My looooords!! Get into that seminar!The "Vital Spark", Para handy's famous puffer.A load of casks outside the Evening Star in Brighton.Seminars - even better at 09:00 in the morning!A Plane, funnily enoughA scooping book.  Well thumbed too.A cask on-stillage at a beer festival.Kleuver's brauhaus winnersOtley Arms, TreforestA big Praha Tatra T3 in the snow

  Beer of the Month 2009 

Last Updated : 31/01/10

The Pub of the Month pages are here...

If any of the winners actually wants a certificate commemorating this great event in their careers then let me know and I'll see what I can knock up in Paintshop Pro...

kay, so I know this is what all those posey blog writers (and even some beer writers) do, but I've had some superb beers recently and thought to myself "Gazza, how can you not bore your reader with the gen on these whoppers?" and so, always one for listening to strange voices telling me to do things, hey ho here we go...  hopefully this will develop into a monthly post if I can be arsed, but as that's the main reason I don't do a blog - my general lack of being arsed - we'll have to see about that one.

In brief, my 2009 winners were -

  • January 2009 : Bi-du Rodersch

  • February 2009 : Port Brewing Fresh Hop High Tide IPA

  • March 2009 : Little Ale Cart Cameronian

  • April 2009 : Marble 1425 v3

  • May 2009 : Hakusekikan Barley Wine

  • June 2009 : Nynäshamns Ångbryggeri Pickla Pils

  • July 2009 : De Cam Kriek lambic 2005

  • August 2009 : Brewdog Chaos Theory IPA

  • September 2009 : Little Ale Cart Osprey

  • October 2009 : Marble Trial Run

  • November 2009 : Barfußer Rotgold

  • December 2009 : Thornbridge Raven

With champion beer of the year being the sublime Marble 1425 v3, or Dobber as it's now known.

Beer of the Month - December 2009

Brewery: Thornbridge From: Bakewell, Derbyshire
Beer: Raven Black IPA Score: Une Point !Une Point !Une Point !Une Point !
Details: 6.6%, cask at the Sheffield Tap, Sheffield
2nd: Oakham Citra   3rd : Blue Monkey Cathedral Quarter
UK scoops during the month :  65 Foreign scoops during the month : 6

First off let me say I'm not a member of what I term the "Thornbridge appreciation society" - those people, mainly on Ratebeer, who think that each and every beer made by Thornbridge is the best thing in the world, ever - but on the other hand I do like their beers, their sense of adventure and above all, if I had to choose a quality their beer possesses, I'd choose the downright drinkability (most) of their beers have.

So, after that disclaimer, you may be surprised to see my beer of the month for December is none other than Thornbridge Raven, their new Black IPA.  I've never been quite sure whether the combination of dark malt and "C" hops works as, to my tastebuds at least, the roast grain clashes with citric hop leaving a hideous wreckage of conflicting flavours on the tongue, although a couple of examples in Tokyo earlier in the year had shown me that, when done with a bit of skill, it can be forced to work.

When we entered the newly-opened Sheffield Tap and I saw Raven on I must admit to feeling a tingle of anticipation as this was the one beer from Thornbridge I had been hoping to see.  It poured a jet black with hints of red but the main thing I noticed was the oozing citrus of the aroma, all orange peel, tropical fruit and tangerines and not - thankfully - the lighter citrus fruits which clash with roasted grains.  I supped deeply and suddenly bells rang, angels fluttered and the room turned fuzzy; this was so, so much better than I'd even hoped it would be, and it was a beer I never thought I'd see - a proper British black IPA! 

Bitterness was obvious, counteracting the maltiness well, but it was the layers of flavour which had been put together near perfectly that stuck a big stupid smile on my face.  Liquorice, chocolate, toasted grain and more chocolate were the foundation atop which the zesty, fruity C hops were laid but, again, these were more orangey, tangeriney and exotic which worked well with the burnt grain instead of fighting with it.  The finish was a lesson in balance and intensity with the toasted malt and 70% chocolate flavours meshing well with tangerine zest and a hefty bitterness; before I knew it my glass was empty and I stared at it with renewed respect for a brewery that has been a little off-colour recently but, with this corker, is now right back in the game.

It was a toss-up between Raven and my second place beer, Oakham Citra, and I think it was only the uniqueness of the Raven that nudged it into first place.  I say this so as to take nothing away from the Oakham which was, as are most of their beers, a lesson in hop use and, even better, utilised a brand-new hop which they'd had flown over specially for this brew!  (bet the pilot on that flight had a good trip...)

I almost missed this whopped in the Welly, Brum, as they had no clip on the pump although once I saw it on the screen I knew that this was going to be the beer of the day - and I wasn't wrong.  Very pale, as Oakham beers generally are, with a simply stunning aroma of tropical fruit and citrus along with a very Simcoe-like "catty" hint; one of the most amazing aromas I've ever experienced from a beer and I stood at the bar sniffing the glass for a while before I tasted any!

On the tastebuds everything was as the aroma had suggested: bitterness, melon and mango fruits, more catty hop oils, then an explosion of fruit with lime, blackcurrant, mango and even passion fruit parading across the tongue.  The finish became more restrained in the fruit department (albeit with mango and peach present) and the bitterness took over with a balanced yet amazingly complex finish of fruit, malt, bitterness and zesty hop.  Overall this was a stunner and, if the Citra hop gives this kind of character, then I'll be a very happy man indeed.

Blue Monkey are a relatively new brewer whose beers thus far have been solid and tasty if nothing spectacular.  Well, this one broke the mould and really made my day in a drizzly Birmingham after a long day at work!  Very pale indeed, maybe even lager malt pale, with a simple yet highly effective hop, citrus and zesty aroma.  The flavour was similar with nothing world-beating going on but what was being done was coming across very well indeed; juicy malt, bitterness, lemon zest, fruity hops... all this continued through into a commendably well balanced and supremely drinkable finish that just begged another, a deliciously zesty brew that I hope becomes a permanent beer - it deserves to be.

Other good beers drunk in December.

Acorn Cracker had a distinct disadvantage in being the final beer in a mammoth day's scooping in Sheffield and it's to it's huge credit that the flavour and quality stood out after almost 12 hours drinking.  Golden in colour, it had a crisp, sharp bitterness allied to a rich slightly toasted maltiness and a suggestion of fruitiness (maybe orange peel?) which melded together into a near-perfect brew which still impressed long after many beers had done so.  Yorkshire Dales Cloudy Clementine didn't sound like something I'd like but, ever the desperate scooper, I gave it a go and was very please to find a tongue-tingling zesty livener which had plenty of flavour, citrus and bitterness and, despite everything, the flavours meshed together well to give a deliciously refreshing slurp.

Foxfield don't show here very often but their Stout Challenger must be the best beer I've ever tried from them!  Rich, dark and roasted, this was a straightforward dry stout with some sweet burnt grain notes in the finish that edged it above the norm into enjoyable territory and it's full, roasted grain body with balancing bitterness impressed too.  Finally, Little Ale Cart's latest 4% beer, Dumbiedykes, was full of limey, citrussy essences and very different from most other LAC brews, but the dryish, malty, hopflower finish was textbook stuff and, as I like these characters in a beer, guaranteed LAC a place in the list once again!

Beer of the Month - November 2009

Brewery: Barfußer From: Ulm, Germany
Beer: Rotgold Score: Une Point !Une Point !Une Point !Une Point !
Details: 4.9%, unpasteurised/unfiltered keg at the brewpub.
2nd: Zum Schwannen Bockbier   3rd : König von Flandern Urhell
UK scoops during the month :  77 Foreign scoops during the month : 58

After a recent five-day scooping extravaganza in Germany you may expect a German beer to take pride of place here, but you're not me.  I have a sort of love/hate (although hate is too strong a word in reality) relationship with German beer which follows these lines, over-egged here for effect!

  • Love - It's fucking pure, isn't it!  No crap, just water, malt, hops and yeast! (actually, not always...).  There's some seriously drinkable lagers in Germany which show the rest of the world - with the exception of Czech - exactly how it's done, no imperial this and super-hopped that, just well-made, supremely drinkable beer.  Then there's the pubs themselves; all that copper can't be good for you, can it?  and the food... German pub food is superb and just what you need when out on the beer.

  • Hate - It's so fucking boring, isn't it!  Hardly any hops, nothing interesting flavour-wise, too much hop extract and sinimar in use.  It may be drinkable but it's not interesting or particularly well-made in some cases, plus the multinationals are acquiring more and more market share by gobbling up brewers but the German drinking populace exists in a state of "don't care" bliss thinking all is well when, if they opened their eyes and taste buds a little, they'd see it's not all beer and roses...

Sorry about the over-exuberant language there, but I'm trying to make the point that there are extremes in thinking about German beer which don't come close to crossing over.  Some people think it's the best beer in the world, some it's the dullest of the "old world" brewing countries.  My personal view is that, in general, German beer is solid if a touch restrained (veering to dull in patches) but, when made well, it can be excellent and remind you exactly why their reputation as a great brewing nation exists.

So, what's this to do with Barfußer Rotgold?  Well, we did a night in München where I was very disappointed with almost all the beers we tried, especially the Augustiner brews (in the brewery tap) which were just bland... there's no other word to describe them and I'd expected better.  We then visited Augsburg where, thankfully, the beer scene was much better and we were allowed to buy glasses of beer in measures smaller than half a litre... I'm sorry, München, but when beer is as bland as you make it I want a much smaller measure when I'm scooping than half a bastard litre!  And, while I'm on the subject, beer from a wooden cask shouldn't taste like pasteurised keg crap either! (but that's another story...)

We then trekked out to Ulm where, beside the massive cathedral tower, we found the modern brewpub of Barfußer (actually, there are two Barfußers in Ulm, the one to which I refer and another over the Danube in Neu-Ulm which, confusingly, is in a different Länder to Ulm!).  Anyhow, we had an hour to spare before out train onwards to Stuttgart (where the beer is sweet to cater for, presumably, the locals' taste for sweet Riesling wine) so went through the range. 

All three were pretty decent but the stand-out beer was the winter seasonal, Rotgold (red gold, if you really can't translate that).  With a slight hint of amber/red to the blonde colour this beer had a delicious aroma of spice and aromatic malts which continued onto the palate along with some spiky bitterness, spice, toasted grain and mellow malt before a perfectly balanced finish with all flavour elements coming through, although it was the toasty spiciness which won the day... not your average German beer and something I'd love to try again.  I'm not sure what style of beer this was but I'm guessing they used Vienna or Caramalt to get the slight colour although nowhere near enough for it to be a Vienna lager; sometimes things like style are best forgotten and beer enjoyed for what it is and this is definitely one of those cases: a characterful, tasty beer which I could have happily supped all day!

Zum Schwannen Bockbier is runner-up this month and was a superb treat in a lovely old brewpub in a quiet town south of Stuttgart surrounded by vineyards and wine paraphernalia.  The pub's Märzen was very passable but this was the beer I was after, a strong (17.7° Stammwürze, 6.8% ABV) bock with plenty of character.  A rich red colour, the aroma was straightforward plain maltiness which lulled me into thinking this would be a bland brew until I tasted it!  An explosion of malt was the first impression with a dryness in the body perfectly pitched to make it effortlessly drinkable, but after a few sips a beguiling fruitiness - sour cherries - flitted into the flavour along with a hint of liquorice.  The finish combined the dry yet full malt, fruit and a subtle bitterness well and belied the brew's hefty strength making it, as the old saying goes, "dangerously drinkable"... well, this certainly was and had masses of character too, a truly delicious beer in a truly great brewpub.

We scooped König von Flandern Urhell in the brewpub during our time in Augsburg and, in my opinion, the beers were the best we had in the city.  A cellar bar right on the main street, the brewpub wasn't the cosiest I've been to but made up for this with the delicious food and characterful brews including yet another bock, this time with the less than Germanic name of Alligator!  This was a solidly malty brew but eclipsed by the Urhell, a deliciously fruity, malty and once again spicy (in a malt/hop way not added spice way!) with a juicy hoppiness over the rich malt body.  Complex and appetising, it had layers of malt, hop, bitterness and fruit with spicy hints before it finished with a full-on aftertaste and lingering malty dryness; delicious, and so much better than most middle-of-the-road helles beers we drank during our trip!

Other good beers drunk in November.

Mighty Oak Spell Checker was a thick, almost treacly and viscous stout with plenty of liquorice and roast barley to slap the tongue awake, Shepherd Neame Grumpy's Pale Ale was nowhere near as interesting as their Stone IPA of a few years back and, in my opinion, was nowhere near hoppy enough for an American pale ale!  Okay, the aroma was of gorgeous sappy Amarillo hops but, sadly, that was the best bit and the flavour totally failed to deliver.  Little Ale Cart Green Howards was yet another pale, fruity, hoppy and very drinkable brew whilst Coal Train Stout, the first beer done with anything other than Pale Malt, was a touch underpowered (as are kettles, generally) but still delivered a decent toasty, burnt tar flavour with some roasty bitterness to finish.

Big Nev's home-made smoking machine provided some rauchmalz for Six Bells Harry Porter and despite it being a touch sweet for my tastes the smokey bacon character reminiscent of Bamberg shone through in spades; unique (for the UK) and very experimental stuff.  Riverhead Blind Jack was one of the palest beers I've ever seen, presumably made with some lager malt in the mash, although it was the bitter, dry and fresh hedgerowy hoppiness that made it.  Back in Germany, Barfußer Schwarze was almost as good as their excellent Rotgold with a a hazy pale colour, subtle grainy malt, honey and bread in the flavour before a mellow, gentle finish of all the flavours allied to a touch of dryness.  Zum Schwannen Märzen didn't quite match the quality of their superb Bock yet still had the characteristic soft maltiness of the style with a honey malt aftertaste that caressed the tastebuds like a big soft malty quilt.  Finally, Svevo Birrificio Claudette was a present from Ding Ding (from GBBF) and this surprised with it's cobwebby, lambic-esque taste and fairly hefty sourness in the malty, bitter and bretty finish; I never know with Italian beers if they're supposed to be interesting are of simply infected, but Microbirrifici says it's an "acidulated Belgian ale" so that's good enough for me!

Beer of the Month - October 2009

Brewery: Marble From: Manchester
Beer: Trial Run Score: Une Point !Une Point !Une Point !Une Point !Une Point !
Details: 4.1%, cask at the Wellington, Birmingham.
2nd: Teme Valley Hop Nouveau First Gold   3rd : Arbor Motueka
UK scoops during the month :  67 Foreign scoops during the month : 28

There are some brewers who I have a lot of respect and admiration for and I must admit that Marble are one of them.  In addition to being located in Manchester in one of my favourite pubs anywhere, they’ve always made beers which have been right at the top of their respective categories flavour-wise and, in the most part, quality-wise too apart from the disastrous period of vegan finings-less beer!  I’ve already given the beer of the month to Marble once (for their superb 1425v3 in April this year) but their latest effort, Trial Run, which I assume is from the new plant they’re commissioning, was by far the best beer I had all month!

I had it from gravity at the Wellington festival in Brum although I did restrain myself and have a few other beers first as, so my thinking went, if I had that first I’d spoil the rest of the evening’s drinking!  I finally crumbled, having it sixth, and as I brought the glass to my nose I realised that I’d not smelt a beer as full of hop resins since Green Flash WCIPA!  Very pale, it simply oozed hop oils with all manner of sweet, peachy fruits drifting out of the glass combined with a fresh, zesty citrus bite which made for a simply superb aroma.  Tasting brought no less joy with the luscious hop oils coming through strongly with layer upon layer of hop flavour from juicy peaches through fresh green bracts to citrus bite.  If I have one minor niggle it’s the lack of a decent full-bodied bitterness although, as I like my beers more bitter than most people, I’ll forgive them this as it did have a suggestion of bitter hop in the finish, but this beer is all about aroma and late-copper hops and thus, for a hophead such as myself, was pure unadulterated bliss.

Second comes Teme Valley Hop Nouveau First Gold and, even if I say so myself, this surprised me!  I was at the Talbot on the very first night of the brewery’s beer going on sale and used to love their bitter, juicy, hoppy yet very English beers, but since the family sold their hopfields the beers seem to have lost that edge and become more ordinary.  Well, what a transformation Chris, the brewer, has made this year!  I don’t know if it’s the new season of hops being particularly good or the relentless jibing I make whenever I see him but the beers this year are superb!  I’m not saying this out of any sense of loyalty (although Chris is a great bloke!) but tasting the “Green Hop” beers this year was a real eye-opener to the power of fresh hops and it’s something I’d like to explore via Steel City next year!

First Gold are one of my favourite English hops with their almost American citrus/lemon blast and raw bitterness, but rarely have I tasted them as fresh, essential and alive as in this brew.  A delicious lemon and almost lemongrass aroma billowed from the beer which carried through into the tangy, crisp, zesty and downright bitter beer that balanced it’s hop blast with some judicious maltiness although it was the fresh, biting yet not overpowering lean citrus delivery system which was the soul of this ale and left my tongue tingling with bitterness and citrus hop overload, something that I rarely experience in the UK and it certainly made a lasting impression on me!  Sadly, there was only a single cask, although Teme Valley’s bottled Hop Nouvelle usually contains some First Gold in the mix.  This year is the first year Chris has done a “single hop” beer with them as, apparently, they usually arrive too late to be used…

Finally, we have another beer from the Wellington festival, Arbor Motueka.  Arbor are a micro which I’ve been increasingly impressed with on my recent tastings, mainly whilst working in Bristol, and the combination of a brewery which knows how to use it’s kit (not as common as you’d think…!) and the delightfully characterful New Zealand hop Motueka was always going to be good, but I didn’t think it would be this good!

Consisting of, according to their website, simply Low-colour Maris Otter and Wheat malt (as was Hop Manifesto!) this was a very pale brew with a gorgeous sweet Turkish delight aroma; honestly, the nose was as near as I can think to pure rosewater as I’ve smelt in a good while and it was only the malty sweetness giving the suggestion of that horrible sickly tat masquerading as chocolate which covers a Fry’s Turkish delight that makes me describe it as such!  Personally I’d have loved a touch of dry-hopping to really bring out the hop’s character but it did pretty well without and, as I supped, flavours of lychee, rosepetal and even honeysuckle came from the brew making a far more complex aroma and taste than it initially seemed to have.  The maltiness was restrained if a touch sweet for me and the final bitterness lacked slightly but the impressive fruity hoppiness made up for this many times over and I really enjoyed drinking this complex, hoppy brew.

Other good beers drunk in October.

Of the other beers I had in October only a couple of the foreign ones are worth a mention.  We were in Poland which, as anyone who’s been will know, is not exactly a hotbed of quality brewing (although some decent micros do exist) and found the Spiż brewpub to be producing the best beers in Wrocław; their Ciemne (dark) was a lovely roasted brew – not caramelly as most Polish Ciemnes seem to be – and jet black in colour although not as sweet as I expected from the aroma and it finished dry, toasted yet with the unmistakable bite of roasted grain.  Their Jasne (pale) was pretty decent, too, and ticked all the boxes with it’s honeyed malt flavour overlaid by a herby, grassy hoppiness and decent bitter, yet still malty, finish.  Finally, their Miodowe (honey) was extremely honeyed in aroma and taste yet not sickly with a balanced malt and honey flavour before a deliciously sticky honey finish.

In the superb Český Ráj bar we had a good range of Czech micro beers and, although none really stood out as spectacular, I’d mention Rychnov Minipivovar Zilvar 10° as a creamy, malty crisp and bitter lager with a touch of diacetyl that didn’t spoil it, and the pale ale from Kocour which impressed with it’s bitter, malty and fruity balance, plenty of hops and bitterness, then a tangy fruit and malt-led finish.

Back in the UK, Malvern Hills Anniversary (brewed with green hops) had a delicious honeycomb and cinder toffee maltiness before the zesty, fruity and quite oily hops took over in the bitter, tangy finish balanced by malt.  Otley are another brewery on my “drink whenever possible” radar as Matthew loves his hops, but their O6 porter supped in Fagin’s at Taff’s Well, matured for 13 months, was all about the malt and had a rich caramelly and toasted grain flavour with a hint of wininess and sherry from the maturation (but no cardboard) before a complex liquorice and warming finish; top stuff.

Mighty Oak‘s beers are very likeable when they’re good and frustratingly irritating when they seemingly churn out another identikit amber malt-bomb.  Oarsome Ale was one of the former and over a decent malt body had plenty of tangy, bitter and flavoursome hops with a hint of citrussy bite in the finish of this tasty 3.7% pale ale.  Likewise Purple Moose who, when they put their mind to it, can make some interesting and flavoursome beers when they aren’t pandering to the Welsh love of bland, deep brown malty kak!  Myrtle Stout was a prime example of this and had a bitter and almost medicinal quality lurking behind a rich, bitingly roasted coffee flavour; not the thing that should work but it did, very well indeed.

Mallinson’s beers aren’t available down my way apart from the Anchor but whenever I get up north they are the brews I want to see (plus Pictish and Marble, obviously!).  Oatmeal Stout + was a full-bodied roasty brew with sweetly toasted grains and a burnt, well-balanced finish which resulted in a great all-round stout.  Still in Sheffield, Little Ale Cart’s Green Arrow Mk3 improved greatly on Mk2 with a rich, tangy and zesty hop character full of CTZ and fruitiness with some bitter bite on the finish.

My Isle of Man visit didn’t turn up much of interest, sadly, although the house beer Okells do for the remote Raven at Ballaugh, halfway between Peel and Ramsey, was a surprise with it’s juicy maltiness and fairly bitter flavour which covered up the crystal malt and, unless I’m very much mistaken, it was dry-hopped with something vaguely citrussy too; very un-Okells, but very good for a house beer for a remote island pub… and it’s definitely not a rebadge as none of the other Okells beers I had tasted anything like it!  It says a lot when the next-best beer I had on the Island was Harviestoun Bitter & Twisted!

Beer of the Month - September 2009

Brewery: Little Ale Cart From: Sheffield, Yorkshire
Beer: Osprey Score: Une Point !Une Point !Une Point !Une Point !
Details: 4.3%, cask in the Dragon, Worcester
2nd: Toccalmatto Re-Hop   3rd : Almond '22 Noah
UK scoops during the month :  36 Foreign scoops during the month : 30

Finally, after months of coming close, it’s a gold for Little Ale Cart of Sheffield.  It could be seen as undue favouritism that I drink more of their beers than any other brewery owing to them being the house beers in my local, the Dragon, but that would be to undermine the improvements they are achieving in their second year of brewing.  Osprey was from their usual mould, pale and hoppy, yet it had that extra bit of complexity to give it the edge over it’s compatriots such as the almost-as-good Cuddie Headrigg with it’s oily hop taste and deeply honeysuckle-like hop scent.

Plenty of hop fruitiness was the immediate impression, possibly from Simcoes, and more bitterness than is usual for a LAC brew gave it a far more refreshing feel and, more importantly, disguised the wheaty, sticky flavour they often have.  Osprey developed further with a complex fruity, sappy, oily and fairly bitter flavour with an impressive “hopsack” overtone which brought it to a well-balanced yet decidedly hop-driven finish although a bit more bitterness at this point would have probably made a very good beer into a superb beer; despite this minor grumble, Osprey was lovely drinking and had a great deal of flavour for a low-ish strength brew.

Our trip to Italy was another great success – in all aspects –although despite having some excellent beers we didn’t have anything totally outrageous this time but this was more than compensated for by having nothing of drain-pour quality which is always a consideration when beer costs €10 a bottle; I don’t mind chucking a bottle of Polish Jasne down the sink when it’s cost me 50p or so but £9 means I really do try to find some redeeming facet in a beer...

So, our silver gong this month goes to a new brewery (both time-wise and in my book); Toccalmatto are from Parma, South-East of Milan and right in the middle of Italy’s craft beer lands, and I’m guessing you can tell why I chose their Re-Hop by it’s name!  At a mere 5% this is a golden session beer and, I was pleased to see, uses what tasted like European hops in it’s recipe; don’t get me wrong, I love American/New Zealand hops and all their pungent character but sometimes brewers – and beer lovers – in Europe get so star-struck by them that they forget we have a stellar line-up of lupulous beauties right here on our own doorstep and it’s time we used more of them.

The aroma was beautifully fragrant and had all the character of a flower-strewn hayfield in the height of summer with grassy, grainy and floral aromas leading to a well-constructed malty base with plenty of bitter, resinous and almost hedgerow fruit-like flavours adding to the complexity.  The beer ended bitter with malt in balance yet with the sticky, grassy and juicily bramble-like hops to the fore and I can assure you that this one was drained to the last drop.  It’s not often I taste a beer so full of the vitality of European hops as this one and I recommend it to anyone wanting a change from citrus/pine/rosepetal hop flavours!

My third choice comes – again – from our Genovese trip; Almond '22’s sublime barley wine Noah comes in at a whopping 10% whilst, wisely, is filled into 33cl bottles rather than the usual Italian 75cl ones.  The beer is a rich amber colour with a gorgeous aroma of Olorosso sherry, toffee malt and walnuts that wafts intoxicatingly from the bottle as it’s uncapped; yes, I love the aroma of hops, but I can also appreciate well-aged beers (being a “real” Sherry lover helps here) and we just sat and sniffed this one for a good five minutes and as it warmed and gave up more interesting aromas such as dates, orange zest and crème brulee along with more warming – yet never spirituous – aged sherry.

The flavour was a lesson in maturity and harmony with the massive alcohol always there in the background yet never intruding with mellow malt, toffee, treacle, nuttiness, aged sherry and a subtle dryness meshing together as perfectly as fish and chips and leaving the tongue feeling both mellowed-out and invigorated at the same time and, finally, the finish was a honeyed, malty and full-bodied nutty crescendo yet still with finesse, balance and the mellowness that makes this beer the masterpiece it is.

Other good beers drunk in September.

Continuing with our Genovese trip I can’t not mention at least one of the city’s three brewpubs... or can I?  Ambasciata di Recco’s Lion beers were bland and unexciting, Bicu majors mainly on food although, bizarrely, their Akiropita basil-infused wheat beer (!) was the best of the lot, so that leaves Birrifico Genovese to save the day.  Well, their beers were okay in a homebrewy kind of way, and although I’d not really recommend them as “must drink” brews the Weiss was refreshingly bitter and not too Bavarian in style although the barman did tell us that this batch was “hoppier than usual” so maybe we were just lucky?

We acquired our stash of “room beers” from the superb Beer8 shop in the Galleria Mazzini which manages to squeeze an amazing number of beers into it’s modest interior.  Busalla Müller, from a brewpub just out of town in the foothills to the North, was one of those beers that makes me think “Is it supposed to taste like this?”; from the name I’m assuming it’s supposed to be a German-esque pils but the taste hinted at somewhere further Southeast with a very worty, grainy and crunchy malt taste, some bitter dryness, then a full malt-led worty finish.  It was reasonably similar to Czech beers such as Polička and, if it was supposed to be as worty and grainy as it turned out to be, then congratulations to the brewer for getting pretty close to a Czech dvanacet, although I suspect it wasn’t supposed to taste like it did...!

Back in the UK Brewdog continue to impress with their unpasteurised bottled beers; Trashy Blonde varied markedly between the two bottles we had with the best being a full-bodied pale ale with a honey/mango character, sweet malt, bitterness and an almost lemon curd-like hop finish with more sweet mango, whilst Zeitgeist is growing into it’s Saxonia Schwarzbier shoes well and is full of roast barley with some bitterness late on in the balanced dark grain aftertaste.  Punk Monk, a batch of Punk IPA fermented with Belgian yeast and dry-hopped with Chinook, impressed with it’s fresh, zesty lime juice and grapefruit aroma although the yeast’s provenance was given away by an estery, bubblegum-like twang.  The flavour was dry, bitter and full-on hoppy with malt, more Bananary Belgian yeast and an astringently dry, bitter finish.  I’m not sure the intense hoppiness and Belgian yeast went well together (I didn’t like any of the “Belgian-American” beers I had in the USA last year, either) but once again the Brewdog lads are to be congratulated for their innovation and trying things 99% of UK brewers wouldn’t even dream of.

It’s not often I mention Spanish beers here – or anywhere – as they’re not generally the best in the world, but the Basque country has a growing reputation for it’s micro-brewers and I’d love to get back out there and do a bit of exploration.  The beer that’s convinced me this is a worthwhile pursuit was Tarricone Ca L’Arenys Guineu Riner, a pale ale at the bizarre strength of 2.5%, which Dean shared with me in Exeter (I was going to take it home but my bag fell off the table outside McSpoons and the fizzing foam from the bottle persuaded us that it needed opening there and then)!  Hazy gold in colour, the aroma buzzed with zesty citrus hops, the flavour was pure bitterness with lemony resins and a tangy, spiky hop attack before it finished aggressively dry and bitter with more citrus zest; that was unexpected for a beer almost weak enough to serve to kids and, even better, I could have drunk pints of it all too easily... a trip to Northeast Spain is beckoning if that was anything to go by!

Our very own Steel City Brewing’s first beer "Hop Manifesto" was made during September at Sheffield’s Brew Company and, whilst there, we partook of essential fluids to replenish those lost by our hard graft.  Hop Ripper, Pete’s pale malt and Chinook creation, gets better and better (although personally I’d dry hop it too!) with a deliciously refreshing zesty grapefruit, citrus and bitter hop character over a solid malt foundation. whilst “Raisin to Live”, a 7% special stout with – you guessed it – raisins and Belgian chocolate added, was slighty too sweet for me yet had all the chocolatey, fruity, boozy hit of a chocolate truffle and was very complex and flavoursome although I’d struggle to drink more than a pint!  Pete’s beers are much improved from last year and he’s getting a lot more adventurous too which can only be a good thing.

Beer of the Month - August 2009

Brewery: Brewdog From: Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire
Beer: Chaos Theory IPA Score: Une Point !Une Point !Une Point !Une Point !
Details: 7.1%, unpasteurised 330ml bottle from Sainsbury's.
2nd: Little Ale Cart Lemberg   3rd :   Blue Monkey PG Sips
UK scoops during the month :  51 Foreign scoops during the month : 0

I've not been anywhere interesting this month, taking the opportunity to have a quiet few weeks before our relentless travel season kicks off again, so the tally of scoops is well down on previous months and had it not been for Worcester beer festival I'd have scored a mere dozen or so!  That doesn't mean I've not supped some quality beer, though, and so here they are!

Brewdog make the top 3 yet again... well, after a few years of me not being sure about their beers and having had some variable bottles and downright unpleasant casks I feel that they are finally getting into gear and producing some gorgeous beers.  The Sainsbury's beer challenge was the excuse we needed to indulge in some binge-buying of beer although only three out of the fifteen beers really interested us; thus far, we have over 50 bottles of Chaos Theory...

Chaos Theory is billed as an "Indian Pacific Ale" in a clever twist of initials as the single hop used (I think...), Nelson Sauvin, is from new Zealand.  Puns aside, though, this beer is superb; I know Nelson Sauvin is one of the most interesting hops in the world but rarely is it used in quantities such as this and rarely does it get to shine as it does here: there isn't the full-on gooseberry and cat's piss that sometimes comes with Nelson Sauvin but what's there instead is a huge bitterness and layers of tropical fruit with mango, pineapple, lychee and all those kinds of squishy, fruity delights bursting out of the glass.  The maltiness is darker than I expected but it's near enough perfectly judged giving the hops a mellow, very slightly toffeeish grainy stage to perform on and, whilst it doesn't intrude into the stellar performance of the hops, it's always there - like the rock-solid bass player - doing it's stuff in the background in a supporting rather than starring role.

In the finish there's more bitterness, fruity hop, soft and mellow maltiness then just a brief glimpse of that famous Sauvin gooseberry character as the aftertaste lingers on the tongue amongst a whole sackful of fascinating flavours; this is one complex beer and one that I can happily drink bottle after bottle and still pick up new tastes and nuances within it's makeup which, to me at least, is a sure sign of a beer brewed by an artist and not a chemical engineer... beer with this much character has soul and is a rare, elusive thing to treasure but, above all, drink plenty of!  It's currently in 4-for-3 in Sainsburys and well worth stocking up on.

Second place goes to Little Ale Cart, now regularly on the podium, with their Lemberg.  This 4% brew oozed Columbus hops with the trademark LAC grainy (wheaty?) body well balanced to the late hop charge which had yet more "hop reek" from CTZ (Columbus, Tomahawk, Zeus - all the same hop therefore called CTZ) plus an elegant fruitiness and leafiness from the other hops in the mix; okay, so I still think LAC beers need more bitterness to properly balance them out and hide the slightly wheaty flavours, but this had enough interesting hop character to make a few pints of it a pleasure.

Finally, Blue Monkey's PG Sips.  I must admit to knowing nothing about this brewery when I tried the beer and even confused it with the excellent Brass Monkey although I now know they are from Ilkeston and use Jarrow's old plant... whatever, this was an excellent beer and a lot better constructed than most beers from new(ish) micros I've had the misfortune to try recently!  Pale and fruity was the predominant flavour, backed with a bitter and tangy finish with more fruitiness and a well-balanced aftertaste of bitterness and malt; it won't set the world on fire and I suspect in a heavier month it would have been overlooked but, on this occasion, it went down a treat.

Other good beers drunk in August.

As I mentioned earlier this was a quiet month and so I'll just call a few of the better beers I sampled.  Potbelly Pigs do Fly did what Potbelly do well; very drinkable, slightly old-fashioned and well-made beers with enough character to stand out amongst the crowd.  Bowman Eldorado surprised me as I generally dislike elderflower beers but in this case they managed to enhance the dry, citrussy nature of the hops with a very subtle dab of elderflower and, amazingly, it worked!  Still at Worcester festival, Wetheroak Hill continued to impress with their reasonably hoppy and tasty brews, their bitter being an oily, orange zest-laden (Brewer's Gold?) example of why you need to let the yeast ferment out properly and, had they done just that, it would have been top-3 easily.

Roosters haven't been in favour with me for quite a few years now but I feel they are slowly regaining a hint of their old self going on the last few of their beers I've tasted.  Das Bier Bitter was a decent grainy, grassy and dry beer with a Kölsch-like character of subtle bitterness, grainy malt and hint of hopflower, although it was a delicate thing and would be crushed by the usual crystal-heavy toffee bombs being paraded by brewers far too often these days.  Finally, Ascot Alleycat was an unusual brew, like a Californian IPA diluted to half-strength, as it's toffee malt body struggled to let the obviously interesting fruity hop flavours which lurked underneath through but, in the end, it sort of worked and was surprisingly complex and drinkable, albeit a little too crystal-heavy for me. 

Beer of the Month - July 2009

Brewery: Geuzestekerij De Cam From: Gooik, Pajottenland, Belgium
Beer: Kriek Lambiek 2005 Score: Une Point !Une Point !Une Point !Une Point !
Details: 6.5%, bottle-conditioned at the Ratebeer tasting in the Harlequin, Sheffield.
2nd: Brewdog How to Disappear Completely   3rd :  Little Ale Cart Green Arrow
Beers drunk during the month : 200+ Scoops during the month : 153

As we don’t go abroad in July/August so as to avoid the plague of brats and chavs which summer unleashes upon airports I don’t usually get to try a lot of foreign beer in summer apart from that which I’ve managed to acquire myself. So, the recent Ratebeer summer gathering in the North of England was a good opportunity to taste some rare and interesting beers some of which I really wish I’d had a full bottle of rather than the couple of sips which constituted my share… still, at least I’ve tried some beers which I’d have struggled to find otherwise, and have found some I’d love to try again one day.

So, against all the odds of 131 UK scoops (plus many more non-winners) consumed during a very heavy month, it’s Johnny Foreigner who walks away with the prize, and it surprised me when I realised that it’s the first time an example of my favourite beer style has come first in the 20 or so times I’ve given this paltry award out! I just love Lambic in all it’s various incarnations (okay, so maybe not faro…) and have done so ever since I first tasted Wets Gueuze back in 1995, but despite drinking loads of the stuff on a regular basis – probably something to do with the 200+ bottles in our cellar – I rarely mention it on here… well, that’s going to change!

First place this month, then, goes to my favourite Lambic blender, de Cam. They’re not a brewer themselves but buy-in, mature then blend other brewers’ lambics which is the sort of Belgian-type carry on that gets British beer lovers all confused! Well, all I can say is that as long as they produce stuff like their Kriek Lambic 2005 they can buy their Lambic from whomever they choose and I won’t complain one itty bit! Sadly I only got a small taste of this beer but, as I’ve had full bottles of most of their output (and still have some 2000 Lambic in the cellar…), that was enough to convince me that this is a masterpiece, a true craft product, a shining beacon of quality in a filthy sea of mediocrity and all that stuff but, more prosaically, made me want to buy a case-load of it!

A cloudy red beer with de Cam’s signature (in the unblended beers) lack of carbonation it didn’t present the most alluring of sights, although I’ve long since given up drinking with my eyes and prefer to use my tastebuds instead as my eyes don’t have many flavour sensors on them. The aroma was of fresh cherry, musty straw and marzipan but this didn’t prepare me for the massively sour flavour, sourer than most other lambics I’ve tasted for a very long time, yet with a superbly balanced fleshy cherry body underneath. The flavour moved onto a gum-curling tangy tartness, once again balanced by sweet marzipan, and then a delicious fruity, almondy, sour yet bitter finish with the barnyard brett character coming to the fore as the tidal wave of almond and cherry receded in the aftertaste.

This beer proved to me that you don’t need to have carbonation in a Lambic to make a stunner and, as I drink more of it, I feel more and more that I prefer the unblended Lambic taste to the more common spritzier blended gueuze character, although I’d never be able to choose one or the other as I love ‘em both! This beer, then, an unblended Lambic with cherries macerated in it matured in a wooden cask, was just such a stunning taste experience that nothing else in July came close and it re-awakened my love for this most bizarre yet wholesome of beer styles that, thankfully, seems to be on a firmer footing now than it has been for many years. Long live proper Lambic… and de Cam!

Second place was a tricky one to call, but I finally decided to give it to Brewdog’s mould-breaking “How to Disappear Completely”. Brewdog are one of those brewers who divide opinion but, despite not liking all their beers, I have a lot of respect for them; after all, these are the guys who devised Jaipur IPA! They seem to make a habit of trying to piss people off to gain media coverage but, despite this annoyingly obvious flaw, their beers do most of the talking and they speak a lot of sense.

I’ll say now that if you love hops then you’ll almost certainly love Brewdog beers and, as you’ll probably know, I’m one for my hops! They seem to be able to brew with treble the hopcount of anyone else yet still produce balance and poise in their beer which is a rare and precious thing in a world of extreme, fractious flavours and I love ‘em for it! Despite Punk IPA being variable these days (and tasting like different hops are used in different batches), most of their other beers are sound and interesting but it’s things like this which make me believe they have a gift very rare in the UK…

Put simply, HTDC is the strength of a standard UK bitter yet packed to the rafters with hops; it has a “theoretical” IBU rating of over 180 – now that’s just ludicrous – yet, somehow, manages to hold these two diametrically opposites together. After smashing together the brewing cultures of America and the UK the lads have produced something that is like nothing else I’ve tasted yet as familiar as tea and biscuits on a Sunday morning… and, as Paul Daniels would say, “that's magic!”.

A deep amber colour, it’s obviously trying to pack as much maltiness into it’s meagre body as possible to balance the massive hop charge. And these hops are ferocious; the aroma has some caramel and toffee, but the hop aroma billowing from it is almost elemental in it’s oiliness, the very soul of a hop bract captured in a bottle in a way only Marble and Pictish do really well. Hop resins, rosepetal, pine and that raw skunkiness some American hops bring are all there and it’s a total delight to sniff whilst considering the contradiction that this is a BRITISH beer!

The flavour, in my opinion at least, has too much caramel and toffee maltiness – a common fault of American IPA’s – although I can see why they’ve done it as there’s not a great deal of body to play with at 3.5%! This malt is short lived, however, as the hops soon swarm over it in waves of pine needles, forest floor, lychees, rosepetals, tropical fruit and hop resins although it’s the massive bitterness that really stands above everything else here. The finish is raspingly bitter yet manages not to be harsh and has more of that sweet caramel mixed with supple fruit, hop resins, juicy mango and yet more bitterness… this is one mixed-up beer but, despite being a coming-together of two polarised beer cultures, it manages to carry it off almost perfectly and if it wasn’t for the excessive caramel of the malt this beer would have scored maximum points… but then, and I freely admit, I dislike caramel malt
so your opinion could well be different to mine!

I’ll say it again; Brewdog have some annoying habits – as do real dogs – but, when they go for it in beer such as this one, they can create things which are about as un-British as punching a bulldog yet, to me at least, show that they have a rare talent which reinforces the happy knowledge that not all our brewers are content to make 4% vaguely citrussy pale beers. You may not like all their beers, I certainly don’t, but there’s never a dull moment with these guys around, and that’s just how I like it.

Finally, a well deserved third place to another of my favourite breweries which, thus far and 58 brews down, has only made one style of beer (pale ale)! Little Ale Cart is the fruition of Richard Appleton’s love affair with hops and their beers are growing in stature and character the more experimentation they do with the lovely sticky green bracts. Whilst not being true “hop monsters” in the Pictish or Oakham style they do contain almost a kilo per brewer’s barrel of a wide range of hops so are well up there with the best of the UK hop-loving brewers!

Their 50th brew contained “16% more hops” than normal and it showed in the deliciously oily and juicy hop aroma which had peach, mango and lime in the mix. The flavour was full of fresh malt overlain by a decent bitterness – something I feel LAC beers generally lack, their only major fault in my opinion – with more fresh, leafy, sappy hop resins oozing out everywhere. More fruitiness became apparent in the taste with those mangoes coming to the fore, then the finish rose to a grainy malt crescendo yet still ruled by hops with a bitter, zingy, soft fruit and oily hop resin aftertaste; their best beer yet and an indication of just how far they have come in less than a year!

Other good beers drunk in July.

At the Ratebeer tasting I tried my first beer from the Athens Craft brewery, an operation which has a very good name amongst beer lovers. Their smoked lager was rich and flavoursome with just the right amount of “smokey bacon” flavour along with a slightly sweet malt body and smoky finish, good stuff, and their black lager wasn’t bad either! At the same tasting I sampled Braunstein’s (of Denmark) Imperial Stout in three versions; plain tank-matured, Oloroso cask and Bourbon cask, with the Oloroso barrel giving the best results and taming the liquoricey, tarry burliness of the beer with a delicious subtle spiciness and hints of vanilla – excellent.

Drie Fonteinen Hommage 2007 was a full 75cl bottle from Cambridge although, despite some Ratebeerians creaming themselves over it (presumably as it’s rare) and my immense love and respect for 3F, it just didn’t hit the spot with me; maybe it was the sweetness that did it as it had, in my opinion, way too much stickiness and fresh fruit to be as enjoyable as Cantillon’s Lou Pepe, yet it had only been in bottle for just over 2 years and so, given five more winters, it may turn out to be an absolute stunner; now all I need to do is find a new bottle to stash away!

To the British beers, then. Sheffield Brewco aren’t somewhere I think of as a great brewery, mainly on the strength of their original rather ropey beers, but a recent visit showed me just how far the brewery, and owner Pete, have come in a year; Hop Ripper was dry, pale and full of lovely grapefruit flavours from Chinooks (and even better dry-hopped with Amarillo!), whilst the Eclipse Porter was a lesson in deep, dark complexity with oodles of toasty, burnt grain, a slight wininess and lots of character. The rest of the beers were decent enough, too, and I’m happy to report that another Sheffield brewer is on the up and making interesting, quality beers.

Remember me going all gooey over Marble 1425v3 the other month? Well, Dobber is the name for the production version of the beer – in reality it’s 1425v1 – and we sampled this at the Marble Arch during the Ratebeer “northern education programme”. Amber in colour, it exhibited the same fresh and pungent hop oil, tropical fruit, lime juice and resin aroma which followed through to the gorgeously tangy, hoppy and very bitter flavour with a long, deliciously sticky and resinous bitter aftertaste which lasted for ages; this beer, on a normal month, would probably have got gold so Marble are very unlucky that this stunning brew, one of the UK’s best beers at present, didn’t get another gold to add to their April one… but they can rest assured that I’ll continue to drink this and the rest of their beers whenever I see them.

It just wouldn’t be a month without a Pictish beer, so here it is. Magnum, brewed with the German high-alpha hop of that name, was yet another example – as if another were needed – that Mr Sutton can coax the very essence from a hop, even ones as oily and downright resinous as Magnum. Sampled at the surprisingly good Bromsgrove fest this was oily, zesty, very bitter and dry with a distinctive orange zest and spice hint to the flavour resulting in an interesting, bitter yet still resinous hop-beast. On the same theme, Mallinsons continues to impress with their pale, hoppy and tasty ales with a whole ruck sampled around Huddersfield including Catalyst with it’s tangy, citrussy flavour, American Haze with a load of aroma hops and bitter finish and Byrne Out which had a grassy, fruity hop character.

Finally for this month, Little Ale Cart’s Meg Merillies was yet another fruity, hoppy and resinous pale ale in their now standard mould, Yorkshire Dales impressed with their Sheep Rustler and it’s full-bodied brown ale character and fruity, chocolate-led finish and their Thoresby IPA was also a good ‘un, packing in the citrus hops and bitterness and, last but not least, White Horse Scourers was the first beer from them I’ve tasted with any degree of hop and bitterness and was actually very nice indeed!

Beer of the Month - June 2009

Brewery: Nynäshamns Ångbryggeri From: Nynäshamn, Sweden
Beer: Pickla Pils Score: Une Point !Une Point !Une Point !Une Point !
Details: 4.8%, unfiltered on tap at the Glenfiddich Warehouse 68 in Stockholm's Gamla Stan.
2nd: Ölands Gammeltokens Rököl   3rd :  Sigtuna Månens 099 Barley Wine
Beers drunk during the month : 100+ Scoops during the month : 112

I love proper lager although, sadly, not many other beer aficionados do; it’s commonly regarded as a fizzy, piss-weak and flavourless fluid drunk by imbeciles with no discernment as, unfortunately for these alleged beer experts, the vast majority of them – both in the UK and abroad – have never drunk a properly-brewed and served lager which, as I keep telling people, is something everyone should do; going to Prague and sticking to the common beers is like someone coming to the UK and only drinking Fullers and Robinsons.  Great lager should be held in equally high regard as great cask ale in my opinion and I’m dedicated to promoting it and those who make the “good stuff”, both traditional style and cutting-edge.

But it’s not all good, is it?  Okay, I’ll concede that most commercial mass-market lager is fizzy bland piss, even in great lager brewing nations such as Germany and the Czech Republic, although it follows that the best way to find good lager is to first find a good micro brewer - isn’t that the way we generally find good beer in the UK?  As I write this I’m all misty-eyed as I recall supping such delights as Pivovarský Dům Štěpán (both light and dark), Zagrebačka Tomislav (okay, I know it's from AmBev, but it's still a good beer!), Kácov Hubertus Kvasnicové, Richter Svĕtlý, Brewbaker Pils, Hops & Barley Bernstein, Spezial lagerbier… the list just goes on (and I do), but let’s get down to business and I’ll say that my beer of the month is a real stunner and, amazingly, is a lot more true to the Czech Dvanáctka Ležák (12° Balling, approximately 5% lager) style than many Czech attempts are.

Nynäshamns Ångbryggeri Pickla Pils is a cracker of a beer and no mistake; we sampled 62 beers during our 3 days in Stockholm including some wincingly hoppy IPAs, a bizarre 12% Juniper-spiced brown ale from the island of Gotland in the Baltic sea made in a near-extinct style, plenty of Barley Wines and various other excellent beers, but this example of top-class brewing stood out even in this illustrious company and shows that a good lager can, given the right situation, beat anything; every dog has his day, so the proverb goes!

We sampled Pickla in the excellent Glenfiddich Warehouse in Stockholm’s old town (Gamla Stan) where over a dozen Swedish micro-brewed beers were on tap and it really impressed me; Per had told us how it was one of his favourite brews and after one sip I knew why when I was immediately reminded of one of my favourite lagers, Pivovarský Dům Štěpán, by the lovely wort-led malty taste and grassy hops – something only Bohemian Pilseners can really get away with – and hazy gold colour.  The nose was crisp grassy, lemony hops and summer meadows stuffed into freshly-emptied maltsacks and I’m willing to say it had one of the most inviting aromas I’ve smelt since Pictish Sauvin Blanc!  On the tongue was more maltiness plus the aforementioned sweet wort but balanced by a growing bitter and fresh grassy hop character which prevented the beer from becoming sweet and struck the perfect balance – as the best Pilseners do – between sweet worty maltiness and bitter, grassy hop.  In other words it was like drinking a real, traditional kvasnicové Czech pilsener and that’s something not a lot of brewers can boast.

My second-placed beer is about as far as you can get style-wise from a Pilsener and is probably the nearest “living” relation to an almost lost beer style of the world, Gotlandsdricke.  This style is still brewed by farmers (there are no commercial brewers remaining) on the Swedish island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea and is a bizarre beast indeed; if you’ve ever tasted Finnish Sahti then you’ll have some idea of the general idea, but rather than a light, bubblegummy, gin-tinged wheat beer this is a big, brown monster of a brew with smoke, juniper and sourness all evident in the flavour.  A similar style, Koduõlu, can be found on the Estonian island of Saaremaa although that’s apparently even rarer…

The Ölands brewery is based on the island of Öland, just to the south of Gotland, and their 12% palate-challenging Gammeltokens Rököl (Rököl meaning “smoked beer”) is about as close as you’ll get to Gotlandsdricke without actually going to Gotland and blagging some from a farmer!  I sampled it in the cosy Man in the Moon pub, Stockholm, as Per Forsgren (the top Swedish scooper) insisted I had to try it as it was such a rare style of beer.  The 500ml bottle was unfiltered and poured a murky red/brown colour from which billowed an amazing aroma of smoke, oil, tar, kippers, smoked sausages, camphor oil, Gin, then more smoke and molasses!  I inhaled this heady concoction for a while, not quite sure what to expect on the taste, before taking a bold swig of this unique beer…

“Bloody hell!”  I thought as the flavours swirled around in my mouth; this wasn’t like anything I’d ever tasted before but, even so, I could pick out the Juniper, smoked malt, treacly burnt grains plus other flavours which, had I been told ten minutes earlier belonged in beer, I’d have laughed!  As on the nose, smoky bacon crisps and/or kippers crashed across my tastebuds followed by camphor oil, evergreen trees, thick blackstrap molasses and a herby sourness pummelling my tongue in turn – and sometimes all together – until I was very confused indeed; was this really beer or some herbal tonic?  After a few mouthfuls I became more accustomed to the extreme flavour and even began to pick out more beery tastes, although it was still ruled by a huge smokiness akin to burning fir trees and juniper/camphor flavours before an amazingly complex and warming finish, the only time the 12% alcohol was obvious.

Sue hated it, not surprisingly as she doesn’t like smoked beer at the best of times, and I can’t say I loved it as a beer – it was a challenge to drink just half a pint – but such was the complexity, interest and downright bizarreness of this drink that it just has to claim second place; I don’t think I’ve ever tasted anything like this before and, unless I visit Gotland, I doubt I will again, but I’m very thankful that Per insisted I tried this ultra-rare approximation of a near-extinct style and I’d recommend it to any beer lover as another essential building block in the understanding and appreciation of the fantastically varied world of beer – although many wouldn’t recognise it as one – and I feel that with a bit of “practice” I could get quite accustomed to this style…

Third place goes to a similarly strong brew, although this one was far less of a sensory adventure!  Sigtuna Månens Barley Wine, brewed for the Man in the Moon pub in Stockholm, was a touch on the expensive side at £15 for a 33cl bottle but we were advised that it had to be done… so it was!  A deliciously hoppy aroma, full of oils and hop resins, was quickly overtaken by juicy tangerine zestiness and rich malt.  The flavour had more thick maltiness with a lot of fruit and hop resins in a deliciously balanced manner before a huge complex finish including Seville marmalade, rich malt, zesty and fruity hops, bitterness before finishing with a suggestion of Sherry and yet more hops!  A more complex beer I can’t begin to imagine and at no point would I have ever guessed it was 13%; 8% tops was my guess until I saw the bottle!

Other good beers drunk in June…

We had so many good beers in Sweden I can’t list them all, but here’s a small sample of the best ones we tried.  In the “other” Monk’s café, the brewpub, we had a 5 glass sampler of their seasonal beers and all were well-brewed, interesting and tasty although not all to my taste I must admit!  Their Old Ale (9.9%) was that rare thing in that it actually tasted old with a winey, toffee-malt character with dryness, obvious alcohol and a very complex Madeira and malt finish. Their APA wasn’t bad either although we felt it needed a touch more bittering hop to beef it up a bit.  The world-famous (thanks to Ratebeer) Närke Stormaktsporter is one beer that actually lives up to the hype with a massively rich chocolate and coffee character with liquorice, burnt toast, then a long, full-bodied – yet not sickly – dark malt and 80% Cacao chocolate finish with a dry ashy bitterness. 

Nynäshamns did the business yet again with their Fatlagrad Smörpundet Porter, aged in casks, which was reminiscent of liquefied cake with added coffee and chocolate and a hint of vanilla and rum baba in the finish!  Oppigårds Summer ale wasn’t what I expect a summer ale to be but rather had a fair bit of toffee and caramel to balance the very hoppy flavour; lychees, rose petal, pine, eucalyptus and orange zest which all complemented the malt well and forged a great beer out of something I’d not expected that much from.  Sigtuna Månens Pale Ale, brewed as a house beer for the Man in the Moon where it’s sold on tap, was a delightfully light and hop-led brew with a hopflower and fruit aroma followed by a subtle maltiness and a growing sweetish, fruity hoppiness (Simcoe?) leading to a balanced, appealingly suppable finish with all the components in balance; malt, hop, fruit (tangerines) and bitterness.  This was a deliciously drinkable session beer, well made and subtly flavoured, and had we not had more winners to drink I could have stayed on this for a few pints… such is the life of a desperate scooper, however!

There were many more beers which scored 3 out of 5 or more but I’d be here all day describing them so, if you really want to know, drop me an email.  One more impressive beer that we sampled over there wasn’t Swedish but German from the Beck Brauerei in Trabelsdorf and, although it’s not really a Zoigl owing to it being made by a commercial company, it was a lovely grainy, grassy and surprisingly hoppy and bitter (for a German beer) with a herbal, hedgerow hop finish over a delicious chewy maltiness.

Back in the UK not a lot really rocked my boat apart from several Little Ale Cart brews; Prince of Wales was resinous and hoppy all round with a lemony hop flavour prominent followed by some bitterness and a well-balanced citrus hop and grassy finish, Singapore was similar yet weaker and therefore with less overall body although the lemon zest character seemed to be increased to compensate, and finally H A Ivatt had plenty of limey and gooseberry-ish Nelson Sauvin in the flavour with a lip-smacking limejuice and hop finish; lovely stuff.

Beer of the Month - May 2009

Brewery: Hakusekikan From: Ena-gun, Gifu Prefecture, Japan
Beer: Hurricane Barley Wine Score: Une Point !Une Point !Une Point !Une Point !Une Point !
Details: 15%, on tap in the superb Bakusyu club Popeye, Tokyo (my pub of the month for May!)
2nd: Shiga Kogen IPA   3rd :  Pictish Columbus
Beers drunk during the month : 100+ Scoops during the month : 216

Oh where to begin… Of the 167 beers I scooped whilst in Japan a staggeringly high percentage achieved a score of 3.5 out of 5 or above.  To put this into perspective, barely 33% of beers I generally drink even get a score of 3.5 so this is a great reflection on the high standard of beer the Japanese micros are currently producing, and even discounting some possible “score-upping” for place and rarity – which I do consciously try to avoid – I was really impressed by the range and quality of the beers I sampled.

Okay, to my favourite.  I know I’m always banging on about Ratebeerians only drinking 15% IIIIIPA’s and suchlike whilst discounting quality “standard” beers and, consequently, this choice may seem a shot-in-the-foot for me, but in my defence I would simply claim that this beer was just so excellent, so well balanced and so integrated in it’s flavour, that it stood out above even the other two 5-star brews I scooped in Tokyo.

Hakusekikan brew some great beers including Samurai (made with Hikari rice, a quality table rice rather than the sake rice generally used in beer) and Shizen Bakushu (also known as “Lambic" although it’s really a wheat beer inoculated with some bretty bugs) but it was their barley wine – a style at which Japanese micros seem to excel – that impressed me the most.  I scooped it at the indescribably fantastic Popeye bar in Tokyo’s Ryogoku district as part of a 10-beer sampler tray and was struck by it’s intense character and complexity all wrapped up in a delicious warming treacle toffee blanket.

The aroma was, obviously from a 15% beer, heavy on the alcohol but once I got used to this there was so much more going on in there; Olorosso sherry, wood, hints of brettanomyces wild yeast, a rich whiff of molasses, dark fruits and plenty more aromas hiding behind the more prominent ones.  On the tongue it was hugely flavoursome yet not overly alcoholic (imagine it tasting more like an 8% Belgian beer) yet packed with flavours which I’d picked up from the aroma plus more I hadn’t; yes, there was plenty of rich toffee-malt and treacle along with a succulent honeyed body, but these flavours integrated seamlessly with the dark sherry, woodiness, fruit and obvious wild yeast character and drifted deliciously into the rich, full yet mellow finale of sweet malt, honeyed grain, wood, molasses, toffee, alcohol and even some hop bitterness all rounded out by a deliciously tangy Sherry and almost Spanish brandy-esque finish which swirled around on my tongue releasing yet more complexity as it did so… what a beer!

I don’t know if I’ve had many beers as complex and full of flavour as this one – Cardos’ amazing barley wine from Argentina springs to mind as something similar – and it achieved those rare things in strong beers in not allowing the alcohol to burn out the flavour and pulling all the various tastes together into one mellow, interesting and very tasty morass of deliciousness... this was one seriously well-made beer!  I have since learnt that it’s made (in part) with wild yeast extracted from local honey so it’s pleasing to know that my tastebuds weren’t telling me fibs when they detected the brett!

I’ll resist the temptation to pick another barley wine as my second-favourite beer of May – although Hidatakayama’s Karumina was another whopper – and instead go for Shiga Kogen’s fabulous IPA.  This is another brewery for which I have a lot of respect with all five beers I tried being tasty, interesting and full of character, although their IPA really stole the show with it’s gorgeously hoppy and fruity character and bitter, raspberry-pip Simcoe finish.  I tried it on the same 10-beer sampler as the Hurricane in Popeye; what’s the chance of having two 5-star beers in one tasting?  You’d get good odds for that from Ladbrokes, I reckon!

The aroma was simply gorgeous with hop oils, raspberry fruit, honeysuckle and hops billowing out from the glass.  This was followed by a very bitter and hoppy palate, just what I like, with easily enough bitter hop to balance the toffee-malt body although it was the oily, citrussy, pippy hop flavour (I’d guess Simcoe and Cascade) that ruled everything with a fist of iron.  The finish grew more and more bitter with a balancing maltiness – yet still full of that beautiful citrus, fruit and flowery hop character – which ended tangy and lip-smackingly delicious; what a treat of a beer and worth every yen!

You’d expect another Japanese beer to be third but, if truth be told not that surprisingly, Mr Sutton has muscled his way into yet another podium position with his stunningly fruity Columbus.  This beast has been brewed before but was one I’d always missed – probably due to me living 100+ miles from the brewery’s usual outlets – and so when I had the opportunity to sink a few I took it!  It was from the cellar of the Dragon, Worcester, and had a bewitchingly delicious fruity hop nose; not many brewers can bring out the raw essence of a hop variety’s character the way Pictish do and this was one of the best he’s done to date with waves of fruits such as kiwi, peach and lime billowing from the glass along with ultra-fresh resinous hops giving the impression of nosing a fresh pack of hop cones!

The flavour had the tell-tale vanilla and slightly butterscotchy malt of Pictish although this was merely there to balance the tart, tangy, fresh and zesty hop tastes which were almost sticky with resin and oils.  The beer became intensely bitter yet still retained the fruit, hop and oily character right to the finish which seemed to explode with zesty lime before a sharp bitter punch; this is the sort of beer Pictish excel at and have made their own and I only wish more of the much-vaunted American IPA’s were as bitter, hoppy and downright drinkable as this was.

Other good beers drunk in May…

More beer!  Returning to Japan, it’s difficult to pick a mere few from the 70+ beers I rated 3.5 or above there but I’ll try… Yokohama brewery is a brewpub not far from Chinatown in that city and brews a varied range of beer on sale in the downstairs bar and upstairs restaurant.  Confusingly, the bar is called “Pivovar” (brewery in Czech) as someone there is well into their Czech beer and it shows in their superbly true-to-style Pilsener which really is a cracker; worty and softly malty in nose, just as it should be, with a dab of lemony hopflower, whilst the mouthfeel is full and malty with the characteristic wortyness and it finishes with a good bitterness and a growing grassy, slightly lemony hop character, although it’s the biscuity malt that wins out. 

The brewery also makes, for the wonderful Thrashzone bar not far away, a hop-monster called Crossover.  This beer is only sold at that bar and the version we had, dry-hopped with Amarillo, had a punch-in-the-face hop aroma, all oozing juicy fruit and hop oils, and a smooth malt taste overlain by plenty of fresh, zingy hop and fruitiness.  To be honest I thought it lacked a little bitterness to be a truly great IPA, but the hop aroma and taste almost made up for this and I spent ages sniffing the empty glass (which usually gives the best hop nose) as I drank my next beer, although as this was Green Flash 30th street that wasn’t exactly short on hops!

Speaking of Green Flash, I got to sample their West Coast IPA in Tokyo and I’m pleased to say that I loved it just as much as on my first sampling last year and it may just be my desert island beer if I could choose just one brew still in production; the hop character is stunning yet it’s got so much else to offer and it seems to be that rare beast of an American IPA made to a very English malt bill without the usual sticky, cloying toffeeish crystal malt that bedevils many American-style beers and overshadows the hops.  30th street was similar to the WC IPA in having a gloriously fresh dry-hopped aroma although it was lacking much of the bitterness levels it’s big brother has and therefore fell short of being another of my favourites, although there was no shortage of citrussy hop character!

Minamishinshu Christmas ale is another of Japan’s excellent barley wines, this one with a lovely brandy character to it’s smooth maltiness and aged, Madeira wine flavour and it tasted very mature indeed with all the complexity and variety of flavours that entails.  Likewise, Yo Ho’s barley wine was a stunner although this one had bunches of citrussy, piney American C-hops over a fresh malty body giving a bizarre flavour but one which I loved for it’s uniqueness and, after all, how many fresh, hoppy barley wines do you see?  Not many, I can tell you…

We visited the amazingly-located Fujizakura brewpub at the base of Mount Fuji and, alongside the stunning view of Fuji-san from the carpark, we drank some excellent beers brewed on-site by the very capable brewmaster who learnt his trade at Weihenstephaner in Bavaria.  Pick of the very good bunch was the Rauchbok, made with authentic Rauchmalz from Weyermann of Bamberg, a deep brown very malty brew with a delicious rich smokey bacon aroma and flavour – not too much as is often the case with rauchbiers – before a well-balanced, subtle yet very tasty and moreish finish; closing my eyes, it was hard to believe I wasn’t in Bamberg drinking ur-Bock and not next to Japan’s most famous mountain supping Japanese craft beer!

I’ve already mentioned Hidatakayama’s Karumina barley wine which was a rich, bourbon-tasting strong brew with plenty of spice, sweet malt, fruit and sherry in the complex finish and got very close to being on the podium and proved, yet again, that Japanese micro-brewers somehow have the gift in producing excellent barley wines which is a very difficult style to get right; they seem to manage to integrate the flavours and alcohol together into a delicious melee of tongue-blasting power yet with a mellowness and deftness of touch which is rare indeed.

Finally, I can’t mention Japan and not speak of Bairds.  This craft brewery is run by an American, Bryan Baird, and produces a bewildering range of beers across the whole spectrum from guzzling lager to Imperial stout.  I scooped an amazing 25 beers from Bairds – mainly at a Ratebeer session at the raucous yet sociable Naka-Meguro Taproom – with the pick being his hop-heavy Columbus IPA which had a bizarre Turkish Delight flavour alongside other more normal oily, resinous hop tastes and a slightly bitter yet still rosepetally finish, Great American Stout which managed to combine citrussy C-hops with a massive burnt, toasty grain flavour well, European Summer Ale (on cask) which had a delightfully grassy and – well, very European – hop character, malty body and spicy, hay-like hop finish, and finally Rising Sun Pale Ale, a deliciously hoppy and citrus hop-led brew with some treacly malt although it was the full-on bitter, citrussy, resinous and juicy hop finish that won me over.

There were so many good Japanese beers I could go on for pages about them so, if you want to know more, just ask me!  Back in the UK I scooped more Little Ale Cart beers with Bois Russel being the pick although it was a touch sweet in the finish for my liking despite the pungent rosepetal and citrus hops.  Speaking of hops, Alehouse’s Head full of Sorachi was a big, herby, spicy brew with loads of tangy pineapple fruit alongside the hop’s signature orange zest, herb and bitterness; such purity of hop taste is, as I keep saying, hard to get so full credit to Kev for this one.

Beer of the Month - April 2009

Brewery: Marble Brewery From: Manchester
Beer: 1425 v3 Score: Absolutely unmissable and superb bar / beerAbsolutely unmissable and superb bar / beerAbsolutely unmissable and superb bar / beerAbsolutely unmissable and superb bar / beerAbsolutely unmissable and superb bar / beer
Details: 5.9%, cask in the North Bar, Leeds.  Version 3 of their mammothly-hopped test brew of last year.
2nd: Mallinsons Let there be More Hops   3rd :  Holdens Springheeled Jack
Beers drunk during the month : 100+ Scoops during the month : 78

You'll have to excuse me if I become a little emotional, but drinking this beer was a memorable experience.  Herbal and myself were trolling around Leeds trying to find scoops and not having the best time of things (the Leeds brewery tap's first batch of lager was due on in 3 days, nothing in the Palace...) when we chanced upon this monster in the ever excellent North Bar.  A swift half was ordered, but as soon as the beer came spluttering out of the handpump things took a turn for the lupulous...

Hops... I could smell lots of them, and the beer wasn't anywhere near my nostrils as yet - always a good sign!  As the glasses were passed over the bar I grabbed mine and inhaled deeply of the glorious hop aroma... kiwi fruit, peaches, gooseberry, citrus and masses of oozing, juicy hop oils.  I chanced a swig and immediately my tastebuds went into orgasm mode; an intense hop cone flavour, fresh and oily, coated my tongue with an obvious hint of New Zealand hop (I thought Nelson Sauvin but I've since discovered that it may have been Riwaka, although I'm still putting money on NS) with a hefty yet refined bitterness combined with a gorgeous juicy, zesty citrus and gooseberry blast with a razor-sharp citrus, grapefruity bite (that'll be Chinooks, then!) which increased into a tongue-punishing crescendo of hop oil, gooseberry, delicate peach and bitterness, all combined with a full yet gentle maltiness, which just went on and on...

I stood, rooted to the spot, with an empty half pint in my hand almost unable to speak; had this really been a British beer I'd drunk, my brain kept asking, and it came as an amusing thought that it had been hoppier and fresher than most American IPA's I'd scooped thus far with the notable exception of Green Flash WCIPA to which it bore more than a passing similarity in style - although I've said before that WCIPA is an American take on British IPA!  A second half-pint later - well, how could I refuse more of such a stunning beer as that? - I was in no doubt that I'd just supped one of the best beers I'd ever had and one that I could still taste ten minutes later as we entered the next pub, and so good was the lip-smacking flavour still swirling around my tongue that I really didn't want another beer to spoil that moment... but such is the life of a scooper!

I've always liked Marble beers - apart from their dodgy Vegan period - and I'm chuffed to see them going from strength to strength with masterpieces such as this one.  Agreed, it's not everyone's style of beer, and I'm sure some people will absolutely hate it, but for me it was the perfect marriage of a very English malt bill and some gloriously pungent hops (I'm pretty sure it had Nelson Sauvin, Cascade and Chinook in there) yet brewed with the touch of mastery which, if he tasted it, I'm sure would gladden the heart of a certain Mr Dobbin, the original inspiration for Marble brewery; as with so much in beer, it all comes back to Brendan Dobbin!

At number two is a brewery of which I've had way too little in terms of scoops, Mallinsons, with the brew done for Herbal's 30th birthday.  "Let there be More Hops" was a single dry-hopped cask of the base beer, let there be hops, and let's just say in consolation to Tara and Herbal that if I'd not tasted the superlative Marble 1425v3 then their brew would have easily been my beer of the month!  Brewed to 77IBUs with plenty of glorious Nelson Sauvins, this isn't a beer for bland regional swill lovers and doesn't proclaim to be!  Loads of oozing gooseberry and nettle tartness was the main characteristic - which was far nicer than it sounds, believe you me - complete with a sweetish malt backbone and more tangy hops, although personally I'd have liked a touch more bitterness to round it out a bit! 

Number three this month is Holdens Springheeled Jack, one of many one-off's from one of the only regionals whose beers I'll drink!  I love a "proper" Black Country beer with the signature sweet biscuity wort they have which you'd think wouldn't be my thing at all but it is and I love 'em!  I've been a fan of Holdens for many years and always drink their beers when possible, but this special was a right corker straight out of the right mould with a brilliant amber colour, toasted sweet and biscuity malt flavours, then a hint of dryness in the finish although the aftertaste was all lusciously sweet worty malt... textbook Black Country style and a delight to drink; it's great to see brewers sticking with traditional styles even when making seasonals!

Other good beers drunk in April…

Now it's not often you'll see Marstons mentioned here but for their version of Sinebrychoff Porter I'll make an exception!  A full and tasty brew, it was packed with roast malt and a distinct aniseed flavour with warming alcohol before a complex liquoricey and burnt grain finish with dry malt and roast in the aftertaste; not bad at all!  Mallinsons Let there be More Hops, the "mother beer" to my silver medallist this month, had all the luscious gooseberry flavours of that beer with only slightly less in the aroma and would be a worthy contender for a great session beer in my book!  As is usual with Oakham, their latest seasonal, the amusingly-named Hare Flick, was a cracking pale, bitter and hoppy brew with more than a hint of Chinook hops in the lemon and grapefruit-led dry and bitter flavour which is becoming their signature flavour of late.

On a totally different note, I can't remember Sharps having done a dark beer before and so it was with some surprise I scooped their Spring Mild (apparently including Cornish Gorse in the ingredients) and it was a decent attempt at a mild, albeit a pale one, with chocolate malt, rich graininess and a spicy, herby hint in the malty finish.  Little Ale Cart kept up the decent beers with North British, full of lime juice and gooseberry, although a recent spell of using Thornbridge yeast has been an unmitigated failure!  Finally, Acorn's latest hoppy special, Bobek, possessed all the leafy, grassy and juicy greenness you'd expect from Styrian Goldings along with a spicy, bitter and fruity finish giving a very tasty and moreish beer.

Beer of the Month - March 2009

Brewery: Little Ale Cart From: Sheffield, West Yorkshire
Beer: Cameronian Score: Une Point !Une Point !Une Point !Une Point !Une Point !
Details: 4.3%, cask conditioned.  As usual, a pale beer with plenty of hops, but somehow this seemed to have more than usual!
2nd: Millstone Ye Olde Vic   3rd :  Hops & Barley (Berlin) Bernstein
Beers drunk during the month : 150+ Scoops during the month : 108

A trip to Germany isn’t perhaps the best way to drink interesting beers, the Rheinheitsgebot and a dearth of new hop varieties has seen to that, but there are still some excellently crafted brews around if you look hard enough, especially in the new-wave brewpubs who brew what they want and have no qualms about offending Bavarians with atrocities such as oats and their ilk.

First, however, comes my favourite beer of the month and I suppose it had to happen eventually; Little Ale Cart have been making ale very much in my favourite style (pale and hoppy) since they began last year and although a fair few have been good I’d not had any that I could honestly say were excellent until now.  Cameronian has changed all that and I have no hesitation in giving it my beer of the month ahead of some very worthy beers, so congratulations to Richard and Gee and here’s to many more similar but not the same (that’s my scooper’s head speaking)!

As usual it was a very pale brew but the aroma was the first clue that this was a cut above the rest; a luscious rosepetal and citrussy nose led into a well-balanced flavour of dry malt, flowery summer meadows-esque hop, citrus, pine needles and plenty of sticky resins before the bitterness came through at the finish along with yet more pungent flowery, sticky and rosey hops.  This beer was a delight to drink and, had I tasted it blind, I’d probably have guessed it was an American Pale Ale such was the hopping rate!

Coming up close behind was Millstone Ye Olde Vic which was yet another hopfest in my mouth but this time of a more lemony nature.  Atop a fresh, crunchy maltiness was a juicy, lemon and melon-like hop experience with plenty of early addition bitterness resulting in a rich, tasty and well-flavoured brew with the hop taste and bitterness well integrated.  The finish had more of a pronounced bitter character although the fresh, tangy lemon zest hops remained and the fresh malt character balanced it all out very well indeed.

Finally, over to Berlin for the final place and to one of the city’s newest brewpubs, Hops & Barley, out east in the district of Friedrichshain.  This is a lovely little bar, converted from a butcher’s shop in 2007, and the compact brewplant is set against one of the walls in accordance with Berlin brewpub tradition, but it’s the quality and variety of it’s output that sets it apart from most of it’s compatriots.  I’ll go more into the bar’s sociability in the pub of the month, for it was my favourite pub visited in March by a good distance, but the beer is what this section is concerned with so I’ll choose their Bernstein one-off brew as my favourite of the evening.

This was an unusual beer for Germany in that it was similar in style and flavour to the rare Czech Polotmavý beers, maybe also vaguely like a Vienna red, with a mid-amber colour leading into a delicious caramel, toasty grain and surprisingly bitter taste with a well-balanced finish of crisp, fresh maltiness, toast, burnt barley, bitterness and a complex full-bloodied aftertaste.  Even better was that the brewer himself came over to our table with news that the beer had come on as, on arrival, the special had been Brown Ale (properly top-fermented, too) although he did say there were only two litres of that left…

Other good beers drunk in March…

The UK first; Little Ale Cart have made big strides in the past few months with the bizarrely-named Salmon Trout having a pungently fruity hop petal aroma with more fruity, resinous hops in the flavour, whilst Redgauntlet was similarly fruity it also had the unmistakable grapefruit bite of the glorious Chinook hop.  Pictish wowed me as usual with some of their single-hop specials; Nugget was a peppery, leafy brew with a bitter and almost melon-edged flavour whilst Glacier had a juicy, leafy bitterness with a bizarre green tea character in the aftertaste.  At the excellent Leicester festival ever-reliable Kinver impressed with their Ghost Train, a bitterish, fruity and hoppy pale ale with plenty of character, whilst Bottle Brook’s Red Chinook was interesting and grapefruity if a little overdone in the crystal malt stakes.  Over in Berlin, Hops & Barley’s whole range impressed with a complex malty, zesty and bitter pils, very much in the Northern German style, and a brown ale which had a lovely chocolate and mellow malt flavour.  Brewbaker’s beers were also good and we sampled a deliciously lemony, bitter and refreshing pils (that almost made it into my March top three) plus the seasonal haferbock which possessed a massive treacly malt character with roast, liquorice, dryness and a complex dark malt and alcohol finish.  Eschenbräu’s Rauch seasonal was a lesson in balance and how a small amount of smoked malt can be used to maximum effect, whilst the Schultheiss version of Berliner Kindl Weiß was surprisingly sour, sherberty and possessed a deliciously delicate spritzy sourness that makes me glad such rare beer styles are still made.

I must also mention Jolly Pumpkin whose sour, Belgian-inspired beers (Bam Biere and La Roja) were decent enough although I must admit I was slightly disappointed compared to the hype Ratebeer gives them and thought they were perhaps a touch too overloaded with Brettanomyces which gave them a “pastiche of Belgium” character.  Likewise Lost Abbey’s Avant Garde was respectable enough although it failed to hit the spot and Stone’s Belgian Tripel was far too citrussy and the American hops totally failed to mesh with the Belgian character leaving a lemony, malty mess.  The whole lot were beaten in this blind tasting by a two years out-of-date bottle of standard Rodenbach which had so much wild yeast, brett, wood and acetic character on top of a sour caramel, wood and sherried taste I was gutted when we’d finished it!

Beer of the Month - February 2009

Brewery: Port Brewing From: San Diego, California
Beer: High Tide Fresh Hop IPA Score: Une Point !Une Point !Une Point !Une Point !Une Point !
Details: Brewed with unkilned Simcoe and Centennial hops, this is a brew for those who like their hops big, bold, yet balanced and tasty; superbly drinkable for such a big beer.  Bottle-conditioned 660ml bottle, 6.5% ABV, from Beermerchants.
2nd: Brass Monkey Silverback   3rd :  Mikkeller (Proef) Simcoe IPA
Beers drunk during the month : 100 or so Scoops during the month : 46

Even though we've not been abroad in February the beer I've chosen as my beer of the month is definitely not British and most definitely not in the British style. Thanks to Beer Merchants of Kent I was able to order a box of goodies from the Port Brewing Company of California (plus some other bits and bobs) and, predictably, it's one of these beers that has stolen the month's crown, although it faced surprising competition from some unlikely quarters!

Port High Tide fresh hop IPA is on the weak side for American IPA's alcohol-wise but it more than makes up for this in the taste department with a simply amazing flavour of leafy hops. I tasted a whole bunch of hoppy beers in an evening, done blind as usual (thanks to Sue!), and my tasting notes go into sweet rapture attempting to describe this amazing beer and even run to six lines when most beers manage two, maybe three – so, is it twice as good as all other beers or is this extended note-taking simply a result of unfamiliar tastes on my palate? A bit of both, I'd like to think...

A golden beer, it effervesced in my glass with a slight haze and precocious sparkle from the bottle-conditioning which was done to perfection. The aroma was decent if nothing earth-shattering with sweet maltiness, leafy hops and some hints of grapefruit and raspberry leaves coming through; “Not bad” thinks I, taking a huge gobful, only to have my unprepared tastebuds blasted by wave after wave of hoppiness... but not any hops, these were different than the norm. I expect we've all had some “green hop” beers before, probably Teme Valley's increasingly bland efforts or the tangilicious Green Pear from Malvern Hills, but I must state that I've never before tasted a beer which gives an impression of chewing unkilned hopcones and I'm not sure I'll ever have a beer like this again! Fresh unkilned Simcoe and Centennial hops are used to great effect in this beast of a beer, brewed once a year when the green hops have just been harvested for maximum zesty juiciness.

The flavour was amazing; the base maltiness was covered by a huge layer of hops with all manner of tastes including leaf, sap, pine and grapefruit and a big robust minty-fresh hoppiness and substantial bitterness following close behind. More flavours came to the fore as I progressed down the glass with rosepetals, raspberry pips, pine needles and a lovely peachy-sweet fruitiness, but it was the overall tannic, tangy mouthfeel of fresh, leafy green hops which shouted that this was a beer to remember. The finish was no less memorable with a spiky bitter hoppiness, grapefruit, pine resins, leafy hops and exotic fruit leading into a long, dry grapefruit-led very bitter aftertaste with yet more pine-fresh hops and a bizarre candied fruit character at the very end... not many beers get this many tasting notes, and probably for a very good reason – not many beers are as complex and downright excellent as this one!

Where do you go after such a beer, probably one of the top ten I've ever drunk? Well, more Port Brewing beers, obviously! The following two weren't quite as full-on interesting as the High Tide had been but were certainly a cut above the norm; 2nd Anniversary was a deep amber beer with an immensely fruity aroma, almost festive crystallised fruits, over a simply massive bitter hop taste with a delicious fruity hop taste of oranges, spices, sticky resins and leafy hints. The finish was a touch sticky although the bitter blast of fruity hops almost balanced the full maltiness – but not quite! Hop 15 was another strong one, 10% this time, and another coppery-coloured brew with, sadly, a noticeable alcohol prickle yet it still had an enormous hop character with all manner of citrussy, fruity, bitter and resinous hop tastes from the 15 varieties used in it's brewing, although I felt that had it been 7% it would have been so much better and more drinkable...

That's the beer of the month, then, and two very close runners, but what could possibly beat these out of the medals? Surely nothing from the UK could ever match the sheer hoppiness, character and complexity of these? Well, yes, one beer did, a beer from a very new Yorkshire brewery which have impressed me no end thus far and, on both occasions I've drunk their ales, they have been the best beer supped that day by a very long way indeed... Brass Monkey is their name and they certainly know how to make beer!

Oakwood was drifting towards a satisfactory conclusion; I'd scooped several new breweries and we'd settled in the Yorkshire bar with some “Old Skool” scoopers for some winners and a plate of pie and peas;

“What've you got left?” I enquired.

“Steak pie and peas” announced the bloke behind the counter,

“You sure it's steak, it says mince pie here” I queried.

“Steak, mince, it's all t'same, comes from same animal” he countered.

“So it's steak mince?” I asked, knowing full well it wouldn't be, but feeling like being awkward,

 “Aye, summat like that – it's from a bloody cow” he muttered, slopping some peas over a beige pastry lump and handing me the gooey green mound under which was a decent enough pie although I'm sure it wasn't steak...

Whilst munching my food I flipped through the programme to see what my next beer would be and noticed a beer from Brass Monkey, a brewery which I'd been impressed with on my first exposure to at the Smithfield a few months back, so a quick visit to the bar saw me ambling back to the table with a half of Silverback, a 5% pale beer. Now I know you're probably thinking that my judge of beer quality is hops=good, more hops=better, but that's over-simplifying my tastes and I don't like a beer without balance or complexity – honestly! The Silverback was fruitily fragrant with some lovely citrus notes and the flavour was no less impressive; a smooth bitterness was immediately obvious, overlain with citrussy American hops, over a solid malty body which carried the hop well. The hop character increased as I drank and became more citrussy, grapefruity and lemon-rindy with plenty of bitterness and a beautifully balanced finish of rich maltiness, bitter hop and oodles of lemony, fruity citrus character; for a British beer this was a triumph or complexity, hop character and sheer drinkability and I've not had many this good for a very long time.

So, what else could live up to these brutal hop-beasts? Mikkeller Simcoe IPA, that's what! Brewed at the ubiquitous Proef brewery in Northern Belgium by the great experimenter without a brewery that is Mikkel Borg Bjergsø, this isn't a beer for those who don't like hops and even those who love the sticky green bracts may raise an eyebrow at this one for it contains 100% Simcoe and there's a lot of hops packed into the little 33cl bottles, believe me! I've loved Simcoes ever since I tasted the divine Weyerbacher Doubel Simcoe in New York and was really looking forwards to this one and, happily, it didn't let me down! Amber in colour, it had a ludicrously fruitily (raspberry and peach) hoppy aroma atypical of Simcoe with a sappy character reminiscent of kiwi fruits, peach, raspberry and apricot along with a strange “wet dog” hint! The taste was similar without the canine notes (presumably wet dogs weren't added) with a massive bitter hoppiness then more of the same fruitiness and a pine-needle, bitter and peachy finish which lasted for ages after the beer was swallowed... one for the hop-heads, then, but as Simcoe has low co-humulone levels plenty can be added without too much harshness creeping into the flavour as evidenced here.

Other excellent beers drunk in February...

Brewdog Punk IPA (batch 212) showed a return to form with a hugely bitter flavour overlain with piney, rosepetally hops and a resinous, sticky hop finish; lovely stuff indeed. Little Ale Cart Meg Dods was yet another golden, leafy and hop-forwards beer from Sheffield with a very European grassiness in the hoppy finish, the Struise/Mikkeller collaboration beer (made at Deca) was a strange yet alluring beastie with a distinct barley sugar character along with some spiky hops and a bretty, yeasty finish with more barley sugar in the finish. Mikkeller's ludicrously named “Beer Geek Breakfast” stout was something I've been meaning to try for a while, mainly to see if it lived up to it's Ratebeer fawn-fest, and I'm pleased to say that, in the main, it does with a boozy, roasty nose, intensely roasted and burnt malt flavour with a hefty bitterness, coffee and chocolate in the flavour, then “coffee grounds”, roast malt, bitterness and a decently balanced, if a touch alcoholic, long toasted finish.

Port Brewing's Santa's Little Helper Imperial Stout was a big, cuddly liquorice-monster rather than the lumbering boozy, bitter beast I'd been expecting and had a well-balanced roasted malt, liquorice, winey and slightly bitter flavour with a complex yet smooth and well-balanced finish of dark malts. Brass Monkey's other beer at Oakwood, a festival special called Miller the Monkey, was amber with a slight sulphurous aroma yet the billowing hoppiness soon covered that and the taste continued into a bitter, very English hopped character with a malty, bitter and fruity, grassy hop aftertaste which, whilst not as good as the superb Silverback, was by a long way the second-best beer of the day and cemented Brass Monkey's quality even further in my eyes. Finally, Acorn Hailstorm was something of a return to form for them with a tangily fruity hop character over a pale slightly malty body and fresh, zingy bitter hop finish with more light fruitiness to end.

Beer of the Month - January 2009

Brewery: Bi-Du From: Rodero, Italy
Beer: Rodersch Score: Une Point !Une Point !Une Point !Une Point !
Details: Claimed to be a Kölsch but nothing like one stylewise, more of a deliciously suppable pale and hoppy ale in the European tradition.
2nd: Lambrate Ligera   3rd : Brass Monkey Capucin
Beers drunk during the month : 100+ Scoops during the month : 78

We came across this tangy, hoppy and absurdly drinkable beer at the excellent Hop bar in Milan where ten Italian craft beers are on tap.  I'd flagged it on our first visit, thinking a Kölsch wouldn't be interesting and we had limited time, but after reading that it had done extremely well in the recent Italian craft beer awards I just had to have a go at it!  Billed as a Kölsch but, in reality, nothing of the sort (and yes, I've drunk lots of Kölsch in Köln so I know what I'm on about!), this is a lovely, fresh, hazy and very hoppy (in a European grassy, juicy and lemony way) brew with loads of character, taste and drinkability. 

It's malty backbone is firm and meaty but it's the tangy, zesty and deliciously moreish hops that I loved and, had we not been flying back and I not been driving later, I'd have seriously considered making it a session in there!  I don't know what hops are in the beer - although I suspect Styrians are in the mix somewhere - but it's certainly one of the most beguilingly drinkable beers I've had for a very long time and proves the point that hops don't have to be American to be citrussy and downright lupulicious.

In the same bar we sampled Lambrate Ligera which is another beer not really living up to it's billing, this one is claimed to be an American pale ale, but who cares about style guidelines (certainly not me!) when a beer's this good?  A lovely mellow and inviting brew, this amber ale has a deliciously juicy malt flavour overlain by leafy and citrussy hops with hints of roses, citrus and resin.  Bitter in the aftertaste yet still malty and with a lingering, tangy hop finish, this is good stuff and yet more proof that Italian craft brewers are really getting their act together.

Most English beers don't do a lot for me these days as the lack of hops, inspiration and downright flavour bores me to death ("Not another bland pale beer with a very vague suggestion of citrus? Yes, afraid so...") but Brass Monkey Capucin had something extra about it, something that showed the brewer knew what he was doing and had wanted to create a tasty, spicily hoppy brew and not just some identikit golden fluid.  We scooped it in the Crescent, Salford, where it showed off it's extremely pale colour and amazingly fragrant aroma of hops, fruit and maltiness which translated through into the flavour which had an increasingly bitter, hoppy yet still fruity, grainy and well-integrated taste.  Good stuff, and even more amazing when you consider that this brewery is very new indeed... this bodes well for the future.

Other excellent beers drunk in January...

Starting in Milan, then... the only brew we managed to try from Baüscia, Adi was a pale ale with a mere 4.5% ABV so I didn't expect too much, but it surprised me with plenty of lemony, hoppy character with a great drinkability akin to a modern British golden ale and a good flowery, bitter and citrussy finish plus a hint of maltiness.  BABB's Regina Nera (brewed as a house beer for the Fermento bar) was a deep red stout possessing a luscious liquorice, roast grain and malty aroma which followed through to the flavour with some additional honeycomb, bitterness and treacle toffee - very complex and tasty stuff. 

Maltovivo Noscia was scooped from a 75cl bottle purchased at the superb A Tutta Birra shop and, although said to be an IIPA, in reality it was more of an American Pale Ale with a toffee malt body and enough citrussy, bitter and hoppy tastes to make it serious.  Henquet Natalissia, scored in the amazing BQ bar, was deep amber with a rich maltiness and a bizarre cinder toffee and toasted flavour which I really enjoyed and, it must be said, isn't my usual thing at all!

Moving back to the UK, Festival Ruby was the best of the beers I've had from that brewery to date with a fruity, bitter and malty flavour, all in balance, then some liquorice and fruit in the very malty finish.  It wouldn't be beer of the month without a Pictish beer, so here it is; Mount Rainier was a strange beer with a very grassy hop taste with hints of coconut which I thought gave a pretty unique and almost European flavour despite the hops being American! 

A couple of stouts to finish, then... Dunham Massey Porter was enjoyed in the New Oxford in Salford and was, in my opinion, more of a stout with all the rich roasted barley tastes that suggests and a nutty, burnt malt and bitter finish.  Finally, Ascot Anastasia's Exile was a huge rich chocolate monster of a stout with some hops peeping over the cocoa parapet yet finished with a delicious plain chocolate, roast grain and barley finish; lovely stuff, bottle-conditioned (see, it can be done properly!) from the amazing Grove Garage.

My beers of the month for 2008 are to be found here, but if you can't be arsed to look then here's a quick summary of them :

  • January 2008 : Del Borgo ReAle Extra

  • February 2008 : Hubertus Kácov Kvasnicové 12°

  • March 2008 : Elgoods Black Dog Mild

  • April 2008 : Oakham Haka

  • May 2008 : Weyerbacher Double Simcoe IPA

  • June 2008 : Green Flash West Coast IPA

  • July 2008 : Oakham Endless Summer

  • August 2008 : Goose Eye Chinook Blonde

  • September 2008 : Pictish Centennial

  • October 2008 : Phoenix White Monk

  • November 2008 : Pivovarský Dům Štěpán světlý ležák

  • December 2008 : Pictish Sauvin Blanc

With my overall champion beer of the year being the amazing Green Flash IPA.

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