Friday, 29 October 2010

Sparkler wars II - Is this the way to Amarill-O?

Again, I start a blogpost referencing BGBW Beer Writer of the Year 2009 Pete Brown.

You have to pity the fellow; he goes all the way to south Wales to get hold of some Otley Amarill-O for his latest video post and - lo-and-behold - the very same turns up in his Stoke Newington local, the Jolly Butchers (see picture).

I thought it a very impressive and refreshing brew, well balanced with the malt and very drinkable. It struck me as exactly the level of interesting beer you'd want a few of while watching the Six Nations with pals.

Of course, the real reason for my posting this picture is to offer further evidence in the sparkler wars, with Tandleman very cheekily claiming game, set and match by offering two pictures - one of two pint glasses filled with foam and the other with unsparkled beer that looked badly conditioned or past its best...

...this perfect pint was, of course, unsparkled.

Though I know from reading his excellent blog that Tandie was joshing a little; he may prefer sparkled beer, but he'd be the first to concede that condition is all. As he knows all too well, so often doon sooth, a sparkler is used to 'give life' to badly conditioned beer. Which is just about the worst thing you can do.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Number of booze kids admitted to hospital falls to 0.103% - Alcohol Concern

I'm doing a Pete Brown.

Saturday mornings are always fun for telly addicts: bit of James Martin fooling around with other chefs on BBC1; luscious Nigella cooking something up for men of a certain age; and, what with the weekend generally being slow news-wise, a decent bout of activist-press-release-as-major-story syndrome.

The BBC carried on its midday bulletin a story based on a report from the perennial neo-prohibitionist's favourite, Alcohol Concern. According to their research, just under 13,000 children were admitted to hospital over 2008/09 in alcohol-related incid
ents. The cost of all this to the NHS came to a staggering £19m. Alcohol Concern's Don Shenker is quoted as saying drinking among youngsters is a 'huge problem'.

There are, as you might expect, several problems with the
report's coverage by the cut-and-paste maestros at BBC towers and the methodology used by Alcohol Concern to get their figures.

To begin with, even if you take the report at face value, it's tentatively good news - according to the BBC web
site, the number of under-18s admitted to hospital rose from 10,976 in 2002/03 to 14,501 in 2007/08 but - get this! - fell to 12,832 in 2008/09. This seems backed up by a trawl through the report (though they seem to divide data for 2007-09 by two). The Alcohol Concern message is clearly getting through, thank god. Trebles all round!

But taking it at face value would be a mistake.

First of all, and here I admit to being utterly subjective, I have a big problem with the classification, or understanding, of under-18s as children for the purposes of the report. Almost any alcohol-related hospitalisation under the age of twelve probably should set off alarm bells. But while many in Alcohol Concern consider it an abomination that teenagers may on occasion imbibe, it does happen and - when unsupervised - can lead to the odd mishap. Is that right? No. Should parents do all they can to prevent such mishaps? Yes. Does that mean they won't happen anyway? No.

Take an anecdotal example. My friend Andrew (I've changed his name, obviously) is from a nice family with a detached house; three kids, two cars, a summer b
arbecue and the most attentive and loving parents imaginable. Now Andrew, aged about 17, got himself in a right pickle with a bottle of vodka and ended up slumped outside a shop and needing his stomach pumped. This shit happens. Since then, he has been nothing but the most responsible drinker - even engaging in lengthy bouts of abstinence if he's working hard. I'm not saying that we should all have our stomachs pumped to teach us our boundaries - what I am saying is: a) most experimentation - even going too far and feeling the worse for wear for it - does not end up in hospitalisation; b) a one-off hospitalisation is not evidence of a drink problem.

On to more statistical terrain. Now I'm no Carol Vorderman, but that 12,832 figure did set me off to thinking about what percentage of under-18s that actually represents. A quick look at the
Office for National Statistics website says in that in 2009, roughly 1-in-5 in the UK were 16 or under, which comes to 12,358,400; those 19 or under accounted for 13,101,000 (unfortunately, a quick search doesn't yield an exact under-18 figure). So we can comfortably assume a rough figure of 12,500,000. This would mean that the percentage of children admitted to hospital in alcohol-related cases is...wait for it...0.103%.

That's right - 0.103%. Perhaps 0.103% too much, but I fancy that any sociologist passing by will confirm that a shocking state of affairs that affects only 0.103% of any given population is not a serious problem worthy of the label.

Finally, and this is the part I really like, how did Alcohol Concern calculate the £19m cost to the NHS and the 12,832 admissions figure?

The cost. Now this is based on an estimated price per incident, using 2007/08 data, of ambulance call-outs, hospital admissions and A&E attendances (and given the shaky nature of the last two of those, as I explain below, there could be major overlap there). It's all fairly weak stuff in the end - but the real shocker here is that ambulance data. In an examination of three ambulance trusts, they extrapolate nationwide to get 23,254 call-outs costing c.£4.6m.

Which three ambulance trusts did they look at? London, West Midlands and the North East.

I'm saying nothing more.

And the admissions? Well, given page four of the report solemnly opines that 'We have no way of knowing how many children and young people are attending EDs [emergency departments - A&E to you and me] due to alcohol', you'd have to salute their bravery in trying and, then, convincing the BBC that what they've written is gospel.

So let's have the report explain what they've done:

'Hospital Episode Statistics (HES), the national health statistics data source, is only able to provide data on ED attendances with a primary diagnosis of ‘poisoning (including overdose)’ of substa
nces that include alcohol. Between 2007 and 2009, 25,767 children and young people under the age of 18 attended an ED with this primary diagnosis. However this data is inclusive of all poisoning episodes (for example accidental ingestion of bleach) it does not allow for isolation of alcohol alone as a cause for attendance and is therefore of limited use.'

Divide by two and what do you get...? 12,883.5 (which is as close as dammit I can get to the reported 12,832). But of course, these admissions, not broken down by type of poisoning, do not tell us anything like a full picture regarding the impact of alcohol. Could be heroin; could be weed killer; could be anything.

What can we conclude from this? I don't want to give the impression that I do not care about the problem of kids drinking early, to excess, or in the absence of parental supervision. Such issues are evidently welcome and necessary components of any national debate about Britain's confused relationship with alcohol.

But that debate must be evidence-led and the statistics used should be bomb-proof. To be fair to the report, it highlights some of its own shortcomings as a piece of statistical analysis - but this has not stopped the organisation issuing a press release that is far less equivocal.

That the BBC laps it up so unquestioningly, and without any contrary voice in a debate between honest players with differing opinions, does not flatter its journalism.

Keen observers will notice I've decided - in the spirit of such reports - to illustrate this post with utterly irrelevant pictures of people having fun. As if to suggest: 'let's hope this revelry doesn't descend into mindless thuggery.'

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

J'accuse: Wenlock runs out

So Hoxton's Wenlock Arms faces the chop, eh? One co-owner wants to sell and the other cannot buy him out, so it's to the estate agents they go. The dread of redevelopment hangs heavy.

Those unfamiliar with this pub, famous
in London at least, will not be aware of just how polarised the debate is over this establishment. Dirty, mean-spirited and clique-ridden? Or ale palace, characterful and charming?

The truth is it is both, but never at the same time. On a day when there's Chas & Dave-style tinkling of the ivories and singalongs and the locals are in on the fun it's a ding-dong right aaaahld Laaaaahndon boozer, with all welcome to join in. But you'll go in the next day to the silence of the disgusted, with tumbleweed the only distraction between you and contemptful locals who would rather sit in an empty pub without your sort. On that day, the service will run the full gamut between silent, inattentive and outright - and even shockingly - rude.

The hipsters so routinely disdained by the locals and barstaff seem to be running a campaign to keep the place open. I certainly welcome that - even if I regard their patience at the Wenlock's unfathomably mercurial mood swings as saintly in the extreme. The current management have had the place for 16 years and fresh blood could tart the pub up (a deep clean might eradicate the retch-worthy stench of foetid, dried urine emanating from the gents) without blitzing what is, all told, a characterful interior. It would be a real pity to lose a 175 year old pub that stands alone in its street as a living link with times gone by and could, in the right hands, continue to offer a great deal to the area.

And yet I cannot tolerate the notion, expressed here in the Evening Standard, that its loss would disfigure London's pub-going scene for good or eradicate 'London's best pub' - for all that it has an admirable focus on excellent craft cask beer.

The Globe in Morning Lane, Hackney, only has London Pride and Young's Bitter on cask - but both are kept well and the service is unfailingly friendly. After a couple of visits,
they may not know your name but they recognise you and ask after you. The locals - mostly 50+, working class and mixed between men and women and black and white - are not in the least bothered by the minority of middle class 20-somethings that come in, rallying round to offer seats and organise tables when live jazz is playing on a Sunday. The late night regulars cheer on the midnight karaoke come Saturday ('I Get a Kick Out of You - Swing Version' is considered a bracing challenge). There are teas organised for Monday afternoons and special offers that encourage the odd treat (bottle of Prosecco for £11.50) while not promoting crass binges.

I think you see where I'm heading. CAMRA may have afforded the Globe a place in the Good Beer Guide 2010 (I don't know if it's in the 2011 edition yet) but its safe selection of ales would not excite the beer blogging world and - god forbid - were it under threat, I wonder how much support in the wider media it would muster.

London would miss the Wenlock's potential. But the Globe is a vital community resource, with dedicated staff who put in the hours and refresh the offer.

I know where I've spent most money.

Wenlock Arms photo (Creative Commons Licence) courtesy of Glyn Baker.

Globe on Morning Lane photo (Creative Commons Licence) courtesy of Ewan Munro.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Bottle 193 - a tribute to @HardKnottDave hits the Æther

It's not often my wife's crashing physical ineptitude wins my thanks, but one act of startling stupidity - of heroic clumsiness - has made me a very contented man, thankful for a maladroit life partner.

'John, I'm just calling about your beer...'

'Claire, I'm at work...a beer is of course the last thing on my mind, so dedicated am I to my numerous tasks and legion responsibilities [current and future employers take note] - what can possibly be up?'

'The fridge door...a just flew out...'

'No...not the Captain Lawrence IIPA; not Pipedream, the Alvinne, De Struise & Pipeworks collaboration; not the BrewDog AB:01 or BrewDog AB:02 I've stored in there to guard them from the heat? For the love of god, woman...the humanity!'

'Worse, John - the Hardknott Æther Blæc.'

'The Æther Blæc?! Dave Bailey's limited edition 8% stout, fermented with Belgian style yeast, matured in a 28-year Islay whisky cask along with dry hops and then bottled in a limited run of only 458?! Cumbria's finest?! What British Guild of Beer Writers Beer Writer of the Year 2009 Pete Brown has dubbed, and I quote, "one of the best wood-aged beers yet"?!'

'Yes,' she chillingly affirmed.

The situation was indeed grave. My wife's foot may have been grazed, necessitating a salve of TCP and a waterproof Boots plaster, but - far more pressingly - the
Æther Blæc cap had clearly been heard to go 'phust' and viscous bubbles were beginning to emerge. Claire's report had an air of the crazed: 'should I pour it away?' How could she be expected to know? To understand? Such beers as dreams are made, my only option was to rush to the Tube, run like the proverbial for a train back to Cambridge and try to salvage what might be left after what was surely the most important spillage of black, thick liquid in living memory.

This was an environmental disaster the birds would actually flock to - if actually rendered at sea, no tern would be left unstoned.

Two hours later, back home, I was naturally more sanguine - this was an excuse, after all, to try a beer impertinently early that had insisted on being cellared...

And I'm so glad I did. Just take a look at that picture. Such condition, such inviting, thick-set foam. The nose was all rich olorosso - anyone who has had Gonzalez Byass's peerless Matusalem will be familiar with the rich vinous, fruity aroma of Churchill's favourite sherry. Then the stouty smoke, a baritone note just the Ovaltine side of Marmite, accompanied by crashing wave vapours of boozy scotch. The taste was extreme, but balanced - extremely balanced, smooth. With rich, imperial stouts there is a very fine line to tread - too bitter and the heady malts jar and the whole becomes wincingly astringent; too much body and the sweetness can be cloying. It takes skill to hit that middle point - burnt, but clean; rich, but refreshing; bitter, but not harsh.

Hardknott Æther Blæc doesn't just hit that sweet spot. It is that sweet spot. Have I had a better cask-aged beer? Hell, no. Have I had a better stout? Not many.

Thankfully, Mill Road's stunning Bacchanalia off licence has a case of this stunning achievement, so I was able to grab another to lay down (bottle 202, since you asked). I may buy a couple more, so if you're in the Cambridge area, I'd get cracking. Can't wait to try Granite, Dave's 10% barley wine (bottle 300 of 504). To get your grubby mits on some, keep an eye out on - it'll be appearing there soon.

Follow Dave on Twitter - @HardKnottDave

Needless to say, Claire is back in my good books.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Battle of the beer apps!

Enjoy this guest post from Black Lagoon blogger and TV industry legend Matt Nida. You may remember him from the optimisitically titled Cambridge pub guide video Pubcast #1. This copy was written before CAMRA very recently changed its pricing policy on its GBG app - I've published the original review plus a footnote to demonstrate how wrong it was before and how much better the situation is now.

Demographically speaking, the smartphone crowd is probably more at home in an All Bar One than a traditional pub. But whilst Apple's much-hyped iPhone might now be the archetypal accessory of the Modern London Media Tosser, few people who've actually bought one would deny that having that level of fast, easy, ubiquitous access to the internet is incredibly useful - never more so than when trying to locate a good place to drink in unfamiliar surroundings. To this end, two new applications recently turned up in the iPhone's App Store with the sole purpose of connecting drinkers to watering holes.

CaskFinder is a free app that pulls its data from two different sources: the Cask Marque Trust's pub quality inspection scheme and the Cyclops beer database. This gives you two different ways to find a new pub. Click on the Cask Marque Pubs button and you'll immediately be taken to a map showing your current location (courtesy of the iPhone's handy built-in GPS) with all the nearby Cask Marque-accredited pubs marked clearly with quaint little pint icons. Tapping on a pub takes you to a page which gives you the address and telephone number of the pub (tap again to ring the pub directly), a link to the pub's website and a list of beers currently on offer. These are divided into those tested by Cask Marque and those that haven't been; tapping on one of the tested beers takes you to a page giving you some basic facts about the brew in question, such as alcohol content, colour, taste and smell. From here, you can add your own rating which will be reflected in the average star rating at the top of the page.

Back on the main menu, there's also a Beers button, which takes you to a database of beers that you can view either by name or by brewery. Tapping on a beer will take you to its stats page, at the top of which there's a "Where to Drink?" button. Tap this and you'll be taken to a map showing all the pubs in the surrounding area serving this particular beer (as results are likely to be sparse for most beers listed, you can zoom out to increase the range and thus the likelihood of a pub serving your beer). This is potentially a killer feature, but annoyingly the list of beers itself is somewhat patchy; for example, there are no Harvey's or Timothy Taylor's beers listed at all. Still, it's a neat idea, and Cyclops claim to update the database daily, so hopefully it'll become more useful over time. There's also a couple of other fun features in the form of a "beer of the week", a beer festival calendar and a beer blog by Pete Brown.

Where CaskFinder falls down somewhat is the interface. Whilst I admire the developer's courage in shunning Apple's attempts to standardise all UIs to the same conventions, the rather sickly yellows and Tellytubby-ish icons and typefaces aren't particular polished or pleasant to use, whilst the background, although clearly intended to be a foaming pint of ale, looks rather like a pale blue Aero. Moreover, the lack of any overt curation or comment about the pubs in question ultimately limits the app's usefulness; beyond their certification, there's little indication what a pub might be like to drink in once you get there. Still, if you trust Cask Marque's standards then there's no doubt that CaskFinder will speed up the process of finding a decent pint, and once it's a bit more comprehensive the beer location feature could well prove incredibly useful.

Elsewhere on the App Store is CAMRA's own Good Beer Guide Mobile, an iPhone version of the organisation's hugely successful annual book/bible. CAMRA are by no means infallible, and I could probably argue some of the finer details about their criteria for what makes a good pub, but there's no denying that the GBG is an authoritative and on the whole reliable guide, so you could be forgiven for approaching the app with high expectations. Its premium heritage is reflected in the price - a princely £1.19 - and upon launching you're immediately presented with a much classier, Apple-ish menu than CaskFinder's. The main menu offers you several ways to search for a pub; once again you can use the GPS to look for GBG-listed pubs in your immediate vicinity, or you can search by address, postcode or (neatly) London tube station. Search results are presented in a listed sorted by distance in miles, with a range of icons indicating amenities at each venue. Alternatively, they can be viewed on a map. Tapping on the pub takes you contact details, and tabs at the bottom of the page allow you to pull up a beer menu (with comments on each beer from the GBG), a list of features, a map and the all-important Good Beer Guide review. Tapping a star button at the top of the page let you save the pub to a list of favourites for quick access later on.

And... that's it. There's no access to any of the other editorial features of the GBG, no beer or brewery index, no user ratings, no ability to search for pubs via beers available or indeed using any criteria other than location. It's an unbelievable own goal. Given that the app pulls its data from one of the most comprehensive critical drinking resources on the market, it's incredibly limited in terms of how one can interface with this data. Even a simple full text search would have been nice, but that's too much to ask for. Essentially, unless you're using the GPS feature, it's actually quicker to find a pub that piques your interest by flicking through the paper copy than using the app.

And then there's the pricing. Your up-front £1.19 isn't the only cost. Once you've downloaded the app, you can use it for thirty days, after which time you'll be asked to pay a further £8.99 (!) for another year's access. If you're a CAMRA member this actually makes the app more expensive than a physical copy of the book, despite being significantly less functional and despite the distribution and material costs of the app being a fraction of those behind publishing a book. If you already own the book, you've got no choice other than to pay for it again. In the past I've been critical of the aggressive race-to-the-bottom price wars in the App Store, and am happy to pay a fair price for a decent app, but there's no excuse for the Murdochian "PROTECT THE PRINT REVENUE!!" pricing of digital goods this way.

Ultimately, CAMRA could have sewn up the market here, but in classic foreheard-slapping CAMRA fashion they've dropped the ball badly. The Good Beer Guide text remains useful and dependable, but the really limited interface indicates that no-one really thought through how users might actually want to use this app. The hugely unrealistic pricing is the final nail in the coffin, suggesting that CAMRA developed this app because someone told them they ought to do one in order to keep up - shovelware of the worst kind. CaskFinder, on the other hand, is ugly and patchy in places, but makes a few gestures at dynamic content and has some fun features that give the user a few different options for tracking down a good pint quickly. Plus it's free, so you can use the money that CAMRA would otherwise gouge you for and spend it on, say, some beer.

STOP PRESS!! It seems CAMRA decided very recently to adopt a different pricing model, slashing the £8.99 cost to just £4.99 and allowing users to download the data. This means you still have access to the 2010 Guide on your iPhone if you decide not to renew the subscription in 2011 - fair dos and a big improvement. Good job. Having spoken to Matt, he confirms, however, that his review of the app as an app remains the same.

Finally, take a look at this debate on the Guardian's excellent Word of Mouth blog about which pub guide is best. The comments promise to be entertaining.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Call me Old Fashioned...

Beer geeks look away now. One thing we do well in this country is pubs. Low beams, warm fires, foaming pints of nut brown ale, a slothful hound, the bedraggled excess of the cricket team, the wannabe bachelor, the joke that went too far. I love all these things, and more, about our pubs - this blog stands as testament to my affection for the pub in all its guises.

Yet there are times when even beer stalkers would like, for at least a moment, to pass themselves off as urban sophisticates, cosmopolitan aesthetes. And there are occasions when only a cocktail will do - the subtle blends of spirits and bitters, fruit oils and mixers, peel and purée. Aficionados of the TV serial Mad Men will, like me, have found this urge unbearable during its latest run. But try getting a decent cocktail in all but the biggest cities and you're more often than not on a hiding to nothing.

Cambridge for a while boasted the best cocktail maker I've ever come across, an unfathomably young chap called Mark who worked at the restaurant Alimentum (reviewed in the Sunday Times this week by monkey killing arse Adrian Gill). He steeped raisins in rum, developed wonderful Bellinis from seasonal fruits and assembled the finest Old Fashioned possible (of which more later). He disappeared from the restaurant a while back and seems to have vanished from the banks of the Cam for good, one hopes setting sail for bigger and better things.

Like many provincial cities, Cambridge boasts its All Bar Ones and Revolutions and Slug & Lettuces. The main night clubs provide little incentive to enter, let alone experiment with the (usually anodyne) selection of beverages.

The saving grace is River Bar & Kitchen (*sigh* how I hated typing the modish and inescapable '& Kitchen' - they do food, geddit?), where - as is often the case - an Old Fashioned may not be on the menu but can be knocked up on request - and that with spirit from my favourite bourbon distillery, Blanton's. Painstakingly served with bitters, orange twist,, oaky, sweet. I'd have stuck a cherry in, but cocktail making is an art, not a science, and I'm usually happy to try out the bartender's take so long as it's honest and avoids howling errors. My wife had a terrific Bellini - we
both agreed the best we'd tasted outside the peerless effort to be found at Venice's iconic (and secretive...) Harry's Bar.

River Bar's Conran-eqsque interior (appropriate really, given it was apparently designed by the great man's son, presumably Sebastian), boasting a spiral staircase up to a swanky interior balcony, is well conceived - cool, but not cold. All steel and red backlights.

The food looked good, too, with steaks and burgers pleasing the assembled diners perched by the window, who would glance occasionally to take in the view across the Cam to the grounds of Magdalene College. Modernity meets old time class in Cambridge at the best of times.

The one (or two...) cocktails we had certainly made Saturday's aperitif hour the best of times.

Ok, something for the beer geeks - River Bar rather depressingly falls into the trap, so often the case in joints like this, of having an enviable spirits selection sullied somewhat by its lacklustre choice of brews. Bottled Budvar is ok, of course (though I personally dislike it) but Peroni? Eek...I think BrewDog Punk IPA should be absolutely dominating venues like this, but I would guess distribution is the issue right now.

For those in need of the skills to make an Old Fashioned, here's a master at work - enjoy!

Monday, 8 March 2010

Achel not be the end of it

You never seem to read much about Achel, the relative newbies of Belgian trappist brewing. Open for business since 1998, they nevertheless come in under the radar, never starring in debates about how long to store them, like Orval. Never disappointing old hands, like Chimay. Never being boring, like Westmalle. Never winning the hyped-up (albeit deserved) plaudits of Rochefort and Westvleteren. Never being Dutch, like La Trappe.

It was in an effort to throw off the constant search for the shock of the new, that I made for Achel Blonde (8%), a beer I'd had a few times but thought nothing of.

What a surprise it was.

There is something unmistakably Belgian about its rich, floral, sweet character. The smell of it is just sensational, deliciously perfumed and fresh all in one. The body is thick but peppered with lovely darts of bubbles. Behind it all is a welcome, and somewhat surprising, bitterness that just fades without a trace as soon as it's registered. Pouring in the yeast midway revives the head gloriously, adding the theatre you'd expect from such an act, and only seeming to enrichen the body at no expense to the flavours but a little to the beer's crispness - as ever, horses for courses here.

These flavours and this style (I suppose it's a tripel, in that it's blonde, strong and relatively sweet) are what I first thought of as uniquely Belgian in beer. Achel's contribution is a stunning example and stands as a welcome reminder that beers - even pale ones - need not be hopped by a psychopath to stand out. Go out and buy some!

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Imperial stout from Royal Ascot

I for one think Ascot Ales should be given a royal charter. Delighted by the quality of the brewery's Cascade-hopped Alligator Ale (4.6%) and the properly bitter experience of its Anastasia's Exile Stout (5.0%), it was with a spring in my step that I hurried after work yesterday to the Gunmakers to get a load of the Anastasia's Imperial Stout.

Well, I say 'a load'. At 8% I had no more than a half of the stuff and that after some of the very finest Timothy Taylor Landlord I've ever had and the what-should-be famous sirloin steak with fried potatoes
. (On a side-note, both Tandleman and Jeff Pickthall have noted on their Twitter feeds that Landlord has hit a terrific run of form lately - I agree. Anyone know why?)

As you can see from the picture, it had a super espresso crema of a head and, as ever at this fine pub, was in the most splendid condition. The rich roasted coffee, bitter chocolate combo is just sublime and the booze sets it all up as an intense winter treat. It is without doubt the equal of Stone's superb - but much stronger - Imperial Russian Stout and, on cask, was served from my preferred dispense method. It was a helluva treat and a sign to me, off the back of my previous experiences, that Ascot is a brewery to watch like a hawk.

They know what they're doing.

Keen observers will note the picture above is not of me. There was one taken of jesusjohn - equally handsome, I might add - but sadly it clearly illustrates the moment where this glorious beer trundled into that corridor of uncertainty between glass and lip and cascaded down my jumper. Not a good look for a beer writer with delusions he's also a member of the human race.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Freddie Starr drank my Bismarck!

Ok, he didn't (nor, apparently - and much to my disappointment, did the erstwhile Saturday night TV star chomp on a rodent). But the five-month incubation and subsequent naming of BrewDog's latest publicity stunt brewing innovation, the 41%, freeze-concentrated hop leviathan Sink the Bismarck!, seems to be equal in its attempt to catch the eye as the infamous tabloid headline.

This 'quadruple IPA', currently the strongest beer by ABV in the world, has been named in response to Schorschbräu's recent 40% bock, which itself - albeit briefly - took the wor
ld record from BrewDog's own 32% Tactical Nuclear Penguin. All of which screams 'Gotcha!'

The online debate over the choice to name a beer after an event that saw some 2,000 lose their lives has
been all too Manichean in character, overly polarised between those who see the name as a total disgrace traducing the memory of the fallen and those who see it as 'a bit of a laugh'. For my part, I think it's dreadfully silly. I'm less offended, to be honest, by the connection to the deaths of drafted sailors than the implication given by the naming of the beer in the here and now that we can still only see rivalry with Germans through the prism of the war. At least, given BrewDog is a Scottish enterprise, we are collectively saved the indignity of MD James Watt screeching 'one World Cup and two World Wars, doo-dah, doo-dah...'

If Stella is 'wife beater', Sink the Bismarck! is evidently 'Sun reader' - and I'm enough of a liberal lefty to wince at that.

'And so to beer,' as Pepys would no doubt have put it. The seventeenth cent
ury diarist would have approved of BrewDog's excellent choice of the Rake to launch STB! last Friday, given as he was to drinking in the shadow of Southwark Cathedral himself ('Lo, I spake to Lizzie, how many drames of thee Bismark have I hadde? Is it mee or does the Citee fire still grow?' - 2 September 1666.)

Up we trotted to
the first floor of this fine establishment, my wife Claire and I in the first of several groups to get to taste the furore. The session began very well, with the formal unveiling of the tweaked Hardcore IPA, itself lifted in ABV to 9.2% from 9.0%. It is a splendid beer and this reboot surely wins it the accolade of the most delicious US double-IPA-style beer brewed in the UK. The hops remain warming and multi-layered but the malt balance is notably thicker (the beer is darker than its ancestor) and has a solid working relationship with the booze to usher the intense bitterness through without the drinker wishing to give up and swig some water by way of respite.

Tokyo* was up next. I've tweeted about this 18.2% imperial stout before - unflatteringly, I have to say. Claire and I settled on a description of it as 'like burned plastic blended with candy sugar.' 'Nuff said.

STB! It arrived, as one would fully expect - Alcohol Fuckwits Focus Scotland take note - in a spirit measure and was met with reverent hush by the fan boys and gals, all forcing their beaks down into the glass to get a first wave of what this might actually be like. It smells very fresh, like a dewy meadow but with a pine-meets-citrus backbone. The look is pale and oily; this is not deceptive, as a sip is seriously viscous. The first wave is a hop hurricane, but the sweet, golden-syrup body carries it. The bum note for me was that to support that intense, take-your-breath-away bitterness clearly required the beer to have a Geoff Capes-esque body. This, in turn - and unexpectedly - neutralises the taste of much of the massive alcohol content, which I would want to burn away at the richness of the beast.

It's an intriguing beer, one that seriously and sensationally tests the boundaries of beer production, but I do not rate it as an out-and-out taste success. I wonder what a few drops of water would do to it (as this can open up a rich malt whisky), but at £40 per bottle, I suspect my first port of call would be a bottle of rich malt whisky. There is one final problem; as Hopdaemon brewer and fellow blogger Pete Brissenden has so succinctly put it:
'one of the main things I struggle with BrewDog's new Sink! beer is that I can't really ever imagine a time or place I would really want to drink it.'

Introducing STB!, James Watt failed to convince even his biggest fans with a faux-naïve ejaculation that '...we weren't expecting such controversy.' This was greeted, rightly, with cynical laughter. It's one thing to go, as Alan Partridge would put it, 'balls out of the bath' to whip up interest, but to knock on the door and run away impresses no-one.

It is difficult to talk about BrewDog without getting sucked into the vortex of their PR agenda, but talk about them we do and the reason for that is the beer. Punk IPA astounded when it hit the market and on cask is one of the very finest beers you will ever taste. BrewDog's brashness grates when it misses the mark but even their efforts here will surely persuade other UK brewers to rethink how they get themselves to market; many make superb concoctions and then issue a pumpclip of a thong-wearing Princess Zelda to flog 'em. Any effort to break out of this ad paradigm can only be welcomed.

Watt says 2010 is 'all about the beer' for BrewDog. Let's hope so - if as much effort goes into a 4-7% ale as went into STB!, craft beer fans up and down the land w
ould have much to cheer.

I'd very much like to thank BrewDog and the Rake for hosting what was a most enjoyable event. The Rake has been my spiritual home of late and should be recognised not only for its splendid beer evangelism but also the strides it has made in recognition of suggestions made by its patrons to offer a more friendly face to the world. Duly noted and appreciated.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Too Stoned to blog - a leaf out of Tandie's book

He won't realise the effect he's had on me. Both of my loyal readers have been plaguing me of late, asking what I've been up to.

In fact, I've been taking Tandleman's oft exclaimed advice to get out of the house and drink beer in pubs a lot more - which has led to me writing about ales and the pub trade a lot less.

Every visit to the St Radegund Pub - with its gorgeous, reinvented and dry-hopped Milton Habit Ale, the Rake (where decent, friendly staff have finally been found and Stone Imperial Russian Stout can be supped), Ye Olde Mitre and Stonch's peerless gaff the Gunmakers (where the food has gone from super to destination-class) has seen me whip out my phone, take a snap and resolve - this time! - to update the blog.

To no avail. Though - and I suspect this is where I'll face Tandie's wrath - I have been updating the @jesus_john Twitter feed with beery experiences, et al. That's still worth a look for the criminally bored among you.

But I'm hoping this mea culpa will spur me to greater things in the coming weeks and months before another inevitable trough in activity.

In the meantime, it would be remiss of me not to point all and sundry to the beer blogging masterclass BGBW 2009 top gong winner Pete Brown gave on how parliamentary forces are warping statistics to back their claim we're all one Drambuie away from liver-related oblivion. This work is proper journalism at its finest, challenging perceptions with a fair approach. Good work - read all the related posts, they start here.

Until next time, beer fans.