A song through different speakers

Wednesday, July 31, 2013
You can smell it being poured from across the room.

The aroma floats across the bar and up my nostrils - while I fumble about with a fiver - and before I know it the memory comes flooding back, like hearing a few chords of a song you used to love whilst flicking through the radio stations.

Sharp, peppery, precise and acidic in a lemon zest kind of way, but not in any way sour, the aroma is so unique you really couldn't mistake it for any other beer.

And yet when the beer is front and centre it's obvious there's a twist, like the same tune played through different speakers. Certain base notes are lost, the sweetly fruity tangerine I remember - whilst others are amplified, like the mouth drying pithiness of lemon rind.

All pepper and pith and lightness of touch.

The song is My Antonia*, the performer, on this occasion, is Dogfish Head - and what a wonderful performance it is.


*My Antonia is an imperial pilsner originally brewed as a collaboration between American craft brewery Dogfish Head and Italian brewers Birra Del Borgo. In case you hadn't guessed, the version above is the Dogfish version, served on keg. To read my thoughts on the Birra Del Borgo brewed version of My Antonia click here.


Discovering sake at Hyper Japan

Tuesday, July 30, 2013
Sake is one of those drinks that I've never really got along with, particularly when served warm alongside a bento box or the like (I'm looking at you Little Tokyo, Leeds).

But as any serious drinkie knows (what is the drinks equivalent of 'foodie'?) it's all about trying the good stuff before making your judgement.

Hyper Japan at Earls Court is a strange event, mixing manga and video games with sushi and dim sum - expect to see a line of fully costumed geishas walk past followed by a pack of rucksacked teenagers. But in many ways this randomness makes perfect sense, with the old and new facets of Japanese culture both getting some sort of a look in.

The sake tasting was a little bit badly organised and a bit crowded, being effectively a big horseshoe of 11 taster tables around a centre square. The entrance was crowded with people and the first few tables we were reaching over others to get our mini shot glass sized tasters (with an average of three sakes per table that was more than enough).

Once we got a bit of space the experience was much more enjoyable, passing from table to table hearing about the history and method of the sake and tasting some truly outstanding examples.

The thing that really stuck with me was the depth and variety of flavour that can be derived from something as simple as a grain of rice. People talk about rice in beer as an adjunct but here it was singing the solo, and giving a bravura performance.

We tried sparkling sakes, re-fermented in the bottle just like champagne, which had flavours from aromatic peach skin and apricot stone to sweet pear and sharp green apple, all derived from rice and nothing else. Freshly bottled strong sakes in the 14-17% abv range were hotter and less forgiving but also had a real depth of flavour, often with a floral, orange blossom aroma - some gave off banana and honey in the flavour whereas others veered towards citrus, all were impressive and eye opening.

The sparkling sakes I can see becoming a real crowd pleaser as they're sweet and fun on the whole, with approachable flavours not too far removed from a decent prosecco.

Of the traditional sakes it was the Maibijin Junmaishu which really stood out, with beautifully varied flavours and aromas that on paper shouldn't work, but in practice were stunning. The aroma was butterscotch and banana like an aged rum might give off, but then the flavour developed into something sharper, more acidic, with flavours of stewed citrus fruit and that ever present orange blossom honey in the background. Floral, woody, perfectly balanced and massively complex yet not too challenging for a newcomer like me to enjoy.

Stunning, though at £50 a pop I resisted the urge to bring a bottle home.

It was a fantastic event and one which has certainly peaked my interest in a drink I might previously have dismissed as flat and boring - oh how I was wrong - sake can be subtle, but it's never one dimensional.

Oh, and all of the sakes we drank were chilled or served at room temp. The consensus I came away with is only heat the cheap stuff. Which makes sense.

Hopping on the bandwagon: Troubadour Westkust Imperial Beligan Black IPA

Saturday, July 27, 2013
This is a beer that on the face of it comes with a lot of crafty baggage. Imperial? Check. Belgian Yeast? Check. Hopped to the tilt? Check. Oxymoronically named and bandwagon jumpingly styled a black IPA? Check.

That said, it's something which I don't think I've ever tried before. A Belgian brewed and exclusively Belgian hopped black IPA. What I didn't realise when I bought this bottle is that the Westkust in the name comes from the single variety of Belgian hop used in the brewing of the beer - and what a hop it turns out to be.

This pours a thick and murky pitch black with just a touch of haze and a cappucino coloured frothy head.

The smell is fruity, fresh espresso and a touch of black currant, backed up by a faint burnt herbiness, like bbq scorched rosemary twigs.

The taste is initially sharp and bitter with a zip of pine and stewed orange before a wash of sweet roasted malt turns to a bitter, ashy, tongue dryingly bitter finish with a lasting flavour of spicy, resinous hops.

Despite its heft, all 9.2% of it, its a beautifully balanced black IPA that drinks well below its weight, though the bitterness and intensity of flavour does make it rather heavy going in a batten-down-the-hatches and set aside a couple of hours kind of way.

Well worth a try and I imagine it would age really well, though the scales would certainly tip towards the espresso and away from the bitter hoppinness over time.


P.s. Going back to that hop variety, anyone know of other beers which use it? A Google search just brings up the beer above rather than info on the hop.


Belgian Beer and Lobster matching - Belgo, Covent Garden

Tuesday, July 09, 2013
Belgo, on paper, sounds like a good idea - an extensive and well chosen Belgian beer list and traditional dishes such as Moules Frites (which make up 45% of their sales) and beer and beef stews of the kind I enjoyed whilst in Ghent. But its location in Covent Garden had ‘Tourist Trap’ flashing in gaudy letters at the back of my mind.

Luckily the attention to detail and execution of the food, and their knowledge in recommending beers, adds up to a really fantastic place to while away a few hours.

My reason for being at Belgo was an invite to a Belgian beer and lobster tasting event (hard lines, right?) to mark the launch of their Lobster month in July. I was expecting a fantastic freebie, and admittedly that’s exactly what I got, but there were two lasting impressions that I came away with from the evening that I admit I didn’t expect:

1. The head chef really knows his lobster, and exactly how to get the most out of their delicate flavour (cooked for just 6 minutes), that puts some over-priced London restaurants to shame.

2. Their beer sommelier is slightly scary, but a bloody wizard when it comes to recommending the perfect beer. It’s this advice and attention to detail, alongside actually listening to what people like, that makes a guy like this so valuable to any restaurant truly taking beer seriously.

Starting with the beer, I was purposefully vague and asked for something ‘strong and hoppy’, whilst Colette just asked for a ‘tart fruit beer’. With an ominous nod of the head he was off, leaving us wondering if he’d understood us completely and looking at each other slightly bemused. However a few minutes later he returned with a raspberry lambic of the sweet n sour variety for Colette and a really outstanding Troubadour Blonde for me to enjoy.

The Troubadour was smooth, yeasty and bitter with a really great herbaceous drying at the back of the palate. It’s a delicious beer and something that completely belies its strength with massive drinkability. Hoppy in that spicy Belgian way and exactly my sort of beer. Colette loved her fruity lambic, but it’s a beer for non-beer drinkers all be told. That said, it was exactly what she asked for and exactly to her tastes (though not mine).

A few more great recommendations on (Orval, Boon Marriage Parfait etc) and we were presented with the main event. A perfectly cooked lobster paired with a Belgian Wit brewed with coriander and orange peel.

The beer, Blanche de Bruxelles, was of the light and quaffable variety, which on its own may seem a little dull, but its sprightliness was a great choice with the lobster, as anything too full on would certainly mask the delicate flavour of the meat. As it was it worked pretty well as a pairing, the heavy carbonation and faint sourness helping to cut through the butter, and the orange citrus dovetailing with the squeeze of lemon and sweetness of the lobster.

Of the lobster itself, it was really perfectly cooked. Pulling easily away from the shell and without even a trace of the rubberiness that can creep in with overcooking (I’m looking at you Burger & Lobster).

The prices of the food are reasonable for what you ar getting, but by no means cheap. That said, under £20 for a lobster with sides is excellent, and the beers are about par for the course at around a fiver for most.

It’s not a budget choice by any stretch of the imagination but for the quality of food being served and the level of service you receive it represents great value for money.

All in all I really enjoyed Belgo, and we’ve already booked to go back in a few weeks time.