30 Jun 2011

Mikkeller Clerkenwell Lager and The Craft Beer Co.

The beer

Clerkenwell Lager is brewed exclusively for The Craft Beer Co. by Mikkel Borg Bjergsø.

By exclusive I mean it is not available anywhere else – you can only drink it at The Craft Beer Co.

In a way, that’s a shame, because this beer is brilliant.

As soon as Clerkenwell Lager gets near your face you realise you should have left all notions of traditional European lager styles at the door – massive tropical fruit punch smells smack you in the chops almost immediately.

The vibrant, hazy orange colour is equally unorthodox for a beer that claims to be a lager.

Once you’ve recovered from the initial bewildering sensory overload, your first eager gulp is greeted with a mango and peach-led fruit basket.

Just as you start questioning this beer’s classification, a sophisticated bitter finish arrives to quash all doubts.

Clerkenwell Lager is an eccentric, incredible beer that combines the best elements of American pale ale and European lager to create something absolutely phenomenal.

The pub

The Craft Beer Co. is London’s hot new beer ticket.

Sibling to Cask, it represents a step change for beer consumption in the UK’s capital city.

Aside from the unparalleled beer selection, what instantly strikes me about The Craft Beer Co. is that, compared to some of the other specialist beer pubs nearby, it has a decent amount of floor space.

If you’re a regular drinker in these kinds of venues in London you’ll know that’s a big deal.

The staff are knowledgeable and willing to engage in beer discussion – be that with know-it-all geeks or people who have no idea of what to go for next. A refreshing attitude when set against some of the repellent beer snobbery that I occasionally encounter around here.

For a fuller description of this beer-Valhalla, see Mark Dredge’s post on The Craft Beer Co. Though I’m kinda assuming you will have already read it, because if you don’t read Pencil and Spoon, you probably don’t like beer.

The match

I’m at The Craft Beer Co. for the official opening night. The place is rammed.

There’s a real buzz and excitement around the place.

I had already planned that Clerkenwell Lager would be the first beer I went for.

I expected that something described as the ‘house lager’ would maybe be fairly plain, possibly with some token quirky flavour thrown in there by Mikkel.

I approached it as a beer I would ‘tick off’ before moving onto the more interesting choices. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Almost everyone I speak to picks Clerkenwell Lager as their stand-out beer of the evening.

So much of what makes this place special is summed up by this beer. They could have gone for something generic – a tasty, refreshing lager but fairly uninspired. They could have sold something like that by the gallon to the locals.

Instead, they’ve created something distinctive and, yeah, a little challenging. That tells me a lot about the ethos of this pub.

I spend all night talking beer with good friends and acquaintances.

There is a definite beer ‘scene’ in London. And what’s brilliant is that it’s not elitist, it’s not snobbish and it’s not exclusive – it’s warm and welcoming. This is a pretty special thing in a city where you can easily get lost in vast, faceless crowds and never truly connect with any of the millions of people that pass you by every day.

This night at The Craft Beer Co. is diametrically opposed to the experiences I have at pubs like The Bell, but it fills me with no less joy.

As I absorb the celebratory atmosphere, I realise this is the place I would take a visitor to this city who wanted the ultimate London beer experience.

I’d hand them a pint of Clerkenwell Lager and say ‘this is it, pull up a stool.’

I know they would get it.

29 Jun 2011

Harvey’s Sussex Best Bitter and The Bell

The beer

In my opinion, Harvey’s Sussex Best Bitter is the finest beer of its style available in the UK right now.

Gentle carbonation splutters playfully through its translucent, chestnut brown body – it looks like the pints of bitter I see in my dreams.

While not the most aromatic of beers, it packs a huge flavour punch that is well above its fighting weight of 4.0% ABV. Fruit loaf-sweetness and earthy, cereal malt characteristics are fused with a subtle, dry, lemongrass-bitterness to create an incredibly complex, deeply satisfying pint of bitter.

It’s a go-to beer for me, and one I’ll happily drink over and over again.

The pub

The Bell is right next to Cannon St Station, in the heart of the City of London.

It’s one of the oldest – and smallest – pubs in London, having survived the Great Fire of London in 1666. There’s a list of landlords on the wall that dates back to 1668.

The picture of the cosy single saloon bar above appears with the kind permission of Robert Gale. It captures many things I love about The Bell in a way I never could. Make sure you take a look at it in all its glory.

In fact, Robert's Beer Lens and Travels with Beer sites frequently astound me with their perfect expression of the aesthetic beauty of pubs. Sometimes words just aren’t enough.

Located right next to a bookies, The Bell seems strangely out of place among the smartly-dressed City workers and towering skyscrapers, almost as if it has been lifted by helicopter from a small town somewhere and dropped in its current location close to the Thames.

But it hasn’t – in fact it was here long before the glass and steel behemoths arrived.

The range of beers available at The Bell is decent enough without being spectacular, but that’s not why I go there.

The match

The Bell is my work local. Alongside some rotating casks, they always have well looked after Harvey’s Sussex Best Bitter on.

As you’d expect, it’s busy at lunchtimes and in the evening, but I don’t think I’ve ever waited more than 30 seconds to get served.

The staff are friendly, efficient and engaging. The customers are generally older City types, and almost exclusively male.

This pub shines out as a beacon of charm, character and comfort in an often heartless, cut-throat financial district that has a tendency to celebrate excess.

It’s a hideaway, a bolt-hole, and an escape from the intensity that surrounds it.

That it survives against the relentless onslaught of commerce that closes in on it makes this pub even more special – a defiant defender of the old ways against all odds.

Drinking a flawless, flavourful pint of English bitter in the perfect London pub takes some beating as a match.

The combination of these two things means so much to me that I find it difficult to articulate what is happening in my brain.

There’s something at work here that I recognise at an almost subconscious, primal level. A notion that is sometimes forgotten but never truly eradicated from my thinking. A conceptual idea of British pub culture that sends my mind hurtling back through history.

There is something about this beer and this pub that makes me feel proud; something that makes me feel euphorically happy and tinged with sadness at the same time.

Apologies if that’s all a bit vague, but it’s because the feelings that are evoked are too.

As I tune in and out of the clientele’s conversations about their latest business deals, I realise this is the place I would take a visitor to this city who wanted the archetypical London pub experience.

I’d hand them a pint of Harvey’s and say ‘this is it, pull up a stool.’

I hope they would get it.

25 Jun 2011

Brooklyn Local 1 and Dog Day Afternoon

The beer

Before I get into talking about this beer, I feel I must say this: Garrett Oliver, The Brooklyn Brewery’s Brewmaster, is an incredibly cool guy.

He’s enigmatic, stylish, and infectiously-enthusiastic about beer and brewing.

His book, Brewmaster's Table: Discovering the Pleasure of Real Beer with Real Food is exceptionally well-written, informative and entertaining, and one of my all-time favourite beer books.

He also produces amazing beer.

Brooklyn Local 1 is packaged in an elegant champagne-style corked bottle. Popped open and poured into a chalice glass, it’s glimmering golden orange, effervescent, and finished with a thin white head.

Musky, pungent fragrances are set against fresh, zesty aromas.

Belgian yeast-sourness is complimented by citrusy, orange-rind flavours and a light pepper seasoning (not literally of course – there’s no weird black bits floating in this beer).

Though described as a ‘Belgian-inspired Strong Golden Ale’ on the brewery’s website, I would say this beer is firmly in the saison category.

Like all the best strong Belgian ales, there’s no alcohol burn despite its 9% ABV; that alcohol content is buried, hidden beneath layers of carefully-crafted flavours.

Non-Belgian breweries’ ‘takes’ on Belgian ales often leave me cold – I just end up craving the real thing – but this exceedingly-drinkable beer holds its own against anything I’ve had from Flanders.

The film

Dog Day Afternoon was directed by the prodigious and prolific Sidney Lumet, and stars Al Pacino and John Cazale. It was released in 1975, a year after The Godfather: Part II came out.

It’s based on the true story of John Wojtowicz, who, along with accomplice Sal Naturile, held up a Brooklyn branch of the Chase Manhattan bank in August 1972.

Dog Day Afternoon won the Academy Award for Writing – Original Screenplay, and was nominated for five other Oscars and seven Golden Globes.

This is the first time I’ve seen it.

The match

The beer is poured. The lighting is suitably low. I make myself comfortable and press play.

No menus, no trailers, no extras. Straight into the film.

The opening few minutes are funny – farcical even. But there’s a bubbling intensity there too.

There’s nothing funny about Brooklyn Local 1, but it is a light-hearted, easy-drinking beer that gradually reveals layers of intricate complexity and mysterious depths.

Despite genuinely comical moments, this film is by no means a comedy.

Pacino is at his intense, focused best, expressing so definitively what it is to be male. The brilliant Cazale is both vulnerable and frenzied, and utterly compelling.

It dawns on me that I haven’t seen a piece of cinema that has so emotionally-captivated me like this in some time.

The plot takes bizarre, dark turns, but the complex, challenging subject matter is handled with astounding artistry and sensitivity.

Maybe it’s the relatively high alcohol content of this beer lubricating my thought processes, but I’m totally convinced at this stage that Dog Day Afternoon is one of the best films I have ever seen. Definitely top 5, possibly top 3. It’s a powerful, poignant masterpiece.

The film ends and I feel the way you only can when you’ve just witnessed something life-affirming.

Yet maybe I’ve not given enough thought to the power of the match here; would I have enjoyed this film as much if I had watched it without the accompanying brilliant beer?

Whether or not that’s the case, it’s no longer important. This unique experience will stay with me.

When I drink this beer I will think of Pacino’s captivating performance. If I see Dog Day Afternoon again I will taste Brooklyn Local 1 on my lips. Forever associated, for ever and ever.

Though I may never again attain such immaculate synergy, this is the type of pairing I want to experiment with over and over.

Forget popcorn – what would be your ultimate movie and beer match?

23 Jun 2011

BrewDog Mikkeller I Hardcore You and Summer Solstice

The beer

The time has come.

My last bottle of I Hardcore You, the collaborative blend of Mikkeller I Beat yoU and BrewDog Hardcore IPA, and undoubtedly one of the greatest beers I have ever tasted. Maybe even the greatest. I’m not kidding.

I bought several bottles of the first batch, but foolishly ignored Zak Avery’s advice to bury some.

Utobeer had plenty in stock. I’d regularly go in and pick up a couple from time-to-time, safe in the knowledge that the supply was constant and I’d have no trouble getting my fix.

I had it on keg in, er, Cask around this time too, but I’m not ashamed to admit that I drank enough of it that night that I can only just about remember how good it was.

Then one day everything changed. Utobeer had sold out. None of my other sources were carrying it. The BrewDog online store was out of stock. I dropped to my knees and issued an anguished scream toward the heavens.

So when BrewDog announced it was set to make a return, I slavishly checked their website every day, desperate for an update.

The moment I Hardcore You became available again I ordered a case. I never order cases of any one beer. This was different.

Even as I waited on my delivery I was filled with anxiety – would it taste as good as it had done? What if the recipe had been altered?

I needn’t have worried.

I Hardcore You is reddish-brown like antique furniture, with a concentrated off-white head.

It smells like grapefruit, burnt sugar, and peaches and cream.

When you take your first mouthful, you’re hit with an intense, powerful bitterness. As you drink your palate recovers from this initial shock and other flavours emerge.

There’s an indulgent milk chocolate-sweetness with a hint of smooth caramel. Not unlike a Cadbury’s Caramel in fact. That rabbit is not as fit as I remember.

Balanced out by this emergent sugariness, the hop bitterness reveals its true character: a glorious pineapple-like fruitiness and a profoundly satisfying dryness that arrives just as the liquid fades away.

It’s dangerously drinkable for a beer that’s 9.5% ABV.

The astronomical event

The summer solstice. Midsummer. 21 June 2011. Litha. The longest day.

Its significance marked in stone since Neolithic times.

The people in Britain that celebrated the movements of celestial bodies across the sky during this period left no written account of how, or why, they did so. We will never know. We can only guess. I like it that way.

The Sun. Bringer of Life.

No wonder it has been worshipped as a god for millennia – we are humbled by its presence even now. We owe our very existence to it and yet it will be the ultimate destroyer of us all (assuming we haven’t brought about our own downfall long before then).

Most importantly, without it, of course, there would be no beer...

The match

It had been in my thinking recently that I would need to drink my last bottle of I Hardcore You soon. Each passing moment meant diminished freshness. This beer deserves to be drunk with its full flavour intact.

There have probably been rituals celebrating this day since the early ages of man. Now I initiate one of my own.

It has been grey and miserable for weeks in London, but today is sunny and bright, with a light breeze.

Some honour the rising of the Sun on this day. I have elected to acknowledge its setting.

I fetch the beer from its resting place and select the chalice.

My movements are slow and deliberate as I open the bottle and pour. I hold the glass up to the deteriorating light of the Sun.

I move to the garden and watch what few clouds there are drift across the sky as the Sun sets.

I Hardcore You tastes as good as I remember. As good as it always has. I’m happy to be drinking it in this moment, but each sip is tinged with sadness as I move closer to the bottom of the glass.

I think of summer evenings to come, of drinking great beer in the company of good friends as the Sun dips towards the horizon, as the last remnants of light and warmth illuminate our smiling faces while the sky turns pink above us.

I’m already thinking about my winter solstice beer. What would you recommend? These things take planning.

20 Jun 2011

Goose Island India Pale Ale and Tortilla

The beer

Goose Island India Pale Ale is one of my all-time favourite beers. It’s immensely flavourful and truly distinctive.

It’s fairly readily available here in the UK, and if the recent buyout of Goose Island by Anheuser-Busch increases its reach and distribution, that can only make the world a better place.

However, if they somehow conspire to screw with this perfect brew there will be hell to pay – i.e. I’ll moan a bit about it in the pub. Maybe I’ll even unleash an angry tweet or two. Take that free market capitalism!

Goose Island IPA is a seductive deep orange colour, finished with a billowing, slightly off-white head and plenty of visible carbonation.

Mandarin orange and pine needle vapours fill the air.

So far, so American-style IPA. Yet the masterfully-balanced flavours in this beer ensure it stands out from the crowd.

Smooth, sweet malt flavours lead. Cream soda. Toffee. Caramel.

The hops take over. There’s plenty going on here, with orange citrus flavours drifting in and out of the mix, but rather than going for the big brutal hit that some of its peers love to deploy, Goose Island IPA delivers a restrained and refreshing bitterness.

Mere words cannot do it justice, and I’ve never read a review or set of tasting notes that even come close to really describing this beer.

I think Goose Island IPA may be a victim of its own success. It’s so popular, so good and so easy to drink that no-one thinks it’s rare enough or interesting enough to devote any time to.

This is a mistake.

The burrito joint

There’s some talk that burritos are just London’s latest food fad, destined to burn brightly before fading out when the next cool eating experience comes along.

If that’s the case – and I don’t believe it is – it’s a great excuse to cram as many burritos into my mouth as I can in as short a time as possible before my options become limited.

Tortilla was the first of the new wave of London burrito joints (not sure why they have to be called ‘joints’, but ‘restaurant’ doesn’t really cut it) that I visited.

I’m not going to get into a debate about where Tortilla ranks in the London burrito hierarchy – there are blogs devoted to just that topic – but I will say this: Tortilla burritos are exceptionally tasty, always of a consistent high quality and reasonably priced.

Oh, and they undoubtedly have the best beer selection.

Brooklyn Lager, Samuel Adams Boston Lager, Anchor Steam, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Goose Island IPA. Bang. Five absolute American classics.

Throw Negra Modelo in there and that’s one hell of a line-up that even the presence of Corona and Blue Moon can’t detract from. It tells me someone at Tortilla knows what’s up beer-wise.

The match

I’m at the Oxford Circus branch of Tortilla. I only ever come in here on Saturdays, when it’s an oasis of calm away from the overcrowded shops and swamped streets.

I get my usual large burrito with Mexican rice, pinto beans, grilled chicken, cheese, lettuce and guacamole, and a bottle of Goose Island IPA.

Okay, so the beer should be in a tulip glass rather than a tumbler, but Goose Island IPA has the flavour chops to cope, regardless of container.

Bread, meat and cheese; there’s not a lot you can do to mess that combo up. Especially when the meat in question is sublimely-grilled chicken, the cheese is grated Monterey Jack and the bread is soft, flour tortilla. Add in some perky salsa roja, and a dollop of fresh, cooling guacamole for contrast, and you’ve almost reached simple-food nirvana.

The beer cuts through the burrito flavours without destroying them, taking time to acknowledge and enhance the fierce heat and concentrated savouriness, before resetting the palate with that signature bitterness. It’s like it was designed to be drunk with burritos. With this burrito.

I’ve yet to encounter a food and beer pairing that works as well as a Tortilla burrito and Goose Island IPA. But the enjoyment of this match is not just about the food or the beer.

For somewhere that has people queuing out the door and down the street most days, you never feel hurried or harassed here. The staff are chilled out and friendly, the decor is muted and tasteful, and the lighting is subdued – Tortilla’s burrito joints are comfortable places to be.

Spend some time in one with an outstanding beer for company.

19 Jun 2011

Birrificio Italiano Tipopils and New Super Mario Bros. Wii

The beer

Full disclosure here: I picked up this bottle of Birrificio Italiano Tipopils for free at the European Beer Bloggers Conference 2011, at the end of the 'Night of Many Beers' at Camden Town Brewery, from Alessio Leone.

There was more free beer available to me that night than it was possible to carry, so I had to make my selections carefully. Tipopils was definitely one of the beers that stood out amongst the many I sampled that glorious night, so I ensured a bottle of it made the cut.

A hazy, straw-gold complexion contrasts against a perfect, pure-white head in the glass. Stick your nose in and you’re hit with Saaz aromas of cereal grain and understated potpourri.

The game

I was a Sega kid.

My Master System was replaced with a Mega Drive when the time came. I never owned a NES or a SNES, and didn’t really know anyone who did growing up.

We bought a Nintendo Wii recently on a bit of a whim. The Wii is clearly not for hardcore console gamers, and is not marketed as such. It brings a social, active dimension to video gaming that, before the Wii’s launch, was an experience I reckon you could only really find in arcades.

However, there was one, more traditional, game that I knew I wanted to buy now I had turned my back on my Sega roots: New Super Mario Bros. Wii.

Ever since Super Mario Bros. 3 appeared in The Wizard, any games that feature Nintendo’s flagship mascot have always appealed to me, but I never got the chance to spend any time playing them. Until now, that is.

New Super Mario Bros. Wii almost seems like it could have come out in 1990 – it’s a 2D side-scrolling platformer – and though it does include a few elements the bring it up-to-date, it doesn’t really embrace or promote physical movement in the way other Wii games do.

The match

I begin to drink my glass of Tipopils as the Wii silently comes to life.

Alongside a grainy earthiness, there’s a honey sweetness that emerges early on. Herbaceous spiciness follows, before a restrained, elegant bitterness unfurls.

New Super Mario Bros. Wii is a lot of fun, with levels and obstacles that are expertly designed, but I’m finding it a bit challenging. I keep dying. After every virtual death, I reach for my glass so I can take a moment to refocus my mind.

Tipopils, like other great pilsners, can be drunk and enjoyed without thinking too hard about it. Certainly, while I’m making Mario leap from platform to platform, I’m not concentrating fully on what I’m drinking, but there are excited thoughts buzzing away in the background that tell me this is an impressive beer. When you do dedicate some mind-space to the contemplation of Tipopils, it reveals layers of subtle, focused complexity that are a joy to behold.

I’m getting frustrated. Progress is difficult. I try to summon the precision and determination that I had has as a kid when there were no save options, when you had to play through the whole game in one sitting if you wanted to complete it.

I continue to fail with regularity. I can’t take it anymore. It’s just too hard.

I feel deflated. I would have nailed this game when I was 12. Is that it? Have I finally said goodbye to any lingering elements of my forgotten childhood?

If I have, I’m not that bothered. Kids don’t get to drink great beers like Tipopils.

12 Jun 2011

Meantime India Pale Ale* and Greenwich

The beer

I love big, heavily-hopped American-style IPAs. Hell, often I couldn’t even care less if they’re totally unbalanced and utterly annihilate my taste buds with ridiculous bitterness – sometimes that’s just what I want.

Meantime IPA is not American-style. It belongs to the same canon as the brilliant Worthington’s White Shield and the exceptional Fuller’s Bengal Lancer.

If I’m not being clear: it’s an English IPA*.

If I was English, I’d probably be draping a St George’s Cross over my shoulders right now and trying to choke back the tears – as much as I love the US take on the IPA, these beers are the real deal.

I hope they’re as close to the beers the thunderbuss-toting colonialists enjoyed as you can get; an exquisite marriage of bitter hop and sweet malt, with enough alcohol content to ensure the wedding celebrations continue long into the night.

But since I’m the wrong side of the Auld Enemy (read: plastic jock who’s lived in London for a quarter of a century), I won’t break out into God Save the Queen just yet.

Today, I’m drinking Meantime IPA* on keg.

At 9% ABV – compared to the 7.5% version that fills the bottles* – I believe I may have made a schoolboy error in ordering a pint. My wallet is shouting ‘dickhead’ at me.

In the glass it’s all oranges, coppers and ambers.

It’s sweeter than I remember. There’s an intense candy sweetness, almost like it’s been dry Haribo’d. However, the healthy dose of Fuggle and Goldings hops provides enough of a counterbalance to swing it away from Belgium and back to the green and pleasant land.

The place

Greenwich is a country town that just happens to be part of one of the largest cities in the world. It’s also at the centre of time. Zero fucking hour.

As a Londoner, it’s a haven for me. I can see the bustle of the City from the Royal Park and sneer at it with contempt. Even though deep down I know I'll be back amongst its concrete intensity soon enough.

If I ever have enough money I will live here one day. It has the perfect balance of a reasonably central position, open space, history and cultural stimulation. Oh, and some pretty decent pubs.

Greenwich’s maritime history defines it; could there be a better place – other than Burton of course – to drink an English-style IPA?

The match

I’m at the Old Brewery. We’ve come in to shelter from an unforgiving downpour of the heaviest rain. It’s a Sunday in June. Welcome to the bleak greyness that punctuates life in the UK.

I’m soaked through and feeling a little miserable. Vibes are not the best. A decent seating arrangement is secured and we make ourselves comfortable.

My propensity to the Thames stirs something in me. A nation built on the export and import of goods across oceans. There is only one beer I can order right now.

The rain brutally lashes against the windows. It’s darker than it should be at this time of day. Aside from being in the womb, I don’t think there is any place more blissfully soothing than being inside a well-heated building while a storm obliterates the world on the other side of the glass.

I think of the journey IPA, at its inception, had to take. I’m no Pete Brown, but sitting here, dripping, and so close to a conduit for global trade, gives me a heightened appreciation of what I’m drinking.

Meantime IPA is a maritime beer. It only exists because the thirst of the Englishmen on a faraway continent made it commercially viable to create a beer that could survive an epic sea journey.

Where’s my Union Jack?


Okay, as you'll see from the comments below I was in fact drinking a different beer: Meantime Imperial Pale Ale.

In my defence, I did order a 'pint of IPA' at the bar, and when the line was behaving strangely, I was offered a bottle of the India Pale Ale as an alternative option...

I think a lot of the points in this post still stand, and at least I detected a difference between the two!

Either way, it was a great beer, and a great match. Drink Meantime. Go to Greenwich. Especially when it's raining...