Friday, 28 January 2011

Blood, Sweat and Beers: 36 Hours with the Dandy BrewPunks of Fraserburgh

As I struggled to pick up a knife and fork the next morning, I realised that I'd had quite an action packed 36 hours in BrewDog's company. The final straw was attempting to dig out 1400kg of wet grain from the mash tun. Well, it was 1400kg dry, who knows what it was after a mash and sparge - a couple of tonnes? No wonder spearing a button mushroom with a fork was suddenly such an ordeal.

I was in town with Pete Brown and Mark Dredge to brew a beer and host a sell-out beer dinner at Musa, BrewDog's restaurant in Aberdeen. You can have a look at the menu here. I won't wax lyrical about what a great job we did of the beer and food matching (we did), but what I will say is that the cooking there was of an exceptionally high calibre - great quality, expertly executed, with not a foot wrong the whole night. The chef there, Dave More, is a serious talent. We ate and drank into the small hours, and drank some more at BrewDog Aberdeen for good measure.

All of which would explain why team Avery Brown Dredge (as the beer will be called) was such a shambles the following morning. As we babbled our way to the brewery, it quickly became apparent that rather than arrive with a recipe and a plan, we'd arrived with a concept - a noble-hopped strong lager. It turns out that concepts are all very well, but they don't get beers brewed. Sensing that what we needed was a bit of mild bullying, Martin took us out to the hop store and with a cruel-to-be-kind mantra of 'Do what you want, it's your beer', frightened us into formulating a recipe.

1330kg of lager malt. 70kg of malted wheat. 50kg of Saaz hops. 5000 litres of water. Mashing in via an auger with a hopper on the floor, heaving sacks of malt into it, the previous night's cobwebs start to lift. Standing over the mash tun making sure the mash is smooth by pummelling it with a shovel blows away a few more. Head brewer Stewart Bowman supervising our efforts to a soundtrack of obscure German punk ensures that everything goes smoothly. A lunch of fried fish, cooked in a wok of boiling oil heated on their new nanobrew plant, and then we retire to the office for the really hard work - writing the label text.

If ever you want a demonstration of the acute short-term effects of alcoholic overindulgence, put three hungover award-winning beer writers in a room and ask them for 120 word of text to go on the back label of a beer. There must have been a point where, witnessing the dazzling creative power of (and I quote) "the very finest beer writers this side of the Atlantic and rockstars of the craft brewing movement" stumbling over words - no, not even being able to start putting words together - James and Martin must have been considering throwing the lever on the mash tun, throwing us out, and pretending the whole thing had never happened. I nearly fainted digging out the mash tun, but that was easier than coaxing words out of Brown and Dredge.

Of course, the beer isn't even half made yet. After the fermentation, there's a month of lagering and dry hopping to come. We're hoping it's going to be a special beer. It's a homage to beers that we like, brewers that have made a difference to our lives and to our writing, and traditions that need to be worshipped and then smashed to pieces.

BrewDog have come a very long way in a very short time. They've made a lot of friends, and rubbed plenty of people up the wrong way. But the great thing about spending a day in the chaos of their stuffed-to-overflowing brewery that you get a feel for their passion and their playfulness, and also the way that James and Martin can inspire those things in others. The great beer is a fantastic bonus.

RESULTS: The Meantime College Beer Club Poll.

You voted, I listened. Of the 95 people who voted, a slim majority came down in favour of me keeping the bottle to open and blog on at a later date - as you can see, the score was 41 votes to 54. I remain, good gentlefolk, your humble servant, and so am happy to do your bidding.

On a wider level, it also elicited a bit of debate about the club itself, and elitism in general, which I think is healthy. The beers are £15 each, which is undeniably expensive, but not outrageously so - they compare favourably to BrewDog's Abstrakt series, for example.

In an email to me, Peter Haydon from Meantime points to the amount of research that goes into each of the recipes - these are bespoke recreations of historical styles, not whimsical creations (not that there's anything wrong with whimsy, of course). He also suggests joining with friend to split the cost, or even selling one of the bottles on eBay - purely as a collectable, and not for consumption of course.

I'll post soon on the concept of value vs. cost (ooh, I bet you can't wait for that one, can you?), but until then, a couple of questions. What would you pay per year to join a club like The College Beer Club? And would you purchase the bottles individually, even if this meant paying, say 10% more for them than the club members?

Thursday, 20 January 2011

The Meantime College Beer Club

OK, I'll admit that I'm skating on thin ice here. Not only is it a beer so unspeakably rare that it is numbered 74/100, but I actually don't even open it. The reason for that is that its best before date is December 25th, 2023. I know that this is going to be a stupendous beer, but maybe I can leave it in the bottle for a few years yet? I've put a poll on the blog here, so that you can decide what happens. If you want me to commit infanticide on this beer, I will. If you want me to keep it and open it in the future, I'll do that. Just cast your vote.

The Meantime College Beer Club is quite an undertaking. The beers will be, in their words, "wood aged beers, historic beer styles from previous centuries, recreations of lost recipes, plus, of course, the kinds of innovatie new brews upon which Meantime has built a world-wide reputation". I can't pretend that it's not an exclusive club - £350 for 24 bottles of beer is a fair old whack of cash - but what you'll get for that are a series of never-to-be-repeated slices of brewing history.

I'm just as curious as you to find out what the beer is like, although there is also part of me that will have no trouble at all stashing this in the cellar for a few years. It seems a shame not to pop the cork and sample what is, according to Meantime's Peter Haydon "liquid Christmas cake". But equally, bottled beers like this need at least a year or two to settle down and find their equilibrium. So I've put a poll just to the left of this post, below my profile - you get to decide what happens to this beer.

For me, it's a win-win scenario - I'm going to drink this beer at some point, whether it's next month or in 5 years. The question is, what do YOU want me to do?

Sunday, 16 January 2011

FABPOW: Chicken, Chorizo and White Beans with Stone Arrogant Bastard Ale

FABPOW stands for 'Food and Beer Pairing of the Week", as coined by Mark at Pencil & Spoon. It's a nice format, and Mark has the courage to publish his misses as well as his hits, although I've yet to be convinced enough by Rochefort 8 and spaghetti bolognese to actually try it.

I've not written much about food and beer lately, but this was such a great match that I had to. As you can tell from the previous couple of posts, a shipment of beers from Stone Brewing has landed recently, so there's quite a bit of it about (if you look for it, that is). Arrogant Bastard Ale (7.2%abv) is one of those beers that really ticks all the boxes for me - strong, full malt profile, very well hopped, but still slightly sweeter than it is bitter. In fact, here's what I said about it in "500 Beers":

"The air is filled with the bristling aroma of a million zesty, peppery hops drowning in a sea of honeyed caramel, as a wave of Demerara sugar, tropical fruit and more bitter, resinous hops crash onto your palate. What did you expect from a beer with this sort of name? Magnificently uncompromising"

Great, eh?

If I'd stopped and thought about it, I'd have figured out that it would go well with a big, hearty tomato-based stew. As it turns out, this was a happy accident. If you can't get Arrogant Bastard, you could use, err, no, I can't think of a good substitute, sorry. But anyway, this is great one-pot comfort food for dark, wet evenings.

Chicken, Chorizo & White Bean Stew (Serves 2, with leftovers)

Finely chop a medium onion, fry in olive oil for 5 minutes
Smash and chop a clove of garlic, and add to the pan and fry for 2 minutes.
Slice about 10cm of thin chorizo into 20 slices (i.e. about 5mm each). Add to the pan and fry for 5 minutes.
Add chicken - either a couple of small diced breasts, or 4 whole or boned thighs.
Add a sprig of rosemary.
Add a tin of chopped tomatoes.
Simmer until the chicken is done.
Add a tin of drained butter beans, mix and warm through.

Serve with crusty bread and butter, and a large glass of Arrogant Bastard Ale per person.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

The Rooster and The Gargoyle (or: Why Freshness Matters)

I had a night on the black IPA last night. Frankly, I should've stopped after drinking the 75cl bottle of Rooster's Oxymoronic Black IPA (6.5%abv), but for whatever reason, I threw caution to the wind and subsequently opened a bottle of Stone Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale (8.7%abv). I felt every one of those 10 units the next day (today), which served to remind that (a) it's stupid drinking like that on a work night, and (b) I don't really get that drunk these days - it's been ages since I had a beer headache like the one I had today.

Rooster's Oxymoronic was a very limited run of Black IPA brewed by Sam Franklin as a farewell to the brewery - he's now emigrated to Canada, and is going to work for the Dead Frog Brewery. It was a delicious dark red ale, stuffed full of sweet dark malt character, mandarin hops and a hint of sarsparilla (or maybe dandelion and burdock). I couldn't believe what an easy drinking beer it was, and by virtue of its freshness, was absolutely bursting with vitality.

The bottle of Stone Sublimely Self-Righteous that followed was also a great beer, but much more full-bodied, and the hop character more muted. That's not to say it was a bad beer, but Stone, who are fanatical about the freshness of their beers, might have thought that this bottle was slightly suboptimal after its long trek to my glass.

Although these two beers sit broadly in the same style, they are formulated differently, and so comparisons are dodgy at best. But one thing that shone out was the freshness of the hop character of the beer that had been brewed recently, and had only travelled 30 miles to get to me. A similar thing was brought home to me when, last year in Rome, I tried side-by-side samples of Birra del Borgo - Dogfish Head My Antonia, one brewed in Milton, Delaware, the other in Borgorose, Italy. Needless to say, the local sample again won out that night.

There are a couple of other examples that spring to mind about how fresher beer has tasted better to me. Drinking bottles of Brooklyner-Schneider Hopfen Weisse in the Uk was an oddly joyless experience after having tried the beer straight from the conditioning tank. And what ever happened to Red Brick Brewery Fresh?

Anyway, I'm aware that all of these things are a matter of taste. I've gone on record in plenty of places saying that I'm not crazy about ageing most beers, and that I enjoy most beer (and most wine, for that matter) with a little skip of youthful vigour left in it. In fact, while I mention wine, it's worth trotting out the wine world's maxim that there are no great wines, only great bottles of wine. Maybe there are also no great beers, only great glasses of beer.

Of course, all this went out of the window when I saw what the postman brought me this morning. But I'll save that for the next blog.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Elitism in Beer

So here's a question with which to start this years blogging. Setting aside any debates about keg vs. cask, or what constitutes 'craft' beer, or whether Tim Webb has a point when he suggests that CAMRA have achived their goals and should cast their net wider, what constitutes elitism in beer?

I've been mulling this one over since our work Christmas party, covered fairly thoroughly here by m'colleague Ghost Drinker, who very dilligently recorded what we drank over the course of a few hours in The Grove Inn, Huddersfield. If you don't know The Grove, I think it's fair to say that it's a beer geek's dream. But at the same time, it's a very honest, down-to-earth pub where the profusion of well-chosen beers are very reasonably priced. It's a very good pub - it's not a bar, or a restaurant with beers, but an honest-to-goodness pub.

Now, if you haven't read Tandleman's beer blog, you should - there is a lot of well-considered opinion on there. I think it's fair to say that we've had the odd ding-dong (see here for the latest example), and he very kindly commends me to his readers here, with the caveat that the beers I write about are hard to come by.

This absolutely isn't a snipe at Tandleman in particular, who I like and respect very much, but more of an observation that there is something of a split among beer drinkers between those who want to try everything they can, at any price (see, for example, the BrewDog shop's guest beer list), and those who clearly draw the line somewhere.

But it does make me wonder: If I can go into a pub in small town in Yorkshire and buy these beers, are they in any way elitist? They may be imported, out-there, flavour of the moment and expensive (in relative terms, even at The Grove) but does that make them elitist? Or is elitism just another word for expensive?

For the record, of the four beers pictured above (photo by Ghost Drinker), they were all (for me) pretty much undrinkable, except for the Celebrator, which shone out as a stone-cold classic.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Wikio Rankings Preview - January 2011

Disgusted at being knocked off the top spot (hey, when you're #1, there's only one way to go), Pete Brown has asked me to preview the Wikio rankings for this month. I'm kidding, of course - I just emailed him and asked if I could present them for a change. Why doesn't someone else do it next time?

Aside from a little light jostling for position (although the re-appearance of Shut Up About Barclay Perkins and a new entry from The Good Stuff are welcome sights), I guess the obvious big news is that several wine blogs have reappeared in the top 20. Personally, I think this is a good thing - any traffic that goes between wine and beer writing and allows more exposure to each has to be positive.

Only one question remains - will Sid Boggle manage a re-entry next month with a tribute to the late Gerry Rafferty? - January Wine and Beer Ranking
1Brew Dog Blog (+1)
2Pencil & Spoon (+1)
3Pete Brown's Blog (-2)
4Zythophile (+1)
5Beer Reviews (+4)
6Bibendum Wine (+16)
7Woolpack Dave's beer and stuff blog (+6)
8Tandleman's Beer Blog (-1)
9Are You Tasting the Pith? (-1)
10The Pub Curmudgeon (-4)
11Called to the bar (+3)
12I might have a glass of beer (+7)
13Shut up about Barclay Perkins (+11)
14Master Brewer at Adnams (+4)
15The Good Stuff (+26)
16Drinking Outside The Box (+45)
17Sour Grapes (+11)
18Thornbridge Brewers' Blog (-8)
19Rabid About Beer (-7)
20Travels With Beer (+6)

Ranking made by