Archive for August, 2009

Cider Review: Henry Westons Vintage Special Reserve Cider

25 August, 2009

I STOPPED doing “reviews” of cider for the same reason I stopped “reviewing” lager. There seemed to be almost no difference between each one. Every cider boiled down to how much it tasted of apples, with only the hair’s breadth between a good one and a not so good one. At least for the big-name ones I tried. Why then, have I written this? Mainly because I still want to try a Real Cider. But also because someone recommended this one in a blog comment, and because Westons more mainstream Premium Organic Cider is the best I’ve tried so far. So, from Tesco, here is a bottle of Henry Westons Vintage Special Reserve Cider.

Henry Westons Vintage Special Reserve Cider bottle

First impressions are good. It looks like a bottle of high-end ale. Which is probably the end of the market where it belongs. It’s also a good thing because you can buy it without feeling like a teenager or an alcoholic, buying the huge bottles or brightly coloured cans of the cheap stuff.

Henry Westons Vintage Special Reserve Cider neck label

The neck label keeps it simple, by playing on the heritage. Much like the rest of the bottle. “English Ciders” and “Estd 1880” help conjure the right cider images.

Henry Westons Vintage Special Reserve Cider front label

The front label does all the right things. It makes you think about apples and rural heritage. Two things that the brightly coloured cans of fizz fail to do. There photo above speaks for itself. This is a 500ml bottle of a whopping 8.2% alcoholic volume cider. Or should that be a typical 8.2% alcoholic volume? If you know how explosive real cider is supposed to be, leave a comment. Either way, it’s only 0.2% short of alcoholics favourite, K.

Interesting to see that this is 2008 vintage. Besides this bottle, I’ve only seen one or two fancy ales do that, and of course, wine. An instant way to add class, but not if that vintage dates to just a few months ago. That said, does real cider improve with age? Your expert advice in the comments at the end of the post, please.

The writing around the brown and white photograph of a Victorian gentleman gives his name as “Henry Weston JP, CC”. And on the other side of the border, “1850-1917, Founder”. Not the sort of ruddy faced farmer type you might expect.

Henry Westons Vintage Special Reserve Cider back label

Over on the back, everything is clear, concise and easy to read. The little ‘story’ describes it as “full bodied” and made from “the very best of a single year’s crop”. Crucially, it is “traditionally matured in old oak vats for up to 6 months”. I’m going to presume that six months is plenty of time, but if you know a cider that’s better and matured for longer, leave a comment in the usual place.

Moving in to the smaller-print, and they have a website at www.westons-cider.co.uk. While not as bad as some brewers websites, it still left me struggling to come up with any good direct links to give you. Some poking around in the online shop did reveal this page about Henry Westons Vintage Special Reserve Cider at http://www.westons-cider.co.uk/acatalog/Henry_Westons_Vintage_Special_Reserve__12x500ml_.html. Okay, there’s nothing particularly interesting on the page itself, but rather where they put it. They filed it under “Medium Dry Ciders” and, critically, “Sparkling”. Which, according to CAMRA, means it’s not a Real Cider. I’m as gutted as you are. Will I ever get the chance to try the real thing?

Next they give a serving suggestion. They describe it as “delicious on its own or with cheese and meats”. They also say its “best served chilled” and that vegetarians, vegans and coeliacs. So can anyone can drink it with almost any food group? Only if they ignore the nanny-state. Because under all that is the big take of recommended UK units of alcohol.

Lest you forget, the UK Chief Medical Officers recommend that women not exceed 3 units daily, and men, 4. Hilariously then, this bottle of Henry Westons Vintage Special Reserve Cider weighs in at 4.1 UK units of alcohol. Drink it, and the nanny-state will start wagging her finger. I love that.

Down in the even-smaller-print is the Herefordshire address of H, Weston & Sons Ltd. There’s also a little symbol, informing us that they are a member of “The National Association Of Cider Makers”. An industry body who have a website at www.cideruk.com and the cider industry news at www.cideruk.com/cider_news/latest.

What does Henry Westons Vintage Special Reserve Cider actually taste like? Will it be the best cider I’ve tried so far? And should you buy it? I’m looking forward to finding out.

Henry Westons Vintage Special Reserve Cider poured into a glass

In the glass, this fridge chilled Henry Westons Vintage Special Reserve Cider looks… well, after all those dark ales with thick, creamy head, this looks unimpressive. But this is a cider, so it’s probably intentional. There’s no head, It’s a very pale yellow colour, and fizzy.

What does Henry Westons Vintage Special Reserve Cider smell of? If you guessed bananas, you are way off. The real question is, how much does it smell of apples and does it smell of chemicals pretending to be apples? The answer to the first question is yes, it has a delicious aroma of apples. The second answer to the second question is more of a grey area. It still smells processed like the other pasteurised ciders, but not as badly done as some of the big-names. In short, it smells apple-y and scrumptious.

How does Henry Westons Vintage Special Reserve Cider taste? Remembering that this is a medium-sweet cider packing an 8.2% punch, the first couple of sips are not bad. A couple more reveal this to be one of the strongest and most distinctive ciders I’ve ever tried. The flavour is delicate and sweet. And of apples, obviously. Then comes the strong rush of the finish. This is where you’re reminded of the 8.2% powering this bottle. Balancing that sweet flavour with dry bitterness comes the long aftertaste; of apples. That said, it’s not dominated by apples. Sure, they’re there, but you’re not swamped by them.

What am I enjoying about Henry Westons Vintage Special Reserve Cider? I like the taste. I like how easy it is to drink, without being too dry and bitter. I like that this won’t put off people who stumble upon this cider in the supermarket. I like how it packs in so much alcohol, yet manages to be easy to drink. I like that it tastes natural, instead of having that synthetic taste. And I like how it looks like a bottle of ale, instead of coming in a crudely coloured can.

What am I not enjoying about Henry Westons Vintage Special Reserve Cider? The taste won’t be to everyone’s liking. It is powerful stuff, and suffers from the super-strength lager problem of having rocket fuel properties. Besides that, it’s a little gassy and not easy to find in shops. Partly because it sells out so quickly.

To sum up, Henry Westons Vintage Special Reserve Cider is one of the most interesting ciders I’ve tried. Okay, so it isn’t a Real Cider, but it’s as close to it as I’ve ever been. It has a scrumptious taste of apples without being overbearing or synthetic. And to top it off, it’s as strong as Geoff Capes. If you like cider but want better, in a bottle, from your supermarket, without going to the trouble of buying a keg or bag or finding a pub that sells real cider, then buy this. A very pleasant way to get sozzled.

Rating: 4

Have you tried Henry Westons Vintage Special Reserve Cider?
Do please leave your opinions, answers to my questions, recommendations and places to buy, here in the comments.

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Beer Review: Tsingtao Beer

20 August, 2009

BETTER late than never, here is my review of Tsingtao Beer. This one is from a convenience store in Shoreditch’s Kingsland Road in London. No, I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get around to it either. It marks a full-circle for me. When I was gap-year travelling in China during ’06, this stuff weaned me off vodka screwdrivers. In fact, it kick-started my curiosity in beer that led to this very blog. And I haven’t tried Tsingtao Beer since leaving the Middle-Kingdom. So what will I make of it now?

Tsingtao Beer bottle

It looks a lot like other lagers on the shop shelves. Keep your wits about you, or you’ll accidentally pick up a bottle of something run-of-the-mill from the Continent.

Tsingtao Beer neck and shoulder of bottle

Looks a little closer and you’ll spot the name “Tsingtao” embossed on the shoulder. You’ll also see those attractive yet baffling (for Westerners) Chinese characters. Translators, do please leave your translations of these and anything from the labels in the comments at the end of this post. Another thing you might notice is just how transparent it is. Either the glass or the drink within is very clear indeed.

Down on the front-label, and we’re treated to a traditional, yet crowded roundel.

Tsingtao Beer front label

Starting on the outer border and working inwards (you have to start somewhere), the first detail you notice is “Since 1903”. Compared to European beers, that’s nothing. But Asian beers, that’s impressive.

Then there are some very welcome details. This is the genuine article; not a licensed rip-off. It was brewed and bottled by Tsingtao Brewery in Qingdao in China. Very nice Chinese sea-side town, is Qingdao. Go there if you get the chance. But you might be wandering why Tsingtao is spelled differently to Qingdao. Well it’s simple really. The city changed they way its name is spelled in the English alphabet. You say them both in much the same way.

The little logo featuring a pagoda is a good touch. Qingdao has more than it’s fair share if I remember rightly. Just guessing, but I think the red border represents the flame emblem of the city. Can anyone confirm?

Then, for some reason, they cram the ‘story’ onto the front-label in tiny text. Regardless of that, squinting reveals that the classless Communist society has produced a classy beer. It tells of how since 1903, Tsingtao has been “internationally recognised as the finest beer in China” and how their fine ingredients have produced an “award winning beer”.

Under that, in writing so small you need an electron microscope to read it, are details about those awards. First of which it won shortly after birth in 1906, when it won the gold medal at the Munich Beer Expo. Then a gap until 1961-1987 when it was “winner of major American beer competitions”. Sure, it’s not the full picture, but it’s better than vague statements such as “award winning” that you find on some bottles.

Around on the back label, and the awards picture unfurls still further.

Tsingtao Beer back label

Right at the top are two medals not even mentions on the front-label. It seems to have won one of the prestigious Monde Selection awards in 1994. That’s one of the few names I recognise. Can anyone confirm what it won exactly? Whatever it is, I’m impressed.

Besides that, the back label is the usual bare-bones export version label. The ingredients are water, malt, rice and hops. And that’s interesting because of the rice. All the smooth lagers that I enjoy contain rice. It would explain why Tsingtao Beer in China persuaded me to give beer a second look.

4.7% alcoholic volume is middle-of-the-road and a bit shy of the continental standard 5%. In this small 330ml bottle, it weighs in at a light-weight 1.6 UK units of alcohol.

Down in the small-print are a final few nuggets of information. It was imported to the UK by Halewood International. And the UK Tsingtao Beer website is at www.tsingtao-beer.co.uk. To save you time, the most interesting page is at http://www.tsingtao-beer.co.uk/history.

What will I make of Tsingtao Beer after all this time, and after sampling hundreds of others beers from around the world? Will it remind me of backpacking and partying or of being lost and ill? And, the reason why you’re reading this, what will it taste like and should you buy it? Let’s find out.

Tsingtao Beer poured into a glass

Be careful while pouring, but only for about five seconds. After that, the frothy head completely vanishes. What you’re left with is a very fizzy, pale amber, Pilsner lagery looking drink.

Does Tsingtao Beer smell lagery too? Yes it does. It has that light malted barley blend familiar to anyone who’s drank a Pilsner style lager beer before. That said, this is different. You can smell something else. And I think that something else is the rice.

What does Tsingtao Beer taste like? On the first sip, my ever-so-slightly chilled bottle tastes like the sum of its parts. It tastes like a lager smoothed, softened and rounded by rice. Being a lager, there is no flavour to bother the taste buds. What you need to look at is the taste and aftertaste because that’s where Tsingtao Beer impresses.

What you taste is the usual lager blend of malt and hops, plus a hint of rice. Probably because of that rice, there’s no bitter aftertaste “bite” to scare you away. What you get instead is one of the smoothest and easiest to drink lagers around.

What do I like about Tsingtao Beer? I love how smooth and easy to drink it is. No wander I got through so many big bottles of the stuff while I was out there. I like how you can taste the rice more so with this than most other rice-based lagers. That gives it points for distinctiveness. I like that there’s nothing about the taste to offend even the most timid drinkers. And I think it’s produced to a good quality. Particularly for an East Asian beer.

What don’t I like about Tsingtao Beer? The drinkability comes at a price. That price is watery-ness. Sure, that means you can drink it like water, and, in a country where you can’t drink tap water, this is a good alternative. But, if you want something to get your teeth into, look elsewhere. The taste will stop feeling refreshing after a few bottles. And it’s on the gassy side.

How can I sum up Tsingtao Beer? It’s a very drinkable, rice tasting and smooth, if watery lager. Probably excellent with hot food or if you just want to cool down on a hot day. If you’re in China this is your enjoyable default choice. The closest tasting rival I can think of is Cobra Extra Smooth Premium Lager Beer, though you can probably name more. In a sentence, Tsingtao Beer is an Asian lager, but quite a good one.

Have you tried Tsingtao Beer? Can you translate anything from the bottle and labels? Got any extra facts, trivia and corrections? Do please leave your opinions, translations, comments, recommendations and places to buy, here.

Snack Food Review: MS Authentic Black Country Pork Crunch Savoury Pork Snack

12 August, 2009

I WASN’T going to do another one of these, but the combination of my curiosity and your enthusiastic response to MS’ Traditional Pork Scratchings convinced otherwise. From Costcutter on Brick Lane, here is a bag of MS Pork Crunch; an Authentic Black Country Savoury Pork Snack.

MS Pork Crunch front of bag

First impressions are that they didn’t exactly splash out on the packaging. There’s little to disguise the fact that this is a transparent plastic bag. Nevertheless, it says everything you need to know. Plus you see exactly what you’re getting.

If, like me, you remembering how delicious MS’ Traditional Pork Scratchings were, you won’t care that it looks like it was made on a kitchen table. You will already have pulled one from the cardboard shop display that pork snacks are, for some reason, hung on in shops.

The back of the bag has much the same details as MS’ Traditional Pork Scratchings.

MS Pork Crunch back of bag

The top ingredients are pork rinds and salt. So you might want to skip these if you care about health. If health isn’t your thing, your teeth might be. If that didn’t put you off, they still recommend it only for “people with strong healthy teeth”. Besides the story about them producing Authentic Black Country pork snacks for over twenty-five years, the only other detail worth reading is the address where they came from. And yes, it was “produced in the heart of the Black Country” in Wolverhampton no less.

So what are MS Pork Crunch like? How to they compare to other “Seasoned Pork Rind” snacks? I’m looking forward to finding out.

MS Pork Crunch close-up

MS Pork Crunch are surprisingly easy to describe. They are big, chunky, crunchy, meaty, tasty Quavers. If normal Quavers are too feeble for you, you will love Pork Crunch. Unlike every other seasoned pork rind, this is the easiest to eat of the whole lot. I don’t know why they have the “healthy teeth” message. They are about as challenging as a thick-cut crisp.

What am I enjoying about MS Pork Crunch? A lot of things. They are a lot of fun to eat. And they taste of pork. Not too salty either. This could go very well with some light, summery ale. I also love how they do something different with the pork rind formula. I’ve not yet seen anything else on the shelves like this.

What am I not enjoying about MS Pork Crunch? Very little. Some people will say that they aren’t real pork scratchings because it isn’t as hard as granite. It’s also hard to find. And when you do find it, there’s a good chance that they have already passed their “Best Before” date. Frustratingly, they do not have a long shelf-life.

To sum up, MS Authentic Black Country Pork Crunch is a delicious snack food. They are chunky, porky Quavers. They are unlike any pork scratchings I’ve tried before. And just like that other MS pork snack, I think it is worth your time and money to look out for this tasty post-beer snack when you do your shopping.

Have you tried MS Pork Crunch? What did you think of it?

Do please leave your angry criticisms, praise, opinions, corrections, suggestions and places to buy here in the comments.

Beer Review: Cobra King

4 August, 2009

THE LAST of this batch of three unusual bottles from ASDA is one I’ve wanted to get my hands on for a while. Dressed in different labels, Cobra King turned up in an off-license on Brick Lane last year for a whopping £8 a bottle. So I was thrilled to find this colossal 750ml bottle of Cobra King in ASDA for just £3. And what an imposing bottle it is.

Cobra King bottle

Why was I so keen to get a bottle? First, Cobra Extra Smooth Premium Lager, the lager in a pretty bottle that pretends to be Indian is not bad. For a lager. A fact I put down to it being made with rice. Then there’s the comment left by a reader on my post on that other big, if not biggest Indian beer, Kingfisher Premium Lager. He recommended a few very high alcoholic volume Indian beers. This wasn’t one of them, but it’s the closest I’ve found, this side of Mumbai. Then there’s the curiosity factor. Who else wants to know what the Indian take on the high-strength lager is like?

It has changed a bit since I first caught sight of it. My guess is that they’re changing over from the front label with some colour, to this one which is just sleek gold on black. Something that makes it one of the most premium looking beers that is still just a lager. It even has a cork with Cobra’s trademark elephants.

Careful not to spoil the exquisite look, the details you need to know are around the neck.

King Cobra front of neck labelKing Cobra back of neck label

The front says everything you need to know. At 8%, it’s around the strength of strong ales and strong Polish mocne lagers. Hopefully the “Extra Smooth”-ness and “Double Fermented” brewing will make it more like strong ale than a strong lager.

Getting those hopes up are prizes that Cobra King won at the prestigious Monde Selection. No, I don’t know much about Monde Selection in Brussels either, but I’ve seen their medals on bottles that turned out to contained excellent beer. What’s more, Cobra King won those awards recently. Hopes are getting higher for Cobra King. Something not tempered by the main front label.

King Cobra front label

This is as cool, stylish, simplified, premium and brash as they get. Out with the traditional roundel or shield. It doesn’t even have borders. Just the words “The ultimate expression of our quest for the perfect beer” and the Cobra King logo. Modest, aren’t they? It does look good though.

The necessities of labelling regulations prevent the back from being as pretty as the front. But you must admit, it is still more elegant than most others.

Cobra King back label

They even have a proper description and story on the back. Albeit a marketing-driven one. Nevertheless, there are some interesting and useful fact-letts buried in the marketing-speak.

We learn that it was made with barley malt, hops and, crucially, rice. Just like the smooth and refreshing regular Cobra Extra Smooth Premium Lager and many of the smoother, superior lagers of the world. At least in my opinion. The hops are from the Hallertau region of Bavaria. That gives it breeding, but it makes me wander. What would Indian hops be like?

We also learn that it is “fermented once, then bottled and fermented again to bring out the subtlety and immense character of its ingredients”. Wouldn’t that mean that there’s live, unfiltered yeast in the bottle? Holding the bottle up to the light, it looks perfectly clear. If you can shed some more light on this, do please leave a comment at the end of the post.

Then they describe the taste as “Superbly smooth and balanced”. Expectations are high for “the ultimate expression of our quest for the perfect beer”.

Under that is the small-print. The first chunk of small-print is bad news. This is a faux Asian beer. It was brewed and bottled here in London. The web address is www.cobrabeer.com. You can find the few details they have about King Cobra at http://www.cobrabeer.com/beers/index#king. The only other detail worth mentioning is how many UK units of alcohol it has. At a high 8% volume, and in a huge 750ml bottle, King Cobra weighs in at a massive 6 UK units of alcohol. That means that if you drink the whole bottle, you’re technically binge drinking. Women, you will be after just half.

So what does King Cobra actually taste like? Is it any good? Would you enjoy it? Will it be more super-strength lager than exquisite ale? I’m looking forward to finding out. Not least because it has a champagne style cork to pop. At the very least, opening it will be fun.

Cobra King poured with insane head

That was exciting. Not only for the tension surrounding the velocity of the cork’s exit from the bottle (it was quite tame), but for the pouring. Even with careful pouring, I got an insane head that nearly overwhelmed my big glass. After a few minutes, it settled down to this.

Cobra King poured with less head

So my consumer advice to you is the pour as gently as you possibly can, or to use an enormous tankard.

Once in the glass, it doesn’t look too bad. For a lager. It’s uniform lager colour, being pale amber hue that it is. I can’t help being disappointed that it isn’t the darker colour of certain prestigious European lagers.

What does Cobra King smell of? The website uses words like “fresh”, “distinctive”, “tropical” and “citrus”. I’m not sure about that. I’ll give it “fresh” and describe it as lagery and good. It doesn’t smell like the strong lagers and manages to smell better than most regular strength ones. Which is a feat.

What does Cobra King taste of? The first couple of gulps are good ones. And ones that tell you that it’s not a good idea to try and down a pint in one go. You can taste that strength. Even if it is ten times more refined than a strong lager in a can.

The website describes it as having “malty flavours” that lead to “floral, tropical and citrus fruit notes”. A few gulps in and I’m not so sure. It’s tasting much like a regular, if well made lager to me. I’m getting a mild flavour of malted barley. Which, in the world of pilsner lager, is quite a lot of flavour. What is impressive is that the aftertaste finish is not a bitter “bite”. Possibly thanks to the rice, it’s smooth.

While trying to figure out the taste, it became time to top up the glass with more from the bottle. And this time pouring was somewhat less dramatic. In fact, the remainder of the bottle filled my big glass very well indeed, and topped it off with a splendid, frothy head that looked so good, yet another photo was in order.

Cobra King poured with normal head

So what does Cobra King actually taste of? All I’m getting is a blend of malted barley and hoppiness. Not any of the citrus or tropical qualities the official website talked about. But then not many lagers manage even that. If you’re used to ales, you might pooh-pooh the flavours and tastes of Cobra King. But if you normally have only lager, then this is going to impress you.

What do I like about Cobra King? I love that it manages to find a way of doing things in the formulaic world of lager. It’s smooth and has a distinctive flavour and taste. It’s nearly as strong as the ASBO lagers, yet doesn’t taste like toxic paraffin. Considering how strong it is, it’s surprisingly easy to drink. It’s smooth and not at all gassy. Then there’s the packaging. It must be one of the coolest looking bottles on the shelf. And, being hard to find, it has that exclusive quality.

What don’t I like about Cobra King? It’s as if they were aiming to make an ale, almost did, but missed and accidentally made a lager. It is a jolly good lager. But if they used this expertise to make a proper ale, it would be outstanding. Then there’s the taste. Because I’ve tried the super-strength lagers, I know how much better this does strong than they do. But a newcomer won’t appreciate that. They’ll just complain. And that makes it less than accessible to normal people and to girls.

How can I sum up Cobra King? It is a lager unlike any I have sampled. Nearly as smooth and easy to drink as regular lager, yet nearly as strong as super-strength lager. And it has some flavour and taste to it. No matter if you’re a lager lout or an ale connoisseur, Cobra King is interesting enough to justify your time and money. Especially if you can buy it for £3. Just make sure you have someone to share it with.

Rating: 3.9

Have you tried Cobra King? What did you think of it? Have I made a glaring error that you feel compelled to criticise me for? If so, then leave your opinions, corrections, criticisms, requests, recommendations and places to buy, here in the comments.


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