Monday, 24 September 2012

AleSmith beer tasting evening

I've found it frustrating for a little while that I don't seem to know enough people in my local area who are sufficiently interested in bottled beer to want to get together as a group and taste their way through some interesting or unusual bottles - the type of beers that you shy away from purchasing purely for your own speculative consumption, as although you may be keen to try them, you can't be quite sure you'll like them enough to consume an entire 750ml bottle of "Extreme Stout aged over Tarmac and Biltong with a late addition of Poison Ivy and Dragonfruit" (an exaggeration, but it's not that far off a description you may read from Mikkeller or Brewdog ;-).

So I jumped at the chance when invited to meet up with some fellow beer-tweeters to sample the range of AleSmith beers currently found on the Brewdog website - a group effort meaning we'd all get the chance to try these beers for a more reasonable cost, could move on to the next taste if one wasn't to our personal liking, and of course could enjoy discussing them in the company of other friendly folks.

Cats and beer go well together
 The evening was ably hosted by @RichTheVillan, with his cat Oliver making a special guest appearance, and some snacks provided to mop up the beer. Also in attendance were @RobertoRossUK, @Kaufmanised and @UncleMuttley, who had arranged the ale purchasing. I'd brought some tasting notes with me in an attempt to work out a suitable drinking order, so we wouldn't have too many clashes on our palates, and so we proceeded through the goodies in the following sequence:

AleSmith X - this was listed as an "Extra Pale Ale", and as the lightest-sounding beer we tried this first. This had a good hop nose but a slightly thin body in comparison; however this probably would make it a good 'pintable' beer as it certainly wouldn't clog your palate. I also seemed to detect a slight Saison-yeast aroma, but I haven't found anything online to indicate if a Belgian yeast strain is used in this.

AleSmith Summer YuleSmith - apparently this is a beer that is brewed twice a year, but with a tweak so they end up as different seasonal styles. This was the summer version, a Double IPA. It was much paler than expected - I guess I've seen a lot of viscous, murky orange-brown double IPAs recently. Waves of resiny aromas pointed to the probable inclusion of Simcoe in the hop mix , which created a good mix of fruit and bitter flavours without being too cloying or sticky. We all agreed it was alarmingly drinkable for it's ABV (9.5%), with a finish that wasn't too heavy and made you crave another glass.

Grand-looking bottle
AleSmith Grand Cru - as other beers in our selection were mostly darker or sweeter, we opted for the Belgian-style ale next. This is reportedly made using Trappist yeast which contributed definite Belgian flavours, and had lovely muted candi-sugar sweetness, but I wasn't getting much hop complexity from it. It was enjoyable, but I think perhaps I expected slightly more from something called a 'Grand Cru'.

AleSmith Horny Devil - this also utilizes the Trappist yeast and surprised me in being more of a golden strong ale than I expected, like a Duvel clone (I guess the clue is in the name!) - but it had a very easygoing mouthfeel for 11% compared to it's namesake which can sometimes be a bit overbearing, and everyone round the table seemed to find this very drinkable and moreish.

AleSmith Wee Heavy - now we moved on to a trio of sweeter/heavier beers, and this one was a take on the Scotch style, which seems to be more widely revered outside of Scotland (in Belgium and America) than by native breweries. This example had that big, thick, B-vitamin packed, Bovril-like richness. It was warming and (true to form) heavy, but despite this, still compellingly sippable. I felt this was a really good example of a Scotch ale, more what you would expect from the style descriptor than any widely-available 'heavy' produced in Caledonia these days. I'm hoping to visit there again soon, so perhaps I'll find something in Edinburgh to challenge this opinion!

Beer of the evening!

AleSmith Speedway Stout - we had looked forward to this one with anticipation, expecting it to be the standout beer of the evening - and we weren't disappointed. It's a weighty 12% and has added coffee in the recipe, and the aromas and flavours were a heady mix of smokiness, cherry tobacco leaf, lots of dry cedar wood, and espresso-roast bitterness. Yet it really wasn't overbearing, and there was no 'palate fatigue' despite the assault of flavours and the ABV. It had a long, smooth finish that faded to leave some subtle coffee undertones. Tasting this beer alone made the evening a worthwhile venture, and seemed to make @Kaufmanised very happy!

AleSmith Old Numbskull - perhaps influenced by the name, we had kept this one to last - listed as a "West Coast style barley wine". It reminded a bit of Sierra Nevada Bigfoot and typified the American barleywine form, with it's silky, warm sensations from the first sip. @RobertoRossUK wondered if a Belgian yeast may have been used in this brew also, which could have aided the drinkability despite the heavy malt character. It was like a warm winter-weight duvet in a glass, and an appropriate end to the evening's samples.

Special guest Oliver

The inaugral 'bottle club' meet-up was an all-round success, with convivial company and a great range of beers; plans were hastily drawn up to hold further sessions to work our way through some Mikkeller, De Molen, Nogne O and De Struisse, kicking off with Hoppin' Frog in October. Thanks to all for organising & inviting me, and hopefully Oliver the cat will put in another guest appearance at the next one!

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Three new Scottish pale ales

The ale scene in these isles is in a constant state of movement, particularly now with new micros springing up all the time and many brewers constantly striving to come up with new recipes as well as perfect the traditional styles. The Scottish brewery scene is certainly enjoying some of this vibrancy, with many new breweries and brewing companies forming in the past couple of years, existing breweries expanding or stepping up a notch with their product developments, and a constantly expanding assortment of craft bars appearing to meet customer demand.

It's difficult therefore to keep abreast of all the new beers that come out, even when they're available down here in the Midlands, but a few new Scottish beers have come my way recently, so I thought I'd try a few out in one session and see what I thought.

First up was Old Worthy – a sample sent to me by Nick, who is behind the production company and currently contract-brewing at Isle of Skye Brewery while they fine tune their recipe and start seeing their beer appear in shops. This aims to bring something different to the shelves, being billed as a “Scottish Pale Ale”, but taking the unusual step of adding peat-smoked malt (supplied by the Ardmore distillery) and honey in the mix. I liked the sound of this as I'm familiar with the smoked malt lighter-style beers produced around Bamberg (as well as the more familiar meaty marzen rauchbiers), and if handled gently, a touch of smokiness can be great to deepen flavour without making a beer heavy. At first I wasn't getting much aroma wise, and only a very gentle hint of the smoke at the end of a mouthful, but as I let the beer warm up a bit, more appeared on the nose, and while still remaining refreshing, a lovely rounded peat and honey finish came out. My only gripe is that for a pale ale, I would like a little more hop character to be evident, just a little bite of bitterness before the sweet & smokey hints take over. But overall the subtleties were an asset in this beer, so if the hops stepped up just a little bit, I think it would be a beer of interesting balances and one I'd definitely have again. I see they are already building a following in Scandinavia and I can imagine this ale going down very well over there – I expect more people on this side of the North Sea will be encouraged to try it when it starts to appear in The Whisky Shop branches now they have finished their first UK production run.

Next were two beers from the 2012 Sainsbury's “Great Beer Hunt” - where they run a competition for regionally-selected beers to be stocked in their stores for a limited period, and those that prove most popular may be invited to a national listing.

The Harviestoun Wild Hop Gold might be related to the Wild Hop IPA they've produced in bottle and cask before, but there's no info on their website so I'm not sure if the recipes are similar. The label however states it's made with Citra and Simcoe hops (my two favourite!) so I was really hoping this would have a powerful aroma and lots of bitter & resiny flavours. It didn't quite have the assertive hop notes I would have liked, but obviously wasn't going to be anything like a high-hopped double IPA; instead it was a really pleasant, hoppy enough sessionable (4.4%) beer, with a good biscuity smooth malt character holding up against the citrus notes. It was a great accompaniment to some American-style pulled pork & sweet potatoes with a hint of chilli, and a beer I'm definitely looking forward to buying again before the Beer Hunt ends. Here's hoping it gains a regular stocking in my local Sainsburys.

The Williams' Prodigal Sun was the beer I'd been most looking forward to trying from the Beer Hunt, as I always expect good things from the Alloa-based brothers having been checking out their beers since the early days when their core range were historical ale recipes such as Fraoch, Kelpie (with seaweed) and Grozet (a gooseberry ale) and and they were known as Heather Ales. From those beginnings you can imagine they like to experiment with locally-found botanicals not usually seen in today's beers, and the Prodigal Sun follows this path, with some spruce clippings in the brew. There was a fresh, wet, berry aroma to the beer and an unusual fruity sweetness to it – I would have expected more of a pine element from spruce, but as I don't know exactly how it behaves in the brewing kettle, I wasn't sure if the sweetness & red berry fruit elements may be from this or from something else. Overall this was a very pleasant beer, though it may well be at it's best if carefully matched with foods that pair up with the malt and sweetness characteristics.

There are many more extreme and experimental beers coming out of Scotland, but as an example of new-style pale or golden ales, these three each offered something different and showed that the desire to keep moving forward with beer styles is strong north of the border.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Ramen Hunting

One meal that I constantly get cravings for is ramen – the “big noodle soup bowl” that has it's roots in China, but the Japanese have now made their own. There's even a ramen museum in Yokohama, which I was due to visit on my trip to Japan last year, but due to the Tōhoku earthquake & tsunami affecting travel insurance (although we would have been quite willing to go and support the area), we weren't able to visit the Kantō area – though there's plenty of good, cheap ramen to be found everywhere in the country of course. Each region of Japan has it's own variation on the dish, and everyone will have their own personal tastes – so I'd say what is 'right' or 'the best' ramen is entirely a matter of personal opinion. Once I get a craving for it though, I just have to have some – but that can be difficult in England.

Miso base with chilli oil
My two top ramen experiences are imprinted on my tastebud memory - firstly in a small ramen-ya along the side of Namba station in Osaka – we were guided there on our first day in Japan by a chum who had been before, and soon I was being served up ramen heaven – a miso-based broth with chilli oil and chunks of pork, what I'd been dreaming about since the idea of a trip to Japan was first mentioned – and I often have wistful thoughts about this little café. The second is ramen made for me by @dave_car, which always seems to be both flavoursome and healthy – this time a dashi and shoyu-based stock with a kick of birdseye chilli; silky noodles (not the pre-fried kind); lots of vegetables in the mix (baby pak choi, carrots, spinach, peas and shiitake); and slices of belly pork, wafer thin so that they cook in an instant once added to the broth. But a return visit to Osaka or having someone prepare ramen in my home aren't always available to me, so sometimes there's a need to find out-and-about options for when cravings must be met.

When I heard that a new ramen joint called Tonkotsu had opened up in Soho, with a very short menu just focussing on 3 ramen dishes and side orders of gyoza (little dumplings that are often served in ramen-ya in Japan as they are another Chinese import), I knew I had to make it my mission to go there. The opportunity arose in July, and I took another Japanophile with me so we could try a couple of dishes.

Their speciality is the eponymous Tonkotsu – a rich stock made by simmering pork bones in a shio (salt) base for 18 hours - you can see the large stock pots bubbling away in the open kitchen just inside the window - with pork slices, menma (bamboo) and seasoned egg on top. The noodles were light and the broth translucent and unctuous. We also tried the Tokyo Spicy – with shredded spicy pork on egg-based noodles, and various other toppings. The pork was tasty and it was overall very satisfying, but I was expecting a good deal more spice and had to ladle in some chilli condiment to get the kick I was looking for. The gyoza were really light and springy – steamed, and then slightly fried on one side, with a tasty pork and prawn filling – very good. There's also a vegetarian ramen option with shiitake for that umami-base, and a few other gyoza varieties, but we needed a pork hit so didn't get to try these.

 Tokyo Spicy on the left, Tonkotsu on the right

Gyoza and beer
Another big draw of Tonkotsu is that has included some craft beers on it's list – from two of London's most respected microbreweries – Kernel and Beavertown. There are a couple of different beers available from each and they are reasonably priced, for London and these particular breweries, at £4. There's also a couple of Brewdog (including Tokyo*, 18%!) and some standard Japanese lagers; a couple of different grades of sake; shochu and Japanese whisky.  It was so welcome to be able to have a decent beer with lunch, sitting at pavement tables watching Soho life go by.

Closer to home, a new noodle cafe has opened up in Birmingham's Chinatown area – MinMin. I had heard they were good, and went to investigate. This is a really charming place – bright white tiles and green décor, making a bit of a cheerful change from other places in the area. They have an extensive menu of noodle-y options but I was here for ramen, and ordered the yakibuta – cooked pork – which came with a decent selection of toppings - cured egg, thick, crunchy bamboo shoots, seaweed, beansprouts adding texture, and nori. It also had sweetcorn, which is a feature of Sapporo-style ramen; I was dubious about this addition at first, but have come to quite like it. My dining companion had the chilli squid with rice, and we were given complimentary soya desserts – one with mango sauce, and one with ginger syrup, which were unusual but a palate-freshening end to the meal.

The ramen broth at Minmin was lovely – on the right side of salty, and although they have chilli oil available, I had brought my own Nanami Togarashi – a Japanese chilli pepper mix - to add the spice level I like. I have been back a few times since to Minmin to try their char siu ramen as well – and they really don't stint on the generous amount of meat included. The cheung fun are also lovely – steamed rice rolls with a savoury filling of minced meat and mushroom, a delicate tangy dipping sauce and seasoned salad – though they are slippery buggers to eat. My tip would be to ask for wooden takeaway chopsticks instead of the plastic ones they'll give you by default – as they're much better for getting a grip on slippy noodles and delicately picking up strands of sea vegetables from the soup.
Cheung fun - slippy but worth the effort
The very moreish char siu ramen - other noodle dishes are available!

It's cute to note that all the ramen bowls have the hiragana for “oishii” - Japanese for delicious – on the side, and while I was last visiting, they were sticking up some Chinese characters on the window. I recognised the first of these as it also appears in Japanese script as “dai” - meaning large, or also “great” - I asked the waitress what the symbols meant and she said “big bowl noodle” - but if following the Japanese meaning, I'd happily recommend it to people as ”great” bowl noodle to be found inside!

Special mention must also go to the staff of Minmin – as well as the co-owner, Denice Phan, who comes out of the industrious kitchen to chat to customers, I've also been served by three different girls, and they are all extremely friendly and make you feel at home. Minmin is gaining in popularity as it offers something a bit different to what we already have in Birmingham, in a cool, modern environment, and at reasonable prices (ramen is around £6.80) – and from the few I've tasted, the dishes so far have been great, so I think most people will be hooked after one visit. I'm certainly getting an attack of ramen-want just thinking about it!

So these two English ramen experiences have been very positive – I think Minmin's yakibuta may just top Tonkotsu for my personal tastes, but on the other hand, Tonkotsu offers craft beer, meaning I'm more likely to linger there and snack on gyoza. But it's great to see a couple of decent ramen ventures now taking their place in London and particularly Birmingham; I'm sure eventually I'll try out all the other exciting and good value dishes that Minmin has to offer, but it will take a while (and a good few more visits) to wean me off my ramen cravings first.