Monday 24 December 2012

Fond farewell

Stout master: Redchurch come up trumps
with a fitting final beer
So that's it, then. As adults panic and children get more excited than a carful of Labrador puppies, another calendar draws to a close on the night before Christmas.

True to form, it's been another eventful one. It's like the year saves all its surprises for December, delving deep into its pockets to pull out 12 months' worth of joy and heartache in one sitting. Perhaps there really is no better month for this after all.

Along with work stress, illness and borderline insomnia-induced exhaustion, not for the first time this year I've had to deal with disappointment and now death.

This morning, a really close friend of the family died after a fairly long battle with cancer. I've known her all my life. She was my mum's best friend. She took us in when my mum fled the breaking family home. As our dentist, she stared into our mouths for nigh on 20 years and was there when I was undergoing some pretty horrendous intrusive dental surgery.

A fantastic woman, she had far more to cope with than I have so far in my life and always seemed to take it in her stride and with indefatigable good humour and scarcely a word of complaint, if any.

If I had even a fraction of her gumption, readers would never have seen a single moan or whinge from me on this blog. Bellyaching about setbacks wasn't her style. Instead, she'd face whatever life threw at her with the fortitude of someone with a terrific sense of her own worth.

When stuff goes awry, it's difficult to maintain your composure and not let it affect you, as has been ably demonstrated by my good self this year and in previous ones. Perhaps a fitting tribute would be to try and be a bit less melodramatic in future.

I'm loathe to leave the calendar on too much of a sad note, however. It's certainly not what she'd have wanted.

So I'm inviting readers to vote for their 'gripe of the year' from the following contenders:

  1. "Some days it can feel like you're a mere needle following a pre-determined groove pressed by a particularly vindictive producer and that the song's a heart-breakingly sad one."
  2. "No succour. No comfort. So I did what any man in my position would do and headed straight for the bottle."
  3. "Today's been a struggle. Hell, the whole week's not been easy and we're barely half way through it."
  4. "I saw Seaford Head again, dominating the skyline like some kind of brutal geographic reminder. "
  5. "Right now, if you offered me the chance of feeling better instantly in return for never drinking again, I'd seriously consider it."
  6. "Sometimes you reach a point when there's really nothing to gain in continuing and I arrived at it this morning."
  7. "It's like the drinking equivalent of a soft handshake."
  8. "I'm still firmly of the opinion this is a time of year that amplifies what you don't have rather than emphasising what you do have." 

Simply add your name and a number in the comments section below. All votes will be entered into a special prize draw, with the winner getting the potentially dubious pleasure of having me buy them a pint.

Cheers for reading and hope to see you again next year.

Beer: Redchurch Old Ford Export Stout
Strength: A robust and formidable 7.5%
Colour: Charcoal black with a burnt ochre edge.
Smell: Dried fruits soaked in treacle and rum, with a hint of vanilla.
Tasting notes: I love ending the calendar on a stout and this one hits the spot perfectly, I'm delighted to say.   Succulent and smooth up front, soon the bitterness of a thousand overheated black coffees and unsweetened dark chocolates looms in like an awkward bachelor on the lunge. This is tempered by what feels like a helping, guiding hand that catches your elbow and steers you away towards the comfort of the booths just over there by the dancefloor. And suddenly there you are, blinking, convivial and at ease in the presence of a charming, calming host who plies you with tasty fruits, wholesome malty biscuits and some hefty local firewater. Redchurch have pulled a blinder here. While some of their output can be hit and miss, this provides exactly what I need to consider it worthwhile carrying on doing the same thing again this time next year.
Gut reaction: Heavier than a Sly and Robbie rhythm section, but more soothing than a thousand Andy Williams tracks.
Session factor: Relatively low at this strength and thickness.
Arbitrary score: 53

Sunday 23 December 2012

The great of Denmark

Dream come true: Mikkeller fulfils its
early potential
Anticipation is a wonderful thing. At least, it is as long as that which you've anticipated actually comes to fruition. Fortunately for me, I've been waiting patiently for this and now it's here. 

Not Christmas, of course. Despite feeling slightly more festive now I've finished my Christmas shopping, I'm still firmly of the opinion this is a time of year that amplifies what you don't have rather than emphasising what you do have. Glass still half empty.

While buying presents over the last few days, it's really come home to me that I've missed having someone special to buy for. Must be three years since I took great joy in spotting something while out and about that would be ideal for my partner. It didn't really register that much in the previous two years for one reason or another, but this year it's been different.

Almost every shop I've visited in London, Lewes, Eastbourne and Brighton has produced something I'd have snapped up in an instant had there been someone to buy it for. Course, the bank balance will be much healthier as a result. But while I may be richer in mere monetary terms, the soul feels much poorer for it.

Happily, I'm certain the malaise won't last. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve and I'll spend much of it ensconced in a pub listening to a choir, drinking beer and laughing with friends. Christmas Day with the family will be another mirth-filled occasion, while Boxing Day should herald more giggles and drinks. I know I'm lucky to have all that and by the 27th, there'll be no more reason to feel festive any way.

Before then, I have the not-so-small matter of finishing off this year's calendar. No idea what tomorrow's beer is, but I know I've been looking forward to this one for a while. Mikkeller is a terrific Danish brewer that can do very little wrong in my eyes. Never had a duff beer from them, including the lager they brew for the Craft Beer Company, so their take on The American Dream (as this beer's monikered) is one I'm awaiting with bated breath.

And unlike with many other things, I'm pretty certain this one is going to deliver.

Beer: Mikkeller The American Dream
Strength: An eyebrow-raisingly miniscule 4.6%
Colour: Olympic gold
Smell: Just opened cherry bubblegum and mildly soaked juniper berries
Tasting notes: While many brewers can pack stacks of flavour into fairly strong beers, it takes skill, dedication and effort to be as succinct as Mikkeller in saying so much with so little. And with this, they're saying 'hidden danger'. You've a feeling things will turn nasty just by looking at the outside of the place, what with its flat roof and 70s decor, but you're persuaded in all the same. The cheap Christmas decorations and Formica bar should give it away, but now you're there, you'd better at least buy a drink. And it's fine at first. Quite lovely in fact. A fruity welcoming smile puts you off guard, but then comes the punch. Hard, fast and ruthless, the bitterness takes you completely unawares and wallops you with a cudgel of hops that tears at the taste buds like a vulture hollowing out a carcass and leaves you face down and dazed. You've been well and truly had. Done up like a kipper. Fleeced. Obviously, your wallet and phone are long gone, but the kindly mugger does leave you enough for your bus fare home. But as you stagger out, beaten and bloodied, you turn round and think you might quite like to go in for another.
Gut reaction: So sharp it'll more than likely pierce the stomach lining and seep into somewhere I'd know about had I paid more attention in biology.
Session factor: Dangerously high. This one's a repeat offender you're more than happy to stump up the bail for.
Arbitrary score: 80,669

Saturday 22 December 2012

Don't call me Ska face

Ska tissue: Pinstripe is pretty flimsy
under any kind of scrutiny
Bleary-eyed and blinking, yawning at the day's drear, I climbed into my trusty off-white (read: dirty) steed and motored the watery miles to Lewes in search of Christmas. 

Or gifts, to be more accurate, since bar two presents I've left it late again this year. Although not quite the mad dash my previous forays into Christmas shopping have been, just three days to go is still cutting it close.

It's not so much that it puts me into a blind panic, rather it generally ends up with me avoiding buying stuff for either myself or people I've already bought for while trudging to shop after endless shop. With some good fortune this year, I did bump into my sister, who had some good hints and tips on what to buy her offspring. Still managed to buy myself a book I know no one will think of getting me and some rather posh cheese that stinks to high Heaven from a Frenchman on the high street.

All that traipsing around hasn't half taken it out of me, though. It's all very well having ideological objections to the likes of Amazon, but it doesn't half mean extra legwork.

Having said that, I've detected a distinctly friendlier vibe from the local shopkeepers I've bought from today. Does seem they're doing their best to provide a warmer welcome than would be found on the web and despite things costing slightly more, I have preferred the experience.

And given it was coming down in buckets full, I had the perfect excuse to duck into the new Harvey's pub - the Rights of Man - on Lewes High Street. Still smells a bit new and it'll take a while to feel like a proper boozer, but the pint of Old Ale I sampled seemed well kept.

Flagging now, though. Would have quite happily stayed flopped on the sofa like a catatonic were it not for the advent of the Strictly Come Dancing final being watched in this household. So I shun it in favour of this.

Beer: Ska Breweing Pinstripe Red Ale
Strength: An undetectable (due to poor labelling mostly) and faintly pedantic 5.15%
Colour: Copper kettle orange and chimney red
Tasting notes: Almost certainly a beer that has a better name than a taste. It's just so unconvincing in every department. As a case in point, I'm going to have to go back to the smell category later as I can't quite pin it. As for the flavour, well, it's about as lazy as I'm feeling now. Post-prandial slowdown in an over-warm house has hit me and you get the impression this beer can't be arsed that much either. Instead it slumps on your tongue like an irritating house guest out-staying its welcome and smelling a mite fusty. It will proffer conversation now and then, all too briefly, but as it generally doesn't have much interesting to say, it mostly shuts up and gets on with its business of quietly boring the pants off people. A shame. I like some of this brewery's other beers and you are given the impression this stuff was once quite entertaining in its day. But now it's old, tired and too awkward to delight, so disappoints instead.
Gut reaction: Rather gassy and prone to provoking ructions.
Session factor: Relatively high as it's light, inoffensive and not particularly bothersome
Arbitrary score: 160

Friday 21 December 2012

Initial reaction

Golden great: quite honestly one of the
best beers I've ever had. 
Work finished for the year, home straight on the calendar and all of a sudden things are looking rosier than before. 

And no wonder. Being away for this weekend, I've had to open three days' worth of calendar today as I won't be back till Monday. Looks like Christmas has come early, since they are three absolute gems, starting with today's Kernel, tomorrow's from Ska Brewing (love that name) and Sunday's from Mikkeller.

I remember the day I bought the Kernel beer. A Saturday at the back end of a poor week saw me standing outside in my back garden soaking up some early November sun. A little bird, possibly a wren, flew down and perched on the fence post about two feet away from my head. I think I said something like: "Aw," and the little blighter cleared off. The irony wasn't lost on me.

Then I stumbled on a hidden message from someone and, all of a sudden, the day looked rosier. I decided I'd have a good day, so headed out for Eggs Florentine, then to the Kernel Brewery in Bermondsey for a couple of ales and to lay in a few bottles for the calendar.

This one stood out. BADSCCANS Galaxy. Sounding like a cross between a German football team, a horror film and a low-rent chocolate bar, this monster was a barrel-aged double IPA, weighing in at a fearsome 10.5%. I had to have it.

So intimidating was my purchase, I cut short my visit to the brewery and avoided drinking too much to properly appreciate the rest of the day. I bought amazing cheese from the local delicatessen, saw some truly jaw-dropping fireworks on Blackheath and discovered shared platters at the local tapas bar. It was the start of a genuinely exciting, interesting and inspiring month, full of adventure and wonder, but which all too quickly burnt out by the beginning of December.

Perhaps opening this bottle will signal the start of another upturn in fortunes. After the rigours of the last few weeks, I think I'm ready for that. But even if it doesn't, the next few beers are sure to put at least a wrinkle of a smile on my face.

Beer: Kernel B.A.D.S.C.C.A.NS Galaxy IPA
Strength: A frankly-ridiculous-but-who-cares 10.5%
Colour: Pale blood orange with an Instagram filter
Smell: All I could possibly want a beer to smell like. Dried fruit, summer meadows, peaches and ever such a faint hint of Thai stick
Tasting notes: I just don't know where to begin. This is incredible. All the flavours of Christmas and fine ale rolled into one enormous mouthful. A true selection box of a beer. I don't often do this, but quite honestly, it deserves it. The initials stand for the hops - Simcoe, Citra, Columbus, Apollo and Nelson Sauvin. You can pick out each one as if you were deliberating over a box of chocolates. It's dry hopped with Galaxy hops and then aged in a 1974 Strathmill whisky barrel. You could almost say it was gilding the lily or flavour overload, but because you can distinguish each different taste and aroma, it's not. It's nigh on orchestral, every part working in perfect harmony. And you get a free chaser thrown in with that tinge of whiskiness delivering a fond farewell at the end. Quite simply amazing.
Gut reaction: Who knows or cares. I could have gut-rot for a week and still feel it was worth it.
Session factor: Higher than you'd expect given its strength. I reckon I could eat a few of these.
Arbitrary score: 31112

Thursday 20 December 2012

Milk and alcohol

Lactose intolerant: Left Hand Milk Stout
is just too sweet
Another year passes without me being able to complete the calendar every day. I'm almost ashamed to say it, but I think it's actually an impossible task. For me at least.

Or if not impossible, then ridiculously difficult. I mean I could have forced yesterday's down and written some barely coherent drivel on the back of it, but there comes a time when you just have to hold your hands up and say: "I can't do this."

So it was yesterday. Two days' worth of Christmas parties under the belt and I just buckled under the pressure. Had to spend all day in bed listening to the soothing tones of Radio 4 Long Wave and cowering under the duvet, only surfacing to utter the odd pathetic groaning sound, then falling back into the arms of alcohol-tainted slumber.

Hats off: nothing spectacular, but nice
to reminisce
Fairly certain my liver will thank me for the time off and, in all honesty, I think I'd done pretty well up to that point. Some 18 days on the bounce, whether I've wanted to or not, is nothing to be sneered at.

But rested from the fray and it's back on the treadmill with two beers to deal with this evening. They're both American, both strong and both fall into the 'not exactly what I fancy right now' category.

Wouldn't do them in this order either - milk stout first then a 'not quite pale' ale second - but that's the way they came out of the calendar, so that's how they'll be sampled. This may take a while.

Beer: Left Hand Milk Stout
Strength: A healthy looking 6%
Colour: The black of the pool ball
Smell: Thick, almost acrid treacle and bitter dark chocolate, ruined by Marmite.
Tasting notes: Now if there were ever a beer I could have stomached yesterday, this would be it. Principally because it doesn't really taste like beer. In fact, it's so far removed from beer that I'm not sure I'm qualified to talk about it. Weirdly, it feels like someone's held your nose and forced a good couple of tablespoons of muscovado sugar straight into your mouth, then held your jaw shut till you've had to swallow it. It's not an entirely unpleasant sensation, but you're only given a terribly brief hint of what the drink is supposed to be before it's disappeared and it's back to the sugar foisting again.
Gut reaction: I simply don't know. It could go either way. Fortunately, I'm only having one of these.
Session factor: Minimal. Unless you really like sweet stuff and don't really like beer.
Arbitrary score: 3

Beer: Magic Hat #9
Strength: A rather weary 5.2%
Colour: A satisfying orangey glow
Smell: Damp, just-licked cat fur
Tasting notes: All sorts going on here. Whether that's a hangover from the milk stout, I'm not sure, but my first impression was of a large mouthful of sugared, jellied oranges, the like of which I haven't seen for more than 30 years. This instantly takes me back to Christmas Eve and the wonderful anticipation of opening presents the next morning, one of which would undoubtedly be a box of sugared, jellied oranges and lemons. I think for a good few years, I looked forward to those more than anything else. Then after a while, that bittersweet tang gently fizzles away and I swear I'm tasting a cheesecake I had two days ago.
Gut reaction: It's fairly frisky this one and I've belched a couple of times already.
Session factor: Pretty high. I like what this is doing and honestly wish I had another couple.
Arbitrary score: 1974

Tuesday 18 December 2012

The daily grind

Windy miller: gas levels may mean
words are exchanged later
Always liked the Dutch. From their cute windmills and clogs to those nutty round cheeses and laissez-faire attitude to sex and drugs, they've often seemed rather cool from the outside. 

Being a big fan of canals and thin houses helps, I suppose. But having been to Holland an awful lot, I can't ever think of a bad time I've had there.

The only drawback seemed to be the beer selection, which to the untrained eye consisted of either Heineken or Grolsch. This freaked me out. How could a country with so much culture, history and tradition produce such bland, uninteresting beer? It just didn't make any sense. It was, ahem, double Dutch, if you will.

An old friend once summed it up pretty damningly, though. On an ill-advised carp fishing holiday in France, he'd driven down from a fairly fruitless couple of days on the dykes and declared: "Fuck the Dutch and fuck their little dogs." While somewhat unfair, it nevertheless gave me an insight into people's attitudes to the Netherlanders and certainly made me feel easier about my attitude to their beer. As well as slaying me for a good half an hour.

But as with many things, scratch the surface and there's a good deal more going on underneath. And that's definitely the case with the Netherlands' beer scene.

From Texel brewery on the island of, err, Texel off the country's north coast to the tiny De Prael brewery in Amsterdam's red light district, brewers in the flatlands are tickling their country's taste buds and creating something of a stir elsewhere too.

But no one is doing it better than De Molen. This is challenging stuff. From thick gloopy quasi stouts to unnervingly strong IPAs, this brewery from the small town of Bodegraven has been throwing down the gauntlet to the world's taste buds for some time.

Now I had hoped this beer would pop out when I'd been in a fit state to give it the review it deserved. But for one reason and another - Caught by the River and freelance Christmas party being the main ones - I appear to be slightly handicapped. But in all honesty, I'm confident this brewery can concoct something that will cut through the Kir Royales and the Prosecco I've been necking throughout the day.

Beer: De Molen Geboren & Gelogen
Strength: A thankfully piddling 4%
Colour: Flickering cat's eyes on a sleet-strewn motorway
Smell: Bovril and smoked applewood Cheddar
Tasting notes: This really shouldn't taste like this. It looks for all the world like a fairly reasonable light ale. But dear God it plays with your head. And your tongue. And no doubt your gut (more of which later). It honestly feels like you've stumbled upon a herring smoking shack on the west coast of Scotland, such is the intensity of the burnt flavour. This was totally unexpected. By rights, it should be light and fluffy, but it's heavy on the palate and hugely fruity up front. The feeling you've just licked out a hearth is never too far away, even when the marginal caramel dies down. But it's in the finish this one earns its stripes. As smoke disappears into the ether, you're left with a calming, soothing, anaesthetic cleansing wipe that primes you for the next gulp. How they pack this much complexity into a 4% beer I'll never know.
Gut reaction: Volatile and smoky. Put the roll in the fridge please, butler.
Session factor: Despite a lowly alcohol showing, I wouldn't really want to subject my  mouth to this particularly often.
Arbitrary Score: 43

Monday 17 December 2012

I should cacao

Cold porter: a comforting brew that
warms the cockles
It won't have escaped readers' attention that this December has been characterised by fairly bleak updates from Calendar towers, but pulling out this morning's beer should signal an upturn in fortunes.

Have to admit, it's not every day I wake up and say: "Today is going to be a good day," but seeing the brown paper wrapper made me feel like I'd welcomed home a long-lost friend. Now I realise it's potentially a pretty damning indictment that I'd consider a beer as a friend, but the more I think about it, the more it makes sense.

Does drinking this brewery's beer make you happy? Yes. Do your eyes light up when you see it? Yes. Will it always be there for you? I hope so.

Since we met, I've introduced it to many people, including my parents. I've shared many special moments with it. It's been a talking point at plenty of social occasions. It's been at my last few birthdays. I've even helped brew it. Crikey, it must be serious.

We were introduced by Caught By The River, run and kept in publishable material by a bunch of actual people I consider friends. I haven't even met all of them, but they all seem part of a wider group bound by a common interest and all those I have met have been remarkable in their own ways. To paraphrase Mark E Smith, always different, always the same.

I'll be meeting a fair few of them tonight at the annual Christmas drinks, at which there will be laughter, smiles, interesting conversation and plenty of beer.

One person who won't be there is someone I've spent a great deal of time with recently. We've become almost inseparable in the past few months, which is kind of odd given we're not going out with each other. I did (still do, if I'm honest) harbour hopes it might develop into something more, but that's not one of the things we have in common, sadly.

Remains to be seen how sustainable this kind of 'grey area' relationship is, it having not been subjected to the challenges and vagaries of other interested parties just yet. But for now, it's a genuine pleasure spending time together and I'll miss her not being with me this evening.

Fortunately, I have other friends I will be with tonight, not least this little corker from The Kernel.

Beer: The Kernel Export Porter Cacao
Strength: A perfectly sustainable 5.3%
Colour: Deep, dark, reassuring black coffee.
Smell: Rich chocolate cake with a caramelised coffee buttercream filling.
Tasting notes: Smoother than Pepé Le Pew in a velvet smoking jacket at first, the dirty little skunk sheds its coat and starts spraying around its filthy scent of warning in the shape of a stinging hoppy hit. Just as you're recoiling, overwhelmed, it dons its outerwear again and picks up where it left off, seducing your taste buds with its chocolatey charm and raising its eyebrows all too ostentatiously. Powerless to resist, you lift the glass to your mouth again and succumb.
Gut reaction: Oily, viscous calm on troubled waters this. Not expecting anything untoward.
Session factor: There's only so much of this attention you could take.
Arbitrary score: 1969

Sunday 16 December 2012

Misty Mountain Hop

Complete hop: ditch-water dull and
utterly lifeless
Yesterday, despite what the calendar may have intimated, was a great day full of joyful conversation, laughter, reminiscing and good beer. 

Caught By The River held the third of its four Christmas Markets at The Social in London's Fitzrovia and it was packed to the rafters with good people selling interesting stuff you could easily buy for other people. I, rather selfishly, just ended up buying myself some presents I know no one else will think of getting me.

I've been writing about beer for the Caught By The River site for more than two years and genuinely feel at home there. Updated every day, there's always something of interest to read on a range of topics from nature and fishing to popular culture and beer.

The contributors are a good bunch too - I bumped into one yesterday and spent a good half an hour or so talking about all sorts: music, fishing, books, divorce and the heat-conducting properties of mulled wine glasses.

In fact, it was kind of sad having to leave, but I know there will be other occasions and opportunities to talk bollocks with like-minded people, one of which is tomorrow evening at the annual Christmas bash. So it looks like Monday's update will either be early or really quite late. If it's the latter, there's little chance of it being all that coherent, but it might be vaguely amusing.

Beer: Dominion Hop Mountain Pale Ale
Strength: 6.6%, but I had to go to the website to find that out as it's not printed on the label
Colour: The flickering flames of a gas-powered fire.
Smell: Soggy, faintly cheesy socks and wet Labrador.
Tasting notes: Utterly and completely disappointing. I just had a pint of Ruddles at the local Wetherspoon's and I'm not sure which is worse. Stale, dank and feeble, it's truly a wet blanket of a beer. The Walter Softy of the ale world. I'd love to be able to describe what it tastes like, but the only sensation I'm getting is the musty flavour of slightly sweaty cheesecloth and flat, lifeless bitterness. It's like the drinking equivalent of a soft handshake. Shudder.
Gut reaction: This can't end well.
Session factor: I don't even think I'm going to finish this glass, never mind have another. Ever again.
Arbitrary score: Nothing

Saturday 15 December 2012

He's not the Messiah

Smell the coffee: waking up is hard to do
Admitting defeat. Calling it a day. No longer flogging a dead horse. Just giving up. Sometimes you reach a point when there's really nothing to gain in continuing and I arrived at it this morning. 

Human relationships are a funny old business at the best of times; what some people consider perfectly normal behaviour shocks and appals others. And this morning, while having a shower and musing on the year, I took a decision that, while I may not like it, is definitely going to prove more mentally and emotionally healthy in the long run.

Disappointment turns to anger, which then subsides into mild annoyance and general acceptance. When the last point is reached, you just know it's the right time to move on. It could all have been so very different. No matter. It is what it is and that's that.

Avid readers, should there be any, will be no doubt delighted to learn that I'm not calling time on the calendar. No way. This is one of the only things I can truly rely on and while it's not always the most pleasurable thing to do, like chewing a sore lip it's something I can't help but come back to repeatedly.

So at just after midday on a sunny Saturday afternoon, I'm cracking open a coffee brown ale called, somewhat ridiculously, Mochaccino Messiah. Rather an ostentatious name, especially given the brewery is a Danish one called To Ol. Perhaps they needed to call it something long and complicated to make up for their own rather understated name.

I'm quite tired today too, having spent rather too long hoping for an early wicket in the final test between India and England. I did grab some sleep though, but dreamed a dream that mirrored my life about two months ago so closely it jolted me awake. Hopefully the coffee beans in this beer will have a galvanising effect and give me the kick I need to shrug off the dust.

Beer: To Ol Mochaccino Messiah
Strength: A robust 7%
Colour: Strong black coffee
Smell: The closest I can get is creamed raisins.
Tasting notes: I'm still shaking off that cold I mentioned earlier this week, so my sense of taste is a mite lacking today. That said, this is fantastic. Lovely dried fruit and chocolate opening suddenly supplanted by a stinging rebuke of hoppy sourness and tart tangy flavours of slightly too acidic coffee. This lingers so long you think your tongue's about to start bleeding. It's straight up and down stuff; bit like Tim Bresnan's bowling on the Indian subcontinent. Nice and dependable with the odd surprise thrown in but nothing that's likely to trouble the opposition unduly. Sadly it's not having the wake-up effect I could have done with, but it does seem reassuring nonetheless.
Gut reaction: On last night's curry, I can only pray it's not as harsh as it feels in the mouth.
Session factor: Two in one sitting maximum.
Arbitrary score: 28

Friday 14 December 2012

It's different for Gueze

Lambic pentameter: not amazing, but
neither anything to which I'm averse
In the depths of winter I finally learned there was within me an invincible summer. Terrific goalkeeper, Albert Camus, and he could handle the post-match press conference adroitly as well. 

Despite being one of the twentieth century's greatest existential writers, I can't imagine he struggled with the seeming futility and definite absurdity of trying to make passing a grey day in the full flush of a red wine throb at your former workplace interesting.

Well I can tell you, Albert, it's something of a challenge and I'm not entirely certain of success, but I'm all for giving it a whirl. The same can be said for the beer I pulled out of the calendar today. Despite having had a stomach churning harder than an industrial butter plant for most of the day, I'm genuinely looking forward to this one.

I remember the day I chose it. Was fairly ropey then as well. In fact I only just managed to get to the shop in time before it closed, having spent the previous nine hours or so rocking backwards and forwards in my chair at home in search of some kind of clarity.

At first glance, it looks for all the world like a miniature bottle of Champagne. And the resemblance doesn't stop there. Lambic beers, as this one is, quite often smell and even taste like Champagne too. Something to do with the yeast they use, I'd hazard. But it was the bottle that caught my eye, no doubt. I mean, it's even got a cork in it.

So despite a Nebuchadnezzar of trepidation when it came to opening the calendar door, I was pleasantly surprised and not a little excited to pull this one out. It's still going to be tough, but I've perhaps found more fortitude within where once I feared there was none.

Beer: Cuvée René Geuze Lambic Beer
Strength: An entirely manageable 5.5%
Colour: Really old, rancid cider. Actually, it looks more like someone's poured a dipsomaniac's sample bottle into my glass.
Smell: Really old, rancid cider.
Tasting notes: Sharp. Sharp as a tack. If this beer were a guy in the 1920s, it'd be wearing a one-button roll and some serious spatz. There's a massive amount of carbonation that's seen me belch within seconds of the first sip, but that just tees your tongue up for the sour taste that is its future. But if I'm honest, that future isn't much of one. I expected some kind of onslaught akin to gargling a bucket of quicklime, but really the sharpness tails off within a few paltry seconds.
Gut reaction: Considerable gas coefficient means high winds are on the horizon
Session factor: Pretty reasonable really. It's one to quaff and isn't too strong to prevent you having a few.
Arbitrary score: 634

Thursday 13 December 2012

Bok of beyond

Bok solid: a surprising drop of brown
ale that bears further scrutiny
So not much of a preamble tonight as I've been a bit rushed today, have a day's work lined up in an actual office tomorrow and thus am aiming for an early night. 

It's around 10 weeks since I became self-employed and I've only been in to the old office once since, to pick up a few things I couldn't carry off the day I left.

That changed today as I nipped in to collect the keys I'll need to man the place while they all go off for the annual Christmas party, this year being held in Paris.

I did get a chance to catch up with the blokes who bought my leaving presents, one of which was a voucher for Utobeer that I spent on stocking the calendar a few weeks back. So by rights, it's only fair to credit Ben and Gary for their amazing gift-buying prowess and in helping furnish me with the wherewithal to compile yet another bumper crop.

Today's is one I've never had before and having read the sleevenotes, I'm not particularly looking forward to it. A brown beer made with honey from Belgium. Cloying, overly sweet and heavy isn't going to help cut through the now traditional mid-calendar cold I've developed.

Never mind. More than halfway there after this one and there are some corkers still left to be opened, so I'll work my way through it I'm sure.

Beer: Barbar Bok
Strength: A sickly 8%
Colour: Dark, blood-stained wood
Smell: Big, bold, vodka-stained sticky toffee pudding
Tasting notes: Just goes to show you shouldn't really judge things too quickly. I thought I'd hate this, but as I started pouring it out of the bottle it began fizzing up, like I'd just dropped a couple of Alka-Seltzer in a cold cup of Bovril. And while the overall taste is fairly sweet, that's actually beautifully offset by whatever's causing that fizz. So what you get is some kind of Newton's Cradle effect on the tongue, with sour and sweet sides going off the scale at either end as you drain your mouth. The fizziness stays around much longer than the honey, though. A plus point in my book as it encourages you to have another go.
Gut reaction: Volatile stuff this. Tread carefully.
Session factor: Pretty low. Honey's OK in small doses, but you wouldn't fancy more than a glass of this every so often.
Arbitrary score: 320

Wednesday 12 December 2012

Diamond in the rough

Jimmy jewel: While the colour may put
some off, it's worth persevering
Today afforded me the delightful opportunity to drive to Brentwood in Essex, a pleasure no man should pass up should he get the chance. 

Brentwood, if you've never been, is a fairly run-of-the-mill market town surrounded on all sides by greying scrubland, retail parks, industrial estates, brash and showy houses with drives and car custom part shops. It's also home to several second-hand car dealerships, which was what gave me occasion to visit.

The poor place is sandwiched between several of the country's worst roads, including the M25, the A12 and the near-legendary A13, trunk road to the sea. Probably didn't stand a chance really.

But Brentwood brought a little chink of joy into the heart today, for it would seem to have provided a transport solution for someone more in need of it than most in the form of a jeans blue coloured Nissan Almera.

I've heard they're quite good. I know nothing about cars, but I went along to provide 'bloke' cover and to kick some tyres. I know car dealers love that.

And it turns out this is just the thing, so a successful mission then. None of this, of course, is remotely relevant to today's beer - a 'Commonweath Indies Pale Ale' as the sleevenotes would have you believe. About the closest I can get is that the car is being bought from a diamond geezer and the beer's called Kohinoor.

So that'll do then.

Beer: Windsor & Eton Kohinoor
Strength: A slightly disappointing 5%. Expected better.
Colour: Deep Lucozade or old man's wee - you decide.
Smell: Gentle notes of floral spiciness. Sorry, bit of a cold today so can't smell
Tasting notes: Having had an initial sip, I was about to accuse this of being pretty characterless. In fact, the keyboard was mere seconds away from being tapped when the flavour seemed to come back from the dead. It's not really strong enough to be a genuine IPA, which is I expect why it has a slightly silly name, but you get the lite version of it from the off. But then it all goes away really quickly, like it's taken one look at your tastebuds and scarpered. You're convinced it's properly legged it when it returns, delivers a Parthian shot of hoppy tang, then promptly disappears again. You could almost call it a miscreant.
Gut reaction: Light and unassuming, it's unlikely to cause any real trouble.
Session factor: Pretty high, although the slight sense of disappointment might put you off further investigation.
Arbitrary score: 127

Tuesday 11 December 2012

De Dolle standard

Original nuttah: De Dolle Oerbier is
a true oddball ale
I just spent the best part of an hour constructing a paean to the Dutch in preparation for tonight's beer, only to find out the ruddy thing's Belgian. 

So you'll forgive any spelling mistakes or hastily constructed sentences (as you usually do) while I rattle this off in the next five minutes.

Course, the previous copy won't go to waste - there's at least one Dutch beer lurking in the crate somewhere - but for now I've got the pleasure of sampling a funny looking one from De Dolle Brouwers (trans. the mad brewers), Esen, West Flanders.

By all accounts (i.e. the company's website) there used to be six small brewers in the village of Esen, one for every household presumably. Always knew those Belgians could tuck it away. But since 1980, De Dolle have had the monopoly where Esen brewing is concerned and it looks like they've made it count.

The brewery now puts out a range of beers, from its flagship Oerbier (original beer) to a hefty stout, taking in a couple of speciality seasonal ales as well.

But I don't know. I'm always immediately suspicious of anyone who describes themselves as mad anything. It's a soubriquet you can have foisted on you by others, but not one you can tag yourself. Like nicknames, it's only ever effective if someone else calls you it.

The website's fairly wacky too, although I don't mind that as much. The copy is zany, but then it's infinitely better than my Flemish, so I'd better give them the benefit of the doubt. Let's hope the beer is what they do best. I'm sure it will be. I mean, it's wearing a bow tie, for crying out loud. It must be good.

Beer: De Dolle Oerbier
Strength: An insane 9%
Colour: The kind of brown you find in old, smoke-stained Belgian bars
Smell: Malt vinegar and sour cooking apples
Tasting notes: A rolling barrel full of malt careers forth from the moment you take your first sip. This is unnerving, as you are right in the way and there's no way of side-stepping it. But help is at hand in the form of an Indiana Jones whip-wielding sourness that flails around your tongue like a hose that's been let go and smashes the barrel to pieces right before your eyes. Sure, a bit of the malt escapes and you might slip on it as you make your escape, but you'd take that over being flattened. Finally, as the chaos subsides, you get a healthy dollop of molasses to prepare you mentally for the next glug.
Gut reaction: Given the frothiness, the strength and the lactobacterial fermentation, I'm making sure the bathroom door's open for the rest of the evening.
Session factor: Poor. You'd be face down and gibbering like a madman after three at the outside.
Arbitrary score: 1980

Monday 10 December 2012

Bravo Sierra

Harassing Ford: Sierra Imperial Red Ale
is not a family drink
Oh I knew this would happen, but quite how much I don't want to drink this beer now is difficult to describe. 

I must be ill. There's no way one small bottle of Jupiler and half a bottle of red - on a full stomach as well - should be able to put me out of action in quite the way it has.

This morning was fine. Got up reasonably early, had a nice breakfast, cup of coffee, did a few admin calls and generally thought nothing of it. But since about midday, it's started falling apart.

Hot flushes, shivers, butterflies in the stomach, the lot. Honestly, the thought of drinking fills me with absolute terror. Which is a shame, as I've been looking forward to this one since I crated it three weeks ago. Sierra Nevada is one of the larger US 'craft beer' makers and has been selling its Pale Ale by the bucketload in the UK for a few years.

This one must be pretty niche as there's no mention of it on the brewery's website, so in all honesty I should be moving Heaven and earth to sample it.

But I'm not. I feel drained. I honestly feel like I'd be sick. Right now, if you offered me the chance of feeling better instantly in return for never drinking again, I'd seriously consider it.

And yes, yes, I know, hair of the dog and all that. But almost for the first time in my life (and I realise this is stretching it a bit), I really feel like this is a kill or cure. Here goes nothing.

Beer: Sierra Nevada Imperial Red Ale
Strength: A frightening 8.1%
Colour: Off brown, like an old piece of meat
Smell: Dusty, like the squalid stench of death. Actually, that's not strictly true - usually it'd smell delightful, but it's making me want to heave.
Tasting notes: Ouch, that hurt. I don't think all the most vengeful Gods in the firmament could have come up with a drink I'd like to have less than this. OK, it starts out as well as can be expected with a terrific hoppy burst that would usually have my saliva falling over itself. And it is doing that, but for all the wrong reasons. And as we all know only too well, what starts out with huge promise can quickly come crashing down around your ears and leave you cold. Same goes here. All too quickly, everything turns sour. Well, not sour really. It turns to liquorice. Not good Italian stuff, but the kind you'd get in sherbet dips in the 70s. And this tastes like it is of that vintage. Trouble is, I think I'd really like this under normal circumstances. It's just this is the wrong beer at the wrong time. Curse my pisspoor timing.
Gut reaction: *boke*
Session factor: I just can't answer that in my current state.
Arbitrary score: Five.

Sunday 9 December 2012

Jupiler and Mars

Jupiler rising: uplifting stuff from an
unlikely source
Choosing the beer for this year's calendar was something of a shot in the dark with some of them, but when I saw this, I had to have it.

There is really very little to say about the beer itself - it's pretty much a standard continental lager the like of which is sold in practically every country the world over. By rights, it really doesn't belong here. But I couldn't help take pity on it when I spotted it on the shelf alongside much more weighty, craftier beers.

Maybe I'm just a sucker for the runt? I remember when it came to picking a kitten from a litter aged eight, I went for the one that looked like it was on its last legs. Poor little mite outlasted the rest by a fair few years, so I must have had an eye for the ones that are worth it.

Perhaps I've sneaked it in there with the sole intention of giving it a proper shoeing. Wouldn't be the first time that's happened and probably won't be the last.

Deep down, I know it's nothing to do with either of the above. The only reason, sadly, is nostalgia. This beer was pretty much ubiquitous when I worked in the Vendée region of France before going to university. We have history.

Almost from the moment I set foot in France with my three other campsite courier pioneers, we repaired to a bar at which this beer was sold. A long drive on stupid N roads was only made bearable by the promise of some more of the same at our final destination in Les Sables D'Olonne.

Then a jaunt up the coast to a bar called La Frégate saw us find a place that sold this stuff by the litre (I coveted one of those litre glasses so much I tried to nick one. Unsuccessfully and embarrassingly). As a 19-year-old with a thirst, this was heaven. We spent many hours at the Frégate. I developed a crush on someone there that lasted several years, I bumped into another girl who tried to drag me into the ocean with her and I played pool with the locals who, losing heavily, kept inventing ever more ridiculous rules when potting the black that I later adopted as a tactic in pubs back home.

It's nearly 25 years ago, so I doubt the bar is even there any more. Much of that area has been commercialised beyond recognition and it's unlikely I'll see any of the people I met there ever again (except the crush; by some miracle we stayed in touch). But I always look back on it with immense fondness and I'm hoping this beer will transport me back in time to a place where nothing really seemed to matter all that much as long as you could afford bread, cheese, a bottle of Valstar and a few Jupilers at the bar.

Beer: Jupiler Bière Blonde
Strength: An underweight 5.2%
Colour: Pale golden like the vast sandy beaches of St Jean de Monts
Smell: The heady, sweet whiff of nostalgia
Tasting notes: One sip and I'm back to another time when everything was still possible and I genuinely believed I was destined for greatness. A fellow courier - Matt Applegate - said to me he thought I'd be famous for something or other, but he wasn't quite sure what. Maybe there's still time, although I share his uncertainty about which particular field of notoriety would be mine. In truth, the beer itself is practically over before it's started. A short sharp shock of hops is followed almost immediately with an overly sweet malty stab before it's gone. All that's left is a fleeting memory and not exactly a burning desire to live through it again.
Gut reaction: On an empty stomach, it might smart a little, but it's not going to do any damage otherwise.
Session factor: Massive. Even now I think I could plough my way through a good three or four litres.
Arbitrary score: 1988

Saturday 8 December 2012

Orval realisation

Orval Rex: truly a king among beers
Funny what can set you off, isn't it? Alfriston's lovely at this time of year and I got a clear run at High and Over hill when I suddenly caught sight of Seaford Head. And that was that. 

Wobbled my lip down into Seaford and had to park up and wander aimlessly for a while to clear my head.

About two weeks ago, I battled high winds, freezing rain and fading light to take pictures of a weird structure at the top of Seaford Head. It's a VHF Omnidirectional Range radio, essentially a huge hexagon lying on its back sending out radio signals so airline pilots can calculate their aircraft's angle of tilt.

As you approach it from Seaford Head car park, it looks like a low-rent UFO out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It's fairly incongruous too, nestling in a huge clump of gorse bushes stuck between a hilltop golf course and a field full of unfortunate sheep.

I've been to Seaford countless times since my parents moved there, but I had no idea this thing existed. Someone asked me whether I knew what the 'Sci Fi stuff' was at the top of the hill and I had to find out. And not just to satisfy my idle curiosity either. I set out on this blasted, wind-blown photography assignment so I could find out for them and send pictures. Was delighted to do so; in fact it was quite lovely to feel there was someone worth making that kind of effort for.

When I spotted Seaford Head through my windscreen and the sea behind it sparkling in the sunlight, I couldn't help reflect on how much difference two weeks had made. It saddened me to think I wouldn't be embarking on any more missions again for them. That too many spoken-of possibilities and plans had become just talk. That I wouldn't get to know more about her.

I had to go and look and the sea roll in for a while, a comfortingly therapeutic pursuit that always helps me put things into perspective.

Walking back, I saw Seaford Head again, dominating the skyline like some kind of brutal geographic reminder. But instead of saddening me, it reassured. I'm reminded how much I like doing things for other people who I care about and I'm sure I'll get the chance to do it again.

In fact, I've got the opportunity right now. Not a particularly arduous task, I know, but who else can you rely on to drink this beer for you?

Beer: Orval Trappist Ale
Strength: A mind-dulling 6.9%
Colour: Opaque orange, like 70s moulded plastic or skateboard wheels.
Smell: Some kind of spicy, aromatic resin I don't know the name of. I wonder if this is what myrrh is?
Tasting notes: While I may have fallen out of love with some Belgian beers, this one still has a place in my heart. Sprightly, sour, hoppy, refreshing and perfectly balanced, Orval Trappist Ale is a truly excellent beer and it's making me smile. Bold as brass at the beginning, Orval shows you its malt ancestry fleetingly as would an undercover aristocrat betraying their upbringing. But quick as a flash, it draws its hoppy cloak in front of its face like the Hooded Claw and shows you only sneering, searing bitterness that fizzles slowly away like the dying embers of a once-fierce fire. The see-saw of emotions your tongue is subjected to is quite spectacular. Bitter, sweet, and bitter again, but with comforting, cossetting, rounded sugary citrus snowflakes flurried lavishly around to dull the sting. Quite simply an outstanding beer.
Gut reaction: I've mistakenly poured too much of the yeast in the glass, so it's liable to provoke disturbances, but I don't care. I'll take the blows, as it were.
Session factor: You really ought not to, but I'd happily drink this all night. And then the next day as well.
Arbitrary score: Untold millions.

Friday 7 December 2012

I am Curious, Oranj

Curiosity flop: Curious IPA slightly too
old to be worth bothering with
It's perhaps no real surprise that life seems chaotic as, when I find myself in times of trouble, it's not Mother Mary but Mark E Smith who comes to me. 

Spouting words so barely comprehensible as to make them sound about as far away from wisdom as is possible, the man about whom seemingly no article can be written without including the word 'curmudgeon' (see?) has nevertheless made me think maybe everything isn't so bad after all. And for a good few years.

I've currently got The Fall's 1985 album This Nation's Saving Grace blaring out of the stereo. If you haven't heard it, I urge you to rectify that as soon as you can. It's something of a 'primer' for the band and will provoke a response whether you like it or not.

From the opening doom-laden dirge to the upbeat but relentless closing track, there's all walks of life here, including the mantra-like refrain of 'What you need; out of reach,' which smacks me in the face with its pertinence, and the utterly bizarre I Am Damo Suzuki, which just makes me stare blankly into space.

In keeping with the LP, it looks like today's going to be one of those when you're never really certain what's coming next. Could be explosive, might be fairly mellow, or maybe just downright weird. This is the kind of thing that's supposed to make life interesting, isn't it?

Course, it's all too easy to fall in to the trap of thinking there may be a theme or pattern emerging and because things have appeared to go badly then they'll continue to do that. When really there isn't. It's just stuff happening and I suspect it's how you react to them rather than the things themselves that determine whether they're bad or not.

Quite frankly, I haven't had a great week and what I thought was going to be a brilliant night out this evening is unlikely to be as good as I'd initially hoped. But I don't really know that, do I? What I have done this week is allow myself to fall into the trap I mentioned above and I honestly thought I'd grown out of that by now.

So no matter what stuff the rest of today, the week and even the year can throw at me, the only thing I can say for sure is that, as Cruisers Creek would have it, there'll be a party on down around here. Best have a beer, then.

Beer: Curious IPA
Strength: A relatively meek 5.6%
Colour: That glowing orange you get outside warm pubs when you're looking in from the cold on a chilly winter evening.
Smell: A thick carpet of post-death Christmas tree pine needles and stale Uncle Joe's Mintballs.
Tasting notes: Oh no, it's those orangey Indian sweets again (see here for more on that). I've had this a lot with IPAs, usually American ones which I generally put down to them not having travelled well (a myth, of course), but this one's only come from Kent so that myth just won't wash. So it seems the malts have taken over and imparted a sickly sweet faintly cheesy taste despite what the hops might have to say about it. Like an imbalanced marriage, while there is discussion, there's only ever going to be one winner. And we all know how badly that can end, don't we? (And if we don't, just read the calendar from two years ago).
Gut reaction: Despite the intense discussion going on in the glass, on the tummy front all feels calm.
Session factor: I'd have a crack at more if this were a bit fresher, but having been in the bottle too long, this is the first and last one I'm having.
Arbitrary score: 12

Thursday 6 December 2012

Fist of fun

Let's fist again: A highly enjoyable
experience well worth repeating
Well it didn't take long for me to get morose and interest levels to plummet like a badly constructed Russian aircraft over the Siberian plains, did it? 

Usually takes a good 10 days or so, but this year it's come early. Big and early. Barely 10 per cent of the visitors I got on Saturday have bothered today and who can blame them? A whining blogger is not one you'd want to read regularly, never mind one who seems to moan about drinking beer as well.

So enough. Time to crack open the bottles and break out a smile and see if we can't keep it up for the rest of December. There's only so much misery you can take before you have to start laughing right in its stupid face, really.

And with the end of what's been a pretty poor year for many people on the horizon (although it's been considerably better for me, I have to say), why not start spreading some Christmas ruddy cheer around the place instead of moping around like a sullen teenager told he has to be back by midnight?

Today's beer is from one of a fairly new breed of Italian beer makers. I like the Italians almost as much as I like sweeping generalisations, so I'm delighted there's an emerging artisan beer scene bubbling under over there. Will give me a damn good excuse to call in there on next year's pilgrimage to Slovenj Gradec (more on which later). It's an India Pale Ale, which I can't imagine is a traditional beer in Italy, but as it's a style I do like, I'm happy to give it a whirl.

But can today's beer turn it around? Will I be able to come up with enough amusing similes to drag people kicking and screaming back to the calendar? Does anyone care? Find out the answers to these questions and much more by tuning in to the next episode of... soak!

Beer: Brewfist Burocracy
Strength: A sprightly 6%.
Colour: Autumnal leaves rain-stained into the pavement.
Smell: A musty old sweetshop that used to sell cheap chocolate.
Tasting notes: Ha! This is the first one I've had this year that's made my taste buds recoil like they're under attack. Without asking any quarter, this flamboyant. headstrong hunk of hops bowls in gesturing furiously and upsetting the regulars. It's causing untold mayhem and looks like it's on the point of getting thrown out, but finally it calms down, sweet talks the barmaid and regales the bar with tales of long walks in the Dolomites searching for truffles with a dog called Guiseppe.
Gut reaction: A mite on the gassy side, but it'll settle and all will, I expect, be well.
Session factor: Fairly high. This is quite a sensation that I'd love to repeat.
Arbitrary score: 1870

Wednesday 5 December 2012

Reverse mokkos

Dark days: SW Brewery Mokko Milk Stout
is brightening up a tough day
Today's been a struggle. Hell, the whole week's not been easy and we're barely half way through it. Can't imagine Thursday or Friday will be all that either. 

Some might think that's a pessimistic outlook and in a way, they'd be right. But I prefer to call it a reverse mocker. Putting the mockers on something generally entails saying how well something's going only for it to go badly wrong almost the instant you've said it. Sports commentators are generally guilty of this and cricket ones especially so.

Reverse mockers are generally employed to counteract the mockers. Being deliberately negative in outlook in the hope something good comes of it. And if that's not optimism, then it's as close as I'm going to get to it right now.

I'm certainly not optimistic about drinking today's beer, which is a shame as it's from the Summer Wine Brewery in Holmfirth. I've already waxed lyrical in praise of their stuff on the excellent Caught By The River website, so I should really be looking forward to this one.

But I'm not. I had far too much red wine last night and have been grappling with the resulting hangover all day. Save the odd trip to the kitchen, I've barely been out of bed. There is something to be said for being self-employed, but I haven't had a bollocking from the boss yet. Must get around to that later. Perhaps after a beer.

And speaking of the beer, it's a Mokko Milk Stout. Not a huge fan of milk, but it's the lactose derived from milk that gives this stuff a sweeter, creamier taste apparently. I'm just hoping it stays down.

Beer: SW Brewery Mokko Milk Stout
Strength: A weighty 6%
Colour: A brown so dark you wouldn't get too many arguments if you were to say it was black.
Smell: A cross between Christmas pudding and floor-cleaning detergent
Tasting notes: Was expecting this to be sweet and cloying, but it's anything but. Doling out generous doses of hoppy bitterness from the off, the sensation is almost painful; as if you've burnt your tongue trying to drink too-hot coffee. It does settle down after a while, though, and you get hints of chocolate and coffee in the finish. Despite what it might sound like from that description, I really rather like it.
Gut reaction: I'm not confident about this. That might be down to the poor state of my stomach after last night's excesses, but already there are rumblings of discontent.
Session factor: Fairly low. I could handle a few in one sitting, but would shy away from drinking it all evening.
Arbitrary score: 280

Tuesday 4 December 2012

No sleep till Brooklyn

Last exit: Brooklyn's take on lager
still manages to taste like failure
Today has been perhaps one of the longest I've ever had to live through. And when it's over, I don't ever want to live another like it again.

As one door closes, another one opens as the saying goes. But not for me it seems. In fact the only door openings I can readily rely on are the little cardboard ones that hide the next beer away from my prying pre-Christmas eyes.

Despite an evening drinking fine Bordeaux wines and a healthy couple of scoops in The Harp afterwards, I failed to get any sleep last night. Not even alcohol-induced torpor was forthcoming. Just an awful lot of turning over, rearranging pillows and BBC World Service.

And then daylight. Not so much licking me into shape as slapping me down and reminding me there is no let up. No succour. No comfort. So I did what any man in my position would do and headed straight for the bottle. I'm not proud. But boy did it feel good to drain the last of the Gaillac Perlé and leave the glass on the bedside table.

They say all things happen for a reason, but the more you go searching for those reasons, the more obscure they can become. Trying to understand the whys and wherefores can often feel like trying to understand your breakfast. Some things just are and it's up to you to deal with it. Sometimes you just have to accept you'll never know. There is no explanation.

And honestly, there's very little explanation why I chose to stock my calendar this year with not one but two lagers. I don't like lager as a rule. Not really. I mean, I'll drink it if there's nothing else, but I won't generally seek it out. But if there was ever a day when lager is appropriate, then it's today. Exhausted and bewildered, possibly the only insult left is to have my own calendar mock me. Thanks, fate.

But yes, there is hope. There's always hope. And it comes from Brooklyn. New York's finest brewer puts a Viennese spin on lager and makes it actually taste of something. Something good. Something worthwhile. Something that might just turn the day into night and the night into sleep. I'm sure it'll all look better through the bottom of a glass, won't it?

Beer: Brooklyn Lager
Strength: A thankfully decent 5.2%
Colour: Amber bloody nectar.
Smell: Stale cat piss in a dark, dingy alleyway that someone's tried to mask with cheap scent. Christ, I hate the smell of lager.
Tasting notes: OK, so it's not as bad as it smells. In fact, if anything, I'd say it's considerably nicer than cat piss. What starts out like a run-of-the-mill bog standard lager sits up halfway through and refuses to be beaten. Rather it shouts out from the pit of its stomach 'I am not a lager, I am a real beer,' and you're ready to be carried along by its enthusiasm. Hell, you'd gladly lay down your life to be swept away in its beery embrace, be shown things you'd never seen and gaze in awe at its splendour. But just when you think you can't be any more certain about something, wallop. Sorry. It's a lager again. And you sit, dejected and cheated as your very raison d'être drains away.
Gut reaction: Frankly, I don't care. I just want it over with.
Session factor: Oh I could stomach many more glasses of this disappointment. I'm a dab hand at this.
Arbitrary score: Ten pence.

Monday 3 December 2012

Here comes the night

Bottled it: deliriously disappointing
Just when I think I'm winning, when I've broken every door, the ghosts of my life blow louder than before. 

Now I was never really all that much of a Japan fan back in the day. And that might have a lot to do with the fact all the girls at my school would barely even look at you if you didn't look like a miniature version of David Sylvian. But thinking back, he had a pretty deft way with words did our David; a way that doesn't half make you sit up and take stock.

And so it is, only three days in to this year's calendar and I'm confronting loud-blowing ghosts that seemingly dog me at every turn. There's probably very little truth in the notion life follows any particular pattern, but some days it can feel like you're a mere needle following a pre-determined groove pressed by a particularly vindictive producer and that the song's a heart-breakingly sad one.

I'm struggling to think back to a time when this wasn't the case while I've been writing this calendar, so maybe there's some solace to be found in the fact that there's at least something you can rely on. Tempting though it is, I'm not going to delve into the reasons why yet more darkness has decided it would like to pay me a visit.

Instead, I'll just keep ploughing along in my allotted groove, not jumping or skipping across the platter but gathering the dust and the lint that will eventually make the record unbearably crackly.

As for the beer, well, it's not one I've been looking forward to in all honesty. I can't remember why I bought it, save for the fairly attractive bottle and the prog rock-sounding name. I've fallen out with a fair few Belgian beers in recent years as I often find them too cloying, sweet and overly robust, so really I've only myself to blame.

But today, maybe it's just the kind of blanket I need to fend off the cold and swill away the dust of something done before it had even had the chance to begin. Or perhaps it'll convince someone to come along and flip the record.

Beer: Delerium Nocturnum
Strength: A hopefully diverting 8.5%
Colour: Deep horse chestnut and warming red sunsets.
Smell: A combination of Black Forest Gateau, Irn Bru and UHU glue.
Tasting notes: Just as I expected, really. Overly sweet like some saccharine platitude, slightly too gassy and disappointingly wet in the finish. The bottle promised so much more than I've ended up with here, but given I didn't hold out too much hope at the outset, maybe that's no bad thing. I'm trying to think of a witty metaphor to lighten the mood here a bit, but it's no good. The malt isn't too overbearing, though, and overall it isn't unpleasant. But it's not one to lift the spirits and tastes far too much like that last chocolate in the box that nobody really wants.
Gut reaction: Heavy and gassy means I'll doubtless regret drinking it in the afternoon.
Session factor: Struggling to finish this glass, so another is just out of the question.
Arbitrary score: 33 and a third.

Sunday 2 December 2012

Stunner of 69

Premium bond: 69 IPA packs a proper punch
Rarely have I had the occasion to visit Henley-on-Thames in the somewhat upmarket English county of Oxfordshire. It's just not my kind of town. 

I went once around 18 years ago for a quite boozy picnic with my then girlfriend. Henley itself looked like I expected it to. All picture postcard listed buildings and pretty shop fronts. It stank of money and as a fairly down-at-heel reporter at the time, I vowed never to go back. Not least as the picnic itself was something of a disaster, causing an unnecessarily heated argument ultimately led to the failure of that particular relationship.

But it seems there is now a reason to return. For the past seven years, founder and head brewer Jeff Rosenmeier has been crafting some seriously drinkable beers with his Henley-based brewery Lovibonds.

The name itself is taken from John Lovibonds and Sons, a brewer first established in 1834 that used to occupy the premises that now houses today's brewery. Jeff has been putting out quality beers since he started out, employing the simple philosophy of using only the best ingredients. Spin in a healthy respect for brewing traditions and a willingness to experiment with different styles and it adds up to a damn fine brewery.

Easily the best thing Henley-on-Thames has to offer, despite what members of the rowing community might argue.

So I'm quite delighted to pull a bottle of Lovibonds' 69 IPA out of the calendar today. It's about the only thing I can consider drinking right now following a heavy night of Afrobeat in Dalston and a long, lazy pub lunch this afternoon. Anything like yesterday's would have had me running for the trees.

Beer: Lovibonds 69 IPA
Strength: A fitting 6.9%
Colour: Light golden like sunlight glinting off rippling water
Smell: Posh marmalade and hayfever-inducing flowers
Tasting notes: This starts out like many of the current crop of IPAs: rounded and fruity with a hint of what's to come. What I find sets it apart is the sheer ferocity of the bitterness that rounds on your tongue like the mild-mannered Alsatian turned feral. Like a huge hoppy crocodile clip, formerly friendly fido clamps its bitter jaws down and tenaciously refuses to let go. The sourness reminds you of too young satsumas mistakenly bought at the end of October in an ill-advised quest for vitamin C. Less of a palate cleanser, more a beery Nitromors to strip your tastebuds away. Fantastic.
Gut reaction: Perfectly carbonated and with a deft lightness of touch a brain surgeon would be proud of, it's highly unlikely this will cause too many ructions.
Session factor: Relatively high, although that ABV might put you off too many.
Arbitrary score: 68

Saturday 1 December 2012

December spawned a monster

Oily contender: Kernel's Imperial Brown
Stout steps up to the plate
In at the deep end. Start as you mean to go on. Get the difficult one out of the way first. All of these phrases go racing through my mind as I open the first window on this year's calendar and pull out the sleek brown bottle with the brown paper bag label.

Sometimes you've just got to dive right in and, today, I'm doing just that. This wasn't planned. It never is. Part of the appeal for me of this annual exercise (apart from the drinking beer bit) is the randomness. The mystery. The feeling that I never know what's coming next. But as well as keeping it interesting, that can catch you out every now and then and this certainly has.

And so it goes. Day one and I'm already facing a hulking great menhir of a beer from Bermondsey's finest, the Kernel. It's got the word 'imperial' in it, so already it conjures up, for me anyway, images of a whole battalion of stormtroopers marching inexorably towards me with a menacing regularity and steely sense of purpose bent on my annihilation.

The threat doesn't stop there either. This stuff is so dark brown it gives mahogany a good run for its money. And that's scary. Not because brown is particularly frightening per se, but in an age where pale ales and IPAs appear to be the preferred choice of beer drinkers, this represents the dark side. Malevolent. Unrefined. Base.

Finally, it's stout, a word if ever there was one apparently designed to be spat out brutally in a gruff Lancashire accent. I'm not entirely sure whether it's possible to say it any other way.

So there we have it - an unholy trinity of words like three unwise men tramping off in some futile search for fulfilment and meaning. A triumvirate of terror to greet the onset of my journey through the cold coming of December. Get past this and surely it can only be downhill from here on in. Can't it?

Beer: Kernel Imperial Brown Stout
Strength: An already intimidating 10%
Colour: Chesspiece black
Smell: Stale plum pudding and old dark chocolate
Tasting notes: Richer than Croesus and oilier than a seagull in a slick. What starts out as a deeply intense alcoholic cup of cold cocoa is sustained by sheer belligerence and force of will for several seconds before it finally relents, flopping over and backwards like a just-rescued insect from a glass of port. It's the kind of stout that laughs patronisingly at Guinness like it's a gauche American teenager in the 16th arondissement of Paris trying woefully to order a pineapple from a boulangerie. In fact it's hard to imagine they're the same species, such is this beer's superiority. And as the finish lingers, you're left with the feeling something with history has just graced your tongue and you're unlikely to taste its ilk again. Time for another swig.
Gut reaction: Despite a considerable lunch and several glasses of red wine, it's sitting as comfortably as a small child ready to hear its bedtime story.
Session factor: Not to do it down, but I wouldn't fancy troubling more than one or two for their time.
Arbitrary score: 1860