For IPA Day this year I thought I’d demonstrate why I don’t do beer reviews any more. I had three beers in my fridge which are all, to some extent, talked-about IPAs: Italian, American and Danish/Scottish. Reviewing really doesn’t get more half-arsed than this:
Brewfist Spaceman India Pale Ale
What we know: IBU 70, 7.0% from Codogno near Milan in Northern Italy. Has had some good press and, to my knowledge, has only very recently been available to buy in the UK.
Appearance: Orangey, slightly hazy with a nice white head which dissipates reasonably swiftly.
Aroma: The sweet breadiness that you’d get with a quite pedestrian English pale ale with some onions and grapes.
Taste: Pleasant, not too sharply bitter. Building dry bitterness, with a kind of dull, not quite savoury but perhaps slightly sour acidic taste to it. Nice enough, but a bit less citrussy than I would prefer.
Conclusion: The Babylon Zoo of beers: a lot of excitement and hype, but ultimately merely satisfactory.
Bear Republic Racer 5 India Pale Ale
What we know: 7.0% überhyped, überhopped US IPA from Healdsburg, Cloverdale, California. Similar hens’ teeth availability in the UK, fuelling that excitement as travellers to the US return to speak of it in hushed tones.
Appearance: Orangey-gold, clear as a bell, decent head.
Aroma: Immediate sticky sugary fruity sweetness, like a Wham bar. One of those plastic sweets that sticks to your teeth as you tear off a hunk.
Taste: A definite sweet orange-lime bitterness, but with an obvious alcoholic aftertaste. Thinner than a barley wine, so the alcohol doesn’t necessarily blend naturally into the mix until it sits for a while. Then it just adds to a really nice beer.
Conclusion: A massively enjoyable IPA. Lacking in depth, perhaps, but nonetheless a summery, citrussy, plasticky joy of a beer. The Californian ska punk of IPAs.
Mikkeller/BrewDog I Hardcore You
What we know: 9.5% Dano-Fraserburgian IPA blend from two archetypal US-inspired European “craft” brewers, each of which has grown large enough in influence, profile and perhaps even obnoxiousness to start suffering a minor backlash. One more so than the other, perhaps.
Appearance: Considerably more reddy-brown than the other two, with a creamier-coloured head.
Aroma: Clearly sweet, with toffee and even a little menthol, although the booze might just be confusing my nose.
Taste: Big, uncompromising, with a rough burnt sugariness immediately developing into a carbonic sourness. I immediately suspect that the other two beers have killed my palate. Swapping back to the Racer 5 though, it still has all the light treble notes whereas this is all big bass. I’m sure there used to be more mango in this beer – in fact I’ve had more than one conversation about that whilst drinking it – and I’m only getting a hint. Is this old or is the newest batch just not as good? It doesn’t help that there’s no date information at all on the bottle.
Conclusion: A bit too heavy for what it’s trying to be, or at least what I want it to be today. A love ballad by Black Sabbath. A lullaby from Joy Division.
Despite my poor, hop-ravaged tongue, the best of the bunch for me was clearly the Racer 5. If you want a rounded, sophisticated IPA you might go for something else, perhaps even something a bit more English. But for me, Racer 5 is the only one of the three that lives up to both the hype and my memories of it. Of the others, I prefer the Spaceman to the I Hardcore You, which doesn’t match my memories of the latter beer at all.
IPAs are great beers to have in your fridge and are a gateway drug for craft beer as a whole. However, in the last year my tastes have changed a little and each of these seem quite sugary and acidic to enjoy in large quantities. The best IPA I’ve had in the last two weeks is still an amazingly fresh bottle of Goose Island IPA, which (I’m surprised to say) I would pick over either of these three for repeated drinking. But right now, believe it or not, I just fancy an Orval; which is basically a kind of Belgian IPA, right? Right?
There’s a statue of the great Scot James Watt in Leeds city centre, but it’s the steam innovator rather than the award-winning young entrepreneur, controversialist and ex-fisherman who founded BrewDog with his schoolfriend and former Thornbridge head brewer Martin Dickie only a few years ago. However, last week James announced on Twitter that BrewDog will be making its mark in Leeds, having signed a lease on a new bar, with rumours placing it in a small venue near the Corn Exchange. [Update: More details here]
BrewDog are perpetually mired/revelling in controversy for a number of reasons, principally because they deliberately court it for column inches with a number of stunts and campaigns, which are undeniably effective. They have also made a few missteps, particularly in the customer service on their online shop (which has been acknowledged) and in the consistency of some of the canned and bottled Punk IPA which has recently made its way into supermarkets (which doesn’t yet appear to have been).
On balance, I maintain that BrewDog are A Good Thing. They are not the alpha and omega of the new UK beer scene, but they are, at the very least, a catalyst in the shift in both the industry and consumer expectation towards more interesting beer, with influences from American craft breweries. A great example of this is their new, keg-and-bottle-only bars, and in particular what we saw at BrewDog Glasgow on our honeymoon.
Over the course of two visits we:
- enjoyed sharing a big bottle of Bear Republic Racer 5 out of Teku glasses, considering that this was what all honeymooners should do;
- heard a folk singer play;
- spotted Martin and James;
- admired the relaxed but stylish décor and use of space, deciding that the wood panelling on the wall appeared to have been recycled from the floor of a sports hall;
- observed some Group On purchasers tasting beer with the knowledgeable, helpful staff;
- enjoyed a buzzy, busy but relaxed pub on both occasions, with a wide spectrum of customers;
- saw someone order “your standard lager” and not complain when presented with 77 Lager;
- had a conversation with the bar staff regarding what I was tweeting about and the identity of @GhostDrinker;
- drank Evil Twin Yin and Yang, deciding that it was indeed better than the sum of its parts;
- nibbled on some olives and ate a great pizza which soaked up the ABV nicely;
- relaxed after an amazing visit to Kelvingrove Museum across the road, probably one of the friendliest and most diverse museums I’d ever been to, containing everything from Dali paintings to giraffes to tribal masks to Spitfires;
- drank a few very good Brewdog beers, including Hops Kill Nazis; and
- found it very hard to drag ourselves away.
Even James Watt would find it hard to claim to be able to transport Kelvingrove Museum from the West End of Glasgow to West Yorkshire; but if BrewDog Leeds is even half as enjoyable as BrewDog Glasgow, I will be a very happy Loiner indeed.
I still don’t think James will get his statue in City Square, though.
The second stop on our honeymoon was Oban, where we’d rented a small cottage with a woodburning stove, which was a blessing when we arrived on a very, very wet afternoon. We both really liked the town, but it was a bit of a non-starter when it came to beer in the pubs, I’m afraid. The best cask beer on offer was either Deuchars IPA (again) or the fairly unappealingly branded Oban Bay Brewery beers in the Lorne Bar.
The highlights of Oban, when we weren’t relaxing by the fire, were the beauty of the sea and the countryside, the whisky and the amazing seafood. A tour of the Diageo-owned distillery was interesting and refreshingly lacking in bullshit. Both Kate and I became very fond of the 14 year old, with its orange peel and slight saltiness. We also took a trip over to Mull on the ferry, saw sea eagles flying over the road and picked up a bottle of (pleasant but unremarkable) Tobermory whisky from a hardware shop in the town, the distillery being closed to visitors.
We enjoyed langoustines in garlic butter in Cafe Fish on Tobermory, and in Oban itself we had oysters, half a lobster and a dressed crab accompanied by a nice bottle of Fyne Ales Pipers Gold in the modern harbourside restaurant Ee-Usk.
If there is one place (apart from the distillery) that I would encourage you not to miss in Oban, it’s The Seafood Temple. This is a tiny restaurant, slightly south of the main part of the town, looking out to sea from what used to be a public toilet block in a strip of seafront parkland. It’s described as a former bandstand in the Time Out guide, which amused the waitress and chef. The service was really friendly and welcoming and the food was incredible.
We had a scallop starter, a truly superb platter of superfresh seafood (oysters; crab claws; lobster; langoustines; smoked mussels; their own hot and cold smoked salmon) along with a St Mungo Lager (good) and an Oban Bay Skinny Blonde (dull), followed by a delicious poached pear pavlova. The lack of Fyne Ales didn’t put us off; it really is one of the best restaurants we’ve ever been to.
Kate and I spent our honeymoon in Scotland around the start of November. We started with a couple of nights in Edinburgh, which meant we only really had one day to explore, although even that was in a bit of a sleepy, post-wedding daze.
However, we did get to go to two bars outside the hotel: The Oxford Bar and Brewdog Edinburgh. I suppose they’re two extremes of drinking in Edinburgh: the Old Town and The New Town, which would have been a suitably poetic analogy except that the new bar is in the Old Town and vice versa.
Taking the new pub in the Old Town first, we wandered downhill from the Royal Mile into the belly of Edinburgh, the Cowgate. The Cowgate was historically where cows were droved into Edinburgh for sale and was a slum. Nowadays it still feels a bit like you’re in the undercity. The Brewdog bar was a welcome sight, with its stripped back decor and exciting beer boards. On this Sunday lunchtime it was quiet in terms of people, although the metal coming through the speakers was noisy enough.
Kate and I, with the counsel of barman Hoss, enjoyed a good pizza and olives as well as a few beers, including a Stone/Pizza Port Carlsbad/Green Flash Highway 78 (a “Scotch ale”) but the standout was Ballast Point Sculpin IPA: a really, really nice big, fruity IPA, which has deservedly been getting a bit of attention since it’s been available in the UK.
We could have stayed a little longer, but in order to actually explore the city in a state of semi-consciousness, we moved on, after buying a couple of rarities to enjoy later. After wandering around for a bit more we ended up in the New Town and in The Oxford Bar, which Kate had wanted to visit for some time due to its appearance in Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels.
When you go into the Oxford Bar it’s tiny and packed with people. Twenty people would probably fill the front room, and there were around that many in this Sunday afternoon. Kate and I ordered a Deuchars IPA (in tribute to Ian Rankin) and a Williams Black. Deuchars is Deuchars is Deuchars: a multi-award winning, bland, bready thing that teases the possibility of hops but never delivers, that I’m sure excited my naive palate around a decade ago. The Williams Black was, by contrast, too challenging: altogether too liquoricey for an afternoon, more suited to the end of the evening maybe.
But The Oxford Bar has such an atmosphere: the barman held court in friendly chatter with the locals and strangers. The quiet Brewdog bar of a few hours earlier was exciting in its design and the range of incredible beers it had to offer, as well as the knowledge of the staff. The Oxford was a place I’d happily stay for ages, for reasons other than the beer. Much like Scotland.
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.
As this is my first post, I suppose I should set out who I am and what I intend to do with this blog.
I used to write an embarrassingly unfocused Livejournal under a different name for a few years, when I had much more time on my hands. The bit of blogging I did and the comments I received kept me going through some long, boring afternoons that would otherwise have been filled solely with eating own-brand crisps and watching old Doctor Who videos from a video rental shop that no longer exists.
I’ve got out of the habit recently*, partially because I do a lot of writing in my job and feel particularly uninspired when I get home at night. I wanted to do something to help myself enjoy writing for its own sake again.
I’ve decided to write a blog about beer and pubs because I happen to be most interested in them at the minute. However, I should explain that this blog is intended to be a record of someone exploring beer as a relative novice, with some experience of bar work and more of drinking, but no special knowledge of brewing, beer styles or even a CAMRA membership card. I am therefore, in beer terms, definitely not a member of the Inner Party, or even the Outer Party. I am a beer prole.
This blog will likely come across as the uninformed ramblings of an overenthusiastic wannabe beer geek, relative to the excellent beer blogs that I enjoy reading. For this, I apologise.
However, I do really like good beers and good pubs. I regard the relative merits of both as almost entirely subjective, but also worthy of explanation and discussion.
I intend to write a few posts over the coming months about how, from what might be described as an inauspicious start, I have come to love beer and pubs and why that is the case. In particular, I grew up in County Antrim, Northern Ireland for eighteen years, went to university in Scotland for four and have ended up in living in Yorkshire for the last eight. I hope to say something about the relative beer and pub cultures as I experienced them.
I also intend to write about my favourite pubs and beers now. Difficult as it might be to believe, Leeds provides a great range of pubs, from friendly traditional locals like The Grove in Holbeck, with its real fire and pub dog to excellent, more modern bars like The North Bar, with a huge selection of imported bottles, cheese & bread and free wifi. For home drinking, Beer Ritz is the best beer off-licence you could hope for.
I chose the name of this blog partially, as explained above, because I don’t want to make any claims to being an especially sophisticated or knowledgeable beer writer. But I also chose it because I’ve always liked George Orwell and, whilst beer people always bang on about The Moon Under Water, it’s good to remember the vivid but less pleasant picture of a pub he painted in Nineteen Eighty-Four, with the rambling old prole going on about how he can’t get pints any more and how the beer was better before the revolution.
“May I offer you a drink?” he said.
“You’re a gent,” said the other, straightening his shoulders again. He appeared not to have noticed Winston’s blue overalls. “Pint!” he added aggressively to the barman. “Pint of wallop.”
The barman swished two half-litres of dark-brown beer into thick glasses which he had rinsed in a bucket under the counter. Beer was the only drink you could get in prole pubs. The proles were supposed not to drink gin, though in practice they could get hold of it easily enough. The game of darts was in full swing again, and the knot of men at the bar had begun talking about lottery tickets. Winston’s presence was forgotten for a moment. There was a deal table under the window where he and the old man could talk without fear of being overheard. It was horribly dangerous, but at any rate there was no telescreen in the room, a point he had made sure of as soon as he came in.
”‘E could ‘a drawed me off a pint,” grumbled the old man as he settled down behind a glass. “A ‘alf litre ain’t enough. It don’t satisfy. And a ‘ole litre’s too much. It starts my bladder running. Let alone the price.”
You can be assured that that this is not an accurate summary of my opinions on beer, weights and measures or indeed bladder volume. I don’t feel left behind by history and am especially excited about trying new, innovative, boundary-pushing beers rather than just falling back on “the usual”. But more to come on that.
Thanks for reading.
* Of writing, not of eating crisps and watching Doctor Who videos. Although it’s all Kettle Chips and DVDs these days.