Beer Review: Cusqueña Premium Beer

26 November, 2009

SOUTH AMERICANS are interesting and passionate folk. They make beer, too. But for some reason, the ones I’ve tried so far aren’t good. Or memorable. Brahma Premium Lager, Aguila, even Club Colombia Extra Fine and Corona Extra aren’t bad, just unmemorable. Excellent on holiday to South America, but just don’t work here in cold, rainy, London. That said, I’m an optimist, so maybe this offering from Peru will fare better. From the Bethnal Green Food Center, I’ve finally gotten around to this bottle of Cusqueña Premium Beer.

From a distance, it looks like your typical brown beer bottle. But look closer at the middle. All around the middle is a textured Inca style pattern. It looks good, and it feels good to hold. I don’t know where they got the idea from to do this, but I like it. Why don’t all bottles have unusual surfaces. An added benefit would be that you could tell one beer bottle from another just by touch. Useful in poorly lit nightclubs.

The label is a beg neck-label. The front of which gets my hopes up that this might be the best South American beer yet.

In the background, which doesn’t show up in photographs, there’s a stylised picture of what must be the Andes, with some settlements. Starting from the top, there’s some tiny writing saying that this was brewed by the convolutedly named Union De Cervecerias Peruanas Backus Y Johnston S.A.A. from Lima, Peru.

Under that is a very helpful pronunciation. Apparently it’s not “Cu-kwen-iya” like I thought, but “Cus-Ken-Ya”. Whatever it’s called, it’s “The Gold Of The Incas”. Presumably the only bit that the Conquistadores didn’t take. Incidentally, why can’t we get similar pronunciation help  on Polish beers?

Next, I’ve read enough beer bottle labels to know that “Cerveza Premium” means “Premium Beer”. But, if you know your Spanish and want to correct me, or translate anything, please do so in the comments at the end of the post.

Under the logo is more good news. This is “Imported Beer”. Not a local knock-off. Always a good sign. It’s a “100% Malt Lager”. Something I’m not sure what to read into. And the vital statistics are plain for all to see. This is your worldwide standard 33cl bottle containing a 5% volume beer. You couldn’t make it any more middle of the road.

There isn’t a back label. Rather there’s some small-print either side of the join. And it looks like this. Well not exactly like that. Without a camera, it’s actually quite readable.

On one side is the ‘story’. And strangely for a lager that isn’t European, it makes my mouth water. Admittedly, it’s mostly marketing mumbo-jumbo, but the imagery works for me. The main facts are that Cusqueña goes back to 1911. From the “the foothills of Macchu Picchu, it’s supposed to be “crisp, pure & totally refreshing”. Then they really pique my interest with this: “It is truly the finest premium lager from Latin America”. We’ll see about that.

The ingredients list is on there. No surprises. As is the UK distributor’s details. This came via Chilli Marketing Promotions Limited. They have a telephone number and a website at www.cusquena.co.uk.

A quick look at the website reveals why I’ve seen Cusqueña being promoted where I live, so often. The Vibe Bar on Brick Lane, for example. They’re aiming it squarely at trendy Hox-ditch people. Like me. On the front page, there are a handful of promotional pieces, and literally one is for a place in Shoreditch and the other is for a place in Hoxton.

The rest of the label truly is small-print. This bottle has 1.65 UK units of alcohol. If you bother to keep count of such things.

So, what does Cusqueña Premium Beer taste like? Will it be my new favourite South American beer? Does it deserve a place in the clutched hands of those of us who call Shoreditch our home and playground? There’s only one way to find out. To stop being pretentious and to get to the fun part.

In the glass, my room temperature Cusqueña frothed up nicely. And collapsed almost as quickly. If you’ve ever drank a big-name Pilsner style lager before, you’ll know what it looks like. White head, and yellow, gold liquid.

Will Cusqueña hold any odorous surprises instead? A quick sniff reveals not. It smells exactly like every other unremarkable lager. That is to say, it smells of the familiar blend of malted barley.

So it looks and smells ordinary enough. But what does Cusqueña taste of? A quick swig proves that it tastes much like others as well. But a couple more gulps and it does redeem itself from mediocrity. Okay, I should probably have it chilled, instead of room temperature. Even so, I can tell that it would be clean and crisp if it was colder. As for refreshment, I think it needs to be cold for it to be that. But that’s ok. It’s not bad in those departments, even at the wrong temperature.

It’s a lager. That means it has no flavour. That’s okay too.  Especially with Cusqueña’s aftertaste. A little like Colombia’s Aguila, it is very smooth and drinkable. But unlike Aguila, it’s not too watery. What you get instead is a gently taste of malted barley and a soft and inoffensive bitter finish. At least at room temperature, it has a richer-and-smoother-than-expected malted barley taste. There’s something almost warming about it. I’m not sure what would happen to that when it’s cold.

What am I enjoying about Cusqueña Premium Beer? I like that taste. Usually, your beer would be a darker hue, with a different smell to manage it. So it was a pleasant surprise. Trying a chilled bottle is now on my to-do list. I want to see just how clean, crisp and refreshing it is. My guess is that it would do well. And that’s important, because that’s what a good lager should achieve. I like how smooth and easy to drink it is. Both of which hint at how well made it is and how good the ingredients are. And I like the bottle with the funny, textured middle.

What am I not enjoying about Cusqueña? The last beer I tried was a strong ale. So I’m missing the flavour and quirkiness. Although that’s a bit like comparing an I-MAX cinema to a hot dog. They’re not even attempting to achieve the same things. Comparing it to other lagers then, and Samuel Adams Boston Lager and Pilsner Urquell come out on top. It’s doesn’t have the same class, heritage or distinctive taste.  It’s expensive and not that easy to find, too.

To sum up, Cusqueña Premium Beer is above average, easy to drink and my new favourite South American beer. Possibly even my new favourite Latin World beer. Compared to what most trendy galleries and bars around Shoreditch serve, this competes well.  Good, solid and drinkable if indistinctive.

Rating: 3.75

Have you tried Cusqueña Premium Beer? What did you think of it?
Leave your opinions, recommendations and places to buy, here in the comments.

Beer Review: Suma Penumbra Organic Stout

20 November, 2009

BACK to beer, and this time something, hopefully, as interesting as it is expensive. For £2.69 pence from the Bethnal Green Food Center, here is a bottle of Suma Penumbra Organic Stout. Why did I choose it when they also had a bottle of Suma blonde ale which also looked good? Simple. Every little brewery has a go at a blonde-this or golden-that. If Suma are taking the risk of stout production, I’m going to applaud them by trying it.

Interesting looking bottle, isn’t it? That funny shape neck should make pouring interesting. Talking of interesting, have a look at the label. Abandoning tradition, they’ve gone for a stylish up, to the minute design on a big wrap around label. With so much black, Penumbra looks different to just about everything else on the shop shelf.

With a nod to traditional roundels, this one has a spooky photo of a half-moon. And, for some reason, the name Penumbra is in a font more at home on anarchist newsletters. If nothing else, Suma are going to corner the market in stout for emo students.

Around the edge of the ‘roundel’, we learnt that Suma is not a normal company at all, but a workers’ cooperative. That makes it the first beer I’ve tried where the brewery is managed and owned by the people that work there. It’s as if they’ve made a list of everything a normal beer is, and then set about trying to do it all differently.

The left-side of the label continues in a similar vein. They start, though, with a description. They describe it as a “Rich black stout containing chocolate malt mixed with oats and wheat, Pemumbra Organic Stout has a full and creamy roasted flavour with aromas of orange, citrus and berry”. Two reactions to that… First, it sounds delicious. Second, it sounds a bit like the excellent Young’s Luxury Double Chocolate Stout.

Then the label goes bonkers. First with a suggestion of drinking it when the moon is out. Then with a health warning you could either describe as the most public spirited yet. Or the most patronising. Suma is a cooperative, so I’ll assume they were aiming for caring public health message. At only 2.4 UK units of alcohol, there’s no reason to panic. More proof of their lefty inclination can be found littering the bottom. Penumbra Organic Stout has full organic certification and a vegan logo.  Fortunately, they also have a “CAMRA says this is Real Ale” symbol.

Next comes the list of ingredients, and you have to give them credit for detail. They could have just said ‘malted barley’ and been done with it. Instead, Suma have gone above and beyond, not just listing darn near ingredient, but denoting if it’s organic. The highlights for the beer-nerds out there are Pale Ale, Wheat, Chocolate and Crystal malts, Pacific Gem and First Gold hops and orange peel. Even I, with my miniscule knowledge of how beer is made, know that that is a lot of ingredients.

Over on the right-side of the label are what I call the ‘story’, the small-print and the vital statistics.

The highlights from the ‘story’ is that Suma comes from the Calder Valley, where they’ve bagged an ex-pat “Dutch Master Brewer”. The good news continues by learning that this is bottle conditioned beer. That spells yeast sediment and all the adding interesting-ness that comes from it. Unusually though, they recommend serving it clear, by stopping pouring when you spot yeast sediment in the neck of the bottle. That would explain the funny looking neck. It does mean you won’t have the novelty of swirling the last of the contents to get the yeast out, so drinkers who can’t stand cloudy beer will be happy.

Down to the small-print now, and there’s a postal address in case you want to write them a letter. They also have a telephone number and an email address.com. Deciphering the email address lands us at the Suma homepage at http://www.suma.coop/. After a surprisingly tough search, I eventually tracked down the Penumbra Organic Stout homepage at http://sumawholesale.com/index.php/branded-goods/beers/suma-penumbra-stout-organic-12-x-500ml-rt214.html. It doesn’t look like Suma are set up for consumers just yet.

Lastly, those vital statistics. This is your regular 500ml bottle and the stout within has an ABV of 4.8%. Presumably that makes it a little more middle of the road than, say, the politics of the people behind Suma.

Hopes are high for Suma Penumbra Organic Stout. Will it be as quirky and interesting as the bottle is? There’s only one way to find out…

In the glass, the most expensive stout I’ve ever tried looks the part. Almost totally black, it’s topped by a thin, cream head. But ignore that. It’s the smell you should concentrate on.

What does Suma Penumbra Organic Stout smell of? The label says orange, citrus and berry. Whatever it is, it’s complex, rich and good. The sort of odours you want an expensive and interesting beer to smell of. It sort of reminds me of fruit cake or Christmas pudding, so I’ll go along with citrus and berry.

What does Suma Penumbra Organic Stout taste like? The label describes a “full and creamy roasted flavour”. Just like with the smell, my tongue on my first, and very pleasant sip can’t disagree. Packed with more malty types than I thought existed, I can’t help wondering what happened to them. And all the other ingredients. It takes a couple more sips to figure out that they didn’t disappear. Rather they’re all doing their jobs in the subtlest of ways. That makes it complex and interesting, but a challenge to try and describe.

How can I possibly describe the flavour of a stout that has more unusual ingredients than a meal prepared by Heston Blumenthal? The creamy roasted flavour is just the starting point. Unlike most other stouts and dark ales, that roasted-ness is much gentler. More like a porter. In this brew, that gives the other flavours and tastes room to breathe.

What does it all add up to? A combination of flavours and tastes that goes something like this… creamy roasted-ness with a hint of citrus and fruit. Smoothly and effortlessly followed by tastes of malt and hops. All wrapped up in a dry, understaded, rich, exceptionally well balanced and very satisfying package. You could probably write an essay on how it tastes, but that paragraph will have to do.

Half-way through the bottle, and there are a few things I’m enjoying about Suma Penumbra Organic Stout. I love how quirky and different it is. One of the things the world loves about British ales is how eccentric and full of character they are. Penumbra Organic Stout is no exception. I love how distinctive and interesting it is. I love that it manages that without being difficult to drink. It’s practically girl-friendly. I like how it smells and that it is bottle conditioned. I like how different it looks

What don’t I like about Suma Penumbra Organic Stout? I don’t like how difficult it is to find, and how expensive it is in shops that only bought in a small quantity of bottles. It’s a little gassy. And I am somewhat amazed that with all those ingredients, it doesn’t shout more strong and unexpected flavours at you. A tiny bit more risk-taking in the flavour department would be welcome by those of us who pay through the nose for unusual beers. That said, these are minor quibbles.

How can I sum up Suma Penumbra Organic Stout? It is one of the most distinctive and delicious stouts I’ve ever tried. Which, admittedly, isn’t that many. I’ll happily drink it again, though I’ll probably need a mortgage to afford another bottle. If you find it, and you can afford it, even if you don’t normally drink stout, buy a bottle of Penumbra Organic Stout. In a sentence, an interesting and satisfying drink.

Rating: 4.275

Have you tried Suma Penumbra Organic Stout? Have you tried another other Suma beer or cider? What did you think? Leave your opinions, corrections, recommendations and places to buy, here in the comments.

Snack Food Review: Steinhauer Oгурчики чесночнЬіе (Salted Pickled Cucumbers (Gherkins))

16 November, 2009

IT’S been months since I did one of these. But I know from the comments that at least one of you out there likes reading about pickle cucumbers and gherkins, and is looking for that elusive perfect pickle. So for that one lonely person, and myself, here is a super quick review of Steinhauer Oгурчики чесночнЬіе, which I think, transliterates as Steinhauer Ogurgicky Chesnochnia something or other. If you know your Cyrillic, do please leave your proper translations in the comments at the end of the post.

I bought this jar at the Brick Lane Sunday market in London’s East-End for £1.70 pence. Why did I choose this one? The Cyrillic writing on the label. That’s how you know you’re getting real East-European food.

The left-hand-side of the label reveals what I can call them until my Cyrillic improves.

Under The English language section, they’re called “Salted cucumbers with garlic”. Not much else of note. Mostly a list of herbs and leaves that mean little to me. Plus the address of the East-London based importer, Monolith-UK Ltd.

Over on the right are a few more small-print details.

The net weight is on top, followed by the drained weight. All you need to know is that when full, it’s a big, heavy jar. Not massive. Just big.

There’s also an address and a web address of www.monolith-gruppe.eu. It’s also worrying. That’s a big, German importer. And I can’t find anywhere that says where this jar came from. Sure, it has some Cyrillic. But it also has the very Germanic name Steinhauer. I’m beginning to suspect that these are more Bavarian than Bulgarian.

Regarless of that, they could still be good. So, what do they look, smell and taste like? Let’s find out.

What do they look like? They look like cucumbers. Small-ish.

What do they smell like? Not bad. Excellent, in fact. It smells of all sorts of herbs. Best smelling pickles I’ve tried yet.

What do they taste like? They’re salted cucumbers. They taste salty. Luckily, not too salty. Instead, being quite mild and easy to eat. You can taste a hint of those herbs and garlic as well. More good news is that they’re fresh and crunchy.

To sum up, Steinhauer Salted Cucumbers with Garlic are not bad. If you like salted cucumbers, they’re the best I’ve tried so far. I’ll go for the sweeter variety next time though. Are they the perfect pickle? They’re good, but not quite perfect.

Have you tried them? What do you think? Do please leave your translations, corrections, places to buy and anything else you want to share with the world, here in the comments.

Beer Review: Samuel Adams Boston Lager

12 November, 2009

AMERICANS are brilliant. They leave some of the best comments on this blog. And they keep mentioning a beer that they like called ‘Samuel Adams’. At long last, that beer has started turning up in British shops. It’s great that they finally sorted out distribution in this country. But it leaves me with a problem. If I ‘review’ it and like it, my Sam Adams loving friends will be delighted. If I try it and hate it, then my polite and informative American readers will be somewhat irked. Still, it’ll be fun to see what happens. So, for an expensive £1.19 pence, on a very fine line, here is a bottle of Samuel Adams Boston Lager.

Samuel Adams Boston Lager bottle

As bottle’s go, it’s brown and fairly plain. For some reason, the stuff you normally read on the back-label is up on the neck label where you wouldn’t normally think to look for it.

Samuel Adams Boston Lager front of neck label

For added quirkiness, they split paragraph with the first half on the left and second half on the right of the “Samuel Adams” logo. But quirkiness is good. I like that.

Samuel Adams Boston Lager left of neck label

It’s good to read the sort of description that you normally find on an ale. About the care, attention to detail and recipe that goes back generations.

Samuel Adams Boston Lager right of neck label

Rotating it around to read the rest, and it keeps getting better. We get the names of hops. And interesting, those aren’t names I remember reading on anything I’ve tried so far. So extra marks for distinctive ingredients.

Then they take the risk. “No other American lager matches this rich robust and complex taste”, finishing with a pretend signature from Jim Koch. The cynic in me says that that means it’s only average because of the dire state of American brewing. The optimist says that there’s plenty I’ve not tried yet, and that Samuel Adams Boston Lager must be something special. Either way. It’s a brave statement.

Down on the front-label, and there’s a big, traditional looking roundel.

Samuel Adams Boston Lager front label

…a label that gives me déjà vu. I’ve seen it before somewhere…

Family Guy Pawucket Patriot Ale

I think it looks good. And so does the Samuel Adams one.

“The Boston Beer Company”, “Product of USA” and “America’s World-Class Beer” all add to the sense that this should be good, and not mass-produced fizz.

Oddly, the small print is tucked into two flappy bits either ride of the roundel. One the left is the address of The Boston Beer Company in Boston, Massachusetts. On the other side is some recycling information for other countries and the all important vital statistics. This is an unusual 355ml bottle. Until you realise that it was designed with fluid ounces in mind, which case one of the numerous online converters brings it to 12 oz. Does that sound normal to you? The alcoholic volume is 4.8% which is unremarkable for a lager. Neither strong nor weak.

Is there a back label? Yes there is. Is it worth reading? Not really.

Samuel Adams Boston Lager back label

It is literally a list of importers. Here in Britain, the rather excellent Shepherd Neame of Kent arranged this bottle’s arrival on the shop shelves.

So, what does Samuel Adams Boston Lager taste like? Will I like it as much as our friends over the pond do? For the sake of the comments at the end of this post, I sure hope so.

Samuel Adams Boston Lager poured into a glass

The fun and quirky touches keep coming. On the underside of the bottle-top, yes, the side that’s inside the bottle, is a proudly displayed “#25 Brussels Gold 2000 International Award Winner”. Well done chaps.

In the glass, it froths up, but the head collapses fairly sharpish into a lumpy layer. Must say, I was surprised at how dark it is. It’s a kind of copper-y amber colour with an almost cream head. It looks well carbonated, but not too fizzy.

What does Samuel Adams Boston Lager smell of? First reaction was “it smells good for a lager”. Almost every pilsner style lager beer I’ve sniffed has some variation on the malted barley formula. Very few stretch that into something distinctive, but Samuel Adams Boston Lager seems to have managed it. Unbelievable, I think it smells of hoppy spiciness and biscuit malt. Normally, you’d only read those words in a review of English ale.

What does Samuel Adams Boston Lager taste like? The first sip is a good one. A very good one in fact. Much like the smell, it’s almost like drinking ale. Some people won’t like that, but I do.

To elaborate a bit, because it is an ale, it still can’t manage much in the flavour department. All I can pick up there is a hint of savoury malty. It’s the aftertaste where Samuel Adams Boston Lager comes to life and where it makes a bold stride away from the crowd. The finish is tingly, tangy, salty, hoppy and spicy and a little bit malty. All this makes it bitter overall, but balanced and with a long and quite smooth finish.

With most of the bottle now gone, what am I enjoying about Samuel Adams Boston Lager? Thankfully, quite a lot. I love how different it is to almost every lager I’ve tried. That scores it serious points for distinctiveness. I love how it’s a lager trying to be an ale. I like the hoppy taste that you normally have to buy an expensive bottle of ale for. I like how it looks and smells different. I like how not many people this side of the pond know about it yet. And I like what a funny size it is, sitting uncomfortably between smaller and bigger Euro bottles on the shop shelf.

What aren’t I like about Samuel Adams Boston Lager? Fortunately for the comments section of the post, not that much. First, I’m burping more than usual, so it’s a gassy drink. It is quite bitter and strong tasting, so I won’t be getting any girls to try it any time soon. Incidentally, if you are a girl who likes Samuel Adams Boston Lager, leave your thoughts in the comments. It’s also unlikely to appeal to the committed lager drinker, unless you’re using this as a stepping stone to real ale. That puts it in an awkward spot between what you think of as lagers and ales. It’s not as crisp and refreshing as other good lagers and not as complex and flavourful as ale. It’s also rather expensive.

How can I sum up Samuel Adams Boston Lager? It is that rare thing. A lager that truly is different. One of those few that thinks it’s an ale. It is better than any of the mass-produced American lagers I’ve tried by miles. I’m going to buy it again.

Rating: 4.15

Have you tried Samuel Adams Boston Lager what did you think of it? Can you correct any of the mistakes that you’ve spotted in my ‘review’? Do please leave your opinions, recommendations and places to buy, here in the comments section.

Beer Review: Brakspear Triple

5 November, 2009

THIS is Brakspear Triple. From ASDA in London’s Isle of Dog, it’s the first Brakspear I’ve tried. And boy, have I thrown myself into the deep-end.

Brakspear Triple bottle

You just know that it’s going to be something special. Something backed-up when you look at the neck-label.

Brakspear Triple front of neck label

On the sides of the classy “Brakspear III’ logo is an award.

Brakspear Triple award side of neck label

Brakspear Triple was “Silver Medal Winner” at “The Brewing Industry International Awards 2005”. And that raises my expectations one notch higher.

Down on the front-label, and Brakspear have taken to the trend of putting their back-label on the front.

Brakspear Triple front label

It’s not bad. You just feel that an olde roundel would fit better, if you know what I mean. Especially as it’s “Since 1779”.

The bee logo is a mystery to me. There’s probably some sort of funny story about it online, but I haven’t got that far yet. So it’ll remain a mystery for now. Unless you’re a rule-breaking reader who scrolls down.

Where a picture of some sort would normally be, you instead find a quote by the head brewer. You can tell it’s by him, because it has his unreadable signature by it. He describes Brakspear Triple thusly: “Thanks to the two fermentations in the Brakspear ‘Double Drop’ system and another in the bottle, this highly aromatic and satisfying strong beer delivers its rich flavour with subtlety and balance”.

If you’ve already spotted the big “Alc. 7.2% Vol.” and “Bottle Conditioned”, your hopes and expectations will be creeping even higher. Three very good things are leaping out at me from all of this. First, it sounds delicious. Second, it’s a bottle conditioned British ale with yeast sediment floating around, which is hard to find and turbo-charges that flavour. And third, it’s shaping up to be no compromise strong ale of the sort you don’t see enough of.

Down at the bottom of the front-label is another thing you don’t see very often. Next to the pretend stamp saying “Quality Brewing Tradition Since 1779” is a unique bottle number. I’ve got “B262633”. What do you have? Leave your number in the comments at the end of the post.

On the other side, the back-label continues on the, erm, back.

Brakspear Triple back label

No wonder some of the back-label made it onto the front. There’s not enough room for a single punctuation mark on here. In fact, having to work through it all is what put me off getting around to ‘reviewing’ this bottle in the first place.

Starting at the top (because you have to start somewhere), we get a nice and detailed little description. Plenty of ingredient names and brewing details for the beer buffs and taste descriptions for the rest of us. And it goes “Crystal, Black, and Maris Otter pale malts provide the backbone of this outstanding rich beer. Hope are added three times to provide a good balance between bitterness and fragrance. Then, bottle-conditioning allows the flavours of this beer to develop further complexity as it matures.”

All very interesting and yummy. Then comes something that elevates it even further. What you can do is use the bottle number on the front of the bottle and their website at www.brakspear-beers.co.uk to find out when the bottle was filled. To test their claim, I went to the website to investigate. I managed to avoid getting distracted by their other beers to find the Triple homepage at http://www.brakspear-beers.co.uk/brakspear2006_packaged.htm. Well I say homepage, it’s more a section half-way down the page, with a table of bottle numbers. A bit of effort reveals that this bottle was filled on the 26th of May, 2009. Interesting, but not the interactive experience that got my hopes up at the start of this paragraph. The date is also not that long ago. I’m tempted to leave it longer for it to bottle condition some more. But I won’t.

The comes the ever welcome sediment advice. This one advises that “this beer can be enjoyed cloudy, or wait for the sediment to settle and pour carefully for a clear sparkling glass”. Which shall I do? The Bavarian swirl for as much sediment as I can get. That should turn the taste dial to eleven.

Then we get to the small-print. It turns out that Brakspear is a Marston’s brand, and that it comes from Wolverhampton. That means that this bottle of Brakspear Triple needs only to be average to be possibly the best thing to come out of Wolverhampton.

Finally we get to a small group of symbols. First is the welcome sight of “CAMRA says  this is Real Ale”. Now that’s something you want on your bottle of British beer. For those that care, this 500ml bottle (why not a full pint?) at 7.2% alcoholic volume weighs in at 3.6 UK units of alcohol. That’s your whole day’s worth of units in a single bottle.

At last we reach the fun part. What does Brakspear Triple taste like? Will it be as good as I’m hoping? Should you buy it? Let’s find out.

Brakspear Triple poured into a glass

From the moment you hear ‘fft-chh’, things start going well. It’s easy to pourwith no massive head to work around. This makes swirling the bottle to get all that yeast out a piece of cake instead of the frustrating pour-wait you endure elsewhere.

In the glass, it’s a deep reddish brown that doesn’t look all that cloudy. The small head is cream-coloured and collapses to an even smaller, patchy layer, soon enough.

One of the first things to hit you is the smell. There’s simply no avoiding it. If you’re going to make a pungent beer, you better make darn sure that it smells good. And would you believe it; the brewers from Wolverhampton have done it. It smells incredibly richly. I’m noticing malty, biscuity and hoppy odours, though you can probably spot more in there.

So it looks and smells good. But what does Brakspear Triple taste like? The first sip is rich, strong and satisfying. So good, that I promptly follow with another. Gut feeling is that this is going to be every bit as no-nonsense and delicious as a strong ale should be.

A couple more civilised and noble sips, and I’m beginning to make some sense of the flavours and tastes. On the flavour side, all is straightforward. A surprisingly sweetness and maltiness take the lead here. On the aftertaste, that sweetness is balanced, perfectly I might add, by a gentle hoppy bitterness. One that finishes not into bitterness like most others, but into a smooth malty and hoppy combination.

What other words can I use to describe it? Well, rich is a good start. And full-bodied, too. You’ll know this, because it isn’t at all watery. Warm is another, which makes it a good autumn and winter beer. Not overly carbonated. Incredibly well balanced and extremely satisfying. Not particularly complex, but then it is a strong ale, so you don’t expect it to be. Like a good strong ale, it manages to be strong and satisfying at the same time as being easy to drink.

So what am I enjoying about Brakspear Triple? As you’ve no doubt have noticed, quite a lot. It deserves special kudos for being so well balanced. It’s sweet and bitter at the same time. It’s as strong as strong ale should be, yet easy to drink, even for the less adventurous. I like that it’s bottle conditioned. I like how many good ingredients are in it, all of which add up to a quality and drinkability that you notice. In fact, I’m nearly at the bottom of the glass, and wishing there was more to go.

What am I not enjoying about Brakspear Triple? I don’t like that it’s so hard to find in shops. Not picking here, it is a beer drinkers beer. Sure, it’s more accessible than any strong ale I’ve ever tried, but lager and alcopop drinkers won’t be making the switch to this one. And maybe a bit more complexity would add something. But this are tiny gripes.

To surmise, Brakspear Triple is one of the best strong ales I’ve tried. Which, admittedly, isn’t a lot. I loved it. If you are an enthusiastic beer drinker or just want a high-quality, no-nonsense ale, Brakspear Triple deserves to be on your shopping list.

Rating: 4.5

Have you tried Brakspear Triple? What did you think of it?

Leave your opinions, corrections, recommendations, places to buy and other tomfoolery here in the comments.

Beer Review: Früli Strawberry Beer

2 October, 2009

THIS is Früli. I bought it from Tesco without spending much money in the process. And it might just be the first time I can properly compare something to one of my favourites; the awesome Hoegaarden Belgian White Beer. That’s because unlike everything else I’ve tried to compare it to, Früli here is Belgian and white. And what’s more, it’s Strawberry Beer.

Früli Strawberry Beer bottle

It’s a funny looking, diminutive bottle. It looks a bit delicate if you ask me. But it does have a lot of neck-foil.

Früli Strawberry Beer neck foil

Besides what you can read in the photo, there’s not much to say about it. So let’s look at the little front label instead…

Früli Strawberry Beer front label

It’s a sort of roundel. More of a circle really. It has a picture of a tree, lots of strawberry red and some words to read. The most important of which are in the sentence that reads “Premium Belgian White Fruit Beer”. It might not have many words, but each and every one is good. Belgian beer is good. White beer is good. So is fruity beer. And Premium anything is better than economy.

Then there’s the name Früli. If you know the right way to pronounce it, leave a comment at the end of this post. My guess it that it’s pronounced “Fruh-lee”. What do you think?

In the corners of the front label are two vital statistics. The alcoholic volume which is a moderate 4.1% and the bottle which is a miniscule 250ml. Could this be a girls beer? Leave your thoughts in the comments at the end.

Früli Strawberry Beer back label

There’s not much more to say about the back label of Früli Strawberry Beer either. It’s much the same characterless multi-lingual block of text that you find on most imported European bottles. They do flesh out the description a little with “Früli is a premium Belgian white beer brewed with pure strawberry juice”. Look at the ingredients list and they’re right! It really does have strawberry juice as an ingredient! Früli Strawberry Beer is becoming more and more interesting.

For the obsessively curious, the full list of ingredients is “water, barley malt, wheat, strawberry juice, fructose, hops and yeast”. The wheat alone would have me interested, but strawberry juice as well? Luckily there’s not much small print to read through before getting to the fun part of this test.

Früli was brewed and bottled in Belgium by the Van Diest Beer Company Ltd, and they have a UK address in London. Does anyone know where in Belgium this beer came from? The last bit of small print is the number of UK units of alcohol which is, get this, 1.0. Not a decimal place out. One exactly. Was that by accident or design? Either way, it’ll help you keep count. If that’s something you like to do. Not me. The Government is welcome to jumps off my back and stop looking over my shoulder.

So, what does Früli Strawberry Beer taste like? Is it as good as I’m hoping it’ll be? And should you buy it? I can hardly wait to find out.

Früli Strawberry Beer poured into a half-pint glass

Yes, I’ve probably used the wrong type of glass. But it’s all I could find. And this time, it was not a bad choice. A half-pint glass does the job nicely. Just make sure you’ve either got the glass or your lips very nearby as soon as you open that bottle, because it froths up explosively. Then it collapses back down again quickly enough to fit your little glass.

I’m note sure if the photo captures quite how unusual it looks. It’s red. But not red like a ruby beer. Or any other normal beer. It really is strawberry red. And cloudy and opaque. As is the head.

Some strange darker bits also came out of the bottle and landed on the head. At first, I thought it was bits of foil or dirt. But now I’m not so sure. Looking closely at the empty bottle, I think it is yeasty sediment. Great news. Partly because that’s what Belgian White Beer is supposed to be. Partly because it’ll annoy the people that hate cloudy beer.

What does Früli Strawberry Beer. The clue is in the name. It smells of bananas. No, wait. That’s not right. It smells, strongly, of strawberries. Now that’s a smell I know well. Back in Pembrokeshire, we grew dozens of strawberries in the vegetable garden. And I think, that this beer, smells not of the fake strawberries that sweets are made of, but of real strawberries.

What does Früli Strawberry Beer taste like? The first sip is an easy, smooth and fruity one. Unlike Wells Banana Bred Beer, it isn’t a beer with a subtle taste of something else. This is full on strawberry juice that happens to be a beer.

The flavour. That tastes of strawberries. The aftertaste. That tastes of strawberries too. It’s very sweet and very easy to drink. As easy as drinking strawberry fruit juice in fact. Also in the finish is a hint of wheat and touch of dryness and bitterness, helping balance it out.

It’s also smooth, rich and full-bodied. But does it have that unmistakeable Belgian-ness? If you’ve fallen for the other Belgian ales, you’ll know the thing I mean. Well, it is hidden under a huge pile of strawberries, but yes, I think that Belgian-ness is just about still in there. If you don’t know what I mean, try Hoegaarden White Beer or Duvel Belgian Golden Ale.

Nearly half-way through the glass already, so what am I enjoying about Früli Strawberry Beer? I like the wackiness of it. How they’ve combined the incredible quality of Belgian White Beer with fruitiness of a novelty girls drink. I like how it’s as easy to drink as strawberry juice, and the way it manages not to taste at all artificial. It’s uncommonly sweet, easy to pour and not at all gassy.

That sounds like a lot of risks to take. What are the downsides of Früli Strawberry Beer? Well, if you don’t like strawberries or fruit, you might want to skip this one. If you like the experience of drinking beer, not an alcoholic juice, you might want to skip it. Next, imagine the taste of sugar. It’s sweeter than that. Almost sickly sweet. Then there’s the whole ambiguity over whether it is a girls drink or not. If, like me, you’re a guy, you won’t want to run the risk, so you’ll probably avoid it altogether.

How can I sum up Früli Strawberry Beer? The closest equivalent I can think of is the revolting Polish raspberry Karmi Malínowa Pasja. Früli Strawberry Beer is like that, but done properly. Without the horrendously artificial taste. It’s drinkable and good. Some people will love the sweetness and taste. They’ll find it delicious. Not me. It’s not bad. Just not my kind or thing. I didn’t like it as much as I hoped, and it’s hard to compare to the sublime Hoegaarden. Recommended for the intrepid beer adventurer and for women.

Rating: 3.75

Have you tried Früli Strawberry Beer? Can you answer any of the many questions I asked above? Can you correct any of the mistakes that crept in through my complete lack of knowledge? If so, do please leave your opinions, comments, requests, recommendations and places to buy, here in the comments.

Beer Review: Morland Hen’s Tooth

23 September, 2009

THE next bottle from ASDA is the stronger and more upmarket cousin to above-average, mass-market bottled ale, Morland Old Speckled Hen. It’s called Morland Hen’s Tooth, and it looks familiar. That same bottle has turned up here, here, here and a thousand other places, all easily traceable back to Suffolk’s Greene King. Meaning, what we have here is Greene King Morland Hen’s Tooth. It should be at least above-average then.

Morland Hen’s Tooth bottle

Besides the overly familiar bottle, it looks good. Copper is a good colour to see inside your transparent glass bottle. They have gone an unusual route with the labels though. Not a bad route, just a different one. What they’ve done is put the important bits on the front and all the small-print on the back. And I think it works well.

Morland Hen’s Tooth neck label

For starters, this is what you normally find on the back of a bottle. But instead, it’s up here on the neck label. They describe it as a “fine ale” that “matures in its bottle producing a richer and more distinctive character”. Then they move onto the taste with “a warming blend of fruit and malt flavours are followed by a smooth finish”.

Sounds delicious. But “matures in it’s bottle”? That would mean it has yeast still in the bottle, making it cloudy. Something you hardly ever find in British ales. Look at the bottom of the bottle however and yes, that is yeast sitting on the bottom. That means it truly is maturing in the bottle, and it gets my hopes up even more that this is going to be something special. Bad news for those that hate cloudy beer though.

Morland Hen’s Tooth front label

The front-label takes the quirky-ness even further with two paragraphs muddled into one another. One of them describes it tersely as “A bottle conditioned strong ale” with a correspondingly strong alcoholic volume of 6.5%. The other one describes the same things that you read on the neck label, only this time ending with a quote from the head brewer that ends with “a combination of flavour and character that’s as rare as a Hen’s Tooth”. I’ve never read a label so difficult to describe. Let me know what you think of it, in the comments at the end of this post.

Over on the back-label, and it’s a business as usual mass of multilingual small-print.

Morland Hen’s Tooth back label

I won’t bore you with all the details, so these are the highlights. At 6.5% alcoholic volume, this disappointingly un-Pint sized 50cl bottle weighs in at 3.3 UK units of alcohol before the nanny-state starts wagging its finger. They also have the complete Suffolk postal address, in case you want to send them a letter.

So, what does Morland Hen’s Tooth actually taste of? Is it any good and should you buy it? There’s only one way to find out.

Morland Hen’s Tooth back label

I opted for a Bavarian-swirl to get the yeast out for that full flavour punch. Several actually. The head exploded when I tried to pour leading to a cycle of swirl, pour, wait for the head to collapse and repeat. Clearly I was doing it wrong. If you know the right way to pour Hen’s Tooth, leave a comment at the end of this post.

Once finally in the glass, it looks ok. The head is cream coloured and a thin layer of bubbles. The liquid is a cloudy amber-red colour. Although I’m sure you could get rid of the cloudiness if you wanted to by pouring it differently. Oh, and it doesn’t look carbonated at all.

What does Morland Hen’s Tooth smell like? A couple of sniffs, and all I can think of are Greene King’s other bottles of ale. It’s not a pungent odour. Quite mild really. A kind of malty, slightly spicy-hoppy smell. Maybe a hint of dry fruit. It smells of Autumn. Some smell of Christmas or Summer. This smells of Autumn.

What does this room temperature Morland Hen’s Tooth taste like? The first sip is a slow and civilised experience that reminds you that you’re drinking a strong ale. You just can’t hide from the strong ale taste, even though, at 6.5%, it’s at the low end of the strong ale spectrum. How do they fit such an onslaught of flavour and taste into such a low alcoholic volume? My guess is that the yeast somehow turbo-charges it.

Three slow sips in, and I’m starting to figure out Morland Hen’s Tooth. The flavour is mild. So mild that it’s hard to tell what it is. A couple more sips and I think it’s dry, biscuity malt and fruitiness. Bitterness and some saltiness also hit you right away.

The aftertaste is where Morland Hen’s Tooth comes alive. It is incredibly rich, warming, full-bodied and smooth leading to a very dry, long, bitter finish. The immense horse power of that finish was a lot to take onboard at first, but now, after about seven sips, I’m warming to it. Or it’s warming me to it. One of the two.

What am I enjoying about Morland Hen’s Tooth? I love the intense taste. I love the fun and novelty of having yeast floating around in the bottle to make your poured glass cloudy, or clear, whichever you choose. I like that the flavours and tastes blend well. I like how it’s a drink to be sipped in a slow, civilised fashion. And I like that it’s not too gassy. Not burp free, but it could be worse.

What don’t I like about Morland Hen’s Tooth? Sure, the flavours and tastes dominated by malt and fruit are nice enough, but it feels like it’s missing something. Complexity, layers of interesting-ness and some sweetness for a start. Then, the whole time, I kept thinking, this is Morland Old Speckled Hen with a loud exhaust and even louder stereo fitted. And that looses it some marks for originality and distinctiveness. And there’s the packaging. The quirky and contemporary design would be superb on a trendy summer brew, but it’s all wrong for this warming, civilised, autumnal brew. It’s like putting Helen Mirran in denim mini-skirt and tee-shirt.

So sum up, Morland Hen’s Tooth is tasty, high quality and optionally cloudy way of enjoying a fairly strong ale. If you liked Greene King’s other ales, particularly Morland Old Speckled hen, then Hen’s Tooth is definitely Worth your time and money. If you’re looking for something to help you wind down after a hard day at work this Autumn, this is a great choice. If you like your strong ale to be strong in the alcoholic sense or quirky and unusual, then you can probably find a better choice on the supermarket shelf. In a sentence, very good but not special enough.

Rating: 4.25

Have you tried Morland Hen’s Tooth? What did you think of it? Got any corrections, facts, places to buy or opinions? Any recommendations or suggestions for what I should look out for next review? Then leave a comment in the boxes below.

Beer Review: Weihenstephan Kristall Weissbier

16 September, 2009

CROSSHARBOUR ASDA sounded its siren call again, leaving me with three more unusual bottles of beer to sample. First up is what one of my commentors described as the benchmark for clear, unfiltered wheat beer, and another described as the wheat beer for lager drinkers. With a lot of hype to live up to, here is a bottle of Weihenstephan Kristall Weissbier.

Weihenstephan Kristall Weissbier bottle

What the bottle lacks in quirky charm (compare it to the granite-like bottles of British ale), it makes up for with interesting labels. The informative, and helpfully English language neck-label is our starting point on this German bottle.

Weihenstephan Kristall Weissbier neck label

The big middle bit boasts three big things. An impressive crest. A date, “Since 1040”, and that it was “brewed and bottled by Bayerische Staatsbrauerei Weihenstephan Germany”. That makes this a genuine Bavarian. On shop shelves dominated by pretend Europeans, that counts for something.

Either side of part you can see in the photo are quiet, understated braggings of awards won. On the left, if we squint, we can see that it won “Gold Medal Australian International Beer Awards 2003, 2004 & 2006”. On the right, it’s the “Gold Medal International Beer Competition 2003”.

Other beers boast a lot more about much fewer awards. We’re only at the neck-label, and already Weihenstephan Kristall Weissbier is giving off the quietly confident air of someone who knows what they’re doing.

Weihenstephan Kristall Weissbier front label

The front-label, in a neat and Germanic roundel, says everything you need to know while you browse the shop shelves. And boy, does it get off to a flying start. “The World’s Oldest Brewery” “Since 1040”. In 1040, the Normans had yet to bother the people of Hastings. While in “Dark Age” Bavaria, they were coming up with award winning beer. That’s like going to see Shakespeare performing in The Globe, having just invented the iPod.

The bottom half says exactly what you need to know, in order to know if this is the bottle for you. Handy if you’re staring at a shop shelf, puzzling over what to put in your trolley.

My knowledge of German is ropey at best, but even I worked out that “Kristall Weissbier” means wheat beer with the yeasty bits filtered out. Fortunately, in case you hadn’t worked it out, they say it right there; “Clear Wheat Beer”.

The one other detail you need to know is the alcoholic volume. And they’ve thought to put that in as well. At 5.4%, Weihenstephan Kristall Weissbier is looking to please everyone.

Weihenstephan Kristall Weissbier back label

The back label is as clean and effective as an Audi four-dour saloon. There’s a ‘story’ about the brewery followed by an excellent description by Socialist and beer writer, Roger Protz. To quote his quote, “its intensely spicy aroma has powerful hints of cloves and nutmeg balanced by creamy malt. The defining character of Bavarian wheat beers – a banana note – dominates the palate, with rich malt, spices and a gentle hint of hops. A spritzy and wonderfully thirst-quenching drink.” The Michael Parkinson of beer reviewing liked it. But will I? For an ill-informed bunch of opinions and stretched metaphors, read on.

The ingredients are the usual “water, wheat, malt, barley malt, hops”. The full address from Freising, Germany, is on there. There’s a web address of www.weihenstephaner.de. But be warned; it will make you lust after bottles that you probably can’t buy where you live. Lastly, at 5.4% alcoholic volume, this 500ml bottle weighs in at 2.7 UK units of alcohol. A fact so boring that you’re probably loosing interest. So let’s get to the interesting part.

What does Weihenstephan Kristall Weissbier taste like? Will I like it? Will I describe it the same way as celebrity beer writer, Roger Protz did? How will it compare to the other cloudy and clear wheat beers I tried? And should you go out and buy it? Let’s find out.

Weihenstephan Kristall Weissbier poured into the wrong type of glass

I know, I know, I still don’t have the right sort of glass. If someone wants to send me a proper glass for the job, leave a comment and I’ll get back to you. For the meantime, in a regular British pint glass, it looks fantastic. The head frothed right up the way a Bavarian wheat beer should.

The head is white, and made of big bubbles which collapsed into itself after a few moments. The beer itself is golden and clear. Bar the storm of bubbles furiously making their way to the surface.

Weihenstephan Kristall Weissbier smell like? In a word; delicious. It has that impossibly good quality that I love about European wheat beers. Roger Protz used words like cloves, nutmeg and creamy malt. I’m going to use words like rich, malty, kind of fruity and awesome. In fact, forget all those words except awesome. For that is how it smells.

What does Weihenstephan Kristall Weissbier taste like? The first sip is as pleasant as the first sniff. Gut reaction is that this is as good as the best cloudy wheat beers. Even though that’s impossible. It’s like expecting the battered cod with your chips to taste as good as lobster. But this seems to be pulling it off.

Why do I think that? After a few more sips and I’m still a long way from figuring it out. The flavours are dry, biscuity and of dried fruit. An understated sweetness. Followed by a gentle, smooth, bitterness of dry malt and spicy hoppiness. All together, making an outstandingly balanced and easy to drink, drink.

What am I loving about Weihenstephan Kristall Weissbier? If you’ve enjoyed a European wheat beer, even ones you’re not supposed to compare it too, such as cloudy, unfiltered ones, and those from the Netherlands and Belgium you’ll know. It has the same, unmistakably lovely smoothness that you can’t quite describe. To help describe that indescribable quality, I’ve invented a new word; “delismoothich”. A combination of “delicious”, “smooth” and “rich”.

Possibly the most astounding thing about Weihenstephan Kristall Weissbier is that it manages to be every bit as good and interesting as its cloudier cousins. Then there’s the flavours and taste which are perfectly balanced and very easy to drink. Give this to even hardened lager drinkers to see what they think. Roger Protz described it as spritzy and thirst-quenching and I can’t disagree. It’s refreshing and very drinkable. Not too gassy either, despite all the fizziness.

What don’t I like about Weihenstephan Kristall Weissbier? Very little. Nitpicking, I suppose it doesn’t pack the same flavour punch as some cloudy wheat beer or British ales. But before you leave a comment saying you can’t compare them, yes, I know that already. I’m also guessing that after three or four, they stop being so refreshing. That said, I’d love to have enough bottles to find out. The only real complaint I can think of is that Weihenstephan Kristall Weissbier and all the Weihenstephan range are so difficult to buy, here in Britain.

To conclude, Weihenstephan Kristall Weissbier tasted great, even if I can’t put my finger exactly on why. It compared incredibly well to every other type of wheat beer, and every other beer, full-stop, that I’ve ever tried. I loved it, even though I used different words to celebrity beer socialist, Roger Protz. Weihenstephan Kristall Weissbier is one of the best, so yes; you should go out and find it.

Rating: 4.5

Have you tried Weihenstephan Kristall Weissbier? Have you tried any other Weihenstephan beers? What did you think? Do please leave your inevitable corrections, or alternatively, opinions, recommendations and places to buy, in the comments.

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.

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.

Beer Review: Chimay Blue Pères Trappistes Trappist Beer

28 July, 2009

THE NEXT unusual bottle to come from Crossharbour ASDA is this $1.74 pence bottle of Chimay Blue Pères Trappistes. Maybe it’s not all that unusual. Somebody left a comment on this blog a few weeks ago that mentioned it. I think it looks like the dumpy little bottles of Duvel Golden Ale which is also Belgian and happens to be delicious. I’ve also got a suspicion that this might be an unfiltered, live, cloudy, yeasty Belgian. And that is a very good thing.

Chimay Blue bottle

Around the neck, are words and a symbol are embossed. But what do they say?

Chimay Blue things embosesd around shoulder of bottle

The “A D S” doesn’t mean anything. Until you read the words underneath it. “Abbaye de Scourmont” is what I could make out. Corrections in the comments at the end of the post please.

Down on the front label, everything is calm, tasteful and, thankfully, much easier to read.

Chimay Blue front label

The numbers either side of the “Chimay” shield logo. Does “2009” make this a vintage conscious beer in the same way as a wine? Is 2009 good or would 1909 be better? Most of the rest of the front label helpfully explains, in a multitude of European languages, that this is a Trappist Beer.

The serenity of the front label is replaced by multilingual overload on the back. It does however, do a good job of answering our questions.

Chimay Blue back label

Considerately, the English language version of the story comes first. They start by pointing out the “Authentic Trappist Product” symbol, which means it was brewed in a real monastery by the community who live there. Monks if we’re honest. Then comes some unexpected news. Apparently, some of the revenue from this beer goes to the monks to support their charitable works. That makes me feel less guilty for buying beer. Thanks monks!

Then they start the description of what Chimay Blue is about. Enticingly, they describe it as “powerful and complex”. They go further than many by giving the narrow temperature window of 10°C to 12°C. I don’t know what that is, so I’ll leave it in the fridge for a while and hope for the best.

Ingredients, at least the ones on the label, are no surprise. “Water, barley malt, wheat, sugar, hop, yeast” are in the list. But look below all the languages, and we spot some things that are a surprise. There’s a cross over a picture of a normal glass, with a side, almost wine glass shaped thing next too it. Next to shat is the same sort of diagram telling you to store the bottle upright, not on its side. Together with the temperature thing, this is turning into one temperamental brew. It also hints at the yeasty sediment that must be floating inside the bottle.

Then we get to the vital statistics. Yes, the 0.33L bottle is little surprise. But the alcoholic volume is. At 9%, Chimay Blue is right up there with the strongest European continental ales, British strong ales and the super-strength alcoholics favourite lagers.

The last bits of detail are just above the barcode. The brewer is one S.A. Bières de Chimay N.V. in Belgium. The Inter-tubes must have reached the Trappist monks of Chimay because they have a website at www.chimay.com. To save you time, you can find history at http://www.chimay.com/en/history_53.php, the Blue homepage is at http://www.chimay.com/en/chimay_blue_220.php and at http://www.chimay.com/en/intro_241.php you can read about the cheeses that they are very keen for you to eat while drinking Chimay.

With that out of the way, it’s time for the fun part. What does Chimay Blue actually taste like? Will I like it, even though I don’t have any cheese? Should you try it? And will many people leave angry comments because I used the wrong type of glass? Let’s find out.

Chimay Blue poured into the wrong type of glass

The closest I could find to the label picture was a wine glass. Despite this, it still frothed up. Fortunately, the froth went down as fast as it went up. And whatever glass you choose, it looks and terrific. Just look how dark brown it is, and how good it looks with the thick, bubbly head. The downside is that I can’t see the yeasty sediment swirling around.

Then there’s the smell that you can smell from the moment you start pouring. Chimay Blue smells unlike anything I’ve smelt before. It smells richly, deeply of dark fruit. A bit like a red wine, port or cherry. But it’s smoothed by the rich maltiness, familiar from other favourite Belgian ales. Oh, and it smells of alcohol. Strongly of alcohol.

What does Chimay Blue taste like? The first sip revealed a taste much like that of the smell. It also proved the vague label description to be spot-on. It is as “powerful and complex” as anything you have ever drank. A few more sips and some sense starts to be made of Chimay Blue.

A few more sips and I’m thoroughly enjoying Chimay Blue. But I’m beginning to wander if that complexity is all it’s cracked up to be. Yes, it’s a hundred times more complex than lager, but I can’t detect a rainbow of flavours. Just a very powerful taste. It does have a flavour. I think. One of rich, dark fruit that reminds me of wine, port, cherry or fruit cake. Then there’s the aftertaste. On the palate, this is as powerful as it’s 9% volume promises it to be. That smooth, distinctively Belgian taste kicks in, the fruitiness goes into overdrive and you receive a delicious taste of lightly roasted maltiness. I love it.

Specifically, what do I like about Chimay Blue? That mysterious Belgian quality always wins me over. Try Hoegaarden White Beer, Leffe Blonde or Duvel Golden Ale to see what I mean. They all have the same quality that this has. Next, there’s that taste. The only thing I can compare it to is the British Old Tom Strong Ale. That had the same sort of strong taste of dark fruit, but Chimay Blue does it the Belgian way. And that keeps its points for distinctiveness intact. I like very much how well made it is. It’s strong, but not too bitter. Amazingly, they’ve kept it balanced. 9% volume is rarely this easy to drink. I also like how clearly this is one of those drinks to be savoured and drunk slowly, in a civilised way. This is one of those ales nudging into wine territory. On top of all that, it’s not too gassy.

What of the downsides to Chimay Blue? Well, it is strong. There’s no denying that. Even though I got used to it soon enough, it’s going to put off the less intrepid and more lager inclined. If you can find a girl who says she likes Chimay Blue, hang onto her. Then there’s the problem of finding the right time to drink this, and all very strong ales. What is the right social situation? If you know, leave a comment. Lastly, Chimay Blue is probably not going to be half-price at your local supermarket. That means it is going to be hard to find where you live.

How can I sum up Chimay Blue? It is the Old Tom Strong Ale I tried last time, but Belgian. It is just as strong, just as dark, warming, fruity and interesting, only in the form of an unfiltered Belgian ale. It is an exceptional beer. If you’ve ever wanted to drink a fruit cake or find ordinary red wine not beery enough, this is the one for you. Just remember to go slowly and savour it, or you risk becoming sozzled, as I have just become.

Rating: 4.375

Have you tried Chimay Blue? What did you think of it?

Do please leave your opinions, facts, corrections, recommendations, requests and places to buy, here in the comments.

Beer Review: Robinsons Old Tom Strong Ale

15 July, 2009

GOOD news; I’ve been to Crossharbour ASDA again and bought three more abnormal bottles. The first of which is this robust little bottle of Robinsons Old Tom Strong Ale that cost £1.58 pence.

Robinson Old Tom Strong Ale bottle

ASDA’s immense swathes of shelving, make choosing the quirkiest bottles a challenge. I picked this one because has a cat as a mascot, the bottle looks like it was designed by Edwardians and because there aren’t enough strong ales in the world. And yes, all that large writing you can see is embossed onto the glass. I’ve never seen a bottle like it. At least not outside of museums.

Wisely, Robinsons put the details you want to know, out of the way, up on the neck.

Robinson Old Tom Strong Ale neck label

I love what strong ale does. Sure, super strength lager does strong as well. But strong ale on the other hand does strong, and proves that you don’t need to sacrifice your taste buds and stomach contents in the process. A bit like having a ploughman’s sandwich for lunch instead of a burger drenched in lard and chilli sauce.

The other thing to love about strong ale is how uncompromising it is. Other ales have all kinds of interesting flavours and tastes from bitterness to biscuits. And that’s all very tasty. But what if you just want straight forward ale that’s as not been cut down to fit a market segment? If you’re not a target demographic, you’ll want to buy a strong ale.

Unsurprisingly, this makes the alcoholic volume slightly important. Fortunately, Robinsons come straight out with the number 8.5%. A number that puts it up there with the alcoholics favourites and with the most potent strong ales and continental beers.

The neck label doesn’t stop there. With a row of four medals, it informs us that it has been an “Award Winning Ale Since 1899”. Unless my calendar is wrong, that makes this ale one-hundred and ten years old. Though hopefully not this very bottle, because it would almost certainly have gone off during the intervening century and now be much too valuable to crack open.

What does the front label look like?

Robinson Old Tom Strong Ale front of bottle

It doesn’t have one. The embossed words “Robinsons Old Top Strong Ale” make up the simplest roundel in the world. The sticker in the centre is of a winking cat. Unconventional, but it does it for me. Let me know what you think in the comments at the end of the post.

The back label is the place to go for the details. And what a crowded contrast to the front it proves to be.

Robinson Old Tom Strong Ale back of bottle

Cleverly, the vital statistics are right at the top. The alcoholic volume of 8.5% is there again in case you missed it, and that this is a 330ml bottle. Under that, because this is a quirky British ale, not a charmless European, we get a story. Highlights of which are that Old Tom is “almost as old as the brewery itself” and that the head brewer illustrated the recipe in his note book with the cat’s face.

They then describe it as a “dark and warming superior strong ale with aromas of dark fruit and a palate booming with ripe malt and hops followed by a deep port wine finish”. Crikey, that sounds intense. And, as I write this in the middle of July, I realise this is as inappropriate as Cornetto in the middle of winter. It sounds like the complete opposite to citrusy golden summer ale.

They continue the story with news that Old Tom has won lots of prestigious industry awards and that it “is now recognised as one of the most famous strong ales brewed in England”. Under that, sensibly, they have the message “Drink with caution! But most of all ENJOY.” Wise words. Even though I can’t remember that last time I saw an alcoholic on the street drinking anything other than lager or cider.

Next to that is a tiny logo. The only words I can make out on it as “Beer Academy” and “Beer Education Trust”. If that means anything to you, leave a message at the end of this post.

Then there’s a bit more about who made this bottle. It turns out to be by a brewer Frederic Robinson Ltd. And it comes from Stockport. What’s more, the Interweb has reached northern England, because they have a website at www.frederic-robinson.com. I implore you to have a look too, as it’s better than the Flash-heavy tripe that the big brewers pass off as websites. The downside is that it will make you want beers that you can’t buy in shops where you live.

Under that, we reach the seriously small print. We learn that this bottle as 2.8 UK units of alcohol. Or, to put it another way, just two of them will be enough for the nanny-state to start tut-tutting you. Most of the rest of the text is in other languages. Sadly, because this isn’t a continental bottle, the only ingredient we know about is “malted barley”.

With nothing else to read, we reach the fun bit. What does Robinsons Old Tom Strong Ale taste like? Will I like it? And do I think you should try it? I’m looking forward to finding out.

Robinson Old Tom Strong Ale poured into a glass

Watch out for the insane head. It’s volcanic at first, so give it a minute to settle down. Thanks to the bottle neck, it’s almost impossible to pour without some glugging. The thing you notice right after that is just how dark it is. This is a long way from pale yellow lager. Not as dark as porter or stout, but getting close.

What does Robinsons Old Tom Strong Ale smell of? Surprisingly, it’s not all that pungent. To smell it, a good hard sniff is in order. The bottle described it as having “aromas of dark fruit”. Pretty much what I’m picking up. It smells of Christmas pudding.

What does this room temperature Robinsons Old Tom Strong Ale taste of? The label described it as “booming with ripe malt and hops followed by a deep port wine finish”. My first sip reveals it to live up to the intense and interesting billing. First impression are that this is going to be one of the most intense, strongest tasting and most wine-like of any ale I’ve ever tried.

A couple more sips, and I’m beginning to figure out the flavours and tastes. It really is one of the most complex and interesting ales I’ve tried. You could easily pass an entire evening trying to fathom it.

The flavour is warmly malty and hoppy. But it’s the aftertaste that dominates Old Tom. It has the most intense, strong, full-bodied, warm and fruity-in-a-port-or-Christmas-pudding-way aftertaste I’ve ever tasted. I must admit, it was a bit much at first, but I’m quickly warming to it. That or it’s warming me up to it.

What am I liking about Robinsons Old Tom Strong Ale? As you’ve probably guessed, quite a lot. I love that it’s a strong ale in a world that has little room for it. I love that it’s so different to any ale you will ever drink. And that scores it serious points for taking risks in distinctiveness and uniqueness. I like the strong taste and high volume. I like how quickly you get used to it and how drinkable it is, once you have. All of which points to quality ingredients and brewing. And you’ve got to love the packaging.

What am I not liking about Robinsons Old Tom Strong Ale? First up, it’s hard to find, and pricey when you do. The intense rush of taste will floor some people. Unless you’re adventurous or used to strong flavours, the first sip could put you right off. And that would be a shame. I love that it takes risks with the taste, but the flipside of that risky strategy is that it won’t please everyone.

How can I sum up Robinsons Old Tom Strong Ale? No wander it has won so many awards over the last century. Distinctive, exceptional and Christmassy are just some of the adjectives I’m going to choose to describe it. This is one of the very best British ales, but be forewarned, it might be too strong for you.

Rating: 4.275

Have you tried Robinsons Old Tom Strong Ale? Got an opinion even if you haven’t? Do please leave your opinions, corrections, facts, recommendations and places to buy here in the comments.

Beer Review: Shepherd Neame Master Brew Kentish Ale

24 June, 2009

AN important gap is being filled this time. So far, I’ve tried Shepherd Neame Bishops Finger Kentish Strong Ale, Shepherd Neame Spitfire Premium Kentish Ale and Shepherd Neame Whitstable Bay Organic Ale. All of which were high-quality and unmemorable. So will the missing piece of the jigsaw, Shepherd Neame Master Brew Kentish Ale keep the mould or break it?

Shepherd Neame Master Brew Kentish Ale bottle

It looks much like its cousins. Helpful if you want to catch ‘em all. You also have to love the long thin neck. It is the Cynthia Nixon of beer bottles.

The neck label is much the same as the other Shepherd Neame ales. But it’s still worth looking at because the one fact on it is so impressive.

Shepherd Neame Master Brew Kentish Ale neck label

If you were “Britain’s Oldest Brewer” dating back to 1698, you would want to advertise the fact prominently too.

With no more facts to read on the neck label, the front label is the next place to look.

Shepherd Neame Master Brew Kentish Ale front label

Well, it’s a roundel. Not much to say about it. Master Brew is, apparently, a Kentish Ale and a “Local Hero”. I don’t know what that means, but it sounds good.

It’s a contemporary take on the traditional roundel, but I can’t help feeling that they’ve missed a few important things. Things like the alcoholic volume and what the beer is like. Hopefully the back label will have some actual information on it.

Shepherd Neame Master Brew Kentish Ale back label

Out of portrait and into landscape for one of the widest beer labels out there. In one of the most terse “back-label stories”, they tell of how well loved Master Brew is in Kent, and that they sponsor Kent County Cricket Club. Depending on which former colony my overseas readers are from, you will either be thinking “how quaint and English” or “what a waste of money because we always beat you at the game”.

Under that are some truly useful tasting notes by someone called Andrew Jefford. He uses words such as “amber-russet”, which I think is about the colour. To describe the character, he uses words such as “invigorating” and “mouthwatering”, which he puts down to “pungent Kentish hops” and “crystal malts”. I don’t know about you, but I’m still confused.

It is nevertheless the “Local Hero” of Kent, and the Kentish people who know about beer. If you want to grow hops, Kent would be one of the best places in the country in which to do it.

Over on the smaller-print side are the vital statistics. This 500ml bottle (why not a proper pint?) has a 4% alcoholic volume which weighs in at exactly 2 UK units of alcohol. All rather ho-hum. The European Geographic Indications adds a little bureaucratic glamour to the mix. And if you want to read more, the website printed on the label in tiny lettering is www.shepherdneame.co.uk. To save you time, the homepage for Master Brew is at http://www.shepherdneame.co.uk/beers/index.php?master_brew.

Right at the bottom is a huge block of tiny, multilingual text. But don’t bother squinting to read it. The only even slightly interesting detail is the postal address of Shepherd Neame in Faversham, Kent.

With that out of the way, we get to the fun bit. What does Shepherd Neame Master Brew Kentish Ale taste like? How good is it and should you buy it? Let’s find out.

Shepherd Neame Master Brew Kentish Ale poured into a glassPOURED PHOTO

From the moment the top pops off, we’re odd to a good start. You can start to smell the pungent Kentish hops, and it pours very satisfyingly indeed. The neck comes into play by making it very difficult to pour without glugging. Normally a bad thing, this time it’s good, because it leaves your pint glass with a thick layer of froth. Shame it doesn’t fill the whole glass though.

You also have to like the copper colour. Or “amber-russett” as they call it. Whatever it is, it looks the part of an English ale.

What does Shepherd Neame Master Brew Kentish Ale smell like? You can smell something from the moment you pop the cap. But figuring out what you’re sniffing takes a little work. My nostrils detected the likes of malt, vanilla and something tangy. But you’d be advised not to trust my nose. If you can figure out what the odours are, leave a comment at the end of the post. Whatever the smell is, it’s complex, not too strong and quite nice.

What does Shepherd Neame Master Brew Kentish Ale taste like? Straight away, the first sip tells you that this ale is all about hoppiness. A couple more sips reveals that there is very little flavour in the palate before the big hoppy aftertaste hits. It’s not devoid of flavour. It’s just very hard to notice the slight maltiness.

Shepherd Neame Master Brew Kentish Ale is a hoppy tasting. That means you’ll find the interesting part in the aftertaste. Usually, the experience is like drinking a hedgerow. If they choose some unusual hops, like the Ruddles County I tried a few days ago, it’ll be different again. Well, Master Brew tastes different again, this time thanks to those Kentish hops. It’s still like drinking grass, leaves and twigs, but this time from a hedge in a well loved garden. There’s some bitterness, but not that much. What lingers is the taste of arable fields, and boy, does it linger.

What do I like about Shepherd Neame Master Brew Kentish Ale? I like the taste. It’s a slight variation on the old hoppy English ale, so it scores half a point for distinctiveness. Like its cousins, it is very well made. You can tell that natural, good quality, things went into it. All of which make it satisfying and drinkable.

There are however, one or two drawback to Shepherd Neame Master Brew Kentish Ale. For a start, it’s not a complex and mysterious. There aren’t hundreds of flavours and tastes to leave you deep in thought. They describe it as “invigorating” which I took to mean the same things as “refreshing”. No, it isn’t refreshing. Or light. And that makes it less than easy for the novice to drink. Even though it does the “hoppy ale” thing very well, it doesn’t exactly push the envelope of originality. And that, like its cousins, might possibly make it less than memorable. Lastly, it is on the gassy side.

How can I sum up Shepherd Neame Master Brew Kentish Ale? Maybe I’m being harsh on it. It’s probably supposed to be a straightforward, traditional, hoppy Kentish ale. And in that, it is excellent. I’ve enjoyed this almost-a-pint of Master Brew. It’s a thoroughly satisfying, uncomplicated ale.

Rating: 3.9

Have you tried Shepherd Neame Master Brew Kentish Ale? Do you want to? If so, do please leave a comment. Share your opinions, corrections, expert advice, recommendations, requests and places to buy in the box below.

Beer Review: Ruddles County

18 June, 2009

THE hilarious yet delicious Ruddles Rhubarb is the only bottled Ruddles I’ve tried so far. That needs to change. Goodness knows what Ruddles could pull out of the bag next. So, from a shop in Bethnal Green in London’s East End, here is a £1.89 pence bottle of Ruddles County.

Ruddles County bottle

Where have I seen this shape of bottle before? You can put money on there being a familiar name on one of the labels. And, because it’s transparent, it’s like having a hunk of copper cast into the shape of a bottle.

Ruddles County neck label

The neck label isn’t what you’d call informative. With nothing more than the “Ruddles County” name, there is nothing to see here.

Ruddles County front label

It’s not very much better down on the front label, either. Yes, I love the “Ruddles” horseshoe motif. The slogan “Proper Country Ale” is exactly what you want to read on a bottle of old British ale. And the alcoholic volume of 4.7% isn’t bad. It’s not strong either, but it’s not bad. It’s just the absence of clues about the ale itself that annoy me. Hopefully the back label will have some actual information about what this beer is all about.

Ruddles County back label

A quick glace reveals that the back label of Ruddles County has all the information I want, and much more besides. They describe it as an “English Ale with a distinctive flavour of dark toffee and caramel combined with a crisp bitterness, derived from using rare Bramling Cross hops.” Sounds yummy.

Even though I know nothing about them, the addition of rare hops makes me want it even more. If you happen to know why Bramling Cross hops are so rare, leave a comment at the end of the post.

Below that we get the “story” bit that makes British ales that bit quirkier than those from the rest of the world. This ones rambles on about their horseshoe motif coming from the tradition of royalty and peers of the realm giving a horseshoe to the lord of the manor when they pass through England’s smallest county, Rutland. An idea that seems like a completely ineffective toll. Wouldn’t money have been a superior currency instead of horseshoes? That sort of small-scale thinking must be why the county of Rutland have ended up so small.

Under that is all the small print. There’s all the usual public health nonsense about recommended units of alcohol. This 500ml bottle, with its 4.7% payload weighs in at 2.4 UK units of alcohol by the way.

Under that, in very small writing is the answer to the question of why the bottle looked so familiar. The answer is that Ruddles is made by medium-sized regional brewing giant, Greene King, of Bury St, Edmunds in Suffolk. Their website is on the label too, which is www.greeneking.co.uk. To save you time, their Ruddles section is at http://www.greeneking.co.uk/launch_ruddles.htm.

So, what does Ruddles County taste like? Is it any good? And should you buy it? Time to crack it open and find out.

Ruddles County poured into a glass

Well the colour isn’t a surprise. The head is not bad. It’s nearly enough for you to forgive it for being a 500ml bottle instead of a proper pint (come on brewers, give us the pints our glasses were made for).

What does Ruddles County smell of? It smells interesting. Not strong. I’m not very good at this, but will go for words like ‘hoppy’ and ‘biscuity’. There’s probably some more odours in there too, all of which can be caught with the umbrella word ‘complex’. In short, it smells of ale.

What does Ruddles County taste like? The first sip reveals something stronger and more intense than I was expecting. The second sip is dominated by a taste of spicy hops. This if going to take a few more sips to understand.

A few more sips later, and I’m making progress. The label described the flavour as a “distinctive” one of “dark toffee and caramel”. Maybe they do. To me, they blend into something malty and biscuity. All of which is swept away by an intense rush of spicy, hoppy bitterness in a long, satisfying aftertaste. That must be where those Bramling Cross hops come into play.

What am I enjoying about Ruddles County? I like that intense hoppiness. Probably because of the Bramling Cross hops, it’s a different type of hoppiness to other hoppy ales. Instead of tasting like you’re drinking a hedgerow, it tastes like you’re drinking a hedge with dash of pepper sauce. It’s distinctive. It’s a risk taker and for that, you have to admire it. I like how well made it is. I like how clean and crisp it is.

What don’t I like about Ruddles County? Honestly, it’s hard going. If you normally drink the dark and heavy beers of the world, this won’t be a problem for you. I just happened to find it less than easy to drink. That distinctive, strong bitterness is going to put off some drinkers.

What’s the verdict on Ruddles County? It is a hoppy English ale, but different to the other hoppy ales. Those Bramling Cross hops give it an edge that the other hoppy ales don’t have. It proved too much for little old me, but some of you might love it. It’s good, but one for the adventurous drinker.

Rating: 3.7

Have you tried Ruddles County? What did you think of it? Do please leave your corrections, opinions, requests, recommendations and places to buy, here in the comments.

Beer Review: Wells Bombardier English Premium Bitter

16 June, 2009

BACK to normal this post, and I begin with an apology. So far, I’ve enjoyed Wells’ outstanding Satanic Mills and tasty Burning Gold Bombardier bottled beers. But managed to completely overlook the much easier to find English Premium Bitter. I don’t normally go for straight-up bitters as they’re usually uninteresting, but the ubiquity and patriotism of English Premium Bitter means it must be tried. And, of course, it fills a gaping hole in my coverage of the Wells’ splendid Bombardier range. So here it is. A bottle of Wells Bombardier English Premium Bitter. Bought for £1.99 pence from a shop on Bethnal Green Road in London’s East End.

Wells Bombardier English Premium Bitter bottle

Looking as solid as an old English oak tree, Wells choose their bottles well. What’s more, they’ve been learning what you should do with the neck label. Brewers, take note, they have put useful information on it. Have a look at this.

Wells Bombardier English Premium Bitter front of neck label

Well, okay, on closer inspection it’s more marketing speak than useful information. But it’s a start. Does “burnished copper ale” mean anything to anyone reading? If so, leave a comment at the end of the post.

The front label keeps things simple, traditional and English.

Wells Bombardier English Premium Bitter front label

What more can you say about it? It’s a shield in the design of St George’s Cross. The middle keeps things simple. It has the “Wells” logo with the words “Brewers Since 1876” which is a long time ago, but not a very long time ago. Under that are the banners and crest saying “Bombardier” “English” “Premium Bitter”. Under which is that all imported alcoholic volume. 5.2% alcoholic volume makes it strong, but not very strong.

What of the back? The neck label is again the place to start.

Wells Bombardier English Premium Bitter back of neck label

It looks like a lot of information until you realise that it’s the same piece of information in many languages. All you need to know is that it was brewed by “Wells & Young’s Brewing Company Limited, Bedford, UK, MK40 4LU.” So there you have it. Interesting beers from a boring place.

The back label proper is where the real detail lies.

Wells Bombardier English Premium Bitter back label

They open with a description so informative and concise, I don’t need to paraphrase. Instead, here it is in full: “Our own natural mineral water, the ripest English Fuggles hops and crushed Crystal malt deliver this experience of England in a glass. Peppery aromas give way to the perfect balance of malty richness, tangy hops and sultana fruit on the palate, with a long, soft spicy finish”.

Mouth watering stuff. And, remarkably informative and concise. Not like the marketing speak and dearth of facts we normally put up with. Well done Wells.

Under that is the list of ingredients. And it’s good new again. It’s the full thing, not the one or two ingredients you usually get. Nothing too out of the ordinary apart from two E numbers. Now they’re not welcome. British ale is supposed to be as natural as a hedge covered in brambles. For the curious, the list is “Water, Malted Barley, Sugar, Hops, Yeast, Colour E150C, Stabiliser E405.”

Under all the uninteresting small print are a few bits of miscellany. The web address is www.bombardier.co.uk. And, with an alcoholic volume of 5.2% and a 500ml bottle (why not a full pint?), Bombardier English Premium Bitter weighs in at 2.6 UK units of alcohol.

With that out of the way, we get to the fun bit. What does Wells Bombardier English Premium Bitter actually taste like? Is it any good and should you buy it? Let’s find out.

Wells Bombardier English Premium Bitter poured into a glass

Frustratingly, this English Premium Bitter fails to fill my English pint glass. The blotchy head doesn’t improve matters either. But the “burnished copper” thing starts to make sense. The photo might not show it, but it’s the colour of copper that hasn’t been cleaned in a few years.

What does Wells Bombardier English Premium Bitter smell of? It’s not a smell hat fills the room. Hold your nose over the glass however, and you’re rewarded with a luscious smell of hops. The label described the smell as “peppery”. There’s certainly something giving it an edge.

What does Wells Bombardier English Premium Bitter taste of? The first two gulps are nice ones. And ones that tell me this is to be sipped, not gulped. First impression is that there’s not a whole lot of flavour or taste. It’s there, only being a little more subtle than your typical English football fan.

A few more sips, and I’m making some sense of Wells Bombardier English Premium Bitter. The label described things like “malty richness, tangy hops and sultana fruit” and a “soft spicy finish”. I think it’s got most of those things, but less of them than you’d expect. There is a mildly fruity taste, but blink and you’d miss it. The aftertaste is soft and gentle, but with such a long, lingering finish, you don’t miss it as easily. I’m going to describe it as malty, biscuity and hoppy.

As for bitterness, the whole flavour and taste experience is so soft and gentle, I’m amazed it’s even called a “Bitter”.  Admittedly, I don’t know much about beer, but if, like me, you were expecting an onslaught of taste and bitterness, Wells Bombardier English Premium Bitter will come as a surprise.

What do I like about Wells Bombardier English Premium Bitter? I like how well it’s packaged. I like the subtlety of flavours and taste. I like how that subtlety was such a surprise. I like how easy to drink it is; and how much of a surprise that drinkability is. And, like the other Bombardiers, it is very well made with some excellent ingredients.

What don’t I like about Wells Bombardier English Premium Bitter? I don’t like my English Premium Bitter to adopt a Euro 500ml and failing to fill a pint glass. Personal preference here, but I was hoping for flavour and taste that the human tongue could detect. Okay, that’s an exaggeration, it is still better than most lagers, but the labels built up hopes of more. Lastly, those E numbers. Is quality ale supposed to have E numbers? Experts, do please leave your thoughts in the comments at the end of the post.

To sum up, Wells Bombardier English Premium Bitter is a surprisingly soft and gentle bitter that’s nearly as easy to drink as lager. I think some people might call it a “session ale” for those reasons. It reminds me of Fuller’s London Pride and Marston’s Pedigree. If you want a drinkable ale, but don’t want a summery taste or to feel like you’re easting it, this is the one to choose.

Rating: 3.8

Have you tried Wells Bombardier English Premium Bitter? Can you answer any of the numerous questions raised in the ‘review’? Do please leave your answers, opinions, corrections, requests, recommendations and places to buy, here in the comments.

100,000 Hit Self-Congratulatory Post

11 June, 2009

IN less than a year, my little Big Log shot from 10,000 total views to more than 100,000 earlier today. How did that happen? The 200-300 daily hits would partly explain that. But who’s reading? And why? For that, I’m hugely, and humbly grateful, and chuffed by my tiny band of fans, regular readers and subscribers. Even if I don’t know what you get out of my ill-informed opinions.

The other 999,995 readers however, are harder to explain. Mostly, they stumble upon this pokey little blog while searching for their favourite lager. Some of whom proceed to leave comments ranging from the rapid to the stultifyingly obnoxious about how their subjective opinion is better than my subjective opinion. Nevertheless, I’m chuffed to bits that anyone reads these posts at all.

Since starting this blog, there has been a flood of no one asking “what are your favourite beers?” Answering that question is not easy. Partly because there are so many types. And partly because people in anoraks will grumble.

Throwing caution to the wind, the most memorable was the Ruddles Rhubard I tried a year ago. No other beer smells of vanilla and tastes of rhubarb while still being an outstanding ale. If it had a face, it would be wearing a spinning bow tie and a clown nose. That’s the kind of lunatic creativity that reminds you why British ales are so much fun. The trouble is, I’ve never seen it on sale since.

So what do I drink that you can actually buy in the shops? If you’ve read any of the recent posts, you would probably guess Hoegaarden White Beer. And you’d be right. Sure, the Dutch, German and Austrian competitors are excellent. But you can’t buy any of them in the thousands of tiny off-licenses and supermarkets around London.

If I’m in the mood for something a bit more substantial, Guinness Foreign Extra Imported took over from Dragon Stout as my favourite stout.

If getting drunk quickly is your thing, then Gaymer K Cider is the way to go. Okay, I’ve not exactly taken it too the limit. But I think you stand much less chance of ending up in A & E with vomit down the front of your tee-shirt than you would with super-strength lager. Alternatively, a Scotch and ginger or Gin and tonic (as I’m enjoying right now) are both equally refreshing ways of intoxicating yourself quickly.

Any other honourable mentions? Crikey, there’s too many to name. There are countless ales from around the British Isles that are outstanding or special in their own funny way. Badger Tangle Foot, Badger Golden Glory, Fuller’s ESB, Wychwood Fiddler’s Elbow, Young’s Double Chocolate Stout, Wells Bombardier Satanic Mills and Innis & Gunn Oak Aged Beer are the first that sprung to mind.

Then there’s the genius that is are European ales. Special mentions here go to Duvel Belgian Golden Ale and Leffe Blonde. Both of which I buy regularly, not just because they are exquisite, but because the shops here sell them.

Cider turned out to be less interesting than I’d hoped. I’m still looking out for ‘real’ cider. Until I find it, Westons Premium Organic Cider is the best I’ve tried so far.

Then we get to the ones from further away. Frustratingly, most that turn up here are lagers. But despite this handicap, there are some stunners. For your curry, Bangla Premium Beer does nicely. From Poland, Perła Chmielowa Premium Pils Beer and Leżajsk Beer surprised by being good. Obolon Velvet proved that the Ukraine, and Eastern-Europe in general knew how to make excellent beer that wasn’t lager. And Pilsner Urquell astonished by living up to the hype. And not bad going, considering I knew almost nothing about beer when I started this blog.

In an attempt not to be typecast as the “beer guy”, I’ve tried my hand at other things too. Snacks for instance. The trouble with that was how difficult it was to find something interesting to say about a pickle. To save you from having to read my snack food reviews, all you need to know is that MS Black Country Pork Scratchings, Smiths Scampi Flavour Fries and John West Boneless Sardines are delicious. And that most pickled gherkins are the same.

Citizen journalism wasn’t beyond the bounds of my Big Log. Taking full advantage of London’s incredible East-End, I’ve been caught up in all kinds of danger. The protests at the Olympic Torch relay got me hooked on the adrenalin rush. But that was nothing compared to being “kettled” and charged at by riot police at the G20 protests in the City.

Those are the bits of the past I can remember. Where is it going in the future? I have no idea. But I can’t wait to find out.

What are your favourite posts or comments?

What do you like or dislike about this blog?

Got any requests for anything you want to see written about here?

Thanks for reading, chaps! Normal opinionated rambling will be resumed next post.

Beer Review: Edelweiss Weiβbier

3 June, 2009

ALL too soon, I’ve reached the last of my three bottles of cloudy, live, imported wheat beer, from ASDA. Grolsch Weizen was Dutch, lowest priced and outstanding. Franziskaner Hefe-Weissbier was German, more expensive and made with quality.  What then, will this expensive £1.99 pence bottle of Edelweiss Weiβbier from Austria be like?

Edelweiss Weissbier bottle 

To recap, wheat beer, especially the cloudy ones, are favourites. They’re some of my favourites, and, judging by your comments, they’re your favourites as well. But they’ve all been a little bit different. And that’s very good news for anyone bored of identical Pilsner style lagers.

Edelweiss Weiβbier is going to be my first beer from Austria. So, what am I expecting from the country that brought us Adolf Hitler and bizarre human enslavement, yet also Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the Alps?  Will Edelweiss Weiβbier be a Ferdinand Porsche or an Arnold Scwarzenegger? I don’t know. Maybe the bottle will tell us?

Starting, unusually, with the bottle top.

Edelweiss Weissbier bottle top

German translators, do please do your thing in the comments at the end of this post. “Naturtrüb” must be something to do with “nature”. And “Hefetrüb” is something to do with wheat. I’m completely lost with “Obergärig”.

Edelweiss Weissbier neck label

What can I say about the neck label? It looks nice. It says the most important things like “Wheat Beer”, “Original” and “Import”. And it has the Edelweiss logo, which has a picture of some alps and the year 1475. Which is a very long time ago.

The main front label however is one of the most impressive shields ever stuck to a bottle of beer.

 

Edelweiss Weissbier front label

It has enough English language to let you know what it is. And enough German language to confuse you and remind you that it really is imported.

First stop is the crest. There’s all sorts of strange gubbins attached to it. Does anyone know the story behind it?

Most of the words around the border are self-explanatory. But, I must ask the friendly translators out there to help with “Hofbräu Kaltenhausen”.

All very symmetrical, precise and Germanic. There’s no details cluttering up that label. Maybe the back label has something a little more descriptive?

Edelweiss Weissbier back label

Err, not exactly. It’s all in English, so it must have been put on especially for us. And, it’s entirely made up of small-print details. No descriptions, no stories about ancient traditions by monks in abbeys. Just the clean facts. How very Germanic of them.

Still, small-print facts are small-print facts, and these are no less interesting. Edelweiss Weiβbier was brewed by “Brau Union Ősterreich AG” Then there’s an address with a possibly answer to the Hofbräu question from the front label. Has anyone been to “Hofbräu Kaltenhausen, A-4500 Kaltenhausen, Austria”? What is it like?

There’s a full list of ingredients. Much more interesting than the abridged version we get here in the UK. Under that is the full table of UK units of alcohol recommendations. The full thing. True to form, it would be impossible for them to stick to the rules and more than they have.

Then there are the vital statistics. Edelweiss Weiβbier comes in the ubiquitous 500ml bottle. It has an alcoholic volume of 5.5%. Both of which bring it to 2.8 UK units of alcohol.

And that’s it. There is nothing left to say about the bottle. The flipside is that we get to the fun bit quicker. What will Edelweiss Weiβbier taste like? How will it compare to the handful of other wheat beers that I’ve tried? Will it be worth the extremely high price? I’m looking forward to finding out.

Edelweiss Weissbier poured into a glass

Yes, yes. It’s not the right glass. I know. But just look at the beer. A magnificent frothy head tops the cloudiest of amber beers.

One of the best things about unfiltered wheat beers is the smell. Does it let Edelweiss Weiβbier down? Not a chance. The smell is every bit as odorous, rich and mouth watering as the rest of them. Crucially, is there any hint of citrus? Some of them have it, others smell more like a loaf of bread. This one is hard to tell. You can smell the wheat, but is that fruit in there too? It’s hard to tell.

So what does it taste of? A couple of gulps weren’t enough to answer the question. This is going to take a few more sips to figure out. A few sips later and I’m enjoying Edelweiss Weiβbier. It seems to be a straight up wheaty wheat beer like Franziskaner Hefe-Weissbie, not the citrus explosion sort, like Grolsch Weizen. There is almost no flavour, which is smoothly followed by a rich, wheaty and malty taste. No bitterness, but a lingering and very taste that clings to your tongue.

More than half-way through already, so what am I enjoying about Edelweiss Weiβbier? I like what it does and how it does it. The wheaty and malty taste is superb. It’s also different to the few other unfiltered wheat beers that I’ve tried. And that scores it marks for distinctiveness. Making it even more distinctive is just how light it is. With no flavour, the entire experience sits on the taste and aftertaste. And, unlike most lagers, it works. I also like how rich and full bodied it is. And, as is the way with these old continental wheat beers, how well made and easy to drink it is.

There are however, one or two drawbacks with Edelweiss Weiβbier. If, like me, you love the smorgasbord of flavours from the likes of Hoegaarden White Beer, you’ll come away a tiny bit disappointed. And, by having almost no flavour but immense taste and aftertaste, it’s a lopsided experience. Like standing on one leg. That leaves it an unrefreshing experience. And also one that’s heavy. I feel like I’ve just eaten a thick, if tasty slice of bread. And, as is the way with beers like this, get ready to burp.

What is the verdict on Edelweiss Weiβbier? I liked it. But that’s hardly surprising. I like all live, unfiltered wheat beers. What is surprising is what Edelweiss Weiβbier does to it. It goes down the wheaty tasting wheat beer route, and still manages to be different to the other wheaty tasting wheat beers. How did it do that? If you’re curious, then try one. If you can find it. And afford it.

Rating: 4.4

Have you tried Edelweiss Weiβbier? What did you think of it? Can you translate anything from the bottle?

If so, do please leave your opinions, corrections, translations, requests, recommendations and places to buy, here in the comments, every one of which I read.

Beer Review: Franziskaner Hefe-Weissbier

28 May, 2009

Grolsch Weizen, the first of my three European wheat beers, from Crossharbour ASDA was a good one. No, wait, “good” is the wrong word. It was outstanding. Almost, but not quite toppling Hoegaarden White Beer off of its delicious throne.

If you only check back here on the rare occasions when you remember to, you may be wandering why I’m not being cynical. Usually by the second paragraph, I’ll be well into mocking your favourite lager. Frankly, it’s shocking me too.

Sadly, my microscopic knowledge of beer offers few answers. The only explanation I can proffer is that it is “live”. Specks of yeast are floating around inside the bottle. So much in fact, that they make the beer cloudy. That’s why it looks different to most other lagers, beers and ales which have had everything filtered out. And, somehow, that yeastiness turbo-charges the flavour, making it tastier and more interesting. If you can offer a better explanation, the comment section at the end of this post is the place to leave it.

So, what is the second of my three wheat beers? It is Franziskaner Hefe-Weissbier, which is also the second most expensive of the lot, at £1.84 pence. And it looks like this.

Franziskaner Hefe-Weissbier bottle

Sticking to conventions, it is brown. Look at it just right though, and you can see a white cloudiness within. And that sight makes my mouth water.

Franziskaner Hefe-Weissbier neck foil

It doesn’t have a neck label. What it does have is a huge piece of neck foil with the word “Imported” written all over it. Don’t get me wrong. “Imported” is a very welcome word. Especially in a world full of licensed foreign beers from Luton. But, it would be nice to have some kind of useful information up here instead.

Franziskaner Hefe-Weissbier front label

The front label gets all German. The roundel has writing so Germanic, that it’s hard to read. Inside the roundel is a hearty monk looking into a tankard. If you’ve got a beer made to an ancient recipe, you want to know that European monks are involved.

Under that are some German words. Deploying the technique of guesswork and Google to deduce the meaning, “Spaten-Franziskaner-Bräu” must be the full name of the brewery. “München”, I think, is the city of Munich, which places Franziskaner in Bavaria.

On the left hand side of the label is a taste of things to come elsewhere. It only says where on the bottle to find the ‘best before’ date, but because it does so in several different languages, it’s the length of a medium sized paragraph.

The right hand side is the same. Picking through the impenetrable block of multilingual text, one finds the vital statistics. Not that you’ll feel rewarded for the effort. This is the ubiquitous 0.5L bottle with the standard 5% alcoholic volume. That does make it a tiny bit stronger than some of the other white beers though. There’s also the full address of the brewer, in case you want to write them a letter.

The big-block-of-multilingual-text syndrome gets even worse on the back.

Franziskaner Hefe-Weissbier back label

The closest it gets to an ‘story’ is the sentence “Franziskaner Hefe-Weissbier Hell is brewed in accordance with German Purity Law”. Would that be the same obsolete Reinheitsgebot that Grolsch Wetzen is made to? All I know is, it’s unfortunate to have the word “Hell” in your company name.

In the big block of text is a list of ingredients. That list is “water, wheat malt, barley malt, yeast, hop extract”. I don’t know about you, but I love how these European beers are obliged to give a full list. Not the “contains malted barley” that you get over here.

The only other bits of information are addresses. One of them is the postal address. The other is a web address at www.franziskaner.info. Sadly, I can’t get past the age check screen, because it was designed for resolutions higher than what my monitor is set to. That makes the website a paragon of awfulness. Nevermind, the most important facts are there on the front page. It turns out that Franziskaner has been made with Bavarian brewing tradition since 1363, which was literally a very long time ago.

With nothing else to read, we get to the fun bit. What does Franziskaner Hefe-Weissbier taste like? Is it better or worse than the brilliance of the other wheat beers? I’m looking forward to finding out.

Franziskaner Hefe-Weissbier poured into a glass

Yes, I know, it’s the wrong type of glass. Until I get the ‘right’ kind of glass, this one will have to do. Forget the glass though. Just look at the beer.

A cloudy, amber colour with a thick, foamy head make Franziskaner Hefe-Weissbier just exactly how you want a wheat beer to look. Compare it to Grolsch Weizen and it looks almost identical. And that’s not a bad thing.

What does Franziskaner Hefe-Weissbier smell of? It smells much like the other live beers. And that, again, is a very good thing. Because it smells delicious. Pungent too, so you won’t miss it. Franziskaner Hefe-Weissbier does smell more wheaty and less of fruit and citrus than some, though. For some reason, it’s making me think about bread. Is that a hint of the taste?

What does Franziskaner Hefe-Weissbier taste of? The first couple of sips are pleasant ones. They don’t disappoint, but they do reveal a different range of flavours and tastes. The hints dropped by the smell were right. Franziskaner Hefe-Weissbier seems to be about a straightforward wheaty experience, and less about complex citrussy fruitiness. This is going to need a few more gulps to pin down.

A couple more gulps and some of my suspicions are confirmed. Franziskaner Hefe-Weissbier is mostly about the wheat, but also about maltiness. This is one of those beers where you’ll struggle to find the join between the flavours and the aftertaste. Neither are particularly powerful. About half-way through, and Franziskaner Hefe-Weissbier is as rich and smooth as I’d hoped, with no lingering bitterness.

What am I enjoying about Franziskaner Hefe-Weissbier? There is a lot to enjoy here. I’m liking how honest and straightforward it is. It’s as if the Medieval monks decided to make a simple wheat beer, and make it as well as they could. I like how you can taste the wheat, which gets lost the complexity of others. I like how these things make it different from the other wheat beers. I like how rich and full bodied it is. I love how well made it is. All of which come together to make it an outstandingly satisfying and drinkable bottle of beer.

What don’t I like about Franziskaner Hefe-Weissbier? There are one or two tiny, niggly, issues. If, like me, you were hoping for the complex wave of fruity and citrussy flavours and tastes of its competitors, you’ll be a tiny bit disappointed. Not very disappointed. Just a tiny bit. You might think that because of that, it wasn’t as light and refreshing as you’d hoped. Beyond that, you might not like how gassy it is; to which most wheat beers are particularly prone. Most of all, you’ll balk at how expensive and hard to find, Franziskaner Hefe-Weissbier is, here in Britain.

How to sum up Franziskaner Hefe-Weissbier? It is very, very good. It delivers three-quarters of what I hoped for, but it completely nails the things it does. I opened the bottle hoping for the same complex blend of wheatiness, citrus and fruit that Hoegaarden White Beer and Grolsch Weizen won me over with. Instead, it focussed on the wheatiness and did it better than that other wheaty wheat beer, Erdinger Weißbier. I’ve learnt a lot from this roundup. I’ve learnt that there are wheat beers that have lots of fruit and citrus. And others that stick to the basic wheatiness. And, of the ones I’ve tried, Franziskaner Hefe-Weissbier is the tastiest of the wheaty wheat beers. So far. Does that make any sense?

Rating: 4.4

Have you tried Franziskaner Hefe-Weissbier? What did you think of it? Can you translate anything from the label or explain what makes wheat beers special better than I can?

If so, do please leave your opinions, translations, explanations, requests, recommendations and places to buy, here in the comments, all of which I do read.


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