Fraoch comes of age

Wednesday, February 22, 2012
When I first tasted Fraoch from Williams Bros I was surprised by the honey sweetness, the alien flavours of herbal heather and distinct lack of hop character. It was well out of my normal preferred flavour range, and yet I liked it. Then I drank it with some amazing food at Thai Aroy Dee and it made sense, the sweetness worked so well to quell the heat and the herbal heather came out a treat.

Still, it always felt a little one dimensional to me. Very good, interesting, but not thrilling.

Well Fraoch 22 is a very different Beast. An 11% version that's been aged for a year in ex-sherry casks previously used to mature Auchentoshan single malt. It's a proper, grown up, multi dimensioned brew that I feel very lucky to have sampled.

It has to be said that my last experience of a Whisky Aged beer was BrewDog's Bitch Please, which I found to be a pretty much undrinkable mess of TCP and harsh wood resin (although the Rum aged Bitch Please was bloody beautiful, why didn't they bottle it!?) - so I was a little apprehensive going into this beer if I'm honest.

I needn't have worried.

It pours a light golden orange with very low carbonation and a head that disappears quickly, although that's nothing to worry about for a beer of this sort really.

The aroma is a very light whiff of Whisky phenols, plus plenty of honey and alcohol.

The flavour is initially sweet honey then there's a smack of whisky and a fully woody malt flavour which appears after. It's all very balanced and restrained though, the flavours merge really well and even for 11% it's extremely drinkable with a light, slightly oily texture.

The big sweetness of Fraoch has been rounded off by the ageing, but not overpowered. It's great, and a perfect beer to buy and age for a few years.

My only regret is that I haven't tasted enough Whisky to appreciate the specific type of barrel ageing, and the flavour profiles and subtleties of the Whisky used.

I was very kindly sent an unlabelled sample bottle, but you can buy the awesome looking big bottles here:

It's the first of their 'Vintage Cask Collaborations'.

Trusted pints and snap decisions

Monday, February 20, 2012
Usually when I'm ordering a drink in a half decent pub I'll take a few minutes deciding what to have, asking what the barman recommends, looking at the different beers on offer. I'll even go to the pub in order to try a specific beer I know they've got on if it's worth the trip.

Other times, and this seems to happen less and less nowadays, I'll simply pop into the pub on my way home from work and order a quick pint of whatever catches my eye.

Tonight was one of those nights. Pretty busy pub, slightly understaffed, and by some sort of miracle I get served almost straight away. Now this is not a time to start messing around asking for samples, pissing off the guy at the bar next to you and generally being a beer geek. 5 seconds. What can I get you mate?

This is where the trusted pints list comes in. We’ve all got the list. That mental bank of beers that can be trusted. The likes of Landlord and London Pride are on there, of course, but also a handful, and I’m talking a very select group, of breweries also make the cut. Guys that seem to never swing and miss, and can be trusted to deliver a great pint, time, after time, after time.

One such brewery are Moor. I’m yet to try a beer of there’s I didn’t enjoy, fined or otherwise, and as soon as I spotted that distinctive pumpclip on the bar it was an easy choice. I was expecting a hoppy pale ale if I’m honest (I didn’t recognize the beer, turns out it was Amoor) but what I received was a lush, richly smooth, bitter coffee flavoured porter with a little berry fruitiness and nice dry finish that completely and utterly hit the spot. It was excellent.

Having a bank of trusted pints is great, but trusted breweries? They’re a Godsend.

Pan fried Rainbow Trout and crispy Prosciutto salad

Friday, February 17, 2012
Winter feels like it's gone on forever, and whilst I like meat, spuds and gravy as much as the next hot blooded Northerner, it can become a little boring after a few months...

As such I decided to get some fresh fish and make a warm salad for dinner, something light and crisp, yet filling, with some carbs hiding in there somewhere to fill the gaps.

This dish ended up as a riff on the Niçoise I made previously, but with a huge fillet of crispy skinned Rainbow Trout and crisped Proscuitto in the place of the anchovies.

I won't repeat the directions I went in to some detail on here, but basically, blanch your spuds and green beans then refresh in ice water, boil your eggs for 6 minutes and leave to cool.

Then here's the twist; get a large pan and heat a little olive oil, then flash fry some super thin slices of prosciutto until they crisp up (it'll take no time at all) and remove on to kitchen paper to drain. In the same pan fry your fish skin-side down in the hammy flavoured oil for about 4 mins or until crispy. Turn over and cook for another minute.

Serve the salad with the fish on top (this is why you need a chunky lettuce like Cos which can handle a little warmth without whimping out) and a spritzy, acidic dressing that'll cut through the richness of the fish.

I had this with a classic Yorkshire blonde. Golden Pippin from Copper Dragon brewery. It's a quaffable, lemony, slightly sweet ale which works great with the snappy dressing but doesn't overpower the delicate flavour of the fish. It's an easy going, lazy kind of match but it works a treat.

If you fancy going for something a little more challenging beer match-wise then... I'd be interested to see what the Schlenkerla Helles would be like with this. It's not a smoked beer, but because it's brewed on the same setup as the other smoked Schlenkerla beers it's got a faint hint of smoke lingering in the background which would be great with the bacon, but not too full flavoured as to bulldozer that fish.

I think it'd be great, I'll let you know if I try it.

Soy Sauce & Smoked Sausage: Do our preconceptions of a beer get in the way of the experience?

Friday, February 10, 2012
I was having a few swift halves in North Bar the other day whilst waiting for Colette to finish work. When she arrived and sat down next to me she instantly said “You smell like a German Sausage”, which sounds like a pretty rude (and a little bit crude) thing to say until you know what I was drinking; a Schenkerla smoked Marzen beer.

It’s a beer I love, and one which admittedly does have a huge savoury smoke aroma which lingers like crazy on your breath. Essentially, it tastes great but it makes you stink.

But what was interesting was that I always thought this beer tasted of Bacon, but it doesn’t. Colette is totally right (I imagine that statement will be printed out and stuck on the fridge before long) because it doesn’t taste of Bacon at all, it tastes and smells of smoked sausage.

The thing is, I remember reading about the beer on Tom’s blog, and then later about Mikkeller’s Beer Geek Bacon which also used Rauch Malt, and thinking “I wonder if it really does taste like Bacon?”. So when I first tasted the Schlenkerla I already had the notion in my head, and the savoury smokiness was enough for me to go “It does taste like Bacon!”.

My point is that my preconceptions of the beer led me off on a bit of a tangent, and sometimes it seems impossible to push past what I think something will smell or taste like, to get at what it actually is like.

Another great example of Colette’s superior nose, or perhaps why it’s good to get a non-beer-geeks opinion for perspective, was her judgement of Black Tokyo* Horizon, i.e. “It smells like Soy Sauce”. I don’t think I would have ever spotted that lingering savouriness behind all that sweet malt if she hadn’t pointed it out. But seriously, try for yourself and smell it again.

Soy Sauce.

It’s there if you look for it.

p.s. Ghostie wrote an excellent post on a similar subject recently, but he talked more about whether spending £25 on a bottle of beer tricks your brain into thinking the beer is amazing. It’s well worth a read.

Are "What's Brewing" and "BEER" aimed at different drinkers?

Monday, February 06, 2012
There was a bit of a Twitter debate going on last week between Gavin Frost and Tom Stainer (Editor of Camra's BEER magazine) which myself, Steve Lamond, and Mike Hills jumped in on. There were a lot of Tweets flying around and quite frankly it's a pain to reproduce them all, but the gist was that What's Brewing can come across a bit militant/political and old fashioned when compared with the relatively modern, forward thinking BEER magazine.

It's a stylistic void I've noticed myself, and I must admit I've got to the point where I have a quick flick through What's Brewing before devouring BEER magazine. It also seems like BEER magazine has a slightly more tolerant view of beers which aren't Cask conditioned, with a feature by the ever reliable Mr Avery on the Italian Beer scene being a piece that sticks in my memory as an example of modernity in the mag, and a light hand when it comes to dispense (Cask beer was the focus but some keg did feature). It was an example of everything that's great about BEER magazine.

And it is a great mag. Reliably interesting, far reaching, well written and with plenty of different voices, it's a great read and to be honest, one of the main reasons I'm still a CAMRA member.

I wanted to blog about whether there is a conscious editorial effort to appeal to different people, but it felt a bit unfair not to get Camra's side of the story. So here it is.

I emailed Tom Stainer and asked him a few questions on the above, and he kindly got back to me pretty much immediately and has agreed to his comments being reproduced.

Q & A with Tom Stainer, Editor, BEER

Q. Does "BEER" mag have a different target audience to "What's Brewing"?

Yes and no. I'd be surprised and a little disappointed if someone found nothing of interest for them in both publications.

However, with so many members we clearly have some people who joined for slightly different reasons and have different levels of activity within the Campaign.

There are two sides to CAMRA - the campaigning side and the enjoyment and social side of beer and pubs. WB and BEER quite nicely mirror that divide. If you want news about what CAMRA is doing at a national and branch level plus a digest of what's going on in the pub and brewery industry, WB is the place to turn. If you're interested in a more relaxed read about the people who make real ale, the places that serve it and the people who drink it, without perhaps too much "in your face" campaigning BEER is the publication to pick up.

I'd hope members use both WB and BEER in different ways depending on their need at the time, rather than seeing one title as "for them" and viewing the other as being of no interest.

Q. How does "BEER" Magazine fit within CAMRA's overall strategy as an organisation?

As I said above, while much of CAMRA's activity is about hard campaigning, a lot of what we do is also about promoting the social aspect of pubs and the enjoyment of beer generally. BEER can present that aspect of what we do in a softer and more accessible way than What's Brewing - and with the space to give our writers the room to do what they do best.

Q. What are the key selling points for "BEER"?

Most importantly, some of the best beer writers and best upcoming beer writers in the country (plus the space for them to get into subject)! Also, great design, great photography, interesting and varied content.

Q. "Could you see "BEER" magazine featuring non cask beer, or 'Craft keg' in the future?"

Much as I hate quoting policy, the two bits below probably explains where there is a little flexibility in what we do and allows us - within reason - to have features on the beer scene in Ireland or Italy for example, or for Des to mention particular bottled beers.

3.4 CAMRA supports the production of real ale in a bottle. CAMRA, however, acknowledges
the need to protect certain bottled beers which are not bottle conditioned but are the last
survivors of certain beer styles or have sufficient merit in their own right.

7.1 CAMRA supports good, traditional beers from other countries, even if they do not comply with
CAMRA's definition of real ale.

In terms of the question, what we do is bound by CAMRA policy as proposed and voted on by the membership, if CAMRA policy changes, we'd obviously reflect that.

Q. What do you see in the future for "BEER"?

In an ideal world, we'd like to make BEER more frequent and bigger. Sadly the current harsh reality is advertising revenue continues to be hard to come by at the same time that printing and postage costs continually soar upwards. With the new website, we're hopeful we can expand both WB and BEER content online - running extra articles and expanded versions of printed articles.

In the last year we've also developed the e-versions of both WB and BEER - launching "flippable" versions which you can access online and on portable devices such as iPads and Android tablets.

p.s. Nick wrote about the mag here too.

Sour beers: Starting all over again

Sunday, February 05, 2012
I'm very much at the beginning of my beery education when it comes to Lambics and sour beers, I'm still getting to grips with the classic flavours I should be looking for, and even what makes one example better than another. In many ways it's refreshing (in more ways than one) as I don't have any preconceptions when tasting a sour beer, I can genuinely just drink it and think "ooh that's nice" or "hmm not so sure" without any preformed notions of what the correct response should be.

Finding a new experience in beer feels revelatory, like tasting my first super hoppy pale ale or intense imperial stout for the first time again. It feels like starting all over again, and started properly with my trip to Ghent in Belgium last year. I must admit that I learnt a lot from Melissa and a few other people when it comes to these mental sour bombs, and since then have been actively sniffing them out with increased fervour.

I've tried a few different Cantillon sours and loved them, but they are also some of the most well known and rightly famous sour beers available, so I want to talk about a different one today. A beer I first tried in North Bar under Matt's recommendation, but then stocked up on when I took a trip to Utobeer for some Racer 5. The beer is Lindemans Gueuze Cuvée René, and it rocks.

The aroma is, as is typical from these beers which use aged hops, very light. There's just a bit of lemon freshness and faint sourness, but ultimately it just smells really citrussy, juicy and refreshing. The flavour is bitter lemon, lemon pith, super fresh, cleansing, bright green apple, and sour without any sharpness. It's all fruity citrus sourness and there's no vinegar sourness at all. Dry and tart in the finish, it's approachable and not punishing.

In terms of a sour beer journey, it'd be a great place for anyone to start.

Is Bear Republic Racer 5 worth all this fuss?

Thursday, February 02, 2012
I've been looking forward to trying this beer. There was a frenzy of excitement on the beery twittersphere when word got round that some had landed this side of the pond, and you'd think from all the wet knickered beer geeks squelling about this beer that it's a messiah of a brew, a revelatory beer, nirvana for hop fiends. Well I can tell you now, it ain't.

What it is, is a really well made, tasty American IPA.

The colour is a bright clean gold, it looks good but the
bubbly head dissapears quickly and the bottle conditioned carbonation is a touch lifeless.

The aroma is... Actually a little disappointing? It smells good but I was expecting much more juicy hops. I think a big bottle might have faired better on its travels, although this is, as far as I know, relatively fresh.

The flavour fares much better.

It's initially sweet and slightly oily with a good whack of fresh and piney American hops, then a medium bitter finish with a nice layering of hop flavours: bitter orange, fresh yellow grapefruit, resinous pine, a touch of lemon and a slight rosemary herbyness in the aftertaste.

It actually gets better as it comes up from fridge temp and a decent pungent hop oil bitterness kicks in alongside a more citrusy hop flavour.

Is it better than most? Yes. Is it better than the best? I'm not so sure.

But it's pretty difficult to get over here, and longing certainly makes the heart grow fonder...

Now, when are they next shipping some over?

p.s. Interestingly on the side of the bottle it says "Real Ale is alive, Yeast is good", which made me laugh, then shake my head at my own depressing beer geekery.