Wednesday, 21 December 2016

How much is a bottle of beer?

Beer has become a little more important to me over the last couple of years and now things are getting out of control. It used to be (back in my formative days of drinking) that a pint in a pub was under £2 – yes, you could get 5 pints for under a tenner. Imagine how many nights out I could have on my salary. You could also get 4 cans of cheap lager for £2.
Then things started to change, and I’m not talking about inflation or devaluation or increases in VAT or anything like that. I’m talking about how beer suddenly became… hell, aspirational. I trace it back to when Stella wasn’t the most [reassuringly] expensive beer anymore. All these other premium continental lagers entered the market – Peronis and Staropramens. Then Hoegarden came and it was followed by a shitstorm of expensive Belgian beers.
And then? Craft beer. All manner of breweries making all manner of beers – bitters, ruby ales, stouts, chocolate stouts, imperial stouts, oak aged stouts, milk stouts, porters, smoked porters, fruit beers, wheat beers, lagers, Helles lagers, pilsners, Trappist ales, golden ales, brown ales, IPAs, APAs, Black IPAs, imperial IPAs, Saisons, goses, Koln style beers, Vienna style, pale ales, strong ales, dark ales, spiced beers, bocks, blonde ales, sour beers, winter ales, Hefeweizens, Schwarz beers, roggenbiers… some of those are probably same, but there are also a host of others I haven’t been able to remember off the top of my head – and some fucker’s inventing new ones all the time anyway.
I first noticed the extremes when people like Brewdog started making beers that were 40% alcohol – just for the sake of it. At the time of writing they are selling 3 litre bottles of Double Bastard (11.2%) for £85. Then Manchester’s Port Street Beer House introduced the city to the beer menu (others may have actually done it first), and on it were beers that cost £70 – for just one beer.
Finally I was introduced to two breweries that would become my favourite – Derbyshire’s Thornbridge and Manchester’s Cloudwater, and I started to try and get hold of any beer they made – culminating (or so I thought) in spending nearly £13 on Cloudwater’s Ardbeg Imperial Stout.
Needless to say, it didn’t stop there and it hasn’t stopped yet. I now need my favourite breweries to stop making these expensive beers, so that I don’t feel obliged to buy them. This week’s post actually started by being about Thornbridge’s recent collaboration with Brooklyn Brewery; Serpent. It’s a 750ml bottle, it’s 9.5% and I paid £15 for it, direct from the brewery thanks to a free delivery offer they had on (I actually saw it a few weeks later in our local bottle shop at £14.95, 5p cheaper than direct).
How special could this be? Well, I figured I’d wait for a summer afternoon with a cigar to find out. It’s a Belgian-inspired golden ale that has been aged for over a year with the lees that are used to ferment Oliver’s Cider apples.
Before that summer afternoon arrived, I was out shopping for another recent Thornbridge release,Lukas, and while searching I came across something even more exciting; Love Among The Ruins. This one is a 7% sour red ale that has been aged in Burgundy barrels, with cherries, for over a year. It’s only a 375ml bottle… but I paid £10.80 for it. That makes it more expensive by volume than the Serpent.

When I returned to Mrs Cake, who had been waiting in the car, she said, “we could’ve bought little Sylvie a new pair of shoes for that”. Which made me feel great.
So how did these beers do?
I didn’t manage to save my cigar for the opening of this one. I had promised I would share it with Mrs Cake, then she went out one evening, so I decided to have the cigar and save the beer for when she was around.
Thornbridge have thoughtfully sealed this beer (and indeed Love Among the Ruins) with a cork so that you get a special opening experience. And it’s very tasty. I likened it to a white wine, with the apple flavour (that I didn’t know whether to expect from the lees or not) appearing in the sort of proportion that you might get from a white wine. It was crisp and elegant.
As you’d expect from a 9.5% beer (stronger than Special Brew), you get a nice buzz from this. One bottle, by rights, ought to last you an evening. I couldn’t really imagine drinking one of these all by myself. Belligerance would be right around the corner, I think. Fifteen quid does seem a lot for a single beer, but I would argue that you probably are getting fiteen quid’s worth of booze. 4.5/5
Love Among the Ruins
Sour beer isn’t really my thing, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t enjoyed one or two examples of this phenomenon in the past – Thornbridge’s Tart was one that I previously awarded 4 stars to. This one is probably a little bit better than that, though I didn’t see fit to award it any more stars at the time. It certainly isn’t too sour for me, but Mrs Cake recoiled in horror at it’s tanginess. 4/5.
I think I’m going to have to be a bit more careful about buying beers that exceed £10 in future. Not that I regret getting these, it’s just that there seem to be so many of them. I don’t really want to encourage breweries in this kind of thing, even though I appreciate the effort they are going to in making new and special beers, and indeed the increased production costs it entails. Is it wise or sustainable? It sure is coming at an interesting time… but, I suppose, it means I must be able to afford it. It’ll be time to worry when I need it but can’t afford it anymore. But then there’s always supermarket own brand premium lager – as you’ll discover in a later post.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Drinks of Christmas: M&S Christmas Cocktail

 A mystery shopper assignment accepted by Mrs Cake led us to the small Marks and Spencer at Lymm services one Saturday. The mission: buy two products and ask two questions. Sounded like an opportunity to pick up some distinct beers to me. However, when we got there, Mrs Cake found this; M&S Christmas Cocktail (20% ABV), a rum and dairy based drink at half price (£6 for 50cl, given that Christmas was more than two months past, and the use by date was May), that I immediately thought might make an ideal replacement for my Irish Cream du jour that I don’t currently recall.
Now, as with all M&S products, the ingredients are listed right there on the bottle, and these include lemon and vanilla. And none of that made me think this drink would be all that different from Irish Cream. Let me tell you now: it is. I found out as soon as I poured it into my coffee cup the following day, and noticed that the “dairy” element is somewhat minimal. Undeterred, I continued making my coffee with the outcome being… unusual. It was a bit tangy and not at all creamy, but in all fairness, not unpleasant. Perhaps it wasn’t a combination I’d be keen to try to frequently, but given its appearance, surprisingly acceptable.
Next it was time to try in the recommended manner; over ice. Irish Cream excels in this manner, so how the M&S Christmas Cocktail fared here, would make it or break it. Aaaaaand… break it it is. This just isn’t pleasant. Someone has made a mistake with this one. For a start, I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to combine dairy and citrus… something about curdling. Not to mention the unpleasant taste.
In the glass, it looks like what can only be described as… spunk.
It isn’t sweet enough, it isn’t creamy and what on earth has it got to do with Christmas? I’d be gutted if I’d paid full price for this. In the end I had to tip it into a big glass of ice, and pretty much chug it, just to clear a bit of space in the fridge.
How about you? Have you ever bought a dubious Christmas themed drink that doesn’t really seem to have any reason to exist? Let me know in the comments. 
Now, I might have overestimated how many Christmas-themed posts I've got this year, so unless I tap out something else real quick, next week might be something completely un-Christmassy. Anyway, come back and find out then, and the week after that I'll have my annual Spirits of the Year post, which I always look forward to, at least. Laters!

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Winter, Christmas and Festively-Themed Beers Challenge

It's December! And despite not really being the biggest fan of Christmas, this is usually about the time I find some Christmas-themed things to write about. Then the month culminates with my highlight of the year; my actual highlights of the year, in the guise of the Spirits of the Year post. Last year I even added a Beer of the Year award, so that's something else to look forward to. I'm starting off this festive season with a challenge I - and a few others - undertook last Christmas...
You don’t just complete a year long slog like the Distinct BeersChallenge without replacing it. But what do you replace it with? Well, do you remember how I followed up two posts about the Distinct Beers Challenge with a post about Christmas themed beers? That’s right, a Christmas Beers Challenge. That is, drink as many beers that have some connection to Christmas as possible. Not just winter ales. No, there definitely has to be something Christmas-related about it – a punny name like Yule Love It,a cartoon reindeer on the label, the specific notice that said beer is a Christmas beer…
It got complicated early on because I received an early Christmas present of three festive ales from Staffordshire Brewery. One was a Christmas Day ale, one Boxing Day, and one New Year. I asked for a ruling from the other competitors, and the scope had to be widened to include anything that could be identified as a winter ale and any beer of an obviously festive or wintery nature, drunk between the start date of 27 November and 31 December 2015.
Normal Stella Artois with holly on the label wouldn’t count, but should Fosters rebrand themselves Frosters for the period, that would. Pumpkin beers were also allowed, though I can’t say I was in agreement with that. So as a direct result of Untappd and more specifically, the Distinct Beers Challenge, I had gone from deliberately avoiding these kinds of beers, to actually looking forward to being able to get them. It’s strange where your life will take you.
I started my campaign with Had Enough Brewery’s Grumpy Santa Beer, which is a classic of the genre – playing on the bah humbug theme and featuring a comic image of a grumpy (and probably alcoholic) santa on the label. It was listed on Untappd as a golden ale. I scored it a 4.
After the three Staffordshire Brewery ales (the Christmas Day and Boxing Day ones each scored 4, while the New Year one scored 3.5), I called at Aldi, picking up Sadler’s Reigndeer, a misspelled winter ale with a reindeer on the label (which scored 3), then at Asda where there were no Christmas themed beers and finally Tesco, where Mrs Cake pointed one out that I had had already, but eschewing that one, I did manage to find Oakleaf’s Christmas Ale, packaged in its own tube, and worthy of only 2.5 out of 5.
I would be travelling to Canada on 11 December, so I was hoping that Christmas themed beers would be a thing over there, that would give me the edge on everyone else. I found a few more on a night out before heading across the atlantic, including Osset Brewery’s Nervous Turkey, which managed 3.5. I decided not to count Treacle Stout as, when I thought about it, what is explicitly festive about treacle on its own? Then there was Boggart Hole Clough Brewery’s Winter Sunset (-0.5/5 - it must have been really bad) and Caledonian Brewing Company’s Winterbrau (also 0.5/5).
So while everyone else was left to contend with a very wet December and quite possibly flooding, I headed to the Great White North and got stuck into the Canadian (and sometimes American) brews. Now, I can’t remember much detail, but here’s what I found:
Granville Island’s Lions Winter Ale – 4/5.
Yukon’s Longest Night – 3.5/5. A black IPA – not specifically identified as a winter ale, but when is the longest night? In the winter. QED.
H. Egerer’s Winter Weisse – 3.5/5. A Dunkelweizen, but it has ‘winter’ in its name.
Fernie Brewing Company’s Black Mammoth – 3/5. A bona fide winter ale, and the first of a few massive bottles that I picked up at Calgary’s finest liquor store, Willow Park.
Postmark’s Winter Red – 3/5.
Grizzly Paw Brewing Company’s Alpenglow – 3.5/5
Rogue Ales’ Santa’s Private Reserve Ale – 3.5/5. That last of the Willow Park haul isn’t labelled ‘winter’ or anything, but there’s a definite santa theme.
Village Brewery’s Monk Chai Winter Porter – 2/5, was a leaving gift from my brother-in-law.
I carded 16 when the deadline came, though Phil claimed it was only 14. This was still one better than his tally, and that being the case, I couldn’t be bothered to check. It was only when I came to write this article that I realised it was actually 17. So I win another beer challenge. Some competitors didn’t even try this time. I hadn’t been monitoring them while I was away, so I hadn’t any idea how they’d been doing. Given the overall sorry state of affairs though, I think I’ll have to invite other people next time. Friend me on Untappd (I’m neilcake), and I’ll figure something out.