Tuesday 30 March 2010

The right stuff?

Whilst perusing the unexciting range of beer being offered at the next 'Spoons festival one made me do a double take and then raise not one but two eyebrows. It seems Elgood's are doing a beer called Hawkwind. 

I shouldn't have been surprised though. As Hawkwind are near universally accepted as the greatest band the world has ever known the real surprise is why it's taken so long to have a beer named after them. It does leave me with a terrible dilemma though: do I have to go to the 'Spoons festival now? Normally my answer to such questions would be you shouldn't do that, but a beer called Hawkwind does tempt me. Who knows, it could be the right stuff!

Monday 29 March 2010

The Second Annual Wandsworth Common Beer Festival

Our latest piss up research trip was to the rather confusingly titled Second Annual Wandsworth Common Beer Festival. It is indeed a year since the first one, but they had another one in October so the Second Annual Wandsworth Common Beer festival was in fact the third beer festival at Wandworth Common. Confused? You soon will be.

Whatever number it is it's one of our favourite venues so I hope they keep doing festivals twice yearly. It's in a great old building with a courtyard where the casks are and a normal bar in case my recently converted friend feels like backsliding. The courtyard wasn't so good when it started pissing down but the rain didn't last long and our beer jackets helped to keep the chill out.

Once again the website promised Sarah Hughes Original Dark Ruby Mild but on previous occasions it's been nowhere to be seen. I scouted round the casks on arrival and this time it was there in all its glory. Now something dark and 6% is not what I normally start a beer festival with but it must be years since I've drunk it and I couldn't miss it this time. Rich, dark and dangerously drinkable it went down a treat. It's a shame you don't see it more often. We'd got to the festival on Saturday afternoon and the Sarah was on still going when were leaving at about 6.30. So we all had a half of it as our last beer, which judging by the flow rate looked like it just about finished it off. Which is quite fitting as it just about finished us off too!

Other beers good enough to be remembered through the alcoholic fog include RCH's Pitchfork (4.3% ABV), a good pale citrussy beer; B&T Easter Eggstra (4.5% ABV) which hit the spot for the lovely Lisa being a beautifully brown beer with a malty and hoppy taste and I found Ballard's Wassail another 6%er to be righteous stuff. At the more modest end of the scale I had to get in a Holt's Mild as it's another tick in 300 Beers to Try Before You Die. In fact it was quite a fruitful night in terms of 300 beers... ticking. A cause for celebration at the festival but something for sober reflection the next day when you realise how much close to death you have moved. Good job the ticking is impossible to complete really.

We went for a Mexican posts-festival, which made a change, but as it combined spice and stodge it served its purpose very well, unlike the Negra modelo lager. Never mind, we'd had an excellent beer day and by that point our palates were a little jaded anyway.

Thursday 25 March 2010

The evolution of a beer writer

Having enjoyed reading Pete Brown's Three Sheets To The Wind after my mate Brian lent it to me, and Hops and Glory after I got it for christmas I decided to fork out for his first book Man Walks into a Pub. I was a bit miffed when shortly after I'd ordered it I saw that he's re-writing it.

But once the book had arrived I soon shifted it to the top of my reading pile and very entertaining it's proved to be. There are laugh out loud funny parts to it, but as a beer nerd who's read his other books some of the content is an engrossing read for other reasons. Unlike the impressively accurate Hops and Glory in Man Walks into a Pub it seems the full gamut of Zythophiles beer myths are reported as fact. The author's beer tastes also show that he was just starting down the road to full on beer nerdery: singing the praises of Stella and Caffrey's but slagging off lambics as undrinkable.

He has now reached the dizzying pinnacle of being beer writer of the year and I'm sure his opinions and beer tastes have changed from when the book was published in 2003. The problem is I'm now curious to see how he's changed the book for the second edition which will mean forking out more of my hard earned cash! A consolation is that he does have the advantage over most of us beer bloggers in that he can actually write well so I'm sure it will still be a good read.

Monday 22 March 2010

Beer related imposters

A new beer list book called 500 Beers has been brought out. It claims to be by Zak Avery but even the briefest of glances at the cover shows this cannot be true:

Zak Avery would never drink beer out of such glasses, and surely should sue whichever scoundrels have sought to ruin his reputation in this way.

The William Cobbett, Farnham

On Saturday it was time for a long overdue trip to Farnham.   
Farnham is a bit of a beer oasis, one of those towns that seems to have more than its fair share of pubs. 

Hops from Farnham used to be highly esteemed though it's probably better known for it's maltings now, an arts centre which hosts an excellent beer festival every April. 

The William Cobbett was my main target, a pub named after a local  radical and author of Rural Rides. He was a champion of the poor, a scourge of tea and a defended of beer. The pub has a lot of character with an impressive amount of clutter, a large juke box and more importantly several different areas to sit in so we could get away from the sport on the telly. 

There were five beers on but I only had eyes for the two from Dark Star. I started on the excellent Hop Head, which certainly had the hops but at only 3.8% ABV was perhaps a little thin. So I went on to Original, a strong dark beer which had more than enough body to it, and I stayed with that for some time. Dark Star are an excellent brewery and it's always a pleasure to find their beers.  

Next time I'll be back in Farnham will probably be for the beer festival but a proper research trip round the pubs is long overdue. 

Friday 19 March 2010

IPA challenge first bout: Fuller's Bengal Lancer Vs St Austell Proper Job

The lovely Lisa and I have started a challenge competition to find which IPA we like best. It's a knockout competition where beers will be matched with an opponent to be drunk side by side and the better beer goes through to the next round. 

The first bout is between Fuller's of London Bengal Lancer (5.3% ABV) and St Austell's of Cornwall Proper Job (5.5% ABV). The Cornishman has a slight weight advantage here but the Londoner has been recently revamped and is raring to go. 

Seconds away round one: 

Proper job comes rushing out with a big whoosh of citrussy goodness and lots of hop flavour. There's plenty of  body to back it up and Bengal Lancer has been caught sleeping. The Londoner just has no answer and seems harsh and thin in comparison. The size advantage may seem small but the Cornishman is a much bigger beer all round. Bengal Lancer has been completely overwhelmed and the ref has had to step in for a standing count. Bengal Lancer holds on to the end of the round but there was no going back.

The only hope the Chiswick Griffni had would have been to box clever and fight in the drinkability stakes. If Bengal Lancer could have got on his bicycle the thinner body could have proved an advantage, as I'm not sure how many pints of Proper Job we could have downed. It wasn't an option though as we're only doing a bottle of each at a time so they only get one round. There's no room for fancy tactics, just two beers slugging it out toe to toe until one emerges victorious. 

A win for Proper Job by 10-8

Monday 15 March 2010

The Keep, Guildford

On Saturday we checked out a Good Beer Guide pub not too far from home, The Keep in Guildford. It has a look a bit on the poncey wine bar side but was pleasant enough and the lovely Lisa and I managed to install ourselves on a leather sofa, a seating arrangement I throughly approve of.  

But enough about where our bottoms were parked, lets get on to what was poured down our necks. The beers were from an excellent local brewery, Surrey Hills. Well, they're currently local but looking at the website it seems they could be moving to Dorking. So it goes.  Two beers were on tap, Hammer Mild (3.8% ABV) and Shere Drop (4.2% ABV). It's not often I take much interest in mild, though there are occasional exceptions. My recently converted friend was there supping mild when we arrived so I thought I'd join in. It was, as you might expect, dark and sweet with not too much hops but really rather pleasant. When I moved on to Shere Drop I was reminded why I don't normally drink mild though. A great fresh hop flavour hit me with the first sip and that was my choice of beer sorted for the rest of the evening. 

The monkey was more fickle though switched to gin and tonic after trying each of the beers.

We has a good evening, in a nice pub and the beer was good so we'll definitely be back.

Saturday 13 March 2010

A tale of two beers

Or is it?

I've long been a fan of Fuller's IPA. I first came across it years ago when thanks to the Fuller's Fine Ale Club I got an invitation to the re-opening of the Jolly Farmer in Worplesdon. There was an excellent spread laid on and more importantly free beer, including Fuller's IPA (4.8% ABV). Now it is an undeniable fact that free beer tastes better but the IPA really was very good. 

Despite my best efforts I've only found it occasionally since then. It's part of Fuller's seasonal range but doesn't have a regular slot in the calendar and the brewery don't reply to emails when you inquire after it. Despite our best efforts (phoning lots of pubs, many of which had never heard of it) we missed out on it last time it came out as it coincided with a holiday we were having in the lake district.

I found it in bottle once, in a mixed Fuller's four pack but mostly the bottled version was one of those very annoying beers that are only destined to export to the states. And even that seems to have been discontinued. 

Things started to look up though when the lovely Lisa and I spotted a bottled conditioned version at 5.3% ABV at the Fuller's Fine Ale Club anniversary do. We made sure we got extensive stocks for the beer cupboard.  

Since then Fuller's have brought out an IPA on draught at 5% ABV and bottle conditioned at 5.3% ABV called Bengal Lancer.  Unlike the normal version this one has had some promotion behind it and has been easier to find. We hot footed it up to London to try some on draught as we didn't want to miss out this time, and bottles are now in my local Waitrose I so got hold of some of those as soon as possible.  And as I've still got some of the normal IPA we've been able to do a carefully controlled scientific study to see if it's really different. 

First I looked at the blurb on the back:


This historic style of ale was originally created to refresh the troops at the height of the British empire in India. This brew has faithfully recreated the these traditional characteristics, creating a superbly refreshing beer.

Bottle conditioning, where a small amount of  yeast is allowed to ferment gently in the bottle, give this beer the fresh, natural flavour of real ale. Pale amber in appearance, India Pale Ale has a distinctively hoppy flavour from the goldings hops in the brew. 

Bengal Lancer:

India Pale Ale is an historic style of English beer that traditionally was always strong and well-hopped. It was first brewed in the 19th century to refresh the troops in India during the time of the British empire - perhaps the most famous of these troops being the Bengal Lancers; cavalry regiments whose dashing exploits have passed into folklore.

Our brew uses traditional English malt and goldings hops to evoke memories of this pale amber, distinctively hoppy and superbly refreshing brew. Bottle conditioning, where a small amount of  yeast is allowed to ferment gently in the bottle, give this beer the fresh, natural flavour of real ale.

There's clearly a lot of overlap between the two beers: both hoppy, refreshing pale amber bottle conditioned beers with goldings hops. 

So on to the tasting.  We started by doing blind tastings using the triangle test: three small glass of beer, two of one beer, one of the other and spot the odd one out. It was immediately apparent that the beers were very similar. The lovely Lisa was unable to tell them apart and I couldn't detect any obvious differences so I had to guess use the force to pick out the odd one. 

We could have done with a larger number of testers to get a statistically significant result but even without applying chi squared we could see there wasn't much between the two beers. 

The next stage was to pour out the beers and get on with the proper drinking. Both looked the same colour and the slight difference in flavour we detected (Bengal Lancer a bit more hop aroma?) could well be down to batch variation and the different age of the beers (the IPA being bought three months ago). 

Thought the official line (as reported here) is that Fuller's IPA and Bengal Lancer are different beers our research finds that difference is very small indeed. 

Thursday 11 March 2010

More on conversions

It's funny how things seem to come together at times. No sooner have I posted on converting lager drinkers than I got to Randy Mosher's thoughts on beers for newbies. I've now got on to Tasting Beer from my big beer book bonanza. Randy's an excellent writer and I'm enjoying the book, even if I doesn't have quite the excitement of Radical Brewing

In the section on organising beer tasting evenings he gives some thought to winning over the uninitiated:

If you have wine drinkers in the crowd, serving a fruit lambic may be the way to win them over to our side, or at least get them to admit that not all beer is yellow and fizzy. I love to hear them say "I like this. It doesn't taste like beer!".  With a general audience it's also not a bad idea to have some yellow fizzy beers. By that I mean something that mainstream drinkers would recognize as beer. It's OK to push them a little, as that is what they are there for. A high class Euro Pilsner or an American wheat beer will work fine in this role. I have found that stronger, darker beers are often well received by women of my mother's age. Dopplebock feeds a sweet tooth, and the bigger, richer stouts have their chocolaty charms. It is often the case that you can push people further than you might have thought. The only area you have to be a little careful with is very hoppy beers. Just like chile heat, bitterness in beer takes some getting used to, so use a sensitive touch unless you have a well-seasoned audience.

Now the situation he's describing isn't quite what I had in mind for my ponderings but Randy's suggestions certainly fit in well with those left as comments after my post.        

Wednesday 10 March 2010

Alcohol and pregnancy

I noticed today that voluntary testing for alcohol in pregnant woman has been trialled in a London hospital. Even though pregnancy is clearly not for me I still felt a rising  urge to go off on.

First I was muttering to myself how long will it be before the health police make alcohol testing compulsory for pregnant women.

Then I got on to pondering where did the alcohol ban for pregnant women come from anyway? The current recommendation for pregnant women is that they avoid alcohol altogether, though at a push they begrudgingly allow a pint or half twice a week tops. Now there's no doubt that foetal alcohol syndrome is a terrible thing and totally avoidable. But on the other hand if the danger of alcohol is really that great wouldn't vast swathes of humanity have been wiped out centuries ago? And it wasn't that long ago that pregnant women and nursing mothers were advised to drink Guinness.

So where do alcohol limits come from? The standard one for adults was pretty much plucked out of the air. You would think that by now they could have come up with something based on actual scientific research! But let’s face it, the government sets the limits and politicians don't like to let facts interfere with their policies.

OK, rant over, I’m feeling better now.

Sunday 7 March 2010

Converting lager drinkers

I've been doing a lot of pondering on this subject recently. It's been a while since I've had any missionary zeal but a few things have got me thinking about what sort of beer could win lager drinkers over to the ways of righteousness.

Not least of these is the fact a lager drinking friend of mine has taken his first tentative steps into the ways of righteousness. At the suggestion of the lovely Lisa he started on a Fuller's Discovery, a golden ale designed with winning over lager drinkers in mind. This could be called the stealth approach - making ales that look like lagers. Exmoor Gold was the first of the modern golden ales to do this. I can remember being shocked when I first saw something that yellow coming out of a handpump. It's a fine tasting beer though, but does the taste really appeal to lager drinkers? Golden ales have certainly  proved very popular but most are quite bitter, which residents of Jever aside, probably doesn't appeal to lager drinkers. I'm sure that most golden are drunk by people who normally drink ales anyway. Discovery  probably worked because Fuller's went a stage further with it by making it blond and bland. It didn't appeal to me but my lager drinking friend liked it. 

Wychwood have used what might be called the mocking approach, promoting their dark beer with "What's the matter lager boy, afraid you might taste something" adverts. Certainly they've had good sales growth but has it been from lager drinkers shamed into drinking ale by a goblin taking the piss out of them? I suspect the adverts, like the beer, mostly appeal to people already drinking real ale. 

I'm not convinced that either approach has much effect. My feeling is that most people who took the wrong steps early in life start turning to real ale once they reach a certain age or beard length and the effects of specially designed beers or advertising campaigns are pretty marginal. Though if anyone does have any tales of how lager drinkers have been converted I'm all ears.

Tuesday 2 March 2010

Like lager, only worse

Sometimes it's not easy being a beer nerd. I always keep my eye out for new beers when I'm in a supermarket and I had noticed that lager made with champagne yeast had appeared. It sounded like a crap, gimmicky idea to me though so I passed on by. Until that is, it was on offer at reduced price. My nerdiness won over my better judgment.

Lager is normally made with yeast currently trading under the name of Saccharomyces pastorianus. It is a hybrid of Ale yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae and wine yeast Saccharomyces bayanus. I've had beer made with ale yeast, I've had beer made with lager yeast and now I've had beer made with wine yeast. It was a crap idea though. The beer is very dry and has high carbonation, presumably to play up the champagne connection. Tastes even worse than normal lager.

I did have to drink it all though, you can't let alcohol go to waste.