Friday 24 December 2010

A worthy claus

So that's it then. All over for another year. The last bottle has come out of the crate, which is now looking all forlorn and empty, and the annual beery journey is almost at an end.

Hell of an undertaking that it is, there's always a touch of sadness come Christmas Eve when it's time to finish off the calendar, put the crate away and wait till December rolls around again. It doesn't half take its toll on you as well, both in the untold damage it does to your liver as well as the huge strain it puts on your ability to come up with different descriptions of highly similar colours, for example.

Still, I can safely say this year's calendar has been by far the most interesting to work on since I started out in 2007. December has been a memorable month for all sorts of reasons as the last vestiges of civility have been wrung out of an already frosty relationship. There have been some pretty nasty moments recently, all very undignified, but I guess you'd expect that at this stage. Hopefully January will bring some more definite news about living arrangements and we can start moving on from this.

But despite all the nonsense, I've still had an amazing month, not least due to the really impressive quality of the beers I've tasted. While one or two were disappointing, on the whole they've been of a high standard, making my job much more pleasurable.

Highlights have included the Great Divide Hibernation Ale, the Chimay Tripel, the Anglers Pale Ale, the Hertog Jan Grand Prestige and the Dogfish Head Indian Brown Ale. But top of the pile this year was the Kernel Imperial Stout. Such a good beer it's difficult to know where to start. Wonderful smell, huge taste, strong as an ox. It's not just a drink, it's a genuine experience. Definitely a beer fit for an emperor and a worthy Beer Advent Calendar champion.

So an interesting and varied box this year. Let's hope the last one doesn't let us down.

Beer: Harvey's Christmas Ale
Country: UK
Strength: A nice rotund 8.1%
Colour: Christmas crimson and old wooden furniture.
Smell: Pudding, fortified wine, pine trees and chestnuts roasting on an open fire. You get the picture.
Circumstance: Musing on where I'll be and what I'll be doing in a year's time.
Tasting notes: What we have here is Christmas spirit in a brown bottle. The cheery, rosy-cheeked Santa on the label gives you a clue as to what's inside and the smell lets you have a hint of the taste to come. But taste, and you'll soon imagine you've just bitten into a rum-soaked brandy snap following a huge Christmas dinner. It's a dessert course, for sure, as tiny cluster bombs of liquid icing sugar explode all round your mouth like incendiary sugared almonds. And like many at Christmas, you almost feel about to burst through over-indulgence. Fortunately, some kind soul brings in the Stilton to offset the sickly sensation and that scatters just enough salt to clear the path for more.
Drinkability: Not great, in all honesty. I'm struggling here as it's too cloying and full bodied.
Gut reaction: Pleasantly surprising. It's like the beer equivalent of a sweet digestif.
Session factor: Piddling. One's hard work, never mind several. It'd be good with strong cheese like a dessert wine, but otherwise, I'd steer clear.
Arbitrary score: 6.8

Nil Desperado

One of the more odd developments over recent years has been the advent of beers mixed with spirits. That is, lager with a shot of something or other in it. 

Desperados, for example. Poor Mexican lager with a shot of tequila in it. What on earth are they thinking? I can't work out whether they think it's a good mix or if they're trying to disguise the awful taste of one or both ingredients. It sells, though, I'll give them that.

I'm more puzzled at the people who buy it, though. Just why? Surely it'd be better to buy them separately and mix them in your stomach like everybody else.

So pulling this next one out the calendar was something of a shock. It was given to me by my good friend Matt, who puts together the very excellent Whisky For Everyone blog. But I'm already suspicious. Whisky beer. Hmmm. How bad must the beer and the whisky be to make them want to blend it? I suppose they're not the worst bedfellows in the world, but something doesn't sound quite right.

Heartening, then, that it's not a mixture of beer and whisky at all. Rather it's an actual beer made by the Tallibardine Distillery, which is built on the site of Scotland's first ever brewery. The beer takes its name from the coronation year of King James IV, one of the brewer's patrons, and is aged in the oak barrels used to mature Tallibardine single malt Scotch.

I had a fair few Whisky Macs last night at the works Christmas party, one of the reasons there was no update yesterday, so there's still the faint taste of Scotch in my mouth despite some heavy duty teeth cleaning. I'm not quite sure whether that'll help or hinder, but given it's Christmas Eve and I've nothing to do, I don't really care all that much.

Beer: Tallibardine 1488
Country: UK
Strength: A Scottish Presbyterian 7%
Colour: Light, clear and golden. Like a whisky, really
Smell: Three parts whisky, five parts Shandy Bass
Circumstance: Post-works Christmas party afternoon already tainted by bad-tempered conversation
Tasting notes: Surprisingly good. Mellow at first, it sharpens up after a short while spent leaning on your tongue, cutting through the debris of last night's excesses with its Winkle-pickers as it buffs its nails on the lapels of its jacket. You can almost imagine it taking a comb out of its back pocket and running it through a lacquer-sodden quiff, licking its finger to straighten out its eyebrows and adjusting its lace-thin tie. Beer as juvenile delinquent, if you will. Doesn't taste of whisky at all, but there is a faint smokiness about the finish that completes the '50s lout image quite nicely.
Drinkability: Pretty high, actually. I'm amazed at how easily its going down under the circumstances. Eminently quaffable.
Gut reaction: I wouldn't want to put too many to the test, but this one is reasonably innocuous.
Session factor: You could easily rattle through a few of these despite the relatively high alcohol content.
Arbitrary score: 7.9

Wednesday 22 December 2010

Mint imperial

This week has been one in which I've had a fair few discussions about feedback. And not the type provided way back in the day by the Jesus & Mary Chain either.

Blogging can feel like a pretty solitary pursuit, especially when you craft something you think is sure to provoke comment, only to see it wash blithely by like a stray twig caught in a current.

And there's seemingly no real pattern to it either. One day can be barren while the next brings forth a volley of feedback that fair knocks you off your feet. There's really very little you feel you can do to influence it, short of being deliberately provocative, and even then there's no guarantee.

What drives this need for feedback and the apparent reticence of people to give it? Something I've made a real point of doing this year is telling people when I think they're great, whether it be due to a live performance, something they've written or even just how they are. Not once has this been unwelcome, I think, although on occasion there has been some reluctance to accept my praise. So why do we feel so awkward about giving and receiving it? Is it a British thing or is everyone as useless as us at it?

I rarely waste my praise on people who don't measure up to my arbitrary standards and, as a result, I often think they must be used to hearing it. Yet I'm frequently faced by people who demure from the fulsomeness and try to do down their own efforts. Sweet, and quite remarkable, but it doesn't really help matters.

Well, we're not like that here at the Beer Advent Calendar, I can tell you. We drink in praise like it's a freshly tapped barrel of our favourite ale.

Good, then, that in the past week, two respected commentators have seen fit to big up the calendar. The editor-in-chief of a well-known consumer magazine declared his love for the blog and asked if I had any interest in writing about bikes (another passion of mine). Not sure how clear I was about how much I would be interested, but if you're reading: I am.

Then today, out of nowhere, the guy who runs Kernel Brewery tweeted that this is his favourite beer review site. Coming from one of London's, if not the country's, most interesting artisan brewers, this is extremely welcome.

I was genuinely taken aback by both bits of feedback, but reckon I've the good grace to accept it in the manner in which it's meant. And brag about it, of course. Well, why not?

And in an amazing piece of serendipity, next out of the calendar (admittedly substituted on Saturday for another that I'd already drunk - I know, cheating, but what are you going to do?) is Kernel's very own colossus of a beer, the Imperial Stout.

People overuse the word awesome, but at 12.5%, this really does inspire fear.

Beer: Kernel Imperial Stout
Country: UK
Strength: A truly worrying 12.5 bastard %
Colour: Blacker than my current mood. With a fearsome brown head.
Smell: Eight week old cottage cheese and dying embers
Circumstance: Back end of an awkward relationship conversation that isn't the first and doubtless won't be the last. What better frame of mind, then?
Tasting notes: The way it gloops out of the bottle has me wishing I'd bought something else. Tarry, thick sludge almost folds itself out of the neck and splots down into the glass. As you bring the glass to your lips, I swear you can hear the noise of an engine running smoothly thanks to this liquid and the first sip brings a giant flaming redwood of flavour lumbering down on to your tongue. It's cackling flames burn their way through your helpless tastebuds and the salty, charring, spitting sparks bite down like an army of dogfish threshing away at their quarry. Then burly fire-fighters slosh their hoses of dousing, foamy spray willy-nilly for a mind-meltingly imperceptible period before the angry flames bicker out their last dying flickers. Eerie calm descends like the settling ash of a once fiery passionate embrace that's now done.
Drinkability: Forget wine. Really. This is just as strong and I've never had a sensation like it from any bottle, cheap or ludicrously expensive. Utterly incredible and with the kind of character you'd quite happily spend an entire Trans-Siberian Express journey with.
Gut reaction: Not sure about that. The thickness would tend to lend itself towards a steadying influence, but given this the equivalent of drinking three pints of Guinness condensed into 330ml, I wouldn't go giving a chance to anyone unfortunate enough to be sharing my bed this evening.
Session factor: Stupid question.
Arbitrary score: 9.5

Tuesday 21 December 2010

No-hassle brown

It rarely ceases to amaze me how much I can get done in a day when there's just a fleeting sense of focus evident. 

This is the bleak midwinter and, while frosty wind and snow pelted the streets of London, I went about the task of sorting stuff out in a brisk yet purposeful way that surprised not only me but colleagues and family as well. Normally speaking I'd be achieving great things if I stuck my head above the parapet on a day like today. 

There's no real way of knowing how it all came about, but I've cleared and sent a magazine to press, put pages into design, briefed two ads, handled one awkward client, done all the kids' Christmas shopping, bought in the last of the necessary provisions, gone for a swift, rewarding pint and still have time to post this review early. 

Guess I must have gotten off to a good start, but however you explain it, there has to be some element of destiny about it all. Now usually I won't have any of that nonsense, but it really feels like everything's come together today in a way it has singularly failed to do for most of the year. What seems even more odd is that the poor run I've had over the latter part of 2010 seems to have coincided with the summer solstice, while I can genuinely feel the beginnings of an upward curve now winter has arrived. 

Bunkum, really, though it really did appear like someone lit a blue touch paper, stood back and watched the results with a knowing nod. But however it's come about, I'm happy to accept it. Which brings me on to today's beer. I fished this one out at Utobeer because it had a nice label with barley on it and a picture of a fish. No other reason. That it came out today was slightly strange as it was the one out of all of them about which I knew nothing. 

Yet what a revelation it's been. For all the world, it looked dull and lifeless when poured, but once let loose, there was no stopping it. Off it shimmied like a freed grayling bolting for the chalk depths. Fantastic. 

Beer: Dogfish Head Indian Brown Ale
Country: USA
Strength: A tomahawk-wielding 7.2%
Colour: Browner than brownstone in a sea of brown brownness. With some red in it.
Smell: Stewed tea and thick, black treacle
Circumstance: Relaxing on the sofa after a relatively stress-free Christmas shopping expedition, listening to the wonderful Marthas and Arthurs.
Tasting notes: Now I really didn't like the look of this one, but judging by the cover couldn't have been more inappropriate. It feels like the brewer has got everything just right. The beer eases out of the glass and on to the tongue like a Hollywood starlet slipping into something more comfortable. There it drapes itself, luxuriating in the soft fur of your taste buds before rolling around seductively and giggling so coquettishly you're immediately under its spell. This is beer noir, though, and the sting isn't far behind. As you're gazing longingly, a hop-laden henchman creeps up from behind and thuds a thick cosh into the nape of your neck and the bitter blood from your bitten tongue threatens to choke you. It's only when you're rolled out the back of an early 50s Buick Century that you realise your wallet and all your papers are gone and all you're left with is the memory of that satin doll honey who double-crossed you. 
Drinkability: Easier than falling off a stack of finely balanced, greasy logs wearing roller skates. You, that is, not the logs.
Gut reaction: This is the oil that calms all troubles; a thick, gloopy, viscous agent that suppresses all volatility.
Session factor: Not high, as there is way too much about it. But like staring at the seductress, I believe I'd hazard at least one more shot to make sure.
Arbitrary score: 8.9

Monday 20 December 2010

Ancestral vices

Pessimism. Malaise. A cloying sense of inevitability. The constant battle between what you hope for and what you feel will happen instead. Morale-sapping, mood-killing unremittingly dark thoughts. 

There are many reasons why people drink and, while I've felt all of the above keenly in recent times, none apply in my case when it comes to beer. I just genuinely enjoy the taste.

It could be that's an inherited trait too. Some months ago, I sat alone in a pub drinking and thinking, with only my Moleskine as company and it's astounding what cod theories find their way into your notebook in such circumstances.

One of these was inspired by a contributor to the Caught By The River site, one Jude Rogers, who has a regular column called Lines Made By Walking. I duly nicked this and called my theory Lines Made By Drinking.

For me, it's almost like the folk tales of beer. When I drink beer, I tap into my father, grandfather and their forebears. Their beer. What they wanted to block out or round off or blunt. The Eden they sought to gatecrash or stumble blindly across. This is my folk; my tradition. There is a line stretching back generations of disappointment and unfulfilled potential that I can follow more clearly through the dulling of my senses and hazy musing.

Whether or not this is a worthwhile pursuit is open to question, but in my book, it beats taking a depressant to cure depression any day of the week.

Beer: Hertog Jan Grand Prestige
Country: Belgium
Strength: A soporific, dulling 10%
Colour: Dark night with the dim, distant red glow of embers through thick fog
Smell: Sponge fingers soaked in neat vodka
Circumstance: Trying desperately to drum up some enthusiasm for the week ahead.
Tasting notes: Within moments, I feel like I'm being water-boarded with crusted port. Just a small sip multiplies in your mouth exponentially and you're gagging in seconds trying desperately to swallow yet desperate to maintain a grip on some of the flavour. About the latter, it becomes manifest there is nothing to concern you. Just as the sweet, fortified grapes have made their mark, a wave of sharp cherry tang washes it away. Once that's retreated, only the tingling, swishing, shingling of the retreating Morello tide remains. Genuinely sensational.
Drinkability: Amazing. This isn't a fruit beer, but it wields all the flavour and sharpness more commonly associated with them.
Gut reaction: Seems fine, but all that flavour and fortitude must extract a price.
Session factor: One day, I'll test this out, but my suspicion is I won't need that many.
Arbitrary score: 9.3

Sunday 19 December 2010

Quadrupel whammy

Today has been a tough day. Without doubt one of the hardest in the history of the Beer Advent Calendar and definitely one of the most difficult in my recent memory. 

It didn't start well. A longish taxi ride home went sour within moments as the Sat Nav sent us down a long, snow-covered road into a dead end. I managed to sneak five hours' sleep before rising, still none the better for the rest, and prepared to head out into Frozen Britain again. My mission? Pick up some provisions from Sainsbury's and purchase a Christmas tree.

Fuelled with strong black coffee and a solitary mince pie, I set out on my quest, quickly realising it would be much harder than I'd bargained for when I took a tumble on the front steps. Slow moving traffic should have been the second warning sign, but I was in such a spin I didn't realise. Until too late. A packed car park meant what should have been a five minute quick-and-dirty visit to the supermarket ended up an hour long trawl through an army of anxious last-minute shoppers.

Getting the tree was just as bad. Is it me, or has the price of scrawny-looking pine rocketed during the last few years? I swear you could get a tree the size of a house for less than a tenner at the turn of the millennium. Not so now. So what appears nothing more than a fat upright branch has set me back the best part of 30 quid. And I had to shop around for that particular bargain too.

But by far the most tricky task of the day has been presented to me now in the form of a bottle of La Trappe Quadrupel. I can't begin to describe how low my heart sank as the unmistakeable Gothic font Q stared up at me from the top of the bottle; a beery gauntlet slapped around my face and thrown to the ground.

In my present state - barely able to keep my eyes open - it's foolhardiness to attempt this. You see the sacrifices I go through to keep this thing up to date?

Beer: La Trappe Quadrupel
Country: Belgium
Strength: A totally unreasonable 10%
Colour: Murky brown like the frightening eddies of the lower Thames
Smell: The sweet, cloying aroma of sodden honeysuckle
Circumstance: Coming to the end of a long, hard day of recovery, sitting in an armchair, watching the darts and admiring the Christmas tree.
Tasting notes: Oh, what have I done? This is sure to end in tears. It tastes genuinely toxic, with an immediate overpowering kick that feels for all the world like you're going down under the influence of chloroform. A sickly sweet baclava coats the inside of your mouth, finding every one of that orifice's nooks and crannies and burrowing its way in like bichos de pé (if you're not a fluent Portuguese speaker, use Google translate). Then something strange happens. Instead of hanging around like a substance whose decay is measured in half-life terms of at least 20 years, the beast rears like a spitting, striking cobra and stings deadly venom into your tongue. Mercifully, the pain is short-lived and the paralysing effect quickly takes over.
Drinkability: Not that bad, considering it's like having a third of a bottle of wine in a refreshing, effervescent format.
Gut reaction: Unsure. Under normal circumstances, it might not be too much of an issue, but on the back of last night's excesses, there are some deeply strange sounds coming from the bowel region.
Session factor: If you're used to quaffing the venom of a thousand serpents, fine. Otherwise stick to one.
Arbitrary score: 7.5

Saturday 18 December 2010

The thirst Noel

Nostalgia's a funny old thing, isn't it? Somehow manages to extract all the crud and leave you with just the good bits of anything you're remembering. 

Way back in the 1970s, hods of snow before Christmas was the norm, but successive years of Conservative governments put paid to that and it was only latterly under New Labour that we started seeing even the threat of a White Christmas. Well, in London anyway.

As a child, snow was the ultimate luxury. It would turn adults into cavorting infants, lay waste to any plans of travelling to unfancied destinations and, most importantly, would cause schools across the land to close, meaning long days filled with sliding, snowball fights and snowman building.

Now it's a blummin' pain in the arse. A big night out planned for this evening looks likely to be sparsely attended as transport infrastructure buckles under the weight of a feeble few inches. Traffic chaos clogs the arterial roads, while overground trains turn their noses up at heavy frost, never mind actual, genuine snow. London is staying in tonight.

I wonder if I'll block any of that out when I look back at this winter in years to come or whether I'll remember every minute detail. My suspicion is I'll romanticise about it in some way, which is probably for the best all things considered.

And the same can be said for the beer I'm having before setting off. I used to drink Jenlain beers when I lived in France, straight from the litre bottle like the urban sophisticate I was. It was one of the better ones, if I recall correctly, although beer was much of a muchness out there. Still, this one had more character and I believe they did an 'ambrée' version too, which had genuine taste.

Tried one last year and it tasted foul. So having pulled out their seasonal 'Bière de Noël', I'm not entirely relishing drinking it.

Beer: Jenlain Noël
Country: France
Strength: A rosy cheeked 6.8%
Colour: A deep, crisp, even Cognac. With a white fake fur-rimmed hat.
Smell: Apples and rum-soaked fruitcake
Circumstance: About to brave the icy tundra that is the Old Kent Road in a bid to make it to north London. I'm just going out for a short walk, I may be some time.
Tasting notes: The apple rolls out of the nose and down into the mouth with a large, satisfying plop. And with a faint hint of ginger wine, a cheery, red-nosed reindeer-riding portly gentleman flumps down on your tongue, lifts a glass of sherry to his lips and polishes off a nice, warm mince pie. It's Christmas eve and all around is still, silent and smothered in a blanket of white crystal fluff. But on your tongue, it's another matter. A million liquorice stick elves argue and bustle their way about, bumping into each other and spilling hastily gathered presents of caraway and juniper all over the mouth floor. Being elves, it takes them an age to tidy up, so you're left with the chaos for some time.
Drinkability: With all the complexity going on, you'd think it would be a struggle, but this slips down like an unsure-footed pensioner negotiating an icy supermarket car park.
Gut reaction: So far, so good, but there are rumblings off that must surely be the sign of mild disturbance on the horizon.
Session factor: Relatively low, although I do feel I'd like another couple to make sure.
Arbitrary score: 7.6

Friday 17 December 2010

The vampire strikes back

There's a track by the Leisure Society called Last of the Melting Snow that seems oddly appropriate at the moment, especially given the current wintry weather. 

Ironically, it's one my wife and I would sing together in the car or while cooking during better times between us. It's a beautiful melody that hides a deeply sad lyric and it's one I'll listen to a lot during the new year, I expect.

And it's something about that contrast that seems pertinent at the moment. In all honesty, I haven't had a great week and, thinking about it, this year's been a struggle from the off too. I'll be glad to see the back of it and hopefully start smiling properly again in 2011.

But despite that, there have been three or four outstanding moments that I'll never forget and will undoubtedly have a bearing on how the next year shapes up. Putting the calendar together isn't one of them, but it has its moments every now and then, especially when you pull out a corker or get some nice feedback.

Tonight's first looks terrifying. A badly drawn vampire bares its teeth at you from the blood-red label and the ABV figure leaps out bat-like, launching its fangs straight for the jugular. A likely story of Cumbrian legend accompanies the brewer's address and best before date, in which a vampire apparently kills a local woman whose screams are heard by her brothers who hunt down and slay the villain. The town of Croglin has never been bothered by vampire's again as a result. Discuss.

Beer: Croglin Vampire Doppelbock
Country: UK
Strength: A monstrous 8%
Colour: The red brick of terraced housing in the north west of England
Smell: Rancid malt vinegar and eggy farts
Circumstance: End of a difficult week but the darts is on, I have good music and at least one beer I don't have to write about cooling down to cellar temperature.
Tasting notes: Massively full and viscous and not remotely like it smells. The rounded fruitiness sticks to the inside of your mouth, coating it like a big pot of yacht varnish. Then the malt kicks in. Gently at first, then more insistent until you feel like a malt alien has planted one of its sticky eggs full in your mouth. Fortunately, these eggs are soluble in saliva, so instead of choking you to death, it gradually melts away leaving the merest of sour remains.
Drinkability: It's quite heavy going as you'd imagine. Strong, strident, sturdy, you won't get any breaks and it certainly wouldn't yield in a stare-out contest.
Gut reaction: Disturbing. I'm only halfway through a 330ml bottle and I've belched three times.
Session factor: Not good. Far too strong and possibly a bit sweet for my liking as well.
Arbitrary score: 6.1

Paine in the neck

Apropos of absolutely nothing, I'd like to pay homage to a dear old friend of mine who's wit and wisdom came to me as I was battling the elements this evening.

Tony 'the chisel' Leigh is an Oldham-based guitarist of some repute. He could genuinely have been a 'contender' had it not been for his fondness for a few beers and less-than-dedicated attitude. I'd model myself upon him if I could muster the enthusiasm.

During many a bored evening, I'd spend time drinking and watching the man as he'd play deft cover versions of songs rarely trotted out in that half-horse town. The more drunk he got, the better he played. I once saw him leaning on the guitar he was playing to avoid falling over, adjusting the notes he was picking out as the neck of the guitar bent and threw out the tuning.

But an at-least equal part of the overall package was the inter-song banter he'd engage in, seemingly ambivalent to the audience's reaction. All sorts of modern life was dissected for the general amusement of the listening public, much of which sailed over their heads, but most of which produced much mirth nonetheless.

His finest example is below. I'll make no apology. It could be a case of having to be there. But whenever he told this tale, I couldn't help but crease up.

"The wallpaper maniac. Sounds silly and corny dosent it?

"Well consider this then. You're enjoying a pleasant stroll down a country lane as dusk is descending when out from a hedge emerges a man. He is six feet tall, obese, and sweating profusely. You catch a fleeting glimpse of your own terrified reflection in his blue-rimmed NHS pescription glasses as he produces a roll of B&Q top quality vinyl on a roll and begins to bludgeon you to the floor with his shrink-wrapped, improvised weapon, smashing your jaw and, with his tasteful yet colourful, hard-wearing, washable wall covering, delivering another gut-wrenching, sickening blow to your genitalia.


Tony, wherever you are, this one's for you. *raises glass*

Beer: Harvey's Tom Paine Ale
Country: UK
Strength: A notch above normal 5.5%
Colour: Fag-end bright tan
Smell: The soaked carpet of a long-neglected old man's pub in Walsall.
Circumstance: Wondering at the world and wishing it weren't so wilfully wonky. (I've told you about this alliteration - ed.)
Tasting notes: Oh now this is a slow burner. It smelled silly and corny, but while I was sitting here minding my own business and watching the darts, out of the glass emerges a beer. It's six feet tall, obese and sweating profusely. And as I'm gazing into its golden depths, I catch sight of my panic-stricken eyes as it produces a roll of orange linoleum and proceeds to smash the granny out of my remaining tastebuds with its hop-laden, sherbert dip-mimicking rolled-up lariat. The finish is your flavour receptors gibbering and whimpering on the floor having taken a proper kicking from the father of the American Revolution clad in tangerine-tinged jackboots..
Drinkability: Strictly for the masochists or followers of American history
Gut reaction: I'm more worried about my mouth, quite frankly.
Session factor: Poor, really. It's nice and all that, but there's only so much abuse a poor tongue can take.
Arbitrary score: 6.8

Thursday 16 December 2010

Uinta warmer

I love beer. I love the way it tastes, I love the variety and I love the way it it can provoke debate, especially in pubs of a certain ilk. 

This evening's snow gave me the excuse to visit the Royal Oak in Borough, one of London's finest juicers and the only Harvey's-tied house in the capital. Having missed two buses, there really was no alternative. First off was a pint of Pale, followed by a quick look at the bus stop. Seeing another go by meant I was doomed to return to the warm, soothing breast offered by the boozer.

I followed it with a pint of Old Ale, which immediately drew a comment from an older gentleman perched next to me. We began talking about ale, breweries, the pub trade, Hertfordshire, computer support and a fascinating-sounding exhibition currently at the British Library about the evolution of English. Terrifically entertaining, thought-provoking and genuinely friendly. I'll never see or talk to him again, but there was a sharing of thoughts that would never have happened if I hadn't been drinking proper beer.

Unfortunately, I still needed to get home, so a half-hour wait for the bus did enough to remind me that not all is warmth and light out there. Feet are still cold, so here's hoping the next one out of the calendar does something to warm the cockles.

Beer: Uinta Anglers Pale Ale
Country: USA
Strength: An intriguing 5.8%
Colour: The glow of a traditional London boozer
Smell: Parma violets and cherry lipstick
Circumstance: Thawing out after an evening spent giggling at the huge flakes of snow landing on my nose.
Tasting notes: As finely put-together a pale ale as you could care to imagine. Joyously soft on first sip, it spreads its tentacles once ensconced in your mouth, spreading it's flowery petals far and wide as if dishing out lottery winnings. It's not like a Badger beer, though, in that the floral flavour ducks out at exactly the right time before becoming overpowering. A sidewinder scatters sands of sharpness as the finish snakes its way off into the gullet. Fantastic.
Drinkability: Stellar. This is eminently drinkable and gives you all you'd ever want from a beer.
Gut reaction: I don't really care. Whatever happens in future, I'm happy with the here and now.
Session factor: Ambiguous. Might stretch to a few, but would be OK to experiment with several given the right circumstances.
Arbitrary score: 9.2

Gordon tenet

Inspiration comes in many forms. An overheard conversation, a few choice words, even a fleeting harmony. 

I was lucky enough to have all three lay themselves at my door this evening and have taken steps already to incorporate that inspiration into some of what I do. Needless to say none of that hippy nonsense will be allowed to encroach upon the calendar. No chance. This is strictly for the purists.

But there's something about being pleasantly surprised that definitely gets the creative juices going. I went to a gig this evening in the hope I'd see someone I was inspired by a couple of months ago. No luck. She wasn't singing with them this evening. Instead, I was treated to something much more memorable. A band so lovely you couldn't pick holes in them if you tried. And as confirmed cynical git, that was difficult to take.

Wasn't expecting it at all and it fair knocked me off my feet. I'm still flying. And that's nothing to do with the few pints of Old Hooky I felt the urge to drink while there either.

So even faced with the enormity of what came out of the calendar yesterday, but was sadly unable to be shared, I feel I can face it full on. With a gaping smile on my face as well.

Regular readers will, of course, be no strangers now to the roller-coaster ways of the calendar, but there's a distinct upward trend I've detected that I hope continues with this beer and on through the next few. Could be the approaching weekend that's helping, of course, but I'd like to think it's more sustained than that.

On verra.

Beer: Gordon Xmas
Country: Belgium, I think, though my eyesight's failing somewhat
Strength: 8.8 sodding %, for Heaven's sake
Colour: Clear conkers brown
Smell: Soaked bread and not much else
Circumstance: Smiling and now at home listening to Low Life by New Order
Tasting notes: Crikey. Like the unexpected great support act, there was no portent of what was to come. Waiting for as dull a taste as I got scent, instead I'm flattened by the malt juggernaut that bowls into my tongue almost as insistently as the number 21 bus tried to guide me off the road this morning. I pull over and stop to remonstrate, only to be greeted by a tirade of sharp, cutting invective practised only by south east London bus drivers keen to keep to a schedule no matter what's in their way. Once unpleasantries are exchanged, all that remains is the sour stench of bitterness and recrimination that lingers longer than a louche layabout lounging lasciviously like a lovelorn lingerer (that's enough with the alliteration - ed.)
Drinkability: There's plenty to keep you interested and the sting in the tail provides just enough impetus to persevere.
Gut reaction: I fear for my poor insides. This is strong, belligerent, unforgiving and gaseous.
Session factor: Somewhere underneath a dachshund's stomach.
Arbitrary score: 6.9

Monday 13 December 2010

Massive attack

There comes a time when you've just got to step up to the plate despite whatever fate has thrown at you, take it on the chin and get on with it. 

The Beer Advent Calendar is doing just such a thing right now. Having cast off the memory of a desperately disappointing previous instalment, it's onwards and upwards with a new ale.

And what a contrast this one is. As weedy as the last one was, so is the current bottle an absolute hulking giant of a monster. Brewed in Cornwall for people with big hands, this ale tips the scale at a quite mind-numbingly stupid 10%. That's about the strength of a white wine from the '70s.

But there's where the comparison ends. There's more body in this beer than in a Germany of nudist camps. I swear you could pour it into a bowl and eat it with a fork. It's not especially complex - that's not what this kind of ale is about - but what it lacks in subtlety it definitely makes up in brute force.

It's the kind of beer that wouldn't think twice about manhandling you out of its premises if you gave it a funny look. It'd probably add a swift kick of its size 10s too, just to make sure. But after the insipid nature of the previous one, I really don't mind that sort of treatment.

In fact, I've almost convinced I want to go back for more. Now that's what I call stepping up to the plate.

Beer: Sharp's Massive Ale
Country: UK
Strength: A quite ridiculous 10%
Colour: Brooding, ominous deep red
Smell: Overpowering, like a brewing, charring cauldron of molasses
Circumstance: Just getting on with it after the disappointment.
Tasting notes: Like the name suggests, this is a huge bowl of flavour from the off. Gasp as the molten lava of gloopy treacle envelops the tongue in its slow, deathly embrace. Marvel at the scalpel sharpness as it cuts a swathe through the thick tar the lava left in its wake. Fear the rush of dark spirit finish that threatens the very ecosystem that once grazed happily among your tastebuds. As a marauding pack of Vandals, this beer lays waste to anything and everything in its path.
Drinkability: Relatively high considering the punishment your mouth gets while you quaff it. It's certainly going down quicker than the Moosehead.
Gut reaction: Again, my clumsy hands of concrete have disturbed the sediment, so coupled with the lack of dinner this evening, this beer is liable to cause upset and less-than-solid bowel movements in the fullness of time.
Session factor: Utterly negligible. I'm halfway through and it's like I've poured neat ethanol directly into my brain.
Arbitrary score: 7.8

Pale imitation

It's usually around this time of December that apathy kicks in, both in the calendar and among readers. 

Perhaps it's overload. Maybe it's me running out of ideas. Or it could be just that the idea is better than the execution. Whatever it is, mid-December sees hits plummeting and a corresponding dip in my enthusiasm. I'm a sensitive soul, you see.

So when I got back from the Purple Radio Christmas party in Nottingham yesterday, I found it impossible to muster up the will to update the calendar. A bit of disappointing news didn't help either, but I'll keep that to myself rather than bring the mood down any further.

Today's been a difficult one as well, but the bright spot on the horizon was the chance to update the calendar with a couple of ales and wash away the general feeling of malaise.

And, in the words of the Buzzcocks, what do I get? A glassful of beer so insanely dull it's pitched me straight back into a state of mild melancholy. I have not done anything to deserve this. Here's hoping the one scheduled for this evening provides a bit more of a spark.

Beer: Moosehead Pale Ale
Country: USA
Strength: An flat 5%
Colour: Anaemic cider
Smell: Day-old damp dishcloths used to mop up stale ale
Circumstance: Playing catch-up and finding it really difficult to get into with any kind of enthusiasm
Tasting notes: Not particularly impressive. It has the unmistakable flavour of warm Stella Artois that you've bought from a 24-hour booze emporium. There's so little about it, it's hard to describe what it tastes like in any detail. It's so uninspiring, I can't even come up with a cutting put-down.
Drinkability: There is nothing about this beer that would make you want to even finish one, never mind have several.
Gut reaction: Gassy, chemical overtones and light enough to get through you like cheese through a goose.
Session factor: Low. It's so nondescript, but still weighs in at 5%. Almost the worst combination you could imagine.
Arbitrary score: 3.2

Sunday 12 December 2010

Kernel mustard

In the lounge, behind the curtains, love to drink it. Love to drink it. 

With apologies to Ride Committee featuring Roxy, but the combination of what sounds like a Cluedo character with a room in a house begged the reference.

And given the fact when I post this, I'll be up to my neck in dancing loons, it seemed even more appropriate.

I'm delighted it's one of Kernel Brewery's beers, though. If there was ever a beer that wouldn't be too much hassle after already tasting two for the calendar already this evening, it would be something finely crafted by Evin, a knowledgeable and friendly south east London beer artisan.

He's evidently a fan of pale ale, since he brews about four or five varieties. I've already sampled one in this calendar and it was pretty sensational, so I'm really looking forward to seeing what this one's like.

Beer: Kernel Brewery Pale Ale
Country: UK
Strength: A placid 4.7%
Colour: Cloudy tangerine
Smell: Beastly skunk. Again. I swear this man brews beer from hybrid marijuana.
Circumstance: Moved on from morose and into American folk in the form of Arlo Guthrie. When you read this, I'll be off my crunk on cake or some such.
Tasting notes: King of grapefruit, Lord of citrus, conqueror of the holy lime of Judah. I'm not sure you could cram any more citrus in a drink if you tried. As it's at the weaker end of his usual output, there's more upfront fruit involved here, but it's not long before the intense bitterness mauls your tongue like a big bag of ferrets listening to a mid-eighties Elvis Costello album. You really have to stand back and admire the sheer ferocity of something so innocuously named. If you've ever tasted the intense pain of infidelity or unrequited love, I don't need to tell you how long the crunching, crushing clasp lasts. More fortunate readers can just go and taste it for themselves.
Drinkability: I've had a few beers this evening, yet I could merrily carry on were more of these available.
Gut reaction: I'll be happy if I survive the night intact as I've mistakenly spilled some of the sediment into the glass. Who knows what untold havoc this shall wreak.
Session factor: Good. I'd love to tackle a few on a summer evening, but it's equally at home spicing up a cold winter night while your bored at home.
Arbitrary score: 9.1

Friday 10 December 2010

Wrecking cru

And worse I may be yet: the worst is not so long as we can say: "This is the worst."

For many, many years, I used to trot this line by Edgar out of King Lear to people when they weren't feeling great. It seemed to fit. Almost like a cultured, Shakespearean 'cheer up, it'll never happen'. I was understanding and wearing my education on my empathetic sleeve, bidding people that their situation wasn't so bad and had the potential to be far worse.

It is a truism, of course. How can you know what the lowest point will be? You can think nothing else could make you feel worse than you do, but then something else rocks up and puts it all into perspective.

So having hammered the miserable records I own, I'm beginning to think that, in all seriousness, things might not be as bad as I imagine. I'm living the roller-coaster existence, but the troughs are so much more shallow than the peaks are high. And amid some pretty shitty lows, there have been unimagined highs that I've scarcely had time to appreciate.

All of this, I'm ashamed to say, is embodied in this next beer. Trite as it may seem, drinking this has made me re-live, in beer form, the fluctuating fortunes that life throws at you without cease. Harsh, caring, sweet-smelling and cruel. But available in bottles so you know how much you have to deal with, which is where the analogy falls down, I suppose.

Still, at least it's interesting.

Beer: Rodenbach Grand Cru
Country: Belgium
Strength: A 'could be worse' 6%
Colour: The deep dark red of stagnated blood
Smell: Sour cherries, vinegar and cat-piss stained low-rent accommodation
Circumstance: Listening to the most downbeat records I can dig out in an effort to get some perspective.
Tasting notes: Quite honestly, I thought I'd just had a blast on an inhaler of Vicks Sinex. The sheer, bold-as-brass foot-stamp of tang flew up from my mouth and hassled my nostrils within the first gulp. Smacked me round the face, grabbed my chin, ruffled my non-existent hair and pulled my earlobes before I'd taken the glass down from my lips. Gets the zangers going too; that is to say, it evokes the first glug of orange or grapefruit juice in the morning. The jaw muscles lurch into spasm and an aching pain radiates outwards into your cheeks. But as if sensing your discomfort, a cherry lipstick-clad nurse breezes over and administers a calming, cool palm on the brow of your tongue. But what with all the cuts and that, her time is short and she disappears before you've tasted that beautiful respite. Then the sour cloy of the medicine kicks in and you're left in your hospital bed; nodding, appreciative and still wondering when the torment will end.
Drinkability: Addictive as the harsh sting of freshly ground chillies and perfect for cold winter evenings and balmy summer nights. Alarmingly drinkable, despite what it sounds like above.
Gut reaction: On its own, it's unlikely to overly trouble you. I'm worried about its effects on top of what I've already had this evening. Don't mix and you should be OK.
Session factor: You'd have to be some kind of masochist to get through more than a couple. But like lemon fizz-bombs, it has a distinct, insistent pain element that could be construed as desirable under certain circumstances. Like if you've been a bad, bad boy, for example.
Arbitrary score: 7.9

Chicago blues

Bartender, I'd like a Manhattan please. Each time I hear it, the cloying sense of my future plays itself out in the form of a beautiful duet between Tom Waits and Bette Midler. 

For those unfamiliar with the Asylum years, I Never Talk To Strangers has for some time been my go-to track when I wanted to remind myself how good it was to be married. It's perfect. Sums up the desperation and sense of hopelessness you feel when love's gone sour and you're looking somewhere else to satisfy that very human need.

But towards the end of that track, you're given just the briefest hint that salvation may be round the corner. It's left ambiguous, but hope is discernible among the bittersweet vocal harmonies.

Tom Waits is an ideal companion for maudlin drinking, so I decided he'd be the ideal accompaniment to this evening's calendar updates. Someone I care about got some disappointing news today and, for one reason or another, I feel kind of powerless to make it any better despite wanting to do just that. Which makes me feel disappointed. And let's face it, this calendar is essentially all about me, not the beer, so you'll have to indulge me in this.

Having now written myself into a corner, it's time to relate this to last night's beer. I feel I let the calendar down last night, although it wasn't entirely my fault. A lack of camera meant no pictures, which are definitely a necessary part of the whole, I feel. So I'm playing catch-up tonight, but I realise it's not the same. Still, it'll be a duet of beer, so the tenuous tie-in with the Tom Waits track just about works.

On the plus side, there will be two beers and, if I can muster up the inspiration, two rambling bits of nonsense beforehand as well. What a treat. First up is Goose Island's Harvest Ale from Chicago. It's a stranger to me, as is the second, which is as yet undiscovered.

Beer: Goose Island Harvest Ale
Country: USA
Strength: An above average 5.7%
Colour: Ruddy
Smell: Homemade balloon kit and stewing apples
Circumstance: Midway through Foreign Affairs, a few sheets to the wind after leaving-do drinks and gulping at the enormity of the task ahead. And feeling sad for someone else. So massively receptive, then.
Tasting notes: Actually just not good enough. Most of what makes a good ale is here: nice hoppy smell, brief taste of *sigh* malt biscuits before a temporary lashing of sharpness. But it's half-hearted. There is no passion. Instead, it delivers a check-list of desirable flavours, none of which are tough enough to meet their remit. I feel deflated. If the brewer can find all the necessary ingredients, why can't any of them be purposeful enough to hit the target? I had a pint of too cold Old Speckled Hen earlier and I'm having trouble telling them apart, which is criminal for a beer of this supposed stature.
Drinkability: Easy. Especially if you're a fan of the innocuous.
Gut reaction: It's too middle-of-the-road to make you worry about any potential uneasy effects.
Session factor: Relatively mediocre. You could feasibly drink quite a fair few, since it doesn't taste anywhere near as strong as it claims to be. Nevertheless, you just wouldn't want to.
Arbitrary score: 4.6

Thursday 9 December 2010

Chimay, Chimay not

They may not get much better, but I'll do my best to ensure they don't get any worse than that. 

I'm writing this the night before. It's a terrible confession to make, but I need to open the calendar the day before as I'll be out on Wednesday 8th at the Caught By The River Christmas social evening and doubtless won't want to put more beer into myself when I get back. The way I see it, that's got to be better than having to catch up, right?

So on the back of the Faro I've just had, I go and pick out a Chimay Tripel. It's a benign label for a genuinely frightening beer and I'm immediately thinking I may have gone too far too soon.

It's the same with my personal life. Hot on the coat-tails of realising my marriage is over, I'm beginning to get the feeling I'm falling for someone else. I've known her for years and never really thought of her in this way before (OK, I did a bit), but lately I'm beginning to feel that line between friendship and desire has been crossed. By me anyway. Time will tell whether anything happens, but for now, I'm really enjoying the uncertainty.

And speaking of uncertainty, I'm really not sure what to think of this one. I've had the brewery's blue and red-labelled beers, both of which were delicious, but this one doesn't look like the others. They're dark and brooding, while this one is opaque, blonde and altogether more deceptive looking. I hope it has the character of the other two, but I'm doubtful. It may or may not. That, too, remains to be seen.

Beer: Chimay Tripel
Country: Belgium
Strength: A colossal 8%
Colour: Golden blonde
Smell: A bizarre combination of cumin and aniseed at first, leading to wet thistles and caramelised honey.
Circumstance: Watching the Ashes highlights (again) and getting ahead of myself (also again).
Tasting notes: Is this a good sign? It's amazing. A jack-booted miscreant smashes the door to your tastebuds down with his size 14s and he's in, windmilling straight away before taking a great big hoppy cosh and pummelling the rest of your mouth with impunity. He then sits down and for all the world looks around wondering what all the fuss is about, calmly pulling out a can of fizzy grapefruit juice and spraying it everywhere while he tokes on a just-lit roll-up. Outrageous behaviour. What neck.
Drinkability: Well if you like that kind of onslaught, yes. It's great. And I do. Really well made and with the right level of bite to insist you keep glugging.
Gut reaction: Strong, fizzy, complex and with a depth charge of sediment waiting to pounce on the clumsier pourer. Tread carefully.
Session factor: Minimal. I'd like to think I could go a couple, but it's 8%. Unwise to attempt more, I think.
Arbitrary score: 8.4

Tuesday 7 December 2010

Mere Faro

Some years ago, I spent some time in Toulouse writing about planes for a well-known aircraft manufacturer that isn't Boeing. 

In the immediate area around my flat, just before I moved in, there had been a terrific Belgian bar that served all manner of beer. This had been forced to close down due to the building of an extension to the underground railway, much to the clear disgruntlement of the owners, who had grafittied their feelings all over the hoarded up building.

So all that remained were bars selling a wide range of beers, to wit, Pelforth, Heineken or Stella Artois. Then there was the faux Irish bar owned by two Frenchmen, which sold Guinness at great cost. But it also sold Faro, evidently a refugee from the place opposite.

Now Faro is a kind of sweetened Lambic beer (here's a Wiki link, I'm not about to explain it now) and it came in an ornate bottle with a cork instead of a bottletop and was poured into a nifty little glass. How I enjoyed the long evenings drinking with the lonely engineers gazing longingly at the barmaid and thinking of home. They piled through the 'English' lagers like there was no tomorrow, while I sat dreaming of anywhere but home and drinking 'sophisticated' beer. I still got as drunk as them though. And in such moments tried to catch the barmaid's eye too.

Thing was, Sam (as we'll call her. Because it was her name) had dual nationality. Her father was French and her mother was English. From my home town. So while the engineering fraternity would try their damnedest to vie for her attention, I'd just wander in, pull up a stool and have a beer waiting for me by the time I'd sat down. The guys must have hated me.

When I left Toulouse, I heard she'd become engaged to one of the engineers. I know there's a lesson in there somewhere; probably something about no one liking a smartarse.

Beer: Timmermans Faro Lambic
Country: Belgium
Strength: A whispy 4%
Colour: A dull, light copper of turning leaves
Smell: Cider vinegar and bruised apples.
Circumstance: Day full of achievement and diplomacy at work, brutally cold cycle home over the Col de Crystal Palace. Ready for this.
Tasting notes: It tastes of the Melting Pot, the faux Irish bar that took much of my wage. The Faro I used to drink was more cloying, but this one gets the sweet and sour balance right. It is fairly gushing at first, though. Like an over-keen new girlfriend you're not entirely sure about. This is soon put right when her dad comes in, rips the needle from the record player, clips her round the forehead and chases you down the stairs with the sound of his daughter's plaintive but ultimately fruitless pleading ringing in your ears. Yes, it's a short, sharp shock. But you'll be back for more.
Drinkability: Excellent. A pleasure to drink, not too sickly and the finish leaves you hankering for more. See above.
Gut reaction: Looked initially like it'd cause some damage, but the fizz has subsided and it now feels OK. That said, the cider-leaning tendencies may cause discomfort further down the line.
Session factor: Not great, really. And here speaks the voice of experience. Having several of these is akin to being five years old and finding yourself left alone in the cake room. Yes, I know there's no such thing, but believe me, too many and you will be sick. I'm beginning to gip already and I'm only half way through it.
Arbitrary score: 6.8

Monday 6 December 2010

Woh oh oh oh Camouflage

Things are never quite the way they seem, as the great Stan Ridgway, formerly of Wall of Voodoo, once sang.

Stan knew a thing or two about appearances sometimes being deceiving. The track referred to in the title, in truth, sounds a right old plodder. It's only when you listen to the words more carefully that it turns from a gung-ho military paean into a Big Joe and the Phantom 309 for the Vietnam generation. Trouble is, it takes some perseverance to give it the time of day.

So where does this beer fit in? Well apart from the brewery almost sharing the Ridgway name, it's also a deceptive little number that many would take a fair deal of convincing to drink. The brewery is named after an ancient road that follows a low escarpment across the south west of England, laid way before the Romans turned up.

And you feel this is the kind of beer the druids who built that road would have given their blessing to, maybe even drunk themselves given it's weakness. But what it lacks in strength it more than makes up for in complexity of flavour. You wonder how the brewer packs so much into something that really shouldn't taste so rich.

I like the label on the bottle too. A fairly plain, pastoral scene with a pale sky and no real drama. No tasting notes or recommendations for what temperature at which to drink it either. Almost like it trusts you'll be guided along the right path merely by having chosen it in the first place.

Beer: Ridgeway Thames Valley Ale
Country: UK
Strength: Merely 3.4%, though it punches well above that
Colour: Lyle's Golden Syrup
Smell: Yeast almighty. It's some seconds before it begins to smell like a beer and not a proving loaf of bread.
Circumstance: It's been a long, toiling Monday without much in the way of reward. The enormity of my workload and various other aspects of my life is beginning to become clearer. But there were uplifting moments, not least reading my daughters to sleep with The Elephant and the Bad Baby.
Tasting notes: Can you describe a beer as tasting like it's fleet of foot? Well I'm going to anyway. It ghosts its way on to your tongue with a scattering of pollen, like a fat bumblebee buzzing its laden way back to the hive. Then as a frightened mouse skitters away to hide, so the hint of fullness disappears across the horizon as if fleeing approaching Mongol hordes. It's replaced with a tiny dash of peppery freshness that crystallises momentarily, then sinks without any hint of ever having been there before.
Drinkability: Tremendous. I honestly think I could drink this all day long.
Gut reaction: Too weak to be disturbing.
Session factor: Dizzying. A real session ale, this, with its low alcohol content and high interest flavour.
Arbitrary score: 8.2

Sunday 5 December 2010

Where there's mug...

... there's brassica. I'm a fan of sprouts. I like the way they're maligned. I enjoy their crispness. I'm happy to go along with the arduous ritual of preparing them. I can even cope when they're water-logged and overdone. 

But I'm not sure even I would mix them with lager. And from the first few glugs of this latest beer - disconcertingly called Mug - it appears that's just what the Scheldebrouwerij has done.

I've been down the road of this brewery's beer before (scroll down). That was a funny old stick too. Its label was somewhat bizarre and there's no change with this one as well. a balding, bearded gentleman of the road in bed wakes up to find a caveman who looks suspiciously like a 70s era Gerry Adams wielding a large club.

So it's little wonder the beer itself is something of an enigma. For all the world, it looks and smells like an off lager, which hasn't got me remotely excited. In fact, I'm beginning to feel like I've been taken for a mug, quite literally. The label claims this beer is special in some way, but I'm not getting that from the look and feel of it.

But as they say in Belgium, il n'y a qu'une façon de savoir. Or rather, er is maar een manier om uit te vinden. Or maybe both where they brew this stuff.

Beer: Scheldebrouwerij Mug
Country: Belgium
Strength: A reassuring 5%, perfect for a Sunday evening
Colour: Worryingly lager-coloured. Looks like a drop of the amber nectar.
Smell: Vinegar at first, although that dissipates fairly quickly. It does have the fearful reek of posh lager and boiled sprouts, though. And that's off-putting.
Circumstance: The hour of 'the fear' has arrived and I've just eaten a bean casserole with some of Dave's Insanity Ghost Pepper Sauce in it. So perhaps not the ideal preparation for savouring the subtle nuances of beer.
Tasting notes: What a cunning deceiver the nose can be. What the aroma called as an unexceptional Duvel-style amber ale, the tongue corrects. Gently, but firmly and with the quiet admonishment of a doting nursemaid. Oh no, Master Calendar, this is a natural, unfiltered, unpasturised beer, delivering refreshing hoppiness and rounded, near sculpted flavours that delight. But is it lager? Does that matter? It's definitely more interesting than most I've tried, but that slightly tinny finish still feels like my tongue's been shat on by a small, metallic dung beetle.
Drinkability: Rather easy. It's flavoursome and just about complex enough to encourage further investigation.
Gut reaction: Fine, but beware the effects of the sediment that's made the remainder of the drink opaque.
Session factor: At 5%, you could have a few if you like, but I'm not sure I'd really want to. I've nothing against it, but it's just not quite interesting enough to make me want another. Might work better with curry or in hotter weather.
Arbitrary score: 5.4

Saturday 4 December 2010

Sleep of the just

A not entirely unwelcome by-product of the end of a marriage is that you feel considerably less duty bound to get out of bed. 

Having stayed up a little too long watching the serene progress of England's batsmen against the pop-gun Australian attack, I found this morning's lie-in a real boon. Coupled with a to-do list only one item long and it added up to a highly relaxing Saturday.

Given that one item was a trip to Utobeer in Borough Market to pick up the remaining beers for the calendar and you begin to see how well the day has taken shape. Utobeer is a funny old place slap bang in the middle of a bustling, way-too busy market. It took 10 minutes on the train to London Bridge and another half an hour from there to push my way through a sea of slow walking shoppers with way too much time on their hands.

The shop itself is a collection of about five shelves stuffed to the rafters with as wide a range of beer as you can get in London. At least, I think so. I definitely haven't found anywhere else with such a choice. It's friendly service as well, but then I guess if you're laying at £40 on beer, you'll be well received in any establishment.

And it's one of theirs I'm sampling tonight, a great big bear of a beer from Denver, Colorado. The bottle looks fantastic; just the kind of understated label I like, although I'm discomfited somewhat by the best before date, which shows I should have had this just over two and a half months ago.

Oh well. Perhaps the high alcohol content will have preserved it a bit longer.

Beer: Great Divide Hibernation Ale
Country: USA
Strength: A disconcerting 8.7 ruddy %
Colour: Mahogany red, like a piece of fine furniture
Smell: Like a great big bear of a beer that's been using fortified wine as a deodorant
Circumstance: Mid way through making a hearty bean stew.
Tasting notes: Oh. Wow. This is the kind of beer I'd like to spend time with; cold evenings in by the fire cuddling up on furry 1970s white rugs. It coats a thick film of spirit-laced molasses instantly, almost like it's been drinking Kahlua and then stuck its tongue in your mouth. This sensation stays with you a while and it's some time before the sweetness subsides. And I want more. Finally, a whisky tinged bitterness lays itself across your tongue and you're called by the Sirens to drink from the cup again.
Drinkability: Heavenly. Genuinely smooth, flavoursome, complex and moreish.
Gut reaction: With it not being overly volatile, it tends to have a calming influence on the gut. Time will tell whether the best before date was strict or not.
Session factor: At 8.7%, you won't eat more than three in one sitting. I'm only half way through and hibernation seems an interesting prospect.
Arbitrary score: 8.7

Friday 3 December 2010

Faron Young +1

You give me Brew Dog Saint five in the morning. With massive apologies to Paddy McAloon, who wouldn't have had any idea I'd nick and bastardise the chorus of the opening song on possibly Prefab Sprout's finest LP in order to introduce a beer review. 

But bear with me, Paddy. And the rest of you. For I will bend Heaven and earth to link the two in a wholly tenuous way that has most sane people raising their eyes skywards in disbelief and, quite probably, dismay.

This evening's offering is by Brew Dog, a company with which I have a few issues. Now I totally understand what they say they're trying to do and, in a way, we're coming at beer from similar angles. Perhaps that's what rubs me up the wrong way. Readers of the excellent Caught By The River website may have seen my review of Brew Dog's Tactical Nuclear Penguin some months ago, at the time dubbed the strongest beer in the world. Which was essentially a dick-measuring competition with a German brewer in which our pals at the Scottish brewery eventually invoked references to World War Two. Great work, guys. Why not pick one of the greatest human tragedies of our time to try and flog beer?

I know they're trying to wipe away the stuffiness of beer and bring it to a wider, less Fairisle jumper-wearing crowd, but doing the beer marketing equivalent of chanting Two World Wars and One World Cup is frankly crass at best and downright distasteful at worst. Much like the beer itself, in my opinion. I'll give them Punk IPA X, but otherwise they can really go and whistle.

So opening the calendar and seeing this garish red bottle staring back at me has genuinely got me itching for an argument. Given there's no one else here, it'll have to be with the beer itself. Now I freely admit to having bought it with the express opinion of giving it a proper kicking, but on reflection, that's really not the Beer Advent Calendar way. It'll have to work hard for a good slagging off, I reckon.

Which brings me back to Paddy. In many ways, Prefab Sprout mirror Brew Dog. Positioning themselves outside of the mainstream, they started out with the lofty intention of making what was extremely sophisticated palatable to the hoi polloi. Their first effort was hit and miss but had some inspirational moments. The second saw them break in to the big time with something warmly received by the critics. But once that fine line had been crossed and they were the name on everyone's lips, they lost sight of what it was they were trying to do.

I have to add I know nothing of Brew Dog's owners or marketing department, so if they're genuinely lovely people, I apologise wholeheartedly to them and would maybe, at a push, buy them a pint. But your schtick cuts no ice here at BAC towers, as I expect is the intention all along.

Poor old Paddy is now almost completely deaf due to some kind of weird rare brain condition and can no longer hear his own output. There's a lesson in there, guys.

Beer: Brew Dog 5am Saint
Country: Scotland
Strength: Bog standard 5%
Colour: Conkers. But when poured, it looks like an ice cream float. A beery Mount Eiger erupts from the glass. It looks like a chess piece.
Smell: Suspiciously like last night's beer. Citra hops in abundance, maybe. Whatever. It's Skunk Anansie.
Circumstance: Just back from a pleasant evening out in Smithfield with Whisky4Everyone founder Matt Chambers and friends. And a ruddy cold journey home on the bus. Now listening to Steve McQueen.
Tasting notes: Billed as an iconoclastic amber ale. Oh it would be iconoclastic, wouldn't it? Exactly which icons is it breaking down, then? Discuss. I had to bite the head off it, such was the volatility when poured. It wore a pith helmet of froth that tasted like someone had just washed their week-old socks in it. And here's the thing. For something that smells so much like the Kernel before it, the taste just doesn't stack up. There is no rounded, well-crafted balance. It just stinks. Everything's here, but it just feels badly put together. It's sharper at first and the hops scream at you like you're about to steal its ice cream. There is a brief hint of what could have been after the screech subsides, but you're whisked away to the flatline finish way too quickly. And it's a sour finish, not a slow, lingering kiss that anticipates the next.
Drinkability: Beers like this are supposed to make you want more, but this doesn't. I'm disappointed. When I smelled the just-opened bottle, it promised more.
Gut reaction: Questionable in the extreme. After three glugs, I did a fart that sounded like the opening bars of the 'Go Compare' advert
Session factor: No interest.
Arbitrary score: 3 (given before I even touched a drop) 5.3 after tasting. Could do better. I genuinely believe they really could do much better, which is what's worse.

Thursday 2 December 2010

Citra's fruit

On a day when Russia secured the *kerching* franchise to host the world cup, I tussled with public transport from Southwark to New Cross Gate in an equally frustrating exercise.

Equally dulling was the bludgeon of a crushing workload. What assuaged this sense of crushing disappointment was the fact that I was required to reacquaint myself with reasons to be cheerful, one... two... three.

Walking to the bus stop home sees me pass three high quality juicers: The Charles Dickens, The Lord Clyde and The Royal Oak, all in London's SE1 postcode. Each had warming ales to ease the now-elongated journey home.

But having indulged in their most warming warmers, I'm presented with 2 December on the calendar. Hope springs eternal that it's not a bruising leviathan.

Beer: The Kernel IPA
Country: UK
Strength: A not entirely welcome 6.2%
Colour: Clarity begins at home: inside of a sleeping bag orange. With the sediment, it's 70s pine furniture.
Smell: Hideously strong skunk weed. If I weren't aware how that smelled, I'd hazard a guess at it being three-week old broken collar bone bandage.
Circumstance: The back end of a cheery walk and bus journey back to south east London. Here's hoping it cuts through the current carpet of clag lying across the taste buds.
Tasting notes: Oh well where do you start? An overriding clatter of grapefruit juice and a twist of lemon straight away, but the skunk flavour is never too far away. This never really disappears, but the character of it develops as the initial sting fades. It's as if your tongue is caught in a citrus mantrap that cripples your senses. But as time wears on and the shock subsides, you're left with an aching pain of the kind you really want to perpetuate. This beer is a wobbly tooth swathed in gum disease that smarts like Hell, but you're condemned to masochistically niggle at that hurt like Sisyphus needs to push the rock to the peak.
Drinkability: Terrific. Sharp, to the point, insistent and with the kind of moreish charm you'd find in Krackawheat or fruit sours.
Gut reaction: If you manage to pour without the sediment, there won't be any surprises. Less careful dispensers will feel the wrath of a thousand baked-bean suppers.
Session factor: While resoundingly strong, the sharpness means you could happily lay into a few before rationality kicked in.
Arbitrary score: 8.1