Archive for February, 2008

Beer Review: Cairngorm Blessed Thistle

29 February, 2008

Next up is an ale that couldn’t be more Scottish if it came wrapped in a kilt. Here, we have a bottle called Blessed Thistle from Cairngorm Brewery Company.
Bottle of Blessed Thistle

This 500ml bottle from Tesco weighs in at 4.5% volume. On the light side for an ale. The front label is as Scottish as you can get. An image of a thistle  is accompanied by Cairngorm’s mountain logo.
Cairngorm Blessed Thistle front label

Spinning the bottle round, we see that Cairngorm have gone for the “wrap a big label all the way around the bottle” approach. Where the join would normally be, we are told in big letters “Brewed in the Highlands of Scotland”.
Cairngorm Blessed Thistle inbetween label

Further around, we get a clear rear label. White and red text on a grey background helping to make it even more readable. Surprisingly modern typeface though.

Because I know a some of my blog readers are searching for it, this bottle has 2.3 units of alcohol. Not that I care, but if that’s what you want to know, then there it is. One worthwhile addition is the full address of the brewery. Worthwhile because it’s good to know exactly where it comes from. This one is from Dalfaber, Aviemore, Inverness-shire.

The single main paragraph tells us everything we want to know. And some facts that I didn’t know. Apparently “Before hops were used for bittering beers, many different herbs and spices would be employed by the brewer to import bitterness and flavour.” And Blessed Thistle seeks to recreate just that. Amazingly, and possible uniquely, Blessed Thistle gets it’s bitterness from boiled thistles. Pale, crystal and chocolate  grains are also in there plus some hops and ginger added late on. A malty ale is what we can expect. Apparently.
Cairngorm Blessed Thistle rear label

Into the glass, it’s darker than I expected. Dark, but not opaque, which looks good. There’s a creamy head there too, but it’s somewhat uneven. On the nose, it’s sufficiently complex to be an ale. It is overwhelmingly malty, but not to dark ale/stout or Leffe proportions. Quite pleasant.
Cairngorm Blessed Thistle in a glass

The taste is complex enough as well. Bitter maltiness is what this drink is all about. Pushed to pigeon-hole it, I’d say it’s a bitter. The grains? They’re probably there in the flavour. The hops and ginger? They’re just about detectable too. The boiled thistle? It’s hard to tell really. Never having eaten a thistle, I wouldn’t know it if it was in there. It does however, have a sort of flowery, heathery, lightness to it. And that, could be the thistle.

As you work your way through the bottle. Trying to figure out what you are tasting, you won’t find it a challenge. The remarkable lightness and refreshing character of this ale makes it very drinkable.

To sum Blessed Thistle up then. I liked it’s unusual make-up of it’s flavour. It was more refreshing than many ales. I wasn’t so keen on how bitter it was, but I know many of you like bitter. If you do, you’ll want to try this drink. For me, it was a good, solid ale with something new, but not unusual enough to make it truly outstanding. That said, I can recommend you give this a try.

Rating: 3.85

Have you tried Blessed Thistle? What did you think? Have you tried any other beers from Cairngorm?

Beer Review: Orkney Brewery Dark Island

27 February, 2008

Time to move on to our next Scottish beer, and it’s another one from The Orkney Brewery. This time, a Dark Ale called Dark Island. Again at a typical price from my local Tesco.
Bottle of Orkney Brewery Dark Island

As you can see, the everything looks much the same as it did on their excellently designed Northern Light pale ale. I strongly recommend you read my review posted yesterday of Northern Light, because everything on the outside of the bottle is much the same.

The front label this time features a stunning graphic of a circle of standing stones. Nothing sums up the monolithic history of our islands more than this type of images. Whether our monolithic ancestors drank ale however is unlikely. Around the 4.6% volume mark, we are told that this is a Dark Ale. Never having had dark ale, I had no idea what to expect. Apart from darkness. On the ‘authenticity stamp’ I liked so much, we are told to expect a “full bodied malt character”. From my recent experience with Leffe, malt is good.
Orkney Brewery Dark Island front label

The rear label is helpfully laid out in the same way as with Northern Light.
Orkney Brewery Dark Island back label

Orkney Brewery also dodge the puddle trodden in by countless other brewers. We are actually told what awards this beer has won instead of just a vague reference. In this case, Dark Island twice won CAMRA’s Champion Beer of Scotland. I don’t know what CAMRA is, but it sounds prestigious and official enough to impress me.

Again on the rear label, we are helpfully treated to their flowery description of what to expect “on the nose” and “on the palate”. Their take on the smell includes “bitter chocolate, figs, toffee and hints of fruit”. And how they think it will taste of “coffee-and-chocolate”, “figs, dates and dried fruits” and an after taste of “fruit and hop bitterness”. That is a lot by which to judge this ale. Let’s see how it does…

Poured into a glass, I’m struck by just how dark this ale is. And how white the head is.
Orkney Brewery Dark Island in a glass

I’d say that Dark Ale is just another name for Stout. A quick Wikipedia search reveals that yes, it is stout. That poses a challenge, because I’m not a big fan of stout. That said, I’m always willing to give dark ale/stout a chance.

The smell is just as complex as the label suggests. But I would say, it smells more of burnt malt than chocolate. But if you want to call it chocolate, toffee and figs, I won’t argue. Just go in prepared for it to smell like a stout and you wont be surprised.

As for the taste. Well… It’s a stout. It tastes as a stout should taste. It’s smooth. It has that burnt malt taste that stout has. It is bitter. As someone who isn’t really a stout drinker, what more can I say? It’s not bad though. It’s not so strong as to be difficult to drink. It is quite tasty, even though the bitterness was still putting me off.

Overall, this isn’t bad. In fact, it’s probably very very good, only I can’t see it because I’m not a dark ale/stout drinker. I’ve got to ask Orkney Brewery all the way up in Quoyloo to replace the words Dark Ale with Stout so that ill-informed people, like me, won’t get something they’re not expecting. Try it yourself, but only if you like stouts. Or if like me, you’re trying to develop a tolerance for stouts.

Rating: 3.25, but probably much higher if you like Dark Ale/Stout

Have you tried Dark Island? What did you think? Do you have a favourite Dark Ale/Stout that I should try?

Beer Review: The Orkney Brewery Northern Light

26 February, 2008

Time to try the next in Tesco’s batch of Scottish beers. And this time, it is a beer from The Orkney Brewery. This one is called Northern Light. And here is a picture of the 500 millilitre bottle.
Bottle of Orkney Brewery Northern Light

The front label does a lot of good things. The “5000 years in the making” tagline and a graphic of the sea lashing a shore do a fair job of conjuring up images of the Orkney isles and their long past. This it enhances by saying, with pride, that it hails from Quoyloo. I’ll take their word for it that it’s the name of an Orkney settlement. Either that or it’s a massive joke on the rest of us.

Another thing I like about the label is the text “Hand crafted in small batches”. Knowing that you’re drinking something exclusive is normally a bonus with ale. Around a circle giving the volume (a low/”light” 4%) we are also told that this will be a pale ale. Now I’ve only tried one other pale ale and wasn’t keen on it. But, this one is from Orkney so it’s probably made by people so toughened by the elements, they will live through the next ice-age while wearing a T-shirt. With that in mind, I’m willing to give pale ale another try.
Orkney Brewery Nothern Light front label

Another good addition to the front label is ‘stamp’ and ‘signature’ proving the Orcadian authenticity of the ale. This looks familiar to me. There was something similar on the Innis & Gunn Oak Aged Beer. I happen to think that it’s a good addition to Scottish ales. Something that differentiates it from ales produced elsewhere in Britain. Rather helpfully for me, that ‘stamp’ also describes the drink: “A pale citrus-character beer with a subtle malt backbone and zesty hop flavour.” How close will it come to matching that? We’ll see shortly…

The rear label doesn’t disappoint either.
Orkney Brewery Nothern Light back label
There is an exceptionally large amount of information and advice crammed in here. Fortunately, not overdone or cramped. They get away with it by laying it out smartly. Another very nice touch is describing the smell and flavour under two headings; “One the nose” and “On the palate”. In-between the marketing babble, you can even make out some useful information about it. The experience was a bit like reading a wine bottle label however.

Also on there is what reads like a Tourist Board advertisement for Orkney. Probably aimed at overseas drinkers who have this imported, it seemed superfluous to me. But maybe that’s because I’m from another ancient, rural corner of the British Isles myself and look out for this sort of thing. One thing is for sure, you’re not short of reading material with this bottle.

Poured into a glass, it is dark gold in colour with a thin but level head. The bottle described it as “straw-coloured”. I’m not sure about that. But it was gold-ish. And cloudier than many a brew.
Orkney Brewery Nothern Light in a glass

According to the bottle, it should smell of fruits and hops. To my poorly trained nose, I can’t disagree. It reminds me a little of Badger Golden Glory, but toned down a lot. Whatever it smells of, it certainly smells appealing. And complex. Always a good sign.

To summarize the essay worth of description on the bottle, we are to expect fruitiness, maltiness, hoppiness and balance from the taste. Let’s see how it does…

The first thought to hit me after the first gulp was “That was strong! And not what I was expecting!” The sour aftertaste caught me off guard. After several more gulps, I think I’ve figured it out. The flavours in there are mostly the malt and hops plus the fruit. Which is a well tried and tested combination. It is slightly bitter, but after the first couple of glugs, it passes and you no longer notice it.

At the start of the bottle, I didn’t think I’d like it. Toward the end, I was growing to like its taste and appreciate the effort that went into it. You can’t accuse it of not being easily drinkable. This is yet another full-bodied ale that disappears all too soon.

That said, the taste does take getting used to. At least it does if you’re not a fan of Pale Ales. If you’re not, you might want to give this a miss. If like me, you’re indifferent, it is worth a try.

Rating: 3.75, but more if you like Pale Ales

Have you tried Northern Light? What did you think of it?
Any recommendations of your own? Comments in the usual place, people.

Find My Stuff More Easily (Part 2)

25 February, 2008

Passing the 500 visitor mark since starting this pokey little blog a few weeks ago is astonishing. It means real people, like you, are taking time out from your busy day to read the words I hurl onto the screen. And that brings with it responsibility.

The biggest change is to the name. Seeing as the URL is hywelsbiglog.wordpress.com, it didn’t make sense to call the blog anything other than Hywel’s Big Log. Something that makes sense considering my name is Hywel, and my log is indeed, very big.

Also added to the sidebar are dynamic lists of my most popular posts and most popular clicks.

What do you think of the changes? What would you like see?
How about an avatar so you can see who is writing this gibberish?
Or maybe you’ve got a subject that you’d like me to post about?
Whatever it is, let me know in the comments.

Beer Review: Harviestoun Bitter & Twisted Blond Beer

24 February, 2008

AFTER my recent Polish excursion, I came over all thirsty for something with complexity. It was time to head back to a beer from the Britain. Much to my delight, this coincided with my local Tesco stocking a new range of Scottish beers. One that caught my eye was Harviestoun Bitter & Twisted. Purporting to be a “Blond Beer”, this immediately reminded me of the outstandingly delicious Leffe Blond(e) Beer. How would Harviestoun’s and Leffe’s blond(e) beers compare? And does it maintain the fine reputation established by Scotland’s other fine beers?

For a start, Bitter & Twisted looks different.
Bottle of Harviestoun Bitter & Twisted

The shape of the bottle is different to those of the continent. The front label too, gives this beer a look and feel so local, that it amazes you a shipment made its way from the county fair all the way down to London town. That is a quality I like.
Harviestoun Bitter & Twisted Blond Beer front label

The mouse mascot. The hops. The description of ‘Craft Brewed in Alva, Scotland’ all add to it. The front label also gives us a three bullet point description of the contents. Always excellent as it gives me something to judge it by. “Spicy”, “Aromatic” and “Zesty” are what I’ll be on the look out for here.

In the way that all good British beers do, we get a good story on the rear label. This one is about the mouse that frequented the brewery and later achieved fame as the mascot (see front label). We are also treated to a technical description of the ingredients that goes above my head. It includes words and phrases like “hop profile”, “Hallertau Hersbrücker”, “Challenger”, “late hopping” and “Styrian Goldings”. If you know what any of this means, leave a comment in the usual place.
Harviestoun Bitter & Twisted Blond Beer back label

Also on the information packed rear-label is the mention of awards having been won at “home and abroad”. But Harvieston have, like so many others, failed to say what those awards were, and when they were received. Also mentioned is that less carbon dioxide was used in the bottling process, so this should make it less gassy. Also of note, below the “Bitter & Twisted” banner is “Like the Twist of a Lemon”. Will the “Zest” come from a lemon flavour? The ingredients of barley, oats and wheat also tell us this isn’t going to be the watery experience of lager. Let’s see what this 500 millilitre (nearly 1 pint worth) of 4.2% beer is really like…

Poured into a glass, there was less head than with Leffe. The smell was also very different. It’s aromatic in the complex way that I wanted. But not malty like Leffe’s interpretation of blond beer. The is clearly going to be a very different drink to Leffe. You can just about make out the various crops that went into the making of this drink, plus the smell of something zesty added to it. Fortunately, not in an overpowering Cif Lemon way.
Harviestoun Bitter & Twisted Blond Beer in a glass

Now the most important part: taste and drinkability. And I’m happy to report that Bitter & Twisted has both. The flavour is as complex as you’d expect from a drink with so many qualities and ingredients.

If I had to pigeon hole it, I’d say it was a bitter. But Bitter & Twisted is more than that. In the same way that Sir Ranulph Fiennes is someone who enjoys a spot of rambling, Bitter & Twisted takes the concept of a bitter to an extreme. Although the main taste is ever so slightly bitter, it’s swiftly followed by the taste of countless arable crops and yes, a hint of something that may be considered “zesty”. Possibly helped by it’s relatively low alcohol volume, Bitter & Twisted is very easy to drink. I’d very much like to try a bottle with a seafood meal.

If you find this available, it is well worth your time. In the sub £1.40 price bracket, it is also good value.

Rating: 4.25

If Tesco haven’t sold out, I’ll be trying the other Scottish beers, ales and lagers soon, so watch this space.

Have you tried Bitter & Twisted? What did you think? Can you recommend any other Harviestoun beers?

Beer Review: Lech Premium

23 February, 2008

Third and final stop (for now) on my Polish beer exploration brings me to Lech Premium.
Bottle of Lech Premium

Lech comes in a green bottle with a green label that gives it a striking appearance. Especially when compared to the very similar looking and tasting Tyskie and Zywiec. Just like them however, the rear label is a baffling block of text.
Lech Premium back label

Careful examination of that block revealed the ingredients as being water, malt and hops. Nothing special there. This must be a lager beer, ever though it doesn’t explicitly say so.

Also on the label is indication of the 5.2% volume. That makes it weaker than it’s Polish compatriots. Oddly, Lech, in bottle form, appears only to be available in 500 millilitre quantities. The same as Tyskie and Zywiec. Is there a reason for all these Polish beers only retailing in this large size of bottle?

The front label, I think is quite well designed. It keeps things clear and simple and has an intriguing shield logo. Are those rams or goats on it?
Lech Premium front label

Once poured into a pint glass, there wasn’t much head to speak of. The colour did confirm the lager hypothesis.
Lech Premium in a glass

There is a weak smell of malt and hops. Not a strong smell, but one that speaks of a quiet quality. The flavour isn’t strong in much the same way as Tyskie and Zywiec weren’t what you would call full bodied. The slight bitterness and sourness are there, but with Lech, they aren’t as ‘rough’ or as ‘sharp’. And that makes Lech even easier to drink.

Lech was surprisingly gentle and pleasant. I found it to be a very enjoyable and pleasant lager. And I’m not even a fan of lagers. Well worth a try if you find it on sale.

Rating: 3.75

Have you tried Lech? What did you think of it? Leave your thought in the comments.

Beer Review: Zywiec Polish Prized Original Beer

23 February, 2008

Next stop on my tour of Polish beer is the easily pronounceable Zywiec.
Bottle of Zywiec Polish Prized Original Beer

I’m going to make a guess that one would pronounce it Zee-vi-ech. If you know the right was to say it, leave me a comment in the usual place.

Widely available in East End corner shops, off-licences and supermarkets, this is an inexpensive Polish lager beer. And one I think, looks a lot like Tyskie.
Zywiec and Tyskie side by side

The resemblance is remarkable. Yet each is from a different brewery. Is every bottle of Polish beer so similar?

Zywiec, we learn, dates back to 1856. Exactly like Tyskie, it is 5.6% and, in the UK at least, only comes in 500 millilitre bottles. Helpfully, the front label also indicates that 500 millilitres translates to 1 pint. Or, if you measure your drinks in fluid ounces (and who doesn’t), a 0.9 fl.oz. measurement is included. I don’t mean to knock this however. In fact, I actively encourage all brewers out there to include more than meaningless millilitre measurements.

Zywiec neck label

Perhaps my favourite aspect of the front label is where they allude to the winning of awards. Unlike the other brewers and their drinks, that hazily refer to their beer as “award winning”. Or “prize winning”. Or “champion”. No no. Zywiec has been “Awarded Medals”. What medals or for what, we are never told. But definitely the most Pol-glish way of expressing the concept.

Zywiec front label

Again, just like Tyskie, the rear label is an incomprehensible block of text in all known languages, dialects and accents. Studious examination of which didn’t reveal anything unusual.
Zywiec back label

In terms of smell, you can detect a weak malted barley odour. But one that is less premium than some others I have tried recently.

Poured into a glass, it looks like lager. There is also a surprisingly creamy and foamy head to it, but this dies down after a few minutes.
Zywiec poured into a glass with a big headZywiec poured into a glass with a small head

The taste had a slight bitterness. And the after taste was slightly sour. What little taste there was, certainly was not strong. The lager taste was thoroughly unexceptional. That said, it wasn’t a chore to drink and easy to reach the end of the bottle. The drinkability does redeem it somewhat.

But there’s no escaping that Zywiec was a bit disappointing. It’s not a bad drink for the money. It just doesn’t do anything special, new or different. And as such, I can’t give it high marks.

Rating: 2.75

Let me know what you thought of Zywiec in the comments. Have you tried anything else from the same brewer? And any tips for good Polish beers available here in the UK?

Beer Review: Polish Tyskie Gronie Premium Lager

21 February, 2008

With untold numbers of Poles now living and working in Britain, it was inevitable that their foods and drinks would follow them. One such drink is Tyskie Gronie Premium Lager.
Bottle of Tyskie Gronie Premium Lager

Available from nearly every corner shop, off-licence and supermarket here in the East End, Tyskie is widely available. And on the face of it, not bad value either at around £1.35-ish for a 500 millilitre bottle. Interesting that 500ml is the only size available when most other imported beers come in at around the 300ml mark. Presumably there is some logic behind only importing this larger size to the UK. One this is for sure, it does stand out on the shelf next to smaller bottles from the rest of the world.

The white background labels also help make it eye-catching. The front label is both Polish and English in language and gives us some useful information. With heritage going back to 1629, this must be one of the oldest beers/breweries that I have yet tried. It is also an award winning beer. And unlike some other beers, this time we can see what and when: some five beer competitions over the past few years in Europe. Impressive.

Tyskie front label

Sadly, the rear label is rather less coherent. With several dozen different languages, the rear label becomes in impenetrable block of text.
Tyskie back label

After sending out a search party, the ingredients of water, malt and hops eventually turned up. A volume of 5.6% also turned up which definitely places it at the premium end of the continental lager spectrum.

Poured into a glass, the 500 millilitres came in just short of a pint. A thick head accompanied the drink. Whether that was because of my pouring or what was supposed to happen, I’m not certain. If you think it looks right or wrong, leave a comment.
Tyskie poured into a glass

The colour looked fine. It was dark gold-ish in colour. Is that what lager is supposed to look like? I don’t drink enough of it to know. What I could tell that was different to some others were the number of gas bubbles rapidly making their way to the surface. Likely the cause of the head, this could also make it a gassy drink.

Tyskie manages to smell as if it is premium. The malt and hops are there giving it some class, but nowhere near as prominently as Leffe. Starting to drink it, Tyskie Gronie lager tasted exactly how I thought lager should taste. It has that bitter taste and slightly sour aftertaste. Albeit, the aftertaste isn’t as strong as some others. And that is a good thing.

As I glugged my way through the bottle’s contents, my opinion started to change. I began thinking “this is a good, solid, decent lager”. Toward the end of the bottle, I had more than become used to the taste and was quite enjoying it. Unusual for me considering my indifference to lagers. This must be what makes Tyskie Gronie ‘premium’ and multiple award winning: drinkability.

Once you adjust to the taste, you’ll find Tyskie Gronie to be a good quality lager. Good if you like lagers. Maybe worth a try if you want to see what the fuss is about.

Rating: 3.5

Have you tried Tyskie Gronie? What did you think? What do you want me to try next?
Leave your comments in the usual place…

Beer Review: Leffe Blonde/Blond Beer from Belgium

18 February, 2008

AFTER slumming it with Tesco Value Lager, I decided to move upmarket for my next beer review. That move upmarket led me to this: Belgian Blond(e) beer.
Bottle of Leffe Blond(e) Beer

Like Ostravar Premium Czech Lager, we can tell that Leffe is premium because of the gold wrapping around the top. Ostravar however, was a letdown, so can Leffe do any better?

The labels on the bottle don’t tell us an awful lot. That might be because the little it does say, it says in half a dozen European languages. Most prominent among those are Dutch and French. In fact, the entire bottle is split between Dutch and French names and descriptions. Not surprising, when Belgium itself is, more than ever, splitting apart at its French and Dutch seams. As a consequence, we have ‘Blond’ also spelled at ‘Blonde’. ‘Bière Belge’ as ‘Belgisch Bier’ and ‘Abbaye de’ as ‘Abdij van’. This final duel wording, referring to Leffe’s origins at an abbey. The ‘1240′ date on the label at the shoulder of the bottle is something of a mystery. That couldn’t possibly be the date that brewing started there. Maybe it’s the date that the Leffe abbey was founded? If you know, leave a comment in the usual place.

Leffe Blonde front label

Around the back, if you look carefully at the multilingual jumble of text, you can make out a small number of facts. We learn that it is an authentic Belgian abbey beer. But we learnt that from the front of the bottle. It is 330 millilitres, so be prepared for either overfilling your half pint glass, or leaving your pint glass looking unfulfilled. Malted barley is the only listed ingredient. The only pleasant surprise the rear label tells us is that this beer has a 6.6% volume. Pleasant because that will make it more potent than most of the ales and cheap lagers I’ve tried recently.
Leffe Blonde back label

Impressions of the outside are of its yellow-ness. Presumably playing on the blond(e) connections, this is a distinctively yellow package. And continental European too, going by the text and red roof-topped abbey.

Poured carefully into a glass, we are treated to a thick creamy head. And one that stays around. The colour is yellow-ish, but not as luminescently bright yellow as the labelling has led me to believe. Still, it does look appealing being a dark shade of gold.
Leffe Blonde poured into a glass

Giving this a thorough sniff, as I recommend that you do, you will be treated to something special. Leffe has the richest and maltiest smell I have seen so far. And not in a bad way. You will have to smell it for yourself to see what I mean.

The smell carried over to the taste. It is rich, creamy and malty. Unlike nearly every other malted barley brew I have tried, it is not the barley that comes through. With Leffe, it is the malt. This is by far the maltiest beer I have ever tried.

It is, however, somewhat gassy, causing me to burp once or twice. You also have to be particularly careful how you pour it into a glass, if that is your preferred method of drinking. Whilst pouring the remainder into the glass, with rather less care than the first portion, it was very easy to end up with a big pile of foam atop a tiny layer of drink.

The flavour, also, might not be to everyone’s taste. It is fairly strong, so if you don’t care for malt, you may not be impressed with this. Me however, I enjoyed every drop. Leffe, is different, but not unpleasant. It is actually quite drinkable. And like the many ales that I have tried, this lager manages to match them on smell and flavour. A rare accomplishment indeed.

Does Leffe deserve to play the ‘Premium’ card in the same way as Ostravar? Unlike Ostravar, Leffe doesn’t just look quality, it is a quality drink. And it does what it does differently to the others. For that, I think it is well worth your time trying a bottle for yourself.

Rating: 3.75 to 4.25 depending on how much you like strong maltiness

Have you tried Leffe? What did you think of it? And have you tried any other Blond(e) beers? Leave me and the other readers a comments!

Beer Review: Tesco Value Lager

17 February, 2008

THIS is Tesco Value Lager.
Four Pack of Tesco Value Lager

It is priced at £0.88 pence for a pack of four 440 millilitre cans. At 22 pence per can, this is by far the cheapest drink I have yet tested. It is also the price that caused a storm in November 2007 when Asda and Sainsbury’s joined Tesco in selling lager at this “cheaper than water” price. Compared to the typical £0.30 to £0.50 pence retail price for a bottle of water, this value lager is undeniably cheaper. But is it any better?

Before doctors, the media and Jacqui Smith rush to condemn me as socially-irresponsible and deserving of an ASBO, here is my theory. At only 2% alcohol, there is little chance of the drinker becoming in any way sozzled. For that to happen, one would either need to consume seven hundred cans, or have all the bulk of Keira Knightly. Where this drink could find its niche is as a substitute for water. Think about it. Thirsty but can’t afford a bottle of water? Buy a can of value lager at half the price. Can’t afford to send water to a remote African refugee camp? Send them a crate of value lager. It could become as essential as the Red Cross in relief efforts. But, for that to work, this value lager must not be revolting. Let’s see how it does…

The can omits to mention the origins of the brewery. So to does it fail to mention the head brewer or the centuries of tradition. We do get a list of the ingredients. A symbol indicating 0.9 units of alcohol. And something they really splashed out on: a monochrome photo of drink in a glass.
Tesco Value Lager front of canTesco Value Lager back of can

Once poured into a glass, we can see how different it is to even the unglamorous illustration.

Tesco Value Lager poured into a glass

The head is barely discernable. After a couple of minutes, the head escaped the drink entirely. The colour is a near enough the colour that one would expect of lager. The smell too, is a vaguely correct approximation. If you sniff hard enough, you can make out a hint of malted barley and hops.

As far as taste is concerned, it does taste roughly like cheap, weak lager should. It is mildly bitter and it has a sour aftertaste. If you can imagine water that is flavoured to taste ever so slightly of lager, you would be close to imaging what this tastes like.

If value lager is to be an effective substitute for water in the world’s disaster zones, then it must be equally drinkable. And I’m pleased to say, that it is nearly as drinkable as water. But that is of little surprise when the ingredients list tells you that water is in fact the chief ingredient. One blessing is that it is not as gassy as I had feared.

Tesco value lager is not difficult to sum up. It is water that is yellow in colour and tastes a little of barley. Need we fear the devastating social consequences of pricing cans of this lager alongside King Size Snickers or Pot Noodle? Not if my experience is anything to go by. Will it solve the world’s drinking water shortages the next time an earthquake hits a dust bowl ruled by a dictator? Only if that dictator has low standards.

Rating: Something between 0 and 1.

Have you tried Tesco Value Lager? Or similarly priced lager from any other the other retailers? If so, leave your thoughts about it in the usual place.

1st Update: April 2011

That was unexpected. A big thank you everyone for linking to this old post, reading it and commenting! You’ve made this old ‘review’ one of the surprise hits of the blog. As a reward, here’s a quick update. Back when I posted the review, the four-pack was 88 pence. In October 2010, it was up to 92 pence. By April 2011, it was demonstrating the effects of tax increases and inflation by scraping the Pound mark at 99 pence. That means that by the time you read this, you’ll be buying your four-pack of Tesco Value Lager from Harrods. Nevertheless, while Tesco Value Lager remains value, here are photos of the ‘new look’ can.

Tesco Value Lager updated design four packTesco Value Lager updated design front of canTesco Value Lager updated design back of can

Beer Review: Theakston Old Peculier

10 February, 2008

WHY is it so difficult to find good ale? Recently, it’s as if every other drink I try is a variation on the boring bitter theme. Bitters are drank by dull Northerners and pensioners. Regular readers will know that what I’m looking for in ale, is a full, strong, complex flavour and something different. Something that separates it from others. Something that makes it unique.

It was with some trepidation, that I returned to another ale, also originating from Masham, North Yorkshire. At this point, I must admit, I was under the impression that Old Peculiar, and Black Sheep were from the same brewery. Who wouldn’t? They are both from Masham. And they both have a head brewer named Theakston. But, investigation of their respective websites proves otherwise. If you know what the story is, please leave a comment.

Available in Tesco at the typical price for a bottle of ale: £1.47, you have probably seen it. If not, here is what it looks like…
Bottle of Theakston Old Peculier

The bottle shape and colour are unremarkable. What does stand out is the label. They have cleverly made the background of both the front and rear labels the same dark colour as the bottle. This gives the text and ‘seal’ logo excellent contrast and an unusual look. That is a good start. According to their website, the ‘peculier’ ‘seal’ was granted by King George the Third and the back story involves the Crusades and Saladin.  Now that is the sort of story I like a brewery to have.

Theakston Old Peculier front label

Something else that stands out is the 5.6% volume. Experience to date, tells me that the stronger ales are usually the best. It is also a 500ml bottle, so have a pint glass to hand.

The rear label also has two of the things I most like to have included on a bottle label: history of the brewery and a description of the drink in question. Under the headline ‘Under Old Management’, we learn about the 180 year history of brewing. And of becoming independent and family owned again after twenty years. We also learn that this is award winning ale. Yet again however, we don’t know what, when, or by whom. If you happen to know, leave a comment at the end of this post.

Theakston Old Peculier back label

Before we move on to what this brew actually tastes of, what does the label promise? We are promised a “Full-bodied, rich, smooth tasting ale with a mysterious and distinctive flavour”. No, I didn’t know what to expect from that description either. I’m going to guess that it means a full and interesting flavour that isn’t very bitter and see how it does.

Pored into a glass the colour is dark. Almost cola like in appearance. The head, I am pleased to say is present. And not too foamy either. A good sign. My pouring must be improving.

The smell is of wheat and barley. And in the right proportions without being overpowering. To me, this is how traditional ale should smell.

At this point, I was still afraid it would be yet another bitter-like ale. And the taste does have a hint of bitter about it. But, fortunately, what you taste most of all is the wheat and the barley. Or is it? A few more gulps through, it you realise that it is more complex than that. Sure, the wheat and barley dominate, but you get the sense that there is more, if only you were skilful enough to discern what it is. Like you can taste lots of flavours at once, but can’t put your finger on what they are.

Old Peculier is also not too gassy. It is also very drinkable, leaving you relishing each gulp in the attempt to figure out what it is, you can taste. This drink is turning out to be very good indeed. I ended up finishing this bottle all too quickly and could easily have enjoyed another one or two.

Did the drink match the label description? As per the label, it was “full-bodied”, “rich” and “smooth”. I’m less certain how “mysterious” and “distinctive” it is. While it is different to other strong ales, it isn’t massively so. That said, this is excellent stuff. I’d happily buy more, will keep a look out on supermarket shelves for others in the range.

Rating: 4.25 give or take a few points

Have you tried Old Peculier? If so, what did you think? Leave a comment let everyone know.

I’m thinking of trying something that isn’t a rustic old ale next. Any ideas or suggestions what it should be? You know where to leave your comment…

Beer Review: Black Sheep Ale

7 February, 2008

HAVE you ever wanted an ale named after an animal that is out of place? Me neither. So it was with some intrepidity that I tried a bottle of Black Sheep Ale. From the Black Sheep Brewery in Masham, North Yorkshire, their signature ale certainly stands out.
Bottle of Black Sheep Ale

Black print on a mostly plain white label isn’t the fashion of most brewers. There’s no imagery of hops, barley, fruit or ancient brewing traditions here. Instead, we get a picture of a ram (presumably the black sheep of the name) and a series of terse descriptions. All of which, are refreshingly clear and concise. At £1.47 from Tesco for 500ml, it is also quite good value.

Black Sheep Ale front label

Black Sheep Ale side of label

The character of the drink is spelled out clearly for you. “Crisp, Dry & Bittersweet” couldn’t be reduced any further. The 4.4% volume is directly below it. A short message from Paul Theakston tells us that five generations and a lot of Yorkshire pride have gone into this. The ingredients list is also the clearest I have yet seen giving a straight-up list of, well, the ingredients. Apart from the remarkable clarity of the label, something else of note is that unlike most bottles, there isn’t a front and back label. Instead, we have one long wrap around label. I like that sort of individuality. The bottle itself, while not standing out too far from the crowd, is somewhat taller and thinner than most.

Black Sheep Ale back label

Emptied into a glass, the ale itself is almost dark gold in colour. Nearly like a bitter, but not as extreme. There was also a thick foamy head, though that was probably down to my inability to pour it correctly. Whatever the cause, it soon thinned out.
Black Sheep Ale poured into a glass

If you decide to give the glass, or the open bottle for that matter, a sniff, you won’t be disappointed. For this drink is pungent, but not pongy. You can clearly make out the barley and hints of the wheat and hops that are also in there.

How “Crisp, Dry & Bittersweet” is it? The answer is more or less exactly as it says on the bottle. It has that bitter taste and sour aftertaste that have become so familiar recently. It was crisp, too. A good sign, in my opinion, that they used good quality ingredients and put effort into getting the mix just right. Crisp is good, because crisp, to me, equals drinkability. And Black Sheep Ale is drinkable.

Did I like it though? Truth be told, it was too bitter for my taste. Maybe I should have paid more heed to the description on the label then, and chosen something else instead. But then again, many others that I’ve tried recently have described themselves as bitter, yet not been too bitter for me.

To sum up then, Black Sheep Ale was good. Even though it wasn’t to my personal taste, I liked the fact that it did at least do some things differently. At the end of the bottle though, it was hard to deny that this was little different from the many bitter-like ales out there. Good if that’s what you like, not so good if you like peculiar flavours and sweet tastes.

Rating: 3.75

Beer Review: Wychwood Brewery Hobgoblin Ruby Beer

3 February, 2008

MOST ales are aimed at the same people. With their utilitarian brown bottles. And their labels describing a heritage going back to the ice-age. And countryside ingredients scraped off the head brewers boots. The types of people that type of packaging is aimed at, is the ale aficionado. Someone with mutton-chop facial hair and a green Land Rover.

It is with some glee then that I found this unusual ale at my local Tesco.

Wychwood Hobgoblin bottle

What Wychwood Brewery Hobgoblin does is to stand out. And to do that by appealing to a different group of people entirely. Here are the signs. See if you can spot the image being built up by them…

The Wychwood Brewery logo is a witch riding a broomstick.
That logo is embossed around the shoulder of the bottle.
The ale is called ‘Hobgoblin’.
There is a prominent illustration of a hobgoblin on the front label.
Wychwood Hobgoblin front label

Any guesses from these observations, whom this bottle may be aimed at? No, it’s not young women heading out to the town centre in a pink stretch-limo for a hen night.

The target I think this drink is aimed at, is that noblest of social groups: the nerd. Where this bottle is apparently designed to fit right in, is next to a game of Warhammer. Or next to the keyboard of someone playing World of Warcraft. Or beside someone reading a Tolkien or Pratchett novel. You get the picture.

Let me know if you agree in the comments.

What does it tell us about the drink? Unlike my last review of Jamaican Dragon Stout, Wychwood tell us quite a bit. We learn that it has a decent 5.2% volume. That it is a “Ruby Beer” (whatever that is). And that Wychwood hails from Oxfordshire. The one message that gets constant reinforcement is that this drink, and the brewery, have “character” and “mischievous character”. How a drink can be mischievous, we’ll learn with the taste test.

Wychwood Hobgoblin back label

We are also treated to a thorough description of the ingredients and flavours to expect. Always a good thing as it means we can compare it to what we actually taste. In this description, “chocolate and crystal malts” receive a mention. What crystal malts are, again I haven’t a clue. In between references to familiar words like “bitterness” and “citrus aroma”, things take a turn for the peculiar. If you know what an “English Fuggle” or “Styrian Golding” is, can you please leave a message at the end of this post explaining what it is please?

Poured into a glass, this 500ml bottle stops short of producing a full pint of liquid. The colour is like that of cola and the head very tiny indeed. Unusual as I would have expected to see a big head to reflect the boastful label.
Wychwood Hobgoblin poured into a glass

The smell is definitely one of barley. But not overpowering. Nor unconventional. Maybe the character is in the taste, not the smell? Let’s see…

Upon your first gulp, the first thing that hits you is the fairly strong taste of bitter. This is swiftly followed by a sour aftertaste. Bear this in mind if you prefer your drinks largery.

Working through the bottle, it was easy to get used to this bitter/sour taste combination. In fact, I would go so far as to describe it as quite drinkable. A fact evidenced by it all disappearing surprisingly quick. Surprising because I don’t normally like drinks on the bitter end of the scale.

Summing Wychwood Hobgoblin up isn’t easy. It’s not a bitter, but it has bitter qualities. This must have something to do with that mischievous character we heard so much about on the label. Did I like it? Yes. Why? Because it aims to be something unique and achieves it. Will I buy it again in a hurry? As I’m not a fan of bitterness, probably not. That said, I will look out for it for just the right occasion. Does anyone want to play Dungeons & Dragons with me?

Rating: 4 or thereabouts

Have you tried this beer? What did you think?
Any suggestions of what I should look at next?
Leave your comments.

Beer Review: Jamaican Dragon Stout

1 February, 2008

Stout. Why do I persist with it? I’ve never been much of a stout drinker, yet I keep giving it yet another try. Why then did I decide to give Jamaican Dragon Stout a go?
Bottle of Jamaican Dragon Stout
Well look at it. It is tiny. By far the most diminutive bottle I have yet seen. It holds only 284ml which barely fills a half-pint glass. Unlike others where a small bottle is a drawback, for me, here, it could be a benefit if it means there is less drink to get through.

Dragon Stout front label

But let’s not write it off so hastily. At 7.5% volume, it’s the most potent beer I’ve yet tested. And I’ve tested some strong beers over the last few weeks. And then there’s the price. At my local off-licence, it’s only £1.09. It mightn’t be long then, until the teenagers of the land gather in parks late at night to down bottles of cheap and strong Jamaican stout.

The labels tell us almost nothing. Other than the facts I have just mentioned, we are only told that it has been established since 1920, and that it comes from Jamaica. A million miles from our home-grown ales boasting heritage dating back centuries. I like to know what I’m drinking. Or thinking about drinking, while looking at the bottle while standing in a shop. To that end, I’d warmly welcome more information on the labels of this enigmatic drink.

Dragon Stout back label

Once emptied into a shockingly small glass, everything looks problem-free. The head is white and frothy, and liquid is the right colour. Unlike a famous Irish stout however, it takes no time at all for it all to settle. Useful, if you’re in a hurry. Which anti-social teenagers in parks late at night are prone to be.
Dragon Stout in a glass

You better like the smell of barley. Should you happen to inhale whilst your nose is in the same hemisphere as this drink, you may detect more than just a hint of the stuff. This is no bad thing if, unlike me, you’re already a stout drinker. I, on the other hand found it repellent in a cough medicine way.

Does it taste as strong as it smells? Without a doubt. But does that make it revolting? Not exactly. There’s no denying the super-strong taste, and aftertaste of barley that you’d expect. But there’s something else in there too. Something hotter or spicier than you’d expect. Not much of it, but I’m nearly certain that it’s there. Like someone added a tiny drop of Worcester or Tabasco sauce.

I’m surprised as you are to find myself reporting that this strong and violent Jamaican is actually drinkable. Somehow, it managed to be light and crisp. How? How does it manage that? This soon led to the contents of the miniscule bottle vanishing all too quickly. Despite my indifference to stouts.

All in all, an interesting experience. Not to my taste, but I still enjoyed it. Like with Innis & Gunn’s Oak Aged Beer. That said, Jamaican Dragon Stout isn’t perfect. To be different, Dragon Stout needs to up the ante on the spiciness and fruitiness. Play more on the on the theme of being an unusual Caribbean take on a traditional old brew.

What do you think? Would my plan lead to big things for Dragon Stout?

Rating: 3.25. But if I was a fan of stouts, you could bring it up to 4.25.

Have you drink Jamaican Dragon Stout? What did you think of it?


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