On The Joys Of Afternoon Snoozing

I've been off the sherbert recently, a pesky chest infection making for a deadened palate and no appetite for alcohol. With the tubes feeling clearer today, I ventured forth for a pint or three.

The beer was great - Oakham Akhenaten was blisteringly full of hops - but even better was the afternoon nap that followed. Back home, feeling mellow, citrics still licking around my mouth, the crossword was put to one side... and two hours of blissful snoozing was enjoyed.

There are few things finer in life than the post-pub afternoon nap. Sheer contentment in a to-hell-with-the-housework style. If you get the opportunity to indulge in one, I'd thoroughly recommend it.


Thornbridge: 100 awards and counting

The last time I visited the offices of Thornbridge brewery, I noticed a large cardboard box full of picture frames in one corner, It turns out they were awards, presented to them by festival organisers across the country. Were they reluctant to hang them? Embarrassed, perhaps? Gladly, no - the simple answer is that the walls were already crammed full of certificates.

And the majority of those were for Jaipur IPA, a beer that's been winning awards since it arrived in 2005. With 57 awards (and counting) in four years, it was disappointing for it not have been chosen for judging at the Great British Beer festival this year. When a beer is winning CAMRA festival awards - consistently - it would seem that it deserves to be placed alongside its peers and be judged at national level.

Thornbridge didn't leave empty handed from Earls Court, though. With a silver medal for Kipling and a bronze for their perennially-underrated bitter, Lord Marples, their award count kept climbing. And I'm pleased to see that the plaudits are still stacking up.

The last few weeks have seen success in the World Beer Awards (Halcyon being judged the World's Best Harvest Ale and Bracia being highly commended in the World's Best Spiced beer section) and at the International Bottled Beer Challenge (gold for Kipling and Bracia, silver for Saint Petersburg). That brings to one hundred the number of industry and consumer awards Thornbridge has won since September 2005.

A hundred awards - from competitions held all around the world - is a phenomenal achievement for such a young brewery. I love their beers and their attitude and look forward to them covering their wider walls with awards at the new brewery site in Bakewell. And to celebrate their 200th award in a few years with something sparkling - time to get that Derbyshire lambik developed, guys!

PS - Castleton confectioners Cocoadance won a Great Taste Award this year for a beer flavoured truffle. Which beer did they use? Jaipur, of course...


7 Reasons Why You'd Be An Idiot To Miss The Burton-upon-Trent Beer Festival

#1: Broughton's Pies. Not a tinfoil-thrice-baked pie. Or a slop-in-a-dish-with-puffy-stuff-floating-on-top pie. Just huge slabs of meaty goodness, encased in shortcrust pasty, hewn from a pie several feet wide. With chips. And mushy peas. Proper festival grub.

#2: Tony's Pork Scratchings. Legendary. They curl, they have bristles on, they are shrapnel-hard on the outside and gooey-soft on the inside. I swear that some of them are whole eyebrows. That wink at you from inside the packet. Never have cholesterol-ridden offcuts tasted so good.

#3: The posh seats. Hosted in the Town Hall, upstairs there are cinema-style seats that give you a panoramic view over the carnage beneath. You get to see the stained glass and wrought ironwork ceiling supports close up. But you don't throw pork scratchings at the topers below. That's how you get ejected. And an ASBO.

#4: Martin Atterbury. At lunchtimes, the WurliTzer leaps forth onto the stage and Marty plays all the tunes. Dambusters. Rule Brittania. Coconut Airways. Too Drunk To Fuck. Possibly not the last two. But he does often wear a salmon-coloured suit and he wears it well.

#5: Public transport. It's five minutes from the bus stop serving Derby. And it's five minutes from the railway station that's opposite that very same bus stop. And thanks to Cross-Country trains, you can get to Burton from all over the country. Mind you, thanks to Cross Country Trains there's no guarantee which station you'll end up travelling via on your way home.

#6: Beers. They have a habit at Burton. They like to put on really good beers that people want to drink. As opposed to beers that thirty people want to tick. So, there will be beers from the likes of Dark Star (Espresso, APA), Brewdog (Edge, Trashy Blonde, 77 Lager, Hardcore IPA), Thornbridge (Seaforth, Jaipur, Epic Halcyon) plus a whole heap of other great stuff.

#7: I'll buy you a beer. All you have to do is approach me with a rolled-up copy of What's Brewing and say "You are the Reluctant Scooper and I claim my free half!".

All the gory details can be found here


Review: Good Bottled Beer Guide

The problem with bottled beer is that there's far too much of the damned stuff. Only a few years ago I could walk into my regular shopping haunts and be greeted by the same couple of dozen familiar bottles. Seen them, drank them, found most of them to be boring. Nowadays, the blighters are getting everywhere and multiplying faster than rampant yeast - supermarkets have competitions, farmer's markets often have brewers' stalls, off-licenses are carving out a niche and as for t'internet...

All this choice is great, but you still need guidance on which bottle to plump for. With brewer's label blurb often leaving a lot to the imagination, a concise third-party guide would aid weary topers as they wend their way around the shops. And here's where Jeff Evans rides to the rescue. For the last eleven years, he's edited the Good Bottled Beer Guide produced by the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) and the latest edition (the seventh) proves to be even more indispensable than ever.

CAMRA are rightly proud of their 'Real Ale in a Bottle' accreditation scheme and this Guide is a proud flagbearer for it. All of the beers featured in the guide are bottle-conditioned - where yeast has been kept in the bottle, allowing the beer to ferment again. This means there's no place for the thousands of bottled beers that are filtered and/or pasturised but that still leaves more than enough to talk about.

Jeff's done a sterling job of cramming in a ton of salient stuff without compromising the book's clarity and usability. Over 1300 bottle-conditioned beers are listed here with just under a third of those benefiting from detailed tasting notes and background information. That's the real value of the book for me; thirteen sections dividing beers by style with a short overview, followed by well laid-out reviews of individual beers. The detail given on hops and malts is a useful insight, some of the potted histories are genuinely interesting and the tasting notes actually make sense. The latter is a challenge when reviewing a multiplicity of beers under a distinctive style, like India Pale Ale for example; there are only so many ways you can rearrange the words citrus/tangy/tropical whilst namechecking oranges, lemons and pineapples but Jeff Evans carries it off well.

It's a good looking book, inside and out, with an soft embossed cover and a clear layout. There's appropriate use of photos and logos, never swamping the text. And the compact format (7.5 x 4.5 inches) makes it more-or-less jacket pocket sized, ideal for when you're beer buying out and about.

The ratings system is straightforward - a star to highlight beers of "outstanding quality" and a rosette to identify breweries producing beer of a "consistently high standard". Some readers will want more ratings info - I'd be happy with none at all. When the tasting notes are so detailed, I'd rather base my purchase on that information.

There's plenty of added reference detail in here, too; a comprehensive brewery A-Z with contact details along with a list of notable retailers (both 'real world' shops and internet sites). The mini-essays prove to be interesting reading, particularly for the beer novice with "Brewing for the Bottle" and "Growing Old Gracefully" giving concise overviews of the brewing process and bottle aging respectively.

Some of the ancillary stuff I could do without; the now-ubiquitous food matching advice proves little more than the fact that cheese goes with most beer and the international section (although well written) mentions too many beers that are difficult to get hold of in the UK, even through specialist retailers.

One thing that proved a little frustrating was the lack of cross referencing between the brewery beer lists and the main content of the book - it would have been useful to know which beers merited a full review. Having found a brewery I like, the only way I could find more beer reviews for that brewer was to plough through the whole book, one section at a time.

But the proof of a beer review book is in the drinking. I found a beer knocking around the cellar that I hadn't tried before - Meantime's London Pale Ale - and compared my tasting notes with the Guide. Which pretty much nailed it; earthy hops, lilting sweetness, dry finish. I got a real mineral edge in there as well. If I'd bought the beer on the strength of the book's review, I certainly wouldn't have been disappointed.

Faced with an ever-growing amount of bottled-conditioned beer on the market, the Good Bottled Beer Guide is an indispensable reference.

You can buy it at your friendly local neighbourhood bookseller for £12.99. Online deals are invariably cheaper. But why not buy direct from CAMRA - that way, they get a larger share of the profit to plough back into campaigning.


Cantillon Iris

This bottle of Cantillon Iris has been in and out of my fridge for weeks. It's made way for a glut of supermarket BrewDog. Shuffled to one side to accommodate champers for celebrations. Relegated to the kitchen table when wine was on my mind.

But today it claimed a place in the cooler, so that it could come out to play in the unexpected September sun. My post-gardening beers are usually cheap and cheerful lagers or hardcore IPAs. Today I thought I'd do something different after the lawnmowing; the result being that it's been a pleasure to sip my way through this bottle one fluteful at a time.

As for Iris - it had more flowery dry tartness than a Derby city bus shelter on a wet Wednesday night. Just funky enough. If this is the last of summer, Iris is a great beer to toast its farewell with.


Lost Ramblings : Ratebeer Sheffield, Summer 2008

Here's a unfeasibly-long postcard I sent to my dear old friend, Hugh Jarse, last summer. It never arrived - Hugh having changed address at Her Majesty's Pleasure yet again - so now it's been returned I thought I'd share it with you.

Dear Hugh. Well, here I am in the capital of the People’s Republic of South Yorkshire. Sheffield is dreadfully sunny and hot, with none of the sleet and hail that the brochures promised at this time of year. Passport control was very lax. All that time spent learning the names of champion whippets was wasted – no-one asked me any questions and I was allowed to leave the station unmolested.

I met up with Gazza, Mrs Gazza, Dave Swij... zwege... Dave Unpronounceable and a few others before ordering a breakfast so large that it arrived on a plate bigger than my head. For a Wetherspoons it was a real culture shock – there was a barmaid who was chatty, polite and knowledgeable about beer. I wonder if that attitude can be exported to the further reaches of the JDW empire?

Suitably cholesterolised, we took a bracing walk downriver to a charming public house. The Harlequin offered a superb range of beers, light and dark, weak and strong, handpull and gravity, little and large, eggs and bacon, Tom and Jerry.... a slew of beers were imbibed as several more jolly Ratebeer types joined us. Even when Dave farted and blamed it on a sleepy Alsatian, we still enjoyed the brews which included such delights as Weyerbacher Double Simcoe.

Eventually, we moved on to the Fat Cat, just down the road. Here we sat outside, warm sun permeating the slight shadows. There is a certain joy in taking the Yorkshire air of an afternoon, particularly when said air is located next to a fine drinking establishment. Such joy is multiplied by a beer brewed within sight of the bar (well, it would be if you could see through several brick walls). A Kelham Island special was ordered. "Mieszko!" said I. "Bless you!" came the reply...

Sustenance was now required by all and sundry. Rather than partake of the award-winning menu here, the party decided to build up further our appetites and take a sturdy yomp to another pub further down the valley. Thirty seconds later, we'd arrived there. The Kelham Island Tavern was mackerel-tin busy so I wasted no time in securing my usual round - one pint of Pictish Brewers Gold, two Red Leicester cobs. The wait for hot food proved lengthy, too many hungry topers in one place, so my reserve cob soon became the subject of a bidding war. Until my fellows realised that the basket on the bar was full of them. More friends turned up, Steve and Chrissie having been taking in some of the architectural delights of the city beforehand.

Amongst the melee, a bottle of De Struise Pannepot appeared from nowhere. Well, it appeared from the rucksack of an exceptionally-bearded Scottish gentleman sat next to me. Craig (for it was he, hirsute-of-chin) and I shared surreptitiously this fine Belgian ale and I made note to secure further supplies for winter-fireside-topering.

Once food orders had been satiated finally, we wended our way to the Wellington. Here, our thirsty crowd all flocked to order Pictish El Diablo, a notably hoppy stout. Indeed, so popular it proved that before I reached the bar it "burst", the latter apparently being a beer aficionado term for "run out". I settled for Oakham Endless Summer; weak in alcohol, strong in hop flavour. Shortly after, a chance remark (which was sadly not recorded) led to the gentleman next to me displaying his training shoes as surrogate mammaries. Or "Mes's Nike Tits" as they became known.

Not only are the beers tasty at the Wellington, but it is well situated within this Valley Of Beer. Only a few minutes amble from the other houses visited so far and so close to the passing tramline that the windows rattle as one passes. Our party availed itself of the aforementioned transportation to whisk us onward to our next calling point, the Hillsborough Hotel. Here, we were encouraged outside once again by the bracing mid-evening air and panoramic views over the Don Valley. And of the dry ski-slope. And of Mecca Bingo. Plenty of high-quality, low-cost, on-site brewed beer was imbibed, the Crown Hillsborough Pale Ale becoming a swift favourite around the table. And it was charming to watch the doyen of scoopers, Gazza Prescott, holding court in front of the camera.

The rest of the day descended into a steady haze. Another pub or two was found, fellow topers tailed off and away, an enthusiastic homebrewer tried to convince me that elderflower wheat beer was the future. It had been the usual pleasure to crawl the Valley of Beer, moreso to be in good company. I look forward to inviting you over here for a drink or four sometime in the near future; do let me know if your injunctions and court orders prevent you from travelling to this particular county.

Chin chin!

The Reluctant Scooper


Normal service will be resumed...

... as soon as the drugs start working. Now on the seventh day of a throat infection, The medication has me sleeping up to 18 hours a day. With a mouth feeling like it's full of glue and razor blades. No palate, no appetite. When I tried a sip of alcohol, my throat swelled up alarmingly.

So, no beer festivalling this weekend. If I'm awake for long enough, I may get around to writing up some more articles. LOL. (OK, not LOL, not with my throat...)


The Session: Summer Beer

"Summer's gone / days spent with the grass and sun
But I don't mind / to pretend I do seems really dumb"

Autumn is almost upon us. Summer was that fleeting afternoon of insipid heat, followed by a few days of uncomfortable warmth, bookended by several weeks of blustery fluster that brought the world and their ankle-biters out to every pub garden. I'm never that sad to see summer move on, but it does have one thing going for it - drinking hoppy stuff in the sun.

Because summer beer to me means hops - oily fruit tickling the parched throat. So the summer beers that I look back on with a wry smile, in no particular order, are;

Ostravar Pils
From the bottle, in my conservatory. With lawns mowed, edges clipped, borders turned, bushes trimmed and slugs deaded. There are few feelings finer than the first lawnmower beer, one that's been whipped out the freezer and barely wets the edges as you bolt it down. Then let out a hugely satisfying belch to let the neighbours know that your gardening day is truly done.

Pictish Brewers Gold
In the beer garden of the Kelham Island Tavern, Sheffield. A suntrap melange of palms and ferns and splashes of shrubbery colour, no more than a well-hefted stone's throw from decayed factories and flash flats. Because every sip of it tastes like victory; balance over bludgeon, assured quality over reckless ambition. Because twenty minutes spent by a yucca with a Red Leicester cob, a crossword and a damn fine pint makes the rest of the day's dreary detail recede.

Marble Dobber
No sparkler, by the pint, sat with mates, by the bins out the back of the Marble Arch, Manchester. For the sheer joy of necking one of England's finest cask IPAs at its home ground, with a bunch of beery friends who loved it too. For the joy of watching people try it for the first time, and realise how I must have looked thirty seconds earlier.

Thornbridge/Epic Halcyon
At the Coach & Horses, Dronfield, Derbyshire. Outside, it was packed. Clear sky, sharp sun, the weather that leads a blondie like me to bleach and burn. So my retreat was beaten back into a calmer bar with an accommodating leather chair. Where I was sustained by a barbecued fish on a stick along with lashings of lip-twisting IPA. Where the comfort of great beer, great food and great music became almost tangible.

Thornbridge Jaipur

On this occasion, in the Bear Inn, Alderwasley, Derbyshire. As there are few finer moments across my summers than a back-knackering walk uphill, on a clear-blue-sky day, and happening across a pub selling one of my standout beers. As taut muscles relaxed and my palate welcomed back favourite flavours, I became the very definition of contentment. Albeit with five more miles to walk.

You know what? Summer sounds alright after all. But.... I'm ready for knocking the snow off my boots, glowing inglenooks, barley wines that warm the cockles of your thermals, finding that imperial stout you stashed away two years ago in the back of the garage.

We had joy. We had fun. Drank IPAs in the sun.
But the weather weren't what it oughta. And I'm gagging for a porter.


Sainsbury's Beer Challenge: Brewdog

And the award for Grinding Inevitability In Beer Blogging goes to... Reluctant Scooper for the obligatory Brewdog article. Want to know why I write about them? I like their beers. I'd buy shit booze and write about that instead but my masochistic streak doesn't run that deep. It only goes as far as supporting Nottingham Forest.

Anyhoo. Once upon a time there were three beers and their names were Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. But Brewdog didn't brew those. They *did* brew Dogma, Chaos Theory and Hardcore. Rumours that those names were inspired by a certain someone's Lovefilm.com rental list are unsubstantiated.

Let's start with Dogma.

Tastes of... white pepper and liquid caramel.
Smells like... honey from the back of the cupboard. That's turned kinda special.
If it were a track by Radiohead it would be... I Might Be Wrong

Let's middle with Chaos Theory.

Tastes of...... orange peel impregnated with pine needles
Smells like...bitter jelly
If it were a track by Radiohead it would be... No Surprises

Let's finish with Hardcore

Tastes of... Boxing Day fruit salad split under the Christmas tree. And rubbed with a caramel cloth.,
Smells like... fractured grapefruit stirred with a sticky hop stick
If it were a track by Radiohead it would be... Everything In Its Right Place

Blag blah Sainsbury's, blah blah four for the price of three, blah blah probably next to the charcoal briquettes unless you shop in Edinburgh.

And that’s it. I promised myself I’d stop at two hundred and


Wishlist #23; More Reluctant Scooping

If you've suffered this site for long enough, you know I love to scoop. There's a joy to be held in finding new, interesting, adventurous beers. A delight delivered by the fulfillment of expectation. But also the thrill in tasting the beer that blindsided and surprised you.

My Reluctancy in scooping is borne out of too much bland bitter, brewed by this month's new micro. Of too much tinkering; a hop pellet there, a malt bill shifted here, an uneven regular brew leaping Lazarus-like onto the bar as a rebadge everywhere.

But in the back of my mind, there's always Reluctant's Conundrum; if you don't scoop the new beer/brewery, you may miss out something special. After all, what if I hadn't tasted Thornbridge (or Oakham or BrewDog or, or, or) at the time that I did? Sure, I would have had their beers by now, but being an 'early adopter' has given me a couple of years worth of fantastic beery experience.

It's great to find the beer styles/brewers that you love. It's great to try something different. It may be the Worse Beer You've Ever Tasted - Official. Or it could be the beer that changes your topering habits for a lifetime.

We may be living in a golden age for UK brewing. With technological advances, environmental concerns and consumer/producer enthusiasm, the next twenty years could see revolutions in brewing quality beers at a local scale. The scope for scooping is massive.

There are great pubs in my village / the city / the Midlands and Yorkshire, depending on how far I want to drag myself for a pint. There are some quality breweries on my doorstep. And there's a hugely influential, articulate and intelligent bunch of beery bods on the t'internet. So I could just sit back, read the blogs and drink what I know to be good.

Problem is, in twenty years time, I'd be the bitter man at the bar bemoaning, "this stuff used to taste better when I was younger... and what the hell is oak-aged double imperial goozeberry hefeweizen, anyway?". So I'm happy to be Reluctant a little while longer. The thrill of the chase, the surprise of the unexpected, both make beer drinking in this day and age an unmitigated joy.

My last wish is to keep on scooping Reluctantly.... and for a few more people to do the same. Go find the beers and breweries that others are excited about. See how they measure up to your palate and expectations. And then take the time to savour them. Find the balance between chasing the tail of that new beer and snuggling up next to an old favourite. Don't forget why you drink the stuff in the first place. Life's too short to spend it with indifferent beers.

Someone once said opinions are like arseholes - everybody's got one, and everybody thinks everybody else's stinks. Well, I'm happy to keep stinking up the internet. One beer at a time.



Wishlist #22; Craft Brewing, not microbrewing

In England, we talk of microbrewing. We define by size; by a volume limit, a taxation break. Microbrewers are seen as good, macrobrewers bad, with regional brewers caught between a rock and a hard place.

For me, size doesn't matter. Quality does. Looking Stateside, there's a true minority - 5% - of the brewery scene who are dwarfed by the Bud-Miller-Coors Goliaths. Small in market share, big in ideas and confidence. And they are proud to call themselves craft brewers.

Defining what they brew and how its brewed not by scale but by the passion and care invested into it. Brewing that involves "...innovation, independence, curiosity, collaboration, character and family".

A few breweries over here describe themselves in similar terms. Our homebrewing scene is guided by an organisation called the Craft Brewing Association.

I've rattled through a long wishlist this month. But I one wish I'd love to come true would be a shift in thinking; define the UK beer scene by the quality of the brewers and beers, not by their size. To be proud of a pint produced by craftspeople.

Saying you're a craft brewer is a statement of intent; a guarantee; a challenge. An inspiration to the consumer and an aspiration for the homebrewer.

What's in a word, you say? It's just another lame marketing ploy? Play the video below and tell me if you still think that craft brewing would be no more than a rebranding tag.