Monday, September 28, 2015

Summer tasting: old bottles

Most of the bottles were picked up from, the local store on the road from Twickenham to Richmond, and I suspect a few of them had been at the back of my pantry for a little too long. No complete disasters though…

Celt Experience Brewey, Silures Crafted Ale: this Welsh ale is a light copper colour with a small head and slight fizz, a little bit cloudy as it came out of the bottle. A refreshing green, dewy aroma of the forest in spring; then a tangy first taste with the slight mustiness of ripe berries, perhaps just a touch fungal. In the mouth a hint of candy sweetness, like over-aged wheat beer, but satisfying and lingering orange zest bitterness. This bottle was a little old, but the beer was still very nice. (***)

The Wild Beer Co., Bliss: the label on this bottle of Somerset ale is pretty, with an abstract stag-head in orange against the dark glass; apparently it's brewed with wild yeasts, leading to unpredictable and sometimes volatile results. The beer came out of the bottle very frothy, perhaps a little bit aged, as I'd had it in the pantry for a while, and a dark, cloudy orange colour. It had a sour, earthy smell, with apricots, yeast and even potato; the first taste is intensely sour and smoky, combined with malty sweetness that is cloying and chewy. An unpleasantly syrupy swallow drowns out the light bitterness and smoky grittiness, but neither really lingers. I applaud this sort of experimental, unreliable effort, but this one didn't work for me. (**)

Buxton, Jaw Gate American Pale Ale: the label of this bottle comes with cute skulls, a bit more kitsch than you'd normally expect to sell a serious beer, but fun. The beer is a dull light orange or tan in colour, with a yeasty, apple-cider odor that confidently predicts the tangy, tart and cidery first taste. Thi leads to a vry sharp orange-pit bitterness in the mouth, and then a watery peach and orange engame, which is coarse on the swallow, but only lingering in a nondescript, generically pithy way. Perfectly quaffable, but a bit bland. (**)

The Kernel, Pale Ale: a minimalist look from this east London brewery’s pale ale made with citra and chinook hops. The light, hazy orange beer has a lively head and appetizing aroma of sweet, fruity hops, perhaps orange and apricot. It’s very bitter in the mouth, with lingering crushed pits and pithy citrus, and a slightly smoky chocolate aftertaste which is very nice. This beer is perhaps a little too dark and clingy for a session ale, but I'd still like to try some more. (***)

Friday, September 25, 2015

Tasting notes: European imports

Whenever we or friends and colleagues go overseas, we try to bring back a few bottles of unusual or local beers from various places, and I try to keep up with tasting notes here on the blog. Here are a few I've noted down over the last few months; I'll try to add more as we get through them.

Lurisia, Otto: a pretty, artisanal beer from the northwest of Italy, made with pure water from an Alpine spring some 16km from the French border, Otto comes in an attractive, unique bottle, and is a cloudy, earthy colour, with sweet smell slightly reminiscent of a musty granary. On the tip of the tongue it is candy-sweet, with apple peel, apricot, malty bread and dried berries; in the mouth there are notes of biscuit and sprouted rye. It’s more mellow in the swallow, but there’s a hint of lingering yeast, and a hit of sweet cherry right at the end. A bit strange, this one, but not unpleasant. (***)

Sinebrychoff Porter: this Finnish bottled beer is pitch black, almost oily, with a small head, and a coffee and treacle aroma. It starts sweet, smoothing out to a bready maltiness in the mouth, but then leading to a dark, smoky finish, like a cigar over earthy whiskey. There is a lingering sweetness, and a hint of bitter chocolate, that polishes it off nicely; not really a session ale though, except perhaps on a Finnish winter night, when it's 2pm, dark, and the warmth of the lunchtime sauna has worn off already. (**)

Pöhjala, Rukkirääk Rye Ale: named for the Baltic corn crake, this memorable Estonian ale is a dark copper colour, with a warm and malty aroma, some dried date and cherry , but a sparkly, tangy, and disconcertingly sweet first taste. It’s fruity and orange-zesty in the mouth, leading to a dark and yeasty aftertaste that clings to the mouth for quite a while. Given that, this is a surprisingly quaffable pint, and I’d be interested to try a few more. (***)

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Bottled American beer tastings

Since my occasional American house-guests and other visitors are very generous and always bring over a few bottles or cans of beer with them, I try to keep tasting notes of the less usual pints we have at their expense! Presented here in no particular order (and with more to come…).

Ballast Point, Sculpin IPA: a nice San Diego-brewed blond and foamy ale, with lime zesty hoppiness in the nose, and green fruit sweetness that quickly tarts up to a pithy bitterness that lingers quite nicely. This one went down well. (****)

Sierra Nevada, Harvest: this single hop IPA from California is a very light, orange/yellow beer, almost the exact colour of a pint of wifebeater, with a light head (bit a bit excitable if not chilled enough, again reminiscent of “classy” lagers). There’s a very faint fruity hop aroma, but surprisingly odorless for an IPA; the first taste is sweet orange on the tip of the tongue, very quickly washing over with a brutally bitter follow-on in the mouth before you can say much more about it, like taking a huge mouthful of pith and tart juice. The bitterness is what dominates throughout thereafter, sappy, like a bitter bark tea. Breathing in over the aftertaste I got a bit of yeasty fruit and pits, malty with hints of burnt raisin, but also a very intense green-wood tangy sweetness. The hoppy bitterness dominates so overwhelmingly that it drowns out anything else you might taste in there, or enjoy. Perfectly drinkable, but a bit disappointing. (**)

Alaskan Brewing Co., Jalapeño Imperial IPA: cheeky amber in colour, with a fruity, hoppy aroma, somewhere between juniper honey and unripe cranberry (Silke said it reminded her of a hair product: when pressed she said only, “It would be a nice perfume for a shampoo, anyway.”) A nice peppery first taste, hints of paprika, tart but not spicy, sweet and zesty like tropical fruit in the mouth; there's a faint coconut or pineapple aftertaste, with pleasant but not especially lingering capsaicin notes in the piny finish. A bit gimmicky, but not at all bad. (***)

Knee Deep, Citra Extra Pale Ale: another strong California ale, with a cloudy caramel colour (it may not have settled properly before we opened it), a tart smell of lemon and almond, and a sweet, tropical fruit first taste with some apricot. There are notes of lemon zest and pits in the mouth, with an intense cakey, molasses and lemon skin bitterness. The heavy yeast gives a lovely kick to this very nicely balanced beer. It's a little bit monolithic, on our judgement, but still a very good drop. (****)

Avery, Maharaja Imperial IPA: this is a barleywine-strength super-IPA from the enthusiastic Avery brewery in Boulder, Colorado, which comes in a highly (if somewhat appropriatively) decorated 20 oz bottle, festooned with a rather annoyed-looking Indian monarch in full regalia. The beer itself is red-amber in color, only slightly foamy, with an odor of yeast and poached apple; very tart, with honey and bark in the first taste, expanding to crushed lime kernels in the mouth, smoky and intensely yeasty on the swallow, although the sparkly and dark taste lingers better on the tongue than the bitterness does in the throat. Overall this beer is warm and spicy, good with hearty, savory food, but at 10.2% is a little too intense for my tastes. (***)

Monday, September 21, 2015

Kanaal Craft Beer Bar, Sofia, Bulgaria

This was an unassuming bar that you’d hardly find if you didn't know it was there (see the closed street door, shown in the photo), with a wide range of bottled beers available behind the bar, and knowledgeable staff who are able to recommend beers or ales in English (in fact, I suspect this is something of a haunt among English/American residents and visitors to Sofia). It’s a comfortable joint, too, and I’m a bit sorry I was only able to go there once on this visit.

White Stork, Original: a beer made by local Bulgarian brewery White Stork (Бял Щърк), this one is an orange-amber colour and slightly cloudy; the nose is full of ripe fruit, honey and flowers, and it’s peachy and pithy from the get-go on the tongue. There’s some indefinable hoppiness that kicks you in the face a bit, heavy like cough syrup, but not too strong or bitter. A gentle hint of synthetic candy in the swallow doesn’t linger very much. Promising start, but disappointing finish. (**)

Divo Pivo/Диво Пиво: another local beer brewed here in Sofia, the bar opened the bottle from the fridge, swirled it around, and poured every drop, yeasty sediment and all, into a straight glass, which in my opinioned ruined an otherwise very promising pint. It came out cloudy, medium amber, with brown-stained foam, and had a sweet malty raisin smell. Cold and sparkly, with apple-blossom and marmite-on-toast in the first first taste that led to crusty bread and lime zest in the mouth. A subtly charcoaly swallow was almost overwhelmed by swirling yeast. I'm sure this would be really nice if served more carefully, or from a settled cask, but even shaken like this it was still more or less quaffable. (**) (But probably deserves better; I'm guessing a **** if well-handled.)

Kabinet: this clear, light amber, Belgian style ale from Serbia has a fruity, floury odor. There is a sweet, strong cherry first taste, but then it becomes intensely pithy in the mouth, and has a coarse finish that lingers very nicely indeed. Good choice! (****)

Glarus, “English ale”: this one shipped from the coastal city of Varna, is copper-coloured, still and very clear. The nose is slightly sweaty, but fresh, with hints of old vine fruit, and the first taste has soft, dry caramelized cane sugar and orange pith. A musty sense of flightly off fruit hits in the mouth, lingering yeastily and crustily on the swallow. Quite quaffable, but not terribly memorable. To reassure my Bulgarian friends who asked: yes, it's a perfectly respectable English ale. (***)

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Seminar: Making and Marketing of Roman Wine

Dominic Rathbone: The making and marketing of Roman wine 

18:00 Wednesday November 19, 2014.
The Plough, 27 Museum Street, London WC1A 1LH 

What was Roman wine like? How was it produced and distributed? Through an illustrated survey of some of the evidence, especially the archaeological evidence, for wine-making in Roman Italy and the marketing of Italian wine, I try to reconstruct and explain the major changes that occurred in the period 200 BC to AD 100. First, we see the rise and fall of large wineries, aimed at large-scale production of a standardised product, which was exported in massive quantities in an new ‘Italian’ form of amphora.

Later, Italian wine is marketed in much smaller quantities but throughout the Roman world in an adapted Greek-style amphora, and literary sources start praising the distinct wines of regions and even estates. This suggests a perhaps surprisingly ‘modern’ correlation for Roman wine between production strategies (quantity or quality?), changing markets and consumer tastes, and product packaging.

(Dominic Rathbone, King's College London)

This seminar is part of the History Down the Pub series, organized by Gabriel Bodard and Lorna Richardson. We have an open Call for Papers for the coming year. Contact the organizers with any suggestions or questions.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Seminar: Great London Beer Flood


Martyn Cornell: Remembering the Great London Beer Flood

18:00 Thursday October 16, 2014.
The Plough, 27 Museum Street, London WC1A 1LH

Two hundred years ago this month, a tsunami of beer weighing hundreds of tons crashed through crowded streets just off Tottenham Court Road, bringing death and destruction. Historian Martyn Cornell will discuss the sources for this event, and how we need to read them in order to reliably describe how and why it happened. Contemporary newspaper reports give a very different story to the ones that appeared in accounts of the event in the 20th century, with a great story accruing all sorts of falsehoods and exaggerations.

This seminar is part of the History Down the Pub series, organized by Gabriel Bodard and Lorna Richardson. We have an open Call for Papers for the coming year. Contact the organizers with any suggestions or questions.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Call for Papers: History Down the Pub

History Down the Pub is an academic seminar series, held in a Central London pub, discussing the history and archaeology of beer, brewing, pubs, drinking and other alcohol-related matters. We attempt to take a methodological perspective to the history of drinking, with speakers addressing as much how we know, the nature of our sources and the historical/archaeological methods applied to them, as what we know about our ancestors’ drinking habits.

We invite speakers for the 2014-15 seminar season on any aspect of this subject, from the archaeology of ancient brewing or wine-making and trade, or modern English (or other) brewing and pub history, and all topics in between. We shall attempt to alternate between ancient and modern topics throughout the year.

The first seminar, Harvey Quamen’s “Using Digital Humanities Techniques to Study the History of Beer and Brewing” was held in The Plough in August 2013. Further details of the series can be found at

To offer a paper, please send a 300-500 word abstract to both Gabriel Bodard ( and Lorna Richardson (, or feel free to enquire informally to the same addresses.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Great British Beer Festival 2014, Kensington Olympia

We attended the Great British Beer Festival in Kensington Olympia on the Wednesday night. I think going earlier in the week has proved to be a win: although busy, it wasn't as crushingly overcrowded as Friday or Saturday, beers were still in plentiful supply (even many of the popular ones, although this year and last year's medallists ran out before I could get to them) and the atmosphere was generally relaxed, staff in a good mood, etc. There were fewer tables scatted around the whole venue than we've seen before, but a large seating area off in the side room catered for pretty much everybody who wanted to sit down for the evening—we only had to lurk for five minutes before spotting a half-table opening that we gradually colonized.

I didn't take full tasting notes of everything I drank this evening, but a few highlights are below:

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Drinking in Switzerland

A bunch of us attended a conference in French-speaking Switzerland last week, and knowing of breweries like Brasserie des Franches-Montagnes and Docteur Gab's, I was looking forward to tasting more craft beers of that ilk while in town for nearly a week. Switzerland has a tradition of craft brewing, both German-style lagers and the more Belgian/British-style ales, but in the small town we were stuck in there were very few bars or restaurants, and almost all those we found served only cheap lager; at best there might be one brune on offer (and Swiss taste in brune seems to run to the yeasty and chewy, rather than any of the quality or flavour you might expect from French or Belgian styles). Where better quality beer was available, it was in the form of a white or wheat beer in the German or sometimes Belgian style, very crisp, dry, subtle—actually pretty nice on a hot day (although it was raining non-stop the mid-July week we were there!) and lacking the gummy, chewy, spoiled sweetness that some English wheat beers suffer from.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Gluten-free Real Ale

One of the SFTP reviewers was diagnosed with Coeliac disease a few months ago, which at first led to much gnashing of teeth and tearing of hair that she was never going to be able to drink real ale again. The challenge raised, we gathered together and have now sourced half a dozen brewers in the UK who produce at least one gluten-free real ale, plus myriad others in the USA and around the world. The landscape looks pretty promising, so far (but we'd appreciate more suggestions or comments in this GoogleDoc).

Last night we had a tasting of the first few beers we've been able to track down, and our notes and comments follow below.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

An Estonian perspective on Impossible Love

My first contact with Estonian beers is a lunch time conversation in Tallinn. One of the local colleagues comments that “British beers are boring, compared to Estonian ones”. That’s an intriguing statement! I start imagining exotic flavours and unexpected combinations. So, when someone suggests a pub night I accept without even thinking.

The appointment is at the door of a lovely brick building. Then my Estonian host enters a code on a small keyboard and the door opens. I wondered if this is what they mean with “less boring”. Aside from the bizarre means of access, the pub is nice and quiet. But the beer offering comes as a little disappointment. Basically, you can only choose between two versions of the popular (and omnipresent) Saku beer: Classic (a pilsner style), and Dark (Tume, in Estonian).

Not very much interested in the pilsner, I go for the dark one. I am expecting something like a dark lager, but when we open the bottle a very nice roasted barley aroma comes out of it. Saku Dark turns out to be a not too bad one. It is dark brown coloured, and tastes of cane sugar, malt and caramel. On the swallow, it has something of the slightly sour but very tasty brown bread they bake in Tallinn. It could be a porter style ale, if it wasn’t for the fizziness, which is a bit off putting at the beginning. But after few minutes I get used to it (or it goes away, I cannot say). Actually, I don’t mind it at all, and I happily order another bottle.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Bull, Highgate

In Highgate to see a band play the other night, we turned out to be in a very nice little brewpub, home of the London Brewing Company microbrewery. It was relatively quiet when we arrived, and service was pleasant and professional, but felt a bit all-hands-to-the-pump already, with three different table waiters and several bar staff milling around frantically serving about two people total. Hard to imagine what a busy night would look like! The menu looks really great, with high-end gastropub food, although the prices are equally high-end, and there was nothing appetizing in the vegetarian selection. (There is a surprisingly wide range of gluten-free offering, though.)

Monday, May 12, 2014

Bricklayer's Arms, Putney

A late addition to our Top 25 pubs tour, the Bricklayer's Arms in Putney was quiet on a Sunday night: literally the kind of atmosphere were the locals look up at you and go quiet when you walk in. Which for a multiple award-winning, often recommended pub that must get a lot of visitors, is kind of strange, no?

They don't seem to serve food, and only two ales appeared to be on offer at the bar. (But a dozen pumps, the rest of them empty, may be promising for a better selection on busier nights?) The bar itself is not very comfortable, but classic, dry wood-floored pub style, with vintage but not terribly imaginative decor. They don't take credit card, or make much effort at friendly service (again, maybe unless you're a local?), and I kind of get the feeling it will be busy, too loud and understaffed on a Friday night. I hope the normal beer selection is what caused Des De Moor to rate this so highly.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Reading Beerfest 2014

We visited the Reading Beer and Cider Festival again this year, after being very impressed by the organization, scale and quality in 2013. Again, this is a huge and attractive festival, with a wonderful range of real ales, ciders and perries, wines, snacks and hot food, and even games and live music. The significantly cooler weather this year did rather highlight the drawback of holding a festival outdoor/in a pavilion in British spring, as by evening it was almost intolerable to be sitting about even in outdoor coats. (Can't blame the organizers for the weather though!) The food queues were also long and not terribly well-organized, but it would be invidious to complain about catering that was better than almost any other festival I've ever been to. And as always, there was an excellent range of beer to be had. Some highlights:

Friday, April 25, 2014

St George's Beerfest, Old Mitre

Ye Olde Mitre, near Chancery Lane (which we visited a couple years ago as part of the 25 London pubs tour), held a St George's Day beer festival this week, serving up at least half a dozen patriotically themed ales for the occasion. By the time we attended on Thursday night, there were only three beers left, but we dutifully tried them all. (Unfortunately, a table for four in the already-crowded upstairs bar had been booked for a party of 30+ city shirts, so after our beers we moved on to a more pleasant environment.)

Everards, Ascalon: a dark amber/fruity brown ale, which was pretty much odorless (although the smell of burning bread from the cheese toasties which are the Mitre's only food offering made it pretty hard to smell anything). On the tip of the tongue it was watery, almost bready, and only slightly more smoky and malty in the mouth; maybe a hint of overripe fruit (apple or pine rather than citrus). Then it was woody, yeasty, maybe almost a hint of mushroom earthiness and loam in the swallow. The aftertaste barely lingered, but maybe held a little spice, liquorice and soy. Overall this was more interesting than the insipid first taste suggested, but still meh. (**/5)