This is my first crack at Golden Pints. In the past I have tended to shy away from such list making, but this year after sitting down and thinking about which beers I could place in the individual categories, and sketching out a few ideas, I got carried away and actually quite enjoyed the whole thing in the end. So for what it’s worth, here are my Golden Pints:
Best UK Cask Beer – No arguments here; without question the winner is Harvey’s Sussex Best Bitter. Forget extreme, hophead type beers for a moment and focus instead on this superb marriage of malt and hops which really ticks all the right boxes, and is a “must stock” brand for pubs throughout East Sussex and West Kent. Sensibly proportioned at 4.0%, the juicy malt flavours from the Maris-Otter barley, are nicely off-set by an earthy-peppery bitterness from locally grown traditional hop varieties. In my opinion, you would have to travel far to find a more satisfying and enjoyable local beer.
If I’m permitted to include an award for runner up, this would have to go to the superb American Pale Ale, from Dark Star; a beer which made alfresco drinking so enjoyable last summer, but which also is becoming a much more common sight in pubs in this part of the country.
Best UK Keg Beer – Nothing really springs to mind here, as I seldom drink keg. Not that I’m averse to a drop or two of “craft”; it’s just I can count on one hand the number of outlets that stock it locally. Also, on the odd occasion I’m in London, I tend to stick to cask; such is the choice there.
If I had to nominate a beer it would be the Alpha State Orange Zest IPA, which I sampled a week or so before Christmas at Fuggles, Tunbridge Wells. (See below). I don’t know much about the beer apart from it being a stunning, zesty IPA, brewed with Belgian yeast. This imparted a distinctive taste which reminded me of a “Saison-style” beer from the Foundry Brewery, which I enjoyed at the Green Hop Festival, held in the Canterbury, back in September. (That particular beer was also brewed using Belgian yeast).
Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer – For overall availability, my award goes to Fuller’s 1845; a stunningly complex, full-bodied ale, which not only shows off the brewer’s skill to maximum effect, but also proves that when they put their minds to it, large breweries can produce some truly top-quality beers.
For runner up, I would nominate Meantime Greenwich Smoked Bock Beer. An excellent beer, brewed by Alistair Hook and his team exclusively for M&S, which shows that UK brewers, can successfully produce Rauchbier to rival that of Bamberg.
Best Overseas Draught Beer – Forschungs – St. Jacobus Blonder Bock 7.5%. It’s well worth taking the S-Bahn from Munich city centre, out to the suburb of Perlach in order to enjoy this superb, malt-packed bock beer, brewed in the functional-looking brewery, attached to the equally Unitarian pub. A beer which manages to cram in an incredible amount of flavour from both barley and hops and which, despite its high strength, is still dangerously drinkable.
Best Collaboration Brew – No award, as I’m not aware of having sampled any collaboration brews, although I may have done so unwittingly.
Best Overall Beer – There can never be any one best overall beer, because choosing and enjoying a beer is very much something which varies according to location, occasion, availability, time of year and a whole host of other factors, all of which make the appreciation of good beer so enjoyable.
Best Branding, or Label - Ramsgate Brewery. Distinctive, modern, stylish and eye-catching, especially the bottle labels and the brewery publicity material. (See below, for further details on the brewery.)
Best UK Brewery- Ramsgate Brewery. Established in 2002 by Eddie Gadd, who is still at the helm as both proprietor and head-brewer. Ramsgate turn out a variety of stunning beers, in both cask and bottle. Most are brewed in a typically Kentish style, but with a modern and up to date twist. We don’t get to see them that often here in the west of the county, but when they do make an appearance, they don’t hang around for long!
The runners up place must go to Harvey’s, who not only produce some superb all year round beers, but also turn out a stunning range of seasonal beers including personal favourites like Tom Paine, Southdown Harvest Ale, Star of Eastbourne, Bonfire Boy and the superlative Christmas Ale.
Best Overseas Brewery – A tricky one, especially as there are just so many excellent foreign breweries to choose from, but after a lot of thought I am going to award joint first place to two Bavarian breweries; one from the south of the state (Ayinger-bräu), and the other from the north, in the area known as Franconia, (Mahrs Bräu).
Ayinger-bräu are based in the village of Aying, to the south east of Munich. The brewery produce an extensive range of truly excellent beers, and no visit to Munich is complete without making the short train journey out to Aying to sample the beers “at source”, in the brewery tap.
When most people think of Bamberg, they think of Rauchbier and Schlenkerla, the city’s most distinctive and best known producer of “smoke beer”. Mahrs Bräu, do not have a Rauchbier in their portfolio, but what they do instead is brew a stunning range of wonderful, flavoursome beers, the best known of which is their Ungespundet, a 5.2% unfiltered Kellerbier.
Best New Brewery Opening 2013 – Burning Sky, set up by former Dark Star brewer, Mark Tranter. I’ve only tried a couple of their beers so far, but each one has been absolutely stunning, and a real reflection on the skill of the brewer.
Best Pub/Bar of the Year – Bedford, Tunbridge Wells. Up to 10 cask beers on tap, the vast majority from local Kent and Sussex independents, served in stylish surroundings and now also offering food. What not to like about Tunbridge Wells’ premier alehouse.
Runner up would be the Windmill, at Sevenoaks Weald. Six immaculately kept and served local cask ales, Kentish cider, craft lager and excellent food. All served in a lovingly restored village local where dogs are still welcome and there is a lovely warming log fire in winter.
Best Pub/Bar Opening 2013 – Fuggles Beer Café, Tunbridge Wells. A really welcome addition to the local drinking scene, and somewhere which has brought the “craft beer” experience to Tunbridge Wells. For both cask and craft beer enthusiasts there are four casks and ten craft kegs (with an emphasis on Belgian beers) on tap, in a pleasant, functional and somewhat minimalist setting.
Best Beer Festival of the Year – Without a shadow of doubt Annafest, held each July just outside the small Franconian town of Forchheim, wins this award hands down. Think Oktoberfest, but without all the hype, high costs and tourist parties. Annafest combines some serious drinking with fun events such as fairground attractions and live music, all in an attractive woodland setting. Also think strong (5.7% abv), well-hopped Franconian beer, full of taste and character, and served in litre measures only. Not for the faint hearted, but a fantastic atmosphere which every serious beer lover should experience at least once in a lifetime.
The runner up is the Canterbury Food & Drink Festival, which took place over the last weekend in September in the city’s Dane John Gardens. The festival featured “Green-Hopped” beers from all the brewers who participated in the Kent Green Hop Beer Fortnight, and sitting out in Dane John Gardens, soaking up the late September sunshine along with more than a few Green Hop beers, whilst listening to some of the live bands playing there, reminded me that life doesn’t get much better than this!
Next year I’m aiming to do some of the more esoteric home-grown-beer festivals, in particular the London Craft Beer Festival, which I unfortunately missed earlier this year. I’m also reliably informed that the Egham and Chappel festivals are well worth attending. Finally, there’s a possibility of a visit to the grand-daddy of all beer festivals – Munich’s Oktoberfest, so watch this space!
Best Supermarket of the Year – Waitrose. An excellent range, encompassing the best of the beers produced by the established family and larger brewers’, alongside more local examples. Mixed in with this are some quality foreign beers, including several well-known classics. Good promotions too, make Waitrose the runaway winner in this category, so far as I am concerned.
Best Independent Retailer of the Year – Definitely the Bottle Shop, housed in the Goods Shed, just along from Canterbury West station. Offering the largest number of British bottled beers in the South East, alongside an expanding range of foreign beers, both to take away and to enjoy on the premises. The only trouble is Canterbury is at the opposite end of the county from where I live, so a visit to the Bottle Shop isn’t exactly a spur of the moment event.
Best On-Line Retailer of the Year – I haven’t used any. The trouble with buying beer on-line is the high costs associated with shipping heavy objects, like bottled beer, around the country. There is also the risk of damage in transit.
Best Beer Magazine – Since the sad demise of Beers of the World several years ago, the vacuum has been ably filled by CAMRA’s BEER Magazine. Published quarterly, after a slightly shaky start, the magazine has gone from strength to strength. Sent out to all CAMRA members as part of their membership fee. I believe the magazine is also available to the general public, on a subscription basis.
Best Beer Book – Craft Beer World, by Mark Dredge. I have just received a copy for Christmas, and have had trouble putting it down. As one might expect, the information and layout is presented in an attractive and up to date style, with text and illustrations imposed on top of colour-washed and water-marked pages, but what really comes across is Mark’s passion for these beers, and you just know he has tasted and enjoyed every one of them. There are quite a few I recognise and none I would disagree with, although I obviously have a long way to go before sampling them all. A most welcome addition to my collection of beer books.
Best Beer Blog – There are several blogs I always click on, including Boak & Bailey, Pub Curmudgeon, Pete Brown and, of course, Tandleman, but my award for the best beer blog, this year, is shared jointly by Ron Patterson’s Shut up about Barclay Perkins and Adrian Tierney-Jones’ Called to the Bar.
Best Beer App. - OK, not exactly an App, although one can access it on a Smartphone, but CAMRA’s Whatpub website is rapidly becoming the site of choice for finding a decent boozer. Constantly being refreshed, Whatpub is undoubtedly the most up to date pub data-base in the country.
The most annoying App has to be Untappd, first because it can be very addictive and time consuming. (At the end of the day it’s just a glorified electronic “ticking device”). Secondly because it not only needs an internet connection, but also a GPS signal and then relies on another App called Four Square in order to function correctly. It is also an American based App, so understandably it has a strong North American bias.
Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer – Well I don’t “Tweet” and thereby am certainly not a “Twat”! Nothing to add here then, apart from saying how sorry I was to learn of Simon’s untimely passing, earlier this year. I always enjoyed logging on to his “Reluctant Scooper” blog and reading about his various drinking experiences. A sad loss indeed.
Best Brewery Website – There are too many really excellent and professional brewery websites for me to single out any one specific site for this award.
Best Food & Beer Pairing of the Year – If Garrett Oliver can write a 360 page book on the subject of pairing beer with food (see The Brewmaster’s Table), then it’s rather a tall order to come up with a single food/beer match. However, if I had to choose one combination it would be sausages and mash with onion gravy, accompanied by a pint of a fairly full-bodied, English bitter. Harvey’s Best springs to mind, butt he obvious proviso is the sausages should be good quality, preferably from a local butcher.
A proper steak and ale, or steak and kidney pie also goes well with a decent bitter. Again the pie should be a proper one, made with short-crust pastry, which must enclose the meat and the rest of the filling. A meat stew, served in an earthenware dish with a puff-pastry lid on top is NOT a proper pie so far as I am concerned!
Finally, special mention should be made of the goulash with bread dumplings I enjoyed at U Fleku in Prague, earlier this month. The rich, dark, malt-led house lager was the perfect accompaniment to this classic Central European dish, proving there are many excellent beer and food pairings to be found all over the world.