Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Day 143, Beer 143 - Otley Brewing Company's "O-Garden"

Today's Beer

Name – O-Garden

Brewer – Otley

Classification – Wheat beer

Strength – 4.8% ABV

Verdict - At A Glance

On the eye – Lemon gold, surprising clarity. A notably good looking beer.

On the nose – Apple, incense, Sauvignon Blanc, brandy. Pretty special.

On the tongue – Contains possibly every flavour in existence that I happen not to like. (Read on...)

On the subject – This highly respected Welsh brewery produce one of the most exciting beer ranges in Britain. Today's beer itself was crowned 'Champion Speciality Beer Of Britain' in 2008. I felt strongly compelled to say these things before continuing. I also feel inclined to remind my readers of the widely excepted notion that 'you can't please all of the people all of the time'. I think you can probably guess what's coming...

On the market – Otley's beers are almost guaranteed to be found at specialist beer retailers, and the supermarkets are now joining in too, which was always fairly inevitable. For home delivery, try the brewery's own online store.

On the

Full Review

I suspect our wonderful world would be far less wonderful if every drinker loved every beer.

Sure, we would have the advantage of never experiencing a bad beer, or a good beer we just didn't like – but we'd also lose the concept of favourite beers, and beers that burst into our lives and sweep us off our feet.

What I'm saying is, we all have different tastes and, by and large, that's a good thing.

Personally, I can get a kick out of almost any kind of beer, and whenever I'm in two minds about one particular brew, I always try to find ways to enjoy what's in front of me, as opposed to grabbing at chances to criticise it.

Old world, new wave, dark, light, strong, delicate, sweet, bitter – I can hold traditional browns, contemporary golds and experimental darks in an equally firm embrace.

But sometimes, I don't know, I just hit a wall.

There sometimes comes a point where no feature of an ale holds an appeal, and you find yourself at the mercy of your own personal preferences.

In truth, Otley's O-Garden is the victim of rotten bad luck in the context of The Bottled Beer Year.

Simply put, this is a beer whose every flavour characteristic just happens to be one I don't especially like. And given there are so few things that I actively turn my nose up at - that really is highly unlucky.

Firstly, it's a wheat beer. My occasional allergic reactions to these ales makes me wary of them from the off, and the only reason I drink them at all is to be able to include this important beer style on my list. (What a martyr I am!) Secondly, the spices used in this beer include cloves and coriander. As far as my taste buds are concerned, this is just a monumentally unfortunate combo. Poor drink. I could almost weep for it.

Then there is the 'salt' issue. This moves us onto 'genuine tragedy' territory because salt is one of my absolute favourite things on Earth, but to my taste the sense of saltiness here is actually overdone. For a man who regularly induces gasps from fellow diners when adding table salt to his meals – this is a pretty big deal. Actually, I would never have thought a beer could be too salty until today.

Furthermore, the herbal/spicy notes serve to create a distinctly medicinal feel. 'Medicinal' is a descriptive term which I tend to avoid wherever possible, because I know I find it off-putting when I read that word myself – even though I realise it's a perfectly acceptable characteristic for many drinkers. It just makes me think of illness, hospitals and NHS bleach. But, oh my goodness, there's just no avoiding that word here. This beer contains definite (and quite deliberate) medicinal flavour elements. Many beer drinkers would welcome these elements – I am not among them.

Ginger lurks here too (at least on the tongue, if not on the ingredients list) along with sharp orange peel, some metallic twangs, and a whole bunch of barely ripened fruits.

It's a 'piney' affair. As in Scots Pine. At times, it's almost like drinking the Brechfa ForestAgain, this is something that might work for some, but in amongst all the other stuff I instinctively dislike, it did little to win me over.

Perhaps this is a good time to add that my unofficial sidekick (my globe-stoppingly attractive girlfriend) absolutely adored this ale, so much so that she eventually took the Dickensian step of asking for 'more'. (A most irregular request under normal circumstances – punishable by stern glance and prolonged silence. In this case, however, the workhouse rules were relaxed completely after I permitted her to take repeated further mouthfuls of whatever size she desired.)

The name 'O-Garden' – one can't help but assume – is a play on 'Hoegaarden' – but this is a very different beast, regardless of how similar any ingredients or processes may be. Wheat, coriander and orange peel are all used in both drinks, with almost no discernible similarities resulting from this fact.

Look, I just have to be honest here.

I didn't like it.

The otherwise invulnerable Otley have brewed at least one beer that I simply could not enjoy.

And that's okay. 

It is a perfectly acceptable state of affairs in a wonderful world like ours, which remains as widely diverse today as it ever was before.

My girlfriend's Oliver Twist beer-acquisition tactics are proof enough of that.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

The Icemen Cometh!

I received an email the other day from a company who are about to launch a new range of craft beers in the UK, and being the sort of guy who is instinctively hostile toward such an approach - I wrote back immediately telling them in no uncertain terms that they could jolly well send me as many samples as they liked.

And here they are.

Iceland's Einstöck Brewery seems to be the result of a global search for the world's purest water source, and if the PR machine is actually telling us the truth with this (which they can actually do on rare occasions) then these look like being a very interesting couple of ales.

They are (from left to right) -

Icelandic Toasted Porter - (6.0% ABV)

Icelandic Pale Ale - (5.4% ABV)

Availability looks like being tight initially, with Harvey Nichols scoring an exclusive deal for the time being, but from what I recall, Harvey Nichols have a nasty habit of stocking only the finest products.

I can't wait to see if that theory holds weight.

Stay tuned for the reviews.


Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Day 142, Beer 142 - J.W. Lees & Marco Pierre White's "The Governor"

Today's Beer

Name – The Governor

Brewer – J.W. Lees with Marco Pierre White

Classification – 'All malt' beer/Bitter

Strength – 4.1% ABV

Verdict - At A Glance

On the eye – Rich, vivid amber.

On the nose – Buttery nuts and lemon zest.

On the tongue – A tale in itself. Possibly the most courageous beer in history... (read on)

On the subject – Manchester based J.W. Lees are one of northern England's most established and most esteemed breweries. This team-up with Marco Pierre White (one of northern England's most established and most esteemed chefs) makes perfect sense on almost every level.

On the market – The Morrison's chain leapt on this one early, but for those without the inclination to leave the house can try the brewery's own online store.

On the

Full Review

Okay, so this is the highly regarded J.W. Lees brewery in collaboration with one of modern cuisine's most celebrated maestros Marco Pierre White.

Basically, what I'm saying here, is that it's hard not to have some very specific expectations growing in your mind when you sit down to review a product such as this. It's so easy to fall into the trap of anticipating something ultra-this or hyper-that which will fly at you with all kinds of bells, whistles and la-di-dah.

Try as I might not to fall victim to this trap, there's no question that I did – and as a consequence, the lid on this bottle was opened with the very same kind of excitement that the younger version of myself would have opened a parcel at Christmas.

But I have to say that things didn't quite turn out as I'd expected.

In fact, by the time I'd taken my first two sips, I was left wearing a similar expression to the one I wore on Christmas Day 1983 when I learned that my biggest present was a giant framed poster of E.T. and not a small snooker table.

Not exactly disappointed, but not exactly blown away.

This beer's initial impact was so remarkably understated, that in those first few moments I could even have claimed that I found it 'lacking'.

There was certainly nothing wrong with it, and the essential 'feel' of the drink was exactly as you would expect from a brewery of such standing. But where was Marco Pierre White? Where were all those years of attention to flavour detail, the diligent assemblage and construction of themes, and the playful interaction of one nuance pitted against another?

Where was the signature of a great artist?

Simply put, I was somewhat bemused. But finding myself convinced that this couldn't be the full story, I downed tools (I put my pen down) and I just sat with the drink for a while – in exactly the way I would have done if beer reviews were not a part of my life.

And, it soon transpired that both the beer and I were greatly appreciative of this unscheduled tea break, because what should begin to emerge after a few extra sips...?

Nothing less than the scrawled, flamboyant autograph of a truly great artist.

What began to dawn on me during these further sips, was that this beer had been subtly tinkering with the workings of my mind. Instead of allowing me to dictate the circumstances surrounding this taste test, the beer itself had taken charge. We were going to do this it's way – not mine – and in the first instance, this required me to kick back and take some proper time.

This beer is not a drink which sets out to bedazzle you upon first contact. In fact, it has no interest whatsoever in tickling your fancy or providing a quick thrill. This beer is in it for the long haul, and it wants to be your friend for life.

By the time I was just over halfway through, I looked back at the bottle and reminded myself of the relatively benign 4.1% ABV, and suddenly the whole thing made sense. I could go on drinking this beer not just all evening, but pretty much forever more.

It plays the long game, skilfully giving you just the right amount of each of its characteristics to maximise the enjoyment of a series of glasses – instead of sweeping you off your feet in an instant, only to become irksome or overwhelming shortly afterwards. (A problem which a great many contemporary 'impact beers' have in spades.)

For a new beer to have the confidence to take this slow burn approach is seriously impressive. Though, I gather 'confidence' is not something Mr White is massively short of, so perhaps it should come as little surprise.

Nutty, lightly fruited by pear, peach and apple, with some lovely sponge cake and caramel undertones, this is a light-bodied, refreshing beer which I simply cannot imagine myself ever tiring of.

I can think of very few beers that I could so confidently make such a claim about.

Some beers are for life, not just for Christmas.

This is one of them.


Friday, 14 October 2011

We've All Been Badgered!

Last week, the beady-eyed Pub Curmudgeon spotted that Badger Brewery had harnessed the power to rewrite history.

Many of you will know the (now famous) story behind the naming of their widely admired beer 'Tangle Foot'.

Basically, the label told us that the head brewer stumbled slightly at the end of a tasting session, having succumbed somewhat to the inevitable effects of several mouthfuls of beer.

But let's be absolutely clear here.

This was beer which he was obliged to taste in significant amounts in order to properly assess the quality and character of a product which he was chiefly responsible for.

Simply put - he was doing his job.

A vital part of his job.

We wouldn't want to hear that the head brewer of a highly renowned company had merely sipped the drink before approving it and shipping it out across the world. We want to be sure that he has sat with at least a couple of back to back glasses to fully gauge how the drink's appeal changes over a period of time.

I would never review a beer that I'd merely sniffed, and I wouldn't expect the senior person in the brewhouse to do anything similar.

But it seems that Badger have recently developed a sense of shame about this story.

Because they've changed it.

Recently modified Tangle Foot labels tell us that the head brewer did not in fact stumble due to the effects of alcohol - but that he actually tripped on his dog's lead.

I just laughed out loud when typing that last sentence.



What in the name of God are they talking about?

So many questions are triggered by this - but before you take a look at the two labels (shown below) - here are the questions I'd most like to focus on...

Were those original labels factually incorrect, meaning the new one's are merely setting the record straight?

Or - has the new version merely been altered to suit some present day politically correct agenda?

And if that is so - does this mean that the job of a head brewer is no longer politically correct? Should all head brewers now feel ashamed about carrying out certain aspects of their vital jobs?

Finally, could it just be that both stories are utter nonsense, in which case why not just drop the entire 'tale' and re-brand the beer properly, instead of quietly changing supposed 'facts' hoping nobody notices?

If nobody noticed, it would mean nobody cared in the first place. But many people did care, and those people are now feeling pretty foolish for believing this historical account for all these years.

As I've already said in the comments section over in the Pub Curmudgeon's article, I've absolutely had it with Badger until they either rectify this or explain it. My ardent Badger boycott started last week and it continues.

But now, for your perusal, here is the damning evidence courtesy of my local ASDA - who continue to stock old branded cans and new branded bottles side by side, along with their old and new versions of the truth... (click on the pictures to expand - or find full transcripts at the original Curmudgeon page here)

You're either laughing or crying by now.

If you're crying - or perhaps just feeling a little bit insulted - do feel free to join me in a spot of gentle boycotting.


Thursday, 13 October 2011

Day 141, Beer 141 - Sharp's Brewery & Rick Stein's "Chalky's Bite"

Today's Beer

Name – Chalky's Bite

Brewer – Sharp's in collaboration with Rick Stein

Classification – Aged beer (with wild fennel)

Strength – 6.8% ABV

Verdict - At A Glance

On the eye – Deep straw gold.

On the nose – Vivid high note citrus. Faint aniseed.

On the tongue – A uniquely flavoured 'Belgian' homage. Powerful and immediate, yet equally poised and elegant.

On the subject – Fans of the much loved brewery Sharp's (now under the protection of Molson Coors) and fans of the much loved chef Rick Stein (now under the protection of BBC 2) have been brought together by one of contemporary western society's most cherished concepts – the 'Celebrity Beer Collaboration'. Gentle cynicism aside, the end result is rather wonderful in this particular case, and that's probably because both parties got where they are today on good old fashioned merit. Stein's fondly remembered pooch has two beers dedicated to him, the other being the ginger infused Chalky's Bark

On the market – Your best chances will be in Cornwall, but word seems to be spreading fast. In the meantime, why not go online and buy from Chalky's former owner himself.

On the

Full Review

Until embarrassingly recently, fennel was out there in the great food unkown as far as my palate was concerened.

I knew fennel quite well, and had eaten it in various dishes over the years, but it was really the point of it that I hadn't grasped.

However, thanks to my blindingly attractive girlfriend and a wholesale change of eating habits – fennel is now among my very favourite edible things.

But drinkable fennel? 

Was I quite ready for that?

Well, if my reaction to Chalky's Bite is anything to go by, then I am absolutely ready.

Described as being 'naturally flavoured with wild Cornish fennel', this bottle had me slightly spooked at first glance. But there was something about the names Sharp's and Rick Stein which made me wonder whether this beer could possibly be anything other than very special.

And having now consumed a glassful with the greatest of ease, I can reveal that 'very special' is exactly what it is.

These two giants of their respective trades have come together and delivered on the substantial promise which such a collaboration suggests. 

It's a splendid creation. A big, hearty beer with a delicate, genteel soul is how I might sum it up. A grizzly bear with Victorian sensibilities.

The label waffles on (as so many labels love to do) about the various why's and wherefore's behind the product's existence, and amongst all of this is a claim that they were bearing in mind the 'Belgian greats' when they began to concoct the recipe.

Well, it's hard to know precisely what a 'Belgian great' means (about as hard as precisely defining a contemporary British beer), but the fact is that you can really get a sense of that thought process in the final result. It doesn't scream 'I'm brewed in the style of a Belgian great' but it cleverly evokes the feel of such a statement, as though the drink itself is quite literally bearing Belgium in mind as it tumbles into your mouth.

It's very cleverly done.

And the cleverness doesn't stop there.

The flavours have been assembled in the most refined and 'pitch perfect' way, and the sequence in which they occur to you is mesmerising and really quite remarkable in terms of execution. It feels like a whole new batch of precise mathematical principles have been applied to this flavouring process, with one theme leading on to another in an almost endless loop of sublime taste.

It's a spicy, resinous affair, with a warming richness and a tremendous sweet versus sour dynamic which does plenty to keep that Belgian flag fluttering.

Spiced apples, grapefruit and gooseberry from the hops are held aloft in fine style by some richly nutty malts – and all of this is held together by that fresh, vibrant fennel. The delicate licorice, pine and aniseed elements which the fennel brings to the beer are ceaselessly entertaining. I was held in thrall by them to the very last.

To say that I approached this collaboration with high hopes is perhaps an understatement. But to have seen those expectations greatly surpassed has been a genuine thrill.

Chalky bit me very hard.

And I loved it.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Take A Look At Lees!

When sending samples, some breweries - for reasons I've never felt inclined to question - send me huge lorry loads of beer.

Which is nice.

Other breweries send smaller batches featuring selected items as part of a specific PR push.

This is fine too.

But now I'm having to add Manchester's J.W. Lees into the equation, who have introduced an entirely new approach to this process.

This celebrated brewery's intriguing and rather ingenious plan was to send along just two titles consisting of one sample each, but to then back up this delivery with a short email saying that these beers were merely "to get you started".

Given the impressive nature of the rest of their range, such a message was enough to fully capture my vivid imagination.

And what a way to 'get started' this really is, with not only one of their best loved brews involved - but also their very latest.

The beers are (from left to right) -

The Governor - ('All malt' beer/bitter) 4.1% ABV

Moonraker - (Strong ale) 7.5% ABV

Without meaning to get all giddy over one of these beers in particular, I must admit that The Governor - with its 'Marco Pierre White collaborative' status - does already have me approaching a state of what might be described as 'partial giddiness'.

Whether this develops into a full blown giddy-fit subsequent to tasting remains to be seen - but rumour has it that William Hill have already stopped taking bets on a top ten score.

Stay tuned for the full reviews.


Thursday, 6 October 2011

Day 140, Beer 140 - Oakham's "JHB"

Today's Beer

Name – JHB  (Jeffrey Hudson Bitter)

Brewer – Oakham Ales

Classification – Bitter (in a Golden Ale kind of way)

Strength – 4.2% ABV

Verdict - At A Glance

On the eye – Suspiciously like a golden ale.

On the nose – Salted butter, white grapes, savoury biscuit.

On the tongue – One of the first ultra-hopped, high-citrus beers... and still among the best.

On the subject – John Wood, the brewery's original owner, set up a fairly modest venture in the small Rutland town of Oakham at the back end of the last millennium. Things worked out very nicely. These days, the beer is brewed in the rather more mighty Peterborough, and the regime is decidedly larger in scale. The end products, I'm glad to say, are just as good as ever.

On the market – Somehow, despite all their success and their enviable industry reputation, Oakham Ales' beers can still be tricky to find. Fortunately, the ever-willing internet solves this by allowing you to visit the likes of My Brewery Tap.

On the

Full Review

In the world of craft beer, the march of progress has developed into a full blown sprint in recent years, and few beers can better encapsulate the distance travelled than Jeffrey Hudson Bitter.

There was a time – not so very long ago – when this beer was being hailed as visionary, futuristic and ground breaking.

And that's because it was all of those things in the murky wilderness of the late 1990's.

Back then, the concept of a bitter being golden in colour and grapefruit in flavour was practically the stuff of science fiction. Whereas now – just a short industry revolution hence – this description would apply to almost seventy percent of all newly launched beers.

Whether that statistic pleases you or not is one thing, but there's little doubt that this beer (and one or two others) can lay a strong claim to being the catalyst for this new wave of hop dominant ales.

But although this brew now sits on the shelf among an ever extending list of similar drinks, there's little doubt that there's still something a bit darned special about it. Few golden citrus beers that have subsequently appeared on the scene can be said to have bettered it.

It may have been among the first, but it firmly remains one of the very finest.

These beers – much more so than conventional bitters – demand a good degree of chilling. Not as much as a lager would, but greater amounts than a darker, more malt-balanced rendition. The high note fruits simply blur without it, like warm juice would, or any carbonated soft drink.

But at cellar temperature (or preferably just a little below), this beer hits you with a dynamism and intensity which is both refreshing and - speaking quite frankly - utterly thrilling.

It's dry without being harsh, immediate without being aggressive, it's clearly been assembled with enormous amounts of skill and care, and all of this results in a hugely rewarding and memorable beer.

Is it really a bitter?

Given that so many other beers of 'this sort' now exist which can often be found laying claim to many different classifications, isn't it about time they settled on a name all of their own – if only to save us poor consumers from all this post-purchase head scratching?

Well, maybe so. (Especially when these dark brown bottles reveal so few of their secrets...)

But on this occasion I'm really not prepared to dwell on such matters, because the liquid in my glass is absolutely delightful, and that's all I'm inclined to care about.

What was once futuristic and ground breaking is now an absolute classic of its kind.

Whatever 'kind' that may be.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Day 139, Beer 139 - Liverpool Organic's "Honey Blond"

Today's Beer

Name – Honey Blond

Classification – Well, the brewery are calling it a 'Honey Beer', so I'll reluctantly tow the line...

Strength – 4.6% ABV

Verdict - At A Glance

On the eye – Possibly the only honey-like quality of this drink.

On the nose – Sharp citrus, faint fruitcake sweetness. All pretty low key.

On the tongue – Super dry and bitter and therefore something of a riddle in terms of branding. A delicious riddle, but definitely a riddle. (Read on...)

On the subject – This brewery is among the most exciting new companies in the industry. Organic ingredients and exemplary bottle-conditioning are used to enhance some astonishing recipes, amounting to the most consistently impressive range of bottled beers I've yet found.

On the market – This brewery's market presence still has a way to go if its going to make the huge impact which its marvellous beers merit, but the momentum is increasing nicely all the time. For the impatient, the company has its very own online store.

On the

Full Review

Oh dear.

It's another gorgeous, more or less infallible beer from Liverpool Organic.

Those of you wondering why this would be a problem might want to take a look at the opening passages of this recent review, but let's just say my chart's uppermost section is getting rather congested with this company's products. Basically, they sent me loads of different beers and every new one I try is utterly outstanding.

It's a real nuisance.

Today's beer, needless to say, is no exception to this pesky rule, and now I'm sat here in a state of what I can only describe as 'pleasant torment', taking savagely enjoyable sips of this miraculous stuff and wondering how I can possibly prevent it from entering the top ten.

The funny thing is, I do actually have a gripe, but sadly it's nothing to do with the beer itself, so I can't really use it as a convenient trigger for downgrading the score.


The problem I have is with the name.

To be absolutely specific, it's not a problem with the name itself, but about what that name implies.

The use of the word 'honey' implies that this beer is a sweet and syrupy affair.

It is not.

Moreover, the word implies that this beer features the flavour of honey.

It does not.

Now, in truth, I was hugely relieved to discover that this beer's label is a filthy liar, because to have had these implied characteristics would have made this beer just the sort of English ale that I don't much care for. But it does make me wonder what's going on when a beer's given name and its essential nature are so massively at odds.

And boy – are they at odds.

Instead of a lot of syrupy sweetness, we have an ultra-dry, ultra bitter, citrus intense, and gently nutty pale copper beer. Quite where honey is involved is a complete mystery – one which begins at the very first sip and sustains until the very last drop.

As I have already made clear, the absence of any honey-like elements is absolutely fine by me. But the reality is that I would never have thought to buy this beer in the first place – purely due to the mention of honey's involvement, and all those people who would be tempted by the 'honey factor' are almost certain to wind up disappointed. (Or perhaps 'confused' is a better word than 'disappointed' – as I really can't imagine this beer being a disappointment to anyone with a functioning sense of taste.)

Of what can be detected in this beer (setting aside what cannot be detected in it) there are bags of high citrus notes from gooseberry and grapefruit, some lovely savoury layers from the delicate malts, and the sense of 'just-brewed' freshness is typical of this brewery's work. 

This is a vivid, dynamic, refreshing and intensely uplifting drink experience.

There really is honey involved in the process (I'm told) and perhaps the aromas do contain the faintest trace of something not a million miles away from such a substance. The colour, too, is perhaps not the least honey-like shade on Earth, but I'm delighted to report that this these are the only real suggestions I could find.

All I can say is, if honey-themed beers are your thing, there's plenty of other stuff to enjoy about this beer which make up for honey's apparent reluctance to transfer itself from the bottle into your mouth.

And if honey is absolutely not something you make welcome in your beer – do not allow this fabulous ale's mischievous name to scare you away.

It certainly scared bees away.