Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Czeching It Out - A Trip To The Zoo

I love zoos. Animals are great and I love getting the opportunity to see animals that I've not seen before, even if it is in captivity.

As soon as I learned that Prague Zoo has polar bears, I was sold. It's unlikely that I'll ever get the chance to see one in the wild, so I figured it'd be cool to visit.

Getting from where I stayed in Smichov, to the zoo, took a lot less time that I anticipated considering it's right on the outskirts; a long tram journey past AC Sparta Praha stadium, past the ice hockey rink, then onto a bus. The trams are crazy in Prague... like at one point, the tram basically went up a spiral road.

A fiver to get into the zoo is an absolute steal considering the average cost of entry to a British zoo is around £20 and to be honest, it did make me a little concerned as to how the animals would be kept, but it turns out they all seemed really happy.

Wandering around for a bit, seeing common zoo animals like Red Pandas and Macaws before finally finding the Polar Bears. 3 of them, all seemingly loving life.

It was then time for a break. I needed food and a beverage. To my surprise, they were selling draught Kozel... IN THE ZOO. A couple of hot dogs and pints and I was ready to wander.

The hot dogs in the Czech Republic are certainly noteworthy. I am a massive hot dog fan and I was impressed... instead of slitting the bun, the buns are hollowed out, warmed up the the ketchup, mustard and hot dog goes inside. It was brilliant and delicious, but probably not nutritious.

One of the best parts about the zoo was the bat cave... a dark hallway with the bats freely flying around your head, you find yourself running the "don't shit on me" gauntlet. Two bats, on the smoke detector, arguing. Cute.

I was quite lucky to experience feeding time for a tiger. There were lots of big cats here, kept fairly separately which is great because usually tigers are all kept in one enclosure so you can never see anything.

The zoo is massive, and it's not all on one level. It centres around a mountain that has yet more animals up on top, which is great.

Definitely a zoo to check out.

More Kozel before heading back to Smichov.

Stay tuned for part 4...


Monday, 28 September 2015

Czeching It Out - Beer Geek Bar

Fresh off the train from Plzen, maybe a little inebriated, I decided to head to Beer Geek Bar, which I'd heard good things about.

Although I love the traditional Czech lagers, I knew there was more to the beer scene over there and I was sure I could find some form of non-traditional Czech beers, IPAs, Pale Ales and the like.

Off the tram. Cross the road. Down a stair case. A new, clean looking bar. It's busy, but not rammed. Familiar set up of taps on the back wall. 30 taps. I'm going to have fun. A good selection of beers from all around Europe; a couple from the USA; and oh look, Brewdog bottles in the fridge.

To my surprise, pale ales and IPAs are all served in Spiegelau IPA glasses.

I started with Matuška Raptor, a 6.3% IPA that's as juicy as any American style IPAs you get in the UK... Amarillo and Cascade work really well with the Czech hops they're also using, to give you a proper juicy banger. Light grapefruit, a bit of bitterness, lovely.

Next I went for Browar Stu Mostów Salamander Pale Ale from Poland; it's 4.8% and slightly maltier than the previous beer. Lashings of caramel with a little bit of orange and some grapefruit bitterness.

Zámecký pivovar Frýdlant Albrecht Pale Ale (5%) came next and it's very citrusy with a lovely light toffee base.

Komár APA at 5.2% is one I wasn't sold on. It tasted old and weird.

Clock Twist American Red IPA was an outstanding example of a Red IPA with lots of citrusy bitterness coming through over the top of a solid strawberry biscuit base.

Clock American Pale Ale was also solid, but not a favourite.

I ended my time at Beer Geek with another two pints of Matuška Raptor. Easily my favourite beer of the evening!

I will certainly return to Beer Geek next time I'm in Prague!

You can find Beer Geek at VINOHRADSKÁ 62, 13000, PRAHA 3 and you can keep tabs on their taplist on their website: http://beergeek.cz/

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Czeching It Out - Pilsner Urquell

It's around midnight and I'm descending into Prague on a Wiz Air flight from Luton Airport. A blinding flash of light. A deafening bang. Not the greatest start to my 26th year on this planet, with the fear of imminent death. The air crew weren't fazed; sitting; chatting amongst themselves. You could cut the tension on the plane with a butter knife.

We land. We're still alive. The captain speaks, telling us we're all very lucky to have experienced something so rare as a light on the side of the plane exploding... nobody laughs.

It's pissing it down. Taxi. Get to the hotel. Apparently the room I'm in is actually around the corner. Follow the map. Drenched. Open a door. The scene in front of me with bright lights shining on a rainy courtyard reminds me of the final episode of Prison Break Season 2 when Michael goes to SONA.

Up early, walk to Tesco, breakfast. Tesco is amazing in the Czech republic, by the way. It's big. I couldn't find an umbrella. Pastry for breakfast worked.

Get on the tram, find the station... I'm headed to Plzen for Pilsner Urquell. I've been a massive fan of Pilsner Urquell for years, so this was going to be a real treat, seeing a brewery on such a massive scale. An hour and a half train journey. Arrive in Plzen.

A while to go before the next tour so I grab a ticket and head to the restaurant for a few beers... indoor smoking? Wow. As a smoker, this was enjoyable for me although I can see that many people would disagree!

Pilsner Urquell Tankovna to start... fresh, crisp, a little leafy bitterness tingling on the palate. My first beer in the Czech Republic. Two pints down and it's ready for the tour.

The tour takes you through every part of the process of Urquell, and as someone who works for a brewery its things I know about beer already but I don't care... I love seeing how other breweries work. For me, the most interesting part of the actual tour was not the brewhouse but the packaging plant, as geeky as that is! The sheer size of the 3 bottling lines and one canning line was really something to behold... the amount of bottles that fly out of there every single day!

The tour ends with the most special part... getting taken into the caves to drink unfiltered, unpasteurised Pilsner Urquell from a wooden barrel. Oh shit. Fresh. The slightly rough mouthfeel, the clean yeastiness. This is a different beer; this is not the beer I know; This. Is. Lager. I drink my fair share of unfiltered lager at work but this is special, this is something I want to repeat.

Experiences like this are what I live for.

Retreat to the restaurant...

Gambrinus Nefiltrovaný - 5% - nice, but I'd rather have Urquell.
Master Semi Dark - 5.3% - chewy toffee with a spattering of marmalade. Nice in small measures.
Master Tmavý 18° - 7% - big beer... chocolate coated caramel with some leafy hops. Strong.
Unfiltered Kozel - 4.9% - This wasn't the last Kozel I had that week, and it wasn't the best.

I think the Pilsner Urquell tour is a must for any beer geek and one that I think would be just as enjoyable for me the second time round.

Stay tuned for part two tomorrow!

Maris Otter 50 Festival

Maris Otter is a variety of malting barley that, as beer drinkers, most of us are familiar with. It was introduced in 1966 by H Banham of Norfolk and is incredibly popular all around the world.

To celebrate the 50th Anniversary of this wonderful strain of barley, a beer festival was organised and put on by David at Norfolk Brewhouse where the idea is that 50 breweries, mostly from the UK with a smattering of foreign breweries would brew a one off, limited edition beer using Maris Otter malted barley.

It's a great way to celebrate this wonderful variety of barley, so I figured that despite being iller than the Beastie Boys, it'd be rude not to pop along... once, twice or even thrice!


The venue was Open in Norwich, which is primarily used for gigs. I've been to a few here and it's always a good venue. It worked for the beer festival too. Two, long, double stacked rows of casks with a keg bar at the back. Upstairs was food (we'll get to that later) and my buddy Mark's Thirst Consultants stand. Seating on the lower floor was few and far between but there was an alright amount of seats upstairs, around the balcony.


There were some really good bands playing when I was there, although I couldn't tell you who they were. The only issue was the music was really loud meaning that in the main room you struggled to have a conversation. The best entertainment though? Rugby on the big screen. It's not the first time I've experienced big screen rugby at a beer festival... the first was when we exhibited at Alltech International Brews & Food Festival in Dublin earlier this year and, being English, the atmosphere was INTENSE when the England Vs. Ireland game was on. At Maris Otter 50, there wasn't that level of intensity but it was nice to have it on in the background and not have to make the choice between beer festival or rugby.


I think the food choice was the biggest let down, if I'm honest. You had two options... a Bray's Cottage pork pie, or veggie chilli. Alright, they're both great options but with the expanding street food scene in Norwich right now I feel that there could have been way more options.


Obviously this is the part you're most interested in. Although predominantly a cask beer festival, there were a few keg beers available... the problem was that licensing didn't allow the organisers to run the keg bar themselves so the bar was manned by dreadful Open staff who didn't care. The first keg beer I tried was Arcadia Ales Sword of Damocles (6.5% IPA) from Michigan in the USA and it was great, but there was a massive issue when I went back to try Hop Stuff Session IPA (4.2%) which tasted like the line hadn't been flushed through properly. Obviously, this isn't the organisers' fault and David recognised it wasn't a great way to promote good keg beer and we agreed that in hindsight, a portable keg bar would have been a better option.

This festival was mostly about the cask beer, however, and I got stuck in with the sampling. Woodfordes Redcracker (7%) was an absolute highlight for me, despite not usually being a Woodfordes fan... a raspberry barley wine that gave no hint of its ABV... it was just like drinking raspberry juice, but without the tartness or the sweetness. It was brilliant. ESBaird from Baird Brewery in Japan was a well balanced, fruity, sweet and strong ESB although a half was more than enough for me. Lion Heart Honey and Mustard Sour (6%) did exactly what it said on the tin... warming mustard with enough honey sweetness to take the edge off.

I'm not going to bore you with the full list of beers I drank, but generally speaking, the beers were great although with the inevitable couple of disappointments.

Another great thing about this festival was the extremely reasonably priced bottle shop to take beers home... £5.50 for 3 lower ABV UK beers or £6.50 for 3 international or higher ABV UK beers. I grabbed some Waen Dangermousse which i'd been looking forward to trying for a while, and it didn't disappoint, as well as two beers from Arcadia Ales - Hop Mouth Double IPA which was a massive Columbus Bomb, sticky, fruity and just wonderful as well as Loch Down Scotch Ale, a beer I fell in love with if only for the pun... wasn't sure I was going to like it but I did as it wasn't as sweet as most scotch ales.


A great festival that I really enjoyed. It was well organised and I'd love to see more similarly themed beer festivals pop up!


Sunday, 6 September 2015

We Need to Talk About Sours

Sours, arguably the latest craze in the beer world that has become more than that. It has become an obsession. Obsession is not healthy, in any scenario, and it can often lead to the demise of something good.

I like sour beers but these days I can't move for them... they're everywhere, whether they're on keg, in bottle, in can or on cask. The latter format is the one that makes me laugh most considering sour cask ale has always been attributed to the beer being off, unintentionally, whether it's the brewer's fault the beer got an infection or poor cellarmanship. Admittedly, you don't see too many sour beers on cask, because if I'm going to generalise, the vast majority of people who drink almost exclusively cask beers are the type who wouldn't like sour beer.

I recently did the Bermondsey Beer Mile and literally everywhere I went had some form of sour beer... Brew by Numbers, Kernel (arguably the first in the UK to make them), Partizan, Anspach and Hobday, Fourpure (usually a fairly "safe" brewery that has now decided to dabble) and then Bottle Shop where they only had one keg beer that wasn't some form of sour (out of about 10 taps).

You've got breweries taking their most popular beers, or styles and turning them sour or funky with Brettanomyces or whatever the hell else and I think it's getting a bit out of hand. If I want an IPA I want those big, juicy hops without the funk. If I want an English Bitter... actually don't get me started on that one.

Oh go on then... someone brewed a brett fermented English Bitter and it made me laugh, hard. I've gone into pubs in the past, back when I wasn't a hophead and used to drink a lot of English bitters and had bitters that were off, they were sour, or funky and not once did I think "Shit me, someone's missing a trick here, this is delicious". For me, that particular beer is a pointless endeavour. Yes I have tried it, and those were my thoughts. I couldn't get on with it... it tasted like I had literally been poured a pint of bitter that was off and that doesn't make me happy. I'm not going to say it's a bad beer, because this particular brewery have amazing brewers who make amazing beers but it hit my threshold for how far you can push the category of the sour style of beer.

Of course, this is not an attack on breweries brewing sour beers... it's just that personally I'm a bit sick of them being so commonplace now. They're no longer special because you don't have to look for them. Hell, I've felt the same about IPAs before, back when the boom happened, moaning to myself about insanely hopped beers, or the difficulty of finding a beer under 5% in craft beer bars but y'know, that happens.

At this point I'm just wondering... what's the next thing that's going to become so popular that it gets out of control? Distilling beers? Gruit beers? Blending different beers in the same keg?

I'm rambling and I'm totally not against innovation but I'm hoping for a resurgence of English Bitters.

Just so I can get sick of them again.

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Beer review: Brewdog Electric India

It was July 2013, the day after the first ever Birmingham Beer Bash. Andrew and I woke in our Holiday Inn, way too hungover to deal with life. Kick out time. The hangover is making us incredibly hungry so we walk, not knowing Birmingham at all, to try find food. Eventually we settle on a Wetherspoons because the breakfasts are cheap and reliable. Full of greasy food and dreadful coffee, we walk but as it's a Sunday nothing was really open. The perils of having set time train tickets is that you're forced to find something to do.

It finally reached midday, otherwise known as pub opening time and we found the Brewdog bar that I'd been drinking in with friends the two previous nights.

We wandered in to peruse the beer boards... one for Brewdog and one for guests. Still, I struggle to choose. Electric India sounded good, and on a hot day sitting outside Brewdog Birmingham, it was.

I don't remember too much about my first experience of Electric India due to a combination of it being years ago and at the time I was ridiculously hungover (when am I not?) but I know it was good.

Fast forward two years and I received and email from a chap called Johnny who works for Brewdog... the lovely guy sent me three bottles of the new and revised edition of Electric India and sure enough they arrived within a couple of days.

So Electric India was, I believe, the first Equity for Punks beer that was created with the help of the 7,000 strong army of investors. After discussions and voting in the super secret online batcave that is the EFP forum, they decided upon a 7.2% India Saison... it's not really a style, it's more of an experimental beer that combines the best qualities of a funky saison with a big American IPA.

Two years on, they decided to re-brew Electric India as a spring seasonal but with the lower ABV of 5.2% beer, making it a much more accessible beer. I often worry about breweries lowering the ABV of a beer as sometimes doing so can weaken the overall flavour of the beer but it's not the case with this!

It pours a slightly hazy orange colour with a firm white head. The aroma is mandarins and sharp lemons with the funky saison yeast lingering in the background. The flavour is juicy grapefruit spiked oranges with a little acidity but you've got little saison qualities hovering around.

This is a great summer beer, extremely juicy and not too challenging so you can happily sink a few pints!

Cheers to Jonny for sending these to me!


Friday, 10 April 2015

Belgium to Kansas City

Everyone knows Duvel. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a fully fledged beer geek like me, or if you’re just an everyday person who likes the occasional supermarket selection when you can’t be bothered to go to the pub.

For years now, the golden Belgian strong ale has been a mainstay in the fridges of many pubs and supermarket shelves. You can go to a seemingly average boozer with a less than interesting tap list and you’ll probably find Duvel. You will find it in all of the major supermarkets, too, rarely priced at more than £2 a bottle.

This 8.5% foreign delight that you see everywhere, with its crunchy nut cornflake sweetness, just enough booziness that teases you, telling you to drink more when you know you shouldn’t, has become as common as Fuller’s London Pride, and it’s not a bad thing.

Slightly harder to come by, however, is their yearly Tripel Hop release. This has been released each year for a fair few years now and I’m happy to say that I’ve caught 4 of them now. The idea is that they brew a 9.5% version of Duvel that puts focus on a particular hop variety each year. 2012 featured the ever popular Citra, 2013 was the true “marmite” hop Sorachi Ace, 2014 was Mosaic which seemed to be the popular craft beer hop of the year and this year, 2015, is a fairly new hop called Equinox. Again, a popular hop, in fact so popular that many British breweries are struggling to get it. The reason the chose Equinox is because we recently had a solar eclipse in Europe and they wanted it to coincide with the official launch date which is a brilliant idea.

The Duvel Tripel Hop 2015 (Equinox) is a juicy hop bomb of a beer... Tart grapefruit and bitter orange flavours hide the 9.5% ABV well before that sugary sweetness creeps up on you, forcing you to take another sip. “Go on, do it” it whispers, and before you know it you have an empty glass. This is a wonderful beer indeed and I’d recommend grabbing some before it goes.

Moving on from the Belgians, let’s take a look at Boulevard Brewing from Kansas City, Missouri. I’d heard good things about Boulevard from a buddy of mine I worked with back in Bournemouth. Ron is originally from Missouri and I recall him telling me about their beers. Well a few years ago I couldn’t make it to The Great British Beer Festival after I’d spent ages drooling over the American bottled beer list, of which Boulevard was a part and managed to get a friend to grab me a bottle of the Double Wide IPA. Of course, it was a couple of years ago now so I don’t really remember what it was like other than delicious (I generally don’t take any kind of tasting notes unless I’m reviewing a beer on here).

Fast forward to 2014 and we got the news that Duvel-Mortgaat in Belgium had bought Boulevard Brewing. Obviously in America it got the standard reaction of “omg, they’re selling out to a big brewery in another country. Dicks.” But from a business point of view it makes total sense for Boulevard because firstly they can expand their capacity to get their beers into states that it’s not currently available, secondly they can pub more money into innovation and even  making batches of their limited edition beers bigger and thirdly (the reason that matters to me) they now have a route into Europe. After hearing this, I was desperately waiting for the news that Boulevard would export to the UK and finally it happened. I got word that Duvel would be bringing kegs and bottles of their Famous Tank 7 Saison to the UK as well as bottles of their Single Wide IPA! I was elated!

A little over a month ago now, I was working behind our Redwell bar at Craft Beer Rising and as luck would have it, we were very close to the Duvel bar. Tank 7 on keg... Jaw hit the floor. I’d finally get to try it... First sip... Funky saison, yet somewhat reminiscent of a punchy grapefruit laden IPA with just enough sweetness to take the edge off the tart grapefruit. Wow. I fell I’m love and made that my go-to post session beer. I just needed to have it again!

I then checked my emails one day to find that I’d been invited to the official launch of Duvel Tripel Hop & Boulevard beers in the UK... Bugger, I was going to be in Paris that day! The one beer I particularly wanted to try was Single Wide so I did something I don’t usually do – I asked for a sample bottle. Obviously when offered samples I accept but the couple of times I have asked I’ve felt incredibly ashamed for doing so. Luckily Nicky from R and R PR is a gem and said that if they have any bottles left after the launch, they’ll send one over.

Last Thursday I visited my parents house and lo and behold, two small packages... One containing the above Duvel Beers and the other containing Boulevard Tank 7 & Single Wide IPA!

The thing is, I’m an impatient bastard a lot of the time and this was one of those times. I couldn’t force myself to wait for Single Wide IPA to chill for a while – I immediately made a beeline to the kitchen to grab my Spiegelau IPA glass...

Single Wide IPA pours a copper colour with a nice fluffy white head. The aroma is of peaches and cream with just a touch of toffee. You take a sip and that sticky toffee is there, although light so it doesn’t detract from the tropical yet earthy hops and the bittersweet finish. If there’s an imported IPA I want to drink many times, it’s this one and at a modest 5.7% it’s possible to drink a few in an evening.

All four of these beers were brilliant... From a Belgian classic and it’s slightly younger and more hip brother to an American take on a Belgian farmhouse ale & 18th Century British IPA. We have a nice bit of variation and I’ll happily drink them all again.

Thanks to R & R for sending me these bottles!