bottle of wine last week it was good to see Adnams stock its more up-to-date vintage. At the other end of the 'favourite activities' scale I found myself in Sainsbury's the other day, and sought succour in the beer aisle - or, as it turned out, the 'ale' section which was lurking in the wine aisle. It was an Adnams beer that caught my eye. It's a brewery I'm not that familiar with - one of the sister pubs to the one I used to manage used to have Broadside on hand-pull but it's not something I particularly remember having seen a lot of in Nottingham.

I was musing recently that some beers don't seem to make the transition to bottle that well, but if this is one that was originally brewed with cask in mind then, for me, it translates very well. On opening the grassy and lemony-hop aromas leap up at you, although they're a little more restrained on pouring, when the malt comes through a little more. On the palate it's impeccably balanced between the malt and the hop flavour, the caramel and biscuity malt providing backbone to the light body and the hay and citrus hop flavours. All in all a most enjoyable summer beer.

I feel I have to mention the blue bottle. I thought it was pretty cool, my wife thought it made it look like an alcopop; although she really liked the beer. On the other hand, crisp and refreshing are not flavour descriptors - as marketing terms they're best left firmly in the court of those who make drinks that don't taste of much and need chilling down so far as to make sure you can't taste anything. Adnams perhaps need to have a little more confidence in how good their beer is? It's never easy is it?

A lot of flavour packed into a 5% beer. Worth a go; a cure for 'supermarket blues' perhaps? £1.79 (33cl).

Monday, 3 September 2012

Hawkshead 'New Zealand Pale Ale'

NZPA started life as a British export in the late 19th century. Although popular myths suggest that it was shipped to Lions rugby players in 1888, in fact it was more the coaching staff and press core that used to drink it at the time, the players themselves having developed a preference for a chilled glass of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc - a local beverage very popular at the time and now, sadly, confined to the three for a tenner bin at Asda. A few ships were unfortunately wrecked on the Australian coast at the time, allowing the locals to sample the now famous beverage. This actually led to the Australians developing a deep mistrust of hop-flavours, something that is only being overcome in very recent brewing history.

OK, so I made some made stuff up. Although by all accounts it's no worse than the rubbish peddled by Tui* with regard to their 'East India Pale Ale.' Back to the beer in hand though, this is from Hawkshead's well-hopped collection, made exclusively with New Zealand hops, and, rather like the wines do at their best, it does seem to encapsulate that vibrant Aotearoa freshness, something I'd imagine it would be more difficult to do if the beer, rather than just the hops, had come half way round the world. As you might expect it's fruity on the nose, but it also shows a certain tartness which gives it a nice contrast rather than it turning into a tropical fruit punch. On the palate it does a great job of staying the right side of crisp and clean, at no point do the fruit flavours overpower the beer; passion fruit balancing nicely with crisp green apple. Despite not being shy of exhibiting a powerful punch, it's a beer without harsh edges; drinkable and extremely tasty.

6% abv. £3.10 (33cl) from Beer Ritz.

* Pronounced 'twee' as in sickeningly corny, which makes sense when you see how their advertising works.

Edit: I thought I'd add a soundtrack. A British remix of a kiwi band that the friends I met in New Zealand introduced me to. A soundtrack to summers since, despite it being winter when I was there - well it was a mild enough winter to turn the snowboarding part of the trip into a skydiving one! Motueka rocked.

Hegarty Chamans 'Cuvée 2' Minervois 2004

When I first started working in Oddbins I got quite into collecting wine as well as drinking it, albeit in a completely haphazard fashion. On quieter days in the shop the discussion would usually turn to the decision of what wine we were going to have after work. I generally used to hot-foot it down the hill after closing to catch the 10 O'Clock film on Film Four - back when it was a superb subscription channel - clutching a couple of bottles; one for the cellar and one for viewing accompaniment.

This is another that I stashed from back then. When the first of the Hegarty-Chamans wines came into the shop it was a big hit with the then Assistant Manager, and it was him that persuaded me to try them, for which I was most grateful, even a few years later.

'Cuvée 2' is an unfiltered Grenache, Syrah and Carignan blend and is decidedly Mediterranean in character; chock full of rich brambly fruit with black olives and a hint of balsamic. The balance between fruit is superbly balanced; teetering on the knife-edge of sweet fruit and savoury herbs, but all the better for having elements of both. The juicy tannins giving the wine a lovely, well-rounded texture.

This wine, or at least a younger equivalent, is available in the UK at the moment from Adnams, for £12.99. Buy at least a couple, and keep one for a few years; you won't be disappointed. They also stock the very good 'Cuvée 1.'

Saturday, 1 September 2012

The World's Best Bad Beer?

What's the most under-rated beer ever? Well , how about Watney's Red Barrel? Perhaps being too young to remember it is a good thing, but I've never tried it. It's just something that gets talked about (a lot) as the basest of beers, a sort of benchmark from which the only way is up. When I first started going to pubs cask beer was the norm, not an exception. The first pubs I regularly drank in with my mates, the choice seemed to be mild or bitter; lager didn't really figure, perhaps it was expensive. I do have more experience than I care to remember with 'smooth' type keg beers, the entire purpose of which seemed to me to be to take a beer and give it an additional, unpleasant chemical taste. We used to describe it as 'bitter flavoured lager' in one of the pubs I used to work in, although I think any claim it has flavour is something of an exaggeration.

Curious? *
But things are always relative. Just as the next series of 24 had to feature more torture, explosions and killings (more than seven anyway - see 4m30 in if you don't get the reference) then for some breweries their next release has to be proclaimed as better, and therefore gets more hyped than the last, and there surely comes a point where the beer can't live up to the press.

Since Watney's Red Barrel is almost a synonym for bad kegged beer I wonder exactly how bad it can be? As opposed to just tasteless.

Have a look at Scotland's most under-rated beer over at the beercast for a (slightly) more serious approach which made me think of this.

* Picture taken from Martyn Cornell's blog article here.