Treat Yo Self

Barley wine and imperial ipa in glasses.

We can’t go to Falmouth without finishing up in Hand Bar for ‘something silly’. This time, it was Evil Twin’s Molotov Cocktail Imperial IPA, and Lervig Barley Wine.

We crammed quite a lot into 24hrs in Cornwall’s beeri­est town, try­ing as we were to make the most of a short week­end. We had a ses­sion in The Front, for starters: Rebel 80 Shilling seems to be con­sis­tent­ly great these days, and is per­fect for this weath­er; and feel­ing our way round the Black Flag range, we con­clud­ed that they’ve grad­u­at­ed from faint­ly dodgy to gen­er­al­ly enjoy­able and inter­est­ing. Then on Sat­ur­day, with big break­fasts and fan­cy cof­fee inside us, we head­ed to Beer­wolf for our fix of Up Coun­try beer – the clas­sic that is Mar­ble Pint – and had anoth­er chance to con­sid­er a beer of the year con­tender, Pen­zance Brew­ing Co’s Hop­ti­mys­tic. Not as good this time but still allur­ing and mys­te­ri­ous.

Then, with the evening draw­ing in, slight­ly mer­ry, we wan­dered up the hill to Hand. Since our last vis­it sev­er­al huge new fridges have been installed on the cus­tomer side of the bar mean­ing that it’s eas­i­er to browse – and to be tempt­ed by – all the pret­ty bot­tles and cans. Boak’s mis­sion was to have some­thing super hop­py, jam­my and chewy, like those crys­tal-malt-laden Amer­i­can IPAs we used to enjoy at The Rake in Lon­don. Evil Twin’s leapt out at us for no oth­er rea­son than it said IMPERIAL INDIA PALE ALE very clear­ly right on the front of the label. (Design­ers, take note.) But it had no price tag.

How much is this one?’ Boak asked war­i­ly.

The bar­man checked. ‘Er… that one is eight pounds nine­ty.’ He couldn’t help but sound apolo­getic.

The small crowd of stu­dent drinkers sit­ting on sofas behind us gasped. ‘Is that the drink-in price?’ one asked.

Yes, it’s a fiv­er to take­away.’

Hmm,’ said Boak. ‘If I’m spend­ing nine quid on a beer… Is it actu­al­ly good?’

The bar­man squirmed. ‘Um, I’ve not actu­al­ly had that – it’s only just gone on.’ He appealed to the audi­ence. ‘Have any of you guys had the Molo­tov Cock­tail?’

No – who brews it? Evil Twin! Then it’ll def­i­nite­ly be good. All their beers are great.’

Nine quid. Nine!

Sod it, let’s do it.’

Ide­al­ly, for the sake of a sat­is­fy­ing nar­ra­tive, we would dis­cov­er at this point that the beer was either absolute­ly dread­ful, thus inval­i­dat­ing the entire con­cept of ‘craft beer’ and expos­ing as fools all who drink it; or aston­ish­ing­ly won­der­ful, caus­ing us to re-eval­u­ate our entire atti­tude to beer or some­thing. But this isn’t Jack­anory and it was mere­ly very good. We Tweet­ed that it was ‘sexy’ which was an attempt to cap­ture a cer­tain super­fi­cial wow fac­tor – that it looked gor­geous (faint­ly hazy orange) and smelled exact­ly like the moment when you put hops into boil­ing wort, which is to say green­er and more pun­gent than how hops usu­al­ly express them­selves in the fin­ished prod­uct. The first sips were intense, rich and mouth-coat­ing and trig­gered mem­o­ries of sweet pipe tobac­co, weed and forests. But the fire­works sub­sided too quick­ly and it didn’t earn either its price or its boozi­ness.

This is a thing we’ve debat­ed with peo­ple a few times: in our view, if a beer is 13% ABV it ought to demand to be drunk slow­ly and bring the plea­sure of sev­er­al ‘nor­mal’ beers. Oth­ers hold the view that the pin­na­cle of the brewer’s art is to make a strong beer that drinks like a weak one. We like Duv­el, it’s true, part of the fun of which is that it’s eas­i­er to drink than it ought to be thanks to its fizz and light­ness, but gen­er­al­ly we think that unless you are on a mis­sion to get blad­dered as quick­ly as pos­si­ble, why not just actu­al­ly drink a weak­er beer?

In this par­tic­u­lar case, we reck­on there are quite a few oth­er IPAs – mere­ly dou­ble rather than impe­r­i­al – that would have deliv­ered much the same plea­sure at low­er cost, and with less booze. As it was, it was too easy to knock back, each swig rep­re­sent­ing the bet­ter part of a quid as it flew down the throat.

Per­haps Molo­tov was sab­o­taged by its run­ning mate. Lervig Bar­ley Wine was 12.5% and tast­ed like it in the most won­der­ful way, inhab­it­ing the space between win­ter warmer and dessert wine. It felt mature, deep, and com­plex, like a tour through the dark­est cor­ner of the store cup­board where molasses sit next to a crusty bot­tle of sher­ry from sev­er­al Christ­mases ago, and choco­late strict­ly for cook­ing. It was impos­si­ble to drink quick­ly: a third last­ed near­ly an hour and, even though this was sup­posed to be a just-the-one vis­it, demand­ed a fol­low up. It wasn’t cheap – £4.50 a third, i.e. £13.50 a pint – but, seri­ous­ly, who drinks bar­ley wine by the pint? Nine quid spent on 380ml of this beer did feel like good val­ue.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 5 November 2016: ‘Chavs’, Antics and Dirty Tricks

Oof, it’s a big one today, taking in everything from sabotage anti-marketing to the origins of Gold Label barley wine.

John Holmes of the Sheffield Alco­hol Research Group has writ­ten on his pri­vate blog about the trou­bling impli­ca­tions of an updat­ed take on Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’:

The mod­ern pas­tiche gives us an obese moth­er, mouth wide open, burg­er in one hand and phone in the oth­er while her baby shares her chips. The baby is in a one­sie with ears while the moth­er is dressed in leop­ard-print leg­gings and a top so small that only anatom­i­cal­ly-dubi­ous draw­ing pro­tects her decen­cy. In com­bi­na­tion, these styl­is­tic choic­es seem designed to define the woman as, for want of a bet­ter word, a ‘chav’ and it is hard to escape the sense that we are intend­ed to both judge and blame her for being in a dis­gust­ing state and, worse, for inflict­ing the same des­tiny on her young child.

Detail from Bourbon County label.
SOURCE: Goose Island, via Chica­go Tri­bune.

Josh Noel at the Chica­go Tri­bune, author of a book about Goose Island brew­ery, wasn’t sat­is­fied with the vague­ness around the ori­gin date of Bour­bon Coun­ty Stout and did some dig­ging which proved that brew­eries are often the worst sources when it comes to their own his­to­ries:

Leg­end says that the industry’s first stout aged in a bour­bon bar­rel was ini­tial­ly tapped in 1992, at Goose Island’s Clybourn Avenue brew­pub… Even the bot­tles say it, right there in the brown glass, between the words BOURBON and COUNTY — ‘Since 1992.’… But on the eve of this year’s release, I’ve con­clud­ed that there’s almost no chance that Bour­bon Coun­ty Stout came into this world in 1992. Dozens of inter­views and hours of research point to the first keg of Bour­bon Coun­ty Stout being tapped in 1995.

The Ravensbourne Arms.

Lon­don-based pub group Antic is fas­ci­nat­ing and weird­ly opaque – we’ve nev­er man­aged to get them to respond to queries by email or Tweet for starters. For 853, a web­site about local issues in South East Lon­don, Dar­ryl writes about their weird antics (heh) with regard to the Ravens­bourne Arms in Lewisham and how the col­lapse of local jour­nal­ism has removed a key ele­ment of scruti­ny:

Lewisham Coun­cil grant­ed plan­ning per­mis­sion for flats above the Ravens­bourne Arms as well as devel­op­ment of sur­round­ing land twice, in 2014 and August 2015… The appli­ca­tions don’t men­tion the pub itself, but this should have rung alarm bells. Hous­ing above pubs can be a way of secur­ing the future of a venue (the new Cat­ford Bridge Tav­ern will have flats above it). But such devel­op­ments are also a very good way for devel­op­ers to shut down the pub itself – these are cas­es that demand vig­i­lance… The appli­cant was giv­en as “Antic Lon­don”. There is no com­pa­ny of this name reg­is­tered at Com­pa­nies House in the UK, nor in Jer­sey, Guernsey or the Isle of Man.

Con­tin­ue read­ing “News, Nuggets & Lon­greads 5 Novem­ber 2016: ‘Chavs’, Antics and Dirty Tricks”

Questions & Answers: How Long do Vintage Beers Keep?

How long do old beers keep before becoming undrinkable? I recently came across some old bottles I’d forgotten about including a Whitbread Celebration Ale from 1992 and Teignworthy Edwin Tucker’s Victorian Stock Ale (2000 vintage), the label of which says it ‘is designed to mature and improve in the bottle over several decades’. It’s 16 years old now – will it get any better? In what way?” – Brian, Exeter

We’ve had mixed expe­ri­ences of drink­ing real­ly old beer. A c.1980 bot­tle of Adnams’s Tal­ly Ho bar­ley wine that we picked up in a junk shop was inter­est­ing but, ulti­mate­ly, a bit grim; while a dusty, tat­ty bot­tle of 30-year-old impe­r­i­al stout we drank at Kul­mi­na­tor in Antwerp was one of the best things we’ve ever tast­ed.

Whit­bread Cel­e­bra­tion Ale from 1992 was, said Mar­tyn Cor­nell, still tast­ing good in 2011. Oth­ers have found plen­ty to enjoy in beers from 1902 and even (Mar­tyn Cor­nell again) from 1875:

Amaz­ing­ly, there was still a touch of Bur­ton­ian sul­phur in the nose, togeth­er with a spec­trum of flavours that encom­passed pears, figs, liquorice, charred raisins, stewed plums, mint, a hint of tobac­co, and a mem­o­ry of cher­ries. It was dark, pow­er­ful and still sweet…

Edwin Tucker Stock Ale 2000 vintage label.

But there isn’t much infor­ma­tion out there about how Edwin Tucker’s Stock Ale in par­tic­u­lar is respond­ing to age­ing – there are no reviews on Rate­Beer, for exam­ple. Beer writer Adri­an Tier­ney-Jones did write an impres­sion­is­tic review a while back, though, so we asked his advice. He says:

I had one in 2013 and then anoth­er I think a year lat­er and it was start­ing to turn. I would sug­gest drink­ing now and hope for a sher­ry-like char­ac­ter.

In gen­er­al, extreme age­ing of beers would seem to be, in tech­ni­cal terms, a mug’s game, and even strong ales brewed with cel­lar­ing in mind begin to lose their sparkle after a while. Patrick Daw­son, the author of the defin­i­tive book on this sub­ject, 2014’s Vin­tage Beer, says in Chap­ter 3:

A decent Eng­lish bar­ley wine will eas­i­ly con­tin­ue to devel­op pos­i­tive char­ac­ter­is­tics for 6 to 8 years, with some exam­ples capa­ble of 10 to 15 years. Excep­tion­al ver­sions have been known to go 50-plus years in the prop­er con­di­tions, but very few beers are cur­rent­ly being brewed… to jus­ti­fy this amount of age­ing.

We emailed Mr Daw­son to see if he had any spe­cif­ic advice in this case. He says:

Well, I have to be hon­est and say that I’ve nev­er had the priv­i­lege to try an Edwin Tucker’s Stock Ale, so I can’t give a spe­cif­ic rec­om­men­da­tion. How­ev­er, I will say that 16 years is a long, long time for a beer to mature. It takes an incred­i­bly spe­cial beer to devel­op pos­i­tive­ly past this point. Cantillon’s Gueuze, Thomas Hardy’s Ale, and the Bass Cork­er bar­ley­wines being a few notable exam­ples. When pre­sent­ed with this sit­u­a­tion, of an unknown beer that has been aged a long time already, I always say to open it. My log­ic is that it’s bet­ter for a beer a bit too young and brash, than over-the-hill and dull.

So, to sum­marise, don’t sit on spe­cial beers for too long or they’ll prob­a­bly cease to be spe­cial. After all, you can’t take them with you.

Note: Brian’s ques­tion edit­ed for brevi­ty and clar­i­ty. Updat­ed 08/04/2016 to add Patrick Dawson’s email advice.

Session #108: Snowed In (Or Not)

This is our con­tri­bu­tion to the 108th beer blog­ging ses­sion host­ed by Jon at The Brewsite, with the top­ic ‘Snowed In’.

Britain has a pretty tame climate and snow is sufficiently rare that, when it does fall, the economy grinds to a halt as everyone reverts to childhood.

Where we live now, Corn­wall, is even milder, with warm win­ters and cool sum­mers. We nev­er see frost, let alone snow, and even when it does snow up coun­try it doesn’t seem to push past the Tamar.

What we do have is rain. Rain and gales.

Weath­er in which you can go to the pub as long as you don’t mind get­ting drenched and bat­tered by the wind; as long as you don’t mind sit­ting there in wet clothes steam­ing like an old sock, drip­ping onto the floor­boards; and as long as you don’t mind get­ting bat­tered again on your way home. And, you know, all of that can be rather pleas­ant in a masochis­tic kind of way: there’s a cosi­ness attached to drink­ing a pint while items of street fur­ni­ture stam­pede around town under sub­sti­tu­tiary loco­mo­tion and the sea invites itself over the har­bour wall in great chunks.

Waves crashing over the sea wall. (Animated gif.)

But we don’t usu­al­ly drink any­thing spe­cial – there’s no impe­r­i­al stout or bar­ley wine in pubs in these parts any­way – though maybe it does nudge us away from the chim­ing brassi­ness of hops and towards beefi­er, brown­er bit­ters.

When it’s real­ly bad, as in dan­ger­ous, as in bat­ten-the-hatch­es and hope that’s not your roof tile shat­ter­ing on the pave­ment, as in search and res­cue heli­copters over­head… Then we find our­selves hud­dling by the fire with Fuller’s Vin­tage Ale, Adnams Tal­ly Ho or Harvey’s Impe­r­i­al Stout.

They’re the beer equiv­a­lent of a warm blan­ket.

Public Service Announcement: Barley Wine for Stir-Up Sunday

Every year, a week or so before Stir-Up Sunday, we start getting visits to the website from people searching for barley wine to put in their Christmas pudding.

It is a main part of Delia Smith’s recipe which, let’s face it, is there­fore the offi­cial nation­al recipe. I’d guess from this line…

If you can’t get bar­ley wine (pubs usu­al­ly have it), use extra stout instead.

…that the recipe was writ­ten in the 1970s when Gold Label was a nation­al brand. You prob­a­bly won’t find bar­ley wine in most ‘nor­mal’ pubs these days, though most super­mar­kets do car­ry Gold Label.

There are also plen­ty of oth­er options.

Bar­ley wine is a term used to describe strong British ales – some­time they’re dark, oth­er times not, but they’re usu­al­ly at least (these days, for tax rea­sons) 7.4% ABV.

Fuller’s Vin­tage Ale is one and this year’s ver­sion has just hit super­mar­kets. Most larg­er region­al brew­eries (Adnams, Lees, Robinson’s, etc.) make a strong old ale which will do the job. Not many have ‘bar­ley wine’ actu­al­ly writ­ten on the label so just look for any­thing called ‘Old This’ or ‘Vin­tage That’.

Most trendy new brew­eries also make strong ales of one sort or anoth­er, although often very hop­py and bit­ter rather than sweet. If you have a spe­cial­ist shop near you, and want to use a spe­cial beer for some par­tic­u­lar rea­son, ask them for advice.

How­ev­er, back to the pud­dings. With sev­er­al years’ expe­ri­ence in mak­ing a fam­i­ly recipe, which just calls for ‘half a pint of strong beer’, I would make the fol­low­ing points:

  • You’re going to be adding spices, sher­ry and steam­ing the hell out of it for many hours so you’re not going to taste any beer at all in the final prod­uct.
  • The cheap­est beer I’ve ever used was a bot­tle of left­over home brew, and the most expen­sive was some of the afore­men­tioned Vin­tage ale – there was no dif­fer­ence in the end taste.
  • If you’re going to fol­low Delia’s recipe pre­cise­ly you will end up with two half bot­tles of dif­fer­ent beers. This might be a good oppor­tu­ni­ty to drink some­thing nice on the side so pick beers that are good in their own right, e.g. Fuller’s Vin­tage and some­thing like Brook­lyn Black Choco­late Stout.
  • How­ev­er, if you don’t par­tic­u­lar­ly like beer, just chuck in the required vol­ume of what­ev­er beer you have to hand – it doesn’t real­ly mat­ter all that much.