Sunday, 26 February 2012

Beer Geek launch

Yesterday was the long awaited launch of Birmingham's newest brewery (which makes three in total).

Beer Geek Brewery touched down at the Post Office Vaults on Saturday 25th at 3.00 and there were plenty of people on hand to show their appreciation.

I had the chance to sample three of their five releases on hand pull.  They were:

Great White Geek - a 4.5% pale bitter, with a dry, salty hop profile.  This was very refreshing and insistently bitter.  Would be a perfect 'mowing the lawn' beer, assuming of course that I am the type of person who mows lawns, which of course I am not.  Would probably work equally well as a beer to watch Ceefax with.

Dark Side of the Geek - a 5.5% dark bitter, which was probably my favourite of the bunch.  Crispy, with prickles of coco pop, a minerally tongue knobbling quality and an easy to drink lightness that belies its strength. Reminded me slightly of a Schwarzbier, or the type of Scottish Ale which pops up in US brewpubs.

Geek Unique - a 4.3% bitter, with a ruddy hue and a couple of fruity, perhaps nutty moments.  Imagine liquid autumn leaves and you won't be far away.  Fizzy and light too.

I look forward to grabbing Geek Chic and Legend of the Golden Geek soon. 

So that's not too bad is it?  The other good, nay great thing about Beer Geek is that their branding and marketing is slap bang on the money.  The pump clips looked a treat - bright, bold, colourful, cool. 

There is now an exclusive club of three Birmingham breweries, but of those, Beer Geek look the most likely to tip the balance in our City.  With their spot on marketing, which skillfully avoids real ale cliche and demonstrates a youthful vigour; they can attract a new audience and (hopefully) start to post regular, challenging and of course, tasty beers for a long time to come...

The other good thing about yesterday, was that the Post Office Vaults was rammed on a Saturday afternoon, despite the weather being glorious and them not having a TV to show the Six Nations rugby.  There was a buzz about the atmosphere, that felt redolent of a subcultural sleeping giant rubbing its eyes and waking up.  I got the chance to meet lots of positive, local beer figures and soak up the feeling that something might be happening.  This year (and next and next) could be the best yet for beer lovers in the West Midlands.  

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

What is the Tipping Point?

Wow, I read a great book this week called The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell.  You guys and gals have probably already read it.

It's about social epidemics - i.e. what causes clothing trends to take hold, or a book to become a bestseller.  The author cleverly summarises different bits of sociological research, to come up with an overarching theory of what causes epidemics to 'tip': namely i) the Law of the Few, ii) the Stickiness Factor and iii) the Power of Context.

There are obviously lots of applications for these theories (which you'll notice I haven't bothered to explain, principally because I'll make a mug of myself and totally trivialise a great book); but here and now let's use the Tipping Point to examine the possibility of a 'craft'* upsurge in Birmingham.

The Law of the Few

Could Birmingham sustain a craft beer bar?  If so, why hasn't anyone opened one?  Well perhaps there isn't a visible beer geek culture in the City.  And if that is so, how do we turn the current level of interest into an epidemic of beer desire?  Well, we need three people, or perhaps one who can perform three roles:

i) a Connector - someone who knows people. Lots of people.  Someone who not only knows people, but is able to make, wait for it, connections based on the interests, skills and contacts of the people who are 'on their list'.  Perhaps there is someone in the industry who is able to galvanise others and get people excited, or perhaps there is a lucid, focussed, driven person who can flick some switches, fiddle with some knobs and get people to see the great benefits that a new type of bar could bring.

ii) a Maven - someone who is fastidious in their research, who obssesses about being more knowledgable, but who also has an inbuilt urge to share their knowledge and educate others.  I am certain that there are beer Mavens in Birmingham, itching to unload a big wad of beer love/passion/schooling on an unsuspecting public.    

iii) a Salesman - someone with the gift of the gab, who knows the arguments and how to win them.  If people need to be persuaded to sample new beers, new styles, new flavours etc, then a salesman (or woman) is the person to do it.  Money could be a motivator here.

The Stickiness Factor

How enduring a product is beer.  Quite enduring.  But what about new and different (and possibly more pricey) beers?  What will connect an unsuspecting Birmingham populous to these products which thus far have not reached our City?  I don't actually know this one, or at least I don't have anything succinct enough to write here.  Mail me for more details.

The Power of Context

What conditions in the local environment (the Birmingham beer drinking scene) will make it ripe for a 'craft' beer bar/explosion?  Well, my guess at this one is that people need to know what they're missing.  But how can this happen?

More importantly, is this post turning into a massive load of airy fairy drivel?  Don't answer that.

In conclusion then, Birmingham is in need of a tipping point, to start the new beer revolution, which has already happened in Manchester, London, Sheffield, Newcastle, Leeds, Cambridge.....  I promise to do my bit as a beer Maven, but I am unable to open a bar by myself.  Please will all potential connectors please contact me so that we can recruit suitable salespeople, in order to provide products which will become stickier and stickier.

*we won't be getting into what this term actually means, other people have already done that.

Friday, 17 February 2012

In search of Polish beer

In 2004, when EU nationals arrived in the UK in greater numbers, they brought with them a range of new and strangely titled beers.  This was manna from heaven for a intrepid beer hunter like me: suddenly a range of new names were glowering at me from the shelves of the most unlikely community vendors.

Now is it me, or are these new arrivals starting to become slightly rarer now?  Perhaps you are not overly bothered either way.  Frankly, I'm not sure I am..... but then again I wouldn't like this trend to disappear completely without feeling like I'd really had a good go at trying them all.

We spend lots of time talking about exciting beer trends like Black IPA.  Instead, let's talk about beers from the other end of the my scale. 

So let's review, and then perhaps you can tell me about any East European treats I've missed.

Now in Birmingham, the vast majority of these post-2004 beers were Polish lagers, often rather strong ones.  For my money, Lech Premium is the best: a very well balanced, firm and quite fresh-tasting lagery beast.  Also good was/is Okocim, which is quite unrelenting and full flavoured.  Other ubiquitous names have been Zywiec (pleasant, but slightly metallic), EB (OK, but lacking oomph and a teensy weensy bit greasy) and Tyskie (which I don't like, hardly much at all, cos it's too unbalanced).  The use of brackets was a bit over the top there.  Sorry about that.

In the field of normalish Polish Lagers, other 'highlights' include:

Perla Chmielowa - some flavour

Specjal - quite sweet

Warka - malt

Lech Pils - fairly plain

Perla Export - almost no flavour

Brok - flat, metallic

Harnas - nice label, but a taste of fog, tissues and fizz


Even more 'interesting' were the slightly stronger lagers, often with Mocne suffixed to the title.  Of these, I enjoyed Tatra, Zubr and Debowe; but has less success with Warka Strong and Okocim Mocne.

I have a particularly soft spot for Debowe, because for 2 months, I used to walk past an empty can of it, on the way the collect my child from nursery.  The hope that I would one day drink this enticing creature, made my stomp down the road through hail and rain, safe in the knowledge that it would be a taste sensation (it wasn't).

My only sadness about the Polish beer importers, is that that they never seemed to bring their best beers with them - after all, how often did we see any delicious Baltic Porters, apart from Zywiec???  

Sadly, beers from our other Eastern European brethren seemed slightly more reticent in travelling to the UK, although I did grab an Utenos and a Syvturys from Lithuania (and really enjoyed the latter actually), and an Aldaris from Latvia.

People of Birmingham - please tell me where I can pick up more of these wonderful lagers and which ones.

Much gratitude.

Wednesday in the Victoria and Friday in the errr, nowhere

On Wednesday I had a pre-planned (unusual for me) night out at a pub, with, wait for it, some friends (highly unusual for me {sob}).

It was at the Victoria and was most pleasant, thanks for asking.  It was also uncharacteristically pleasant to stay in one pub, all night, and work my way through their wares.  I was happily reacquainted with some old favourites, whom in some cases, I have not sampled for far too long.

Brewdog 5AM Saint rarely disappoints, and must be one of their best, yes?

The Flying Dog Doggie Style was a new one for me and enjoyably hoppy and drinkable, in a sort of 2006 kind of way.  What does that mean?  Well, it merely means that in 2006 I was drinking lots of new US beers with the same sort of hop profile.  Is that OK?

Jaipur was (and is), well, Jaipur.  Very juicy.

Brother Rabbit, also from Thornbridge was another new one for me, and not my favourite from these reliable lads.  The sunshiney hops were by turns 'a bit' juicy, and then 'a bit' straw-ish.

The Kirin lager was lager.  I don't think I am able to handle lager any more.  It's been so long since I drank it, and it makes me feel a little bit queasy, and a little bit like Morrissey might have felt when asked to do cross-country running at school.  

The Wye Valley Butty Bach was terribly run of the mill.  Not terrible.  Served in good nick, but utterly lacking in inspiring flavours.

The Maisel's Weisse was fluffy, smooth like a satin bedspread and undulating with it's cakey, creamy manifestations.

The Brooklyn Lager was perfectly acceptable, and rather slick.

The Victoria has lots of lovely murals, appropriate lighting levels and a good atmos.  My fellow drinkers made me feel like an old git and no mistake, but that's my problem and not theirs.  I wish I had been as well dressed as them, when I was their age.

And then I went home. 

As a quick addendum, let me tell you about tonight's beer hunting.  With a window of about 10 minutes after work, I trooped in and out of three pubs and tried.... zero beers.  There was nothing on offer which excited me, so rather than blithely sup a half of this or that, I kept my wonga in my pocket.  Does that represent exceptional strength of mind, or gargantuan beer snobbery?  Only you can decide.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

A Tale of Two Midland Cities

I live in Birmingham.  I have done for some considerable time.  But I'm FROM Leicester.  And nothing can change that.

So then, how do these two places match up for beer?  Strangely enough, they are very similar indeed.

Let's do this in the style of the final day of the Ryder Cup - you know that head to head, 1 UP, 3&4 type affair.


Birmingham's top pubs are discussed here.  Leicester's are shown here.

For beer breadth and quality, Leicester's top spot is The Pub - which showcases great cask and a selection of continental keg and bottles.  It also has the Criterion and its older sister the Swan and Rushes, which is my personal favourite in the City.  Why?  Well, I love the set-up of the 2 rooms, I love the tables, I love the beermat holders and the beer selection.  In fact, the Swan and Rushes holds particularly fond memories, as it was almost the first place in the UK, where I encountered an exciting range of German and Belgian bottles.  Leicester also now has the Salmon.  But I haven't been there yet.  However, the Leicester Mercury informs me that this very weekend, they are holding a beer festival showcasing the work of female brewsters.  It sounds good.

Using the same indicators of quality, Birmingham has the Post Office Vaults, The Wellington and The Anchor, along with the Bartons Arms and the Black Eagle.  Additionally, these offer stunning pub architecture and/or charm, character and warmth.  For touchy feeliness or aesthetic stimulation, Leicester has the fin de siecle Cafe Bruxelles and the homespun Ale Wagon, which is also an outlet for the local Hoskins Bros brewery....

For number of pubs and general quality: LEICESTER 1-UP.

Local Breweries

For local beer generally, [in addition to Hoskins Bros] Leicester also has Steamin' Billy, Everards, Dow Bridge, Wicked Hathern, Parish, Shardlow, Langton; whilst Birmingham has ABC, Two Towers and [soon] Beer Geek.

For numbers alone: LEICESTER 1-UP.

Beer Shops/Off Licences

Birmingham has Stirchley Wines and Spirits, Leicester has The Offie.  The Offie is a splendid shop, carrying a beer range which is remarkably similar to SWS.  SWS has a brilliant, friendly owner, so does The Offie.  If we are escaping from the city centre, then Birmingham (Solihull actually) has Bernies, but Leicester (Market Harborough actually) has Duncan Murray Wines.

No winner here.  Two winners here: HALVED.    

This post ended up being much shorter than I anticipated, which is probably a blessing for you all.  Leicester seems to have won this beer battle, which is still a bit sad for a second city which is 4 times bigger.  As a general (and slightly bland) final comment, I'll just add that for a city centre pub crawl, I'll take Leicester over Brum.  Why?  Well in Brum, a central crawl would take in number of pubs which MAY or may NOT have good beers on, on a given day.  In Leicester, visits to comparable pubs would yield a much better shooting percentage for pubs with attractive, delicious, desirable brews.


Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Mediocre Beer Adventures Goes on Tour to London

So why should the writer of a Birmingham beer blog, bother to trouble his readers with an account of a visit to London?  Well, when you are concerned that your city is lagging behind in the beer stakes, you need to know what you are aspiring to.  You also need to whet that appetite and remind yourself exactly what beer experiences you are seeking to reproduce in the city of thousand trades.  Q. Are there really things in the London pub scene which don't exist in Brum?  A. Yes.

After a great deal of painstaking research involving Twitter and the Transport for London website, my long anticipated London pub crawl finally happened yesterday.

Using this proposed route, three lifelong Leicester chums and I arrived just after lunch, with them waiting for me in the Euston Tap.  I can certainly think of worse places to kill time - in fact if this place were in Birmingham, I would go there and stay all day.

First stop was the Southampton Arms, somewhere I previously visited in June.  We trudged through slushy snow from Tufnell Park tube and on arrival made short work of some dimpled mug encased halves.  My Brodies Dalston Black IPA was outstanding and I believe Dave's pork pie looked equally stunning, I say that I believe this to be the case, because it was scoffed so quickly, my recollection is based on only a fleeting glimpse. 

Reluctantly we left this crowded, rustic and charming location, to get the bus to Brewdog's Camden outlet.  By contrast, this bar was light, industrial and had plenty of breathing space.  The beer choice was tantalising and hop drenched.  I swigged 2/3 of a pint (in a 2/3 glass no less) of the latest IPA is Dead issue, this time showcasing the Simcoe hop.  It was very good, as was Martin's 2/3 of Hops Kill Nazis.  This bar is a winner in my book, with [duh] a big range of Brewdog beers (keg only), plus their bottles and the bottles of well chosen guests.  Equally well chosen were the guest taps, with a clear leaning towards hoppy US craft brewers such as Lagunitas and Ballast Point.  A really enjoyable stop off and a venue which needs a sister  in Birmingham - STAT!   

As the bus whizzed us into throbbing heart of London's shopping district, we hopped from Regents Street to Beak Street, and into the Old Coffee House, a proper trad London boozer, except for it's range of Brodies beers.  Between the 4 of us we sampled each of the Brodies beers on show: Summer Saison, Bethnal Green Pale Ale, West End Best and Amarilla.  The 8% Saison was bold and silky, but the West Best was probably, the err, best.  Sorry about that gag.  The Old Coffee House meanwhile was a good Soho stop off and atypical on the crawl, in that it was not a new generation beer bar.

Unlike the wonderful CASK Pub and Kitchen, which really set new standards when it popped up.  The problem with the CASK (along with others on the route) was there was just TOO MUCH choice.  Not just a bunch of good cask beers.  Not just great foreign beers on tap.  Not just top quality international bottles.  Not just (is this getting boring yet?).  In the end, three of the party, (including me) swooped for a 12% Mikkeller/Cigar City collaboration, entitled Swinging Harry.  This Belgian style Quad was fruity, sweet and perilously easy to swig, given it's abv.  The CASK really is fabulous and worth the detour to Pimlico, even though the tube station was shut and we actually had to walk.  Could a CASK survive in Brum?  My heart says yes....

By this point my beautiful timings for the day had disappeared down a rabbit hole, so we reluctantly skipped the Rake and instead made the walk down Tooley Street to the Draft House at Tower Bridge, all the time admiring the ever growing Shard, with its top portion enveloped by mist.  Spooky.

The Draft House is another lovely bar - so clean, so well presented and with a wide range of foreign beers on tap and some good bottles.  Real ale too.  Two of our party sampled Camden Town Pale Ale, one had St Feuillen (can't remember which one) and I grabbed a half of Milk Stout from new Brighton microbrewery Pin-Up. 

After a beautiful walk across Tower Bridge, we just about had time to get to the Craft Beer Co in Farringdon, which really is like something from another beer planet.  39 beers on tap (keg and cask), with a small army of bottles also. Mind blowing.  Genuinely mind blowing.  Not only were the beers only from good* breweries, but the range of styles on offer was tear-jerkingly vast.  Dare I dream that one day I may walk into a Birmingham pub and order a half of Double Imperial Ale, followed by a Saison or a bottle of Barley Wine?  I just about had time to guzzle portions of Southern Tier IPA, Cigar City Jai Alai and Magic Rock Curious.  Jon meanwhile, positively gurgled over his Rothaus Weisse.  On another day I probably should have come here first. 

As it was I had to bolt for a cab, which dropped me outside the Euston Tap 15 mins before my train left, giving me just enough time to grab a 1/2 of Nogne Imperial Stout, which was ruddy marvellous.  I also bought a Kernel to take home - you can never have too many Kernels. 

So that was London.  Depressing in a way, that this sort of beer experience is 90 minutes away by train, rather than 10 mins by bus.  Here was a wide range of pubs offering top World beers, cask and keg dispense, different glass sizes and more hops than you can shake a stick at.  Just think, London drinkers have access to Mikkeller, Kernel, Nogne and Brewdog whenever they like.  Not really fair is it?  

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Hipster Crawl: Kings Heath to Moseley

Last Friday I continued the onerous task of improving my Birmingham Pub Map.  This sort of project is never really finished - it's like painting the Forth Bridge or summat.

So around lunchtime I headed over to my old stomping ground of Kings Heath/Moseley, to do a neat little run of pubs and see what treats they had for me.

I'll tell you what they had in for me: Purity.  And lots of it.

First port = the Hare and Hounds, which is certainly a lovely pub and certainly a whopping great pub.  I love the traditional interiors and the mismatched furniture, and it's certainly well off for live music; but during my visit it was very quiet.  They have a couple of handpulls and I enjoyed my pint of Mad Goose, which is [I think] Purity's best.  But if they are looking for a suggested area for improvement, they need a better range of beer.

From the H&H it was a one minute walk to Cherry Reds, a charming hipster cafe, with food at front and a teeny weeny bar at back.  This is exactly the sort of place to warm the heart: a tiny, independent start-up, happy to stock a handful of quality beers including a guest handpull and continental keg.  Bravo. Good luck to them.  More please.

Last Kings Heath stop-off was the Station, which doesn't really warrant a proper write up.

Shanks' pony duly delivered me to Moseley, whence I glowered through the window of the Junction, saw the handpumps on offer and did not enter.

One did enter the Fighting Cocks, which is another genuinely lovely and genuinely large boozer.  I love the decor and they offer a nice choice of some boozes.  Being me, I avoided the ones I've had (and enjoyed) before, and plumped instead for a pump clip entitled Top of the Hops.  I despise myself sometimes.  This errrm lad is brewed by Cropton, but they didn't seem to want to claim it, as they neglected to put their name on the label.  I can see why.  Good marketing appears to have trumped beer quality here.

Final port of crawl was the always reliable Prince of Wales in Moseley, which is an unspoilt pub, with a very large beer garden, for those long Summer evenings (of which this was resolutely not one).  There are about 10 handpulls on offer here, which is admirable indeed for a place located in trendyville, which is what Moseley is.  It has to be said that the beer choices aren't overly exciting, but I feel rather glib for pointing that out.  They did have Bishops Farewell, which is always a pleasure, and two house beers: Moseley Pale Ale and Sad Bastard.  I tried the former and wished I'd gone for the BF.  As with Top of the Hops, my compulsion for new beers drives me mad sometimes.

I love Moseley.  Genuinely.  But beer wise, the best of the day (by some margin) were the two Brodies beers I tried in the Wellington on the way back through town.  Good night.

Ratebeer Best 2012 - Part Two

OK, just a quick post, as promised to wrap up the fascinating results of Ratebeer's annual beer survey.

Looking at the different beer styles, it's clear to see that US beers dominate across a lot of the categories. This is the case with English Style Pale and Bitters where 2 of the top 4  are American.  Thankfully, 2 of my favourites feature in the top 10 also: Citra and Taipan, both from Oakham.

Some familiar names pop up near the top of various charts e.g. Ayinger Celebrator is top of the Bocks, Stone scoop the 3rd and 10th best IPAs, with Founders taking the top 2 Stout positions.  The Belgian Strong list is crammed full of familiar names like Chimay, Westvleteren and Rochefort, whilst the appearance of Orval at number 3 on the Belgian Session list, is two spots too low as far as I'm concerned.

Of course, for most of the style categories, we have little chance of seeing the winners in Birmingham (based on current form), however we are pretty well served for Belgians, between Stirchley Wines and Post Office Vaults, so things are moving in the right direction.

Finally, a glance at the list of the World's best beer bars is enough to make you dig out your passport.  Top spots feature in Amsterdam, Antwerp, Brussels, Rome and Prague - all within reach of budget airlines.  Unfortunately for the UK there are only two venues which make the cut: CASK Pub and Kitchen and Craft Beer Co - both in London and both owned by the same company.  These are certainly two fantastic venues, but sadly for Birmingham, our representative on the list, The Wellington disappears, after making the cut in 2011 and 2010.  This is a bit of a downer, but is probably not a real reflection on the Welly, just that the levels are constantly rising and that a beer bar has to go even further now, to stand out from the crowd.

On the lookout for obscure facts?  How's this for you: I have on top of my fridge a bottle of Canada's 49th best beer Charlevoix Vache Folle Imperial Milk Stout. Fascinating eh?

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Ratebeer Best 2012 - Part One

For the uninitiated, Ratebeer is a worldwide beer 'rating' website, where users score and review the different beers they have tried.  It's a fascinating mine of beer information, not just on individual brews, but also on the places to drink them.

Last week Ratebeer released the results of it's annual 'Best' awards, where they agglomerate the scores entered during the past 12 months, run whatever algorithms they run and then proclaim which beers and beer bars are the best in the world, by region and beer style.

It's all fascinating stuff, especially for a sad git like me, who revels in statistics and chompable lumps of data.  But for those who take a more pragmatic view of 'this sort of thing', here is an abridged version if you like, with some highlights handpicked by moi.

First off, lets look at the overall list of the 50 best beers.  The number 1 is Westvleteren 12, a very famous Belgian Quadrupel, which is usually there or thereabouts in polls such as this.  Other familiar faces include: Rochefort 10, Pannepot and St. Bernadus 12, two of which are available at Stirchley Wines.  A lot of the remaining 50 are American, from big-name brewers such as Alesmith, Russian River, Bells, Stone, Goose Island and Founders.  The number three beer on the list: Goose Island Bourbon Stout was purchased by me on Monday (and I cannot wait to try this 13% beast); but a lot of the others are either not available in Birmingham, or not available in the UK at all.   

Another prominent name on the list is Danish brewer Mikkeller, who are now [thankfully] available in Brum, and are well worth seeking out for their large and interesting flavours.

Moving onto the list of the Best Brewers: the top spot is taken by Three Floyds, of Indiana, with the top UK brewery being The Kernel at number 39.  The other two English brewers on the list are Samuel Smith and Thornbridge, with Brewdog and Harviestoun there to represent Scotland.  Again, as Ratebeer is a US-based site, there are a lot of North American brewers on the list, but I'm glad to see one of my favourite international outfits - the Norwegian brewery Nogne, right up there at 41.

As a more interesting exercise and rather than me just commentating on the results, I thought it would be interesting to continue a previous blog post and examine the list of Top 50 UK beers in a bit more detail, to register which ones I have spotted in Brum. 

So, of the top 50, 21 are the work of the Kernel, and a good few of these will have been available at SWS.  There are then: 4 Magic Rock, 2 Brewdog, 3 Thornbridge, a Fullers, a Brakspear, a Theakston, 2 Oakham - all of which should (should) have been in the City at some point.  In the case of the Magic Rock, their appearance has only been within the last couple of weeks.  I think we've probably had a least a couple of the Buxton and Marble beers on offer, but I'm really not sure about the Arbor, Tempest, Old King Henrys or the Redemption collaboration.  All in all a pretty heartwarming hit rate for top beers having popped up in our locale, but then again it has to be recognised that most of these have been witnessed in bottled form, in one single location.  If we were ticking off the ones spotted on tap in City pubs, there would only have been a handful.  So consider the backslapping tempered slightly. 

The most interesting inclusion is from local brewery Sadlers, whose Hop Bomb makes an appearance at 31.  This is a marvellous beer, which caused me to dribble all down my front when gladly devouring a foaming pint at Sadlers' brewery tap - the Windsor Castle in Lye.  It is a massive achievement for one of our local breweries to be mixing it amongst the nationally feted company described above.  Bravo!    

Tomorrow I'll have a bit of a nose through some of the other categories, but right now, I'm cream crackered, so I'm off to bed.  I'll keep it short tomorrow, so don't worry.