Stouts for a snowy weekend

Salty stout!

Salty stout!

Last weekend I ended up venturing on yet another trip to Bristol for a bit of a rest from the dreariness of Southampton and a change of scenery. This time, the all important beer selected for the train was the fabulous Netherlands brewery De Molen‘s Spanning & Sensatie (9.8%ABV). This Russian Imperial Stout is one of their limited editions and boasts additions of spice, salt and chilli! Like any great stout, the opaque thickness and deep chocolate brown with tight tan head lace the sides of the glass enticingly and there was an excitingly chocolate malty aroma with a twist of spice. The unusual flavor was typically stouty dark chocolate but it fell more onto the raw cacao side with a little sourness. The salt at the end was mouthwatering and moreish and there was a so so subtle hint of warmth at the back from the chilies.

Since the weather took a turn for the worst and snow and winds descended on the city, we spent a lot of our time in our favorite pubs (OK any excuse). After dropping into the lovely Bag O’Nails where I enjoyed a refreshing, biscuity pint of Box Steam Broad Gauge (4.8%ABV), we headed to Brewdog where I found my top beer of the year so far, Mikkeller Black (17.5%ABV)  (other beers be warned – this will be a tough act to follow). I was overjoyed to see this on the bar as I wanted to try it for ages! The hypnotically luxurious aroma was like vanilla smooshed up with dark chocolate mars bar,

Super-happy Bierebelle!

Super-happy Bierebelle!

deceptively sweet sticky chocolate caramel in a minstrel black with a golden head. Surprisingly the strength doesn’t hit as hard as you might expect but it starts of super-bitter, courtesy of the French Cassonade sugar (thanks for this fact @BrewDogBristol).it takes a few sips to really get into and surrender to the dark malty burnt chocolate and slight tang of red berries with an alcoholic afterburn on the tongue. But my goodness the bitterness was delicious. CBC cannot come quickly enough – I can’t wait to get immersed in the decadent world of Mikkeller and friends!

I can’t really mention the trip to Brewdog without commenting on the amazing service I saw there. Have any of you fellow beer snobs ever been into a super-awesome pub where somebody strolls in off the street, asks for a lager and is scolded or mocked for suggesting such a thing? It’s pretty funny and a lot of bar staff can get away with such banter due to their charming personalities. However, Molly (really hope I got the name right) in Bristol trumped such behaviour with her brilliant knowledge and enthusiasm and may have even started some lucky customers off on the path to discovering more awesome beer. I saw three groups walk in who were new to Brewdog and possibly just sheltering from the blizzard conditions, nervously asking if there was any lager. Each group stayed and tried something new as Molly enthused about what set their beers apart, poured tasters and talked about the ingredients and brewing process with a lot of charm and a sense of fun. If we can have somebody like Molly in every craft beer/real ale pub who knows how many folk we can coax away from the drab old commercial fizz?

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Santa’s Little Helper

Sorry Santa this one's mine

Sorry Santa this one’s mine

It’s my last Sunday in Southampton before I go back to the beautiful North for Christmas. I’ve wrapped my presents, posted my cards and I’m almost packed – that calls for an extra special festive beer. Mikkeller Santa’s Little Helper 2012 (10.9%ABV) sure looks the part in its elegant 750ml bottle, topped off with red foil like it wants to be fancy champagne. I didn’t know what to expect since, as is often the case for Mikkeller, there’s not a lot of information other than the ingredients on the label! It’s a Belgian, strong, dark ale and it’s a deep opaque black with almost a reddish hue. The aroma is malty and fruity with some of the alcohol coming though, think boozy Christmas cake. The taste is just on the right side of candy sweet with a juicy mix of plump raisins and cherries, orange, nutmeg and cinnamon smothered in smooth chocolate. The warm glow at the finish is reminiscent of a fine Venezuelan rum. Exceptional. I’ll definitely be looking to buy another for Christmas Day and I’ll be looking forward to next years incarnation! If you have a little more discipline than me, I imagine this would be lovely to age for a while.

 

Wakey wakey breakfast’s ready!

Hi all. It may look like Bierebelle has left the building but I assure you I am alive and well. Just very very busy but I’m quite excited about putting some blogs together about my recent trip to Vancouver during their Craft Beer month. I am pretty sure you will be eager to book your flights when you see the amazing variety of beer out there by the most creative collection of brewers I’ve seen outside of the North of England. However, since my return to the UK I haven’t actually been home long enough to write anything, with long, tiring days at work, a trip to London and a weekend away in Bristol for the OH’s birthday.

A special occasion such as the OH celebrating another year wiser was the perfect excuse to break open a rather lovely looking bottle we had been saving for a while, Mikkeller‘s Beer Geek Bacon. It’s the smoked version of his amazing Beer Geek Breakfast espresso stout. Since we had just secured tickets to the Copenhagen Beer Celebration, this was pretty appropriate. Although I would normally only drink a breakfast stout for breakfast, we drew the line at the 07:05 train, unlike the chaps who got on a stop later with their bottles of Stella. I’m glad we waited until we were checked into the hotel as this beer was worth savoring. It was one of the blackest beers I have seen with a gorgeous tan head and delicate bubbles and an aroma of mouth-watering smokey caramel. It had the most satisfyingly smokey taste I have had in a smoked beer for a long time and finished with a lot of salt, a little like really crispy, almost burnt bacon glazed with a golden brown sugar. There’s even a hit of wakey wakey espresso and he burnt smoke lingers on the tongue for a long time after the final sip. A delicious breakfast in a glass and I didn’t even set off my smoke alarm with the grill to enjoy it.

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!

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.

Bierebelle in the Big City

Since last Saturday was a day of fixing bikes, grocery shopping, household chores and other angelic pursuits (ok maybe the cigar and pint of Dark Star Original not so angelic) Sunday was bound to become carnage. What do they say about all work and no play…? And where better to run amuck than foggy London town. Since the other half is a Geordie, it seemed only fair to start the festivities on the train so breakfast was a lovely Mikkeller Koppi Tomahawk x Guji Natural (6.9% ABV). When you think coffee beers, you would normally think of the darker varieties but, given that this is Mikkeller, it probably comes as no surprise that they actually came up with (possibly a world first) coffee IPA! Made in collaboration with the Sweedish coffee house, Koppi, organic Ethiopian Sidamo coffee beans were used along with American Hops in this unique beer.

Coffee IPA - World First?

Nice breakfast coffee

First impressions from the aroma made me slightly anxious as the smell was predominently hops with a hint of banana and only a suggestion of coffee. Having been smashed in the tastebuds by the hops some of Mikkeller’s creations in the past, I approached with caution. However, I was rather pleasantly surprised by the overall candy-sweetness, followed by a little waft of coffee with a lingering dry, hoppy finish. Altogether a very well-rounded flavor with the coffee sneaking up as you get through the bottle. It’s rather too drinkable and made an excellent start to the day.

So with a Mikkeller already down the hatch, the day was off to a good start. To be fair, it made Camden that bit more bearable which was our first port of call. After battling through a few shops, we decided that we had earned a little rest. As Brew Dog shareholders under their Equity for Punks scheme, we were also duty-bound to finally pay their Camden pub a visit. It’s less than 5 minutes walk from the mayhem of Camden tube station but my goodness it’s a blessed little oasis of calm. Plus, the staff are friendly and know their beer. We found a lovely seat by the window and made a start on the taps. I had been very keen to try the Hitachino’s Nest at the event held by Brew Dog a couple of weeks earlier but sadly live too far away so I was excited to see that they had two on tap, as well as a wide range of bottles.

The first beer had to be Hitachino’s Nest Nipponia (6.5%ABV) which is their golden ale. What a beautiful beer to look at. A cloudy yellow gold with a little bit of a light head and teeny tiny bubbles.The aroma is sweet toffee with tropical banana and pineapple and a little hops. The flavour is so sweet and lovely like a banana split with a little delicate hoppiness at the end, followed by toffee. The end is long and dry with a tiny waft of smoke and this makes it quite more-ish. I could have gone for another one of these but Nipponia wasn’t the only one on the taps I was eager to try! Thankfully, I had brought my lovely boyfriend along as an accomplice which meant we could try twice as many beers.

Brew Dog Camden

Swatting up at Beer School over a Hitachino's Nest Nipponia

For his first drink, being a bit of a hop-head, he went for a Mikkeller 1000 IBU Light (4.9%). A cloudy sunset in a glass, the scent is exotic, hoppy and spicy with fruit and maybe even raisins. It’s such an incredible, complex scent but to taste it’s hops, hops, HOPS. Just an uncompromising assault of hops and take it from me as not-an-overhopped-beer-fan, it’s actually rather good! First, you get a hoppy smack round the face, then there’s a little sweet flourish where you can bask in the sunset colours in the glass, then the hops come back round and kick you in the ass for good measure so you’re left with a long, bitter end. My partner actually believes the bitterness of the light is actually harder-hitting than the full-strength 1000 IBU.

By now, we had resigned ourselves to the fact that we would probably be here a while – it’s not every day you’re presented with such an amazing range of ales to try (especially since there’s about two decent pubs where I live)! It’s also incredibly rare to find not one but two Hitachino Nest beers on tap. However, I have a little confession to make involving a tiny mix-up. Being impressed by the Nipponia and obsessed by owls, I had intended to go for a half of the Amber (5.5%ABV) and the OH wanted to the try Southern Tier Phin & Matts (5.4% ABV) since we are also big STBC fans. In the interests of keeping my reviews as honest as possible, I try not to find out much about the ales before I try them. This kind of backfired when we were presented with one deep, dark, minstrel chocolate brown beer and one glass of light, golden sunshine (some might say Amber?). So we decided that the dark was the Phin & Matts and the one we had labelled ‘Amber’ was the Amber. It was only when I read an online review of the Phin & Matts that I realised our mistake. Big fail, big lesson learned at the Brew Dog Beer School!

Like a nerdy little CAMRA beer-ticker, I took my little note-book to London with me so I could use my notes to bring you this blog so I’m just gonna switch the notes on the Phin & Matts and the Amber like nothing ever happened. In fact, it wasn’t such a bad mistake since both were lovely in their own ways. The Hitachino’s Nest Amber had the aroma of black treacle and a rich chocolatey burnt toffee flavour with hops at the end. More burnt toffee snuck in for well-rounded finish.

The Phin & Matts on the other hand was pretty much the opposite. Wafting out of the sunshiney glass comes the sweet smell of hops, vanilla, bananas and peaches. Now generally, I prefer dark wintery styles but if more summer beers were like this I might be a little more tempted. The taste is liquid sunshine – sweet, refreshing citrus, white chocolate and vanilla with a finish of sticky-toffee-pudding.

The mighty Milwaukee

Bratwurst, pickles, saurkraut, onions...what's not to love!

All this drinking was making me hungry so to accompany our beers (and soak up the booze to prepare us to be released back into society) we decided to sample the delights from the Brew Dog kitchen. The small menu is mainly pizza & burgers. Since they had run out of pizzas the decision was made a little easier so I went for the hot-dog inspired Milwaukee and the boy had a anglo-Indian Whitechapel. Then we decided they were both so good we switched and had half of each.

After our little food-stop, we decided that as share-holders, we owed it to ouselves to make our next half-pints Brew Dog so I ordered the Rip-Tide Imperial Stout (8%ABV) and the OH had the Hops Kill Nazis (7.8%ABV). I always expect great things from Brew Dog. I love their no-compromise attitude and the sense of fun they bring to their brewing. The Stout was everything I had hoped for; deep, dark liquorice black in colour with a thick, foamy head and a caramel, malt and dark chocolate aroma. The taste was an unsurprisingly sturdy, well-rounded and strong Imperial Stout. In each beer, Brew Dog cram in about 15 times more hops than most brewers so the trademark bitterness was still there but this gave way to a long finish of burnt toffee and black coffee with a waft of smoke.

I’m sure Hops Kill Nazis has way more than ’15 x the hops of other brewers.’ Seriously – how on earth is this stuff so deliciously drinkable? It’s such a pretty dark treacly amber and the hops aroma is so true to the flavour which is citrusy and floral but with not a lot of the dryness you might expect from this style. The finish is just delightful and thirst-quenching leaving you with an impression of lemon sherbert.

So as you can see we made ourselves very much at home at the Camden Brew Dog for a large part of the day but there was still some shopping to do and we had plans to visit The Cask too! Our plans to visit any of our other London haunts had pretty much vanished as soon as we saw the burger menu. That’s probably enough for one blog post though – watch out for London part two!