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.


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.


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.