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.