Despite the seemingly unassailable wave of “innovation” among beers and brewers today, I’m often left missing the buzz of sampling for the first time the native beer traditions of lands near and far, experiences which continue to inspire and fuel my relationship with John Barleycorn today.
Back then descriptions in books, mainly those by pioneering “Beer Hunter” Michael Jackson, sparked my enthusiasm and over time, often with considerable effort, I came to try most of the world’s “traditional” beers, however obscure, often at source. Every discovery brought fresh revelation and sometimes disappointment but each helped broaden my knowledge and appreciation of the brewer’s art, in all its forms.
One of my haul of Belgian ales acquired from Belgiuminabox late last year, La Vermontoise (6%) is notable in my selection for being a collaboration, on this occasion between Brasserie de Blaugies near Dour, Hainault, in spitting distance of the French border, and Shaun Hill of Hill Farmstead Brewery in Greensboro, Vermont.
Writing before Christmas on the joys of sour beer, and the importance of Belgium in their survival and revival, inspired me to top up my reserves. Earlier research had led me to Belgiuminabox.com, an online retailer based in Antwerp. The experience was a memorable one, the drinking likely to be even more so.
Run by beer aficionado Kurt Verblest, Belgiuminabox offers a near unassailable selection of Belgian classics and rarities at prices rarely seen this side of the English Channel, if they ever appear at all, and with the inclination and ability to ship worldwide.
The last day of November took me to Essex brewer Mighty Oak’s annual free beer open day at its brewery in Maldon, to the east of Chelmsford. The event provides a showcase for the brewery’s wares – including selected barrels of its regular brews and an extensive lineup of seasonal specials – designed to create good will and to help secure take out orders of 36 pint pins and 18 pint mini pins for Christmas.
Both looked to be well on the way to selling out by the time I left, so the effort was clearly a worthwhile one. I didn’t myself end up walking away with an order for Bingle Jells, Rockin’ Reindeer or one of the seven other Christmas ales on offer (I’m not convinced that Yellow Snow was an obvious draw, though the beer itself was more than decent). What I did walk away with was rather more unexpected. Continue reading “Mighty Oak: Free Beer and the Spirit of Oscar Wilde (Mild)”
Yes, yes, I know I’m writing about Adnams again but that’s because it’s perhaps the most progressive of the old established brewers in Britain and regularly has new things to shout about.
Anyway some friends and I, including fellow blogger The Guest Ale (until this point an Adnams sceptic, you can read his take on the same event here) couldn’t resist the offer of £10 tickets for a guided tasting of Adnams’ many beers in September in the company of its head brewer Fergus Fitzgerald. And what a well spent £10 it proved to be.
Given the surroundings, downstairs at the Adnams Cellar & Kitchen store in Bloomsbury, a tasting of Adnams ales in cask-conditioned form would have been impractical. And the company doesn’t produce bottle-conditioned beers due to their wide distribution and requirement for a decent shelf-life. Nonetheless, Adnams beers seem particularly resistant to the brewery conditioning process that often knocks the stuffing out of many other breweries’ products, managing to maintain the house character derived from the Southwold brewer’s uniquely spicy yeast. Either that or Adnams has developed a far more sympathetic process.
A recent trip north to the land of my paternal grandmother (yes, I’m a quarter Lancastrian) on a quest to see five of the remaining six “Deltic” diesel locomotives gathered in one place (I’m no trainspotter but these monsters took a hold on my imagination as a kid that remains today) also gave me the opportunity to sample a wide range of ales in some interesting bars and pubs in Manchester and in around Bury.
While there are many worthwhile pubs in the vicinity, including historic gems such as Manchester’s famous Peveril of the Peak, I’ll focus on some of the more unusual ones here, in keeping with the leaning of this blog and lack of time and space to do the others justice. Two of these were bars in central Manchester notable for strong emphases on beer while breaking the normal rules of pubs. Another was an on-site brewery bar in Ramsbottom, just north of Bury, while the last was the station buffet at the Bury end of the preserved East Lancashire Railway. Continue reading “Lancashire hot spots: four unusual beer outlets in Manchester environs”
I’ve written a few times now on my interest in finding good quality beers brewed deliberately to a low strength (3% and lower). When successfully executed such brews (mainly ales; lagers struggle to be palatable below 4% in my view) offer an excellent alternative for drinkers who want to limit their alcohol intake – especially during long pub sessions – and avoid the ignominious need for a Diet Coke or mineral water halfway through.
Brews such as Redemption Brewing Co’s Trinity (3%) – which I’ve been fortunate to sample several times and which definitely has my approval when cask conditioned – have now been joined by quite a few others and I’ve been gratified to see that several larger breweries around the country have noticed the opportunity and risen to the challenge, though I’ve failed so far to happen upon them in “real ale” form.
Saturday last week brought my first opportunity to attend a kind of beer event that I expect will become more common in future.
The mischievously-titled Un-Real Ale Festival in North London, promoted by BrewDog’s Camden branch plus other local brewers and outlets, was described as an opportunity to sample beers “banned” from CAMRA’s Great British Beer Festival this week on account of their being brewery conditioned or “keg” in the real ale drinker’s parlance.
BrewDog’s antagonism towards CAMRA is well known, the brewery seeing CAMRA’s cask- and bottle-conditioned position as shortsighted. This is a view I have a great deal of sympathy with. Modern keg is a million miles away from the filtered, pasteurised, gassed up, preservative laden (and usually under-strength) abominations that inspired CAMRA’s creation. Nowadays they’re often themselves unpasteurised and increasingly unfiltered (sometimes to the point of turbidity, see below), much in line with what CAMRA itself advocates.
That’s not to say that cask and keg are equivalent. Cask-conditioning in the pub (as well as bottle-conditioning) remains for me a peerless way – when executed to perfection – to add an extra dimension of complexity to ales (it doesn’t always work well for so-called “real lagers” in my view), especially Britain’s lower strength variations such as bitter and mild. But many (many) modern keg beers I’ve sampled, whether in Britain or abroad (check out many of the posts on this blog), have been excellent and they certainly offer outlets that aren’t geared up for “real ale” (i.e. most outside of the UK and quite a few in it) an opportunity to invigorate and participate in the global rebirth of interest beer and to spread the word.
A recent planned visit to my sister’s place in Norfolk led to an unplanned visit to a fine outlet for interesting, and sometimes fairly alternative, tipples.
Truly Local in Stalham in north east Norfolk – only a few miles from the drowning village of Happisburgh – has already found a modicum of fame through the patronage of Prince Charles who made an impromptu visit to the 15 month-old shop in February.
It would be wrong to describe Truly Local – which is run as a not-for-profit business – as a specialist drinks outlet, however. The shop sells local produce of many kinds sourced from within a 35 mile radius of the shop (which in practice means that half its catchment area is actually underwater – still there’s nothing to stop seafood being part of the offering!). Shop manager Mick Sims explained that while the 35 mile radius might seem arbitrary it was in fact a cunning ploy to enable the shop to sell whiskies from the The English Whisky Co. Ltd.’s St. George’s Distillery in Roudham.
Among all beer kind, the brews from French-speaking Belgium labelled “saison” can lay claim to being among the most idiosyncratic species I’ve sampled. Perhaps even more so than lambics, where a distinct family resemblance is at least clear, the beers described as saisons by Walloon brewers have often seemed to have little in common but their name.
Sometimes weird, usually wonderful, and often among the most spectacularly lively beers I’ve ever encountered (some of the saisons I’ve tried down the years would put Champagne to shame during a Formula One podium celebration), the saisons of Dupont, a Vapeur (Saison de Pipaix), Blaugies (Saison D’Epeautre), Fantome and others (as well as the other, clearly related beers not under that label from Walloon country brewers) were unsurprisingly, given their explosiveness, well attenuated and often very dry.