Corner-shops (can you still call them that?) can hold rich pickings for beer hunters. If I’m somewhere new, I often pop into supermarkets or local stores, pick up a paper, and inspect the beer and wine section. Yes, it’s almost always cans of cooking lager and ever-bigger bottles of cider moldering under those fluorescent lights, but occasionally – such is the thrill of beer hunting – a little gem pops up.
When I first moved to the area where I live now, my new purveyor of papers, lottery tickets and snacks had a decent little range of bottled beer; from the big boys, obviously, but there was also a clear-bottled, exotic-sounding Banana Bread Beer. I’d just ‘got into’ beer and was trying to taste every beer I could get my hands on, so I picked one up. Slightly dusty, god-knows how old, that odd little beer seemed to fit perfectly with the slightly 1970’s feel of the corner shop.
Banana Bread Beer. Now, my palate somewhat more refined with a few years of enjoying beer and food under my belt, the name alone still evokes a smile.
Banana bread itself is one of the more versatile treats to enjoy with beer: pairing with a stout or porter brings out the brown sugar notes in the loaf, while bitter and old ale plug the fruit and wheat aspects into the mains and amplify them. Add cream cheese frosting to proceedings, pair with an imperial stout, and you’ve gone from Betty’s-tearoom-on-a-Saturday-lunchtime pedestrianism to something altogether more seductive and sinful.
But Banana Bread beer? The aroma is the first thing you notice. You try to stop yourself thinking ‘Well it does smell like Banana’, but you can’t. It’s there all right; sweet and almost cloying, recalling those foam banana sweets. You prepare yourself for a super-sweet mess of a beer that doesn’t actually happen – instead the body of the beer sings with toasted bread, toffee and raisin notes, and that sweetness dissipates to a decently clean finish. It may not be your cup of tea (or slice of banana bread), but it is a well-balanced, enjoyable beer.
It works so well, and yet this is one of the few examples where the humble banana is used anywhere in brewing.
When you think about the flavour profile of banana, it seems quite natural that it should end up in beer. In her essential book The Flavour Thesaurus, Niki Segnit writes: “…By the time the peel is mottled with brown, the fruit’s flavour is reminiscent of vanilla, honey and rum…Banana has a great affinity for roasted flavours such as coffee, nuts and chocolate, and for heavily spiced flavours such as rum.”’
If those flavours aren’t bedfellows for beers of a number of types, I’m not sure what is. There is also the distinct banana-like flavour that’s produced by many yeasts fermenting at a higher temperatures when they throw out fruity ‘esters’. It’s difficult to imagine a German wheat beer or many Belgian ales without those vital banana-y notes at work.
In Belgium the tradition of kriek and framboise use fruit in a sublime balancing act between tart and sweet beers in beers from breweries such as Cantillon, Boon and Lindemans. Elegantly served in fluted or bulbous glasses, fizzing away like Champagne, these beers appeal to a different kind of beer drinker than the UK’s more stately efforts.
Admittedly, younger breweries – influenced by what’s going on elsewhere in the world – have recently been loading fruit into continental style beers. Magic Rock’s Salty Kiss blended their interpretation of Leipzig’s Gose with gooseberry – and Beavertown Brewery created a sour beer with damsons last year. But British brewers have been mixing fruit and beer for a while in our very own way.
Normally appearing as seasonal special releases, our older fruit beers combine the hedgerow with bold, robust base beers. Damson and blackcurrant stouts (recently brewed by Hawkshead, Waen, Art Brew and Burton Bridge to name a few) remain popular, making use of the seasonal fall of British soft fruit to flavour the already-luscious stout. Saltaire Brewery pride themselves on their flavoured beers, dosing their blonde ale with raspberry and cherry flavour to create something new.
Yet Wells’ Banana Bread Beer enjoys a larger scale of production that the experiments of the armies of UK’s microbreweries, and also feels distinctly ‘retro’: the beer equivalent of prawn cocktail and vol-au-vents. Except where those dishes have reappeared in cookbooks only with an ironic raised eyebrow, Banana Bread Beer still stands as a proud member of Well’s portfolio.
The beer is more modern than my first impressions led me to believe though, first appearing in 2002. So, what drove the Bedford-based brewers of Bombardier (then Charles Wells, now Wells & Young) – to start throwing banana into their beer? Karl Ottomar, Head Brewer at Wells & Young’s, explains.
“The idea of Banana Bread Beer initially came about as a suggestion from the wife of one of the Charles Wells team – who was a keen banana bread baker. Research also suggested that bananas were one of the bestselling line items in supermarkets – which provided a basis to test if this could in fact be a popular flavour for beer.”
“…The brewing team began developing a brew which was then tested with drinkers. The feedback was extremely positive and as such, Banana Bread Beer was born. The beer combines all the traditional qualities and style of a Charles Wells beer with the subtle flavour of banana and is now sold all over the world.”
And is it really brewed with Banana?
“It is true! Free trade bananas are added to the mash of the brew and natural banana essence is added at the conditioning stage.” So there you have it: a mix of both the real thing and essence is how that smooth, sweet Banana flavour is achieved.
In its first year of existence, it won the best beer award at the Campaign for Real Ale’s London Drinker Beer Festival. Soon, it was being touted as the gateway beer to lure more women to the joys of cask ale. In fact, when CAMRA’s Great British Beer Festival held its first women-only beer tasting poll in 2003, Banana Bread Beer romped away with the top prize, gaining 26 per cent of the votes.
Search for it on YouTube or Google, and you’ll see how thirsty they are for it in the United States, in particular. Sam Calagione, head honcho of Dogfish Head, recently attested to his admiration for the beer when interviewed at the launch of Dogfish Head and Well’s collaboration beer, ‘DNA’. The high regard in which it is held by American drinkers is noted by Jim Robertson in this interview by Sophie Atherton for episode three of The BeerTalkers podcast. Over there, it is sometimes even blended with Young’s Chocolate Stout to make a luscious banoffee pie-inspired concoction.
“Seventy per cent of the sales are in international markets.” confirms Karl. “The USA accounts for 50 per cent of the beer’s sales internationally – and this is growing following the launch of Banana Bread Beer on draught keg there a year ago. It also continues to grow in popularity significantly in Canada with an 83 per cent increase in sales last year. Brazil, Australia and Ireland are also big markets for the beer.”
I’ve never drunk it on cask, and it looks as if, for now, I’ve missed the chance. “Banana Bread Beer has previously been available in cask as a seasonal beer but is currently only available in bottle in the UK” Oh well.
Still, its availability in bottle brings it into the home, and not least the kitchen. Last year, Dea Latis held a ‘Seven Beers for Seven Breakfasts’ session in London’s hip Somers Town Coffee House. Annabel Smith, one of the UK’s first female beer sommeliers and Training Manager for Cask Marque, led the tutored tasting, which included Wells’ Banana Bread Beer. Inventively, she created a smoothie with it, blending the beer with strawberry. So, Annabel – where did that idea come from?
“The banana and strawberry smoothie was a suggestion by the venue – we had all this rich savoury food and they said ‘how about a healthy option?’” Annabel explains. “As soon as the word banana was mentioned I wanted to compliment it rather than try something really diverse. Initially I considered a beer like Leffe Blond – which has a slight banana aroma – but then I thought, no, let’s go all out for it and match flavour for flavour. I wanted to use a British beer and this was the obvious choice. It has a lovely malty, nutty body but then that gorgeous, almost banoffee flavour hits your tongue and whilst the smoothie was the healthy option, matching it with the banana bread beer made it feel really indulgent and luxurious.”
To Annabel, the beer is a welcome and useful tool in the sommelier’s arsenal, and she feels that is belongs among a group of brews that can illustrate beer’s diversity to people who perhaps don’t drink it often, or have preconceived idea about how it tastes.
“There are so many people in the world – especially women – who say they don’t like beer, partly because they have been conditioned to think of all beer as ‘bitter’ and ‘brown’ (two of the most depressing words in the English language!). One of the beauties of being a sommelier is getting a non beer drinker to try something they would never perceive as beer – or beer as they know it. Kriek is a great example: people say to me “that’s never a beer!” when they first try it, so it can be a useful stepping stone to introduce people to the variety of flavours and styles.”
“Banana Bread Beer is one of those beers that acts as an eye opener for non-beer-lovers. Their senses go into meltdown as they try and reconcile the concept of beer as they think they know it, with the beer as their taste buds experience it.”
As you have probably gathered, I have quite a soft spot for Banana Bread Beer myself. Affection would be a good way to describe it – it’s not a beer I could ‘drink a lot of’ (that dreaded, peculiarly British phrase that doesn’t really mean much unless you’re talking about session beer), but I recognise – and cherish- its uniqueness and latent oddness. I wouldn’t change a thing about it.
A fruit beer in an age where fruit beers in the UK still struggle with finding a niche or identity, Well’s Banana Bread Beer has certainly endured. I would bet it’s a guilty pleasure for a lot of people.
Years ago, when I was meekly attending beer festivals with a notebook in hand, dragging my wife along with me (I didn’t really know anyone in ‘Beer’ then), most of the beers I chose were chosen purely because of the pumpclip, or the scant tasting notes offered by the festival guides. I had no real awareness of what I wanted, what was ‘good’, or even what the liquid inside those barrels, jacketed and reclining on stillage, would offer.
I resorted to something I might still do to some extent today; if there’s a link to something that appealed to me, I’d pick it. Something football-based, perhaps. Horror films. A brewery that I knew was near me. Something with a dog on the label (rich pickings in the world of real ale, I’ll tell you). Or, like this week’s beer, one named after a goldfish. Well, kind of.
Years ago, when we first started ‘courting’ (I do like that term. It’s warm, fuzzy. Nice.), Louise and I bought some goldfish. Nothing too high-maintenance, we thought. One – mine – was a bold, boisterous white guy called Morrissey. Louise’s was a more graceful, demure golden variant called, oddly, Captain Oates. Despite her naming it after a character’s horse in The OC – a show she liked at the time – it wasn’t until later that we found out that Lawrence Oates, a Londoner who famously met his end on the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica , served in the West Yorkshire Battalion; so there was an unintentional link there.
It was the pumpclip – named after my goldfish, it would seem – that made me choose Captain Oates Mild (4.5%abv), brewed by Susan and Keith Simpson at The Brown Cow Brewery near Selby. It was delicious; one of those beers that really, really stays with you. It’s a multiple award-winner, and I have to say I’ve passed it up on previous beer festival trips since then. It was ‘ticked’, done, tasted. It was good. It was recommended.
So a recent shopping basket of beers from Yorkshire Ales brought a bottle of it into my palm again. All those memories of that festival, the link with the pet, Louise excitedly spotting the name and imploring me to try the beer, came flooding back. The beer didn’t disappoint; topped with a creamy, tan head, the near-black ruby beer carries a nose of bitter chocolate, mild coffee and digestive biscuit notes. The body is smooth, comforting and throws a little nut character into the mix; almonds, to be specific. Sweet, then smooth, then subtly drying in the finish. A moreish, creamy dark mild with an award list as long as your arm, it was immensely satisfying to return to a beer after all those years and find it better than your memory serves. Often it’s not the case, when it comes to beer.
I paired it with Mrs Simpson’s Vanilla Porter. Subtitled ‘Thriller in Vanilla‘ , this 5.1% abv Porter is as satisfying as the previous beer, if not more so. Black again but with an almost purplish hue when held to the light, the aroma bursts with cream, some oakiness, rummy truffle-led notes and more of that signature chocolate digestive-biscuit personality that the Captain Oates had. It’s a heady mix, and one that prepares you for a muddled taste but it never happens – the taste is light and graceful – a fruity, rich porter with black fruit notes and just a swirl of cream at the end to live up to its flamboyant billing.
Brown Cow are one of those breweries that don’t make a fuss and brew a small range of beers incredibly well; practices honed after years of getting the recipe ‘just right’. It’s also great to link up with a beer from the past again and find it in rude health. I hope they continue, and I hope our paths will cross again – sooner, this time.
Since their launch last summer – on a very, very hot day in Bradford - happenings at Northern Monk Brewing Co went a little quiet towards the end of last year. Russell Bisset and Dave Bishop’s beers were launched and sold out, rebrewed (in a cuckoo fashion at Ripon’s Hambleton Ales) and tweaked, before David left the partnership. Then, early this year, a new pale ale – Monachus - appeared, alongside a collaboration with county neighbours Bad Seed Brewing. Northern Monk were back – but is it to stay, this time?
It’s fair to say that those monks have not been spending time relaxing; although some contemplation has certainly taken place. Behind the scenes, Russell and his team have clearly been putting in the hard yards – and traversing the steep learning curve that anyone who sets up their own business inevitably has to become acquainted with.
First thing’s first – the nomads now have a permanent home. Situated in Holbeck Urban Village in Leeds – a stone’s throw from The Cross Keys and Leeds Brewery’s Midnight Bell. We’ll get to that later – first, let’s meet the new members of the Northern Monk fraternity.
Maggie Cubbler – who you’ll all know from Loaded Kitchen), joins as Events and Refectory manager. Brewing is being handled by Brian Dickson, who needs no introduction to drinkers in Yorkshire from his 6 years behind the bar at The Grove (Huddersfield) and his stint moonlighting as Bitches Brewing, creating one-off brews with the likes of Quantum and Black Jack Breweries. Brian cut his teeth with Eddie Gadd at Gadds’ Ramsgate Brewery, as well as periods shadowing the brewers at Dark Star, Thwaites and Red Willow amongst others, and he’s raring to get started on his own beers.
Maggie recently called time on her excellent beer and food blog, Loaded Kitchen. You can read her last post here, which touches on her decision to work with Northern Monk. Maggie explains exactly what she has in mind. ‘From the get-go, we’ve taken many chances to present our beer alongside food. There are a lot of talented people doing some great stuff with food and beer out there, and I’m here to put The Refectory at Northern Monk Brewery on that map too.’
‘Once The Refectory is up and running, I’ll be hooking up the likes of beer-and-cheese events, pairing evenings, and maybe even an event devoted completely to desserts and how well they go with beer. (Just one ticket available for that one though, and it’s mine)! Also, in line with our ethos of collaboration and community, it’s also my responsibility to arrange events outside of The Refectory. Whether it’s beer pairing dinners, tap-takeovers, meet-the-brewers, or whatever, I’m excited to showcase our beer in some of the best restaurants, taprooms, and pubs out there.’
Russell explains the story behind his brewery’s new, permanent home.
‘When we set out to find a property we were really keen to find somewhere where we could have a small tap room and that tied in with the other elements of what we’re about in terms of history and character. It took some time – and I now feel like I’m fairly familiar with pretty much all the industrial units between Bradford and Manchester! We finally narrowed it down to two properties and almost ended up at Dean Clough in Halifax – which is a fantastic development but the location and character of the site in Holbeck Urban Village really won us over.’
So – another brewery for Leeds it is, then. ‘The interior has been stripped back to reveal its former glory, complete with Yorkshire stone flags, red brick walls, arched ceilings, and iron columns that run throughout.’ Russell continues. ’…The Refectory will house our tap room, bottle shop, and kitchen. We’ll have at least 10 Keg and 4 Cask lines, and our focus will be on showcasing some of the best beer in the North. We can’t wait to get beers in from the likes of Magic Rock, Summer Wine, Rooster’s, Buxton, Kirkstall, Ilkley, Saltaire, Quantum, Hawkshead, Bad Seed and so on.’
It all sounds pretty exciting and once up and running, I’m sure The Refectory will be a great addition to the drinking scene in Leeds city centre, bringing another business to an area of Leeds that still feels somewhat underused – and with plenty of potential. Russell says that The Refectory will appear eventually, but the brewery build is the focus. So much so, in fact, that no more beers are being brewed ‘Cuckoo’ until their kit – a 10BBL set-up fabricated by Burton’s Malrex – arrives and they can do it on their own terms. In fact, Russell’s realised that brewing Cuckoo – full stop – isn’t what Northern Monk is about anymore.
‘Unless you have sacks of cash, nerves of steel or just want to produce ‘accountants’ beer, don’t cuckoo brew in the UK!’ he laughs. ‘I don’t think the cuckoo brewing model is a viable long-term option here. It’s easy to look at the likes of Mikkeler and Evil Twin and think that it’s possible to produce bolder beer styles using a cuckoo brewing model. In reality they work with breweries like De Proef that are truly world-class and have third-party production as their bread and butter. But they also have 12 month waiting lists to work with.’
‘That being said, we owe big thanks to the guys at Hambleton, we wouldn’t be where we are without them. It’s also important to give major credit to David Bishop. He’s left us with some great beers – and what a legacy Strannik is.’
Ah, the beer. What can we look forward to drinking in 2014, then?
Russ is understandably coy about going into too much detail about the upcoming beers that he and Brian are formulating, but he does mention a couple of IPA’s called Dark World and 822, a fearsome-sounding triple IPA named Vesuvius – and some barrel-aged Strannik Imperial Stout, which was certainly popular last time it appeared. For the time being, you can still get your hands on some of the Salted Lemon Wit brewed in collaboration with Bad Seed Brewery, and Brian confirms that New World IPA and Strannik will be retained and refined once up and running on the new kit. In his own words, Brian can’t wait to brew beers “…that are not just packed with flavour but have a balance to them as well, a sessionability that has you willing to go back for another”.
So; cuckoo is out but brewing collaboratively is still very much on NMBC’s radar. It’s fair to say there are some interesting partnerships being worked out as we speak; working alongside Saltaire, Bundobust and Gateway Brewing (yes, in Mumbai), to name but three. I agree that working with other breweries and fostering a community around them is a theme that’s nice to see developing at Northern Monk; it nicely links their past with their future.
That being said, you get a sense that the team are dusting themselves off after a very hectic start, getting used to that aforementioned learning curve, and feeling good about having solid foundations underfoot at last.
‘The next few years will be about honing and refining – and I think consistency, quality, and control will be key more than ever before.’ says Russ. ’They’re certainly going to be the things at the very core of what we’re about. It’s an incredible time to be in the UK beer industry both as a beer drinker and brewery founder; I think we’re on the cusp of a truly golden era with so many fantastic breweries and beers in the UK.’
Of all the breweries re-modelling their ‘look’ at the moment (seemingly everyone!), Hawkshead are probably the ones who ‘need’ to do it the least; such is the position that the Staveley-based brewer enjoys in both the drinking and brewing worlds. Spot a Hawkshead beer on the bar – from classics such as Red and Lakeland Gold to newer, bolder additions such as Dry Stone Stout and Cumbrian Five Hop – and you know you’re in for a treat (something Tandleman recently attested to). Matt Clarke and his brewing team are responsible for beers with not only bold flavour, but grace in balance and a consistency record that puts them firmly in my top five UK brewers. One suspects I’m not the only one.
Still, freshening up the look of a pumpclip can do wonders for new markets, and the new range of bottled beers certainly reflect that. Smaller in volume (330ml, with the exception of the stout), for a start, than their tried-and-tested range of Windermere Pale (which is constantly embroiled in a bitter three-way battle with Rooster’s Yankee and Magic Rock’s High Wire for my favourite British Pale Ale), Lakeland Gold and Brodie’s Prime, which reflects the stronger alcohol content and section of the market that these beers are perhaps aimed at.
Joining the sublime company of Cumbrian Five Hop and NZPA is the almost plainly-named IPA. Weighing in at a modest 7% abv, it displays all of that boisterous character that you’d expect from one of Matt Clark’s beers; it screams with hop personality. Pouring a rich amber, the body is sweet, muscular and rippling with boiled sweet and round, soft malt notes. The billowing head fills the top of the glass and you can’t help but stick your nose in there each time you sip; mango, lychee, strawberry and pineapple aroma all whizz by. Alcoholic heat rounds off the sip, reminding you that this IPA came from the Cumbrian hills and is as fortifying as they come.
Dry Stone Stout (4.5%abv), bottled, retains all of the character that I recall from trying on cask late last summer. Rich chocolate truffle dominates the nose – a sweet, rummy note that carries on into the body, where it’s joined by a little fruit to lift proceedings – dark cherry and plum. The finish is dry, woody and creamy, giving the whole beer a Black Forest Gateaux feel. It’s certainly on the sweeter side of stout, but not too much so. Moreish and satisfying.
Finally, Brodie’s Prime Export (nice use of the term Export, too – you don’t see that much these days, do you?) brings new dimensions to the hard-to-find (well, in my neck of the woods, anyway- and I’m talking about on cask) classic. BP’s a bit of a stand-out in the Hawkshead canon – it’s not really a stout but sometimes sold as such on bars – more of a strong dark mild (Leeds’ Midnight Bell sometimes suffers from this identity crisis). Lifting the alcohol levels makes complete sense for this bottled version, and it’s quite a beer.
Dark ruby when held to the light, with a fleeting, tan collar, there’s almond and Dundee cake on the nose; the mouthfeel is thick, slightly oily and tongue-coating and loaded with tobacco, cherry, chocolate, blackberry and mild coffee flavours. the finish is booming; sweet, then bitter, then finishing with a gentle, soporific afterglow of alcohol. Brodie’s Prime Export is a deliciously complex and intriguing beer.
Damn fine beers indeed – if you hop over to the website you can read more about other limited-edition bottles that Hawkshead are producing at the moment.
I like the aforementioned revamped look; the ‘Beer from The Lakes’ strapline is evocative and the clips look good on the bar – especially the cleaned-up, emboldened core range ones. As usual, I maintain my stance that the best re-brands are often the more subtle ones. The new range-look certainly looks good on a bottle. Luckily, Hawkshead can always back up changes with great-tasting beer.
Despite the days stretching out, there’s still plenty of bite in the air to force your hand to stews and broths in the kitchen at this time of year. We all know what cracking bedfellows stews and beers are, but we normally lean toward Beef, Lamb and Dark ales. Chicken Stew is also a good match for golden ales, as long as you stay on the sweeter side. So here’s my recipe for a super-simple one-pot Chicken & Rice Stew. This recipe serves four, or two for two days.
In a large stock pot, slowly sweat one whole Leek and four peeled and diced Carrots. When the carrots are soft, add two pints of chicken stock, and four chicken thighs (with legs). Let these simmer for about 25 minutes, then remove the thighs and legs. Once these have cooled, pull (with your fingers, there’s no other way around it!) all the meat off, and return to the broth. The skin won’t really be worth eating, but if you want to add it in, then do.
Pour in 200g of Rice – use the type you’d use for Paella; Arborio or Bomba, if you can get it – they’ll fluff up and thicken the broth. Now, all you need to is season the broth with a little Salt, one crushed Garlic clove, white Pepper, fresh, chopped Thyme and Rosemary. Stir, then leave to simmer on a low heat for another 30 minutes.
Like I mention above, sweet Golden ales go well with these thick, savoury broths.I enjoyed Coniston’s Bluebird XB (4.2% abv) with the broth this time; it’s toffee-sweet in the body; just teetering on the edge of too sweet, rescued by a crisp bite and robust kick of flavour that’s worthy of the landscape from whence it came. Tempered with this easy-going broth, there’s plenty to be happy about, even if the weather outside is still frightful.
Pool-in-Wharfedale’s own Wharfe Bank Brewery have started 2014 with a rebrand and new identity to match their expanding business. Reflecting thier geographical location – and a subtle name change – the brewery hopes that the new look will serve them well as they progress from the brewery that begun in the basement brewery at The Fox and Newt Brewpub, to one that’s known both nationally and internationally.
From the press release, MD and founder Martin Kellaway credits new brewer Steve Crump with bringing the best out in the WB Range, as well as bringing new ideas to the table. ” (Steve) was appointed Head Brewer in 2013, and was instrumental in the enhancement and evolvement of the beer range and key to developing the exciting new series of rotating beers using unusual ingredients and modern and diverse brewing techniques. Steve will bring inspirational flavours to the local and international market with limited edition beers.”
“Steve is already bringing his flair and talent to the fore. I am proud that Steve can deliver the new brewery vision and make it a reality with the passion he brings to the brew house.”
In October 2013 Wharfe Bank showcased its new and impressive range of beers at the world’s leading food fair, Anuga, in Germany. Taking a modern taste of Yorkshire to an international market place, the brewery trialled Yorkshire XPA -now named within its permanent range of keg beers as Crystal Rain (a 4.3% pilsner -style beer) – and the complete bottled range. In competition with more than 460 drink exhibitors, 139 of which were from the UK, Wharfe Bank secured a raft of international sales enquiries from 12 different countries and this success has supported a new sales strategy to expand Wharfe Bank’s export business across Europe, Asia and America.
Martin concludes, “ Our success so far can be attributed to a genuine passion for beer, and the new dedicated team have the talents to bring about a new Wharfe Bank for 2014 and beyond.”
I’m not being flippant when I say that I don’t really know much about modern Welsh Beer. Aside from the classics – the story of Wrexham Lager, the big boys (boyos?) of Brains and the more well-known (and loved, I might add) names of Purple Moose, Waen and Otley, the first ‘new beer’ I’d had from Wales of late was the power-chord blast of Tiny Rebel Brew Co, a thoroughly modern gang who, in my opinion, still place great value on balance of flavour, despite rocking all the right notes in terms of branding and placement.
I’d been hearing things about The Celt Experience for a while – good things – but only managed to get my hands on their wares late last year when they popped up in Booths. From the striking black-and-metallic labels to the considered, tastefully brewed beers within ,the whole package shouts mystery, whilst projecting the rural, almost gothic feel that the brewery’s advertising suggests. Overall, The Celt Experience brew in three sub-ranges; Core (where these beers come from), the esoteric Shapeshifter series and Ogham; beers of a stronger, more contemplative feel. Having tasted these base beers, I hold high hopes for the rest of the range.
Golden (4.5% abv) is up first; a graceful poem to doing all the little things right. Burnished gold, the aroma comes alive with Citrus jelly undercut by fresh, herbal grassiness. The body of the beer – vital for a golden ale – has a good weight to it, rich with grain and cereal before more orange and lemon washes through to clean things up. The bitterness is robust and long-lasting, making this a pale ale with a voice – a pale ale that will please seasoned hop-heads.
Bronze (4.2% abv) lives up to its name – Copper hued and lively, with a nose like freshly-baked flapjack, all oats and honey. Before the sweetness has a chance to settle on your tongue, more of that aforementioned bitterness arrives, turning the entire pint on it’s head. Thick, creamy and bitter? Rich and refreshing? You bet. Misplaced or not, Bronze reminded me of the best Kentish ales; robust and almost stinging in hop attack. Wonderful stuff; and nice to drink something with a considered British - style hop profile, too.
Finally – and trust me, I didn’t want this tasting to end – comes Bleddyn 1075 (5.6% abv). The brewers describe it as an IPA; but I personally felt that it had more akin to true strong Pale Ales, such as Three Tun’s Cleric’s Cure or Hop Studio’s Vindhya, such was the balance of malt and hop. Semantics, perhaps – the bottom line is that Bleddyn is a fantastically balanced beer that’s not to be messed with. Amber in colour ,there’s nutty, creamily-rich biscuit again that gets hammered into oblivion by waves of Grapefruit-led bitterness, high and dry, then finishing sweet again, leaving a trace of alcohol warmth behind.
As you can probably tell, I really, really enjoyed this trio – and it’s a shame it’s taken me so long to put them up here. The Celt Experience’s beers are starting to appear on bars in Lancashire and Yorkshire, so don’t miss a chance to catch them. After all, the more we drink, the more they’ll have to make and send over, right?
Do pop over to the website; it’s one of the better ones out there and has some lovely, moody photos of the gorgeous landscape from whence these brews were….well, brewed.
Ok, here’s a Burns Night recipe inspired by the ‘new-twist-on-an-old-classic’ I enjoyed at the EBBC in Edinburgh last year. Instead of going for the full Haggis works, I’ve used it to create meatballs; you get a slightly meatier flavour, and they cook a little faster too. This recipe is made for two, but just adjust the amounts of both the sweet potato and meatballs as you see fit.
Start by making your meatballs. Open 6 Beef Sausages (Beef seems to work a little better than pork, as well as feeling a little more Scottish) and put the meat in a bowl, along with half a Haggis (uncooked). Season with a little chopped Thyme, and a small onion, chopped finely. Mix well (with hands!) and then form meatballs. Place on a baking sheet lined with greaseproof paper – tinfoil seems to stick too much to the balls. Leave to firm up in the fridge.
Heat your oven to 200c, and peel couple of large Sweet Potatoes and a couple of Carrots. Cube them and place into a baking dish. Drizzle with a little Olive Oil and some Salt, and then roast until soft – should be about 30 minutes. After 10 minutes, put in your meatballs. Oven-roasted, these should take about 20-25 minutes to cook.
When the veggies are soft and slightly caramelised, remove from the oven and mash. Keep warm, and make a hot/sweet sauce buy gently warming some Double Cream (about 100ml) with a knob of Butter, and stirring in a teaspoon of Mustard and a generous dollop of Honey. Sounds strange, but the smooth/sweet/spicy combination works really well with the sweet mash and peppery meat.
Arrange on a plate and enjoy – with a beer, of course. Dubbel, Stout or Porter would be good here; or even full-bodied Best Bitters or, of course, Scotch Ales. You don’t want anything too hoppy near this dish at all; just enough to lift the edges off the cream and cut through the sweetness. Siren Craft Brew’s Liquid Mistress (5.8% abv) was the beer I opted for; plenty of sweetness and red-fruit in the body, laid on top of plenty of biscuity malt. You’d expect it to be a hop-bomb but it really isn’t; this lady just purrs with enough freshness at the finish to cut through the sweetness of the food.
If you’re not familiar with Siren’s range, I’d rectify that immediately; especially if you can pick some up in London, where I’ve found the bottles particularly to be in good nick. Broken Dream (6%) is a self-styled Breakfast Stout which drinks very well indeed; plenty of juicy raisin and smooth chocolate in the body, married with a fresh, coffee-accented finish. Soundwave IPA (5.6%) does what it says on the tin; that now-standard boiled-sweet, full-flavored body with plenty of tropical fruit notes going on in the nose and in the long, pithy finish.
At the end of last year, Jules Gray – one of the duo behind Sheffield’s new Beer shop, Hop Hideout, asked me if I’d pop down and ‘do something’ in conjunction with them. I’ve hosted tastings before, matching beer with food and such, but only done one discussion-led event before. I enjoyed it a lot, so agreed.
But what to talk about? Well, I blog. I’ve been blogging a long time and, in that time, blogging certainly has changed. I’ve got views – which I might not always deem appropriate to discuss on The Good Stuff; but views nonetheless, as those who have spent any amount of time drinking with me will know. The blog has been fairly successful; I’ve been nominated for awards, and landed a book off the back of it (amongst other things, of course). I’ve helped organise blogging events, done the odd bit of paid, freelance work – and The Good Stuff has been mentioned in a fair amount of press over the years. Let’s not forget either that Jules herself is a pretty accomplished blogger, who has taken a huge leap and set up a business.
So, Better Beer Blogging it is – 28th February. Come down to Sheffield, pull up a chair and we’ll have a chat. If you’re thinking about starting a beer blog – perfect. If you’ve been blogging a while but feel a little stuck in a rut - perfect. If you’re just being nosy – perfect. You’re all welcome.
Tickets are on sale at the shop (which covers the cost of the event, rather than my pocket!), and the event will be held next door at The Electric Candlelight Cafe. Of course, there will be plenty of beer for you to pick up at Hop Hideout. If you have any questions, contact the guys at HH.
See you there!
The humble cheese pie; often overlooked for more sustaining, edgy ‘meat’ varieties, gets a bad rap. It’s always the bridesmaid or – worse still – shoved onto menus as an afterthought, the trad ‘vegetarian’ option; dull, mealy, and filled with ‘cheese product’ rather than the real thing. Make no mistake – the limp Cheese pie has been dealt a poor hand in life.
At IMBC last year (yeah, it was last year, crazy, huh?), my notes contained as much rhapsodising about Great North Pie Co’s Cheese and Onion Pie as the beer that washed it down. The pastry light and crumbly, the cheese filling silken and perfectly poised, it was an anthem of a pie. And it’s been in my mind ever since.
So, Christmas extravagances out of the way, I spent a relaxing hour making my own cheese pie last weekend. Nowhere near as lithe and graceful and Great North Pie’s, it was, nontheless a robust, hearty meal that brings a smile to your lips and, when paired with a great beer, one half of a very, very accomplished duo.
This recipe makes a medium-sized pie for two; if you’re doing a ‘plate pie’ it’s probably about right for a standard-sized plate, too. Firstly, you’ll need to make your filling. In a large mixing bowl, drop cubed cheese – about 120g in total. You can use whatever cheese you want, but I like to blend a couple (think of it like using aroma & bittering hops, a base note and a top note. Really). I used a toothsome Welsh Cheddar (40g) and a softer, subtler Wensleydale (80g).
Peel 2 medium-sized potatoes, then slice them thinly using a mandolin or grater – watch those fingers. Put the potato to one side, and chop the white part of one small Leek into thin rings. Add the Leek to the cheese, then spoon on 100ml of Creme Fraiche. Season well with white pepper and a pinch of salt.
Grease and line your pie tin with some pastry, leaving it hanging over the edge. layer the Potatoes in the bottom, then add some cheese mix, then layer some more potatoes on top of that. Keep layering the cheese mix and potatoes until you get to the top, then place your lid on top, crimp, and glaze with a beaten egg.
Place in a pre-heated over at 175c for about 40 minutes, watching it carefully. Test for doneness with a skewer – it should go right through cleanly. Leave to cool a little, and you’re done.
My own preference with cheese is almost always dark beers, although a juicy, cold IPA would have been interesting too. But on this occasion I plumped for a bottle of Gadd’s Dogbolter. This 5.8% abv Porter is a bit of an icon – the beer that Eddie Gadd witnessed the birth of; the beer that’s the cornerstone of the Firkin Brewpub empire. It’s still – in my opinion – criminally underrated, passed over for younger pups that don’t have a tenth of the depth of this beer. When in perfect condition – as this bottle was – this rough diamond’s aroma not only carries dusty, powdered chocolate and red berry, but a yeasty, earthy note that gives some hint to the complexity of flavour waiting for you.
Sweet chocolate, smooth, roasted grain which gives toasted bread and fresh coffee, and a surprisingly green, well-hopped finish, it hits all the right notes (and yes, in the right order) to make this beer a perfect match for Cheese and Charcuterie or, in this case, a Cheese pie.