A foodie beer blog about the best things in life: Craft Beer, Real Ale, Food and all things tasty.

Written by a foodie-beer geek in London

How much does packaging affect our drinking experience of beer?

I’m a sucker for attractive packaging and interesting design, even if I sometimes feel like I look at things a little too objectively, rather than simply letting the form wash over me and have its intended effect. I’m very much a constructive criticiser rather than passive appreciator.

I look at a corked and caged bottle of imperial stout and recognise it as something more than a bottle of beer, it’s a representation of how much care has been put into the product by the brewer, a big flashing neon sign that says “we think this beer is special”.

But is that the desired effect? Or does the brewer simply want to change the way the customer drinks the beer, or perhaps I’m being cynical here, simply get a bigger mark up on their beer?

At the other end of the spectrum, another way to increase your profits is to produce a beer which has the appearance of something which you can passively drink without too much thought, a beer which is for everyday drinking - ‘fridge beers’ as I call ‘em. Without changing the flavour of a beer some breweries will try to change our overall perception of it through packaging, with the desired end-goal of encouraging us to drink more of it.

The most obvious way this is done is through the use of cans in craft beer. It just screams “drink me now, drink me cold”. There’s just something about a stubby little 330ml can that encourages you to drink the beer immediately rather than save it, simply sup it and then crack open another – no bottle caps, no mess, no fuss. Hell, drink it straight from the can if you like.

It was the can of Flying Dog’s Snake Dog IPA sat in my fridge that got me thinking about this. Even at a not-exactly-session-strength 7.1% it strikes me as an everyday drinking beer because of the packaging – a lawnmower beer the Americans call ‘em – something which is there to be drank and enjoyed rather than savoured and obsessed over.

But it isn’t just the switch from bottles to cans that has this effect. There’s something about the stout, no-fuss shape of the American Red-Hook bottles that implies they aren’t ‘fancy’ beers (Camden’s 660ml bottles have a similar aesthetic). The shape and branding implies that these are beers brewed to be drank and enjoyed, but there’s no need to make notes.

It’s an impression that carries over to my experience of the beers themselves, but is that a residual feeling left over from my perception of the packaging, or has the bottle design been chosen to suit the no-fuss, drinkable style of the beers?

How much can we really separate the impression given by the packaging, branding, history, from the flavour of the beer itself? Isn’t it all one experience, no matter how objective we try to be?

On the flipside, look at the shape of Meantime’s bottles. Slender necked, elegant, very un-beer-like in many ways, they shout at you to pour the beer into a stemmed glass and take your time. In fact they are even cleverer than that, with that long neck and fat bottom making it awkward to drink the beer direct from the bottle - something which would not suit the brand at all.

And, lone behold, my honest impression of Meantime beers is that of subtle refinement. Not shouty, not always exciting you could argue, but always good quality, with a sense of class that other breweries don’t often achieve.

The interesting question for me is how much do you notice packaging in beer? Not just the obvious gift-boxing of expensive beers, but the subtlety of shape, form and branding of the bottles.

Because if you don’t notice it, then it may be having even more of an effect on you than you’d think.

 

Rediscovering the classic beers that helped define a style

I found Rob’s review of Fuller’s ESB over on Hopzine really interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, Rob is a man who really knows his beers, but ESB seemed to have him flummoxed – how could that be the case? I mean, it’s a beer you can buy in most supermarkets and a hundred different Fullers pubs around London, and a beer which many people around the UK know extremely well.

I think one reason is that in the pursuit of the next best thing us beer lovers (and I wholeheartedly include myself in that) are sometimes guilty of forgetting ‘the classics’ - beers that have a mighty reputation but which we bypass in the search for something new. This is particularly true of World-famous British beers from the likes of Fullers, which the Americans go crazy over yet many British beer lovers pass by as old-hat.

But it’s not just classic British beers we’re guilty of ignoring, it’s anything we’ve become too familiar with. A perfect example of which is Duvel, the Belgian Golden Ale by which all others are judged and a beer with much more complexity than many beer geeks give it credit for. Try it cool, but not fridge-cold, and you’ll be rewarded by heaps of fruity, almost pear-drop-like fruit esters, a creamy malt smoothness and a spicy, yeasty aroma you never new were there.

It really is a clever little beer, beautifully clean and drinkable for its abv with a subtlety and class so many beers are lacking.

Another example of a style defining beer is Schneider Weisse Tap 7, which whilst it isn’t the earliest weisse bier, it is undoubtably the beer and brewery that kept the style alive when other brewers were abandoning it (middle of the 19th Century) in favour of more ‘modern’ bottom fermenting lagers.

Even putting the history aside, Schneider Weisse is, for me, the German style wheat beer against which all others are compared - and a stone cold classic that I return to again and again.

But these are much more than beers which have simply stood the test of time. What most people don’t realise is that beers such as this, particularly ESB, define the beer style category* they now sit within. Which in a world of beer as diverse as we live in now, is really something quite special.

I think as a beer lover it’s important to check back in on these classic beers, as often you might have forgotten how good they really are - or at the very least be surprised by what you find.

 



*Somewhat ironically Fuller’s ESB doesn’t meet the style guidelines of English Extra Special Bitter according to the Great American Beer Festival, but that’s a whole other blog post in itself.

Image credit: http://brouge.co.uk/drinks-2/

 

What’s more important to you as a beer drinker: Complexity or drinkability?

Complexity can be a truly wonderful thing in beer, but what if that depth of flavour comes at the expense of drinkability? Is it more important to get layers of flavour to explore, in what turns out to be a bit of a slog, or to find instant gratification in a more shallowly enjoyable package?

I suspect the answer is invariably ‘both have their place’ and it is certainly apparent in a couple of beers I tried recently by the excellent Hawkshead brewery.

First up is the fruity, floral and fantastically drinkable Hawkshead ‘IPA’. With big, sweet and hoppy aromas of tangerine and grapefruit peel to the fore, it’s bang on the money for the modern American style it is squarely aimed at.

The flavour is led by sweet orange, tangerine and more of that puckering grapefruit. There is just a smidge of that slightly dusty straw character you get in hoppy beers on occasion (I'm almost certain it's cascade that's the culprit), but it doesn't get in the way too much as the finish swoops in with Campari like bitterness, under-ripe mango and a final dry, floral bitterness.

That said, this is a hoppy but not overly bitter beer where the sweet underbelly lets the top notes of the hops sing but saves your tongue from any burn. Very cleverly done, it sits in the ‘juicy’ rather than ‘punishing’ American IPA category and is all the more drinkable for it.

On the flipside, Brodies Prime Export is a very, very different beast. A steroid fuelled bruiser of a beer that shares few traits with its little brother and namesake – but has an undeniable complexity of flavour that I’m sure many will find intriguing.

The aroma is all dark brown sugar and sour cherry, and the flavour is initially filled with caramelised brown sugar but then an intense, almost malt-syrup like richness kicks in. Alongside that malt-attack there is an intense, almost acrid coffee edge that reminds me of the Turkish coffee you can stand a spoon up in.

Others will no-doubt find layers to this beer's intensity that they can enjoy picking away at over a long, contemplative sipping session – but truth be told I found it a bit of a slog.

Complexity at the expense of enjoyment. Is it always worth it?

 

 

Sushi-no-Mai aka Japanese Grandpa’s Sushi Takeaway Shop, Watford Market

There's nothing better than finding a hidden gem is there?

Hidden inside the slightly downtrodden Watford Market is one of the best little sushi places I've ever eaten at. Sparklingly fresh seafood, expertly prepared and served at knockout prices - there's a lot to like about Sushi-no-mai.

The sushi is prepared by Chef M Shimo, a previous employee of Harrod's lavish sushi bar, who decided to set up on his own. He's a classically trained sushi chef, with qualifications recognised by Sanchokai the Japan Sushi Association, meaning there's a genuine authenticity that shines through in the food.

The quality of the fish is fantastic and some of the dishes are serious bargains, particularly the Edomae Set, which includes six tuna rolls, two salmon nigiri, two tuna nigiri, one sea bream nigiri, one eel nigiri, one cooked prawn nigiri and one cod roe roll, served with pickled ginger, wasabi, and a beautifully dressed side salad. All for a truly astounding £8.

Everything was excellent on the Edomae set, but the sea bream nigiri and cod roe roll were particularly memorable, with the bright orange cod eggs (essentially caviar) providing little bursts of salty flavour that makes the roll extremely moreish.

A plate of tuna sashimi was simplicity itself, with the beautifully tender, expertly sliced tuna having that icy cleaness and mild flavour of cold clean water that is the mark of really fresh fish. Delicious, and another bargain at £6 for eight chunky pieces.

The tempura don was a light and greaseless collection of deep fried prawns, white fish, salmon and various bits of veg served on a bed of sesame seed topped sushi rice. It would make a satisfying main meal in itself but at £5 is worth ordering as a crispy counterpoint to a sushi main.

I also spied the table next to me ordering the teriyaki pork, which looked excellent. All sticky sweet pork and salty sauce, which I'll definitely be ordering on my next visit.

We washed everything down with some refreshing green tea, a perfectly mild accompaniment to the delicate flavours of the sushi.

I left absolutely stuffed and completely blown away.

 

A beginner's guide to ageing beer

As can be seen by my last post on Fuller's Vintage Ale 2000, ageing a beer can provide wonderful results. But it's important to remember that ageing, cellaring, or whatever you want to call the prolonged storage of a beer before drinking it, is to a certain extent something of a gamble.

There are so many factors which affect how a beer will turn out that there is always going to be an element of risk involved. That said there are a few key things you should think about when selecting and storing a beer for an extended amount of time.

Strength / ABV

Stronger, higher abv beers will always age better than lighter, lower abv beers as the alcohol protects and preserves the liquid over its long maturation, creating pleasing complexity yet keeping out the nasties which can cause unwanted staleness or sourness.

Beer style

Hop flavour and aroma will diminish massively over time so select beers with plenty of malt character to develop and mature over time. Anything pale and hoppy is best drunk fresh, although some imperial IPA's such as Dogfish Head's 90 minute IPA have enough backbone to be worth a go.

There are a number of classic British styles which are suitable for ageing, such as Imperial Stouts, Barley Wines and Old Ales, but Belgian ales such as dubbels, tripels and even some lambics or wild ales will also mature beautifully.

Its also worth noting that lambics are the one exception to the high abv rule, typically being in the 4-6% region they will often age very well as the wild yeasts round off the sharp edges of the beer.

Some belgian beers, such as the Belgian Orval, contain brettanomyces (aka Brett), which is a strain of yeast which will dramatically change the flavour of a beer during ageing. Often associated with a 'barnyard' or 'horseblanket' character it is a flavour which people will either love or hate - or as in my case, learn to love over time.

Though associated with them now, brett isn't unique to Belgian beers and was actually first isolated from British stock ales and porters - hence the name, which is Greek for 'British Fungus'.

Storage

Unlike wines, beers should always be cellared upright, even if they have a cork closure. This is something of a point of contention but taking into account the positive and negatives on both sides, i.e. cork drying out vs contact with it affecting the flavour of the beer, I think it is much safer to store the beer upright.

It also has the added benefit of meaning the yeast and sediment will settle and often stick as a ring at the bottom of the bottle, meaning you can pour the beer into glasses without chucking loads of gunk in.

Finally, and this is really important, keep your beer in the dark. Light is not your friend when it comes to ageing beer so whilst a shelf in the cupboard is fine, a shelf near a window is not!

Temperature

It’s also important to keep your beer at a stable, cool temperature, around 10*C is best. But you don’t necessarily need a cellar to do this, a cool cupboard under the stairs, a pantry or even a cupboard in your spare room (radiator off whenever possible) will do just fine.

Temperature is the hardest one to control but as long as you avoid wild fluctuations and keep the beer somewhere relatively cool, you'll generally be fine.

 

I'd love to hear your successes and failures in ageing beer, so feel free to comment below.

 

A decade and a half in the bottle: Fuller's Vintage Ale, 2000

Something truly magical happens to Fuller’s Vintage Ales over time. A long, slow maturation darkens the colour and deepens the flavour of the beer, replacing the fresh, bright orange scented bitterness of a newly bottled ale with the sweet, complex, darkly fruity flavours of an aged one.

The beer goes into the bottle as one thing and emerges after its lengthy hibernation as something completely different – in a fascinating act of alchemy.

Pouring a deep, dark, garnet red this Fuller’s Vintage Ale 2000 has a surprisingly tight head of off-white foam and a slick, oily body which laces the sides of the glass. Beautiful looking for a beer of any age, but at 14 years in the bottle presentation like this is hugely impressive.

A powerful aroma of sweet port, golden rum soaked raisins, and fresh cut oak kicks things off well, with some sweet hot booze jumping out of the glass upon first pouring, but taking a back seat as the beer relaxes.

Cellaring a bottle of beer for this length of time has its risks, most notably oxidation (which presents itself as a stale, musty, wet cardboard flavour or aroma), but the ale showed no negative signs of age and was surprisingly vibrant - with no ‘mustiness’ in the aroma at all.

The flavour is a combination of sweet port, stewed red fruits, oak tannins, a hint of cherry and faintly spicy black pepper dryness in the finish. Amazingly complex yet surprisingly spritely for its years this is one of the best aged beers I’ve ever tasted.

A pleasure to drink from start to finish, the 2000 is a vintage I’ll certainly be looking to pick up more of in the future.

Oh and if you've got one in the cupboard, then drink it now, it's perfect!

 

New Sixpoint brewery cans to be sold exclusively in Wetherspoon’s from next month

Wetherspoon’s really seem to be upping their game in terms of their beer offer, with lots of exciting stuff going on, including their excellent American cask beer collaborations and widening of their bottled beer range to include some more craft brands such as Goose Island and Brooklyn Lager.


I ‘ve tried quite a few of the American cask beers and on the whole been very impressed - the version of Stone’s Sublimely Self Righteous Black IPA and then Jack D’or Saison being particular highlights.

The latest announcement is that the truly excellent Sixpoint brewery from Brooklyn, New York are going to be exclusively supplying Wetherspoons pubs with three canned beers: ‘The Crisp’, which is a pilsner, ‘Sweet Action’, which is a sort of cream ale, and ‘Bengal Tiger’, which is an American IPA. They’ll available in all 900 JD Wetherspoon pubs from next month.

The cans are diddy little 355ml ones which have been produced exclusively for Wetherspoon's – if you buy these beers in the US they come in larger 16oz cans – which I imagine is a combination of the beers’ strength (Bengali Tiger is 6.7%) and the fact the larger cans would demand a price out of line with what people expect in a Wetherspoons.

It seems like a sensible move, and the little cans look really cool to boot.

I’ve tried all three of the beers before over in New York, and trust me, you’ll want to try them too.

You can read what I thought of Bengali Tiger and Sweet Action here (I didn’t bring a can of The Crisp back for review due to lack of space in suitcase). Spoiler Alert: contains gushing.

These beers have never been available in the UK before to my knowledge – not even through specialist online retailers – so this really is quite a coup for Wetherspoons.

 

Roasted Duck legs and new potatoes with redcurrant wine sauce, paired with Cantillion Kriek Lambic

At the heart of this dish is the simple yet satisfying combination of slow roast duck legs and duck fat new potatoes. But what makes this recipe so great is that it requires next to no preparation time and all the peeling, par-boiling, trimming and other malarkey that can sometimes go with a dish like this is avoided altogether.


All the flavour, none of the fuss - my kind of recipe.

If you really want to keep things super-easy you can eat the roasted new potatoes and duck legs as they are with a crisp green salad – or alternatively whip up a quick redcurrent and wine sauce as I have done here and serve with some buttered cavalo nero. Delicious.

Ingredients

  • 1 large duck leg per person (or more if they’re a bit skinny)
  • Five spice powder
  • Salt and black pepper
  • New potatoes, whole unpeeled
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed
  • 2 Tablespoons redcurrant jelly
  • Large glass of red wine
  • Teaspoon balsamic vinegar
  • Butter
  • 1 tsp fresh thyme
  • Cavalo Nero (or kale) thick/woody stalks removed
Method

Start by throwing your new potatoes into a high sided baking tray or lasagne dish with just a tiny drizzle of olive oil (the duck will provide more than enough fat to keep them from sticking) and plenty of salt and fresh black pepper. Next season your duck legs with a little five spice powder, salt and pepper, then place on a wire rack above the potatoes. Alternatively use some metal bbq skewers as I did. Don’t worry if the duck touches the potatoes a little.

Place the potatoes and duck into a preheated oven at 220*C and blast for 15 minutes, before reducing the heat to 180 and cooking for a further one to one and a half hours – or until the duck is crisp and the potatoes lightly golden.

Once you’re happy with the duck remove to a plate to rest and drain most of the fat out of the baking dish and into a frying pan. Then place the potatoes back in oven at a low heat (100*C is fine) to keep warm while you make your sauce.

Fry the chopped onion in the duck fat until soft then add the garlic and thyme, cook for another minute or so, then deglaze the pan with the wine. Once reduced slightly add the redcurrant jelly, thyme and balsamic and cook until dissolved, bubbling and thickened. Season to taste and finish with a large knob of butter to give a nice shine to the finished sauce.

I usually put the cavalo nero on to steam while I make the sauce (roughly 5 minutes), but if it’s your first time making it then feel free to make the sauce first and keep warm before you put the cabbage on to cook.

Simply arrange on a plate and spoon the sticky sweet sauce over the side of your duck, being careful not to fully smother the skin as this will undo all the hardwork you’ve dojne getting it delicious and crispy!

Beer match

I paired this with a ferociously tart Cantillion Kriek which was fantastic at cutting through the richness and sweetness in the dish, but many might find it a bit too overpowering. If you’re looking for something a bit more approachable to match with this dish then a bottle of Liefmans Kriek (available in many supermarkets) would work very well, or alternatively a Flemish sour brown ale such as Rodenbach or Duchesse de Bourgogne – which would certainly bring out the sweet and sour character of the balsamic, redcurrant and red wine sauce.

 

 

New Year’s resolution: Let's stop with the beer vs wine bulls**t

As is pretty clear from my writing, beer is far and away my favourite drink and I am a huge believer in beer and food matching, but even I'm getting a little sick of the ‘beer vs wine’ attitude that is still out there amongst advocates on both sides of this imaginary battle line.

We’re past the point where beer isn’t getting a look in when pairing with food, with even the most high profile wine writers bowing to the merits of a well made brew alongside certain dishes. Sure there’s still a way to go and there are far, far too many quality restaurants out there with woefully lacking beer lists (or no list at all), but things are improving and it’s important we celebrate the triumphs alongside calling for change.

However while we’re vying for menu space for beer it’s important to remember that it isn’t about whether beer is a better match for food over wine, it’s about what drink is the perfect accompaniment to a particular dish. It's hard to argue there could be a more perfect partner to strong, funky blue cheese than a glass of Fuller’s Vintage Ale, or a smokey porter alongside some intensely flavoured barbecue brisket – but equally is there a beer that could rival the almost green olive like dryness of a fino sherry with a plate of Iberico ham? Or the almost symbiotic relationship between a big, full bodied Malbec and a charred ribeye steak?

There are so many amazing flavour combinations out there to enjoy when pairing beer with food that those wine writers, critics, and drinkers who haven’t yet discovered quality beer are beginning to be the minority, but can the same be said for beer drinkers? Are we getting a little blinkered in our obsession?

2014 is the year that I’d like to step back, take it all in, and say “can’t we all just get along?”

 

 

After thoughts... It's hard to believe this is my first post since the 11th of December. That's almost a month, which is pretty poor form by anybody's standards. The combination of a busy December at work and then a somewhat hectic Christmas and New Year - incorporating St Albans, London, East Yorkshire and Liverpool - conspired to keep me from writing a thing. Even my unfinished Golden Pints never saw the light of day.

This post was in some ways inspired by this excellently succinct piece on matching pizza with beer and wine by Guardian writer Fiona Beckett: http://www.matchingfoodandwine.com/news/pairings/20070523/

 

Pork and pepper burrito paired with Oakham's Scarlet Macaw

Done right, burritos are a wonderful all-in-one meal. Tender, spicy meat, soft beans, well seasoned rice and enough chilli heat and lime zing to keep your tastebuds firing and help the flavour rise above the rich stodge. Sadly, so many Mexican restaurants fall into the trap of laziness and everything ends up tasting like chilli con carne either wrapped, fried, smothered in cheese, or all of the above.

This recipe Is certainly filling and has all the comfort food satisfaction you love about burritos but with a fresh chilli kick, lime rice and smokey sauce that all combine to give a wonderful balance of flavour - perfectly suited to pairing with the fantastic Scarlet Macaw from Oakham brewery.

 

Ingredients (feeds 4)

Burrito sauce

  • 1 finely chopped onion
  • 1 finely chopped green chilli
  • 1 crushed clove garlic
  • 1 tin chopped tomatoes
  • Teaspoon cumin seeds
  • Tablespoon tomato purée
  • Tablespoon wahaca hot chile de arbol sauce
  • Teaspoon sweet smoked paprika
Filling

  • 3-4 pork shoulder steaks, thinly sliced
  • Drained tin of white kidney beans (or other)
  • 4-5 peppers, sliced
  • 1 crushed clove garlic
  • 2 teaspoons chilli flakes
  • 2 sliced ripe avocados
  • 100-150g grated mature cheddar cheese
  • 200g basmati rice
  • Bunch fresh coriander
  • 1 fresh lime
  • Plus 4 very large soft tortillas
Method

Start by cooking your rice for about 2 minutes less than the packet instructions say, in plenty of well salted water. Drain and set aside to cool.

Next make your sauce by frying the onion and chopped fresh chilli with a good crack of salt and olive oil. Cover with a lid and sweat on a low heat until very soft and light golden. Add a little pinch of sugar near the end to help them caramelise a little. Next add the crushed garlic, cumin seeds, tomato purée and a good twist of black pepper, cook for another minute or so then add in the tinned tomatoes and wahaca sauce (if you can't get this then add 1 tsp of chipotle paste, one tsp chilli powder, 1 teaspoon ground cumin - but really, it's a hero ingredient and well worth seeking out) plus an extra half tin full of water. Let this bubble away then blend to a smooth sauce.

While your sauce bubbles away brown your pork on a high heat in plenty of olive oil along with the chilli flakes and salt and pepper. Once well browned add in your peppers and crushed garlic and toss until softened and a little charred.

Next deglaze the pan with a glug of water and scrape all the bits from the bottom, then add in 3/4 of your burrito sauce and the tin of drained beans. Stir until well combined.

Next the fun (and messy) bit! First add a handful of chopped coriander, fresh black pepper and the juice of half a lime into the rice, stir then spoon onto the four tortillas. Next top with a handful of grated cheese and a big spoonful of the filling mix before a final topping of sliced avocado. Wrap up the burritos and place (tightly packed ideally) into a greased baking dish before topping with the remaining burrito sauce and a final scattering of cheese. Bake on a high heat for 15-20 minutes until the cheese is melted and golden.

Not a simple recipe, but one I can guarantee you will want to make again. It even reheats brilliantly, so prepare to fend off jealous work colleagues loitering around the microwave.

Serve with a simple crisp salad and a large glass of the wonderful Scarlet Macaw.

 

The beer!

This Oakham beer is just a knockout combination with the burritos. Sweet and soggy hops sacks smack you round the head whilst perfectly judged caramel soothes the lupulin burn on your tongue.

Just when you think it's all over the hops make one last appearance, drying your mouth and leaving citrus peel zest tingling as you contemplate the next sip. Mango, apricot skin, and gooseberry vie for attention in this beautifully balanced beer.

With the burritos it just works, with the spice of the burritos bringing out the sweetness in the beer and the hops dovetailing nicely with the zesty lime of the rice.

Give this one a go guys!