Tuesday 30 March 2010

On the Waggon!

I did something last week that I haven't done in years; in fact I can't remember the last time I went for six days on the trot without a drop of beer passing my lips!

The previous Saturday I had been on a pub crawl of Maidstone organised by my local CAMRA branch. You can read all about it by clicking on the link here, but suffice to say it was a good day out, and we visited some cracking pubs. In the general scheme of things I didn't have that much to drink; certainly no more than I was drinking on a daily basis on my visit to Prague at the end of last year. I also expect to be drinking a similar amount on my forthcoming visit to the Isle of Man, but although I had a self-imposed break from the sauce on the Sunday I still felt peculiarly jaded the following day. Come the evening and I just didn't fancy my usual glass of beer. I continued with this self-imposed abstinence for the next couple of days, and then decided to go the rest of the week without a beer. I must confess that I didn't feel any different (healthier or otherwise) for this lack of drink, but I knew that come the weekend I would certainly appreciate my beer all the more.

And so it proved. My son and I, together with a couple of friends, made the trek down to the unspoilt and CAMRA National Inventory-listed Red Lion at Snargate. I certainly enjoyed the beers on sale there, together with the beers we sampled later that day in the First In Last Out (FILO) brew-pub in Hastings Old Town.

I remember coming back from Munich last year with my palate feeling similarly jaded, so perhaps it does do one good from time to time to have a short break from the beer we all know and love.

Sunday 14 March 2010

A Collection of Old Bottles

I am well aware that many fellow beer bloggers are a lot more adept at tracking down and describing interesting and, sometimes esoteric, beers than I am. With this in mind I have written this post primarily for the benefit of my more local readers.

I've been cracking open a few bottles recently; bottles I've collected over recent weeks. Last night I enjoyed a bottle of Lees Moonraker, a fine, rich, dark strong ale, and a former winner of CAMRA's Champion Winter Beer of Britain. At 7.5% abv, the beer doesn't take to many prisoners, but it was a good one to finish up on. The 5% Winter Beer brewed for Marks & Spencers by Adnams, could perhaps have done with being a shade darker, but was still an enjoyable example of this style of beer.

Putting winter behind us, and moving on to spring, allows one the chance to enjoy the Co-Op's Organic Ale, a well-hopped, 5% abv golden ale brewed for the Co-Op by Freeminer Brewery, who are based in the Forest of Dean. As the beer contains a portion of Free-Trade sugar, it is currently on promotion in the company's stores, and at just £1.00 a bottle, is an absolute bargain.

I also recently enjoyed a couple of very diverse bottles from Greenwich's Meantime Brewery. The first, a 4.7% Pilsner has also been on promotion recently; this time in Sainsbury's, and at £1.00 a bottle I wish I'd bought a few more. The other Meantime beer was the London Porter, specially brewed for Marks & Spencer. Again this was a particularly fine beer and, according to the brewery " No fewer than seven malts go into our Porter, helping us recreate a recipe of 1750, specially chosen to bring you the flavours so loved by Londoners that demand for Porter made London the brewing capital of the world." The beer is also available in large 750ml? bottles from Sainsbury's.

Brew Dog's Punk IPA is a further beer that has recently been on promotion in Sainsbury's. This is extreme beer; 6% abv and aggressively hopped interpretation of an IPA. As the brewery states on the bottle: "Brew Dog is about breaking rules, taking risks, upsettimg trends and unsettling institutions (wonder who they could be talking about here?), but first and foremost great tasting beer." I'll certainly drink to that, and at £1.00 a bottle, who says supermarkets only discount cheap tasteless lout?

Bernard Cerne Pivo is a Dark Lager from the Czech Republic and, to my mind, is one of the finest examples of this style of beer available anywhere. On my recent trip to Prague, I enjoyed quite a few glasses of this excellent beer, so it was good to be able to pick p a couple of bottles at a branch of Tesco's on a recent visit to Norfolk. Packaged in a distinctive swing-topped bottle, this 5.1% abv dark lager is micro-filtered, rather than pasteurised, resulting in a fresh tasting, intensely malty beer. Just sitting here, enjoying a bottle, has transported me back to Kyvadlo in Prague, where I first encountered this beer.

I've still got a couple of bottles of Rochefort Trappist beer to enjoy (8 Degree and 10 Degree), that have been kicking around since the autumn. Those plus the bottle of Lowenbrau Triumphator, brought back by my son's friend from a recent visit to Munich should make for an interesting sampling session; but preferably not all on the same night!

Saturday 13 March 2010

You can't beat an old friend!

Harvey's Sussex Best has always been one of my favourite beers. I can't remember where and when I first sampled it, but it was a long time ago. To me it has that perfect balance between sweet juicy malt, and an earthy, peppery hop bitterness. At 4.0% abv, it's just the right strength for a good session's drinking, being full-bodied but not too strong in alcohol to make one fall over after four or five pints.

I'm lucky living in an area of Kent that borders onto Sussex. Harvey's won't supply pubs that are much outside a fifty mile radius of their home town of Lewes, preferring to keep things on a local scale as much as possible. Although there aren't any Harvey's tied houses in Tonbridge, the majority of the town's pubs sell the company's Best Bitter. They have to, as such is the beer's popularity amongst local drinkers, that trade would suffer in a pub that was foolish enough not to sell it.

Harvey's wasn't always the drink of choice of local drinkers; not because there used to be something wrong with it, but simply because it just wasn't available to landlords tied to the old pub empires of Charrington, Courage and Whitbread. Now that these companies no longer dominate the local trade, Harvey's have moved in, selling their beer through the likes of Enterprise and Punch. The situation has almost now reached a stage where familiarity breeds contempt so that when I enter a local pub and see the Harvey's pump, I am often tempted to try something else, purely by way of a change.

Last week I attended a CAMRA social held at a Harvey's tied pub; the Two Brewers in Hadlow. After nearly freezing to death at a cold and draughty bus stop, waiting for a bus that was at least 15 minutes late, my companions and I were glad of the welcoming warmth that greeted us when we finally stepped inside the pub. There were three ales on offer that night: Dark Mild, Hadlow Bitter and Sussex Best. Now I've never been a huge fan of mild, and although the Harvey's version is not bad when on form, I gave this beer a miss - almost without thinking. (I was glad I did, as those of our group that did try it, found it to be past it's best).

The second beer - Hadlow Bitter, is just the former PA re-badged; something that was ironically enough carried out when Harvey's first acquired the former Fiddling Monkey in Hadlow, and renamed it the Two Brewers, in honour of the substantial brewery (Kenward & Court - taken over and closed by Charringtons during the late 1940's), that once stood in this pleasant Kent village. According to Harvey's, PA was first introduced during the Second World War when, owing to brewing ingredients being rationed, it was necessary to brew a lower strength beer. At 3.5% abv, it is a good lunchtime pint, but on a freezing cold early March night I wanted something with a bit more oomph in it!

Harvey's Sussex Best therefore fitted the bill perfectly. Furthermore the beer was in absolute tip-top condition. It was so good that I stuck to it for the rest of the evening, even remaining on it when we got back to Tonbridge and popped into Mojo's (close to the station for those who had trains to catch), for a couple of final pints. As the title of this post says "you can't beat an old friend", and sometimes it is good to return to an old favourite. This was certainly the case the other night, and proved to me just what I had been missing.

Sunday 7 March 2010

Bottle-Conditioned Beers

In my previous post I mentioned some of the bottled beers currently available in Marks & Spencers. The four I picked up included an IPA, two porters and a Winter Beer, all brewed by some of the country's best-known brewers. I haven't had a chance to sample any of them yet, but when I was in M&S I noticed that they also offer a small range of bottle-conditioned beers. However, I was not tempted by these slightly higher-priced ales as, unlike CAMRA, I see little benefit, and lots of potential pitfalls, with bottle-conditioning.

BCA's, as they are known in the trade, fall into two categories. The first involves bottles that are filled straight from the cask at the brewery, before the yeast has had a chance to settle out of suspension. This is a very hit and miss affair, as unless the brewery has the right equipment to count yeast cells, it is impossible to gauge the amount of yeast in the beer, resulting either in bottles that are too lively, and which fob everywhere as soon as the cap is cracked off, or a beer that is as flat as the proverbial "witches tit"! The other danger with this process is that it is often carried out in a less than ideal environment. I have seen bottles being filled in conditions that are far from perfect, and this is often reflected in the taste of the finished product. I am not saying that bottling needs to be done in a completely sterile, clean-room environment, but the cleaner the conditions then the lower the risk of off-flavours or even infected beer.

The second method involves removing all of the yeast used for primary fermentation, usually by centrifuging the beer, and then re-seeding it with a different strain of yeast that is both bottom-fermenting and which will also cling to the bottom of the bottle. This is the approach favoured by the bigger players in the game, notably Fullers, Coors (with White Shield), and a number of others. Whilst this results in a far more consistent product, to my mind it is "window dressing" that borders on cheating. Sure you get a beer that doesn't foam all over the place, and nor do you get a glass of cloudy beer, but I do wonder just how much secondary fermentation actually takes place in the bottle given the minuscule amount of yeast present?

Back in the early days of CAMRA there were just five bottle-conditioned beers available in the entire country. I remember that three of them were Guinness Extra Stout, Worthington White Shield and Gales Prize Old Ale; the latter coming in antique Victorian bottles that were sealed with a cork. CAMRA rightly championed these survivors from a bygone age, but eschewed all other bottled beers. This patronage of BCA's has developed into something of an obsession within the campaign, and because CAMRA claims that these beers are "real ale in a bottle", it has boxed itself into a corner over this issue. Nowadays there are dozens of excellent bottled beers available which, whilst not meeting official CAMRA approval, knock the spots off many BCA's.

Logic would dictate that a BCA should be fresher than its filtered and pasteurised, brewery-conditioned counterpart, but for the reasons outlined above this is not always the case. Furthermore, advances in technology have improved brewery-conditioned beers out of all recognition. These advances include flash pasteurisation, in which the beer is heated to a higher temperature than traditional tunnel pasteurisation (filled bottles of beer are passed through a chamber, or tunnel, where hot water is sprayed on them for a period of up to 20 minutes), but is only held at this temperature for a very short period, before being rapidly cooled. This prevents much of the "cooked taste", normally associated with traditional pasteurisation techniques, from developing and spoiling the finished beer.

Even more exciting is the technique of sterile filtration, whereby the beer is passed through a filter that is small enough to remove spoilage organisms, as well as any residual yeast cells. This process has now been sufficiently refined to deal with unpasteurised beer, conferring a stability on it that just would not be possible otherwise. The result is a product with all the freshness and taste of unpasteurised beer, but with a shelf-life equal to that of the pasteurised version.

No discussion of BCA's is complete without mentioning Belgian beers. In Belgium bottle-conditioning appears to be the norm; certainly BCA's are far more prevalent there than here in the UK. I don't know whether it is the higher strength of most Belgian BCA's, or just the fact that the Belgians have had years of practice in which to perfect the art, but I can safely say I have rarely, if ever, come across a bad one. Unlike many of their UK counterparts, they rarely fob and whilst one does occasionally end up with a cloudy beer I don't ever recall having one that tasted off. Perhaps we just need a few more years of practice in this country, but until that time arrives, and particularly with today's modern bottling techniques, there is no need for CAMRA to be turning its back on a beer just because it hasn't been conditioned in the bottle.

Saturday 6 March 2010

This isn't just Beer, this is M&S Beer.

Tonbridge is a pleasant enough market town. It's got a bit of history attached to it, and even has its own 12th Century castle, with a largely intact gatehouse, even though the Parliamentarians did manage to demolish the rest of it! So far as shops go though Tonbridge is a bit of a "one horse town", with few really "big name" retail outlets.

That doesn't bother me, as like most blokes I don't care for what the fairer sex (and certainly the lady of this house), refers to as "retail therapy". Occasionally though I do need to venture further afield in order to purchase things that are unavailable in this town, so this afternoon I headed over to nearby Tunbridge Wells, my mission being to acquire a new pair of walking boots. Unfortunately, despite visiting four "outdoor-leisure pursuit" shops I was unable to find boots that fitted the criteria I was looking for, or if they did, were either not available in my size or, at a price I could afford.

The trip was not entirely wasted though, as I popped into Marks & Spencer and, after perusing their food hall, was pleasantly surprised to see the beers they had on offer. What's more, many were available on a "four for the price of three" basis. Consequently I purchased a Chocolate Porter from Robinsons, a London Porter from Meantime Brewery, a Southwold Winter Beer from Adnams, plus a Staffordshire IPA produced by Marstons. All the beers are brewed exclusively for M&S, and I look forward to trying them in due course.

Earlier in the day I also picked up several bottles of Co-Op Organic Ale; a 5.0% beer, brewed using a percentage of Fairtrade sugar by Freeminer Brewery. Many retailers are promoting Fairtrade products this week, and the Co-Op were selling this beer at just £1.00 a bottle. I'm planning to crack one open tonight, and given Freeminer's excellent brewing credentials, I'm optimistic that it will be a good beer.

Monday 1 March 2010

Löwenbräu Triumphator

Matt's friend arrived back yesterday from a short visit to Munich. Brought me back a couple of bottles of Lowenbrau Triumphator - what a hero! Will enjoy sampling those, but will probably wait until next weekend. For a more detailed review of this excellent beer, click here.

On a totally different subject, Paul Garrard over at The Real Ale Network, has launched a campaign to persuade CAMRA to make March the month for the promotion of Mild, rather than May. Seems an excellent idea to me, so why not check out the link above, and lend your support.