American beers

American Craft Beer Week


The gentlemen at Hop Talk have kindly reminded us that it’s American Craft Beer Week.

This set me thinking about (a) how much I’d like to be able to get hold of more American beer in the UK and (b) what a nice term “craft beer” is.

There’s something a bit sanctimonious about the term “real ale”. And it’s also a very vague term – you need to know a lot more to understand what qualifies a beer as “real”. “Craft beer”, on the otherhand, is a quieter term, and also tells you something specific about the beers it’s applied to – that they’re “crafted”. In other words, some care has gone into their design and manufacture.

I’m not bothered, especially, whether my beer comes from a cask; whether it’s bottle-conditioned; or even whether it’s ale.

All I ask is that it shows evidence of someone having thought about it, tasted it, and changed the recipe to make it taste nice or at least taste interesting. I’ve had plenty of “real ale” which didn’t have much craft in it (a load of pale malt, a ton of fuggles hops, hand-drawn label) and some which was, as a result, barely drinkable. Equally, I’ve had beers from very big breweries which indicate that someone, somewhere in the organisation, still cares about their craft.


Surviving in a beer desert

These days, it’s easier than ever to get a wide range of decent beer in bottles. There are supermarkets everywhere, almost all of whom have a range of drinkable beer. But what do you do if there isn’t a specialist beer shop in your area, and you’ve tried everything in every supermarket?

1. Make sure you try *all* the shops in your area. I only realised by chance that what I had thought for five years was an organic veg shop near my house was actually a pretty big organic supermarket, with the full range of Pitfield’s organic bottled beers.

2. Co-op have some interesting beer, including a couple from Freeminer. CO-OP’s “Strong Ale” (brewed for them by Thwaites) isn’t that strong, and is full of caramel, but I like it anyway.

3. My local Londis (see their virtual store, pictured above) stocks a really good range of St Austell’s beers, including the bottle-conditioned ones. They are independent retailers who can choose what to sell, so they sometimes have weird and interesting beers, depending on how interested the managers are.

4. Some nice beers don’t have nice bottles – they look like tramps’ brew. Those are the ones you’ll find in your local corner shop. Guinness Foreign Extra, a world classic imperial stout, is available in almost every grubby corner shop in London. There’s quite a trend, too, for importing czech lager from smaller breweries. Corner shops often have “Lobkowitz”, “Ostravar” and other beers which are less well known than Budvar. Most of them are nothing to write home about, but they’re often better than tins of Stella. Roger Protz rates Svyturys Ekstra from Lithuania. My local Turkish supermarket stocks the unpasteurised version, which is even better. But the label is in Lithuanian, and it’s in a fridge next to Polish tramp brews (Warka Strong and Okocim Mocne).

5. Take away from pubs. Lots of Young’s pubs in London offer take away bottles, in nifty carriers, at about £1.50 a bottle. Lots of other pubs are also “off-licensed”. Try asking.

6. Order from the internet. Onlyfinebeer hardly ever have the stuff I order in stock, but the fact that you can pay for beer online and have it turn up behind your wheelie bin a few days later is great. Or try CAMRA’s beer club.

7. Read about beer. This is also better for your health than drinking it. Michael Jackson’s 500 Great Beers and Roger Protz’s 300 Beer’s You Must Drink Before You Die! have lots of photos of exotic foreign beers in provocative poses.

8. Brew your own. Get a decent book (I like this one) and order some kit (from these nice people, for example) and give it a go. I can’t describe the joy when, after a year of tinkering and reading, we managed to brew something which tasted as good as a real beer from an actual shop. Not just passable, but really good. We’ll never be thirsty again.

beer reviews pubs

Meantime Extra Dry Stout

Publicity photo of meantime coffee stout

After a visit to the Greenwich Union, I can confirm that Meantime‘s seasonal “Extra Dry Stout” isn’t all that exciting, as Stonch has already said. It was too fizzy on the tongue, and a little thin-bodied.

I followed it up with a bottle of coffee stout, which has always been, and remains, incredible. They’d run out of chocolate stout, but there were enough chocolate flavours in this to do the job for me. Smooth, chewy, bitter…. just perfect. And Cooper’s Australian “Best Extra Stout” was just slightly better again. The extra 1.5/2% alcohol – they’re both just over 6%, while the dry stout is 4.5% – and the extra body really makes a difference in their impact.

But I trust Alastair Hook to get it right. I think we can expect to see the recipe tinkered with for some time to come. Meantime’s wheat beer was pretty dull at first, but has evolved into a thing of beauty (especially in its strong 6.5% grand cru incarnation).

I also suspect that we’ll see a “Taste the Difference” stout in Sainsbury’s in the next year or so, based on this recipe.

Beer history london

Pimlico Ale – update

We found another book that mentions Pimlico Ale, which I spoke about in this post a few days ago.

William Carey, in his weird, limited edition history of the area, published in 1986, writes:

The most popular ale drunk in London between 1570 and 1700 was ‘Pimlico Ale’ otherwise known as ‘Derby Red Cap’ from the pink tinge of its frothy head. At first produced only in Derbyshire at a farm location named “Pimlico”, it was brought to London in huge barrels down the Watling Way.

This is very interesting. What makes the head pink/red? Fruit could, but the head on some imperial stouts is reddish brown. More research needed – in books on Derbyshire, perhaps…?


How to order a beer in Spain

Bailey and I said we’d try to keep this blog positive, so I’m not going to start with a rant about the poor quality of Spanish lager. Tempted as I am.

Instead, some cultural notes on ordering beer. “Dos cervezas, por favor” will work, but you won’t sound like a native.

Firstly, the Spanish rarely say “por favor”. They’re not being rude, we’re just overly polite.

Secondly, as in England, you don’t order “a beer”; instead you specify the measure, or rather, the type of glass.

To confuse things further, there’s no such thing as a standard measure, and the various glasses have different names, depending on what part of the country you’re in. In Andalucia, the following generally works;

  • Una caña – (CAnya)– a measure of around 200 / 250 ml, can be smaller;
  • Un tubo – (Too-bo)– a tall glass, usually holds around 330ml;
  • Una jarra – (HArra – the “j” sounds like “ch” in “loch”, and you should roll the “r”s) – if they have them, this will usually be a pint measure, sometimes in a dimpled mug.

Dos canas
Dos cañas

There is no shame in ordering a caña, even if you’re a bloke.

Also to note – bottled beer is more expensive than stuff from the tap (de grifo), and it’s more expensive to drink outside on the terrace than inside. Sitting at the bar itself can be even cheaper.