Tag Archive: Essay


Essays and Alcoholisms: Working With The Grain – A Girvan Trip

Enjoying Whisky

Single Grain. It’s a term that has been popping up on the outskirts of my whisky hunting experiences over the past few years. From the first few encounters at whisky shows, to rare special releases, to highly recommended bottlings being pressed into my hands at local pubs – a lot has happened to make me look again at what has oft been considered as the weaker end of the blending mix. A lot that has really shaken up my preconceptions. What I have never had though is that story, the bit of ”Useless Knowledge” that, as Bertrand Russell pointed out, is not useless but in fact an integral part in increasing our enjoyment, in adding context to an experience and making it feel all the more.

All of which is a very circumloquacious way of saying I was recently invited by Anonymous Artists to head up to the Girvan Distillery for a tour, some tastings, and some background on the whole enterprise. Which is also a good a point as any to bring up the full disclosure that they covered cost of transport, accommodation, food, whisky, etc for the trip. As always I will try my best to be unbiased, but feel full disclosure is important as, well, unlike gamergate I actually do believe in ethics in journalism and don’t just use it as a term to harass people with. I also made sure before the trip I could write whatever I wanted, and was given no hassle at all, for which I thank them

So, where to start? I think one thing that captured the two aspects of the trip, and defined them well was a comment from Kevin Abrook (William Grant & Sons’ Global Whisky Specialist) who lead the tastings and much of the experience, a comment I shall paraphrase here. The difference in Single Malt to Single Grain comes down to a perception of craft and romance on the side of the Single Malts, and engineering and science on the side of Single Grain. The idea that the single grain is taking the adaptability and customisation of the column stills and using them to fine tune the spirit to their needs.

However, as I mentioned in the opening, I am a sucker for the useless knowledge, the context and, yes – the romance – which despite that statement turned out not to be absent from the history of the grain. So, if you will indulge me my foibles, it is there I shall start,

Continue reading

Container Wars

Have you ever noticed that we, the human race that is, tend to be a tribal bunch? Frankly, as statements go I would hope that to be pretty uncontroversial, yet give it time and I’m sure two sides would emerge – dug into their entrenched positions and arguing the hell out of it. Even odder the tribalism seems to be almost fractal, at every level you have smaller and smaller tribes breaking out.

Drinkers vs. Not Drinkers. Wine vs. Whisky vs. Beer. Craft Beer vs. Real Ale. Hops vs. Malt. So on and so on.

So, beer containers. They make a difference. Kegs, Casks, Cans and Bottles, plus probably others, but I’m keeping it simple(ish) here. However, for all of the fact I called this article “Container Wars” (Mainly as a geek reference to the upcoming “Combiner Wars” comics. Because I am a geek) I’d rather this not be war, more an examination of the benefits of each type.

Now I’m not a brewer, so this won’t be from the brewers side, more a set of views of someone who has drunk a hell of a lot of beers. Just a look at what seems to work better in each style – as always I happily invite feedback from people better informed than I. By necessity these sets will go by generalisations, for nearly every one I can find exceptions, but there do seem to be trends.

Casks

The old favourite, cask ale, most often hand pumped or served under gravity. For a long time cask ale was my main go to for quality ale. Well I say cask ale, cask lager is a thing, if not an overly common one. However for the most part cask and real ale are used synonymously so that is what I will be concentrating on here.

The most obvious thing with cask ales is that they have no added carbonation, and are served at cellar temperature at the coldest. Because of this I find they tend to work better with more restrained hop levels, and more malt. This isn’t hard and fast, but cask ale seems very good at having flavours last and linger on, due to texture, lack of carbonation and warmth. Hops give great flavour but large amounts tend to get sticky in a way that the other types don’t and so can wear out their welcome quicker.

The main advantage I find with cask ales is the merging of flavours, cask ales tend to allow the flavours to mix together, the malt and the hops merge when used well, each aspect influencing the others. It is a great way of holding beers that are made to be well integrated and benefit from the complexity you can get from that.

Another unique aspect is the feel, a hand pulled cask ale of any type does not feel like any other kind of beer. There can be very natural characteristics to it, a slight sourness to a bitter, slight sulphur, organic elements. In a lot of the newer style beers these can seem out of place, but used well they can create a rustic feel or can be used for contrast to the other main elements.

For these reasons, the oft maligned bitters and brown ales find a natural home, there can be a slight sourness to a bitter to make it refreshing, or a very natural blending of flavours to a brown ale which cannot be easily achieved in other ways. Even style originally foreign to the storage method, such as German inspired wheat beers can find new expressions when made with cask in mind, allowing for the extra thickness and merged flavours to create Anglo German hybrids. It is the oft overlooked choice in the new wave of brewing, but there are a lot of tricks up its sleeve. It is possibly the hardest to use though – I have seen a lot of foreign beer styles made for cask with no idea of how they will alter, resulting in lacklustre beers that seem pale imitations rather than inspired new twists. Also, cask ales need to be stored carefully, served when just right, and used quickly before they go off – at every point there is a lot that can go wrong, and cask ale with a yeast infection excessive acidity seems an ever present risk in bars without the knowledge on how to handle them.

Kegs

For years the maligned cousin of cask, now keg is standing up on its own two feet here in the UK, inspired by the USA craft beers the keg has become the beloved choice of much of the new wave of brewing in the past few years.

Kegs tend to produce sharper clearer defined flavours, there is little of the merging that you see with cask, instead each element seems to stand by itself. This can be great for where you want each element to stand alone, but not if you want the elements to complement each other more closely. Most tellingly this can be seen with hop bitterness – in the same beer tried side by side from cask and keg, the keg beer will often seem a brasher hop punch. With stouts and dark ales the chocolate and coffee notes will be clearer. This is not to say that keg ales cannot be complex, far from it, but there is less intermingling between elements, you can often sense where the malt ends and the hops begins far more easily.

As indicated before, the chilled character and carbonation often allows keg ales to play with bigger flavours that would become overwhelming in cask. This is part of the reason, I feel, why IPA beers are so popular in keg. That and they rock. Of course keg beers play a big part around the world, and a lot of beers styles around the world are native to keg and so find that as their natural habitat.

While I am concentrating on ales here, and while cask lager is a thing, I would be remiss in not pointing out that for most of the world keg is the native home of lagers – that the carbonation works to make the crisp refreshing beers that have far more flavours that the bland mass market examples back home are shamed by. Experience in Prague tells me similarly that the bottled and keg lagers show very different characteristics, which deserve to be examined, but I do not feel qualified to do so at this point. Also, while non pasturised and unfiltered beers is required for casks ales, some keg ales also can non pasturised and unfiltered, and generally are superior like that – though I have not done enough exact comparisons to say exactly what differences are, just that they tend to be cloudier and fuller flavoured.

While not as complex to keep as casks, kegs have their own quirks. Carbonation is one such issue, many pubs that are unused to craft ales seem to over carbonate their beers, resulting in Fosters like soda stream effects. In American various pubs even boasted about the exact gas mix in their carbonation – not something I could speak on myself, but you can tell a distinct difference between a well carbonated and overly carbonated beer.

Container Wars 2

Bottles

Bottles, or as I call it – 90% of the home drinking selection (though probably not market which I’m guessing may be dominated by cans). Real ale in a bottle is a thing here in the UK, and of the two take home containers I’m guessing only bottles could handle that. I would guess it is do to the fermentation in the bottle, which would not work well in a canned container. As of such the bottle market is the place to be for your real ales you would otherwise encounter in casks.

However they are definitely not just cask ales – for better and worse. Let’s face it, Trappist ales, Hefeweissens, Lambics and IPAs all come bottled, some with bottle fermentation, some without.

I think that opportunity for secondary fermentation is possibly its biggest advantage though, unique to bottles, and bottles can also be sized up – with larger bottles allegedly being better for some long term cellaring. Bottles do seem to be the go to for beers to be aged.

What happens to a beer when bottled depends on what it would otherwise be – real ale styled seem to come through smoother than their cask brothers, which can benefit some ales – they tend to have that smooth intermingled flavours, but just a touch better defined, and a lot of the beers with a wide range of hops and malts in the ingredients seem more easy to express in the bottled versions, where the cask versions can seem muddy as they try and mix too many elements. Bristol Beer Factory’s Vintage Ales are a good example of this – the wide range of elements used really don’t come through in cask, but are much better defined in bottle, without losing the ability of malt and hops to merge and benefit each other. Bottles do lose that unique feel and flavours that seem to come with cask though.

Beers that would come from keg instead tend to lose that freshness, but at the trade off of controlled carbonation levels. In each case it seems to be a compromise between the parent containers. I would say that keg oriented beers in bottles seem to differ less than their cask counterparts, hewing more closely to the parent container.

Even this is a very incomplete description. Bottled trappist ales often have secondary fermentation while I presume the keg versions do not, the trends of the UK beer scene does not map well to the wider world. However it is the beer scene within which I am most familiar, so I hope you will forgive the somewhat UKcentric view of this piece. Perhaps after more beer travelling I may return with more views of the fine beers from around the world and how they compare.

Cans

Cans were, for a long time, considered lowest of the low. Real ales that got mutilated for cans were nearly always crap. The canned lager availability was also poor. So we thought cans were the issue, not the beer that was in them.

We were, of course, wrong.

Cans have turned out as the take home younger sibling of the keg era, the recyclable metal container of the craft beer wave. The keg is therefore most definitely the closest cousin for flavour comparisons. They have similar more distinct clear elements, as of all the containers I’m guessing this would handle fermentation in the container worse. I’m not sure it is currently possible with cans. I could be wrong, but I feel their entirely sealed nature would be a pressure nightmare for additional fermentation. However this sealed nature is also cans advantage. No light, less ways for the beer to spoil. Hopped beers are preserved very crisply in cans, which is what has made them beloved of the craft scene.

So IPAs, APAs and the like come out very similarly to kegs with the can diversions, very crisp hops, very clear defined flavours. Stouts and the like don’t seem that different, and possibly psychosomaticly the bottle versions seem to be more complex. Pale beers seem to be the cans friends and their raison d’etre. They are, however, the least well examined so far of the four so I have a lot to learn on them.

Growler

You may notice I am studiously ignoring growlers up to this point, but before I go they do deserve a slight mention. Just starting to show up on the UK for the past few years, they have been a solid entry in the USA for a long time. The thing is, for flavour, they seem the weakest entry to me. As soon as they are filled you have a risk of air contact (newer technology seems to be working on this issue) – If you drink over the next few days it should not be an issue, but in every case, you are taking keg or cask beer and adding an additional element of potential infection. On the other hand they are the only way to get those beers home with you, so they have a place – but you will never get an equivalent or better experience than a fresh pulled pint.

Final Thoughts

No you can’t carry beer in thoughts. Yet. I am working on it. Though there is an argument that the beer only truly exists in our mind, so maybe, anyway I digress. Any thoughts? I’m sure many of us have had different experiences, and those of you with a bit more hands experience on the production side can add a lot. let me know what you think, and until next time…

– Enjoy your beer!

DSCN0701

 Back In Japan!: The Japan Drinking  Scene.

So Japan and beer. Not words that you tend to see together in the international press. In fact from conversations I have had, a lot of Japan doesn’t seem to know they have a growing craft beer scene. Now Japan and Whisky, the world has got its head around that. After quite a few awards you would have to work very hard not to notice it. Their local beer however is still a well-kept secret for the most part.

That is however changing.  So here we have, based on my short visits, an outsider’s view on the Japan drinking scene.  For any locals of Japan who read this, feel free to correct any mistakes I make. This is based purely on what I saw during my travels and I claim no great expertise.

The first thing that seems odd to an outsider is the opening times. In the UK the lunchtime pint is a thing of tradition, going around America I found places serving at ten in the morning and the refrain, “Its five o clock somewhere!”.  In Japan most craft beer bars didn’t seem to open until 17:00/18:00 hours. On the other hand they did then run to obscenely early o clock in the morning, so it is a trade-off.  You will find some bars, usually brew pubs, doing a short lunch open, but for the most part I would advise to keep bar drink hunting to the night and plan to other things in the day.  You will be in Japan therefore I will presume that this will not be in any way difficult. Continue reading

Minimum Price
It’s that time again. The time the press has to decide between demonization of the drinking youth, or cries of nanny state and tax grubbing governments. Actually, usually they don’t have to choose, contradictory opinions that should cause significant amounts of cognitive dissidence are the norm in a hell of a lot of papers. If they can cause outrage then consistency is an optional extra.

So what am I talking about? The proposed introduction of a minimum price per unit of alcohol in drink in most of the UK. I say most as Scotland with it’s devolved powers has already put forth a 50 pence per unit minimum price. It’s being held up at time of writing (1), but is further ahead than the rest of the UK’s proposed 45 pence minimum.

Now there are a lot of people claiming this can, or can’t work because of many reasons. That minimum price won’t deter drinkers, in a similar fashion to the fact that high cigarette costs are not deterring smokers, that it’s just another tax for the government, that it will boost the quality beer of beer. A lot of claims, very little evidence being given for most.

So what is the evidence then? In an unusual step for what is normally an opinion piece I’m going to be doing a quick trawl of the net for the evidence and see what I can find.
Continue reading

America. Or more precisely the USA. Possibly the most wrongly maligned beer country in the mind of the general populace and one of the most sought after beer scenes by aficionados. The land where prohibition took place, and one of the largest craft beer scenes in the world. 50 states, each at least the size of Britain and with at least as much cultural variance between them as between Britain’s member countries. How do you even start talking about that?

Well first I’m going to pour a pint. Not because I want a pint. Ok, not just because I want a pint, but also it’s the first interesting difference. The USA pint is smaller. 568ml for UK compared to 473ml for USA.

Which explains why you lot in the USA are all lightweights who think you can drink more than you really can.

I jest.

Mostly.

Continue reading

Drinking in the Shadow of the Five Rings

The Great British Beer Festival. Usually the highlight of the year for London beer drinkers, where they would congregate at Earls Court. This year, well someone decided to run some small piddling athletics thing called the Olympics in there so we got shunted over to the Olympia.

Seriously I’m fairly sure there are more people who have a pint once a week than there are people who do exercise one a week. That’s all I’m saying.

Continue reading

It’s a common problem.  Anything far away looks cooler.  It’s why people spend a vast fortune heading to other countries to spend time looking at art museums, architecture and scenery, cooing all the while.  These self same people oft completely ignore the museums, architecture and scenery 5 minutes walk from their house.

All of which is a somewhat round about way of saying that after going on brewery tours in Belgium and Scotland,  I finally went over to the Bristol Beer Factory for a tour recently.

Continue reading

Continue reading

Essays and Aphorisms: The Environment.

It’s never been hidden where I’m doing my tastings, from the half hidden kettle in the corner and a bottle of mouthwash, festival kegs or pretty barmaids, it’s always there in the photo.  More than that I try to add in music listened to and the like, and I always have an urge to add more, to say what’s going on, the weather, who’s around, and so on.

Why? It’s hardly because any of you care if I’m buck stark naked, drinking whilst urinating from the top of the Empire State Building onto the appreciative crowd below. (Or maybe you do, if only to be glad that I’m not doing that and thus giving you a mental image you can never rid yourself of)

At the most basic it shows how much attention is being paid to it, a pint in the pub with mates is likely not going to be as lovingly examined as a bottle drunk at home in front of the fire, so it will most likely be somewhat less leisurely as to not be completely anti social.  Though again, a group gathering with a shared set of pints discuss and laugh, sharing the moment and the tastes, sparking conversation and ideas that would have never occurred before.  But there’s more to it than that.

So again why –  why the where, the who and the when? Because it alters things, much as we would like to claim a pint is a perfect thing of wonder, and as a perfect thing, it cannot be altered from its perfection,  that is quite frankly, bollocks.

A beer is suited to a time – there is no point breaking open a Good King Henry after six pints of lager, nor should an Aventinus Eisbock be appreciated in the midst of a football match crowd – but more subtly, a Hopback Summer Lighting seems out of place at winter, and the delicious subtleties of Oakham Asylum weep in the face of a greasy burger. A cold room is the bane of a subtle whisky, the list is endless.  On the other end of the scale annoyingly there is the sickly sweetness that too many beers take on in a heat wave.

In face of all that, it’s important to let you know what’s going on, as it is a warning of what variations may be introduced, why possibly the review may be less than reliable for your experiences; if favourable, in what condition you should enjoy it (and yes by that I mean that Hair of the Dog beers are perfect when one is experiencing them sleep deprived, in Japan, after a pimp has unsuccessfully tried to get you into a club of questionable purpose).

Everything adds in its own elements, Brewdog Punk IPA is not just perfect with a bit of Propaghandi and one of my favourite appreciation beers. Its punch of flavour doesn’t need your attention to be obvious, so it can be appreciated when your mind is on taking the piss with mates over a fucked computer lying in thirteen pieces on the floor.  Ulvers music complements any (normally high ABV) beer that leaves you staring at the ceiling entranced, and lost in intricate subtleties, and Tesco Value Lager is perfect for giving someone a vision of what hell may be like if they don’t change their ways.

So its important to know, and yet so often overlooked, are you in a pub cadging free drinks from strangers by giving them improvised tasting session, or arguing with some racist twat. Are both events one and the same? (Answer: Yes) Did the anger at such ignorant viewpoints combined with an appreciative crowd lead to somewhat more verbose waxing loquacious about beers in the vain hope to impress the crowd (Answer: Probably).

All these change how we approach a beer.

Yet we ignore it

So let’s call to memory, in 20 years time as your favourite beer passes your lips, remember that night, the perfect game, the lost or won argument, the friends and the loved ones.

Let’s drink to drinking being something more than just drinking.

(Thanks to Tanja for doing the editor work on the article)

Making An Event Out Of A Drink :

So why the hell do tasting notes, for beer of all things? Isn’t all that summer field and flowery language unbearably pretentious.

Probably, but who cares.

There’s a world out there that views beer and even whisky as a way of getting hammered and that’s all. There are innumerable pints going down peoples’ throats as if marking time until they get into their coffin. Repeating worn out motions, each iteration looping until it’s worn a hole into the background. Watching it seems like a visual representation of stuck record skipping through the same motion again and again.

Compared to that we could all take a little pretension or whatever insult people are using these days. Because alcohol should be enjoyed in whatever form it takes, because time in the bar should be about more than a desperate attempt to make sure you ended up getting more drinks bought for you than you bought for others. Furthermore going back to the bar every time to the nauseously familiar tap whilst speaking no more words to the human being serving you than necessary is pissing away a life in a death of a thousand banalities.

So yeah I’ll take a bit of pretension.

So what does a tasting note do, that alters this banal monstrosity of an existence? A simple combination of pen, paper and a drink in hand.

It’s a lesson learnt by sports, businesses, shows and religions the world over. It makes a simple occurrence an event. To add a touch of ritual and pomp to a moment. The simple indulgence in making the normal and mundane interesting is something worth spreading to all elements of our life. We face many “mundane” moments in life for every one of wonder, by making these mundane elements fun and interesting is to reclaim them from their simple roots and enhance our lives.

It’s paying attention to the moment, a drink that would otherwise pass un-mourned to its porcelain grave now is examined in every detail, being aware of what you are doing and why. When time is unexamined it floats by so quickly, unrecorded and forgotten- to take time out and examine the item you are drinking to consider its taste, smell, character, is to take in new details. This makes this moment different from every other and to thus tie it to a memory that sticks where otherwise you would have a hazy sameness.

It’s also the aforementioned moments of interest – ok, your going to look a tad odd taking photos of beer and asking bar staff if they mind putting the whisky bottle on the table so you can take a photo. But if you’re worried about looking a bit of a fool you’re never going to do anything interesting. Nearly every endeavour starts with looking a fool whilst you work out what you’re doing. Grasp those moments and laugh with them rather than fearing them.

So what do you benefit in response? Conversation, interest, so many bar staff and patrons have found interest in this peculiar hobby of mine and thus have started conversations of the difference between a stout and a Porter ,on the Santa festivals in Denmark, A discussion with a designer of a roller coaster. People have fished out details of local microbreweries, beer festivals and events. All for the cost of doing something that might look a tad odd. I’d say it’s worth the cost.

All this and I’ve not even yet mentioned the fact that you will probably try a lot of good drinks.

Was this whole article a bit overblown, pretentious, filled with hyperbole and bombastic representations?

Sure

But what would you expect, it was written by someone who does tasting notes.

Care to join me?

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 263 other followers

%d bloggers like this: