Same But Different

The definition of craft beer in the UK raised its head on Twitter again at the end of last week, it has also appeared on a few of the blogs I read since then too (here, here, here and here). I was going to blog about it on Friday before it all blew up, but ran out of time and any motivation to make time after work disappeared once I’d cracked open a beer. After much toing and froing, it seems to me at least, that the general consensus ended up with it, yet again, meaning something along the lines of: beers made by brewers I like. Seems we’ve not progressed at all since I last wrote about this stuff.

I do think we need to stop chasing our tails on this one and just let it lie. The phrase craft beer means different things to different people, which is completely unworkable and the main reason why using it is a load of cobblers. Even though we all think we know what it means, as there is no hard and fast definition, like there in the US, it is therefore in our reality, meaningless. I still think we should be using phrases like new wave and progressive to describe brewers, although I quite like Adrian Tierney-Jones’ comment on Tandleman’s post about using the term artisanal (even though the usage of that word can end up being a bit wanky).

The main reason I was going to post though, was about a comparison between craft beer and heavy metal. The idea had been running around inside my head for a while, but it took Simon Johnson’s New Wave Of British Keggy Metal blog to give me the necessary kick to write it down. I’m not going to give a definition as that’s not what this is about, it’s more an observation. Essentially it boils down to this, I think that what is happening with beer in the UK, is just like what happened with rock and the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal.

Just as bands like Iron Maiden, Saxon, Diamond Head, Judas Priest et al replaced Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and the like, on the record players, tape decks and walkmen of the youth of the day. So brewers like Thornbridge, Dark Star, Magic Rock, Summer Wine, Marble and so forth are replacing the likes of Greene King, Wadworth, Shepherd Neame, etc, etc, etc in the glasses of the next generation of drinkers. Now I don’t know if it’s a similar thing as happened with Porter, it falling out of favour as it was seen as an old mans drink, but the whole thing does have that kind of aura about it.

Nothing happens in isolation though, the NWOBHM was built on the foundation of those that went before; we wouldn’t have the likes of Iron Maiden without Black Sabbath and their peers. They listened to those bands and used them, amongst others, as inspiration to forge their own paths and sounds. The vast majority of todays new wave and progressive brewers will have grown up drinking beer from this country’s old school regional and family brewers, but are taking their inspiration, not only from them, but from what’s happening in the rest of world, especially the US.

I suppose that if you’re main inspiration is the US Craft Beer movement, then you’re going to want to identify with that by trying to label yourself accordingly. However, the beery environment in the UK is not the same as that in the US and never has been, hence why I don’t think the phrase is transferable. At the end of the day, it’s all wet, brown* and alcoholic and I think there are plenty of other things we should be worrying about, rather than getting our knickers in a twist over the definition of two words. To be perfectly honest, I think the Magic Rock tagline sums up craft beer in the UK best; Same But Different.

* Other colours are available…

Great British Beer Hunt: Bad Elf and Wild Hop Gold

Sainsbury's Great British Beer Hunt 2012

Right, lets get the label of Ridgeway’s Bad Elf out of the way first; in my opinion, it’s terrible. I really don’t get on with that whole cartoon elves and goblins type label thing, it’s just not my frothing mug of beer. I know that some people like it though, a few folk I chatted with at the regional heat thought it was great, or funny, so your milage may vary. However, part of the judging criteria at the regional heats was to take the label into account, so for me, it shouldn’t even be in the competition, no matter what it tastes like.

Surprisingly, this is the first bottle I’ve had in this years competition that’s been bottle conditioned, I’ve been quite surprised at how few of this years selection are. That meant the pour was slightly more delicate than all the others so far, I didn’t want any sediment in the glass. It poured a marmalade copper colour, with a very loose marmalade tinged head. The head was slow to form and I had to pour from a bit of a height just to get a single fingers worth. It was one of those heads that foams as you pour, a melee of bubbles popping into and out of existence. It didn’t last long and dropped to a patch in the centre of the glass in short order, before disappearing completely.

I didn’t get much on the nose, at least not much that I could identify, as whatever was there was so faint, I couldn’t pick it out. If I’m being generous, I’d say there was a faint aroma from some of the malt, what it actually smelled of though, I couldn’t say.

It was instantly obvious from the first sip that this bottle hadn’t conditioned correctly, as the beer was practically flat. That meant that it was really soft in the mouth and the flavours were a bit muddled because of it, it could really have used a bit of effervescence to lift the differing flavours apart. It had a good body though, but for my tastes, wasn’t quite balanced enough, the malty sweetness overcoming what little bitterness revealed itself. I’m going to have to be generic here and just say it tasted malty, because there’s nothing else I can really say, there was no obvious marmalade, caramel, toffee or any other kind of obvious malt taste, just a general maltiness. At least until the aftertaste, which had a spiciness to it, think ground coriander and that kind of thing.

  • RateBeerRidgeway
  • Bad Elf, 4.5%, 500ml

All in all, a disappointing bottle from last years winning brewer. However, like all bottle conditioned beers, it could just be this bottle being duff, I’ll have to buy another and see if it exhibits the same problem. My main gripe though, is that claim that there are three pounds of hops in every barrel, implying that it will be quite a bitter beer. All I can say is that it must have been a very big barrel, as it really wasn’t that bitter at all.

Ah, there’s nothing quite like a bit of brand extension to get the heart racing, or maybe not… Harviestoun’s Wild Hop IPA was one of my favorites in last year’s competition, so it was a bit disappointing to see them doing a Greene King (IPA Gold, IPA Reserve…!?!) and releasing a different beer under the Wild Hop name. Why not just call it something else, Golden Hop or something, it’s almost like they’re trying to cash in on the fact they had a similarly named beer in the stores last year. I’m sure the beer buying public could handle a different name.

Anyway, it poured a surprisingly light copper colour, I certainly wouldn’t have called it golden. It had a loosish white head that was easily formed, but dropped fairly quickly. The nose was chock full of ripe mango which was really nice and thankfully without any of the cat wee aroma that using too many Citra hops can result in. I’m not sure I picked out any Simcoe though, it’s normally quite resinous, what a lot of people would describe as piney, for me it was tropical fruit all the way.

This was probably the most flavourful beer I’ve had from the competition yet, with massive hop flavours rampaging around the mouth. It was quite well balanced though, not overly bitter, but just bitter enough that you couldn’t really discern any flavours from the malt backbone. In fact, it almost felt a bit watery in the mouth at the start, but this might just have been down to the fact that it made the mouth water with all the juicy tropical bitterness. Ripe mangoes, pineapple, maybe even a bit of lychee and passion fruit, it was fantastic. The only letdown was a little bit of that Citra cat wee flavour coming in right at the death of the aftertaste, but it was just a teeny bit and didn’t really detract from what is so far, my favorite beer in the competition

If I have any complaints, it’s that I thought it could have done with a touch more bitterness. It was very, very flavourful, but not overly bitter. I would have loved for it to just have had a bit more bite, but that’s brand extension for you, I’ll just need to track down some bottles of Wild Hop IPA for that.

Free Beer Politics on the Radical Road

Ah free beer, nothing tastes quite like it. The last couple of months has seen a bit of a storm on the subject, with various blogs venting their frustrations at the actions of others. The topic also came up at the recent European Beer Bloggers Conference and it was quite entertaining to read all the hand wringing tweets about if it was OK to accept and blog about free beer and what you should do if you thought the beer was poor or bad, especially in light of the majority of the atendees having taken the MolsonCoors Scholarship.

I don’t go out looking for free beer, as I’ve always felt that it would compromise my reviewing of it. I’ve also tried to indicate those beers I’ve been sent with their own category, so it’s easy to identify those reviews and thus apply a free beer filter when reading them. Having said that, I’ve not given every free beer I’ve had a glowing review, but then you have to remember that this is my personal opinion, it’s not fact.

Beer is like art, we don’t have to agree with others on what beer is good and which isn’t, it’s perfectly fine to have your own opinion that is diametrically opposite to everyone else. We don’t all have to like pop art or neo-expressionism anymore than we all have to like Rauchbier or Greene King IPA. What we should all agree on though, is that as beer bloggers, we don’t try to dupe our audience with unethical reviews where we laud false praise on mediocre beers in the hope that we’ll get more free beer in return. After all, the truth will out…

I’ve been meaning to write about this stuff for a while and was finally nudged into doing so by this tweet from Stewart Brewing yesterday:

I was offered a free bottle of Radical Road a while back and jumped at the opportunity. You don’t tend to see Stewart Brewing beers down this way and all those that I’ve tried have been during trips back home to visit my parents. The box also had a couple of their other beers in it, Coconut Porter and Cauld Reekie, neither of which I’d tried before. So a massive thanks to Stewart Brewing for sending me these.

I think I drank the Coconut Porter while it was a bit on the cold side, as I didn’t get any coconut, it was silky smooth for sure though. In my defence the fridge was set to eight degrees, but a faulty controller had it much, much colder; in fact it bottomed out at minus fourteen a few days later, I’d removed all the beer by that point though. The Cauld Reekie was a glorious glass of interesting roasted flavours and one I’ll be hunting down next time I’m home.

But what of Radical Road, their new 6.4% Triple Hopped Pale Ale? It poured a slightly hazy amber colour, that cleared as it warmed up slightly. The loose white head didn’t last and dropped to a few thin patches fairly quickly. I was expecting a bit more on the nose, there were slight marmalade notes, but I was expecting a bit more of a bouquet. It was really quite full bodied and filled the mouth with sweet, slightly marmalade, malt flavours. The slight carbonation stopped the sweetness from getting sticky and that coupled with the wonderful bitterness really balanced the beer well. The bitterness were never too much, but enough to prickle the insides of my cheeks and leave a long lingering juicy bitter marmalade aftertaste. I really, really enjoy this, just my kind of beer.

It sort of reminded me a bit of Adnams Innovation, but with slightly more bitterness. I’d love to try the two side by side, so I hope that they don’t wait too long before brewing it again…

Great Expectations at the East Anglian Beer Festival

I’ve written before about how building up a beer in your mind can lead to it failing to meet expectations. So it was with some trepidation that I went to the East Anglian Beer Festival the other night, as they had the mythical Greene King 5X down on the beer list. This is a beer that I’ve long wanted to try, but since you can’t normally buy it for love nor money, to say I was excited would have been an understatement.

Think what you like about Greene King, any brewer that ages a 12% beer in a massive oak vat for two years so that it goes stale and funky, can’t be all bad. You’d be going mental for it if it was from [insert favourite progressive UK brewer here], or some rare hip US brewery. Just because it’s Greene King that’s doing it, shouldn’t matter. Just like the whole cask/keg/bottle/can container debate being a load of crap, it’s the beer inside that matters, it’s not really the brewer that matters (unless they’re pure evil), it’s the end product that matters. If the beer’s good, it shouldn’t matter how it got to your glass, you should just be thankful that it did.

https://twitter.com/#!/RecentlyDrunk/status/195264642065502209

As you can see from my expletive filled Untappd checkin, my expectations were met and them some.

https://twitter.com/#!/RecentlyDrunk/status/195265722467893249

Greene King really are a paradox, as they can obviously brew exceptional beer, but choose to fill their pub estate with, even at its best, mediocre brown bitter. Maybe it’s the vast volume of IPA that they shift, that enables them to invest the time and money in laying 5X down to sleep in a giant oak vat for two years, I don’t know. But I’m still having a hard time trying to get my head round how a company can produce something as good as 5X and as mediocre as IPA, I find it even more puzzling that they don’t sell it in nip bottles at a premium price; I for one would certainly buy it, especially if it was available in their pub estate.

It was truly a phenomenal beer and if you’re in the Bury St. Edmunds area, either today or tomorrow, then I suggest you get down to The Apex and give it a try. It’s not often I get that excited about trying a beer and it’s even less often when those expectations are met so comprehensively…

Others have managed to try 5X, you can read their mussing here:

Mini-Kegs

I’ve always looked at the mini-kegs sitting in The Bacchanalia and thought they weren’t for me. How would I get through eight to nine pints of the same beer without it going off? Even the lure of that much Thornbridge Jaipur could’t make me buy one, so why then, did I buy a mini-keg of Adnams New Zealand Pale Ale on a whim?

It was September the 2nd last year, I know this as I checked it on foursquare. I must have been off work, as there’s no other reason why I’d have been in Saffron Walden at ten thirty on a Friday. I have a habbit of always going into the Adnams Cellar & Kitchen Store when I’m in Saffron Walden and picking up some beer, I think I was after some bottles of Ghost Ship, but they didn’t have any.

I’d wanted to try the New Zealand Pale Ale, but there aren’t many Adnams pubs near where I live or work, so getting an opportunity to try it was going to be difficult. I suppose that seeing a mini-keg of a beer that I really, really wanted to try was just too much, so I bought one. I’m still not sure why I bought it, as I managed to try the beer on more than one occasion later in the year, even managing to have a pint in The Sole Bay Inn, just a stones throw from the brewery.

I think the main issue I’ve always had with a mini-keg, is when I would drink it all, as it’s not like you can have a pint and then leave it for a week or two, you need to broach the keg and then finish it. It’s not that I don’t drink the same beer more than once, just look at how many Thornbridge Jaipur’s and BrewDog Punk IPA’s I’ve had (231 and 70 respectively, since November 2010), it’s more that I very rarely drink the same beer more than once in a session, I like variety. I suppose this is one of the reasons I don’t go down to my local pub more often, as I don’t want to drink the same beer all night, every night. That poses a bit of a problem when you have a mini-keg, especially if you’re going to drink it on your own.

This conundrum is probably the main reason why I held onto it for so long, I only drank it at the start of the month. I think that I was hoping for an opportunity to share it with some friends, or some such, but an opportunity never materialised. In the end, it sat in my shed for, pretty much, six months before I opened it, which was far, far too long.

It was only recently that I convinced myself to open it, I also had the perfect oppertunity as my wife was away for the weekend and I had the Friday afternoon off; I had to pick the kids up off the school bus. I figured that I should easily be able to finish the eight to nine pints over the course of two and a half days.

Never having had a mini-keg before, I was a bit unsure of what I’d get out of it and was quite disapointed when the first two pints came out with quite a lot of sediment. That calmed down and the last five or so pints were all pretty much clear. It was quite the novalty to have it draft beer sitting in the fridge, I have to say, it’s just a shame I’d waited so long to open it. The beer had obviously suffered out in the shed for six months, as it was lacking quite a bit of the Nelson Sauvin hop flavour that I remember from my pint at The Sole Bay Inn. It was still nice though, but it would have been marvelous, if it hadn’t lost that extra punch.

The main issue was boredom though. I wouldn’t say I was bored after the second pint, althought something with a bit more IBU would have been nice. I was definitly bored after the second pint on the Saturday and throughly sick of the sight of it by the Sunday. I know that’s my issue though, I’m sure if I only drank Greene King IPA down at my local, then eight to nine pints of Adnams New Zealand Pale Ale from a mini-keg in my fridge, would have been a breeze, but it was just too much for me, just not enough variety.

I know everyone isn’t the same, some people are quite happy drinking eight to nine pints of the same beer, one after the other. I have a work collegue who regularly buys mini-kegs of Thornbridge beer and it quite happy to demolish it all in a couple of days. I don’t think it’s for me though, I need more variety, I need to experience new flavours, I think a mini-keg is just a step too far for me to drink on my own. I’m not sying I wont buy another, but if I do, it will be for a party, where there will be plenty of people to help me drink it.

Advent Beer – Old Manchester

I was in my local on Thursday night, I was there because Greene King have put it up for sale and as it’s the last pub in the village, the village wants to keep it open. So they are formulating a Plan B to buy the pub, if no one else buys it first, which is obviously Plan A. I don’t really use the pub, I feel a blog coming on about why, but I volunteered to be on the steering committee that is formulating the plan. That’s why there was no Advent Beer post on Thursday night or yesterday, so yet more catch up. I need to start being careful, otherwise I’ll be having to neck two 750ml bottles of 11% De Molen a night to keep on track…

Thursday’s Advent Beer was Marble Old Manchester, which is a fascinating beer. It’s fascinating, as it was a collaboration brew between Marble and John Keeling the Fuller’s head brewer and was destined for export to the US. I’m not sure why some of it got released into the UK market and to be honest, I wish it hadn’t, as you’re not going to like it.

It’s terrible, horrifically bad* in fact. So bad, you’re not going to want to drink your bottle. You’d think it would have been wonderfully balanced, that it would have tasted utterly fabulous and drank no where near it’s ABV. But no, it wasn’t, so don’t open your bottles, just put them away somewhere safe, I’ll buy them off you.

As a service to other beer geeks, I’m willing to buy all of your bottles, just so you don’t have to experience how bad it is. I’ll even drive round the entire country and pick them up so you don’t have to pay postage sending them to me. Honestly, you don’t want to drink it, I’ll fall on my sword so you don’t have to be disappointed. See I’ve even tweeted the Bacchanalia so they don’t sell anymore and thus have disappointed customers…

https://twitter.com/#!/RecentlyDrunk/status/145257089374224384

* Obviously it’s not bad, it’s pretty spectacular, which is why I want it all for myself…

Free Houses

I went out for dinner in Saffron Walden with my wife a few weeks back and we managed to squeeze in a quick pint in The Old English Gentleman before heading to Dish for some food. I’d never been to a pub in Saffron Walden before, so had to do a bit of googling to find somewhere that looked like it would server decent beer and was relatively near the restaurant. When we got inside I was disappointed to see that the beers on offer were, Adnams Bitter, Woodfordes Wherry, Shepherd Neame Spitfire and Exmoor Gold.

Personally I thought the selection of beer was ridiculously safe and boring, I could probably get the Adnams and Woodfordes beers in a number of other pubs in Saffron Walden (this is obviously conjecture as this is the only pub I’ve been to in the town, but hear me out), I also wouldn’t be surprised to see the Sheps Spitfire as well. One of the main issues I have was the diversity of the selection; Adnams Bitter is brown and 3.7%, Woodfordes Wherry is golden and 3.8%, Shepherd Neame Spitfire is brown and 4.2% and finally the Exmoor Gold is, unsurprisingly, golden and 4.5%.

There was no mild, no stout, nothing that was pale and hoppy and nothing that could be considered strong. Like I said, I thought it was a safe and boring selection and worryingly, it’s a trend I’ve seen in a number of other free houses near where I live.

The Black Bull in Balsham, is in the next village and generally has three cask ales on. I’ve been in there when the selection has all been sub four percent brown bitter, but similarly I’ve been in when they’ve had pale and hoppy beer from Oakham Ales on. However, every time I’ve been there, they’ve also had Greene King IPA on, even though there is a Greene King pub, The Bell, less then two hundred metres up the road.

Similarly, The Three Tuns in Great Abington, a 10 to 15 minute drive away, is a free house and while it’s food led, it’s still a locals pub as well. I was in there a few weekends ago picking up a take away, they do excellent Thai food and I noticed that they only had two cask ales on, instead of the normal three. Yet again, one of those ales was Greene King IPA, but I’ve seen the usual bitters from Adnams, Woodfordes et al when I’ve been in before.

I can sort of understand why these pubs have the beer they have, The Black Bull probably wants to temp drinkers from The Bell, so has their usual on tap all the time, just in case they fancy a change of scenery. The Three Tuns, being food led, probably doesn’t want anything outlandish to scare the diners, so sticks to what most people will know. I’m sure the cricket teams who frequent the bar after a match just want something to slake their thirst before heading home.

At the same time, in this kind of financial climate where hundreds of pus are closing all over the country, I really don’t understand it. Surely you want to differentiate yourself from your competition, so people will come to you because you offer something that those pubs around you don’t. I can get Greene King IPA in literally hundreds of local pubs, including my local, which is about fifty metres from my front door. Why would I want to travel to the next village, or further away, to drink the same beer in a different pub?

I’m not expecting every free house to be like The Euston Tap, or even The Cambridge Blue. So maybe someone could explain the rational behind free houses offering very similar beers and the same beers as tied pubs in the same locality, because I just don’t get it.

Brood: Craft Beer

Over at Pencil & Spoon, Mark Dredge has asked the question: Craft Beer, why it’s the right name. His intent is to start a new beer blogging project called Brood, which is intended to be more of a sideways glance at things than The Session. Quite a few people have participated so far, here’s my take on the whole craft beer thing.

Thornbridge BraciaI was going to write a large screed on this topic, but after reading Barm’s post, "Craft Beer", why it’s a crock of shite, I don’t really have much else to add. So I’ll keep it brief, maybe not as brief as the Reluctant Scooper though…

My problem with the term, is who defines which brewer and breweries are those that produce craft beer…? Do Greene King count as craft? I’m sure they consider their beer well crafted, tasty and made with care and attention, if not love. Do Thornbridge still count now that their brewery is all automated? How much craft does it take to punch a couple of buttons? Does Evin at The Kernel Brewery count? It looks like he’s a one man band who does absolutely everything. Or are we saying that it’s not how the beer is made, that the craft is in the production of the recipe, the selection of the right ingredients and it’s the end result that determines if it’s craft or not…?

Craft beer is an American term, the Americans love categorising stuff, just look at the number of beer styles they’ve come up with, so they have a hard and fast definition of what a Craft Brewery is. Except, that is, when they need to change the rules to keep one of their stars in the craft sector due to their large growth. So you can effectively be craft one day, but not the next; even though the beer you produce and the way that you produce it, hasn’t changed. Personally, I think you either brew beer with a passion for the stuff, or you don’t, having a moving target that defines what you are is ridiculous.

It seems to me that the advocates of the term, craft beer, don’t really drink beers that fall into the boring brown session beer category, at least not very often. They hunt out beers from a new wave of British brewers, beers that aren’t necessarily brown, don’t necessarily have a sessionable ABV and have probably been shown the contents of the hop store. I think it’s a perception issues though, the geeks perceive boring brown session beer to be less interesting and potentially less crafted than the latest pale and hoppy imperial gooseberry wheat stout. I don’t think the brewers of, what I perceive, to be boring brown session beer would agree though. I’m sure they regard their beers as being as well crafted as the next.

I think we can all agree though, that there is a new wave of breweries that are more forward thinking in the beer that they produce. They don’t limit themselves to traditional styles, or hops and not only take inspiration from breweries all over the world, but link up and collaborate therm. I think labelling some things as "craft", is doing a disservice to a lot of brewers and their breweries. I think we should instead talk in terms of the new wave, the forward thinking, those that eschew tradition and look at what beer could be, rather than what is currently is.

Am I a craft beer drinker…? No, I’m just a beer drinker.

The Three Tuns

Last night was an exception, the kids were staying over night at their grandparents, so my wife and I took the opportunity to go out to the pub. We decided to go the The Three Tuns in Great Abington, which is a few miles down the road. It’s a free house that has a good reputation for its Thai food, I’d never been before, so was quite looking forward to it.

The pub is on the High Street and you can’t miss it as you drive through the village. It looks like it might once have been thatched, it certainly looks like a classic country pub from the outside. Inside there are two rooms with a bar in each, the ceiling is low and the over all felling is of a really nice an cosy local, especially with all the wood.

My only gripe has to be the selection of beer that they had on the three hand pumps. I just think that a free house in Greene King country to be selling Greene King IPA is really disappointing. I can get a pint of Greene King IPA is practically every pub I pass on the way to and from work, it’s so ubiquitous in these parts, there’s just so much better local beer. They were also selling St Austell Tribute, which I’ve seen as a guest beer in my local Green King tied pub.

Wolf Straw DogLuckily all was not lost and the third hand pump had Wolf Straw Dog on, which was in very nice condition and slipped down dangerously well. My wife went for a couple of bottles of Singha lager beer to go with her curry, so I only had the one. They claim to get through 200 different beers a year on their website, so maybe we were just unlucky. However, the list of their regular beers, isn’t the most exciting for a beer geek.

The menu doesn’t have a lot of choice if you’re a vegetarian, but there is enough as long as you’re not going every week. Service was quick and attentive and the battered vegetable starter would have been more than large enough for my wife and I to share. Neither of us had room for desert after finishing our starters and mains, so if you’re not that hungry, you’d probably be able to get away with just a main.

They are have a very nice looking accommodation block in the garden, it looks very plush inside if the website photos are anything to go by. So if you have to drive and you fancy a drink, you could always stay over, or use it as a base to explore Cambridge and it’s environs.

Over all The Three Tuns get a big thumbs up, the beer and the food were both good and I’d certainly go back in the future.