On stash-busting in beer, yarn and books

For the past few years I’ve made a serious effort to put a dent in my stash. My stash of yarn.

I’m a keen knitter, an occasional crocheter and a spinning dilettante and like a lot of crafters, I went through an initial stage of buying a lot of yarn. 

While I never quite hit SABLE (Stash Acquired Beyond Life Expectancy) at one point I definitely had enough to see me through five years, and I was still buying more.

We don’t really hoard beer, and we do it even less since moving to Bristol. This is partly because we drank all of our stash prior to the move from Cornwall, and also because in Bristol, until lockdown began, we had access to an enormous range of beer in pubs and just didn’t feel the need to carry high stocks at home. 

However, we have had special bottles that feel too precious to drink, or for which it never felt like the right time.

So there are some parallels with the approach to yarn – specifically that sense of not wanting to knit/drink what you have, because it’s either not exactly what you want, or because it’s too precious to use up.

Yarn, like beer, might be a limited edition – you may never be able to get that exact same colour/recipe again.

Of course, in some ways stash-busting yarn and beer are very different.

Once you’ve drunk a beer, it’s gone, whereas the yarn lives on in what you knit from it.

And some beers might improve with age (we’ve written more about that here) whereas yarn will not. 

I joined a couple of groups on Ravelry, the social website for knitters, that are specifically focused on helping people use up their yarn stash. It works by setting challenges which you opt in to depending on which approaches suit you best.

The hardcore go for ‘cold sheeping’, which is all about measuring the amount of time since your last yarn purchase. More successful in my case have been challenges focused on using up a certain yardage in a certain time, or setting yourself a three-out, one-in limit  – play with the toys you’ve got before you buy a new one.

My favourite is a challenge where you designate some specific items of stash that need to be used by the end of the year or you have to give them away. This also works really well for books – you know, the ones you’re definitely going to get round to reading some day, but which just clutter the house for decades on end.

And this can definitely also apply to beer, given that most of it doesn’t age especially well. 

Some of the mantras apply to both, too. “Shop the stash!”; “You can always buy more when you’ve used what you’ve got!”; “You can’t take it with you!”

Next time: why indie dyers are like small craft beer producers.

The Session – quarantine edition: where we are at

Al of Fuggled has revived the Session, the monthly beer blogging jamboree that sputtered to a halt more than a year ago.

He’s asking us to think about our drinking habits in this weird, publess age – are we drinking more? Less? When? And what?

At first, it seemed some version of normality might be possible. The Drapers Arms was open, sort of, selling takeaway beer, and we could still ‘pop in’ to Bottles & Books, our local craft beer shop. (Remember popping into places?)

At the same time, we were also conscious of wanting to do something to show a bit of solidarity with local breweries, so we ordered a couple of cases of cans from Moor. When it arrived, we wondered if we ought to disinfect the boxes, or leave them for a couple of days. We wiped them down, washed our hands, fretted.

Needing little treats to get us through each day, we started drinking on more days of the week. But because beer was a bit of a pain to acquire, we drank less of it overall. One or two six times a week rather than two or three sessions over the course of the weekend.

Eventually, the Drapers closed for good, and Bottles & Books went delivery only, and our Twitter timeline began to fill with tempting offers and pleas: “Support us! Support them! Do your bit!”

We ordered cans from Thornbridge (excellent), more from Moor, more from Thornbridge, more from Moor.

As the situation got more serious, our brains adjusted – great things, brains – and the fight or flight panic passed, and with it the need for daily treats.

The regular dry days returned but the big weekend sessions didn’t.

So, overall, we’re drinking less, but savouring what we drink all the more.

Probably just as well, really, as hangovers and the depressive effects of alcohol aren’t all that helpful when everything else is so bleak.

One little ritual that has emerged, though, is a Sunday night homage to the Drapers: cheddar cheese, pickles, biscuits and ale, face to face over the table with the TV off. It’s mostly fun, mostly a pleasure, but with a bitter aftertaste.

Blackberries in beer: Mûre Tilquin

Blackberries are my absolute favourite fruit. I’m borderline obsessed with them from about May onwards, watching out for how they’re developing, whether my usual favourite spots are looking good.

I have Strong Opinions about them, too. For example, I strongly believe that urban blackberries are better than rural ones and that the best of all come from Walthamstow Marshes; should have Protected Designation of Origin status; and ought to be the subject of lengthy essays about terroir.

So when I came across Mûre Tilquin, which is a lambic with 260g blackberries per litre, at our local beer shop, Bottles & Books, I had to give it a go, even at a whopping £25 for a 75cl bottle.

It was marked 2018-19 with a science-fiction best before date of 2029.

It’s comforting to have this kind of ‘special beer’ in the stash – something that you know will be interesting, at least: IN CASE OF UNEXPECTED GLOOM, POP CORK. And, well, that moment came at the weekend.

There’s a fun bit of additional ceremony when we open this kind of beer because as well as drinking it, we need to take photos. What if it’s amazing and we didn’t? Can you imagine?

Cage off, It opened with a threatening gunshot pop and pushed back hard against the seal. Would it gush? No, the fizz was assertive but not out of control.

Bottle and glass. Foam close up.

It poured a pretty, deep rose colour, and a pungent smell of brambles on the farm was noticeable from half a metre away.

It was, as you’d expect, rather sour. There was also an absence of sweetness and the finish was extremely dry, although not quite as mouth-puckering as most beers from Cantillon.

There was a strong oakiness but I didn’t pick up any blackberry. If someone had given me this blind, I don’t think I’d have even thought of my favourite fruit in passing. In fact, I might not have thought there was any fruit in it at all.

I enjoyed it anyway, though, over the course of hours, mostly because it reminded me of drinking Tilquin gueuze in Chez Moeder Lambic in Brussels.

In one of our very earliest blog posts, we wondered why you don’t see more blackberry beers, and reviewed a few that we had found.

I’ve often returned to that thought, particularly when it comes to lambic – if raspberries, then why not blackberries?

Having now added this data point, I’m more convinced of an answer we’ve received in the past: they ferment out too fully to retain any flavour.

But if you’re a brewer, pro or at home, who has managed to make a blackberry beer that proves otherwise, I’d love to know more.

Beers salvaged from the junk shop shelf

On our last trip out, in February, we visited Stroud for the day. That’s where, in a jumbled-up junk shop, we found a collection of grubby old beer bottles, still full, and for sale at £2 each.

We bought a selection based on (a) ignoring royal wedding and jubilee beers and (b) aiming for breweries that seemed more interesting to us.

  • Greene King Audit Barley Wine
  • Charles Wells Old Bedford Ale
  • Banks Old Ale

Then we got home and drank them.

Ever since our experience with Adnams Tally Ho, and having discussed the issue with Patrick Dawson, we’ve been committed to drinking these ancient beers when we come across them.

They rarely improve with age, or ever gain any particular cash value, but every now and then, one is a wonder.

In this set, all of which we reckon date from around 1980, give or take, there were two good ‘uns and, sadly, one total dud – not a bad strike rate.

Greene King Audit Barley Wine was the winner. It reminded us of Harvey’s Prince of Denmark – a mellower, milder take on imperial stout. On opening, there was a very slight hiss. It produced loose bubbles and barely held a head. There was berry, sherry, leather and… cheese? That makes it sound more complex than it was. Overall, it was pleasant, boosted by the sheer timebending thrill of consuming something bottled when we were babies.

Charles Wells Old Bedford Ale was, unfortunately, flat. From its tiny bottle, it produced what looked like two glasses of cheap brown cooking sherry. The first taste confirmed it: this beer didn’t survive the battle. The overwhelming flavour was, well, water, with a background whisper of burnt sugar and cloves.

Finally, the one we were most excited about: Banks Old Ale, with an OG of c.1092. It hissed, gave us brief bubbles, and then left us with two egg-cup’s-worth of flat black oil. It was salty, rich, full of prune syrup and plum. We wanted just a little more.

In conclusion, £6 for the pleasure of drinking two decent old beers that haven’t been produced in decades seems worthwhile. It’s certainly cheaper than a session at Kulminator, with a similar hit rate.

And you know what? The nip bottle needs to make a comeback.

Obadiah Poundage: instructive, refreshingly accessible

American brewery Goose Island has collaborated with beer historian Ron Pattinson, veteran London brewer Derek Prentice and the Wimbledon Brewery to produce what it reckons is the most accurate recreation of a 19th century London porter yet.

We’ve known this beer was in the pipeline for a while, not least because Goose Island’s Mike Siegel emailed us back in February asking for help finding an illustration of porter vats to be used in the promo video.

As with the stock ale produced by the same team a few years back, we were excited to try it and kept a close eye on the news. When Mike emailed last week to say it was on sale via Beer Hawk, we snapped up three 500ml bottles at £8 each, plus postage.

A quick note: Goose Island is owned by AB-InBev; so is Beer Hawk. That, along with the price, might give some principled beer geeks reason to hold off. And, further disclosure: we’ve corresponded with Mike Siegel on and off for years, we know Ron Pattinson fairly well, and someone from Beer Hawk subscribes to our Patreon.

For our part, we don’t draw a hard line re: AB and would point to this as an example of where the resources big beer is able to bring to the table pays off for curious consumers. That’s a thought echoed by Ron Pattinson in an email responding to a question from us – why work with Goose Island?

A totally honest assessment is: because they pay me cash money and pay for a load of travel. Financially, it’s one of the few collaborations that make any sense for me. It’s also a case of them being able to afford what are very expensive projects with little chance of making much of a profit on the beer. I’m pretty sure they lost money on Brewery Yard. We’ve been collaborating for about five years and have only managed two beers so far. Most small breweries couldn’t justify the effort and time for pretty much no financial return… In many ways it’s a breath of fresh air working with a large brewery. They expect to have to pay for my services. Something smaller brewers often neglect… Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had very good experiences with some very small breweries. Pretty Things and Zebulon, for example. Others really take the piss.

In this case, those resources paid for authentic brown malt kilned over hornbeam wood by Valley Malt of Massachusetts, and the wherewithal to age for a year one of the two beers blended to create the final product.

After all that effort, it only seemed fair to drink it from the oldest beer glass in the cupboard, c.1930s, and to give it our full attention.

It had fairly high carbonation but certainly not any ‘fizz’ and gave off a musty, leathery stink immediately on opening. It was deep red rather than black.

First gulps, dominated by the funky aroma of Brettanomyces, revealed a lighter body than many modern porters, despite the 6.3% alcohol by volume, and a distinct dryness.

First reactions: Ray liked it, Jess didn’t.

“Tastes like Bretted water,” was her gut response.

Ray found more to enjoy, picking up on a sort of nutmeg spiciness and more tobacco and leather.

The key takeaway, if we accept the authenticity of this recreation, is that 19th century porter wasn’t as madly challenging as we might sometimes imagine. It was an everyday drink, not an ‘extreme beer’.

As long as you’re somewhat used to Brettanomyces, it’s a refreshing, lively, fairly easy-drinking beer – not sour, heavy or sickly.

If you’re interested in historic beer, you will want to try it if you can. Having said that, we reckon you could get about 90% of the way there by blending your favourite strong porter with Orval.

What we’d really like is for other brewers to taste this and think, oh, easy – I can do that. We’d be delighted to come across more dark beers with Brettanomyces, historically accurate or not, especially if they were presented without hoo-ha, by the pint, in normal pubs.