Saturday, 10 October 2015

The Humble English Bitter

Hops. High ABV. Hurricanes of Wild Yeast. All twisting your tongue, assaulting your palate; wish I had more rhythm as I'd make this a ballad.

It's 2015 and the world of beer is moving fast. We're hopping the fuck out of beers, we're making them strong as fuck, we're making them so sour that they suck your face in and we're adding ingredients that 10 years ago we wouldn't have dreamed of putting in beer.

As a beer geek, I love how experimental and crazy the craft beer scene is, but I'm as guilty as most of you. I've forgotten about where my love of beer first started - the humble English bitter.

I walk into a pub with a bank of 8 hand pumps, I scan the bar, there are English bitters but almost every time I will pick something that sounds like it might be the most hoppy; or I'll pick a keg beer, obviously.

I see an English Bitter on that bar and I ignore it, as if it doesn't exist. I almost give it an evil glance as I cast it asunder, as if it has no place on the bar in 2015. The pump clip of the Humble English Bitter weeps and asks why I don't pick it and I respond with "sorry bro, you're just not interesting enough".

Years ago, this wasn't the case. Years ago, friends and I would go to The Fat Cat and pretty much only drink Fat Cat Best; it was sub-4% and only £2.20 a pint. It was a little oaty, sweet from the locally grown barley and leafy from the English hops, with just a tad of fruitiness. It wasn't a challenging beer, it was easy drinking and you could happily sink a fair few and still wander home. It wasn't the greatest beer in the world, in all honesty, but it was a pleasant one.

I'd go to The Gatehouse with my brother, god knows why; it was a weird, dingy pub filled with some extremely odd characters, not to mention the barkeep/owner, a man who seemed to not have many words to say; long grey hair and beard, always wearing a bow tie and a waistcoat. We'd sit and drink pints of Grain Oak, a best bitter, for under £3 a pint. I always remember enjoying it but it's a beer I'd overlooked for years, until last night.

Last night I popped into the Coach and Horses on Bethel Street to see Sammie. I've been in this pub a few times since it's been refurbished (the first was the day of the Bullards launch) but it's never been on the top of my list when out and about. Last night I walked in and scanned the bar and didn't think there was anything I really wanted to drink, until I spotted the Grain Oak pumpclip so I got a pint.

And it was perfect. It was dark golden, verging on amber; it had a sweet crunchy nut cornflake malted base with an abundance of leafy, peppery hops leading to another sweet, refreshing finish. It made me question why I overlook the Humble English Bitter.

It made me question my status of being a beer geek and a beer writer. What authority can I really have if I can't regularly appreciate such an important style of beer? A style that doesn't challenge you and is sessionable?

As beer geeks, we all do the same. We all forget about the Humble English Bitter and it's not great. It leaves me wondering, with so many beer geeks at IndyManBeerCon this weekend, how many English Bitters are on the bar? And as far as I can tell from the current beer list on their website, the answer is none. Is that really the case or have they just been rebranded as pale ales to seem cool?

Fellow beer geeks, step away from the Brettanomyces; sweep your high IBU beers under the carpet; ignore the Imperial and wake up. It's not all about the funk, the bitterness and the strength.

Sit down and have a pint of the Humble English Bitter. Sit and appreciate a low ABV beer that isn't jacked up with hops or sourness or whatever the fuck else.

You'll thank me.


Sunday, 4 October 2015

Czeching It Out - Bernard Pub Andel

Smichov was a nice area to stay in as it was the less touristy side of the river, and felt more local; sure it was busy, with a shopping mall and several late night bars and casinos but it kinda felt homely, with the quiet back streets and beautiful architecture.

One thing that impressed me about Prague, as silly as it is, is how easy it was to cross the road compared to other foreign cities I've been to. People in the Czech Republic generally seem quite chilled out, not in a rush to get anywhere, and I liked that.

I've been a fan of Pivovar Bernard for years, ever since I first drunk in the Euston Tap. Their range of lagers have always been available there, and were a go-to for when I was a bit hop tired.

I was delighted to find that there was a Bernard Pub about a ten minute walk from where I stayed so it'd be rude not to pop in for dinner and a few drinks.

Yet again it's another smoking establishment, which even as a smoker I got a bit annoyed at since I was eating and there didn't seem to be such a thing as a non-smoking eating area. I like to think I was considerate by not smoking when people at the table next door were eating, but others were not of a similar thought process.

I started with the 5% Unfiltered Lager which was crisp and refreshing on a hot and humid day; it was perfect after wandering around the zoo all day and y'know what? I actually think I prefer it to Urquell.

I went for the 4.6% Pale Lager next, which was full of leafy bitterness and a biscuity base. I liked it, but not as much as the unfiltered lager.

It was then time to order food, and I figured it'd be rude not to have a traditional Czech Gulas. It was really bloody delicious and paired well with my 4.7% Amber Lager.

The food and beer were both great. No fuss and a nice atmosphere. It wasn't too busy either, despite going there right after office hours.

Bernard is making some of the best lager in the Czech Republic, in my opinion, so definitely seek it out.


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:

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.