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Winter Wonderland: Anchor v BrewDog v Corsendonk v Bush v Dupont v Flying Dog v Sierra Nevada

December 21, 2011 5 comments

Seasonal beers; and what season is more seasonal than the season we’re in right now, eh?  Even the food is all about the seasoning, and so are a lot of the beers: spicy and warming.  Not usually what I look for in a beer. However, ’tis the season.

Anchor Special Ale 2011 (5.5%)

Even though it’s not a preferred style, the annual edition of this beer is something I’ve come to look forward to like the new Beano Annual.  The empty bottle will join its brothers on my shelf.  It can be proud in the knowledge that it smelled of nutmeg and berries; tasted as deep and comforting as its dark brown colour, not too sweet or strong, but with a warming spicy bitterness.  This is a very good Christmas beer indeed.

BrewDog There Is No Santa (4.7%)

Ever the pseudo-contrarians when it comes to marketing, I wonder if BrewDog think there is no Santa just because they’ve been very naughty boys and never get any presents. The slightly Scrooge-like beer name doesn’t hide the fact that they’ve gone into the Christmas beer market with both paws this year, also releasing Christmas Porter, a spiced version of Alice Porter.  The aroma is very Christmassy: sweet and spicy, with noticeable cinnamon.  It’s similar in appearance to Anchor’s style, and inhabits the same ground as a warming spiced brown ale, with  a relatively moderate ABV for the time of year. A very nice beer in the end: Dog bless us, every one.

Bush de Noël (aka Scaldis de Noël) (12%)

Yikes.  The foil label doesn’t do subtlety or sophistication (Ghost Drinker compared it to the foil on cheap chocolate decorations) and 12% suggests real overindulgence.  It is the Christmas version of “The Strongest Belgian Beer” and has a big, very sweet marzipan, cakey aroma.  It’s thick on the tongue with some spiciness but a lot of burnt sugar indeed.  I decided that what the situation required was some cheese, and some Blacksticks Blue and spiced apple chutney allowed me to appreciate the bitterness on the finish, when the burnt sugar subsided.

Corsendonk Christmas Ale (8.5%)

No more classy in its get-up is the similarly Belgian Corsendonk.  This one smells like a sweet spicy dark Belgian beer, and has a lot of sweetness, although a much lighter variety.  Again this benefited from raiding the fridge for cheese and a very pleasant bit of Reblochon helped me to appreciate it much more.  It was still very, very fizzy though.

Brasserie Dupont – Avec Les Bons Vœux De La Brasserie Dupont (9.5%)

Less a Christmas ale than a Christmas present (formerly exclusively for Dupont’s best clients), this is a very special beer.  It’s a nice light saison (come Tripel, maybe?) with a perfectly balanced hoppy character (a little grassiness) which drinks about half its weight. Admittedly this has become of my favourite styles of beer this year, but this is an instant favourite, and a new Christmas tradition if I have my way.

Flying Dog K-9 Cruiser (7.4%)

This Winter Ale is portrayed less as a Christmas ale than some sort of tribute to pet dogs who aren’t allowed to go snowboarding with you but are still up on the slopes with you in spirit.  Or something.  Poor Ralph Steadman. A slightly boozy nose and chestnut colour, then a malty beer which wasn’t too sweet or heavy, with a pleasant and relatively restrained spiciness on the swallow. Quite enjoyable, but not exactly The Beano Annual.  The Topper Annual, maybe.

Sierra Nevada Celebration 2010 (6.8%)

Ah now, this is last year’s Celebration, with an October 2011 best before date.  So, whilst it’s not the lovely fresh hopped winter IPA it once was, there is the ghost of Hopmas past lingering on the swallow, after the light caramel sweetness.  A little bit of dryness on the finish too, building on the longer swallows to a dry, slighty woody, piney taste.  A slightly withered, but still celebratory Christmas tree.

So these disparate winter and Christmas seasonals, of various styles, contained some real crackers and not a single turkey; and there are certainly no leftovers  Most of them are available were I bought them (the superb Beer Ritz), and I’d encourage you to visit your own local independent beer shop this Christmas.

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Paradise Lost & Paradise Regained

March 31, 2011 1 comment

I apologise that things have been a little sparse around here of late, but recently my work/life balance has been moving further and further towards the former.  However I’ve just had a holiday in Ireland and have come back refreshed.  In fact, some evenings I was so refreshed that my kidneys ached in the morning.

More of that soon, but just now, and further to my previous post, I’d like to congratulate Zak and the lads for the resurrection of Beer Ritz and Beer Paradise.  The beer geeks of West Yorkshire can breathe a collective sigh of relief, whilst their partners and children weep over the extra disposable income that has been wrenched from their grasp.

And what better way to celebrate the good ship Beer Ritz safely making it back to port over the choppy waters of company law, with a new co-captain in Zak, than with a new beer?  Zak Avery, Pete Brown and Mark Dredge collaborated with Brewdog on probably the most scholarly beer of all time.  Who’s left to review it?

It’s just a shame that the beer was brewed before Zak’s elevation to an officer of the company, otherwise they could have called it Director’s Pilsner.

Launches of the new Imperial Pilsner will take place this evening at three locations: North Bar in Leeds and The Rake and The Jolly Butchers in London, each presumably with the most local of the three proud brewscribes in attendance.  I don’t think I’m going to be able to make it to North due to work, but I would encourage you to if you can.

Beer Ritz: A Loss For Beer And A Loss For Leeds

March 15, 2011 10 comments

My post yesterday about geekiness discussed in passing the importance of specialist shops to spark and inform an interest in a particular geek “scene”, be it beer or comics or otherwise.

In July last year OK Comics, the best comic shop in Leeds, was threatened with closure due to reduced foot traffic as works were going on in the arcade in which it sits. Jared from OK went to the internet and asked for help.

In a remarkable show of support, its customers and the comic community stepped up to the plate, coming into the shop or making purchases online, spreading the word through Twitter, with even celebrity comics fan/writer Jonathan Ross getting behind the campaign. And lo, OK Comics was saved and remains a little independent haven of geek pleasure in the heart of Leeds.

However, today I learned that my other favourite shop in Leeds has closed its doors, suddenly and apparently for good. Beer Ritz is (or was) the best beer shop I’ve ever been to, without exception. Its passionate, knowledgeable staff and management were happy to help people to understand its fantastic range of beers from all around the world.

We didn’t know that Beer Ritz was under threat and didn’t have a chance to help save it, if indeed that was possible. I obviously don’t know yet why it closed, but it had seemed to me to be in good health, and deservedly so.

It’s great having online beer sellers like My Brewery Tap and Beer Merchants, but to my mind they mainly provide a great service to the initiated.

When you’re first becoming interested in beer, you want somewhere to explore the shelves, read the bottles, see what’s available. You can chat to a member of staff, buy a couple of their recommendations (rather than a case), then come back next week for more.  Beer geeks aren’t born, they’re made by places like Beer Ritz and people like Zak, Ghost Drinker and Cheeeseboiger.

That’s what Beer Ritz did for me. The first time I went to Beer Ritz I’d read and heard about a beer called Jaipur but had never been able to find it anywhere. On a quiet Saturday, I decided to look for a better off licence in the telephone directory, saw Beer Ritz and drove to Headingley. Since then I’ve been back countless times, each time spending more money than I really should due to excitement about the selection.

I started reading beer blogs after finding Zak’s brilliant one, then eventually decided to start writing my own, for what it’s worth. It’s not a coincidence that there are so many beer bloggers and tweeters in and around Leeds.  Pretty much every beer I’ve posted about here I bought from the shop.

The closure of Beer Ritz is obviously a terrible thing for the passionate staff, who deserve better, and I wish them all the best for the future. It’s bad for small breweries, who find a loyal customer base through their sales. It’s also a blow for the customers, for independent shops and for Leeds.

However, it’s also a loss for those beer geeks who will never be, who will never see that packed but carefully organised back room with hundreds of bottles from the UK, Europe, America and elsewhere and go: “Wow, I wonder what all these are like?”

Please read Ghost Drinker‘s post with the news and his reaction, and the tributes from  Rob, Glyn and Leigh.  Thanks to Yorkshire Daily Photo for the picture and apologies for not asking first.

UPDATE: FORTUNATELY BEER RITZ HAS SUBSEQUENTLY REOPENED!  HOORAY!

Canny Bevvies: BrewDog Punk IPA, Maui Big Swell IPA, Caldera IPA

February 21, 2011 4 comments

Although tinned craft beer has been something of a hot topic recently, it’s not been that easy to get hold of them. But it turned out that, after waiting ages, three turned up in my fridge at once: BrewDog new Punk IPA (from the website); Maui Brewing Big Swell IPA (also from the BrewDog website); and Caldera IPA (from Beer Ritz). 

BrewDog Punk IPA (5.6%)

This is the new Punk, more Green Day than The Clash.  I wasn’t that impressed the first time I opened these cans, but that may well have been because I did so in less than ideal tasting conditions: the cans were warmer than they should have been, having just lifted them out of the post, and I’d just tried not one but four 75 IBU beers, in BrewDog’s IPA Is Dead range.

However, cold from the fridge and enjoyed at home in a tulip glass, it was a different matter altogether.  Upon cracking open the brew(dog)ski, you immediately get a lovely sweet waft of mango.  I noticed this the first time I tried it but now I also found the old, mouthwatering, grapefruit bitterness mixed in with the new fruity sweetness, which added up to a really nice finish; perhaps not as long as it used to be, but still very good.  So yes, I take it back: new Punk in cans is definitely worth picking up.

Maui Big Swell IPA (6.2%)

A sweet, appley Cidona smell upon opening the can: again the aroma is fantastic and the can (or at least the way you open it) seems to help this.  A sweeping fresh tropical fruity taste with a light grapefruity bitterness.  Kate and I decided that there was pine and apple in the taste, and indeed some pineapple too.

Whilst still very light and refreshing overall, compared to the BrewDog the slightly higher ABV results in a heavier mouthfeel, but that’s only really noticeable after a few gulps.  Again a really nice beer and nothing to suggest the can has done anything other than keep the beer very fresh and hoppy.

Caldera IPA (6.1%)

Noticeably more amber than the fuzzy yellow-orange of the previous two, Caldera had a rich sweet piney aroma.  This carries through into a lovely instant piney bitterness and a long finish.  The mouthfeel is thicker and more viscous again than the Maui.  It’s everything you want from a strong American IPA.

All three of the beers were excellent and certainly worth buying again.  Canning did seem to suit – or at worst doesn’t seem to detract from – the freshness, bitterness and hoppiness, without any sort of “tinny” taste, that I associate with the usual tinned lager or bitter.

Whilst the Punk IPA is the junior of the three in terms of serious bitterness and ABV, it’s also likely to be more easily available and around half the price of the others to UK cansumers.  I’m looking forward to trying it against the keg and maybe the bottled version of the same new recipe Punk IPA.  I’m also anticipating having more use for my Aussie can-sleeve, from the Talwood Hotel, Queensland!

Find more reviews of canned BrewDog Punk IPA on The Beer Monkey; of the Maui Big Swell IPA on Hopzine and The Beer Monkey; and of Caldera IPA on The Ormskirk Baron.

Killing Two Birds With One Stone: Coniston Bluebird & Bluebird XB

February 14, 2011 Leave a comment

Coniston Bluebird is one of the most beloved beers of the Lake District: almost as ubiquitous as Jenning’s Cumberland Ale, but for my money, much more interesting.  I’ve had quite a few pints in my time of both it and its American-hopped counterpart, Bluebird XB, in my time; however I’d never tried a side-by-side comparison and thought it was worth the exercise, so I bought a couple of bottles in Beer Ritz for the purpose of doing so.

Coniston Brewing Company Bluebird Bitter (4.2%)

Distinguished, the label says, with “unusual quantities” of Challenger hops, this bottle-conditioned version had very little aroma and what there was came across slightly bready.  There was a small amount of bread as well in the slightly tart bitterness, with a slightly oily mouthfeel.  I also noticed a chalkiness in the taste.

Coniston Brewing Company Premium XB Bluebird Bitter (4.4%)

The XB version adds the “new wave American hop variety Mount Hood with robust citrus aromas“.  Certainly this resulted in a much more interesting nose, with more citrus and perhaps even a slight fresh, herbal mintiness in there as well.  The citrus carries through to a light, gentle lemony flavour, but one that seems to meet head-on with the chalkiness I noted in the standard Bluebird.  As a result, the first impression I got was of the bitterness that you experience when drinking orange juice just after brushing your teeth. 

Mulling it over more, I think this alkaline chalkiness has always been present in Bluebird.  It might just go to show that I’ve tended to drink it without analysing the taste and the beers both contained some surprises when I really applied my attention to them.  Although I think I prefer the cask version of each, I did quite like both bottles and, given the choice, might tend towards the lighter notes and stronger aroma of the XB version.

Bottled Roosters: GCB, XS, 2XS & Oxymoronic Black IPA

January 18, 2011 3 comments

Of the number of local craft breweries that regularly sell their beers in Leeds pubs, one of the most consistent is Roosters.  They have a particular bent towards pale, nicely hoppy ales in the vein of (what I suppose is) their flagship beer, Yankee, which is getting on for 17 years old.

The cockerel logo on their pumpclips is, for me, a badge of quality.  Although they appear to have been brewing some more experimental beers recently, I don’t think I’ve ever had a pint of any of their range that I didn’t like.   I especially enjoy being able to enjoy their beers outside with friends at the Chapel Allerton Arts Festival every year. 

Roosters GCB (3.7%)

However, Roosters beers don’t seem to have been sold in bottles until last year, when  I picked up a bottle of their GCB (“Good Cheer Beer”).   This beer is described as a “pale Yorkshire bitter – a happy marriage of upbeat fruitiness and moderate bitterness“.  It had a slightly biscuity smell, quite a lot of carbonation, a relatively thin mouthfeel and a light lemony bitterness in the aftertaste.  Like the cask version, I think it’s at the safer end of their pale ale spectrum and is probably good crossover beer which can be given to lager drinkers with relative impunity.

However, it was very exciting indeed to be able to pick up one 75cl bottle of each of three experimental beers Sam Franklin (son of founder Sean) made at the end of last year.  There were only 30 bottles of each sold.  Given that they have been reviewed by Zak, Leigh and Rob, it would appear that over 10% of the beers went to beer bloggers!  Whilst I encourage you to read/watch their more expert reviews, this is what I thought of them:

Roosters XS American Pale Ale (5.5%)

The label describes this beer as an American-style IPA/pale ale with 60IBUs and, “hopped at an excessive rate, using Chinook, Citra, Crystal and Simcoe from the US and New Zealand’s Riwaka hops, all as late kettle additions.

After a satisfying pop when the cap came off, the beer poured a pleasant orange colour with a slight cloudiness.  It gave off a fantastic mango smell and had a rich, slightly oily mouthfeel. The punchy dry fruity bitterness in the aftertaste made my mouth water.  This was a very lovely beer which I enjoyed with a curry from Mumtaz, which it suited perfectly.

Roosters 2XS India Pale Ale (7.1%)

The big bad brother of XS – excessive in every way imaginable.  Hopped using Nelson Sauvin, Cascade, Chinook, Citra, Crystal and Simcoe.  It weighs in with a whopping 100+ IBUs and certainly isn’t a beer for the faint-hearted!  Continuously hopped during the brewing process to create a smooth but powerful bitterness.  We then dry-hopped the beer in the fermenter and conditioning tanks to give it a strong and aggressive hop aroma.”

Again pouring a slightly cloudy orange but perhaps a little darker, this gave off a rich piney mangoey aroma.  The mouthfeel was thicker and the fruity, bitter taste deeper and more rounded but slightly less punchy and fruity as a result.  Again this was a great beer, which went nicely with Cajun Chicken.

Roosters Oxymoronic Black IPA (6.5%)

American-style India Black Ale – big, black and bitter, this American-style Black IPA is a shock to the senses.  Your eyes say stout but your tastebuds scream IPA!  A jet black appearance, with little roast flavour, is backed up with a serious bitter finish.  Packed full of citrus hop aroma, brewed and dry-hopped with 100% Simcoe hops.  The citrus content of this beer might even count as one of your five a day!

It’s difficult to expand on the fairly comprehensive and unusually informative label text, but this black IPA had a very tart but not completely juicy passionfruit taste, resulting in a slightly champagney dryness.  The dryness results in a shorter finish, as if the fruit becomes totally absorbed into the (very slight) roastedness.

The black IPAs I’ve had on cask (and all enjoyed) include Summer Wine’s Heretic; Thornbridge’s Raven and Saltaire’s Cascadian Black.  In Peculier Pub on Bleecker Street I also got to try 21st Amendment’s Back in Black on keg.  However this is the first time I’ve tried a bottled black IPA, and it worked very well.

All three of these beers were excellent, and the XS in particular is a beer I would be happy to buy on a monthly basis for the rest of my life if it was an option.  There’s always a bit of a thrill in having something that’s so rare, but fortunately the hoppy nature of these beers meant it would ruin them to try and keep them for ages, which is always a risk with me. 

Although I understand that Sam Franklin has flown away over the pond to Canada, I would welcome it if Roosters decided to reprise all three of these beers.  I’m only sad that the good proles of Leeds might not be amongst the first to try Sam’s next brew.  Blame Canada!

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.

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