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Thursday, 27 October 2011

Mikkeller @ Cask

Fuggles was very excited last Saturday, almost beside myself with excitement.  I couldn't quite believe that Cask Pub & Kitchen were playing host to my brewing hero - the legend that is Mikkeller.  It was clearly a sentiment shared by most others in the pub, judging by the respectful silence that hung in the air while he spoke.  It is rare to see Mikkeller on tap in the UK, although most good specialist beer pubs will have a selection of bottles.  You certainly won't see 12 Mikkeller beers on one bar again in a hurry.

Mikkel himself is an unassuming and modest type, whose mission in brewing is to keep making better beer, always push the boundaries and try something unusual - an ambition that's hard to fault.  What is perhaps most amazing about his modus operandi is that rather than run his own brewery, he 'rents' other people's breweries to produce his stuff of magic.  This may mean that no two beers are ever quite the same, but after all he doesn't exist to keep churning out the same beer year after year.  Although it seems this spark of genius may be borne less of creativity or financial acumen and more of pragmatism, Mikkel professing to a particular dislike of cleaning his equipment. 

What was particularly special about this meet the brewer event was the amazing atmosphere.  It was more like being at a house party (but with better booze).  Random conversations easily struck up with people at the bar, or the next table along.  The sense of excitement in this shared experience, and obviously a proliferation of opinions on the beers providing an easy common denominator.
So onto the beer.  I could list them all as great beers, but I'm not here to regurgitate a beer menu to you, so I'll just note my top picks.  Faced with the dazzling menu, and realising we couldn't drink it all presented some tough conundrums.  It should be noted that the inevitability of trying to drink them all hadn't even occurred to us, we were still quite sensible at this stage.

An early crowd pleaser was the "Nelson Sauvignon" (pictured at the top with "A Pale Ale").  Apparently one of Mikkel's own favourite beers.  A beer of high acidity, but still fruity, vaguely reminiscent of caramelised pineapple.

The "Double Shit Coffee" (or VB Kaffestout) was a beer to rival Dark Star's Espresso.  Rich chocolate notes on first tasting give way to a fuller bitterness, like chewing on roasted coffee beans.  A truly wonderful stout.

The "Black Hole"s matured in a variety of barrels were also tasty.  Our favourite was the Tequila, as it cut through the stout and lifted it, leaving a slight hint of Tequila at the end.

 And finally we come to what may have been our undoing.  But was probably just the straw that broke the camel's back (having worked our way up to it through the rest of the menu).  The "Black 2011" weighing in at an almighty 17.5% was just too tempting to resist.  I've had strong beers before that had little to say for themselves apart from their strength, but this was stunning.  Rich, meliflous and terribly naughty.  According to the Beer Gremlin, if they served beer in a den of iniquity (which I'm sure they would?), this would be it.

It was great to meet the man behind the beer, and sample so much of his repetoir side by side.  Whilst I am eternally grateful to Cask for playing host to my brewing hero, I would just make a small plea that you start serving his beer in thirds...

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Beer and Food Matching

Whether you're a regular experimenter with beer and food, have the odd dabble, or never tried it before, I really cannot recommend highly enough an event put on by beer professionals to learn something new.  That said, there's something equally satisfying about having a go yourself next time you're in a great cask or speciality beer pub.  Try something new, something you think won't work, it just might.  In this vein of adventure, off trotted Fuggles to South West London.

Billed as Battle of the Sexes.  John Keeling vs Melissa Cole.  (Or Fuller's beers vs non-Fuller's beers).  Six courses, each with 2 beers matched with it - one selected by Ms Cole, the other by JK, you judge and jury - which works best? It sounded like a gastronomic delight going down at the Red Lion in Barnes on 14th October.  And that was before we discovered that one of the "courses" contained 4 different charcuterie, each of which was matched with 2 different beers.  Those warm up drinks suddenly started to feel like a bad idea.

To start was a test of the time honoured matching of porter and oysters.  I must confess to never having tried this before - remaining in the curious but unconvinced pool of people.  Fuller's London Porter squaring up in this instance to Aspall's Premier Cru.  A lovely cider (or should I say cyder?) in normal circumstances, but in this case I found it wholly too acid for the oysters, and the warm comforting blanket of the London Porter coated the Oysters in a surprisingly silky way on the palette for me.  1-0 to John.

Onto "Course" 2 (part 1) - smoked duck breast with cherry compote.  Anchor Liberty vs Fuller's Chiswick.  I'm a massive fan of Anchor beers (see Beer Fest in a box for one of my favourites).  But when it came to pairing with the sweet and smoky duck the Anchor was entirely too powerful for the food, and the mellower Chiswick won out.

(Part 2) - air dried ham and fig.  Honeydew vs Harviestoun Bitter and Twisted.  Again, I found the Bitter and Twisted just a little overpowering for the dish, whereas the Honeydew pulled out the sweetness of the fig and exploited nicely that classic sweet and salty combination that is so moreish.

(Part 3) - salt cod brandade on ryebread.  St Austells Clouded Yellow vs Fuller's Discovery.  Melissa had it for me here.  Clouded Yellow is a great beer, but the real secret lay in the thin layer of horseradish between the brandade and the bread.  The spicy notes from the coriander in the Clouded Yellow teased this out perfectly, allowing the spicy flavour to linger on the tongue.

(Part 4) - Devils on Horseback - Chimay Blue vs HSB.  This was almost too close to call.  So I won't.

Main 1 - Yam Fatt Putt.  OK, I'll explain it.  Chinese style pork belly with sweet potatoes in a big yam doghnut.  Fuller's Past Masters Strong Ale vs Thornbridge Kipling.  Much as I love Thornbridge, it was way too hoppy for the sweet plum sauce of the pork belly.  Past Masters XX had it for me by a country mile.  Rich, sweet and mellow, I'd never have thought of pairing it with anything but a sharp cheese, but it surprised me by not being cloying with the sauce.  Nice pick JK.

Main 2 - Lahmacun (AKA spicy lamb pizza - sort of) - Fuller's London Pride vs Williams Bros Grozet.  For me the intensely herbal Grozet - the stuff that Williams Bros do best - was a clear winner here.  London Pride is a great session beer, but it didn't add to the food, didn't detract from it.  It just didn't interact.  One more to Melissa.

Dessert - Pear Tart Tatin with Fuller's Double Stout Ice Cream.  Dark Star Espresso against (you guessed it) Fuller's Past Masters Double Stout.  I love the double stout, it's a quirky stout, with some aniseedy notes, and really does the style credit.  But the espresso here with its intense coffee flavour and greater sweetness, almost like a tia maria, just toned in nicely with the dessert.  I think we're about 4 - 3 to JK now.

Digsetif - Chilli salted Caramel Tart - I loved this course, sweet, salty, spicy, so hard to match!  You need a BIG beer to deal with that, let alone add to it.  In the red corner, Fuller's Golden Pride, in the blue corner, O' Hanlons Brewers Reserve.  It could only be the bigger beer that won out in this heavyweight competition.  In this case it was the fruity, mellow, marmalade mitts of Golden Pride wrestling the chili caramel down your throat.

So 3 hours later, satiated in the extreme, I left the night reminded of three things.  Firstly that matching beer with food can be equally, if not more powerful than matching wine with it.  Although on the flip side it can also miss the beat entirely, which I find happens less with wine.  Secondly that Fuller's has a staggering range of beers.  We tasted less than half their range, and no two were even a similar style.  And thirdly and most importantly that experimentation is always a good thing, and life can only be the richer for it.

Many thanks to the staff of the Red Lion for the exquisite food, and Melissa and John for their careful pairings and tutelage on the night.

Thursday, 1 September 2011


I'm not sure this is something to be proud of, but after many frustrated hours I have finally found the button that allows me to reply to comments on my own blog.

Fuggles is exhausted, but satisfied.

Celebrating beer's diversity

I’ve been meaning to eat this particular slice of humble pie for some time now, as a recent trip to Cornwall reminded me.  If you’ve been reading this blog for long enough you may remember a rather negative piece I wrote following the acquisition of Sharps by international brewer Molson Coors.  At the time I could only see this meaning the end for the Rock brewery, and the innovative fruits of head brewer Stuart Howe’s exploits, with a wholesale transfer of Doom Bar production to Burton, or somewhere else better connected than Rock (which, let’s face it, wouldn’t be a tall order).  How wrong I was.

At a welcome to the Beer Bloggers conference in May, a man (whose name and position I ashamedly can’t recall) from Molson Coors, the major sponsor of the event, stood up and talked about celebrating beer’s diversity.  His point (or my interpretation of it) was that there is a sort of symbiotic relationship between the major brewer and the micro.  The major brewers have the marketing power and the mass appeal to bring new drinkers in to the cask ale market.  A vital role when you look at the tough time the cask ale market has been having at holding share in recent years.  The micro, or craft brewer is then able to innovate and take seasoned ale drinkers to new levels with more unusual and sometimes challenging tastes.  Thus the major brewers bridge the gap between the newly converted and experimental drinker and ensure a steady influx of willing guinea pigs.

The problem with being a self-pronounced beer connoisseur is that you can sometimes inadvertantly become a beer snob.  This was the point at which I realised I was guilty of this.  In a world where small breweries are springing up all over the place and producing new and exciting beers it is easy to forget that regional and national brewers have in fact been doing this for hundreds of years, and clearly doing it rather well to have stayed the course.  We never actually lose our love for the classic beers that first got us into the style.  But they become a bit like a favourite toy – still played with often, but not the shiny new one we want to shout about and show off to our friends.

And so back to my humble pie.  Coors announced two weeks ago that they would be spending £5m tripling the capacity of the Sharps brewery in Rock with a shiny new brewing plant.  In the interim, a couple of additional fermenting vessels will be added to accommodate the rapid growth (currently tracking at over 50%) that has followed the financial backing and logistical support from Coors.  Hardly the action of someone who places no value on heritage, and sees their product only as a commodity.  So perhaps shame on me for my cynicism, but I’ve never been happier to be proved wrong.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

St Austell Tasting

In a week of many beers, Fuggles took a night off from GBBF (just the one, mind you) and headed over to the Real Ale Shop in Twickenham.  Busman's holiday?  Well, yes, but when you like buses...  What could possibly tempt me away from Earl's Court in a week like this, you might wonder.  Well, Zeph and the crew were playing host to none other than Roger Ryman, head brewer of St Austell, for a tutored tasting, and the launch of the beer brewed in collaboration by St Austell, and the Rake in Borough.  Nuff said.

We started off with Trelawny Bitter, a session beer packed full of fruity flavour from the complex mix of 3 hops and 3 malts.  Roger then explained the importance of his relationship with the farmers who grow his barley and proudly boasted that Cornwall had some of the best barley in the country this year.  This is a theme I am hearing more and more these days.  With the growing demand of the bioethanol market and pressure on farmers to increase the yield from their fields, they need a reason to grow brewers barley.  Being able to drink a pint of Tribute and say "I grew that Barley" is not a bad one.

We then moved on to Proper Job IPA and Roger enlightened us as to the origin of the name.  Inspired by the IPAs of Portland, Oregon, Roger returned to Cornwall determined to brew a similarly strident and punchy beer.  As all westcountry folk know, a job well done is a "proper job".  Devoid of a name, the 2 barrel brew was simply labelled "proper job" IPA.  And it stuck.

Roger then talked us through one of his special brews - a Bock style lager, made with well roasted malts this lager is amber and sweet, and packs alot of flavour.  Then it was time to try the collaboration brew - Big Smoke.  A mild porter with a beautiful smoky nose and fruity palette.  But they had still saved the best til last.

Smugglers Grand Cru is a Barley wine aged in oak whisky barrels for 9 months.  The unfilitered beer is then bottled in Champagne bottles, topped up with some yeast from Camel Valley vineyards down the road.  (Incidentally, if you've never tried Camel Valley's sparkling Pinot Noir, you really should.  It beats Champagne any day).  The result is a deep and complex beer.  The aroma is fruity, with a touch of sourness (think lambic), the palette is rich, spicy and tart with a hint of the whisky coming through.

It is incredible the transformation that St Austell has undergone under Roger's care.  He has taken it from a 15,000 barrel brewery in 1999 to 70,000 barrels today.  He's not afraid to experiment with unusual styles or push the boundaries.  Every beer you try from there (even Tribute) started life in his 2 barrel microbrewery, and I'm confident we can expect many more where they came from.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Craft Beer Co hosts Southern Tier

I write this almost one week on from the spectacular opening night of Craft Beer Co in Farringdon.  Somewhat lazy, you might say, but a significant delay was incurred while I rode out the hangover - Fuggles was in no state for writing for at least 2 days, and then it was the weekend - topping up the hangover, etc.

So here we are, belated congratulations to the owner of the fabulous Cask Pub & Kitchen for repeating his success, and then some.  Boasting no mean 16 hand pulls and 21 fonts is close to my idea of beer heaven.  It was harder than being at a beer festival, where at least you can write off a significant number of the beers as being ones you have already tried.  Confronted with 30+ beers that I had never even seen before in the space of 10 metres, I nearly went into meltdown.

To describe it as 3 deep at the bar would be an understatement.  The beer world and his wife had turned out to check out the latest shrine to the craft beer revolution.  Rumour has it the scotch eggs and pork pies didn't last past 9pm.  My disappointments were therefore only two-fold.  Firstly, lack of pork scratchings.  These have the benefit that you can stockpile them in great numbers, even in a small pub.  And I'm yet to find the scientific evidence, but cling to a belief that beer and pork scratchings somehow constitutes a balanced meal.  Especially if it's fruit beer.  And secondly that Black Albert was just too lively to be tamed into a glass on this particular occasion.  Hopefully he'll visit the bar again for a second attempt.

I knew when I walked in the door that taking any comprehensible notes on beer would be a tall order.  But apart from working my way through the 3 Mikeller beers on offer, I was very taken with the beers from Southern Tier.

The IPA was predictably gorgeous and slipped away quite nicely.  But I was blown away by the Choklat stout.  It's true what the reviews say, it is the most chocolately beer I have ever had.  I challenge you to find one more so.  I am long since past expecting a beer with chocolate in the name or tasting notes to actually taste anything like chocolate, I think of it more as a euphamism for porter.  But oh my god have they done something right at Southern Tier.  Even if you don't have a sweet tooth, I commend you to try it.  Dangerously high alcohol, at 11%, this silky smooth mocha of beers earned among us the affection moniker "Kahlua beer".  I rather suspect that this beer may have been the root of my undoing that night.  But I'd knowingly overindulge again, given the choice.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Revelation Cat

It is not often Fuggles turns down a Mikkeller beer, but I found myself with a conundrum earlier this week.  My favourite pub, Cask Pub & Kitchen, had laid on a "meet the brewer" event with Alex from Revelation Cat.  He'd brought with him, all the way from Italy, a number of beers that I probably wouldn't get to try again for some time, if ever, and mostly in the range of 6 - 9 % ABV.  Wisely sold by the half pint, I wasn't convinced I'd get through everything even so, and had to limit myself.

Revelation Cat focuses on two main styles (as it happens, two of my favourite styles).  The sour lambics, often with a twist - such as maturing in whisky or rum barrels - and west coast style IPAs.  So, pacing myself not quite the forefront of my mind, I started with the Laphroaig Lambic.  This 9% beer (matured, as you might have worked out, in Laphroaig casks) captured the character of the whisky casks better than any other example I've seen.  The nose was amazing - such powerful peatiness, it was like sniffing the whisky.  This was followed through by a quite astrigent palate with a very strong whisky taste.  Less impressive (not helped but rapidly following the former) was the Martinique Rum, which had only a light overtone of rum notes floating over the top of the palate, and left me slightly wanting by comparison.

The brilliantly named "Mad Walloper" was the cloudy dark chestnut beer pictured below.  A very unusual beer, with a rich warming fruity nose that reminded me very strongly of sherbert.  But it took you by surprise when you drank it as it tasted neither dark nor sweet.  Still fruity, but very sour and almost woody.  I still haven't quite made my mind up on it, but for me it had more potential than the Martinique.

Top of the pops for me on the West coasters was the West Coast Double IPA - a rich mellow IPA, packing a punch at 9% with slight citrus on the nose and a rich fruity body on the palate.  The Creamy bitter was also great - fresh and zesty hops singing out.

I really like what Rev Cat are doing, taking great edgy styles and pushing the boundaries a little bit further.  These boundaries may or may not be to your taste, but experimentation is often the precursor to greatness, and they should be admired for their boldness.  More please!

Oh, and I might have let myself just have a little taste of Mikkeller's Sorachi Ace (after the hops) at the end of the night - well worth breaking my own rules for!

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Eagle Ale House

As possibly mentioned before, there is little Fuggles enoys more than discovering a great new place to enjoy good beer.  Just such a happy occasion befell me on Friday night.  I was alerted through the program from the Battersea Beer Festival to a number of real ale festivals held in South West London bars.  I was particularly keen to check out the Eagle Ale House over the bank holiday, having never been there.  It is certainly off the beaten track (several friends took quite a while to materialise), but that helps preserve its charm, as you don't have to fight your way to the bar in between protecting your small corner of the standing room only.

Safely esconced in a nice corner booth, I perused the bar and started with the Quantock Wills Neck, a late hopped Golden Ale, with just enough bitterness and citrus freshness to it.  I was just considering which of the remaining 7 hand pumps to try when it was pointed out to me that the beer festival was in the garden.  I am so used to "beer festivals" being advertised and turning out to be about 4 beers, that I had been quite excited to see 8 hand pumps.  Having realised this is the normal level of choice I will definitely be going back.

So into the garden, and armed with a beer menu (a beer menu!) of 50 odd beers and a handful of cider and perries, I worked my way through what was on that night.

Top picks of the night:

Franklins Original
Darkstar Partridge Best (Top beer of the night)

Green Jack Albion Mild

Milton Sparta

Sadly I didn't make it back on Saturday or Sunday to tick off the beers that hadn't yet settled on Friday, but I'll definitely be back at the Eagle, beer festival or not, for their wide selection, cosy atmosphere and great staff.  And now at least I know how to find it.

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

European Beer #4 - Focus: Italy

Last, but certainly not least.  I have always loved Italy.  Sunny, cultured, relaxed and above all home of good food and wine.  I've enjoyed many trips to Italy, and savoured the fruits of their sun-kissed climes in many forms.  But I've never had a truly great beer there.  Some decent lagers admittedly (like Baffo Doro by Birra Moretti) but nothing close to a great real ale.
How happy was I then, to be confront by the image (left) of Allessio Leone with his offering from the Italian Brewers at the European Beer Bloggers Conference 2011.  Allessio is a great writer and arbiter of good taste when it comes to beer.  I was particularly pleased with the offerings he brought from Toccalmatto brewery.  My favourite being the "Surfing hop" pictured below.   

 A dark chestunut coloured double IPA, heavily dry hopped with Amarillo, it pretty much combines two of my favourite styles - the rich fruity alcohol of the dubbel or barley wine style, with overriding hop notes of a grassy IPA floating along on top.  So I was in absolute heaven, and very happy to make off with an extra sample at the end of the night.  (Thanks Alessio).

Other notable brews included:

BIA ("Birra Italiana Artiginale")  IPA.  A big drinking IPA with an aromatic metallic nose and deep spicy body (watch out for the huge chunks of yeast though).

Birrificio's smoky but light Porter, "L'Olmaia".  Huge natural carbonation gave it very fine sparkle, which cut through the bold flavours.  Almost black in appearance, the highly roasted malts produced an intense smoky, earthy nose and rich palate like drinking a log fire.

And finally the Amber Shock was also a noteably rich fruity number which tickled my tastebuds, but I failed to note more than that, being quite late of the evening at time of drinking.

And so ends my whistlestop tour of Europe (without actually leaving London).  I hope your tastebuds are whetted, and when next on the continent you'll scour the bars and shelves for a flash of the rare, a hint of the interesting.  They're clearly hard to find, but like most of the best things when travelling, well worth the effort.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

European Beer #3 - Focus: Switzerland

OK, the title of this blog is definitely misleading.  Essentially it's an homage to a very passionate (well, he is Italian) brewer called Lorenzo, founder of the Bad Attitude brewery in Switzerland, close to the Italian border.  I've never had any other Swiss beers.  But please indulge me and read on.

Examples of bad attitude's funky designs

The first Bad Attitude beer I tasted was the "Two Penny" stout.  Being a Beer Bloggers Conference, we had a session called "speed blogging".  The idea being that each brewer had 5 minutes during which to pour your beer and explain about the beer / brewery or answer questions.  The blogger had 5 minutes to taste, make notes, take photos and post a blog.  Speed drinking was probably a more apt name, as those who gamely tried soon discovered it simply wasn't possible to drink, enjoy and communicate the enjoyment of a good beer in less than 5 minutes.

Despite some other good beers in the session, Bad Attitude's "Two Penny" won out as the firm favourite of the afternoon.  Lorenzo is a great fan of England and takes a lot of inspiration from our beers, this 8.15% Porter clearly demonstrates that (especially the Union Jack on the cap!)   The Two Penny had a smokey, chocolately nose, with the addition of a smooth, rich, alcohol warming on the follow through.  Not packing the devlish punch it should at that ABV, just luciously sweet and mellow.  Dangerous stuff!!!

Alas I was too slow to grab a sample of both the other beers Lorenzo bought, but I did managed to get my hands on the last "Hobo IPA" (below) which I've enjoyed tonight.

The Hobo IPA is a rich chestnut 5.95% IPA.  The English inspiration in this beer is evident.  Not the light grassy notes you get in some more American style beers, but a more traditional English gruff feel to the bitterness.  A metallic, almost herbal, nose is followed by a smooth palette that converts back to that original metallic note after swallowing.  A bold and punchy IPA, I thought this was just great.

I must seek out some more Swiss beers, to do the country justice (and because the examples above probably bear a heavy Italian influence).  But I also hope sometime to pay a visit to Bad Attitude brewery because as my first Swiss beer, it will always have a special place in my heart.  And I think Lorenzo has a pair of wellies waiting with my name on them?  Yes?

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

European Beer #2 - Focus: Sweden

I learnt two things about Sweden at the weekend. 1: Their government appears to have taken inspiration for their alcohol policy from George Orwell's 1984.  2: this hasn't deterred them in the slightest.  Despite strict controls over what beers can be imported, and a relatively recent lifting on the ban of production of strong beers, Sweden has as many beer bloggers as any other country in continental Europe.

It was also the county with the strongest representation (UK excluded) at the European Beer Bloggers Conference.  Below: 2 Swedish brewers with their wares

Top Swedish pick of the night is a close call between the Sigtuna Summer IPA - a really bold IPA at 7%, with overriding Grapefruit notes - proud and punchy, just how I like them....

...and Oppigards' Amarillo (named after the hops).  This beer was both sweet and mellow, but still fresh tasting, with great drinkability.
The theory goes (courtesy of Darren Packman) that the explosion in diversity from some of the continental countries is down to the blank canvas they had to work with.  In countries dominated by a particular style or tradition it can be harder to make an impression with craft beer.  Whereas Sweden almost had a vaccum effect, such that breweries just materialised out of the ether to fill a void.  This has allowed them to be experimental and push the boundaries, because there are no preconceived ideas to battle against.  Certainly if you are ever in Sweden, I would recommend you to check out the beer aisle of the bottle shops, as there are many more treats in store. 

Thanks to all who made the tasting on Saturday possible.

Monday, 23 May 2011

European Beer #1 - Focus: France

At the weekend Fuggles was lucky enough to make it to the inaugural European Beer Bloggers conference, hosted at various locations in London.  A beer lover's paradise, this predictably consisted of learning more about beer, and blogging, and several "practical" sessions.

Left: A light practical session on Friday night.

One of my highlights of the conference was being enlightened to the existence of the craft beer culture in Europe.  With less bloggers in continental Europe put together than the UK, and the craft exports from these countries still small, I was previously ignorant to the variety and quality out there.  I know alot more now, including the fact that I definitely want to plan a trip to see Lorenzo at his Bad Attitude brewery in Switzerland (more on that in another post).

We all know some great Belgian beers, some interesting Czech and German ones.  But experimentation without traditional boundaries is actually rife throughout the continent.  This is a fact that we should all embrace and explore.

The observant amongst you will spot that the title of this blog is slightly spurious, as the French-focused part of this post is purely photographic.  Shame on me, but unfortunately, the French beers were consumed when I had another beer in my other hand and (you may also note by the wobbliness of the photos) they were not exactly my first beers of the day.  If you ever recognise these beers from the photos they are all worth a try.

I definitely wanted to feature France in this series, as these bottles were kindly selected by and transported in the suitcase of one of the conference participants.  Not sponsored or funded by any brewery or company, Michael just brought them along to share the experience.  To me, that was the embodiment of the passion for beer that made the weekend so much fun.  Thank you Mr Ironside.

No notes, but I do remember this last one was a particularly fabulous example of the Rodenbach style.  A wonderful sour finish to it, really astringent, but very pleasant with it.  As Rodenbach appears to be the marmite of the beer world, this may not be your cup of tea.  But if you like your flavours strong and interesting, defnitely worth a try.

Still to come in the European Beer series: Italy, Switzerland and Sweden (more editorial on those).

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Sipsmith's Distillery

OK, so I know it's been a while since I wrote about real ale.  But you have to forgive me this one last indulgence.  Tonight I visited the Sipsmith's distillery in Hammersmith.  It is probably no more than 100m from my front door, so pretty much criminal that I haven't been before.  But in my (lowly technophobe) defence, if you google "sipsmith distillery tour" the results are woefully inadequate.

Back to the good stuff.  I've been a fan of Sipsmith since I first tried both their gin and vodka at the Taste of London festival in 2009, soon after their launch.  To the uninitiated the vodka is on a par with Uluvka and the gin with Hendricks, although more intense juniper flavour.  They have that beautiful mellow smoothness, combined with fullness of flavour that makes them immensely drinkable time and again.

This is of course smoothly wrapped up in a brand that feels like it has alot more provenance than 2 years worth.  Sublimely delivered to the consumer by the enigmatic Sam Galsworthy on this occasion, one of the founding fathers, so to speak.  To the backdrop of the lovely "Prudence" (the first copper distillery in London in 200 years) Sam guided us through a potent mix of history, science and 40% alcohol to the eager audience.  I confess I know a little bit about wine, a little more about beer and precious little about distilling (before tonight).

For instance, I didn't know that distillers didn't actually produce their own aclohol.  Although they carefully select it, it nonetheless arrives in rather unromantic large black containers of 96% ethanol (ah the nostalgia for 1st year chemistry practicals at uni).  To this are added immense quantities of "botanicals" - largely juniper berries and coriander seeds, which float on the top of the brew in the pot still, but subtle cinnamon and other flavours (10 of them) create the well balanced flavour of Sipsmiths gin.  And the vodka?  That is simply distilled barley vodka - not filtered, but distilled, because this process is more selective about the off-flavours it extracts.

If you haven't yet, you simply must try them (neat if you can), or better still, get down to Hammersmith for the full background and tutored tasting.  I'm a total convert and never leave my spirits cupboard without Sipsmtihs gin, although the vodka is somewhat harder to track down.  Let that be a challenge to you...

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Brasserie d' Ecaussinnes

Just a short note, but I couldn't finish the glass without mentioning this sweet little nugget of a brew to the world.  Unfortunately it was so irresistable, I was more than half way through before I thought to take a photo of it (also being new to the whole photography of beer thing), so you'll have to excuse the dodgy "artistic" angle, while I try to make my glass look more than half full (less than half empty?), but here it is:

Ultramour... and in love I am.

A little gem selected by Squirrel as we raided the Beer Store in Bruges.  Not one I would have picked up (terrible label), so lucky the shopping list was not entirely down to me.

The cloudy mahogany liquid (that's not just dodgy photography, it was pretty cloudy) smelt like liquid marzipan.  There was something entirely aromatic that kept the spicy raspberry palette very much in balance.  I'd also be surprised if there wasn't some cherry in there somewhere too.  Although it's hard to tell from the vague description of "top fermented fruit ale".  The exquisite champagne bubbles swept the flavour over your tongue, reverberating round your mouth.

Really rather good, from a brewery I've never heard of in a town I've never heard of.  I'm now keenly keeping my eyes open for somemore "Ultra" beers...  anyone seen any this side of the channel?

Monday, 7 March 2011

More Belgian antics

So "Belgian beer week" (OK, 2 Saturdays do not in any way, shape or form make a week, and I didn't fulfil my original intentions) was (nonetheless) very successful.  I am pleased to learn that London has an impressive collection of Belgian beers on offer.  Although it won't stop me going to Belgium, because there is no substitute for the real thing, as I discovered, there are some excellent imitations. 

I was a little concerned when I booked my table at Lowlander that they insisted it was table service only.  I know it works in Belgium, but perhaps I wasn't ready to fully transport myself across the channel whilst still firmly in the West End.  Still, I rolled with it, and thankfully so, for how wrong I was.  Not only did we luck out with the best table in the house (so you really didn't want to leave it) but the table service was amazing.  Waiters who were knowledgeable about the beer turning up at perfectly timed intervals to refresh your glasses.

And where to start with the beer?  Well, I got to try the Rodenbach Grand Cru and establish that it wasn't as good as Duchesse de Borgogne.  More sour and less mellow, although I still salute the overall style and until I find a successor, crown the Duchesse as the queen of it. 

The Karmeliet Triple is another best in class with a lovely fragrant lemongrass, but slightly sweet palate to it.

Troubadour's Magma and Obscura were both a delight.  The former your classic "hop store" on the nose and the latter a mild stout that bore slightly disconcerting resemblence to marmite, but tasty none the less (I am a marmite lover - if you're not, maybe steer clear).

 The Lindemans Faro definitely won the prize for smelling least like it tasted.  Aroma comparisons varied from cheese to sock.  But a lovely raspberry palate came through afterwards (if you got that far). 

 I had a small dabble in one of the guest draft beers, as recommended by our smooth talking bar steward - the Kasteel Rouge.  This was a perfect "dessert beer" - it literally tasted like a cherry reduction.  Too sweet for most, but you have to admire the intensity of the fruit flavour.  Only for half a pint though. 

And finally, of course I had to end the night on a hoptastic beer.  So much so that the barman felt the need to warn me it was very hoppy.  The Viven didn't disappoint.
All in all, a cracking selection of beers, some very tasty mussels and throughly decent Belgian Beer Cafe experience, delivered by some excellent staff and only spitting distance from Covent Garden.  We are truly spoilt in this cosmopolitan age.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

All hail The Duchesse

Feeling a little continental after watching England trounce France last night, a few Moules Frites and some Belgian beer seemed quite in order.  Luckily we were just round the corner from the Dovetail, which I've been meaning to check out for some time.

Rather a compact little bar, not unlike the proper beer cafes you get in Belgium, I would advise calling to book a table under normal circumstances.  But we were fortunate to arrive just as another party had cancelled their Saturday night booking, it must have been fate, a theory I expounded to the barman at the end of the night, who very politely humoured me.  Anyway, never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, we settled in for a thorough sampling of the beer menu.  All the usual suspects were on draught, as well as some less usual suspects - the delirium tremens was on typically lethal exquisitie form.

The selection of bottled beers was, as you'd expect, excellent.  The Grimbergen Double was a standout for me, having a good full bodied punch to it, whilst still being very drinkable.  The Steenbrugge Wit beer was very popular with everyone, being not too sweet, not too zesty, just fresh and grassy.

Another top tip of the night is Lindemans Cassis.  Always wary of alocpop-style fruit beers, I was looking for a not-too-sweet framboise, perhaps a Lambic, but the barman said all their framboise was on the sweeter side.  I was on the verge of choosing Liefmans' lambic framboise-kriek hybrid when he talked me into the Lindemans Cassis.  This is truly the kir royal of beers.  Amazingly intense blackcurrant flavour, not sweet at all, with the full tartness of blackcurrant, this was a very drinkable "dessert beer" at the end of the night.  High praise to the barman.

But my absolute favourite of the night was the Duchesse de Borgogne.  I had really enjoyed the Rodenbach earlier in the evening, a rich sultry lambic, but the others weren't so keen.  So I thought I'd sneak the Duchesse in under their radar.  To my delight they loved it, and it disappeared rather quickly.  A real "fruit cake" beer, with sour cherry running through it, but still appealing to a broad range of palettes.  I have to applaud this, and am only sorry I never got round to trying the Rodenbach Grand Cru, to see how it compared.  But it's always good to leave wanting more - it provides a convenient excuse to go back...

I am feeling a bit of a Belgian burst coming on now.  I wonder what other echos of Belgium London has to offer...

Monday, 14 February 2011

Battersea Beer Festival

So last week saw Fuggles pottering down to the surprisingly mighty Battersea Beer Festival.  Sadly this is only a 3 day event, due to the combined constraints of hiring the hall, assembling the scaffolding and letting the beer settle.  So one-in-one-out of the rather cosy Battersea Arts Centre is hardly surprising.  But this starts at 7.30 on Wednesday and gets earlier as the week goes on.

Armed with a few stalwarts and a few would-be converts I worked my way round the alphabetically arranged bar, with a few diversions to the foreign beer stand, and the cider room.  The latter of which seemed to have some kind of pied piper effect, with a distinctly younger average age than the rest of the festival.  Anyway, to save you on the lengthy trials and tribulations of the night, below are my top picks.

HOPPY: Spire's Land of Hop and Glory was slightly spicy and kept you interested til the last drop with its fruity bitterness, quite grapefruity, lingering on the palate.  RCH's Pitchfork had a rounded citrus flavour which was bitter, but not sharp.
BITTER: Isle of Purbeck's Studland Bay Wrecked packed your mouth with flavour - all at once smoky, nutty, spicy and fruity *Favourite of the night*
AMERICAN PALE ALE: Ascot's Alligator Ale was a great fruity example of the American style.
MILD: Arbor Ale's Festival Mild was sweet and smoky, a fireside after dinner kind of beer.
FOREIGN: The Kneitinger pils was a lovely fresh lager with oodles of flavour from its honey nose and palate
PERRY: Butford's Blakeney Red was very low tanin for a perry and had a mellow soft citrus flavour to it.  Incredibly moreish.
CIDER: Springfield's Red Dragon was a great punchy cider from Devon, not too sweet, or sour or bitter, just nicely fruity and alcoholic.

Another highlight of the night worth mentioning was meeting the young entrepeneur Rupert.  About to start his own microbrewery, and conducting a little "research" at the festival, it was great to hear about his plans, for what will hopefully a great new micro in the making.  I hope to be able to sample the fruits of his labour soon.

And as from little acorns mighty Oak trees grow, I was pleased to read today that Thornbridge are planning to open a pub in London.  Can't wait to hear when and where...

Friday, 4 February 2011

Beer Fest in a box

I’ve been meaning to get down to the Euston Tap ever since I heard it mentioned by 3 different people in one day, which prompted a visit to their website.  How my appetite was whetted by the list of featured breweries including Marble, Thornbridge, Dark Star, BrewDog and many more of my favourites.  Also, any pub that has a “beer policy” on its website must be worth a visit!

And boy it did not disappoint.  The Euston Tap is truly like a Beer Festival in a box.  Quite a small box, being the old gatehouse of Euston station, but jam packed with little delights.  And I think I sampled more beers last night than I have at some beer festivals (something to do with not wasting time walking between the stands perhaps?).

Behind the bar, with no space spared, are 20 keg taps and 8 cask taps, arranged over an ample and efficient drip tray.  On either side of the bar, where you can press your nose to the glass and lustily select your next victim are 2 large fridges of beers.  This was such a treat to be up close and personal.  Rather than having to fight your way to the bar, and then squint at the fridge to try and read the labels, you can run your eye lazily over the selection, whilst sipping on your current pint, and make your choice(s) at leisure.

This did turn out to be somewhat lethal, positioned as we were next to the Mikkeller section of the fridge.  Ahh, beloved Mikkeller.  It was not long before we could resist the “Beer Geek Bacon” no longer.  A rich chocolate stout that makes you tingle all the way to your toes.  Certainly very smoky, although reassuringly not much other resemblance to bacon.  It did become known later in the night as “the Bovril beer”, although I’m not sure I got it myself.  It was also likened to the juices from the bottom of a roasting pan, which I found a rather pleasing metaphor.

Other bottles we dipped into included Mikkeller’s "Barrel Aged 1000 IBU".  Perhaps the hops had outlived their potential, as the smell and aftertaste of smelly old cheese was too much for us to bear.  The Cantillon "Kriek" was not much more successful.  After explaining that I liked fruit beers, but not the really sweet ones, this was recommended.  Sweet it certainly was not.  I like a nice sour lambic, but this was not universally popular, drawing comparisions to sucking a lemon and a certain level of resemblance to the fake lemon juice that proliferates the supermarket shelves around pancake day.  Not for the faint hearted.

So what of the casks and kegs?  Perhaps now I should introduce the cherry on the cake of the night.  There were a couple of offerings from Anchor Steam Brewery.  The "Humming Ale" was a lovely fruity pale ale.  Slight sulphur, but not unpleasant, it was floral and mellow.  But the unanimous favourite was their "New Year" beer – a lovely sour cherry nose, with a slight chocolate roundness to it, and palette that was mostly liquorice, a little bit of treacle and something fruity but not quite cherry, maybe raspberry.  This beer was so complex, you couldn’t get bored of it.  And yet not so complex that it became too much.  What a truly outstanding beer, and highly recommended.

Clearly by this stage we were in danger of getting quite inebriated, so having watched the steady flow of enormous pizza boxes through the door, we succumbed to the 18 inch pizzas.  A genius plan for a pub that has very little room, or seating, let alone tables, but doesn’t want to lose its punters just as they get the munchies.  The pizzas were soft and tasty (New York Hot comes highly recommended) and fuelled us through ‘til closing.

Other samples included Marble’s "Pint".  Not a new one to me, but still a great beer.  Last night I got petrol and car tyres on the nose, but not in an unpleasant way.  A kind of floral sulphur that draws you in to the bitter but fruity palate.  Truly one of Marble’s best offerings and a shame you don’t see it more in London.  Also tried the Camden “Pale Ale”, a subtle herby nose with a touch of lavender and a really fruity palate for a pale ale, a hint of pineapple sweetness.  I’ll definitely be looking out for more Camden beers in the future.

Okells 5 barrel was a great session beer, an unusual nose, more like cider vinegar, but a warming honey and floral, full bodied beer made a nice contrast to some of the more zesty beers of the evening.  Ossett’s “Silver King” had very high bitterness.  But their “Big Red” was a rich fruity beer with tones of marmalade and roasting chestnuts.  Although a curious hint of sushi on the nose.  Thornbridge’s "Wild Swan" and "Lord Marples" were both on form.  But we weren’t that impressed with Jarrow’s "JB", which was very bitter and taste was likened (rather worringly by some girls too) to urinals.  Is it just me, or are my friends somewhat obsessed with urine based comparisons?

On that subject, a word of warning re the toilets, although we’re informed they’re trying to get permission for a 2nd.  Lots of customers, lots of beer, 1 toilet…  you do the queue maths.  But don’t let that put you off.  With an amazing selection of beers and friendly and knowledgeable staff who seem genuinely concerned that you’re enjoying yourself this pub is definitely worth (several) repeat visits.

Thanks to Hop Hippo, Beer Gremlin, Big Bad Dom, Squirrel and others for a very good night and your enthusiastic tasting notes.  To Big M for my inaugural artwork.  And thank you Euston Tap.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Doomed! - Coors buys Sharp's

And so it is, a regional brewer producing quality and interesting beer, defying the odds on having to ship the stuff from the arse end of nowhere and just starting to turn a profit, is snapped up by a big multinational.  The inevitable tide of economics dictates the future.  And sadly that means (probably, but I'm happy to be proved wrong) the loss of 60 jobs in Rock in about 2 years time.  I do hope that it's not just media spin and that Coors really do leave the brewery in Cornwall  alone, but I rather suspect this is a nice piece of PR to tide them over while they build the national volumes.

So, is this such a bad thing for drinkers or for Doom bar?  Arguably not.  I'm happy to accept that I'm pretty much flying in the face of my own blogging rules (do I have rules?) in that I'm less worried about this from a beer point of view, and actually just feeling sorry for the Cornish (can't deny those westcountry roots).  In this respect you have to admire Marstons because they do preserve the local breweries (and jobs) and relinquish the obvious economies of scale.  But I accept in present times that profit must persevere over sentiment. 

Sharps were pretty much the new kid on the block, and one thing that new kids are generally known for is being adventurous and innovative.  So what do we expect the new incarnation of Sharps to produce?  Will Stuart Howe still be allowed to spread his wings and experiment?  I suspect not, they've bought a brand not a brewery.  And therein lies the crux of it - national brands and distribution are not natural bedfellows with quirky beers that push the boundaries.  Whilst I'd rather have the latter there is an evolution process and I have to admit that it's going to be interesting when Coors throw their immense marketing power and distribution channels behind a brand which had already punched above its weight to grow as quickly as it had.  This will keep the other nationals on their toes, so watch this space...

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Short and (not too) sweet

Been a bit quiet on the blog front recently, I accept.  But no, I have not been detoxing, as was optimistically suggested to me.  Just a bout of January lethargy.  Clearly a New Year's Resolution to feel less sorry for oneself in order.  So what has Fuggles been up to, other than contemplating Seasonal Affective Disorder?  (It’s a long way til BST).

After an inextensive and unscientific sampling regime, my Christmas beer award goes to Cheddar Ales Festive Totty.  A nutty mild with a rich ruby port flavour, and a hint of roasting coffee beans.  Perfect accompaniment to a log fire and a mince pie.  I wish it could be Christmas every day…  Also worth a mention is Otley’s O-garden.  Really strong grassy hops make this less cloying than some wheat beers, and with its clear appearance it’s a good one for those unconvinced by some of the sweeter, richer wheat beers.

I also turned over a fruity leaf this new year, having to concur with Squirrel, that a nice (not too sweet mind) fruit beer makes a good alternative to a dessert or aperitif.  Noteworthy examples have been a Bacchus Kriek and Liefmans Frambozen.  Both full bodied and slightly astringent beers that taste like real fruit, rather than some poor imitations that have sweet shop flavours drowning out any evidence of a real beer base.  Always open to suggestions if anyone has any?

Short and sweet this time folks.  But off to catch some rays in the swiss alps shortly, so expect a back on form Fuggles coming to a pub near you...