Sunday, 18 October 2009

Barley Wine Number Two

OK, here it is, the second instalment of the barley wine seminar. Excuses like having to work in the kitchen now out of the way I realise that there is another hindrance to me relating the proceedings of the second half of the event; that of the beer and crack being good so my note taking seems to have faded. It normally does once I start drinking beer, it's more the social aspect of it rather than the drunken effect, and I'm sticking to that story. Drinking is a social activity after all.

We tasted barley wines with cheeses. I remember the cheeses clearly, mature Cheddar, Stilton and Brie, but forget which beers were paired with them. I'm considering self flagellation by way of punishment for this serious lapse of diligence. I can however remember the effects of this food and beer matching session and there was a different beer presented to match each cheese.

Mature Cheddar with it's nice bite works well with a moderately bitter beer however the one we had was slightly overpowered by the Cheddar. Still, the creaminess of the cheese worked well with the toffee caramel flavours in the beer.

Moving to the Stilton clearly a more powerful hop presence was needed and in this case I felt we had a good choice of beer. I like Stilton and there is a chance that my perception is coloured here, but the experience worked well.

Finally, the creamy Brie works fantastically with a more malty caramel beer. Brie could so easily be overpowered by a beer with too much hop presence, but this one was perfect. I like Brie as well - hang on, what am I talking about? I like cheese, period.

Of course the dried fruits, big body and powerful liqueur flavours present in all the beers help the cheese and indeed I suspect would with a number of other foods. The overall experience is one of the best beer and food matchings I've ever enjoyed and much better than the one from the Tate Sommelier I experienced about a year ago. Perhaps as a guild we could do more to promote good beer and food pairings.

There were many barley wines to try and Adrian Tierney-Jones lists them in his blog. I'm really not one to give a great list of beers and critique each one. Every single beer was fantastic and the danger for any contender would be that the overall quality was so high that everyday fantastic might loose out to sublime. Several had vintages and in particular the 1999 Fuller Vintage Ale stood out as something special, not just because the beer is good but because of the overall ethos that goes along with it. I had tried the 2009 at the GBBF and the fresh compared to the aged was very interesting indeed. I smuggled a bottle home which currently has an imaginary "drink me" label tempting me every day. Ann particularly liked the Harveys Elizabethan Ale. Big Foot was too hoppy to be a barley wine in my view, but that's the way the Americans do things. Conversely Lovibonds Wheat Wine would be great with some more hops.

So, things starting to get a little more relaxed and with the danger of memory failure we sat down again to listen to the second batch of speakers. Barry Pepper kicked off with a light after dinner style piece on Yorkshire Stingo, which it turns out I had difficulty pronouncing correctly. I blame the lack of a Yorkshire accent rather than any effect from the beers.

Steve Gibbs of Durham Brewery gave a talk on the micro brewers perspective of making barley wine. As a micro brewer myself I felt it was all obvious. That must mean he was telling the truth but it does leave difficulties in me finding the surprising revelation to pass on.

Jeff Rosenmeier gave a very informative talk on his Wheat Wine, which I mentioned needed more hops, but he himself had already come to this conclusion. Mash hopping is used, rare in this country but useful in this beer due to the high level of wheat malt. Wheat mashes tend to be very sticky and can result in a stuck sparge. Hops in the mash help to break up the malt and replace the lack of barley husks. Honey is used in the beer's production and there was some question about when to add the honey. In the boil the honey can loose much of the aromatics that are the very point of using honey. The problem is that honey is not sterile. The high sugar content stops any bacteria from growing when honey is stored, which is why it can keep for years, but adding it to wort without any boiling might encourage these bacteria to multiply once in the ideal growing medium of fermenting beer. Jeff puts the honey in at the end of the boil, at flame out. However, he is considering putting it in after cooling and hoping the yeast will compete and so play to the numbers game of brewing microbiology. Honey in beer is a controversial one. I like mead and so I liked this. If you don't like honey then you'd be disappointed.

Jeff talked about waxing the bottle top. This has been proven to help ageing in beers. As a secondary seal it is used to prevent oxygen getting at the beer and maintain condition. It's even possible, apparently, to hear a hiss as the wax is broken proving that it does really have an effect. It is interesting that the example bottle of a very old beer indeed was also waxed. Steve Wellington had brought along one of only a few bottles left of Ratcliff ale. Pete Brown was lucky enough to try some just before his epic journey to India. Apparently we were not worthy enough to try it, but there is an excellent description of the ceremony surrounding the opening of the bottle and the flavours encountered in Pete's book Three Sheets to the Wind pp73-74.

Which I hope brings me on neatly to Pete's little bit of the day; Selling barley wine. Of course most people who have read Pete's books will know his roots lie firmly in marketing. His words don't need to be repeated here as he has kindly copied them onto his own blog. They make tons of sense to me. The key thing is that we have to rethink beer when we get to the premium market. Barley wine and other strong beers like double imperial stouts, imperial IPAs and the like deserve a different approach. Packaging and glassware are part of that.

A key point though is that it was stated "Drinking is about ritual", and the example came back of the opening of Ratcliffs ale in Pete's book and how everybody was transfixed around this very special bottle. Part of the ritual of removing the wax on a corked bottle gives another reason to consider this packaging addition, further adding to the ritual of drinking. Anyway, just read Pete's blog, he makes more sense than me.

The floor was open for questions and comments. Earlier I had heard a comment from somebody that questioned the place of barley wine. Claiming to really like the beers we were trying the gentleman also declared "I would never go to the pub and drink this". I asked myself why not? We will drink wine and whisky and gin and vodka and rum and port but not barley wine. No, because we are stuck in the thought that beer needs to be between 3.5% and 4.5% and served in pints, anything else is just stupid, apparently. I really feel that we should consider taking a leaf out of the Belgians book on this one. Different styles of beer deserve different glasses and different measures. The more that I explore the premium beer world the more I realise that we are missing out on promoting them due to blinkered, dare I say it, flat earth approach.

Melissa Cole sparked controversy by having a dig at brewers for only using technical descriptions for the flavours in beers. Hoppy, malty and estery don't really inspire the lay person. An irritated retort ensued from somebody seemly insulted but I'd have to agree that we could be more descriptive rather than technical with our beer tasting notes.

Finally free reign was given to the marvellous array of beers to try. I was expecting great things and was sure I would enjoy the experience. Whilst I loved them all there were some that were simply outstanding. I opened my first post claiming that barley wine was for old women. That seems to be the perception but I'd say this is a style that could be modernised, not by way of changing the style, it stands as a robust drink in it's own right, but it's crying out to be made trendy and I've a feeling we're on the cusp of it. It also seems that the style is worthy of the maturation fine wine receives. If a well made beer can still be drinkable after 140 years then perhaps we can consider expanding on Fullers excellent idea of vintage ale and give beer it's much needed step up out of the mass media gutter. Maybe beer might be the drink of the nation, the drink that cuts across classes, but we're still in danger of alienating greatness with a form of inverted snobbery that still clings to the drinking classes.

Sadly the coach was ready to leave bound back for Sheffield and the promise of a pint. I was strangely looking forward to sinking a regular 18oz plus proper northern head. Unfortunately, the few that were left wanted to visit several pubs so halves were in order. Mind you, I'm glad we did get to a few, Sheffield is looking good for a beery trip in the future.

I can't finish this post without a mention of the hotel we stayed in that night. The Hillsborough Hotel is a brew hotel, there are not many in the country and of course every single one is special. This one is no exception, or perhaps it is, seeing as it is exceptional. Stu is a top brewer and is not afraid to push the boundaries a little. His Unpronounceable IPA at 7% Indian Pale Ale 7.2% brewed with Pete Brown1 was on tap "Are you sure you want a pint? Do you know how strong it is?" I was asked. I didn't care, I was getting desperate to get my hands around a proper one, yeah, I'm disagreeing with every thing I've said above but just sometimes only a pint will do. We were brought a special jug of Ring of Fire from the cellar, newly tapped and "dry chillied". I've never had chilli beer and was not quite sure whether I would like it. A nice fresh chilli nose that threatens a bite that will blow your mind, I expect this comes from the whole chillies in the cask, but it turns out that it's bouquet is worse than it's bite with this beer working surprisingly well. I think I had around a pint of the chilli beer as well, which was probably good going after the day I'd just had. Eventually I found my bed, contented after a thoroughly enjoyable day.

A smashing breakfast next morning was followed by a grand tour of The Hillsborough Cellars, which is where the Crown Brewery lives. I was in a rush because I'd left my BlackBerry charger at home and I wanted to find a shop that could sell me a new one. Unfortunately in my rush I left my bottles of Celebration Ale behind, which Stu had kindly procured for me. Sadly that means I'll have to visit the Hillsborough again and probably be tempted into another beer exploration around the steel city of Sheffield. Ann thinks I left them deliberately so that I'd have to go back - as if.

I think I've drivelled on a little too long already about barley wine; Time to move on - onward to the great capital of our little island. Time for more beery exploration to engage in and a treat in first class on the train to get there. Interestingly I ended up thinking that I'd rather travel standard class on a Virgin Pendalino as the ride is so much smoother, the East Midlands Trains rattle and tilt terribly, now I know why it's only £6 more for first class.

Incidentally, my search for a charger turned out to be a frustrating but eventually successful escapade. It was in a Virgin shop that I managed to find my phone charger, the Branson empire managed to regain a little kudos with me again after a complete and utter fiasco trying to buy a parking ticket at Oxenholme.

Next I need to cover an event hosted by Lagers Of the British Isles. Yes, that's right, I had an evening of lager drinking. Have my beer explorations found me a lager I like? You'll just have to wait until the next post.

Meanwhile, there is also a post on The Beer Justice blog about the event, in case I haven't bored you quite enough.


1You see, this is what happens if you try and cram too much beer and blogging into too few days, the accuracy starts to deteriorate.....see blog comments.


ATJ said...

on the cheese front if I remember rightly, Mark started off with a cheddar and the Headcracker, pointing out the interplay between the creamy maltiness and the buttery Cheddar; John had the Golden Pride (all deep orange muscat flavours) with Stilton, not a bad match of fruit, pungency and cream, while Kelly let Alliance (1997) have its way with a Somerset Brie, all were pretty good matches, though I felt initially that the Headcracker drew out a too buttery note on the cheese, which was a bit cloying in the mouth, but on the next pass harmony reigned and John Barleycorn was in his heaven.
And we had halves cause we were being sensible — though like you when we got to the Hillo a pint of the splendidly muscular Unpronounceable was the reward for such good behaviour.
And regarding your travels onto London, ‘I salute your courage, your strength, and your indefatigability’.

Unknown said...

Thanks Adrian, that's the sort of write-up I'd have liked to have been able to produce.

Tandleman said...

A basic point here about barley wine is that contrary to 15+ years ago, few pubs stock it.

Sorry to be "feet on the ground" but there's not going to be any revival without availability, or is it another beer mostly for home drinking?

Crown Brewery said...

You tried the India Pale Ale
7.2% (brewed with Pete
) different brew to the Unpro IPA
7% which was only bottled

Crown Brewery said...

oh and thanks for the complements glad you enjoyed your stay.

Unknown said...

Tandleman, good point, I hope to at least investigate the style for stocking in my place. This is always the problem with any drink. If the demand is not there then it is not stocked and if it is not stocked then nobody knows about it and so the demand is not there.

Part of my motivation behind being a member of the Beer Writers Guild is to explore where this goes wrong. I certainly do not believe that any drink is only for drinking at home but if pubs don't think a little more out of the box then more and more people will resort to drinking at home.

Stu, oh dear, big bollock drop by me there. I hope you and Pete will forgive me. Post now amended.

Crown Brewery said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Crown Brewery said...

no problem, no wonder you got it mixed up after a IPA and Ring of Fire pints