Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Beer tasting #2 - this time it's Christmassy

What makes a beer Christmassy?

Round 2 of our beer tasting saga was heralded by a picture message from Jason (Menzies, cellar manager of Bowland Brewery’s Holmes Mill bar) of four Christmassy beers. November is the new December.

The aim was to judge how Christmassy each brew made us feel. The intention wasn’t to judge taste, however sometimes you just have to, don’t you? The ratings are not for the taste or proficiency of the beers, they are for the Christmassiness of the beers. Turns out we are pretty strict about how festive things are.

Anyway, it’s December now, so stop your “it’s too early” nonsense, strap on some antlers and turn up the Muppet’s Christmas Carol soundtrack. Christmas is here. Deal with it.

Beer 1
Brewdog - Santa Paws - 4.5%

They say: A 4.5% decadent scotch ale brewed with Scottish Heather Honey. A robust malty beer packed with avour and at a strength you can drink all (Christmas) day long.

A baby scotch ale which is perfect with Christmas pudding or whilst playing Pictionary with your gran. This is our antidote to the chaos of the upcoming festive season. Raise a glass of this Christmas beer, share it with friends, family and strangers, and sit back and enjoy the view as the world descends into a fairy light fuelled frenzy. And, if all else fails, just blame Santa.

TM: It’s definitely wintery, very nice.
KT: I think it tastes like a less velvety stout.
TM: It’s not as complex as you’d think it would be.
JM: I have to say I picked it up thinking it would have something more to it - barrel aged or with Scotch in it or something. It’s nice, it’s very pleasant, and it’s very easy drinking for a 4.5%.
TM: It’s almost teetering on the edge of having a liquorice taste? I like the bitterness.
JM: I’m not detecting any Christmas.
TM: It’s not very Christmassy, is it?
JM: Well, it’s sessionable. I like it.
JM: *looking at the label* It mentions “Christmas” three times and is covered in snowflakes. That’s Christmassy.
KT: But that’s about it for Christmassiness. The marketing.

VERDICT: 2/10 - The label says “Christmas” on it.

CHRISTMAS SONG PAIRING: The Band Aid with Dizzee Rascal in it.

Beer 2
Hawkshead - Jingle Fells - 4.5%

They say: A well rounded, malt-forward, spiced Christmas ale with subtle hints of smoke. Savoury on the nose with aromas of cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. A deep ruby-red ale to be savoured.

KT: I like the smell. It smells like mulled wine a bit.
TM: I like that they’ve used the word “grist” on the label. “Grist”. “Gri-s-t.”
KT: Mmm. Smoky. Quite a lot going on.
JM: Very similar colour to Santa Paws but with a spicier taste.
*The team were then distracted by an uninvited Partridge moment on the radio*
TM: It’s still not as complex as I was expecting.
JM: Yeah it’s more subtle and I’m getting a redcurrant flavour. Is anyone else?
KT: I don’t know -the smokiness and bitterness is the only thing I can really taste.
TM: Christmas beers always promise so much.
JM: It’s pleasant though, there’s a nuttiness and smoke about it but not too pronounced. It’s sessionable and I’d recommend it to people who don’t normally drink beer as a good Christmas drink.

VERDICT: 5/10 - Christmassy enough but easy-drinking enough to be a present for an ale-drinking Uncle. Very Christmassy label including a Rudolf and a good Christmas pun.

CHRISTMAS SONG PAIRING: Two Become One by The Spice Girls. Not hugely Christmassy but pretty excellent.

Beer 3
Badger Brewery - Poacher’s Choice - 5.7%

They say: Just like Badger, the wily poacher takes inspiration from the countryside’s bounty. This rich, ruby beer has a softly spiced sweetness and a fruity damson aroma. Its gutsy character is well matched with hearty game pie or a tangy mature cheese.

This was a wildcard chosen by Tom, who had previously said it was the best wintery beer and had juicy, fruity flavours that you’d normally find in a Christmas pudding. Sounds pretty Christmassy. What I like the most about this beer is that the reviews of it are mostly less than 3 stars from people who are very unimpressed by its ubiquitousness on supermarket shelves, as if that makes things taste bad. You can get Primula in Tesco and I fucking love that. Anyway.

KT: It smells like dates.
TM: And damsons.
JM: It should say “plummage”, not “plumage”.
TM: It says liquorice but I’m not getting any of that.
KT: It’s very fruity.
TM: And very wintery. it Christmassy?
JM: It’s glorious. Not something I’d have in excess, it’ll get too sweet.
TM: It’s similar in that way to (Coach House) Blueberry Bitter because it’s nice but not a session. And masks the ABV well.
KT: I actually tasted a lot of liquorice.
TM: It’s polished. Like...consistent. I know they are a big brewery but this is well brewed. And I wonder if they actually use the liquorice to bitter it.
JM: This with a Boxing Day turkey vindaloo would be banging.

VERDICT: 8/10 - The only thing missing is some festive branding, but to be fair, nobody ever said it was a Christmas beer so it’s quite unfair of us to demand some. But we are.

CHRISTMAS SONG PAIRING: Fairytale of New York by The Pogues because fuck you, it’s not even a Christmas beer and it won, that’s how punk it is.

Beer 4
Saltaire Brewery - White Christmas - 5.8%

They say: A pale refreshing beer made with pale rye and Vienna malts. Light hop flavours are enhanced with coriander seeds and orange peel added to the final boil.

KT: It’s very orangey. I’m not sure if it’s traditionally Christmassy but my own connotations of this style of beer are Christmassy so…
TM: It’s nice? And I am also getting a lot of orange.
KT: It’s subtle in every other taste though.
JM: They’ve gone in quite heavy on the orange and there’s not much else going on for me.
TM: I’d prefer more head retention and carbonation for me.
JM: Well, I’d have this while prepping the veg. It’s got enough of a kick to get me ready for the arrival of Uncle Nobhead.
KT: I would like to drink this out of a stein.
TM: It’s pretty pleasant.
JM: It disguises the alcohol content really well, and that’s probably the orange.

VERDICT: 6/10 - We feel 60% more Christmassy after drinking it.

CONTROVERSIAL SECOND VERDICT FROM TOM: “2/10 - Fuck it. It’s not Christmassy. No.  And it has a white label that says “Christmas” on it in pretty much the most boring font ever.”

CHRISTMAS SONG PAIRING: Wizzard, for that sudden feeling of “Ah fuck, it’s really happening now.”

Beer 5
Ridgeway Brewing - Santa’s Butt - 6%

They say: This special holiday porter is made for winter - rich and warming, the way they like it at the North Pole. It was inspired by this famous line from a well-loved children’s storybook:

"And Santa sat on his great butt, enjoying a hardy brew..."

In case you find that amusing, the brewer hastens to point out that in England, "butt" refers to a certain sized barrel, in fact, holding 108 Imperial gallons. Back in the day it was quite a normal thing for a brewery to put its beer up in a large butt for storage. Still snickering, eh? Get your mind out of the gutter, or Santa will be skipping your house entirely this year.

By this point we were all fairly hammered. The best thing about this beer is that some people on the same site that gave the Badger beer a low score had given this around 70 out of 100.

JM: It just looks like shit, doesn’t it.
KT: I just spotted some Bradley Hand on the label.
JM: I hope it’s amazing.
*all drink*
TM: *whispers* It’s not.
KT: Well, it’s not a porter.
TM: Christmarse.
KT: Father Christmas’ shiny fivepence.
*We all look at the label for more information on what we’re drinking. It’s interesting. We later talk about recording future tasting sessions because we’d been laughing for at least twenty minutes at the label art and I had started crying due to hysterics.*
TM: I know nobody’s looked past Santa’s giant ass, but have a look at his face. He looks like the Grinch’s fat white dad.
JM: To call this a porter is…
KT: A liberty.
JM: It’s bullshit really. It’s a brown ale. With an arse on it.

VERDICT: 10/10 - It’s got the full Christmas factor. Wonky tree, burnt spuds, arguments. That’s Christmas.

CHRISTMAS SONG PAIRING: Alexandra Burke’s Hallelujah.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Beer Tasting #1

As homebrewers, Tom and I have been fiddling with grain and hydrometers for about two years, but as beer tasters we’re pretty green. If we want to get better at brewing, especially now that Tom’s all grain brewing setup is fully functional and our first test batch was about a 90% success (post to come), we need to learn how to use our tonguey tongues.

Both Tom and I like to apply the “nerd” approach to learning, which basically involves buying highly-recommended books full of technical jargon (and in my case, pictures) and then consuming every word, cover to cover. Tom is much further on with his research than I am (“Brewing Classic Styles” by Jamil Zainasheff and Palmer’s “How to Brew” already dog-eared and well-thumbed), however Randy Mosher’s “Tasting Beer” is teaching me a lot and I’m only a third through it. I’m not the most scientifically-minded person on the planet and the chemistry of the malting process is blowing my mind slightly, so it’s taking me a bit of time to digest it all.

Sometimes reading isn’t enough though. Sometimes you’ve got to approach education practically, so we reluctantly decided to put down our textbooks and host our first beer tasting evening. Much hardships.

Luckily for us, we know somebody who’s pretty good at this sort of thing. Jason Menzies is the Cellar Manager of Bowland Brewery’s new Holmes Mill bar in Clitheroe, reportedly the home of one of the longest bars in Europe. He’s on a one-man mission to turn the Prosecco and red wine-washed locals into avid ale drinkers and we hope he succeeds soon. (Follow him on Instagram here:

Jason joined us on his night off to help us taste some beers and figure out what exactly was happening in our mouths and brains. He even brought some snacks to get us food matching, and some pretty special beers. He’s a good guy.

*DISCLAIMER: Our beer tasting sessions are for educational and fun reasons only, at the moment. No comment here is intended to offend anybody. Bearing that in mind, please remember that everybody has to start somewhere and if you think our comments are total bobbins, please do get in touch to help us figure it out for next time.*

Beer 1: Mad Hatter Brewing Company - Return to Madness - 11% ABV
They say: “Imperial IPA: we decided to 'return to madness' after 'a moment of sanity' with this crazy beer. The Belgian yeast brings out an incredible fruitiness from the vic's secret, columbus, amarillo and centennial hops.”

KT: First of all I think I can smell a nutty, sweet smell.
JM: Yes, it’s quite almond-cherry on the nose.
TM: *dives straight into it* It tastes exactly like I expected it to.
KT: You were supposed to smell it.
TM: smells like orange-brown. I don’t know how to describe that or what it means.
JM: Like oranges? Or more like orange peel?
KT: Is the brown a bit like caramel, maybe?
TM: I guess so. Brown. Yeah, quite thick and sweet I guess.
KT: *takes a swig* What the fuck?
JM: Is it different to what you expected?
KT: Yeah, it’s a bit of a shock. It’s like...cherries, like you said. But not red, fruity cherries. Dark, Black Forest cherries.
TM: It’s too sweet. It could do with more bitterness.
JM: It’s got a red wine resonance - the brambly spice of a Shiraz.
KT: Are you getting a tanniny flavour then? Or is it more the depth of wine?
JM: Hmm..not so much a taninic flavour.
KT: Well I think it’s more like a sweet dessert wine. LIke sherry? Or Metaxa?
TM: Is the malt too much for the hops?
JM: There is a tickle of hop there.
TM: It’s basically a barley wine though.

TM: 6/10 - Not enough hops for an IPA
JM: 6/10 - For an IPA it’s lacking some very important qualities. It’s a good after-dinner beer though, perfect for cheese and crackers. It warmed me up after the frozen walk here!
KT: 7/10 - I like it but am not sure about the fruity aftertaste. Much yeastier than I expected for an IPA.

OVERALL REACTION: It’s confusing but pleasant.

Beer 2: Burning Sky - Gaston - 6% ABV
They say: “Pale ale in the Belgian tradition. A mix of old and new world hops give a spicy orange and mango aroma”

KT: I like the smell. It’s like a Hoegaardenny coriander. And bread. Am I not supposed to say bread? Bradiness is meant to be insulting isn’t it?
TM: No, bread is a thing. You can say bread.
JM: Yeah, bread is fine. And I’m getting lemons and juniper too.
TM: I love the smell. It’s tasty and citrussy.
JM: The citrus is making my eyes water a bit.
TM: *takes a swig* Light body, dry...Saison-dry. The citrus isn’t as prominent in the taste as in the nose.
JM: Dry, sharp, crisp. Definite cereal taste.
TM: There’s a pith bitterness.
JM: Yeah, definitely.
KT: I think it’s really savoury, that cereal taste is really strong as a base flavour.
TM: It’s got a nice silky mouthfeel.
JM: Has it got a bit of a soapy aftertaste? And there’s some orangeyness too.

™: 8/10 - Because I like it.
JM: 4/10 - Not offensive but forgettable.
KT: 8/10 - A good example of the style, not super exciting but I really liked it.


At this stage, Jason pulls a packet of Karkli Ghost Naga Chili lentil snacks and some 85% dark chocolate out of his rucksack, along with three more beers he hides from us. Shit just got realer.

Beer 3.

TM: It’s a chocolatey smell.
JM: Interesting, since it’s a pale
KT: If it’s chocolatey then it’s more Galaxy rather than dark chocolate.
TM: Yeah, it’s malty.
KT: Some would say like...Maltesers.
TM: Yeah...oh my god. Is that how Maltesers are made? HOLY SHIT.
*a moment for Tom to collect his thoughts*
TM: It’s a subtle taste, with malt coming through.
JM: Okay, so we know it tastes malty. Eat some of these now.

*Everyone eats some ridiculously spicy Ghost Naga Chili snacks*

KT: It tastes more sparkly. The chilli has hurt my tongue and made it raw, so the beer tastes sharper.
JM: So, what’s happened is the acid in the chillis makes your tastebuds more sensitive as they react to the toxins that make them spicy. What’s essentially happening is the beer taste is becoming amplified as a result.

*everyone ruminates on this for a bit*

JM: Curious aroma, probably the malt base. It’s refreshing like a pilsner though.
™: It’s got quite a bit of body.
JM: Does the hop balance with the malt?
™: No, but that’s good. It’s a good thing.
KT: The hop doesn’t balance with it but that’s good because the malt is such a pleasant flavour. I like that.

THE BIG REVEAL: Little Valley Brewery - Python IPA - 6% ABV

They say: “Python IPA is a straw coloured, double hopped, original IPA. It provides a strong malty taste with a delicious balance of hops and bitterness. This beer will easily survive the long journey to India.”

*Absolute shock in the room. Nobody’s sure what to say next.*

TM: 5/10 - If I brewed that, I wouldn’t put that label on it
JM: 6/10 - CLean, refreshing BBQ beer. We need to write a rule book on what constitutes an IPA because none of us agreed at all.
KT: 7/10 - I really liked it. I’m confused by the description. I’m questioning reality now.

Beer 4.

KT: I’m getting a bit of a rum smell like dark sugar and wood.
TM: A bit of coriander?
JM: Molasses and raisins.
TM: That’s a Belgian.
KT: Is it even a Trappist?

*All in unison* IT’S SO NICE

JM: Warming - it’s got like a brandy-ish kick to it.
TM: No hop. Zero hop.
KT: Over-ripe fruit? Is that a thing? Is that yeast?
JM: That’s malt, really.

*Everyone digs into Mrs Kirkham’s smoked Lancashire cheese for the next flavour matching bit.*

JM: So this cuts out some of that sweetness and you’re left with the malty dry taste, especially in the back of your mouth.

*Everyone nods and eats all of the cheese.*

THE BIG REVEAL: Ampleforth - Abbey Beer

TM: 8/10 - It’s nice. Rounded and pleasant. Comfortable.
JM: 8/10 - A good example of this style of beer. A great entry-level to Abbey and trappist beers. Also, the cheese made it come alive.
KT: 9/10 - I loved it and will definitely drink it again. Authentic tasting.

Beer 5: Beavertown - Smog Rocket

It’s fair to say we all know this one well, but I’d never “explored” it before.

TM: I think it has a zing at the end. Almost a zestiness.
JM: Even though this is a popular beer, it’s an interesting challenge to food match with. The smoked cheese or the 85% dark chocolate should cause an interesting debate in your mouth.
KT: It’s a sweeter beer than I remember. I suppose before I’ve only ever concentrated on that interesting smokiness.


KT: The sweetness has gone! It’s dryer and the smokiness is much more prominent.

*After 85% dark chocolate*
KT: GATEAUX! Double cream and chocolate shavings.
JM: And vanilla ice cream.
TM: Oh, yeah! It’s loads more mellow now.

As Smog Rocket was our final beer of the evening and Jason had places to be, we concluded our research there and ordered a pizza. It smelled and tasted like pizza.

Please, please let me know your thoughts! I am enjoying this learning curve and would very much appreciate your comments and suggestions, whether about the beers we’ve already tasted, or about beers you think we should taste next. I’m hoping this becomes a regular part-hilariously ill-informed and part-wow, how did they get that so right by accident feature, fuelled by an ambition to learn as much possible and rid the world of emperor’s-new-clothes hype that affects us all when it comes to tasting new beers.