Sunday, 17 June 2012

MBA - State of the Dan Nation

The other day, or yesterday (whenever it was), I pinned up a quick note about the state of the beer scene in Birmingham now (as in ‘now’), plus a vision of where we are headed and whether things are looking good.  Which they are. 

But what about me?  Where am I located on the graph?  Well, I clocked up 221 rates on Ratebeer so far this year, which is a healthy number.  Travel-wise, I've managed very enjoyable visits to London and Sheffield, and popped home to the Swan andRushes - all of which have reinforced (quite thickly), my excitement about beer and my passion to continue seeking out the very best. 


I can see trouble on the horizon, and it is this: I am starting (ever so slightly) to be priced out of the craft beer revolution. 

I have a job, I pay my bills etc, so I am not claiming poverty by any means; BUT the general state of the economy means there is less disposable income at my, err disposal than previously.  In fact the economy might not even be the principal factor in limiting my pocket money.  It's more likely something to do with the fact that I am no longer a young, thrusting urbanite, instead, I am grown up (sort of) and have responsibilities.  Being a parent invariably requires a different allocation of financial resources, with beer ranking lower on the family spending plan, than e.g. clothes for one's child (me and my mixed up priorities, eh?).  But anyway, less disposable income, coupled with the very real increase in the cost of today's 'premium' beer products, means that I end up with less bang for my buck.  Like it or not, good beer is an expensive business these days***.

This is frustrating for a number of reasons, but mainly because I feel that with over a decade's experience of hunting for great beer 'under my belt', I now know a thing or two about quality, style etc etc.  It's just that I can't ruddy well afford to keep my knowledge up to date.  In my brain of brains (honestly) I do know that a barrel-aged imperial stout will be more interesting and flavoursome than a Polish Mocne, but if I want to have a couple of drinks whilst watching The Big Question, with NickyCampbell on TV, what am I more likely to buy?  Which of those two can I afford to buy?*

There is obviously a sliding scale of cost, with lots of great UK beer available at perfectly reasonable prices (yes I'm talking about Bristol Beer Factory, Buxton, Summer Wine and so forth), but there are also an increasing number of products with price-boosting features - i) limited editions, ii) higher strength beers, iii) imported beers, iv) super trendy beers, v) collaborations, vi) all of the above.  With my own twisted logic I can** say YES to a £6 Nogne #100, which is a very strong beer, flown over the fjords from expensive Norway (plus I already know how delicious it is); but I am always going to struggle to say YES to a Brewdog/Nogne/Mikkeller collaboration for £17, no matter how fantastic it might be.  {I also hate having to cough up for 750ml bottles, which I might not like or might have to share, but that is an unrelated grumble.}

In short, I have to limit my involvement in the craft beer scene, due to rising costs.  I'm not all in; I'm a % of the way in.  Am I the only one?  How do other beer fans on a budget cope?  If I lived in London for example I would want to be in Craft Beer Co or Euston Tap every day sampling halves of £4.95 foreign DIPAs, but I wouldn't be able to. 

Depressing though it is, maybe I was more ignorant and blissful, when Birmingham was more rubbish for beer.  Being confronted with good beer, with increasing ease and frequency, is turning me green with envy.  Gosh, that is bad karma on my part.

Hence the ‘Second Summer of German Beer’, which I keep trailing, and honestly will explain very shortly. 

*you know the answer to this.  It's called a rhetorical question.
**just about.
*** with a few notable exceptions, e.g. Brodies

Thursday, 14 June 2012

State of the (Mediocre Beer) Nation - Brum

I have now been writing this blog for around 6 months, which has been a lot of fun.  I have enjoyed writing a load of nonsense about my beer drinking exploits and have tried in my own small way to promote good beer in Birmingham and highlight good practice.

Six months is therefore, probably a good point at which to take stock of where we are; and by 'we' I mean both me and Birmingham (as a whole).  [Due to my garrulous typing, this will be done in 2 concurrent posts].

Part I – Brum

At the start of the year, Birmingham had just welcomed the Post Office Vaults, which is now very well established indeed, with a massive range of bottled beers, great staff and a rising profile.  It is the best beer pub in the City. 

But...... from August onwards Brewdog will be coming to town, which will undoubtedly change things.  Now in many ways this is a dream come true, certainly it's something myself and other Brum beer bloggers and tweeters have begged for.  But could it be the tipping point?  I think 'Yes' is that answer to that one.  Yes.  At last Birmingham beer fans will have some tangible part of the national craft beer 'scene' to cling onto; at last we are being taken seriously, by one of the big players.

I fully anticipate that the arrival of Brewdog will spark the counter-arrival of one or two independent craft beer bars, at which point we really will be in the midst of an upward trend.  Equally, I think it will breed a new err breed of clientele, which will dovetail quite nicely with the fanbases of pubs like the Anchor, the Wellington and the Bartons Arms, which will still have a part to play, along with the Nicholsons and Bitter and Twisted venues.   

Off-licence-wise, Birmingham has also expanded it's waistline, as Cotteridge Wines have popped up to become the first real competitor to Stirchley Wines; having taken note of the quiet revolution which SWS have been orchestrating for over a decade.  Indeed, South West Birmingham has become something of a bottled beer haven.  If only East and North Birmingham could seize the baton in as enthusiastic a fashion: but then again, they are already well served for Polish and otherEast European beer produce, as evidenced by my ongoing off licenceproject.  

It seems strange to think that only 18 months ago, Brum had never laid eyes on a Mikkeller, Kernel, Nogne or Stone, but thanks to SWS, I think we already take for granted our access to these international beer icons.  Indeed, if the Twittersphere is anything to go by, the City's thirst for new national and international beer brands is getting ever more intense.

Talking of Twitter, April saw the first Birmingham Twissup, which was a great event in itself, but more importantly was the genesis of Birmingham’s first ever, (upcoming) Craft Beer Festival, provisionally entitled Brum Craft 2013.  Now this will be a fantastic event anyway, but my feeling is that even in 2013, it will still be the only opportunity for beer fans in the City to sample the UK’s best craft beer on keg and cask.  Whither Magic Rock?  Whither Kernel?  My tongue is already watering.

In short then, the beer scene in Birmingham is getting better and better.  It's still not as good as London or Sheffield, nor Manchester, Newcastle, Huddersfield, Ilkeston, Cambridge etc.  But we are moving in the right direction, and the pace of that movement is picking up (in the right direction of pace).

In my next post, which forms Part II of this State of the Nation report, I will talk about myself*...

*for a change

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Double Trouble (a lightweight blog 'piece' on the theme of duos/twos)

In the midst of an existential beer bloggers' crisis, I have struggled over the problem of how (as a wannabe blogger and erstwhile promoter of good beer practices in Brum) to balance my loyalty towards a long term stalwart (and pioneer of Birmingham's good beer scene), with the pressing claim of a younger upstart.

As such, and in complete avoidance of the subject, I am hereby attaching photos of some beer duos, purchased from the two premier beer shops in Brum:

First up: Nogne Blonde and Nogne Brun

 Now, here's Leikeim Steinbier and Allgauer Oster Festbier.  I really must find out what Steinbier actually is.

Now then.  Pannepot is one of the greatest beers in the World.  But here are it's brothers: Pannepeut and Pannepot Grand Reserva.

Finally, two German lagers.  Well, that is a Pilsner and a Hell. 

I shall be attempting to, and indeed have been sampling these during the week beginning last Saturday.  Check my Ratebeer page to see what I thought of them.

If nothing else, this has been a bit of gratuitous beer porn for you.  That's all.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

My love of Lists: No.2 - Dunkelweizen

When I wrote briefly about my DownDIPA evening, I vainly promised to do a blog post on my top 10 Dunkelweizens (as if I'm some big-shot, or something).

Anyway, so this morning I've actually sat down to do this thing, and what do you know?  Well, a glance at my Ratebeer statistics reveals that I have only ever rated 12 Dunkelweizen, in the history of my 9 years of writing beer reviews.  Now 12 is not really a very big number is it?  To draw a top 10 from a total of 12 risks sort of conferring respectability on something which I may not have even thoroughly loved at the time.

In fact, of the 12, one of them Teme Valley Dark Stranger is British and didn't even seem like a real example of the style, so I'm excluding it.

So then, with that preamble done, here {drum roll please} is my list of my Top Ten (from a field of eleven) Dunkelweizens.

10. Airbrau Mayday

Munich Airport has it's own brewpub.  How brilliant is that?  This beer was sampled in 2006 during Martin's stag weekend in, wait for it - Munich.  I described this as having "some slight wheatgerm, cereal flavour, but not enough".  Score 3

9. Maisels Weisse Dunkel

Sampled only 2 weeks ago.  I said "not compelling particularly, but ultra professional".  Score 3.4

8. Greif Brau Dunkle Weisse

Tried at the Swan and Rushes, during the Ratebeer Leicester crawl in January 2005.  "Good dark brown Weisse, with plenty of clean toffee and fruit. Some metal, but doesn’t weigh down the experience. Very light, fragrant, fresh and tasty".  Score 3.4

7. Paulaner Hefeweissbier Dunkel

Bought from Beers of Europe, and sampled in 2003.  I said then: "seems to improve as you get further into the pint. Some flavours begin to emerge in the finish - even some fruit".  Score 3.4 (at least my scoring is consistent. Boring even).

6. Gutmann Dunkles Hefeweizen

Bottle supped at the Criterion in 2006.  "Refreshing in mouth and aroma, but not the deepest flavour I’ve ever known".  Blimey, my comments are a bit half-hearted with all of these.  I thought I liked Dunkelweizens, but maybe I'm lying to myself.  Score 3.5

5. Erdinger Dunkel

More faint praise for this one, bought from Stirchley Wines and Spirits in 2003: "the sweetness, coffee and wheat don't completely hang together - each is pleasant and adds up to a good experience, but this is not perfect."  Score 3.5

4. Arcobrau Weissbier Dunkel AKA Waitrose Bavarian Dark Wheat Beer

That's right!  A genuine Bavarian beer, masquerading as a genuine Bavarian beer from Waitrose.  This one is always available, within easy reach, and that is good, non?  Rated in 2010, I said "Refreshing, slightly nutty, with a pleasant sweet yeastiness. Nice".  Score 3.6

3. Andechs Dunkles Weissbier

In 2006 I was best man to my lifelong chum Martin.  I organised his stag weekend in Munich, to give us all a chance to indulge in some Bavarian beer pleasure, which we most certainly did.  Unfortunately, (as with every stag do I've ever been to) we overextended ourselves on the first evening.  This meant that next morning, in order to partake in the excursion I had planned for the group, I had to drag a dozen miserable, hungover gits to the S-bahn, so that we could get to Herrsching am Ammersee, which as everyone knows is the location of the Andechs monastery, which produces some fine, fine beer.  Once we arrived at Herrsching station, my pre-trip notes reliably informed me that it was a mere 10-minute walk through a woodland glade, to reach our destination, and some hair of the/a dog.  Unfortunately I had gotten my calculations slightly wrong, so the 10 minute walk which the grumpy blokes reluctantly agreed to, actually turned into a 60-minute hike vertically up several hills, through a number of forests, in muggy, sweaty weather.  During the walk, I moved to head of the pack so that I wouldn't have to listen to the rest of the group, swearing, hyperventilating and dry-retching.  I was also worried that they would lynch me.  Anyway, to cut a long story short, when we did reach the Andechs monastery, the beer was some of the most welcome I've ever tasted.  Having said that, my review of the Dunkles Weissbier isn't quite as euphoric as I would have thought: "Refreshing - especially after that painful climb to the venue".  Yes.  To add a humorous coda to this story, on the way back to the S-bahn station, we discovered an alternative route, which was indeed 10 minutes.  We all laughed.  Score 3.7

2. Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier Dunkel

The bottle was bought from the Offie, Leicester and rated in 2004. "Very tasty wheat beer: all the good points - sweet, crisp, refreshing."  For my money, Weihenstepahner are one of the best wheat beer producers in the World (if not the best).  Score 3.7

1. Karg Dunkles Hefe-Weissbier

Sampled and rated in 2004, at the Swan and Rushes. This takes the top spot with ease.  I said: "remarkably complex for the style. Plenty of sourish, appley, fruit flavour in here, with a delicious lingering yeasty aftertaste. This is ruddy, hazy, brown colour, with a big fluffy head. It's light and very moreish". Golly gosh!  I did like this one.  Score 4.3

So then a clear winner.  But overall, the scores aren't massively high (my average Dunkelweizen score in 3.44).

I really do need to revisit Dunkelweizens generally and this "Summer of German Beer" seems as good a time as any.

Oh and the unlucky 11th Dunkelweizen, which missed the cut???????  Take a bow Weizenland Weissbier Dunkel


Tuesday, 5 June 2012

It is the Season for Saison

Lots of people are brewing Saisons these days, which presumably means lots of people are drinking them.  This is both of these things are good news. Is.

When I started rating beer around 03/04, there were about 20 Saisons in the whole World, but a look at the stats the other day revealed 1953 examples of the style on their database.  Wow!  What an explosion.

Over the Jubilee weekend, I was lucky enough to be back in my home city of Leicester, which even more luckily, allowed me to get to the Swan and Rushes for a brief, concentrated burst of Belgian beer indulgence.

It was also the chance to try 2 Saisons back to back, which is a beautifully rare occurrence.  I even managed to take some photos, to remember the occasion by.

First up was the daddy of all Saisons (IMO), aka the blueprint by which others of the style are judged etc.  Saison Dupont blew me away when I first tried it a long time ago, and it was just as good on Sunday: smooth, slightly tart, slightly sweet, and rather dry.  Fresh, refreshing, bright gold/white topping and a lively personality - enough to satisfy all the senses.

Next up was a first sample of De Ranke Saison de Dottignies, which, against all the odds, and hard to believe though it is, was arguably as good as the Dupont.  More of a pronounced dryness in this one, but all the same satisfying occurrences of sweet, wheat, restrained hop and malt, mit accentuated straw.  Blisteringly drinkable.  Electrictrifyingly engaging.  Another beautiful treat on eye, nose, tongue and brain.

My brother Martin meanwhile was quaffing and enjoying a Saison Cazeau with added elderflower.

For the next conquest however, I switched to Gouden Carolus Hopsinjoor, mainly because it had 'hops' in the title.  Not a Saison this, but not a million miles away.  But before I go on and on about beer styles and all that jazz, I need to state quite clearly that this was a delicious beer.  Just as good as both the Dupont and the Dottignies.  It had everything.  Well, it certainly had a lot: dryness, perfectly subtle fruit hops, a nudge of alcoholic strength (it was 8%) and all bound together in perfect golden unity.  A Belgian masterclass was this.

Last of the night was not a Saison either, but maintaining the theme of the evening, it was Belgian, it was dry and it was an intellectual tongue party.  Mart and I both had a Lindemans Cuvee Rene Gueuze.  We literally could not resist the lure of Gueuze.  It. Never. Disappoints.

It didn't disappoint.  Handpicking all the pleasure of champagne, cider, and best Belgian beer, you end up with something that is uniquely tasty, and that is called Gueuze.  This example is not the sourest or the most unrelenting; it has a little sweetness and is comparatively easy drinking.  I love it.

I also love the Swan and Rushes, and have done since my first visit it about 2001.  I love the shape of the pub, the furniture, the helpful, knowledgeable staff and the beer choice.  Whether real ale or continental bottles are your bag, you can always fill your boots at the Swan.

Here's to my next visit.  Soon may it come.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Brand Focus no.1: Oakham

I sometimes take Oakham for granted.  I think perhaps all UK beer fans do.  They have been doing their thing for as long as I have been rating beers.  Unencumbered by fashion, unaffiliated with 'craft' beer, this Peterborough-based powerhouse have been steadily churning out peerless Golden Ales, with a level of consistency which is breathtaking: to wit, I cannot remember having a bad Oakham. 

When I look back to British real ale in 2003 (around the time I was 'discovering' it) brown bitters were ceding ground to a new breed of well hopped British beers, all golden in hue.  Crouch Vale were there (and still are), Hopback Summer Lightning was an early archetype of the style, Dark Star Hophead was about to land and Oakham JHB was tasting marvellous.  Coincidentally, in early 2004 Oakham opened a pub in Brum - the peerlessly beautiful and carefully restored Bartons Arms, replete with a range of Oakham's best on handpull.  Here was easy access to fresh JHB, White Dwarf and Bishops Farewell.  As I said, marvellous.  But that wasn't the end of it: over the succeeding 8 years Oakham have continued to deliver beer after new beer, all well hopped, flavoursome and with the balance of an Olympic gymnast.  Here are some highlights.


Supped throughout the evening of Christmas Eve 2010, with my brother Chris, in the homely Black Eagle.  This. Blew. My. Chops. Off.  A hoppy taste yes (I expected nothing less), but oh! what hops.  Like a basket of freshly sliced mangoes tipped down my eager gullet.  So clean, powerful and delicious.  Wow.  It's now a regular at the Wellington, but my first taste of Citra was a beer experience that will be branded on my soul, till my toes turn up.  Terrible headache in the morning, mind.

Hawse Buckler

A bottle purchased from Global Wines not long after the birth of my daughter; this, unusually is a dark Foreign Stout, but is delivered with the standard precision and level of hopping you would expect.  Smooth, flavoursome and with diversely profiled, but equally generous portions of roast and big hop.  I actually believe this was a precursor to Black IPA - a style which is now 'all the rage'.  It disappeared for a while, but I was happy to sample it at the Bartons a couple of months back.

Bishops Farewell

A mainstay of the Oakham range, this one kills it every time.  So rich, so tongue crushingly, unrelenting hoppy, but served in soupcons of such tonsil caressing care, that my heart skips a beat with every swig.  This is the archetypal UK Golden Ale, as far as I am concerned.*


Sampled at the Swan and Rushes in Leicester, just after witnessing LCFC beat eventual Championship promotees Southampton.  This is a big, purple IPA, with an Ikea shelving system full of unusual tastes and flavours, vying for supremacy on one's tongue.  Forest fruit, marzipan, deep radiant, bitter and powerful hops. Big, even by Oakham's standards, and one of the first, and still rare, genuine UK cask IPAs that I have tried/loved.

I could go on and on.  I could wax lyrical about tropical Preacher, super solid Taipan, light, yet merciless Tranquility or bitter, smooth and powerful Green Devil.  But I'll try to wrap up here.  My Ratebeer records show that I have sampled 42 Oakham beers, and the scores I've given show that I've loved them all.  Oakham are masters of producing consistently high quality beers, and if pushed, I might even say that they produce the best beers available on cask in the UK.  Even when pitted against the likes of Kernel and Mikkeller, Oakham punch at and above their weight.**

*Unless I say otherwise at a later date.
**Unless I say otherwise at a later date.