Wednesday, 25 December 2013 22:53

#12BeersOfXmas day six, Goose Island - Bourbon County

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Goose Island Bourbon CountyGoose Island Bourbon County Stout (2012)

Bottle, 15% ABV

I've been waiting a long time for this one. Too long.

Bourbon County is one of those beers that should be on every beer geek's bucket list - a brilliant, balls-out brute with the reputation to match. It just has to be done, regardless of any concerns about the brewery and its ownership.

So Christmas Day seemed to offer the perfect opportunity to finally face the beast. After all, this isn't an everyday beer.

Well, that wasn't my only reason for opening this on Christmas Day. Initially I had been tempted to join many others in reviewing Magic Rock's Strongman until Nate Dawg appealed to my rebellious side by suggesting the establishment of a Bourbon County splinter group.

There was a slight worry that a bottle of Péché Mortel enjoyed the previous day might rain on this particular parade. That imperial stout from Canadian brewers Dieu du Ciel was so good it seemed, at the time, that nothing else could ever measure up.

Fortunately, any worry of that sort proved to be completely unfounded.

Bourbon County will not be put in the shade by any of its contemporaries and still represents possibly the standard for barrel-aged stouts.

It's ridiculously bold and brassy, an affront on the senses that is both overwhelming and exhilarating.

It pours a deep, oily black and the small, muddy brown head that initially sits atop gives it a sinister appearance. It looks like an evil potion straight from the pages of Macbeth and it's clear from the start there will be no messing around.

The first sniff reveals unbelievably rich dark chocolate, a handful of fresh coffee beans, a dash of vanilla essence and a late onset of oak and bourbon.

In the mouth, there's even more to savour. This is a proper imperial stout - a huge palate-wrecker that's dense, sweet and amazingly indulgent, causing a treacly residue to settle in every part of the mouth, as if it's being marinaded in a thick, beery, bourbon gravy.

Chocolate, demerara sugar and vanilla launch a hostile takeover on the front of the tongue and have things entirely their own way until a touch of spicy hop is allowed to creep in and further complexity reveals itself.

The heat is continually cranked up by booze-soaked raisins and molasses before the bourbon properly kicks in, contributing heavy oak and a reassuring warmth that engulfs the throat and hangs in the chest.

Despite the massive malt profile, the finish is dry and vinous, although a residual sweetness contributes to a pleasant aftertaste that mixes bourbon with brown sugar.

Who gives a fuck about Goose Island's ownership when their beer tastes this good?

All that said, Péché Mortel is still better... just.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013 22:49

#12BeersOfXmas day five, Dieu du Ciel - Péché Mortel

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Dieu du Ciel Peche MortelDieu du Ciel Péché Mortel

Bottle, 9.5% ABV

Mon dieu!

What other words can describe the sensation caused by sampling Péché Mortel for the first time?

It's enough to make a devout atheist submit to the belief of an all-powerful deity. How else could this existence of this sublime nectar be explained?

It would be no exaggeration to say this is one of the greatest stouts I've ever tried. Definitely the best I've sampled in 2013.

Initially, I had been determined to try Dieu du Ciel's Aphrodisiaque and, in its absence, this had acted as a substitute. Maybe I was wrong all along or maybe I NEED to try Aphrodisiaque.

Either way, this is no substitute.

It pours a thick, opaque black with a foamy mocha-coloured head that quickly dissipates, leaving only a slight halo round the edge of the glass.

Immediately upon pouring, strong coffee aromas fill the air, as if fresh coffee beans had been ground ready for use in a shot of espresso. This sharp, bitterness soon mellows, creating a softer aroma of caffe latte, followed by sweet liquorice, strong dark chocolate, molasses and a touch of roasted malt.

The nose is invigorating enough but the taste is truly eye-opening. Rich, sweet and well-rounded, this is a phenomenal beer, which is every bit the self-indulgent treat.

Thick, treacly liquid washes over the palate, bringing the soothing sweetness of English toffee accompanied by the rich, bitter roast of an espresso served in a Milanese café.

But, no matter how strong the coffee comes through, it never feels overpowering. Bitter and sweet work together perfectly, the two opposites forming an unlikely pact where neither is allowed to develop a position of prominence.

The coffee is well balanced by chocolate, molasses and vanilla, as the velvety liquid works its way through the mouth.

A dry finish leaves the persistent aftertaste of roasted malt and coffee but with a sticky sweetness that clings to the sides of the mouth, providing plenty to enjoy even after the bottle is long gone.

Péché mortel might be French for mortal sin but I'm not sure how something so good could be at all sinful.

Rooie Dop Double Oatmeal StoutRooie Dop Double Oatmeal Stout

Bottle, 9.6% ABV

Don't take you eyes off Rooie Dop.

Madcap Dutch brewer Mark Strooker, apparently also known as 'the Dude', will be one to watch in 2014. If you've had the privilege of tasting his Utrecht Strong Ale you'll know exactly why.

It shouldn't really come as a surpise either. Rooie Dop is currently a house guest at De Molen, where all its commercial beers are produced, so can call on expertise and advice from an ideal mentor.

The Double Oatmeal Stout certainly follows in the strong tradition of dark beers established by De Molen, delivering a medley of massive flavours while weighing in at a hefty 9.6%.

It pours darkest black with a small, foamy beige head that quickly dissipates to leave the glass full of something resembling crude oil.

The nose is possibly not as thick as expected, instead dominated by a tangy fruitiness, which verges on sour. The oats are prominent, alongside notes of damson and plum, sitting on top of a firm base provided by roasted malts and milk chocolate.

It's unusually thin-bodied but extremely oily, a slick stickiness coating the mouth and softly massaging the various flavours into the palate. As such, the bold malts don't batter you into submission but rather exert a progressive power which never leaves you feeling overwhelmed.

The taste is immediately sweet and creamy, full of luxurious milk chocolate with a touch of oats, but this isn't initial sweetness isn't given the chance to take over. Instead a slight sourness cuts through, again provoking thoughts of overripe damson and blackberry and adding bags of drinkability to what otherwise might have been a heavy stout.

This mellows into a bitter finish full of coffee and roasted malt, allowing a lasting milky sweetness to sit contently in the mouth.

It's a unique, unusual imperial stout that slips down far too easily given it's strength. And I'm reliably informed the barrel-aged version is even better. Keep 'em peeled!

Shimane Kokutou Imperial StoutShimane Kokutou Imperial Stout

Bottle, 8.5% ABV

2013 was the year I discovered Japanese beer.

Of course, I'd had beer from Japan before but somehow, I don't think Asahi, Kirin and Sapporo really count.

There had also been the odd treat from Hitachino Nest but only a summer trip to Japan could succeed in opening my eyes to the richness and diversity of the the country's nascent microbrewing scene.

Of course, Japan has a long way to go to catch up with Britain or the States - particularly in terms of the number of breweries and ready availability of microbrewed beer - but there is a sense something special is happening over there.

Particularly in Tokyo, the number of new bars popping up and existing bars expanding their range of Ji Bīru (the Japanese phrase for microbrewed beer, literally translated as 'local beer') is quite staggering. Heck, even BrewDog are about to get in on the act.

In a country where it is illegal to home brew any beer over 1% ABV, it's impressive to see so many new, dedicated craft breweries opening their doors given the absence of essentially anything resembling a grassroots structure.

The new brewers include natives, American immigrants who have settled in Japan (in the case of both Baird Beer and Brimmer Brewing) and even traditional sake breweries inspired by the worldwide upsurge in microbrewing.

Shimane Beer Co itself comes from an area famed for its rich history of sake production, largely due to the suitability of the local spring water. The Kokutou Imperial Stout is perhaps the brewery's most lauded beer, made using a special type of unrefined brown sugar from Tokunoshima, an island in the Amami archipelago to the south of the country.

Given its strength and the use of brown sugar, you might expect this to be a rich, sticky stout but it springs something of a surprise.

Pouring deepest black it gushes, rather than slinks, out of the bottle, creating a small, loose tan head that quickly dissipates.

The nose is fairly light for an imperial stout but aromas of weak coffee, cocoa powder and burnt toast linger faintly in the glass.

It's strangely light bodied with a reasonably firm, foamy carbonation and the taste is intially dominated by black coffee and roasted malt, while dull cocoa lingers behind. Eventually, a light sweetness begins to build but it's more reminiscent of lactose than brown sugar, like a slightly watery cafe au lait.

A little more sweetness comes through in the finish, which is dry yet marked by flavours of milk chocolate and, latterly, brown sugar.

It's surprisingly easy-drinking for an imperial stout, as a result of its comparitive lightness when put alongside heavier sippers. Not exactly the best example of Japan's new brewing talent but an enjoyable beer all the same.

Saturday, 21 December 2013 17:27

#12BeersOfXmas day two, Celt - Ogham Ash

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Celt Ogham AshCelt Ogham Ash

Bottle, 10.5% ABV

On the second day of Christmas, my true love brought to me...

Well, she brought me an entire delivery of Swedish flat-pack furniture so, by extension, five whole hours of swearing, shouting, assembling, dismantling, hammering and screwing (no, not that kind you dirty so and so).

After all that, I was ready to turn to the hard stuff (I warned you once already, get your mind out of the gutter).

Luckily, Celt's Ogham Ash was on hand to calm those frayed nerves. At 10.5% ABV, this Imperial Russian Porter would bring serenity to a Tasmanian devil and represents a seriously self-indulgent treat.

Black as a panther, opaque and glossy with a huge tan head, it has the dark, destructive appearance of a proper porter. You know, the type of menacing beer that coldly stares you down and threatens to cause some serious damage.

The nose is amazingly lush but perhaps not what you would expect. Rather than coffee and chocolate, you're instantly overcome by spicy hops and ripe fruit notes, as if a basket of fresh plums, cherries, blackberries and herbs had been thrust in front of your face.

Once that intial surprise passes, notes of toffee, vanilla and charcoal begin to grow and cocoa emerges from the background to play a more prominent role. The finish is port-like, as the significant alcohol presence makes its presence felt, spreading a fresh heat through the sinuses.

Befitting the appearance and aroma, it's beautifully thick and oily, coating the mouth and lips with a delicious, sticky residue.

The malts are in charge from the start, thick treacle toffee and liquorice forming a harmonious union with fruity flavours of raisin, dried cherry and damson, while chalky dark chocolate sits politely in the background.

Briefly the hops jump into the foreground, candied orange with stimulating spice providing an interesting counterpart to the rich and heavy malt flavours.

But they fade again in the finish, allowing roasted malt, bitter chocolate and coffee to leave a lasting impression in the dry, vinous finish.

If you're looking to an antidote to the drudgery of flat-pack furniture construction, this might be what you're after.

Friday, 20 December 2013 20:56

#12BeersOfXmas day one, AleSmith - YuleSmith

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AleSmith YuleSmithAleSmith YuleSmith

Bottle, 8.5%

Nothing says Christmas quite like beer with a bit of holly on the bottle.

Well, maybe apart from gross overeating, tacky German markets selling pork in a bap or hot wine with a cinnamon stick shoved in it.

I'll be honest, I've never quite understood the Christmas beer thing. It's always seemed more like a crass marketing gimmick than an attempt to create a genuine seasonal product - a chance to rebadge one of the usual core range and call it something like 'Good King Bramling Cross' or 'Away in a Mash Tun'. And, quite frankly, you can stick that up your backside.

However, what good is a moral code when Christmas beers taste like this? Forget the festive name, the red and green label and the bloody holly, this is an incredible beer for any time of the year and well worth the big price tag.

It pours an inviting deep mahogany but is impressively clear despite the heavy colour and glimmers brilliant red when it catches the light. A creamy yellowish head sits atop, leaving reassuringly thick lacing all down the glass, so it definitely looks the part without the need for a sodding cinnamon stick.

Given the Christmas theme, you might be expecting a whiff of nutmeg, gingerbread or spiced apple but, luckily, there's nothing of the sort. The hairs on the inside of your nostrils are singed by big, bold aromas of resinous hops, pine, orange pith and grapefruit zest and tickled by fragrant cedar. They fight for attention with big malt aromas of toffee, toast and earthy roast. Keep inhaling and notes of demerara sugar and dark rum begin to emerge too.

If that wasn't confusing enough, the taste comprises a similarly unusual mix of collosal flavours. The remarkable thing about this beer is that it's at once simple and ridiculously complex - a well-judged balance of malt and hops, yet a melding of multiple layers that are both contradictory and complimentary.

It starts with soft caramel, leading a path into tongue-tingling resinous hops, floral pine, bitter grapefruit rind, orange zest and pineapple. All the while, the malt character continues to build, toffee and toasted brown bread leading towards rich chestnut and a slight oakiness.

As a consequence, it takes on an almost port-like character, red grape and dried cherries accompanied by a soft alcohol warmth. The finish is slightly astringent and bitter but leaves the mouth buzzing from the huge hop presence.

It's enough to melt the heart of even the biggest grinch, hence the Christmas tree in my picture.

Have I told you how much I love Christmas beer?

Thursday, 19 December 2013 14:24

My #12BeersOfXmas 2013

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12 Beers of Xmas 2013I reckon those guys over at the Beer O'Clock Show are a bad influence on me.*

They're the kind of mischievous, snot-nosed kids in the playground that your mum would point to as she left you at the gates, while spitting the stern warning 'don't you dare play with those terrible boys'.

Basically they've cooked up another harebrained scheme that will likely result in liver failure - the 12 Beers of Xmas.

The premise is that you choose 12 'special' beers for the festive period and review one a day between Friday, December 20 and Tuesday, December 31. My list is below and contains 12 beers I've never even tried before, so it's taken every ounce of my willpower to stash them at the back of the cupboard and forget about them until now.

I'll post each review on the specified date, so keep checking back on this site for daily updates.

I say 'bad influence' but really, they've given my life and cupboard full of beer a real sense of purpose - and probably stopped me drinking all these in one night, which can only be a good thing.

Day one - Friday, December 20 - AleSmith YuleSmith (USA, 8.5%)

Why not kick off the Christmas period with the only actual Christmas beer on my list? Happy bloody Festivus and all that.

Day two - Saturday, December 21 - Celt Ogham Ash (Wales, 10.5%)

My descent into the depths of darkness and depravity starts here, ploughing ever further into endless black until Christmas Day. Maybe that's a worrying insight into my mood at this time of year or maybe I just have a thing for dark beers at the moment. Either way, a 10.5% imperial porter is a fitting way to start the plunge.

Day three - Sunday, December 22 - Shimane Kokutou Imperial Stout (Japan, 8.5%)

I've been saving this since picking it during my trip to Japan earlier in the year but, unfortunately, it actually coincides with a pre-arranged tour around the beer sights of Macclesfield. So I apologise in advance but I am simply unable to vouch for the quality of this review.

Day four - Monday, December 23 - Rooie Dop Double Oatmeal Stout (Holland, 9.6%)

Given my stomach might be a little tender, I've gone for something that at least hints at something healthier than beer. My mum was forever telling me to eat my oatmeal so it must be good for you. The fact this is 9.6% is irrelevant, surely.

Day five - Christmas Eve - Dieu du Ciel Péché Mortel (Canada, 9.5%)

My first ever Dieu du Ciel beer represents one of the highlights on this list, unless that fat bastard doesn't come down the chimney and nick it while he's raiding my biscuit tin.

Day six - Christmas Day - Goose Island Bourbon County 2012 (USA, 15%)

The dark trail ends here with a monster of an imperial stout. Originally I had intended to join several others in reviewing Strongman on Christmas Day but my noncomformist urge kicked in and I joined a Bourbon County splinter cell led by @NateDawg27 instead.

Day seven - Boxing Day - Magic Rock Strongman (England, 12%)

Fashionably late to the party, I'll be trying Strongman a day later than everyone else. So I'll probably just copy and paste everyone else's tasting notes, put my feet up and drink.

Day eight - Friday, December 27 - Geipel Zoigl (UK, 5.4%)

After days of stupidly strong beers, I'm going to need something lighter and this recently caught my eye - an amber lager brewed by the recently established Geipel brewery. Geipel brew in Gellioedd, North Wales but are based in Didsbury, where I currently live, and claim to specialise in the production of traditional lager.

Day nine - Saturday, December 28 - Hoppin' Frog Mean Manalishi (USA, 8.2%)

Picking up the pace again, I've opted for Mean Manalishi as the only IPA on this list so it better deliver an utter hop pounding or I'm going to be very disappointed.

Day ten - Sunday, December 29 - The Lost Abbey Saint's Devotion (USA, 6.66%)

A Brett-finished version of Lost Abbey's Devotion Ale. Sounds absolutely delicious.

Day eleven - Monday, December 30 - Mont des Cats (France/Belgium, 7.6%)

 This doesn't know whether it's French or Belgian. It's brewed at Chimay with the collaboration of French trappist monks, so it's not an official trappist beer despite claims to the contrary. All I want to know is if it's any good.

Day twelve - Tuesday, December 31 - Schneider Weisse Mein Aventinus Barrique (Germany, 9.5%)

What better way to end the year than with this utterly indulgent Schneider Weisse special, a blend of Unser Aventinus and Aventinus Eisbock matured in a combination of French Oak Chardonnay, American Oak Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc barriques.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013 12:27

Golden Pints 2013

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Golden Pints LogoRight, this is my first shot at the Golden Pints. Some of the answers are probably a bit long but I've always been one for needless over-elaboration. Regardless, I hope you enjoy...

Best UK Cask Beer
Sometimes a beer intertwines with a particular moment to create a harmonious union more perfect than Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney. This year, that moment came at the height of the Mancunian summer, sat on the terrace at the Beagle in Chorlton with my closest friends and a pint of Cromarty Atlantic Drift. Several other Cromarty beers might seem more obviously impressive than Atlantic Drift but it's immensely drinkable and rammed with flavour despite weighing in at just 3.5%.

Best UK Keg Beer
Whittling my list down to just one proved particularly tough here. I intend to round up my full list of favourites sometime later this week on the blog but, in the meantime, Magic Rock's Salty Kiss (lime) steals all the limelight. It was a phenomenally accomplished reinterpretation of a traditional style and a thoroughly invigorating sup. A huge wave of tart, juicy lime crashes against the palate, followed by a light spray of sea salt, leaving you with a huge sour smile.

Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer
Siren Craft's Limoncello IPA takes this one, not just because it's a wonderfully innovative, left-field beer but also because it's improved each time I've tried it in bottles. Granted, it's an acquired taste but it sums up Siren's approach, displaying technical accomplishment and a commitment to innovation.

Best Overseas Draught Beer
In the end, I had two To Øl beers fighting it out for this one. I'm not always the greatest fan of the madcap Danish gypsies' approach and there has been the odd "what the fuck?" moment with their bottles. But when they get it right, they absolutely nail it and both the US Blossom wheat beer and Black Malts and Body Salts were outstanding. Black Malts just edges it, a coffee double IPA which starts with smoky, roasted malts, coffee and liquorice before a jet of grapefruit, tangerine and pine blasts away all the heavy flavours for a clean, bitter finish.

Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer
Much to my delight, bars and shops around Manchester have received a steady supply of Ska's Modus Hoperandi cans this year. It was the first beer to properly convince me of the benefit of cans and simply never misses a beat.

Best Collaboration Brew
The sense of camaraderie in British brewing is stronger than ever, so there have been a whole host of impressive collaborations this year. Bad Habit by Northern Monk and Weird Beard was a highlight of Birmingham Beer Bash and Sky Mountain Sour from Buxton and To Øl is one of the more readily drinkable sours I've tasted. But the crown goes to Cool as a Cucumber by Fyne Ales and Wild Beer - a barmy, brilliant beer that sits in a category all of its own.

Best Overall Beer
For consistency in bottle and on draught, sheer drinkability and the fact it causes my face to crease up into some kind of perma-grin, Oakham Citra defeats all comers. A modern British classic and king of single-hop beers, long may it reign.

Best Branding, Pumpclip or Label
Magic Rock produce the most eye-catching, distinctive pump clips in the game at the moment. They've set a clear, engaging theme for the brewery and every aspect of their branding feeds into it.

Best UK Brewery
To decide this one, I created a makeshift racetrack on my balcony and set two snails loose towards the finishing line, one with a post-it note reading 'Buxton' on its shell, the other with one reading 'Magic Rock'. That's how close it's been between these two in 2013. Given the very nature of awards, I have to name just one, so it'll be Buxton - for combining consistency and innovation like no other. The brewery has only continued to improve and grow despite the loss of previous head brewer James Kemp and, with Colin Stronge now at the helm of a new 20bbl kit, an exciting future lies in wait.

Best Overseas Brewery
You simply have to marvel at Sierra Nevada's quality control. Every time you pick up one of their beers, you know what you're going to get and they do a great job of churning out top-class regulars and exciting specials. Hoptimum and Torpedo on cask were particular highlights this year.

Best New Brewery Opening
Siren Craft take the win thanks to a range of high-quality, innovative creations that includes Limoncello IPA, Half Mast, Broken Dream and Ryesing Tides. But I must also give mention to Liverpool's Mad Hatter, who will definitely be one to watch in 2014. The unique, eccentric range of beers created by Gaz Matthews certainly reflects the brewery's name.

Pub/Bar of The Year
Embarrassingly, for a mouthy, dyed-in-the wool Mancunian, my selection isn't actually from Manchester. Port Street Beer House and the Font are certainly flying the flag in God's city but my two most memorable pub trips were both to the Cock Tavern in Hackney. A great place to relax and while away an afternoon working your way through the selection of cask and keg.

Best New Pub/Bar Opening 2013
The Buxton Tap House is the perfect place for a beer pilgrimage, as long as you don't mind losing all your marbles. Roll in on a high, marvel at the unrivalled selection of brilliant Buxton beers and stumble out a broken man, cursing Axe Edge as you go. The food here is good too and I remain determined to try the Tsar float I saw on the menu - two scoops of quality vanilla ice cream in a glass of Tsar Imperial Stout. Mmmmm....

Beer Festival of the Year
Although I regret missing GBBF this year, Indy Man Beer Con remains the most enjoyable festival on the calendar by a country mile. Good beer, good food and good people combine to create a perfect storm - the result being a cloudy mind and thunderous headache the following day. Birmingham Beer Bash was also a very welcome new addition and promises to be even better next year.

Supermarket of the Year
The selection in Waitrose beats the rest, providing a steady supply of Jaipur, Kipling, Ghost Ship and Scarlet Macaw. A special shout-out has to go to B&M Bargains though for providing Oakham Citra at £1.79 a bottle - and it used to be even cheaper before they clocked on to the shifty beer geeks coming in daily to clear their shelves of the stuff.

Independent Retailer of the Year
Beermoth in Manchester takes some beating. Jeremy and Scott are among the most knowledgeable and helpful retailers around and always find time to chat and offer recommendations, whether you're a seasoned drinker or new to the game. I also have to mention High Peak Beer, a fantastic stall on Stockport market which boasts a stunning selection despite its diminutive size. Like the guys at Beermoth, High Peak's Corin is only too happy to share his stories and wisdom. If Cotteridge Wines was closer to home, it would have given these two a serious run for their money though - a truly amazing selection which has to be seen to be believed.

Online Retailer of the Year
I've ordered from a few this year and will continue to spread the love next year, simply because there are several excellent online retailers, each with their own strengths. Beers of Europe comes out on top, however, due to its incredible selection of imports and ultra-efficient service.

Best Beer Book or Magazine
As a budding homebrewer, I've gone back to the old school this year and picked up a few classics in a bid to better my skills. John Palmer's How to Brew is an impressively straightforward and informative read for anyone looking to brew their own.

Best Beer Blog or Website
What I read often depends on my mood and I dip into a huge number of different blogs on a weekly basis but Boak and Bailey have captured my attention - and imagination - more often than anyone else. Warming historical tales, well-researched insight and the odd splash of humour make them a must-read.

Best Beer App
Craft Beer Japan, simply because it's the only one I've used this year and it came in very useful during a fantastic trip. Still haven't ventured into the murky depths of Untappd and not particularly sure I want to.

Simon Johnson Award for Best Beer Twitterer
For best use of swearing and righteous anger, it's @NateDawg27

Best Brewery Website/Social Media
I'm not a frequent visitor to brewery websites but the one I've used the most is Magic Rock's. Attractive, informative and functional, it does the job it's supposed to and also includes a voyeuristic webcam in case you want to spy on the guys at work in the brewery.

Food and Beer Pairing of the Year
In order to sound like a sophisticated man of culture, I'll say goats cheese with Fyne and Wild's Cool as a Cucumber. But really, the answer's a pack of Cheesy Moments with a pint of Marble Manchester Bitter.

And that's yer lot. See you for a pint in 2014.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013 10:52

The 'foolish' pursuit of good beer

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American beersA beer geek and his money are easily parted.

But does that make him a fool? I think not.

A hard-nosed accountant might shed a tear at the amount of money I have 'invested' in my favourite pastime over recent years, yet I have never spent recklessly.

So why is it that people think nothing of regularly spending upwards of £5 on a bottle of wine but similar expenditure on beer is somehow viewed as vulgar?

A piece in yesterday's Guardian by Tony Naylor got me thinking - and ranting - about the issue.

In it, he attempts to question the rising price of beer in the UK but instead patronises vast swathes of passionate beer lovers by blithely writing off high-priced, limited-edition beer as 'fool's gold'.

Now, I'm not going to dismiss his points completely out of hand.

It's probably true to say the price of a pint is rising. This is the result of numerous factors from rising duty to tightening profit margins in the pub sector, not to mention general inflation.

The 'craft' movement has also undoubtedly impacted upon prices. An increased proliferation of keg beer has, naturally, resulted in a more expensive product due to the cost of keeping the beer chilled and using disposable containers (in the case of key kegs or eco kegs).

An argument could also be made that some less scrupulous brewers use 'craft' branding to simply justify higher prices but these types are easy to recognise and avoid.

However, to claim " limited-edition beers are just the latest pernicious skirmish in a much wider battle", as Tony Naylor does in his piece, is just churlish.
This kind of thinking is forged in the snug of a 1970s boozer and taps into a prevailing belief that beer simply isn't worthy, that it's a crude, unsophisticated drink with no place in polite society.

It's a belief perhaps most evident in the restaurant trade, where wine and spirits are exalted as the perfect partners for fine food, yet beer is relegated to a footnote on the menu. I never cease to be amazed by the number of restaurants that claim to put serious thought into the quality and origin of all their ingredients, then offer a selection of mass-produced lager.

Why should beer not be regarded in the same vein as good wine or good food and why should you not expect to pay a little bit more when the brewer has invested a greater amount of time and money in its creation?

I could perhaps understand Tony's argument if there was an absolute dearth of cheaper options available but my local bar offers a huge range of bottle, cask and keg from as little as £2.50.

If you don't want to regularly drink expensive pints of keg beer then the answer's simple... don't.

Pay for a beer what you think it is worth. If you feel it's worth paying £12 for a 750ml bottle of a particular American import, pay it and enjoy the beer. If, having tried it, you don't feel you got enough bang for your buck, don't pay that much again.

It's a choice between a bottle of Hopping Frog Mean Manalishi and a bottle of Sierra Nevada Torpedo in the same way as it's a choice between Rowan's Creek and Buffalo Trace. Or, in UK terms, it's the choice between a Wild Beer Shnoodlepip and a pint of cask bitter.

The argument that producers should always aim to deliver products that deliver on both quality and price could be applied to any industry, whether it's whisky, wine, chocolate or clothing but remains fatally flawed. Small batch products are, by their very nature, more expensive but the decision to pay more is based on a perceived increase in quality.

Instead of fixating on the price of certain products at the higher end of the spectrum, celebrate the diversity.

The UK brewing industry is perhaps now more diverse and innovative than ever before and the result of that is a range of excellent beer at a range of prices, designed to meet a range of different tastes.

Personally, I am happy to meet the higher cost for ingredients and production in a particular one-off, experimental beer if it means sampling something bold and unique. I'm not being exploited, I'm making an informed decision to fork out a bit extra in the hope of receiving greater reward. Others may choose not to follow my lead but I have no problem with them deciding cask bitter offers better value for money.

This does not excuse some brewers throwing rough experiments out into the market and using the 'craft' banner simply to justify an extortionate price tag. But as long as the quality remains high, there is no reason why some should not cost more than others because all beers are not created equal.

Neither should this create a situation where beer becomes an elitist pursuit. Instead, we should see the approaches and techniques applied at the higher end of the spectrum begin to filter down throughout the industry, strengthening the commitment to innovation and standards across the board.

Ultimately, this should not be allowed to degenerate into another futile cask vs keg debate. Choice is greater than ever and that's something to enjoy rather than bemoan.

Monday, 16 December 2013 11:38

Siren Craft Brew - Limoncello IPA

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Siren Limoncello IPASiren Craft Brew Limoncello IPA

Bottle, 9.1% ABV

My first taste of Siren Craft's Limoncello IPA is one I'll never forget.

Coming during this year's excellent Birmingham Beer Bash, it provided the most memorable moment of an equally memorable event - a thrilling shot of adrenaline that kicked off an incredible evening of food, drink and revelry.

It also doubled as my formal introduction to Siren's entire range of beers and confirmed everything I'd heard about bold brewer Ryan Witter-Merithew.

Daring, outlandish and wonderfully idiosyncratic, it encapsulated the radically inventive approach of an accomplished craftsman unbridled by traditional creative boundaries.

As far as introductions go, this was less stuffy handshake and more aggressive chest bump followed by flying high-five - not everyone's going to like it but at least it doesn't feel the need to follow the crowd.

Forget, for one minute, the painful mental images of luminescent yellow goop served in bad Italian restaurants usually conjured by the word 'limoncello'.

Better representations of the zesty, refreshing sipping liqueur can be a delight and this beer is an impressive tribute to the unique Italian creation.

What's even more impressive is the amount it has improved since the first tasting. In the five months since Birmingham Beer Bash, I've had two more bottles of Limoncello IPA - originally brewed in collaboration with Mikkeller and Hill Farmstead - and each was better than the last.

Pouring a murky golden orange with a miniscule white head, its appearance probably belies the rest of the experience.

Inhale and a whoosh of fresh lemon zest and juice shoots straight up the nose, clearing out the sinuses with its cutting, clean citrus edge. Skunky, herbal notes come from the Citra and Sorachi Ace, which have clearly been added by the bucketload, and there's some biscuity malt lurking underneath.

The taste is equally invigorating, juicy lemon exploding in several bursts across the palate - at times tart, bitter and sweet.

But none of these distinctive different flavours are allowed to run riot. The sourness from the lemon juice finds its counterbalance in the sweetness from the lactose and some coconut from the Sorachi even creeps through, creating a flavour reminiscent of lemon cheesecake.

A pleasant acidity finds its home in the corners of the mouth, causing a kind of sour smile that continues throughout the tangy, tart finish.

It's an utterly bizarre, brilliant beer.