Tag: barley wine

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Museum Brewery Queen’s Ale Part II

I’m getting shoddy. Just found my tasting notes for the Queen’s Ale I mentioned yesterday.

We opened a bottle in the brewery at around 9pm, twelve hours into our two day brewing session. It poured a dark chocolate brown with an acne-yellow head. Look, I know that makes it sound unappetising, but that’s the colour it was. Maybe it was just the weak light in the brewery office.
There was a dusty old ale aroma at first, followed by sherry, port, chocolate, chicory, and hints of leather and wet autumn leaves. And then, on the palate it went berserk. It did the whole lot – the sweetness and acidity of wine, a meaty umame taste in the middle and strong bitterness at the end. All these flavours got on with each other quite happily, united in a pleasingly smooth mouthfeel. Molasses and caramel were there, but only fleetingly. After the overture, a second mouthful brought out touches of honey, banana, cinnamon and espresso grounds.
Steve and Jo, who brewed the beer, hadn’t previously tasted one as old as this. They were shocked at how dramatically it had developed since its youth as a mere barley wine.
John Keeling, who brews Fuller’s Vintage Ale, talks about ‘sine waves’ in his beer, trying to explain how the character ebbs and flows over the years it ages.
I’ve no idea what kind of maths, physics, chemistry or plain old-fashioned juju is going on in Queen’s Ale. But you can understand why it’s perfect for a Christmas pudding. And why I was so upset about using it for this purpose.

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As posh as the queen

I spent two days in Burton-on-Trent last week, brewing No.1 Barley Wine and P2 Stout in the White Shield Brewery with Steve Wellington. I’m spending today writing up the story – complete with some exciting news about the future of the brewery – for a piece in CAMRA’s Beer magazine. It’ll be running in the Spring 2010 issue, out around February.

Anyway, while I was up there, Mrs PBBB – sorry, The Beer Widow – phoned me to discuss Christmas pudding plans. We’ve never made our own Christmas pudding before, and she’d been rooting around for recipes. This is the week you ‘traditionally’ make your pudding, apparently. Anyway, she’d found a Delia recipe which called for some barley wine and stout. Hey, I was brewing barley wine and stout! There was no barley wine near to hand, but I was sure Steve would let me have a bottle of P2 for the pud.
But Steve went one better than that. Yes, he gave me several bottles of P2. But when I told him what I wanted it for, he also gave me a bottle of Queen’s Ale.
This is a special brew of No.1 Barley Wine brewed in 2002 to commemorate the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. There are not many bottles left lying around the brewery, and we’d just polished one off for elevenses because Steve hadn’t tasted it for a while. It was sublime – dark and rich and sherrylike but not too aggressive. The age on it had done wonderful things, creating a beer that was still a beer but as soft and mellow and deep and satisfying as a vintage Bordeaux.
The thing is, Buckingham Palace use it to marinate the fruit they put in the Royal Christmas pudding. And that’s why Steve very, very kindly gave me a bottle to bring home for TBW.
This was one of those crises of conscience. All I wanted to do was stash it safely in my cellar, or maybe sneak it up to the study to enjoy to myself on a dark and stormy night. But Steve had only given it to me because of the pudding story. It seemed like a waste for such an amazing beer. But I wouldn’t have it in my possession otherwise. With a heavy heart and some anguished mewling noises, I gave it to TBW. On Friday night, after a few tweaks to the Delia recipe, she poured it over some fruit.
Well, at least our Christmas pudding will be as posh as the Queen’s.
Yesterday was the final mixing of the pudding before cooking. Its traditional to gather round and let each family member have a stir, and make a wish as they do so. I wished I could have some more Queen’s Ale.
Later, I went down to tidy the beer cellar and try to make some room – it’s a bit overfull at the moment. And lo, as I tried to make sense of the barley wine and vintage ale shelf, I found not one, but two bottles of Queen’s Ale that the generous-to-a-fault master brewer of Burton must have given me when we were working together brewing Calcutta IPA, my Hops and Glory beer.
The magic of Christmas is at work already.

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How to sell barley wine

If you’re interested, here’s the text of my speech from the Guild of Beer Writers seminar last Monday – it seemed to go down pretty well.

The best book on marketing I ever read was called Positioning: the battle for your mind. It was the best book because it contained one simple idea. It repeated this idea over and over again, with countless examples, until you got it. And it’s an idea that can help you sell anything worth selling. Basically, the idea is this: the way the human brain works, when we are introduced to a new thing or idea, we automatically try to make sense of it by filing it in our brains next to things we already know. We understand it by relating it to things we’re deeply familiar with. The first cars were known as horseless carriages. Television was like radio, but with pictures. And Seven-Up launched in the United States as ‘the uncola’. In each case, the product is defined – positioned – against a product that’s already familiar. Think about when we write tasting notes for beers – the best way to describe an American IPA to a wine lover is to compare it to a Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc. Imperial porters are “vinous”. And who can say they don’t regularly describe the combination of hops, barley, yeast and water as chocolatey, fruity or biscuity? The term ‘barley wine’ is a classic piece of positioning thinking – we know what wine is. It’s made of grapes. This is wine that’s made from barley. Of course, technically its beer, not wine, but if a potential drinker, never having heard of it before, hears this phrase, they can decode a lot of product information from it. It’s going to be strong in alcohol and in flavour. It should be sipped and savoured from a small glass, not drunk in pints. It’s going to come in a 750ml bottle, designed for sharing, that’s going to look great and cost a lot of money and be suitable on a dinner table and… oh hang on. It’s quite interesting to see where the analogy breaks down, isn’t it? The very name, barley wine, sets accurate expectations about what the product will deliver. But not about what to expect from how it will be packaged and sold. And there’s another problem: if you say ‘barley wine’ to older drinkers, they have another concept in their heads which means they don’t actually get to wrestle with the metaphor of the name to unlock those rich associations. To them, barley wine is rocket fuel, cheap and nasty, something that was around in the seventies. To win them over, you need to do something that breaks the association between the term and the drink they used to know. The solution to both is simple enough: a different approach to presentation and packaging. If you package a very strong beer in the same type of bottles in which you package ordinary beer, give it a similar name and labelling, and sell it at a not too dissimilar price point, people are going to think that it’s like other beer – carrying the same associations, to be drunk in the same fashion. This is why people think of an 8% beer as insanely strong when they’re perfectly happy to drink 12% wine in similar quantities. Present it in a different way, a more premium way, and people will think of it differently. Drinkers have two sets of associations in their heads: beer, and wine. Barley wine can and should play with both. A clichéd advertising proposition for barley wine would be “the beer that thinks it’s a wine”. You can immediately see the associations that conjures up. But you have to do it justice. Think about quality. Presentation. Ritual. When you get a bottle of barley wine that looks like it’s worth paying seven quid for before you’ve even picked it up, you’ve probably got it nearly right. You might not like the fact that we’re using wine as a benchmark of quality. But you have to work with what’s already in people’s heads. And it is called barley wine.