Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Whisky Festival in Brum

Just as there are a growing band of Birmingham folks who are exploring craft beer, supporting our forward-looking off licences, keeping an eye on what real ales and bottled beers are available in city haunts, and hopefully witnessing the rise of the 'Craft Beer Quarter', there are other areas where the city's drinkers have seen progress in recent years – in a bloom of innovative cocktail bars, a gin parlour opening, and new ventures such as independent wine retailer and tasting room Loki Wine.

A whisky scene has also been developing in Birmingham over the past 12 months, almost single-handedly crafted by The Whisky Miss, Amy Seton, who decided at the end of 2011 that there weren't really any whisky-based events happening in the city at which to go and learn, so she set about starting up her own. This luckily coincided with a branch of The Whisky Shop opening in Great Western Arcade, and other interested individuals coming out to play.

Craig Mills & Amy Seton
To celebrate the first birthday of these events in December 2012, Amy had pushed the boat out by organising Birmingham's first ever whisky festival – bringing a one day celebration of the worldwide craft of whisky making to those keen to learn more. I arrived at the venue, the Old Joint Stock pub, to find a room already full of whisky explorers and exhibitors from various distilleries and merchants. There was just time to have an initial sample of Old Pulteney 12 with it's sea air aroma and a quick chat to the lasses who had come down from the distillery in the far north of Scotland, before heading to the parlour downstairs for a cheese and whisky masterclass, being led by Craig Mills from The Whisky Shop and David Capeling from Capeling and Co. cheesemongers.

It was exciting to be in a room full of people in Birmingham who were just as interested in food and drink exploring as I am, and there was a range of expertise from relative beginners like myself, to those who had many years of whisky learning behind them. Our samples were poured into Glencairn glasses which I'd first come across at a tasting in Herriot-Watt university, while David explained that there are no ground rules when it comes to matching whisky and cheese, leaving it an open field for exciting experimentation.

David had selected five fine cheeses for us to try, and Craig had then matched these with whiskies that complemented or contrasted:

Cheese: Pierre Roberts; Whisky: Benriach 12 Bourbon & Sherry Cask

This was a triple-cream, silky smooth, mild and light cheese, paired with the fruit driven, fresh and low acidity Benriach – the cheese brought out the sweetness at the end of the whisky, which in turn highlighted the savoury aspect of the cheese.

Cheese: Lincolnshire Poacher; Whisky: Glenfarclas 2003

This sweet and nutty non-typical cheddar was matched with rich flavours in the whisky – praline-like with a sweet and spicy finish.

Cheese: Isle of Mull; Whisky: Tobermory 10

Craig explained that this was a 'terroir' matching, in that the cows that provide the milk for this cheese, are fed the 'draff' – the spent mash from the Tobermory distillery. This was a strong, sharp, briney cheddar with a farmhousey aroma, and the whisky used peated water with a spicy mouth-tingling quality that becomes sweeter as it's consumed with the cheese.

Cheese: Bishop Kennedy; Whiskey: Writers Tears (from Ireland)

A single pot still whisky from the makers of Jameson, fairly pale in colour with light honey notes. The cheese was strong, sticky and pungent, with lots of yeasty, Marmite umami-ness, with a bitter note in the rind, in contrast to the easygoing nature of the whisky.

Cheese: Evenlode; Whisky: Glenmorangie 18

This was my favourite pairing of the day; a modern spongy-textured Scottish blue cheese with a salt tang pepping up it's creaminess. The Glenmorangie, finished in Bourbon barrels, brought an aged smoothness with hints of coconut and warmth, almost like a spiced rum at times; this held up well to the piquancy of the cheese.

The food matching was an excellent idea, and guidance from the experts helped us to examine what notes were being brought out from both sides and learn about what we were capable of picking out flavour-wise. My only gripe was that a few slices of baguette or plain bread would have helped with the cheese eating, and some paper plates and a knife each would have lessened the messiness a bit, but I certainly couldn't fault the selections made and the helpful dissection of flavours.

Then it was back to the main room to wander around chatting to whisky sellers and producers while sampling from the 50 different whiskies available to try. As I was with a few friends, we were happy to share our samples to make sure we tried as large a range as possible, as the selection on offer was pretty comprehensive – and with eager guidance from those manning the stalls, you could be sure to find several that suited your personal preferences.

Some highlights for me were:
Yamazaki 18 – a rich colour picked up from the Bourbon casks; sweet and fruitcakey.
Hibiki 17 – like an Olorosso sherry, and very moreish!
Dalmore Tay Dram Рfrom a program whereby Dalmore contribute money back to restock Scottish rivers. This had great cr̬me brulee and coffee flavours, and rich, sticky fruit.

Paul John Cask 161 – an entirely Indian-made product; the producers are experimenting with how the climate and conditions in India accelerate the wood ageing process, although about 10% is lost to the Angel's Share. This is gaining plaudits in the whisky world and has lots of tempered heat.
Scapa 16 – has a soft elegance, with lemon, honey and apricot giving a very modern lightness.
Aberlour A'Bunadh – this was at the other end of the spectrum, extremely rich and warming like nestling by a fireside.
Kilchoman – from an Islay distillery only opened in 2005; this had a lot going on aroma-wise for such a young whisky.

Everyone was invited to take part in a competition to collect whisky facts as we sampled, and at the end the winners were drawn - some entrants were lucky enough to end up with bottles of interesting whiskies to take home, and there were consolation prizes of distillery tours as well. In addition, there was a good offer to take advantage of - The Whisky Shop provided discounts for most of the whiskies exhibited, either to purchase on the day, or to order for later collection from the shop nearby.

The event was a great chance for some exploring of the many different aspects of uisce beatha and to chat to like-minded individuals, and encouraging that it represented a first for this type of gathering in Birmingham. Even better, then, that Amy has organised a larger scale festival, “Whisky Birmingham”, to take place on Saturday 2nd March 2013. This promises to be a fantastic event with a return of Capeling and Co's cheese matching, and catering from Soul Food Project – more info and tickets can be found at http://www.whiskybirmingham.co.uk/ and I'd certainly urge both whisky beginners and experienced palates alike to check it out!

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Popstrami and beer in Stirchley

The Birmingham food and drink scene has really expanded in the past few years - mostly through the efforts of obsessives and enthusiasts taking matters into their own hands and doing it themselves - whether it's organising a street food event that's now a regular occurrence (@DigbethDiner), offering something new in wine shopping (@lokiwine), delis and food stores (@AndersonandHill) and bakeries (@YorksBakeryCafe), great coffee (@urbancoffeeco and @SixEightKafe), improving and adding to the beer range in bars (@TheVictoria), nurturing fantastic craft beer off licences (@StirchleyWines and @CotteridgeWines) or bringing ramen to the people (Minmin Noodles). These are just some prominent examples, and as a result I've been able to try a wider range of foods and beer than seen before in Birmingham, and make some new discoveries.

The start of December saw a Popstrami pop-up event take place in Stirchley, at the recently opened Loaf Community Bakery and Cookery School, which brought something new to the city – in the guise of the “Breuben” – a Brummie take on the Reuben sandwich which is most famously found in Katz’s New York Deli, but I’ve seen appearing on London-based food blogs in recent months too - succulent, eye-wateringly thick-filled meaty delights.

The team behind Popstrami all have solid gourmet credentials and are scarily passionate about what they do – Tom runs Loaf and has revitalised the food scene in Stirchley, with a vegetarian co-operative shop Stirchley Stores operating alongside his bakery premises; Dom works the night shift at the bakery, turning out inventive baked goods at an alarming rate; Nick is a home-smoking and curing obsessive and writes food blog Smoke and Umami; and Lap is the “Rebuen sandwich fascist” who carries out all manner of impressive cooking feats (smoking an eel from scratch being one he’s recently written up). They’ve collaborated before in various combinations – including a previous Popstrami pop-up American Deli event at Leverton & Halls in Bournville, and the Backyard Brummie barbeque team participating in Grillstock in Bristol.

So when I heard via Twitter that they were hosting another Popstrami event, I was keen to get down there and enjoy some good foods. This would take the format of a set menu for £10 published in advance: Jewish chicken soup with giant matzoh ball; (B)Reuben with pickles; Baked cheesecake to finish.

Even better that the event was Bring Your Own and Loaf HQ is just 5 minutes down the road from Stirchley Wines, meaning I could pick up some decent beers to complement the foods. I think Krishan did a fine trade that night as several people in attendance had clearly visited to browse his shelves and choose some beers to bring with them, including a group collecting a crate of Aventinus!

On walking in I was greeted by a room full of friendly faces and Nick ladling the unctuous, bubbling chicken broth into cups, and dolloping in a matzoh ball and a sprig of dill. He handed it to me with a grin, declaring "it's rich with chicken fat!" - and slurping it was like an enveloping hug as you warmed up from the sub-zero temperatures outside. The dill cut through the fattiness with a bright aniseed note, while the matzoh gave a bit of texture to chew on.

Then there was a wait with anticipation for the Breuben to be prepared - we each had numbered tickets, and our number would be called from the end of the production line once the order was ready. Here, Lap, Dom and Tom worked the line - first preparing the layers of meat onto rye bread, then adding sauerkraut and Swiss cheese, and finally some "special sauce", before the outsides of the bread were brushed with melted butter, and it was cooked on a griddle until nicely toasted, and the cheese had melted a little to hold the whole thing together. Then it was cut in two, arranged so you could appreciate the sheer amount of meat filling it was stuffed with, and served with Nick's homemade pickles - salt-cured, naturally fermented gherkins preserved in both a half-sour and a 3/4 sour marinade (depending on the length of time they'd been curing for), and pickled radishes.

I carried mine off to the seating area and pulled up a chair beside others who were digging in, and opened the first of my beers - I'd picked a Brooklyn East India Pale Ale to go with the Breuben, needing something fairly hoppy to cut through the fat and salt richness, but not so hoppy that it would compete on my tastebuds. I saw other diners had gone for a similar tactic - John from BrewDog Birmingham had chosen the same beer as me, and another chap had a bottle of Stone Levitation Ale, while others opted for crisp German lagers.


The Breuben itself was pure indulgent deliciousness - I couldn't help but close my eyes at times while eating it as it was just such a pleasurable, meaty experience, with the pickles providing a great contrast with their crunch and slight sourness, and the generous amount of brined, spiced, smoked ox cheek pastrami providing a big kick of flavour and with a meltingly flaky texture - this was like "beef bacon" according to Dom, but the expression doesn't quite capture it's succulence. The meat would almost have been over-flavoured (if such a thing is possible!) if it hadn't been for the other elements of sauerkraut, sauce and cheese dampening it down a bit and making this a great combination between the lightly crunchy, toasted bread. I was so sorry when my sandwich ended that I almost considered buying another, but I knew I'd not manage the cheesecake if I did, so consoled myself by chatting to other attendees about how amazing a sandwich this was, while I finished off my EIPA.

After a while, I was ready to seek out dessert - this was a cheesecake flecked through with vanilla, and ingeniously baked in foil 'takeaway' cartons, which could then be cut in half diagonally to give two portions. This was not too sweet and had a buttery biscuit base, with a dollop of spiced apple compote on top to lift it slightly. I paired this with a Mikkeller Wheat Is The New Hops,  with it's fresh grassiness enlivening the mouth - wheat providing flavour without the high levels of bitterness found in hoppy beers, making it a good foil to a sweeter dish.

Ox cheek pastrami

As I hung around afterwards chatting and finishing my beer, I did spy one attendee deciding to have seconds on every menu item - that's clearly how good it all was - and as the event didn't quite sell out (I feel sorry for those who didn't make it, though it was an exceptionally cold night), I was lucky enough to have another Breuben made up for me, to take home and have for breakfast the next day, and also to buy a generous portion of the ox cheek pastrami, which I used over the next few days to make my own amateur versions of a Reuben at home.

This was an excellent event to have ventured out to the Birmingham suburbs for, on a cold winter night, and great to have a source of good beers nearby too, to make the experience complete. I would imagine the @Popstrami and Backyard Brummie team will have more events in the pipeline for 2013 - keep an eye out for them on Twitter so you can partake of the meaty goodness too!

And for much better pics of the food and event, check out @ysl807's great photos here.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Birmingham Metro pub crawl

Birmingham has a tram system – the Metro - that extends up the path of the old Great Western Railway trackbed, through the satellite towns, and ending at Wolverhampton. This offers a pleasant way of getting between a few quality pubs along the route, too many to fit in on one day, but in being selective you can visit some gems for a relaxed pint or two.

We started by travelling the length of the route from Snow Hill in Birmingham to St George's tram stop on Bilston Street in Wolves, and then negotiating the underpasses on a circuitous route to the Great Western on Sun Street. This seems to me to be one of the most unspoilt pubs in the Midlands, and worth several visits just on it's own - it's part of the railway heritage of the area, occupying an atmospheric spot beside the old low-level GNWR station and goods yard, and is filled with signage and train memoribilia that fits in with its old-world character. 

Cozy in winter
Being owned by Holdens, you can guarantee pints of Black Country bitters will be flowing, and Bathams is also regularly found as a guest. You can pick up cobs (filled rolls) and pork pies for a pound or two, but there's also a 'conservatory' room at the back for more substantial meals and functions. On our visit, the guests were one from Holdens seasonal range, "Noddy Holden" (Lucy Holden explained the theme of this year's Holdens specials, and their artwork, in my earlier post here) and a guest from Derby, and they also had Holdens Mild, Special, Bitter and Golden Glow. It was easy to get cozy while supping the malty goodness and enjoying the open fire and the welcoming chatter of the regulars and locals streaming through the door, but before long we knew we had to move on or the crawl would be in danger of abandonment!

Next we walked through the tiled pathway to the train station and up to the centre of town, to visit the Posada. This is a GBG regular, and has some lovely old features - a tiled facade, more tiling around the doors and walls, and some stained glass partitions inside inbetween the alcoves and nooks. Although we had a couple of draught ales from the four on offer (Wye Valley HPA, Davenports IPA, Banks's and Marstons) it was interesting to see a 'craft beer' menu on the tables, listing 4 bottles from Brewdog at around £3.30 - clearly the owners have taken note that the beer scene is expanding and are keen to try offering something different to Wolverhampton drinkers.

Then it was back on the tram, and down the line to Bilston. The Old White Rose is a long-standing real ale pub just a minute or two from the tram stop here, and very handy if you're on your way to a gig at the Robin venue a few streets away. There had been a few changes since I was last in here - notably they have reduced the amount of real ale pumps on the bar, and taken out the Belgian keg font, perhaps to improve turnover; they've also extended the opening hours to 11.30pm, to take in post-gig drinkers. The carvery & dining area has also changed a bit, which I think creates a more pleasant (less hot & steamy!) seating arrangement. Ales sampled here from the 8 or so on offer were from Kelham Island, Ludlow, Sarah Hughes and Cottage. No particularly exciting choices and condition was just OK rather than outstanding, but that seems to be the way with some long-standing ale pubs - something crisp and hoppy would have been welcomed at this stage. I also noticed they have a function room in the cellar - I'm not sure if this is a new development - this has an impressive Lowenbrau banner over the stairs down, and is styled as a Bavarian bierkeller. It would be great if they staged a festival of decent German beer here at some point, with wurst and pretzels to go with it!

Our next hop on the Metro was to Kenrick Park station, where you alight in a rather anonymous residential street, for the few minutes' walk to The Vine. I hadn't been to this pub before, but had heard they served good value Indian food all day long, and some local ale to go with it. I wasn't prepared though for the busyness of the place at the start of a Saturday teatime - although the rooms towards the front retained some of the original pub-like character, all tables were either full of people about to dine, or reserved for those coming for dinner shortly, and through the narrow corridor bar were two larger rooms reserved entirely for dining, full of people and with an air of chaos! However a friendly barmaid soon squeezed us in to a spare table and we were able to take a look at the curry menu printed up along one wall while sipping our Blue Monkey BG Tips - very nice. The back 'BBQ' room features a long cast iron grill, cooking up marinaded kebabs and skewers which looked mouthwatering, but on this occasion we decided to try out the curries, including the spicy goat and lamb with spinach. These were great - just as good as any found in the best balti restaurants of Brum - and extremely good value, with our whole meal of two mains and two sides coming in at under £14. They serve food all day on Saturdays, so I think I'll have to make a return visit sometime to try the skewers from the grill as they looked spicy and again great value at about £3.50. We would have liked another drop of the BG Tips as it was in great condition, but unfortunately it had run out at this stage. Never mind - next on was Bathams! Excellent - a trip into the Black Country would not be complete without coming across this iconic beer, so we had some for dessert. At £3.76 this was perhaps the most expensive pint of Bathams I'd ever purchased, but the cost was mitigated somewhat by the good value food.

It was getting rather dark now so it was good to be heading back towards the centre of Birmingham - but a Metro crawl wouldn't be complete without visiting the award-winning Black Eagle, just down the hill from the Benson Road metro stop in Soho. This is another lovely unspoilt pub, where genial host Tony provides a welcome haven hidden in the city's backstreets. Although slightly off the beaten track, this pub is always busy on a Saturday evening with many regular faces, and we bumped into some friends here, reminiscing about drinking in Belgium together, while checking out the cask line up. The Black Eagle was the first place I ever tasted a Brewdog beer, and Tony used to have one Brewdog on the pumps at all time before they stopped doing cask beer – so instead he had some from Salopian, Ludlow and others. As well as being a welcoming venue for a winter night, this is a great pub to visit in spring or summer too, to enjoy it's pretty beer garden, and they also have a great beer festival towards the end of July.

It was then back to the tram to return to Birmingham. If time had allowed, we could have stopped off at the Jewellery Quarter station to visit the Drop Forge or the Lord Clifden, but with Birmingham's buses being a tad unreliable late in the evening, we opted to return home, satisfied with our day's exploring. As detailed on this site, there are several other places we could have stopped too along the way, but I think it's best on a crawl to pick and choose, allowing a bit of time to relax and enjoy each pub rather than a 'splash and dash' approach! The proximity to the tram stops to the chosen pubs had the bonus of no more than 10 minutes' walk to most of them on a wintery day, but it would be great to repeat this when the season is more clement, and check out some of the other Metro-accessible bars too. I think I'll definitely be returning to the Vine for some spicy skewers when I do!

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Irish Dark Beers & Stout Stew

On a recent visit to Ireland, suitcase space was limited for picking up some beer to bring home from the burgeoning microbrewery scene there, and shopping time was scarce. So having to make a snap decision while in Probus Beers near Trinity College, I decided to just pick up a couple of Irish dark beers, that I could bring back and have in a kind of “compare and contrast “ session over one evening with other similar beers I could source in England.

To go with the beers I wanted to try cooking some beef-in-stout stew. I haven't made this before (using sausage for stew is the preferred recipe going back generations in our family for some reason, probably war years austerity!), but I do love a good plate of warming stew; it's something you can find in many cafes, bars and coffee shops in Northern Ireland, but not often in England (although apparently @newinnharborne do a winter stew on their current menu). So I dug out a likely recipe, bought in some good quality beef from Harborne Village Butchers, and found an afternoon with plenty of time to get the stew slow cooking in the oven and the beers lined up to drink.

The first up was Knockmealdown porter from @8degreesbrewing, a micro that started in 2011 – I hadn't had much by this brewery before so was interested to try their dark beer. At first I realised I'd left it a little too long in the fridge and needed to let it warm up for a bit once poured, but once that had happened more aroma was released – and I was surprised to find a slightly sour note in this – reminded me a bit of Orval, mixed in with some coffee-ish scents. The lactiness was evident also in the taste, and I'm not sure was meant to be there (later batches of this beer have been described as having a sweetish finish); it wasn't unpleasant, but left me feeling unsure of how this beer should “actually” taste.

Next I poured the Guinness Export – this had more tartness & bitterness than I was expecting, as I thought it may be more smooth and roasty. I had used this in the stew as it was the right size bottle for the recipe, readily available in England, and I didn't want to use one of the beers I'd brought back from Dublin in the cooking, otherwise I wouldn't get the chance to properly taste them! I was expecting to like this beer a little more than I did but it was pleasant enough without being particularly exciting.

While drinking this, I served up the stew that was finally ready after several hours cooking – thankfully the beef was by now really tender and tasty and the liquid absorbed. The meat flavours had a slightly more bitter note than I'd expected, so I may choose to use a very slightly sweeter stout when I make this dish again. I wished I had some Irish wheaten bread to go with it, but hadn't had time to hunt some down in the shops of Birmingham so crusty bread and some ground black pepper would have to do. After some research, I had settled on this recipe and was pleased with the results.

Once we'd had the stew, we moved on to the O'Hara's Irish Stout (brewed by Carlow) – again procured from Probus – and this delivered much more of what I was expecting and hoping for. Sweet roasts on the nose, like a rich filter coffee with a touch of cream and sugar. That lovely coffee bean note was carried over into the flavour, with a silky mouthfeel, but wasn't overpowering – making this more of a 'pintable' stout for enjoyable everyday drinking than something you'd sip with reverence – but I liked it very much for that aspect and would hope to encounter this on draught somewhere next time I'm in Dublin.

I then wanted to try the Irish Stout that Carlow Brewing Co produce for Marks and Spencer. Initially I thought this may be the same beer as the O'Hara's Irish Stout, but Carlow informed me they are actually different beers, and this was obvious once I'd poured it. It was much lighter in the mouth and on flavour than the previous beer, with a slight effervescence. The pronounced roastiness wasn't there, but the hint of smooth sweetness made this easy drinking, although not that memorable. Not a bad beer, but not a particularly distinctive one either.

Last of the night was the bottle-conditioned Porterhouse Celebration Stout – this is a beer they produced as a one-off originally, to celebrate their 10th Anniversary, but I now believe is produced every year as they realised it was quite popular. Although there was no year of production on this bottle, and it's 'best before' date was November 2012, I suspect it was fairly recently made and would have benefited perhaps from keeping for a while. But it can be difficult to take the gamble of ageing on a beer you don't know that well, so better to drink it and then you can judge if you'd be better storing it, the next time you get hold of a bottle. While this didn't have the full-on richness I'd experienced the first time I'd tasted this beer a few years ago, it certainly had a velvety texture on the palate, bitter roasts and sweet, woody liquorice notes. A worthy nightcap, though I couldn't help wondering what other delights this beer would have yielded up, given a bit of time resting in the beer cupboard first.

An enjoyable evening trying a few new beers with a theme and learning to cook a new dish – my overall vote for the evening would go to the Carlow O'Hara's stout, and I do hope to find bottled and draught versions of this side by side next time I'm across the sea, for more of a comparison and dark beer session!