Sunday, 25 November 2012

                                                         Episode IV
                                          A NEW HOP
                     It is a dark time for the Empire. Although British Brewers
                          are now producing beers to rival their US cousins, the British hop
                     growers have been driven underground, protecting their diminishing industry.
             Evading and rebelling against the trend, a group of Hop Merchants led by Charles Faram 
  and Co Ltd have established have established a stronghold in the English county of Worcestershire.
Working in secret they have developed a super hop variety to take on the USA. It is time, now the .....
 Scene 1: The Ale House Chelmsford
Holding back a great tide of constantly flowing beer (and occasionally falling on the floor and covering it) a secret is hinted at. A rumour. There may be a way to repel, compete with the rebellion new world.
Cut to ...

Scene 2: My house. Sitting in front of the tv, laptop open.
"What's this ?"
"Why, it's an e-mail from Liberty Beer !"
Tentatively I open the communique ...
It reads ...
I close the laptop, intrigued.
The Strike Back has begun.
 Scene 3: Wednesday 21st November - London
Leaving work I take the train to London town. Fighting and weaving my way through on-coming hordes of x-wing fighters  commuters, I manage to negotiate safe passage to my destination the Death Star  the Earl Of Essex , Islington.

 Scene 4: The Earl Of Essex
An expectant crowd gathers around the bar. First to speak is Admiral Ackbar Justin from Liberty Beer:
   "The fight-back has begun. A new beer, brewed with a new hop, and you gathered are the first to know its name: Jester !!!"
Thunderous applause (probably).
"To tell you more let me introduce the brewer, General Antilles  Justin from Moor Beer "
  "Friends" he began "In association with  Charles Faram & Co Ltd we are able to bring you  today a beer brewed with a hop to rival anything that  US or Antipodes has brought to the party. It's name is: The Empire Strikes Back !"
"Mon Mothma Will from Charles Faram has travelled across many galaxies up from Malvern to be here today. And he has the secret with him"
   A hush fell.
Will stepped up onto the podium bar stool. In has hand he had a small packet of green hop cones.
"Here is the future, our future regained, our heritage returned. I have in my hand the Jester hop, the product years of work. Many hop varieties were tested to bring you this today".
"Now taste the future!"

 Scene 5: The bar at the Earl Of Essex. Glasses filled with a pale yellow liquid are passed around.
We toast the future.
We taste the future.
I bring the glass to my lips and I am struck by the aroma.
Rhubarb and custard with a hint of lemon and vanilla. Nice.
I taste.
More rhubarb, more pronounced this time and with the addition of stewed gooseberries. This is a very British beer with a very British taste.
"Of course" I exclaim "we fight back on our terms, with our flavours."
I understand.

Scene 6: Later. A table toward the rear of Mos Eisley Cantina the Earl Of Essex.
I join a table with a Corellian smuggler and a Wookiee  Justin from Moor and Will from Charles Faram. They are discussing the hop.
The words are beyond me and my simple upbringing on my Uncle's moisture farm on Tatooine background in banking but in front of me, in a bag, is Jester. The Force behind the Empire's return.
I know that this is the just the beginning and I know that this is just the first wave but tonight, in a London neighbourhood the Empire Strikes Back !

Thanks to Steve at Liberty Beer for the invite, being an all-round good bloke, and letting me have a copy of the original artwork, particularly as I neglected to take any pictures of the beer or pump-clip!
Thanks to Thomas Marshall for his contacts and without whom I wouldn't have been in a position to taste this.
Thank too to all the lads from Moor beer and Will from Charles Faram for being involved in this and taking the time to talk to me about the beer and the hop. Cheers guys.
Additional thanks to Matt Curtis, great beery friend and fellow blogger, for diverting me to Craft Beer, Islington afterwards. You can read his account of the evening here.
For another report you may also want to read this by the lovely Sophie Atherton, from whose hands I first smelled the Jester hop (distinctly hempy with a hint of lemon in case you're wondering).
Lastly to Andy Parker for the image of the pump-clip. Thanks fella.

It was a great evening with a wonderful beer and a superb crowd of people. Everyone was very friendly and it was nice to put faces to people I had only previously become acquainted with on twitter. I love you guys !!! (Gushes)

The End?
It's The Beginning.                                

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Meantime Brewing Co. -
Barrel Aged Greenwich Hospital Porter 6.0%

I've drunk and reviewed many beers this year and I think it's fair to say that as a drinker, and particularly as a blogger, that it's only natural to get a sense of thrilling anticipation when you're able to obtain and drink a rare beer, or one that hasn't been reviewed before.
This is neither, but I've still got the same feeling as I sit down to write a review of this beer as when I wrote about the Mikkeller - Mexas Ranger or the Red Fox - Foxymoron earlier this year.
There are two reasons for this. The first is that I've not had it before, well it would be the first reason if that were true. It is true to say that I've not had a bottle of this before but I have sampled it, which brings me to my second reason, the last bottle I saw was nearly twice the £9.99 that I paid for this one.
That was at The Rake in Borough Market in London. I was up in town showing a good friend around some of the excellent pubs in the area, (which had included The George, the subject of a recently released and rather good book Shakespeare's Local by beer writer Pete Brown). To cut a longer (and much less interesting) story short, a bottle of this beer was bought by an American visitor and his friend at the next table to us who we had got into conversation with. They began extolling its virtues and passed us their glasses and the bottle to us to taste and view, and whereas I can't remember the beer I do remember spotting that 'Brewed Exclusively for Marks & Spencer' on the bottom of the label had been covered over in black marker. I don't know if the American and his chum ever noticed it but fearing an international incident we made our excuses and went to Brew Wharf instead.

Seeing this beer back in my local Marks and Spencer today brought this all back, so I couldn't resist buying it.
Brewed to an original 1750 recipe using seven different malts it is then aged for four months in Marks and Spencer's own Islay whisky barrels from Ian Macleod Distillers Limited. Brewed at the historic Old Naval Hospital Brewery in Greenwich, whose fascinating history can be viewed here and is well worth taking the time to read.
It's time to meet this beer properly, and on my own terms.
The first thing that is apparent when removed from it's delightful carboard tube is that the 750ml bottle, in common with many of this type of release, is corked and caged. The cork was particularly hard to remove but I was rewarded with a sweet milk chocolate aroma coming from the neck of the bottle. It pours a very dark brown with a lovely sustained cream-coloured head. The aroma is a smooth mix of coffee, burnt toast and chocolate with a nice smoky alcoholic edge coming from the barrel aging. Smooth and a liitle thin over the tongue, the dominant taste is the whisky smokiness from those Islay casks with the merest hint of coffee and chocolate settling at the tip of the tongue. I'm slightly disappointed that the latter flavours aren't a little more dominant and the balance of flavour doesn't seem quite right. The finish has a faint touch of creamy vanilla which dries into more whisky smokiness that lingers in the nose for some time.
I quite like this beer. It hits many of the right (smoky, peaty) notes for me and even though it does remind me a little of Adelscott, a beer I definitely do not like, it is nowhere near as overpowering. I'd have liked more of those chocolate, coffee and vanilla notes I picked up but I have to declare that I do love a good smoky, peaty single malt scotch whisky. The only downside for me is the price. At very nearly ten pounds, this doesn't really taste like a ten pound beer. I was warned by others earlier this today on twitter that this might be the case, and I have certainly found that out for myself.
I'm just glad I didn't pay more !

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Quando a Roma. Ottenere la birra. Bere birra.
Part Two.
(When in Rome. Get beer. Drink beer.)

I began part one of my Roman adventure with a quote from Sir Walter Scott, but this time I'm going to cross the Atlantic and quote Abraham Lincoln. "I see a very dark cloud on Americas horizon, and that cloud is coming from Rome" might not be one that immediately springs to mind when writing about beer but if I change it (admittedly more than) slightly to "I see a very bright light on the beer horizon, and that light is coming from Italy" then you might see where I'm going with this.
Italian craft beer is a relatively new phenomenon and really a 21st century one, with the number of micro-breweries now in excess of 300, but Italy still has the lowest consumption per capita per annum of beer in Europe. However, the quality and diversity of what these small breweries are producing is quite astonishing. Taking their influences not only from existing European beer styles and the US Craft Beer scene, but also from its wine-making heritage and the quality and diversity of its produce to create some truly amazing and unique beers.
What more could we do but investigate further.

Our first full day in Rome dawned, and we knew what we wanted to do so it was a short train ride to the Flavian Amphitheatre or to give its more common name the Colosseum. It is a truly awe-inspiring feat of Roman architecture and engineering and we spent a long morning exploring and marvelling at its magnificence. Lunchtime beckoned and as we had had a tip-off that there was a place serving good beer nearby we set off. As it turned out, Open Baladin wasn't where it had been pointed out to me on the map, however with a little more walking it was relatively easy to find. We were very glad that we did, for this is the sight that greeted us when we walked in:

Opened in 2009 and showcasing it's own and other Italian beer, it also had Thornbridge's Jaipur and Brasserie Dupont: Saison Dupont on tap on our first visit. Thankfully for us the staff had a better grasp of English than my pitiful attempt at Italian and very soon I was drinking a prickly hoppy brown ale called Jehol by Birrificio BiDu with its delightful spiced milk-chocolate finish, whilst we perused the menu. Sarah, my wife, opted for Panada, a big refreshing citrus Belgian Witbier by Birrificio Troll which she became quite partial to. Both the beer and the food menus are only in Italian but relatively easy to translate and the staff are also more than happy to help. I went for the Halloween burger, it being that time of year. This was a fantastic meaty delight, coming in a pumpkin bread bun, topped with pumpkin seeds and with a slice of pumkin inside. I have to say that it was one of the best burgers I have ever tasted. I needed another beer to go with this, and Nora, one of the house beers by Birrificio Baladin (pictured below),  fitted the bill perfectly. Made with Egyptian kamut grain and flavoured with myrrh and ginger, this had a huge spicy and herbal orange cough-drop taste with more than a nod to a Belgian spiced ale and was simply staggeringly good.

Lunch over, we spent a wonderful but eventually tiring afternoon exploring the fantastic expanse of Roman remains that is the Forum and the Palatine Hill.
Dinner that night was prefixed by a bottle a Birra Peroni by Birra Peroni at our hotel, before my stunning veal steak served in sage butter at Ristorante Cesarina just up the road from where we were staying, was accompanied by a few large glasses of draught Birra Poretti by Birrificio Angelo Poretti. Only a pale lager, and available in the UK, but it went down rather well.
Wednesday morning it was raining and we were off to the Vatican, arriving there by taxi with our driver showing considerable skill in negotiating the traffic, squeezing into spaces seemingly the exact size as his car. St Peters Square was filling up with people so we realised something was up. There was no access to the library which I had quite fancied seeing so we took the opportunity to walk around the outside of an entire state. It took us around forty minutes to circumnavigate the 110 acre site and as we arrived back at St Peters the Pope had put in an appearance, holding a mass and explaining the crowds.

We had seen enough so, keeping the Tiber on our left-hand side we made our way back to Ma Che Siete Venuti A Fa to see if we could get some lunch there or whether Bir & Fud was open. Sadly the latter wasn't so I settled for a draft Caterpillar, a collaboration between Italian brewers Brewfist and the Danish Beer Here. This was sharp and hoppy, waking up my taste-buds and leaving them tingling with a slightly aniseed finish.
Looking at the map we noticed that yesterdays lunch venue, Open Baladin, was only a short walk away so saying our goodbyes we set off to get some food.

It was a little fuller than the day before, and we wanted to be a little more adventurous with our menu choices so we settled down with a Baladin NormAle while we decided. This is a dry, floral golden ale which went down rather nicely with our starter selection of, for want of a better description, deep-fried potato balls with various cheese and bacon fillings.

Next beer up was a Birrificio del Ducato Nuova Mattina (New Morning), a deliciously sharp spicy saison brewed with ginger, green pepper, coriander and chamomile. Sarah chose a salmon risotto for her main whilst I went for another delicious burger, this time topped with various Italian meats and served in a flying-saucer-shaped bun.
Delicious food finished it was time for  another beer, and I wanted something hoppy so I went for a Grooving Hop by Birrificio Toccalmatto. Helpfully the beer-board in Open Baladin lists them by style so chosing is easy with everything listed very clearly. This was my favourite beer of the trip, Hallertau Mittelfruh and Nelson Sauvin hops combining to give a big sharp blast of dry grapefruit. It was lip-smackingly gorgeous.

Paying the bill I got into conversation with one of the owners, whose name I apologise for forgetting, about beer and blogging. I was delighted that he took details of my blog and gave me a copy of 'Il quaderni di Open Baladin - Carte delle Birre' , a nicely illustrsted booklet covering the history of Open Baladin and many of the breweries and beers it sells. It is in Italian but I'm gradually working my way through, a bit at a time, translating as I go. I also picked up a bottle each of Birra del Borgo ReAle and its Dogfish Head collaboration beer My Antonia (Italian version). I had intended to take these bottles home with me but after a wet meander back to our hotel, stopping briefly to shop for souvenirs and to pick up a bottle opener, we needed something to help us dry out. These really helped.

The ReAle was dark and fruity, quite sweet with hints of chocolate and some background hoppiness. My Antonia, in Dogfish Head style, is continuously hopped for 60 minutes with Simcoe, Warrior and Saaz hops, and is an Imperial Pilsner, big with pine, citrus and caramel which has a clean crisp finish, making it a very interesting beer. Incidentally, drinking these in the bar would have cost 20 Euros each but taking them away meant they only cost 5 Euros a-piece, something you may want to consider.
A fantastic dinner in a nearby restaurant we chose at random was accompanied by more Birra Peroni. This meal was awesome, and in fact we didn't have a single bite to eat in the whole of our time in Rome that was anything less than exceptional. It was quite late by the time we climbed into bed.
The next day was the last of our short break, and as we weren't being picked up for our 6.30 pm flight back to Gatwick until 3.30 pm we spent a relatively slow morning getting ourselves packed and sorted before checking out of our room around 10 am.
With no particular place to go (isn't that the title of a Chuck Berry song?) we made our way to the Trevi Fountain before realising we hadn't visited the Pantheon. This glaring omission was quickly rectified as it was conveniently nearby, and after a magnificent spicy pizza in a restaurant off the main tourist traps, we both fancied a beer. Astonishingly (!) Open Baladin 'just happened' to be nearby (and if you that believe you'll believe anything) and we went for one last drink in the Eternal City.
It was even busier than before and my wife decided on one last Birra Troll Panada, while I went for another saison. This was a spritzy peach and green apple tasting Vielle Ville by Birrificio del Ducato, and while we were discussing the beers we'd had there we were approached by an English couple on the next table on their first visit there. Talking about beer is something I love to do, and so is sharing. I'd offered a taste of my saison to them and I was delighted that as we were leaving I was delighted to hear the husband order one. He'd previously confirmed himself as an ardent wine drinker but was impressed with this 'cider-like' style which he hadn't heard of before.
Soon we were back at the hotel collecting our bags and it was time to go.
We'd had a fantastic time and Rome is a fantastic city which I'd recommend in an instant, with or without the beery delights.
Gaius Julius Caesar, probably Romes most famous dictator, once wrote "Veni, vidi, vici", which translates from the classical Latin as "I came, I saw, I conquered".
I'd like to paraphrase this slightly and convert it to modern Italian as "Mi e venuto, ho visto, ho bevuto qualche birra impressionante".

I came, I saw, I drank some awesome beer.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Quando a Roma. Ottenere la birra. Bere birra.
Part One.
(When in Rome. Get beer. Drink beer.)

The historical novelist, playwright and poet Sir Walter Scott once said "Methinks I will not die quite happy without having seen something of that Rome of which I have read so much."
It is true that there are many many guidebooks about the Eternal City. The history, art and architecture have inspired many an author to put pen to paper, and while there are several guide books that concern food and wine, they seldom, if at all, touch on beer.
The only avenue open to the beer traveller to Italy is the internet, and particularly its social media networks. Check out the excellent Italy Brews to point you in the right direction. Fortunately I was also helped by my good friend and top beer explorer Thomas Marshall (@tdtm82) and on twitter by Bob Arnott (@RecentlyDrunk) to find the best bars. Cheers guys!
Here's what happened.

We (just me and my wife, Sarah - no children this time) arrived just before lunchtime on Monday (29th October) after a very early start, and as we couldn't check into our hotel for an hour we had a little scout around the local area and found a little pizza place nearby. With my courgette flower and anchovy pizza my first beer in Rome was Birra Peroni - Nastro Azzurro, quite often the best of a bad bunch at restaurants and bars back in the UK. Pleasant enough but having had some exceptional offerings from Brewfist and Birrificio Lambrate in the few weeks before I went I wanted something more.
That was to come later.
After checking in and sorting ourselves out we set out map in hand to explore. The Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain were close at hand, but as wife has my wife has a huge interest in Roman history we found ourselves, after much walking, at the Colosseum via Trajan's column. It was early evening so we didn't go in and our thoughts soon started to turn towards dinner.

Venturing across the Tiber after a quick walk across the Circus Maximus and witnessing the spell-binding sight of thousands of starlings looking for a place to roost, we found our way (eventually) to Bir & Fud. We went in and asked for a table only to be told that it didn't open until 7:30, an hour away. Explaining that we'd come a long way that day, we were directed across the road to Ma Che Siete Venuti A Fa (the bar is pictured above) or Football Pub as it's also known on account of showing football matches on screens strategically placed around the place, all the time.
This is exactly what I'd been looking and hoping for, great beer and a great atmosphere, and I settled down with a wonderful hoppy, malty milk-chocolate edged Black IPA by Birrificio Menaresta called 2 Di Picche (2 Of Spades). I was anxious for more Italian beer, and changing beer direction completely I picked Seta (Silk) a delicious lemon and tangerine tasting Witbier by Birrificio Rurale. A man behind me said over my shoulder in excellent English, "Good choice there". He was putting on his coat to go, and with a swift goodbye he was gone.
 Whilst perusing the board (above) for my next beer, I noticed that another couple sitting at the bar were also English. Seems we were a little early for the majority Italian drinkers (although there were a few in there) and we quickly got talking to them about beer, both British and Italian, with a healthy disagreement over the term 'Black IPA'. It turned out that Vince (for that was his name), on holiday with his charming wife Sue, is the current Chairman of North West Yorks CAMRA , and a thoroughly nice and engaging chap. They, like us, had intended on going to Bir & Fud  but had arrived too early and been ushered in here.
There was time for one more drink so I went for another Birrificio Menaresta beer, Pan-Negar a thin coffee tasting stout with a lovely creamy finish. Thirst suitably quenched, the four of us having struck up an immediate friendship, decided to head across to Bir & Fud for some dinner.
Bir & Fud is best descibed as a linear bar and restaurant and a beer lovers paradise. It was the one place that everyone who had been to Rome had, without exception, said that I must visit. Essentially a pizzeria but the menu stretches way beyond that, and the food is all beautifully presented. After being shown to our seats and scanning the menu, it was time to order a beer from the board (below).
Vince and I opted for the Re Hop by Birra Toccalmatto. This was lemony hop heaven with lots of fizzy sherbert, a little honey and an added twist of lime in the finish. Delicious. For food Sarah and I both went for the Sea Bass and Haddock burger which was simply divine, served with hot and spicy pickled vegetables, whilst Vince and Sue opted for pizza. I washed this all down with a Noscia, a robust citrus hoppy American-style Pale Ale by Maltovivo, and complimented the food nicely.
Time for another beer, and both Sarah and I went for a Weizen (called Weizen) from Birra Artigianale Italiana, Birrificio Italiano (being poured in the above picture). This didn't disappoint either, clove, vanilla, banana and bubblegum flavours working wonderfully together, and this slipped down rather quickly. After a brief interlude where we 'Skyped' the children back in the UK and chatted to a Belgian couple with a baby in a pram at the next table, I went for another beer. Bir & Fud has 3 enormous beer fridges packed with big bottles of Italian beer that is situated right between its bar and the restaurant sections, and one bottle in particular had been catching my eye since I'd arrived:
B Space Invader by Birra Toccalmatto is a much travelled and much transformed beer. Originally brewed as a Galaxy-hopped Golden Ale at Brew Wharf, London as a collaboration brew with Toccalmatto's Bruno Carilli, this Italian version has metamorphosed into an awesome Black IPA. Packed with black coffee, spikey pine, liquorice and citrussy hop flavours it was simply stunning. The perfect end to a wonderful first, but very long and tiring, day.
Saying goodbye to Vince and Sue, we got a taxi back to our hotel.
Sleep was not long in coming that night, and very welcome.
Little did we know the delights that still awaited us ...