Derby CAMRA Beer Festival: The One With Cheese and Chocolate

Saturday afternoon at  Derby CAMRA's summer festival and standing room only has already been and gone. Splayed on the stairs, skulking behind pillars, sardined into the main hall... it's busy busy busy. But a thirsty toper can always conjure up some table space. In the quiet room, in a corner, opposite a ticker who seemed lost in the minutiae of his rapidly receding hit-list. My claim staked, my intentions simple: cheese and cider; dark beer and chocolate.

My sweet tooth is legendary - alongside my salty tongue, sour face and umami mouth - yet I prefer a cider or perry that's sandpaper-dessicated. I plump for the driest cider on the menu, Badger's Spit by Naish. After all, who wouldn't want to drink Badger's Spit? Lots of green apple tang, almost lemon-pithy on the tongue. I could see myself falling off a hay bale after a few of these.

A glass of cider always has me hankering after a good lump of cheese. Thankfully, Derby is one of the few festivals I've been to that has a decent cheesemonger on site. Morgan's is a stalwart of the city's Eagle Market and their ever-busy stall offers a great range of cheeses both British and continental. They've nailed their beerfest offering; a platter with a couple of cheeses, some crackers (or bread) and a dollop of red onion marmalade. 

With a dozen-ish cheeses on offer I chose two of my old favourites, an aged Red Leicester and Snowdonia Cheese's sublime Black Bomber. The latter has a creamy feel that belies its name, smooth for an extra mature cheddar but with a real depth to its flavour. If the Badger's Spit bites, then Black Bomber curls its lips and flashes its teeth at you. Put together, they get along famously. For the dry, slightly sweet and nutty Red Leicester I plumped for a perry. The Butford Organics was on the sweet side of medium for me, but its lemonesque flavour and low tannins kept it refreshing and palate-cleansing.

That was lunch. What to have for dessert? Dark beer and chocolate seemed blindingly obvious. And I do like the blindingly obvious. I'm a sucker for Fuller's London Porter and with the brewer having their own bar at the fest, the blindingly obvious option became even moreso. But what choc? Well, Burton-based Merry Berry Truffles had plenty to choose from. They are regulars at beerfests and aren't afraid to play with flavours. As their dark chocolate pieces with chilli and orange proves.

London Porter on cask reveals its ashy edges as casual charcoal marks your palate. The chocolate is more sleight-of-hand. Oily orange seeps when you hold a piece in your mouth, the slender slab collapses, a subtle chilli delivery system replaces citric tang with prickly heat. A mouthful of porter is an abrupt reset. orange to ashes, chilli heat to charcoal cool. And then do it all over again.

One last pairing? Go on then. Double Top Brewery have really impressed me recently and Tungsten Stout is no exception. With a robust body and a keen coffee roast about it, a handful of Merry Berry's chocolate covered coffee beans proved the perfect partner. Shards of beans and mocha echoes in the beer made for a great way to round out the session.

Well, almost. Fuller's Golden Pride had just come on - the only beer left on sale at their bar - so I just had to have a third. Or a half. Paired with... something caramel perhaps? Maybe spicy? In the end I went for the only viable option; pair it with another half pint of the same. Because, just sometimes, the best thing to pair with beer is another beer.


Derby CAMRA Beer Festival: Express Yourself

A smiling face on the door.

Another one at the glass stand.

Actually being called "sir" by the lad who served me my first beer.

Plenty of beers on. In the main hall. And the Darwin Suite. And the Fuller's Bar.

What a difference a day makes, eh?

Fuller's Wild River wasn't quite the paw-swiping, salmon-leaping, West Coast meets West London hopfest that I expected. But if it puts a decently citric beer in the hands of a regional market, fair play to them. I won't be too devilish and point out that Adnams already have an impressive track record in that regards.

I'm a sucker for an enticing beer name. So when Mike James from Buxton recommended Laguna Seca by Burley Street, I rushed off faster than a GT car through the Corkscrew. A touch of caramel, a dab of grapefruit, a dry finish... a good beer that can only taste better with the sun on your back.

Sometimes I'll take a punt on a beer for no reason other than their website gives me a tingly feeling. I'd never heard of Devilfish until I saw their name in the festival programme but thought... if they look that good on the web, they've got to be great in the glass. And Bombshell was; every part of it had an edge that was just sharper than other anonymous blondes.

Despite sounding like a John Guest competitor, Truefitt are busy putting Middlesbrough back on the brewing map of the North East. I'm hoping their stout, Ironopolis, is named after the Victorian football team. With licorice licks and toasty roasted malt undercut with fresh ash, this was a superlative stout.

Everything don't mean a thing if it ain't the thing you want. Tonight: good beers, good company. The fest done good. Looking forward to more tomorrow.


Derby CAMRA Beer Festival: Killing me softly

I know my audience. You ain't a tough crowd. You heard I blogged a good blog. You heard I had a style.

And that style isn't overtly critical - well, not often. This isn't a paying gig, I'm not sent out to try places and beers and feed the results back, there's no need for the pretence of a critic's presence. No need to report the rough with the smooth, the turd in the hopback, the wanker in the orange bib.

Which is why I really want to write about all the good things I encountered at the opening of the Derby CAMRA Summer Festival. So I will:

- meeting people I haven't seen and shared a beer with in too long a time

- meeting brewers who you feel like you never lost touch with because of Facebook and Twitter, but realise that you need to make more time to natter face to face, pint to pint

- getting to enjoy more beers from the likes of Lincoln Green, Sherfield Village and Revolutions

- drinking Jaipur, remembering that the reason why the likes of Thornbridge were there tonight to pick up yet another CAMRA award is because their beers are really bloody good. Call me a fanboy. Not bothered. I stood in the same venue a fair few years ago (2005?) and drank Jaipur for the first time. They've had me hooked ever since. Good beer is where you find it. I find it straight outta Bakewell.

So.. why do I really want to write about this:

- being kept waiting outside the venue. I've never known a Derby CAMRA beer festival to actually start on time.

- being kept waiting in a queue. It's trade day. You know how many people are coming. For maybe the only session, you know *exactly* how many are coming. Have more than one person to check for tickets. Given that the person wasn't overly bothered about checking who we actually were anyway.

- being spoken to like a prisoner at the cloakroom. Not "Good evening!". Just "Anything valuable? We take no responsibility. Your number is 4". No ticket. No smile. No manners.

- being left clueless as to what beers are actually available when and where. Some beers may not be on yet? Fair enough. Only about half of them? WTF? Fuller's own bar? Handwritten note, "open asap". Darwin Suite (where the rarer beers are to be found)? Walked up to the door, tango-jacket barks at me "It's not open". Before I had the chance to ask - politely - if it would be open later. "Possibly" was the shrew-lipped reply. (It was apparently still shut two hours after the paying public entered due to 'technical difficulties' ).

- being badgered to sign the anti-beer-escalator e-petition. No problem with being asked once. More of an issue to be asked three times in twenty minutes by three different people. CAMRA chuggers? And when someone on stage, talking to the trade audience about who knows what (mic levels all out of kilter) starts becoming hysterical about tax, I just want to switch off and drink elsewhere.

So I went home. Remembered my number at the cloakroom, was given a different coat; the one belonging to the bloke in the queue before me when we dropped them off. His was considerably better than mine - we'd even joked about me asking for the wrong coat on purpose. "I wasn't on when you were here" was the excuse. See those books of raffle tickets that every village hall shindig has used for cloakroom passes since time immemorial? That.

There are salmon-bottomed clouds and a fresh breeze outside as I write this. I'm off for another glass of Adnam's Summer IPA now I can actually sit outside and enjoy it. I wish I was still at the festival, finding great beers and having fancy banter. But... Derby CAMRA know how to keep killing me softly. By always getting what should be the little things wrong. Will I be back tomorrow? Course I will. That's what free entry for members is all about.

I'll just take a cheap coat, a thick skin and low expectations.


Nottingham Food And Drink Festival: The Beer Tent-Ale House Thing

Passing through Nottingham at the weekend, I stumbled across a food and drink festival. And into the beer tent. Sorry: into the Festival Ale House.

Given that beer is often treated like the country cousin at these kind of get-togethers, forced to loll around in a corner out of harm's way, it was refreshing to find that the organisers had put up a sturdy tent and an attractive beer-garden-plaza-trestle-table-thing. You know, something that actually looked inviting and enticed people in to try the beers.

An orderly queue to buy tasting tokens - business card-sized, five for a fiver, each redeemed for a third of a pint. Two steps left to the bar with forty-plus well-kept casks for gravity dispense into decent quality polycarbonate glasses (no deposit, fresh glass with every drink). Keen staff who were more than happy to talk you through the selection from eleven Nottinghamshire breweries. Decent tasting notes supplemented by another list in order of colour, light to dark.

The beers? Good 'uns. My first taste of anything by Lincoln Green (Marion, a juicy pale ale), Pheasantry (a solid brown bitter) and Medieval (Chivalry, another pale sessioner that was pipped by Marion in the refresher stakes). King Tom from Welbeck Abbey was a rugged American amber that I'd have happily drank a pint of. As for Chimney Sweeper by Castle Rock - my little sister chose me that one because of the name. And because it was vegan. And because it promised 'subtle banana'. I'm dubious about British cask dunkelweiss-types but this worked well. Albeit I may have had trouble drinking a pint if it started to warm up.

All in all, a great addition to a food fayre-festival-market-type-thingummy-bob. It's a shame that there wasn't more foodie stalls actually selling stuff or offering samplers on the Saturday; quite a few stalls had been turned into customer seating and some others were no more than leaflet-pushing promos for venues. A good coffee stand and a deli selling meat / cheese platters would have been good to see. As it was, I had a knockout chicken kebab from the guys at Eviva Taverna whom I have fond memories of from back in the 1980s and didn't realise they were still in the city.

It was certainly a great way to promote local beer. Other food festival organisers ought to take note and take Nottingham's lead.


An incomplete A-Z of beer

No, not the Oxford Companion.

Over at the other blog of mine - you know, the one that even fewer people read - I mooted the idea last year of hacking together an A-Z of beer. On random topics that I want to learn more about. Stuff that people may want to talk to me about. Or write a few paragraphs. Or express themselves through the medium of dance.

So let's get this kickstarted.

I'm looking for contributions / information / opinion / enlightenment on these first four topics:

* Attenuation
* Brettanomyces
* Chill haze
* Diacetyl

I'm particularly keen on hearing from brewers and academics for their practical and theoretical insights. Links to useful papers / presentations / learning resources are most welcome. Happy to chat to people over a pint if it can be arranged.

Tweet-me-up at @simonhjohnson or email me at


Beer bloggers: an appeal

I know most of you have a life, but please spare a few minutes to think about the plight of some beer bloggers.

Sometimes they receive unsolicited emails from agencies.

Sometimes they receive three or four a day, dramatically reducing the time they can spend farting about on Facebook researching eighteenth century pale ale recipes.

Sometimes these emails don't result in free bottles of beer, inadequately packaged, that get broken in the post to them.

Sometimes they include invites to an "awesome groundbreaking beer experience evening" sponsored by Pierre van Klomp that happens to be in East London at eight pm on a Tuesday and so excludes provincial types so it must be A FUCKING CONSPIRACY.

Something must be done. I mean, Something Must Be Done.

Thankfully, there's someone with the mettle and spunk to put his best foot forward, open his legs and show his class.

Simon Jockstone has launched this epetition to try and counter the rising tide of nascent Hitleristic intolerance that beer bloggers encounter throughtout their working day. When I say working day, I mean their lunch when the firewall's doused for an hour.

Show your solidarity, brothers and sisters. Get Very Angry Indeed. Never mind the poor PR sod who's mailing blind to anyone with a pulse and a blog in the vain hope that they'll snag some AVE. They've interrupted precious free wifi whilst the said blogger dragged out the dregs of the double tripel decaf skinny macchiato that the previous merchant banker left behind.

Your tears are my tears. Sign it now. Together, we can make a difference...


The Session #65: Drinking alone with virtually anyone

This month's Session on the topic of going to the pub alone is hosted by Brit blogger Nate Southwood over at Booze, Beats and Bites

Drinking by myself, in a pub, is one of my greatest solo pleasures. It's right up there with being the only walker at a mountain trig point and eating a whole pork pie when the rest of the table isn't watching.

Let's be clear: I don't do the staring blankly at nothing in particular, like the not-so-old-boys in my youth who gazed at cheap prints on the wall whilst apparently smoking their fingernails. They didn't even seem to drink, their beer clearly reaching into them at some molecular level.

And don't get me wrong, I still love the camaraderie of the pub: the regulars, the faces, the people you least expect to see, the outsiders, the strangers who buy you a beer and become friends until they take the piss and swiftly become strangers again. Before they're tarred, feathered and chased out the village.

But I love the solitary drink. Since I was 18, scrawling into notebooks, mucking up the Times crossword, drinking a pint of Symonds cider in the Old Wine Vaults in Eastwood (locals: "Aye up youff, writing a book? Aye it a mucky 'un like Lawrence?)

Into my polytechnic years, scrawling into textbooks, mucking up the Guardian crossword, drinking a pint of Guinness in the Shrewsbury Arms in Stafford (locals: You're a student? But you're not that much of a twat!)

Through work lunchtimes, scrawling into a laptop, mucking up the Independent crossword, drinking a pint of Brunswick Father Mikes in, uh, the Brunswick in Derby (locals: Ooh! Get you, Bill Gates!)

Arriving at lazy Sundays, scrawling into Blogger on my phone, back to mucking up the Times crossword, drinking a pint of Thornbridge Jaipur in the Sheffield Tap (locals: Mornin', Scoop. Alreet?)

In many of the pubs I visit; there's an unwritten code; stand at the bar = I'm open to banter and gossip. Sit at a table = I want to be alone with my crossword / newspaper / book / thoughts.

Sometimes, there's a place I want to go where nobody knows my name.

Although, with a smartphone, there's a paradox. Sat by myself in a corner with that pint, that bastard crossword, Twitter, Facebook and Blogger. I reach a quantum drinking state. I find the pub super-position of being alone and not alone at the same time. I can be drinking alone and sharing the experience with virtually anyone.

I wrote this down the pub. If you were there, I was the Boris Johnson lookalike in the corner who kept swearing at his phone's stupid autocorrect rather than blaming his chipolata fingers. Forking koy beard.

Cheers to Nate Dawg for hosting. If you see him, buy him a beer. Or maybe just get him one in at the bar...


twentyeight days later

"His fear began when he tried to go 28 days without a beer. His terror began when he realised he had. All too easily".

It was an idea that seemed too obvious at the time. I need to lose weight. I'm eating healthily. I don't want to exercise madly as that's how I knackered my clicky knees last time. I wanted a kick-start that could lead to sustained weight loss.

Obvious, really. Put less into my body than I use up. Cut out the easy calories.

Stop drinking beer.

So I did.

No hem and haw. None of this 'sensible drinking at weekends' malarkey. With my logical, rational, statistical, analytical work-head on I decided to cut beer out of my diet completely. Every pint I didn't drink would save me 200-ish calories. Plus more in ancillary pork scratchings / salted peanuts / chocolate brownies / cheesy chips.

What's more, I could use the process as a sensory experiment. I've been involved in several aroma / flavour tests this year (which I will make time to write about, apologies to aroxa and the University of Nottingham for my tardy journalism). Here would be an interesting one; how would beer feel to me after 28 days of abstinence?

Immense. Just... immense.

At the first sniff of Thornbridge Jaipur as I poured it, I actually salivated. I was acutely aware of the sensation. I wasn't expecting that. The aroma was... complex. It's like my nose was presented with a paper fortune teller and I went yep, they're the aromas I remember. And then paper was swiftly manipulated and subtle gradations and variations flashed past.

The taste? Honestly? Almost too bitter. I haven't looked into the physiology of the palate, but maybe 28 days is long enough to give it a hard reset.

You know how beery types are prone to saying, "ah, Throxheads IPAEIEIO. Doesn't taste anything like as hoppy and fruity as it used to"? What if that's true? And what if it isn't the brewer's recipe but the drinker's palate than needs re-calibrating?

I need to think this through some more. I need to open another beer to make sure these results aren't a busted flush.

Meanwhile with nine pounds lost, the experiment continues. Maybe another beer tonight, then that's it until a Burton and Derby trip on Saturday 28th July; beers at Unity Plaza by Pride Park Stadium and the choicest pubs near Derby railway station before the Coopers Tavern and all points onwards towards the Pirelli for the Brewers v Rams. If you're around, come join the fun. It's a day's drinking punctuated by ninety minutes of heckling.

And if you're still wondering how it feels to drink beer after not drinking beer for 28 days - try it. It's only beer, after all...


Escalators, curves and pinheads

Last night there was a debate in the House of Commons about the beer duty escalator.

No, the e-petition hasn't reached critical mass and been fast-tracked into contention. It was an adjournment debate, one that lasts for half an hour at the end of the day's sitting and allows for an MP to speak and a minister to reply. Last night saw Gavin Williamson address the house on the beer duty escalator and the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, Chloe Smith, reply to his concerns.

You can read the transcript over at Hansard or watch the debate on the BBC Democracy Live website. I say debate, but it was more of a procession of MPs mentioning their local pub / brewery whilst agreeing that the beer duty escalator was A Very Bad Thing.

It was interesting to hear Williamson state that "the simple reality is that beer duty is getting to the point where it is too high and it is pricing people out of the market". According to HMRC figures, the percentage of a pint's retail price that's made up of duty has been consistently around 13-15% since 1994. Revenue from beer duty has continued to increase. He may fear that beer is about to peak its Laffer curve; maybe instead it's riding the peak of its revenue wave.

Various Members suggested tax breaks for cask beer ("those ales are available only in pubs") and for real ale (due to its "increased cost of production"). Not sure where that leaves take-home minicasks, nor that all kegged beer is cheaper to produce. One of them - come on down, Alec Shelbrooke - proposed raising duty on canned beer. He may just as well campaign for extra tax if the beer's name rhymes with darling...

But this is all dancing-on-pinhead stuff, isn't it? Chloe Smith was by turns forthright and dangerously ambiguous; "The revenue from (escalator) increases was included in the public finance projections at that time (of the Budget). It would now require the raising of other taxes to pay for removing them", she affirmed. Sounds fairly damning from a repeal point-of-view. As to exactly what the cost would be - £35 million in both 2013-14 and 2014-15 (as Office of Budgetary Responsibility's budget tax measures database suggests) or £105 million over both years (as some commentators have suggested) - I'm unsure. Smith did say "The value of removing the escalator would be £35 million for 2013-14 and £70 million after that". £70 million in total or £70 million in 2014-15? I've tweeted both Smith and the Treasury for clarification.

One thing is for certain. Duty revenue from wine is on track to overtake beer duty revenue sometime soon. The escalator isn't just beery - and beer's contribution is becoming less important. The spirit industry is lobbying hard to keep their contribution down, so I'd be very afraid if I were a cider producer. Something's got to give. I'll bet it won't be the alcohol revenue that attracts a greater export value.


Towards a new beer vocabulary?

I want to think of a beery phrase that annoys you or makes you feel annoyed when others can't understand it in the way you do.

Then read the extract by Edward de Bono below.

Then tell me: do we need new words to describe brewing and beer? Do we need new thinking? Do we need both?  Or neither?


"Language is an encyclopaedia of ignorance.

...once perceptions and concepts are frozen into the permenence of language, they control and limit our thinking on any subject because we are forced to use these concepts.

Should we try to develop new concepts, others would not understand us (after accusing us of jargon) and would, in any case, interpret the new words in terms of existing ones.

... we need a lot of new words to allow us to say afresh things which are now said with concepts that are inadequate or carry a heavy negative baggage.

In order to make progress there are a lot of basic concepts that we may need to re-conceptulise".

- From I Am Right, You Are Wrong, 1991


EuroBeery 2012: The Final, Italy v England

As I sit down to write tonight, Spain are in the process of teaching the rest of Europe just how football should be played. Periods of stultifying possession enlivened with slivers of shimmering brilliance. England didn't make it, of course, succumbing to their classic footballing fault in a quarter final. No, not missing the penalties. Being unable to engineer a goal to actually win the damn match in normal time.

Anyoldhow. Italy. Italy have always excited me. Rossi and Zoff, Tardelli and Baggio. Pirlo. Buffon. Totti. There's graft and flair punctuated by occasional brilliance and brutality. They're what I'd love a not-shit version of England to be.

And the beers? Yeah, they excite me too. The unstinting excellence of Birrificio Italiano's Tipopils. The leftfield creativity of Toccalmatto. The knowing arrogance of Baladin. And yet...

England can stand toe to toe with these brewers. We can exemplify and subvert style in equal measure. We can craft with complexity and confidence. We can produce tasty beer in volume.

And for all the barrel-ageing, craft keg, high ABV, uber-hopped, bleeding-edge beers that England brews, we do something that no other country can touch.

We can brew a beer of balance and finesse and put it into the hands of a landlord who cares for it and nurtures it. We have trust in a relationship that, at its best, produces a beer that nothing else in the world can beat.

We have a pint of cask beer, in a pub.

It doesn't really matter which beer in which pub. You'll have your favourite combination. But that experience, the confluence of great beer and place, that moment when you take the first sip of a cask pint...

Nobody does it better. Nobody.

The Italians have a word: chiaroscuro. The contrast that gives volume and depth to its subject. The light and the dark. The shadow and the relief. In that interplay, England are both the old masters and young pretenders.

Result: Italy 0 England 1.

English beer? Bloody hell ;-)


EuroBeery 2012: Semi Final 2, Germany v England

Semi Final 2: Germany v England

Back in 2008 I spent a day on the Great Central Railway. As part of a D-Day re-enactment event, some stations were under the command of the Germans, other by the Allies. The German stations offered ice cold bottles of lager. One of the Allied stations had a beer tent. I spent more time in the beer tent, mainly because I had an uneasy feeling about drinking with men who liked to relax at the weekends by dressing in knee-high leather boots and Nazi regalia.

Is there a fair comparison to be made between German and English beer? When the Germans get it right, they excel: think kölsch, doppelbock, kellerbier. It almost doesn't matter who's you choose; control and dedication and Schweinsteiger levels of devotion see Germany take some styles to a sublime level of efficiency. No-one in the world can get close to the likes of Ayinger Celebrator or Spezial Ungespundet.

Then again, the English don't need to. They can take a fermentation method and storage/dispense type - top, cask - and use it as a palette limited only by the brewers' imaginations. The broad brush of bitter. The shading and shadow of porter. The accent and highlight of IPA. The occasional flashes of brilliant colour in styles that vie to defy definition - white stout, red pales. No-one in the world can get close to the likes of cask Adnams bitter or bottled Imperial Brown Stout by The Kernel.

So are we left with the unstoppable force of English innovation and tradition meeting the immovable object of German efficiency and Reinheitsgebot? Not quite.

I can't think of a single instance of an English style brewed by the Germans that is world class. But a German style brewed by the English... yes. Thornbridge Tzara. Fermented like an ale, matured like a lager, kölsch-ish with a definite English accent. As delicate and assertive as a Danny Welbeck backheel.

Some drinkers are on the pitch. They think it's all over.

They have another pint of Tzara.

It is now.

Result: England 4 Germany 2