Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Golden Pints 2012

The Golden Pints is a round-up of the year's best beers and beery events, organised by @BeerReviewsAndy and @markdredge - the idea being that beer bloggers and tweeters will post up a list of their favourites in various categories, and Mark and Andy will then collate these and declare the overall 'winners' or those with the most votes/mentions among the replies. See Mark's blog post here for more details.

I nearly made 2011's Golden Pints my inaugural blog post last December, but indecision got in the way - I find it really hard to state an overall preference for one thing over another, when so much depends on context - such as what style of beer I was in the mood for at any given time, what type of pub best suited the occasion's needs, or just the availability and exposure I have had or not had to certain beers and breweries over the year. But I'll make a stab at it this year and try to put some thoughts down - then I'll have something to agonize over for months to come when I remember other good ales and drinking experiences I neglected to mention!

The categories:

Best UK Draught Beer 
So many good beers I've had this year, so difficult to choose. I was blown away by my visit to Edinburgh where I got to check out some Scottish draught ale rising stars - @CromartyBrewing, @AlechemyBrewing and @TempestBrewCo to name a few - as well as the many great English breweries producing consistently exciting beer, and old favourites such as Bathams - but overall, the draught beer I craved the most in 2012, and was always super happy to find available, was Fyne Ales Jarl. Outstanding Citra flavours in a very drinkable 3.8%.

Best UK Bottled or Canned Beer
No contest - this goes to @OakhamAles Green Devil IPA. This was definitely the bottled beer I consumed the most of in 2012, because it's bloody delicious. Got another one in the fridge as I type this, and always have a spare in the cupboard in case of emergency!

Best Overseas Draught Beer
The Firestone Walker Double Jack IPA rocked my socks off when I had it at Brewdog Edinburgh; it's the overseas draught that's made the biggest impression on me this year.

Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer
Again a category where it's almost impossible to make a choice from all the rich stouts, hoppy wonders, and everything inbetween I had this year, but I'm going to make a stab at it, and say the Hitachino Nest Japanese Classic Ale from Kiuchi Brewery. I'd first had this in Japan in 2011, and it was great to have more of it when dining at Yamamori Izakaya in Dublin in 2012.

Best Overall Beer
Going to give this to the Oakham Green Devil IPA - as it's given me the most pleasure throughout the year!

Best Pumpclip or Label
Magic Rock Brew Co have the most lovely intricate label designs and a clear brand identity. Always makes me happy to walk into a bar and spot their distinctive pump clips (so the tap take over at Brodies' King William IV had me grinning ear to ear!)

Best UK Brewery
Again a bit difficult to single out one favourite, as so many established and new breweries have made beers that have brought joy to my palate this year, but I think it will have to go to Oakham - not just for the beers I've enjoyed at the Bartons and bottled Green Devil, but for being innovative in first bringing over the Citra and Baby Belma hops to England's shores, and continuing this in 2012 with securing first supplies of the Multihead hop - driving things forward hop-wise.

Best Overseas Brewery
It might not seem a likely choice, being owned by Heineken, but Paulaner Hefe-Weiss has given me a lot of enjoyment over this year, and having my birthday lunch in the smart Paulaner am Nockerberg brasserie in Munich, overlooking the large-scale Paulaner and Hacker-Pschorr breweries, and then having a nightcap in the Paulanerbrauhaus elsewhere in the town, were special moments, so they get my overall vote.

Pub/Bar of the Year
I visited many good craft beer bars and ale pubs this year, but my favourite overall is the Barton's Arms. It may not have the widest choice, or crazy Mikkeller and Evil Twin selections popping up on draught, but I craved visits to this pub and appreciated it every time I visited; I love the Minton tiles and elaborate decor, but also the down-to-earth friendliness of the welcome and the reliable Oakham Ales - always keen to return here. I was also very impressed with @TheVictoria starting to stock craft beer in bottles too.

Beer Festival of the Year
Without a doubt, this was @IndyManBeerCon - which raised the bar several levels for any beer festival to come, in terms of beautiful historic venue, unparallelled beer selection, great food and all-round amazingness. If you were there, you don't need me to explain. If you weren't - you better make damn sure you go next year!

Supermarket of the Year
Sainsburys was the one I used most, to pick up bottles of Weihenstephaner and Brewdog with my shopping, but my vote goes to Waitrose, for having a much better selection, including Sierra Nevada Torpedo, Thornbridge, and Hogan's Cider and Perry.

Independent Retailer of the Year
This has to go to Birmingham's two amazing craft beer off-licences, which both have friendly proprietors who are genuinely interested in engaging with their beer geek customers and have all striven hard to push exciting beer availability in Birmingham beyond the boundaries this year - hats off and a big thank you to @StirchleyWines and @CotteridgeWines!

Online Retailer of the Year
I don't think I actually ordered any beer online this year, but if I had, it would have been from @AlesByMail or @beermerchants as I've had good service from both in the past.

Best Beer Book or Magazine
I was pleased to see @ArranBrewery bring back "Beers of the World" magazine as I used to enjoy picking this up as something with a wider beer focus than What's Brewing and BEER from CAMRA. Book-wise, the Beer Drinkers Guide To Munich was invaluable and much-used on our trip to Bavaria for mine and @dave_car's birthdays in April.

Best Beer Blog or Website
I've thoroughly enjoyed reading lots by @BoakandBailey this year - they always have something interesting to convey, on a diverse range of beery subjects, and it's a blog with real personality.

Best Beer Twitterer
So difficult to pinpoint someone out of the many, many people I've enjoyed following and conversing with on Twitter this year, but if I have to choose, then it might have to be Mike from Okell's Ales, for tweeting consistently interesting links to lots of beery news.

Best Online Brewery Presence
Apart from following breweries on Twitter, I haven't viewed a lot of online brewery content this year, but I like the Williams Brothers website redesign and have enjoyed their emailed newsletters throughout the year.

Food and Beer Pairing of the Year
Pulled pork and any decent IPA. I forsee more of this in 2013...

In 2013 I’d most like to...
Learn more about hops. A lot more. And attend the European Beer Bloggers Conference in Edinburgh, 12-13 July 2013.

Open category – you decide the topic
Difficult one this - where to start? My topic is "what would I like to see happen in the beer world in 2013" - I'd like there to be more hop innovation, particularly in England - it was very heartening to see English hop growers rallying and stepping up the campaign to keep the industry going in this country, and to follow people like Ali Capper and Paul Corbett on Twitter, and hear about new English varieties such as Jester being used by Moor Beer. I look forward to more progress on this front in 2013.

Sláinte, and a good year of beer to all!

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Brum #twissup on 30th December

A plan is afoot to have a Brum #twissup on 30th December, for the opportunity for Birmingham and Midlands-based (or further afield) Twitter-ers to meet up in the flesh, and imbibe a few quality ales at three of the best beer bars in Birmingham.

The rough plan as proposed by @CarlDurose is:

- Meet at 2pm at the Bartons Arms in Newtown. This is probably my favourite pub in Brum - beautiful Minton-tiled Victorian interior with etched snob screens; now run by @OakhamAles and featuring their beer range - I usually make a bee-line for the Citra or one of their seasonal beers and hop experiments, but they have the usual Oakham range and Belgian bottles available as well. There is also excellent Thai food, so I'll be having lunch here while the #twissup attendees gather, and I'm sure others may want to join me in that to give them a good fond - which a Belgian friend told me is their term for lining your stomach - i.e. a meal that creates a good "foundation" for an evening's drinking! The Bartons is an easy 5-minute bus ride out of the city centre - either the 33 or 51 from near Rackhams, or the 7 from Colmore Row.
*UPDATE: I have reserved an area of the pub for us to meet in - just past the staircase in the dining room - and asked for 14 places to be set for dining. So far (as of wed 26th) we have 12 people signed up for lunch - going from the comments on this post - and I'm due to confirm numbers on Friday - so if you are coming for lunch but haven't said so in the comments yet, please do so soon!
*UPDATE 2: Bar manager Jamie has said he will try to have a cask of Oakham's Vagabond on in addition to the usual ale lineup, which sounds pretty tasty! 

- From there we'll then move on to @TheVictoria - a bar run by the Birmingham independent Bitters 'n' Twisted group, and which has had some real ale available on handpumps since it's relaunch, but in 2012 has upped its game by starting to stock craft beer in bottles - often featuring Tiny Rebel, Kernel, Summer Wine, Arbor Ales. On cask, there might be Dark Star, Red Willow, Thornbridge or others - fingers crossed for something interesting!
*UPDATE: The Victoria have set aside a couple of tables for us, so we have an area to congregate in, from about 5pm. They've also had some new craft beer deliveries - photo here.

- The plan is then to visit BrewDog Birmingham - not sure whether this is a wise idea or not, bearing in mind the average ABV of the draught beer, but it is surely the only logical choice for an end to the #twissup! Just hope we bear this in mind when we start our first pint, that it may be prudent to pace ourselves and leave some capacity for whatever unmissable guest beers might be on the blackboards here from Mikkeller, Rogue Ales or others, never mind the Brewdog beers on draught & bottle themselves, which I have to say have all been on great form in my 5 visits so far since their opening night.
*UPDATE: Brewdog have kindly reserved the downstairs 'snug' area for us to congregate in, from 7pm, as the bar may be busy on a Sunday evening. This is the tasting area under the stairs in the basement, and has room for about 14 people to sit / plenty of standing around space, so if you are joining us later in the day, come and find us here!

So if you are planning to join us, please leave a note in the comments below and say if you're intending to have lunch at the Bartons as well - if there are several people eating it may only be fair to them and us to give a bit of advance warning, and ask for a corner to be set aside for us to congregate and munch some quality Thai foods while sipping on a Citra! If you need any info on buses (tickets, where to find the bus stops etc.) or directions to the pubs then I'll be happy to help. Should plans change or become more defined (e.g. what time we might aim to be at The Victoria), I'll update them here nearer to the time. 

Hope to meet up with many of you for a few fine pints on the 30th!

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Brewdog comes to Birmingham

So – Brewdog Birmingham is finally here! After an interminably long wait – first for them to decide on Birmingham as a location, then to find a suitable place, then get through the planning applications and refit processes – it finally opened its doors on Tuesday evening this week for a “soft launch”, and on Wednesday with a full-fanfare party night.

My first experience of Brewdog was also in Birmingham, in 2007 – at the Black Eagle pub in Hockley, where some dedicated volunteers put on a cracking beer festival in the lovely garden each July. They had selected a cask of Punk IPA from this brand new brewery – they’d only started producing beers commercially in April of that year – and I thought this was a pretty outstanding and revolutionary beer at the time. It was a 6% pint of one of the hoppiest real ales I’d tasted, and with the careful cellarmanship of the pub & volunteers, the perfect cask conditioning and assertive hops meant we kept coming back to this beer during the festival, and it sold out pretty quickly. I made sure I ordered some in for the CAMRA beer festival I was running in September that year to bring it to a wider audience in Birmingham, and sure enough, it was one of the first to sell out there too. So I’ve always watched what they’ve been up to with interest – and it’s been entertaining and frustrating in equal measures!

Over the years, Brewdog’s company philosophy and beer production has gone through many shifts – they’ve certainly deliberately stoked up controversy and chased column inches, and hardened their branding along an “attitude heavy” stance, and made the decision to phase out cask beers in 2012. Their marketing may annoy the hell out of me at times with it’s silly posturing and “punk, yeah?” sloganeering, but it’s the decision to drop cask that’s the most upsetting as my tastebuds tend to tell me that for certain beers, you’re only going to get that lip-smacking satisfaction and complexity when it’s from a well-kept cask, rather than keg. But criticisms aside, I still like an awful lot of the beers they make, and enjoy checking out the new ones they produce at an alarming rate.

But – and this is the key thing when it comes to Brewdog Birmingham’s opening – Birmingham has not had any bar like this before. We do have some great pubs offering cask ales and craft bottles – The Victoria and the Bartons Arms being my personal favourites, and this isn’t meant to do them down at all – but Brewdog Birmingham does bring something entirely new to our city’s beer party.

Enticing list
If you feel cynical about this, and are ‘up’ on craft beer – just ask yourself, what other major English or Scottish city hasn’t got one single “craft keg” font to be found? We had none in the centre of Birmingham, until this week. So it’s not just the Brewdog beers I can now buy on draught within 5 minutes of my bus stop that are exciting me, but the prospect of a whole new wave of draught beer coming to the city – to be able to order a Rogue Morimoto Pilsner, or a Mikkeller Til Fra Via, or a Firestone Walker Union Jack, in the middle of Birmingham, is definitely a revolutionary change to the current beer scene, and hopefully soon we’ll see guests from some of England and Scotland’s keg-producing breweries too (a big vote here to please get more Scottish craft beer into the city!).

So I checked out the beer range over the Tuesday and Wednesday this week, and it was easy to sample a large range as the staff were keen to give out a taste if there was something you fancied trying at the bar, and friends were happy to pass their beers around the table so we each had a taste of most of the draught offerings. I enjoyed the refreshing and easy to drink Juniper Wheat 5%, the well-balanced Dogfight 8.5%, and sought a Simcoe hit with the Hardcore IPA 9.2%. The darker beers were good too – particularly the Chocolate & Coffee Stout (an Imperial Stout at 9.5%), but with this and the Alice Porter, the cold temperature at which they were served did dampen down the flavours a bit, and we had to nurse them to a more welcoming temperature before getting the most out of them. In bottle, I tried @RichTheVillan’s Never Mind the Anabolics but it didn’t do much for me – however the Hoppy Christmas was right up my street – a single-hopped Simcoe beer, which had all the resiny and piney notes there, like it had been stirred with a fir tree – but also bringing out a lot more sweet tropical fruit than I’d experienced from this hop before. One I’ll definitely revisit, while stocks last; it’s a very drinkable 4.2%. It goes without saying that I loved the Mikkeller and Firestone Walker too – I hope they get in some Firestone Walker Double Jack at some point, as I tried that in Brewdog Edinburgh and it blew me away. I even enjoyed the Morimoto Imperial Pilsner from Rogue, which is single-hopped with Sterling; pilsners and lagers are a style I just struggle to like, but I’d certainly be happy drinking this again – maybe it’s the hop choice that made the difference? Strangely though I’ve yet to try the Punk or 5AM Saint on keg here, but I’m sure that will be rectified within a couple of days.

On the “official” opening night, they had a few extra treats on the blackboard – a slightly framboise-sour Raspberry Revolver 4.1% which had sold out by mid-evening, and Dog A – another hefty Imperial Stout at 15.1%. We happened to be standing by a group of lads who had bought a round of this for the bravado, but it was funny to watch their faces as they took a sip and decided it was not for them. I guess they were lager drinkers who were lured in by the shininess of a new bar, but it all worked out fine as they decided to donate their Dog A measures to our party instead, so we could check it out without denting our wallets further. This conjured up marmite, liquorice, cigar tobacco & treacle toffee in my mouth, and was definitely a sipper which needed some savouring. They also sell small measures of the ridiculously strong beers for a more pocket-friendly price than buying a whole bottle – so a good opportunity there if you want to try Tactical Nuclear Penguin at 32%, or the 41% Sink the Bismark, to see if they stand up taste-wise to the marketing bluster. I’d recommend the TNP as a whisky-tinged warmer to sip at the close of the evening before heading out to the sub-zero streets.

There was certainly a buzzy atmosphere, but more than that, it felt like the people of Birmingham were there to celebrate their luck in having a big slice of the beer pie now on their doorsteps. I was so busy chatting to the many Brum beer Twitterati that were there, that I didn’t have time to check out the fridges and bottle list, other than to spy a line of Kernel in there, and some Alesmith too. I’ll hopefully visit soon at a quieter time and have a good read through what’s on offer. Sadly it was also just too busy to consider ordering food, so that’s something else I’ll need to work on. I do think cheese and meat tasting platters are a good foil for a session sipping high-flavoured beers, but I’d like to see what other more substantial meals are on offer too. They seem keen to make friends with local burger supremos @themeatshack, so perhaps we’ll see something with a Brum twist on the menu sometime soon.

Overall then a very positive move for Birmingham’s beer scene, and there’s a tingling in the air that other craft beer ventures will be opening over the next year, so it feels like we’ve finally arrived, and can now start experiencing all our pocket money being handed over in large amounts for the pleasure of a properly hoppy beer on draught.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Holdens ales and Chamberlains hospitality

Chamberlains is a fish & chip restaurant in the west of Birmingham – along the Hagley Road – and in the past 20 months since it's been open has gained a great reputation for it's quality food, enthusiastic welcome, and the many different events they run, such as gluten free evenings, '2 for £10' Tuesdays, and charity lunches.

When I'd first visited, back in February, I really enjoyed the food but felt there was one thing lacking – some good Black Country bitter to go with it. I suggested to Simon, the co-owner, that Holdens would be a good match, knowing they had a range of traditional bitters and golden ales in bottles that might suit various tastes, and suggested they perhaps just try a case or two and see what their customers thought. I didn't realise at the time that the Holdens site was just a few miles up the road, and is in fact the nearest brewery to Chamberlains, making this a perfect local partnership. Since then I've been back a few times to enjoy sampling their beers with a hearty meal, and other customers seem to have appreciated the beer choice too.

I found out via Twitter that Chamberlains would be holding a food and beer sampling event, including a meal and a Holdens beer for £10 on the night. I was very keen to go along to check out what was on offer, and I was long overdue some of their great battered fish anyway, so meeting Richard in town first we were soon on a bus (number 9 or 126 from the city centre) that would take us and our appetites almost to the door.

Once there, we met Lucie Holden, one of the Directors of this family brewery, and James Froggatt, who were pouring out samples of a range of their beers. This included several I am familiar with – the award-winning 3.9% Golden; the smooth and slightly floral Golden Glow (4.4%) - a particular favourite of mine; the 5.1% Special bitter, which is a bit weightier in mouthfeel; and the fantastic Mild with it's assertive nutty and bitter roasty flavours, that give way to a caramel and chocolate sweetness. I hadn't had the Mild in a while and had forgotten how rich this was in flavour. The bitters all have the distinctive Black Country flavour profile of a refreshing start ending with a smooth malty finish, very moreish.

Lucie introduced a few other products outside the core range. Firstly, in 2012 the brewers had embarked on a programme of monthly specials, on a theme of “Holdens Rock Gods”. Each month a new beer was produced for cask and bottle, with the brewers able to play around with different malt and hop combinations – mostly traditional English varieties – while artist Joe Goode designed labels celebrating the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Andrew Eldritch, Robert Plant, Ozzy Osbourne, Mick Jagger and others. The bottle available to sample tonight was the August brew – Buffalo Soldier – named in honour of Bob Marley – which had a delicate citrus note. Next year, their specials will be named along the theme of World Leaders – so I'll be looking out for perhaps a few controversial heads of state popping up on the pump clips.

Next I tried this year's bottling of the Holden's Old Ale – a real winter warmer at 7.2%, which has been matured for at least two months in cold storage, although this example was over 8 months old. Lucie talked us through the process and said they had wanted to produce a beer for the end of the year, but didn't want to go down the route of a spiced ale. This won a Gold in the Champion Winter Ales category in 2011, and is complex with tannic notes giving way to raisiny fruits and a warming finish.

Photo from Richard
I was also surprised to see a Holdens own-label cider, called “Summat Else” at 4.5%, which was very drinkable; fruity but with a dry finish, and not over-carbonated like some other ciders sold by breweries. Lucie explained they wanted to sell a cider, but had taken their time choosing a small producer in Ledbury to create the perfect blend for them, with a definite bittersweet character to it. Richard was particularly taken with this, and very keen to plan a return visit so the Mussels in Holden's cider and cream sauce from Chamberlain's current menu could be tried too.

Holden's are currently brewing at capacity at 50,000 pints a week, and are currently working through expansion plans to double this, to keep their pub estate watered and to take advantage of their own bottling plant, which also contract-bottles for several other UK breweries. Hopefully brewery tours will start up once the expansion is complete, but in the meantime they have a new shop onsite, and the nearby brewery tap – the Park Inn, is open and serving the range of beers and pub meals.

Once we had worked our way through the beer samples, it was time to turn our attention to what Chamberlain's co-owner Dan, the chef, had to offer. This was an opportunity to try a range of flavours from their repertoire as a starter, before sitting down to our choice of fish and chip meals. Our plates included smoked salmon with cream cheese on melba toast and a pesto dressing, which was very flavoursome; delicate grilled plaice with black pepper; breaded haddock goujons; battered cod; and a light and delicious combination of tempura-battered hake with sauteed onions and zingy chilli slices, which I could have eaten all evening!

But it was time to relax and enjoy a proper plate of fish and chips – either haddock, plaice, cod or hake - and choose a Holdens beer to go with it. I'd normally have a Golden Glow but decided to go for the Special on this occasion, with the battered hake to go with it. This was on top form as usual, and I enjoyed helping Richard out with his enormous portion of haddock too. Afterwards I had a bottle of the lovely Mild for 'dessert', and picked up some of the Old Ale to take home with me.

When I came to pay, Simon came over to say he had waived the cost of my meal, as a thanks for supporting them and suggesting they stock Holdens – but I hope they are the ones picking up the thanks from customers now enjoying the benefits of two local and family businesses combining their efforts and making this a 'destination' restaurant where you can relax with a choice of Black Country beers during and after your meal.

Friday, 30 November 2012

Lost and Found in Birmingham

It's not that often that a new bar opens in the centre of Birmingham, so when details started to trickle through on Twitter from various sources that Bennetts Bar on Bennetts Hill had closed, and was being refurbished and opened as The Lost and Found, it certainly generated a lot of interest. As any new venture must do these days, the team behind the opening quickly established an online presence, engaging with the local twitterati and cocktail-imbibers, releasing a few photos and snippets of information, while aiming to keep a sense of 'mystique' about exactly what would be on offer until the opening week revealed all.

As someone who used to drink in Bennetts fairly regularly in it's heyday, and still admired the building itself, I was certainly intrigued to see what would be done with the place, and what kind of bar this would turn out to be, as these days to appeal to drinkers with money to spend and an eye on the 'vibe', you have to offer more of an all-round package than just giving somewhere a lick of paint and hoping for the best.

The events manager for the L&F, Bea Elmer, had a well-organised opening campaign – for two days a 'soft launch' trial would take place, with those on Facebook and Twitter invited to win tickets for either lunch or dinner – this I think cleverly combined creating an opening buzz, with many people having the feeling of a privileged 'first peek' at the interior and the warm glow of trying out the food and cocktails, while allowing the service and kitchen staff to see how they coped with a full house and iron out any last-minute niggles before it fully opened to the public on Friday 30th November. So having secured some tickets, myself, Neil, Richard and Mike met on the Tuesday evening to check it out.

On walking in, I was immediately impressed by the welcoming ambience and soft but plentiful lighting, and the sense of the new and shiny mixing with the old and characterful. Bea explained they had been aiming for 'Victorian botanical hideaway' and this theme was carried through with trailing greenery, a raised conservatory area, a forested wall and lots of little touches such as plant specimens in bell jars along one wall, bird motifs, and leafy pictures of the “patroness” of the bar, Hettie G Watson. The large space is divided up with a library section to one side, and two mezzanine areas and seating booths; some of the floor plan from Bennetts Bar has been retained but given slightly differing identities within the whole. Where Bennetts suffered a little from identity crisis, and at times could be simultaneously very busy while seeming like an unwelcoming barn of a place, now the low-slung soft lighting dotted around the room has really broken up the space without compromising the grandeur of the high ceilings, and has created a warm atmospheric touch. There is absolutely amazing attention to detail in the décor – from the dainty light fixtures on the way to the restrooms, the shelves of little cosmetic jars and bone-handled combs in the ladies', to various ornaments and objects scattered around subtly and in keeping with the theme of each area.

The building itself dates from 1869, and was the former National Provincial Bank of England, with a beautiful domed entrance, and the ground floor is on a long-term lease to Marstons. Therefore the time period chosen for the character of the bar is very fitting, and it was wonderful to see the architectural features inside allowed to shine through, with the high Corinthian columns smartened up, and understated wall art in some areas allowing the building to feel lofty – the eye is drawn upwards – while intimate at seating level. Even the interior dome over the side door seems fitting in style to the leafy theme. So a very sympathetic renovation that has created a lovely environment to settle into for the evening, and definitely something different for the centre of Birmingham.

The trial offer was for a main course and drink, and a sample menu had been chosen to showcase the range of dishes offered and give an idea of the cocktails – general manager Kate explained they have an extensive cocktail list that will tinker with botanical infusions and signature concoctions as well as classics, and they have employed several bartenders with a pedigree of working in cocktail-led establishments to bring their own ideas and expertise. Luckily in dining with three companions, we were all able to sample the three different mixes on offer – Cosmo Daisy, which was wonderfully fruity without being too sweet; a Citrus Britannica to wake up your mouth; and a pineapple and black pepper margarita, which made me purr like a happy cat.

We tried a range of mains between us – sirloin steak, scallop & pancetta salad, fish pie and swordfish. My sirloin steak was cooked well – rare but with a lovely searing around the outside for flavour, and served with fluffy chips, sweet tomato, mushroom and a watercress salad, and a little pot of flavoured mustard. The fish pie impressed, coming out in a large cast iron dish and filled with salmon, haddock, mussels, leek and scallion in a flavourful sauce. The swordfish was good too, topped with a finely chopped tomato and onion salad. There were some niggles with the food, but as this was a 'trial run' I won't detail them here, as the purpose of the event was to gather feedback and hopefully iron out any problems before the bar 'went public' – so we duly completed feedback forms and hope the particular issues we had will be picked up by the team. Overall though we agreed we'd certainly enjoy a return visit to dine again – and probably order more of the luxurious fish pie!

After a pause to order another cocktail, we decided to try the pudding menu – around £5-6 each. These were all very well executed and presented, and we passed them round the table so we each got to try them all. My personal favourite was Richard's lemongrass crème brûlée with chilli shortbread; Neil liked the honeycomb with lemon curd, dark chocolate mousse, fresh raspberries and chocolate soil; we also tried the custard tart with candied lemon and vanilla cream; and the pistachio brownie fingers, served with hot chocolate fondant and raspberry cream.

There are a rather promising six handpulls installed on the bar, but as the trial events were a limited run, no ale was available on these evenings as turnover would be low – so I'm keen to see what beers will be served once they're fully open. I imagine these will be from the core Marsons stable, and the bartenders believe Jennings Cocker Hoop and Ringwood Boondoggle will be on regularly; perhaps these will be joined by something dark and roasty, like the Ringwood Porter or Marstons Oyster Stout, or the experimental Marstons Single Hop series. It would be great if interesting guest ales also make an appearance – and there are many out there that could be chosen to fit the 'botanicals' theme – such as zingy Enville Ginger, Ilkley's Siberia (a rhubarb saison), Williams Fraoch, brewed with heather and honey, or the Victorian-recipe Kernel Export Stout. Some of these are available year-round in bottles, so a rotating guest bottled beer along these lines would also make a fine addition and offer something different to beer already available in the city.

Before we left, Bea introduced us to “the secret of the Lost & Found” - which I couldn't possibly divulge but I will say I found it rather exciting! We all had a great evening and marvelled at the beautiful surroundings, and hope to return soon to check out the ale and the rest of the menu!

Monday, 26 November 2012

Food & Drink highlights at the Birmingham Festive Markets

Every November Birmingham plays host to a German festive market - this is now in it's 10th year and arose because the city is twinned with Frankfurt, and is now considered the "largest authentic German market outside of Germany and Austria". Some Brum inhabitants may feel a little shortchanged by this, as several of the stalls carry similar stock, and many feel it is overpriced and an unnecessary nuisance of crowds and noise when trying to go about your normal business - plonking a double line of stalls down an already busy pedestrian thoroughfare can bring out the festive rage in the best of people. But there are good things to be found if you can get past the irritation and mellow out (the glühwein mit rum helps with that), and in recent years there has also been the addition of a 'craft market' of English-based stalls to take the enforced revelry all the way up to the Symphony Hall area.

If you can steel yourself against the crowds - or pick a quieter time to go - and can justify spending a bit of cash on yourself, my recommendations follow for the best food & drink options to check out. These are based on my personal taste, so more meat than sweet, and washed down with something tasty too.

1. Hogan's Cider
This is the best thing about the festive market, from my point of view! Hogans now have a corner of the Craft market up by Baskerville House/Broad Street firmly marked out for themselves, with wooden picnic benches and some cover from the cold and rain providing the perfect environment to get stuck in to some quality cider and perry. Allen Hogan will often be behind the bar, ready to dispense great drinks and cider wisdom to those with a keen thirst. This year the range on offer is bigger than ever, on draught, keg and bottle, and includes mulled cider; Panking Pole 6.2% - slightly hazy but very smooth-drinking; Pickers Passion 5.3%; and Hazy Daisy 3.9%. Some traditional cider makers dilute their cider down with the quaintly-named 'brook apple' (i.e. water!) – dilution helps to obtain a lower ABV, make the crop go further, and to bring down the tannins, to make a more drinkable product. Allen's version is diluted with fresh pressed English apple juice, which gives a sweeter edge and a full juicy flavour, for a very slurpable cider without the higher alcohol content. Conversely, due to the high quality extra juice used, this makes Hazy Daisy more expensive for Allen to produce than the other ciders in his range! But if you're planning a bit of a session, I can recommend you start with this delicious drop before moving to the six-percenters.
Hogan's stall also stocks Purity Mad Goose ale, Freedom lager, and some warming spirits, with bottles of cider and perry available to take home.
My personal favourite is the Vintage Perry - and I'm happy to brave the worst of the winter weather to huddle under a heater and enjoy a pint of this with other cider and perry loving chums.

2. Pork with dumplings and red cabbage
This can be found at the beer chalet nearest the Museum, at the side of the Town Hall. They offer roast pork ("with cracking") or pork neck ("without cracking"), served either in a bap, or - the best plate in the market, IMHO - with a potato suet dumpling and red cabbage. The pork is plentiful, the dumpling stodgy enough to soak up the gravy, and the red cabbage sweet and subtly flavoured with juniper. It may not seem cheap at £7.50 for this plate, but that's pretty comparable to what you'd pay in a Munich bierkeller for a similar meal, and matches any pub lunch in town. Washed down with a half of weissbier, if you love pork as much as me, this will put a big smile on your face and set you up for further market exploring.

3. Wood's real ale
Real ale at a market is a bit of a rarity, but Woods appeared at the Craft Market a few years ago, and now offer three ales on handpump, with several bottles and packaged gift sets available. There seems to be a fair turnover of the draught ale, so the exact beers on offer may vary each time you visit, but the condition of these when sampled on Saturday last was all spot on, and I'd happily spend a while drinking their signature Shropshire Lad bitter (4.5%), or for something more robust, their seasonal Cracker at 6%.

4. Stein of weissbier
Sadly this isn't *quite* as exciting a treat (for me, personally) as it used to be - as up to a few years ago they served the more enticing Paulaner Hefe-Weiss for £3.50 a pint - a bargain for one of the quintisentially clove and banana-accented Bavarian weisses. In recent years, they've changed to Franziskaner - not quite as much happening flavour-wise, and this year on sale at £4 - but still, it's a pretty nice experience to grab a heavy glass halbe-stein of German weiss while you mull around or munch on some porcine treats, for less than the price of a non-imported beer in many London establishments - even better if you have the time and capacity on your hands to enjoy a whole stein! (though best to have worked out where your toilet options are beforehand, otherwise you'll have to endure the dire festival-style cubicles... be warned!). If you can squeeze into one of the wooden drinking huts that have covered tables in the back, the press of bodies will keep you warm while the cold beer goes down and you plan your next tactical move through the throngs.

5. Roast hams
Right at the busiest point of the market, where there's a pinch-point for pedestrian traffic going in two different directions through the main drinking and gawping area, is a stall selling roast ham. Huge banks of hams rotate on spits at the back, while surly-looking staff carve off chunks and stick them into buns. For ham-in-a-bap at £4.50 this does seem a little expensive, but as the price hasn't changed in many years, and with the rise of street food in England at similar costs, it doesn't seem that unreasonable these days. You'll be rewarded with hot, rich, salty, thick ham goodness – just the thing to act as a restorative between steins.

6. Hot cider from Orchard Pig
This producer is based in the Somerset area, but have had a stall at the Craft Market for the past few years. This year they have some smart new branding and a range of products on offer - from sweet/dry ciders to horseradish liqueur - but my recommendation here, as well as their draught still cider, would be to have the spiced, mulled cup of cheer - it will warm you up and soothe away any of that lingering hatred of the crowds and bustle. Well, until you stop drinking it and try to go anywhere, that is.

7. Many flavours of Wurst
Everyone likes a sausage! Well, mostly ... There are several sausage-merchants at the market, as you'd expect, though sadly the little Nurnberger variety are missing (I guess to be expected as it is nominally a Frankfurt festive market). If you have a large enough mouth for this kind of endeavour, then go to the sausage stall with the large circular grill, between the Council House and the Floozie in the Jaccuzi fountain - they have fast turnover and about 3 different types of sausage (Bratwurst, Weisswurst, and 'Spicy' sausage) and you can load it up with sauerkraut, senf (German sweet mustard) and ketchup before you bite in and get it half in your mouth and half all down yourself.

8. Mead
There are two different mead sellers at the market - an Eastern European stall, selling bottles of mead to take away, and some mead-based liqueurs, as well as honey with different flower accents; and a drinking-stall further down New Street towards the Bull Ring, where plastic 'Viking horns' will be used to dispense hot or cold mead to shivering consumers. I'd recommend the European mead stall for bottles to take home and enjoy with friends and family at the turning of the year, but if you need a quick, hot, honey-based pick-me-up, that you're guaranteed not to find in Birmingham the rest of the year round, head down for the horn!

9. Meat Stall
A stall selling meaty goods to take home has been at the market for several years, but each year it changes location, so I have to hunt around anxiously until I've found it and know my supply of pig-based treats is secure for another festive season. The range here keeps expanding, and seems to have several new additions this year – so as well as different types of cured salamis (with chilli, herbs, nuts, garlic, pepper etc.), and sides of bacon and cured ham, there is also a chilled sausage cabinet with cook-at-home weisswurst and frankfurters, and meat pâté and spreads. Another rare thing you can find here is “schmalz” - a lardy spread that the Germans love to eat on bread, and is best topped with some crispy fried onions. I'm sure it's terribly bad for you but as a once-a-year treat in small doses, it would be pretty tasty washed down with a rauchbier or bock.

10. Hot chestnuts
Something simple to finish – a bag of hot chestnuts with a sprinkling of salt. We ate these all the time in winter when I was growing up – the benefit of having an open coal hearth to cook them in – so there may be a bit of nostalgia creeping in here. But I've noticed that chestnut seller carts are commonly found in parts of London like Covent Garden, and wondered why they never appear in Birmingham. But at the market, here's your chance to grab some. They make a good snack to pick up at lunch and take back to the office, acting as a handwarmer in your pocket. And (depending on how much salt you like) probably one of the healthier things to be found among all the beer, meat and sugary foods lining the streets.

Normally the stalls at the market are reliably/disappointingly* (*delete as appropriate) the same every year, so it was a pity to discover my most frequent lunchtime haunt, the flammkuchen stand, wasn't selling any this year, and indeed hadn't brought their usual lovely German wine selection with minerally Rieslings, elegant Sylvaner and rich Spatburgunders. This would definitely have taken up two of my top ten. But instead they are offering some 'lachs' - sides of smoked salmon, which are finished off by hanging on a wooden board over a roaring brazier, to absorb a little more smoky flavour before being sliced - so I'll have to give this new offering a go while mourning the lack of flammkuchen this year.

There are plenty of other food & drink options if the above don't appeal: pretzels, doughnuts, frankfurters, sweet and savoury crepes, fried cheese croquettes, fat pieces of garlic bread, fried potatoes, schnitzel, elaborate cakes, and many things in between, and the market is open from 10am to 9pm daily until 22nd December. So if you can put that 'Winterval' misanthropy to one side, I'll maybe see you there for a pork and cider feast!

Friday, 16 November 2012

Adventures in Sunday Roast

I have a difficult relationship with the concept of a Sunday Roast – which still seems to be a strong tradition in England; certainly lots of pubs offer it as an enticement to spend a lazy afternoon with them, and from scanning Twitter it seems a lot of people still do it at home as well.

When I was growing up, it seemed to me to symbolise the tedium of childhood Sundays, where nothing was open, everything moved at a slower pace, and the television schedule was terribly dry and religion-oriented. Although I always ate it up and asked for seconds, the roast was kind of the antithesis of food I would actively seek out, preferring more exotic flavours from round the world, preferably with a bit of spice and garlic.

In addition, something which has coloured my view of it ever since, when I was about 11 I was called to the kitchen and told I needed to learn how to make a roast dinner, so I could “make it for my husband” - I took afront to this, thinking firstly, I may not want a husband, and secondly, if I did, why wouldn't they be making the roast? So since then it had been a point of principle not to learn how to make a roast – a small act of anti-genderisation politics against a meal that wasn't my favourite anyway!

But I have been treated to many lovely meals made by @dave_car that just happened to involve a roast element – pheasant, partridge, quail, grouse – so in an effort to return the favour, and feeling inspired by a chicken and garlic dish I'd had recently at @DraftHouseUK, I decided I'd finally give it a go and adventure into the world of the "Roast Dinner".

I knew that the key thing (apart from me not messing it up of course) would be to start with good ingredients - so I visited Harborne Village Butchers, a newish shop run by two lovely guys who have worked as butchers in Harborne for many years. All their stock is free range and I've been impressed with the quality of every single thing I've bought here since they opened. So I nervously confessed I needed to learn how to roast a chicken, and asked what they had suitable for two people, with leftovers. They fixed me up with a free-range bird, ready for the oven, and a jar of goose fat for the potatoes, and I promised to report back how it all went in return.

Next was a trip to @lokiwine in Birmingham's Great Central Arcade, to ask Phil's advice for a decent white to go with chicken, with the caveat 'anything but Chardonnay'. Phil was able to help out with a few suggestions, including a Viognier and a Spanish white, which I mulled over while checking out a few fine samples from his Enomatic sampling machines. Eventually we settled on a Jean Orliac Loup y Es-Tu? Blanc which I think includes Viognier and Marsanne in the mix, so should be zippy and fresh but with a slight honeyed note to balance it out.


Preparations started on the Saturday night - as I only have a small oven with one shelf, about three batches of roasting would be needed to assemble a complete meal. I decided to roast some little Chantenay carrots with orange juice and local Rea valley honey (from Stirchley), and these worked out really easy to do - top & tail 1kg of carrots, give them a scrub but don't peel, mix olive oil & the juice of one orange in a hot metal baking dish, chuck the carrots around and then drizzle over about a teaspoon or so of honey and give it all a good mix. Then roast for 20-30 minutes at Gas 6, taking them out and turning over every 10 minutes until they're a bit browned looking and yielding, but still with some texture left. I found these also made a good accompaniment to a range of other dishes like winter-spiced lamb or pork in wine.

With part 1 done, I slept a little easier, and woke up on the Sunday morning ready to tackle the next bit - potatoes. This involved using King Edwards (Delia's suggestion; other good varieties are apparently Maris Piper and Desirée), cutting into equal-sized chunks, par-boiling for 6 minutes and then shaking a bit in a colander to rough up the edges. Meanwhile, I got my baking tray good and hot at Gas 7, and spooned in half the jar of goose fat (around 100g), which quickly liquefied. I tossed the potatoes in this to cover, and then roasted for around an hour, checking and turning them every 20 minutes. They came out nicely golden, so I put them to one side and my oven was now free for the main event.

... and after!
... before ...
This didn't involve much prep really - sticking my hand up it to check there were no giblets and shoving some lemon halves, bay and rosemary in there; then rubbing the skin all over with a mixture of olive oil, sea salt and finely chopped rosemary. Lastly, surrounding it with a mixture of stock, white wine and garlic cloves that had been simmered a little, and covering the dish tightly in foil so no steam escapes. Then into the oven it went, and the nervous waiting commenced. Towards the end the foil was removed and it developed a nice golden colour - finally looking like I imagined it should! 
I used this recipe and was pretty impressed it all went to plan.

The finished article
So finally I plated up with the potatoes, carrots, and some green beans, and the sauce containing about 15 cloves of garlic each, and served it with the wine - and then stared at it for five minutes exclaiming "it worked!". The chicken was beautifully moist and tasty, and most importatly too the sauce was full of flavour, with the garlic cloves soft and squishy to be added to each mouthful. The potatoes had stayed crunchy on the outside and fluffy on the inside, with the vegetables hopefully adding some balance health-wise. It's fair to say I felt rather pleased with myself in my 'new venture'!


Credit to @dave_car for this one
The following week, I was back at Harborne Village Butchers, this time asking for "whatever bit of beef would be suitable for roasting for two people, with plenty left over" - I also wrote down their instructions on cooking the beef just right - i.e. flavoursome but pink in the middle. But on this occasion although I made the veg and potatoes, I did need @dave_car to step in - he laid the beef on a bed of shallots, rosemary and sage to roast, and made a great gravy with the meat juices and some Reserve port - and to top it off, some mini Yorkshire puddings. The beef came out perfectly tender and enticingly medium-rare, with lots left over for future meals. So another roast success, albeit not all my own work this time, but still, I can chalk it up as another area now explored in my cooking map of 'unknown places'!