Monthly Archives: March 2014

Wild wild life

‘You are sad,’ the Knight said in an anxious tone: ‘let me sing you a song to comfort you.’

‘Is it very long?’ Alice asked, for she had heard a good deal of poetry that day.

‘It’s long,’ said the Knight, ‘but it’s very, very beautiful. Everybody that hears me sing it — either it brings the tears into their eyes, or else –‘

‘Or else what?’ said Alice, for the Knight had made a sudden pause.

‘Or else it doesn’t, you know.’

Went out for a pint the other day. Cost me a tenner. Tell a lie, I had a pint and a half. Keg stuff. Twelve quid all in. Wasn’t too bad, though, there was a bag of crisps in there as well. And the beer was…

Well, the beer was… The thing about the beer is, it was…

The thing about the beer is, it was almost worth it. Possibly. Unless it wasn’t.

I’d better start again, and this time put in some information. The Font in Chorlton recently had a Meet the Brewer event with Wild. I didn’t go, but I was intrigued by some of the beers that they left behind when they went – notably a trio of stupidly high-strength and ridiculously high-priced beers on the keg fonts, Modus Wine, Raconteur and Wildebeest. Modus Wine was the weakest and cheapest of the three – and I’m using those words strictly in a comparative sense, as it was 8.3% and £7.80 a pint.

Anyway, a couple of weekends ago I headed down there to check them out. Fortunately Font serve beer in thirds, which made it realistic for both my liver and my wallet to try all three; I even hung around for a half of the same brewery’s Fresh, which was as zingy and herbal a pale ale as I’ve ever had on keg, at the almost reasonable price of a fiver a pint.

As for the main event, Modus Wine – which I guess is a version of Modus Operandi, an old ale aged with wild yeast, only aged in wine casks – was distinctively winey; very distinctively winey. Sweet, too, and fruity, but with that winey quality cutting through. If you imagine a fruit punch that’s had about six bottles of Madeira poured into it, it was a lot like that. An interesting and memorable flavour; my only reservation was that it wasn’t much like beer. Raconteur (9.9%), secondly, is a barley wine aged in marc de bourgogne casks. It was less sweet and fruity than the Modus, with more of a malty old ale character, but here again the wine casks were doing a lot of the work; that ‘Madeira’ flavour kept cutting through. As for Wildebeest (11%), Wild’s “imperial espresso chocolate vanilla stout”, this was probably the least distinctive of all; it didn’t really drink its strength, and tasted a lot like Young’s Double Chocolate stout, only sweeter.

It was also absolutely divine – a beautiful beer. At least, I think it was. I’m not saying that because my memories are unclear, but because that was the experience of drinking it – as the glass went down, I went from “is that all there is? and why is it so sweet?” to “my God, this is superb!”, and back again. Similarly with the wine-cask beers – I genuinely couldn’t decide whether they were works of sublime (if warped) brewing genius or just examples of how to combine some big, brash flavours with a lot of alcohol. Either they were some of the best beers I’ve ever tasted or else… or else they weren’t, you know.

I will say this, though – for several days afterwards I found I was drinking some terribly uninspired, pedestrian beers. Yeah, yeah – so it’s a strong IPA with American hops. So what? Where’s the Madeira?

Gratuitous equine dentistry while you wait

A few weeks ago, in common with a number of other bloggers, I was sent a box of (eight bottles of) beer by a company called Beer52, which was launching a subscription service where you pay them a monthly fee for a monthly box of (eight bottles of) beer. I didn’t break out the bunting at the time, pointing out that (a) while I do write reviews (and will invariably write something about anything blog-relevant which I’m sent) this blog is not part of the advertising industry and does not feature posts beginning “Those nice people at XYZ” and ending “why not drop them a line quoting BLOGAD?”; (b) the company’s initial approach to me had been so tired, unoriginal and impersonal that it looked almost, but not quite, exactly like spam; and (c) the freebie itself was equally impersonal, and frankly a bit unimpressive in terms of PR – while a free box of beer does mean quite a lot to me as a punter, to a company whose business is sending out boxes of beer it’s just some spare stuff. Also (d) I wasn’t sure about the price point – the price you actually pay if you take up the service, that is, once you’re past the first month where a discount may be available. (The full price is £24 per month.)

But I plugged it, and I mentioned the discount code they gave me, so there you go.

In the storm of adverse publicity which my post didn’t inspire, in which fellow bloggers didn’t denounce me as an ingrate or express bafflement at my refusal to ‘play the game’, a point which wasn’t made repeatedly (or at all) was that I hadn’t said anything about the actual beer. Be that as it may (or, er, mayn’t), I didn’t say anything about the actual beer, and it was a bit of an omission. So here goes.

Summerhall Barney’s Good Ordinary Pale Ale 3.8%
Too ‘ordinary’ by half. Tasted of nothing in particular. A good thirst-quencher, perhaps – particularly at that strength – but in that case, why is it in a 330 ml bottle? If I’d spent £3 on this I wouldn’t be pleased, to be honest.

Grain 316 Extra Pale Ale 3.9%
This was a lot more like it. Very pale, very hoppy – mostly the ‘dry’ end of hoppy rather than the ‘fruit salad’ – and very nice. I could drink a lot of this; 500 ml, in particular, would pose no problem at all (yes, this was another 330 ml bottle).

Top Out Staple Pale Ale 4.0%
Better than the Barney’s, but a bit raw and twiggy; there was a creamy quality to it which I wasn’t sure about.

Church Farm Harry’s Heifer 4.2%
The third new brewery to me (I had heard of Grain) – and I’m afraid I haven’t yet found one I’ll be seeking out again. This was a best bitter, and a bit on the sweet and heavy side for me.

Oakham Citra 4.6%
This surely needs no introduction – a mighty beer. I was surprised to see it in this box, though; it’s currently on sale at the Wythenshawe branch of B&M Bargains for £1.79. (To be fair, perhaps what it’s doing there is the real question.)

Stevens Point Brewery Black Ale 5.2%
Another small bottle (355 ml). I’m not a style Nazi, but it did bug me that I couldn’t work out what this was meant to be. I’m a big fan of contemporary porters and strong milds and dark old ales, and it didn’t strike me as any of those. Well made – not at all twiggy – and pretty nice, but just a bit unadventurous; a B+ rather than an A. (Stevens Point beers are available in our local Tesco’s, although not this one (or the next one).)

Stevens Point Belgian White 5.4%
Another tick in the “OK, fine, nothing actually wrong with it” column. (Also, another small bottle.) American brewery does ‘Belgian’ witbier. I kind of wish they wouldn’t, but the actual beer was… well, fine.

Ticketybrew Dubbel 6.5%
This was the first beer I tasted from my current favourite brewery, and I think it’s fair to say that this is the beer they’ve gone on to great things from; it doesn’t stand up to their stout, let alone the pale ale or that amazing bitter orange thing. But back to the beer I’m actually reviewing. It’s a good one. A dubbel it ain’t, really, but if you told yourself it was from a Belgian commercial brewer mimicking the abbey style you’d probably fall for it. Really very nice.

So that’s three beers that didn’t really work for me, two that were fine but no more than that, and three greats. I’m happy to have got them free. I’m not sure how I’d feel if I’d paid £24, though, or even £14.

(Other reviews are available; here’s a less curmudgeonly view from Paul Bailey.)

Condition, condition, condition

I never used to care about condition in cask beer. I think this is because I never used to get served beer in poor condition; occasionally you’d get a pint that was downright sour and have an interesting conversation with the barman, but flabby, lifeless, borderline-flat beer has always been a rarity in my experience. (At least, for beer out of a pump; with beers on gravity you take your chances.)

As noted a couple of posts ago, I had a pint of Dark Star‘s eponymous Dark Star a couple of weekends ago which looked like flat Coke; some vigorous pump-jockeying produced a bit of a head, but the effect was cosmetic – there was little if any carbonation left in the beer. And now this (a record of a weekend’s drinking):

Sedge Lynn (JDW)
Wicked Weed Sir Ryan the Pounder. Nice APA, in good nick.
Adnam’s Broadside. Big heavy dark bitter. Tired and flabby.

Milestone Welsh Dragon. Decent best bitter. Very tired, almost flat.

Milson Rhodes (JDW)
Kelham Island Zombies of the Stratosphere. Hoppy pale ale. Tasted fine, but almost completely flat – no condition at all. Seriously considered taking it back.
Adnam’s Broadside. In good nick (about time!).

Blackjack The River. Weird-tasting brown ale; will give benefit of doubt (brown ale). In good nick.
Coastal Hopmonster. Pleasant light golden ale (not a hopmonster!). In good nick.

This may not mean anything – apart from suggesting that the Gaslamp’s policy of only having two cask ales on (at most) isn’t entirely a bad thing. I may just have been unlucky in those three beers (or four, if we count the Dark Star the other week). But if condition problems are surfacing in outlets as diverse as the Font and the Beagle, on one hand, and two separate Spoons’ on the other, I do wonder if it’s a sign of something else – the most obvious candidate being over-supply, meaning that pubs can’t shift all the beer they have on before it gets tired. Just as ‘craft’ (or the idea of ‘craft’) goes mainstream, are we hitting Peak Beer – or Peak Bar?

¡Bien! ¡Bien! ¡Super super!

If only they could both lose…

In a statement the Portman Group said: “The independent complaints panel considered that the Oxford English Dictionary definition of ‘loco’, listed as ‘crazy, or off one’s head’, was problematic when used in relation to an alcoholic drink, as it could suggest irresponsible or immoderate consumption, and that care must be taken when using the word on packaging or promotional material.”

Jim Sloan, President of Phusion Projects, said: “We respectfully disagree with the decision of the Independent Complaints Panel of the Portman Group. Phusion Projects has made clear from the outset that the ‘Four Loko’ brand name was intended to refer to the product’s unusual flavours and its four original ingredients.”

Got that? Four as in four (original) ingredients; Loko as in… um… ‘loco’ meaning ‘crazy’, obviously, but referring to unusual flavours. Oh, those crazy flavours. (Flavours include grape, coconut, watermelon, peach, lemon and lime, lemonade and cranberry lemonade.)

We’ve been here before. Four Loko is, basically, loopy-juice; it’s made with malt liquor in the US and with grain alcohol in Europe, with a variety of flavours (all of them sweet), and sold at strengths of 6%, 8% and most commonly 12%. One other thing: it’s sold in cans, of 23.5 US fluid ounces – just under two standard 12-oz bottles, in other words, or 695 ml. That’s an awful lot of alcohol, in readily-neckable form.

And those four (original) ingredients? One of them is alcohol (which at least has the virtue of frankness). Another is taurine, the substance which gave Red Bull its name and whose properties, despite a huge multi-year natural experiment in adding it to soft drinks, remain unclear. The other two are caffeine and guarana, which – whatever else of an exotic and rain-forest-y variety might be in it – is a natural source of caffeine. So, effectively, it was Two Loko: alcohol and caffeine. It’s a powerful combination, and works in (let’s be honest) an enjoyable way; when I was younger and had fewer responsibilities I once spent an entire day going from bar to bar in Barcelona, alternating wine and espresso. (I didn’t have a lot to do the next day.) But neither alcohol nor caffeine is actually good for you in large quantities; the combination, by keeping you alert for longer, makes it easy to drink potentially harmful amounts of alcohol, while simultaneously making it easy to drink potentially harmful amounts of caffeine. Mixing alcohol and caffeine in large quantities (such as 695 ml – just under a pint and a quarter) and at high alcohol concentrations (such as 12%), is basically a bad idea. Put it another way: if you drink a can of old-style Four Loko you’ve basically just drunk 2/3 of a bottle of Buckie (“the UK’s version of Four Loko”, confirms Vice magazine).

Jacob Sullum of the right-Libertarian Reason magazine has tried to defend Four Loko on two occasions, on general “keep the government out of my business” grounds, but it’s a tough pitch. The best he could come up with was to point out that making the cans resealable (to reduce the temptation to neck the entire can) wouldn’t actually stop anyone necking the entire can if they wanted to (true, but so what?); that coffee is used in some cocktails (which aren’t usually served in glasses holding 695 ml); and (my favourite) that “A can of Four Loko contains less alcohol … than some big bottles of craft beer.” A can of Four Loko contains 83.4 mls of alcohol; for an Imperial pint to deliver that much alcohol it would need to be 14.7%. Those are some big bottles of craft beer.

Anyway, a couple of years ago and in the wake of some horribly predictable and happily only near-fatal excess consumption incidents, the powers that be in the US decided (to Reason‘s chagrin) that the whole alcohol/caffeine thing was bad news, and Four Loko was reformulated to contain alcohol and, er, that’s it. So that’s One Loko, then – only not Loko in the sense of… er… can we get back to you on this? Which is where we came in: with Phusion Projects gamely trying to push their 12%-by-volume grain-alcohol-and-Starburst three-pints-of-lager-inna-can confection in the UK, and our old mates at Portman gravely ticking them off for being so irresponsible as to suggest that getting drunk might be enjoyable in some way. As I said at the top, if only they could both lose!

The best beer I drank last night

Going to Font in Chorlton on a Saturday night is becoming a bit of an ordeal. I was there last night for about 45 minutes, a good third of which I spent standing at the bar waiting for someone to take my order. (I blame the cocktails – great way to make every single drink take as long to prepare as a round of pints.) I wasn’t the only one feeling the time dragging, either. When the guy next to me ordered a pint of (Magic Rock) Ringmaster, the young and nervous barmaid made him repeat it twice, then turned round three different pump clips (including the right one) to check, then turned the pump clip round again to double-check, then asked him to repeat it again. “When I say ‘Ringmaster’ I mean Ringmaster,” he explained, not entirely kindly.

The all-but-universal “pour, leave to stand, top up” system for pulling pints didn’t help, either; it took a good three or four goes before my pint of Burning Sky Aurora was ready. (When I got it, it was… OK. There’s a bit of a buzz around Burning Sky, but I don’t think it can be because of this beer: a perfectly decent hoppy pale ale, but no more than that. There was an odd kind of creaminess in the flavour, I thought; probably an effect of the hops, but it got me wondering about stray yeast. Pretty clear, though, so it was probably fine.) Obviously trying to avoid the repeat-fill problem, the young and nervous barmaid pulled my pint of Dark Star Dark Star delicately, precisely and gently enough not to wake a baby; unfortunately this wasn’t one of the lively ones, and her efforts produced what looked like a glass of flat Coke. Someone else had a go at it, and with a bit more vigour on the pump handle managed to kick up a bit of a head, but first impressions were accurate: although the flavour of the beer was fine, it was either very tired or over-vented, and in any case practically flat.

Two pints will usually do me early doors on Saturday, but these had both been so disappointing that I felt the urge for another half. So I had a half of Magic Rock Circus of Sours. Unlike the other two, this one was on keg; unlike them, it was £4.50 a pint; unlike them, it was much colder than I like and rather irritatingly fizzy. Also unlike the other two, it was superb. Despite the name, this isn’t an out-and-out sour beer, like a saison. The best way I could describe it would be to say that it took the sour edge of a lot of hoppy pales – the rougher ones, in particular – and made it work: it’s a really interesting flavour, with a sour quality that feels like it belongs. There’s a distinct – and separate – sour after-taste, too, which doesn’t sound particularly nice but is. For its strength, which is under 4%, the range and intensity of flavours it delivers is extraordinary. Really terrific beer.

Whither my CAMRA loyalties? Well, Font offer a CAMRA discount; my membership saved me £2 on my two pints of cask beer, so you could almost say I got the half free. More generally, I don’t think one evening when the best thing I drank was on keg justifies any broader conclusions about where the best beer is coming from – apart from anything else, I would love to see Circus of Sours on cask; I think it would fly. But it does remind me of a point Tandleman has made more than once, that condition is the Achilles heel of cask beer. In my experience, keg at its best is never as good as cask at its best – but good keg beer vs poorly-conditioned cask beer is a very different comparison. I’ve always said that with keg you get consistency at the expense of some of the quality of cask – particularly that part of its quality that derives from how the beer changes over time: that Dark Star would almost certainly have been a very different beast a few days earlier. But if the quality of a cask beer can’t be relied on, the consistency of keg starts to look a bit more attractive.