Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Lakeland adventure

Last bank holiday weekend, I and my fiancée Helen decided to take a pleasant weekend away in the lake district to a place called the Woolpack Inn in the tiny Hamlet of Boot situated just down the road from the village of Eskdale. What also caught my attention is that the Woolpack Inn is also a brewpub, housing a 2 barrel plant known as the Hardknott Brewery and the website (www.woolpack has links to a rather interesting blog by the landlord, owner, chef, beer writer and (most importantly) head brewer Dave Bailey.
On arrival we at first found the place to be very welcoming, quite homely, tranquil and quite isolated, surrounded by the brilliant scenery of the Lake District and a few nearby villages containing quality pubs for beer hunting. The interiors are well presented, not verging on posh but far from rugged, and an overall (yet subtle) sheep theme is present including various paintings featuring sheep, sheep in the logo and a chess set composed of model sheep for pieces. The bedrooms are simple but well kept, dogs are allowed to stay and the staff are friendly and easy to talk to offering advice on local places, walks and attractions. I myself was more entertained chatting at great length to Dave and temporary staff member Jeff Picktall (also a beer writer) about beer and brewing as well as sampling through the beer range available.

Beer at the Woolpack.
The beer range spans through classic Belgian brews to local and Hardknott brewery brewed cask ales. Admirably no mass market beers were available to spoil the view with the focus being more on variety and two of Dave’s Hardknott brewery brewed ales were usually included. The cask range varied between styles with a traditional cider option also. On keg two continental pilsners and Westmalle dubbel (very appreciated) were available (living proof to the people of Britain that great keg beer does exist) whilst the bottled range concentrated almost exclusively on Belgian specialty beer.
Despite not getting chance to visit the Hardknott brewhouse itself I was lucky enough to try four Hardknott beers; The gently balanced Light Cascade, the hoppy rounded and citrusy Dry Cascade (try this with Stumpy Goats Cheese from the appetizer menu, trust me), the full flavorsome Pride of Eskdale and the nicely caramelized, smooth chocolate orange like stout Tenacity, extremely drinkable but bewilderingly complex for its 4% abv. It seems the house character (derived from the water used, base malt, brew system used etc) brings a distinctive chewy malt fullness to the beers that enhances the substance of the golden beers whilst adding intriguing complexity to the more malt balanced beers. If anything these beers are well crafted, and often reflect a similar substance and creative flare that is found in Dave’s food preparations. Its alittle sad that the beer can only be found on site and is not distributed, but that makes the stay all the more special.

The bar; painted on one wall.
The Food.

This I was also intrigued by, the rather unorthodox, yet fairly elaborate looking dinner menu. Was this pub food or something alittle more elaborate? Now I’m finding it alittle difficult thinking of how to explain this, so lets start by revisiting some familiar territory to get a better idea;
O.K we’ve all been there, Sat with family or friends trying to appreciate your microwaved cheeseburger and chips accompanied by large helpings of ketchup in front of a and beer range carefully designed and chosen by industry statisticians and higher management, constantly probing on which mass market brands the punters are most likely to go for etcetera, etcetera and the profit margins etcetera, etcetera. Perhaps there’s a kids play area outside, and a bloke dressed as cartoon animal of some sort trying to entertain the children with playful gestures.
Then you have the other end of the spectrum. The chandeliers and stylistic interiors of the fancy 5 star restaurant, the over priced wine list and almost un-interpretable menu written in French. The microscopic sized piece of lamb artfully decorated by its accompanying vegetables to replicate the appearance of some sort of elaborate space hut embedded within void that is the middle of a giant white plate. Always nice enough, yet small enough to get fleeced into forking out another significant amount of cash for the next course.
OK I might be looking at extreme ends of a spectrum here but regardless of surroundings, star ratings or anything, Dave Bailey is clearly a chef of outstanding ability and creative energy delivering food worthy of any 5 star restaurant. His meals are composed from fresh locally reared produce crafted into intriguingly inventive masterpieces at a level of quality that can only be described as art. In fact little to no ‘typical’ dishes seemed to be found on Dave’s menus, all were created for the purposes of quality not through the mentality of ‘pie and chips (of whatever mundane dish) its what folk like’. Fascinatingly challenging for me, was the anticipation of unleashing the woolpacks fine beer range upon these dishes in an attempt to pair stunning beer with stunning food.

Orval paired nicely with the textures of the salmon

A moment of true epiphany; Chimay Blue embraced the cheeseboard like an old friend, finding harmonies with seemingly every element of the dish.

Westmalle Dubbels malty depths delved deep into Dave’s Blue bore bomb. Blue cheese enwrapped in dark and white chocolate, cream cheese and biscuit base. This almost beat the cheese board, but not many moments in life come that close to perfection.

After all that excitement of stunning food and beer combinations, beer hunting, hill walking and taking in breathless scenery it was sadly time to say farewell till our next visit. To say our short break was impressive I feel is an understatement. The whole experience not only reflects on great beer and food but echoes uncompromising, honest service, delivered with integrity and substance. One day I hope to return.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Beer and Cheese evening

Last night I attempted for the first time my long anticipated beer and cheese evening, running it as a sort of side project to me and Helen's joint birthday house party (hence all the background mess in the picture). But before I begin lets get a few things straight. Now allot of you might be thinking this idea was basically a rip off of the well established 'wine and cheese evening' but not so. I myself as well as industry experts and beer writers worldwide know of the many affinities and harmonies that can be found from pairing various beers with cheese. Sadly the majority of the world would probably overlook such facts (largely due to age old social snobbery and the whole perception of quality (developed by the media) wine has developed in comparison to beer). Anyhow, the overall conclusion of the event was that of success. However if I or anyone else was planning such an event I would advise the following guidelines;
  • Try and choose beers that will match the intensity of whichever specific cheese its intended to be paired with.

  • Keep cleansing your palate with water or crackers between different pairings.

  • Be open minded and adventurous with the pairings, see what cheese works with a beer best.

  • Include plenty of intense flavoured, often strong beers, big funky Belgian doubles, India pale ales with cutting edge bitterness levels and bold barley wine style ales with layers of malt depth and warming alcohols to enwrap the maturest of artisan cheeses on the palate. These kinds of beers don't just stand up to intense cheeses but make things a lot more interesting.
Finally I would say to try and remember the pairings that worked best, but I don't need to say that because when you find that harmonious match you will remember it. The Finest pairings of the evening were:
  • Bacchus Frambozen with Wensleydale and cranberries.

  • Meantime India Pale ale with Vintage cheddar.

  • Panda & Frog Vintage 2008 ale (home brewed) with Blue Stilton.
This wont be the last beer and cheese night I will be involved in I can be sure of that. Much more territory must be covered.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

A night of English beer

Mordue Five Bridge Bitter, a classic English ale from the Northeast postioned behind a row of empty casks.
It must firstly be noted that due to the lateness of this event no St Georges day special/seasonal ales could be included. Instead I aimed to hunt out a small number of some of Englands finest ales.

The beers of England.
England hosts a vast number of Regional and micro brewed beers of an expanding number of various styles. Of recent times many English brewers have become a little more adventurous changing from the age old concept of brewing traditional British beer and that alone. Many have embraced the benefits of lager brewing, using unusual adjuncts or brewing styles of beer not often founding this country.
Despite all this the most common beers found (emitting all mass market lowest common denominator beers) are bitters, best bitters and the more recently established style of golden ale.
But this digresses from the question, if one were to consume a number of beers that as a whole could represent England’s brewing, which ones would be needed? What might spring to mind are the highly rated traditional beers of old. Beers like White Shield, Sarah Hughes Dark Ruby or Thomas Hardy’s ale. Tragically I did have a truly sublime bottle of J.W. Lees Harvest Ale 2007 vintage I could have used for this, if I hadn’t drank the previous week. But I Went with the best on offer, and it must be noted that the latter half of this session was spent in my local, the John Bull, whose excellently kept cask ales were of great addition to the event (after all you cant have a proper English beer night without good old cask ale).

Beer No. 1.
Daleside Blonde Lagered ale.

A top fermented golden ale lagered (stored at cold temperatures for a length of time before filtration and bottling). Clean and delicately balanced. A little zesty, with light biscuity malt and citrus hop noted. Completely

Beer No. 2.
St Austell Clouded Yellow.

A majestic wheat beer from down Cornwall way. Admittedly a beer style not very English at all, but decided because its such a great example of the style and reflects the evolving innovative nature of English brewers it would be a good inclusion. Easy drinking and soft on the palate with plenty of vanilla and banana notes.

Beer No. 3
Hook Norton Old Hooky

Classic malt balanced English ale. This one was matched well with steak and wedges and represents the more middle of the range English ales.

Beer No. 4
Meantime London Porter

OK I admit I didn’t get hold of many old classic English beers for this event but I thought this one would prove interesting. A full flavoured brown porter brewed not only to a 1700’s era porter resipy, but brewed following the exact same methods pulled up from old brewing books. Whether or not this beer is an accurate replication of 1700’s porter no one will ever truly know but this is probably a good approximation. I suppose the real reason I chose this beer is in tribute to the importance porter itself was to the brewing world, the evolution of beer styles, and the British Empire.

Beer No. 5
Mordue Five Bridge Bitter (pictured above)

A classic British bitter in the classic British surroundings of the pub. Balanced, subtle and rounded with a earthy peppery hop character, a great example of the style.

Beer No. 6
Spire. Dark Side Of the Moon. An amber mild with a higher bitterness than expected, still well crafted.

Overall not a bad session, and I shall look forward other themed nights. I am actually planning to try an Australian beer night some point mid summer, sometime when its sunny.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Its Mild month

It was only a few weeks ago now I read a slightly offensive article by beer writer Alistar Gilmore painting the basic picture of mild as disappointing, minimalistic ‘past its date’ beer style. My personal opinion is that mild is a style that is far too under rated and has gained its current reputation through brewers and landlords disrespect and adulteration of mild ales in years gone past.
Besides its image problem, mild has its practical downsides, its low gravity and often subtle characteristics of the beer make for a product less stable. This means as the product must be served young its stability in a bottle form is questionable. In cask form mild is in its element, and freshly tapped is often a truly divine experience. But because if its instability brewers have to be confident that the beer will sell (without it lying around too long) and landlords need to know they can shift the volume without having to return half full casks. Tie this in with an image problem and you see where the main problem lies. Alongside myself mild has a cult following and the more memorable mild tasting experiences I have had to date are from examples such as Mighty Oak Oscar Wilde Mild, and Mordue Born to be mild. But if you are hunting out mild this month and have little knowledge of the style, here are some outline descriptions of milds most commonly found today;

Dark mild: Can be very roast malt influenced and dry with lots of burnt coffee like flavors. Many are not as dry with layers of indulgent malt complexity.

Ruby mild: The less roast malt influenced versions are typically red to deep red/amber in color with lots of sweet malt flavor dominating.

Stronger Milds: Before the second and first world war mild was typically stronger than it was today, some rare examples are surviving beers from that ere, other strong milds are often classified as strong or brown ales or (its one of those areas of beer style classification that gets a little unclear).

Light milds: Light in colour and very subtly hopped. Sometimes confused for ordinary bitter.

As I say much opinion these days mentions mild in decline, CAMRA seem enthusiastic enough to try and keep it going, and rightly so. Its almost like its been just hanging on in there for a long time now, struggling to stay on the cards for brewers and publican who usually doubt its potential (almost reflecting the recent history of Newcastle United). This month I myself will be hunting out any new milds I can, and the surprising this is when I do find one these days a great proportion of the other customers in the pub are usually giving it a try as well. As I say, maybe its underestimated?