As sure as Autumn passing to Winter; as sure as repeats of TheTwo Ronnies or Morecambe and Wise, as sure in fact as Eggnogs is Eggnogs, Christmas is here again, and with it the routines of our Festive Period.  Anticipation; excitement (and not just for the children); lie-ins (well, a bit); the decorations gradually getting more irritating by the day; so many presents that they bring on a spurt of generosity of spirit that has you giving to the Charity appeals on the TV; adverts for DFS, holiday cottage brochures landing on your door mat, copious amounts of food, and food that’s far too rich at that, and with it, like a sinister shadow of gluttony, leftovers.

Cooking in the Tinted household is never easy.  A lifelong carnivore partnered to a virtually lifelong vegetarian; an elder child with a penchant to nibble on the cooked carcass of dead flesh once carved, whilst the other revolted by it.  This means more leftovers, as multiple meals must be cooked. Then there’s the visitors, before and after the Day itself, and often long after the ‘safe leftover period’ (SLP), that critical timeframe after which you know in your Heart that you shouldn’t really give your them the remains of the Ham or the salmon or the Roasties, and you’re not convinced that cold white sauce goes that well with mini sausage rolls anyway.

This year, I decided to deal with leftovers of a different kind.  The strays; the bottles that, for whatever reason, got away, escaped consumption. For some, this is an unknown phenomenon. Alas, this is not the case for me.  Call it fashion, call it tastes, sometimes I just get locked into a beer or a beer style and struggle to pull myself away; other times, it’s the taste that has left them on the shelf.  And occasionally – rarely – there is the forgotten stash as was the case with this year’s first Leftover, from Sharps in Cornwall.  Chalky’s Bite, a beer whose task it was as it says on the bottle blurb, ‘to create an English beer with the character, individuality and quality to stand along the Belgian greats’.  This prompts a number of questions, firstly, if it’s designed to be that good, why the heck is there any left, and secondly, woah! Taking on a beer is OK, but taking on all of Belgium’s finest is a bold – and erroneous – claim, surely?  I mean, where do you start?  Are we talking Lambics; brown ales, sour red ales, Trappist…?  Goal posts are useful, but not necessarily when they are larger than the pitch and moving. But the first question – ah, yes, a hidden stash?  I’m lucky enough to have a cellar in my house (it was, to use the marketing parlance) the ‘tiebreaker’ when deciding to buy a house that was at the time, ‘delapidated’ (thanks Dad, for that confidence boosting assessment).  Talk about getting your priorities wrong – whilstthere was no boundary in place between our house and the next door neighbour, whilst the old coach house at the back was structurally questionable, and whilst the drive flooded with even the merest drizzle, the previous occupants decided instead to paint every room à la Changing Rooms.  This, rather bizarrely, included painting the cellar in bold Adobe shades, inspired by the rustic hues of the native pueblo Indians of America’s Old West. In Staffordshire. The other rooms were far worse, but they were dealt with rapidly. The cellar to this day on the other hand, transports me to the Mesas and Buttes of Arizona.  But it’s damn fine for storing beer, wine, and books.  An even temperature all year round. It is, in short, the perfect Man Cave.

And it was here, tucked away between the rather empty looking wine rack, an old toaster and the deep freeze, that there lurked a partly broached case of Chalky’s Bite.  It was dated November 2012, but at 6.8% and bottle conditioned, that meant nothing. Particularly as the beer has apparently been matured for 3 months, so another 8 weeks won’t harm. I released the case from its jail and prepared the bottles for potation.  The first thing that struck me for a beer brewed with Wild Cornish Fennel was… well, the lack of fennel.  The other Sharp’s / Rick Stein beer – Chalky’s Bark – has ginger in it (Wild Cornish Ginger??) and whilst it isn’t strong it’s clearly there.  In this beer, the fennel seems to be more in the aroma – which frankly, is still slight – and also the texture, the mouthfeel.  There’s definitely a smooth, enveloping richness which the fennel seems to contribute to.  It’s also deceptively drinkable – a surprising light colour, I’d say a bright honey mustard would be about there, a decent crème fraiche coloured head and a taste that doesn’t drink it’s 6.8%. Perhaps a touch of extra aging has assisted in this regard.  Certainly, I’ll be doing a spring clean of the cellar to find more.

There was another Molson Coors beer, in fact two of the same from their Worthington’s Brewery on the National Museum site, slumbering down there as well – Red Shield. One was new carrying the new (‘old’) design which is pleasingly retro, and the other, that inspired by the old ‘copy heavy’ White Shield design. So again, probably a year between them and it would be interesting to compare the two.  Alas, both were disappointing.  For a beer with a moderate and moreish alcohol content, and a good dose of Bramling Cross hop, it promises much.   But the palate (in bottle form, I haven’t had draught for a while) is dominated by the Worthington’s yeast, with a tinny metallicness which unhinges its drinkability.  Bramling Cross should give properties of many of the enticing US hops, but sadly they are not generously given here.

Hoegaarden Grand Cru was next; there were only two, mislaid as I had laid them down in a wine rack. I’m not sure why I did this at the time – no corks to keep moist here, but equally no adverse effect either.  It’s a funny one Grand Cru; I certainly expect more of it, perhaps desiring greater difference with Hoegaarden itself, yet I always feel it’s an EPO fuelled version.  Dresses the same; looks the same in the glass and is clearly a very similar beer….just, performs better.  In fact, perhaps it’s more like Team Sky’s performance methodology, Grand Cru shows marginal gains across the piece – a thicker, creamier head with greater longevity, a denser body yet still with a that, almost orange shimmering, hue. And more cloves, more curacao orange character, more bananary esters.  Actually, no. It’s been doping. It’s the Lance Armstrong of beers – impressive, award winning, yet somehow with the suspicion lurking that something behind the scenes isn’t quite right.  Mind you, I had that second.

A couple of cans of out of date Bass and unbelievably John Smith’s, which didn’t make the cut and are now on slug prevention duty in the back garden.  Yet the exercise was enough to have me thinking ahead…planning next Christmas and in particular, the leftovers.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles, December 2012

Staffordshire Mountain Time

Jens and I had just arrived in from a long haul schlep from Heathrow to Denver – seven hours time difference between Greenwich and my favourite time zone of all – ‘Mountain Time’.  Wouldn’t that be great? If all mountains shared the same time zone? From the Himalaya to the Andes, from the Urals to the Lakeland Fells, whenever you climb above 1500m you equalise with Denver, Colorado.  That way, we could drive up to the Lakes or the Highlands and drink beer simultaneously with the Great American Beer Festival, although perhaps in the dark…  On this occasion, sticking with current conventions, we had flown a quarter of the way around the world for this particular bout of jet lag, and we weren’t going to waste it on sleep.  The tactic of course: immediately assimilate yourself by going to a bar.

We headed for Blake Street. Just one block from Coors Field (with the most excellent, but sadly closed, Sandlot Bar / Brewery) we knew there were a couple of excellent bars.  Falling Rock Tap House earned the honours of slaking mutual first pint syndrome – I had a Fat Tire from New Belgium – an oldie but goodie which I perversely enjoy for its barnyard (read: cow muck) aroma, Jens something much darker (What? Than cow muck?) and inevitably featuring ancient grains or triple truck loads of hops, or something. I think Nelson Sauvin featured but my beer notebook wasn’t working at the time.   More beers and a light pre-order of kickers featuring, from memory, a magical set of buffalo wings and enough ‘nar-chos’ to fatten up this week’s Christmas Turkey (Note: not ‘Natch-os’ as I requested, creating much confusion.  Fortunately I didn’t request the ‘Toe-mar-to Solsa’ so we managed to navigate that tricky spot.  And heaven forbid if they are ever served with ‘Tune-a’ in the footure).  Anyhoo, the conversation became more animated and a heated debate opened up regarding the Cascade hop and its train – the other ‘C’ hops).  In the Blue Corner – the hop heads, who appreciated when the hops were treated delicately but generally, were seeking vast quantity. In the Biney Green corner, were the Purists, appreciative of the energy and momentum created by U.S. craft brewers but a little scathing of the indelicacy of hop quantity that many craft beers boasted. ’They all taste the same – it’s just too much hop, hop, hop’ was the refrain.  I was a broadly neutral voice in the debate between brewers, but at the time holding a candle to the Purists’ view.  Too many glasses of beer had been unfinishable; too many face-puckeringly astringent as opposed to lime-suckingly sharp and refreshing.

Yet those who have visited these pages before will know that I appreciate American inventiveness, particularly in the sphere of Pale Ales and IPAs fed to me on the lean diet that we enjoy on these shores. Of Goose Island and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, enough has been said (quite justifiably) so I shall say no more today. But what a find the other day – one of those pleasant, out-of-the-blue surprises, that lifts your heart. And with it a touch of annoyance too – in the form of more beers in Sainsbury’s ‘Taste the Difference’ range. A Pale Ale (imaginatively entitled ‘American Pale Ale’) and also ‘Tap Room Brewing Company IPA’.    It seems from the blogosphere that I was not alone in being surprised by these beers’ appearance and it was only serendipity that allowed me to spot them in store. In the midst of the big Christmas shop, with the trolley losing its agility under the weight of festive groceries, I had carefully slotted some Goose Island and Brooklyn Lager into crafty niches between the bottles of Belvoir Presses (get me!) and the once-a-year parsnips when I decided to pause awhile over the UK range (actually to see if a friend’s beer had been listed yet). My eye was drawn to two slim 330ml bottles amongst the sea of 500ml pseudo-pints.  Naturally, despite the mechanically challenged trolley, I managed to engineer space for two bottles of each – the Pale Ale described as having ‘citrus aromas and malty flavours’ (no shit!) and an ABV of 5.3%; the IPA a more bullish yet still drinkable 6.3% and billed as ‘bold with spicy hop notes’.  Come on down!

IMG_2454 IMG_2455Well, my! What a find.  The Pale Ale in particular is a little haughty starlet.  Enticing you from the moment you lever (TWIST!!) off the crown.  Citrus notes – sure, but also a spiciness, which I assume comes from the hops, and a body, befitting a mid 5s beer that is both delectably drinkable yet supported with chiselled broad-shoulders. The mash contains wheat as well as barley and the roundedness comes through in the mouthfeel.  And my sort of beer – a come-hither-young-man aroma, multi-dimensionsal on the first sip and a lingering after taste that rolls around the taste buds gently tinkling a fading percussive melody on your tonsils with its Xylophone beaters, until the next sip is called for and your hand unfailingly answers.  The IPA in comparison was a bit of a let down – a good beer, but not a great one.  For a bold strength it flattered to deceive a little, drinking under its weight and creating a stewards’ enquiry from Barry McGuigan’s corner.  But not a bad beer, with a bright orange colour and a dense, compact head that laced beautifully. Alas, no timpani on the tonsils this time round.

And it revived memories of the old debate in that Denver bar.  U.S. craft beers – all the same? All hops and no knickers?  Well not on the evidence here – the tantalising tastes enjoyed in Staffordshire of all places have me pining to go back Stateside to update the argument.

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles, December 2012

The Session #70: Sausages

the session beer blogging fridayThis month’s communal beer blog is about ‘Hype’ in beer. Well it got me thinking about one of my favourite texts on branding – a little, easy to read book by David Taylor entitled, ‘Where’s the Sausage?’ With a name like that, it would be easy to classify it along with classics like ‘Who Stole My Cheese?’, ‘Kiss That Frog’ and other such daftly named tomes with zero afterlife, but no. ‘Where’s the Sausage?’ has a serious, memorable and most of all common sense message:  in all your marketing efforts, if you build your brand on dodgy claims and weasel words, if you believe the hype so to speak, then you are building your house on sand and at some point it will all come crashing down.  Or, as a wise old sage of a boss once put it to me, ‘If you put red diesel in the tank son, don’t suck on the exhaust’.  In the case of ‘Where’s the Sausage?’ the exhaust sucking is committed by a Marketing Director (ex advertising agency, as they always seem to be), who forgets the proud porky legacy of this particular butchery concern, and ambitiously moves them into sausage (read: “Meat Feast!”) pizzas.  And Italian sausage at that. In so doing, the distinctiveness, the quality and most importantly, the truth is lost. Without spoiling this future Hollywood hit for you, the day is saved by a couple of old boys who snuffle in the truffles to find out what the company did best, and make it appropriate for the market today.

SausagesAnd sausage is an appropriate metaphor for beer on two counts. Firstly, some beers actually taste of sausage. No, really.  Empirical evidence, of one, has demonstrated that Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier (a Bavarian smoked beer) does taste of spicy salami amongst other things (car tyres?)

Secondly, there’s the act of slicing the sausage. Classic brand building thinking has you hunting for unique selling propositions for your brand. For finding a new slice on the category.  To demonstrate this, and in deference to my friend and ex colleague Chris, let us at this point refer to the case of the humble tomato.  It was not that long back that you went to the supermarket and you bought a bag of tomatoes.  Snooker ball size. Round. A shade of red, generally. Typically loose, but sometimes pre packed in 6’s in to a tray with plastic wrap round it.  Then the hype begins: ‘Tomatoes sales are growing, how do we increase them further?’   A creative session is organised. Suppliers are invited in. Growers get together.  Bigger multipacks. Smaller mulitpacks. Smaller tomatoes. Bigger tomatoes.

‘We need to make them more glamourous, give them more appeal!’ ‘Beef tomatoes’ ‘Cherry tomatoes’, ‘Plum Tomatoes’ (fresh not tinned), ‘Mini Plum Tomatoes’.

‘Sales are slowing, we have to make the tomato sexy.’   ‘Santos Plum Tomatoes’, ‘Sicilian Mini Plum Tomatoes’, ‘Vine ripened tomatoes’ ‘Green tomatoes’

And on, and on.

For a while sales increase. And like blood around a floating corpse, sharks begin to circle. More supermarkets get involved.  Growers swap from unfashionable crops (like hops, or apple trees) and build greenhouses for their tomatoes. Yet at the same time, imports increase as the Dutch and the Spanish eye our supermarket aisles longingly. Then the Americans pitch in the off season, and before too long the Chinese too.

And the result?

Sales begin to flatten. Shoppers don’t know where the hell to find tomatoes. You know, the ones that are snooker ball size, round and red… lost in a sea of senseless packaging and niche offers that you only buy at Christmas. So competition increases, prices come down (‘Great news for the consumer’ chime in the Government, productively), growers lose their margin and ultimately sales drop away as interest in tomatoes falls away.

So be careful what you wish for beer world.  Look at lager brands in the UK:

Sausage: you start with Skol and Long Life. 
Slice 1: sales begin to grow, incomes Carling Black Label , Carlsberg and Heineken. 
Slice 2: we need to add more appeal: Fosters, Holsten Pils, Becks. 
Slice 3: we need to sex it up: Grolsch swingtops, Stella Artois, Carlsberg Export.Slice 4: we need to get adults drinking on more occasions: stubbies, embossed long neck bottles, 
Slice 5: we need bigger packs for Christmas: 8s, 12s, 24s, 18s, 16s, 
Slice 6: what if people could give our brand as a present? glass packs, collector schemes. 
Slice 7: I don’t want sex, I want lust! Peroni, Peruvian beers, Thai beers.  
And the result?  Death by 1000 cuts, or at best, one of those part segmented saveloys you buy at the chippy… a supermarket range you don’t know where to start with and boxes of beer priced cheaper than bottled water.

My advice: heed the warning of history. Cask, craft and bottled ale may be a reactionary response to the slicing of the sausage. We can enjoy it now, bathe in the revolution. But at what point does the magnetism of the knife begin to take hold? More slices? More claims? More weasel words? Less truth?

Triple Black Pacific IPA anyone?*

*Served in ‘une chalice’, of course

© David Preston, Beer Tinted Spectacles, December 2012