Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Coffee Beer Taste-Off

I unfortunately have a predeliction for beer hoarding – gathering up interesting looking stuff from travels around the world, supermarkets, online and the two excellent Birmingham beer shops of @StirchleyWines and @CotteridgeWines, and then hanging on to them for ages in my beer cupboard until the right 'opportunity' arises to drink them. Now and again I'll have a bit of a poke around to see what's lurking in there, and if some kind of theme emerges, perhaps it will prompt me into a spate of 'drinking up'.
The line-up

On a recent Saturday, I realised I’d acquired quite a few coffee beers in the cupboard, and after a great supper of steak-frites, some after-dinner coffee beers seemed like a good fit. This would allow me to compare and contrast them, to see which had elements I liked and what made a ‘good’ coffee beer in terms of my personal taste.

It felt some kind of food accompaniment was called for, and a ponder on Twitter led to @simonhjohnson suggesting vanilla cheesecake as a good match; so with cake supplies purchased, @dave_car ready to help out with the drinking, and the beers lined up, we commenced sampling:

Traditional Scottish Ales - Double Espresso 6%
It would seem this beer is made for the export market, with labelling on the back in different languages and “Premio Caffé Birra” on the front, and the label is a stylish matte black with gold embossing. As soon as the bottle was opened a good whiff of coffee and dark chocolate ganache was released. It poured very dark and opaque. In the glass, more chocolate sweetness came out in the aroma but there’s a tiny hint of something else – something slightly artificial like pots of ‘non-diary creamer’. The taste was disappointing compared to the initial aromas, a little thin and watery, but at least no bitter unpleasantness. It was smooth enough but just not much depth, body or finish.


Batemans – Mocha 6%
Oddly this was very fizzy when first poured into the glass. Mid-brown in colour, it didn’t have a lot of discernible aroma, especially when compared to the previous beer. However it’s ‘lightness’ in comparison perhaps made it a little more gluggable, if not particularly outstanding flavour-wise. But if you wanted a lighter-style beer with hints of coffee rather than something heavy, this would fit the bill.

Hitachino Nest - Espresso Stout 7.5%
This is produced by the Kiuchi Brewery in Japan, and was brought back from our trip there in April 2011. I don’t mind admitting I have a soft spot in my heart for this beer, as it was the first ever ji-biiru I tasted when @dave_car brought me back a bottle from an earlier trip to the US. I like the description, there's just something about the wording: “This espresso stout is brewed using well-roasted espresso beans. The recipe is based on the imperial Stout loved by the Russian Emperor. Please enjoy the balance of its rich taste and coffee flavour” – the last sentence in particular making me think of Bill Murray's Suntory advert for some reason.

The label states “Scadenza: Nov 2012” which I imagine means “use by” in Italian, so it was appropriate to get on with drinking it now rather than further hoarding. It seemed to me that standing around in a darkened cupboard for a while had brought out vinous notes in it, almost a hint of barrel-aging character. The coffee was more muted on the nose, but it was still there subtly in its full-bodied rich roasty flavour – not as much perhaps as a younger version of the beer, but I savoured the increased structure that had come through with time, and the subtle blending of roast malt, coffee, sweetness, wine and oakey tones.

Homebrew – Coffee Stout (about 4.5%?)
This was a bottle from our own homebrew kit – our first attempt at bottling (from the Dark Beer Drink-Off preparations) and had been stored for around 6 months. We had used a Coopers Premium Irish Stout kit, and modified it with a litre of fresh-brewed coffee in the FV, and had been really pleased with how it turned out at the time, drinking most of it fresh from the barrel with only a few Grolsch-top bottles stored. Just in case, I opened this one carefully in the sink – and it was a bit of a gusher – but thankfully only a little beer was lost. It quickly calmed down and was slightly effervescent in the glass, but not in a bad way. Compared to the taste when it was first made, I felt it could do with more vanilla and sweetness, as the sugars had fermented out leaving it quite dry in bottle. But it still had a smooth coffee character with a hint of roast bitterness, and was very pleasant to drink – it seemed like a competent enough attempt when in comparison with the other beers we’d had that evening.

Dark Star – Espresso 4.2%
I’ve had this beer (and loved it) in cask several times, but not had a bottle in years. It had a much sweeter milk-chocolate nose than I was expecting, and did have a full, silky mouthfeel, but disappointingly less coffee than I remember it having. As it came into contact with the air more aroma was released, but it still didn't give the depth of flavour I thought I’d experienced in it previously – maybe this is one where the cask version holds all the cards? I’ll certainly be looking out for it on cask over the next few months to try out that theory.

Each coffee beer was quite different to the others, and it was a push to get back to some more homebrewing, to find that our own-made beer (albeit from kit) wasn’t too far off the mark from the commercial offerings tasted. I think my favourite would firmly rest with the Hitachino Nest though – the ‘accidental’ aging gave it the most interesting and complex flavours of the night; perhaps there is something to be said for hoarding after all!

Sunday, 14 October 2012

A Visit to Leith

Although I've been in Edinburgh several times, I had never quite made it out to Leith, it's port district by the waterside. At one time this had some notoriety as a red-light area, but recent regeneration has spruced it up, and I'd hoped to go and have a wander round – and to find some good ales in the process, of course.

The opportunity arose for an excursion when I was visiting Edinburgh a few weeks ago, and so a party of us met to venture out in search of lunch. So with Ian, Kirsty, Andrew and Brendan, we negotiated the buses and headed down towards Leith. I'd been recommended three different ale spots by Scottish beery-types on Twitter, which seemed like a good basis for a day out.

Menu - zoom for yumminess
I'd suggested we head to Nobles Bar first to slake our hunger, as I'd been told it did a good brunch (till 4.30pm on a Saturday), which their website menu seemed to confirm. But before we got to food, we were all very impressed by the beautiful interior features – stained glass at the front and back of the pub, alluding to Leith's shipping role, and a nautical frieze around the top of the walls. The décor, relaxed seating areas and friendly welcome soon had us in a chilled out mode, and we got on with the business of choosing from the extensive menu while sampling some Nobles Pale Ale – the house beer brewed by Black Isle Brewery. I was impressed with this - it had a nicely balanced hop character, very drinkable; there was a second cask ale available, and a few Black Isle keg as well.

The menu was so packed with good things, we took an age to choose – it had exciting brunch offerings such as as Smoked Salmon Benedict, Croque Madame, and homemade pancakes with bacon, to the more unusual – rabbit burger or duck pastrami sandwich. But I settled on the Nobles Full Scottish to set me up for the day and although many cooked breakfasts may look pretty similar, taste-wise this had lots of “wow” factor – the haggis was the best I have ever had – some research uncovered this is made by a butcher (Findlays) in Portobello, so I'll have to look into mail order as it was pretty outstanding. The little roast cherry tomatoes were bursting with sweetness which Andrew also exclaimed over, and the sausages and scrambled eggs were also damn fine. Ian and Kirsty both had the gigantic haddock and chips with a Nobles IPA batter – light & fluffy, flaky fish, and almost too big to finish.

We were all very impressed with our first visit to Nobles and I hope to return sometime to soak up more of it's relaxed ambience.

Next Brendan, Ian and I ventured towards the next pub on my list – The Malt & Hops – but on the way we passed a a shop window which drew our attention - this was Beets Off-Licence and Grocers, on Bernard Street. This was a cave of delights, with lots of local ales, but plenty from respected breweries of the world to make any beer geek salivate. And also, a mini-beach with real sand, right there on the counter! This place would be worth a visit on it's own, and I'm surprised they don't seem to have any web presence to shout about their wares.

The Malt & Hops is a one-room basic pub, but it's clear it has a great cask ale focus with 8 handpulls and is regularly in the CAMRA Good Beer Guide. Here we huddled up to the hearth and sampled a Duke IPA from Highland, an Orkney Dark Munro, and an Orkney Best, over a leisurely chat about life, the universe and everything (beer, mostly). The area outside the pub is attractive too, being at the water's edge, and I would have loved more time to explore around here a bit further.

However the day pressed on, and we needed to get to Teuchters Landing, the bar section of waterside restaurant 'A Room in Leith', as I'd been reliably informed that Fyne Ales Jarl was a house beer there – one of my favourite Scottish beers. This had a lovely setting, overlooking some refurbished docks and modern apartments, with some of the historic quayside winching gear forming part of the beer garden features. 

Inside, the bar was extremely well furnished with beer choices – I was so pleased to see that cask Jarl was indeed there, and probably frightened the barman with my enthusiasm to order a round. They also have a Brewdog font; Orkney, Inveralmond and others on cask; and some Scottish keg, from WEST, Innis & Gunn, and Black Isle. A huge blackboard proudly shows off their extensive whisky (and cigar) list – definitely wroth another visit to explore this some cold winter evening. The smells from the restaurant part of the operation were very inviting, and a quick peek showed a bright conservatory-style room out front, with a ship-like feel to the nooks and crannies behind, and a menu slanted towards seafood such as sea bream with Shetland scallops, smoked North Sea hake fillet, and pots of Scottish mussels. I'd really like to come back here for a proper meal, or perhaps visit one of their two other “Teuchters/A Room …“ establishments in the city centre, though I doubt any have a setting to surpass the Leith water front. The Jarl was perfect, condition-wise, and I was sad indeed when the time came to leave.

But I wasn't going to get my pub recce of Edinburgh accomplished unless moves were made back townwards, so we headed next to the Stockbridge Tap. There's been a real buzz about this bar on Twitter and they'd had a lot of acclaim for their recent beer festival, so the huge array of top-of-the-range cask and keg that greeted us was no surprise. Between the three of us, we tried out a good list of beers: highlights were Williams Double Joker IPA, Alechemy Cairnpapple IPA dry-hopped (lots of yum factor!), and bottled Stewart Radical Road (needed a bit of time to warm up for the flavours to come out).

After this there was just time to visit a couple of city centre bars on the way back home – the Bow Bar for Fyne Ales Avalanche and Fallen Odessy Blonde Ale, stopping to chat with the bar staff about their bottle selection (I spotted an AleSmith in the fridge that I hadn't had at our recent tasting), then on to BrewDog. This wasn't as scarily busy as I'd expected for the tail end of a Saturday evening, so we had time to grab a seat and a few more samples – Alice Porter, Hello My Name is Beastie, Hardcore IPA (need that Simcoe hit!) and a beer that really wakened up my palate with its rich hop weight – the Firestone Walker Double Jack. An awesome beer for hop lovers - seriously, if you see this one on offer somewhere, have it!

A successful day out for beer exploration, but one which make me wistful to spend more time up in these parts, as I feel there was probably more to explore in Leith than we saw, the food at Teuchters would have been great, and I would have loved a whole afternoon to sit and sip Jarl, a beer which I never see in Birmingham but which has been a firm favourite since I first encountered it at the Coach & Horses in Dronfield. Next time, next time ...

Friday, 12 October 2012

A Whisky Education

While visiting Edinburgh recently I was lucky enough to be invited to a meeting of the Whisky Society at Herriot-Watt Students Union. I was in the city to visit a friend of long standing, @HillstersBrew, who has just started an MSc course in Brewing & Distilling, and it seems the Union has many societies which cater for the eager learners' thirst for knowledge in a friendly, social environment.

Non-society members were welcome, so I caught the bus out to the campus, passing the Caledonian Brewery (do they do tours? Must check for my next visit), to join the queue of people making their way into the meeting room. More and more people turned up, and soon the room was packed out, extra chairs and glasses were being hauled in, and the society organisers were frantically scrawling up “Sold Out” on the noticeboard so we could get the sampling underway.

The format for these evenings is that three or four different whiskies will be tried; once everyone has a measure poured out in front of them, the tasting will be led by a member of the society organising team, who will give some background to the whisky, where it is made, the grain composition, any particularly unusual processes used, and then an analysis of the aromas and flavours to be found. This is very helpful if you're a bit of a newbie to whisky/whiskey, as it helps you to start recognising common flavour descriptors and aspects of the aroma, which it might at first be hard to describe on your own.

The first whisky tonight was Signatory 1997 from the North British Distillery based in Gorgie, Edinburgh, quite near the Caledonian brewery site. I was surprised to be told that the familiar smell that hangs over Edinburgh – which always seemed to be a mix of Scotch pie and Caley’s beer brewing – was actually from production at this distillery.

It was explained that this is one of the ‘new types’ of whisky, using 90% wheat grain, and 10% malted barley to make use of a particular enzyme. It’s known as a ‘grain whisky’ – which apparently everyone drank 100 years ago, until the late 19thC when people switched to malt whisky. Simple, uncomplicated, and very drinkable – and is therefore used in blends to bring about more easy drinking character. This had a very sweet nose, with vanilla, honey, and soft fruits. Flavour-wise as well as fruit and Madeira cake, it had a slight creamy, oaky character, and was surprisingly fumey for its’ sweet nose. The short finish made you ready for another mouthful, so I could see what was meant by ‘ease of drinkability’. This type of whisky is generally only kept for around 5 or 6 years in bottle – no long maturation process – so was a good one to start on as it wasn’t palate-clogging.

Next we had Adelphi Private Reserve Blend – Adelphi, based at Glenborrodale Castle, are bottlers and blenders of cask whiskies, but have just been granted permission to build their own distillery onsite, and hope to be distilling by the end of 2013. To me, this had a really floral nose, and I was picking up lavender and a small hint of honey. The blend of grain and single malt whisky together offered a bit of fruit and spice, but not a great deal of finish – it reminded me of the ‘drinking’ (not sipping) whisky produced by Bushmills or Johnnie Walker, to drink quickly or in a mix, rather than one to take your time over.
The Sheep Dip 2012 Amoroso Oloroso had the most interesting backstory – a blended malt produced in 1999 in Scotland, was then transported to Spain for sale. It was stored in sherry casks, but the distributor went bust, and it lay undiscovered in a warehouse for years until found by the new owner of the property. Sheep Dip then bought it back and found it’s sherry cask-aged character to be rather good!

This had lots going on in it, as you’d imagine – with rich aromas of rum, vanilla and chocolate, and smooth butterscotch. Although only three years old, apparently it matured faster than usual in Spain due to the hot, humid climate. It had a shorter finish than expected, with hints of bitter orange and burnt toffee. Will any more of this be produced, or is it’s unusual route to bottle a one-off?

Our last of the night was Longrow “Red” Cabernet Sauvignon Cask, from Springbank, Campbeltown. This is a single malt at cask strength – 52.1% - and had lots of complexity. Quite phenolic (that medicinal TCP note) and peaty, but with lots of vinous, raisin-y flavours coming through. The big flavour notes were really prominent upfront, but it has a persistent finish with a very smooth flourish. As fellow tastee Gareth exclaimed, “it’s a beast of a whisky!” and was, as you might have expected, our favourite of the very convivial and educational evening.

The Tasting Society’s evenings are sponsored by Royal Mile Whiskies, who provide the rather fine Glencairn sampling glasses – on top of this, they also offer a 10% discount in their shops to any member of the society, so there's no excuse to shy away from learning more about the world of whisky to supplement your studies!

After the main event, several students normally go for a pint or two in a craft beer bar or real ale pub towards the city centre, and I was secretly hoping they may stop at the Caley Sample Room as they had on their last meet-up as I hadn’t had a chance to visit there yet, but on this occasion after an abortive attempt to visit @Cloisters_Bar (too busy on a Friday night to cope with a sudden influx of thirsty students) they settled on a walk across the Meadows to The The Dagda Bar. For some unknown reason, I had missed this off my list of “23 pubs to visit while in Edinburgh”, so was a pleasant surprise to find myself swept in there and up to the bar. There I sampled three very fine ales indeed – Tryst Carronade IPA (a hoppy yet sessionable 4.2%), Tryst Raj IPA (a bit more weighty at 5.5%), and the very herbaceous, currant-leaf Cromarty Hit the Lip – at 3.8% a beer you could drink till the cask ran dry, which we promptly did!

A great end to the evening