Tag: Beer

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Drinking on Jimmy’s Farm

We’ve had quite a few conversations recently about how nice it would be if a few more celebrities threw their hats into the beer ring, so to speak, and we got a bit more championing of beer from people who people take notice of. 

So I was intrigued the other day when Mrs Brown came home from a meeting out in the sticks with three beers from Jimmy’s Farm.  
Jimmy Doherty is a mate of Jamie Oliver’s who rose to fame with a series in 2002 about setting up his specialist pig farm in Suffolk. The series led to an expansion of the farm and this led to a series about the perils of the expansion, which led to more attention and more expansion, and so on in a beautifully postmodern spiral of a farm-cum-media phenomenon-cum-theme park feeding itself and growing to become a big business today.
Whatever your thoughts on this as a business model, it’s great that someone with this kind of profile is weighing in as a small brewer.  So what about the beers?
There are three in the range, all bottle conditioned:
  • The Same Again – a 5.2% golden ale described as a ‘light refreshing hoppy brew’
  • Flying Pig – a 6% premium bitter that’s ‘packed with masses of cascade hops’
  • Large black pig – 6%, stout that has ‘more malt than you can shake a stick at’.

The branding is excellent – it follows the design for all Jimmy’s Farm produce (there’s lots of it) and there’s been some serious money spent here.  And it’s intriguing for a range of three beers all to be above 5%.  This is a very good-looking selection of ales, and I got quite excited about tasting them.  

So imagine my disappointment when they resolutely failed to deliver. The golden ale had the fresh, springy aroma you’d expect, and was then weirdly thin in the mouth – I’ve had bags more flavour in a 3.8% golden ale and was mystified as to how a 5.2% beer could taste of so little. 
I’ve no idea where the cascade hops were in the premium bitter. That’s my favourite hop, the reason for my whole IPA obsession, and it was present neither on the nose nor the palate. This was probably the best of the three but again, at 6% you were left wondering where the flavour was hiding.
The stout, like the golden ale, promised something on the nose that it could not deliver in the mouth – aromas of chocolate and coffee with nothing behind them.
Maybe the packaging and ABV levels raised my expectations of Brew Dog-style flavours.  And maybe the lack of them is deliberate – the provenance and packaging of these beers makes them a perfect vehicle to attract new people to beer, and maybe the thinking is that fuller flavours would scare novices off.  
But I don’t believe that’s true.  Wine drinkers who don’t like beer think of it as gassy lager or flat real ale.  They’re put off by extreme bitterness perhaps, but every time I try a novice on an aromatic golden ale or IPA, or a rich, chocolatey stout, they love it – wine drinkers are used to more concentrated flavours after all.  And anyway, higher ABVs on the label are more likely than flavour to deter people who think beer can only be 3-4%.
The beers are of course not brewed on the farm itself, but at the Red Rat Brewery, founded in 2007 in nearby Bury St Edmunds.
Curiously, while they’re for sale via the brewery’s website, and in Jimmy’s actual farm shop (where Mrs Brown found them) they’re only for sale on Jimmy’s farm website as part of a father’s day gift pack that includes a book and some sausages.
What a waste of a fantastic opportunity.

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The difference the Atlantic makes

Every British beer drinkers knows Foster’s – an ‘Aussie’ lager brewed under licence in the UK, the second-biggest beer brand in the country.  I like lager as much as ale and I try to keep an open mind, but I used some in a beer tasting recently (they wanted to learn about lager) and a can from the supermarket proved utterly undrinkable – not just in my opinion, but in that of the beer-tasting novices who had poured it from a can and really thought about the flavour for the first time in their lives.  Maybe that’s why Foster’s these days trumpets the virtues of ‘extra-cold’ so loudly in their ads.
Not a lot of Brits know that Foster’s lager is also available in the US.  And today, when I was looking at funnies on The Onion, I was held up by a banner ad for their latest product launch:

Yes, Foster’s has launched an ALE.  At least, it claims to be an ale.  It has caramel colouring added, and may be a lager in disguise, but the website makes a great deal of how it tastes different from the lager: caramel and fruit aromas versus ‘light malt aroma’, and a ‘smooth caramel finish’ rather than a ‘light hop finish’.  More interestingly, the beer aficionados at beeradvocate say on the whole that it tastes pretty decent.  I’m sure it will never give the likes of Stone or Dogfish Head sleepless nights, they’ve seemingly launched a perfectly drinkable beer.

It makes me want to cry, really it does.  What does it say about this country and its attitude to beer that this kind of launch would be unthinkable here?  Crucially, Foster’s in the UK is brewed and marketed by S&N Heineken, whereas it’s a Miller brand in the US.  But Miller are here too, doing a very good job of Peroni and Pilsner Urquell, and they show not the slightest intention of going anywhere near ale.
This is not a CAMRA rant; it’s a flavour rant, the latest example of how beer is summarily excluded by drinkers, major corporate brewers and food and drink writers alike from the revolution that’s happening on the British palate.  Every year it feels like we make little bits of progress, then something like this makes you see how far there is to go.  

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Is it alright to like Morrissey Fox?

Saviours of the ale industry?  Or a pair of twats?  As they say on reality TV, YOU decide...

One of the most controversial beer stories this year is the entry of man behaving badly Neil Morrissey into the brewing industry, with his mate Richard Fox.  They took over a pub, Ye Olde Punch Bowl at Marton cum Grafton in Yorkshire, built a microbrewery in the back garden, started turning out a golden ale that was very quickly listed nationwide in Tesco, and got the whole thing made into a TV show, Neil Morrissey’s Risky Business, which ran for three weeks on Channel 4.   
The whole saga sent the beer world into a bit of a tizz, and we can summarise the debate as follows.  On the one hand, the brewing industry is gasping for breath and celebrity involvement is the oxygen of our times.  It can only be a good thing.  They’re brewing real ale rather than lager – nothing wrong with lager of course, but ale needs publicity to help challenge outdated perceptions of it.  And in the TV series, they managed to get beer on the telly for the first time since Michael Jackson’s Beer Hunter, seventeen years ago.
So what’s the problem?  Well, they’re interlopers.  They swan in from nowhere, with no brewing background, and suddenly it’s their beer in Tesco and them on the telly.  That’s just not fair.  Brewers are jealous of the success of the beer, and people like me are jealous because it should be us on the telly because we’ve been trying for years and we’ve all put so much more work in.  They’re famous, we’re jealous and bitter.  
And the telly programme itself – was it a good advertisement for beer?  Reviews were mixed, and many industry grumblers felt it was too laddish.  Too much swearing.  As we know, in some corners of the industry these are terrible crimes.
I must confess I’m ambivalent myself.  I’ve known Richard Fox for a few years and he’s a really nice bloke.  He’s a great ambassador for beer, particularly at live events where he evangelises beer and food matching.  But I’ve had about five or six serious attempts at getting my books turned into TV series and never succeeded.  They have a book tie-in which has an endorsement on the front from Richard Hammond – why can’t I have a quote from Richard Hammond?  And the book shamelessly and without credit rips off an idea from Man Walks into a Pub.  
So I’m a bit resentful and jealous, at the same time as feeling sneery and critical of people in the brewing industry who feel the same way.  To resolve my feelings one way or the other, I went along a few weeks ago to the official trade launch of Morrissey Fox, with the intention of letting the beer itself do the talking.
My quest for objectivity ran into trouble straight away, because the two stars were pouring the beer themselves, working the bar like pros.  Richard greeted me warmly and immediately introduced me TV’s Neil Morrissey.  I was a big fan of Men Behaving Badly in its day, but I wasn’t star-struck because Neil is a genuinely warm and nice bloke who genuinely makes you feel like a mate.  He may have been laying it on a bit thick when he said he was star-struck at meeting me!  Turns out he’s a big fan of Man Walks into a Pub, having read it when Hugo Speer out of The Full Monty gave him a copy and said he had to read it.
Having seen The Full Monty I can, unfortunately, only ever picture Hugo Speer in a red leather thong.  I imagined him wearing this, all oiled-up, while handing over a fake-tan-stained copy of my first book to the man who does the voice of Bob the Builder.  It was a moment I could never have imagined at the start of my writing career.
Anyway, I tried my best to put this out of my head, and moved on to the beers. 
The blonde ale is a blonde ale.  I like blonde ales a lot and I like the way they bring people into the ale category for the first time.  Morrissey Fox blonde ale was not at all bad and it was not the best I’ve tasted.  There’s not much more I can say about it, but that shouldn’t be seen as a criticism.
The best bitter was a different story.  This was a very fine beer indeed: chocolatey brown with a nice tight head, it was nutty and toffeeish and caramelly and very, very smooth, complex but insanely drinkable.  I loved it.
Finally there was a Christmas ale, full of spicy and fruity flavours.  It felt a bit obvious – too much of a collection of elements rather than a blended whole.  But not unpleasant.  
So they may be spawny gets who have more attention than they deserve.  Or they may be very talented brewers who simply have more drive and nous than other brewers and beery media wannabes.  Whatever, they are really, really nice blokes who genuinely love beer, and they’ve made two not-bad beers and one fantastic beer.  If you just take that last sentence and forget the controversy and jealousy over the media circus, that’s good enough for me.

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Lovely Pub Hosts Festival of Lovely Beer This Weekend

The White Horse in Parson’s Green has long been famous as THE Mecca for the luvvies of the beer world, if that’s not too bizarre a concept (the idea of there being luvvies of the beer world, rather than them having a Mecca).  

There was a general feeling when landlord Mark Dorber left after 25 years that it wasn’t going to be as good as it used to be.  And while Mark is an irreplaceable character (currently to be found being highly and very entertainingly opinionated at his new gaff in Walberswick), current manager Dan Fox, ably assisted by Ben Lockwood (a man whose unimpeachable and unquestionable passion for Barnsley FC mirrors my own) have ensured a seamless continuation of high standards for which they deserve recognition and acclaim.
A perfect example of this is this weekend, the White Horse’s 26th Old Ales Festival.  From beer o’clock on Friday 28th November to I-should-remember-I-need-to-be-at-work-tomorrow on Sunday 30th, the pub will be showcasing at least fifty examples of historic styles like barley wine, old ale, mild, porter, stout and strong ale.  It’s cold.  It’s raining.  It’s the credit crunch.  You don’t need any more reasons than that.  But there are many more – including exclusive CASK beers from Meantime, and rare beers from North America.
See you there.

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Put a little Berghaus in your soul

It was wet and cold in the middle of July, when the rest of the country seems to have had a lovely weekend, but the Latitude Festival, in a gorgeous, leafy park with oak trees centuries-old and a silvery lake, was the perfect end to two weeks of birthday celebrations. I think the sheep, dyed pink, and the punts on the aforementioned lake, were there just for the weekend, but apparently the rest of it is there all the time.

Since turning forty I’m convinced that my knees are going and I’ve started getting heartburn and my back aches, and I really like sitting down much, much more than I used to, but for four days it was splendid to meet friends I don’t see often enough and behave like a bunch of teenage lads. The ailments, if I’m honest, are probably due to too much beer for too long.

Latitude is the perfect destination for anyone who thinks Glastonbury has lost its spirit. Great bands and brilliant comedy were punctuated by strolls to the literature and poetry tents. You could even go and see Sadlers Wells doing a bit of ballet if the mood took you (it didn’t take me).

One of the nicest surprises was at the drinks tent. Alongside Tuborg lager (hey, it’s better than Glasto’s Budweiser) and Aspall’s cider were two ales I’d never heard of before, and both were mighty fine.

It turns out that Hektor’s Brewery is actually on site, in Henham Park, the location of the festival. They supplied two beers: Pure, a clean 3.8% golden ale with a lovely crisp, citrussy hop finish, and Scarecrow, a darker, richer beer at 5%, full-bodied and maltier but still with a delightful hop edge to it that suggests American hops have been involved somewhere along the line, though their website says it’s just full of English hops.

It was with mixed feelings that I took the news that every one of the festival’s five bars had run out of Scarecrow by Saturday afternoon – only half way through the festival. No more lovely 5% beer for me, but you’ve got a love that kind of emphatic endorsement from the youngest festival crowd I’ve ever seen. Up to that point, each time I was at the bar every single order included at least one pint of it, among the ciders and the lagers. I’ve no idea what the product mix was, but ale must have had a higher share than it enjoys in most of the high street pubs in whihc these guys usually drink.

By Sunday it was getting difficult to find Pure as well – they had some left at two of the bars buy Sunday evening. My mates started off drinking cider. After they tried the Pure, they never went back.
A couple of damn fine beers, enjoyed so much more outside, in front of the best bands currently strutting their stuff.

Thanks Latitude – see you next year.

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Brand Tags – what do you really think of a brand?

There’s an amusing site that was pointed out to me by people at the ad agency where I’m currently moonlighting.

It’s based on a principle that we all use in adland: you can write a definition of what you would like your brand to stand for, but a brand is an abstract concept, so the only real definition is the one that exists in people’s heads. The site therefore prompts you with a logo and asks you to write the first word or phrase that comes into your head. It then collates these into a word map, a true definition of the brand in question.

It’s largely American, so its use to us Brits is a little limited, but I laughed out loud when I checked out what Budweiser really means to people. Bud Light is even better. Compare this with Sam Adams, and you realise that there’s hope for the mass palate yet. We’re confused about Heineken, which maybe reflects how that brand is perceived differently in different parts of the world, but we absolutely love Guinness.

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Meet the UK’s newest champion of cask ale

Alright, so I’m generally quite liberal in my views towards beer appreciation and resistant of beer snobbery, but this has given me pause. In fact I think I might have to run a little poll, because it’s got me flummoxed.

The country’s biggest tabloid is going into the beer business. Market research organisation Mintel reported last week that the plan is to launch a lager under the page three ‘brand’ -interesting to see what the Portman Group and every other alcohol regulatory body will have to say about that one, given that it is strictly forbidden to link beer and sex these days – and a cask ale under The Sun brand.

On the one hand, I despise Rupert Murdoch and all his works. I never pay any money to anything to do with News International if I can at all help it. On the other, you can’t help but think this will benefit the market as a whole.

Why is The Sun launching a cask ale as well as a lager? It can only be because they think it’s worth their while doing so. It ties in with the fact that premium cask ale is now consistently outperforming the rest of a dire beer market.

And The Sun has phenomenal power to change people’s opinions. At the very least, it puts beer on the media agenda more firmly than it has been for ages. We currently have the worst decline in beer volumes for nearly thirty years. Surely this can only help. It is bound to upset purists who drink ale partly in order to show how different they are from the stereotypical Sun-reading, white van-driving lager lout, but how much of that is really about the age-old pastime of pouring scorn on working class men?

Will it be shit beer because most things The Sun does tend to be lowest common denominator? Or given that what they do, they do well (Sun journalism is actually very skilful), will they produce something that’s accessible, but decent quality?

Good or bad, it’s going to be interesting.

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Quaffing at Spitalfields market – for now at least

Much as I adore everything about Utobeer at Borough Market, and shop there on a weekly basis whenever I’m home, it’s always nice to have more than one of something, which is why I was very pleased some months ago to receive an e-mail from Chris Gill telling me he’d just opened a speciality beer stall, Quaffs, at Spitalfields Market. Stonch got down there straight away last July and liked what he saw, but what with one thing and another, a three month boat trip here or there, it’s taken me about nine months to find a Sunday when I could get the bus down and have a look.

I’m glad I did. There are over 150 beers, about half of them Belgian, the rest consisiting of British, German, and the full range of American beers currently being imported by James Clay. The set-up is neat, clean and airy, there are tasting notes for each beer pinned to the shelf, and there’s a really nice touch whereby branded glasses for each beer are displayed with them, enticing you to imagine the pour, and helping demonstrate beer’s diversity. All the glasses are for sale too.

Chris is a very affable bloke and was doing great business while I was there. Quaffs also do mail order within the M25, can host beer tasting events and cater for private functions.

There’s just one problem. They’ve just been given four weeks’ notice to vacate the site.

There was a huge outcry a few years ago when large sections of Spitalfields, a shabby but hugely popular and utterly unique market, were ripped apart and replaced by glass, concrete and upmarket, aspirational chain brands. I’d much rather eat and drink in a Giraffe or a Leon than in a Pret a Manger or a Pizza Express, but I’d also rather see these brands on the high street where they belong rather than displacing individual traders in what used to be a quintessentially London landmark.

One of the compensations of the market being done up was the opening of the food marke in 2006. It was originally intended that this should consist of butchers and bakers, but instead it’s gone more boutique (hardly surprising in the context of how the rest of the market has been gentrified), with people selling artisanal bread, beer, cured meats and the obligatory three thousand different types of olive, as well as 150 speciality beers. While this luxury market-style set-up is almost becoming a brand in its own right, if you love food and drink you can’t walk around a place like this without a big grin on your face.

Unless, that is, you’re the manager of a chain cafe.

The big boys have protested, and insist the market is damaging their custom. Given that there was a queue of approximately fifty people waiting for a space at Leon when I passed, I can’t really believe this is true. But these big shiny chains pay very high rents for the privilege of being there, and so when they complain, small, artisanal businesses are shown the door.

As things stand, you’ve got four weeks to enjoy the delights of Quaffs. Get down there, buy their beers, and sign the petition that the market stall holders have got up against this latest example of the homogenisation of every corner of our lives.

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Good reasons to go to Wetherspoons

Is this really a pub? If the beer’s good enough, does it matter?

Wetherspoons fascinates me as a chain. It’s a car crash of the really, really good and the irredeemably shit – there’s nothing just ‘alright’ or ‘not bad’ about it. Someone in the press recently commented that the chain has replaced the working man’s club, which I suppose is true in a functional sense, though it lacks the charm and the sense of belonging and ownership of the old WMCs that were still around when I was growing up. A group of beer aficionados recently told me they didn’t consider Wetherspoons to be pubs, but retail outlets: they don’t have real landlords, there’s no personality behind the bar and no individual character to your local branch. Well, there is – they make a point of making each branch reflect the local area and history – but it’s decoration rather than something in the soul of the pub.
And yet, a higher percentage of Wetherspoons outlets have been accredited with Cask Marque status than any other pub group, there’s always a range of decent real ales and while they may not be kept in as good condition as a top real ale pub, they’re always drinkable.

Anyway, right now the really good outweighs the irredeemably shit by some margin, because the Wetherspoons InternationalReal Ale Festival has started.

“International real ale?”

Yup, as well as nearly fifty beers from around the UK, and a selection of international speciality beers, there are cask-conditined beers from countries you wouldn’t expect.

I went to the launch of the festival on Thursday and met Mitch Steele and Steve Wagner from Stone, who packed a bag of Centennial and Simcoe hops and came to Kent to brew Stone California Double IPA at the Shepherd Neame brewery.

Mitch said it was a privilege to brew at the brewery, and obviously enjoyed matching North American vision and invention with English brewing tradition.

The resulting beer is utterly beguiling: the hoppy punch that you only really taste in North America, countered by the smoothness and depth exclusive to cask-conditioned ale.

It slipped down distressingly easily. After a couple of minutes I noticed I’d sunk half a pint, and casually asked Mitch what strength the beer was. “Well, we had to compromise,” replied the man I suddenly remembered was responsible for beers such as Arrogant Bastard and Ruination, “so it came in just over 7 per cent.”

Not a lunchtime pint then. But this, together with the cask-conditioned Tokyo Black from Japan’s Yo-Ho brewery, brewed a few weeks ago up at Marston’s, makes it worth enduring any number of mad shouting old men to grab a pint.

The festival is on until April 14th – I can’t see the Stone IPA lasting that long.