Twelve beers of Christmas: #4

Our guests have gone, there are only a few hours of the old year left and I'm ready for another beer. What better way to see out 2008 with the only ten-year-old beer in my cellar - a bottle of J W Lees Harvest Ale.

I picked up a stack of these a couple of years ago, no idea where from. They seemed like a good idea at the time, but became the beers that I never really wanted to break open (my inherent beer guilt). But I can only manage one more beer tonight, so there's a certain romanticism about rounding out the year with a ten-year-old beer.

It poured like a good scotch, a deep smooth amber that had weight to it - like an oily single malt does. There was fiery alcohol escaping, fumes pent up for a decade and rollicking rampant as they were released. There's a body segueing from deep tea brown to ruby red at the base, a whirl brings a tight light beige head, leaveing sticky legs down the snifter. A fresh Christmas cake dough scent is suddenly swamped by alcohol that I can feel in the back of my throat- it actually makes me blink.

Watching the head dissipate into a galaxial swirl, a moire pattern collapses into no more than a mere tea stain on an unbuffed mahogany desk. Seemingly I can't tire of playing with this beer. To the lips, then. Here be black treacle, candy sugar, brandy, thick fresh caramel, a carbonation pinpricking and just the most amazing sustained sweetness.

That was all half an hour ago. Now, the head has left and so has any underlying alcohol harshness. Instead, there's a placid glass of dark sherry and light spices. There's still tight alcohol that you can actually inhale into beneath your eyelids if you sniff hard enough. The complexity has unwound, the code broken, malt and hops: sweet.

I have no more ten-year-old beers left in the cellar. Just a nine-year-old. And an eight-year-old. And those beers are - J W Lees Harvest Ale 1999 and 2000. They'll be the taste of Christmases to come.


Twelve beers of Christmas: #3

It's a cold New Year's Eve and I'm several beers behind in this 'twelve beers' malarkey. Truth is, I've not been in the mood over the last two days - too tired, a palate jaded by overly spicy food. But now I'm ready for a real Christmas cake of a beer by the fire as I warm my chestnuts. My wife will settle for anything as long as it's a quad. So, hello St Bernardus Abt.

Actually this is beer whilst on the go - my in-laws have just arrived for drinks and nibbles. They're having a Wii so, whilst the falafel's in the oven, I can tell you the five things about St. Bernardus that I absolutely adore.

#1: It's not Westvleteren. It might be close, given the historical similarities, but by not being Westy I can order it online, friends and relations can buy me bottles and the price doesn't get driven through the roof by beer hunters on some ale-lust-for-glory.

#2: My wife loves it. How foolish I was to think that she'd be more attracted to fruit beers. Now, every Belgian bottle that I crack open is met with the question 'is it a quad?' - and she has an air of faint disappointment if the answer's no.

#3: They get the job done. Basic website, no overblown marketing on the bottle label, even though they have a history that most breweries would boil their heads for.

#4: I don't suffer from beer guilt when drinking it. Some bottles I want to share, some bottles I want to age, some lone bottles I want to cling on to like an only child. Some bottles I want to neck back, some bottles I want to drink with fey abandon, some bottles I want to hand out to strangers in the street. When I drink any of those I suffer from beer guilt. Not Saint B - I enjoy the very thought of the bottle top hitting the table, the pillowy head filling and not spilling from a chalice glass. The first whiff of coffee and yeast. And.....

#5: The sheer RaisinNutSpicySherryDoughyOrangeAppleyExcitingCaramelCoating fun of that first sip.

And there you have it. The last sweet drop drained. The stuffed vine leaves nearly all gone. The evening's about to grind through the gears, all champers and salmon and rhythm and blues. It'll be fun but not as much as a fireside, a flickering candle and another Saint B.

Thanks to for another damn fine beer


Twelve beers of Christmas: #2

I've been at a wedding this afternoon. Free champers and wine tempered the presence of Mansfield Smooth on the bar. To be honest, spending three hours previous imbibing a gutfull of Thornbridge Jaipur at the Old Poets Corner, Ashover, helped tremendously. But now I'm back, from outer space, and I want to be lost in hops. Ladeez and gintelmin, I give you - Struise Mikkeller.

OOOOOHHH MIIIII GODDDDDD. My tabs are laughing so much they have fallen off and wandered into a crap Sony advert. Frankly, I've had this beer next to me for ten minutes and I don't want to dare taste it. The aroma is just spellbinding. Remember as a kid how you'd drag your almost-skateboarding scrapy knees down to the ice cream van? Imagine if they'd been piping out huge fecking whirls of vanilla and HOPS HOPS HOPS into a tight malt pipe.

A sip gives a velvet feel soon perverted into a hop shag. If Heston Blumenthal brewed beer, here's where he'd end up. Cream - HOP - lemon - HOP - baked vanilla - HOP - leaking yeast - HOP - dwarves taking turns to do handstands - HOP. (and before you start- yes, that is a bottle of Thornbridge Bracia in the background. It's what I have knocking around the kitchen on a regular basis. Because I'm a beer cnut. Get over it)

Sense out of me? You may as well go shag a pillow. This is a field of hops ploughed thoroughly with an earthy mien. I want to die now and wake up in eternity, face down in a bucket of this stuff. It's a Terminator of beers; never stops, doesn't understand the concept. I have a thumbful of this beer left and the only thing that's stopping me throwing myself out of the window for the lack of more of it is that I live in a bungalow.
I have to leave now. I have an appointment to satiate my ravaged taste buds. Except that I've just messed my pants in excitement and drank the exquisite dregs in one.


I now have to go find a beer that's OK enough to see me through clear until midnight. Thornbridge something will suffice. In the meantime, anyone who hasn't discovered the sheer bliss that is Hem, do try to keep up. Some of us have to go and drink great beer and go one-two-three-two-two-three.


Twelve beers of Christmas: #1

Ho ho ho. My twelve beers of Christmas has to start somewhere; Port Brewing's Santa's Little Helper seems an appropriate place to start. But I'm sick to the back teeth hearing about how wonderful these American beers are - are they just a heap of hype or do they have the balls to back up the braggadocio?

Beers like this have a good rep on website such as ratebeer. Sometimes, I feel this is the result of our colonial cousins bigging themselves up, particularly when the beers are imperial stouts, 'belgian' quads or quintuple hopped IPAs. Othertimes, it seems to be by the virtue of such beers surviving the long journey over the pond and falling into the hands of over-eager acolytes.

I *want* to be impressed by beers like these. I really do want them to be a lush canvas swiped by landscaped flavours. Not a madly overhopped, over-alcoholic mess. SLH (as henceforth it shall be known) starts off promisingly - a viscous pour, tight carbonation, a mocha top subsiding to a mushroom wisp. There's a strong coffee crema aroma with prominent alcohol.

(here's an aside - needing to check spellings in this story, I went to fetch my breeze-block sized dictionary. Rather than Googling the words or spellchecking them. Now, there's old skool for you).

That first taste - surprisingly thin. Slight coffee, a vein of light fruits... swamped by a bittering of burnt chocolate and burning alcohol. Is the depth and complexity hiding behind the admittedly cool serving temperature or does this bottle need a couple of years to mature the edges off it?

Another glass an hour and a half later tells a different tale. My better half dives into the snifter and proclaims the presence of orange peel. I'm finding more plump raisins in there than before. The carb has subsided, leaving behind a calmer beer with a tad more molasses and a keener hop finish. Still trickles across the palate rather than sticking to your ribs, but at least now the booze is warming rather than excoriating.

The coffee, too, has decided to step back on the palate and let fat boozy fruits through to play. There's still that last-coffee-cup-in-the-pot feeling, but this beer's now playing to a tune kept taut by a highly strung quartet; roasty malt, warming alcohol, biting chocolate and washy coffee are all in time with each other. No more dropped bollock notes or inappropriate cymbal crashes.

Over the period of three hours, SLH morphs from brash cousin, through to assured nephew and ends up as gentle uncle. It becomes a safe stout; undeniably well crafted, just that I wish something from those mad first few sips had kept kicking all the way to the end.

Thanks to Phil at for this beer.


Competition: And the winners are...

The results are in. Competition was tough. Literally some people entered and bored the colon out of me with your whinging views on perfect pubs. I've decided to ruin my Boxing Day to announce the results. Humbug. Humbug! Humbug Stout, anyone?

Simplicity and tradition seemed to be your watchwords. Pubs games scored highly. I'm not too keen on darts - particularly the shiny-bloused bingo-winged contingent. Something with local rules that at first glance resembles one game but actually plays completely differently is always fun (bar billiards etc). Although I still think Fin's suggestion of Cheese Skittles sounds more like a bar snack.

Speaking of which, many of you rightly identified decent food as an essential item. I liked Louise's notion of fresh fish - but then to keep it freshest the ideal pub would have to be by the sea. And I live ninety miles inland. And I would quite like to get to this pub without an expedition. Simple foody stuff wins me over, so cyclingjohn's suggestion of "huge chunks of Yorkshire cheeses and pork pies with crusty cobs to help yourself" sounds ideal. Bonus points to Scott, though, for being the only one to suggest pork scratchings. There is no finer accompaniment to a pint of stout than a fried pig's eyebrow that almost liquefies when you bite into it.

Animals were a contentious point. Many of you were keen to see a cat or dog knocking around. Although I don't agree with him, Gazza gets a bottle of beer the next time I meet him for eloquently describing dogs as "filthy, trip-hazard shit machines". Andrew mentioned my ideal pub animal - chickens. You can't beat an in-house egg machine.

Music was a divisive issue. Sloshing pints into the mosh pit proved as popular as the sound of silence. I liked harrisoni's idea of "low level classical/jazz", though only because it conjured up an image of recumbant trumpeters. But cyclingjohn got a stack of points for the suggesting "no noise boxes, including juke/piped/children".

Random (i.e. possibly drunken) ideas were most welcome. Some actually made this miserable old toper chuckle. Andrew for suggesting lock-ins ("just to be Old School"). Fin's spontaneous singing. Gazza's seasonal special crisps from Seabrooks. Dubbel gets mucho kudos for "at least one ridiculously fit girl-next-door barmaid who is utterly oblivious to leering eyes". All of which, however, pale by comparison to magicdave6's suggestions; "Wood is key in soo many factors so i'll just say woodish nature" made me think of the pub coming alive like a Green Man. And who could argue with his Aristotle-ish observation that it must be "somewhere that has beer"?

So then, who tickled me enough to win the bottles of imbibing fluid? Well, for his blunt and honest suggestions that culminated in the sublime point of the perfect pub being one that "Uncle Mort would favour", the goodies go to cyclingjohn. And because our sponsors ( are generous old salts, a case will also wing its way to Fin as well, as he almost described exactly the kind of pub that I frequent almost every week.

Thanks to everyone who posted or emailed. Thanks to for the prizes. And if you chortled at any point when reading this story but didn't enter - next time, you know what to do!


Birthday bash #1: Brum

I was over in Birmingham last month as part of my birthday celebrations. With my none-too-reluctant cider drinking wife, we managed to fit in a visit to my favourite three pubs in Brum.

An early arrival into Brum on Monday allowed us to drop our cases off at Malmaison and head for an early lunch. I was keen on taking Bec to the Old Joint Stock and wanted to get there before the braying office hoards arrived. It's a Fullers pub, possibly their northerly-most outpost, and I was in search of cask London Porter.

A fabulous contraption lifted Bec's wheelchair up the steps at the rear of the building and we were soon ensconced inside. It's a Grade II listed building, beginning life as the Birmingham Joint Stock Bank in 1862. Converted to a pub in 1997, the new Pevsner guide calls it a "subtle, scolarly and beautiful Renaissance palazzo" though the deep coved ceiling is "spoilt by prominent floodlights". Certainly spoilt my photos, although the black & white bodge jobs in Photoshop still give the impression of light and space. High ceilings, chandeliers and the central vaulted bar certainly impress the eye. And the beer was good, too; London Porter (a seasonal beer for November) was still on and I rampaged through several pints. It's got smooth roasted coffee, solid malts, a wisp of smoke and an assured hoppiness. It went well with my mutton, shallots, rosemary & port pie although - as always happens when I eat here - I fancy it would have been better with Bec's choice of pie (steak & stilton). The pub kept busy until five to two, the office workers eventually wending their way deskwards, leaving us in peace. Another pint was drained, slowly, before deciding on a Reluctant change of scenery.

Then, a happy coincidence. Leaving the Old Joint Stock by the rear exit places you by the 'smokers door' of the award-winning Wellington. Well, it would be rude not to have called in, being so close by.... a hefty step to negotiate, though, so thanks to the narrowboatman who held the doors for us. It's a blandish interior, betraying its roots as a wine bar. But two things stand out; a bar with 15 handpulls and the widescreen beer board. The bar offers several regular beers (including offerings from Black Country Ales and the exquisite Wye Valley HPA) alongside an ever-rotating variety of guests from across the country. Those beers are all displayed on the electronic board, giving an indication of the beer's colour alongside price and ABV. If you really want to pee yourself off, you can see the board via this live feed and watch as those beers you really fancy are all drunk by thirsty topers.

The Welly keeps busy, as befits a city-centre pub stacked to the gills with this much real ale. No food is served - you bring your own, the pub provide cutlery. And, yes, in the past I've seen groups sit down to a full Chinese banquet deleivered by taxi to the pub. Useful stuff is for sale behind the bar - crisps, scratchings, beery books, snuff. There's always some cider / perry on offer, and Bec was happy with the Barbourne cider she tried.

I settled for the Crouch Vale Eureka, simply because I've never had an indifferent beer from that brewer. And this didn't disappoint; clean sweet malts with a creamy hop feel tipping the balance. With almost a dozen other beers on the bar, half being scoops, I stayed Reluctant and had a few more Eureka moments. Nothing else really appealed to me - to me honest, I don't think the beer range at the Welly is as adventurous as it used to be. As long as Nigel's got one good beer here, though, I'm happy to imbibe. More about the Welly later.

The afternoon brought bratwurst and gluhwein at the German Christmas market. The evening ended with a champagne and chocolate supper. And Tuesday breakfast was celebrated in the way shared by all parsimonious topers - a full microwave-up at the nearest Wetherspoons. It's always tempting to wash the cholesterol down with a pint, particularly when the likes of Titanic Iron Curtain was adorning the bar. But I was on best birthday behaviour today so first drinkies would have to wait until lunch when we docked at the Anchor.

Bit of a trek into Digbeth as I always go down the wrong road and end up on a ten-minute loop to find the place. But the trip is well rewarded; another Grade II listed building, designed by renowned Birmingham architects James and Lister Lea, clad in terracotta and crammed full of deft touches such as cut glass mirrors, stained glass, corridor tiling and a rare surviving partition screen. They were gearing up for a festival that weekend but there was only one beer that I wanted here - Hobson's Mild. A deserved CAMRA Supreme Champion Beer of Britain in 2007, I love its approach; sweet malts studded with fruit and nuts, smoke stitched into the fraying edges of the palate, all roasted at one step removed. Balanced, quaffable - an epic mild.

With just the two of us in the smoke room and the juke box at our mercy, it was a cracking place to while away an hour or so. Wish we'd been hungry enough to eat here - their snap is the stuff of legends - but the beer was lunch enough for me. And real cider here too; Bec, in her own words, recalled enjoying "somebody's Farmhouse jobby". Sounds all too agricultural, to be honest. I rarely make it down to the Anchor when I'm in Brum and have never been down to the White Swan, another highly regarded pub close by. Looks like I'll have to organise a proper Reluctant Scooper rambling around here in the new year.

Tuesday evening saw us off to the Birmingham Town Hall for my birthday treat - Tony Hadley in concert. One of my wife's favourite singers. Hmmm. I was always a Duran fan myself, but the ex-Spandau lungsmith belts out some great choons and I've learned to love him over the last few years. And of course I get to see the pocket rocket 'Reverend' John Keeble on the drums as well. It was a good gig, Kelbie were a solid support act and Tone mixed up old Spandau faves, classic crooner tunes and a few well-rocked-up songs from the likes of Franz Ferdinand and Kaiser Chiefs. Highlight of the night had to be JK on the mike up front for 'Sweet Home Alabama' with Tony discharging himself superbly on drumming duties.

Wednesday brought lazy morning shopping before lunch back at the Welly. With a Philpotts shop just down the hill, we picked up some gargantuan sarnies and secured ourselves a table at the back of the pub. It was a busy day - groups of a dozen or so would drift in and out, knots of office workers surfaced with their Phillpot bags too. And a couple of boatman were here again; we had a chat as I was interested what the cork 'conker' on their keyring was for. They explained you only needed to drop your keys in the canal once; after forking out for a locksmith, you then bought a cork conker so that they'd float if they ended up waterwards again.

Bec was back on the Barbourne again as I picked a few beers at random from the board. Coastal have a reputation for repeated rebadges, but when the beers are as good as Welly Gold I'm not complaining. The Ossett Silver King was strangely underpowered by comparison. And Kinver Caveman had some strong caramel malts that gave me something to chew on.

Too soon it was time for a dash back across town, pick up some chocs from Harvey Nicks and catch the train back home. The focus of these three days wasn't the pubs themselves, but they all played to their strengths; solid ale and huge pies at the Old Joint Stock, eclectic customers and beer range at the Welly, no-nonsense fayre at the Anchor. I'll revisit in 2009 for a more adventurous rambling.

PS - Malmaison was one of the most laid-back and comfy hotels I've ever stayed in. Heartily recommended. And, Tone - if you're reading, don't forget you can send me bottles of anything from Red Rat anytime you like ;-)


Twelve beers of Christmas: Preview

It's Christmastime, so I need to raid the garage. Twelve beers over the twelve days of holiday I have left sounds like a plan.

There will be three beers each from England, Belgium, the rest of Europe and the United States. Some old favourites to revisit, some new brews to try, some stuff that I've been looking for an excuse to crack open. Thornbridge, Mikkeller, Westvleteren, Lost Abbey... beers from these and more are all waiting to be opened. It's gonna be a blast - don't forget to check back each evening for the latest brew review.


Fest of fun: Leicester pubs

When two of my favourite pubs in Leicester got together to host a joint beer festival, it would have be rude not to give it a bash. Lured by madly strong Oakham ales and some dark Beowulf lovelies, I braved the chill wind to meet up with old muckers John and Brian at Vin IV (formerly Out Of The Vaults) and the Swan & Rushes.

It was cold in Leicester. No hail, no snow, just marrow-freezing dullness. Forgetting that the Alehouse opened at 11am - and they had a festival on too - left me tramping the shopping centres for an hour. A haircut filled the time, conducted by a barber who was the Daily Mail incarnate. I'd have pointed out the flaws in his anti-immigration policies but he did have a particularly sharp pair of scissors in the vicinity of my jugular.

Twelve noon brought me to the Swan just as the doors were opening. Too early for beers from the stillage, I instead decided to treat myself to a bottle of Anchor Our Special Ale, their Christmas ale. Licks of ginger, hints of pine, deep caramels... it's a satisfying beer for this time of year.

Tracking down John and Brian, it transpired they were en route to Vin IV, having called by the Swan when it was closed earlier and kept moving. Time for a few dark beers and a bit of snap, then. Wickwar Station Porter and Elgood's North Brink Porter were dispatched in quick succession. The former was a little on the bland side - perhaps due more to the chillly stillage outside as I've had this beer before in finer form. The Elgoods on handpump inside was superb; deep, deep ruby bodied with rounded rich berry fruits in the flavour. Dry chocolate and wet espresso filled out the profile of an accomplished beer. A proper cheese and onion roll (both ingredients thick cut) and a pork pie (possibly from Lanes, one of those flat, pliable ones) made for a decent lunch.

And then there was Oakham. Sadly their latest IPA, X-Terminator, wasn't ready ("it looks a little lumpy" said Grant Cook (at least, I think it was licensee Grant, I really ought to find out these things). My next trip to the stillage was far more fruitful, though. Not only did I get to meet blogger Pan-C from ale-affinity - without whom I wouldn't have known about the fest - but I was able to try what for me was the real draw of the day. Warthog was a collaborative brew between Green Jack and Oakham for last year's Peterborough CAMRA festival. It was 13.5% then.... so there's every chance that it could be knocking on for an extra percent-ish by now. Sticky tropical fruits to the nose, a high register alcohol note carried away on a hop tip. A slight cool haze to the copper body. It was thick but not viscous, no oily residue but instead a lovely light feel - still coated your teeth but as a veneer sheen rather than a gluey gloop.

Then, hops...... the lightest, fruitiest, smackingly-alpha hops that had no right to be present in a beer of this style and age. Frankly, I couldn't understand where the hops kept coming from. I had to keep sipping. And still the hops came, marching regimentally out the glass and into your gob as if they'd been in reserve too long and were desperate to pillage across your palate. I know many people who'd detach vital appendages if it allowed them to taste beers like this. If this uber-hopped barrel-aged barley wine were from San Bindeebondoo in the good ol' US west coast, certain beer review sites would be hailing it as a world-beating beer. Let me tell you - it *was* a world-beating beer, which goes to show that English brewers ought to be laying down beers in this style and bottling it to show that we're not as boring as our pilgrim brethren may make us out to be.

Suitably fortified, I dragged my hop haze off to the Out Of The Vaults. Or Vin IV as it's now known (again). John and Brian had just arrived after a trip to the Criterion and we soon got stuck into the beers on offer. They seemed to enjoy their choices from Fernandes, Hoggleys and Riverhead. My Kelham Island Winterlude was tasty enough, but the Beowulf Grendall's Grog being too heavy on the thick malts for me. Bees Ginger Beer was disappointingly underpowered for my palate - I'm keener on the boldness of Marble Ginger.

The Beowulf Christmas Cake 2008 was easily the better beer in this part of the festival for me. Decent rich fruits, a chewy malty base blunted by keen hops. By now, we'd given in to the lure of landlord Paul's homemade chili, mopped up with hunks of bread. I'd usually opt for a crisp pale beer to wash down a chili, but the Beowulf provided a surprisingly effective counterpoint with its fruitiness soaking up the spices.

Too soon, we needed to amble down New Walk for the train back to Derby. No prizes for guessing that the Warthog was my beer of the day. And the chili was one of the best trays of pub grub I've had this year. If only I'd been able to try them together.....


Ramblings: Derby, Sunday, again

Dogs return to vomit. Christmas makes madmen of the out-of-season sane. So whilst the rabid herd trudge the soiled High Streets, I'm off to my old drinking grounds for dodgy jokes, annoying whistling, the vague smell of shit and an unexpectedly tasty pint.

Days like these start in a Wetherspoons. For the unfortunate Magners drinker, they probably end here, too, in a pool of vomit / ocean of bitter recrimination / puddle of squandered remission. At least the Babington Arms caters for the breakfast-loving toper as well as the wannabe ASBO enthusiast. Occasionally, I'll have a pre-10am pint to wash down the microwave-up and toast, but today's Leatherbritches and Falstaff fayre doesn't tickle my palate. Here be the lager boys who didn't get to bed last night. At least, not their own, as they're busy texting apologies to their Mums when they think their mates aren't looking. Here too are the nth iteration of today's trackie-clad slackers, rosy nosed tweed-ish drunkards who insist the world was a better place when they could beat the wife and contract emphysema indoors. Both groups hate the fecker who raised taxes and denied them their uncivil liberties. It's just one lot doesn't know who this Thatcher character is. The yoof of today eh?

With a startling outbreak of middle-class affectation, I leave the pub to go get a large strong cappuchino, read the Observer review section and then fail to find any suitably freshly-baked baguettes. Honestly, Jez, what *is* this world coming to? Shortcutting to the pub involves getting through Westfield, the could-be-anywhere-in-the-capitalist-world shopping centre. It's hitting full-on centrifugal mode, aisles a blur of misplaced consumerism, jaded shoppers plastered against walls when their cards have been ripped clean of credit. Unwilling to purchase, I am swallowed up into the place and irritate my way clean through, shat out via the smokers' alley at the back.

Ten minutes of a chill wind and I'm at the Brunswick. The attraction of this pub on a Sunday is threefold; no diners, barbed banter and a decent dark pint. Landlord Graham will be off-duty and moaning about the football results, regular Lou will be moaning about losing bets to Graham, other barflys will moan about anything the Daily Mail has been moaning about. And then, like a butterfly braving a stormy afternoon, someone will air a few words that brighten the bar and replace bile with delight. Today, Lou asked Ralph (the cook) how he made the parsnip soup. "Well," said Ralph, "I take a parsnip. And some water. And blend them. And that's parsnip soup". And no-one was too sure what was funnier - Lou's question or Ralph's studious answer. But laughs like drains were exhibited all round. I nearly decorated the table with an as unyet-digested mouthful of Brunswick Black Sabbath. So I guess pub humour is where you find it.

No coal fire at the Brunnie - "times 'r 'ard" says Graham - so I shuffle fifteen paces into the Alex for warmth and beer. Alan was dragging his fire into life with wet wood; reluctant flames still spark, though. No other customers to enjoy it, mind; half an hour of my failings to crack the Azed crossword are accompanied only by a pint of Dark Star Winter Solstice and Alan's off-key whistling as every twelfth dart misses the board and rattles the floorboards. The pint is one of the finest seasonal brews I've had this year, packed with gingery bits and surprisingly aggressive hops. Indeed, it's the kind of beer that tests keenly my Reluctancy on a cool afternoon; upriver I must go, though.

It's a turbid Derwent today, heavy rains lend the water a stewed-tea feel. Sadly, that has an obvious implication for riverside pub The Smithfield - storm drains rise and the whiff through the bar needs something hoppier than Durham White Something to neutralise it. It has a fair crack at it, though, as I'm not gagging my way through reading the Morning Advertiser and The Publican. Quiet here, too; landlord Roger says would be happy to see more pubs close as he'd get more customers. Not sure that they'd leg it over the river, though, even for his excellent beer. Trade tales are exchanged across the bar between licensee, brewer and consumer, all three feeling that they're taking it up the keester from the taxman. It's times like these you wish for a recently-redundant tax inspector to walk into the bar, but you can't have it all.

Another five minutes upriver to the Royal Standard and dreams of dark beer. Amazingly, I didn't have to take pot luck on their recalcitrant guests as Trev Harris had deigned to brew a black 'un. Christmas Porter was velvet enough with some rich fruit notes lurking in the edges. Last described by a Brunswick regular as a cross between "a wine bar and I don't know what", the Standard is a bar masquerading as a pub with the un-nerving habit of serving decent real ale whilst alienating a number of real ale drinkers. More room for me, then; I'll still dispute Harris's pricing policy (charging over two quid a pint for his own weakest beer) but the place is affable enough. The atmosphere isn't painted on the walls - indeed, it's whatever you bring along with you; old friends, extended family, bitter partner, sweetheart, well-thumbed broadsheet.

My bus leaves from round the corner and I'm surprised to have spent three hours on this slow crawl. Then again, this has been a dog-eared slipper of an afternoon, knowingly comfortable with a stubborn sole.


Competition time!

This Scrooge Scooper has teamed up with to offer a case of beer as first prize in this site's first competition.

You may know the article by George Orwell describing his imaginary perfect pub, The Moon Under Water. I'd like to know the ten qualities you look for in your perfect pub. Post them up here as comments. Or email to me using the address listed under the 'Contact US' tab. The one that tickles me the most will win a case of beer courtesy of Extra special random bonus beer prizes may be available if someone comes up with a particularly leftfield selection.

To enter, you need to be UK resident and over 18. Entries to be posted in by midnight Thursday 18th December - winner will be sent the beer in the new year (postage to UK addresses only). Don't forget, you've got to be in it to win it so crack open a bottle and start posting!


Thornbridge Brewer's Challenge

The Thornbridge brewers have been involved in 'friendly' competition over the last four months. Each was tasked to produce a new brew that would showcase their skills and tastes. Drinkers were polled, scores collated and cask sales monitored to work out which of the brewcrew would claim first place. I tried them all at various venues and decided that Katipo was my firm favourite... did the wider beery world agree with me when the results weer released yesterday?

Back in June, Dave Pickering was the first to step up with Barbary. I tried this in the Coopers Tavern, Burton, before I knew about the challenge. And a superb brew it was, atypical perhaps for a summmer beer with yummy malts and chocolate dustings all around. Slight spice and smoke too.

July saw Stefano Cossi's Hop Shock unleashed. Hugely popular at the Derby CAMRA festival on handpump, it was a decent itchy-scratchy pale that was more surprise rather than shock. Tons of hop in the nose but strangely restrained on the palate.

Newest brewer Matthew Clarke was let loose in August and came up with Karnival. In the American pale ale style, I found it to have a typical Thornbridge hop stamp albeit with a crepe sole rather than a steel toe-cap. An assured brew that ticked the boxes.

Bouncing into September came the Tigger of Thornbridge, Kelly Ryan, with Katipo. Named after a rare spider found in his home country of New Zealand, this was a rich porter riven with Belgian raspberries. When I first tried this at the Burton CAMRA festival I nearly fell off my seat - and it was only my second drink of the day. It had an outstanding feel, reaching a point when the fruit oozed effortlessly through the chocolate. Scooping plans were then abandoned and I drank as much of it as I dared to before a reluctant train journey home. Sampled again at the Brunswick festival it revealed more plump and juicy fruits before the quick bitter finish. And again at the Nottingham CAMRA fest where it was served rather cool but hot hands allowed that berried sting in the tail to surface again.

So it's a delight to find out that Katipo took first place in the Brewer's Challenge. "I've always been a fan of fruit beers," said Kelly, "and whilst brewing in Scotland and being surrounded by wild raspberries, I imagined that their sweetness and tartness would be a great mix". He found the competition to be fun; "it brought out a bit of competitiveness and cloak and dagger-esque recipe formulation!".

A worthy winner, Tigger; here's hoping you get the chance to defend your trophy next year! And here's hoping that Katipo will be brewed again soon, a cool winter deserves a rich fruity beer to cheer rosy nosed topers!


Toper Talk: Beware of the ticker?

Tickers. Scoopers. For some they are the epitome of CAMRA man. Yet whilst some branches love them (think ticker-tastic fests like Nottingham or Tamworth) others are openly hostile. Meanwhile, ticker/scooper attitudes towards CAMRA veer from dewy-eyed adulation, through grudging acceptance for economic reasons to rabid criticism. Earlier this year the Telford and East Shropshire CAMRA magazine stirred up Scoopgen users with an article that portrayed tickers as "a heinous band of tramps and vagabonds". Are they that bad? Are they an easy target? What makes them tick? Let's find out...

It was that article in a local CAMRA newsletter (and reproduced on Scoopgen) that started me thinking about tickers. With tongue slightly in cheek, 'Brockton' bemoaned tickers for being ill-mannered bottlers of beer rather than 'real imbibers'. These 'tramps and vagabonds' were described as being "clad in 70s anoraks", having a "graveyard of decaying yellow teeth", being prone to "incomprehensible mumbling" and giving off "an odour akin to a Dickensian chiropodist's waiting room". Nice.

Comments about the article on Scoopgen were unsurprisingly critical; "another example of generalisation tarring everyone with the same brush" said one; others wondered why the likes of 'Brockton' even bothered to join CAMRA. Super scooper Gazza's response to the article was that "some of this thing is slightly close to the truth but it's still quite sad... that some CAMRA people think it's okay to slag off a section of the real ale drinking public who know (generally) more about beer and breweries than 99% of CAMRA members, drink more cask ale than most CAMRA members and do the most to support micro brewers".

To be fair, I've also been critical of some tickers. Because I find people who yak on about beer all day to be deeply boring. Because some of them impose their ill-formed opinions around the bar whether you're interested or not. Becasue if the festival list suggested that Groyne's Olde Scrotum would be on and it's not, they start throwing their bottles out the trolly, metaphorically speaking. But there's a wider issue that I struggle with.

It's the numbers game. I used to be an active member of, adding reviews of beers to the site and going out of my way on many occasions to sample new brews. But that was driven by a desire to try beers of differing styles - the number of rates was a consequence of the journey, not the reason for it. I stopped rating every beer I tried in 2005 (about 18 months after I started) and stopped counting altogether soon after. Even when I was rating, I'd tend to drink a pint of a favourite beer than two halves of unknown brew.

Maybe I'm a scooper who doesn't write stuff down. After all, Scoopgen defines the hobby as "the term given to sampling as many different real ales as possible, within the scooper's own personal rules". And those rules are arbitrary; as Gazza says, liable to change "at any time to suit whims and experiences". This is all starting to sound un-nervingly like Werner Muensterberger; he recognised in his book 'Collecting: An Unruly Passion', that although "the inner pressure for more and more acquisitions... exists in all collectors, neither personal style nor circumstance are ever identical".

There's clearly a collecting bug amongst tickers. 'Beige' Phil Booton writes of the "simple delight at adding a new name to the collection". Gazza has called scooping "trainspotting beer instead of trains". But is there more to ticking than the numbers game? Well, Gazza himself makes the point eloquently in his essays on scooping; he may have been seeing the country and having a good laugh, but he was driven by wanting to try the next beer; " didn't matter if I'd found a superb beer in a pub, I'd always want to try another just in case it was better".

That's a key point for me. If I love the beer I'm drinking, I don't feel the need to forsake it for the 'other' beer; that's why I'm a Reluctant Scooper. But are most tickers really tasting the next beer along to see if it's a better beer... or just to ink another name in their battered notebook? Gazza may have been driven by the pursuit of quality, but most of the tickers I see seem driven by quantity - with hitlists determined solely by availability. They seem to have what he calls the 'collecting gene or mentality' - and I think that's what I'm missing.

Sure, I had a collecting streak as a kid - stamps, chocolate bar wrappers, Panini football stickers) but... I want to say that it all stopped when I grew up. Perhaps that's where the anti-ticker criticism stems from, that any form of obsessive collecting is seen as immature. Certainly, pyschoanalysts and philosophers have seen collecting as a method of filling some kind of void. Muensterberger saw the experience as "an enriching respite from the sometimes frustrating demands of everyday life" and that the dedicated collector may be acting in response to "the trauma of aloneness". Baudrillard found that it was "... men in their forties who seem most prone to the passion... (it) may be seen as a powerful mechanism of compensation during critical phases in a person's sexual development". So, is ticking is something carried out by frustrated middle aged men as some kind of compensatory activity?

I think there's more to it than that. The psychology of collecting may offer some clues. The concept of an 'acquisitive instinct' has been questioned as studies have shown a sociocultural diversity in people's relationships with material goods. Similarly, individual-centred frameworks ignore explicit social features of possessions. Perhaps a social constructionist perspective can help - whereby the collection is a symbol of identity whose meaning is socially constructed. Ticking that rare brewery on your way to ten thousand beers only functions as a symbol of greatness to a reference group that shares the same belief.

As much as the critics of tickers like to make out that they are just a bunch poorly-clothed social inadequates, possibly bordering on Aspergers Syndrome, the truth of the matter is that there's a sense of society and community amongst tickers. Unlike true Asperger's sufferers, groups of tickers display a true sense of shared enjoyment and achievement. Indeed, I'd go so far to say that it's the social aspect that feeds the hobby - if tickers couldn't give and receive gen, swap bottles, share pork pies and meet a friendly face in a far-flung pub then I don't think they'd do it. After all, what's the point of ticking if no one knows nor cares about it?

Yes, tickers can be annoying, tiring, boring, boorish, under-informed, over-opinionated. But that's people for you. Like the guy sat behind me at Silverstone barking on about relative exhaust diameters when all I want to hear is the roar of a Mosler; the art snob deconstructing Rothko when I'm trying to lose myself in its murk, the convention fan who says I simply must read x's new novella coz 'he's, like, awesome!!!' (lather, rinse, repeat).

I'd rather drink with a mild-mannered ticker than a lairy lager boy. So, tick 'em if you need 'em, guys (and gals). Just don't go drinking all of that Groyne's Olde Scrotum - it's one of my favourites.

This column was brought to you under the inebriating power of Brunswick Black Sabbath, foresaking three new scoops just so I could have lashings of the stuff.

Dim and distant psychology recollections courtesy of a polytechnic tutor who's name escapes me. But I do remember that she used to drink cider and black.

And the photo is one of the numerous caricatures hanging in the cellar bar of the Flowerpot, Derby - click through to see a larger version or go see for yourself at the pub. I might even buy you a pint if I'm there...


Ratebeer shafted again

Hackers akimbo at ratebeer again. I haven't been able to post on the forum or send beermail. Google now classes it as a harmful site. As I'm stuck on IE during the day, I'll have to wait for later and see if Firefox + noscript is still a viable option.

On the off-chance that any of the London crew stumble by this post, apologies but I won't be down on Saturday for the crawl.

If anyone has any good security practice for viewing ratebeer through IE that they can share, please do so.

Clicking 'read more' would be about as useful as a chocolate teapot.

Told you!


Chocolate, coffee and beer #2

Greenwich brewers Meantime have made a name for themselves with a range of award-winning bottled beers. As they brew a coffee beer, a chocolate beer and stouts/porters offering both flavours, they may be able to offer me all I'm looking for. But can they deliver?

First off was London Stout. Knowing this is brewed without roasted malts, I was expecting a smooth beer but this was silken to the point of offering no resistance. And little in the way of flavour, too. A little washy vanilla, a drop or three of americano. Perhaps I shouldn't have followed the Meantime tasting notes and chilled the beer as the subtlety felt frozen out of it. In fairness, there was some cocoa powder itching around the edges towards the end, but it developed too late for my liking. By no means a bad bottle but underwhelming.

Could the chocolate beer excite me more? Now, I've tried this before and, frankly, found it to be a superb after-dinner beer. This bottle poured with a thick head like a cappuchino gone wrong. Certainly a sweet aroma - my wife thought it too banana-esque - whereas I thought more of hot chocolate bubbling on the stove, on the point of curdling. The flavour had two chocolates fighting against each other, one sweet and creamy - almost cloying - alongside a dusky darker tang (cooking chocolate?) like a bar only recently snapped.

On the palate, those chocolate flavours are tempered by a bittering coffee shot. Consistant carbonation means that a swift flick of the wrist reactivates the head into a slowly disappearing pillow of coffee froth. This could be a car-crash, but Meantime have produced a bitter-cream beer that deserves the awards and shouldn't be denigrated as a novelty flavoured ale.

The London Porter is a longtime favourite of mine, so it would be rude not to crack open a bottle. And a fine looking bottle it is, too; champagne bottled with cork closure. And it's chock full of malts, coffee crema tussling with spent charcoal and brooding dark chocolate. That first sip - OK, first gulp - brings bitter chocolate and an assured hop astringency. There's some slight caramel before the sweeping coffee and chocolate crescendo. Damn, I love this beer.

I tried the Coffee Porter on cask recently and liked it. I rated the same beer bottled (then just called Coffee) and wasn't too impressed. Time to try the bottle again, then; now billed as Coffee Porter and rejigged with - I think - less coffee than before. Well, there's certainly a better balance, with pronounced coffee notes on the nose and more deep-set roasted chocolate flavours than before. The coffee cushion is sat on by a fat chocolate arse, an indentation of itching beans remains in the mouth. I'm impressed by this - clearly the recipe has changed and Meantime have achieved a balance that's enviable where these flavours are involved.

I'm impressed overall by these Meantime beers. London Porter has always been a fave beer and was an enjoyable glug. The Chocolate beer was still as good as I remembered it and one that I'd gladly buy in for Christmas and try to bring beer-sceptics I know over to the dark malty side. And the Coffee Porter was a surprise - a vast improvement on the previous bottled version and even better than the cask version. Only the London Stout disappointed - I may have to give it another go.

All this beer gave me an appetite for chocolate, so I raided the war chest for some single origin bars. Thorntons are currently selling a selection so I gave them a go.

Papua New Guinea is a 35% solids milk chocolate described as 'exotic and aromatic'. Very vanilla with a little lemon. Fairly good for a milk chocolate but could be cloying in any more than a sampler bar.

Ecuador edges to 40% solids and is billed as 'fruity and floral'. Sounds like a good golden ale! This bar offered more caramel and quite a keen citric vein. A bit nondescript - still rich but no killer flavour for me.

Mexico sees the step up to dark chocolate with 66% solids. This was described as 'fruity and herbal'; I got oranges, lemons again, all mixed in a surprisingly creamy finish. Just a hint of licorice on the nose.

Sao Tome steps up the solids to 70% in a 'fruity and bittersweet' bar. I like the bitterness here, still an underlying fruit feel but the thicker chocolate feel starts to stick to you teeth. The feel gets softer in the mouth and ends up being a pleasingly well balanced chocolate that I could have more of.

Last bar is Tanzania, 75% solids described as 'bitter and intense'. Well, I demand a recount. Decent aroma, strong chocolate with a little vanilla. The astringent taste is there, but it needs working round your mouth to release it at the end of a rather oily palate.

Interesting to have these chocs, but to be honest they all felt a little samey. Tanzania's bitter edge was as average as Papua New Guinea's vanillaness. I enjoyed yomping through the range but wish one of them had been knockout. As it is, I feel like I have a little bit of chocolate sick in my tummy.

Time for bed. (Burp).

Thanks to beermerchants for the beers. All photos (c) Meantime Brewing.


Ratebeer fixed!

Stumbling across the internet last night (I know, I really ought to put it back in its cabinet after I've finished playing with it) I found that was live again. Seems that there may be downtime as new procedures are put into place which require reboots so here's hoping that any future interruptions are intentional.

It's like the return of that well-loved re-soled slipper that the dog ran off with but soon returned, with no teeth marks in it or anything.

Picture of cute puppy available if you click to read more...


Ratebeer down again

Posted by Joe T on Beer Advocate:

hi gang, the security team saw the threat tonight while they conducting diagnostics. their move was to continue diagnostics in a safe environment by taking the site down and starting tomorrow morning. This operation is a top to bottom approach by the best specialists I could find. They plan on attacking this as a team first thing tomorrow morning.

The plan this time is a prompt relaunch with guaranteed work.

Thank you to everyone in the community for coming together to bring us back. As we approach 2009, people are talking about change. This was the mantra of RateBeer and Beer Advocate many many years ago and things in the beer world were very different. We are now seeing the fruits of our early labors and the many positive changes in the beer industry we'd hoped for so long ago. These changes have only come about because of people like you all, whose passion has made for monumental worldwide change.

I'm grateful many of you -- some without even a RateBeer account -- have pitched in to help us continue our work. Thank you, Todd, for helping us out. While we've had our superficial differences in the past, deep down we've known we're all in this together.

Thanks for showing what a strong family of committed people we are. It's this kind of spirit that has been instrumental in the success of craft beer and the spirit that keeps me fighting for the cause.



Major bummer - here's hoping the last experience has made the rb team able to bounce back faster and stronger this time. (no more to read btw, not even a picture of a dirty old man...)


Ratebeer: Sorted!

After all their recent security troubles, it's good to see Ratebeer back up and running again. Kudos to Joe Tucker and the admins for having the balls to take the site down and get the necessary work done. It's like having a comfy slipper back, re-soled. There may be a few ongoing issues - some cnut has obviously taken a dislike to the site - but we shall overcome. And rate, rate, rate on!

Don't bother clicking 'Read more!'. There isn't anything else to see.

WHAT DID I JUST SAY!! You wouldn't be told, would you? FECK OFF!


Bottled Up: England v Germany

A night in front of the gogglebox and the footie's on. Engerland back in Germany for the first time since *that* night in Munich 2001. I'm expecting the game to be as friendly as a ticker expecting scoops but getting Greene King. But never mind the dummkopfs; let our multi-millionaires close down Klose and I'll get on with settling another score. I'll pick a German beer and an English beer at random out of my cellar and drink one in each half. Back of the net or straight down the sink?

Let's kick off with the German entry - Jever Dark. I've been keen on 'normal' Jever for years and so was keen to try the dark side when I saw this bottle in Beers of Europe. Well, the beer made more of an impression in the first ten minutes than the German team did. Bready malts, damp stables, a gentle carbonation delivers a washy caramel that's tempered by a surprisingly slight sweetflower finish. Not had too many Schwarzbiers so didn't really know what to expect. It feels a little messy, no clear direction on the palate, though not as bad as the German defence as the keeper goes flapping and Upson's leg grows another twelve inches to stick the ball into the old onion bag.


The Dark does start to grow on me. So do fungal diseases, so not necessarily a good thing. That latent sweetness starts to fade and a sour lick lingers in the still-thin body. Not bad and certainly session-able.

Half-time so it's time for a five-minute queue for a python-siphon and another queue for a bratwurst & turnip pie. Except I'm not actually at the game.... so it's back off to the cellar. And some half-time musings:

- do the Germans look at the flash advertising boards and wonder what a Pukka Pie is?
- why do footballers need Recaro seats in the dugout?
- Scott Carson: why?

Second half is underway; two changes for England, three for Germany and one for me. The curiously efficient German makes way for a feisty near-Mancunian, Robinson's Ginger Tom. This could be a great strike partnership, the muscular Old Tom paired with the biting Fentiman's Ginger Ale. From the kick-off, there's a great aroma spilling around the kitchen - not the Terry Butcheresque brutality of Marble Ginger but a level of Bobby Moore-like pace and control. And there's plenty going on around the palate - and then on the pitch. Bent's just had an open net and fallen over at the surprising sight of it. Then Terry and Carson seemed to be pulled together by magnets in their shorts, so allowing Helmes to perform that typical shabby German football trick of scoring a goal just after we should have had one.


If only we had the depth of Ginger Tom. That spice starts as subtle as a Wright-Philips shot shaving the post. Those alcohol-strewn fruits of Old are still knocking around, ginger washing around them. Stealthy carbonation keeps whipping that firm malty base round your gums, warm spice lingering until... those lush fruits curl in again like Downing's finest as Captain Courageous inserts the ball firmly beyond the last German.


This is a seriously good beer. It's as impressive as Chocolate Tom was disappointing. The Old Tom in the mix never feels neutered, if anything the gingerness lifts those plump autumnal flavours. Two things I know for sure; I will be buying more of this if I can find it in Sainsburys and this has got to be made available on cask. I'd even go to Stockport for it, as no-one by now will remember 1989 and the fancy-dress clown who caused a near-riot in McDonalds by promising all the kids free Happy Meals if they went up to the counter and shouted "I HAVE VD!!"

No need for extra time. The results are clear enough - the Germans were one-dimensional whereas the English had that touch of class. Ginger Tom takes the tie for Engerland. Though I fear they may have a stiffer test if they ever get drawn against Mikkel's Danish all-stars...


Chocolate, coffee and beer #1

Winter's on the way and my tastebuds crave cacao and Coffea arabica. There's a number of beers that have chocolate or coffee flavours to them. And plenty that would go well with a slab or two of Hotel Chocolat's finest. So, let's kick off the chocolate-coffee trip with a swift trip round Derby on a wet Sunday.

Breakfast at the Babington Arms kicks the day off. And what finer accompaniment to a plate of bacon and eggs than a half of, er, Robinson's Chocolate Tom? To be fair, I finished breakfast first. This beer promised a lot, although I'd have liked to see a full-blooded 8% Old Tom with chocolate flavours rather than this watered-down version. Truth be told, it was a poor compromise; none of the juicy autumnal fruits of the barley wine, too much of a drinking chocolate cloy.

Decent coffee was called for and Grand Cafe Caruso know how to make it. Espresso that's short, strong and hot. Cappuccino that's the proper three thirds of coffee, milk and foam. I'll take either/or, the former for the quick hit, the latter for the slow burn over a crossword or two. Next stop was to pick up a collection of single origin chocolate bars from Thorntons - I'll be trying those out later this month alongside a range of beer styles.

Then it was more-beer time. The Brunswick offered its usual Sunday lunchtime entertainment of landlord Graham relieving regular Lou of a few quid courtesy of another ill-advised wager. But the two new beers were mediocre - sorry, Graham - so I moved on next door. And what a result awaited at the Alex - Dark Star Espresso. Here was an effortless beer, ridiculously easy drinking given the clearly defined coffee flavour. Lifted by Challenger with a solid roasted base, I'd have been more than happy to take another one of these. This could have been a bitter mess, but the coffee levels work wonders for me.

A couple of undemanding beers followed at the Smithfield (Millstone Royal Oak) and the Royal Standard (Moorhouse Pendle Witches Brew). Frankly, I only popped into the pubs as it was slapping it down with rain. I needed a good coffechoc beer to get me back on track, so chanced my arm at Derby's other Spoons.

The Standing Order is one one those that looks great inside (huge high ceilinged former bank) but usually has an undemanding beer range. Not today, though - the bar was bristling with ten guests as part of the autumn festival. And there at the end was Meantime Coffee Porter. There'd been a deal of debate about the beer on Scoopgen, some finding it thin, others revelling in its depth. I was glad to find it in fine form with sustained bitter coffee and a robust roast note. In comparison to the Dark Star - a close second.

Glad to have tried these two beers on cask. There are plenty of bottles in the war chest and a variety of chocolates on their way. Next post on this topic will look at some of those bottles.


Bottled Up: Brewdog Punk IPA

The Portman Group, the drinks industry's humour-bypassed regulatory body, have provisionally upheld their decision to force the removal of three Brewdog beers from retailer's shelves due to the 'aggressive marketing' used by the brewer.

The complaints begger belief. Hop Rocker is marketed with the phrases “nourishing foodstuff” and “Magic is still there to be extracted”; the Portman panel said that implies the drink could enhance mental and physical capabilities. Er, WTF??? Rip Tide, being a “twisted merciless stout” – is associated in their eyes with antisocial behaviour. And one of my favourite beers, Punk IPA, which is described on the small print of the back label as an “aggressive beer”... Portman say that the use of the word aggression “is more likely to be seen applying to the drinker rather than the drink”. FFS.

This was supposed to be a blog about a great bottle of beer. But now it's got far, far more important things to say. You want to know the truth about Punk IPA and Brewdog? Can you handle the truth?

I can tell you all about Punk IPA. About Punk IPA chilled in the freezer for 45 minutes. Or Punk IPA cooled in the cellar. Or Punk IPA straight off the shelf. Punk IPA with fish and chips. Punk IPA takes the edge off. Punk IPA drops me a mental gear. Punk IPA makes me wanna Photoshop.

It's one of those IPAs that actually tastes of something. I'm a lover of Thornbridge Jaipur as well, but Punk is subtly different; a duskier colour, sweeter malts, aromas more fruit bowl than citric cocktail. As it's stocked in the Asda superstore I happen to walk past on my way home every day, it's become a bottle I keep a regular stock of. Indeed, I bought a dozen bottles last week to hand out around my colleagues in a moment of pure beer evangelism/altruism. It goes with fish & chips better than my usual bottle of swirly-handed Sauvignon Blanc from M&S and knocks the harshness off a chilli con carne.

And for a brewery that's only been in production for eighteen months they have a reputation for innovation and quality that exceeds many established brewers. Beer bloggers declare their love for it. The brewers are rightly proud of it. It's a high quality product sold to a discerning customer base. So, what's Portman's beef?

To be honest, they seem to act like a third-quality firewall. Words used in marketing - in the small print on the back of a bottle - are being taken wholly out of context and deeemed to be offensive or inciting. I'd love to know how many complaints have been made about Brewdog. And how many complaints have been made about supermarkets actively marketing cut price canned beers. I'd pick apart all the logic and language faults made by Portman in relation to the Brewdog case but Brewdog have already done this is the most eloquent fashion.

Let's let the Portman Group know what we think. Mail to You may want to call their guy in charge of complaints about beer marketing, David Poley, on 020 7907 3702. And show some solidarity on the Brewdog blog.

As for whether the brewer ought to change their wording - I'd be tempted to ship 'Censored' stickers to retailers and generate more debate, but that's a cost that Brewdog could probably do without. And where will all those 'inappropriate' bottles end up? Perhaps the USA or mainland Europe, who don't sem to have the problems that Portman have.

All beer lovers need to kick up a stink and raise the profile of this pointless ruling. The Portman Group cannot be allowed to bully more microbrewers in this way. I am appealing to any Code of Conduct signatories to make it clear to Portman that enough is enough. The key word is responsibility - that responsibility works both ways. Brewdog are not encouraging irresponsible drinking; Portman ought to take responsibility for their heavy-handed and short-sighted approach to policing the code.

And if you're reading, you buyers for Asda and Tesco - if you're happy to mass-discount cheap cans, where's the problem in stocking Punk?

This is thin-end-of-the-wedge, beer lovers. Don't let Portman ruin this industry.


Relaxing with a beer

It's Friday and there's nothing I like to do more than kick back with a cold one. Even if it smudges my lippie.

I don't usually lounge around in full make-up. Honest. But today is Children In Need day and I've donned my old slap to raise a bit of cash for the kids.So, to everyone who sponsored me to dress up at work today to me and to anyone who's doing whatever they can for CiN, cheers to you all.


Toper Talk: CAMRA Man

I am a CAMRA member. Albeit only for economic reasons (cheap or free entry to beer festivals). There's often been a perception that CAMRA members are bearded sandal wearers who could bore for Britain about malt gristing. So, in the week that my mate Mark was called up t'committee in his local area, I began to wonder how close I am to that pervasive member stereotype. Let's look at a sterling example of one, courtesy of Half Man Half Biscuit. Am a really a 'CAMRA Man'?

Half Man Half Biscuit lyrics in bold, my responses below.

C.A.M.R.A Man (3:08) Track 3, 'Eno Collaboration EP' 1996 Probe Plus.

Anything under five percent I don’t want to drink it
I do like strong IPAs and stouts, but I'm more than happy to have weaker beer. In fact, I am in awe of a brewer who can extract great flavours and aromas in a beer around three per cent (or, in the case of Thornbridge Kastor, 2.9%)

Ugly frontage? Don’t even think it
I'm more concerned about the quality of beer inside than the flowerpots outside. For instance - Out Of The Vaults in Leicester looks like a tacky wine bar (which it once was) but has corking beers. The picture-perfect Trip To Jeruslam sells Greene King's foulest. 'All that glisters is not gold, often have you heard that told'

I want my hand held pumps
Pumps are good. And gravity is just as good (the Coopers Arms in Burton is my favourite non-bar of any pub I know). And, whisper it dear toper, keg can be good as well - there's too much snobbery about 'living' beer.

I want the sci-fi meet
Not really a SF fan - I've dabbled with Iain M Banks and Ken McLeod but the hard-sci-fi tomes bore the colon out of me

I want Dave and Barbara to refer me to the blackboard
I once knew a Ken and Barbara who ran a pub. And that pub now has a beer blackboard. But I've not averse to actually asking staff what they can recommend.

‘Cos I’m a CAMRA man

Weekends, vintage car show
I have been known to attend the occasional classic and vintage raceday. But that's to see them compete on track, not just buffed with a cloth in a farmer's field.

Doctor Who aficionado
No. No, no, no. Most over-rated 'entertainment' show in the history of British television.

No wife no kids
No and yes.

No way juke box
Depends. Sometimes I prefer a quiet pint and a crossword, sometimes I'm keen on decent background music (which the Smithfield in Derby often serves up with the Clash, the Jam etc)

I get sent the Belstaff catalogues
Had to Google them to see what this was all about. I'm more of a Berghaus man myself.

‘Cos I’m a CAMRA man
Perhaps in part...

And at the Monday night archery
Totally untrue. It was a Tuesday night... and I may well take up English Longbow next spring

A fellow cellar hopper lent to me
A Willie Rushton biography
In return for my Sally James scrapbook

I didn't know there was a Willie Rushton biography. I'd be keen on reading that. But I don't know if it's worth swapping a Sally James scrapbook for. Depends how porno the pictures were. No, not of Willie Rushton...

I’m a dirty great big Five Nations fan
Guilty as charged, m'lud. Even though it's now five nations and the sickly weaker one. You know, Scotland.

I’ve got Cheap Trick Live at the Budokan
No. Life is too short.

I’ve got a friend I can trust
Yes, but not with my beer cellar.

I’ve got a shotgun round the back
No, but I knew a guy who kept one by his front door.

I’ve got a Bonneville in bits but I’m gonna sort it out
Haven't got the room for one - my garage is full of beer.

Because I am I am I am I am I am I am I am I am I am I am
I am a CAMRA man

On paper, yes. But not stereotypicaly so. And, indeed, most of the CAMRA members that I know aren't sandal-wearing beard-infested tickers. One of the is a bubbly young blonde with perty breasts. But his moobs will start to sag one day...

And you can really taste the hops!
Anyone who says this ought to be shot. So, no standing next to me with a firearm in Sheffield this weekend when I'm salivating into Thornbridge Halcyon.

For all of you unenlightened enough to have never experienced the lyrical genius that is Half Man Half Biscuit, Lastfm will play it for you here


Brewing up with: Thornbridge

Is brewing an art? A science? Alchemy? What's it like to get up close and personal to one of your favourite beers at each stage of the production process?

When Thornbridge asked me if I wanted to spend a day with them I jumped at the chance to see if it would help answer those questions. And so begins a tale of how a couple of Englishmen, an Italian and a ceaselessly-bounding Kiwi blend art and science to produce some of the finest beers that England has to offer.

A misty morning saw me hack my way to Bakewell on the TransPeak and hope for a connection that could deposit me vaguely near a lane end towards Thornbridge Hall. So there must be some sixth sense amongst brewery staff; whilst waiting at the bus stop, who should pull up but Rob Brock from their sales team. A lift secured, Ron was soon regaling me with tales of beers recently sampled and, er, inflatable pubs that fit on a trike-trailer (these things are seriously cool).

Drawing up to the impressive hall, we stopped off briefly in the office where three things struck me. The huge amount of beer-related books stacked on desks and heaped onto a metal trolley; allsorts of catalogues, hefty scientific tomes and countless volumes about a myriad of beer styles and recipes. The walls which were covered in framed 'beer of the festival' awards. And then there was the stack of even more awards waiting to be hung in the little space that's left... The room bristled with the the fount of their knowledge and the rewards of their labours.

Then it was off to the brewhouse to meet the team. Head brewer Stefano Cossi was flitting around with a hundred and one things to do. Though, every time I saw him on a laptop he did look like he'd rather be brewing. Matthew Clarke was busy shifting casks, Dave Pickering had his head in a mash tun and Kelly Ryan was... well, he was bounding around with unabated enthusiasm. And he never, ever stopped bounding!

Kelly was soon explaining eagerly about the beer that Dave was brewing today, a batch of one of my all-time favourites - Jaipur IPA. The mashing had been underway for an hour or so and Kelly insisted that I try some of the sweet malt. This became a defining theme of the day, tasting and smelling the ingredients at every step gives you a truely visceral understanding of brewing. For instance, tasting the sweet hot wort brought home just how welcome hops are in a beer.

And, what hops they were. Always itching to try something different, Thornbridge were adding Nelson Sauvin into the boil today. They were the first English brewers to use this hop (in their Pacific pale ale, Kipling) and now they were hoping to create a bitterness not too far removed from Jaipur's familiar bite. The aroma as Dave measured out the hops was sublime, with fresh citric fruits bursting out the bag.

Everything to do with the process is recorded meticulously - times taken for boils and run-offs, the precise quantities and varieties of ingredients used. After all, what's the point of experimenting and coming up with a great new way of brewing an old favourite if you don't know how to replicate it? Tables are consulted; calculators and laptops are brandished.

But even this seemed low-tech compared to what Kelly then introduced me to. Thornbridge are possibly the only microbrewer in the country to have their own microbiology laboratory. All through the day, Kelly (a microbiology graduate) worked away on numerous projects whilst patiently explaining the biochemical processes to a man who failed A level Biology too many years ago. Now, I'd hoped for a few tasters along the way and expected to be roped into some grunt work in return. But I honestly didn't think I'd get the chance to analyse yeast activity using a hemacytometer under a microscope. Perhaps though it's just what I should have expected - Thornbridge's passion for brewing is driven as much by getting the exacting science right as it is by the artistry of combining flavours, aromas and textures.

Yet it's not all pipettes and test tubes. There's no substitute for a keen palate and a clean nose. As with trying the proto-Jaipur earlier, Kelly insisted on sampling other beers as they reached critical stages of the brewing process. A batch of Ashford still conditioning was tasted and proved to be shaping up well. The cold hopped wort of the Jaipur proved to be a more challenging taster...

With today's Jaipur off to the fermenters, that left the not-so-little job of cleaning up after us. Dave said the brewer's job was 'ninety per cent cleaning and ten per cent brewing' and his wife couldn't understand 'why I can't be this clean at home!'. The mash tun needed emptying of the spent malt before being steam cleaned, so Dave hopped inside with a shovel and... I got to hold a sack open for him to shovel the malt into. For an office-based softie like me it was actually hot and back-stretching work, a fierce heat still wafting off the malt as it was bagged and dragged outside. Newest recruit Matthew Clark was slinging the sacks into the back of a 4x4 - the malt was being recycled as cattle field at a local farm.

Time for a breather. The crisp autumnal afternoon was perfect for photography and one raised bed nearby caught my eye. Kelly explained later that this was their own herb garden where they had been growing the likes of rosemary, sage, rosehips, lemon balm... typical of their experimentation, here were the fresh ingredients that could be used to create the spearmint-tang of alecost or the citrus cut of lemongrass.

With Dave delving inside the copper tun now, I had a chat with Matthew after he and Kelly had cleaned out the returned casks (see, there really is more cleaning to do than you can imagine). Matt originally applied to be the delivery driver, started off instead as the cask cleaner and has now become one of the brewers. He's even taking night school classes in chemistry to gain a fuller understanding of the science side of the operation. He told me that since starting here he'd learned to do 'sample' beer rather than 'drink' it - sip and taste as opposed to knocking it back.

So, just to show that it's not all work, work, work, there were indeed beers to be sampled. Kelly really was like a proud father; long stemmed tulip glasses proffered up with the latest nascent brew. A possibly-Christmas beer, Eureka, had a superb smooth candy sugar edge. Hop Juice, a matured version of the Halcyon IPA, had benefited from having thirty pounds of freshly picked Target hops crammed into it. But the head-and-shoulders standout had to be Bracia, a chestnut honey beer that was impossibly smooth and sweet-nutty, cream-sweety.... ah, for once words fail me. Every mouthful was savoured, every glance into the emptied glass was one of longing and envy.

All too soon, it was time to go. But not before Kelly had thrust bottles and a mini-keg at me (watch out for a few extra-special Bottled Up articles before Christmas). On the ride back to Bakewell, Rob was regaling again with tales of riding a Harley Davidson around the US in search of cask beer. It occured to me then that all the Thornbridge guys share that love for beer - whether it's brewing it, selling it or drinking it.

Brewing at Thornbridge is an art. The guys have the feel for a recipe that leads to a beer that can excite the eye as well as the tastebuds. They know what makes good beer good - and how they can subtly change things to make good beer greater.

Brewing at Thornbridge is a science. The guys are well qualified and take pride in their understanding and control of the processes responsible for turning raw materials into alcohol.

Brewing at Thornbridge is a business. The guys know there's no point in making beer for the sake of it; their beers sell well because they are products offering sustained quality in enough quantity in styles that appeal to the modern drinker.

Brewing at Thornbridge is a labour of love. The guys have levels of energy and enthusiasm that appear to be boundless. You get the feeling that someone has to shove them out and lock the gates at the end of the day or else they'd never leave.

Yes... brewing at Thornbridge is.... all about passion. Crafting a combination of flavours, controlling the quality of the process, consistently delivering marketable products. And loving it, loving it, loving it.

Thanks to everyone at Thornbridge for your hospitality and infectious enthusiasm.

Some more photos can be fund on my Flickr site