Saturday, 25 February 2012

Open it! Struise Brouwers Pannepeut Old Monk's Ale 2009

Sometimes Twitter can be really annoying, with a lot of waffle going on and often used as an excuse for people to go on self righteous tirades. However sometimes it's just a great way of expressing yourself in 140 characters, exploring the things you love, getting in contact with people you wouldn't otherwise and involving yourself in things otherwise outside of your reach.

For me, one of the great examples of this is Open It! Masterminded by the beer writers Mark Dredge and Andy Mogg. It's an excuse to open those bottles you've been saving for the right occasion - read about it here. All you need to do is crack open something awesome, hash tag #openit, tell everyone about it on Twitter and see what everyone else has been opening. There's something about synchronised drinking that appeals to me so I decided to get involved and open a bottle of Struise Brouwers Pannepeut Old Monk's Ale 2009 that I bought in the Brugs Beertje, heralded by many as one of the best beer cafes in the world - and I have to agree.

This beer is dark, dark brown. The only reason it doesn't have the blackness of an imperial stout is that it shines like the darkest sun. The aroma is a world of raisins, fig, demerera sugar, burnt toast and a Belgian yeasty richness. The first swig of this beer makes you sit back in your chair and let out a big “oh there we go”! The second is rich and expressive. This beer delivers a huge amount of flavour but with an unexpected freshness.

This is an abbey dubbel on steroids, delivering savoury vegemite, dried fruit, saffron and an almost sour cream-like meatyness to the finish...which for the record is very long! The beauty of this beer is that with all those dark, rich, earthy flavours, there's also a bright freshness making it extremely moreish.

Similar to the bracing acidity of the big, chunky wine of  Chateauneuf du Pape, the carbonation and secretive hop snappiness balances this otherwise very luscious beer perfectly.


Friday, 24 February 2012

Battle of the Blonds

It's the first sunny and warm(ish) day of the year. I've got something to celebrate in the form of getting offered a job at London Fields Brewery in East London (more on this in the future) and last week I moved into a new flat - with a garden, no less!

So, sat in my new garden (I say garden, it's more of a great example of crazy paving with a good splattering of moss and weeds...a definite work in progress) it naturally occurred to me that I needed some beer to make this moment perfect, and what better on this oddly balmy February afternoon than a nice blond beer. Blond beers are a great alternative to a lager or pils on a sunny day as they are equally light and refreshing, but possess a little more complexity and fruit flavour.

Popping over the road to my new local offie, I discovered they actually have quite a good range of Fuller's, Wychwood and Ringwood beers amongst others – so, inclined as I am for a bit of light beer geekery, I thought it apt that I compare each brewery's blond beer offering.

First up, we have Fuller's Discovery:
This is a fruity little number with citrus and nectarine flavours and a lovely snappy bitterness. A refreshing dry finish makes you reach for the next glug with gusto. There's nothing hugely complex here, but that's not what we're looking for in a blond. The dryness and light but fruity character goes down a treat. I've had this on cask before and I think it benefits from the cooler temperature of my fridge, enhancing the freshness and making the snappy bitterness more up-front.

Secondly, Wychwood Wychcraft:
This is a much softer and light beer, with less carbonation and citrus flavours than Discovery but with more leafy hop aromas. At the same ABV, this is dangerously gluggable but with a candied, sherbet note on the finish, losing some of the dryness. For me it's not as expressive but does have a pleasing peachy/apricot flavour that sets it apart from the others.

And finally, Ringwood Boondoggle:
As a Hampshire boy, I've been exposed to a lot of Ringwood's beers, which have always featured in the better local pubs. I have often found them of good quality (if a little boring compared to those of other Hampshire breweries), but with now national availability they must be doing something right. Interestingly Shipyard Brewery in the States - who already license Ringwood's Old Thumper - are also taking on Boondoggle too, with Shipyard's brewmaster having trained at the Hampshire brewery. Shipyard are great so it's good news for Ringwood but how does Boondoggle compare to these other classic blonds?

Instantly after pouring a wet leaf and vanilla aroma rises from the glass, implying more richness. Not only is this beer half a percent more ABV than the others – sitting at 5% – it is also fuller in body with caramel, malty flavours sitting underneath the leafy but delicate citrus notes from the hops. Boondoggle has more bitterness than the others, with an astringency to the finish that would make it great with food. On its own however it lacks the pleasing fruit characteristics of the others, with less of that refreshing snappyness. The finish is unusually creamy, again meaning it would be great with food but losing it some sheer summery gluggablility points.

Again and again Fuller's comes up trumps in the 'best of the bigger ale breweries' stakes in my opinion and Discovery is no exception, beating the others hands down. Wychcraft is nice if a little underwhelming, whilst (as much as I want my fellow Hampshire brothers to be on top) Boondoggle is too creamy and astringent for a summery session beer. If I had a big pork roast, Boondoggle would be perfect but for now, I'm off to the offie to buy another bottle of Fuller's Discovery.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Eating With Notepads

If you're into flavours, it's great to be friends with a good chef. But if your interest in flavour more than borders on obsession and one of your best friends is a chef in a Michelin starred restaurant, you have a recipe for a seriously fun time (excuse the pun). Every now and again we get together and geek out on food and drink matches. I teach him about drink and he teaches me how to cook, a great partnership that hopefully you'll see a bit more of in the future.

So what's on the menu? We started with a Thai chicken consomme with prawn dumplings, roasted red peppers, spring onions and mushrooms. An aromatic and herbaceous dish with lots of coriander and lemon grass. Straight away I reach for an IPA for Thai food, and this time I went for Thornbridge Jaipur as it's got a bit more tropical fruit character than some.

The fruity flavours matched the aromatic quality of the consomme and the bitterness balanced the umami savouriness perfectly. The sweet, roasted red pepper snuggles up to the fruit while the coriander worked with the piney flavours from the hops. The beer was a bit overwhelming for the delicate flavours of the prawn mousse in the dumplings, so we thought a little chilli in the mousse would have not only helped balance the beer and food combination, but would also have lifted the dish itself, with the consomme naturally tempering the heat.

Next up on the menu I was lucky enough to be treated to rack of lamb with bulgar wheat tabouleh, roasted red peppers and babaganoush. Always good to be cooked for by someone who is used to cooking fine dining! Rack of lamb is actually quite a delicate cut so I wanted something on the lighter side but with earthy flavours to match those in the lamb, and bright red fruit to work with the fresh tabouleh and the sweet roasted peppers. Michelle Richardson's pinot noir from Central Otago in New Zealand's south island happened to be laying down in the wine rack but hey, that good a cut of meat needs a fancy bottle.

Unfortunately we were a bit disappointed with it. I was hoping the sweet cherry, vegetal and light spicy flavours common in New Zealand Pinot Noir would be great with the sweet roasted peppers and succulent meat but this wine had too way much acidity and a big spike of alcohol, meaning it overpowered the delicate flavours in the dish. We added a squeeze of lemon juice to the food to try and balance the acidity which helped, but the hit of alcohol still took over.

This wine would match acidity-tempering creamy sauces well, but the dish needed something earthier and more delicate, like a good red Burgundy or a Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley.

Some of it worked, some of it didn't but good lessons learned and we enjoyed some amazing flavours. (I also loved eating with someone who doesn't mind me writing notes...and even contributes!).

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Anchor Christmas Ale 2011

Sometimes you try a beer that completely blows you away. Occasionally it can be the moment that influences your enjoyment, and when you try the beer again it's not quite as good as you remember – but sometimes it genuinely is that good.

The best beer that fits this example for me is Anchor Christmas Ale 2011. I shared it at Christmas with my uncle and step-dad in a great family-get-together moment, and the beer really surprised me with a world of flavours I wasn't expecting. Suffice to say I'd already had a few and eaten loads of cake, so when I found a couple left in my local beer shop last week I had to see if it really was as good as I remember.

The first thing you get with this beer are aromas of sweet cherry, cloves and ginger, backed up by a touch of classic American piny hop and fern aromas. The palate then hits you with a world of caramel and light mocha malt flavours before those cherries, cloves and ginger follow from the nose. These characteristics build and build, turning into spicy liquorice notes with the tiniest hint of chilli heat on the finish.

It's not a heavy beer like a lot of porter and Belgian dubbel style Christmas beers either, weighing in at only 5.5%. All those flavours are packed into a surprisingly fresh and dangerously drinkable beer, with nods to the German bock style.

Every sip had more flavour; beautifully spiced, complex, warming and moreish. As you can probably tell, I'm pretty chuffed. The only shame is it's a secret recipe that changes every year. On the flip side, I can't wait to see what next year's tastes like.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Moncada Brewery

In my continual exploration of the breweries in London, I've recently come across the newly-opened Moncada Brewery.

Unlike a lot of the breweries popping up at the moment who are largely based in the East End and make modern beers with traditional labelling, Moncada are situated in Ladbroke Grove in West London and make traditional beers with slick and modern label designs.

Run by former chef and Argentinian Julio Moncada – who clearly has a passion for natural ingredients – Moncada brews 3 beers; a Blond, an Amber and a Bitter. Let's see if they taste as good as they look.

A pale beer with floral and grapefruit aromas. The palate is crisp and fresh with delicate biscuit notes and the fruity hop characteristics of citrus and light tropical fruits. Extremely easy drinking with a nice bitter snap. A very summery ale.

Gold in colour with leafy hop aromas and a sweet round mouthfeel, the Amber features light caramel malt flavours with fruity hops coming through, bringing citrus and peachy flavours with them.

Deep copper coloured with a yeasty nose again revealing leafy hops, plus caramel and demerara aromas. The palate shows some lovely round and slightly chewy malt flavours, with a little hint of dried fruit.

All in all, these are great traditional-style beers, clean in flavour with a good depth, and they showcase mainly British malt and hops well. As with a few of the new breweries, Moncada's bottle conditioning is a little hit and miss at the moment – of the five beers I've had from them so far, one was a bit flat and sweaty and another a little too lively – but this will improve with time. Personally, I think Julio's off to a great start.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Bring Your Own

Theatre Of Wine, situated in Tufnell Park and Greenwich in London, is one of my favourite wine merchants. They stock wines you will be hard pushed to find anywhere else in the UK and their beer range isn't too shabby either.

Every Wednesday they run themed tastings, which I always mean to go to but unfortunately never get round to. That is, until last week when luckily I had the evening off work to go along to their first tasting of the year - this time with the somewhat novelty theme of 'bring your own'. That may sound a little stingy, but you didn't taste the cheese they bought and the samples they supplied to try from their own collection. Excellent stuff.

The attendees ranged from passionate regular customers to friends in the industry, which lead to a really interesting line-up of wines to try. Here's the pick of the bunch:

Par Robert and Bernard Plageles – Mauzac
This is a 'natural wine', meaning it has no added sulphites or other chemicals and is unfiltered. This is not for the sake of following a trend however, as the techniques used pre-date other sparkling wines and it is made in a very traditional style. A little acetic but that gave way to some lovely apple crumble flavours with creamy bubbles. It was cloudy in the glass due to the lack of stabilising sulphites but only in the same way as a bottle conditioned beer.

Villars Fontaine - Haut Cotes De Nuits Blanc 1996
From the heart of Burgundy, this was something else. The producer doesn't release their wines until they've had a good bit of ageing, and this one showed its maturity with aromas of olives and nuts. It tasted a little volatile, like it's teetering on the edge, but held itself together revealing more olive flavours and a saltiness, with a limey punch. Really interesting and delicious.

Valtuille Mencia – Bierzo
A little known variety from a tiny region in north-west Spain and quickly becoming one of my favourites. This is amazingly grown with pre-pheloxera vines and had a wonderfully purity to the flavours. Fresh red fruit aromas and lovely herbal notes with very grippy tannins that subside delightfully to reveal some bright redcurrant and blueberry flavours. Perfumed, slightly savoury and utterly moreish.

Pietracura – Taurasi
Aglianico and the Campania region in southern Italy don't get half as much press as they deserve, with the limelight being given to Tuscany, Piedmont and the Veneto. Aglianico is the star of the show in Campania and this is a superb wine from the tiny Taurasi area. Rose petals and bright red fruit jump from the glass revealing very ripe, ultra juicy red fruit and some savoury, pithy blackberry flavours in the palate. It's wonderfully expressive.

Nach 7 – Pinot Noir 
This wine is the perfect example of what really separates Theatre Of Wine from its competitors; completely mental wines you will be hard pushed to find anywhere. This Pinot Noir is a one off – Swiss wine makers found an old barrel, lost for a few years that had grown a layer of 'flor' (protective yeast layer that you usually find with sherry production). It was a bit rough, so they put it into demijohns on the roof which is a similar process to that used in Madeira production, but it was still a bit dodgy so they fortified it. What was it like? A bit strange. Like a lighter mix of Port, Madeira and Banyuls but with a sticky mouthfeel full of dark cherry flavours.

We finished the tasting with one of the attendee's home-brewed pear and damson wine which was surprisingly delicious and a fitting end to a hugely varied and personal tasting. It's great getting together for informal tastings sometimes. You not only learn new things about wine but you also get to learn more about the people, which can be equally fascinating.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Booze Noel

Ho ho ho it's another blog about what to drink at Christmas! Since everyone is having fun writing about their favourite festive tipple, I thought I would get stuck in. Traditionally Christmas is the time to try and drink as many different drinks as possible throughout the day, justifying it with the plethora of different foods you get to shovel down your neck. So I will feature a few of my favourites and generally what they go with pretty well. Imagine you've just woken up extremely thirsty on Christmas morning and we'll start from there.

In both mine and my fiancĂ©’s families it's traditional to start off with Vermouth and lemonade pretty much as soon as everyone has woken up. I recommend getting the cheapest vermouth you can find blended three parts to one of Value Lemonade. Put a bit of lime in it to make it look fancy.

Next up you might want to have a stubby bottle of French lager or maybe another Martini – some like to have a G&T, but it's up to you. If you insist on ploughing straight into the chocolates Santa got you then I recommend hitting the miscellaneous Irish liqueur early as they make a great combo.

In my family we have Christmas dinner at lunchtime and this is when the serious drinks start to come out. If you're classy enough to have a prawn cocktail starter (come on, you know it's actually really nice and a bit of kitsch never hurt anyone) crack a good bottle of fizz. I like a good Cremant de Bourgogne, a French sparkling wine made in the same style as champagne, half the price and just as much quality and flavour.

Next for the main event. Your mother has spent forever cooking what should be one of the best meals of the year so it's important not to spoil it with terrible wine. My top tip for Christmas dinner has to be Pinot Noir. The grapes cherry flavours, earthy notes and light body lend themselves excellently to poultry, cranberry sauce, stuffing and gammon. If you're having a classic turkey roast, go for a something French as it's a little lighter, often with savoury notes. If you're having something a bit richer, go for a Californian or New Zealand pinot as they are more robust. White drinker? A big buttery Chardonnay is ideal, or try something fresher and slightly nutty like a Fiano from Italy for something different.

To finish, dessert wine is a great alternative to an actual dessert as you are probably pretty full at this point. Monbazillac is a great choice. Situated a little further south than the famous Sauternes in Bordeaux and made in the same style, but often much cheaper. Fresh, citrussy and honeyed, it'll clear your palate perfectly. If you are up for something a little richer, go with a Pedro Ximinez Sherry (PX), a deep, dark, luscious, caramel and raisin filled treat. Both these will also go fantastically with the cheese board later.

After dinner you might want to have a nice nap through the Queen's speech ready to get back on it in the evening.

At this point all bets are off. You could decide to head straight for the array of dodgy liqueurs you never usually buy but feel you should as it's Christmas. I recommend having a couple of beers. My festive favourites are the Belgian Christmas Beers or the great selection of darker British Christmas Ales, which are usually spiced and really taste like Christmas. If you want something light and gluggable, good Czech Pilsner or hoppy American Pale Ales are great for swigging whilst playing with your new toys.

After everyone has let their dinner go down and gone for a walk/had an argument/played Monopoly and Cluedo/watched several 80's Christmas films – delete where appropriate – it's time for more food.

A classic spread of hams. cheese and pickles is a thing of beauty and a lot of fun to match with drinks. This is probably a good time to crack out the snowballs (advocaat & lemonade); they don't go remotely well with any of the above food but are delicious and essential nonetheless. My top wine choice is a nice Beaujolais. No, not that horrible nouveau rubbish, I'm talking about one of the top areas (or Crus) of the region like a chunky, dark cherry filled Morgon or a flowery Brouilly. With plenty of juicy acidity to cut through, it's the perfect partner to cured meats and the new hero red wine for Christmas fayre. If you're still on the beer a hoppy, malty Double IPA is great, lifting fat and adding new dimensions to the food as it goes.

After tea every household should get the cheeseboard out and don't forget the 'biscuits for cheese' pack you bought when it was on special offer two months ago. This is the ideal time to bring out the port. Port and blue cheese is a match made in heaven and the perfect tipple to sozzle your way through the Eastenders Christmas special. A good LBV (late bottled vintage) Port does the job nicely, with more complexity and flavour than a basic ruby but without the price-tag of vintage port. An alternative to port and a new champion (or old classic depending on the way you look at it) for the cheeseboard is Barley Wine. A very strong beer with a massive malt content which can be just as warming as a port but not quite as boozy. Hoppy American ones add citrus flavours while classic English ones are biscuity, making them pair great with lots of different cheeses, rather than just the strong blue stinky ones.

If you're still going by this time, firstly I commend your stamina! Secondly it's clearly the time to hit the single malt whiskey. The ultimate winter warmer and a sure thing to knock you out after a long day of festivities – or make charades even more obscure than it usually is.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!