Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Chocolate and Beer; Must We Really Keep Trying?

Hotel Chocolate Pale Cocoa Beer - the colour isn't what you'd expect
Someone keeps deciding to try mixing chocolate with alcohol. And so, here am I, every now and then, writing about it. I don’t mind when it’s harmonious marriages like Thornton’s Chocolate Liqueur or The Secret chocolate wine, but there are other things where I just don’t see the point, and can only assume it’s part of some attempt to part a fool and my money, because, as I'm sure I've said before, beer and chocolate don't really go together - unless both are Belgian. And this obsession with constantly trying to put them together is akin to they way people keep putting chilli and chocolate together, and it just isn't necessary. In my opinion.
This week’s initial focus is Hotel Chocolat’s Pale Cocoa Beer. It’s 4.9% and brewed by Brewshed Brewery in Bury St Edmunds. I was given this as part of a birthday present, all of the items of which were from Hotel Chocolat. You’ll be able to read about some of the other items elsewhere on the blog.
Anyway, this particular product is obviously aimed at providing a gift to someone who likes beer. I can’t imagine a beer drinker actually buying this for themselves. Can you? I would actually be prepared to bet that at least 9 out of 10 people who have logged this beer on Untappd, received this as a gift.
I don’t have a problem with that. Were you getting the idea that I did? At the very least, it’s a distinct beer to add to my log, and to a geek like me, something fairly exciting to receive. So what am I whittering on about? Is it no good?
Well, let me tell you; on the absolute contrary, it’s very good indeed. I really enjoyed it, and scored it a much better than average 4 out of 5. Right? Ok, so here’s the thing; it doesn’t taste of chocolate. So… was the chocolate necessary? Does it make it better than say, if the same beer was made without chocolate?
I haven’t logged any other beers from the Brewshed Brewery, but a quick look at Untappd suggests their output is interesting. One in particular I’d like to get my hands on is the Rioja Porter, which is matured in old Lan rioja oak casks.
As for the Pale Cocoa beer; it is brewed with cocoa pulp, so presumably that does have some influence. It could be a while before I’m able to determine the effects one way or the other. This is a nice beer though.
While we’re on it, we may as well have a shuft at a couple more.
Cocoa Hops
Cocoa Hops is a 4.4% porter from The Chocolate Café in Ramsbottom. A loose pun on the popular child’s breakfast cereal, it is brewed by the local Irwell Works Brewery – a fine example of local business collaboration. I scored it only 2.5 out of 5 as I felt it was a bit thin, and I could barely detect any chocolate influence. It was nice to try though.
Young’s Double Chocolate Stout
Double chocolate. Two words that in combination will make a lady’s seat moisten. That’s all very well for ice cream. And cookies. But what about beer? Well this is right up Mrs Cake’s street, and she absolutely loved it. I found it merely average, in spite of a generous 5.2% ABV, scoring it 3 out of 5.
Did it taste of chocolate? Well, probably, in a slightly bitter way.
Finally, I’ve had a quick look at Untappd and found three other chocolate beers that I’ve tried. These came up when I typed “chocolate” into the search field. Here’s how I scored them:
Chocolate Snap (4.9%) by Offbeat Brewery – 3.5/5
Old Tom Chocolate (6%) by Robinsons Brewery – 3/5
Triple Chocoholic (4.8%) by Saltaire Brewery – 3.5/5
Then, when I typed “cocoa”, the two beers that started this post came up, along with Thornbridge’s Cocoa Wonderland (6.8%), which I scored 4/5.
That leaves Thornbridge and Hotel Chocolat topping the chocolate beer league table, so well done to them. And that’s going to have to do for now, I’m afraid. Usually if I see a chocolate beer, I buy it for Mrs Cake, cos she absolutely loves that shit. She lets me have a taste, but given how little I manage to write about a full glass, can you imagine how little I’d have to say about a sip? Yeh, not very much. I will try to glean further impressions as time goes on, with a view to a follow up post at some time in the future, but in the meantime there are all kinds of other things to be getting on with drinking. So join me next week, when I’ll be telling you about some more of that.
And for now; must we really keep trying to combine chocolate and beer? Ok; if you must.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Spirit Log: New Amsterdam, Same Old Cheapo Vodka?

Another pay day browse of /Bring a Bottle led me to Asda looking for then cheapest vodka, New Amsterdam. I have to say though, I was a little disappointed to find that my internet research had deceived me into thinking it was bottled at 40%. Perhaps in other countries in the world, but here it’s a standard and pointless 37.5. I got it anyway. It was £12 for 70cl.
It’s an American brand, and is named (presumably) after the 17th century Dutch settlement that later became New York. I saw a tv advert for it a few weeks later, which was disappointingly generic. It was just a bunch of young people who looked like they might be friends with Bruno Mars, out having a good time.
The product itself is bottled in a chunky, rectangular bottle, bearing an image of a skyscraper that the branding describes as iconic. It is distilled five times and filtered three times.
Whether or not all that distilling and filtering does any good I couldn’t say, but the overall result is a thin and salty spirit, though there was one occasion where it sat very nicely indeed. Online reviews, for the most part, suggested it was excellent, and the word “smooth” was bandied about profligately. In all honesty, I’m not really getting on board with that. It’s a perfectly acceptable, predictably uninteresting cheap vodka.
One Friday night I tried this in a direct comparison test with Russian Standard and, no doubt to Pablo’s delight, I had to admit that they both tasted like vodka, and there wasn’t much to choose between them, so I have to accept that these are much of a muchness.
If I had to pick, I’d say the New Amsterdam tastes marginally better, but the Russian Standard is stronger. In terms of price, they tend to work out about the same, so just do what you want. And that's all I have to say about that! I'll be back next week to talk about another booze-related topic that's close to my heart.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

A Little Look at Some Miniatures

For some reason I’ve started coming into possession of miniatures. It’s quite nice really. It means people can give me alcohol without having to spend too much money. There’s far too little in those bottles for me to give each product its own post, but it doesn’t mean I can’t group them together. So I thought I’d look at miniatures this week.
Grant’s The Family Reserve (40%)
One of four old miniatures that were delivered to my work one day. When I say “old”, I mean the branding suggests these were bottled in the 90s and had been sitting in someone’s booze cupboard ever since… until the day the owner passed on and their son decided to put them in a jiffy bag and send them to me. Many thanks. I would be interested to find out how the contents might be different from the current incarnation, but I didn’t have the resources or inclination to buy a bottle for this.
I actually decided to try this one alongside Aldi’s Highland Black8, as I was conducting a blend test at the time. For the record, I have decided to include the results of this particular matching here and not in the earlier post because I’d already written the bulk of that one, and didn’t want to have to deconstruct and reconfigure it just for the sake of 5cl of cheap blended scotch.
My notes state that the Grant’s is lacking immediate sweetness, and is quite savoury. I concluded that the product must have improved since then, as I consider Grant’s Family Reserve to be half decent, low cost, entry level blended scotch. In comparison with the Highland Black, this miniature didn’t match up.

Macallan Gold (40%)
I’ve never bought a Macallan (except in a restaurant once), as it always strikes me as being more expensive than it should be – not that I based that conclusion on evidence of quality, more on comparable categories. A no age statement, entry level expression for example, shouldn’t be £37 to £42, while a 12 year old sherry cask finish shouldn’t be £60+ - unless it’s cask strength.
Perhaps I’ll change my mind if I do ever buy a bottle, but for now, this miniature is going to have to form my lasting impression. And in all fairness, it was a good impression.

Mortlach 15 (Gordon & MacPhail) (43%)
Impressing me more than the Macallan Gold however, was a miniature Mortlach 15, bottled by Gordon and MacPhail. A standard size bottle of this might be even more expensive, but I’d be more inclined to find out at this point.

Ardbeg 10 (46%)
I’m already a massive fan of this one, so it was lovely to receive it from a colleague who is from the magical island of Islay. I used it to help in my evaluation of Old Ballantruan, though I won’t ruin that upcoming post by revealing anything here – other than that Ardbeg remains a true gent among peaty malts – in fact, among any malts.
Bushmills 10 (40%)
The first of the remaining three miniatures from the 90s. I’ve tried the standard Bushmills Original before, finding it average but acceptable, so single malt offering was intriguing, and I’m pleased to say it’s good. It has an inviting nose, and while it’s light-bodied, making it reminiscent of its blended cousin, there’s a lot to recommend it.

Glenfiddich Special Reserve (40%)
This one came in a little cardboard tube, which was a nice touch. I hadn’t seen this before, but a little internet research revealed that this expression preceded the 12 year old that we’re all so familiar with today. I drank it alongside a glass of today’s standard 12 year old, and my conclusion was that the Special Reserve was marginally better. It was lighter in colour and smelled younger and less rounded, while the 12 year old exhibited more sherry notes on the nose. In terms of flavour though, the Special Reserve tastes better than it smells – sweet and syrupy. The 12 year old brought to mind rubber and pears.
St Michael Lowland (40%)
St Michael – you don’t see that anymore, do you? Do you remember? Yes, this used to be Marks and Spencer’s own brand – we used to get their crisps. And this is their version of a lowland single malt. Very interesting, and in fact, very enjoyable. I found it light, fresh and playful, though perhaps with an unfortunate finish.
Smirnoff (37.5%)
Everyone knows the Smirnoff. This one came as a free gift with a bottle of Crown Royal I received at Christmas. I saved it for sipping in the car during our lift to the airport and, as such, it was very enjoyable.
Hotel Chocolat Salted Caramel Cocoa Vodka (26.5%)
What is it with salted caramel? It is so hot right now. This bottle formed part of a package that my sister sent over for my birthday. It was a nice idea to add one or two miniatures (and a beer) to the order, and one that gives me a chance to try something I wouldn’t normally bother going near.
Best served chilled over ice, says the website, so I popped this in the fridge for my Tuesday evening drinking session. I have to admit, I don’t like the smell. There’s just something dirty about it. The flavours are good though. It’s still not something I’ll be inclined to return to, but if you are a fan of salted caramel, I don’t think you could go wrong with this. Mrs Cake had a sip, and was suitably impressed.
I finished the evening with a slice of cake and a glass of Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit, which I’m afraid was a mistake. The sweetness of the vodka and cake hijacked the bourbon, dispersing its normally beautiful construction and making me consider tipping it back in the bottle for later. There was also an odd meaty smell hanging around, which I put down to the vodka… but equally, I suppose it could have been my clothes.
Hotel Chocolat Special Reserve Tawny Port (20%)
Another component of my birthday package, I looked this one up on the Hotel Chocolat site, and found that it is recommended to be taken with milk chocolate. I’ve often had a problem mixing chocolate and various other sweet things with alcohol, so this seemed a surefire way to get what all the fuss is about – an alcoholic beverage, sold by a chocolate producer for the express purpose of consuming with chocolate.
What can I say? It’s fine, like, but I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that I enjoyed the port more when I drank it on its own. This whole combination thing just strikes me as another attempt to get consumers to engage with products. I like chocolate, I don’t normally like port – in fact, I think this is the first time I’ve ever mentioned it on this blog – but I did like this one, and it doesn’t need to be combined with the chocolate in order to impress. It is actually a little lighter in the body than other ports I’ve tried and, while I’ve been very impressed with the Hotel Chocolat chocolate I’ve had in the past, I felt this one, which was half white, half milk with like, a reindeer on it or something, was a little bland. Perhaps it is the fillings which normally make this chocolate so enjoyable.
So in conclusion, I didn’t feel these items complemented each other in the way they were supposed to. The port though: very nice.
Grey Goose Vodka Cherry Noir (40%)
You have to wonder how much of the money you’re spending on a bottle of Grey Goose is paying for the packaging, because the bottles are always impressive – frosted glass with a clear centre that serves to distort and enhance a colourful image that has been placed on the back of the bottle. I ask because Grey Goose is one of the well known premium brands here in the UK – you’re generally looking at £35 for the standard, unflavoured variety – and I can’t see anything special about its flavour.
Mrs Cake got this miniature when she purchased a bottle of the standard in Canada, probably around 2 years ago. Finally I got to snaffle it. I thought it was nice and sweet at first, but that impression quickly changed to one of childhood medicine. Sure, that might be nice enough to persuade a sick child to drink it, but it’s not something I want reflected in my spirits. I also got a bit of a bready taste somewhere in there, that served to ultimately make this a fairly unpleasant experience. Sure, it’s probably intended for use in cocktails, but if that is the case, that just makes it worse – you shouldn’t be paying £30 plus for something to make a slight difference to your cocktails.
Now, I see Grey Goose also produce a “VX” expression, which includes a “hint of precious cognac”. Sounds interesting, but inevitably over-priced to me… I’ll just have a look… yes, £90 for a litre. Fuck off.
That’s my recent batch of miniatures finished. I’ll start a new post as time goes on, and return to this theme some time in the future. Thanks for having a little read, and see you next week.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Moving House - and Guides to Drinking in the Manchester Suburbs of Levenshulme and Urmston

crammed in under the boiler
All the major events and phases in a person’s life can have some relevance to alcohol, you know. In the past I’ve talked about getting married, procreating, goingcamping, generally just going on holiday, stagdos, Christmas, New Year, musicfestivals, works dos, so… this week I want to talk about moving house, something I should have done some months ago, but for some reason talked myself out of. Well now I’ve talked myself back into it. Here it is.
They say that moving house is one of the most stressful things a person can do – along with starting a new job and… I forget the third one, it must be trying to fix the internet or changing an insurance policy or something, but nevertheless, all of these things can be alleviated to some extent by having a nice drink. The reason moving house is so stressful is things like the fact you’re spending tens of thousands of pounds of money you haven’t earned yet on something that you don’t really know for sure is going to turn out ok. For the privilege of spending this money, it’s actually going to cost you about the same amount of money again.
You have to employ a solicitor and get a bunch of surveys done (one if you’re lucky, three if you’re not, like us). You have to get insurance for the property and arrange removals. You have to wrangle and negotiate with the vendor though a useless third party at every turn (estate agents, I’m looking at you). You have to switch over all your utilities and change your address with every organisation that is aware you exist. You have to figure out how you’re going to get to work… think about furnishings (because items you bought for one home just don’t fit in another)… fix things that you know need fixing… find new things that you didn’t know needed fixing (sometimes even things you didn’t know existed that need fixing)… decorate… spend more time in B&Q than you think you can bear… try to figure out how to stop the toilet seat from falling of its own accord without taking the toilet out altogether…
Repeatedly, during and after all this, a drink would very much come in handy but oh, it doesn’t stop there. It’s not all sink into your seat and relax. Now you’ve got to be thinking where are the local pubs? Are they any good? Is there somewhere I can pick up some decent beers on my way home from work? Where am I going to keep all my bottles and glasses? What’s the local supermarket like for beers and spirits? Why didn’t I think of all these things before?
So that’s what I’m going to be looking at this week. To be fair, most of it is fun. The point is, for the alcothusiast, moving house has implications concerning your drinking.
moving day drinks
In January this year, Mrs Cake and I moved from Levenshulme, where we’d been living for 7 years around the M60 a bit, to Flixton and this is how we have been finding things – with a very specific booze-related focus.
Very important; where can I get me booze from? Well, let’s face it, both our old home and our new home are in suburbs of Manchester, so you’re never going to be far from an offie or a supermarket.
Levenshulme is situated on the busy A6, halfway between Manchester and Stockport and is a very blue collar to no collar area – by which I mean it’s working class or whatever is below that – not-working class. Demographically, it is composed of a fairly sizeable Irish community along with more recent immigrants from all over Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. To top it off there are the young professionals and young families looking to get a cheap foothold in the housing market.
What all that means is that you have lots of ethnic grocery stores, newsagents and various takeaways as well as one or two small sized supermarkets like Tesco Metro, Iceland and a little Asda. Unless you have access to a car and can make it further afield to the big Tesco in Burnage, then your choice of booze is the small varieties the kind of stores mentioned earlier tend to carry. So you can get some mass produced cans, some uninteresting spirits and a token selection of wine but if you want craft beers or special spirits you need to be looking elsewhere. A little further up the road there is also a small Morrison’s and an Aldi, so you’ve got the bottled for Aldi stuff within reach also.
Flixton is officially a part of Urmston, but it’s just on the edge – almost the countryside. If you don’t know Urmston, it’s actually like a small town in itself. It has a town centre and all that, so on top of the local newsagents and mini markets on your various street corners, at the Eden Square precinct you’ve also got a small to medium sized Sainsburys (which tends to be better for spirits offers, though this one has a depressingly small selection of beers), an Aldi which is so inadequately sized that is is almost impossible to shop in at the weekend – unless you go first thing on a Sunday, but that can be a problem for the alcothusiast, for obvious reasons, and a Home Bargains where you can pick up some low price, low quality ales. There are a couple of beer shops, too.
The Urmston Beer and Wine Shop and Bargain Booze turned out to be little more than crap newsagents with a bit more booze than your average. Bargain Booze even appears to be the kind of place that kids hang out outside of – though not in a threatening way; the ones I saw had a middle class goth vibe about them.
The Prairie Schooner is a bit more worthwhile though. Doubling up as a pub and beer shop, they have a selection of guest ales to drink on the premises and a selection of craft beers that you can also buy to take home with you. You’re not going to go in there to get a crate for a party, but with 6 for £10 offers, you can pick up something you haven’t had before for your Distinct Beers Challenge.
There’s also a small market where a guy sells a selection of beers from a stall.
For the fairly short stretch of road that Levy covers, there are a veritable shit-ton of pubs, though they are typically of low quality. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a good night out drinking there, it’s just – shall we say – distinctive.
I have to admit to not having been in all of them. I’m sure they’re fine for the most part, but they do look dodgy and unwelcoming from the outside. The best (while I still lived there) were The Bluebell (a former winner of Pub of the Year), which is a large Samuel Smiths pub, purveying all the ales and spirits they are known for, and the Fiddler’s Green, which is a friendly and tidy Irish pub that’s good for watching football matches. Sadly the selection of beer here doesn’t rise above standard fare like Guinness, Foster’s and Heineken and the beer garden is just a concrete yard. They do have Powers whisky though, which is a nice authentic Irish touch.
Elsewhere you’ve got The Levenshulme which is a proper “local” pub with its regulars, and that I’m told is known for lock-ins, though I’ve never been to one. Shabby on the inside, beer varieties are similarly limited, though you can get one or two brands of premium lager.
In the centre there are two sectarian pubs – The Union and The Horsehoe. They are round the corner from one another. One flies the Loyalist flag, the other the Republican flag. I’ve only been in one (I think it was The Horseshoe) and again, beer choice was poor, it was shabby, and the layout was weird.
The M19 is a sports-type bar with irregular opening hours that has been known to host comedy nights. I went to a free one with Mrs Cake where we saw a guy completely die on his arse. It was very embarrassing.
Other Levy pubs such as Hennigan’s Sports Bar and The Sidings I sadly can’t claim to have been to.
Finally, there’s the Klondyke Club which is up a back road, friendly, very old school, and featuring an untended bowling green and lots of outdoor space. We went once for a beer festival that turned out to be taking place on a different weekend. They serve a selection of ales and also have full size snooker tables that you can play on without being a member for something amazing like £2 an hour as long as members don’t want to play.
Oh, I nearly forgot POD, a café that serves continental beers like Kozel and Kaltenberg. It’s small, and quite continental in style.
Levy isn’t the sort of place you’re going to attract your friends to from other areas to for a pub crawl, but if you want to grab a few pints on the way home or go out for some drinks in the afternoon or evening, you can have a really good time. For the most part, the people of Levy are friendly and welcoming. Don’t worry if you’re better dressed than the majority of them. That sounds a bit snobby; honestly, who do I think I’m talking to? I can only relate my perceptions, anyway.
On Saturdays there is now a hipster craft market, and that’s good because it has an outside bar. Sadly I never got round to trying it. Same with the new craft beer bar and art gallery, Fred’s Ale House. That was just on the verge of opening when we left, so that remains unexplored also.
If that’s not good enough for you, and as I’ve said a few times before, you can hop on a bus to The Magnet on the edge of Stockport.
Bringing our roundup to the Urmston area now, The Hop House is a new hipster type place with continental service (meaning you can sit down and wait to be served) and a variety of plates (such as cheese boards) on offer. Here you can get a small selection of fancy continental lagers, ales and IPAs for a reasonable price.
The Church Inn is the nearest pub to my house, in the villagiest looking part of Flixton which is ruined only by what should be another quaint pub actually being a Thai restaurant and pub. Nothing against Thai restaurants, but I would just prefer another pub. The Church Inn has tables for sitting out in the summer and numerous evening activities like open mic, pub quiz and darts but the beer selection is disappointing. You have to give them credit for offering Moretti on tap, but from what I’ve seen so far, the “four guest ales” tends to be er… three (I’m not sure now whether they ever did advertise them as four…) and fairly standard when you’ve been round the block a few times – Tribute, Abbot Ale and the like. Still, for convenience and friendly local atmosphere, it looks good. They do food, too. There were actually people in there having dessert the first time we went in. The layout is a bit country pub – alcoves and the like.
Halfway between our house and Urmston town centre is The Bird I’Th Hand, which is about as Lancashire a pub name as you can get. If you continue into Urmston (up Flixton Road) you get a bit of a run of pubs but, coming from ours, this is where it starts. It’s a friendly, local-type pub with a decent selection of lagers and ales (two house, two guest), a beer garden and a licence to show the footy. In contrast to the Church Inn, the layout is quite spacious and open with two main drinking areas.
There’s also The Garrick’s Head, which is towards the Trafford General Hospital. That’s a large but pretty standard pub that serves food and shows the footy.
The Chadwick is a scruffy looking pub in spite of fairly recently having had a facelift. Inside it’s still old school with a very disappointing selection of beers, but a friendly staff and clientele. It’s a United pub though, so not somewhere you want to go if you support Liverpool (like me) or City – not that it would be dangerous (in general), just that you won’t be wanting to be surrounded by United fans.
The Steamhouse sits on the platform of Urmston train station, so it’s handy for when your train is delayed, though I can’t really think of any journey from Urmston that would benefit starting with a pint. It’s nice to get off here on the way home though, grab a few pints and then jump on a later train to Flixton – or do the walk. It’s cosy and friendly enough, and it has a wide range of reasonably priced beers – lagers, ales, German pilsners and the like. I’d advise that you stay away from their own brews though – I’ve tried two, and they were awful. One tasted like that liquid they give you to rinse with at the dentist. In all fairness, they did offer me an opportunity to try it before I bought it and, as ever I figured there’s no beer bad enough that I couldn’t drink a pint of it. I was right on that score, but it was awful.
Then there’s the Roebuck, which is away from Urmston town centre itself, near to the Chassen Road train station. This one has gone for a gastro-pub aesthetic with decent pub food and a selection of Joseph Holt beers.
Bevano is a café-bar type place, open long hours, serving decent food and serving an unchanging selection of four or five beers. I would go here a lot more often if they would have a new beer in from time to time.
I still need to try some of the other pubs, so I can’t really comment on them yet. Nevertheless, there has to be an exhaustive Urmston pub crawl at some point, so don’t think this is the last you’ve heard of it.
new booe shelf!
Storing your booze and glasses
Finally, some reflections on sorting out the booze in your new house. Where does it go? It might not be a problem for you if you’ve bought a house with more storage space than you had before, but sadly we haven’t. The house is bigger, but it isn’t until you actually move in of course, and try putting all your kitchen utensils away (or until your wife does, should I say), that you realise you have fewer and smaller kitchen cabinets than you had in your last place. And with no wall cabinets, there’s nothing to sit your bottles on.
For the first few months then, my bottles were sitting in a huddle underneath the boiler. It had been frustrating because I couldn’t see what I’d got, and it made it harder to decide what to have. Luckily though, Mrs Cake made finding a home for the family one of our top priorities, so there is now a bar-type cabinet in one corner of the dining room. That will be followed by finding a home for my bar optics – that I’m super excited about getting on the wall; absinthe at the push of a… tap? You bet your ass.
So there you go. I think that about covers it. It may not be useful to the vast majority of the world, but you can just think of this post as another piece of the puzzle that is my drinking saga.