What can you do with nitro-lager drinkers? Give them better lager to try, perhaps? When wanted to know what I thought of Moritz, a Spanish lager, I thought it was only fair to round up a few willing swillers and ask them if they thought it could be a Stella-beater.

The Moritz brand has a proud history in Catalonia. Formed in 1856 by an Alsatian brewer, Louis Moritz Trautman, it enjoyed over a hundred years of success before financial problems brought about the brewery's closure in 1978. But old beers never die - they live on in fond memories. "The brand has stayed in people's brains," says Albert Castellón, general manager at Moritz. "This has helped us communicate our message."

That message seems to be that Moritz is a quality Barcelonean beer, compared to mass-market national brands such as San Miguel and Estrella. Back in production again since 2004, the beer wants to become synonymous with the city. Their iconic logo seems to get everywhere; on the side of classic Seat cars, on canary-yellow parasols and on promotional signage that's so coveted that it's stolen from bars if not nailed down.

So, Moritz has established heritage, impressive marketing... but does it taste any good? I gave away a dozen bottles to long-time lager drinkers and here's what they said:

"it reminded me of Molson Dry...I like my lager to be a bit more remarkable"

"better than Fosters, Kronenburg etc but I wouldn't buy it if a large bottle of Stella costs less"

"a nice brew, not what I'd expected, not flabby"

"a bit bland compared to ale but better than the likes of Black Label"

"it had a different taste to what I'd expect from a continental lager"

"I can see myself sitting on my patio in the summer enjoying a few bottles"

"quite dry and crisp"

"not as distinctive as Bud, Carslberg, but in a good way"

"not as much of an edge as other lagers"

"quite flavoursome and not too lagery "

Good to see that a fair few people found it surprising. If you're used to the torpor of common continental bottled lager brands, then Moritz will indeed taste different enough. It's a different beastie to Stella, reassuringly refreshing rather than unneccesarily expensive.

My take? It's clean, dry, a little butteryness up front, a little bitter finish. It's a lager that gets the job done in a soft Saazish way and does wonders to reclaim the style away from the usual metallic eurofizz. Goes well with sausage and chips on a cool February evening but probably goes down better in Barca with tapas at a pavement cafe watching microskirts and mopeds scuttle down boulevards as the evening heat wears away.

Thanks to my intrepid lager tasters for their input and to beermerchants for the samples.


Beer & pancakes

It's Ash Wednesday, I'm ready for a beer and I need to give up something for Lent. After due consideration, I've decided to give up pancakes, so I better enjoy the batter while I can. And splash some ale into the pan at the same time.

My darling mother-in-law fed me a bellyfull of pancakes yesterday so I'm ready again for a plate of crepe-related goodness: you can't have enough of it in your life, can you? A quick trawl of the tinternet for beery pancake recipes brought up a couple of possibilities; the Black Sheep batter looked interesting though I wasn't too sure about the Greene King version.

But as luck would have it, that rock n rolla beer n food blogger Mark Dredge had some great pancake ideas over on his site, Pencil & Spoon. So I hatched a plan; make up a batch of batter using Mark's recipe, try them with a couple of beers and then make another batch using the beers themselves.

Mark recommended several beers to try and, by sheer luck, I had a couple of them to hand; a Great Divide Yeti Imperial Stout that I picked up a few weeks ago and a bottle of Innis & Gunn Oak Aged that a PR agency had just mailed to me. First off, a batch of pancakes.

I can't remember the last time I made pancakes, so this was going to end with either a tasty batch of goodness or a fiery pan of death. So I was more than surprised when the first one ended up all crispy and moist and tasty. Superb with a squeeze of lemon and a hefty pinch of sugar. And with the Innis & Gunn?

Better than I expected, to be honest. I'm sceptical about beers that hint at sweet complexity but insist on being served 'well chilled'. In this case, it worked; the honey, toffee notes of the beer worked well with the sharpness of lemon and the palate-softening pancake.

How would the pancakes fair with the Great Divide Yeti? I was unsure; the dirty tan head and matt black body belied an unseemly hoppy feel. Yes, there was freshly cracked dark chocolate and cold coffee in there, but the hops kept bouncing back. Against the pancake, mind, it worked surprisingly well. At first. Liked the initial coffeeness - if you've ever gorged yourself at breakfast on a stack of pancakes and as many coffee refills as the waitress will serve before she lamps you, you know how the inside of your mouth feels just wonderful - but that creeping bitterness needed a gum-wincing sugar sprinkle to even begin the balancing act.

Then there was the pancake-beer batter. I never convinced myself that the Yeti batter would work. In fact, it wasn't bad - better around the crispy edges than the rather blobby middle, coffee flavours came to the fore, but the beer unbalanced the dish.

The Innis & Gunn batter, though, was a revelation. That nutty/honey sweetness shone through with just enough alcohol still lurking. Even Mrs Reluctant preferred this pancake to the all-milk version.

So: Yeti is a great beer to drink after pancakes, Innis & Gunn is a great beer to put into pancakes. And pancakes at home are lovely but not as good as when a top-heavy blonde brings you a full stack with blueberries and as much steaming Java as your lower colon can take.



Happened across Wordle tonight and it tickled me. Wordle takes whatever text you input and creates a word cloud out of it - I'm surprised that chocolate is so prominent given that I haven't written as much about it as I want to.

I like how 'perhaps' seems to crop up a fair bit. Though I suspect Wordle's only looking at recent posts; I'll have to keep playing with it. If I can ensure it's representative, I may replace the current word cloud with a Wordle snapshot each week.


Twitter Taste Live! Sam Smith Stouts

A hearty welcome to all you Twitterers from Twitter Taste Live! I wouldn't normally volunteer to stay up after midnight drinking Sam Smiths but, hey, I've nothing better to do. Like drink all the Thornbridge beers I've just picked up... ah. OK. Sam Smiths. Let's do it...

So; the basics. Sam Smith, probably the oldest brewery in Yorkshire, renowned for their own cheap drinks in their own fiercely independent pubs and an export trade built on filtered, pasturised bottles.

You could find out more about them on their website. But they don't have one. In fact, Sam Smiths are known more for what they don't do. No website, no ostentatious branding, no TVs or music in their pubs.

And they only brew one cask beer, which pees off many English ale fans . Offer some beardy beer boys a filtered & pasturised bottle of Sams and, by their reaction, you might think you'd just offered to bugger their dog.

Anyoldhow - here's some random Sam Smiths facts for you:

1 - They've removed their famous white rose logo from staff t-shirts, delivery vans and pub signs. They say it's because they want to preserve the individuality of their pubs. Some suggest it's a cost-cutting measure...

2 - They've removed TVs from pubs and didn't renew their music performance licenses. Some say it's to ensure a convivial atmosphere in their pubs. Some say it's a cost-cuttting measure...

3 - They're based in Tadcaster, Yorkshire, where brewing has been going on since the fourteenth century. And they're the only independent brewers left there, the others being the industrial torpor that it Coors and John Smiths.

4 - The current owners of this family firm are Humphrey Richard Woollcombe Smith and Oliver Geoffrey Woollcombe Smith. Could their names *be* any more English?

5 - Brewing liqour is still drawn from the original well sunk in 1785. The hard water contributes to the bright nature of the beer.

6 - They are one of the few brewers who still use a Yorkshire Square fermenter. Albeit made of slate, not stone. You can see it here courtesy of Zak Avery on Flickr.

7 - They once sacked workers for drinking on the job. The workers said it was custom and practice and won their case for unfair dismissal.

8 - Awards for their beers include the Gold Medal at the International Brewers Exhibition 1896 (Imperial Stout), Gold Medal at the Brewing Industry International Awards 1996 (Oatmeal Stout) and Best Vegetarian Beverage, The Vegetarian Society 2001 (Organic Beer). They are in no way responsible for the Samuel Smith Award.

9 - They (I do believe) still operate a cooperage.

10 - You can no longer have a pint of Sam Smiths Pure Brewed Lager in a Pure Brewed Lager glass at the Sam Smiths pub The Abbey near Derby. Because they were all stolen.

Now, then. Aggregated ramblings on the beers will follow. Feel free to scatter comments around. And, before you all get too pished, do avail yourselves of the following sites:

- A bit about the Oatmeal Stout from Merchant du Vin

- And a bit more from them about the Imperial Stout

- All you ever wanted to know about the breweries of Tadcaster

- A wonderfully comprehensive article reproduced from the journal Modern Brewery Age about Sam Smiths

Have those bottle openers at the ready...


KIT gets the CAMRA cream

It's great to see one of my favourite pubs gain national recognition. The Kelham Island Tavern, one of the finer pubs in Sheffield's Valley of Beer, has won the Campaign for Real Ale's National Pub of the Year award.

The Kelham Island Tavern (KIT) is a pub that I frequent whenever I make it up to Sheffield and has featured in several Ramblings in the past. Indeed, the ten handpumps (always featuring a couple of dark beers) can sometimes tempt me into a Reluctant Scoop, although it's difficult to resist one of their regular brews, Pictish Brewers Gold.

Great range of beers, cheap and filling food, superb suntrap beer garden... everything comes together at the KIT. On crawls around the Shalesmoor area, it's difficult to prise myself away from here as it's a pub where I could happily spend the thick end of an afternoon.

Julian Hough, CAMRA's Pubs Director, was spot on in describing the KIT as "truly is a pub for everyone". Scoopers flock to the bar, diners fill the conservatory, locals gossip over a pint. Whereas some of my mates are wary about venturing out to some of the more 'basic' drinking holes on the circuit, they like the KIT because "it feels like a proper pub". Which indeed it is.

Starting as a semi-derelict building in 2002, Licensee Trevor Wraith built the KIT into a bustling community local that even the floods of 2007 couldn't keep closed for long. On hearing news of the award, the pub manager, Lewis Gonda, praised "the excellent brewers we deal with, our faithful and supportive pub regulars, and our invaluable staff members".

As I write this, the award ceremony is about to start. Somebody up there, please raise a glass of Brewers Gold for me - all the congratulations that will come the KIT's way are richly deserved.


Bottled Up: Leelanau Petoskey Pale Ale

Because I have nothing better to do this evening than move the assorted flotsam from my laptop off onto a portable drive - a 1Tb drive; now I feel old, I remember the days when you only got 140kb on a disc etc - I thought I might as well have a beer. Never had a Leelanau beer before, so I opened up a Petoskey Pale.

Another of the US imports from, this classes itself as a pale ale aged in oak casks. Clean, simple beer then, right? Wrong. Petoskey Pale is a darn site more complex than the label lets on. It poured a hazy amber, a strong surge of carbonation leading to an intense head eventually collapsing under its own weight into brilliant white pinpricks.

The aroma belies the simple 'pale ale' tag. There's brett here but it's.... tangential. It's the fruits that are driving me mad... what the hell are they? Is that peach? One that's been steeped in a fragrant white wine? Even strawberry? Just a hint, mind, of those bits of over-ripe ones crushed in the bottom of a punnet when you pick your own.

Those sweeter flavours are carried along with a pleasing sour note and a surprising light citric hop feel. The brett keeps itching away and there's some lovely floral notes towards a pronouncedly sourer finish. Decent dryness throughout leaves a layer of near-herbally vineous flavours to play with around your palate.

I like surprises - that's why I take all the labels off the tin cans in the store cupboard so I never know what's going on my toast - spaghetti, custard... clams. And here's a genuinely surprising beer. A pale ale, Grand Cru, sour yet calm, barrel aged yet spritely and fresh, dry yet fulfilling. Perhaps it's not a surprise that Leelanau beers are brewed over at Jolly Pumpkin; Ron Jeffries has plenty of pixie dust to go around and it's put to great use in Petoskey Pale.

As you can tell from the picture, Ratebeerians seem to like the beer too. I was surprised to find that I was the first UK rater, though. I know it's not widely available, but I would have though a few hardcore raters would have tracked it down by now. My advice - go get some. NOW!


Coffee, chocolate and beer #4: Caramel centred choc with chocolate stout

Time for another Pete Slosberg-inspired tasting. Take a caramel centered chocolate and pair with a chocolate stout. Is the result double the fun or twice as nasty?

Let's start with the beer - Young's Double Chocolate Stout . It certainly had good carbonation with an audible effervescence, its rocky head soon settling to an off-cream band.

There's obvious chocolate on the nose, but it's a curious dusty drinking chocolate. No, scrub that - it's liker a creamy hot chocolate gone cold. There's a lick of sweet chocolate too, like a syrup shot. Unsurprising, perhaps, given that it uses chocolate essence as a flavouring.

With little roast up front, the sweet chocolate taste is slightly cloying on the palate. Perhaps a chunk of chocolate would change things? I'd struggled to find anything vaguely artisanal so I'd settled for Cadbury's Dairy Milk with Caramel. It was surprisingly good - bit on the cold side but the caramel filling was soft and deep flavoured. The next slurp of beer was bitterer - the darker dry chocolate flavour now placed in sharp relief to the sustained sweetness of the caramel.

Then it all went a bit strange.... the chocolate got tastier, the beer weaker. The washy dark chocolate from the beer enhanced the caramel filling of the Dairy Milk, but with each sip the beer became thinner in flavour and higher in bitterness, any roasted notes having deserted.

I expected more from the beer; instead of interesting chocolate bolstered by coffee and roasted malts, I got flavours that started heavy-handed and ended up bitter and washy. I found it disconcerting to read the label's assertion that the beer was 'best served chilled'. To me, for a dark beer, that's tantamount to an admission that there's little flavour in there to be savoured in the first place.

Perhaps another beer would make a different impression. I had a bottle of Marble Chocolate knocking around; not strictly speaking a stout but it seemed robust enough for this tasting. And it looked good from the off, a nearly black body with a dappled cream head, clear roast on the nose alongside a clean creamy chocolate flavour. A far better beer than Youngs, so I'd high hopes for the pairing effect.

Well, the chocolate tasted fantastic, that first merging of the beer's roasty notes with this surprisingly tasty caramel. And then... the next mouthful of beer was quite bitter, as if my taste buds had given up on sensing sweetness. More chocolate was fine, more beer was gross - far too bitter, no sense of roasted malt, harsh bittering off-coffee flavours.

Overall, not a very successful pairing. Perhaps the thick milk chocolate swamped the beers, perhaps the beers just didn't have strong enough roast characteristics to cope. If anyone knows how I can get hold of Cocoa Pete's Caramel Knowledge in the UK (or, indeed, any of the Cocoa Pete range) then do let me know as I'd love to try the pairing again with what is obviously a far more robust chocolate. In the meantime, I may have to find a full-blooded stout and a darker caramel bar (??) and try this again sometime soon.


Botttled Up: Jolly Pumpkin Luciernaga

The Firefly beckons. Sometimes, you have to get around to opening those rarer beers in your collection. Jolly Pumpkin aren't easy to get hold of in the UK, so as much as I'd like to keep just looking at the label, there comes a time to get a beer like Luciernaga uncapped and choked down. I mean, carefully sipped and every subtle nuance of flavour recorded carefully...

Those forward-thinking importers have secured limited stocks of beers by key US West Coast artisinal brewers. Jolly Pumpkin is one of them and I plumped for this Belgian-style ale highly regarded on the Ratebeer site.

It poured with a huge billowing head, plenty of yeasty notes escaping with a whiff of freshly chopped coriander tip. The deep orange body retained carbonation and kept a feisty mouthfeel all the way to the last drop.

On the first sip, the sourness starts but there's welcome restraint; the balance of brett doesn't take your breath away. It paints a picture on the palate, the underlying fruit as a matt base and the sourness a glossy topcoat.

There's certainly a funky feel to Luciernaga but at least it's fresh funk and not old mould. Tart Granny Smith and split wet wood vie for palate space with some rounded caramel dropping in to keep the balance sweet. And it's a close-run thing - intentional barnyardy is good; unintentional wet Elastoplast and TCP is bad (as I found out with some jaded English bottles last week).

Wow - what a refreshing beer! It never stopped itching, the subtle carbonation keeping the funk together tighter than Clyde Stubblefield. It may be even better when you've the sun on your back and a parched throat but this Firefly certainly lit up a quiet, cold night.


My Moon Under Water

Better late than never. Inspired by George Orwell and the topic of the Christmas competition, here's my 'Moon Under Water' - an ideal pub henceforth to be known as the Fat Cock Inn.

My favourite public-house, the Fat Cock Inn, is an hour’s stiff walk uphill from where I live. In summer this allows for a brisk ramble to build up a thirst and a casual gambol back downhill to home. There’s no car park or bus stop, but the landlord will happily pick you up and drop you home if the weather (or your constitution) turn inclement.

It has atmosphere and character. The atmosphere is not painted on the walls. The clientele *are* characters and they *have* character.

The architecture and fittings are eclectic and functional. A hard-wearing pewter bar fills one side of the long main room. Etched glass screens surround the adjacent parlour. Old, stained, woodwormy oak panels shroud the snug. Settles and stools topped with hand-sewn sagging cushions are found everywhere. Underfoot, worn red tiles and bare boards tell tales of beer and blood split over generations. A cracked beam, recovered from the wreck of a Spanish galleon, is spliced into the sagging ceiling and has a rusted cutlass thrust into it. Only the Minton tiles in the toilet corridor and stained glass above the potstands exhibit frippery. But both were rescued from a mid-terraced pub long since levelled and built over. A slate mantle stands over a log fire which roars in the winter and fills with fresh flowers from the garden in the summer.

A new dartboard sits flush to the far wall, a steel rule sunk into the floor for an oche. Close inspection of the upturned brewers barrels-turned-tables in the bar reveals the old dartboards are recycled as table-tops. A bar billiard table adorns the opposite corner, although none of the regulars ever seem to play it. Playing cards are behind the bar, but only venture out for the landlord’s rigged poker games after closing.

In the Fat Cock Inn, it is the banter (or lack of) that provides the soundtrack. Customers may share gossip and a dirty joke at the bar; settles on the far side are for solitary crossword solvers who do not wish to be disturbed. Music will only be allowed on three occasions – Jimmy Page wishing to play ‘Kashmir’ on acoustic guitar, Steven Isserlis wishing to play Bach cello suites and the whole bar joining in a rousing chorus of ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ in the unlikely event of England winning the William Webb Ellis cup again.

Three kinds of staff are found behind the bar. At lunchtimes, topers are bossed along by a blousy divorcee. She may wear eyeliner of a shade last seen in the 1960’s but she has a heart of gold which is often broken by some rogue. When this happens, regulars will volunteer to pour paint stripper over the offender’s car bonnet. Evenings are often staffed by a succession of doe-eyed students with impossibly pert breasts. Sadly, just as they finally learn to pour a decent pint they leave due to exam failure/charity work in Azerbaijan/contracting chlamydia. Every now and again, a thin man with big hands appears from the cellar and, if he really has to, will pull you a pint. He's ex-military - he really is, because he genuinely doesn't want to talk about it.

The landlady is short, feisty, commands respect yet on darts night she swears like a docker. The landlord is broad shouldered, badger-bearded and always right. He keeps good beer, he keeps good order and never, ever goes round the ‘wrong’ side of the bar. He is grumpy in a curmudgeonly uncle kind of way. He only knows three jokes, all filthy and one positively litigious, but you still laugh like a drain when he tells them. He won't lend you a tenner or let you run up a tab, but he will put a bottle of scotch on the bar when the last-of-the-out-of-towners finish their crisps and dissolve into the midnight air.

Unlike most pubs, the Fat Cock Inn doesn't sell cigarettes (the machine was sent back just after the smoking ban). But you can buy a few useful things; eggs by the half-dozen, strawberries in the summer, fruit cakes in winter.

Three things are banned at the Fat Cock Inn: children, smoking and mobile phones. And woe betide any GPS-misled rep who tries to fire up a laptop in the parlour.

You cannot get dinner at the Fat Cock Inn, but there is always pork pie, cubed cheeses, pork scratchings, Seabrooks crisps, cashew nuts, chutney and pickled beetroot.

If you want a three course meal, staff will gladly point you down the corridor. There you will find a door that leads to a path that runs to a road that twists three miles to the next village where there's a barn-sized pub that's been ruined by diners drinking coffee.

Cask beer is served into pint pots, cider and perry into stoneware mugs. Bottled beers are poured into plain glasses that suit the beer style. Hanging from the ceiling are a wide variety of tankards; none are for show, all are used by regulars. Leather, pewter, porcelain and crystal reflect the tastes and eccentricities of their owners.

The great surprise about the gardens at the Fat Cock are that there are so many. A flagstoned patio by the back door has solid wooden chairs, loveseats and sturdy tables - no toper traps. Flowers and hops cascade down the trellises that line a gentle slope up to a rose garden. Past these shrubs, a lawned walled area offers a suntrap in the summer and respite from the wind in the winter. A pentanque pit can be found via the secret door in the far wall. All around the gardens, pots of herbs are studded about, offering ever-changing aromas through the seasons. No-one - not even the pipe-wielding landlord - is allowed to smoke outside.

A few animals can be found around the Fat Cock Inn. The landlord's dog, a lugubrious chocolate Labrador named Rollo, usually has to be shooed out of the snug in the winter. In the summer, it plays dead on the patio outside. Ever since an unpleasant incident involving a docile daschund and a hyperactive Staffie terrier, customer's dogs are no longer welcome. In a corner of the walled garden, the landlady keeps a few chickens (hence the eggs for sale on the bar). There's a fat cock, of course, but he's stuffed and lives under a bell jar in the parlour.

For those with hangovers or with anti-biotic addictions, bottles of Fentimans soft drinks are available. For everyone else, beer choice is straightforward. All year round, three beers are kept: a house bitter (light in colour and malt), a best bitter (malty yet fruity) and an IPA (properly hoppy and over six percent). As the seasons change, so does the fourth barrel on stillage: a mild in spring, a cask lager in summer, a porter in autumn and a stout in winter. All are sourced from a local microbrewery. Every now and again, a nine of something experimental turns up. All are served on gravity. Bottled German or Czech lagers are available, as are unusual Belgian, Amercian and Scandinavian beers. Cider and perry are available in season and chosen by the landlady, who's a real fan - the landlord says that his other half loves a Fat Cock Inn Cider on a Friday night.

But now is the time to reveal something which you, dear toper, will probably have guessed already. There is no such place as the Fat Cock Inn. But they have a website coming soon...


Derbyshire Drinking: Spondon-Horsley

The journey starts here. My series of Sunday walks where I'll aim to try beers from all twenty-six Derbyshire brewers starts in the snow with a trip up to Horsley Woodhouse for Leadmill and Bottle Brook beer.

It snowed hard earlier in the week, so I thought I'd stay local and walk as far as a pub with an adjacent bus stop back to Derby. Horsley Woodouse is home to the Old Oak Inn, the brewery tap for nearby Leadmill and its sister plant, Bottle Brook. Around about nine miles as the toper wanders, the walk takes in rolling fields and a few copses as the paths and tracks meander north from my front door in Spondon.

Up to Locko Park first, and as the path rose uphill to Stanley a flock of seagulls flapped off only to reappear when I cleared their patch and entered the wood. Up here, the fields had seen only a few hardy dog walkers in the last few days so I was able to tramp through snow deep enough to crumble over the top of my boots. The muffled crump of my footsteps then sounded more like I was cracking corrugated plastic when I got to field corners, frozen cow pats and puddles making the approach to stiles tricky.

Through the village of Stanley, I followed a brook westwards towards bluer skies before turning northwards for Stanley Common. An inquisitive horse arrived at more than a canter in one field; stoic bulls looked cold and bored in another. Large areas of frozen water had gathered in the corners of pastureland, blue-grey slabs warning of the need to edge next to the hawthorn hedges rather than plunge shin-deep into semi-frozen crap & mud.

After some exhausting tussock-hopping, I made it up to the main road at Stanley Common and the White Post Inn. The L-shaped bar was smoky, the wood fire reluctant to draw. Didn't bother me, though: I was ready for whatever heat it could muster. This was very much a bonus beer stop for me, knowing there was a chance of a local brew. Sadly, they had no Funfair beer on (their beers, by all accounts, make a regular guest appearance here) but a surprisingly decent pint of Burton Bridge Hearty Ale sufficed.

Leaving the diners to their roasts, I hacked my way northwards over icy tracks and fields of almost unbroken snow. Now and again, proto-snowmen appeared in fields, seemingly abandoned like broken neolithic stones en route to a higher place. By now, the sun reflecting off the snow behind me was making the back of my head warm. Still cold hands, though, as I was driven to snowball distant trees and scampering rabbits.

Over the A608 and a few west/north doglegs saw me clumbering over frozen tractor ruts towards a horizon full of Horsley Woodhouse. The last half mile uphill seemed to drag, the snow a little deeper, the mud gloopier, the hill ever just so a little steeper than I know it to be. But I was soon at the road and minutes away from the pub of the day.

The Old Oak Inn will get the full Pubs To Love treatment later on this year - it's been a long time since I last ran that feature. It has that understated character of a proper country pub; no false tackiness bolted to the walls but, instead, the quality you can't buy - people having a good time. The only food here is the selection of cobs & pork pies on the bar so drinkers here are really drinkers; some here for a swift pint whilst dinner is in the oven nearby, others on a leisurely half-gallon post-roast, and always at least one slightly sweaty walker ready for whatever is on offer.

The bar had six or seven Leadmill and Bottle Brook beers on offer. No other guests; when your own beers are of such range and quality, why bother? I took a pint of Leadmill Summer Hop just because of the sheer incongruity considering the weather. It's decent enough, blunted lemon with a creamy hop feel rather than anything aggressively citric. A cheese salad cob and pork pie were dispatched in short order, too.

My choice of Bottle Brook beer was a no-brainer; I enjoyed Louisiana Smoked Porter at the Derby CAMRA Winter Festival a few weeks back and was ready to enjoy a frothing pint of it. Not madly rauchbier and all the better for it - it wasn't as smokey bacon as the guy next to me was making out - plenty of ashen notes with steeped deep fruits.

A great attraction about the Old Oak at the weekend is the conservatory bar. Not that the pub really needs another six beers, but who's complaining? Run by the stalwarts of the excellent local beer freesheet the Rural Real Ale Drinker, the RuRAD bar offers gravity casks from brewers near and far. And here I was, Reluctantly Scooping, eschewing Thornbridge Jaipur for even more Leadmill and Bottle Brook beer. And - my gum -both scoops were excellent. Bottle Brook Red Chinook was crammed full of the aforementioned hop, almost too much of it. Leadmill Made in the USA had pockets of wincing citrics and a keener balance, a dazzling clear lemon looker with sweet drying hops all over the shop. It kept me going right up to when Mrs Reluctant turned up to give me a lift home (ah, the joys of rambles close to home).

So, nine miles into the quest and two brewers ticked off the list. If the weather stays fairer next weekend, I may push out further afield. As long as those fields aren't too full of melting cowcrap.


Cooking with beer: Carbonnade Flamande and Thornbridge Handel

With plenty of Belgian dubbel-style ale knocking round the house and the temperature just the right side of freezing, an afternoon by the fire sipping Thornbridge Handel seemed to be an ideal Saturday plan. But I was ready for a good gloopy stew too. What better, then, than a steaming pot of the Belgian beef & beer speciality, Carbonnade Flamande?

I'd picked up a recipe from The Hairy Bikers and set off into Derby to pick up the ingredients. Not much shopping required, to be honest - in essence this is a beef and onion stew with brown beer. I was only halfway through my minicask of Handel, a dubbel-style beer from Thornbridge, so I really only needed to pick up some decent stewing meat. Walter Smiths on the Guildhall Market have chunky stewing beef, so I picked up a pound.

It's one of those recipes that was a doddle for a Saturday; easy preparation and slow cooking. The beef's rolled in seasoned flour then browned off in a casserole on the hob before colouring some roughly chopped onions in the same way. Chucked in some thyme, bay leaves, redcurrent jelly, beef stock and that all-important beer and that's about it. Shoved into an oven for a couple of hours to cook down, I then stuck it back onto the hob on a very low heat to get the juices to go sticky. With the oven full of chunky chips and parsnips, it all made for a filling meal that took care of itself whilst I did more important things. Like drink beer and watch rugby.

And - oh my lordy, it's a rib-sticking melting meaty ale-and-hearty plate of goodness. The beer seeps into the meat and imparts just enough sweetness, leaving sticky fruits behind in the already-redcurrant gravy. It's a close call as to what's tastier - the tender beef chunks or the sweet parsnips sweeping up the gunky juice.

This was a beef & beer recipe and the quality of both was key. Especially the beer - Handel proved to be a robust beer with flavours that stand up to be counted. I've had the minicask (nine pints) on the go for four days now and I swear it's getting better as time goes by. When it's all gone, I'll stock up on something like Westmalle as a worthy cooking substitute.

Perhaps one of the best stews I've cooked. It doesn't taste of beer - not that it would bother me - but the flavour it adds to the meat is sublime. If you're still squeamish about cooking with beer, give this recipe a try - but buy two bottles so you get a decent drink to accompany it!


Derbyshire Drinking: Preview

There are twenty-six breweries operating in Derbyshire. Just over thirty years ago, there was only one. I'm going to celebrate the microbrewery explosion in the county with a season of Sunday rambles, each one ending up at a pub renowned for serving local beers.

Along the way, I'm hoping to meet up with brewers and topers and get a feel for why microbrewing in Derbyshire has become so successful. It'll take me on walks over nearby fields as well as to parts of the county that I've never visited before.

And it won't be all walk, walk, walk; I'll be shifting malt sacks and pulling pints along the way. I want to appreciate the full flavour of Derbyshire brewing, from producer to consumer. With some great scenery and a few pints, of course.

First walk will be on Sunday 7th February; where I end up depends on the weather. Always have a Plan B, my Dad taught me.... for me, Plan B tends to be a pub near a bus stop. Here's hoping for clear weather and clearer beer tomottow!


The Session: A Tripel for Two

The Session, where beer bloggers get together and write about a single topic, has seemingly passed me by. Until now - today's The Session day, I'm in front of the laptop, so it's time for me to go find a tripel to share with my darling nest of vipers. Who's never had a tripel before. Hmmm.

Southern Tier Tripel seemed like a good place to start. Bottle big enough to split between two. A brewery I know little of. Blurb on the back label sounds interesting. And, er, it maybe the only tripel I have in the beer store (when pretentious, I call it the cellar as there's a step down to it. When sober, it's the utility room. Strictly (and legally) speaking, it's an illegal garage conversion).

Anyoldhow, some dodgy cnut from the south coast bunged me a bottle of this stuff so I may as well drink it. My darling wife is always keen on wrapping her lips around what I have in my hand on a Friday night, so she joined in too.

Popping it open, there's a real waft of oranges - not fresh, juicy fruits but orange restrained. On the pour, gentle orange that sparkles just enough. Fairly sweet, candied edges then follow through into the aroma. Yet it's light candied sugar, nowhere near as intense as the style would suggest. The alcohol is well hidden; holding yourself over the glass you do get the itch down the sides of your eyes but otherwise it's a ninja alcohol delivery system.

Great aroma - oranges via a bread sauce. Still restrained, reduced... a whip of the wrist recarbonates a creamyness and fresher yeasty notes.

That first sip is surprisingly light, rather creamy smoothie with a bit of a yoghurt bite, the orange ebbs and overall it's not as sweet as I'd imagined. Or perhaps, not as sweet as I'd hoped for?

There's metallic apricot and a hint of bubblegum but.. to be honest, it tastes of feck all followed by shadows of something that ought to be better.

But tripels are for sharing.. so what does 'er indoors think?

"... looks like a Thorntons orange toffi choc... tastes of beer. I prefer a quad".

Fairy nuff.

Let's redress the balance. One of the bottles I've had knocking around from a Beers Of Europe order is the Stone/Alesmith/Mikkeller Belgian Style Tripel. Sounds a bit farty to me. I like the Stone beers I've tried. Rather drawn to the Mikkel beers I've had. Never had an Alesmith (all donations gratefully received). But is this truely gestalt beer? Aren't three great brewers going to cancel themselves out?

No. Thankfully. It pours itself a curious orange. Shining through a haze with scant carbonation in play. There's clean candy sugar on the nose, itching like loose pubes in your pants. On the palate, it plays the apricot card early with sherbet lurking and rising in waves.

I know what I should have done tonight. I should have drank a Belgian Tripel. Not a 'Belgian Style Tripel'. But who gives a fark - this itches like chlamydia, slightly spicy fruit collapses into polished hops... the only bad thing is that I'm seven sips away from finishing it.

Tonight has taught me three things:

1 - I'm proud to have married a woman who loves quads more than any other beer

2 - blogging on a First Friday is fun

3 - Epic beers don't grow on trees. You've got to sip a tripel or two (to know where you're at)


Birthday bash #2: Ratebeer Sheffield

Take one resident of the People's Republic of South Yorkshire. Add one toper from over the Pennines, one from over the Peaks and one from the South Coast. Mix them up in several pubs all up and down the Valley of Beer with lashings of ales both local and from far afield. What do you get? The Winter Crawl around Sheffield. Warning: this story includes images of fat clowns. No, really.

Like a many a day on the sauce, the ratebeer meetup was at a Spoons. The Bankers Draft is a curate's egg in the world of JDW; downstairs it feels like every other crowded meat market bar up and down West Street. But upstairs has an easier vibe, comfy sofas and a better beer selection. At the bar already was my old mucker DJ Monarch, looking enviably thinner since he stepped up the five-a-side football. Yomping through a breakfast was Dave Szwejkowski, AKA Dave Unpronounceable / hellsbrewer / evilempire / Arthur Fox-Hake. I bought myself a half of Hilden Molly's Stout and joined the party.

The Molly's was a half-decent stout, plenty of roast and just enough ash sprinkled into the spicy tobacco notes. So much so that I had to have another one whilst we waited for Phil to turn up. Some people would say that driving from Ramsgate to Sheffield is a shag of a trip just for a few beers. You'd be right, but Phil's the kind of guy who crosses continents to share a brew and chew the fat. He turned up - wearing gloves like a soft footballer - and we headed off to the Harlequin.

Now then, I LOVE this pub. Away from the throng, chock full of tasty beers, trays of rolls on the bar, a cheery welcome and a lovely Alsatian lolling around. Steadily busy with knots of tickers and 'normals', the Harley is one of those pubs where I could sit back with a beer or five and watch the world slide by. And I would, if it wasn't for the fact that there are at least another four pubs in the city where I also do likewise.

We got stuck into some of the ten beers on offer. Sadly, my Thornbridge Ramberg was uncharacteristically insipid. There used to be a herby edge to it that seems to have been lost along the way. More impressive was Brewsters Morgana, lip-smacking fruits and an assured balance. But head, shoulders and wig above all of them was Clown's Pout, my birthday beer brewed by Crown. Starting with their Stannington Stout, Dave had arranged for Crown to pour a bottle of port into the cask, giving the beer a vinous edge. It seemed to go down well amongst the ratebeer clan and soon the tickers too were soon itching around the pump. With someone that handsome on the clip, who can blame them?

Having had previous disagreements with the landlord, Dave declined the trip into the Fat Cat and headed on to secure a table for us at the KIT. The other two piled into the small yet perfectly formed front bar and, by the time I returned from a pee, Phil was in full-flung-beer-tourist mode. Halves of Kelham Island beers were stacked on the bar, bottles of Brooklyn Smoked Porter bought and stashed, small sausages in a tub procured and one of his own bottled beers was being sampled by the management. Literally, one of Phil's beers - he brewed Dark Conspiracy in partnership with South Coast brewing legend Eddie Gadd at the Ramsgate brewery. It's stuffed full of chocolate, dusky fruits rupture after a while and there's a pervasive hop presence that never intrudes.

Being on a chocolate and coffee tip at the moment, I felt drawn to Mordue's Newcastle Coffee Porter. And it fulfils the ticklist on the tongue - roast, coffee, choc, sweet malt, lingering finish - but it all seemed accidental rather than planned. Compliant flavours, not assertive in the way that porter ought to be for me. As it would be rude to visit and not have a Kelham Island beer, I twisted my own arm and gave in with a Pale Rider. Still sublime, still has sticky citrus bits and (I insist) a vaguely minty backwash. And here's a picture of shoes - I know some regular readers have been disappointed by the lack of random foot shots recently, but I've had to work out if any of you are that fecking pervert who likes my pictures of World War 2 re-enactors on Flickr for the wrong reasons - i.e. they're wearing shiny, calf-length boots. Seriously. Some shit you just couldn't make up.

So, from the Cat to the KIT. Dave was anchored at a corner table, demolishing yet another plate of scran. I love being wonderfully Reluctant in here; pint of Pictish Brewers Gold, cheese cob. End of. It's a beer I described as "Silverstone, not Rockingham" during the summer Ratebeer crawl here; it has a soul, a sense of craft, there's surprises tucked away around the corner rather than being laid bare for all to see. Confirmed citric flavours, but there's petals floating in, honey around the edges, veins of vanilla exposed with every other sip. I like. Mucho. The cobs aren't half bad either, Red Leicester today with a silky sheen that provided just enough resistance. Busy busy in here and rightly so. Plenty of diners and a few verticals in the bar, more in the conservatory, even a few hardy smokers out in the garden. There's a good vibe in here, friendly staff and keen drinkers who aren't exclusively beer geeks. Banter was had, beers were shared. Not too sure what we talked about or what else we drank - I was too busy having a good time to take notes. Or indeed to eat often enough. Or to stop drinking pints.

Onward anyway to the Cask & Cutler. I mean the Wellington. Or the Cask & Welly as some of us obstreperous old sods like to call it. It was surprisingly quiet in here until we blustered in, with just a few familiar faces from earlier in the day still hacking their way around the circuit. With a small bar serving two rooms, the (insert preferred name here) offers a dozen-odd mix of beers; rare-ish guests, rebadged regulars and its own Little Ale Cart brews.

Reluctantly, I didn't plump for my usual choice here and eschewed the Old Git for a pint of Baby Git. Both are re-named Millstone beers, True Grit and Tiger Rut respectively, and on reflection I have to say that I'm more of an Old Git. Note: any comments along the lines of "you've always been an old git" will be deleted...

I ought to have tried at least one of the Little Ale Cart beers, but I was soon lost in the bottles that Phil cracked open to share with the bar staff and whoever happened to be around at the time. Midtfyns Imperial Stout hid its alcohol well with smooth mellow coffee flavours. Three Floyds BlackHeart IPA was frustratingly good - plenty of biscuity malt, enough resinous hop, a whiff old old oak. Why frustrating? Because it's brewed with British malt, hops and yeast... I can count the number of British brewers who are this bold with their recipes on the fingers of one hand. Where's the British experimentation? Well, it happened to be in the next bottle. Hopasaurus X is an uber-hopped trial brew by Saints & Sinners, another of Phil's projects. All rather lively, for work-in-progress it had stacks of promise with shouty hops to the fore.

There's a pint on many a crawl that becomes the tipping point, after which memories become hazier than farmhouse scrumpy. Today, that pint was Stannington Stout in the Hillsborough Hotel. I can remember vaguely how I tried to tell the barmaid about how it was the base beer for Clown's Pout. And that all the Crown beers (from the on-site microbrewery) were incredibly cheap (certainly none over two quid a pint). And that the mighty Badgers, Eastwood Town, powered through to the third round of the FA Cup. But I was starting to wane; even the camera didn't make it out of the pocket. One day I'll start off a Sheffield crawl here; I'd like to try a range of Crown beers and rememebr what they taste like. Too often I've ended up here only after a thick wedge of too many beers in too many (excellent) pubs.

Sensible topers beat a retreat at this stage. Tipsy topers with a love of Thornbridge beers head instead to the University Arms. Daft topers with drinking ambitions way in excess of their capacity buy a pint of Saint Petersburg, prick about with a camera and start to feel sleepy. My first time at this pub and it won't be my last - elegantly appointed, plush but not stuffy, glass panels and comfy chairs and lashings of Thornbridge beer.

I'd love to wax lyrical about the place and the beer but I was shot through by this stage, excellent beers all day but too often they were drowned in pints rather than sipped in halves. So, here's another pub to revisit early on a Sheffield day trip; perhaps I ought to try visiting just here and the Hillsborough rather than trying to cram six or seven pubs into one day?

Time to go. One last group photo (with me, far right, seemingly giving the finger to someone other than the photographer) before I slumped onto a tram, poured myself onto a train and slept in first class back to Derby (Cross Country Trains don't seem keen on disturbing reasonably-well-dressed drunks. Thankfully). Another great Sheffield day - next time, fewer pubs and less beer. Yeah, right...


Fest of fun: Stoke CAMRA October 2008

In a previous job, I had to visit our offices in Stoke. With the CAMRA beer festival venue close by, I made sure that I scheduled a trip to the Potteries at just the right time. Nowadays my Friday outings are few and far between, so this year I took a Saturday trip to Stoke instead.

With an early-ish arrival into town, I headed for the nearest Spoons. I remember The Wheatsheaf when it was fairly dingy music venue in the eighties; sticky floors, loads of pillars to stagger into and all the ambiance of an underground car park during a power failure. Now it's a light and airy pub with some great guest beers. I scooped the Riverhead Liquorice Stout simply because it sounded interesting - and what an awesome flavour it had. Bags of dusty brown liqourice with unsurprising coffee and mild chocolate hints.

It's only a two minute walk from the Spoons to the festival venue (King's Hall) so I trogged off and joined the queue. Thankfully not much of a queue, just a few hardy topers braving the chilly breeze. Full comedy marks go to the guy behind me who attempted to whistle the theme tune to 'The Littlest Hobo' but ended up on the theme tune from 'The Monkees'.

With doors open, I grabbed a glass and flew upstairs to secure a seat by the foreign bar. But there were no seats set out - AARRGH! So, back downstairs to grab a piece of the stage before any band arrived. The King's Hall is an impressive space, a stage set at one end with a balcony at the other and a superb ornate ceiling. With the brass band not due on for a while, at least the stage edge gave me somewhere to lean against.

The issue with beer festivals on their last day is that you've really got no idea what's going to be available, even if beers have been held back for that day. That doesn't bother me too much anymore; random beers have an attraction and if the choice was uninspiring I'd just hop back on the train and carry on drinking in Derby. Thankfully I could start with one of my favourite beers - so with a half of Thornbridge Kipling secured, I went for a wander around the bars to see what was left.

Surprisingly, there were quite a few of my preferred beers still knocking around. Better still, the festival seemed to gain a second after about an hour when some weighty beers suddenly seemed to become available. Every beer was in good nick and I was able to Reluctantly Scoop six new beers;

- Beowulf Killer Stout; a parched-dry stout with obvious alcohol
- Crouch Vale Wild Hop; slightly sweet, fairly crisp
- Lymestone Stone The Crows; strong autumnal ale with roasty wheat in there?
- Oakleaf I Can't Believe It's Not Bitter; citrus zest and a sweet vein
- Pictish Z Rod; a well-balanced pale ale
- Titanic Maple Smith; Captain Smith with added maple syrup; malty, sweety, not cloying

As well as the tried and trusted Thornbridge, I was happy to sink a half of Falstff Wilko, one of my favourite barley wines. It's only supposed to be brewed during the Rugby World Cup or Six Nations, so I don't know if this has been knocking around a while or Falstaff have decided to brew it for the winter. Either way, I'm glad to get another taster of it - aggressive alcohol cuts across the malt from start to finish.

I didn't find the food outlet here - it was probably lurking down one of the hospital-like corridors. Fortunately I bought a pork pie with me (a fairly crumbly Melton job from Sainsburys). Yummier were the almond croissants (from Sainsburys as well), I used to have these every time I visited Stoke when I used to work for a nearby college.

As the Audley Brass Band took to the stage, I took off to the cider bar. Plenty still left here - and I don't know if this is just a Midlands thing but the ciders and perrys all seemed to be great value in comparison to the price of strong beers. I was happy to try the Ross on Wye whisky casked dry cider again and it didn't disappoint.

To round out the festival, I took a trip upstairs to check out the foreign bar. Nothing really grabbed my fancy, though I was tempted by the Hopsinjoor that I tried back in July at Derby's fest. Sadly they'd sold out of Gouden Carolus Cuvee van der Kaiser, a bottle of which I usually buy here and drink at Christmas.

A surprisingly good festival, this; I knew the beer quality would be good but didn't honestly expect such a range of great beers to still be available on the festival's third day. By two o'clock it was busy but not cramped and still offered quick service at the bar. With my pick of the beers polished off, I had enough time left to pop down the road to Titanic Brewery's new pub, the White Star, for a decent pint of Captain Smith's alongside a bacon & cheese stuffed oatcake.

It's been enjoyable to find a festival in fine fettle on a Saturday and a couple of good pubs within sixty seconds of each other. I'm overdue a trip around the six towns; I certainly won't leave it a year before I visit Stoke again.


Chocolate, coffee and beer #3: Milk, nuts & tripel

Brewer turned chocolatier Pete Slosberg has some great beer and chocolate pairings. I thought I'd try a variation on one of his staple pairings - milk chocolate with nuts alongside a Belgian tripel.

Tripel Karmeleit is a beer I discovered, like many a tourist before me, during a long weekend in Brugge some years ago. I brought home bottles along with the branded glass, anticipating the recreation of Belgian bar style in my own living room. OK, I didn't have the nicotine-stained ceiling or mad cyclists clattering into the windows but the sweet wheat notes took me right back. I have a bottle every now and then, usually when Sainsbury's flog it off on offer, so it seemed the perfect tripel for this tasting.

It's a damn fine beer that appeals at every stage; massive pillowy head, incredibly effervescent golden body, ripe wheat nose, a desiccating crispness, massive candied hit before the uncomplicated clean finish.

Now, Pete couples a tripel with his Nuts So Serious bar, roasted hazelnuts and roasted, salted pistachios in milk chocolate. The closest I could find was a hazelnut and milk chocolate bar made by Lindt, with pieces of caramalised hazelnut in there as well. It's smooth stuff, the right side of creamy with a little dryness in the hazelnut. The caramalised chunks add some sweetness that starts to balance out the bar. Not the kind of chocolate I'd normally plump for, the nuttiness works well although the chocolate is rather too smooth.

So, let's put both together. First impressions - Karmeleit's candied sugar and the chocolate's caramalised chunks combine to give a real sweet suckerpunch, almost overwhelming. The milky feel round your mouth softens the yeasty bite, more beer conjures up soft pears in a sweet, nutty sauce. More chocolate brings candy overload once more. I love the way the hazelnut works with the soft fruit and spices in the beer but the colliding sweetness threatens to overpower.

A fun combination, particularly if you have a sweet tooth. Sometime in the future, I'd like to try a tripel against a salted chocolate to see if it achieves balance on the palate. But if spun sugar shock is your thing, Karmeleit and Lindt Hazelnut could work for you.