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Mr Vine Tasting Numero 2 & 3

As I mentioned in a previous blog I joined up with new online wine buying app Mr Vine as one-fifth of a dynamic tasting team. Well, we got together twice more after our maiden meet in March, which meant it was a spring of full of sampling and from that bevy o bottles, here be the heroes…
April is known more for it’s showers than it’s baths.
First place: Château Dereszla Dry Tokaji 2013 (Tokaj, Hungary; 14.0%; £12.34, The Oxford Wine Company)
This unusual white is bursting at the seams with honeyed apricot, baklava and rosewater flavour. Rich, ripe and lush but it remains vibrant. Totally non-mainstream and so much the better for that. A jewel of a wine. 92 points.
Second place: Château Peychaud Cotes de Bourg 2012 (Bordeaux, France; 13.5%; £10.40, The Oxford Wine Company)
Very appealing on the nose – blackberries, cedar and Havana cigars – coupled with loads of concentrated dark fruit flavour. It’s not always easy to find good value in Bordeaux but this is very impressive for the price. Considering the relatively obscure appellation it’s a thoroughbred. 88 points.
Third place: Domaine du Haut Peron Touraine Sauvignon Blanc Vieilles Vignes 2013 (Loire, France; 12.0%; £10.79, The Oxford Wine Company)
With fistfuls of gooseberry, kiwi and green pepper, this couldn’t be anything but Sauvignon Blanc. It wasn’t unanimously loved but those that did enjoy its soft fruitiness, intense fruit flavour and vibrant acidity. 88 points.
Fourth place: Weingut Josef Bründlmayer Grüner Veltliner Loessterrassen 2014 (Kremstal, Austria; 12.0%; £10.99, The Real Wine Company)
A good introduction to the Grüner grape. Pithy and citric with a green apple tang and a characteristic whiff of white pepper. Vibrant lime juice acidity provides plenty of refreshment through the clean, mineral finish. 88 points.
Fifth place: Weingut Martin Kohl Zweigelt Classic Red 2013 (Niederösterreich, Austria; 13.0%; £8.99, The Real Wine Company)
Wow – the first thing you notice is the lip-smacking acidity, but there is plenty of perky, crunchy red berry fruit and piquant spice underneath. The label might be rather plain but this has lots of personality for the money. Try drinking it lightly chilled – it’s a stunner for the summer! 87 points.
May is so much more than a month.
First Place: Domaine Lafond Roc-Epine Lirac Blanc 2013 (Rhône, France; 13.5%; £11.30, Nickolls & Perks) 
A peachy mélange of three much underrated white grapes from the Rhône: Roussanne, Grenache Blanc and Viognier. More ripe stone fruit flavours like apricot and nectarine in the mouth give it a lovely lush texture. This would work well with fairly rich dishes but is deliciously drinkable by itself. Plenty of impact but perfectly balanced – a very successful blend. 90 Points.
Second Place: Domaine Lafond Roc-Epine Lirac Rouge 2011 (Rhône, France; 13.5%; £11.30, Nickolls & Perks)
Another generously flavoursome Rhône blend from this reliable producer, this time red: Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Carignan. Rich and intense with forest berries, cigar tobacco and hung game, this is a wine in a deep red smoking jacket. It really won us over; it’s hearty without being heavy. 88 Points.
Third Place: Domaine Bourdon Saint Veran 2011 (Burgundy, France; 13.0%; £12.60, Nickolls & Perks)  
Lots of attractive, gentle apricot and peach here – there’s a touch of honey and caramel too but thankfully it hasn’t been clobbered by oak. It has a lovely, silky, rounded mouthfeel and impressive intensity of flavour. A lot of wine for the money, which is relatively rare when it comes to white Burgundy. 89 Points.
Fourth Place: Caligiore Malbec 2013 (Mendoza, Argentina; 14.0%; £10.49, Vinceremos)
There’s a lot of samey Malbec out there, but this isn’t one of them. It has layers of dark chocolate, concentrated blueberry, succulent plum and coffee bean flavour. A wine to cosy up with that’s crying out for steak – it’s a muscular Malbec that would happily stand up to a juicy ribeye. 88 Points.
Fifth Place: Bodegas Parra Jimenez ‘Parra’ Verdejo 2013 (Castilla-La Mancha, Spain; 12.5%; £6.99, Vinceremos)
Verde-who? This white grape is native to Spain and makes pungent, herbal styles of wine with loads of personality. It’s like a trek through the tropics: guava, greengage and pithy grapefruit. Not exactly subtle, but it’s a fun, sunny BBQ party wine that’s a shoe-in for lovers of Sauvignon Blanc. 85 Points.
For those of you with a keen eye, you may notice that 2nd place actually scored less than 3rd place. This occurred thanks our democratic and enlightened method of judging; in which our overall enjoyment of the wine actually trumps the average score. Pipe. Smoke. It.
And that was that as they say.
For more info go to mrvine.co.uk and/or to simply download the app go to the app store and search Mr Vine.
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Aldi Revisited

It was November 2013 when I published my first (mostly) glowing review of Aldi wines and spirits. Since then I have been loyally going to their autumn/winter and spring/summer tastings. There have been highs and lows but I decided now was the time to shine a light on a few beauties that I sampled at their most recent tasting.

Sparkling

*Star Buy* – Belletti Rosé Spumante DOC / £5.99 / 11% ABV / Veneto, Italy

Screen Shot 2015-05-26 at 15.57.38 Now as I lifted the glass to taste this deep pink popper, I had already begun to cringe with the fear of how awful it was going to be. Pink fizzy drinks labelled spumante with such a small price tag are notoriously sweet, ghastly and probably responsible for some of the worst hangovers in the history of modern drinking (not a fact). But my preemptive grimace was whisked from my visage and replaced with joyful surprise as the liquid made contact with my tongue. Dried strawberry danced over my palate, rose petals hovered overhead, there was some nice tannic structure and it finished dry and clean. Made from 100%, little known native Italian varietal Raboso, this a firecracker of a fizz. Dangerously glug-able and available seasonally so stock up now!

Runner Up – Philippe Michel Cremant du Jura 2012 / £7.29 / 12% ABV / Jura, France

Showing rich biscuit and lemon zest this Aldi stalwart deserves all the plaudits it continues to get year after year from wine critics. Consistency and value are the watchwords here from this champagne method sparkler. Hailing from the mountainous region of south-east France not far from the Swiss border, it’s certainly worth having a few bottles of this “Blanc de Blanc” (100% Chardonnay) knocking about for that Tuesday night when only bubbles will do.

White

*Star Buy* – Lot 02 Tasmanian Chardonnay 2013 / £9.99 / 12.5% ABV / Tasmania, Australia

Screen Shot 2015-05-29 at 15.47.16As I have mentioned Aldi excel in the lower price brackets, but often I’ve felt that when they’ve tried to go glam the wines lacked the class and finesse of bottles at the same price point stocked by other retailers. But the winds of change do blow with their “The Lot Series”. I was extremely impressed with this excellent example of oaked Chardonnay. Round and generous but bursting with tart Granny Smith apple, layers of aromatic acacia wood and tingling apple skin acidity. A bouncy joy of a wine. The wines of Tasmania really are starting to turn some heads. Literally a world away from the Australian continent, with a generally cooler climate which allows “Tassie” winemakers to craft their own unique identity. The focus is on top quality Chardonnay and Pinot Noir; not to mention probably producing the best sparkling wines ‘Down Under’.

Runner Up – The Exquisite Collection Rias Baixas Albariño 2014 / £5.99 / 12.5% ABV / Rias Baixas, Spain

Screen Shot 2015-05-26 at 15.58.16This racy, minerally, sea salt crusted gem of a grape that loves the rugged ocean swept coast of north-west Spain has been on the rise for a good few years now. A popular wine list alternative to Sauvignon Blanc or equally fashionable Picpoul de Pinet, Albariño (Al-Ba-Reen-Yo) can command some hefty prices both down the gastro pub and in the wine shop. But what continues to be one of Aldi’s strengths is that they are good at getting solid wines from well-known regions at very reasonable prices. Their own label example from the Galician heartland of Rias Baixas has that characteristic high acid, saline, stone fruit element as well as being pure and clean with a lime juice finish that makes you mad for toasted almonds, green olives and another sip. Again it’s a seasonal offering so get a dozen while you can.

Honourable Mention – Pierre Bonnet Vouvray 2014 / £5.99 / 12% ABV / Loire, France

I love of the wines of the Loire, they really do it all. Stunning dry whites with laser-like acidity made from Chenin and Sauvignon Blanc. Crunchy red fruit, green pepper and graphite etched reds from Cabernet Franc. But they also produce cracking, good value fizz and sublime dessert wines too. The region of Vouvray in the Touraine district is dedicated almost solely to Chenin Blanc and is famous around the world for it’s sensational sec (dry), demi-sec (semi-sweet) and moelleux (sweet) versions of this somewhat unsung darling of white varietals. Pierre Bonnet’s wine has lovely pear, lime and lush lemon curd. The texture is a touch creamy but clean and finishes with a hint of dry white flowers.

Red

*Star Buy* – Lot 3 Pezenas 2013 / £9.99 / 14.5% ABV / Languedoc, France 

Screen Shot 2015-05-29 at 15.46.49Aldi’s Lot Series comes up trumps again with this sun-baked blend of Mourvèdre, Grenache, Syrah and just a squirt of Carignan. I have visited the Languedoc a couple times and it’s an unspoilt wine and food lovers playground. The reds do tend to the boozier end of the spectrum, but they have bags of finesse and class too. Pezenas (name of the commune in L’Herault department of Languedoc-Roussillon) pops with perfumed violet, that shows dark fresh fruit, a meaty texture and underpinned by a fine grey slate structure. Certainly one to decant a few hours before and have with friends over a hearty Gallic inspired meal.

Runner Up - The Exquisite Collection Limestone Coast Cabernet 2013 / £6.49 / 13.5% ABV / Limestone Coast, Australia

Screen Shot 2015-05-26 at 16.00.14I cannot recall the last time I recommended a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, let alone an Australian one. That said don’t go out and buy a lottery ticket. The Limestone Coast has within it’s boundaries the almighty Coonawarra region and is responsible for producing 1/3 of Oz’s quality wines, which are often awarded top honours. The nose has a lovely earthy red berry note to it. Upon swishing it around my gob, what struck me right away was the texture. Chewy and fleshy with gorgeous juicy raspberry, blackberry and hit of menthol. It finished slightly gamey with a long inky cassis finish. Went pretty well with my homemade lasagna and was ” the best vegetarian lasagna I have ever eaten” according to my lovely wife. As part of their core range, it should be easier to track down and track it down you must.

Honourable Mention – Toro Loco Bobal Merlot 2013 / £4.49 / 13% ABV /Utiel-Requena, Spain

No Aldi review would be complete without a sub fiver bottle and it’s from good old “Crazy Bull”; whom I have recommended before. There’s ripe dark cherry, generous warming mouthfeel and a nice spicy bite on the finish. Bobal is a varietal native to Utiel-Requena (Valencia) and the main component in nearly all Toro Loco wines. Fitting really as the name Bobal is derived from the Latin “bovale”, referring to the shape of a bull’s head. Great spag bol or sangria wine for tapas.

Spirits

*Star Buy* – Maynard’s 1990 Colheita Port / £14.99 / 20% ABV / Douro, Portugal 

Screen Shot 2015-05-29 at 15.45.38Maynard’s is Aldi’s flagship port producer and this 25-year-old vintage tawny (Colheita is the term used to describe a vintage tawny) is absolutely dreamy. There’s coffee, gingersnap biscuit, cigar leaf, rich Medjool date, dry fig and finishing with English Breakfast tea tannins. Delicious. I defy anyone to find a fortified wine of this age and quality under £15. Oh, and if you happen to, do send me a sample ;)

 

Runner Up – Goccia D’Oro Limoncello / £7.99 / 25% ABV / Italy

Screen Shot 2015-05-26 at 15.59.32I am sure many of you who ever have been on holiday in Italy have at one time or another been sat “digesting” after an epic meal and the host/hostess of that particular carb kingdom has brought over a frosted bottle with contents that resembled runny custard. Small shots are poured out and the viscous yellow liquid is sipped or chucked down in one depending on who has drunk the most vino rosso. I have had some wonderful (often homemade) Limoncello in such establishments and had some that did more harm than good. So it was with some trepidation that I sampled this product new to Aldi’s range. Perhaps not as cold as it could have been but it ticked the boxes. Tart, creamy, yummy out of the freezer after dinner, cold melted lemon curd digestive drinky drink.

Screen Shot 2015-05-29 at 16.04.20Honourable Mention – Caversham Cream Sherry / £5.25 / 18% ABV / Jerez, Spain

Recommending cream sherry!? Me? Looks that way.

So in addition to the normal number strewn white linen tables bedecked with bottles, the had put on a spread of Mozer Roth chocolates and sweetie booze pairings. Well, far be it from me to swan by such a spectacle without (in the name of science) testing their suggestions. Of the ones on offer by far my favourite was the Caversham Cream and almond milk chocolate match. The nutty edge in the sherry picked out the nuggets of nut and the smooth texture of the milk chocolate mingled happily with that of the “cream”. Easiest dessert in the world and you can feed 8 for under a tenner.

Looking at the rest of Aldi’s spirit range on the tasting literature you might be forgiven for thinking you had accidentally been given a list of military grandees; so many medals!

Still a big fan of their Oliver Cromwell Dry Gin (£9.99), Highland Black 8 Y/O Scotch Whisky (£12.99) has a permanent place on my “sideboard” and Ballycastle Irish Cream (£3.99) is a blooming bargain and stands up to bigger brands of that ilk with charm.

It’s not all love songs and roses though. An area that Aldi still needs to improve on is their beer and ciders. Very disappointing. Step it up guys!

While you may not always be guaranteed to get exactly what you want on a trip to Aldi, they certainly have enough good stuff in their ranges that it will never be a wasted trip.

 

 

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Who is Mr Vine?

A very good question and I shall answer it thusly…

Mr Vine is a brand spanking new (launched this week) free app that helps you discover, order and drink a new realm of wines that you are unlikely to have ever come across going to the supermarket. The reason for this is that Mr Vine is an online marketplace with over a 1,000 interesting wines across all budgets that are all brought to you by a dozen or so different independent UK wine merchants (and growing).

Setting up the app is easy. It just requires a few taps to plug in your preferences and then Mr Vine does all the heavy lifting, suggesting a stack of wines that fit your criteria. The layout is   simple and clean with a focus on ease of use. You see the image and price of the wine, then just a click takes through to a short description and the option to order. Nice. Orders are placed in-app and delivered to your door. Sadly it’s currently only available on IOS, but fear not non-Apple people! It will soon be launched on Android as well; you can download the IOS version here.

Now you must be asking yourself ” This is all very nice Nate but why are you plugging this app? “. ” What are you getting out of the deal? ” How cynical of you! You don’t know me at all! I may just be doing it because it’s a tale I want to tell, like all of my blogging/vlogging.

Seriously though, I am involved with the app. “How came someone of your narrow talents to this” you guffaw? Well, I’ll have you know that my dear pal Matt Walls (acclaimed auteur, serious scribe and vino virtuoso) asked me to join his merry band of tasters some months ago. Sworn to secrecy on pain of excommunication I joined a highly accredited wine loving panel that features Richard Hemming, Helena Nicklin, Zeren Wilson, the aforementioned “M” Walls and moi. “Crack team” I hear you mumble. Indeed!

As with all great ideas, they must have come from somewhere. That somewhere is the grey matter of fine wine trader Charlie Martin and former retail director at Majestic Greg Jones, who had a modern vision for getting great wines to ever more selective and curious consumers.

Each month the plan is that we’ll be locked in a room with a bunch of bottles which we’ll taste blind, scoring the wines out of 100, and each of us providing a tasting note. Last but not least we’ll argue, intimidate and threaten our way to picking our top five of the night. Now these may not necessarily be the ones that scored highest; an expensive, classic wine might get a high score, but we might want to champion others that we feel are great value for money or doing something that little bit different. Too right!

Normally we’ll be given a theme, tasting a selection of wines available via the app. At said tasting, the finest offerings should rise to the top in their particular style with us shouting out the best examples. All of wine, of course being available from our fine independent wine shops.

Despite not having a theme we all got together a little while back to hear from our creators, take a few promo shots and get our palates warmed up for the big tastings to come.

Here are the results:

First place: Côte Mas Piquepoul Frisant 2013 (Vin de France, 12.0%, £9.95, Soho Wine Supply)

This refreshing fizz made from the increasingly popular Piquepoul grape has bags of grapefruit, lemon and green apple flavour and was something of a revelation. The saline finish is very moreish and just begs you to take another sip. For under a tenner, this must be one of the best sparklers on the market. 89 points.

Second place: Stag’s Leap Petite Sirah 2009 (Napa Valley, USA, 14.1%, £25.00, Soho Wine Supply)

Luxurious and velvety, brooding and smoky. This is an intense, concentrated wine with flavours of blackberry, coffee bean and black cherries. The overall impression is punchy and polished, but it retains a sense of elegance and balance. Beauty and the beast all wrapped up in one. 91 points.

Third place: Boroli Quatro Fratelli Barbera d’Alba 2011 (Italy, 13.5%, £13.99, Soho Wine Supply)

A lovely, classic Barbera: bright and perky, with pure, crunchy red cherry and cranberry flavours. Versatile and highly drinkable, this just cries out for some good Italian food. Thirst quenching and juicy. 89 points.

Haute Cabrière Chardonnay Pinot Noir 2014 (Franschhoek, South Africa, 12.5%, £10.99, Hard to Find Wines)

This rose-gold coloured white is made from the same grapes commonly blended in Champagne. It’s fairly weighty, with deep apple and melon aromas and a silky texture. Clear, clean and just a little bit different. 87 points.

Clos des Menuts Saint Emilion Grand Cru 2009 (France, 13.5%, £19.20 Nichols and Perks)

Serious stuff: this is classic claret, with strong black fruit and a gamey, savoury, smoky character. It’s pretty dry, but with some soft, sumptuous fruits and a slightly furry texture. Deserves to be drunk alongside a plate of something meaty. 87 points.

For more info on the app and how it works, check out mrvine.co.uk

Mr Vine Tasting Team Photo

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Devil’s Peak Brewing

In this video I sample an American Pale Ale and The King’s Blockhouse IPA from Cape Town brewery Devil’s Peak. As well as bigging up two other Cape Town craft brewers Jack Black’s Brewing Co. and Cape Brewing Company.

http://www.devilspeakbrewing.co.za/

http://www.jackblackbeer.com/

http://capebrewing.co.za/

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Two Majestic Spring Whites

There was a bit of a false start a few weeks back, but upon arriving back in London yesterday after a lovely Easter weekend in the North East it felt like spring had sincerely come. To celebrate, I thought I would recommend a couple superb white wines that I recently tasted from Majestic.

Majestic Wine despite increasing online competition continues to do an excellent job providing good wines at fair prices. We got a a blindingly good Cremant de Loire for a our wedding

Screen Shot 2015-04-01 at 16.16.24The first was from excellent Kiwi producer Marisco Vineyards. I was introduced to this Malborough superstar at a Majestic tasting a few years back and liked their Kings Thorn Pinot Gris so much I matched it with some fish and chips in a video tasting. Many people may know them for producing the good value The Ned range, especially the Sauvignon Blanc.

But this time round it was one of their chardonnay’s, specifically The Kings Legacy 2011 that had me impressed. This £14.99 wine comes from grapes at two sites (older vineyards from the Wairau and younger from Brancott) and is aged on the lees (yeast) for ten months in French oak with the help of mostly wild yeasts.

Screen Shot 2015-04-01 at 16.09.41What comes out is top class and has a purity that I would expect of a Grand Cru Chablis. Crisp green apple, richer hints of stone fruit and some richer nuttiness. But super clean, balanced and defined. Mrs. DnE and I had it with a pork loin with an apple celery brandy and mustard sauce to mark our six month anniversary. The combination was superb and if any wants the recipe for the pork post a comment and I will try to recall what I did to make it so tasty.

The second wine was nothing short of a revelation and it was a Muscadet.

Screen Shot 2015-04-01 at 16.10.09Now I know what you are thinking but this ain’t no ho-hum wallflower of the Loire. Partially aged in oak and given some time to mature Muscadet Le Pallet 2009 blew my flipping doors off. Produced by Les Dix du Pallet, which ironically is a co-op of 10 growers based in Le Pallet, a ‘cru’ village in the southeast between those famous rivers Sevre and Maine.

The nose gave off whiffs of french patisserie; baked and biscuity. But then there was tropical pineapple, ripe white melon, fragrant buttercup, toasted almond and waxy lemon. 

My first sip seemed to set in motion some sort of sensory Her Majesty’s Secret Service. I was zapped by laser guided mango, pummeled by popping passionfruit, my breath frosted by mineral crispness, stung by slivers of cedar, needled by hints of pine and then finally warmed with a sensual spicy lick of white pepper. The finale was a bit of a nod to Diana Rigg, but the wine was sublime while that installment of 007 was merely sub. 

I was spent. What a tremendous wine and on at for an amazing £9.99 right now. 

If you won’t take my word on these two bottles being real beauties then take perhaps Decanter might sway you. Both won gold and the regional trophy in 2014 at their prestigious yearly wine awards.

Kings Legacy 2011

Le Pallet 2009

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Top Out Brewery

Last summer I was working the Edinburgh Foodies Festival and came across the stand of a brewery that was unfamiliar to me. The branding was eye-catching (has to be these days) so I inquired of the squire whether I could sample his wares. He most cordially agreed. Had he not, this story would have been much shorter.  

The brews were the work of Top Out Brewery which sits nestled between Bilston and Loanhead just south of Edinburgh and east of the mighty Pentland Hills Regional Park. I liked what I tasted (barring an elderflower ale that had gone astray in fermentation) and some months later I received a box of their beers in bottle to try in earnest.

Screen Shot 2015-03-11 at 17.06.05Rather appropriately I started off with Schmankerl Bavarian Wheat. Schmankerl is a Bavarian term that essential means a ‘treat’ but further can refer to an appetizer or amuse bouche. Something to get the palate juiced up for the main event. Sure was inviting to the eye, all hazy summer golden with lively long lasting tadpole foam head.

Aromas of sour yellow plums, proving sourdough bread and characteristic clove studded banana with just a glimmer of white pepper. Balanced at 4.9%, beginning clean and sharp then moving to lactic rounding dry banana skin and celebrating the 70’s with piña colada on the denouement. Tasty.

Next was Staple Pale Ale (4%) which I had really enjoyed on cask at the fair. Sadly it came over a bit starchy in bottle. Very herbaceous, pithy dry and wasn’t the thirst quenching beauty I recalled. Some variation perhaps?Screen Shot 2015-03-11 at 17.05.57

Screen Shot 2015-03-11 at 17.05.32They surely had the shit together when they brewed this batch of their Smoked Porter because it poured out glorious and lively with an ashen pancake batter head. The neb (nose) was very impressive with aromas of cocoa, smoked mackerel, mure (blackberry) liqueur, melted milk chocolate, chocolate covered blueberries and blood pudding.

That confection theme continued on the palate with dry dark cocoa, dried Highland blackberries and subtly smoked venison. It had a fresh lactic character, the feel was clean, lean and muscular with a dry espresso finish. Top notch. 

Last but not least was the Cone IPA which enchanted from the off with its pillowy-billowy meringue head. Greeting my sniffer as I raised the glass was a fine pine forest, that had some folks camping in it. Their dinner consisted of grilled pineapple, lemon meringue pie, and raw scallop. An eclectic bunch indeed.

Screen Shot 2015-03-11 at 17.05.42Not overly boozy at 6.8% but my first sip was like a sap edged razor bite. Sharply astringent followed sticky resinous. Thankfully by the 4-5th sup it was softening, showing very dry pineapple, white grapefruit pith and seed. There was some bracing lemon zest and earthy wet tobacco. Deeper still I found passion fruit. The finale? Dry and complex, like some foreign film. Serious like. You get me?

Thanks so much to Top Out for providing the beers. They are one to keep an eye on.

But don’t just take my word for it.

Here are reviews from two esteemed colleagues The Beer Cast and Beers I’ve Known

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Why Mess with Perfection

Whatever your opinion is of Camden Town Brewery they must be given real kudos (along with a couple other London breweries) for breaking the chokehold that dull macro beers had on London (and further afield of course). They are sometimes accused of not brewing the most exciting or experimental range of core beers but have cut loose when “collabing” with other breweries. Personally I don’t give a shit if they’re unlikely to brew a salmon, swiss chard and satsuma Double IPA (Oh I want a credit if someone actually makes a Triple S DIPA).

What they are doing very successfully (something that also seems to upset some people) is brewing very drinkable beers that are broadly enjoyed by a wide range of consumers. The type of people they are converting (in large numbers) used to probably drink Fosters, Stella or in the case of my wife, white wine before her exposure to Hells Lager.

I like their Unfiltered Hells, Pale Ale and Camden Ink is a nice alternative to Guinness. But for me the jewel in the Camden Town crown is IHL aka India Hells Lager. A hybrid that Vulcan mind melds those two styles into one of the Screen Shot 2015-03-10 at 17.43.59most dangerously delicious beers I have tasted. A roller coaster combination of crispness, tropical fruit, offering total refreshment and drinkability. In short, pure pleasure.

unnamedSo it was with some excitement when I was invited to their launch of Barrel Aged India Hells Lager the other week. Brilliant I thought, a pimped out IHL.

The result was anything but. A subdued nose hinted at hay and tinned pineapple. The palate was slightly antiseptic, very firm, resinous with a woody tannic feel and a far off agave heat.

I found it painfully dry, a touch astringent, but sadly lacking body and any discernable fruit flavour. It wasn’t undrinkable, but I didn’t enjoy it. It made me a bit sad really, by putting IHL into those barrels they purged everything that (in my opinion) made it a truly great beer. A real waste of perfectly glug-able IHL.

More cynically the timing of the launch made me question the inspiration behind putting that wonderful beer into bourbon and tequila barrels in the first place. The reason for my scepticism is that CTB happen to be in the midst of launching a crowdfunding initiative to raise money to build a new brewery. Becoming a Hells Raiser looks an interesting investment if you like their beers and want to “diversify your portfolio”. At the time of writing, they had reached their intended target but it’s still open. 

I couldn’t help feeling that the release of a below par, barrel-aged version of their newly anointed gold winning beer was nothing more than a well-timed PR stunt. Marketed with much pomp and ceremony as some treasured one off, whose purpose was simply to drive more investment. That’s me being cynical mind. 

All that said I have a lot of respect for CTown and it’s going to take a lot more than the abuse of my dearest IHL to get me to poo-poo them on a permanent basis.

They are a brewery with purpose, vision and a great following. Their success and pervasiveness have become such, that I have even started to take them for granted when beer spotting as I walk into a pub. My eyes are accustomed to their logo and the pioneer in me keeps scanning for something a little more off piste.

But you can guarantee they’re what I’ll order every time if the alternatives are just plain “piste”.

 

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Craft Beer Rising 2015

It was my first time to this yearly London event but before I even walked in the door I decided to focus only on breweries whose beers were totally new to me. Was I taking a risk skipping the likes of Beavertown, Wild Beer, Camden Town and Thornbridge for those brews less tweeted? Are was I to be rewarded for seeking out some of those ales less supped?

Screen Shot 2015-03-10 at 10.17.03Things got off to a roaring start with a Catalonian import that goes by Beer Cat. Conceived of and created by ex Londoner and former criminal lawyer Peter Bonner in the Cava producing region of Penedes near Barcelona with their four offerings on keg full of diversity, vibrancy and packed with character. I kicked off with Pa i Roses Wheat Beer, infused with lime zest and coriander. Lager in appearance; textured yet bracingly fresh, with hits of tart lime but never cloying, sticky or banana bombed. A beauty of a bbq beer, sunshine in a glass.

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The Further WestCoast IPA lived up to the name; nice complexity of citrus and dry hop but not too much bite. Black Irish is a very grown up and accomplished stout, dry cocoa, bitter coffee, but velvety in body and supremely clean.

Screen Shot 2015-03-10 at 10.16.52The beer of the day and most certainly slotting into my “top twenty most delicious beers I have ever drank” is their flagship Barcelona Blonde. Crisp and refreshing but packed with some of the juiciest tropical fruits I have yet sampled. My taste buds were literally dancing the Fandango. But never was the beer sweet or the esters too overpowering. A pale ale of the highest order.

Currently only imported into the UK by Instill Drinks in the bottle at the time of writing, but they are working on trying to get kegs to market here.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Peter and his cool Beer Cats will be one of the breweries to watch this year. Really. Tremendous. Beers.

On the advice of a few fine folks I swung over to Elgood’s Brewery to sample their sour beers and blow me down, they’re good! Classic Belgian Lambic in their execution, they are not for the faint of heart. Tart as hell, but so many layers of complexity and refreshing in the extreme. My favorite of the Coolship range trio of Blonde, Fruit and Dark Sour had to be the Fruit. Raspberries and blackberries bouncing around my mouth as if I have just picked them, but all the sugar is gone and you are left with a long lingering sensation as if you’ve sprayed your gob with a heady berry du toilette.

I was fascinated by their decadent QE Apple and Vanilla Wheat Beer. It managed to be utterly indulgent and rich but somehow finished clean. A real beauty.

My only criticism is that the branding looked very slapdash. Perhaps it was only temporary? At any rate, packaging is absolutely vital these days with so many edgy labels and pump clips clawing at your eyes for attention. Elgoods Sours and QE range deserve to look as good as they taste.

Another brewery whose labels could do with a rethink is Bear Hug Brewing. The brewing/storage practice could do with some fine tuning as well though their flagship Hibernation White IPA was pretty good. Best of the lot was however was Himalayan Red Rye whose texture and complexity left me feeling somewhat charmed.

Screen Shot 2015-03-10 at 10.18.02There was a quite good Amarillo Mild from Hop Stuff Brewery in Woolwich and I enjoyed chatting with Alix their sales manager.

Screen Shot 2015-03-10 at 10.17.44Really liked the ethos of The Beer Collective. In an ever competitive market, Niki (director at King Beer, as well as one of the founders of TBC) explained how bringing breweries together under one distribution hub was making life easier for the four strong members of the Sussex based group. Along with King were very eco-focused Bedlam Brewery, Uckfield’s 360° Brewing Company and Brighton based brewpub Laine’s Brewing. Tasted stuff from most of them and they’re making pretty decent beers.

A shout out must go to Little Jack Horner’s for it’s blindingly good sausage rolls and other assorted pastry wrapped delicacies. My classic pork and sage hit the spot as I was flagging.

Screen Shot 2015-03-10 at 10.18.34I finished up tasting a couple beers from Yorkshire’s Wharfe Bank Brewery and in the process met a minor beer blogger hero of mine in Leigh “LeighGoodStuff” Linley. I have enjoyed reading his blogs and tweets the past few years so was good to finally meet the man. He quit his regular job last year to become brand manager at WBB where another twitter comrade, Tyler Kiley is head brewer.

Screen Shot 2015-03-10 at 10.28.34I liked (but didn’t love) the couple of beers I tasted at the stand but I did very much enjoy the Black Geld Black IPA in bottle that Leigh gave me to take away. It was a web of aromas and it took my nose some time to pick out the maple syrup, pecan pie, boysenberry, iron-rich soil, and marmite. Then on the palate there was burnt toast, walnut, earthy black pudding, savoury dry herbs and faint molasses finish. It wanted some food but really grew on me. Good effort Tyler and not too boozy at 6.5%. (Image is a screengrab, courtesy of Wharfe Bank website as I seemed to have misplaced my photo).

It was a great day out and by forcing myself to try unknown/untasted breweries I gave my mind and palate a broader education as well. It’s getting way too easy to just gorge on ones favorite rockstar breweries these days.

So the next time you are at a festival, why not try to make some new discoveries for yourself.

You just might like it.

 

 

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Two Stouts & Irish Stew

I am a lover of porters and stouts especially when there’s a chill in the air. There’s something as comforting as a roaring fire and supping a beer the colour of coal.

With St Paddy’s day coming up, I thought I would pair a couple opposing beers on the stout spectrum with an Irish stew and soda bread. First from the micro world I Screen Shot 2015-02-18 at 12.02.02uncapped an Oyster Stout from Bristol based Arbor who are making some very good beers these days. My first introduction being an excellent one off De Rokerij rauchbier or smoked beer.

Screen Shot 2015-02-18 at 12.05.43Coming in at a very reasonable 4.6% their “seafood seasoned” stout gave off lovely snoot blasts of salty liquorice, sweet raisin bread and coal. On the palate, there were seams of rich iron and the pillowy, creamy texture was punched through with sea salt, bitter coffee grinds and a smooth as pearl finish. Yum!

My macro had to be a Guinness Foreign Extra which I embarrassingly had never tried before. Substantially more boozing at 7.5%, the nose sang a sticky treacle, sweet malt loaf, sweaty prune ballad. Pressing it to my lips I received a caress of sour ripe fig, unfermented grape must and a fine dry dark chocolate finish. Quite good, but perhaps not altogether to my taste. Screen Shot 2015-02-18 at 12.05.28

The Arbour was certainly the better match for the stew with the GFE being more of a pudding beer in my humble opinion. But whatever style takes your fancy on St Patrick’s Day, when you raise your glass make sure it’s brimming with the black stuff.

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Too crafty for our own good?

You would think me being a beer lover, that I would be finding the manic pace at which new breweries are opening up around the country universally positive. Well, you would be mostly right. 

On the bright side, it can be thrilling to spy a never before seen logo on a pump clip as you sidle up to the bar of well-stocked alehouse. That fizzing sense of discovery, a bubbling quiet joy every time you raise a glass to sip an unfamiliar nectar, as yet so full of potential. 

Speaking of alehouses, the number of pubs and restaurants dedicating themselves to good beer increases at breakneck speed. Thus offering an even broader stage, from which the ever multiplying men and women who brew are given voice to shine. 

And it’s not just us drinkers that are being given a new lease on life, many of these breweries are literally enriching their communities by providing gainful employment (after years of decline in manufacturing and primary industry). Plus those opening up a brewery tap can bring social regeneration and the creation of a hub to come together in neighbourhoods robbed of their pubs by closure and conversion into a Tesco Metro.

So what’s the dark side?

Well, if everyone was brewing great beer, there wouldn’t be.

Case in point; I recently bought six bottles from three newish microbreweries (2 beers from each) that were all local to me in SE London. I had visions of the glowing reviews I would write, shouting the praises of the fine craft breweries in my own backyard. But unfortunately I found the beers in the main to be: lacklustre, poorly executed or just plain faulty.Rather than name and shame them, here are my tasting notes, with beers 1 and 2 being from the same brewery and so on.

Beer 1 – Hazy brown, fluffy head. Fragrant mango and pineapple, subtle pine. Brown bread, creamy yeast, savoury, pithy, ultra dry, iodine, some clean lines, nice texture, complex. Decent.

Beer 2 – Volcano, lava head, just pouring out, lively deep muscovado. Green mango, hints burnt sugar, faint watermelon, killer dry, woody tannins, bit sharp. Ok.

Beer 3 – Flat. Hazy. Cardboard. Faulty.

Beer 4 – No head, no fizz. Deep mahogany brown. Copper filings, metallic, burnt coffee, nutty, sweaty. Faulty.

Beer 5 – Golden fizzy but no head. Old fashioned sweets, cloying butterscotch. Woody, tannic, burnt sugar, flat, medicinal, vegetal. Faulty.

Beer 6 – Deep chestnut, fine foam. Nutella, intense Reese’s peanut butter cup. Sour, slightly sickly chestnut. Tastes fake. Drinkable, but not enjoyable. Poor.

Now I feel it’s worth giving fledgeling breweries a chance to bed in and find their feet. With any new operation, you expect some teething issues. So I am all for second chances.

But what needs to happen fairly quickly is to establish two or three core beers that can be counted on regardless of how (cask, keg, bottle or can) or where they’re served. Nothing is more galling to a commentator than to share their excitement about a great new beer only to have a colleague try it and say it was shite. The amount of inconsistency out there is truly worrying. Now admittedly there be a will few cases that the venues are to blame for a piss poor pint (too old, wrong temperature, improper handling/storage or inadequate rest after delivery), but I would argue that below average or faulty beers often arrive that way.

Even some of the more successful craft brewers get it wrong sometimes. I tasted a pumpkin ale from an established player a few months back and it was so awful I nearly spat it back in the glass. Arguably, people are experimenting and trying to break new ground with their beers, which is to be applauded. But why put out a sub-standard beer? Are some microbrewers under such intense financial pressure that pouring a flawed or substandard brew down the drain is simply not an option?

Now not liking what’s on offer from some breweries isn’t down to “bad beers”, it’s personal taste and I totally respect that. Sometimes…

“There has never been a more exciting time to be a beer drinker” was the chanted mantra at the British Guild of Beer Writers Awards last December (see the video produced by yours truly here), it was the same the year before, and ditto the year before that.

It’s true, but there’s also never been a more hit and miss time for adventurous beer drinkers.

My issue? Craft has become some kind of byword for quality, which ironically in some cases can be quite the opposite. I’ve certainly had my fair share of dull, faulty or undrinkable craft beers. What’s more, if you hit a bad run, one could quite easily develop a “fear of faults”. A creeping dread that begins to take the place of that childlike excitement.

And it’s not just me that’s getting wary. Airing my concerns over beers with two esteemed industry compadres, I was surprised to hear them passionately echoing my feelings of reserve when it came to trying “the new beer”. Often preferring to stick to the craft they knew rather than risk shelling out good money for a crap or faulty beer from an operation they were unfamiliar with.

In September 2014, according to CAMRA there were 1285 breweries in the UK, with 170 born in the previous 12 months. Now it’s the pessimist in me but how long can this upward trend be sustained? Speaking to an established London brewer about a year ago, he confided in me that he already thought there were too many breweries in the capital. Perhaps feeling the heat a bit, but I thought it was very telling.

Despite all the collaborations and questionable bonhomie craft beer is becoming an intensely competitive market in the UK with it only set to get more challenging with new breweries literally springing up underfoot on this wee island. Not even mentioning imports from powerhouse US, Belgian, Czech and German outfits.

The sad reality is that the many who simply aren’t good enough, sufficiently financed, or properly marketed will die off. Over time, fewer and fewer will take their place while the stronger established craft breweries mop up more of the market.

But I must end on a more positive note as it’s far from doom and gloom.

Here’s a soothing soundbite from that rogue of a scribe, entertainer and thrice Beer Writer of the Year Ben McFarland who quoth “The fact that we in the midst of a beer renaissance…”.

Renaissance,  a rebirth. Because the glory days of beer are indeed back again. There’s more than enough talented, passionate brewers brewing excellent beer out there to keep us all happy for a very long time.

It is my sincere belief that beer lovers will remain spoiled for choice in terms of the diversity, high quality and complexity of flavour we have come to expect, never returning to those dark days of the 80’s and 90’s.

At least hopefully, not in my lifetime…

*Artwork by Mr DnE