What’s in a name?

There’s a common stereotype that real ales have silly names. You can see this stereotype in action in Viz‘s “Real Ale Twats” sketches kindly uploaded by Stonch back in September.

Actually, this isn’t as true today as it used to be — I was looking through a couple of festival programmes recently, and the truly daft names were few and far between.

But look hard enough and you can still find the Old StoatWobblers, Tiddly Vicars, and the famous Piddle in the Wind. You can groan at terrible puns like “Santa’s Claws”, and “Smoking – then they bandit”. Then there are the “ha-ha, aren’t we being politically incorrect” names such as “Dry hopped Naked Ladies” and “Top Totty”, usually with a highly amusing pump clip too. Very seaside postcard.

Why do brewers go to all that effort to produce what might be a good brew and then cheapen it with a lousy name? I’ve thought of three possible reasons;

  1. they think it appeals to the sense of humour of the average real ale fan
  2. it’s a way of catching the eye at a beer festival, when there are hundreds of others to choose from
  3. actually, the beer isn’t very good, but they’re hoping to sell it on its novelty value.

There might be something in (1) but it’s based on a generalisation which doesn’t hold true. I’m sure I’m not the only real ale fan to find silly names a bit tacky and an insult to my sense of humour. So, by extension, (2) doesn’t work for me either. It’s not that I won’t drink a beer such as “Cunning Stunt” because of the name, but I’m more likely to pick something with a sensible name and label, that suggests quality and integrity. This is because I’ve now started to believe in option (3) and associate stupid names with amateur gimmicks, and thus don’t expect the beer to be any good.

Incidentally, while “researching” this, I found an old article (from August 2003) on the subject. It makes pretty much the same points as above:

‘There are too many rather suggestive names in real ale, which I don’t think does the industry much good,” said Steve Reynolds, marketing director at Springhead brewery.

Do these silly, sexist or crude names actually appeal to *anyone*? Or am I just a prudish, po-faced stormtrooper of political correctness…?

N.B. I’ve never had any of the beers mentioned above — they might taste great!


The Greenwich Union – on the up again

Publicity photo of meantime coffee stoutTo Greenwich then, to visit the Union again. We haven’t been there much recently, maybe once every six months, as we weren’t too impressed with the service the last couple of times, and Greenwich is a bit of a hike from our gaff.

However, we are delighted to report that the Union is on top form at the moment, and well worth a visit. More than a couple of visits a year, in our case. Especially because Meantime always seem to be tinkering with their recipes, so the beers never taste quite the same from one visit to the next.

For the uninitiated, the Union in Greenwich is the main outlet for Meantime’s beers. Meantime seems to divide beer lovers; on the one hand, it has many fans, on the other hand, the fact that it serves most of its beers in keg form makes it a no-no amongst hard-core CAMRA types those who feel that cask is the best form of serving beers. [See comments]

After today’s visit, we would recommend a visit even if you despise Meantime beers. You can find excellent and well-priced food, plus a good range of bottled beers from other brewers. They’ve obviously taken on board previous negative comments about the service on sites such as Beer in the Evening — service was excellent, with bar staff keen to plug the Meantime beers, offer tastings and advice and generally look after the punters.

But onto the beers. The specials on today were a Strawberry beer, and a stout, which was called something like London Single Stout. The strawberry was very pleasant – not quite the thing for the bleak midwinter, but refreshing and fruity. The London Single Stout was definitely streets ahead of the Extra Dry Stout, reviewed here in May by Stonch, and here by us. It’s not too fizzy, it has a lovely big body with all sorts of vanilla and coffee flavours. Very impressive for 4.5%.

We also thought that the Wheatbeer and Raspberry beers had improved. These are also produced in “Grand Cru” versions in bottles, and we wondered whether this had helped improve the quality of the “base” product. The wheat tasted of bananas, as expected, but also had a fresh hop finish. The Raspberry has got much lighter over the years (it’s barely red at all now) but delivers a beautifully balanced fruit flavour. Unusually for a fruit beer, you can also taste the malt and hops. Clever stuff.

The Pale Ale tasted like a cleaner, more sparkling version of Young’s bitter. The Pilsener is now only available in bottles, but is absolutely delicious – it tastes herby and spritzy. To finish, we had a Chocolate beer and a Coffee beer (also in bottles). They’re both marvellously thick and creamy; the coffee porter is probably more complex, but it would be difficult to pick a favourite from the two.

Weirdly, they didn’t have any Winter Time, and the bar staff were as confused as us about why not.

Small town blues

bridgwater.jpgI’ve just come back from my home town (Bridgwater, in Somerset) where the pubs are having something of a crisis. For years, it’s been one of those towns that claims to have more pubs per head than any other. I don’t know if that’s true, but there are a lot of pubs. And, for almost as many years, those pubs have managed to make their way, despite the heavy competition.

Sadly, in recent years, a couple of big (and, crucially, cheap) chain pubs have opened in the town centre, leaving many of the smaller “locals” all but empty, even on Boxing Day (traditionally a very busy day).

Big business and the council are partly to blame here, but I have to say that some of the pubs are doing themselves no favours. In the face of stiff competition, they should be rising to the challenge and making the local the place to be. Instead, the pub nearest my parents house has decided that:

1. the best way to make the pub feel more lively is to put Radio 1 on at full volume and turn off the juke box

2. they’re too depressed to greet people when they enter the pub, or smile at them during service

3. it doesn’t matter if the excellent local bitter — Butcombe, on which more later — is stale or off

4. there’s no need to wash the glasses

5. that currying favour with five grumpy regulars is more important than making newcomers feel welcome.

This is typical, sadly. So, in my home town, the local pubs are now less friendly, more expensive, dirtier, less atmospheric, and have worse beer than Wetherspoons. And that’s saying something. My Dad, who has been drinking in Bridgwater pubs since he was old enough to lie to a barman about his age, got so depressed we had to leave.

I suspect that in Bridgwater, and many other towns across the UK, we’re going to see an end to the days when a population of 36,000 can support almost 200 pubs. Bad pubs are going to die. Cheap chain pubs will prosper. But good pubs — pubs that keep a small range of ales in good condition, which make their customers feel welcome, that create atmosphere, and that make you feel like a regular, or even a friend, when you’ve been twice in a month — will survive.

I’ll name names: the Bower Manor is a fairly unassuming restaurant/hotel, with a small bar. It, too, was quiet on Boxing Day, but the landlady was friendly; there was one fresh, well-kept real ale (Sharp’s Doom Bar — the best pint of this I’ve ever had); a roaring fire; and a Christmas Tree. It was hard to leave!

Oh, and I promised to say something about Butcombe Bitter: it’s a great beer. One of my favourites (my judgement being partly clouded by homesickness, I’ll admit). At its best, it’s very bitter, very satisfying, and slightly sulphurous on the nose. I can’t vouch for how it will taste if you see it on tap outside the West Country, but try a half and let me know what you think.


Beer & food matching at Christmas

christmas_beer_menu.jpgGarrett Oliver maintains that there are no foods that can’t be matched with beer. So I thought I’d have a go at matching beers to the different courses of the traditional Boak family Christmas.

I didn’t have the benefit of Mr Oliver’s advice while I was choosing the beers, but I can consult in retrospect, as I bought Bailey a copy of The Brewmaster’s Table for Christmas. We may put up a book review when we’ve finished, but we’re enjoying it immensely at the moment.

1. Grapefruit appetiser + Blanche de Namur

Why selected: Grapefruit was always going to be a challenge, especially when grilled with spices. Spices and citrus suggested a Belgian Wit to me. I went for Blanche de Namur as it’s one of the more subtle (some may say bland) of the Wits I’ve tried.

Garrett Oliver says: citrusy flavours work well with Wits.

The verdict: This worked very nicely, although I might go for a less subtle Wit next time. Incidentally, this beer goes fantastically well with orange-flavoured dark chocolate.

2. Roast Chestnut soup + Meantime London Porter

Why selected: I thought a nice roast porter should work with roast chestnuts (stunningly original there, eh?) and went for Meantime mostly because it comes in nice snazzy bottles, but also I remember it as being bitter and smoky, which was what I wanted.

Garrett Oliver says: “British porters are rich, elegant beers that… are capable of matching many more dishes than one might imagine” and lists scallops, chargrilled meat, Shepherd’s pie and subtle chocolate deserts.

Verdict: This would have worked if I hadn’t added sherry to the soup. It made the soup taste wonderfully Christmassy, but clashed with the porter. That’s my fault, rather than the porter’s.

3. Turkey (plus trimmings!) + La Chouffe Golden Ale

Why selected: Wasn’t really sure, but I felt that a good-bodied blonde Belgian (fnah fnah) was what I needed for the main course. I went for La Chouffe Golden Ale as I didn’t want anything too extreme, and I remembered this as having an understated but satisfying flavour.

Garrett Oliver Says: With turkey, Biere De Garde, dunkel, dubbel, Oktoberfest Marzen, American Amber Lager, Belgian Pale Ale. He also mentions La Chouffe (as a Saison) and suggests it with Indian food (really?), barbeque, Thai, duck, cassoulet and rustic sausages.

The verdict: It’s a lovely beer, but not quite right with the turkey. I think you could go two ways with this — either go for something more extreme (a good trippel?) or perhaps go something lighter, like Palm.

4. Christmas Pudding + Delirium Christmas beer

Why selected: We had Delirium Christmas a few weeks back, and were impressed with its dark, spicy warmth, and thought that it would go well with spicy & sweet Christmas food. At 10%, it should round off the meal nicely.

What Garrett Oliver says: Haven’t found anything on Christmas pudding, and I’m not sure how he’d classify the beer. He recommends Delirium Tremens with a whole host of savoury stuff, but DT is pretty different from the Christmas beer.

Verdict: Didn’t work. For some reason, the beer tasted completely different when up against the pudding. There may have been some differences between bottles (yesterday I served from a large bottle, and there are some that maintain that Belgian beers taste different in large bottles to small bottles). Or it may be that it just couldn’t cope with the mighty pudding, which had been maturing for a year and a month. The pudding brought out the worst in the beer — the carbonation (too much!), the comparatively light body, and the sweetness — without delivering the warm spicy kick I’d hoped for.

I don’t know what would work with the pudding — maybe a heavier Belgian (St Bernardus 12?) Think I have a way to go with this food and beer matching business.

By the way – hope you all had a lovely Christmas.


Mulled beer

London was an eery place yesterday. A thick fog descended, leaving visibility of only 10 metres in my neck of the woods. The streets were absolutely deserted – maybe people have left town, maybe those that are around were all hungover.

Anyway, I fled to my local for some signs of life. The beer wasn’t in great nick to I switched to mulled wine, which got me thinking. You have mulled wine, milled cider – why isn’t mulled beer popular?

I’ve had hot beer with spices in Poland, where it’s reasonably popular in the south in the winter. I seem to remember it being quite nice, especially a version with honey and ginger.  It obviously doesn’t taste much like beer, but it was very satisfying after a day trudging through snow.

A quick google search reveals this article on Realbeer.com about various historic mulled beers, and they sound extremely appealing.  I particularly like the bit about spicing them up to make homebrew more palatable, as we’ve got a fair bit of only-just drinkable homebrew in at the moment.

Has anyone mulled beer successfully and if so, what would they recommend? Does heating enhance or kill bitterness?