A lesson in beer at the Volunteer Tavern

After our train beers, there was just enough time to perk ourselves up with a non-beery coffee before checking into our residence for the next few days, the Future Inn. Lucky for us, we spied an intriguing chalk-board propped up outside our hotel. Beer Festival at the Volunteer Tavern you say? 24 beers? But where!? Thirsty from our travels we were puzzled by the lack of directions on the sign but these are the times GPS was invented for. Unfortunately, Google Maps navigation literally took me through the middle of a ghetto in a sweeping circle to get to the Volunteer Arms. It was 2pm and the po-po were already out making rounds of arrests! After my OH nervously told me to get my phone away and hold my handbag close, we finally stumbled upon the lovely little village-pub oasis of beer we had been seeking. We cut through the pub, noting the admirable selection on the handpumps (which includes a dark all-year round!) to the festival in the beer garden. What a lovely beer-garden too, with plenty of mis-matched furniture to go around and high walls.Since it was East Midlands themed, I was delighted to see a selection from breweries not normally seen in our neck of the woods. I was particularly amused at the inclusion of Blue Bee from Sheffield since, being from North Yorkshire, I do regularly mock a Sheffield friend for not being a proper Northerner. Childish, but he is fiercly proud of his Northern roots!

I started with a Mr Grundy’s 1914 (5%). Being a nerd I appreciate a brewery with a historical theme and gave myself a pat on the back for immediately picking up the WW1 theme. Other beers include Passchendaele & Lord Kitchener. 1914 was a rather deliciously dark stout with a chocolate and blackcurrant aroma. Drinkable, smooth and unchallenging, the hint of hedgerow blackberries and short bitter finish made it just right to savour in the rare warmth of the day. Entertainment, as is sadly often the case, came from two old-school CAMRA relics. I tried not to choke on my beer with laughter as I heard them tutting and moaning about the imminent arrival of Brewdog‘s new Bristol pub. ‘Well I’ve been to the one in Edinburgh’ one proudly bellowed to the other, ‘and all they sell is keg. I ended up leaving.’ It’s apparently all the fault of this silly American ‘craft beer’ fad. All they want to do is make easy-to-store and easy-to-serve beer with no character. It takes no skill to do this silly ‘craft’ beer. So that’s me told then! Real beer, they went on to decide, is Real Ale from a cask. Apart from the Europeans. They’re allowed to do what they want. Thank goodness for that. So Mikkeller, Evil Twin, you’re cool. Brewdog, Magic Rock, go back to school you talentless upstarts!

Taking a break from my lesson in beer, I headed back to the bar to grab me some of that Oyster Stout (4.6%) from local brewer Arbor Ales. I now love Arbor and you will be hearing a lot more about them from me. Wow – if somebody asked me to close my eyes and imagine an Oyster Stout, this would be it. It was the classic little-black-dress of an Oyster Stout – smooth and opaque with a thick, foamy white head and a sweet mocha aroma. A full chocolate malt flavour giving way to silky smooth black coffee and a bitter finish makes this feel so indulgent.Unlike Marston’s, Arbor throw some real Oysters into the boil near the end which I guess almost makes this a meal in a glass?

The richness of the Arbor Oyster set my beery expectations high which was unfortunate for the next one. I’d heard a few people talking about Muirhouse Jurgens Jungle Juice (4%) already but in hindsight maybe it”s just because of the fun name because the actual beer was slightly…forgettable? A golden sessiony bitter with a little biscuit and yawn……. In my boredom I was jealously eyeing up the OH’s selection, Tiny Rebel Fubar (4.4%) which has got me rather excited about this new kid on the Newport Brewing scene. They might be tiny (there’s only two bottles in the range at the moment) but I expect massive things from this brewery. At only 4.4%ABV, Fubar packs more of a punch than other stronger beers in its class. It’s a pale ale with buckets of tangy lemon and honey hoppiness and distinctly bitter and just damned gorgeous. The astounding citrus hop aroma was reminiscent of sherbert lemons at the moment you break the hard candy and it starts to fizz on your tongue. I absolutely cannot wait to see more from the Tiny Rebel. Oh and their marketing’s cute too.

After I’d guzzled the last of the poor boy’s tasty Fubar and he finished the dregs of Jungle Juice, we left through the back gate of the beer garden and realised that we were literally two minutes from the door of our hotel and civilisation. Thanks Google Maps.

Chilling out with Zerodegrees

If you like craft beer and you want it fresh from the microbrewery, Zerodegrees is worth a look. It’s one of my favorite places in Bristol not only for the yummy freshly baked pizza but also because they serve a cracking pint. Since I haven’t had the pleasure of taking a trip to Bristol for a while, I was starting to miss their lovely Black Lager (4.6%ABV). Lucky for me, they also have a bar in Reading where my OH was working this week so the lovely chap hauled a whole 5litre keg all the way home on the train for me! How’s that for service! Now I know for some folk ‘lager’ might still be a dirty word. Most of the tateless upright-drinking chav-fuel you see in your local pint-and-fight venue unfortunately go around calling themselves lager which gives the style a bad name. Contrary to popular belief, lager is a style of beer which has been fermented and conditioned at low temperatures and can be as complex and tasty as any other style. For a cold, light, easy drink, black lager is one of my favorites. When I’m up north and near to Pivni or the York or Sheffield Tap, I’m a big fan of Bernard Black. Back in the South, if I get a chance to go to Bristol, I rely on Zerodegrees for my black lager fix.Everything on the taps at Zerodegrees is brewed on site and they prefer not to pasturise it or remove the yeast which allows it to develop character which sets it apart. However, this means the only way to get it is to go to one of their bars or have some kind and lovely soul bring a mini-keg back. There are no bottles. This is fine if you can get through 5litres in the reccomended 3 days (it does actually start to go on the turn after this – trust me). Previously this has resulted in pretty drunken long weekends in the hotels of Bristol but I’m sure we’ll be more sensible this time as this bad boy is coming to a party with us tomorrow. OK it’s a first birthday party but the kid’s gotta start somewhere.

One neat thing about getting a mini-keg is you get a little tap on the front to dispense it. I don’t know why I find this exciting – maybe it’s because I never fulfilled my secret ambition to work behind a bar. Dispensed into the glass, the lager is a deep black as you would expect and has a pretty thin tan head which fizzes away fairly quickly. The aroma is lots of dark roasted malts with coffee and chocolate characteristics. It’s packed with delicious flavors and is almost like a light, carbonated take on a porter. There’s a little bitterness at the back when I swallow it down but the sweet, smooth coffee flavours steal the show, highlighted by a small hint of dark fruit and vanilla. As lovely as it always has been.

Castles, Ravens and…Piddle in Dorset

So as you know, my adventures up North, where all the best beer is, have come to an end. Until I get up to Leeds and Bradford at the end of August, I’m stuck in the South so I figured I might as well make more of an effort with what we have down here. There must be some pubs and beers worth getting out for. Following on from my recent trip to Salisbury where I made the lovely discovery of The Village pub, I plan to actively seek out the best of what the South Coast has to offer. OK, I haven’t encountered a town quite like York, Sheffield, Leeds, Manchester or Newcastle yet in terms of the sheer concentration of pubs serving good quality, varied beer but there must be some good stuff?

This week we have had the in-laws to entertain so we took a little trip with them to the beautiful Dorset village of Corfe, home to the famous Corfe Castle. Although the pubs seemed to have a rather uninspiring selection on the pumps, we settled on a rather delicious lunch at the Greyhound which boasts the honor of the ‘most photographed pub in Britain’ with good reason. It’s situated slap bang in front of the castle itself. The food was served in generous portions and cooked to perfection; I went for a fresh, locally caught mackerel with perfectly cooked garlic potatoes, but the ale was a choice between Doombar, some other dullness (can’t quite remember!) and Mallard IPA (4%ABV) from Cottage Brewing (Somerset) One poor chap at the bar was so confused he ended up with a half of Guinness and a half of Doombar. In the same glass. I was later advised by Twitter that this is an actual ‘done’ thing known as ‘Black & Tan.’ I am now intrigued. However, since I had never tried the Mallard before and have a soft-spot for train geekery, I ended up with a pint of that. Although it was a lot more mellow than the IPAs I’ve been enjoying recently, it made for a decent lunch time pint with very played-down, mellowed out fruity floral hops.

No pretty little English village is complete without a lovely little village shop and luckily this little shop was well-stocked with Dorset Ales. Surprising that none of these local breweries seem to have made it into the local pubs I saw in Corfe. At least I can get bottles to try at home! First was Corfe Raven (3.9% ABV), a traditional English Porter named for the ravens who have always been resident at the castle. The word ‘Corfe’ is actually derived from the ancient French for raven and it has been said that their presence at the ruins is a good omen. After a little drama with some liveliness opening the bottle, the porter poured out as black as a raven with a light and frothy head, oozing with aromas of chocolate, hazelnut and liquorice. Despite its relatively low ABV, it’s packed with delicious flavours of milk chocolate with some of the creamy characteristics of a milk stout. There’s a little bitter coffee at the back balanced by a touch of sharp raspberries. Pretty impressive!

Next up was the Ise of Purbeck amber ale, Studland Bay Wrecked (4.5% ABV) which actually comes from a micro-brewery at the Bankes Arms Inn, Studland Bay. First impressions were good – the colour was a lovely cloudy burnt amber with autumn aromas of burnt toffee and spices. However, I found the flavour a little thin on the ground and somewhat hollow. Flavours of apples, toffee and spices were finished with a small zing and a touch of bitterness, but it was all too short-lived and straight-forward.

The Dorset week finished with a pair from Piddle, a relatively new but well-loved brewery with a rather childish sense of humour. The first bottle we cracked open was Little Willie, named in honor of the world’s first tank which now resides at top Dorset attraction, the Tank Museum. As we have come to expect from bottle-conditioned beers, this one was just bursting to escape and had an impressively huge, thick head when poured out, although my pouring skills could have also played a part. The deep ruby-hued ale was bursting with bready, fruity aromas with black and red currants. The sweet and sour taste of raspberries and blackberries had the softening touch of toffee and vanilla rounding all the flavours off in a soft little fruity bunde. I found it slightly gasssy but this didn’t spoil it. This was a good example of how I want an English ruby ale to be.

The final drop from Dorset was Piddle’s take on ginger beer. Since the fabulous Grandma’s Weapons Grade Ginger Beer seems to have disappeared, I am again on the search for a new favorite ginger beer. Sadly, Piddle Leg Warmer (4.3%ABV) doesn’t quite live up to the tag line of ‘Proper hot and ginger,’ but it’s still fairly pleasant none the less. It was a very pleasant clear golden colour with no bubbles and it felt quite thin which gave it  a summery beer-garden-guzzler feel. The aroma was full of pure delightful candied ginger which carried into the flavour. It was a very sweet interpretation of ginger with a slight bitterness lurking in the background. The slight bitter dryness left in the mouth reminded me of the feeling after eating under-ripe bananas. Despite the sweetness, there was a little belly-warmth at the end. So the search for Grandma’s special sauce will continue, but if I’m hankering for ginger this one fills the gap nicely.

So, although the style is a little bit lighter than what I go for, Dorset seem to be doing pretty well for beer. On the way back from Corfe, we made a little stop at Swanage to have a look around which seemed to be doing a lot better in terms of serving local beer in the pubs at first glance. This will, of course, warrant further investigation so the Dorset report will continue in the near future…

How Bierebelle learned to Hardcore the Hop

When it comes to food and drinks, I’ll try most things once. Rather surprisingly though, as a lover of beer and real ale, I have actually been fairly conservative in my choices of beverage, deciding if I’ll buy a pint mainly on colour. Porters and stouts will always be my first love, my bangers & mash, my comfy old sweater, the ones I go to for comfort when it’s cold outside and I need a hug. We can all relate to liquorice, berries, chocolate, coffee and malt but when it comes to floral bitterness…really? Part of my long-standing disdane for the lighter side of beer is no thanks to the bland, ‘traditional’ watery pints that  are so common on the real ale scene in the UK using boring old Fuggles and Goldings. Yes, fine if you want to sit in a pub all day getting a gut and cursing ‘her indoors.’ Of course you wouldn’t want something too challenging on the tastebuds, but I’d rather drink water.

It has now come as a bit of a shock to find out in recent years that pale can really be rather interesting! How much I missed out on! Especially on the craft brewing scene. Maybe my tastes have grown up a little, maybe I love a challenge or maybe it’s the sheer variety of hops and all the different flavours they bring to the mix. Pale doesn’t have to be dishwater! It hasn’t been easy – there has been the odd shocker (Stone ‘Ruination’ I’m looking at you) where I’ve literally had to screw my face up from the sheer bitterness. What I say these days is that it’s better to be impressed by how close against the face of undrinkability they can push than be disappointed by slightly flowery, forgettable, frothy water.

So, with my new love of IPA , I was pretty excited by the new project from current darlings of craft, MikkellerBrewdog who have formed an unholy union of ‘I Beat YoU’ and ‘Hardcore IPA’, but would ‘I Hardcore YoU’ be too hardcore for me? Initial reactions at first whiff? Me: ‘Jesus what does that smell of!?’ hands the glass over to the OH whilst listing the hops which prompts the reply ‘they’re asshats.’

Mikkeller ‘I Beat YoU’ (9.7%) is an impish little double IPA which was created at Brewdog, who were probably a bad influence anyway. It features the mighty and relatively new hop Herkules from Germany alongside old friends Centennial, Warrior, Amarillo, Simcoe and Columbus. I had a dance with this little gremlin a few weeks ago and found it immense, intense, beautiful but bruitish in its full-frontal attack. As I said in my review, ‘it whollops you in the chops with a bouquet of lemon, lime, bitter hops, more bitter, but stays sprightly and lively.’ Brewdog’s Hardcore IPA ain’t that shy with a roll in the old hopsicles either; once the Centennial, Columbus, Simcoe are all packed in nicely there, it’s dry-hopped with Centennial, Columbus, Simcoe. So, naturally, the two beers have been chucked in together and those IBU perverts have dry-hopped the living hell out of the unholy mix not once but twice.

The result is a beautifully clear burnt amber golden IPA with the most beastly hop aroma which is floral, herby, piney, citrusy, almost an exotic greenhouse complete with honey bees buzzing in through the windows. The big, generous flavour is surprisingly sweet with a thick texture. There’s lemon zest, grapefruit and honey coating the tongue with a little spicy kick towards the back. It leaves the mouth feeling dry and watering for more all at once as the alcohol sizzles all the way down. As a DIPA goes, it’s more well-rounded than some hop-missiles I’ve tried but still packs an eye-watering punch. I think I’m in Hardcores with this beer.

So now that Brewdog, with help from their friend Mikkeller, have pushed the boundaries of hop insanity, what could they possibly have planned next? Hmmm….how’s about we give the hops a bit of a break boys? Ever heard of ‘No-IBU IPA?’ You would think only Brewdog would be insane enough to attempt an IPA with no hops, but it turns out that they have a rival accross the pond who will also rise to the challenge. The competition in this so-called International Arms Race comes from the crazy fools at Flying Dog. Who will win? I don’t really care either way. I just can’t wait to see what they come up with! All will be revealed this month apparently!

First of the batch

So I meant to continue the beery tour up North on the blog today, but that ain’t gonna happen just yet. As a reward for actually doing some housework today, I was allowed to head up to Bitter Virtue for a tasty beer. In an effort to be less biased to Northern beers (which by the way I still consider to be best), I was on the look out for another local brew. Luckily, there’s another new brewery down our way and this one promises to make us ‘Love beer (again).’ Based in Winchester, Batch Brew is a microbrewery which so far only has one beer out, their flagship black lager known only as, Batch 9 (5%ABV). Although it’s a local bottle conditioned ale, I was at first slightly suspicious. I had heard a rumour that it was a contract brew by Oak Leaf although I could find absolutely nothing about this on the internet and doubt it’s true. The bottle’s incredibly slick-looking for the first output from a young microbrewery and even features a food-pairing recommendation from their chef/taster/resident beer fan Maria. It’s refreshingly modern and I love the heart logo! On their very polished website I would have liked to see some information about the actual brewery though, but that’s because I like to find out about the different approaches brewers take in their methods and ingredients.

The mysterious Batch 9

Even though the actual brewery is fairly mysterious, this beer speaks for itself. Don’t let the word ‘Lager’ put you off. It’s a Black Lager so it’s more similar in style to something like Budvar Dark than Carling! It’s fairly opaque black but has a thin but refreshing mouthfeel. It’s got a lovely dark roasted chocolate malt flavour and a short dry, slightly hollow finish. It has a malty aroma with a little hint of candy sweetness. I’ll be very interested to try future batches. In the pipeline they have 24 (a ‘Robust Porter’) and 50 (an ‘IPA’). Very exciting to see another up-and-coming micro on our doorstep!

Bristol Winterlude

Some readers unlucky enough to not have any trips to York or Sheffield planned (more fool you!) may be pleased to know that this is a little interlude from that particular tale. As you may be aware, I am particuarly partial to darker styles and in my humble opinion Bristol Beer Factory make a fine stout at the best of times. They’re so good that at Christmas my partner and I couldn’t resist treating ourselves to their Twelve Stouts of Christmas which is a great way to try their regulars as well as some special editions. Unlucky for you, this here bad boy is an extra-special edition. Imperial Stout aged in Laphroaig Whisky Casks (9%ABV). Innis & Gunn – you’re toast. We had good times but this stuff is the real deal. This is what happens when you take an already exceptional stout then age it in the oak casks from an exceptional whisky. The ideal Friday evening treat to cozy up with and round off this wet and wintery week.

Whisky in the jar? I'd rather have some of this yummy stout thanks!

The strange thing is, although I know from my whisky-loving companions that Laphroaig is the schizz, I am in no way a whisky drinker. My partner had a bottle a while ago which he savoured and loved but for a warming spirit, I go with rum every time. I did try some a couple of times, but it was just too smokey, too much. The aroma of this stout brings it back vividly; on a blind test, I’m not convinced I could even identify this as a stout, or any other beer. It just smells of Laphroaig. I guess it’s expected since the Stout was aged for six months in oak casks previously used for Laphroaig’s 10 year old whisky. As I’ve come to expect from Bristol, this is a proper, almost black as night stout, opaque and so thick you can roll it around in the glass and watch it coat the sides. The flavour is intense, complex, voluptuous, full. It remarkably maintains the character of the stout with velvety notes of chocolate and takes on the oaky smoke of the whisky, combining to create a deep dark roasted old brown java crescendo finish. You’re quickly left with a slightly dry boozy mouth which makes you long for the next sip.

I really hope this makes a re-appearance at some point, but if not I am still super excited that Bristol will be putting together another twelve stouts this Christmas! Only another 8 months to go! For now, I’m looking forward to catching them at Grillstock, the ultimate celebration of barbeque, beer and hick music. I’m pretty sure last year I was their first customer. Who’s going this year?

False Economy?

Well, we might be in the midst of a recession and looking at the silly old taxman taking an even bigger cut from our beer-money, but at least the weather is lovely. So lovely that I’ve been neglecting my blog in favour of enjoying the sunshine. The shame! So I thought I’d do a topical review for you tonight of a rather nice Pale Ale I picked up in Cheshire from the Spitting Feathers Ministry of Beer range. Spitting Feathers is about as traditional as a brewery could be. Their home, in the village of Waverton, is a farm so the grain used in the brewing process is used to feed the livestock, including the pigs who go on to become tasty sausages made using some of their tasty beer (ahh…the circle of life). They also keep bees and the honey goes into their seasonal ‘Honey Trap.’

The family have been farming in Waverton for five generations so they are probably in quite a good position to understand the importance of pubs in the community and the great brewing traditions here in the UK. They came up with the Ministry of Beer range as a way of expressing their dissatisfaction that ‘successive governments have failed to recognise the importance of these industries.’ I managed to track down their False Economy (ABV 3.8%) which, as an English pale ale, I would normally have dismissed. The label caught my eye though and the description promised ‘so much hop that it probably costs the ministry more than it recovers in revenue.’

False Economy, or just good beer?

It’s actually their winter edition, available from October to December but from the description I assumed it would be more suitable for a springtime sup. Once the beer was in the glass and I got a whiff of those hops and honey, I knew I was right. The color is a cloudy golden haze like runny hunny on a sunny window sill. There’s no bubbles but the flavor is still quite lively with lots of honey and some subtle spice. The bitter hops only come through towards the end before a final flash of honey taking you through to a long, dry hoppy finish with a hint of refreshing citrus. Summer in a glass…pretty much everything you would expect from a good quality pale ale and certainly not a false economy. I’d be pretty keen to try some of their other stuff, particularly their Heritage Ales brewed with brewing historian John Murray (if you got Beer magazine this quarter you would be excited about these too!)

Island Brewery Wight Gold

Beer, bikes, sunshine = perfection

While I’m in a summery mood, I really want to share with you another recent discovery – the Island Brewery of the Isle of Wight. Yes there’s a new kid on the Island – watch out Goddards! I found their very refreshing, hoppy Wight Gold on tap at the lovely Shoe Inn on a weekend bike ride on the South Downs. If you see it, try it. I’m looking forward to seeing more from these guys on my next trip to the Island. Cheers!

Damned Albert…

It’s been a while since my last post so sorry about that! I haven’t abandoned my blog and I have actually had the first part of this post written for over a week but then I decided I needed to buy another bottle to finish the review (excuses). Also, I have spent a rather alcoholic weekend in the beautiful city of Chester for a friend’s hen do. If you love beer by the way, Chester is crammed with real ale pubs. Even the hotel I was in, The Mill, had a real ale pub with 10 rotating guests! So now I have sobered up, I’d like to tell you about two beers from the amazing Struise Brouwers.

Over a decade ago, two Flemish ostrich farmers had a crazy notion that they would start brewing beers for their guest house. Now I would never be one to turn down a juicy ostrich steak, but my goodness, I’m glad they branched out into beer! Since humble beginnings producing regional beers with the aid of a local wine maker back in 2001, De Struise Brouwers now have their own microbrewery and have received numerous accolades including the honor of 2008 ‘Best brewers in the world’ as voted for by readers on Rate Beer.

Amongst their line-up proudly stands Black Albert (13%ABV). Described as a “Belgian Royal Stout” and made with ingredients of only Belgian origin, this noble beast was named for the Belgian King Albert II.

Before I started my beer blog, two of the most memorable bottles the OH had brought back from one of his trips to Brussels were Struise Black Damnation I & II (Mocha Bomb). These stuck in my memory because I absolutely adore the Russian Imperial Stout style and these had some clout and a lot of character. Back then, I hadn’t appreciated that these were the first two of a dozen very special creations spawned from Black Albert.

Dark, sophistocated but a little too short...

Dark, sophistocated but a little too short...

I have now been lucky enough to find Black Damnation IV (13%ABV) right here in Southampton at the lovely Bitter Virtue. IV is the ‘Coffee Club’ edition. To me, ‘Coffee Club’ would make me think of some imaginary sophistocated Al Fresco cafe in Europe where ladies carry dogs in handbags and sip Espresso. This is completely the opposite. The label looks like it’s the kind of beer your mother might have warned you about. A skull grins out from a dark, intricate design which came straight out of the Temple of Doom. The text describes a beer ‘as black as hell, filthy rich in the nose and with a massive taste.’ It shares the first two Black Damnations’ dark, smooth good looks and tight froth cap. What makes this one different is that the Black Albert has been aged for six months in very old rum barrels. The aroma is an intriguingly sweet, malty, rich, dark coffee, like a posh coffee-cream enrobed in a luxurious velvety black chocolate. For a lover of quality espresso, this is pure indulgence. It’s like a thick, warming but naughty bitter-sweet shot of espresso with a little tot of your favorite rum to warm the very depths of the soul. There’s a slight smoke but it’s the rich smoke of very darkly roasted coffee beans, offset by the sweetness of the vanilla. I don’t care if I’m damned – I took a dance with this demon and liked it.

Simply Sumptuous

Simply sumptuous

So now that I had tried three of the Damnation dozen, I had to try the original, hence why this review was slightly held up! Since I had a long train journey to Chester and needed the company, I took Black Albert (13%ABV) along. A crowded train is always so much nicer with an interesting companion. Out of plastic and on a moving vehicle, the Black Albert poured the same rich, dirty black as the Black Damnation IV, but had a slightly effervescent quality with a dark tan head that disappeared in seconds. Maybe this effervecence enhanced the beautiful, addictive aroma of malt, dark cherries and candy-floss which paved the way for one of the most incredible Stouts I have ever experienced. The flavour was rich, gooey, sumptuous dark chocolate gateaux with some of that candy sweetness shining through, the mouthfeel thick like liquid velvet. Right at the end you get a soft malty fruit cake and you’re left a warming alcoholic satisfaction that feels a little naughty like you’ve been stealing the plump kirch cherries from the top of a black forest trifle. The OH had better leave room in his suitcase next time he goes to Brussels for the other 9 Black Damnations – I need to try them all!

Bearded Lady – black magic?

After the discovery that there are occasional examples of brewing magic in the New Forest at the Vibrant Forest Brewery, I have returned to the North for Sunday’s treat. Magic Rock are a Huddersfield brewery inspired by American craft brewing and possibly the dark arts. Having tried a few of their beers up north and been rather impressed, I was keen to get acquainted with their Bearded Lady (10.5%ABV) I had heard about. It’s an Imperial Brown Stout which pours a rich dark chocolate brown with a little bit of a frothy head which was short-lived in my glass, yet hung around a lot longer for the OH (a little weird!). As soon as you pour, you are hit with this big, complex aroma which is hoppy with dark berries and chocolate and a little bit naughty and decadant.

Bearded Lady

A case where blondes do not have more fun

I have very little experience of Brown Imperial Stouts. Perhaps, like bearded ladies, they are fairly unusual. However if this is what I have been missing out on, I’d like to see more of them please. Although there is a hoppy overtone throughout, there is also an indulgent black forest gateaux flavour going on which is bitter and sweet at the same time. The high alcohol content gives it a strong but warming kick, a little like a boozy kirch cherry pudding and the mouth feel is luxuriously thick and velvety. There’s a long, dry, hoppy finish with a little sweet spice but those sumptuously mouth-watering black cherries stay with you.

I think this Bearded Lady and I could get along quite well. She’s dark, strong and complicated but also fruity, generous and fun – I don’t think this is the last time we’ll meet. Don’t worry if people stare, Bearded Lady – it’s because you are beautiful.

A lost afternoon (London part 2)

For the beer enthusiast, London has a lot to offer. The Rake, The Craft Beer Co, The Porterhouse, The Southampton Arms just to name a few. We had started the day with grand plans to at least drop into The Rake but the amazing Brew Dog had us trapped for the best part of the day. We reluctantly managed to drag ourselves out eventually and back out into the big city. Some cake and a walk round St James’ Park were all we needed to prepare for part two of our beer adventure at The Cask.

Nestled into a block of flats in Pimlico, The Cask is an unusual-looking place from the outside. Nevertheless, it’s great if, like me, you have become fed up with being pushed and shoved around central London and just want to go somewhere a bit quieter. It’s spacious, modern and has plenty of seating. The staff are friendly and always ready to answer any questions. It’s just as well because they normally have a few taps dedicated to Mikkeller’s concoctions which I always have to ask about just because there’s different ones every time, normally with charmingly hand-written pump-clips that tell you very little. As well as Mikkeller, recently I have seen a lot of Magic Rock, Southern Tier, Dark Star and Thornebridge on the taps alongside other less well-known brewaries. I never fail to be impressed by their bottle selection which you can also buy to take home. Their selection includes beer from all over the world, most of which I have rarely seen sold anywhere else.

Sadly, as the hours in the day were running out and I had to get a train home at some point, I could only stay for a couple of drinks so I had to choose wisely. My first half was a Southern Tier Imperial Creme Brulee Stout (10%ABV). I always expect great things frorm Southern Tier; I truly believe their Pumpking is the very best Pumpkin ale on the planet and is one of my all-time favorites. The Creme Brulee surpassed expectations. Although it was a deep silky black in the glass, it tasted pretty much like somebody had whizzed up a Creme Brulee in a blender. If somebody had actually liquidised a Creme Brulee and asked me to compare it with this stout in a blind taste test I’m not confident that I would tell the difference. It’s brewed with real vanilla beans for a big vanilla and caramel hit. You even get a sense of the burnt caramel topping. It’s really a pudding dressed as a beer with absolutely no bitterness. I kinda wish I’d had this after my lovely Fish & Chip supper.

Yummy! Fish & Chips

Yummy! Fish & Chips in a posh fryer basket!

Having said that, my final beer of the day was a pretty refreshing accompaniment for the food. To round off the day as I had started it, I went for a Mikkeller with one of those hand-written pump clips I mentioned known as The Big Hunt for Pine (6.5%ABV). Although it wasn’t really extraordinary, this dark, cloudy amber ale did remind me of the lovely pine sugar from the Heston Blumenthal mince pies I’d had over Christmas which made me feel slightly nostalgic. Light and sweet with a little light hops and malt, it was the perfect thing to round off a lovely day in the big city.