Compulsion! (The Session #76)

TheSessionBeerBloggingFridayWhat are we doing here?

The Session (also known as Beer Blogging Friday) is a opportunity, once per month, for beer bloggers around the world to pen their different thoughts on a specific topic set by that month’s host.
I’ve never taken part in The Sessions before, but this month it is hosted by a beerfriend of mine, so it seemed like a good idea to dive in. Although I call him a beerfriend, I’ve never actually met Glen – but that doesn’t matter in the craftbeer world.

Anyway, here goes…

 

Compulsion! The OED defines compulsion as [1] the action or state of forcing or being forced to do something, [2] an irresistible urge to behave in a certain way. Both of these definitions describe the reaction felt when a beergeek sees beer for sale.

By the way, I use the term beergeek in an entirely non-derogatory way. I am one myself!

Which of the two definitions is most appropriate depends upon what you consider to be the driving force behind the purchase. Definition number 1 gives a little space to be able to share the blame. It worth noting, though, that citing the phrase “the beer made me do it” won’t win you any points in the spousal disagreement that might follow. Definition number 2 doesn’t give any wriggle-room; it implies that the purchase is entirely the fault of the purchaser. Which let’s face it, it is!

So, why do beergeeks have an irresistable urge to behave in a certain way (ie buy beer)?
It might be a desire to try something new, or stock up on an old favourite. It might be to bag that “must-have” collectable, or simply to be able to sleep at night knowing that the cellar is rammed full.

For me, it’s a mixture of all of the above… I’m still very much a learner in the craft beer world, so a large component of the compulsion that I feel, stems from my desire to learn. I want to taste beers that I have heard about, to compare what I taste with what I “should” taste. I want to be able to calibrate my palate against people who know more than I do (everyone else blogging on this topic today?) and can pick the faults. I want to learn more about specific styles, and specific breweries. I want to learn more about the different malts, and different hops, and different yeasts.

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But more than anything, I don’t want to miss any of my craft beer adventure. Every beer is another lesson, another conversation, another leg of my journey.

There was a man, far greater than I, whose words can summarise the answer to the question of compulsion. He felt an irresistible urge to behave in a certain way, and he was knighted for it. His name was Sir Edmund Hillary, and when asked why he was compelled to climb Everest he answered quite simply “Because it’s there!“.

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GABS ’13

IMG_3360I’ve been building towards today for a few weeks (read; months). As a new age family man, I don’t get that much time on my own. Don’t think I’m complaining – quite the opposite – but, a day that is entirely my own is a rare thing to behold. And what better to do on a me-day than go to a beer festival?

GABS, or the Great Australian Beer SpecTAPular, is a be festival organised to coincide with Melbourne’s Good Beer Week. (There’s a whole rant about Good Beer Week, and my inability to attend any of the amazing events, but that’s for another day!) Anyway, GABS is the brainchild of the guys at The Local Taphouse in St. Kilda. Now in its third year, it is held in the World Heritage listed Royal Exhibition Building in Carlton, and a number of Australian and New Zealand breweries are invited to brew a new beer for the festival (this year some other well-renowned international breweries have been included too).

There were 92 freshly minted beers, plus a selection of old favourites at the Beer Market (a kind of farmer’s market for breweries). There was a band, and an awesome selection of eateries – no Maccas here – it’s all small companies like PhatBrats (wicked hotdogs), BarBurrito (mmm, burritos), TheMeltShop (posh toasted cheese sarnies).
So what is the form?

It’s not about getting hammered – drunkenness is frowned upon – it’s about tasting the myriad of different characters that beer can display. It’s about seeing what a master brewer can do when he’s playing with a free rein. In fact, I didn’t see anyone worse-for-wear during the 4 and a half hour session. The most raucous behaviour was from a Buck’s (Stag) party, which culminated in an official “GABS ambassador” (and craftbeer  twitter regular) playing dominitrix with a tasting paddle.

The experienced attendee buys a ticket online, and a supply of tokens. More tokens can be purchased at the event. The unit of GABS currency is the $2 Token, so that actual money only changes hands at the token-stall. An 85ml beer taste is worth 1 token, a paddle of 5 tastes is 5 tokens, and a glass of beer is 3 tokens – the ticket price includes a GABS glass, which you get to take home at the end of the day.   

There are two strategies; [1] make it up as you go along – my method at GABS’12, or [2] check out the beer list and plan your attack before the day. Actually, most beer geeks have pre-planned their paddles – the anticipation is half of the fun. I had gone through the list of 92, selected the must haves and the should haves. That whittled me down to 30something different beers. I ended up with a selection of brews, varying from IPAs to Porters and from Märzens to Imperial Stouts. Disappointingly, two of my choices were scratched.

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As I tasted, I wrote my thoughts down. Some beers were insipid whilst some were outrageous. All were interesting! My beer of the day was an amazing Black Ale from a brewery in WA called Feral. Their festival beer was a Black Ale, aged in French Oak Barriques (it’s a type of wine-barrel), and is called Barrique O Karma. I love the cheeky reference to the current resident of the White House.

I also particularly enjoyed a Barleywine from the guys at Bright Brewery. Called Supermucilaginisticexpialidocious, a slightly weird MaryPoppins/medical-dictionary mash-up name, it’s a woody, malty, alcoholicky triumph.In my notes, I described it… “As woody as sitting in a sauna, in a forest, with an erection. And a brandy!”

High praise indeed.

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I also drank a Belgian Blonde Ale with beetroot, an India Pale Ale with balsamic vinegar, a cherry-wheat-porter, and a Vietnamese mint-mango-chilli IPA. Check out my notes below…

I’ve drunk some beers today that I know I won’t drink again, and some that I hope I do. Either way, it’s definitely not XXXX territory!
If you get a chance, get to GABS’14 – you’ll have a blast!

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Leffe Radieuse

I found these tasting notes from about a year ago.

LEFFE RADIEUSE

Leffe.
It’s a name that beer-types know.
A glorious ruby on the pour, with a persistent cream head. It’s so different from the crop of Pale Ales, IPAs and Saisons that most often grab my attention. Just the most beautiful colour. It’s not red, but it’s not brown either. Mahogany, perhaps?

It’s not got a huge nose, but plums and cherries and vanilla come through.
Initially sweet, the flavours morph as the beer sits in your mouth. It’s like summer pudding that turns into plum pie. The sweetness gives way to a deeper, richer, unctuous velvet with just the hint of golden pastry as you swallow. And then it’s gone, but what remains is the bitter echo of that malt. The almost-burnt pastry flavour. I can almost see the pie coming out of the aga.

This is my first Belgian, so I don’t know if what I’m tasting is representative. But I am rather looking forward to finding out.

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Oh for Peat’s Sake

Beer.
Malted barley. Hops. Yeast. Water.
(And sometimes; a special secret ingredient)
Yet, the most amazing breadth of flavours can be created by the master-brewer.
Beer is such a diverse drink; a yeasty Saison bears little resemblance to a roasty Stout. And even within a style, one example can be poles apart from another.

One of the great things about craft beer, is that this diversity is celebrated. It’s perfectly ok for a beer to divide opinion. And, a beer that divides opinions more than most, is RexAttitude from New Zealand’s Yeastie Boys.
Rex is a beer brewed with peated malt. XeRReX is the one-off single-batch Imperial version.

Actually, I think it’s really important that brewers brew beers which split the craftbeer world in two. I’d rather open a beer that I really dislike, than one of which I have no opinion.
Death to mediocrity!
I’m not sure that this is a mindset shared by some other craftbeer drinkers.
XerreX currently rates at 3.58 on @untappd. This means that either the majority of drinkers/raters think it’s unremarkable (seriously unlikely) OR the lovers balance the haters (much more likely).
WARNING: SCHOOLBOY STATISTICS ALERT! Using the mean is less useful than the mode. Mean is when the sum of the responses is divided by the number of respondants, while Mode is simply the most commonly selected response. 3.606 tells us nothing, but knowing that most people rate it 5, slightly fewer rate it 1 (nobody rates it 3) tells us much more.

I’ll fess up. I really disliked it, right from the moment of the click-pfft, even before I’d poured it; the smell of smoke was overpowering. And lifting the glass to my mouth brought me closer to the smell.
And in the mouth, all I got was smoke. People talk about its balance malt profile. I couldn’t taste anything but smoke.
The odd thing about Yeastie Boys XerreX is that despite finding it revolting, I love it!
Don’t get me wrong, I never ever want to drink it again, but I love that it exists. I love that some mad kiwis have been told “You can’t do that: It’ll never work!” But they did it anyway.
Think of all the people throughout the course of history to whom that was said; Leonardo DaVinci, Gallileo, The Wright Brothers, Christopher Columbus, James Cook, Edmund Hillary.

I love that while I hate XerreX, I love Yeastie Boys Gunnamatta. I love that the same creative spirit that embraces peat-smoke also embraces tea leaves. I love that there are brewers out there pushing the boundaries of what can be done with 4 simple ingredients. I love that in the craftbeer world there is a place for beers like XerreX.

So, how do I rate it on @untappd?
5 because I love that it exists? Or 1 because its horrible*?
Definitely not 3, because it is anything but mediocre!

(* other opinions are available and welcome)

Breakfast?

I know that until now, I have only written about my adventures in craft beer. And this post could be described as a beer review. But really, it is a beer review wrapped up inside an adventure of sorts.

Beer at breakfast time? There is something that has never quite sat well with me. I guess that it is an innate fear of alcoholism. Isn’t it just a hop [pun intended], step and a jump from having a beer at breakfast to having a whiskey with your weetbix, or a metho-mouthwash before brushing your teeth?
Well, I managed that fear this morning. The beer in question has sat patiently in my beer fridge for nine months. It’s been nestling next to a Southern Bay Sunrise Breakfast and a Moa Breakfast. I’ve been fighting an uphill battle with my conscience. But, today was the day…

It’s Sunday, the sun is shining and the birds are sheltering from the heat amidst the foliage in the garden. I am sitting at my kitchen table, listening to the evocative twang of Spanish guitar on the stereo whilst the domestic goddess and attendant cherubim are baking a peach and raspberry flapjack. I’m sitting amongst the remains of breakfast: Eggs Benedict, with homemade foaming Hollandaise, and bowls of stone-fruit salad. Beside me sits an almost empty bottle of a beer that I’ve been looking forward to for almost a year. A beer that I have been hugely excited about drinking. A beer that has only been brewed once and, to the best of my knowledge, won’t be brewed again. A beer that was brewed with breakfast in mind: Bridge Road Brewers‘ 500 Smokey Breakfast Lager.

Now, why would this unusual beer languish in my fridge for such a long time? Because it is a breakfast beer. And, as I said before, who drinks beer at breakfast time except those in need of help? Well, if breakfast is a late brunch, on a Sunday, then it’s almost lunch. And a beer with Sunday lunch is most definitely allowed in civilised company.

A lazy day of cooking, eating and drinking with the family sums up my favourite was to spend a Sunday. Throw in a coffee, the paper and the time to read it and you’re pretty much there. Aaaahhhhh, perfection!
So, six-year-old-son and I set about making the Hollandaise sauce. It’s a simple fact that every man sold know how to make a Hollandaise; girls love a guy who can cook! Although if you’re cooking her breakfast, you’ve probably already done pretty well.
For reference, Delia Smith’s recipe from How To Cook Book One never fails!
Thick cut sourdough toast. Crispy bacon. Poached eggs, quiveringly soft, perched on top. And then anointed spoonfuls of unctuous Hollandaise. Perfection.
And beside it; a glass.

I was surprised by how dark the beer poured. I’d expected a burnished gold with an ivory head, but what I got was a dark brown, almost grey. Like the bitterest chocolate: 85% stuff. The head was tight, firm and tan in colour, dispersing over five or ten minutes to leave fine lacing.
The aroma was slightly odd and, frustratingly, I can’t put my finger on it. It was sweet and smokey, almost like marmite (the original British institution, not that ghastly Sanitarium stuff).
The beer had a lively, spritzy mouthfeel, and tasted both sweet and bitter at the same time. (It’s worth using your whole mouth to taste, rather than just a quick swallow.) My first thoughts ran to maple syrup, and almost burnt toast. And then weirdly, apricots and dried fruit.
It’s a malt-driven beer, and not over-hopped. And it works fantastically.

Between my beer breakfast and actually converting my thoughts into a coherent narrative, I asked Ben from Bridge Road for a list of ingredients. He pointed me towards a great video made on the brewday, listing the ingredients which were drawn from the brewery team’s favourite breakfasts. This list includes; Carmen’s Muesli, Zo’i coffee, Tetley’s tea, maple syrup, cinnamon-raisin bread, and Beechworth honey (of course).
There are several malts, primarily a smoked German Rauchmalz to echo the smell of bacon (didn’t quite work for me), a Belgian Abbey-malt for a biscuity character and a roasted wheat malt for colour and a chocolate hit.
In hindsight, the cinnamon raisin bread, muesli, honey and maple syrup, I can taste. I think that the marmitey smell is a combination of the the coffee and the smoked malt.

Well, I can say that I’m a convert – beer at breakfast time can be a triumph of beer and food matching. As with all craft beer, it’s all about the experience not about getting smashed.
I’ve had an illuminating experience, and the next question is: what should I have with the Southern Bay Brewery Sunrise Breakfast Lager in the fridge?
I’m thinking something lighter and more befitting of a summer Sunday morning; figs and ricotta drizzled with honey, or crepes with maple syrup and banana perhaps?

Red Hill Brewery – Diamond Jubilee IPA

@redhillbrewery Diamond Jubilee IPA

60 years is a long time. Anyone got a bottle of wine from ’52? Or a car? In fact, anyone still remember 1952?
For anyone who doesn’t know, it was 60 years ago that the Queen became the Queen. And that is as good a reason as any for brewing a special one-off brew.
I have been looking forward to this beer since I first heard about it. It speaks to me in a thousand ways; I’m a Pom. I’m a royalist. I have an interest and enthusiasm about beer that some suggest is unhealthy. IPA is a perennial favourite of mine. And I have liked everything from Red Hill Brewery that has ever passed my lips. How can I not? They’re one of my local breweries, and they’re very very very good at it.
In the interests of presenting a fair and impartial review, I should admit that I’m sampling this beer in less than ideal conditions; I’m sitting outside on a chillsome overcast day, and am in danger of being drenched from a nearby puddle which is just waiting for a child to jump into. But worst of all, the health and safety police have decreed that I be served in a plastic “glass”. Surely, the brewers die a little every time one of their beers is poured into plastic.
But, the beer…
For an Englishman, there’s something reassuring about a proper old-fashioned handpump. My pint took a minute to settle and reveal a beautiful golden caramel colour. It’s low on fizz, just as it should be for the style.
Served a little too cold for a British IPA, it warmed and grew in my hand, eventually giving a nose preminiscent of dried apricots and cloves.
There’s a lovely mouthfeel, it’s almost thick. Not quite creamy, but definitely unctuous.
Initially sweet, the bitterness comes through almost instantly. It’s a blink-and-you-miss-it sweetness. But the bitter roasted malt lingers in the mouth after swallowing.
It’s a great beer, although not an earth-shattering one. But… it does make me long for my old local village pub on a winter’s evening, when I could sit by the fire, with a dog curled at my feet, amongst the fog of pipe smoke. And for that reason, it does what it sets out to do, so is a winner in my book!
God save the Queen!

A funny thing happened to me on the way home from work…

It feels like a mile-stone: I’ve been to my first beer launch.

It was a very pleasing affair: a small, select group of like-minded individuals, gathering to mark the birth of a quite spectacular beer. And I was there too. Let me tell you what happened…

I knew that the guys at Mornington Peninsula Brewery had a new beer coming out: a Russian Imperial Stout, but expected that it’d take a week or two before I got to the brewery for a taste. Except that as I was driving home, I was stuck by a thought. A simple thought. A pure thought. The kind of thought that should be preceded by a choir holding a single, unbroken, unwavering note…

“A swift one might be nice!”.

But who was I to go to a beer launch? I’m a nobody. You can’t really call yourself a blogger with a single post! I’ve become mates with a few beer people through Twitter and Untappd, but I don’t really know anything about beer. I know what I like, but I’m an amateur. So I sat in the car, and wondered whether I should just go home. Who would I talk to? Would I be the sad git who shuffles in, has his drink without saying a word, then shuffles out again? But that thought just wouldn’t go away; a swift one really would be nice. And besides, I wouldn’t be on my own; beer people are good people.

And they are!

I’ve traded tweets with Matt from the Mornington Peninsula Brewery, on and off for a while. And I’ve admired his work from afar. Well, not too afar – it’s often in a glass on its way to my mouth. But I’d not met him before, yet he greeted me like a mate. One of the nice things about the Australian craft beer scene is that you can actually get to meet the guys (and girls) responsible for making the beer. It’s not a closed shop; and it seems to me that the brewers brew because they love beer. My worries, about having nobody to talk to, had faded before my beer had even settled. Admittedly, that took a few minutes as Matt was still fine-tuning the flow through the sparkler. But even that felt good; experiencing teething troubles is part of the experience of being at the start of something. Waiting for the beer to settle felt rather like the half-light before sunrise – full of anticipation, expectation and potential.

Matt waited to check that my first sup was followed by an exclamation of approval, before moving away to attend to others. As he turned away I heard my name from across the bar, and saw a familiar face grinning at me. I won’t say his name, for I haven’t asked his permission, but greeting me was a man whom I first met through work about four years ago. We met again in 2010 when he introduced me to several very fine beers, including Weihenstephaner Hefe Weissbier and Red Hill Brewery’s Christmas Ale. He didn’t know it, but he was the catalyst to my entering the Australian craft beer world. We chatted about all sorts of things; how we’d met and what we’d been up to since. We talked about beer and brewing, about stouts and IPAs and Lambics. And we agreed that the Mornington Peninsula Brewery is a very fine establishment, producing a range of very fine beers.

On a related note; I would go as far as to say that the brewery bar at Mornington Peninsula Brewery, has captured the atmosphere of an old English pub better than any other bar I’ve been to in Australia. The actual decor couldn’t be more different – bare concrete, high ceilings and an industrial aesthetic versus horse-brasses, an open-fire and roof-beams that you bang your head on. But the vibe is there; it’s just a very friendly place to sit with a cracking beer and talk to friends and strangers.

As for the Russian Imperial Stout… It is sublime! If your benchmark is Guinness or Murphy’s, you’re in for a VERY pleasant shock. I’m not going to describe it now, I’ll need to have another one. I’m afraid I didn’t take notes; I was having far too much fun talking to beer people, making new friends, and enjoying beer as a true social medium. Suffice to say that the swift one was very nice indeed!

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So here we are then…

I can remember the first beer I ever drank.

It was a wam can of Heineken, and I was in a park with guys from school. Being the oldest-looking of the group, it fell to me to front up to the man in the shop, and exchange a handful of cash for a couple of six-packs. The others gave me plenty of advice; Don’t look worried. Don’t make eye-contact. Don’t say much. Don’t get Heineken.

Armed with that, I marched into the bottle-shop and bought… Heineken. It was only after picking it up, that I realised. And by then, it felt that to change my mind would only draw attention to myself. And anyway, if they wanted to be fussy, they could bloody well buy it themselves!

I don’t remember much about the beer, except that the adrenaline rush of breaking the law made it taste like the nectar of the gods. And, it was the start of a love affair. Although I didn’t realise it at the time.

I can remember the last beer I drank.

It was a lightly chilled bottle of Sticke Alt, brewed by the guys at Red Hill Brewery. And, I wasn’t in a park. Not only can I remember exactly how it tasted, but also how it smelt, how it felt in my mouth, and what it made me think of. [for the record: bitter-sweet caramel/ marmite and roasting chestnuts/ a pleasing tingle on my tongue after swallowing/ roast beef and horseradish]. The adrenaline rush wasn’t there, but there was contentedness and a huge respect for craftsmanship and the love with which the beer had been created. And, there is no doubt which feeling I prefer – I guess I’m getting old!

I’ve come a long way since that first illicit Heineken. And I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a beer-blog for a while. But what would I write? And more importantly, who would bother to read it?

What would I write? Well, I’m not a brewer so I can’t write really about brewing. And I’m not a critic, so I’m not really qualified to be critical. But I do love beer. Not in a how-much-can-I-put-away-before-I-fall-down way, well not any more. I love beer for the way it makes me feel, the way it looks in a glass, for the flavour, the aroma, the memories and thoughts it envokes. I marvel at the imagination and skill of the brewer, and the countless ways that four core ingredients can be made to taste. Just as Monet and Picasso had the same piece of paper and box of crayons.

The craft beer community is warm and inclusive. Since I’ve started really thinking about beer, I’ve made some new friends, and learnt something new from every beer that I tried. Craft beer is a conversation, and I want to be part of it. I’ve still got so much to learn; how to adequately describe the beer, how to identify the malt profile, about the characteristics of different hops, about the myriad of different styles. So that’s what I’m going to write about; my adventures with beer!

Who would read it? Maybe nobody, but I’ll enjoy writing it anyway. Cheers!