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Guinness Gives You Strength (4.1%-8%)

December 21, 2010 1 comment

Do you know what I am going to tell you, he said with his wry mouth, a pint of plain is your only man.

Notwithstanding this eulogy, I soon found that the mass of plain porter bears an unsatisfactory relation to its toxic content and I subsequently became addicted to brown stout in bottle, a drink which still remains the one that I prefer the most despite the painful and blinding fits of vomiting which a plurality of bottles has often induced in me.

Flann O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds (1939)

The post I did a while back on the Guinness Surger got me thinking more about Guinness. Guinness is definitely the beer I’ve drank the most of in my life. Given that Diageo own Guinness, Bushmills whiskey and Gordons gin, I dread to think how much money I’ve thrown their way since reaching adulthood.

My grandfather was a Guinness drinker. He moderately drank bottles of the stuff, generally warmed – for reasons that may now be lost to the ages – by setting it on the stove in the pub or on the fireplace at home. I fell into drinking Guinness, with its carefully crafted image of traditional Irishness and an air of sophisticated adulthood, as the best alternative to the hated lager in a beer desert. Few Guinness-drinkers in Great Britain get asked for ID, in my experience.

Moreover, I know where I am with Guinness more than any other drink. “Sessionable” (*shiver*) as it is, I’ve never gotten terribly drunk or ill off it. Although there was an unfortunate incident one morning when I was a hungover student part-time barman, when I went to the pub toilet for a discreet and brief vomiting fit between the first and second pour of the first customer’s stout. I don’t think he noticed.

Of course most Guinness is less “authentic” than it holds itself out to be.  The accepted method of dispense of draught Guinness, the nitro-keg, has only been around since 1964, the year Brendan Behan died. Brian O’Nolan (Flann himself; another terrible man for the drink) only lasted another two years, so I wonder if he ever tried it.

The canned widget Guinness has always seemed to me a reasonable alternative to actual draught Guinness, for applying to the interior of your body when safely in your own home. But in recent years I’ve found them both terribly dull. So I went to the supermarket and Beer Ritz to purchase the materials for an experiment: four different types of Guinness, all with different ABVs and one of which almost twice as strong as the first.

Using half of the “Guinness Original” to make a beef and Guinness which was stewing away in the oven, we set about seeing how they stood up to each other with a side-by-side comparison:

Guinness Draught (4.1% ABV)

Perhaps it’s an unfair test to compare a canned product to four bottled ones, but I couldn’t find any widget bottles of Guinness and in any event cans are the future of craft beer according to some zythofuturologists, so Guinness can lump it too. We all know this one, and for me familiarity has bred, if not contempt, then certainly ennui and potentially an immunity to any taste.

I was going to say it tastes of tin, but I’m not sure if it doesn’t mainly taste of widget. There’s a definite dull metallic wateriness to it that it has in common with cans of smooth Tetley’s, Boddingtons and John Smiths and to me tastes of parties located near off-licences with a very limited range.

When held up to the light, like the Original below, there’s a definite red colour. The wateriness described above makes it very difficult to detect any distinct flavour, but there’s a very slight malt bitterness in the aftertaste.

Guinness Original (4.2% ABV)

Surprisingly very slightly stronger than the draught stuff, this is a real improvement. The flavours are still quite subtle, but the dryness is much more noticeable. Kate noted that the carbonation added to the bitterness and I agreed.

However the flavours are so delicate that they reminded us both of the weaker dark milds I wrote about here. Whilst there’s a very slight roasted flavour, again it’s much milder than someone who had never heard of Guinness would expect a “stout” to be.

Guinness Foreign Extra (7.5% ABV)

Ah, now it suddenly gets exciting.  The head on the previous two was a similar light cream, whereas this is much more yellow to brown.  The beer is almost totally opaque with a dark treacle aroma.

It tastes nicely bitter, with some caramel, chocolate and, whilst by no means smokey, definitely more roasted.  There’s a solid alcoholic punch to the smell and the taste that numbs the tongue at first. The back label says it’s “brewed with extra hops and roasted barley for a natural bite“.  It makes you wonder why they don’t usually bother.  Very good indeed.

They’ve only released this in America this year, which seems odd, given that it seems to me that Americans love the brand image of Guinness and US craft brewers have done a lot of groundwork in creating a market for imperial stouts.

Guinness Special Export (8% ABV)

Whereas the Foreign Export has a slightly modern look, this beer – exported to Belgium then imported back to these islands to maximise the carbon footprint – has a pleasingly retro label.   It was apparently commissioned for export by John Martin of Belgium in 1912 and was the first Guinness to be pasteurised.  I would love to try an unpasteurised version of Guinness.

The head on the Special Export is a step back to the whiter colour of the normal ABV versions.  This is the first indication that the flavours are more subtle than the Foreign Extra.  Again we get the treacle aroma, but although the ABV is higher, there’s less of an obvious alcohol smell.

The bolder flavours of the Foreign Extra contrast sharply with the dry, crisp bitterness of this, which seems like a logical big brother to the Original.  Whilst being a surprisingly different beer, it’s also a revelation. 

I have no doubt that a plurality of bottles of either of the last two would produce “painful and blinding fits of vomiting“.  However it might even be worth it.  Suddenly I think I might genuinely like Guinness again, although it’s a shame that the best stuff is about to get whacked with an idiotic tramp lager tax.

Oh, and it makes a damn fine beef stew as well.

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American Quadrilogy

December 19, 2010 4 comments

Saturday night in Leeds, exactly one week from Christmas Day. Snow on the ground; fridge full of food.  Nothing else to do but make a spicy Cajun gumbo and work through the American beers in the fridge.  Again I should warn you that my palate remains at best charmingly innocent and at worst unsophisticated.

I’d bought the Green Flash Le Freak some time ago in Beer Ritz and sensibly should have had it whilst it was fresher.  Nonetheless what is advertised as an American Imperial IPA meets a Belgian Trippel matches that description and is quite thick and very slightly bubblegummy with a solid bitter aftertaste.  Kate’s not a fan of Belgian beers so I soon had the whole (9.2%, 1 pint 6 fluid oz) bottle to myself.

The combination of the viscosity, sweetness and bitterness was nice but I didn’t fall completely in love with it.  I suspect it might have worked better for me if the hop taste was fresher than the aged bottle I had.  Perfectly nice though.  You can see Rob’s video review of this beer at Hopzine here.

I still had three American IPAs in the fridge that I’d brought back from New York in November, so I thought I’d better have them whilst they were good.  I had specifically decided not to come back from New York with a suitcase full of beer, but we had a few left in the fridge in the hotel room on the last day, and I wasn’t about to let them go to waste.

First was the Lagunitas IPA.  This turned out to be an oddly bland beer with the hoppiness almost tacked on at the end.  After a while it came across like a fairly dull cooking lager but with a bitter aftertaste.

Next was the Smuttynose IPA. I’d had this on keg in New York and really quite liked it.  It was slightly lighter in colour than the Lagunitas.  The bitterness was more complex although not too punchy, with a good mixture of lemon and pine.  Although slightly cloudy, it was a really nice, light refreshing beer, with a hint of detergent.

The Smuttynose IPA was very good match indeed to the spicy meat gumbo from Jamie Oliver’s “Jamie’s America” book.  Give the recipe a go if you get the chance.

Finally we had the Bear Republic Racer 5.  I’d been looking for this beer for ages in New York, having read about it beforehand on Richard Burhouse’s blog amongst others.  However, perhaps because it’s Californian, it was a bastard to find until I tracked it down on the penultimate day in a supermarket in Williamsburg.

Racer 5 turned out to be the best beer of them all: big flavours of mango, citrus and pine that worked really well together.  If I had to drink only one American IPA for the rest of my life, it would certainly do, although right now I think my first choice would be O’Dell IPA.

Maximum M & B

December 17, 2010 1 comment

It took me a while to realise just quite how ubiquitous Mitchells & Butlers are. According to Wikipedia it has around 2,000 managed pubs and clubs in the UK. Its pubs range from relatively individual pubs like the Adelphi in Leeds; to Nicholsons pubs like The Palace and The Scarbrough Hotel (aka The Scarbrough Taps); to obvious brands like All Bar Ones, Harvesters and Toby Carveries. They also own Flares, but I understand they’ve sold many of those off.

As I understand it, the legacy Mitchells and Butlers brewery was founded in 1898 from two other breweries; later merging with Bass in the early 1960s. In 2000 Bass was split, with the brewery going to Interbrew and the pubs business becoming Six Continents. In 2002 there was another split and the pubs business was called “Mitchells and Butlers”.

As a student I used to work in Ogston’s in St Andrews (now, or at least subsequently, The Gin House), which was part of the Six Continents chain and historically a “Bass Town Pub”. Bass Town Pubs were supposed to be unique rather than obviously chain pubs, like the student-facing “Scream” pub in town which was also Bass/Six Continents/M&B and had previously been a Firkin. Are you losing the will to live yet? In any case, the point is that you might not necessarily know an M&B pub when you see one, and there’s a reasonable probability you’ve been drinking in one in the last month.

From a search on Mitchells & Butlers website, there are 32 M&B pubs within 5 miles of LS1, as follows:

The Victoria Hotel; O’Neill’s (Great George St); All Bar One (Greek St); Nation Of Shopkeepers; Brown’s (The Light); Dry Dock; The Picture House; Flares; Scarbrough Hotel; Horse & Trumpet; Queen’s Court; The Palace; The Library; The Adelphi; The Royal Park; Hyde Park; The Original Oak; Headingley Taps; The True Britton (A Sizzling Pub near mine with a terrifying BNP name but an apparently multiethnic clientele); Queens Arms (in Chapel Allerton, now an incongruous Toby Carvery in Leed’s trendiest suburb); Barley Mow; The Vesper Gate; the Deer Park; The Roundhay Fox; The White Rose (Harvester); The Woodcock; The Dexter; The Wellington Inn; The Fox and Hounds; Toby Carvery (Horsforth); Colton Mill (Harvester); Toby Carvery (Morley).

That’s a lot of very different pubs, eh?  To put it in context, there are 6 JD Wetherspoons in the same area, although I don’t think anyone was ever unaware that they were in a Wetherspoons.

Calls Landing, Leeds

December 16, 2010 2 comments

Calls Landing is a pub with one great strength: it’s one of probably only two bars in Leeds City Centre with a South-facing beer garden on the river (along with Aire Bar next door, which has a smaller one).

It’s a very nice, if sometimes slightly crowded, beer garden and it certainly beats sitting outside Restaurant Bar & Grill on City Square in summer, surrounded by roaring traffic as the long shadows fall in mid-afternoon whilst you drink a very expensive  pint of Tetley’s Smoothflow.

But a riverside pub like this is going to struggle for 9 months of the year in West Yorkshire when the beer garden lies wet and empty, as seagulls pick away at soggy discarded Greggs wrappers. So it needs to have something else going for it.

Fortunately, one of Calls Landing’s strengths is a small but decent range of beers. Whilst it’s not going to compete for variety with The Palace around the corner for selection on cask, there are three handpumps, one of which is always Theakstons (which is a good enough default option and one I haven’t seen much of in Leeds).

The guest beers have included some unusual and interesting options, including Golden Angel from Doncaster’s Toad Brewery – a solid beer with a terrible pumpclip – and this week, Ossett Brewery’s Treacle Stout. It’s probably pipped at the post by Summer Wine’s Treason Treacle Stout for me; but it’s a SIBA award-winner and deservedly so.  There’s also a pretty good fridge selection, with a few dumpy Belgian bottles as well as Brooklyn Lager and the like.

It’s one of those bars that, instead of having a busy kitchen and a large menu, has chosen to have a small, low-maintenance selection of food that it does well. Whereas North Bar has pie & peas or cheese & bread, Calls Landing has recently rebranded itself as a “stew & oyster bar”.

There’s a selection of three changing stews with an emphasis on beans, chorizo, chilli, prawns etc, which come in big bowls with nice bread, and I’ve always enjoyed. It’s also served quickly, which doesn’t hurt.

I’m a bit wary about oysters generally, so I’ve always shied away from that option. They also have good olives and a selection of nuts.  They could do with giving you a spare glass to put your pistachio shells in, though.

The bar itself is pleasantly decked out with a modern cafe feel, with light wood, exposed bricks, a rack of newspapers and fairly interesting modern art posters. The piped music tends towards the safe and middle-aged, with a lot of Cream, Fleetwood Mac, T-Rex and the like. The windows look out on the river and the floorspace has expanded considerably into a further room in the last year or so.

Calls Landing has always been a great place to be on a summer afternoon. However it’s also a very pleasant place for a simple, warming meal and a decent pint on a dark, rainy winter evening.

Calls Landing, 36-38 The Calls, LS2 7EW; http://www.callslanding.com/

A Life In The Pub Part 2: Pounding Shilling For Pence

December 14, 2010 Leave a comment

One of the things I intended to do with this blog was to explain how I’d got here from there in terms of beer.  Specifically, how I gradually started to like interesting beers and real ales from a low base, coming from a drinking culture dominated by kegs of Tennents, Harp, Guinness, Bass and maybe the odd Smithwicks, and with no pubs that I knew of that offered cask beer.

I’ll get back to the Northern Irish beer culture of my youth later, as I want to address the next stage.  In 1998, when Kate and Will was still doing their respective GCSEs, I went to St Andrews University to study Modern History, International Relations and Individual Alcohol Tolerances.

As I never really liked lager, I was drinking a lot of Guinness at this stage, but also a lot of nitro kegged/smoothflow beers such as Caffreys.  However it must have been in that first year at St Andrews that  I started drinking my first real ales.

I started on 70 shilling beer, which I found largely similar to the smoothflow Caffreys. In fact Tennents Velvet seemed to be a smoothflow version of 70/- (someone may correct me here), and filled the same place in the market as the nitrokegged John Smith or Tetleys.  It was creamy, easy to drink and unchallenging to my admittedly unsophisticated tastes.

However, over time, Caledonian 80/- became my drink of choice during the four years I spent in the Kingdom of Fife before they reluctantly admitted I was a Master of the Arts (second class).  It was available everywhere (see the Beer Monkey’s view on Caley’s ubiquity in the capital here) and just tasted that bit more interesting than the 70/-.  I remember deciding that McEwans 80/- tasted horrible in comparison.

Moreover, those of my Scottish friends who liked beer (mainly as something to drink early in the night whilst you discussed whisky) seemed to consider that Caley 80/- was a respectable thing for a man to drink.  Whilst I liked 80/-, I think I liked the pubs I drank it in more: Aikman’s; the Whey Pat; the Central.  I’ll hopefully deal with them in a future post.

I haven’t had Caley 80/- in what must be about five years, and I don’t recall the parting being unbearable.  But in the interest of historical analysis, I’m currently drinking a bottle, which for student authenticity I picked up for a quid.  It’s not a fair test because (1) It’s a pasteurised bottle, not a pint from cask and (2) it was cheap because it’s slightly out of date and (3) it wasn’t bought with a quaint Scottish pound note.

Nevertheless, I can report that it’s a pleasant but unexciting drink.  It smells and tastes malty and sweetly sour, like raspberries.  It might just be the age of this bottle, but as I get towards the bottom (without the benefit of a deep-fried pizza/crunchie/haggis/Englishman to match the taste) it’s beginning to get into the thinner, milder end of fruit beer territory.

I can see why I liked it.  I think I preferred it over the 70/- mainly for the maltiness – it took me a while to really like pale ales.  It’s not bad at all and a hell of an improvement on Caffreys, but it’s not exciting enough to want to drink it for another four year stretch.  My tastes have definitely moved on.

New York Beer: Brooklyn Brewery

December 14, 2010 5 comments

One of the things I was really looking forward to on our trip to New York in November was a visit to the Brooklyn Brewery.  Brooklyn Lager was a beer that really took me by surprise when I tried it for the first time a few years ago.

Along with Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, it’s one of the first US craft beers I became aware of, and is increasingly available in the UK, sometimes finding its way into the fridges of bars which are otherwise completely uninteresting.  Since then, I’ve also become a big fan of the EIPA and especially the Black Chocolate Stout.   Before we visited the Brewery, we’d already tried the Winter Ale and the Brewmaster’s Reserve Cuvee Noire in bars in Manhattan.

Happy Hour at the Brewery starts at 6pm and runs to 11pm every Friday, when they put out long tables and set up a bar offering an exciting range of familiar and unfamiliar Brooklyn beers.  Unfortunately I was an idiot and thought it started at 4pm, so we turned up in Williamsburg two hours early.  It didn’t escape my notice that I had failed to adequately organise an actual piss-up in a brewery.

Funny place, Williamsburg: it’s full of hipsters with their tight check shirts, skinny trousers and thick-rimmed specs, but at the same time has parts that appear quite poor and/or post-industrial.  It seems a bit like North-East London, in that way.

After initially being a bit wary about spending two hours there, we found the Brooklyn Ale House (a quiet, friendly, dark little pub) and sat at the bar for a while with a Blue Point Toasted Lager and an Anchor Humming Ale (both keg).  We then went on to Mug’s Ale House for some sticky BBQ chicken wings, an Anchor Stout (cask) and Liberty Ale (keg).

When me made it to the brewery and negotiated our way past the firm but fair bouncer (Kate didn’t have ID with her), we bought our beer tokens and headed to the bar.  It was cold in the big room, but it was starting to fill up.  There were pizza menus out on the table for people to order in from outside and large groups of principally young, trendy people started to fill the tables.  We started on the East India Pale Ale on keg, before trying two Brewmaster’s Reserve beers: Detonation and Crash, both of which were strong, hoppy Imperial IPAs.

Having enjoyed everything we tried, we weren’t up for a very heavy night in Brooklyn, so headed back to the L station at Bedford Avenue and under the East River to midtown Manhattan.  However, I was glad we came to Brooklyn and I’d like to visit the brewery again on a weekend for a tour, possibly combined with a return visit to Mug’s and dinner in the Peter Luger Steakhouse.

Leodis Weekend

December 13, 2010 2 comments

Phew, it’s been a challenging weekend for my liver.  On Friday I went to The Grove in Holbeck for the leaving drinks of my friends Tom and Holly, who were regulars there but are now moving to Masham.  Fortunately I understand that it’s not hard to get a beer in Masham, so I’m looking forward to visiting.

I started with Moorhouses’ Premier Bitter, but wasn’t entirely convinced so moved on to Elland El Divino, a “blonde premium bitter” which was excellent.  Good beer, food and chat in a great pub.

Saturday night found me out on Lower Briggate and Call Lane, the latter swarming with underdressed posers.  However the Smokestack was reasonably good fun and surprisingly had bottles of Anchor Steam and Liberty Ale in the fridge.  Then on to Call Lane Social, a relatively new bar opposite Oporto which had decent music and both Brooklyn Lager and Anchor Porter in the fridge, but was crammed to the rafters.

Two nights that had ended in the purchase of kebabs should sensibly have been followed by a quiet Sunday in front of the Antiques Roadshow (or indeed Last Of The Summer Wine).  However Dean from Mr Foleys had invited Kate and me out for a few drinks with James and Andy from Summer Wine Brewery.

With just a bacon sandwich to recover with, I had Crown Brewery HPA; Summer Wine Blizzard and Heretic Black IPA; and Revolutions The Original 45 Porter in Mr Foleys.  Dean’s clearly been buying in a lot of great beers recently and has nefarious plans for lots more.

Summer Wine’s Heretic is a fantastic example of the black IPA style, with only a very slight roastiness at the start and a pleasant wallop of bitterness.  Great as it is, James said that they’re going to tweak the recipe for the next brew. 

The Original 45 Porter is Revolutions’ first commercial beer, and it’s a very promising start.  I’ve had a lot of porters in recent weeks and this is one of the best.  Worth keeping an eye out for.

On to the Victoria, where nine pumps were rapidly dwindling to three.  I had a North Peak Vicious American Wheat IPA, which seems to be in every single M&B pub in Leeds just now (Palace; Adelphi, Scarbrough).  It was an unusually hoppy wheat beer – not as big and punchy as Schneider Weisse Tap 5 but at the same time less thick and sweet, seeming less than 6%.  It was very good but due to the limited choice we moved on to North Bar.

North had O’Dell IPA on keg, which James and Andy informed me uses Citra hops.  I’ve liked this beer for a long time and it’s great on keg.  Another example of knowing something’s great but not knowing why.  Andy came back from the bar with a bottle of De Dolle Stille Nacht, which was 12% and incredibly bubblegummy.

After a Leodis Lager in The Brewery Tap and a final Timothy Taylor’s Landlord in the Scarbrough Taps (both had slightly disappointing selections), we headed home.  It was very kind of Dean to invite us along and it was great to chat with him, Andy and James about beer and pubs.  I have a lot to learn about brewing but once again they were really friendly and their passion for exciting beer is infectious.  Thanks lads!

After all that, I should be ready for the Christmas party season…

(For much fuller and more informed notes on some of the beers above, see Leigh’s latest post on The Good Stuff, in which he tries Heretic, the 45 Porter and Vicious.)

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