Enough already with the crystal malt

Two years ago, I didn’t know what crystal malt was. Now I can’t escape the bloody stuff.

Crystal malt is dark, but not black, and kilned with the express purpose of giving beers colour and sweetness. Many great ales use it in moderation. Unfortunately, as we discovered whilst brewing our own beers, too much of the stuff can overpower a beer and leave it tasting rather sickly, because crystal malt has some sugars that can’t be fermented.

And sickly is how I’ve found a few microbrewed beers recently, mostly, I think, because they’ve overdone the crystal. The giveaway flavour is a kind of burnt, treacley, toffee-like, musty taste. Beers that boast “massive malt flavours” on their somewhat amateurish labels seem to be the worst afflicted.

The over-use of crystal malt is just as likely to unbalance a beer as that other ingredient which brewers are currently adding in careless handfuls — American citrus hops — only it’s harder to spot.

Time for a bit of tasteful restraint with both, I reckon.


Wetherspoons suffer from smoking ban?

Marketing magazine has a good piece this week on the fortunes of the Wetherspoons pub chain. Their sales have dropped 13 per cent to £28.5m in the six months to the end of January, apparently.

They’re blaming the smoking ban and rising energy costs — some of those barn-like pubs are costly to heat, it seems. The article also suggests that the smoking ban has hit them because poorer people smoke more, and are more likely to drink at Wetherspoons because it’s cheap.

Marketing mag then goes on to ask to brand experts to advise on how the chain can turn around its fortunes. Mike Taylor of Monkey Communications hits the nail on the head:

Wetherspoon is now a vernacular for a certain type of pub. Definitely not a bad pub, but maybe not one for “people like me”.

Dave Clements of McCann Erickson is a bit less astute in his comments:

[Wetherspoons] championing of real ale may warrant an award, but it has hardly increased footfall. It may have attracted a mid-market audience, but it is exactly those people who can’t imagine enjoying a pint without a cigarette.

Eh!? That’s certainly not true in our experience. In fact, like your wine snobs, real ale types tend to be rightly sniffy about anything that interferes with their appreciation of the flavour of the beer.

Maybe we’re being hopeful, but surely the downturn in Wetherspoons fortunes has something to do with another story in the same issue of the magazine — Tesco Finest (the supermarket’s “premium brand”) has just become the UK’s biggest grocery brand with sales of 1.2bn. People — even people without wads of cash — are getting a little but fussier these days.

Increased costs of GBBF cause CAMRA to make a loss

gbbf.jpgThis month’s “What’s Brewing” contains the CAMRA financial statements, showing an operating loss of £71K compared to an operating profit of £44K last year. Net current liabilities are also up considerably.

Slightly concerned about the financial position of the organisation, I eventually found some commentary in “Beer”, the other paper that comes out with What’s Brewing. Apparently, the loss is due to not meeting income targets from the Great British Beer Festival. The commentary from the chair, Paula Waters, says that:

…we had to experiment with the amount of beer we bought in in order to judge how much we will require in future…we now know what we need to do to make the event work in 2008 with lower costs and the right amount of beer”

Interesting. I suppose it’s all well and good us members making demands about what the GBBF should contain, but we do need to remember that this is one of the premier sources of income for CAMRA. It’s oviously a fine balance to get enough beers to appeal to the hardened tickers yet not have too much left over at the end.

Personally, I wouldn’t mind a smaller selection, particularly if it was kept better. Let’s face it, even if you sat there from opening day to closing day and had a liver of iron, you’d never get through it all. Other members may disagree.

Sparklers – what’s the fuss about then?

sparklers.jpgOne of the potential downsides to York as a drinking destination is the universal use of sparklers.  I say potential, as the sparkler has its vociferous defenders as well as its opponents.

A sparkler is a little plastic device that sits on the end of the pump and has lots of little holes, to create tiny little gas bubbles as your pint is dispensed.  You end up with a creamy head that takes ages to settle.

We’ve read lots of theories on this – that it alters the taste as well as the mouthfeel; that “northern” beers are formulated to be served like this and therefore alway should be; that sparkled beers are quicker to drink. So we thought we’d try a quasi-scientific test and compare the same beer with the two different methods.

The test brew was “Old Boy” from the Oldershaw brewery in Grantham, the place was the Yorkshire Terrier on Stonegate.   We asked for a half with a sparkler and a half without.  The barmaid was perfectly happy to do this, by the way.

Well, the two looked totally different, as we hope can be seen from the photo.  That’s not particularly surprising.  The taste was also different.  The sparkled version had a creamier mouthfeel and a more “muffled” flavour.  The unsparkled version was rawer — you could say less balanced — but the malt and hop mix hit you quicker.

We both preferred the non-sparkled version, hands down — it just seemed a lot more exciting.  And as a result, it got drunk quicker…

That said, it wasn’t so convincing a test as to make us ask for the sparkler to be removed every time.  And I have to say that late that day I had a lovely sparkled half of Theakston’s Old Peculiar, which I’ve never really enjoyed before in its “raw” state.  So, I wouldn’t be in a hurry to say that non-sparkled beer was “better” than sparkled beer across the board.

It’s probably partly a question of what you’re used to, as much as anything else.


First they came for the Special Brew…part two

It seems I spoke too soon when I wrote about Westminster council’s scheme to ban strong lagers and ciders from off-licences in certain spots.

I should point out that this is a voluntary scheme, not the result of any legislation, and that it is localised to several areas within Westminster which are particularly known for “street-drinkers”.

The Conservative party announced yesterday that if they come to power they would be seeking to raise taxes on high strength beer and cider, and also alcopops.

As I said in my original post, and as the commentators added, your average alkie will just switch to wine or whatever else gives you more bang for your buck.

Meanwhile, some of us have Imperial Stout and Belgian triple habits to maintain…For wanting to drink these, I am not a “sensible drinker” in the eyes of the Tories. But as a young(ish) woman, I probably shouldn’t be drinking at all, according to them — the reason for the attack on alcopops is that these are “targeted primarily at young women”. Young women drinking? Next they’ll be getting jobs and having sex.