Updates to Our Lists & Guides

Psst! Up there ↑ in the top navigation bar there are quite a few interesting bits and pieces.

That’s where we keep pages (permanent) as opposed to posts (transitory) and under ‘Guides and Lists’ you’ll find things like links to local pub guides around the blogoshire and advice on how to go about becoming a fully-fledged beer geek.

But we really just wanted to flag that we’ve made added a new page with advice on buying gifts for beer lovers, ready for Christmas 2014.

Illustration: red coffee cup.

Bewildered by Coffee

Our experience in a smart independent coffee shop in Falmouth this weekend gave us a glimpse into how many people must feel when they enter a craft beer bar.

We like coffee, but (as with whisky, wine, cheese) we don’t know very much, having not chosen to expend any mental energy reading on the subject, or forcing ourselves to concentrate as we consume. We’ve picked up a few nuggets of folk knowledge here and there, and think we can spot a bad cup of coffee in the wild, but that’s about it.

Walking through the door of Espressini Dulce on Arwenack Street, we were confronted by… well, not much. There was a blackboard with descriptions of four varieties of coffee and, once it had been pointed out to us, a minimalist list of methods of preparation –espresso, cortado, and so on.

We didn’t know what to do — what was the difference between the varieties of coffee? Would we be laughed out of the place for drinking anything other than espresso? So we just stood there, as if our operating systems had crashed.

Noticing our confusion, the chap behind the counter offered assistance, and we confessed our ignorance. He explained how the top two blends were available for espresso; and described their respective flavours with references to chocolate and red berries.

After all that, we went for one of each, cortado-style: here, we realised, was a chance for our first ever comparative coffee tasting experience!

And they both tasted… really nice. We could tell they were different, but didn’t detect chocolate, berries or smoke. Just coffee. Coffee with hints of coffee, and underlying coffee notes.

Yes, for a brief moment, we were those people beer geeks roll their eyes at: “It all tastes like beer to me — what do people normally have?”

News, Nuggets & Longreads 18/10/2014

Pint of beer illustration.

“Ha ha, bacon, ha ha, all the bacon, ha ha, it’s funny how people keep mentioning bacon! Bacon o’clock! Hahahahahahahaha! BACON! Hrr, hrr. Bacon. Yeah. Bacon.” Yeah, hilarious. Here are some links.

→ A potentially interesting development: Justin Mason and Ed Razzall have been working together on a beer guide for East Anglia.

→ Ten Inch Wheeler, who is handy with words as he is with a camera, recounts a pub crawl from East London to Marylebone:

Telegraph Man wants to know if Yorkshire will go for devolution if Scotland separates. A pure Bradford boom-voice declares that they should have marched on Downing Street after the end of the Tour De France. Big laughs.

→ Finding fresh things to say about familiar territory, and fresh ways to express it, the ever-readable Beer Nut explores Bamberg and the surrounding area in several instalments: 1 | 2 | 3

→ Saved to Pocket: long-running technology magazine Wired has a piece on exactly how Halve Maan plan to run a pipeline for beer under the medieval heritage-protected city of Bruges.

→ Martyn ‘Zythophile’ Cornell marked yesterday’s 200th anniversary of London’s Great Beer Flood by reminding us, first, that a lot of the stories are simply made up, and, secondly, that real people really died.

→ We love reading J. Kenji López-Alt’s painstaking ‘Food Lab’ articles at Serious Eats this cassoulet recipe, based on extensive research, is great. Is there a beer equivalent of his work? Someone should get on that, if not.

Special supplement

Purely for the record, and in case you missed them, this week’s controversies, contrived or otherwise:

CAMRA’s sexist leaflet: original petition | commentary by Rowan Molyneux, with extensive discussion | commentary by It Comes in Pints?  Part 1 and Part 2 | commentary by Pete Brown | and one of several heated discussions on Facebook.

→ Just as the Great British Beer Festival has tended to do, the Independent Manchester Beer Convention has triggered a round of soul-searching and (mostly civilised) argument: Phil didn’t go because he didn’t like the look of it; Tandleman agreed with some of Phil’s observations, but generally gave IndyMan the thumbs-up; Richard at the Beercast wondered whether they might not both have a point about elitism; and Emma at Crema’s Beer Odyssey gave voice to the irritation of dedicated IndyMänner.

→ Over the Atlantic, there’s been a brouhaha over so-called ‘pay-to-play’ — that is, bigger breweries bribing their way on the counters of bars at the expense of smaller breweries. The best summary, with links out, is Jeff Alworth’s — part 1 and part 2. (Beer geeks love a conspiracy theory.)

→ And, finally, GQ fished for web traffic by giving chef David Chang to have a pop at craft beer. Beer geeks were outraged, as was the intention. GQ fished for a bit more attention by letting Brooklyn’s brewmaster Garrett Oliver respond the next day. Annoying as this kind of contrived ‘Brad slams Angelina’s ex’ nonsense is, there’s no denying Oliver’s rhetorical talents — his piece is very funny.

Brew Britannia Business

→ Aaron Stein at Whatchudrinkin? has written a few posts referencing Brew Britannia, and, in particular, comparing the UK and US experience, including this one about ‘rich old dudes’.

→ And Beer writer Tim Hampson says…

London craft porters.

Porter Tasting: Batch 4 — Taste of London

The purpose of this exercise, for those who missed the previous posts, is to find a beer that suits us, with a view to selecting finalists for a ‘taste-off’ before buying a case to see us through the winter. It’s not ‘the best’ but something much more floaty and subjective.

In recent years, a distinctive London craft beer character seems to have emerged, and the four porters we tasted this time all had it, to one degree or another.

It’s a particular kind of raw grassiness which is obvious, first, in the aroma — hay, dried herbs, dusty pot pourri — and then in a flavour which makes us think of the effect of drinking orange juice after cleaning your teeth.

At a guess, we’d say it’s down to a particular approach to dry-hopping, perhaps combined with characteristics of water and/or water treatments. Perhaps the close relationships between London brewers — shared kit, staff, techniques and ingredients — also contributes to the family resemblance between their beers.

At any rate, it’s so distinctive that we’re beginning to suspect we could identify blind, say, six times out of ten, beer from a London craft brewer. (Definition 2.)

It’s not something we have yet really acquired a taste for, but we know from ratings websites, Twitter and blog posts that other people really and sincerely enjoy it (they don’t have ‘duff palates’) and that’s rather nice: a return to regional distinctiveness in beer.

As far as we’re concerned, if there’s an end game in this ‘alternative beer revolution’, it’s that there should be more beers around that some people love and other people hate, rather than a mess of all-too-similar beers that no-one much objects to.

The beers

We tasted the folllowing beers at pantry-temperature (cool, but not cold) using the same glasses as for previous batches.

  • Anspach & Hobday Table Porter (2.8%/£3.40/330ml/Beer Merchants)
  • Anspach & Hobday ‘The Porter’ (6.7%/£3.50/330ml/Beer Merchants)
  • Beavertown Smog Rocket (5.4%/£2.80/330ml can/Ales By Mail)
  • Kernel Export India Porter (Columbus) (5.8%/£3.15/330ml/Ales By Mail)

This isn’t the first time we’ve tried Anspach & Hobday’s The Porter. Back then, we found it ‘classical’, which is to say smooth, clean, and without sharp edges. The beer we drank this week, by contrast, was challenging, complex, and a little lacking in finish. It poured like oil, threatening headlessness until a steady, off-white crema emerged from the body of the beer as it settled. Between us, we picked up just a touch of peatiness; a whiff of that Harvey’s Imperial Stout sweet-manure thing (dialled way down, but definitely there); and, at the core, something with the body and flavour of a chocolate milkshake. We didn’t dislike it, and we certainly found it interesting, but it’s not one for quaffing every night in front of the telly. There’s no ‘wow’, so it’s not a contender, though we find ourselves intrigued.

Their Table Porter (which we actually drank first, because of its low strength) was, frankly, over-carbonated — not quite a gusher, but it thought about it. The head towered over the rim of the glass, carrying with it a lot of vegetal, sneeze-inducing leafiness. At first, with the head in the way, the beer seemed watery, but as it settled, we were delighted to find something creamy and full-bodied. Burnt brown sugar and toffee just about defeated an insistent, off-putting background note of stewed greens. Though it’s one of the more substantial low alcohol beers we’ve tasted — an achievement in its own right — it’s not the beer we’re looking for on this occasion, certainly didn’t make us say wow, and is not a contender.

Kernel Export India is a beer we’ve tried numerous times over the last few years and never really taken to, but people love it, and The Kernel more generally, so we felt we had to include it here for safe measure. It’s become a rather statesmanlike, steady beer — arguably part of the bedrock of the entire London scene, much-imitated and admired — but we still find the combination of high-pitched grapefruity hops and deep chocolate richness jarring. It certainly has wow factor, but the wrong sort — it’s just not our kind of thing. (Knowing this might be controversial, we actually tasted a second bottle on another occasion, and our view didn’t change.) It’s not a contender.

After all that, Beavertown Smog Rocket actually seemed positively mainstream — not a million miles from Fuller’s London Porter, clean and relatively easy-going. It had the London taste, yes, but reined in, and balanced with plenty of luscious sweetness and rounded orange-peel notes. On the chocolate-coffee axis, Smog Rocket edges towards coffee — specifically instant coffee cut with condensed milk. (Nicer than it sounds — think coffee cake.) It’s perhaps a touch thin but we liked that it didn’t demand all of our attention, and agreed that having a shelf-full would be no bad thing. It almost had wow factor, and so, sod it, it’s a contender, but how will it fare in close comparison to the big boys?

You can vote for your own favourite porters in this Beer O’Clock Show poll.

UPDATED 12:48 17/10/2014 to add explicit notes on ‘wow factor’, as per comments below.

That Sexist CAMRA Leaflet

Earlier this week, Rowan Molyneux flagged the existence of a Campaign for Real Ale leaflet designed to help recruit young members but which uses women merely as decoration.

We can’t say we were outraged by it, but we were certainly dismayed. CAMRA, like it or not, is these days an organisation of similar status to the National Trust or the RSPB, and we can’t imagine either of them doing anything so crass.

The main problem is that it confirms what many people suspect: that, despite making some of the right noises, behind the scenes, CAMRA isn’t fully committed to the idea of making the Campaign more welcoming to women, or at least hasn’t given it much more thought than you might expect from Alan Partridge or David Brent.

If you can’t see why the image on the leaflet is problematic, try to imagine them ever using an image of a bloke in an equivalent costume, in a similar pose.

We’ve turned off comments on this post to encourage people to have their say over at Rowan’s, where an interesting discussion is ongoing, and where there are updates on the withdrawal of the leaflet.

Writing about beer and pubs since 2007