Describing beer: A flicker in the dark

Tuesday, June 26, 2012
As somebody who drinks and reviews beers fairly regularly, I know that there are certain things which you can look for when you taste a beer - flavours which are easily identifiable and which can be pulled out to convey to the reader what the beer tastes like.

These are the building blocks of a review, the foundation of information, things such as which flavours of malt come through and how the hops come across, and when. But this isn't the whole story. There is so much more to some beers than you can simply describe in terms of flavour profile and style.

One of the reasons I always enjoy reading Zak's reviews is because not only does he have a certain poetic way with words but he also endeavours to give you a feel for the beer, to describe the image it conjures while you drink it, rather than simply what it tastes like.

I drank a beer recently which brought my thoughts of feel vs flavour into focus, Brewfist Burocracy IPA. On paper it's another 6% IPA, not super hopped or exotically flavoured, but with something much more to it than I could easily put my finger on. It had a certain something about it which I really enjoyed.

Here are the tasting notes I wrote down at the time, unedited.

The smell is juicy, fruity orange hops , and a bit of dry biscuit. Taste is Apricot. Tangerine. Orange pith. Pine resin. Dry and moreish in the finish. This is a very accomplished IPA. So drinkable. Clean, well crafted, balanced. Restrained isnt the word but it definitely has a deftness of touch. It dances across your palate.

Even though those final two lines give a hint of my impression of this beer, of how good I thought it was, looking back I don't think it tells the whole story.

Certain beers have something you can't quite put your finger on, something which you really enjoy but which is just out of sight, a combination of flavours which creates something unique yet indescribable, a flicker in the dark which disappears when you shine a light on it.

Those are the beers that I really enjoy.



Big Apple Bound

Friday, June 22, 2012
On August the 11th I'm going to New York for 5 days. For anybody even remotely interested in food or beer this is an exciting prospect.

I've never been To NYC before but Colette has, which is hugely helpful if you want to know where sells Louboutins, or which shop is run by a Kardashian (anybody who doesn't know what either of those things are, I envy you), but not much help if you want to know where the best craft beer is served.

I must admit though, it is going to be a big advantage having somebody with me who's pounded the streets before and negotiated the subway, which incidentally, looks bloody baffling compared to the Tube.

We're staying in the Meatpacking district thanks to a great deal on, but I expect to be travelling all over Manhattan and Brooklyn over the course of the trip.

I've already got a bit of a wish list of places, mostly bars, BBQ and burger joints, but if anybody has any suggestions then I'm all ears. Leave your recommendations below guys.


P.s. Thanks must already go to Matt from North Bar and Mark from Pencil and Spoon for their help, and/or blogposts on New York beer bars.



How many years until we never have to drink crap beer?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012
There are certain situations where I'm forced into drinking beer that I would never normally choose. Football matches, concerts, even weddings - situations where it's either crap beer or no beer.

Depending on the time of year and how I'm feeling I might opt for a Guinness, or whatever lager is my pick of the bunch (we all have our slight preferences, but essentially they're one and the same).

But I must admit I'm being put in this situation less and less these days. People expect a range of beers to be available beyond the usual suspects, and finally even the most unlikely pubs, bars and venues seem to be taking notice.

The amount of places with a half decent bottle selection is growing, so a fridge that might have a few bottles of American Craft such as Brooklyn Lager, Sierra Nevada or Goose Island, or British stuff like Worthingtons White Shield, is a pretty regular sight. Combine that with the fact decent real is available in more places than ever and you've got plenty of options open to you.

So as you may have guessed, my question is, how long until we never find ourselves in a position where we're forced to drink crap beer?

My guess is around 6 years.


This post was in part inspired by this article on the excellent American beer blog Beervana.



Slow roast BBQ brisket with Schlenkerla smoked Doppelbock

Sunday, June 17, 2012
I'm really starting to get in to proper American BBQ. Slow cooked, smokey, spicy and sweet with layers of flavour that blend and merge to become something greater than the sum of their parts.

The problem is though, the majority of authentic barbecue recipes are ridiculously complicated, take days to do, and call for huge pieces of meat and machinery.

But with a few hero ingredients, and a lot of time and patience, you can create some excellent deep south flavours at home.

Brisket is a tough cut of meat but it has bags of beefy flavour, and an open, rough grained texture which lends itself to long, slow and low cooking. Because of that big flavour it also holds up really well to powerful spicing and smoking.

This recipe takes a day or so including marinating time, but honestly couldn't be easier and requires very little active cooking - and once it's in the oven you can go to the pub for the afternoon and forget about it.


  • Rolled beef brisket (just tell the butcher how many people you need it to serve)
For the dry rub:

  • 1 Tsp cumin
  • 1 Tsp paprika
  • 1 Tsp sweet smoked paprika
  • 1 Tsp dried thyme
  • 1 Tsp salt
  • 1 Tsp brown sugar
  • 1 Tsp white pepper (black pepper also fine)
  • 1/2 Tsp chilli powder
For the BBQ sauce:

  • Olive oil
  • 1 Onion (finely chopped)
  • 1 Tin of chopped tomatoes
  • 1/2 Tin of water
  • 5 cloves garlic (crushed)
  • 2 Dried smoked Chipotle peppers
  • 70g dark brown sugar
  • 3 Tbsp cider vinegar
  • 2 Tbsp Worcester sauce
  • 1 Tbsp tomato purée
  • Salt & pepper

Dry rub:

  • Combine the dry rub ingredients in a large bowl, then place the brisket into the bowl and work the dry rub into the meat with your hands, ensuring all surfaces are well coated and rubbed in. Transfer to a zip seal freezer bag and place in the fridge to marinade over night (ideally between 24-36 hours).
Sauce and roasting:

  • Take the meat out of the fridge to come up to room temp as you prepare the sauce.
  • Rehydrate the chipotle peppers in about 100ml of boiling water (should take around 5 mins)
  • In a large oven proof casserole dish (I use a cast iron one) fry the onion on a low heat in a good glug of olive oil until just soft. Add the crushed garlic and fry for another minute.
  • Finely slice the rehydrated chipotle peppers, reserving the water, and then add both to the pan along with all the other ingredients apart from the brisket.
  • Bring the sauce to the boil and simmer for 5 minutes.
  • Place the brisket in the centre of the sauce, cover with a tight fitting lid and transfer to the centre of a pre-heated oven. Cook for 6 hours at 125*C. The meat is ready when you can push a fork through it.
  • When the meat is ready, remove from the oven, wrap in tin foil and leave to rest.
  • Reduce the BBQ sauce on the hob until thick and sticky. Adding a little honey if you want it sweeter, or seasoning if needed. If you have a hand blender then you can whizz the sauce at this point, but I quite like it a little bit rougher.
To serve

You should be able to pull the meat apart with two forks. Serve big hunks of brisket on good quality soft rolls (I got mine from the bakery in Dock Street Market) along with a big spoonful of the sweet, spicy, smokey BBQ sauce. Top with thin slices of pickle if liked.

The beer I had with this was a no holds barred, big, brash, belter of a beer match if I do say so myself, the wonderful Aecht Schlenkerla Eiche Rauchbier. It's a smoked Doppelbock from Germany that I absolutely love, and which works amazingly well with the smokey flavours of the chipotle, but has a bit of sweetness to match with the sweet and sticky sauce.




Slottskällan Zero IBU IPA (6.5%)

Wednesday, June 13, 2012
This beer from Swedish brewery Slottskällan is a really interesting concept. For those that don't know, IBU is short for International Bitterness Units, and is a measure of the amount of bitterness which is present in a beer, calculated by the volume of bittering hops added during the brewing process.

But the thing is, this beer was brewed with absolutely no bittering hops added whatsoever. All of the hop character in the beer was achieved by adding what I can only assume was an absolute truck load of late aroma and dry hops.

This Zero beer is the antithesis to the Dutch brewer Mikkeller's 1000 IBU IPA, a beer which had so many bittering hops added that it's theoretical IBU is, you guessed it, one thousand. But of course the theoretical IBU of a beer is very different to its actual IBU, meaning Mikkeller's beer will have an actual IBU much, much lower than that - and despite the fact this beer has no bittering hops it still ends up with a fairly high actual bitterness of 87 IBU.

I've read many times that the human palate can only react to bitterness changes up until around 100 IBU, and in other places that 100 is the maximum IBU that can be achieved, making anything above that somewhat futile. But I've also seen this disputed elsewhere, and seen the reaction of anybody who drinks Mikkeller's beer as "Holy Crap, that is BITTER", so who knows.

Certainly despite it's lowly theoretical IBU this beer has a big complex fresh hop aroma with highlights of tangerine, light pine resin, and lemon sherbet. The mouthfeel is fairly light, with nice soft bottle conditioned carbonation, and a slightly foamy quality in the mouth.

The hop flavour is much more resinous and piney than you would imagine. Alongside that it's got a really big orange pith flavour, very bitter grapefruit, plus loads more of that resinous pine in the finish. For a zero IBU beer this is really very bitter.

The layers of hops build up on your palate throughout the bottle and make this a very tough but rewarding beer. After a while a slightly skunky hop flavour starts to creep in which is a little odd, but doesnt completely ruin the party.

All in all a nice beer, and one I'm very glad I got a chance to try. I'll be looking out for more beers from this brewery.


How do you turn people on to beer?

Tuesday, June 12, 2012
I've just finished writing an article for Jamie's wine blog on "Beer for Wine lovers". A sort of whistlestop introduction to beer for people who already have a keen interest in flavour, and the sister article to the excellent piece Jamie wrote for this blog. It wasn't easy to write.

How do you condense the almost unexplainable understanding of what constitutes 'good beer' into a blog length article? How do you explain what the different ingredients and processes involved in the brewing of beer do, and why that matters? Or I suppose what I'm getting at is, how do you turn people on to beer?

Looking at my own experiences, a friend of mine is now a full-on beer geek (Hi Neil), and another is on his way (hi James), and both of these guys started to get in to beer from drinking in bars and pubs. Whether it was a bar that I'd dragged them along to, or them opting for something a bit more adventurous when drinking with other mates, they definitely got properly into what I would consider 'good beer' through trying different beers in pubs.

Of course the egomaniac in me would say it's all my doing, that my gentle coercion over the years has shown them the light, but I don't think that's the case. You can't really make someone 'get into' beer, all you can really do is share the beers and bars you like with friends and hope that something sticks. Effectively plant that seed of interest which might make someone try a new beer when faced with a range of choices, and hope that they like it enough to do it again.

So what do you think really turns people on to beer? My two mates were already beer drinkers, and I'm not even sure my input had any real baring on their newfound interest in 'craft beer', but what about none beer drinkers?

How do we convince them?


Wine for Beer lovers - a very special guest post by The Sunday Express columnist Jamie Goode

Thursday, June 07, 2012
I recently got in touch with Jamie Goode, a wine writer with a love for beer that I met on the St Stefanus trip, and asked if he'd mind writing a piece for this blog on "Wine for beer lovers". A sort of intro to good wine, aimed at a beer geek like me.

Wine writers are giving craft beer plenty of column inches and I want to do the same, whilst expanding my own knowledge.

I think Jamie's contribution goes above and beyond anything I could've hoped. It's such a good piece of informative writing that the thought of producing my promised reciprocal article "Beer for wine lovers" is now filling me with the fear of failure by inferiority. But I digress.

Over to Jamie.


A few words of introduction. My name is Jamie Goode and I make my living writing about wine. I do a weekly column for The Sunday Express, write for several magazines, and publish, one of the most popular and longest established of the wine websites. I also consult, judge and give talks. It’s tremendous fun. (I’m really interested in beer, too, but I’m far from being a beer expert.)

Wine is a complicated subject, but in this complexity lies its appeal. It is made from the juice of grapes by the action of yeasts (principally Saccharomyces cerevisiae in its various strains), with a bit of help from bacteria (where a second fermentation, called malolactic, takes place, which is in pretty much all red wines and many whites). Beyond the near-universal addition of sulfur dioxide for its antimicrobial and antioxidant action, nothing else need be added during the winemaking process, which makes it one of the most natural of all alcoholic drinks. Of course, you can add various processing aids and fining agents, but unlike with beer, you aren’t allowed to add flavourants and still call the drink ‘wine’. (I’m not criticising beer here: I am aware that is common to make beer naturally, too.)

There are two key influences on the flavour of wine: the grapes and the geography. Wine is made from the fruit of a single species of vine, Vitis vinifera, and this species comes in thousands of different varieties. Each variety has its own key flavour signature, and it’s now common to see the name of the grape variety (or varieties, in the case of blends) on the label. But there’s an interesting twist here: take the same variety and grow it in slightly different vineyards, and the wine will taste different, even if it is made the same way in the same cellar. These differences are caused by the soils, the aspect, the local climatic factors and the way the vines are trellised and maintained, and together these factors are referred to as terroir.

Terroir – the differences in wine flavour caused by differences in vineyard sites – is the foundational principle of fine wine. This local flavour results in the bewildering diversity of wines available on the market today. This makes wine complex, but also tremendously interesting.

The new world/old world divide needs mentioning here. It’s a geographical, psychological and cultural divide. In the old days, the fine wine world was simpler: it was all about the classic old world regions of Europe, such as Burgundy, Bordeaux, the Mosel, Piedmont and Champagne. Then along came the Australians and Californians with their sweetly fruited, warm climate, varietally labelled wines. They’ve since been joined by Chile, South Africa, New Zealand and Argentina. In general, new world wines are much easier to appreciate and enjoy, in contrast to their old world counterparts with complicated place names instead of grape varieties on the label. Now the lines are becoming a little blurred as the best new world wines are being taken more seriously, and the old world wines have modernised and responded to the market. But the divide still exists.

So what are the other ways that wine differs from beer? First, because wine depends on a seasonal crop, it can only be made once a year. This makes it expensive: winery equipment stands unused for much of the year outside vintage time, and if a harvest is poor, less or lower quality wine is made. There is also a much bigger spread of prices for wine than there is for beer. A simple wine can be purchased for £5, a pretty good one for £10, a serious one for £15, but you can spend upwards of £50 for something famously good, and the celebrity bottles sell for £200 - £500 a pop. But price is a poor indicator of quality. It’s possible to spend quite a bit and end up with a mediocre bottle. Generally speaking, though, discovering the world of wine will set you back quite a bit. It’s a shame: in the course of my wine drinking career, the prices of top wines have risen significantly.

The idea of bottle age is also something central to fine wine. Most serious wines need a bit of cellar time to show their best, and the top bottles can demand a decade before they’ll begin to show what they are capable of. The subject of the appropriate amount of age for each wine is one that generates a lot of discussion in the wine world.

The vineyard is also central to fine wine. You can make bad wine from a good vineyard, but not good wine from a bad vineyard, no matter how talented you are in the cellar. To produce a great bottle needs a great vineyard coupled with a skilled winemaker.

A lot could be said here about what constitutes quality in wine. In brief, wine lovers like their wines to possess complexity and elegance. For inexpensive wines, clean fruity flavours are fine. But for more serious wines, we’re looking for complex flavours in addition to fruit. Particularly prized are the elusive qualities of harmony, elegance and minerality. Some people like power, concentration and richness in their wines, but increasingly critics are shunning the big in favour of the beautiful. Issues of wine style create a lot of discussion in wine circles!

So how should you set about exploring the world of wine? The best way is to find a good independent wine merchant who can advise you, get to know your preferences, and sell you interesting wines. It’s helpful to attend tastings, too, to expose yourself to a wide range of wines. Read a bit: there are lots of excellent free resources on the web. Find critics whose palates match with yours (preferences do vary quite a bit). And I also find it interesting to explore one region at a time.

I’ve only just scratched the surface here in attempting to introduce you to the varied and interesting world of wine. Starting on the path of wine appreciation sets you on a journey of discovery, and I find that the more I learn, the more I become aware of my ignorance.


Dogfish Head Red & White

Thursday, June 07, 2012
Dogfish Head Red & White
I tried Dogfish Head Red & White a fair few weeks ago now, but up until today hadn't realised I'd actually written down some tasting notes. It came at some point in an evening of drinking with Rob from and Mark from The Sparrow which was only supposed to last for 'a couple', but ended up being a fair few.

For those who don't know this beer, I'll start off by saying it's a pretty rare one that isn't exactly readily available in the UK. But, there are still some bottles kicking around in some of the really good craft beer bars and independent retailers, so if you like the sound of it then all is not lost.

The name Red & White comes from the unusual type of beer that has been produced: A 10% abv Belgian-style witbier brewed with coriander and orange peel and fermented with pinot noir juice. According to Dogfish Head's website a fraction of the fermented beer is then aged in Oak casks, and then, I can only assume, mixed back in with the un-oaked batch to create a more rounded beer.

It tastes pretty much like no other beer I've ever tasted, and the closest thing to it is another bonkers beer from Brooklyn brewery, which I never actually got round to writing about, but which I really should have....

This smells sweet and dry with loads of clove and lemon. The taste is balanced, lightly sweet, and specked with the flavour of coriander in the front and banana in the background.  

The finish is boozy, with banana, white pepper, orange pith and a huge white wine dryness that is extremely crisp but not tart. Throughout the drink there's a definite white wine character lingering, a dryness, and the occasional note of fino sherry.


For it's abv and complexity it's actually extremely moreish and drinkable, with a character that changes and develops as your palate adjusts, though there's a lick of alcohol which begins to come to the fore as it warms which is a little distracting. Drink this chilled, from a wine glass, and you'll get a lot out of it, with that big bottle making it perfect for sharing.




Hidden treasures, discovered pubs

Wednesday, June 06, 2012
On the one nice weathered day of this weekend, what started out as a quick bike ride home from lunch turned into a leisurely meander along the Leeds-Liverpool canal, a waterside slingshot straight out of the monolithic grey of Leeds' charming but industrial Holbeck Urban Village.

Glorious sunshine poking through the trees and dappling the windless path sparsely inhabited by kids, parents, grandparents, fisherman, joggers, teenagers jumping into the less murky patches of water, and dog walkers galore. Every hundred yards or so punctuated by a brand new corner that I'd never seen before. After a few miles it seems pointless to turn back, when should I stop? What should be the point that makes me think "this is far enough, time to head home"?

Then the obvious hit me, as it so often does, that the only logical place to catch my breath before heading home was a pub. I had in mind an idyllic canalside beer garden, all parasols and pints of pale. Just a mile down the road and ready for discovery.

It turned out the first pub I spotted was about 5 miles out of Leeds. A small, vibrant little place with an outside BBQ and enthusiastic if talent-challenged local band being enjoyed by just the right amount of people. A local pub, full of mostly local people, set back about 50 yards from the canal, but with a friendly, inviting atmosphere. Full but not heaving. A few nice beers on the bar, I opted for a Kirkstall Pale.

I do remember the name of the place, but I'm not going to tell you. There's thousands of pubs just like this one all over the country, and whilst I love the craft beer bars of the City Centres, it's places like this that made us fall in love with pubs, isn't it?

Go out there and find them. They're there, waiting to be discovered. Little pockets of joy that nobody else has to know about.

Now I'm mobile on two wheels, I'll certainly be doing so myself.