It’s Christmas so: Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale 2009

Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale and my Christmas tree

Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale and my Christmas tree

As anyone who’s ever been in a pub, wandered into an off license, or glanced at booze in a supermarket before, knows, Christmas always means loads of special Christmas beers. They’re often slightly red in colour, regularly have a stupid picture of Father Christmas on the pump clip or label and are a godsend to out of work pun writers. They’re also, more often than note, a wee bit stronger than a typical ale (normally English Christmas brews hit somewhere between 5% and 6%).

In other country’s, Christmas beers are something truly spectacular. Give Belgium’s De Dolle brewer’s Stille Nacht a go, or, best of all Gouden Carlous’ Christmas ale, or Bush Noel. In fact, just try some Belgium Christmas ales. They tend to be over 10%, pretty much pitch black and rich, roasty and spicy.

I have a Stille Nacht and Gouden Carlous Christmas in my cellar. But they’re being saved for Christmas day. But, this bottle of Sierra Nevada Celebration was looking very tempting one cold December evening when I needed a winter warmer.

It pours (as many other festive beers do) a ruby red colour, with a nice creamy head.  The smell, well, there’s loads of hops in there, but also something Christmassy, it’s hard to put your finger on at first, but yep, this smells of pine, it’s like a Christmas tree in a beer. And that’s a good thing.

At 6.2% it packs the punch you would expect, with the initial hoppy bitterness cleansing the palette and allowing, again, for those piney flavours to lurk in, along with hints of red berries too. It’s a great beer for these cold December evenings, but doesn’t pack those deliciously over-the-top flavours that some Belgian Christmas beers go for – but then this is a very different kind of beer.

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Reet Good’s Beer Blogger Awards 2009

Golden Pint Logo 2009That chap Mark Dredge over at Pencil and Spoon thought it would be good to have some kind of end of year poll/awards for beer bloggers (it says so here). I agree, so here are my picks for the year.

Before I begin, I should point out that I’ve only been at this blogging lark for a few months and my knowledge and experience in the game is still somewhat lacking, so I will have to leave a few bits blank and maybe display my ignorance elsewhere. But I’m cool with that.

Best UK Draught Beer I tend to be a drinker of bottles of Belgian stuff more than anything else, but one reliable pint is always Outlaw’s (Rooster’s experimental arm) Wild Mule – packed full of sweet fruity flavours and a great bitter finish.

Best UK Bottled Beer Crown’s Unpronounceable IPA – packed full of hoppy bitterness with a summery hint of blackberries coming through underneath. (read more here)

Best Overseas Draught Beer Tripel De Garre – a rich Belgian tripel from a Bruges bar called De Garre. It’s very strong packed full of fruit, aniseed and licorice flavours and comes with an accompanying cheese. They only let you have three a visit. (read more)

Best Overseas Bottled Beer De Dolle’s Stille Nacht – a special Christmas beer brewed every year by the bonkers Dolle brewers. It’s 12%, dark to the point of blackness and with lingering tastes of plum and citrus.

Best Overall Beer Probably Outlaw’s Wild Mule again. I’ve supped it more than anything else this year. Some of the more extreme Belgians may be more exciting, but an overall beer should be one for any occasion, and Wild Mule does that.

Best Bottle Label or Pump Clip I can’t say I’ve been wild about any labels or clips, particularly, but BrewDog’s general branding has been great for them and seems to sum up their attitude and beers very well.

Best UK Brewery Having picked one of Crown Brewery’s brews earlier on, I’m going to plump for them here. Especially as it’s a small, one man set up, well done them!

Best Overseas Brewery Sierra Nevada, just for their consistently brilliant beers.

Pub/Bar of the Year In England, North Bar, easily. It’s where I consume most of my beers and the team their are great. Further afield, Kulminator in Antwerp, t’Velootje in Ghent and the Bruges Beertje in Bruges are all outstanding. (read more)

Beer Festival of the Year I only went to the Wakefield CAMRA festival this year. It was alright.

Supermarket of the Year Sainsbury’s was pretty good for their range of beers and good offers.

Independent Retailer of the Year Beer Ritz in Leeds. Great range, lovely staff, good prices, what more could you want?

Online Retailer of the Year Not used any.

Best Beer Book I’ve not read one this year, but I’ve been reading Pete Brown‘s back catalogue and have Hops and Glory lined up next.

Best Beer Blog Zak ‘The Beer Boy‘ Avery probably just edges ahead of  competition from Pete Brown, Real Ale Reviews and Pencil and Spoon.

Best Beer Twitterer Anyone from: http://twitter.com/#/list/tomas311/beerbloggers

Best Online Interactive Brewery BrewDog are the only brewery I’ve really seen use the web well this year, although they’ve made some big misjudgements too…

Food and Beer Pairing of the Year Maybe Sierra Nevade Porter and osyters at the North Bar Sierra Nevada event at Cross Keys.

A Trip To Belgium: the Bars and Beers

In Three Sheets To The Wind, Pete Brown decides that the Belgian people are committing some kind of massive practical joke on the rest of the world. Perceived wisdom seems to be that Belgium is a tedious country with nothing to see beyond the wonderful beauty of Bruges (if you haven’t been to Bruges, go. If you can’t afford to go, watch In Bruges, it’s very funny and makes the city look as stunning as it actually is).

This, as Pete Brown attests is very wrong. Not only are Belgian people, almost to a man (or woman) very entertaining, but their cities are fantastic and, most of all, the make the most interesting and diverse beers you can dream off (the legendary beer writer Michael Jackson wrote a great book all about the range and brilliance of Belgian beers).

My affection for Belgium brought me back to the country (via a quick trip to Lille, which is in France, but was once a part of Flanders, which is in Belgium) for the third time and coincided with drinking a fair few fantastic beers.

So, the holiday starts with leaving the Eurostar (a truly great way to travel) and arriving in Lille. This being a beer blog, I’m not going to go into detail about the architecture (partly because I can’t), the historic points of interest or the culture I’ve seen. Rather, I’m going to launch into the beer, bars and occasionally the food (the three are intrinsically linked).

So Lille, we hit a bar called Les Trois Brasseurs. It seems like a lovely little micro-brewery and brasserie (although it turns out it’s actually a small French chain with micro-breweries in most of it bars, but Lille is the original site). We start off with a tasting platter of four of their beers, before I pick out their stout (smokey, malty thick and chocolatey) and my girlfriend goes for the blond (a strong, Belgian style blond ale, crisp, simple and refreshing). We wander the streets, doing some culture and that, getting food, before returning for a 75cl bottle of their speciality beer, La Belle Province, a dark red beer which is refermented with maple syrup. It’s good, but far from stunning. An ample warm up for the treats of Belgium though.

Antwerp Train Station

Antwerp Train Station - not bad, eh?

Lille being very far North in France, and Belgium being tiny, Belgium can be travelled around at very little cost and in very little time, so we start with two nights in Antwerp (0r Antwerpen, if you’re being Flemish). Antwerp is very wealthy. They have the biggest diamond market in Europe, a fair few champagne bars and a thriving fashion scene. It’s a great city for wandering around and gawping, with magnificent squares, some amazing imposing architecture and a giant sculpture of a hand in the middle of the main shopping street (Antwerp means thrown hand, apparently).

That doesn’t mean it’s all swanky, fancy beers here though. We start our Belgian drinking at De Vagant, an old-fashioned style bar that specialises in Jenever (a kind of Belgian gin) but also stocks a good range of beers. Plus, they do hearty portions of soup and bread for a mere €3 and have a lovely old cat milling around. It’s a classic old style bar, long wooden benches, stone tiles, candles and quiet classical music piped across (all the best bars play classical music, it’s probably why drinking here is so placid with no hint of aggression). We have a couple of beers, including a sweet and dark Grimbergen, and De Konnick, a good, but unexceptional pilsner brewed in Antwerp. It’s the local brew of choice, apparently.

It’s actually surprising how many people drink pils here, instead of the richer, stronger abbey-style beers. But then if you spent every night on beers that range between 7% and 12%, your liver would struggle, I guess.

The real highlight, drinking-wise in Antwerp comes in Kulminator that night. A small, crammed smokey bar with strings of sausages flopping around the bar, two cats dancing around the window front, loads of cheese (including aged stuff from the Rochefort and Orval breweries) and shelf-upon-shelf and crate-upon-crate of beer. What’s really noticeable is the ancient, dust-laden bottles on the top shelves. See, while Kulminator do a great range of standard bottles, and some amazing draft beers (we take two very strong, dark, Christmas ales, a Stille Nacht and Bush Noel) and, most interesting of all, lots of very old beer.

The back of the menu is selling beers for beyond €30 a bottle, and it’s because they deal in vintaged bottles of beer. You can, if you ask nicely and have the cash, get 25 year old geuze, or two year old Chimay, or, just about any Belgian beer you can ever want.

An old guild building in Ghent

An old guild building in Ghent

One way to tell an especially strong beer, is a warning at the bottom of the menu that they will only sell you three of said beer. Thus was the case when we visited Ghent and Het Waterhuis Aan De Bierkant. This lovely canal-side bar (Ghent, like Bruge, is full of canals. In fact, Ghent is like a larger, more lived in Bruge. But not quite as beautiful). In this bar, one of their house beers (or Huis Biers – Flemish words often look and sound like English word spoken in a childish tone, thanks lot is “dank u well”), named Klocke Roeland – named after a bell in the city’s Belfry, the middle of three big towers in the city – is rich, strong, slightly red and full of aniseed and banana notes. It’s gorgeous, heavy and kicks in at over 11%.

In retrospect, a beer that strong wasn’t the best thing to drink before going to t’Velootje. Velootje (meaning small bicycle) is, by far, the strangest bar I have ever entered. As you reach the bar there is nothing, other than an Orval plaque, that suggest you are at a bar. The stack of bikes pilled outside the bar, the stiff door that needs a real shove to open, the long curtain than you’re then faced with, then the dim, smokey darkness, don’t scream ‘this is somewhere you would be welcome’.

As your eyes adjust to the gloom, it doesn’t get any easier to get your head round. The ceiling is full, absolutely packed, with hanging, rusting bicycles. The walls carry old beer posters and religious imagery. The tables (two long wooden tables with matching benches either side) have paper and packaging piled around them, alongside a pail holding archaic beer mats (all of them filthy) and religious artifacts and tat. In a corner an old man in shorts and sparkling tights skulks by a fire. A computer sits by him with a cat curled up nearby.

After a few minutes, the tight wearing man comes up to us. “So, you want a beer, he asks?” “Yes”, we reply. That the last option we’re given. He heads off to the back and returns with a beer called Kerst Pater, a 9% sherry-ish Christmas beer, complete with a deep, curranty flavour. We get no glass, and don’t really want to ask.

While we chat with the drunken locals (who work through Duvels and Monty Python quotes at speed), the owner approaches us. “What are your names?” he asks, and we tell him. “The police might arrive, if they do, we are friends, and you are not paying for your beer.” Ok, we nod in agreement and take his name, Leuven, for surety.

Sure enough, the police do arrive (the locals give us a mixed bag of reasons, a trouble neighbour, the open fire, the lack of fire exits and ventilation, the fact it’s an anarchist bar) and stick around for a fair while filling in forms, while we do our best to appear like friends enjoying a few beer in Leuven’s open front room.

Thankfully, the police soon leave, and we ask Leuven for one more beer. He returns with a monster that I know was 12% (my head told me that much the next morning), again with no glass. We drink it willingly, singing along with Leuven’s choice of music (60s psychedelic pop, 50s rock’n’roll, great stuff) as well as some Flemish drinking songs, and, odd enough, Abba’s ‘Thankyou For The Music’.

That’s definitely the last beer of the night. We leave our new friends and head off back to our room. “Will you be open tomorrow?” we ask. “Maybe,” he says. “I might clean”. We somewhat doubt that.

There’s one more city left, our favourite and two more bars to tell you about. Bruges, as I have already mentioned, is magnificent. Beautiful canals, nothing but gorgeous old architecture, grand town houses and old arced bridges. It’s all you could hope it would be, especially if you avoid the two bustling shopping streets and all the tourists.

The bars are good too, if you leave the obvious places and tourist traps. De Garre is, probably, the best. It’s hidden down a narrow alley between two famous old squares. You would barely notice it was there, but after one visit you’d be heading right back. The small, two floor bar is fancy, but not pretentious or too expensive. It’s rustic-feeling, with old wood tables, wonky twisted stairs and a squat bar. It’s table service done with aplomb and the real treat is their own beer Tripel Van Der Garre. A proper, powerful Belgian Tripel that, like the rest of the beers at the bar, comes complete with a small portion of tasty cheese (truly one of the best things about drinking in Belgium).

Dulle Teve in t'Bruges Beertje

Dulle Teve in t'Bruges Beertje

Perhaps the biggest draw for beers lovers though is t’Bruges Beertje (aka The Bruges Bear). You can tell the Bear is a beer-lovers haven because it has a photo of Michael Jackson (the writer) above a mantelpiece, a thick, bound beer menu and loads of people in it all drinking great Belgian beer.

Like Kulminator, there’s plenty of aged stuff here, and loads of Christmas beers too. I go for Straffe Hendrick though, a tripel beer brewed by Halve Moon brewery within the walls of Bruges. It’s actually not as great as I had hoped (having tried and enjoyed the brewery’s blond beer Bruges Zot and its dark sister on a previous visit to Belgium), strong, certainly, but lacking any distinctive flavours. Much better is the Dolle Brewer’s (literally, mad brewers) Dulle Teve (aka Mad Bitch), it packs a massive punch and comes with flavours of tropical fruits and licorice in its golden sheen.

A fellow Brit recognises us from our trip to De Garre and indulges in some serious beer one-up-manship with us. ‘Oh so you like Rodenbach? Have you tried the Gran Cru?’ ‘Yes, yes we have’ and so on. His beery tales and experiences far over shadow ours though, and we give up. His parting shot is to recommend the Christmas beer by Gouden Carolus. When he returns to our table a little later, he’s upset to see we haven’t tried his suggestion. Lucky for us, he vanishes for a moment, and returns with a glass of the stuff, a deliciously thick, malty, treacly beer that’s a perfect Christmas warmer. What a nice chap.

And with that, we bring a close to my commentary on Belgium. This is obviously nowhere near a full account of the holiday. We visited museums, churches and galleries (including an Anime exhibition in an old monastery in Ghent), saw some really famous paintings by the Belgian masters (all of them deeply religious), loads of amazing guild buildings, walked along canals, trod the streets of the city and caught up with a Belgian friend. Oh, and ate a fair bit too (plenty of cheese’n’beer, plus the obligatory soups and, best of all, a beef stew made using Leffe).

If you’ve read this and not visited Belgium before, I hope you might reconsider now.

Time At The Bar?

On average, 56 pubs close every week in the UK. In my role as a hotshot journalist at Leeds Guide magazine, I went on a tour of Otley pubs with Greg Mulholland MP, a man from CAMRA and had a phone chat with award-winning beer writer Pete Brown.

Here is a link to what I found out.

http://www.leedsguide.co.uk/review/feature/time-at-the-bar-1/12974

A Tale of Two Cities: Drinking in Leeds & Sheffield

A pictureless, detail-scant blog (I made no notes while drinking, I feel odd doing that in bars, with friends – it’d just be rude) from me to sum up my drinking experiences fron the last few days – in Leeds and Sheffield (hence the witty name of the blog).

We begin on Thursday night, in Leeds. A friend comes up to visit and we have an invite to the first birthday of Veuve Bar de Champagne in Chapel Allerton, Leeds. On our way to the bus, we pass North Bar and just can’t resist popping in (it being the favourite bar of me and my girlfriend).

It’s Christmas time, which means North Bar are doing their advent calendar beer. So, for each day of Christmas the first person into the bar gets a free beer from the calendar. Then for the rest of the day that bottle is available for cheap. I’m lucky, for when I go in the beer of the day is Goose Island Matilda – an American craft beer brewed with a heavy nod to Belgium.

It rich, dark gold in colour dry and very easy drinking for a 7% beer with slight wild, spicy notes that recall that king of beers that is Orval.

We went on from there to Chapel Allerton and Veuve, where we enjoyed a free glass of prosecco and more than our fair share of canapes (we’d had no dinner, see) but left when we saw that no more sparkle was going to be offered.

Luckily, just up the road is North Bar’s tiny sister bar Further North (cleverly named because is pretty much exactly in line with North Bar, but further north, see). What to order was a no-brainer when I spied that they had Marble Brewery‘s Ginger on tap. It’s light in colour and, surprisingly very gingery to taste. But, unlike a lot of ginger beers, Marble’s offering doesn’t allow the sweet spice to overwhelm their beer. While it’s very definitely there, the bitterness and alcoholic kick still packs a punch in the background. I finished my night with a half of Roosters Outlaw Stout that I don’t remember a great deal about, it was nice though.

Friday night was Sheffield (after a half of Elland‘s powerfully hoppy Nettle Trasher at The Reliance [which has some link to North and Further North]) and firstly Richard Hawley live at The Crucible. It was good, slow, sonorous and powerful – with some good Northern wit from the one-time Pulp man. But this ain’t a music blog, so I will move on.

I was up in Sheffield with my brother, a friend of his and my brother’s girlfriend (who lives in Sheffield). Post-gig it was decided that we’d go to Champs. It sold, I was told, real ale at amazing prices (with several Kelham Island brews for as little as £1) but it was a sports bar and a regular pre-club bar. Sounds odd, I thought, and I was right.

Champs does not look like a place that should be selling great real ales. Its walls are full of sporting memorabilia, the clientele are mainly enjoying lagers and spirits and the staff seem positively pissed off that they have to spare you (they’re much more interested in creatively stacking shot glasses in interesting patterns). When we finally get served, I get excited by spotting Thornbridge‘s Jaipur on tap, and persuade two of my companions to join me in a pint. I’m shocked as our bartender yanks it out of the pumps with no grace or care at all and passes it up far too cold.

It didn’t stop the beer tasting great though, powerfully hoppy but with an underlying honey-d sweetness, and very suppable, despite being 5.9%. Where it weaker, I would have had another half, but I stopped myself and went for a pale ale from Thornbridge whose name escapes me, it was light, a little sweet and with a nice hoppy finish, mind. Then midnight came along and we were swiftly kicked out with little grace. Suffice to say that, if it weren’t for its great beer selection, I wouldn’t darken Champs’ door again. If I do go back it will be during the day when, so I’m told, it’s much quieter and the staff are nicer.

So then, Saturday. The day starts well with a trip to Elland Road for Leeds v Huddersfield. We draw 2-2, but it’s a good game, even if Town are dirty buggers. This bears no relevance to anything else in this blog.

That evening, my girlfriend and I decide to head out to Cross Keys (thus making it four out of four of the North Bar-associated drinking holes in three days) for a slap up dinner. It’s a great pub, all roaring fires, exposed brickwork, beams and brilliant service. The food, traditional English grub done to an astonishingly high standard, was superb, as always. I had a great smoked haddock fish cake with a poached egg and tartar sauce followed by duck breast with chesnut stuffing. I washed that all done with a couple of pint of Saltaire‘s Winter Ale a slightly toffee-flavoured dark winter ale, a real warmer for this time of year. My girlfriend enjoyed a couple of bottle s of the splendid Flemish red Duchesse de Bourgogne – it comes with a sour kick at first, then a sweet, strawberry-esque finish.

In related news, I decided to use the NHS iPhone app for tracking your drink intake. Suffice to say that if I want to stay averaging 4 units per day (the recommended amount for me) I’m going to have to have a relatively sober week.

Find out about North, Further North, Cross Keys and The Reliance here. I’m sure you can find out about Champs somewhere if you want, but I don’t really recommend it.

STAGGING IT! And the Shropshire Union Canal Beer Club

Assorted beer club beers

Assorted beer club beers

As I write this blog post, my body seems to be in some kind of post-barge stress disorder. I may have been firmly on dry land for well over 24 hours (and I was only on a boat for two nights), but still my mind is still gently rocking me back and forth. When it will stop, I know not. But I hope it’s bloody soon.

So, what am I on about? Well, this week was a STAG DO! but not in the way you think. We didn’t hit the nearest swanky town, fill ourselves full of beer and then call into the nearest strip club. Oh no, for this was a classy, sophisticated, well behaved affair. This was a barging trip, between Bunbury (there were two English graduates on the trip, and neither of us made an Importance of being Earnest joke, indeed, I only just noticed the link n0w) and Chester on the Shropshire Union.

Our relatively sober, good behaviour was partly due to us all being sensible grown-ups with self-control and a knowledge of our own limits, and partly down to the worry that a hangover on a barge could be about as pleasant as being in a furnace with a temperature, or on a building site with a migraine.

However, this being a stag do, there was obviously going to be some drinking. But this wasn’t normal drinking. It was beer club. The stag do organiser had told us all to bring some interesting beer with us. That beer was going to be shared, tasted and rated. This was beer club.

Now, most beer tasters would be horrified at this tasting. Our scores were out of 10 for each beer, with no real criteria. We were tasting our beer out of plastic cups with a skull and crossbones on (their was a slight pirate theme upon the barge, we even had a Jolly Roger before some Chester bastard nicked it in the night), the beers were drunk roughly in order of darkness and most of the beers were just from the supermarket. A sophisticated beer tasting this was not. But, it was a laugh. And that’s what matters.

Our  barge was called the Speckled Hen, so, we started we Old Speckled Hen. It came straight in at 7 out of 10, mainly for being inoffensive, yet pretty tasty. If unspectacular, our tasting then took us to a few more beers whose notes have been lost in time. We had an Abbot Ale that was far too cold (again, this wasn’t a very scientific tasting) a bottle of St Peter’s Best that scored a lowly 1.87 (“stylish bottle, but fizzy and too shallow” said our shared notes). We had a Ginger Tom which seemed to go down well, and moved on to a Barbar honey ale, which promised much, but disappointed us with a strange mash of flavours (“strong, bitter, sweet and smooth a confused ale that doesn’t know what it wants to be: 3/10”) and a Wells Banana Bread Beer that tasted like that nice medicine you get as a nipper.

After The Banana Bread Beer, we moved on to darker, stronger things. We started with Duchesse de Bourgogne, the Flanders red ale. Many of my drinking colleagues hated the vinegary kick and the sweet flavours. I, however, have been a fan for years, and happily finished off the spares. A Westmalle Dubbel was strangely lacklustre, lacking any depth of flavour, bu Grimbergen Dubbel abbey beer wowed us all, although our notes seem to say “salty and liquoricey. Deliciously hollow – 8.3/10”, which is an odd turn of phrase.

Next up was the dark stuff. Old Tom’s Strong Beer showed initial promise with a nice meaty kick, but then failed to give anything in the finish. Old Growler looked a bit suspect, despite scribbling that it was “like an angular wet dog”, we all declared it “malty, drinkable, really gets in your mouth” (whatever that means) and gave it a mediocre 6.5/10. My beer for the tasting was Meantime London Stout. I loved it, but my companions found it a little bland. Which was odd.

After stouts, some unwise drinker had decided to bring a load of chocolate beers with him, to largely dreadful affect. Meantime Dark Chocolate Ale faired better than the rest, but even that only got the following response: “like alpro soya milk. bleurgh. 4.2/10”. The rest, though, Old Tom’s Chocolate Beer and, worst of all Flors Chocolate got 1.3/10 and our notes just said “nauceous”.

Foolishly, we left the lagers until our palates were well and truly baffled and we had ingested a load of salty snacks. Lucky Beer came in a Buddha-shaped bottle, and was slightly limey and sweet. We quite liked it. Our last beer, Kastell Cru faired less well, the standard one being far too unremarkable to be worth the price, while the Rose version really unimpressed and had us somewhat un-PCly declaring it “quite possibly one of the gayest beers”.

Yes, this was a massively unscientific beer tasting, yes, it might tell you very little about the beers, but it was bloody fun. After that we hit Chester, found a few nice pubs and, it true stag fashion, finished the night on a barge, with cups of green tea (decaff). Wild.