Wednesday 31 October 2012

Box Hill or Bust!

Me and the boys we know where to go, 
stuck in the traffic, boring real slow,
sussed out gap and burnt on down the white line

When it was time for our healthy Sunday fresh air we decided on Box Hill this time. Part of the Surrey Alps it's mainly famous for being imortalised in song by the great Dumpy Dunell, though more recently they had some of the Olympic cycling there.

Not for us bikes of any form though, we were on shank's pony.

What with the clocks changing we ended up in danger of being benighted on Box Hill. Decisive action was called for so we switched our pub destination to the Running Horse. A posh looking place you had to take your boots off or put blue covers over them before you entered the pub. This did make me reconsider trekking further to the King William IV as originally planned, but time was against us. And as it happened I'm glad we didn't.

Not that the beer was anything to write home about, as despite the pub being a free house the beers all came from "Marstons". But it was a great looking pub and a woman there had taken it upon herself to provided entertainment to all. She was haranguing the staff about how her integrity had been compromised because her husband had paid for her dinner. It didn't make much sense to me, or her embarrassed looking friend, but her loud mouthed ranting gave us something to laugh about.

After a swifty (I had a Pedigree, it was alright) it was time to race the twilight to the top of Box Hill and then go home.

Tuesday 30 October 2012

Dithering and democracy

I have been dithering. Despite the vote on what I should do with my whisky win being in favour of drinking it I haven't.

As I don't normally drink whisky I've never had a moment when it's seemed like a good time for a drop, and as I generally keep my beer cupboards well stocked it seemed unlikely there ever would be. Adding to that the fact I did drink some when I was recently in Scotland and thought it was minging lead me to the undemocratic conclusion that I just was not going to drink it.

So I've given it to someone who actually likes the stuff rather than force it down my neck.

Monday 29 October 2012

Wandsworth Common Halloween Beer Festival 2012

I blame Fuller's. It was the Brewer's Reserve (8.2% ABV) that started Dan down the slippery slope. A barley wine aged in cognac casks it tasted of brandy, which was interesting but not the sort of thing I go for. Which was just as well really. Having "gone large" early Dan followed the Brewer's Reserve with Downton Imperial Stout, (9% ABV) and Orkney Skull Splitter (8.5% ABV). He did then switch to the excellent Bristol Beer Factory Milk Stout (4.5% ABV), a beer of more modest strength, but alas, it was too late.

As his higher brain functions started to close down his spinal cord staged a coup and whisked him home on his beer scooter.

Missing in action
We were a bit put out to be a man down, particularly as we'd had a few ourselves by then, in fact we'd reached the pork scratchings stage.

The world's biggest pork scratching
Our beery highlights were Magic Rock Dark Arts (6% ABV), which was the lovely Lisa's favourite, and Windsor and Eton Kohinoor (4.5% ABV), which was mine. I'm a bit bored of blond beers at the moment but this hoppy little number was refreshing after all the dark beers. It's also got jaggery sugar in it which I've long been curious about, as Randy Mosher goes on about it quite a lot in my favourite brewing book Radical Brewing. How much of the flavour in the Kohinoor came from the jaggery sugar I couldn't say, probably not a lot, but I was please to have drunk something made with it.

I think this was one of the best of the Wandsworth Common beer festivals, in fact for Dan it was probably too good.

Wednesday 24 October 2012

A lager in Loweswater ...

... and gin too. 

Are my standards slipping? Not really, I washed it down with plenty of cask beer.

The lovely Lisa and I were in Loweswater last week.

There was the hill based heroism of course, such the traverse over to Braithwaite, braving temperatures so cold we could even see our breath, and taking so long it was the last bus we got back.

Beer being a tad bulky we have taken to having some sloe gin with us on the hills in case of emergencies, like it getting a bit nippy or our legs getting a bit tired. The small sample I managed to blag from lovedrinks was better than the Gordon's from the supermarket but there wasn't nearly enough to last the week. Which was a shame really as it wasn't as sweet so more to our taste. Perhaps when the sponsorship deal comes though I'll have more to guzzle...

Anyway, I know you're only here for the beer.

We were staying in Loweswater so we'd be in walking distance of the excellent Kirkstile Inn.

The beers here are from my favourite lake district brewery, Cumbrian Legendary Ales. They've won a couple of CAMRA national awards which I think is pretty impressive, but don't seem to feature much amongst internet beer nerds.

At one point they did send out some samples of their doppelbock, Croglin Vampire, to bloggers but though it's their strongest beer at 8% ABV taste wise I think it's one of their weakest, and always a bit under carbonated. I did have a bottle for completeness sake though, and I even paired it with my pudding. For those that care about such things it's better after a gob full of chocolate brownie. For the full Brewmaster's Table experience I should probably have paired it with some funky cheese though, as I seem to recall that features heavily in the book.

But it was for the draught beer we'd come, and over the week I wended my way across the hand pumps and back again, but mainly drinking Langdale (pale 4%) and Grasmore (dark 4.3%). Neither beer makes me want to shout "AWESOME", but both I drank in quantity and both I plan to drink in quantity again. As far as I'm concerned that means the beers score highly.

As an added bonus there was a case of Loweswater Gold (pale 4.3%) waiting for us at the pub thanks to the lovely Lisa winning a twitter competition.

It's not our favourite from their range, as far as their pale beers go I prefer the Langdale or the LPA, but I'm sure they'll go down nicely, and free beer does taste better.

Tuesday 23 October 2012

Why is American beer lagging so far behind?

Cask beer is undergoing a resurgence in Britain, with sales rising in a declining market, and the range and quality constantly improving. Yet, despite the "craft beer revolution" continuing to grow in American they still lag woefully behind Britain. If you're lucky a craft beer bar may have a single cask ale on, in all probability with a cask breather, a far poorer state than would be found in a bog standard British boozer. Over the pond dull and lifeless* keg beer predominates.

 The Brewers Association is almost single handedly responsible for holding back cask beer in American brewing with its emphasis on innovation and an ever growing range of weird and wonderful beer "styles". This innovation is less than helpful. You're more likely to find a pumpkin beer than a cask beer in the states. The constant push for progressions means the tremendous tastes of traditional beer are forgotten.

Though diversity is a great thing it shouldn't take priority over quality and the best way to get awesome flavour from a beer is to serve it from a cask.   

*Until re-animated with extraneous CO2.

Saturday 20 October 2012

Whippet up

Well, it's Saturday night and I just got paid,
Fool about my money, don't try to save,
My heart says go go, have a time,
Saturday night and I'm feelin' fine,

Actually it was Monday afternoon but hey, we were on holiday so we didn't really care which day it was. All we cared about was that it was time for another research trip to London. Our first planned stop was the Artillery Arms, but we had an unsuccessful detour to the Telegraph first in a futile attempt to find some London Porter*.

When we got there the Artillery Arms was a far better pub,

and much to my surprise had not only guest beers for sale but also draught 1845. This I couldn't resist.

I'm not much of a fan of it in bottles but I thought it was excellent the one previous time I'd had it on draught at Woking beer festival. Sadly it was a bit flat, which was all the more disappointing as my friends cooed with delight over their pints of Lambeth Walk porter.

We moved on to the Old Fountain, where I bumped into a fellow brewer who was both down on his luck and had been brung low by a woman. On the plus side he was spending the afternoon in a pub drinking beer.

 There was a good range of beer, but nothing particularly stood out. I had one in the ever popular "pale and tastes of American hops" style.

Our next stop was the Hat and Tun. I was more taken with the fact they had two dead badgers on the wall than anything else, and in a usual display of beer blogging efficiency can't remember what I had to drink.

Then it was on to a favourite of mine, the Old Mitre. It was a Deuchar's IPA and a pork pie for me here. I went off Deuchar's when I lived in Edinburgh as far too often it was the only thing to drink, but after a suitable break I quite enjoyed it. I've never gone off pork pies.

 After food stop our research resumed a the Ship Tavern. The beer range wasn't very exciting and I had something different but dull from Caledonian.

Then it was on to the main even, the Holborn Whippet, and my chance to claim the unofficial title for last beer blogger to get there.

As with every other bleedin' craft beer bar it was a bar not a pub so had uncomfortable stools and you couldn't hear what anyone was saying if you were more than six inches from them. I'm increasing getting the feeling that craft beer bars aren't aimed at me, but enough on that for now.

They had a cracking beer range, and Bristol Beer Factory Milk Stout definitely won the coveted title of Champion Beer of the Piss Up, and when the last drops of the champion beer were poured down our gullets it was time to go home.

* The real stuff obviously, none of this "craft keg" nonsense.

Thursday 11 October 2012

Old dogs, new tricks

When wandering around Morrisons I was surprised to see a couple of Newcastle Brown brand extensions on the shelves.

I must admit I'm not a fan of Newky Brown, it does somehow seem to cause bad hangovers and after a particularly painful morning I even started believing the stories about a special hospital ward in the North East for Newky Brown drinkers.

But dedicated researcher that I am I bought a bottle of "Newcastle Nocurnal" and "Newcastle Winter IPA".

Both beers were brown and both tasted like Newcastle Brown. The Nocturnal seemed milder in taste, more like "Newky Brown lite" which I really can't recommend. The Winter IPA was hoppier than the parent brand, and did taste better than the original. But having said that unless I'm desperate I won't be buying either of these beers again. 

Wednesday 10 October 2012

And now for something completely different

As someone who drinks in the ways of righteousness it's not often I drink lager. I mean, when there's decent stuff to drink why would I? Of course this isn't always the case so I sometimes have to settle for lager, but I recently had one of the rare occasions when I bought some out of choice not necessity.

Having delivered an order to Nobel Green Wines I was perusing their excellent beer selection when Hacker-Pschorr Oktoberfest Märzen caught my eye. Stronger lagers are better than the bog standard variety, and I've got a bit of history with Hacker-Pschorr.

Back when I was a fresh faced 17 year old I went on my first CAMRA event. It was a trip to a company in New Haw that was importing Hacker-Pschorr beers. Draught lager was freely distributed, and gratefully guzzled by the assembled visitors. It must be something of a rarity having CAMRA trips to go and drink keg lager but everyone seemed quite happy with it, which is perhaps why I've always taken with a pinch of salt comments from those that claim CAMRA is made up of blinkered dogmatists.

However, the real starts of the show were the bottled beers, cloudy wheat beer and Oktoberfest Märzen. We were limited to a bottle between two of these, though orders of crates were soon placed so a more thorough appraisal could take place. I preferred the wheat beer and since then wheat beer has become much more common, to the extent that several brands are now on sale in my local supermarkets. I wasn't quite as taken with the Märzen, and lagers like this are certainly seldom seen.

So I couldn't resist adding a bottle to my basket when I saw it, and I eagerly awaited the time to drink it. To get into the occasion I poured it into my pewter tankard from Munich, though as this stopped me seeing the colour it was perhaps not my best plan. So I put a bit in a glass as well and got so see that it's pale brown. The beer had enough alcohol to make it interesting (5.8% ABV) but there was still an unmistakable lageryiness to it, being a bit thin for the strength and having a touch of vegetable about it. It seems my 17 year old self was right: wheat beer's better.

Monday 8 October 2012

Inside an old oast house

Dave at work loves hops. His dedication is such that he took holiday from his work as a brewer to go hop picking.

The other day he brought in some old pictures of the oast house on the hop farm he works at:

Not that the pictures are that old,

A pocket of hops is being filled here
being taken in 2008. The building dates from 1911, that year again.

It's an amazing looking place, and as well as the hops they grow commercially they have a small garden of old varieties, some which Dave will be putting to good use on a home brew scale.

Wednesday 3 October 2012

Assessing hop quality

On my recent tour of Botanix I got to see how to assess hops by hand.

The hops I use at work mainly come in whatever vacuum packs the suppliers choose to send me so assessing hops for quality is not something I normally do. Keen to make the most of the visit I' d done a bit of cramming before hand, reading the chapter on hops in the Handbook of Brewing. It always helps when you're trying to learn things if you've some idea what's going on in the first place. And it helps even more when you're trying to write up what you've seen!

We were shown sample of the British aroma hops East Kent Goldings*. The samples come in neatly cut blocks extracted from hop pockets or bales and wrapped in thick blue paper. The block should first be gently pressed on the uncut side and have a slight springiness. A sample that's too hard could be over-pressed which causes the lupulin glands to rupture or it may have a high moisture content. Next looking at the cut side the lupulin can be seen, if the colour is too dark it can indicate drying at too high a temperature causing lower oil content and relatively poor storage ability.

The hops can be visually assessed for disease, though brown is not necessarily bad. I've heard a few people judge hops by how green they are, but I've not been totally convinced. For brewing it's the yellow lupulin glands, inside at the base of the cones, that we're after so 'leaf' (actually bracts) colour isn't critical. Browning of the hops can be caused by wind damage, which is superficial and can be determined by looking at the cone and seeing if the browning is only partial or throughout the whole cone. Downy and Powdery Mildew will cause the whole cone to go brown, Powdery can cause the whole cone to be so stunted it's called a "rat's turd" and Downy can be even worse! Red spider mites can also cause hops to brown, and serious aphid infection will lead to parts of the cone going black as mould grows where the honeydew is excreted.

When the block is broken apart and cones removed they can be assessed for how easily they shatter. If they shatter easily the hops may have been harvested late but if the block already contains a lot of shattered hops they may have been over dried or subjected to rough handling after kilning. Easy shattering will not necessarily affect the brewing quality, and low alpha varieties are more prone to it as they have less lupulin to stick the cones together. Seeing an excessive amount of leaf and bine definitely is a problem as it shows poorly designed or operated picking machines were used.

Next the aroma of the hops can be assessed. Though hop aroma is variety dependent, and not directly related to the aroma they will give to beer, hop aromas can still be categorised as desirable (e.g. citrus, spice, floral, pine) or undesirable (e.g. musty, cheesy, rubbery). The cones can be sniffed as they are before rubbing them between the hands to release the aroma.

Hops can be placed into one of three categories: choicest, grade one and grade two. Apparently the brewing quality of grade one hops is as good as choicest but I don't think we were told about what happens to grade two, though it was mentioned that ever the poorest hops can still be sent to the factory for extraction.

There are also a whole series of laboratory analyses that hops can be subjected to but I'll leave it there for now.

*That was how the sample was labelled so don't know if they were Early Birds or Cobbs or Eastwells or what. It's not always a satisfying business being a beer nerd.

Monday 1 October 2012

Bricklayers Arms Kent beer festival

On Saturday I got up to the Bricklayer's Arms Kent beer festival. There were a few beers I was keen to try, including I must admit some of my own. Before I'd though I saw from a tweet that my green hop beer had sold out, and when I arrived my stout had too. It's good to see your beers are proving popular, but annoying if it means you don't get to drink them yourself. That agony is my triumph.


Our enjoyment of the festival was slightly marred by the fact they'd run of of programmes, so despite me being a brewer of Kent we were at a bit of a loss as to what most of the beers were like. I rattled though the available beers I had an idea were good but my friends were after something from the dark side and dark beers seemed in short supply. Heroically we struggled on but it was a bit parky so we wandered on to another pub a bit sooner than we might have otherwise.

The next festival on our list is the Wandsworth Common Halloween one and we might go a bit earlier to that one, and bring a beer list with us.