Friday, 31 December 2010

Return to Bamberg - Day One

I returned early this morning from Bamberg, where I spent four extremely pleasant, but very cold days enjoying the beery delights of this beautiful Franconian city. In contrast to our visit earlier in the year, where we enjoyed temperatures in the mid-30's, the mercury this time was well below freezing and there was a covering of snow, at least a foot deep. Still Germany is a country used to cold winters, and everything was functioning as normal. My inbound flight was delayed slightly by around 40 minutes, but that was all, and although it was snowing heavily when the plane touched down at Nuernberg Airport, the runway was clear as, I observed, were the pavements when I later arrived in Bamberg.

After checking into my hotel, and donning some extra layers of clothing, I walked the short distance into the Altstadt, or old town. My first port of call was Ambraeusianum, a brew pub situated just a few doors along from the famous Schlenkerla tavern. Back in July my son and I sat outside, but one would have needed to be an Eskimo to survive the kinds of low temperatures the city was experiencing this time around!

Ambraeusianum is pleasantly decorated with tiled floors and lots of light-coloured wood-work. Like all of the city's pubs it was looking suitably festive, as befitted the time of year. I ordered a tall mug of the pub's house-brewed Helles, which I remembered from the previous visit as being particularly enjoyable. Some beer writers have, unkindly in my view, described it as disappointing and lacking in balance, but I found it to have a good, full-bodied, underlying maltiness.

Even so, one beer was enough before moving on the short distance to Schlenkerla, but not before a quick reconnaissance along Untere Sandstrasse where I wanted to check out a few other drinking establishments for later on. As it turned out, none of these places opened until the evening, so not wishing to stay out in the cold any longer I headed back to Bamberg's most famous pub.

I should add that for guidance, as well as jolly good read, I had brought along a copy of John Connen's excellent Guide to Bamberg & Franconia. Now in its second edition, the guide has been completely revised and updated, with lots of colour photo's, as well as vital information about what can rightly be described as "Germany's Brewing Heartland".

Schenkerla was packed, as it seemed to be on every day of my trip, but I managed to find a seat, and settled down to enjoy a glass of the famous, almost coal-black, Rauchbier. It was every bit as good as I remembered, and I followed it with a glass of the stronger, seasonal Ur Bock. At 6.5% this is like a stronger version of the brewery's normal strength beer, but is sufficiently well-hopped to balance the additional body supplied by the malt. At 500ml a time though, it is definitely not a session beer so with this thought in mind, and the fact I was feeling peckish, I headed across the road to the Alt-Ringlein.

This former brew-pub is now a slightly up-market hotel, but its downstairs rooms still retain their traditional ambiance. I also remembered it as serving some extremely good roast pork! Unlike its neighbour across the road, Alt-Ringlein wasn't full to bursting point and I had no trouble in getting a table to myself. I ordered a glass of Spezial Lagerbier which although nowhere near as smoky as Schlenkerla's version, still has a pleasant, subtle smokiness lurking in the background. I decided to leave the Schweinebraten (roast pork) for another time, ordering instead a Schnitzel and chips. Once the Spezial was finished, I decided to move onto one of the hotel's other beers; this time Ungespundetes from Mahrs Braeu.

Dark amber in colour, with sufficient maltiness to match, Ungespundetes was a good beer to finish on. It had been a long day and I had been up since the early hours for the drive to the airport. I settled my account and wandered the relatively short distance, through the snow-covered streets, back to my hotel and a welcome night's sleep.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Christmas Day

I was quite restrained on both the drink and the food front yesterday, surprising even myself. I cracked open my first bottle of beer shortly before one o'clock; my choice being Festivity from Bath Ales, as recommended by Mark Dredge. The brewery describe it thus: “Hints of rum mingle with coffee and vanilla flavours to make a truly wonderful old-style porter.”, but I thought it more of a cross between old ale and porter. Whatever it's supposed to be, it was an excellent winter ale, and a good beer to start the day's drinking with.

Christmas dinner was on the table by two o'clock, and as usual my wife Eileen had done us proud. We had a roast turkey crown, with pigs in blankets, stuffing, bread sauce, roast potatoes, broccoli, chestnuts plus, of course, the obligatory brussel sprouts! It was truly excellent, so thanks once again, Eileen. To help wash this feast down I had selected a couple of bottles of Fuller's 1845, with a bottle of Brakspears Triple in reserve.

As things turned out the two bottles of 1845 were more than enough, and I had a good half a glass left to drink after the meal. I had a bottle of Robinsons Old Tom put by to go with the Christmas pudding, but it seemed a shame to open this, especially as I had quite a bit of 1845 left, and anyway I thought keeping it back for the cheese course later on, might be a more sensible option.

In the end, we left our cheese and biscuits until the evening, so after finishing the 1845 and settling down to watch a bit of TV, I moved onto coffee to go with the mince pies and brandy sauce. Later in the evening I fancied another beer, but wanted something a bit lighter. Oxford Gold from Brakspears fitted the bill and was followed by my final beer of the day Beau Porter from Royal Tunbridge Wells Brewery.

Whilst this was the final, it was also the best beer of the day, and a stunning example of a traditional porter. There were chocolate and coffee notes combined with a rich roast bitterness. As the brewery themselves say, the beer has "A nice balance of malty sweetness and hop bitterness." RTWB have been brewing for less than a year, but in this short time have managed to come up with some excellent beers. For me, their porter is surely the jewel in the crown, and I look forward being able to sample it on draught.

So ended Christmas day; as I said at the beginning of this post, it wasn't as beery as I'd perhaps first planned, but even so I still enjoyed some excellent beers, some fine food and above all the company of my family!

I probably won't be posting for a few days, as weather and transportation permitting, I'm off to Bamberg in the morning. Hope everyone else enjoyed their Christmas drinks as much as I did!

Friday, 24 December 2010

Meantime India Pale Ale

Just cracked open the first of my Christmas beers. Meantime India Pale Ale comes in a 750ml wine-style bottle, sealed with a wired cork. At 7.5% abv it doesn't take many prisoners, but it's one of the finest examples of the style I have tasted to date.

According to the back label "Pound after pound of Fuggles and Golding hops are needed to enable us to achieve the mighty dry hopping rates necessary of the original 19th Century IPA's to recreate this great beer style."

The beer itself is pale amber in colour and, whilst not bottle-conditioned, is lively with a loose foam head that soon collapses. The hop rate is just right for me, probably too bitter for some, but no doubt based on historical rates of hop additions. The label also advises the drinker to "Enjoy with hot food and spicy friends, or vice versa."

A large bottle, such as this is obviously meant for sharing, especially at such a high abv, but for me it's a Christmas Eve treat, and seeing as Christmas only comes once a year then why not the occasional bit of indulgence!

Welton's Smoked Porter

Earlier this week our planned CAMRA Christmas social to Otford had to be called off. The reason; bad weather, and the risk that the trains might not be running, or the possibility that the last ones back might indeed be cancelled.

Not wishing to end up stranded in Otford, a small group of us decided to meet up instead at the Humphrey Bean, JDW's Tonbridge outlet. I had some last minute shopping to attend to, so was a bit late in arriving, but when I eventually made it to the pub found it bustling and pleasantly busy, but not full to bursting point. I was pleased to see a reasonable selection of ales on offer, and settled for a pint of Smoked Porter from Welton's Brewery. This proved to be a good choice, and I remarked on this fact as I joined my companions at their table.

The beer has a strength of 5.2%, and being a porter is of course almost black in colour. I couldn't really detect that much smokiness, but it was there, subtly lurking in the background. My friends also gave it a try themselves and agreed that it was a very good beer. Smokiness is something that people either love or hate in a beer. I love it, and indeed in a few days time am off for a short break in Bamberg; the centre of "Rauchbier" production. Beers brewed there, such as Schlenkerla, have considerably more smokiness in their palate than Welton's offering, but in no way should this denigrate the attempt of this Horsham-based brewery to brew something bold and different, and help introduce UK drinkers to the delights of "smoke beer". Therefore full marks to Ray Welton and his team for coming up with this version.

I had intended to move on to the Santa's Wobble, from Hogsback Brewery, that I'd noticed earlier, but by the time I was ready to order a pint, it had run out. At 7.5% this was probably just as well, especially as I had work the following day, so I stuck with the Smoked Porter. If you come across this beer, do give it a try, although I would imagine so far as JDW outlets are concerned, it is only available locally.

I probably won't get another post in before the big day tomorrow, so would like to take this opportunity to wish one and all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy and Prosperous New Year.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Young's Special London Ale

I cracked open a bottle of Young's Special London Ale a short while ago, whilst settling down in front of the TV to watch David Suchet on the Orient Express. Excellent programme with some superb scenery, and some equally superb restored 1920's carriages.

It's a shame I can't say the same about the beer. What on earth has happened to this former classic? It seems someone has forgotten the hops. You used to be able to smell them as soon as the crown-cork was released, and when the beer was poured it was like drinking in a hop-garden! Somewhere along the line, this once excellent beer has lost its essential character.

I suspect this "dumbing down" occurred after Young's shifted their brewing operation to Bedford; throwing in their lot with Charles Wells. However, I'm still not certain why this change should have come about, but feel it's unlikely to be just down to the different water and brewing environment in Bedford. Did the company feel that the beer was just too hoppy and decide to go for a safer, more mainstream market?

I used to be a big fan of Young's beers back in the late 70's and 80's. Sadly this is no longer the case, and Special London Ale is now anything but special, so far as I am concerned!

Friday, 17 December 2010

Beers for Christmas Day

Over the past few years we've always had guests joining us for Christmas dinner, and invariably they've preferred wine to beer. I've normally felt obliged to join them, as it's not often I get the chance to enjoy a drop of fermented grape, but this year, there'll just the three of us sitting round the table. My wife Eileen doesn't really drink, whilst son Matt likes his "cooking lager". This leaves me free to enjoy a selection of whatever beers take my fancy.

I've been building up a stock of bottles over the past few weeks, which includes several bottles of Fullers 1845. I believe that this strong, full-bodied ale will be just right to accompany the roast turkey, which can sometimes be rather a dry meat. It is also important that the beer does not overwhelm the assorted vegetables and trimmings, which I prefer to the bird itself!

In reserve I have a large 750cl bottle of Meantime IPA, some Young's Special London Ale plus a bottle of Brakspear's Triple. On reflection, the first two might be a touch too bitter, so the Triple would be a better bet. I noticed that Mark Dredge was recommending, amongst a whole host of different beers, Chimay Bleu, to go with the turkey, and I know from past experience that this is a good accompaniment. I'm sure other similar strength Trappist beers would also fit the bill, but as Chimay Bleu is readily available from Waitrose, I might have to grab a few bottles next time I'm down that way.

I'm certain that most of the above named beers would also go well with the cheese course, but what about the Christmas pud? Last week, at our CAMRA Christmas Meal, we had draught Harvey's Christmas Ale as an accompaniment, and it was a good match. I've probably left it a bit late to get some bottles of this superb 8.1% barley wine in, especially as I've not been able to get over to Tunbridge Wells this weekend due to the heavy snow. This also precludes another beer that has worked for me in the past; Samuel Smiths Imperial Stout. Robinson's Old Tom might fit the bill though, and I noticed it's on offer at Sainsbury's at two bottles for £3.00.

As for a post-breakfast, mid-morning beer?, well I've got several bottles of Fullers London Porter in stock, as well as a couple of bottles of Beau Porter - the new seasonal beer from Royal Tunbridge Wells Brewery. One thing's for sure, I shouldn't go thirsty this Christmas, and with a pre-New Year trip to Bamberg planned as well, there's certain to be a lot more fine beer to be drunk over the festive period.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Christmas Ale to be Hit by Tax Hike

Sitting in the cosy post-Christmas meal afterglow of the Brecknock Arms yesterday, sipping a couple of halves of Harvey's Christmas Ale, left me with the nagging thought that this excellent strong, seasonal offering is going to be one of the beers affected by the government's proposed tax hike on strong beers. As many people are aware, the people we entrust to look after our interests are planning quite large rises in tax on all beers with an abv above 7.5%.

Their purpose is to try and crack down on problem drinkers, and having already hiked the duty on "white cider" (Diamond White, Frosty Jack etc), the government have now set their sights firmly on those people who enjoy the odd can or three of "tramp juice" (Carlsberg Special Brew, or Tennents Super to you and I). What they don't realise is that people with a serious drink problem will either move onto a different drink, or find the money, somehow, from elsewhere. This is the trouble when politicians think they can micro-manage people's behaviour, and attempt to control how they spend their money.

The unfortunate effect of all this, of course, is that strong seasonal beers, such as Harvey's Christmas Ale, and a host of others, will face a significant increase in their retail price, just to stop the odd hobo getting off his face with them! Now we all know that these rich, warming and well-crafted beers are not "park bench" material, but when the powers that be interfere in a mis-guided attempt to control a problem that only affects a relatively small number of people, this is what happens.

For the record, at £2.30 per half pint, Harvey's Christmas Ale is dear enough already. I can't see the odd "knight of the road" hot-footing it down to the nearest Harvey's pub, to get trollyed at those sort of prices! Further more, it is impossible to rush such a strong and rich beer anyway, and a few halves is plenty enough for most people. Unfortunately, these superb examples of the brewers art will either be priced off the bar next year, or will be brewed to a strength that is below 7.5%; thereby losing some of their essential character!

Saturday, 11 December 2010

West Kent CAMRA Christmas Meal 2010

After five, or was it six, years of holding our annual Christmas meal at the Rose & Crown in Halsted, West Kent CAMRA broke with tradition and moved the event to the Brecknock Arms at Bells Yew Green. The decision to move the venue was partly influenced by the departure last summer of popular landlord, Bob from the Rose & Crown, but also by the desire to go somewhere else for a change.
Unfortunately, the Brecknock will probably not be hosting the event next year, as licensees Joe and Charlotte are handing the keys back to Harvey's in January, and leaving the trade altogether. This is a great shame, as the couple have put a lot of effort into running this small, Victorian local situated just outside Tunbridge Wells.

Without wishing to dwell too much on these changes, the meal itself was a great success. Twelve members in total turned up, with most of us travelling by train from Sevenoaks, Tonbridge or Tunbridge Wells. Charlotte had stuck several tables together in the pub's main bar, which was decked out in suitably festive attire. There were four ales on sale in the pub; all of them from Harveys. Alongside the staple Best Bitter; Dark Mild, Old Ale and Christmas Ale were all available on hand pump, the latter being a rare, but welcoming sight at this time of the year.
Following a few pints, and after warming ourselves in front of the pub's welcoming log fire, we sat down to enjoy our meal. Most of us opted for the traditional roast turkey, complete with all the trimmings, although roast beef was also available as an alternative. After a suitable interval, we moved on to the dessert, with many of us opting for Harvey's Christmas Pud. This was the cue to sample the Christmas Ale; half pints only mind you, as at 8.1%, this rich, dark amber ale is a beer that needs to be treated with the utmost respect.

Coffee and mince pies followed, after which there was time for one last quick drink, before taking our leave of Joe and Charlotte and walking the short distance back to the station. Most of the part alighted in Tunbridge Wells, with the intention of heading up to the Grove Tavern. Myself, son Matt, plus friend Don however, decided to call it a day and stayed on the train back to Tonbridge. All three of us were just too full to attempt to drink any more beer! All in all though, it was a good afternoon, and the prelude to more over-indulgence over the festive period!

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Open It! - Day Two - Löwenbräu Triumphator

So here we are on day two, or should it be three?, of "Open It! Weekend", and the next beer for me to open is another one from the Fatherland. This time it's Triumphator from Löwenbräu. I must admit this particular bottle hasn't exactly been gathering dust at the back of the cupboard. On the contrary, I only acquired it last month, when my son's friend Will, brought it back for me following a trip to Munich. Seeing as he generously bought me a couple of bottles, it seemed a good idea to open one now and write something about it!

Now to start, Löwenbräu are an industrial sized brewery; one of Munich's "Big Six" brewers. Seasoned observers though of drinking in the Bavarian capital, will know that really there are now only four breweries in operation as, not only do Paulaner brew Hacker Pschorr beers, but Löwenbräu now brew Spaeten beer bands. (Takeovers, consolidations and rationalisations, are no longer exclusively a phenomenon of the UK Brewing Industry!). That said, to the outside world, Löwenbräu are probably the best known of the Munich breweries, and whilst their core range might not be particularly challenging, they have still managed to come up trumps with Triumphator, a strong, Doppel-Bock style beer, available on draught for a limited period during March, (Starkbierzeit) but in bottle, all year round.

So how about the beer itself? After chilling overnight in the fridge, the beer is dark brown in colour, with a thin white head when poured. The nose of rich toffee and caramel notes from the dark Munich and Melanoidin malts is immediately apparent as the glass is raised to the mouth, and these intense flavours continue and linger on the tongue as the beer is drunk. The fullness of this strong beer, with its rich maltiness and the comforting warmth from its 7.6% abv strength, makes it the perfect drink for the cold weather we are experiencing at the moment.

The brewery describes it as their "dark, strong beer speciality", and state that it is "spicy and full-bodied in taste". I find it hard to disagree with their assessment, and think it proves that large breweries can, on occasion, brew some truly excellent beers. I am sure that Triumphator would be even better on draught, and it would be well worth making the journey to Munich to try it during Starkbierzeit.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Open It! - Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier

Unlike some of the more illustrious bloggers who I'm sure will be tasting some rather rare and exotic beers over the course of "Open It!" weekend, I don't profess to have a particularly well-stocked beer cellar. In actual fact, I don't even have a cellar; just a cupboard in the coolest part of our extension. When I lived in Maidstone, some 26 years ago, my Victorian terraced cottage had a large, dry cellar that would have been ideal for the storage of beer (draught, as well as bottles), but 1930's semi's were never built with such luxuries in mind, so the cool cupboard has to suffice.

I've been building up a stock of beers over the past few months, primarily to enjoy over the Yule-tide period, but there's been a few that have been hanging around for some time now, so I've dug a couple of them out to open, drink and enjoy, and then hopefully write something that makes a bit of sense.

First up is Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier, the last of a stash of bottles I brought back from my trip to Bamberg, last July. I was going to save it for the Festive Season , but as I've booked a return visit to this unspoilt Franconian city between Christmas and New Year, it seems a little pointless; especially as I'll be drinking plenty of this beer on draught, so here goes.

Most beer lovers will be familiar with this beer, which is a renowned world classic. The neck label on the bottle proudly proclaims "Bambergs Speczialitaet", and has a logo depicting Bamberg's famous town-all, or Rathaus, with the words, "Altstadt Bamberg - Weltkulturerbe", which I believe translates as "World Heritage Site".

Now for the beer itself. Dark brown in colour, rather than the almost black beer I remember drinking in the renowned Schlenkerla Tavern, with a dense white, rocky head, the beer has the un-mistakable aroma of smoky-bacon. The intense smokiness is evident from the first mouthful and lingers after swallowing in a very pleasant way. For me, it's a very moreish sort of beer, with tremendous depth of character from the beechwood-smoked malt used in the brewing process. Being bottled, there is a pleasant prickliness from the relatively high CO2 content, that serves to add to the character of the beer, rather than detract from it.

It's been said that Rauchbier is a style you either love or hate, and I'm certain that's true. Fortunately I love it, and I've met very few people that disagree with this view. Although we drank quite a few half litres of this beer during our stay last summer, it is definitely a beer more suited to the chills of winter, rather than the mid thirties temperatures we experienced back in July! Personally I can't wait to get back to Bamberg, later this month, and drink a lot more of it, together with the stronger Urbock which, hopefully, might still be on sale when I get there!

Friday, 3 December 2010

Greene King Abbot Reserve

After nearly a year since I sampled the bottled version of Greene King's Abbot Reserve, I finally got the chance today, to sample the draught version. Like the bottled, I am sorry to say I am not impressed. More about that in a minute.

Abbot Reserve feature's on this year's list of Christmas Ales in JDW outlets, and for the second day in a row, I found myself in our local Wetherspoon's. A fall of nearly a foot of snow, Wednesday night/Thursday morning had prevented me getting into work. Given the extreme weather conditions, I didn't even attempt to try getting the car off the drive, and a check on the National Rail Enquiries website revealed there were virtually no trains running. Although the snow abated last night, road and rail conditions were pretty much the same, which meant a further enforced day away from work.

Like the previous day, I had some shopping to get, both for ourselves and our elderly neighbours, so off I trudged, through the snow, down into Tonbridge. I had called into Wetherspoons earlier in the day for a coffee and, after the poor choice of ales on the previous day, was delighted to see the pump clip advertising the Abbot Reserve. After clearing some of the snow off the drive, getting a few Christmas cards written out and the aforementioned shopping, I finally made it back to the Humphrey Bean (our local JDW) just after 3pm.

This turned out to be a good time to call in, as there was virtually no queue at the bar. I ordered a pint of the said beer, paid just £1.85 for it, using my last CAMRA JDW voucher, and sat down to enjoy my pint. As expected, it was mid-brown in colour, with just a loose head on top. There was virtually no aroma to the beer (hops or otherwise), and taste wise I found it pretty disappointing as well. The 6.5% abv strength was quite evident, and there was a pronounced spicy pepperiness from the hops, but I found the beer totally lacking in depth. Although the spiciness was present at each mouthful, it quickly vanished once the beer was swallowed. There was certainly nothing to back up the initial tastes of the hops and the alcohol.

This, I thought is a very one-dimensional beer, and I was left wondering where were the fruitcake and toffee flavours described on the brewery's website? West Suffolk CAMRA are also shown on the website, singing the beer's praises, so either I sampled a duff cask (I don't think so, as it was fresh on this morning), or I am missing something? Again, I don't think so, as not only was the bottled version disappointing, but I have also seen other poor reviews of this beer. It's a shame really, as I know Greene King are trying hard to expand and improve their cask portfolio. But for me personally, it was even more of a shame as I had so been looking forward to sampling this beer!