Bottled Up: Nils Oscar

Jonas Kandefelt is adamant that high quality beer is not enough. "You've got to have a story to tell,", explained the MD of Swedish microbrewer, Nils Oscar. So, with a dazzling array of their beers and a little help from IKEA, I donned my trusty apron and set about creating a Swedish beer and food evening. Stories will indeed be told. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin....

Those fine fellows at had been kind enough to send me a sample case of of beers, half of which were from the Nils Oscar brewery. I knew little about Swedish beer - I couldn't remember ever having tried anything from the country - and had never heard of Nils Oscar. So, a little research was in order. A relatively young brewery, it was founded by six beer enthusiasts in 1996 and renamed Nils Oscar a year later when Karl-David Sundberg bought out the other owners. He named the brewery after his childhood hero and grandfather, Nils Oscar Sundberg, who emigrated from Sweden to the USA in 1882. He found work as a tenant farmer and, according to his college assessment, was "honest at all times and never afraid to do his duty". Returning to Sweden, Nils Oscar founded a family farm that was, a hundred years later, set to become the cornerstone of a new brewery.

Nils Oscar has a philosophy that they call "från ax till strupe"; literally, from the grain to the throat. All their malt comes from their own hi-tech production facility in Tärnö, which also supplies malts for local bakers. Brewing is carried out at Nyköbing, having moved from a previous site in Stockholm in order to raise capacity. They have their own bottling line and their own transportation fleet to deliver the finished product to the state-controlled alcohol retailers, Systembolaget, as well as restaurants and bars.

With such pride invested in their creation, it seemed to me that these beers deserved a decent day's drinking. So, what better way of enjoying them than to rustle up some Swedish food to accompany each bottle? Now, the English midlands isn't exactly awash with Swedish delis but we do have one quaint store that has a fridge full of food and a few bits of furniture for sale - IKEA.

Normally, I'd rather tuck into a round of syphilis-on-toast than subject myself to the soul-sucking consumerist maelstrom of this place. But those meatballs don't grow on trees, you know. In fact, Mrs H and I both had a plateful of the things whilst we were there and were pleasantly surprised how tasty we are. I'd asked around on the food & beer forum about the kind of stuff I could make and had a fair bit of feedback. We bought sprats to go into the Jansson's Temptation. Meatballs were a must-have as well. Lingonberry jam was a revelation in the IKEA restaurant so we had to have a jar of that. Fishy bits in vinegar would act as a mid-feast nibble, almond tart suffices as a dessert and Knackerbrod was bought just because it has the word Knacker in it.

Jansson's Temptation is one of those recipes that I've had knocking around for years and never got round to cooking. It's one of those dishes that looks good as you put it together, it starts to feel like it's going to be a proper stick-to-your-ribs job, all that starch and creamy stodge. True, the Abba sprats looked like squashed silver soldiers drowning in vinegar, but the one I nibbled on whilst cooking was strangely tasty. And it's good to see that Benny is in gainful employment since the gigs dried up. Perhaps Anni-Frid helps him out with the packing when he has a large order to ship out.

Anyoldhow, the Nils Oscar beers. All this chopping had made me thirsty, so I cracked open beer number one, God Lager. That's God as in good and I'll second that emotion. Pouring a burnished yellow with a sticky-spit head, the lacing spread like mould seen in speeded-up timelapse photography. There was a keen malt aroma, an itchy feel in the throat, an almost fresh yeasty flavour flopping across the tongue. A sweetness ducks and dives across the palate, avoiding cloying, keeping the flavour alive. Even after thirty minutes in the glass (yes, I *am * a slow cook) there's a clean malt feel with only a passing sweetness that lingers.

The Jansson's Temptation was soon ready. It was reasonably gorgeous - unctuous, very filling but just slightly too heavy going. Though we did seem to be polishing off uber-portions of the stuff. If there's a next time for this recipe, perhaps less cream or a slightly-longer cooking time would work better. Loved the haunting fish flavour, mind. And it set me up for another beer, the India Pale.

This had a fantastic orange glow, backlit-Lucozade with a steady sparkle. A huge rocky off-cream head rapidly diminished. Some soft soap aromatic hops washed around the nose, a really smooth feeling beer with soft carbonation, silken on the palate. There was just enough fizz when it was worked around your mouth, that soft feel on your lips again, with pine notes stripped across the palate. It was a competent pale ale, biting enough to turn over the cream feel left by Jansson's, albeit nothing too savage in the way I usually take my IPAs.

Let's be honest; this isn't the most appealing picture I've ever taken. Yes, it bears an uncanny resemblance to a collection of droppings deposited by a variety of woodland creatures. But it was darn tasty. Let's give it the Joey-from-Friends test; Potatoes? Good! Jam? Good! Mustardy sauce? Good! Meatballs? Duh, they're MEATBALLS! Meatballs are always good! Yes, the mustardy-sauce was a pain to mix and only got better after I sieved the lumps out, but the rest was steller. I still can't believe that meatballs and lingonberry jam work so well together.

Moving up the scale, I opened Kalasol as beer number three to go with the meatballs. The deep copper body poured with almost no head. Terrifically good doughy scent, real whiffs of sweet pastry. And then crispy pasty. That soft feel round the lips again, developing into something of a trademark for these Nils beers. The light carbonation and hints of very milky chocolate gave it quite a lush lick that remained understated but confident. Complemented the meatballs well, though it would have rocked with a beef stew and potato rosti. Note to self - more beer and food evenings required.

Dessert time, then. 'Tarte mandel' turned out to be a superb, almondy, crispy-creamy pastry concoction. Perhaps a hint of coconut? By now, with a belly full of rich creamy fish and meaty balls, I should only be taking a sliver of stuff like this. But, after the first mouthful, I find myself cutting huge chunks off and stuffing it down. It keeps that creamy vibe that's been a hallmark of the dishes tonight and I find it surprisingly good for a frozen pastry dessert.

With the food out of the way - let's not mention the pickled herring and dill - the hardcore Nils Oscar beers awaited. Having forgot to buy any cheese, the last two beers tonight get sampled without food. The Imperial Stout had by far and away the best pour aroma of the day, split liquorish root driven through the mesh of a well-worn cafetiere. Plenty of creamy coffee infused from smoked beans ensued, again with that wonderfully soft mouthfeel. With the restrictions placed on them by Systembolaget, Jonas Kandefelt reckons that microbreweries have to go national and chase the export market to survive in the long run. The Nils Oscar Imperial Stout not only deserves to be lauded throughout Sweden, but exported successfully as an prime example of what this heady brew of passion and skill can achieve.

To be frank, pretty much anything after that impy was going to be a disappointment by comparison. The Barley Wine was chock full of overwhelming candied sugar; fine if it's backed up with a deep-heated spice and/or an alcoholic-y edge. This pulls its punches, a super-sweet beer that's a little too thin for its own good. Not a bad beer, by any stretch of the imagination, but one that fails to pack the suckerpunch that a barleywine demands. I'd keep the other bottle I have and age it, but I'm not convinced it would really improve. Perhaps 'fresh barleywine' is a style yet to define itself within modern Swedish brewing. Not too sure if it's one I'll be revisiting too often, though.

With a kitchen full of creamy washing-up to be done and assorted glasses littering the living room, time for reflection. The food has been average-to-magnificent. Jansson's Temptation was just about worth the bother of cooking. And the Nils Oscar beers were... soft. Incredibly so. Every beer, regardless of style, had a smooth feel about it. Which worked surprisingly well with God Lager, so-so with Kalasol, not overly great with Barley Wine and ruddy wonderfully with the Imperial Stout. Where silky palates were required, Nils Oscar delivered. There's something in the water at Nyköbing, and it's coupled with an easy assurance that they're brewing good beer in a robust manner.

Their brewmaster, Patrick Holmqvist, has said, "Swedish beer culture... is imported. We have a wide array of styles from a wide array of influences... but we have no distinctive Swedish beer style yet". I firmly believe that Nils Oscar are on the way towards shaping that definition. Sweden could be on the cusp of finding a soft-carbonated, clean malted, deep-flavoured, mid-strength style that doesn't need to pander to the overtly hopped movement of much American craft brewing or the 'rent-a-flavour' feel of new English microbrewing. Getting the beers out to a wider audience is a crucial step. The story of Nils Oscar may be seldom told so far, but it deserves to be recited in bars all over the world for many years to come.


Fest of fun: Tamworth

Wake up. Catch train. Go to beer festival. Drink beer. Drink cider. Eat pork pie. Catch train. Drink beer in Brunswick. Go to bed. To be honest, I'm getting bored of writing up fest trips. Would a visit to Tamworth be any different? Would there be something more imbibable than average British bitters? Would these gentlemen make it back to the rest home before curfew? Read on, dear toper.

To be honest, the day didn't get off to a great start. The new rail fares are anything but fair; the 20-minute Derby-Tamworth trip cost me more than the peak time fare to Brum used to only a few weeks ago. But this wasn't for any old festival; this was a Tamworth festival. New breweries. Church End specials. And the finest trio of food shops that I know of; Truckles for cheese, Claridge and Son for pork pies, Wood and Son for fish. Cycling John, Comrade Brian and I stocked up on cheese and porkies - we thought we'd not bother with DIY sushi - and set off in the rain for the Assembly Rooms.

Steady rain resulted in a wobbly line of wet tickers queuing for fest entry, which didn't bode well for the aroma later on. The eau de odour of certain tickers reaching reheat often puts me in mind of an incontinent Labrador. With Tamworth having a somewhat compact layout, as the rest of the line spawned left into the main room I bolted right to secure one of the few tables in the small but perfectly formed bar/dining area.

Pretty soon, we had a table full of pork pies (from Morris), cheeses (including the sublime Black Bomber from the Snowdonia Cheese Company) and Comrade Brian's home grown toms. The food was so enjoyable, it slowed down the purchase of beer. Amends were made with two rapid halves; Church End's Mocca Chocca Focca (fairly underwheling, some itchy chocolate faded into a thinning malt by the finish) and Beowulf Coffee Hazelnut Porter (needed a few minutes to warm when it revealed a superb creamy nuttiness).

I'm still experimenting with pork pie production and am having jelly problems. The stuff in the first pie was good - you could put a thumbprint into it and watch it spring back. My jelly is not so much runny as theoretical. Gives me the opportunity to stuff my face full of other people's pies; er, I mean conduct in-depth market research. All this pie malarkey was distracting me from the beer. The other chaps had sampled some damn fine looking light beers like Brown Cow IPA, but I decided to stay with the dark side. A Reluctant Scoop for me; though you can't come to this fest and not scoop a new brewery. Outstanding have been up and running for about six months and I'd yet to try anything from these Bury-based brewers.

I gave their stout a crack and, by gum, it was good. Fairly hoppy, deep malts balancing the flavour out, enough body to carry bold flavours into a satisfying mouthfeel. So good, in fact, that I decided to try their other beers on offer. Their Ginger beer had a fantastically agressive aroma, thinning a little on first taste but developing a slow spice burn as the beer warmed. There was an efficient cask cooling system here, perhaps a little too efficient as some flavours were chilled out on the pour and needed time to come up to temp and fully develop.

As we tucked into a majestic hand-raised pork pie, I went to complete the set of Outstanding beers with their Standing Out. Hazy gold with a thick citric lick, there was plenty of smacking hop oil squeezing out through the keen malts to deliver a real lipsmaker. Clearly the best trio of beers from a brewer new to me since those I had from Hopshackle. With the cheese demolished, pork pies reduced to crumbs and the toms all gone, it was time to shift through the gears and stretch those drinking trousers.

That last Outstanding beer had given me an IPA lust; Comrade Brian had been struggling to find light beers that were to his liking but he was able to point me towards the Woodlands Super IPA which certainly upped the bar with its punchy hop nose and fat wet fruity flavour. I sampled a couple of the chaps' beers as well; Great Heck Golden Fleece had a rather gluey feel with dusty hops and Brampton Aspire had an odd fruit flavour that no-one could put a name to. Back to the dark beers, then, with some heavyweights to round out the day.

Having loved their porter earlier on, I had high hopes for Beowulf's Strong Mild. At 7.4% I didn't expect it to be exactly mild. And so it goes. The faintest petrol spiral on the witch-tit flat, black to brown body. Christmas cake forced through an oil sump for an aroma. Fruits in the flavour not so much developing as rupturing under the concentration of alcohol steeped within. As it warms, a higher register aroma kicks in that Cycling John noted as that of cycle puncture fix solution. This was a massive, MASSIVE mild, it would take Sarah Hughes' Dark Ruby down the alley and paste it senseless.

As the picture above shows, Dave Unpronounceable had braved the nose-bleedingly giddy trek from Sheffield to serve beer darn sarf and gave his punters a warm Yorkshire welcome. My next beer had to be Bass. I mean Museum Brewery. Sorry, White Shield. Sod it, let's call it what it is - proper Bass beers, brewed by a proper brewer, albeit not for much longer, it seems. But what a choice to make; Bass Number 1 or P2 Imperial Stout? The complex barley wine or the intensely layered darker beer. Only one thing to do - buy both and mix them. Texting Mes to get his patented formula, perfected at Rail Ale earlier this year, a few reverential sips were taken from each glass before creating some kind of monster. I could play a round of beer bullshit bingo and take you through an un-necessarily overlong description of the effect, but John said it all after one long slurp; "My goodness!!". I then inflicted Brewdog Tokyo onto my rapidly-fading tastebuds. I'm convinced I was drinking alcoholic soy sauce. A Japanese chain smoker had expectorated into my glass. Did I love the sticky tar-laden smoke-fest? Do bears practice Catholicism?

With no way of improving on these last beers, it was time to Reluctantly leave the fest. And, er, go to the pub. The Globe was an impressive looking building with lots of 1980s brasswork and crass carpets. And Worthington cask. And something that must have been palatable, as I definitely had half a something from a handpump. But, in my post-Tokyo state, anonymous brown bittery stuff was literally pale by comparison.

So why did we stop in the Albert for a drink as well? I've always had nothing but below-average beer in here, it's never going to have a beer the equal of anything at the festival. But, every year, like a dog returning to vomit, we stop for a drink here. At least it allowed me to a) go for a huge crap, b) eat the chicken sarnie I bought earlier and c) water the plastic hedge with whatever fudge-like bland crap it was that Comrade Brian bought me.

And what's with plastic hedges? Are they wash wipe? I ruddy well hope so, the amount of crap beer that must get poured on them. Is it modular? Do you slot in seasonal varieties - holly for winter, hawthorn to prevent gatecrashers? Or is it part of a gigantic oversized Playmobil set? Is there some eight foot tall freak queuing for the BBQ in the rear beer garden with a crash helmet hairdo, poor fashion sense and no genitals?

Off to the train, then, and some light relief. The upside of the pricey 'peaktime' tickets was that the Cross Country service wasn't stuffed to the gunnels with shrieking PAs and unemployable students. Comrade Brian treated us to a grand precis of left wing political theory (I think) and Cycling John nodded in all the right places. Though I preferred Brian's excellent Tommy Cooper impersonation. At least, I think it was the Coopermeister - I had nodded off five minutes before.

Back into Derby in good time, then, for our Survivors Club pint in the Brunswick. A White Feather is always welcome, even at the end of the beeriest day. Mind you, I was so tired by this point that my photos turned black and white. But it had been a cracking day - top nosh, great range of beer, high quality, excellent Reluctant Scoops and some enjoyable old faves. A couple of dire pubs, mind you, but overall it was a day that reminded me that some CAMRA fests are worth drinking at and are fun to write about after all.


Fest of fun: Smithfield

It's hard to resist a good pub festival, particularly when it's at one of my favourite pubs on my regular Thursday night ramble. With a host of unusual beers on offer, the question was not how reluctantly I'd be scooping at the Smithfield in Derby but where to start?.

Regular readers known that I'm keen on keeping my figure in shape... and round is a good shape. I'm not one of these uber-thin ticker-types who live on railway station sarnies. So I filled up beforehand on a fantastically tasty Chinese at Yangtze in the Westfield centre; chilli chicken and chicken curry and, er, some other chicken was a clucking good combo to get your ribs sticky enough for severe imbibation. Suitably stuffed, a short walk downriver would land me at the festival. But it would have been downright rude not to stop off at my usual first-drinkie halt on a Thursday. The Royal Standard has made a name for itself with its combination of Derby Brewery Company brews, solid guest beers and cafe chic style. Happy as I am with Trev Harris' solid stuff, the guests are always a draw for me and choosing an Abbeydale beer over the likes of Wychwood was a no-brainer. If I'd engaged said brain, however, I'd have spotted and ordered the York Nelson Sauvin.

So, my plan for only one swift half had gone to cock already. Dear reader, I know you would never have forgiven me if I'd been stubbornly Reluctant and passed this one by. I knew it couldn't be as good as Thornbridge Kipling. Might it be as good as Alehouse's Sauvin So Good? Well, the York had a massive goose-gog aroma with more than a hint of dry nettles nestling in its fruity thicket. Sustained wincing fruit through the flavour, too, before a subtle creaminess calmed the party down. A damn fine beer, all the more so for being an unexpected bonus beer.

Scooping down at the Smithfield was, in truth, unusually un-Reluctant. I'd gone all old skool and compiled a hitlist culled from a Scoopgen post. With the outdoor festival bar not open when I arrived, I pitched up at my usual table in the bar by the jukebox and settled down with half of Oakham's Helter Skelter. It's beers like this that make the Smithy one of my Pubs To Love with plenty of hoppy stuff (the Whim and Headless brews on offer follow suit).

I won't write too much about the Smithfield here- it deserves a proper Pub To Love write-up in the near future - but suffice to say it's a cracking boozer. A recently reupholstered bar and lounge are served by a central bar bristling with handpumps. No festival stillage in either room, though, and the mini-marquees outside had plenty of trestles but nothing in the way of casks. So, where had landlord Roger Myring hidden his festival? Behind one of the downstairs gates, of course - a garage-type room built into the side of the pubs that was deep enough to take a forty-barrel stillage.

There was a fair crowd outside already by seven o'clock as Roger got the show on the road. First beer for me was Thornbridge Karnival, tried before at Peterborough festival bit I wanted a half-pint to savour. The latest beer in their Brewers Challenge, this is newest brewer Matt Clarke's entry. It still has that Thornbridge hop stamp albeit with a crepe sole rather than a steel-toecapped Doc Martin. That makes it a calmer and more contented brew compared to their usual output. Although you expect another hop kick, and in not getting it feel undersold, it's still an
almost assured beer with real self-restraint.

Next up were three beers that I'd eagerly awaited ever since seeing them on the list. Marble produce some darn fine beer; here in Derby, our wholefood shop Sound Bites are stockists of Marble bottles such as Lagonda IPA and their sublime Ginger. Here at the Smithfest, the brewer had three single-hop-varietal beers on offer. Sorachi Ace was very very pale, a wishy-washing-up liquid head with some juicy fruited hop oils prominent in the nose. Really creamy, too; the kind of soft hop that could glide a harsher one across a palate to good effect.

Their Mount Hood was fairly pale by comparison, with soft sherbet edges and a floral blush across the palate. The hops skip across a late aftertaste of lemon balm. But it was Brewers Gold that seized the day. Dark gold body, fresh floral perfume notes, blossoming hop oil on the end of your tongue and a hoppiness that never, ever stopped. This has the capacity to make its Crouch Vale counterpart seem amateurish by comparison.

A run of local beers would now do to see the night through. Headless 5 Gates was.... well, certainly not unpleasant, it just feels like a let-down in the afterwash of a few well-hopped beers. It's not too far removed from their usual output, rounded hops held up in a decent mid-citric body. In fact, it feels just a tad more more bolshy - dry hopped, perhaps? But there's some muddle here with the base beer not being allowed to shine.

Brunswick's Bellpair Vice was a groaner on two counts - a ruddy awful pun and the dread of another English Wheaty effort from the Brunnie. They do somethinga really well down there; White Feather, Father Mikes, beef & stilton baguettes.... but reet exotee brews laik vice? Most of the wheated oddities of theirs that I've tried have been not so much drain-pours but gutter watter. Remarkably, this stuff managed to keep on the right side of the fine line between wheaty sweetness and cloying yak. For most of the time. Best served cold and drank quickly.

Perhaps Amber could match the Bellpair's intentions and declare trumps with more of an edge to their offering. The brewer, Peter Hounsell, gives his beers straightforward names and likes to experiment with bold styles. This as least looked like a rugged wheat beer, with a murky honey coloured collar, but there was no esteryness nor any real wheaty bite coming through. Perhaps the temperature wasn't allowing these wheaty wonders to flourish?

Time for the night's last beer and an attempt to go out on a high. Well, a high ABV at any rate. The Headless Zymosis was brewed back in April and had maturing its way towards being a winter beer. Well, the weather of late has been decidedly parky, so no time like the present for cracking open a cask. Apart from a dulled deep amber body, nothing up front suggested its strength in depth, a fairly bland nose for a 7.5% warmer. Then thirty seconds later, the heat is on... that higher register warmth of spice followed by the reflux burn of candied Deep Heat. With your middle organs now coated, the palate anticipates the aggressive nature unfolding in the glass and replaces spiced fire with hop ire.

It's a Keyser Soze burn, though - a flickering flame, a darting burn along the damp boards til like that... it's gone. Until the next mouthful. My notes on the night compared the feeling to that of inhaling too deeply whilst changing the water in a fishtank. I still have no idea why I wrote that - especially as I haven't kept fish for over twenty years.

Outside it was dark now, the R&B band were in full funk and ordering beers was best achieved by holding up the requisite number of fingers corresponding to the number of the beer on the board. So, few takers for number 39, unless you roped a few others into helping you order it. Though it probably wasn't worth all that effort for a Church End special. I kept on with #1, Zymosis. Hard knock life, eh?

All in all, a good night with mainly decent beers. And *that* jukebox - The Who, Led Zep, Thin Lizzy, Issac Hayes, Suede, Placebo, Cream, Ian Dury, Madness, The Jam, The Clash... stopping scooping was a Reluctant choice, but there's only so much Zymosis a man can drink on a weekday.

A long day's recovery on Friday in front of a static spreadsheet and a regular supply of bacon cobs set me up for a return on the Saturday. Mrs H was tempted out to enjoy some cider and a few of the old faces were bound to drop by. Indeed, Cycling John dropped by (without the Claude Butler) and my erstwhile drum tutor, Andi 'the drummer in Endorphin Rush' Evans was already installed outside with his wife Julia and their rapidly-growing nipper, Emily.

I was in very Reluctant Scooping mode today - the emphasis was firmly on drinking with friends and taking things easy. There were, of course, several ticker tables - some of which were their usual over-zealous selves with bottling lines in full flow and spittled beards outshouting each other over contentious abv recollections.

The weather stayed fragrant enough to stay sat outside next to the bar. That meant the beers were knocked off in quick succession, with more Marble Brewers Gold being the first order of the day. Mrs H was in her element with a barrel of Three Cats medium sweet cider to yomp through. Away from the Marbles and Zymosis, today's beers were OK but not gobstopping - Great Gable Illgill IPA was fairly anonymous, Black Hole Milky Way not as biting as I remember it. The real standouts were from Hopshackle; although their Amber Smooth was fairly anonymous, the Double Momentum and Historic Ruby Mild was were huge beers. The mild in particular had a real edge to it, lactic smacks with very berry fruits catching your taste buds almost unawares.

Ever impressive was the food here - the Smithfield chip butty is a thing of legend and I was more than happy to reacquaint myself with the full-on dripping-butteryness experience. Mrs H's tuna melt looked disgustingly good, too, and Cycling John's sausage cob with onion rings in it looked - frankly wrong, but he assured me it tasted good ('edible skins.... makes all the difference' he assures me).

It's been a rambling write-up, but that was the nature of this fest. Some superlative beers, some threatening a vague promise and not delivering, top tunes, a smidgen of sunshine, good times all round. Roger and Penny do a top job here, it's an oasis of funtime drinking that brings a little of the laid-back country boozer feel into the city. Oakham, Whim, chip buttys, free jukebox. Pub fun? Done!