Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Christmas Themed Beers

Continuing my odyssey of beer exploration,this week I try to embrace the joys of Christmas…

generic stouty beer pic
Each year I notice Aldi gets in special Christmas themed beers, and last year I bought one because it would count towards my distinct beers challenge. Generally though, I found the way the beer industry tries to tailor itself to different holidays or events… a bit annoying. Especially Christmas though. In the same way that the media seems to think the only music you want to listen to at Christmas are 20 Christmas themed hits from the past and things that involve chimes, jingling sounds and choirs of children, and restaurants think that you want turkey and things with cranberry sauce, the alcoholic drinks industry seems to think you want irish cream (which, frankly, you do), gluhwein (which, should be banned), port (likewise), eggnog (which, excuse me North America, is minging) and beer that tastes a bit spicy because that represents the flavour of Christmas pudding.

Look, can we have a rule here? If you don’t want it at any point during the rest of the year, you can’t have it at Christmas because, clearly it ain’t so special. Here are a few examples to illustrate this.

Mince pies. I like mince pies, but you can only get them at Christmas. Why? I’ll tell you why: would you buy them at any other time of the year? No, because there’s only so many you can eat, and you eat both of those at Cristmas. So we don’t need em.

Turkey. Look, turkey’s just a massive, dry, tasteless chicken. I get that you tend to have more people to feed at Christmas so you need something bigger, but can I suggest goose instead?

Christmas pudding. What is this even for? Let’s pour a shitload of brandy on to a cake and set it on fire! Howabout, let’s drink the brandy and get a cake in that peple actually like? And if you like fire: cigars.

Gluhwein. Hot alcoholic cordial. Are you shitting me?

Band Aid. I just don’t know how I feel about this anymore, except I have an instinctive aversion to it.

Walnuts in shells. Why do people want to crack their own nuts at Christmas?

Christmas trees. Taking up space, presenting a fire hazard.

Works dos. I’ve covered these in an earlier post, and I can’t remember what I said about them. I might’ve been trying to be positive that day, but it’s more llkely I was sarcastic and disparaging. So I’m just going to say, if no one wants to go out with everyone they work with on a regular basis, it’s inhumane to make them do it in a shit bar or restaurant where a number of the previously mentioned examples are likely to be present and a bunch of other works are on dos at the same time.

TV Christmas specials. I know you can’t show Christmas specials at any other time of the year, but really: they’re all the same. Maybe if I was a kid, wall to wall Christmas themed TV would ramp up my excitement even further, but I’m not. I’m an adult. I don’t need to see popular chat show hosts and comedy characters dressed as Father Christmas. I don’t need to know anything about elves (unless it stars the delightful Will Ferrell), angels (unless it’s It’s a Wonderful Life), reindeer, or ghosts of Christmas past, present or twatting future. You get me?

Which brings me back… to Christmas themed beer. I would normally avoid these like anything with Piers Morgan in it (unless it was Piers Morgan being dunked repeatedly in a bowl of shit), but as I said, the distinct beers challenge (coupled with the arrival of Christmas) convinced me to just try all the Christmas beers. In the same way that I decided to read one of Piers Morgan’s books just to confirm how much of a bellend he is, I decided to try all the Christmas themed beers I could find to confirm it’s pointless. Let’s see shall we, what they’re like and whether there are any thematic similarities?

As I got started on this, it actually turned out that there weren’t actually that many Christmas themed beers, though I did come across a lot of things that were termed Winter Ales. I decided to look up what this was, and found that it tends to refer to things like stouts and porters because they often aren’t available in summer. It may be true that they aren’t always available in the summer, but as we’ll see, a lot of the winter ales I came across weren’t actually stouts or porters. Similarly, I don’t see all that much that can be deemed wintry about some of these ales. But nevertheless, a-delvin’ we will go. [it turns out that plenty of stouts and porters are available in the summer months. A look at the bottles available at Urmston’s Prairie SchoonerTap House on the 5th of June revealed there were no less than 10 porters or stouts in stock. It also turns out that the existence of winter ales stems more from the kind of beers that could be brewed in winter – you know, like in the old days – rather than any thematic intentions.]

I bought the rest of the Christmas themed ales that were available from Aldi and a few that I could find in Tesco. Asda didn’t have any Christmas themed beers at all, which I found very odd. I did pick up some winter ales in Sainsburys, and elsewhere, I tried to buy Christmassy or winter ales whenever I went to the pub – which is quite a lot in December for the various band Christmas dos, golf Christmas dos, work Christmas dos…

First was Wychwood’s Bah Humbug which has 5 ABVs (though the website claims there are only 4.3) and features a cartoon impression of Scrooge on the label in the inimitable Wychwood goblin style. I’m quite a big fan of the Hobgoblin – probably their most famous product – and I can see I’ve given Bah Humbug with its spicy fruit flavours 3 stars. That’s not bad – in fact I have to admit I rather enjoyed it.

I see Wychwood actually do a whole host of seasonal ales – one for each month. I don’t know whether to be moderately impressed or incredibly annoyed about that. I’ll decide later. It is later; I have decided now that I like it, as it means there are more distinct beers to look out for.

Next was St Peter’s Christmas Ale, which comes in a snazzy flask with a label that depicts a typical cottagey British winter scene. It’s a hearty 7% and is described as smooth, fruity and full-bodied; the perfect companion for Christmas savouries, sweets and snacks.  I scored it an average 3 out of 5.

I see St Peter’s also have a slightly extended range of seasonal beers, including a winter one and they all come in that impossibly cool flask.

Jenning’s Redbreast contains four and a half ABVs and rather than showing a lady’s sunburnt bosom on the label, comes adorned with the slightly more predictable image of a robin in a hat and scarf, whistling out a few notes. This is Jenning’s’ December release, the January one being Cockle Warmer, which I expect I’ll get to shortly. I scored the Redbreast another average 3.

On entering Yule Love It! Into Untappd, I was surprised to find three other beers going by that name. That suggests a dearth of imagination, doesn’t it? Nevetheless, this one is by Thwaites Brewery and clocks up a stilted 4% ABV. It is described simply as an amber Christmas ale and I can’t really add anything to that, other than that I actually scored this an extra half a star on the others, making it the best so far. You might take that with a pinch of salt though, as other Untappd members thought it had a generic hoppy taste with a hint of water or that it was tasteless. I thought the hoppyness was actually an improvement on the blandness of all the other Christmas themed ales I’d tried so far. As for a hint of water… all beers contain that – usually up to around 95%.

Hardys & Hansons Rocking Rudolph notches 4.2 ABVs and is part of Greene King’s seasonal ale range. A cartoon reindeer with an Elvis wig and a guitar (hilarious), potentially bursting out of a snowglobe decorates this one… and it’s back down to 3 stars because extra points are not awarded for the number of components an image possesses.

Old Miserable Git, another by Thwaites is the second beer in our list to reference those of us who might have a slightly grumpier reaction to Christmas. That doesn’t mean I appreciate it anymore than the others – in fact, I don’t. It’s another 3 stars. It’s 4.1% and is presented with a cartoon image of a cigar chewing grouch.

Christmas Plum Pudding from JW Lees is quite different. It’s 4.8% and described by the brewer as “Christmas in a glass”. It sure is fruity and smooth and I have to say a little odd tasting. It went down quite easily though (as in fact did all the pints I had on the evening I consumed this one), and I was enjoying it by the end. I only gave it a 3 though.

With Sainsburys Taste The Difference Celebration Ale by Black Sheep (6% ABV), the supermarket giant has adopted branding that belies its own brand identity. In fact, through a set of uninteresting circumstances I came into possession of two more Taste the Difference offerings in the form of the equally well branded American Pale Ale and Tap Room IPA(both by Genesee Brewing Company). I’m not sure how I feel about this since I tend to avoid own brands wherever possible (unless I’m in the market for cheap spirits), but you’ve got to give them credit for sourcing these products from reputable brewers. That they make no secret of who the brewer is encourages one to buy, but also to feel cheated when one realises one has paid full price for a supermarket own brand… of sorts – which wouldn’t be a problem if the products were any good, but these aren’t. While I should only be concerning myself with the product that is described as “a rich, dark winter warmer” on its label, it’s worth mentioning that I scored all three a derisory 2 stars out of 5. The American Pale Ale in particular I remember recoiling in horror at a weak and toiletty aftertaste.

Conclusions

Out of all of the beers listed above,  only the Celebration Ale proclaimed itself a stout or porter (stout, to be precise). I did drink one or two of that ilk over the period, but they weren’t labelled Christmas or Winter ale, so I don’t think you can count them.

What have we learned then? Well, you can correct me if I’m wrong, but from what I can see, as long as it is an ale and not a lager, there’s nothing to stop something from being classed as a winter or Christmas-themed ale. As long as you can convince people it is rich, spicy or warming and you stick a wintry scene on the label or call it a comical wintry name, you’re all right. If you want a more informative, fact-laden account than I can [be bothered to] give you, try this link. The thing is, despite the traditional origins of winter ale and the seasonal nature of what is called Winter Ale, it seems to me that you can buy similar products all year round – these days at least. Now that I’ve done my initial research, I suppose it’s time to put that to the test – at least it will be when it ain’t winter no’ mo’. [I can confirm that I did manage to buy a winter ale in July, Dunham Massey’s Winter Warmer, though I don’t remember where I got it from.]

As ever, I’m learning as I go along, and hopefully you’re having a nice time and can say you’re learning with me. Sure, you could go to someone who already knows all about it, but how much fun would that be? Exactly. No fun at all.


This then, marks my last post of the year. I hope you’ve had fun joining me on my various adventures. I’ll be back in the new year as ever, returning with a run down of my favourite three spirits from 2015. In the meantime, if you need something to read, I’m sure there are plenty of backposts you haven’t read. I promise though, that there will be plenty more to read about in the new year. Till then, have a great Christmas.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Distinct Beers Challenge Climax, Results and Analysis

sorry that these are just photos of a computer screen, but I don't know what I'm doing
Thursday 12 November 2015 was to be the final night of competition in the year long Distinct Beers Challenge,which you could have been following on Twitter at #DistinctBeersChallenge. I had one beer left in my fridge after the pub crawl, and had that on the Sunday during dinner preparation. That had left me just 2 beers behind the leader, Pablo. His prodigious distinct beer drinking had left him on the verge of a well-deserved victory, but I wasn’t just going to stand by make it easy. I waited until Wednesday lunchtime at work, and nipped down the local Lidl to see if they had anything in, coming away with four very reasonably priced distinct beers.

One had been a gamble – Hatherwood’s Golden Goose was definitely in a different bottle, but was it the same beer? When I was able to check, (I could get no data connectivity in Lidl itself), I found that this new bottling was no. 4, so it was indeed a distinct beer. Curiously though, on searching the app again, that beer has mysteriously disappeared from the app. I’ve raised query with them, so it will be interesting to see what happens. Back to the story.

I resolved to drink two beers that evening, see where things were after that, and visit the nearby big Asda the following lunchtime to stock up on ammo for one last assault.

As I kept an eye on the app that evening, I saw that Pablo was having a beer too. With Mrs Cake’s encouragement, I decided to have three instead of two, just in case. I would be looking after our little girl on my own on the Thursday, so it might be difficult to keep opening and pouring beers while simultaneously trying to entertain, feed, change and console a wriggling, mewling 16 week old, should the contest go right down to the wire.

Incidentally, that third happened to be Mrs Cake’s Samuel Smith Imperial Stout that she’d been saving. I opened it by accident, mistaking it for one of mine, and therefore preserving 2 of my Lidl stash for the next evening.

Thursday came and I saw that Pablo had snuck another beer under the radar on the previous night. That left me one behind going into the final evening. It all depended on what Pablo and I would do.
I proceeded with my plan. The trip to Asda proved fruitful; I found the only four beers I hadn’t had before and looked forward to striding to victory.

I launched into it as soon as I got home with a Praga Premium Pils from Lidl, pausing just to greet the family and pull over-excited faces at our little girl, then left a small gap until after dinner before continuing with Bishops Finger. I couldn’t really believe I hadn’t logged that one before, but obviously it had slipped through the net as it isn’t really of a style I’d seek out generally.

I saw that Pablo hadn’t logged anything yet, so I took another break while I tried to feed our offspring. Mrs Cake’s plans had been cancelled anyway, so there were no impediments to doing what was necessary – unless Pablo absolutely caned it and I hadn’t got enough beers in.

Next up was Warka, and finally Goose Island Honker’s Ale. That left me two beers ahead, with two hours until midnight and two beers in the fridge, in reserve. Pablo still hadn’t registered anything. I kept checking, and was going to wait right up to the moments before midnight, just in case Pablo was using sneaky tactics – such as drinking but not logging until the last moment, so that I wouldn’t be able to match him. I didn’t really think Pablo would be as sneaky as that though.

Then I started thinking, what if Pablo thought the competition ended last night? I’m going to have to check as I don’t want to declare myself the winner and turn out to be mistaken… or give anyone any excuses…

I scrolled down my Facebook timeline to a year ago when the challenge had first been issued and read that the deadline would be 2317 on 12 November 2015. That would mean the competition would be over 43 minutes sooner than I had thought.  So I started to worry that I might have told people during the pub crawl that the deadline was midnight. Ultimately of course, the date stated in the original post would be law, but I didn’t want any controversy or cause for dissent.

23:17 came and went and I was tired, so I decided not to wait up until midnight, figuring the two beer lead was probably enough. It was; I checked first thing when I woke up the following morning. First job at work that day would be to complete the graph, announce the news and do a little bit of analysis.

who actually drank the most distinct beers in the year?
I would just like to point out that, even though I won the overall challenge by not letting anyone exceed my distinct beers total, both Pablo and Dave actually drank more distinct beers than me during the year - Dave just by 8, but Pablo by an impressive... 20, 30, 40...56. Overall though, I still had two more beers than Pablo.

Now it was over, it all seemed a bit of an anti-climax, though I also felt a gaping hole in my life. What would we do now, without an all-consuming, alcohol-fueled competition? Well, let’s just cool our boots a little bit there. I’m sure we’ll think of something, and there’s a lot of analysis to do first.

What have we learned?

Let’s do this bullet point style, like it’s a presentation.

    Lidl beers
  • There are loads of different beer brands and styles, but it is still very difficult (and expensive) to keep finding new ones. In spite of that, I’ve found a new enthusiasm, if not appreciation for beer, and that is a good thing – as proven by how I was almost as excited to receive 6 beers from my sister as an early Christmas present this year as I would have been to receive a bottle of whisky.
  • Garden centres and stately homes are good places to find unsual local craft ales.
  • Some beers specify that they be stored upright for a reason.
  • Lidl is also a good place to pick up distinct beers– they seem to rotate stock quite often and cover a few varieties. Even if the range isn’t particularly wide, it is cheap.
  • If you’re going to try as many beers as possible, you’d better be prepared to splash some cash. And get around a bit.
  • Most beer is pretty average but if you like beer, that’s ok.
  • It is ok to ignore recommended serving temperatures. Just have it all cold.
  • Have a strategy for recording beers if you have no data connectivity – such as using the note  function on your phone. Be aware though, that there are often numerous beers with the same name so you’ll need to note the brewery and sometimes other details to be sure you’re getting the right one.
garden centre beers

In all honesty, I’m struggling to think of anything else we’ve learned. Let’s reduce this to quantitative data, and see if that tells us anything.

I drank 372 distinct beers between 23:17 on 12 November 2014 and the same time on 12 November 2015. 372 beers from 28 different countries, and from every continent except Antarctica, comprising 83 different styles –as recognised by Untappd.

graph showing frequency of scores attained by beers
As you might know, you have the chance to score each beer out of 5, so I’ve plotted the various scores on a graph. As you can see, an average 3 out of 5 is the most popular rating, while ‘above average’ scores of 3.5 and 4 out of five were more common than ‘below average’ 2 or 2.5 out of 5. That pretty much goes to prove that, in general, beer is ok, but, slightly better than that, I like beer more than I don’t like it.

What do the stats tell me about which kinds of beer I like?

If you’d asked me what kinds of beers I like before, I would have listed IPAs, wheat beers and red ales primarily. My least favourite would probably be bitter, fruit beers and winter ales. I have a post on winter ales coming up (hopefully next week), but in the mean time, let’s take a look at the data on those aforementioned kinds of ales and see if we can conclude anything.

IPA

I recorded 6 distinct IPA styles and 57 different IPAs in all. That means 15% of the distinct beers I drank were IPAs. On average they do seem to score better than beer in general – IPAs scoring an average of 3.34 out of 5 against the all beer average of 3.14. There are still some distinctly uninspiring examples among IPAs though – RtwoDtwo’s Steam Hopper IPA scored only 1, while no one scored full marks. There were more 4.5s than usual though.

Red Ales

I didn’t generally come across as many of these as I would have liked – only 11 in total. They scored pretty well, RtwoDtwo’s Best Red being the exception with 2 out of 5, while everyone else scored between 3 and 4. There were no scores above 4.

Wibiers

Only 8 of my beers were wheat beers, and again that reflects a lack of availability, as I would have chosen it more often, given the opportunity. Once again, the scores were good, but not great.

Bitters

Bitter was well represented, and again, that was because of availability, rather than any desire on my part to drink bitter. There are just so many pubs in the UK where if you want something you haven’t tried before, it’s going to be bitter. The same goes for a lot of the stock in supermarkets. I drank 37 different bitters and on average they scored a pretty low 2.92 – nothing scoring more than 4 out of 5.

Fruit beers

I managed to deliberately avoid these for the most part, clocking up only one, JW Lees and Co’s Christmas Plum Pudding. I think you’ll be reading a little more about that one next week. In general I don’t see the point in fruit beers… manly and girly at the same time… it’s just confusing. Like ladyboys.

Winter ales

This genre was a little better represented because of research I was doing for a post (coming next week) about winter and Christmas themed ales. Again, my general dislike (hoping I’m not ruining next week’s post too much) came out with only one of the 11 beers scoring 4 out of 5 (take a bow, Tweed Brewing Co’s Winter Tweed).

Winners and Losers

Aside from me (who was the winner) and everyone else (who lost), there is the question of which beers (and breweries) deserve the overall praise or derision. Let’s start with the breweries.

As you can imagine, I came to seek out certain breweries over the course of the year, so some have a better chance of being represented here than others. Worthy of particular praise are Thornbridge, Cloudwater, Staffordshire Brewery and Badger Ales. Some of these had lower scoring beers as well as high, but I hardly think they can be held responsible for my personal tastes with regard to styles.

In that spirit, I’m not going to dwell on the breweries whose wares I sampled only once or twice, since it is as likely that I tried varieties that weren’t to my personal taste, as much as that it was bad beer.

In terms of individual beers then, scoring 4.5 out of 5 and worthy of great praise are each of the following:

Caesar Augustus IPL by Williams Brothers
Wild Swan, Jaipur X and Bear State, all by Thornbridge
Hairy Potter by Staffordshire Brewery
Workie Ticket by Mordue Brewery
Hop ‘n’ Roll by Manerba Brewery
Carrie by Kaapse Brouwers
IPA (Summer 2015) and DIPA, both by Cloudwater.

That leaves only one beer to mention, one you could call the overall winning beer of the whole year because it is the only one that scored 5 out of 5. I don’t know whether I’d enjoy it that much again, but I can remember even now, sitting out in the garden on one of the year’s hot days drinking Unmistakably Bill’s pale ale by Caledonian Brewing Company.

Congratulations and thanks to all the beers that have made my year that much tastier.

I will, just for the sake of balance, shame the 5 beers that scored only 1 out of 5:

Steam Hopper IPA by RtwoDtwo
Honey Porter by St Peter’s Brewey Co.
Boddingtons Bitter by Boddingtons
Dead Crow Rum Flavoured Beer by Beverage Brands
Golden Glory by Badger Ales

You guys, maybe think about doing better (not you, Badger Ales, I’ve been enjoying most of your other output), or maybe put it down to your beer not being to my personal taste. Just take it on board. It’s up to you.

Conclusions

Does that mean this whole experiment was worthwhile? Well, I’m just going to say yes. It was fun and got the banter flowing between those of us who took part. I was probably going to drink a certain amount of beer anyway, though it is hard to say whether I ultimately drank more than I would have done. Given that I was going to slow down before the competition started, I probably did end up drinking more beer than otherwise.

So what now? We definitely need a new competition to fill the gap, but now that the pressure’s off, how will our drinking habits change? I’m still determined to try different beers as much as possible. I quite like that I’ve had all the beers in most places I go. It means I can say to myself, I’ll only buy beer today if there’s some I haven’t had already. It will be nice though, to not feel compelled to go and buy beer when I’m skint and don’t really want to.

Postcript

Before I leave you then, let me just finish by saying that we have now hit upon a new contest – the Christmas Beers Challenge. And you can read about that… soon.


I’ll be back next week with  a final instalment of what I’m going to call the Distinct Beers Trilogy, in which I’ll be discussing the Christmas themed beers and winter ales that went some way towards inspiring the aforementioned Christmas Beers Challenge. And just in time for Christmas too. So… see you then.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

The Distinct Beers Challenge; It's Not a Graph, it's a Competition


It’s some months now since I first mentioned a phone app called Untappd on these pages. It was in my StockportPub Crawl post, I believe. I have to admit not being so bothered about it at first, but I kept up the trying of different beers and subsequent logging anyway,  and it has since taken on a life of its own…

It started with trying to buy a distinct beer – as in, distinct from all the others I’d already logged – every time I bought a pint. That went nicely in hand with the increasing frequency of trips to The Magnet. I didn’t let it rule my life however. Sure, I’d extract myself from conversation for a couple of minutes every time while I logged and rated, then I’d announce proudly whether or not I’d received a badge to justify my efforts, but I didn’t let it stop me picking up my usual four cans of Holsten Pils on a Friday evening or just buying a pint I was familiar with because I didn’t want to think about it… at first

It wasn’t a competition… exactly – though if it were, I would have been winning. I had a very short start on all my friends who chose to take part, and I took it slightly more serious from the beginning, but I was still proud to be way ahead in terms of distinct beers and badges earned.At the beginning of November, roughly 8 months after the start, I’d racked up 163 distinct beers and 66 badges – without trying particularly hard, remember.

It was at this point that Phil texted me to inform me of his intention to have exceeded my distinct beers tally by the same time next year – so that would be November 12 2015. And then it became a competition.

Phil was only on 38 beers at the time and, while I accept that he probably wasn’t trying very hard at all up to that point, I figured he would have to up his game somewhat to achieve his goal – not least because my tally was sure to continue to grow over the following 12 months – probably even more deliberately this time. I came to realise just how many drinks opportunities had been wasted on beers I’d already logged – the aforementioned 4 cans of Holsten, the week spent in Spain where it made sense to buy multipacks of beer and in fact where the scope for sourcing distinct beers was limited…

Nevertheless, up to this point I knew I had the advantage of generally being more widely travelled (Florida and Berlin had both figured in my travel itinerary since my first check-in – whereas Phil had only taken his partner on holiday once in the last 8 years – to Bruges, sure enough but, still…), and therefore being exposed to the possibility of a wider variety of beers – and also that massive start. I also had a few disadvantages though.

First, I’d been noticing my belly growing over the preceding few months and I’d thought that maybe I’d cut back on the beer for a bit. Second, we’d be moving house soon and, unless I found a convenient pub that was The Magnet’s equal, regularly sourcing distinct beers might not be so easy.

Thirdly, Phil suggested that , as my distinct beers total grew, surely it would become more difficult to find new beers. Pablo rightly pointed out that it seems new breweries are opening all the time, so there’s always new beer… which is true except that a lot of the places you end up going for drinks only serve the same 3 or 4 beers, and you can’t always steer your companions in the direction of somewhere with a wider variety. Not to mention that it’s difficult to remember all the beers you’ve tried already, meaning there’s always the possibility of accidentally getting one you’ve already had.

Finally, what I couldn’t tell anyone at first, but what I can write now, knowing I won’t be posting this for a few months, is that Mrs Cake had become pregnant. Now, that didn’t mean I was going to stop drinking, but it did mean I wouldn’t be drinking so often. Mrs Cake had become a regular beer-trying companion, and if she’s not allowed to drink at all, then we’re not going to be popping out to the pub very much. Phil could actually say the same thing about Katie (who was actually one month ahead of us in pregnancy terms), but I don’t think Katie was as much a drinking companion as Mrs Cake was.

Pretty much as soon as the gauntlet had been cast, Phil started racking up distinct beers in earnest – but worse, he was ordering halves. Then everyone else wanted in, and my graph showing our progression grew from two people to five.

Pablo started on 105 distinct beers, leaving 58 to catch up; Jon started on 7, and Dave on 68.

For my part, I was determined not to go nuts, but I did start going out of my way to buy something different for home drinking each time. It isn’t as easy as you might think – the selection at Tesco for example is fairly uninspiring and a lot of it consists of the kinds of beer I’m not particularly interested in drinking – golden ales and low strength bitters. Even when I went into Carrington’s I wasn’t exactly bowled over by options – everything looked familiar. I didn’t really want to get my phone out and check whether I already had certain beers logged, but before long that’s what I was having to do – it was better than the feeling of waste that would accompany finding I was duplicating my work later on. There were occasions when I felt sure I was getting something distinct, only to be furious at wasting money on something I’d already had when I returned from the bar and tried logging it.

The competition element also started to reveal other difficulties - I couldn’t send someone else to the bar for me if I want a distinct beer because they wouldn’t know what I’d had already (except in those pubs that have big boards up showing what they’ve got on, or menus). I could’t even suggest they get the most obscure one since there’s no more chance of me not having had that already than anything else – which meant I had to either go for myself every time, or go with them, and in either case explain what was going on.

It wasn’t long before the explaining got boring. People would ask how come we didn’t start from zero (wouldn’t be fair – though it doesn’t mean I won’t tally that up also – and that wasn’t the challenge), what are the rules (there really aren’t any), can’t you cheat – say by logging beers you’ve had in the past, or haven’t actually had (yes, but you’d only be cheating yourself, and winning wouldn’t be so satisfying).

It was also starting to get expensive. I was buying £6 IPAs before I knew it, and pretending I could afford it. To be fair, I would probably have done that anyway but I wouldn’t have gone back immediately and bought another pint for about the same price, as I was doing. Then I was buying cans of beer the size of coke cans (330ml) for £4.50, and thanking them for it. Why don’t I just let the whole beer industry bum me? Jesus.

Towards the end of this whole debacle, there was the Indy Man Beer Con, where you hand over your hard earned cash for tokens, each representing one pound. Then you buy thirds of beer for various numbers of tokens. You’re not thinking at the time, but when you spend four tokens on a third of beer, that would make a pint twelve pounds. It then seems cheap that there are ones you can get for two and a half tokens, but even then it’s £7.50 a pint.

As I said before, Phil was buying halves deliberately. I didn’t really think this was on, but there aren’t really any rules. If people do things like that you could tut at them or sneer at them, and that might make them feel bad. For my part, I can’t say I’m completely blameless as, I have certain friends who, when we go to each other’s place for dinner, we bring different beers, and then we’ll share them so we both get to try them all. It doesn’t happen often, but it’s similar to Phil’s trick. The thing is, he started doing that because he wanted to win whereas I’ve been sharing fancy beers with visitors since well before the competition began.

My personal rules were as follows:
  • Halves are not acceptable unless you’re sharing a fancy beer with a friend.
  • Thirds are only acceptable at the IMBC – you could rationalise this by saying that you’re paying for at least two pints even though you’re only getting a third, so it’s only fair.
  • It is not acceptable to log a beer that you’ve only had a taste of.

One accidental but I suppose no less underhand manner in which I gained an advantage was in my beer purchases for Clare from Feast andGlory’s NYE party. I’d asked Phil if he was intending to bring distinct beers, and he said no, since that would mean riding roughshod over the party spirit and having to keep all his beers to himself. I agreed, and intended to just get 6 or 8 bottles of a lager I particularly liked. When it came to buying though, Mrs Cake took it upon herself to do it while I was at band practice. She texted to ask what I wanted, and I replied along the agreed line. Instead of that though, she just decided to buy me 6 different beers that took her fancy – and she happened to buy 6 I’d never had before. Phil spotted this within about 5 minutes of arriving at the party. Oh well; what Mrs Cake’s done can’t be undone.

There were occasions when I had to buy distinctly average beers just because I hadn’t logged them already – despite drinking my fair share of them in a previous life – Stella, Foster’s, Guinness (Guinness is ok, but I never buy it), Carling – just all them beers you consider to be piss, and even really dodgy stuff like Lynx.

On one occasion I tried a beer called Einstok while on a works Christmas do. It had a nice, understated label, but I felt the beer itself was distinctly average. I noted that it was from Iceland (the country, not the frozen food store) and I just started thinking:

Do we really need to be importing distinctly average beer from Iceland?

Nothing against Iceland or anything, but how far is this going to go? Have we not got enough beer? We have, haven’t we? Let’s find out.

So after a few months it became a bit of a slog. After all, it is a marathon rather than a sprint, and ultimately we would just have to see who could be the most consistent overall. Phil’s challenge had pretty much fallen away by March, but Pablo was racking up beers with gusto, and while it didn’t seem enough to make up significant ground on my tally at first, it wouldn’t stay that way.

The months continued to pass though and my finances started to wane for a variety of reasons, so my lead began to wane.  Pablo was rapidly approaching with nothing to stop him attending various festivals (beer and other), meet the brewer events, and just generally going to the pub with alarming regularity. If I was going to be the winner in November, I’d need to step up my game.
Manerba beers
 The missus and I only managed one holiday in the course of the year, and that was to Italy – not a place that is renowned for its variety of beer, despite providing quality products like Peroni and Moretti. Luckily, it turned out there was a microbrewery near where we were staying, called Manerba. I was able to call there and pick up one of each variety of their beers, and drink them throughout the week. That made nine, so that wasn’t too bad.

My first real pub crawl opportunity came at the end of May, in Stockport. I think I must have been out of practice at drinking multiple beers though, as looking back the night, I didn’t log half of the ones I got to try, and there’s no way of figuring out what they were now. I could complain about that, but you’ve got to take responsibility. Anyone can say, “yeah, but if I’d logged them all…” You’re supposed to log them all.

A week or so later I called into Urmston’s The Prairie Schooner on my way home, figuring I’d make a newly concerted effort. I’d spent much of my idle time that day perusing the bottle stock list on their website and comparing it with my Untappd log to determine which ones I’d tried before and which I’d actually like to spend my money on. It turned out that, of the British beers that I concentrated my efforts on, only a few were ones I’d logged previously, and there was an encouraging number that I’d call appealing – in particular some fairly high strength IPAs.

I’d made a note on my phone and spent a few minutes picking out the ones I could remember and scanning the shelves for others, before deciding to stop at 10. I’d already told Mrs Cake that I wasn’t wanting to spend more than £30 and would be hoping to come in easily under that target. £30 is a lot to be spending on beer to take home – you can get a decent single malt for that.  I’d taken £30 out of the cash machine to supplement the £7 I had on me in advance of meeting Mrs Cake in the Steamhouse for a beer, and it turned out to be a good thing that Mrs Cake paid for that beer… because my Schooner purchases came to £36. When I posted about my purchases online, the consensus was that that was quite reasonable. Yeah, maybe, but I could have gotten 38 cans of Holsten Pils for the same price.

When I came to trying the beers, it was disheartening to find out how average I found most of them – not bad by a long way, just not not worthy in my opinion of an average of £3.60. That’s not the Prairie Schooner’s fault but, even with a number of products falling into a 3 for £10 offer, you can see why it’s hard for small breweries. If you need 24 bottles or cans for something, you’re going to go to Tesco aren’t you, and get a crate of something that’s hopefully half decent for like, £15? You just can’t afford to buy 24 craft ales.

I’d posted to all the other contestants some time previously, somewhat frivolously, that the beer industry would no doubt thank us all for our involvement in the challenge but, I’m not sure they will, will they? All we’re doing is trying something different every time, and that just doesn’t help the producer – they need repeat business (as I learned one time when I took Mrs Cake to a B&B in Robin Hoods Bay and over breakfast, the proprietor told us that one time visits weren’t much use to him – like it was a given –certainly more than a subtle hint – that we would be back. We never were), and the only time any of us is giving repeat business is if a brewery produces a number of varieties. A lot do, but once we’ve tried them all, will we buy any again?

There aren’t many breweries I’ve actually become a fan of through this and, I’m sorry to say, there have actually been times when I’ve chosen not to buy any beer at all because I couldn’t find anything I haven’t tried already or that I liked enough to buy again. Though when I do buy beer, I am spending significantly more than I did in the past. I’m just maybe buying significantly less – you know; three bottles instead of 8 cans. From time to time.

We ploughed on, some of us relentlessly, others (like Jon) saw the pace he would be expected to keep and just declared they’d “found their brand” and stopped. He didn’t log a single beer in the final 7 months. Phil said he’d be right up there if all the beers he’d had were distinct, which I pointed out was the most redundant statement ever made. We’d all had to drink beer that we’d tried previously. The competition wasn’t about drinking the most beer, but the most different beers. And again, you can apply that logic to anything: if we’d scored more goals, we’d have won the match. Yeh, but you didn’t.

As the competition wore on Pablo showed no signs of slowing, while I had to [almost] quit for 6 weeks while I was on driving alert for getting Mrs Cake to the hospital. There were also a lot fewer festivals and trips to the pub for me, but that’s not the point is it? The challenge is the challenge and no excuses will be accepted. If Pablo was to win it would have been well deserved. He applied himself and took advantage of his competitors’ weaknesses, but in general, he’s also way more interested in beer than anyone else is and it would only be fair for that to be rewarded.

With around a month to go, he went into the lead for the first time, but only for a few days, as I started racking them up again following the birth of my little girl and the advent of three weeks of paternity leave. It was going to be an exciting run in, especially when even Pablo had started complaining that he was running out of beers he hadn’t tried – and not just in the supermarkets; in fancy beer shops, too. He’s had to resort to buying German beers, a genre he doesn’t actually have any kind of liking for.

Blowout

Time moves quicker as you get older and, before we knew it, the culmination of the year long challenge was approaching. We arranged a pub crawl for the weekend before the Thursday that would bring our competition to an end.

The idea was to do the Piccadilly Mile, a procession of breweries spanning the Ardwick and Piccadilly areas that had begun to open their doors to visitors on Saturday afternoons. The reality is that they don’t all open at once, so you have to check in advance. On the weekend we’d chosen only Cloudwater and Alphabetwere to be open, so we had to find other ways of upping our beer count. Pablo created a route, and sent us all a map. It looked quite a slog on paper, potentially covering 2.2 miles, but sometimes thems the lengths you have to go to to reach a variety of pubs you’ve never been in before.

We knew the title wasn’t really up for grabs on this excursion, since all remaining active participants were present and drinking at roughly the same speed. I was determined not to lose any ground though, and actually clocked up 10 distinct beers that day – as well as two more that I had logged previously, and the possibility that I had some I couldn’t remember drinking later on.

At The Star & Garter, on our way back into town, I chose a Boddington’s from their limited selection in the first instance, hoping I hadn’t logged it yet. I had, and then Dave found they were selling an obscure looking can called Primus. He got that and, to ensure I didn’t lose any ground, I chugged my Boddies a bit quicker than everyone else, and went back for a Primus – carrying the remainder out with me in my jacket pocket when everyone else finished before I had.

There’s never a bin around when you need one is there? I only mention it because later, when I finished the can, there was nowhere for me to dispose of it, so I crushed it up a bit and put it back in my inside pocket. Much later I remember walking through a pub and kicking a can along the floor. I remember being confused, and not realising that it must have fallen out of my pocket. I was probably in a right state by then.

You probably want to know a bit more about the breweries but, as you know, this is a half assed blog at best, and I generally don’t find talking about beer all that interesting. I will say though, Cloudwater had some sort of launch event on, and they were very welcoming and busy, and had five or six examples of their beer available for very reasonable prices. I tried the IPA and DIPA, and they were both excellent.

We didn’t stay long because we wanted to get to Alphabet before they closed. We were there early enough, but not early enough to stop them closing up early. It seems no one else had shown up all day, so they figured they could get home early.

My beer roll call for the day (with scores) is as follows, Queen of the Night Pale Ale (2.5), Goose Island IPA (unscored because I’d had it before), Cloudwater IPA Summer 2015 (4.5), Cloudwater DIPA (4.5), Boddington’s Bitter (1 – scored in spite of having it before), Primus (2), Heavy Industry Left Field (3), Hydes Provenance Munchen (2), Northern Monk Peated Soul (3.5), Blindfold Cider (1.25 – I don’t remember having cider, it might have been an accident. It is probably also an accident that I scored it a quarter point – I never do that as a rule), Winning Post Ankle Tap (2), Sonnet 43 Bourbon Milk Stout (3).

That’s a pretty impressive haul.


That left just a few more competition days until the winner could be announced. Join me next week for the climax, results and some analysis.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Spirit Log: Reappraising the Caol Ila 12


 Since I didn’t receive it for Christmas as expected, using my Christmas money for it was always the most likely thing to happen – especially since for once I didn’t need to buy any clothes. And here it is, purchased for £37 from Tesco which, according to Bring a Bottle was the cheapest it was available for at that time. I polished off my Christmas money with the purchase of the Havana Club Anejo Reserva, which you’ll be able to read about later.

Let me just start by reiterating once again that this is (or was – attempting to keep a little suspense for the conclusion) my favourite scotch – in fact it is [was] probably my favourite spirit, so this bottle better live up to expectations, not just because I don’t want to be disappointed, but also because over the last couple of years I’ve been campaigning Mrs Cake to name our first daughter after it – as a middle name, though I’d take it as the first name if I could get it. And now we are, as I’ve been announcing to everyone, incubating the miracle of life. Congratulations to us. Let’s hope it’s a girl so we can use the name, and let’s hope the Caol Ila proves a worthy inspiration and one that our daughter can be proud – and not ashamed - of.

Well, it still looks the same – a simple tinted bottle representing sunlight at dawn on the magical island of Islay, adorned with a classy label and bottled at 43%. There isn’t a more attractive bottle than this in the whole spirit universe for me. I love the curve in the neck and the way it gives the spirit a dark edge. And I just love the shape of it. It’s almost a standard wine bottle shape, but with a slight taper towards  the base and weightlifter’s shoulders – though the overall effect is a damn sight more feminine than that. That’s what our daughter will be like; tall and feminine… with weightlifters’ shoulders. Though her skin is sure to be a lot paler – the colour of the label, in fact!

So, it was finally time to open it. I gave the bottle a quick nose before pouring into my branded Caol Ila glass and… yes, that’s vaguely what I remember. It’s been well over a year since I drank the Caol Ila Distiller’s Edition and still longer since I’ve tried it’s base, the Caol Ila 12; a lot of whisky has been consumed since then, so I’m wondering whether this will have had an effect on my impressions.

I sat on the sofa to enjoy a bit of Card Houses and let the Ila open up for a quarter of an hour or so, occasionally picking it up to have a good sniff. In all seriousness, I can’t think of any other whisky that smells as good as this. It clearly ticks all my boxes. It is malty and full of a sharp, sweet citrus. I pass it to Mrs Cake to have a nose, and she reckons there’s a ton of peat. This confirms my suspicion that I have become almost immune to peat – I enjoy it (immeasurably), but I hardly notice it as a distinct entity.

Eventually it was time to dip my metaphorical toe in. Mrs Cake was watching with interest, since more was at stake than whether or not it represented £37 well spent. I felt the pressure keenly, but can confirm: I said let there be Caol Ila, and there was Caol Ila and I saw that it was good. Better than that: excellent, with a briney dryness that makes you want to chew on it. And a hint of water melon. Oh, how I was tempted to have a second glass,  but I knew it would be a waste of this precious nectar. And I felt fine about that. It just means there’s more to try another night.

If there is one miniscule gripe, it’s that I miss the extra degree of sweetness that the extra ageing in muscatel wine casks brings to the Distillers Edition. So just maybe, the Distillers Edition is actually my favourite scotch right now, but at roughly 13 extra pounds for that, the Caol Ila 12 presents an excellent value second place.

Conclusion

So many average whiskies or whiskies that just don’t reach the heights that this one does for me, had made me question the very reasons I’d gotten so interested in booze in the first place: could it even be all that good? Well, I’m pleased to be able to conclude that it can, and I’ll tell you: it makes a nice change to be able to write enthusiastically about something instead of scrabbling around for things to say about average products. The only problem here is that it makes me wonder whether I should stop trying various brands in so committed a manner, when I could just say found my brand, and stick with Caol Ila. Funny how far you have to go sometimes just to end up back where you started.

As far as the naming of our daughter is concerned, the bulk of this article was actually written before the happy occasion, so I can reveal now what actually happened. Well, when it came down to it, I kind of bottled it. There we were, in the delivery room, moments after the birth, and Mrs Cake went, “are we having Caol Ila as the middle name, then?”


I looked that that bright pink little girl and thought, it just doesn’t seem right – it’s too flippant. I didn’t want to cheapen the significance of the occasion by naming my daughter after a bottle of booze. It did make me a little bit sad, but I was happier that way than I would have been otherwise. Anyway, what if Caol Ila stop making this excellent 12 year old and release an inferior no age statement expression instead? Nothing’s permanent in this world, and brands are no more reliable than anything else.

Thanks for joining me again this week. It's a bit late, so the next post should literally be in just a couple of days' time. If I've finished it, it will be a post that has been a whole year in the making - The Great Distinct Beers Challenge. See you then.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Spirit Log: Bunnahabhain 12

With the Christmas season almost upon us, I’m looking back this week to last year when I was lucky enough to receive something interesting from my sister and family. There will be more Christmas themed posts in the coming weeks, so keep coming back for those.


I’d been hoping to receive a Caol Ila 12 or (in all fairness) anything for Christmas 2014, but was still pleasantly surprised to receive this, having wanted to try the standard Bunnahabhain for a while anyway – it being one of the two distilleries we didn’t get to visit during our Distilgrimage adventure on Islay back in 2013.

I’d had a single glass previously, thanks to David, and had even received a 32 year oldmerchant bottling as a present the previous year. That one made it into my 3 spirits of the year in 2014, but a proper appraisal of Bunnahabhain’s flagship bottling was long past due.

Of particular interest with regard to this 12 year old Islay is that Bunnahabhain have very much bucked the recent trend and actually increased the alcohol content from 40 to 46.3 and added the benefit of non-chill filtration – these developments coming as recently as 2010, and it’s still available at around the £40 mark. I won’t be able to comment on what it was like before, but these developments can really only be positive, so we’ll just take it for what it is.

Online user reviews are plentiful and the vast majority are extremely positive. Sure, there are one or two detractors as there always will be, but in the main the Bunnahabhain is very much a peoples favourite – revered alongside one of my favourites, the HighlandPark 12.

The pre-teen Bunnahabain is presented in a stubby, dark and sturdy bottle plastered with seaman – I mean, featuring an image of a seaman on the label. I don’t find it all that appealing in terms of presentation, but that’s ok.

For an Islay, it’s fairly unusual (though not unique) in that it is unpeated – though some people still claim to find tastes of peat in there – and the distiller uses an underground water source that apparently ensures the influence of Islay’s peat bogs is kept out. Ageing takes place in ex-sherry casks, and that influence can be seen in the nice dark red colour of the spirit.

I’m sorry to have to admit that my olfactory senses have failed me somewhat, and I wasn’t able to detect anything on the nose – it seemed almost entirely odourless to me. On the palate though, it is gentle and delicate with a good alcohol burn. There’s a sherry sweetness, then vanilla, then a nice woody finish. As it is unpeated, you can potentially drink it earlier in the evening without worrying about whether it will dominate anything you decide to follow it with.

I had a couple of different experiences over the life of the bottle. Initially I would drink the first half of my glass straight – there is an initial sweetness that you don’t want to interfere with, then add a drop of water when the burn started to take over. This seemed to rejuvenate the glass and take me back to the start, also bringing out an orangey tone. That became almost an automatic practice for a while. Later though, when it was one of my first drinks after being on alert for driving to the hospital, I tried it without water entirely and enjoyed it more than ever. I started to wonder why I’d ever thought adding water was going to be a good idea, and proceeded to finish the bottle neat. It was quite frustrating in the end then, as I had to start questioning how many glasses I’d wasted. That has very much been a recurring theme over the last couple of years, and influenced now by the Bunnahabhain 12, I’ve stopped adding water to anything, and that’s serving me well for the timebeing.

Conclusions then. The Bunnahabhain 12 makes a fine addition to Islay’s renowned output, and is a good introduction to the distillery style. As a standard, entry-level expression it is classy and tasty – not as impressive as the geriatric merchant bottling of previous experience, but not as expensive either. It doesn’t have to be peaty to be impressive and, while I do favour smoky whiskies in the main, it’s nice to mellow out with something different once in a while. And this makes a good value purchase.


Now, I think I’ll be returning to Islay on the blog next week, as I reappraise an old favourite, the Caol Ila 12. See you then, hopefully.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Merlyn Welsh Cream

Here’s an interesting one. I sent Mrs Cake out to pick up a bottle of Aldi’s Ballycastle Premium Irish Cream to accompany us to the family Christmas in Fleet last year… and she forgot – but not entirely. She’d already been in Aldi and had gotten to Tesco when she remembered. She considered Bailey’s but, much more interestingly, plumped for this. This is Merlyn Welsh Cream and it is made with malted barley spirit  from the Penderyn distillery.

It is housed in a black, matt, Bruichladdich-style bottle that the Penderyn website calls modern, with a red strip label that, together with the bottle, signifies the premium nature of the brand – it also says. Sounds like a pitch from The Apprentice to me. The writing is described as “hand drawn calligraphy” and “reflects its smooth and mellow flavour”. Quite how, I’m not sure but we’ll go with it. It goes on in the tasting notes to describe nose and palate impressions before backing out of describing the finish as it is “too complex to describe”. May as well not bother then.

They apparently produce just one cask of spirit per day as they use only the finest malted barley. That’s nice because, you know, it’s not like everyone else claims to use only the finest malted barley. Does that even mean anything? Does it mean they don’t make any of this finest malted barley into whisky, or does it mean they set aside one cask per day for making the welsh cream, while the rest goes to making the Penderyn whisky? Anyway, they bottle it at a commendable 17 ABVs  and while it normally retails around £17, this bottle was only £10. At £10 it’s good value, at £17 much less so.

A quick nose around the interwebs has revealed that the Merlyn has really tickled the fancy of a few people – many proclaiming it to be better than Baileys. Shall we give it an evaluation of our own then?


Let’s see, it’s much lighter in colour than I’ve come to expect from Irish cream. It smells malty and tastes milky and, while it’s quite thin,  you can taste the whisky – or perhaps more accurately, malt barley spirit – it won’t have been aged long enough (or at all) to be able to be called whisky. The balance is good; not too sweet. This is probably where some people’s preference over Baileys comes in. I actually prefer Baileys – and even the Ballycastle Premium – they are more like desserts, while this one is more the consistency and style of an iced coffee. It’s pleasant enough for a change, but it’s never going to be my favourite of the genre.

That's it for this week; just a quick one. Next week I think I'll be evaluating an Islay classic - the Bunnahabhain 12. See you then.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Berlinsterdam Booty Part 4: Maldoror

I’m looking at another bottle that I collected from Berlin this week; Maldoror absinthe.

Purchased from the designated Absinth Depot in Berlin, Maldoror has a claim to fame as (at the time of writing) the world’s first blended absinthe – and that isn’t seen as a bad thing. It’s a German product, but it is blended from Czech, French and Swiss absinthes. It is bottled at a friendly 66.6 ABVs and was around 55 euros for a litre.

As ever, I opened it in the presence of other heavy drinkers and we elected to use the backdraft method as a quick and easy way to get it into our systems in advance of the poker that a shot of absinthe has recently become a prerequisite to. You might want to think carefully before you incorporate that into your games since the play can get pretty messy and, if you’re intending to follow it up with some fine whisky, you might find you’re unable to overcome its influence and enjoy the particular charms of your designated spirit.

The next day I tried it on my own, adding just a few measures of ice water. It louched up real good, but I’m afraid it isn’t something I’m going to be able to come around to sipping like this. There is a bitter finish that makes it unpleasant to consume this way. In all fairness, all absinthe I had tried so far has been like this, though online reviews have suggested some absinthes aren’t bitter. That remains to be seen.

The next thing was to try with sugar.

I tried that at a new year party with a bastardisation of the bohemian method. Sadly I was unable to get the sugar to dissolve on this occasion, so it wasn’t entirely pleasant. I’ve since figured out that I was doing it wrong since I think you’re supposed to stir the sugary spoon in and stir while it’s all still lit, which I didn’t, so I’ll try again when I have occasion to. Sadly those kind of occasions just aren’t coming around – I never want to get that smashed too quickly and I always want to be able to taste something else afterwards, so I literally can’t fit it into my schedule. Frankly, a litre is far too much absinthe to have. I really made a mistake there, and have about a third of a bottle left now. It is very unusual that I get to post on a bottle before I’ve actually finished it, but this time, that’s the case.


I’d like to finish off by telling you something useful that will help you to select this product (or not this product) over any other brand of absinthe, but sadly I can’t. I just can’t say whether it’s any better or worse than any other bitter, aniseedy, super-strength brain destroyer.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Berlinsterdam Booty Part 3: Berliner Brandstifter

Berliner Brandstifter and friend
Welcome to part 3 of my new series in which I evaluate the various spirits I brought back from Amsterdamand Berlin… actually around a year ago now. Shows how far behind I am with the writing of things, doesn’t it? A quick apology too; I don't seem to have a proper picture of it. Sometimes these things happen, ok?

Well, I really need to cobble something together here, as looking over my notes, I haven’t managed to write too much about this up to now.

I picked it up from Berlin’s Finest Whisky on the recommendation of the proprietor there, and it was 22 euros 50 for 70cl and 38 ABVs. As I stated in my earlier travelogue (if you can call it that), going in favour of Berliner Brandstifter (arsonist) was that only 1000 bottles are produced every year, that each is individually numbered – something sought out in the scotch whisky world – and the stated unique selling point that this brand of korn (essentially German vodka) has been filtered so many times that everything that could possibly give you a hangover has been taken out of it – presumably including 2% of the alcohol. How they found the specific 2% that causes headaches, anxiety and insatiable thirst, we just don’t know.

There’s a problem with that last claim anyway; I’m never going to drink enough of it, on its own, to give me a hangover – I’m always mixing my drinks, and I seldom have more than one glass of any particular product in an evening. So I was never going to find out whether it is possible to have a hangover or not from drinking the Brandstifter. Being an experimental booze blogger, you’d think I’d be interested in finding out, wouldn’t you? But I’m not. I’m far more interested in enjoying this at my own pace and in comparison with tried and tested vodkas to see which I prefer.

I’ve read also that Berliner Branstifter is best served neat at 1 degree in a frosted shot glass – but is drinking vodka worth that much effort? How do you achieve this one degree? Isn’t putting it in a frosted shot glass enough?Again, I never actually found out as I was just enjoying it neat and at room temperature, as you should be able to enjoy all spirits.

It is nice, taken on its own terms, and if you like vodka – probably about as good as the Stoli Red, though 2 ABVs lighter and a few pounds pricier.

In fact, in a direct, blind taste test against the Stoli Red I actually made the incorrect idenitification. Yes, sorry to shatter your illusions, but I am only human after all. I decided though, that Mrs Cake had provided verification too soon and should have allowed me to finish the samples and change my mind before revealing the true identities of our combatants.

Nevertheless, there was very little to choose between them. The Berliner was smoother with a less tart finish and, while I initially put this down to the seven times filtration, it later occurred to me that it might be the lower ABV. This also led me to conclude that it might be slightly less interesting and complex than the Stoli. Still, in terms of flavour, very comparable.

Pablo, of Much of a muchness fame was very impressed with the Brandstifter. I told him it was basically German vodka and he said it lacked that “hairspray” taste that vodka tends to have, and you can understand that he considered this a good thing. I followed it up with a Stoli Red to see what he thought in comparison, and he preferred the Brandstifter.

As far as I’m concerned, I have concluded that it doesn’t quite trouble the Stoli at the top of my vodka rankings. After all, it is weaker and a bit more expensive.  It is worth a try though, and if you are the kind of person who drinks a bottle of vodka in a night, this could be the answer to your prayers.


Right, that’s it. I’ve tried padding this out, and I’m out of ideas. I’ll be back next week, no doubt trying to pad out part 4 of this odyssey, when I’ll be looking at Maldoror absinthe.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Berlinsterdam Booty Part 2: Asbach Urbrand brandy


Following on from last week’s post in which we looked at one of the spirits I brought back from my Berlinsterdam adventure, this weekwe’re looking at another – Asbach Urbrand brandy (40 ABVs). This was the first bottle I decided to open, as all the others appealed to opening at parties or in the presence of particular friends.

I’ve been asking for some time whether it is possible to get great brandy at a decent price (like it is with whisky), though in all fairness I haven’t been trying that hard. I certainly haven’t been able to answer in the affirmative yet, but while I always keep a bottle of brandy in stock, it isn’t a spirit I delve into all that often. Neverthelss, with this German brandy, it looks like I’d done it. Seriously; this is going straight to number 1. I don’t normally like to blow my load like that straight away, but I’m so thrilled and it’s so rare to find such a brandy that I just can’t wait.

The Asbach Urbrand has a hint of new trainers on the nose (and in no way is that a bad thing – I love the smell of new trainers), a body like silk and a complexity of flavour I just haven’t found in brandy before. To top things off, there’s a pleasant alcohol bite, just to let you know you’re drinking the good stuff. Not a note out of place, from the fruit to the candy to the spice tones; just superb.

My only gripe is that I had to use a knife in order to get the cap off; it wasn’t anchored so it just kept turning round and round instead of unscrewing. I couldn’t get a decent grip on the seal with my sausage fingers, so in the end I had to slice through the joins and now the cap won’t seal properly. Instead it does that annoying thing where it goes from almost but not quite tight to completely unscrewed and back again ad infinitum when you try to seal it until you have to make a decision as to where you think might be sufficient to keep the goodness fresh. On top of that, it was a plastic bottle, which is good for not adding weight to your baggage, but having bought it at the airport, that wasn’t really a consideration anyway.

Putting that aside, at 9 euros for half a litre, this is top notch. I really wasn’t expecting much, and had almost decided not to buy anything in Duty Free that day, but with my Carlos I almost gone and brandy specifically being something I’d been looking for, I had to, and I’m glad I did. Keep an eye out for this as you’re passing though the German airports; it’s worth a punt.


Next week (assuming I can finish writing it to my satisfaction), I’ll be presenting part 3 of this series and looking at German korn with Berliner Brandstifter. See you back here for that.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Berlinsterdam Booty Part 1: Wynand Fockink Rogge


Good evening. Thanks for joining me for part one of a new 5 part series in which I report on the spirits I brought back from Amsterdam and Berlin. The first edition focuses on a brand of jenever that is local to the very heart of Amsterdam, Wynand Fockink, and this particular variety is known as Rogge, or ‘rye’ – though it is flavoured with juniper and has been distilled from both rye and barley. You can read a bit more about it in the earlier post that I linked to a couple of lines further up, there. This post is for the evaluation; I don’t want to get all bogged down with facts, so I’m not gonna.

This product was 18 euros 99 for 50cl, and it clocks up 38 ABVs. It comes in a nice shaped bottle – the Bruichladdich style that I’m so fond of, but the label looks like it might have been produced by a teenager on a bedroom printer. It is sealed with a small cork stopper.

In the glass, there is no denying it has a tinge of urine, in terms of colour. I’m not sure what it is that makes the appearance of some spirits better than others, but not looking like urine, you would think would figure quite highly.

I thought it was a little uninteresting on the nose at first, but it really opened up to be luxurious and fragrant after the bottle had been open a few days. It might have helped also that I chose to drink from a brandy glass that second time instead of from the glencairn.

In terms of flavour, it’s a bit tart but I’m also detecting vanilla – no doubt from the short ageing process - and buttery crumpets.

Given that jenever was the spirit that gave us gin, I have to say it is surprising that there isn’t much of a gin-like element in this bottle. It was described to me as ‘more like bourbon’ at the original tasting and, while I don’t think that is particularly accurate either, it does suggest that the distiller is clearly trying a few different things out, and not limiting itself to more traditional styles.


All in all, I never really got to enjoying this all that much. I’d say it was more pleasant than its descendant, gin, but this variety had a not entirely pleasant bite, that in whisky I would put down to youthfulness. In jenever that might be a good thing, and it isn’t really fair to judge spirits from other cultures against ones of our own (despite having done so before), but in the end I can only represent my own opinions and on this one… it’s worth a try. Would I buy this brand and variety again? Probably not. But if I were in Belgium or Holland, then would I buy another bottle of jenever? Absolutely. It’s another genre of the spirit world to explore… and it’s not entirely unpleasant.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Alcohol and the Creation of Life

When I started this piece, Mrs Cake and I were just embarking on the journey of a lifetime; the journey from being carefree, irresponsible but borderline perma-bored people to being creators of life, parents, teachers of the next generation. So, at that point I think it’s safe to say we both had our reservations about what the future might bring and, from a drinker’s perspective, I was wondering how my habits might be affected. What follows is a process of transformation as the piece is written over an entire period encompassing conception, pregnancy and birth. I think that comes across in the writing. I hope you enjoy it.

It’s probably a bit rich doing a piece about the effect of the procreation process on one’s alcohol consumption, but it is a real thing, and that’s what this blog is about – real things through an alcohol-shaped lens.

I can empathise with the ladies, who have to give up drinking for the whole term of pregnancy (barring the odd glass of wine) plus the duration of any breast feeding (though some people tell you that drinking while breastfeeding is fine) but, while I, as a man wouldn’t have to endure anything of that magnitude, there are still some interesting things to note. Here we go.

Conception

You see it on lame tv shows all the time – sitcoms and soaps – but I never wanted conception to be a mechanical affair where Mrs Cake goes, “I’m ovulating”, and I’m expected to make a salty deposit. That’s not romantic and it’s not the kind of love I want my child being borne of. Luckily we didn’t have to resort to that level of organisation. Mrs Cake did download an app that gave her a window of fertility, but we just used that to loosely plan er… occasions?

You don’t want to know too much about that anyway. Nevertheless, some regulation of alcohol intake looked like it would be required because alcohol affects male fertility – which is a shame because it can also help make sex uninhibited and adventurous – you know, the kind that you do want to conceive from.

So anyway, we used the app to help decide when I’d cut down on the drinking, and even factored in some time for some good old fashioned heavy indulgence.

I wasn’t fond of the idea of abstaining, but didn’t do too badly – on one work night out I had just two small beers (followed by a whisky), and didn’t drink until 1am the next day (Friday), when Mrs Cake went out. I promptly forgot on Saturday and Sunday, but it just shows, as long as there’s a reason and something to occupy me (FIFA), I don’t need to have a drink.

Soon after this came our Berlinsterdam adventure and predictably, abstinence went out of the window. Nevertheless, it was here that the er… seed was implanted, so to speak, and no longer would I have to abstain in order that my swimmers might not get cramps and fail to make it all the way to the promised land. It’s quite lucky really – it could’ve taken months and as a result this post might have turned into one of those 3000 word monsters I’m so useless at avoiding (- I think it did anyway).

So began a second phase in the alcothusiastic male’s experience of pregnancy…

Drinking alone (a bit more often)

As is the norm, as soon as Mrs Cake had peed on that little stick and the result showed “pregnant” she started researching what she can and can’t do/eat/have… alcohol, unsurprisingly is right out. That’s sad for her – especially with Christmas and New Year approaching, as it was at the time, and all manner of dos and get-togethers to attend – even more so given that you can’t really announce the happy news for three months, so at this stage a lady kind of has to be cryptic about the whole thing:

No, I’m fine for a drink thanks; I’m driving.

No, I’m not feeling well. Not drinking tonight.

I actually thought it would be fun to come up with some outlandish stories for why she wasn’t drinking, but that didn’t happen. Mrs Cake dealt with it for a while by ordering a soda and lime (50p), and telling people it was a gin and tonic.

From my perspective though, I’ve lost a drinking companion. I already miss making a drink and being able to ask her if she wants one too. I miss being able to offer her a taste of something that I’m enjoying immensely, or going down The Magnet on a Friday night after work for some distinct beers. Not to mention that full bottle of Gordon’s gin that’s sitting on top of the cupboard untouched. It just looks so… sad.

It had been suggested that maybe I could show some solidarity and stop drinking also but… I’m a booze blogger and, no matter how small my readership, it’s a good reason for continuing to drink the good drink – and some of the bad drink, too. And… 9 months! I doubt it

Anyway, I need to buy some credibility now, before the baby costs spiral out of control – once the childcare kicks in I’ll be reduced to writing about supermarket spirits all the time, instead of just occasionally, for fun.  I’m kidding. I’m sure I’ll find a way.

A little while later…

So we’re well under way now. Everything is normal and it looks like there really is going to be a Baby Cake. I’m secretly hoping for a girl so that we can give her the middle name Caol Ila, and Mrs Cake is feverishly waiting for the day she can have a guilt-free drink again.

For a while it was useful to have a designated driver every time we went out, but eventually we reached full-term, the period in which I might be expected to drive Mrs Cake to the hospital at any moment, so that meant one potential month in which opportunities to drink would be severely limited. I was ready though – something had been changing in me psychologically, somehow, and by that stage I was all prepared to be a dad, doing dad stuff, fixing things, you know – being responsible. I’d just deal with it, and build up a box of booze to consume when the armistice was over.

I’m going to turn you over now, to a diary I sort of kept throughout my “dry period”.

1st day of self-imposed alcohol exile

I deliberately had one or two more drinks yesterday than I normally would on a Sunday but, knowing that I had a stressful week ahead, I didn’t really push the boat out, wanting to make sure anxiety was at a minimum. So I’m feeling ok in that respect. Also, it’s only the first day and I’m literally not bothered so far.

Day 2

Tuesday. I would typically have this as a drinking day, and it would be nice to have that to look forward to today as I had a particularly stressful morning – my monthly management accounts meeting, followed by delivering a half-assed presentation to some GPs about how we’re going to have to arrange to pay them differently.  Then, just shedloads of work. Well, it is what it is. No drinking. Fine.

Day 3

It was a beautiful day, the kind of day in the UK that feels like a missed opportunity when you haven’t used it to sit in the garden, drinking. I thought about how nice it would be to have some grappa. Then I thought it would probably be ok to have a single beer from time to time, since that wouldn’t make driving impossible. Then I realised that one just wouldn’t be enough, so it would be better to have nothing.

Day 5

This was the one day on which drinking was to be allowed – Mrs Cake’s leaving do. I celebrated with three beers and then a large glass of Caol Ila to finish the bottle. I’ll be putting that bottle aside now to see if I can figure out how to make it into a lamp.

Day 6

An invite to Pablo and Veronica’s barbecue led to a few more impromptu drinks. I was reluctant because Mrs Cake was looking like she was about to drop, but she insisted I have a few. Our hosts had also got in some interesting beers, some fancy Polish vodka and a bottle of cider brandy which, once we got started, I wanted to try. I tried to stick to just a few centilitres of beer and a drop of the spirits, though my glass of brandy turned out to be more like a double. It’s hard to tell when you’re not drinking full measures, but I didn’t think I’d be ok to drive if it came down to it.

Day 7

Back to abstinence for the Sunday. No problems, but a busy day of visiting my parents and then Phil’s new baby had made me very tired and very grumpy. A nice glass of something would have been a welcome accompaniment to the Glastonbury coverage we were watching, but it wasn’t to be.

Day 8

Day 8 marks the official full term countdown – two weeks to the due date, so it literally could be any time now. I should probably have waited until today to start the whole debacle, but I must have been confused – I was trying to start off my own bat, rather than waiting to be told it was time to stop. I wouldn’t have liked that. Mrs Cake is hoping she holds out another 4 weeks so that she can enjoy some relaxing time at home before everything gets out of control. I’m hoping it is considerably quicker than that. I’m tired of waiting and I don’t want to fall behind in the Distinct Beers Challenge – which you’ll be able to read about in an estimated five or six weeks. I’ve also got a massive cigar and something special to open on the special day. Hoping the good weather holds out until whenever that turns out to be.

Day 8 is also a 5 a side night, this time played in pleasant summer evening heat. A shower beer would have been lovely afterwards, but I made do with a big bottle of Lucozade.

Day 9

Tuesday, a traditional midweek drinking night and the hottest day of the year so far, but no drinking in the garden will be partaken of this evening. Instead I’ll bring the bin in, do a circuit, post on the blog, play the guitar, watch some telly and stretch a perineum. Then a book and bed. Who says you need booze to have fun?

Day 10

Britain’s hottest day in 9 years. A bit of a drink would’ve gone down a treat, but one’s not enough and if the baby happened to come today – they come when they want, according to the midwife – I thought about how torturous it would be accompanying Mrs Cake through labour with an alcohol induced tiredness. It’s probably not worth it.

Day 11

That’s 5 consecutive days without enjoying an alcohol cuddle, a record for quite a few years. I wouldn’t say it’s a struggle, but I felt really low today and the thought of a tasty grappa or special whisky might have cheered me right up and made another Thursday night in front of the telly less of a chore.

Day 11

Friday. Usually a special day, a day of celebration that another week has ended and we’re another step closer to death. But how are you supposed to celebrate? What is going to set this evening apart from any other evening when there are no special drinks, nowhere to go and nothing to do? What do non-drinkers do on a Friday? Don’t say go to the cinema. I’m not going to the fucking cinema. I don’t think a single film has been made in the last 5 years I’d actually want to leave home and pay money to see.

I’ve also started thinking; what if I lose my interest in booze? What if I don’t have time to write the blog anymore? What if the miniature Cake is born, and I pour myself a drink, and taste it, and go… meh?

More pressing than that; what am I going to do tonight? And tomorrow night?

Well, those quandaries were answered by Mrs Cake picking up some cans of Holsten Pils for me and promising not to drop the baby on Friday night. So that was pretty special. As soon as the armistice was lifted I couldn’t help myself immediately make plans for getting smashed, and considered finishing off the Bushmills by tipping it into one of the cans. I soon reined myself in though, and set a limit of two cans and a glass of something special. I almost forewent the something special because with so many special bottles awaiting appreciation and only one opportunity, I was having trouble deciding. You don’t want to choose badly and waste your chance. It led me to conclude that, if I did want to cut down on drinking spirits, I’d just have to make sure I only kept one bottle of whisky at a time. That way there would be no compulsion to keep dipping into my collection – there would be no collection to dip into.

For the record, I didn’t enjoy the beer as much as I should because it wasn’t cold enough but the something special was Maxentia Grappa di Nosiola. I did enjoy that, and you’ll be able to read about it at some time in the future.


Day 12

After a long day out and almost sinking into despair at having to make dinner without alcoholic encouragement, I decided to allow myself one further can of Holsten Pils. That did the trick. And it’s back to abstinence for Sunday.

Day 13

Friday and Saturday’s relaxation of the rules had done the trick. I never even thought about having a drink on Sunday. I did allow myself a look at one of two unopened bottles in the collection, but actually drinking something never crossed my mind. One week to go now to the due date.

Day 17

Days 14 through 16 passed without incident, but Thursday saw Pablo and Veronica come over for tea. I’d put a couple of beers in the fridge for sharing, but Pablo only wanted to share one. No problems there then.

Day 18

Friday once again and B-Day gets ever closer. I decided it would probably be ok to have a beer and a special spirit, but I still had an anti-climax feeling about the whole thing. Mrs Cake sensed this and agreed that it would be a good idea if I were to have a few emergency Café Crème cigars.

Day 19

One beer after a long day out. And the last of the Café Crème.

Day 20

Sunday. I was happy to spend a whole Sunday without the perpetual thirst I often get from having overindulged on Saturday.

Day 21

The actual due date.

Day 22

Nothing to report. The fact that I never even thought about having a drink on a Tuesday – as you know, a usual drinking night – shows how much of my relationship with alcohol is habit. While I intend to return to usual behaviour after the birth, this is interesting to see. I would expect it to be much harder to break the habit as far as Friday and Saturday is concerned though.

Day 23

A couple of days ago I put a beer in the fridge, and wondered whether that would be the one that would celebrate the birth. I think that is likely given that it’s a large one and it’s 8% alcohol – and that the day is moving inexorably closer, though it doesn’t feel like it much of the time. Apparently Junior Cake is now 3/5 of the way engaged, so soon this nightmare can come to and end… and another one start.

Day 24

With Christopher coming over for band practice, I was thinking maybe we could crack open that beer and share it, but Christopher only wanted ice water, so it remains for another day. There probably won’t be a chance for another casual drink before the birth now.

Day 26

I put a small beer in the fridge to allow a safe Friday night drink. It actually turned out to be a 12 percenter, which gave me a nice buzz but made Mrs Cake worried that I wouldn’t be ok to drive.

Day 27

I wasn’t going to, but I ended up sticking another small beer in the freezer for 45 minutes. I checked first that it was only 5.4%. Still no progression, though by this stage the whole process has started to feel like when you’ve been queueing for two hours to go on a scary ride. Then, when you’re strapped in and staring into a dark tunnel that you could hurtle into at any moment, you realise you might not want to take the ride after all. Then, with Mrs Cake being nearly a whole week late at this point, there’s a delay, leaving you sitting, gazing into the abyss with no idea when the ride is going to start.

Days 28-29

We reported “reduced movement” to the hospital today (Sunday), and ended up going in for a few hours. Mrs Cake was hooked up to a monitor which showed fairly frequent “tightenings” that, along with the administration of a “sweep” led the midwife to send us home with the caveat, “but I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re back here tonight”.

We went home fully excited and expecting labour to begin any moment. This continued into Monday, at which point we realised things weren’t progressing so quickly after all. Nevertheless, in terms of access to alcohol, I felt any drinking would be out of the question now until after the birth itself.

Day 31

Wednesday was my last day at work, and the day before Mrs Cake had an appointment for being induced. I was tempted of course to have a beer that night, but by this point... you just never know, do you?

And then…

At 11 Mrs Cake announced she was tired and going to bed. It would be an early start on Thursday to make it in time for our appointment, but I wasn't quite tired yet, and thought I might watch a bit of golf.

As Mrs Cake left the room, she made an odd, surprised sound and announced that she thought her waters had broken. On calling Triage we learned that we should go in. There still hadn't been any contractions, and the hospital told us they were busy, so we figured it would be fine to have showers before we went in - anticipating a long night.

At 12 we loaded into the car, and it was then that the contractions started. Four and a half hours later Sylvie Cora was born. We debated whether to keep the intended middle name of Caolila but, cool as it would be, naming her after my favourite whisky just didn't seem like the right thing to do.

Nevertheless, I would finally get to drink that celebratory beer and have that massive cigar. And some grappa.

We didn't get home until 1930 on Thursday evening, and I'd managed precious little sleep in the hospital, so I'd intended to go straight to bed, but Mrs Cake encouraged me to stick it out until bedtime. I decided to have the celebratory beer.

I got a good sleep that night, with Mrs Cake taking care of parenting duties. Friday though was rainy and therefore not suitable for sitting out in the garden celebrating. I also didn't want to leave Sylvie for a second in case I could do something to relieve Mrs Cake from her duties. She had to do all the breastfeeding, which was almost constant, but if there was rocking or changing to do, I wanted to be able to. I still had a couple of beers and reacquainted myself with the world of spirits (Ballantine's 12) a little later on.

Saturday was much better. Sylvie slept for most of the day, we took her out shopping, and the weather was glorious, so it was time to get outside. As I sat out there, enjoying the Casimiro grappa more than ever before, I realised how much things had changed. I mean, we obviously thought she was the cutest thing we'd ever seen, but the first day in the hospital had just been surreal. We didn't really feel like it should be happening. We felt the same, and were apprehensive about the responsibility. Now though, I realised I'd gone from being worried about what the future might hold to eagerly looking forward to it. I can't wait to see her grow up, start interacting with things, smile, all that kind of stuff.


I had opened an email account for her as soon as we'd gotten her home, and started sending her e-mails so that later she'll be able to share the experience and see what a difference she has made to our lives. I'll be recording all the firsts, sharing funny stories and all the amusing things she says and does... but as far as the blog is concerned, it should be business as usual. I’ve always thought that people should retire from Facebook and the like as soon as they’ve had kids to save all their friends from endless baby photos and endless updates of uninteresting things that have happened so, while I’m not going to apply such a hardline stance to myself, the blog will continue to be entirely about booze but, as is the case with all our friends and family, I wouldn’t be surprised if Sylvie turns up in the stories from time to time.