Monday 30 March 2009

Wandsworth Common beer festival

How posh is that?

Myself and some friends went to Wandsworth Common beer festival for the Saturday afternoon session. It was definitely the poshest beer festival I've ever been to, being held in the Royal Victoria Patriotic Building. Patriotism is of course the last refuge of a scoundrel, though in our case going for the early session it was the first refuge of scoundrels. It was free to get in and having pre-booked we qualified for a free half too. Who says there's no such thing as a free lunch? Actually, as our train tickets were over 14 quid they're probably right...

The beer selection wasn't massive and some of the ones I was after had gone already. The rarely seen Sarah Hughes Original Dark Ruby Mild remained rarely seen, as did Wolf's Granny Wouldn't Like It. On the plus side I got to try Wandle from the new Sambrooks brewery, a pleasant session beer made with the best brewing barley, Maris Otter, and traditional English Fuggles and Goldings hops. My beer of the festival though was Naked Ladies from Twickenham Fine Ales. A very flavoursome pale beer that I could have drunk a lot more of had I not been trying to control myself due to still having a cold. 

We were able to sit and enjoy our beer in an upstairs restaurant, which was a result because I've rarely been able to get a seat at beer festivals and it was miserable outside where most of the beers were. I did notice our nearest fire exit was padlocked shut though, which even to my slightly addled brain seemed like a pretty stupid idea, and must surely be illegal too. 

The offending padlock is ringed in red

We left the festival at about six to head off to the Bricklayers Arms where more people were to be met. Me and the lovely Lisa had been keen to go to this pub for some time as it sells the full range of Timothy Taylors beers. Bottled Landlord Lisa's current favourite but it's always good to see it on draft. A jazz band were setting up when we arrived which caused us some concern but fortunately they were fairly inoffensive, sounding to my untrained ear like the gallery music from vision on. The Landlord was in good form, a very refreshing beer with I think a slight lactic taste. I'd given up on trying to pace myself at this point and drinking in pints seemed to improve my cold much more than nursing halves did. I also got to try Ram Tam, a been I'd been intrigued by for many years. Beer nerd that I am I used to read through all of the brewery section at the back of the Good Beer Guide. Though nowadays Ram Tam gets its own flavour description I'm sure it used to simply say "Landlord with caramel".  Having finally tasted the beer I wouldn't be at all surprised if this is indeed correct. As opposed to the golden coloured Landlord the Ram Tam is black but to my (admittedly dulled)  palate the taste was very similar.

It won't take much caramel to darken a beer, as it has far more colour to it than any malt. Pale malt may have around five European Brewing Convention colour units and roasted barley around 1500 but caramel gets into the tens of thousands. If I remember rightly Guinness (though mainly made up of pale malt)  has around 5% roasted barley which is enough to turn it black,  so it's quite possible only a fraction of a percentage of caramel needs to be added to make Ram Tam black.  Small amounts of caramel will have a minimal effect on flavour, which is one of the reasons why adding caramel is allowed in production of premium malt whisky. 

Colour has a big effect on how we perceive a beers taste, which is why proper beer tastings are carried out using a blue glass. I don't know for certain if Ram Tam is simply Landlord with caramel but I think it's possible. I'll have to return to the Bricklayers Arms soon to try some more of both. Purely in the interests of research of course. 


Saturday 28 March 2009

Beer when you've got a cold

On Thursday night I felt very tired and sluggish when I was training with my Thai boxing club. I got hit a lot more than I usually do too, which I suppose is unsurprising, but it didn't do anything to improve my spirits. When I woke up on Friday morning I was aching all over and had a runny nose. Despite feeling really grotty I did feel a bit happier knowing that I could blame my poor performance on being under the weather. Perhaps I'm not past it after all. 

I was left with a very tricky situation for Friday evening though. I eventually resigned myself to the fact I wouldn't be going down the pub but I couldn't bring myself to not drink at anything, it was Friday after all! What's the best thing to drink when you've got a cold though? I was tempted to have some Fullers vintage ale as it's a good warming brew. It's also 8.5% ABV though and would I be able to stop at having just one bottle? I didn't really want to get a hangover.  Instead I started on my latest home brew, a best bitter. It was OK but not really assertive enough for my dulled senses. So I moved on to Belhaven Twisted Thistle one of my favourite IPAs (I wish they sold the export version in Britain). This was sadly wasted as I couldn't really get the hop flavour and it just seemed a bit thin. I needed something with a bit more body but the only dark beer I had available was my homebrewed porter which is still conditioning.

So once more I was on the horns of a dilema. As a dedicated beer nerd I really shouldn't drink anything before it's ready. But as a dedicated piss head I really wanted to. Then I remembered I hadn't checked the gravity for a few days so I poured out a generous measuring cylinders worth, recorded the gravity and guzzled it down. It went down very nicely, confirming that dark beers are what you need when you have a cold, I'd also managed to maintain my status as a proper beer nerd and satisfied my piss heads need for beer. Hurrah!

Thursday 26 March 2009

My first 'radical brew' a success!

Chai and beer actually do work together

Having been inspired by reading Randy Mosher's Radical Brewing I had a go at making a Chai tea flavoured beer recently

My home brewing has wandered over the years from brewing beers like those you buy to brewing beers like those you can't buy. Sometimes I feel 'wouldn't it be great to have a barrel of ESB at home' and sometimes I feel 'why should I spend all day brewing something I can just go out buy'. As I'm not working at the moment I've got plenty of time but not much money so I've actually been doing both and I've been pretty much alternating between brewing a best bitter and something more unusual. Some of the ideas in Radical Brewing are way more unusual than anything I've tried before so I've been very inspired but also a little wary. I couldn't quite bring myself to spend all day making five gallons of chai tea beer in case it was shite so I just diverted five litres of the wort from a best bitter brew and adapted it.

Much to my delight the lovely Lisa gave the chai beer the thumbs up so my first radical brew was a success. The spiciness of the chai comes through very well though I thought it was a little astringent, though that might have come from the grains. Lisa is very fond of her beer and she's also a real tea lover so perhaps as I was combining the two I couldn't really go wrong. Chai tea beer is certainly one I'll try again, though not for a few brews as there are some other strange ideas I want to try ...

Tuesday 24 March 2009

Campaign for Good Beer?

Since I've started reading the thoughts of other beer nerds online I've noticed there's a certain amount of disquiet about CAMRA:

This person
 has after much dithering decided not to joining CAMRA as they obsess about marginal issues and ignorantly only promote ale in the good beer guide. He jokingly says he'd like to see CAMEL - the Campaign for (cheap) Economic Lager. 

This person
has had run-ins with CAMRA members and wants to see a Campaign for Proper Keg Beer. 

And this person thinks that CAMRA members are fat beardy wierdys who fart lots and are too cosy with Weatherspoons.
I'm sure I could go on.

But is this all justified? Do we need something new? I do have my own problems with CAMRA so I'd hesitate to say they're not guilty but so far I think the case is not proven.

Yes there are fat social misfits in CAMRA, probably at a higher proportion than in the general population (does anyone remember 'Team Tango'?)  but I can't help but feel that someone who spends their free time writing a beer blog is on dangerous ground when they start mocking others. I'm happy to be out and  proud as a beer nerd! And I've had more problems with people farting in pubs than at beer festivals (which are usually held in places with high ceilings). Bring back smoking that's what I say, you never noticed farts when pubs smelt of fags.

As to decent keg ales and lagers CAMRA does in fact actively promote them provided they come from outside the UK. OK, so that get out clause CAMRA give themselves is clearly bullshit but it does mean you usually see quality keg beers at CAMRA beer festivals at the foreign beer bar. At Greenwich beer and jazz festival as well as the foreign beer bar there was even a bar from Meantime brewery selling their 'proper' keg beers.

Now I have drunk some decent keg beer in my time, at Sam Smith's pubs and the Meantime brewery's pub amongst others but to be honest I still prefer decent cask beer to decent keg. Whilst I was at Heriot-Watt I even got a try a beer in both cask form and filtered and kegged form. The keg beer was good but the cask version was noticeably better.

CAMRA members can come across as being like Orwellian sheep chanting 'cask beer good, keg beer bad' but to be honest I still think this is a good starting point. The problem really arises when they don't take this as a starting point but, as Richard Boston said back in 1976 "show the fanaticism of religious dementia". He continued "It has been said of some of their members that they would drink castor oil if it came from a handpump, and would reject nectar if it had no more than looked at carbon dioxide". People who behave like that are obviously twats but surely they can only be small minority of CAMRA members.

One of my particular bugbears with CAMRA is the simplistic line on bottled beers that 'bottle conditioned = good and filtered = bad'. The higher carbonation you get in bottled beer makes the difference between 'real ale' and keg much less obvious. I'm sure most hardened beer nerds will have  come across horribly infected bottle conditioned beers from micros and be fully aware that there some cracking stuff in bottles without yeast. But once again CAMRA do actually fudge this one a fair bit. In '300 beers to try before you die' there are loads of beers without yeast in that are highly praised, many of them from the UK.   

As to CAMRA's links to Weatherspoons I'm not convinced there's anything more going on than the discount vouchers for members and the plug CAMRA gets in the Weatherspoons magazine. I suspect that CAMRA are simply sticking to their long held policy of promoting pubs almost exclusively on the quality of their beer. Awful pubs Weatherspoons may be, but they do generally have a wide range of cask beers on and they're usually kept well. As it is, I do disagree with rating a pub solely on the quality of its beer as drinking a decent pint in a shithole doesn't alter the fact that you're in a shithole, but the Good Beer Guide still has its uses. It does, after all, make clear when a pub is a Weatherspoons so they're easily avoidable. I should have twigged that Surrey University sports bar would also be as crap as it sounds despite the decent beer though. 

So is something new needed to replace CAMRA? No, I don't think it's necessary.

Should CAMRA evolve into a Campaign for Good Beer? Yes, but I think that's happening anyway. 

Should people get involved to help this happen? Well, you can if you like but even though I'm a member I can't see myself going to a CAMRA branch meeting. It would be full of beardy wierdys and smell of farts. No, I shall campaign for good beer by buying it, making it and drinking it. And of course mouthing off on the internet about it!


Monday 23 March 2009

Beers in Ripley

Beer in Ripley

On Saturday myself and the lovely Lisa ended up drinking in Ripley as one of our friends had arranged a get together there. Ripley is just off the A3 and back in the day was on the main road from London to Portsmouth.

Because of this old transport connection, and the large number of local alkies, Ripley has maintained an impressively large number of pubs for its size. We started in a lovely looking old pub, the Ship, with a pint of London Pride. Sadly it tasted a bit watery so we weren't overly impressed. The other beers on offer weren't very inspiring either, being Greene King Abbot, Hogsback TEA and the recently revived Courage Best. Quite why the rights to this boring beer have been bought by Wells and Young's is a mystery to me. When I first started going to pubs Courage and Allied pretty much had the local area sewn up so Courage Best was a very common beer. Universally known as Courage Worst it was an insipid weak brown beer lacking in taste. Wells and Young's have managed to capture this lack of character perfectly making a boring beer with a slight sweetness. 

When one of our friends who lives locally said that they had Surrey Hills Shere Drop on in the Half Moon we didn't take much prompting to move on. The Half Moon isn't as nice a looking pub, but there were lots of seats and the beer was far superior. Shere Drop is a pale beer with plenty of citrusy hops so despite the price (£3.20 a pint!) we managed to sink quite a few. With prices this high I can see why pub trade is falling, but sometimes it's worth it. 

Friday 20 March 2009

Have you been sucking the monkey again?

Informative beer blogger Zythophile has recently posted on the difference between porter and stout (nothing in case you're wondering). Part of the evidence he's gathered comes from a court case reported in the Times in 1803 when an ordered barrel of beer (described as both fine old porter and excellent brown stout) was found to be empty on arrival. Apparently someone had been 'sucking the monkey' and had surreptitiously drained the cask. Further research shows the term comes from sailors using straws to sneak booze out of the grog barrel. It's sad to see that an excellent phrase such as this has fallen into disuse so I'll be doing my best to re-introduce it to the English language at the earliest opportunity. 

Thursday 19 March 2009

Guinness and St Patricks day

Oirish bilge

OK, so St Patrick's day was a couple of days ago but I've been a bit busy doing more important things, including brewing my own stout, which I'm sure will taste much better than the international nitro-keg brand.

I couldn't help but notice thought that the usual Oirish bilge promoting Guinness made its appearance for St Patrick's day. Offensive to the eye and brain as such stuff is the fact that Arthur Guinness was a protestant, and as such unlikely to have much time for catholic saints, makes it even more annoying. Still, I suppose historical or religious accuracy are going to count for very little if they get in the way of a marketing opportunity. 

Monday 16 March 2009

American style IPA night

Can you guess which one is the homebrew? 

Having brewed a beer inspired by Goose Island IPA I decided the time had come to compare it to the original. I also had the Dogfish head 60 minute IPA my mum had kindly brought me from Delaware and to make an evening of it I threw in a bottle of Scotlands very own American IPA Brewdog Punk IPA

First up was my homebrew, my first attempt at an American IPA. The grist was all pale malt and the hops a combination of Styrian goldings, centennial and cascade. I'm normally a terrible reductionist when it comes to homebrewing, only altering one thing at a time so I can see what changes it makes. This means I usually only have one type of hop, using it for bittering and aroma. As I'd gone for three types here I decided to mix them all up at all stages to see if I could pick out the different hop types or if they would merge into a new flavour. As it turned out I could detect the fresh flavour of the Styrians and the grapefruit of the cascade. I'd never used centennial  though it's meant to be very similar to cascade so I guess it added to the grapefruit flavour. To be more like the Goose Island IPA which inspired this brew I should probably have added the Styrians early in the boil and focussed on cascade later and for dry hopping. 

This became more apparent when I started on the next brew: Goose Island IPA. There was a much stronger grapefuit aroma and flavour than in my homebrewed beer. I've already discussed the hops but there was also more body to this beer than mine. Attenuation is quite hard to control when homebrewing as I can't just cool the fermenting vessel down when I want the fermentation to finish. This meant there were very little residual sugars in my beer making it very easy drinking but lacking in body. I'll probably add a touch of crystal or cara malt next time I make and American IPA as my current one goes down far too easily for the strength it is (6.5% ABV).

Then I got on to Dogfish head 60 minute IPA, a beer I'd been looking forward to for weeks. Sadly this was a real disapointment. I don't know if I'd got a dodgy bottle or it was a bad batch but the smell of the beer reminded me more of corned beef than anything else. I've no idea what causes this in beer but it's not a desirable characteristic. I did drink the rest of the beer but it certainly wasn't the clean tasting hop overdose I was expecting. Oh well, maybe the other bottles will be better. 

I didn't get as far as the Punk IPA as I was feeling a bit mellow by now and I'd already had few good sessions that week. It's still sitting in the cupboard though so its time will come soon ...

Thursday 12 March 2009

Beer and food

Just about every other person blahing on about beer feels the need to mention beer and food matching so here's a great combination I had in the Old Mitre last night:

The hop bitterness of the beer cut through the pork lardiness of the pie. Or something.

To be honest I find all this 'matching food and beer' guff a load of garbage. People have been going on about it for quite a while now and the amount of words written on it shows no signs of abating. But despite all this I've seen no evidence at all that it's taking off and a good job too. As far as I'm concerned it's an unwanted attempt to bring wine culture into beer drinking. Food should be scoffed down so you can then get on with the serious business of drinking not dragged out endlessly so beer bores can play at being wine snobs.  

Tuesday 10 March 2009

60 minute IPA

Hurrah for my mum! When I heard my mum was going out to Delaware to visit some relatives I asked her to see if she could find me a bottle of Dogfish Head 60 minute IPA. The creative minds behind this beer came up with the idea of adding hops continuously throughout the boil.

Hops added early in the boil add bitterness as alpha acids are isomerised but not much aroma as the volatile aroma compounds are boiled off. Hops late in the boil add aroma but not much bitterness as the alpha acids need a good boil to isomerise. Many brewers add 'late hops' at the end of the boil in addition to 'copper hops' added at the start of the boil to try and get the best of both worlds but this is the only brewery I know that adds hops continuously

I got brought back four bottles which is a result as I only asked for one. On the down side
my mum said she bought a six pack so I know there's two bottles sitting at my uncles in Delaware that were nearly mine. Seeing as I've got three more bottles than expected is it wrong to pine for the two that got away?

Thursday 5 March 2009

Sampling some strong ones

My recent trip to the lake district may have seen me mainly drinking beers below 4% ABV but in my shopping trip to Booths I stocked up on some beers considerably stronger. 

First up is Innis and Gunn triple matured. In Britain at least it was Innis and Gunn that got the whole oak aged beer thing going. It took me a while to make my mind up on it and some bottles seemed to taste good and some I could well do without before I decided that OK, I like it. The flavour is certainly different for a beer which is probably why it took me a while to get used to it. It's pretty mild tasting for a strong beer with a slight sweetness and not much in the way of hops but a definite vanilla character from the oak. Innis and Gunn have build on their brand by bringing out a variety of different versions. The triple matured version I was drinking is stronger and has longer maturation than the bog standard version but to me anyway tasted pretty much the same as all the other versions I've tried. Except for the IPA they did that is, where they cranked up the hops, normally something I approve of but in this case the added bitterness just didn't work.

Next was another oak aged beer Ola Dubh from Harviestoun.  Ola Dubh is gaelic for 'Black Oil' so presumably the beer is based on their Old Engine Oil.  To the credit of Harviestoun this is the only beer I've tasted aged in whisky barrels that actually has a whisky flavour. Unfortunately I don't like whisky so I won't be drinking this one again. 

Last up of the strong ones was the daddy of them all:  Lee's Harvest Ale. At 11.5% it's right up at the top end of beers in Britain, though if I remember rightly a smidgeon lower in strength than last years vintage. Still I have to say I prefer this years: it's still strong and sweet but last years seemed so sweet I really thought they must have had a problem with their fermentation. 

Wednesday 4 March 2009

Latest homebrew

Stand by main boiler!

I got another brew on yesterday and everything went fairly smoothly.
I tried a little experiment this time and split off some of the sweet wort into a jam pan to turn into another brew. The grist was:

Pale malt 5.7kg
Cara malt 300g
Choclate malt 90g

The main batch was hopped with my current favourite Styrian goldings. The recipe is inspired by an old favourite of mine I hardly ever see nowadays: Ind Coope Burton Ale.  When I was a lad the pubs round my way were either Friary Meux (Allied Breweries) or Courage. Of the beers on offer Burton Ale was by far the best and it even won Champion Beer of Britain in 1990.  It is still produced, in Leeds for now, but I hardly ever see it and when I do it doesn't seem to be what it used to be. I had a previous go at making Burton a few brews back based on a recipe in an old edition of Graham Wheelers Brew Your Own Real Ale at Home. It was pretty close, right down to inducing the Burton bowel the following day, but the Lovely Lisa thought it a bit lacking in body so I've added some cara malt this time to beef it up a bit. 

The inspiration for the sub-brew came from the excellent Radical Brewing by the equally excellently named Randy Mosher. I really enjoyed this book cover to cover and I've got loads of ideas for things to try now. One idea that particularly caught my fancy was making a beer flavoured with Chai tea. The lovely Lisa's sisters got us into drinking Chai recently so the idea of combining beer and chai was very appealing. I couldn't bring myself to spend all day making five gallons of it in case it tastes rubbish so I upped the grains in the grist a bit and diverted five litres of wort to a jam pan. I added to this 80 grams of crystal malt and 30 grams of old goldings I had lying around with five chai tea bags being added at the end of boil. My efforts for the day ended up with 23l of the main brew at and O.g. of 1.045 and 5l of chai beer at 1.050. 

A packed of dried Safale 04 was used for the yeast, which as a former microbiologist i feel slightly ashamed about. Never mind, I'll culture my own next time, honest.

Monday 2 March 2009

Beers in the lake district

Me and the lovely Lisa recently spent a week in the lake district, and needless to say sampled a beer or two whilst we were there.

First stop was at the Adventure centre in Newlands valley. Our friends Steve and Di were getting married at Newlands Church and had booked their reception on Saturday at the Adventure centre. As a lot of our friends were also staying there it was also the place to be for drinking on Friday night. Beers had been special bought in from the Keswick brewery. "Thirst Ascent" was the one we drank most of but none of their offering were particularly inspiring. Even with the evil Northern device the sparkler removed the beer was still totally flat. Recent discussions on another blog have got me thinking about how much CO2 cask beer actually does contain. A good pint should definitely have a slight fizz to it, presumably this is at the 1.7 volumes of CO2 end of things. As the beers a the Adventure centre were totally flat I think we can safely say they only contained 1 volume of CO2, if that. I'm even quite suspicious that the beer wasn't really cask conditioned but was in fact bright beer that had been racked into casks but contained no yeast or residual sugar for secondary fermentation.

Mind you, they could have just been crap at looking after beer at the Adventure centre, I suppose cellarmanship is not really a skill they look for in their employees. We did get to have some more Thirst Ascent later on in the week at a Good Beer Guide listed pub and sure enough there was a slight fizz to it and it was a much better pint.

After the excesses of the wedding drinking we had a slightly quieter time Sunday evening back in our holiday home with some beer bought from the excellent range in Booths supermarket. Whenever I'm in the Lake District I always make a point of stocking up at the local Booths and as usual I wasn't disappointed. The beer that stood out for me was Fyne Ales Pipers Gold. A lovely golden beer with a light, refreshing hoppy taste. It's a modest 3.8% in strength, which is weaker than I normally drink when down the pub, let alone at home. I'd happily drink this wherever I saw it though. 

On Monday we managed to get down to a pub with its own brewery, the Kirkstile Inn in Loweswater. I've been lucky enough to go to this pub once before, but not yet lucky enough to have someone else drive me there! Slowly sipping halves of their excellent Loweswater Pale Ale (3.6%?) made for an enjoyable evening but I'm sure guzzling pints of the stuff would have been even more enjoyable. 

For the rest of the week our drinking was mainly at the Royal Oak in Braithwaite, a pub which sells Jennings beers. As, unusually for this pub, not all the beer were on top form I ended up mostly drinking the bitter (3.5%).  This is quite a dark brew, but with a good flavour, and once again I found myself enjoying weak beer. Does this mean I'm going soft and will now be drinking only beers under 4%? Probably not as I've just bottled my homebrewed Double IPA which is 9% and I got from Booths a couple of bottles of Lees Harvest Ale at 11.5%!