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Manchester, United Kingdom
Tyson is a beer hound and cheese addict living in the beery metropolis paradise known as Manchester
If the people are buying tears, I'll be rich someday, Ma

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

How Low Can You Go (2)

Following on from Sunday’s post about low strength beers, there comes the news that they are the saviour and future of the drinks trade. Or so might your conclusion be if the media coverage of the recently released off-trade figures is to be believed. For across the board sales of non-alcoholic and low-alcohol beers have soared 40% in the last year. The reasons-according to retailers-are that customers are reacting to the improved product quality and range, a desire for more healthy living, and better awareness of drink-driving risks.

Now 40% is indeed an impressive increase in sales, but of course the benchmark is much lower in this category to begin with. For example, Tesco, who are trumpeting a 47% rise in sales across their stores, sold just 15m bottles of non and low-alcohol beer last year. Small beer (ho-hum) in the scale of things. However, they are expecting a further 15% rise this year and remain so enthused about prospects in this area that they are launching no less than 11 products in a category that they will label “mid-strength”.

Mid-strength? Wouldn’t that make full-strength 5.6%? Surely not what they are alluding to, but presumably preferably to labelling them “pisswater”. Chiara Nesbit, Tesco’s specialist beer buyer, argues that quality has improved in recent years with “many breweries using far better ingredients in order to create full-bodied brews that taste like their more alcoholic cousins.” She also feels that growing number of drinkers are prepared to buy lower alcohol beers as “long as the quality is good.”

But is it quality or is it price? And aren’t all these drinkers merely swapping one product for another? I find it hard to visualise horses of new converts beating down the doors of their local Tesco Express. Of course, Tesco aren’t the only player in town. Waitrose are also keen for a slice of the action as they have seen sales of Becks Blue rise 27%, low-alcohol beer Bavaria by 11% and their own low-alcohol cider by 16%. The whole concept of low-alcohol cider deserves a post by itself, but let’s go back to Tesco and Ciara Nesbit.

In a hyperbole worthy of someone with a vested interest, Ms Nesbit claims that: “The growing number of 2.8% brews will offer greater diversity than ever before for drinkers, whilst at the same time offering them very high quality and extremely great tasting brews.” Extremely great tasting, eh? Well I shall be the judge of that.

But wait, there’s more. Tesco are changing the landscape of home drinking. Yes, really. They are “creating a new middle ground for beer drinkers which will offer a solution to anyone fancying a midweek pint, perhaps to enjoy while watching the football, but who doesn’t want anything too strong”. A solution to a problem that doesn’t exist in my book, and will you please stop using terms like “middle ground” and “mid strength” when referring to pisswater.

But wait...there’s more. These “mid-strength” beers are seen by some as a panacea for the pub trade’s ills. With the licensed trade reeling from the closure of 16 pubs a week, apparently it’s pinning its hopes on “the wider range of economically-priced low-alcohol beers to entice even more customers in”. I wouldn’t hold your breath on that one, if I were you.

What we need is some words of wisdom from CAMRA. Step forward CAMRA Press Officer, Jon Howard. Now surely he will put a cork in all this talk of quality pisswater? Sadly, not quite. According to him: “Brewers have already proven in a short time that it is possible to brew a low-strength beer packed with flavour and aroma.” Er, no they haven’t. Not to my satisfaction, anyway.

Even more contentiously, he goes on to say: “We hope to see more of these low ABV thirst-quenchers unveiled by brewers in the near future.” Thirst-quenchers? They’ve not quenched my thirst as of yet. When even CAMRA can’t tell the difference between pisswater and “thirst-quenchers”, I give up.

Only when Windermere Pale, tasting as it does now, comes down to 2.8% or someone produces its equivalent, can these beers be regarded as genuine “thirst-quenchers”. Until then, my definition of pisswater will remain

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Breakfast Beer Tasting: Caldera Ashland Amber

First things first. Yes, it’s a can. So? This is 2012. Can is the new bottle. Bottle is the new keg. Keg is the new cask. Get over it. Indeed, Caldera Brewing Company proudly boast that they are actually the first craft brewery in the state of Oregon to brew and can their own beer. So put that in your lightweight, 100% recyclable aluminium pipe and smoke it.
It’s 350ml and is 5.6% in alcoholic strength. It poured, as the name might suggest, amber with soft carbonation and an off-white head. The aroma was pleasant and not too dissimilar from a standard American IPA. There was plenty of citrus, some pine and a little sweet malt.
The actual taste followed the pattern of the aroma, but with a more restrained hop presence that you might expect. A smooth mouthfeel soon gives way to Cascade hops, but the medium citrus kick is well matched by a good dose of caramel in the finish. Easily suppable for its strength; it has a finish that just veers on the right side of dry.
This isn’t really a beer for hopheads, as it’s a little under-hopped for an Amber ale and seems more like a mild IPA. However, it’s an accomplished enough beer. And if cans are your thing and you’re looking for some quality higher strength refreshment, you could do a lot worse than this.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Breakfast Beer Tasting: Brewdog There Is No Santa

I’ve waited till an appropriate time-i.e. after Christmas, to review Brewdog’s most controversial beer to date. Now as every Marx Bros fan knows, there is no sanity clause, but Brewdog may have risked the ire of parents up and down the land with the title of this beer. Imagine your nine year old pops down the offy to stock up for his big night in with the lads and comes across this. You could be paying for their therapy for years.

So what’s the beer actually like? Well it comes in the standard Brewdog 330ml bottle and is 4.7% by alcohol. It purports to be a “spiced Stout”; whatever that is. More of a Brown Ale in colour rather than a regulation Stout, it was lively and was topped with a large tan head.

The aroma was an enticing blend of sweet ginger spices and chocolate. Very Christmasesque and comforting. The body would be considered thin for Stout, but was quite smooth on the tongue. The flavours weren’t overpowering which made for an easy going, slightly spiced session ale. Think Green & Black’s Dark Chocolate Ginger biscuits with a pinch of cinnamon.

The finish was sweet ginger that dies away slowly. If you put aside any notion that this is a Stout, then this is a pleasant, if not outstanding beer. However, if you’re going to compare and contrast this with many other Stouts, I fear you will be disappointed.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

How Low Can You Go?

Global brewery giant AB InBev have announced that they are to cut the alcoholic strength of their three main brands from 5% to 4.8%. This reduction of Becks, Budweiser, and Stella Artois may mean little to the likes of you or me, but can be seen as indicative of current drink trends.

Certainly that is the official AB stance; that it is merely reacting to current UK trends and that “most drinkers won’t bat an eyelid as long as the 4.8% brews deliver on taste”. Quite possibly, but there is another explanation. According to industry sources, AB were pushing for yet another price rise-something the big retailers weren’t happy with. This left AB little choice: if its margins were to be maintained, then ABV had to be cut.

Of course, ABVs have been quietly coming down across the board for some time now. Stella itself was once 5.2%-it still is abroad-and I’m sure the estimated duty saving of £8.6m on its new lower strength version will put a smile on some AB executive’s face.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the taxation spectrum, there has been an explosion in the number of 2.8% (or even weaker) beers as brewers look to take advantage of the 50% duty cut. The All Party Parliamentary Beer Group in the Houses of Parliament recently held a tasting of some of these for the delectation of MPs and Lords.
ABInBev: Rolling Rock 2.8%
Becks Blue, 0.05%
Carlsberg UK: SKOL 2.8%
Molson Coors UK: C2 2%
Adnams Brewery: Sole Star 2.7%
Brentwood Brewing BBC2 2.5%
Brodie’s Brewery Summer Stout 2.8%
Everards Brewery: Southgate 2.7%
Greene King Tolly English Ale 2.8%
Guinness: Mid Strength 2.8%
Harvey’s Brewery: Sweet Sussex Stout 2.8%
Harvey’s Bloomsbury Brown 2.8%
Hop Back Heracles 2.8%
J W Lees Brewery: Hero 2.8%
Marston’s Brewery: Marston’s Pale Ale, 2.8%
Marston’s Alcoholic Ale Shandy 2.8%ABV
Mann’s Brown Ale (Marston’s) 2.8%ABV
S A Brains Brewery: Founders Brew, 2.8%
Welton’s Brewery Pride & Joy 2.8%

I can’t say I’ve tried any of these and look forward to sampling them. But judging by my experiences so far with very low alcohol beers, I don’t hold out much hope. However, the way things are going, it may not be too long before you are popping into your local and asking for “A pint of pisswater, please.”

Friday, 20 January 2012

National Winter Ales Festival: Progress Report

The National Winter Ales Festival is now well underway. Anyone who is anyone in the beer world, wants to be someone or just knows someone, is there, has been there or is planning to go. Unless, of course, they have something better to do.

How’s it going so far? Well the doors opened on Wednesday afternoon and with potentially around 300 cask available, there certainly seemed a lot to go at. First things first, quality-as you’d hope/expect was good. And there wasn’t a problem with finding a quaffable dark beer. Everything from the overall champion beer-Driftwoods Alfie’s Revenge, to my pick of the speciality beers-Amber’s Orange Chocolate Stout went down well.

There was more of a problem finding something light and hoppy to quench the palate. Despite being a minority at a festival like this, I was hoping to unearth a new gem or two. Sadly, the contenders didn’t really rise much above the mediocre gauge and the Imperial Blonde was distinctly amateur hour. Luckily there were the likes of Acorn and Allgates NZ Cascade to cushion the blow. Not forgetting the sublime Hawkshead NZPA.

However, that’s just me. A more general criticism I heard levelled against the event on more than one occasion was the number of beers per brewery. And it’s one that I do have some sympathy with. There are reasons for it, of course, but too many breweries had four or five beers allocated to them. And allowing Fullers to have nine on just seems, frankly, daft.

Anyway, that’s enough of wasting valuable drinking time. This afternoon we are engaged in the serious business of sampling the foreign beers. Op uw gezondheid!

Monday, 16 January 2012

Breakfasst Beer Tasting: De Dolle Oerbier

I found this oddity stuffed down the sofa this morning. Was it intended as a late Sunday post-pub nightcap? Was the pleasure deferred and replaced with whisky and pizza? With the memory hazy, it’s a mystery that only Ironside could solve.

Oerbier means original and De Dolle Brouwers are based in Esen. That’s the small village of Esen in Belgium and not Essen the city in Germany. Of course, Essen is famous, amongst other things, for the heavy damage done by Allied bombing in WW11 and for the notorious murder of 3 British airmen by civilians in 1944. For which Hauptmann Heyer and Johann Braschoss were sentenced to hang. But I digress.

This 33cl bottle is 9% and is unfiltered and unpasteurised. It was very lively and poured a murky red/brown with a very large beige head. The aroma was dark fruits-cherries and plums with a slight yeast tone. The beer itself is very vinous and more of the slow, warming type than refreshing and sessionable.

Flavour wise; you’ve got what was hinted at in the aroma and more. The alcohol is noticeable, but is offset by the cherry, strawberry and raisin/sweet malt flavours. These are followed by a quite severe tartness-apparently due to lactobacterial fermentation, which carries through to the finish.

Quite a complex beer that will reward the serious drinker. But probably better suited to sitting round the fire with than trying to bring yourself round with on Monday morning.

Friday, 13 January 2012

London Review: Duchess of Cambridge

This is on the corner of Goldhawk Road which is somewhat out of central London and is the sister pub of the Bree Louise. Now the Bree tends to divide opinion; while some people warm to its esoteric charm, others won’t enter the place without a fumigation suit. The DOC is very different to its sister pub in some ways, but similar enough in others to keep most people happy.

Split into two areas, the first thing you notice on entering here is that you aren’t in Euston anymore. Gone are the sticky carpets and basic furniture. Instead you have sofas and booths and an open fire. Very nice. The menu went untried but, in keeping with the area, the quality looked a cut above the Bree. What did go down well were the monster pork scratchings which were a talking point in themselves.

Now I’ve always found the service good in the Bree and so it proved in the DOC. The staff were friendly and helpful and proactive in asking if you wanted the CAMRA discount. Beer wise, there is a choice of 15 real ales. Although, I do feel they are missing a trick by serving only 6 of those via handpull. Appleaheads are also catered for with 9 draught ciders and there is a good whisky list.

Overall a very welcome addition to the London scene and with plans for them to start brewing shortly, another visit cannot be far off.

Pro: No sticky carpets. Good service.
Con: 15 beers, but nothing light and hoppy

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

London Review: Tap East

This is a newish (open 4 months, I think) bar based in the Westfield Shopping City retail outlet. Getting there is great fun. You just hop on the high speed train from Kings Cross/St Pancras and 143kph and 9km later, you’re in Stratford. Meaning that, within 10 minutes, you can go from supping in the John Betjeman to supping in Tap East. No valuable drinking time wasted.

Again it’s very contemporary and reminds one of an American brewpub. But much smaller; it doesn’t take many people to fill it. Interestingly there is no partition between the pub and the rest of the shopping centre which is slightly surreal, but fun.

Beer wise, there are six handpumps serving a mixture of their own beers and guests. Both of their own beers I tried were very good. The John Edwin Bitter was crisp and dry with a sharp bitter edge. The IPA was just what you would hope from a classic IPA and had plenty of hop bite. Quality here certainly isn’t an issue. If the cask doesn’t float your boat, then there are nine kegs and various bottles to keep you occupied.
Pro: Easy access. Quality beers and quality staff.
Con: Drafty when the door opens. Fake Ploughmans.

London Review: Camden Brewdog

This is the naughty Scottish brewer’s first venture outside of Alex Salmond land and is considered their best yet. It also might hold some clues as to the style of their forthcoming (even larger) Manchester bar. Situated on Bayham St, it makes good use of light and is a seriously contemporary affair. Funky, I think the groovy kids would call it.

Upstairs is the main bar and seating area. Downstairs there is another bar area which has, dare I say it, a Manchester vibe to it. This being London, though, it also has the de rigueur sex dungeon. Drinks wise, there is a good selection of draught and bottled beers. Although, this being the age of drink little, but strong, keg, the selection is heavily tilted towards the 5% and over.
Pro: Friendly, enthusiastic staff. Funky.
Con: Surprisingly wheelchair unfriendly access.

Friday, 6 January 2012

No Sale?

Every year pub chain Wetherspoons holds its January Sale. Cleverly conceived to match the post Christmas sales period, it’s gathered some notable publicity over the years. Who can forget the furore over their 99p a pint promotion? Certainly judging by the comments on social media sites, there are significant numbers of people who can’t wait for it.

However, all is not well in Spoons sale land this month. My first clue was meeting a disgruntled early morning customer who left the staff with this parting shot: “Call this a facking sale! I’m facking off to the Peel!”* The problem, judging by web reaction, is the lack of sale items compared to previous years.

In its promotional material for the sale, Spoons have made much of the fact that they are selling drinks at 1992 prices. And indeed, you can get a pint of Ruddles or a bottle of Becks for £1.29 And Carling is £1.99.  But that’s your lot. Apart from coffee at 79p a cup. No wine or spirits offer and, in what seems to be the main rub, no discounted food deals.

Times are tough and it appears Wetherspoons are not above tightening their own corporate belt. Or is it simply, as some have opinioned, that some punters have become too greedy and that they should be grateful for what’s on offer. We are, after all, all in this together.

Meanwhile, Tim Martin has split opinion by rolling out Veto Ale to all Spoons pubs. Usually a master of populism, the jury is still out whether this is a step tto far.

*I fear this digruntled gentleman was in for something of a disappointment. The Peel is the other Wetherspoons in the town centre and offers the same products at the same price.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Return of the Mat

The time has come to talk of many things, but first let us ponder the humble beer mat. Now I’m no excitable tegestologist, hands all-a-tremble as they caress a Georges Glucose Stout specimen, but there is something to be said for them. They stand for something particularly British; like roast beef and Sid James. So their gradual decline over many years has been something of a disappointment to me.

My thoughts were brought to bear the other day-it’s strange where the mind wanders after a 10 hour bender-on the past and future prospects of these little beauts. A day’s drinking had seen scant evidence of these practical aids, aside from a scattering of what purists would dismiss as keg beer mats. And, by that, I don’t mean they advertise keg although, of course, some do.

No, the purists hanker after proper beer mats that advertise ales of some sort or gild the lily of some brewery or other. But even keg mats, unappealing as they may be aesthetically, will do in a pinch. However, pub chains such as Wetherspoons have hastened their decline and even my local keeps them on the bar for discretionary use.

The reason given that many pubs don’t use them is that they make the place look untidy. With more children than ever roaming wild in the public houses of Britain, it’s said that the little ankle-biters tend to rip and devastate the beer mat stock. And I’m willing to admit that, during my wild, crazy teenage years, I may have vandalised a few innocent mats. But is that a good enough reason to deprive us all?

The interesting punch line to all of this is that I heard some heartening news in the last pub we visited. There has been an increase in demand for beer mats of late. The landlord could not offer any explanation for this and frankly nor can I. But, just maybe, as black is the new black and keg is the new cask; in 2012 perhaps beer mats will be the new, er, beer mat?