Tuesday, 24 June 2014 11:19

The Font, Manchester

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Font Manchester 6The Font, Manchester

0161 236 0944

Website

Font is a Manchester mainstay - a constant in a bar scene that has continually morphed and evolved around it over the past 15 years.

It's become part of the furniture without pandering to trends or letting itself become defined by a particular crowd or style.

Personally, I've frequented Font since my days as a degenerate student, when a good pint was the one glass of Kronenbourg that didn't have a fag dimp in it.

Back then, the appeal was the games console in the corner that allowed me to continue my Pro Evo marathon even after I'd been forced to leave the house.

Font Manchester 5

Luckily, I've matured since then and so has Font, even if deep down neither of us have changed all that much.

In the case of Font, the games console is gone and the beer selection has expanded to include four ever-changing cask lines and four guest keg lines, alongside their regulars and a superb bottle selection from around the world.

On top of that, there's a huge range of cocktails that don't require you to take out a second mortgage and the food is straightforward but satisfying and very reasonably priced. The burgers, in particular, are good for filling a hole at the start of a night out and will set you back just £7, which includes a portion of fries.

But the most appealing thing about Font is its lack of pretension.

It's not quite a dive bar but it's rough and ready, sparse yet welcoming, consequently attracting a varied array of punters.

It's a place where you'd be equally happy whiling away the afternoon hours with a paper and a pint of session cask as you would sampling a few bottles of 10% ABV barleywine at the height of a big night out.

Font Manchester 4

It's also become a crucial point on any Mancunian 'craft crawl', providing a handy link between the ever increasing wonders of the Northern Quarter and the student haunts of Oxford Road or the old-school beer destinations of Knott Bar and Cask.

Not that it isn't a destination in its own right. This is usually the best place in town to find Moor's outstanding beers on draught and a good bet for bottles of Partizan, Kernel and Weird Beard.

Hopefully it'll still be somewhere to rely on another 15 years from now.

Monday, 23 June 2014 11:47

Port Brewing Older Viscosity

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Port Brewing Older ViscosityPort Brewing Older Viscosity, 12% ABV

Bottle from Beers of Europe

This is the equivalent of a generous shot of single malt - to be served with a fine Cuban cigar in front of a roaring fire, sat in a huge leather Chesterfield.

It's the kind of drink to be sipped and savoured over the course of an evening, eventually inducing a kind of warm paralysis that renders you useless yet deliriously relaxed.

When drinking this kind of beer, you can't help but wonder how so much complexity and depth of flavour can be squeezed from essentially four ingredients.

But then, that's probably Port Brewing Co's forte. The Californian brewery, which essentially evolved from the Pizza Port brewpub chain, is renowned for its bold and imaginative beer, particularly through its Belgian-inspired spin-off Lost Abbey.

Prior to popping the cork on this beauty, I had only been able to get my hands on their Lost Abbey creations, their Brett-spiked Saint's Devotion being a particularly memorable treat.

Port treads a more typically craft path, boasting a number of hop-forward IPAs, a few German-inspired efforts and a couple of imperial stouts but that doesn't make their efforts any less impressive.

Well, particularly on this evidence. Older Viscosity is a bourbon barrel-aged beast that ticks all the right boxes.

The aroma is heavy and intoxicating, coating the nostrils with rich fruitcake smothered in brandy, treacle pudding, vanilla and sweet milk chocolate heated until it has collapsed into a delicious ooze. A bourbon burn comes through at the tail end, oak and alcohol singing the nose hairs.

Unsurprisingly, it's thick, sticky and viscous in the mouth, yet oily enough to smooth its passage across the tongue, aided by a soft, smooth carbonation.
Instant thoughts upon the first sip are of chocolate fudge cake, punctuated by intermittent twangs of bitter black coffee.

Chocolate evolves into moist fruit cake, stuffed full of dried cherries and raisins, sweetened by a dash of vanilla essence.

The flavours begin to sharpen as a chalky cocoa bitterness arrives and the burn of bourbon and oak heats the throat, while a numbing Szechuan pepper buzz lingers in the aftertaste.

Stubborn espresso also sticks around, mixing with molasses and demerara sugar to create a bittersweet finale.

For an hour, I felt every bit the refined gent. The kind of chap who dresses entirely in tweed and enjoys the finer things in life. That bloke who doesn't have a care in the world, bar the contents of his snifter.

Then I finished the last swig of Older Viscosity and realised I was just a half-cut Manc, albeit one who was at peace with the world.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014 11:14

Rooster's High Tea

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Roosters High TeaRooster's High Tea, 6.2% ABV

Bottle from the House of Trembling Madness, York

I spend the majority of my working week knocking back cups of tea and the majority of my weekend chucking beer down my throat.

Dark and strong tends to be my modus operandi in both cases and I'm rarely the first up to get the drinks in for everyone else.

But despite any similarities, it's always been a case of never the twain shall meet.

Tea is a pick me up at that time of the day when it's impossible to countenance a beer, while beer is for every other occasion.

At least that was the status quo until Rooster's threw everything into disarray by doing something stupid like putting tea into beer. And green tea at that. The type of tea people only drink because they're told it's good for them, right?

Bizarrely, it works a treat, blowing away my initial cynicism with its first jasmine-scented gust, the soft, sweet floral aroma knitting well with grapefruit, orange rind and damson.

The slick, oily body is firm enough to ensure the different flavours remain balanced, yet soft enough to allow the delicate perfumes to sing.

An initial, light sweetness of meadow honey accentuates notes of juicy tangerine until jasmine and rose emerge, skipping playfully across the palate. These floral notes probably come from the fact it wasn't any old tea they threw into the beer but rather jasmine green tea from the renowned Taylors of Harrogate.

Assertove orange and grapefruit rind bully their way into the equation before a wash of tart lemon paves the way for an astringent finish laced with the tannic bitterness of green tea.

In terms of showcasing the flavours of the tea, it does a better job than Marble's Earl Grey IPA without overdoing the experiment. A pint of char anyone?

Tuesday, 20 May 2014 11:14

Magic Rock x Lervig Farmhouse IPA

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Magic Rock Lervig Farmhouse IPAMagic Rock and Lervig Farmhouse IPA, 6% ABV

Bottle from the Liquor Shop, Whitefield

Orval is irreplaceable.

It's a classic, an institution, a monumental beer that looms majestically large above the large majority of others.

But it's also 83 years old and isn't it reasonable to expect your granddad to replace the flat cap, cardigan and brown corduroys with a set of new threads at some point?

Even the most revered and celebrated works of Shakespeare can stand an update now and then, so perhaps nothing is sacred. Just ask Baz Luhrmann.

OK, bad example. Maybe Orval doesn't need modernising but without even trying to do so, Magic Rock and Lervig appear to have created a beer that feels very much like a contemporary take on this classic.

It's similarly complex yet drinkable, unfussy yet indulgent and builds on the key elements that make Orval stand out - hop character and Brett conditioning.

Where it differs is that it's heavily informed by modern methods and appears to be an IPA at core, using heaps of Citra and Centennial hops to achieve the desired flavour profile.

But, although it's called a Farmhouse IPA, much like Orval it doesn't slot neatly into a strict style definition. It's neither IPA nor saison, it just is what it is.

The Brettanomyces yeast lands an extra dimension on top of the hop-forward IPA base that makes it feel somehow timeless - an element that will only be accentuated if given time to age.

It's a hazy, light golden beer with an aroma that reminded me of childhood Saturdays spent on a football field, segments of juicy half-time orange combining with the kind of fruit jellies I'd get from the tuck shop in a white paper bag to soften the disappointment of inevitable defeat.

These notes pop out of the glass followed by a clean breeze of clove, white pepper and rough earthiness.

It's light and airy in the mouth, aided by a thin, lively carbonation that really helps to bring out the best in the different flavours.

The initial fruitiness lands like a slap to the face, causing you to stop instantly and take notice. Sharp orange and grapefruit skewer the palate, leaving a tingling tartness on the side of the tongue.

A clean, zesty bitterness arrives quickly, accentuating the crisp flavours and travels nimbly across the palate, as if carried on the back of a firm spring breeze.

In the middle of the tongue, tinned mango and tamarind momentarily add a sweeter touch before the door is slammed shut by a swiftly descending dryness.

Spice tangles with pithy bitterness throughout the long finish, which leaves you perpetually wanting - no, needing - more.

It's not Orval but I like it. A lot.

Thursday, 15 May 2014 11:54

Wiper and True Amber Ale (Red Orange)

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Wiper and True Amber Ale Red OrangeWiper and True Amber Ale (Red Orange), 5.1% ABV

Bottle from the Liquor Shop, Whitefield

People are often puzzled why I spend so much time discussing, drinking and thinking about beer.

General consensus seems to be that a simple drink shouldn't have so much bearing on life in general.

But beer is more than just beverage.

Given our senses are capable of provoking a powerful emotional response, the best beers can transport us to different times and places - in the mind, at least.

An otherwise dull night on the sofa can be transformed into a flood of memories, dreams and fairytales when a beer is at hand, especially by the time you've sunk several.

My first taste of Wiper and True was a perfect example of this phenomenon and the new Bristol brewery has quickly demonstrated an impressive understanding of the drinking experience by creating a well-judged concept and absolutely nailing the execution.

The first sniff and sip of this instantly whisked me to a lush Italian orange grove, helping me to believe, for just one minute, that I was basking in the Mediterranean sun rather than soaking in the Manchester rain.

It pours a heavy, burnt amber, the colour of a deep, foreboding sunset across a clear night sky, with a persistent off-white head that hangs on to the bitter end.

The aroma is wonderfully dank, fuzzy orange, the sweetness of tangerine and sharpness of zest mingling above a heavy bed of pine and grass.

In the mouth, light caramel and dusty cereal provide the base, which is non-obtrusive but still firm enough to allow the other flavours to sing.

A squeeze of tangy, tart blood orange washes over the front of the tongue, providing a soft juiciness that quickly becomes more sweet and compact, like biting into segments of tangerine and satsuma.

Earthy, rustic flavours of pine and hay build alongside a pithy bitterness before a zesty flourish bursts through the dry finish, leaving a cluster of prickling peppery spice.

The flavours are so vivid and expressive that it's impossible not to let your mind wander and, even now, I can still see the over-burdened orange trees, lush greenery and rugged mountainous scenery.

I'm expecting every Wiper and True beer to help me realise a similar level of transcendence.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014 10:38

A weird beard means weird beer

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Weird Beard Dark HopflerWeird Beard Dark Hopfler, 2.5% ABV

Something Something Dark Side, 9% ABV

Bottles from the Liquor Shop, Whitefield

When your name's weird and your beard's weird, there's a fair chance your beers will be too.

But when I say weird, I mean it in the nicest possible sense of the word. Boldly unique rather than unnervingly creepy.

This pair are two dark beers that don't really taste like typical dark beers. In fact, it's very difficult to put your finger on what the hell either of them actually are - an ambiguity captured perfectly in the name of Something Something Dark Side.

Forget neatly boxed stouts and porters that play by the rules, these two are rabble rousers that clearly favour anarchy over structure and style guidelines.

To underline this point, Dark Hopfler is billed as the 'bastard son' of Weird Beard's Sadako imperial stout, a bizarre small beer created from its daddy's second runnings. It's ostensibly a dark milk ale - with lactose added to accentuate the various flavours -  but why put a label on something created without regard for the usual 'rules'.

It looks like a glass of black coffee, dense and dark, although capped with a soft, fluffy brown head.

The aroma is pretty unusual, a real shock to the system, with skunky citrus hops slashing in from one side and bitter roasted malt from the other. Those hops are vivid too, full of orange, pine, grass, nettle and light, playful floral notes.

Given the prominence of hops in the aroma, there's another surprise when malt instantly announces itself on the palate, the astringent bitterness of roasted malt and burnt toast standing alongside chalky cocoa and black coffee.

But a tug of war then commences between these flavours and those pesky hops, which are equal parts earthy, tart and tangy, blackcurrant tangled among wild flowers and herbs.

The lactose addition smoothes off any rough edges, preventing the bitterness from taking control and helping to extend the fruity sweetness into the finish.

Grass and nettle emerge as the palate dries but charcoal builds as the arid finish really sets in and cocoa throbs strongly while a peppery spice tingles. It's a beer that really has to be tasted to be believed and an early contender for my beer of the year.

Weird Beard Something Something Dark Side

Something Something Dark Side is similarly schizophrenic, stuck somewhere between and indulgent black IPA and an imperial stout that went a bit crazy with the hops.

Ripe plum, cherry and cranberry burst in the aroma but the strength soon becomes apparent through a whiff of rum and demerara sugar, while the faint hint of grass and freshly-cut onion also hangs in the background.

Toffee and liquorice drop an instant sweetness on the front of the tongue but this is cut by sharp, tart fruit - a clash of citrus and dark berries - which slowly morph into a sticky resinous character.

The finish is an intriguing mix of sweet and salty, coconut seeming to tussle with the tang of Worcester sauce before ending dry and bittersweet, those hops still buzzing throughout the mouth.

Both beers might be something of an acquired taste but highlight exactly where Weird Beard's strengths lie. Technical excellence aligned with playfulness and an experimental edge means every beer the brewery releases is on my wanted list.

Thursday, 08 May 2014 10:23

Ich bin ein Berliner Pilsner

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Berliner Kindl Weisse grunBeer Battered takes a trip round the bars and pubs of Berlin and finds out brewpubs are flavour of the month.

Beer is a serious business wherever you go in Germany.

Within an hour of arriving in Berlin, this much was made abundantly clear.

While checking in at our hotel, the obliging receptionist asked whether we'd done much research into potential activities for our time in the city.

"Well, he's memorised every bar where you can buy good beer," quipped my better half, quick as a flash.

But the sarcasm dripping from this statement appeared to pass the receptionist by. Instead, his face collapsed into a crumpled look of utter bemusement before a guttural chuckle escaped his mouth, equal parts mocking and pitying.

Eventually he composed himself enough to ask the all-important question. "Why would you need to search for good beer in Berlin? It's everywhere."

And he was right... to an extent.

Berlin doesn't have the same bacchanalian reputation or tradition as Munich, Cologne or Bamberg but the average quality of bog-standard beer is still markedly better than any city in Britain.

Germans tend to be conservative in their tastes but proud of what their country produces, so bars serving mass-market global brands are the exception rather the rule. That's not to say German beer is necessarily better than English ale, just that there are far fewer drinking dens serving nothing but swill.

That said, many of the most widely available beer brands in Berlin - Berliner Kindl, Schultheiss, Potsdamer, Radeberger, Schöfferhofer and Märkischer Landmann - are still owned by the huge Oetker Group, best known in this country for crap frozen pizza.

Prater Berlin exterior

Of those brands, Berliner Pilsner is ubiquitous but fairly palatable despite being a little too sweet for my own taste. It's an extremely pale yellow pils that's full of sweet malt and lemony hop up front, followed by more floral, grassy notes as it dries and an aftertaste loaded with cereal and biscuit.

Meanwhile, the Berliner Kindl Weisse bears little resemblance to the more recent 'craft' iterations of the style and is usually served as either rot (red) or grün (green), depending on the syrup you decide to mix it with.

It doesn't really matter which you choose because the end result is the same - a sickly sweet, luminous cocktail that masks much of the taste from the base beer. You're best having it without as far as I'm concerned.

Although Berlin lacks the diversity and innovation of the current British scene, there's a refreshing 'no bullshit' approach to beer and a relaxed attitude towards drinking and enjoying it. Whatever bar you visit, you'll never have to 'settle' for a watery pint of Foster's, as the base level is generally higher.

Equally, you won't have to endure any discussions about the definition of craft or the extent to which the postmodern pale ale has successfully subverted the traditional, linear beer narrative.

Marcus Brau pils

This attitude is epitomised by the old guard of established pubs and beer halls dotted around the city, targeted towards locals and tourists in equal measure.

Prater is one of the best in this category, a famed beer garden on Kastanienallee in Prenzlauer Berg that can trace its origins back to the mid-19th century.

Unfortunately, it being a late mid-April evening when we visited, the garden itself was reserved for only the most hardened revellers. A solitary table of lively locals did their best to stave off the night with glasses of pils and excited chatter, while the darkness slowly closed in around them.

We found refuge in the adjacent restaurant, which felt a little like the waiting room in a Victorian train station - all dark wood panelling, arched windows and wall lighting that glowed unnaturally without altering the state of perpetual twilight.

The wooden tables and chairs groaned incessantly about the problems of old age, each nick, scratch and scuff recounting a happy moment from a golden past that had long since escaped them. However, it's easy to imagine this is the kind of furniture that looked distressed the minute it left the workshop.

Families, friends and solitary souls chattered, chomped and chugged, lending a palpable buzz to the warm, friendly atmosphere.

We ordered a couple of plates of food - standard, hearty German fare that was grey but satisfying - and indulged in several of the house brews to slake a gargantuan thirst cultivated during a day walking Berlin's captivating streets.

Although not brewed on site - and, in fact, created by the aforementioned Berliner Kindl brewery - neither the pilsner nor the schwarz failed to hit the spot.

The pale golden pils cut across the palate with a fresh lemony bitterness and crisp carbonation, leading to a dry finish draped with lingering cereal sweetness.

In comparison to that quick blast of refreshment, the schwarz offered warm comfort, easing me further into my battered old chair until my slouched shoulders reached the bottom of the back support.

Rye bread, treacle and liquorice welcome you in and a dash of lemon perks up the senses before molasses and brown toast settle on the back of the tongue, the robust body providing a reassuring, lasting weight in the mouth.

Zum Nussbaum Berlin exterior

Another must-visit is the unassuming Sophie'n Eck, which wraps itself around the corner of the junction between Grosse Hamburger Strasse and Sophienstrasse near Hackescher Markt.

It appears more Parisian bistro from the outside, with ample outdoor seating for the warmer months, but is very much German watering hole on the inside, the walls adorned with old beer enamels and the small bar decked in wood and brass.

Open until 1am Sunday to Thursday and 2am on Fridays and Saturdays, it's the perfect place for a quiet, late-night drink, particularly given the warm welcome that awaits.

The atmosphere is amicable and cozy, the staff genuine and obliging. One wag behind the bar even watched us play a variety of games with the two sad-looking beermats on our table before wandering over with a huge grin on his face to slap down a further 30.

I enjoyed a decent pint of Schlösser Alt and a couple of refreshing glasses of Jever, which always slips down far too easily, while bottles of Störtebeker were also on offer.

You can enjoy your beer with a slice of history at Zum Nußbaum in the Nikolaiviertel (pictured above left), a recreation of what was once one of Berlin's oldest pubs.

Marcus Brau BerlinPreviously located in Fischerinsel, it was destroyed during the Second World War before being rebuilt, complete with the walnut tree it was named after (Nußbaum meaning walnut in German), by the GDR in 1987.

Consequently, it feels a bit like stepping onto a film set where nothing is quite real but it's a quaint old school German tavern serving hearty food alongside a solid, yet limited, beer selection.

My sausage, mash and sauerkraut was washed down with a Märkischer Landmann Schwarz that proved surprisingly enjoyable given its mixed reputation - dry and ashy, offering caramel, nut and a light fruitiness up front, followed by brown toast, mild roast and a sweet aftertaste of biscuit and bread.

However, moving beyond the tourist traps and more typical drinking dens, what is most interesting about Berin's beer scene is the sudden proliferation of brewpubs.

A number have popped up all over the city, providing an alternative to the typical mainstream offerings, although they do tend to play it safe by sticking to traditional styles.

The majority produce a house pils, a dunkel or schwarz and a weizen if you're lucky but slightly limited choice doesn't detract from appreciation of the quality on offer.

Hops & Barley was a nightmare to find but worth the effort, tucked away behind a fairly plain, grey shop front in Friedrichshain with its small brew kit sat proudly alongside the bar inside.

The pilsner was the pick of the bunch here, smooth in the mouth, cereal malt puncuated by a squeeze of lemon and a pithy bitterness.

Heidenpeters Thirsty Lady

Clean esters of spice, bubblegum and banana shine in the weizen and there is even a cider on offer - an oddity in Germany - tart, sweet and crisp, like a fresh Granny Smith straight from the fridge.

Similarly small and humble was Marcus Bräu, sandwiched between Alexanderplatz and Hackescher Markt in a very convenient central location.

This place won the prize for tiniest kit (pictured above right), the brewer's version of Where's Wally only being solved when I peered over the bar on my way out to see a mash tun and boiler built into the counter on the back wall.

Just two beers were on offer here, a pilsener and a dunkel - and the dunkel was off.

Still, the hazy, unfiltered pils was superb, its initial wash of tart, lemony sweetness wiped clear by a crisp, dry finish permeated with herbal bitterness. The food on offer was decent too, a huge pork knuckle served with bread, sauerkraut and a beer coming in at just over a tenner.

But the pick of the bunch was Heidenpeters Brewpub (pictured below right), situated a brisk 20-minute walk from the East Side Gallery in artsy Kreuzberg.

Continuing the theme of diminutive, almost deliberately difficult-to-find bars, this place was obscured in a dark corner of Markt Halle Neun, an über-trendy foodies' market that was proudly advertising an upcoming visit from everyone's favourite culinary campaigner Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall.

Heidenpeters stands out in Berlin as one of the few microbreweries prepared to think outside the box and the brewery's beer range seems more closely aligned with the UK craft scene than home traditions.

Three beers were on offer during my visit, the best being Thirsty Lady, a refreshing 4.9% ABV pale ale that bathes the palate in juicy grapefruit, peach and faint tropical fruit before the cutting, dry finish leaves a tingling, zesty bitterness.

This was accompanied by a slice of delicious spinach and ricotta quiche from one of the neighbouring food stalls, each run by local, independent producers, in an unexpected lunchtime treat.

The Brown Ale was excellent too, its initial resinous hop bite rounded off by smooth dark chocolate with burnt toffee and toast running throughout. The perfect beverage to wash down a chunky slice of chocolate ginger cake.

My whirlwind Berlin beer tour ended with a trip to Brauhaus Mitte, with its gaudy copper taking pride of place in the middle of the large bar.

Heidenpeters Brewpub

Unfortunately, the beers weren't quite as impressive as the kit and this centrally-located bar felt like it was catering more for tourists than for beer lovers, inhabiting the more commercial end of the scale.

There will undoubtedly be many more like this as tourism - and brewing - continue to flourish in Berlin but there is a sense they will be seriously outweighed by the number of exciting new brewpubs and watering holes.

Although the city lacks the track record of others, it shows a willingness - through bars like the excellent Meisterstück with its range that encompasses the best of Germany, America and Belgium - to embrace the cutting edge.

Quality and variety can only improve further in the years to come.

Friday, 11 April 2014 11:10

Buxton Imperial Black and Stronge Extra Stout

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Buxton Imperial BlackBuxton Imperial Black

Bottle from Buxton Tap House, 7.5% ABV

The pale ale demands huge respect in Buxton.

After all, the estimable Axe Edge - the destroyer of many a brave drinker - looms large in these parts, casting a menacing shadow far and wide.

Even those able to escape Axe Edge's clutches will likely succumb to the powers of Moor Top, SPA, Jaw Gate or Wyoming Sheep Ranch. If anyone knows how to make a devastatingly good pale, it's Buxton Brewery.

But what of the dark side? Is it altogether more bleak over there?

Seemingly not. Even though you could be forgiven for thinking pales were Buxton's speciality, this supernatural ability to create dangerously addictive beer stretches across the board.

To prove that particular point, Imperial Black and Stronge Extra Stout are two of the best in their respective categories currently being brewed in Britain.

The former represented a turning point in my own personal appreciation of the black IPA, destroying any initial cynicism surrounding the necessity of the style.

Some might call it a paradox and others an 'insult to history' but, in this form, it's also a phenomenally enjoyable beer.

It has the looks of a catalogue model, appearing almost too perfect with its jet black body and big, frothy light brown head. There's no Photoshop needed to get this one ready for promotional shots.

The smell is even better. A thick, intoxicating mix of pine, grapefruit, orange and old school lemon sherbets quickly rising from the glass, providing the kind of hit hop junkies crave. Roasted malt and faint chocolate hang steadily in the background, allowing the hops to do their thing.

All that promise is then emphatically fulfilled in the taste.

The soft, silky liquid slinks across the tongue, leaving an initial residue of treacle and liquorice.

Quickly, the hop bombs explode, bags of orange, lemon and grapefruit causing a wash of freshness that leaves the sides of the tongue tingling. Pine resin and a light woodiness are less well pronounced yet still linger throughout.

Chocolate provides a calming influence, rounding off the flavours and bringing a smoothness to the back of the mouth before the bitterness hits.

This bitterness is a mix of fuzzy, resinous hops and clear, assertive roasted malt but it's the malt that lasts longest, holding on throughout the dry, slightly astringent finish.

The result is an impressively harmonious balance between big hops and bold malt, neither left to run riot or the slightest bit restrained.

 

Buxton Stronge Extra StoutBuxton Stronge Extra Stout

Bottle from Buxton Tap House, 7.4% ABV

The Stronge Extra Stout is a different story entirely.

Originally brewed to mark Colin Stronge's appointment as head brewer last year, it's a brawny malt monster that throws its huge arms around you and attempts to engulf you in rich, heavy flavours of coffee, chocolate, toffee and dark fruit. All the good stuff, basically.

The aroma is dense and luxuriant - a thick fog of treacle toffee, espresso, burnt cocoa beans and charcoal, which is briefly perforated by a waft of sweet plum and raisin.

It's viscous, full-bodied and lightly carbonated, meaning it crawls slowly across the tongue, leaving a sticky residue as it goes.

Initially, the taste is full of coffee - in a manner similar to knocking back a swift, intense shot of espresso in a Milanese street-side cafe before getting on with the rest of your day or, at least, getting on with the rest of your beer.

Toffee and liquorice add a sweetness beneath before a drying wave of dark chocolate moves through, leaving a chalky bitterness to hang around the edges of the palate.

A touch of tartness is added by plum and damson but the mouth is dried once more by a finish full of roasted malt and dull oak.

It's the kind of stout which walks up to you, punches you in the face and walks out, happy in the knowledge you won't enjoy another beer all night. Not one to start a session with, more a late-night indulgence to be enjoyed while reclining in a comfy chair, with slippers on and lights down low.

Friday, 04 April 2014 13:50

Thornbridge Otto

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Thornbridge OttoThornbridge Otto

Bottle from the brewery, 8% ABV

It's clear why Thornbridge has been one of the front-runners in the British beer boom.

The Bakewell brewery has successfully combined innovation and consistency with a healthy respect for tradition in a sublime marriage few others could even contemplate.

As much as I'm wowed by bold, brassy, boundary-pushing beers - and Thornbridge has produced its fair share - it is the flair for unerring execution of historical styles that has recently set them apart from the crowd.

The likes of Double Scotch, Bayern and now Otto all doff their cap to their brewing forefathers but somehow feel fresh and contemporary - a dichotomy that is difficult to achieve.

Otto, the youngest of the litter, is a weizen doppelbock made in the Bavarian tradition and a match for any other in the category. Yes, even Schneider Weisse Aventinus...

It pours a heavy, murky, deep brown colour, a bit like water dredged from the depths of the Manchester Ship Canal.

Granted, that might not sound particularly appealing but, in this case, the coarse appearance is a strangely reassuring indicator of big, robust flavours - especially when topped by such a pretty, creamy beige head.

Immediately upon pouring, aroma bursts out of the bottle, lively bubblegum and banana shooting straight up the nose. Closer examination also reveals a creamy, banana milkshake-style character and a pinch of nutmeg, while a spicy, clove heat tingles around the edges.

A little Dr Pepper flows underneath, occasionally punctured by the irregular throb of white bread, and each inhalation reveals new layers.

The taste reflects this complexity, although it's a complexity that's honest, accessible and uncomplicated, subtle yet blunt.

An initial ooze of treacle toffee is punctuated by dashes of sweet liquorice before a flash of slightly tart cherry and plum adds a fresh, fruity counterpoint.

Then the yeast esters kick in and boy, do they kick! After overripe banana has been rubbed firmly across the middle of the tongue, a blast of aniseed and clove melds fragrant, sweet and spicy.

These esters persist through the finish, where they're joined by a sharp metallic flavour - perhaps the only unwanted aspect of this beer - and a wash of root beer.

Once these notes have cleared, bread and biscuit hang in the aftertaste, bringing a high-powered ride to a soft, comforting end.

Friday, 28 March 2014 11:39

The supermarket ale trail

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Supermarket trolleyI'm a sucker for a bargain.

I suppose we all are to a certain extent. It's just that I'm the kind of no-mark who goes trawling the reduced aisle at the end of the day looking for beef mince that's 50p cheaper because it's turned a bit grey.

So, the 'craft' revolution hasn't been an entirely good thing for me.

As a consequence of increased interest in beer, particularly small-batch beer, the inevitable has happened. Prices have risen rapidly to reflect the significant growth in demand, making beer geekery an increasingly expensive hobby.

It's not unusual for someone to walk into a bottle shop, spend £30 of their hard-earned in a flash and walk out with less than five bottles. You could bath in Carling for that price, although I'm not entirely sure you'd want to.

There is an element of price reflecting the product. The craft boom has created a growing clamour for ever bigger and bolder beers and this will inevitably impact upon the bottom line.

IPAs are hopped to within an inch of their life, imperial stouts loaded with different malts and aged in whiskey barrels, and saisons peppered with various adjuncts.

All this comes at a cost. Ingredients are expensive, particularly for micros who are unable to benefit from greater economies of scale, so the eventual price tag must reflect the greater investment.

In the main, people will be happy to pay a premium when it's justified by the quality of the product but there is an increasing sense that a minority of bars and retailers are charging more simply because they can.

Value is becoming a bigger concern for the discerning drinker but where best to find it?

One of the most obvious options is to supplement those special purchases with 'everyday' bottles from the supermarket. Another happy consequence of the recent boom has been an increased focus on regional and microbrewed beer among the nation's retailers, so it's starting to become easier to find good beer in mainstream stores.

Personally I much prefer to buy local, but shopping in the supermarkets might also help to alleviate the availability issues suffered by those without access to a well-stocked bottle shop or off-licence.

But which of them offers the best options? And which offers the best value?

The upcoming series of blogs will look at the selection offered by each of the major players and attempt to provide a guide for where best to browse the aisles. I'll then offer a comparison against the best of my local independent bottle shops to give a rough idea of what's on offer elsewhere too.

I must caveat this by warning the recommendations will inevitably be moulded by my own tastes, although I'll try to remain as objective as possible and welcome feedback from readers.

The samples presented will also be dictated by the availability in my local supermarkets but I will attempt to remedy this by choosing the biggest of each branch, hopefully ensuring the best possible selection.

The supermarkets/shops I will look at are:

Aldi
Asda
Booths
Co-operative Food
Marks and Spencer
Morrisons
Sainsbury's
Tesco
Waitrose

In each, I will round-up the selection, recommend a top five and price up an average shopping basket, which will contain one IPA, one pale or session ale, one stout or porter, one bitter, one lager and one continental style (this broad category has been included due to the difficulty finding certain styles in some of these supermarkets and could include anything from hefeweizen to saison).

All in the name of research, as I'm sure you understand.