Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Bières suisses de la montagne

I could swear we've reviewed beers from the Brasserie des Franches-Montagnes before—I've certainly drunk several of them over the years, since I was first introduced to the brand in 2006—but I don't see any reference to them here. It's a shame that all I had in for this tasting was two of their lightest, most French-tasting bottles; there are some great real ales in their range as well. I'll have to look out for more of these next time I'm in Switzerland, and keep better notes next time!

Brasserie des Franches-Montagnes, La Salamandre: this is a clear, light gold, fizzy beer with a gentle head, which has a lagery malt smell with a hint of orange and maybe even cider vinegar. On the tip of the tongue it's sweet and zesty, rather fruity, a little tart but more pithy than soured. It's a bit more lagery in the mouth, with classic Belgian malt but not much flavour; the swallow is better, with some peppery notes and lingering soft fruit: pear, maybe apple-blossom and even coriander. It's not bitter, but memorable, certainly not the generic lager or Weissbier it looked like coming out of the bottle.

Brasserie des Franches-Montagnes, La Meule: a watery yellow beer, again with a lagery fizz and brief foam; the odor is subtle, with candyfloss and vanilla, overlaid with bread flour and some savory herbs (maybe a seasonal sage and parsley stuffing?). Sparkling fruitiness in the first taste, with a cheeky zestiness behind the pert lager foreground, persists in the mouth, giving both orange and lemon. The tastes of zest and pith overcome a dull wheatiness, and lead to a herby finish without much bitterness but somehow leaving me with a lasting impression of well-seasoned steak. I probably wouldn't chose this blonde beer very often, but it wasn't bad at all, for its kind.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Looking Gift Beers in the Mouth

In one week in November, I received three different visitors from the USA, who between them brought me over a dozen bottles of American craft real ale. I promised I'd share my notes on them, and here are the first few. (I don't remember who gave me which bottle, now, but needless to say it was all massively appreciated, even the ones I may be snarky about below.)

Cosmic Ales, Cosmonaut California Blonde Ale (5%): this bottle has an absolutely adorable label with a way-over-the-top cartoon space scene, which always goes down well around here. It's a slightly cloudy golden beer with an ephemeral head of froth, and a cheeky aroma of orange, pollen and spring berries. A first taste of light fruit and flour is a bit sparkly, turning sour quite quickly in the mouth, but with a lovely sweet/hops balance. In fact it's very smooth all the way down; the pithy bitterness isn't very complex or lingering, but it was a very pleasant pint for a Fall evening.

Friday, December 13, 2013

German Real Ales

For the last few months some of us have been pissing and whining about the lack of real ales, or beer with much flavour or hops, in Germany. This is only slightly paradoxical: yes, Germany is the ancestral home of good, clean lagers, pilsners, wheat beers, Schwarzbier, and the like, but as a result it's very hard to track down any craft ales of the kind popular in Belgium or Britain anywhere in the Fatherland. It may seem parochial to lust after your local beverages when you're visiting a land with great drinking traditions of its own, and I can enjoy a Franziskaner or a Köstritzer while travelling, or happily experiment with a Bock or a Göse, but for our friends recently moved to Germany, it's a bit harder.

Luckily, we recently tracked down the Berlin Bier Shop run by Rainer Wallisser, on Kirchstrasse near Bellevue station (business card to right). An unassuming little shop, I forgot to take a photo even though I planned to blog about it, but you can't see much from outside anyway: shutters on the street and a sign that we missed three times while passing in the car. There is a generous section (pretty much a whole wall) of British beers, a large fridge full of American ales, a respectable Belgian section, and stacks of specialist wines, traditional German regional brews, and other drinks in racks and cases around the store.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Twickenham Beerfest 2013

As is becoming something of a tradition, we attended the Twickenham Beer Festival on the Friday night this year, and tasted a few old favourites and a few unusual new ales. As usual, this small festival is not terribly well provisioned: there was no shortage of beers, and the usual couple of dozen ciders and perries in a side bar, but apart from one CAMRA merchandise stall, that was about it. No bottled ale, disappointingly (I'm not sure why, when the fine Realale.com is only up the road and sponsors the festival). The food was low-end canteen fare, and began to run out pretty early in the evening. The festival wasn't even that busy by Friday night standards (in former years there would be a line 45 minutes long outside York House by about 8 o'clock), which might have something to do with the fact that there was no signage of any kind visible from the road; but even so there was painfully inadequate seating available (I saw people with sticks and walking frames popping themselves against the bar to stay upright, while queues built up around them).

Not the finest venue and organization, then. What about the beers? First some good ones:

Friday, October 4, 2013

Birre di Roma

Italy is not a country renowned for real ale, being more the home of some rather fine (albeit not French) red wines, and that watery piss bottled and carbonated by the likes of Peroni, Moretti, et alia. Recently there has been a bit of a renaissance of craft brewing, however, with many specialist bars importing especially Belgian and American ales, and a growing number of local microbreweries putting an Italian spin on these beer styles. On a recent trip to Rome, I had the chance to try a few home-grown beer varieties, and was on the whole pleasantly surprised by the experience.

Bir & Fud (Trastevere)

The "Bit and Fud" pizzeria and bar (whose gimmick is to spell all their signs phonetically according to the Italian pronunciation), serve 17 craft ales on tap (15 of which were available on Tuesday night) plus a range of bottled beers, which I didn't get the chance to try. The pizzas are all made without chemicals and using some kind of naturally rising dough (I wasn't clear on the details, but it led to very uneven thickness but nice flavors). Service was friendly but very patchy: to be fair I guess they were busy, and this is Italy where brusqueness is a national sport. It was nice to see real ales on tap on the menu, although nothing I tasted was really spectacular.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Taybeh and Köstritzer beers

Among other things on Sunday night, we tasted two beers that were brought to me by different friends from Germany. The first was a few bottles of the extremely-hard-to-come-by lager "Golden", from Palestinian microbrewery Taybeh Beer (sold in many outlets in Palestine and Israel, but only three stores in the rest of the world, one of which is in Hamburg, Germany). The bottles we obtained from the Haus der 131 Biere were brewed in Germany under license; apparently the Japanese and Swedish distributors import the original beer, but I've yet to source a traveller to bring me either of those. Taybeh are still seeking distribution for their beers in the UK and USA, if anyone's interested. The second we tasted was a black lager from the venerable Köstritzer Schwarzbier (now owned by Bitburger) in eastern Germany between Leipzig and Jena. One bottle broke in our benefactor's suitcase on route from Germany, so this beer came at the cost of soiled souvenirs and a laundry bill as well as the store-price of the bottles.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

History Down the Pub: London, August 28th

Harvey Quamen: Using Digital Humanities Techniques to Study the History of Beer and Brewing

Three major questions—all difficult to answer—prompt this talk:
  1. what caused the sudden demise of porter around 1820?
  2. how did the style called India Pale Ale spread so rapidly?
  3. can we locate the historical London breweries?
Although surrounded in some mystery, these questions might be answerable using some techniques from the digital humanities. In particular, building a database of historical recipes will help us understand the movement and growth of beer styles (especially as those styles moved through homebrewing) and we can begin to track master-apprenticeship relationships with the use of propopographies, databases that serve as “collective biographies” of groups of people. Finally, using historical maps (like the Agas map digitized at the Map of Early Modern London project), we might begin to reconstruct the historical distribution of beer around the capital.

Harvey Quamen is an Associate Professor of English and Humanities Computing at the University of Alberta, Canada. A longtime homebrewer, Quamen spent the 2009 academic year as a Visiting Research Fellow at King’s College, London. Drinking with KCL and UCL friends began his foggily remembered interest in the history of London brewing.

This lecture is the inaugural event of the History Down the Pub series, and will be held in the Plough, 27 Museum Street, London (opposite the British Museum: see https://maps.google.co.uk/maps?q=WC1A+1LH), at 6pm on Wednesday August 28th 2013.

All welcome.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

GBBF 2013: tasting notes

We attended CAMRA’s Great British Beer Festival in Kensington Olympia on the opening night, Tuesday August 13, which was also a friend’s birthday. It was a slightly odd feeling to be entering almost as soon as we were allowed to, but the drinking had already been going on for five hours because it had been the trade session all afternoon. I didn’t come to the GBBF last year, so this was my first experience of the Olympia venue, which compares favorably to the Earl’s Court where it was held for several years before. As usually, the event was well-organized, with lots of food and entertainment available; and as it was Tuesday night it wasn’t too crowded and there were enough seats for all of us.

I was hoping to start the night with a pint of Fyne’s Jarl, but it was just my bad luck that that beer won the bronze medal in the best ale awards, so it had all run out even though we arrived only half an hour after the doors opened to the public. Instead I settled for a glass of their Maverick, which was also very good: a lovely bright red-brown ale with impressively frothy head and a slightly acidic odor; a massive tart apple first taste; disconcertingly it was a bit sparkly further in the mouth, but had a good touch of caramel and satisfyingly bitter grapefruit pith in the swallow. I was happy.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Lamb Beer and Liquor Beerfest

The Lamb Beer and Liquor on the Holloway Road, Highbury, had a London beer festival this weekend; thirteen breweries were represented, although only half a dozen beers were on cask when we turned up on Saturday afternoon. From the menu it seems most of their business is done with keg beers, and they had a bit of a problem with the temperate of the casks at the festival which they solved by passing beers up through a trapdoor from the cellar. This also involved an elaborate system of tokens (pictured below), which you could purchase from the bar and exchange for a pint. However you could also order a pint from the bar for the same price, and have it delivered from the cellar, so the function of the somewhat iconic tokens remains an utter mystery. (Perhaps they also offered indulgences?)

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Fox and the Elephant: a Belgian fairytale

If you happen to be in Brussels for a family reunion and to have some of the authors of this blog as friends, then buying some Belgian beers to bring back to London sounds like the most natural thing to do.

I manage to convince a Patient Friend to come with me to a shop that, according to my city guide, has a selection of more than 400 beers. When we enter Beer Planet we soon realise that it isn’t an overstatement.

The place is bigger than I thought and the style is quite minimalist. The walls are covered (almost from the floor to the ceiling) in simple shelves loaded with beers. I must confess: I’m lost. The beers are too many and look quite different from the ales I'm used to.

Because I am trying to approach beer-tasting scientifically, I know I need a criterion. I thought that the most appealing graphic could have been a good one...

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Wandsworth Common Beer Festival, July 4-6, 2013

Wandsworth Common Beerfest is apparently not a CAMRA festival, but is co-sponsored by the London Brewers Alliance. The 100 or so beers on offer (only about half of which were still available on Saturday evening) were all from the 45 or so participating breweries in the London area—this makes everything we drank the whole weekend #LocAle, which is very cool. Held in the stylish Le Gothique Restaurant, part of the Royal Victoria Patriotic Building, a mixed residential and commercial complex kind of in the middle of nowhere, it was mostly outdoors, which was super-appropriate on this gorgeous July weekend.

The atmosphere was also somewhat different to most British beerfests—and not only because of the uncharacteristic weather—there was a markedly younger demographic than usual, and it was our impression that there was pretty even gender parity (in stark contrast to many such festivals where staff even actively make women feel uncomfortable or unwelcome). Although the beers and most people were outside in one of the gardens or courtyards, there was further food and drink available inside the bar, and live blues music from Robert Cray. I didn't try any of the food, but it seemed to be pretty basic pub or canteen fare (although the Basque-themed food van out the back was an exotic touch).

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

There is such a thing as Italian Real Ale!

An Italian friend of ours spent three months in England earlier this year on an exchange. She arrived hating beer (being from Italy, that's not all that surprising; look what shit they get served up. Plus, they have wine, which goes better with pasta ;-) ). She was open-minded enough to attend a few beer festivals with us, however, and seemed to be developing a taste for the less hoppy (and less lagery) real ales by the time she left. Imagine our pride when we received the following emailed report on the state of craft beer in her home town in Italy!
I looked forward to tell you that the craft beer bar eventually reopened, Birra Cerqua.

The venue is very small, so it gets crowded quickly, but there's space outside as well. The atmosphere is relaxed. The guys who work there are very friendly and easy-going, even too much perhaps late in the night! They invited us to attend I don't know which phase of brewing yesterday, but eventually we didn't go. Next time.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Bier Baron, Washington DC

On Monday night we visited the Bier Baron in Washington DC, which is a homely cellar bar beneath the Baron Hotel (on 22nd NW between P & Q). It's a nice, grungy, English-style pub, with lots of niches and corners to make it feel more private—although it's a pretty large venue—wooden chairs and age scarred tables, uneven floor and mismatched chairs. In some ways it's more like a club, with id checked at the door and regular music and other events (there's a burleque night lined up next month, which I think I'm more glad than sorry to be missing), but on a regular night it's pleasant, not too noisy, with good service and, most importantly, hundred of bottled beers on offer. (A small selection of draft ales too, as usual I think all from keg.)

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Kingston Beer Festival, May 2013

We attended the Kingston Beer and Cider Festival on May 18th, for the Saturday afternoon session. We ended up not staying very late, because they were running out of beers very quickly, and the food had already gone by 18:00 and we were hungry. This was a pretty small festival, held in the Kingston working men's club, and it had that feel to it: a very large venue but a very small bar, not terribly comfortable, although it had the virtue of not being too crowded even as peak time. The first three members of staff we encountered on entering each made insulting or patronizing comments to women, which was a sadly old-fashioned approach to a beer festival (especially given the fairly large numbers of women present at this one). Otherwise it was friendly, if small, disorganized and with abysmally poor food supply.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Reading Beer Festival, May 2013

We attended the opening night of the Reading Beerfest, Thursday May 2nd. Despite having lived in Reading for almost a decade once upon a time, I'd never been to this legendary festival before, and wasn't expecting it to be so spectacular. Unlike most of the beer festivals we've attended recently, the Reading event was held in a large marquee in the King's Meadow field, with outdoor seating areas as well as the huge bars inside. On scale, as well as in range and supply of real ales, this festival rivals even the GBBF, and certainly stands head and shoulders over any of other the local festivals we've attended. The atmosphere was relaxed, lively, and friendly, never becoming unpleasantly crowded despite the huge number of people attending. There was a range of entertainment and food, including several outside food tents, again immeasurably superior to the canteen food or burger vans offered by smaller festivals. And the beer range was astounding: hundreds of LocAles made up over half the length of the main tent, with national beers continuing onto the overflow bar around the corner (along with country wines, ciders and perries, and international bottled beers).

Thursday, April 18, 2013

New England & E Coast tasting notes

On a recent trip to New England and the Sprawl (Boston -> Providence -> New York -> Washington DC) I made notes on a few ales I tasted, and in some cases the venues I tasted them in. Notes below are in roughly chronological order, and include state (or country) of origin, so that I can label the beers from the same state I was in as #LocAle).

Bottled beers at house party in Providence (at which a wonderful spinach pie was also served):

Lagunitas Rich Copper Ale (CA): a light smoky copper color, with thin frothy head and a constant stream of bubbles; this pint had a very gentle, sweet, slightly maritime smell to it. The taste is very bright, bitterly metallic, but a bit sweet and lambic too; it tastes a lot stronger that its 6.5%. There are quite coarse charcoal and hop notes on the swallow. As it warmed up, the smell of sap and green leaf got stronger and nicer. Should have taken it out of the fridge half an hour ago.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Four London Beerfests

Since the last regular posts on this blog, we have visited four London beer festivals, and usually posted our micro-tasting notes on Twitter (with the hashtag #RealAle). I'll comment here mostly on the venues and the ambiance of the festivals overall, with comments only on the most memorable ales.

Twickenham Beer Festival, October 19th, 2012

Our annual pilgrimage to the Twickenham Beer Festival continues. The venue is spartan and very crowded, with almost no seating available for the more sedate drinker. Food was pretty embarrassing—sub-canteen level swill served on paper plates. They could really do better. Beer range was good, with over 50 real ales on tap (although not all at once) and a cider stall in the foyer, although ciders and perries were not listed in the programme, so it was a bit more hit and miss. There's a large stage in York House, and our companions pointed out that a bit of local live music at some point in the evening would not have been a bad idea.