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.