Saturday, 24 January 2009

The Blackhurst Beer Festival

Last weekend we hosted the sixth annual Blackhurst Beer Festival. We provide blind tastings of ten different beers from a range of styles and countries, and our guests take tasting notes and then rank them in their preferred order so that we can pronounce a Champion Ale.

At the end we collate the notes and hand out a guide so they know which is which. There are spot prizes given at random and at our discretion, such as one for the best description and one for anyone who guesses any of the beers correctly (no one did on this occasion) or the person who identifies the most countries of origin.

We provided pie and peas at half-time and there were also crisps, nuts and sandwiches on offer (ham and mustard; beef and tomato; and cheese and pickle for the vegetarians). I didn't hand out a spot prize to whoever made the hummus and guacamole, but I should have done because it was delicious!

Beer Number One - Chang, 5%, Thailand

Just because they sponsor Everton Football Club, there’s no need to hold that against them. Chang (Thailand’s biggest brewer) do good things too – such as establishing the Chang-Everton village in Thailand in the wake (sorry!) of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. The beer’s symbol is two Asian elephants because these beasts (more closely linked with the extinct woolly mammoth than the African elephant – random useless fact) have played a major part in Thailand’s history.

Tasting notes suggest a ‘full-bodied citrus quality and a smoky blend of sweet green apples and full-bodied vanilla’, which is allegedly especially brewed to complement the exotic flavour and textures of Thai dishes. It was awarded a gold medal at the Australian International Beer Awards – make of that what you will.

If you drank it on your hols and you thought it tasted different (even Fiji bitter can taste decent under a palm tree on a beach), you would be right. The beer brewed for export is 100% malt beer and is 5% abv; that brewed for the domestic market is stronger (6.4%) and contains rice. I kid you not.

Comments for this beer from our drinkers included the following:
A hint of woodland spices with higher notes of lime and kiwifruit
Rotorua hot pools
Could drink it all night, but not worth writing home about
Weak, watery and flowery - could be alcohol free?
Is it supermarket brand lager?
No body or legs - good hair of the dog
Undertones of banana
Was this once a beer?
No flavour and not much alcohol - perhaps low carb?
Like eating carpet, but I wouldn't know
Tastes very New Zealand-y, better than stadium beer - not boutique, more mainstream

Unsurprisingly, it came 10th (i.e. last) overall.

Beer Number Two - Peroni, 5.1%, Italy

Most Italians drink wine to complement their meal, but apparently pizza is too salty and if you drank a red wine with it you would be very thirsty by the end. Heaven forbid! To the rescue comes Peroni Nastro Azzurro which is allegedly the perfect pizza beer, or an aperitif.

Claimed by the marketers to be Italian style in a bottle (are they putting Feraris and Gucci handbags in it?), it is supposed to bring out the Italian in you. It means ‘Blue Ribbon’ and has something to do with boats – the Blue Ribband was a prize awarded for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic Ocean by passenger liners – you could tell the Italian ships, because they were the ones going backwards.

A pissy lager, I would say
Drank it loads when I was 15
Lingering after-taste with severe after-burp; I expect a windy belly by night end
Not very distinctive – a little bit bland
The sort of thing I’d end up drinking in a foreign country because there’s nothing else
Flat, flowery and not good
Goes down fast and has a bit more biteThis one tastes the same as the last one, but it’s probably different

And this beer was the group's second least favourite - it came 9th

Beer Number 3 - Methode Moa, 5.5%, New Zealand

What happens when a winemaker makes beer? Josh Scott, winemaker for Allan Scott Family Winemakers put his winemaking expertise to finding out. He brewed a beer in the normal fashion, and then added a dose of yeast and sugar and sealed the cap. Just like champagne, the bubbles produced by the second fermentation are dissolved in the liquid.

There are several varieties in this range, but the German style Pilsner is the original lager. Described on rate as ‘tarty and flat with a strong bite’ could this be the Teri Hatcher of the beer world?

Very nice nutty oaky vintage
Like a night on whizz – lively and unpredictable
Nice warm after-feeling
Definitely has a Belgian beer flavour to it – very more-ish
Real personality – unlike the Belgians
Wheaty hoppy number – not bad, but two pints only
Very drinkable – taste lingers in the back of the throat

Frothy glass of lovely hops and yeast
Perhaps a vanilla after-taste? Giving me heartburn
Not my thing – I like to be able to see through my beer
Hoppy and wheaty – a touch of Northern Europe in New Zealand
Smells like Hoegaarden, but much greener in flavour

Wheat beer but quite hoppy and lemon-y

This one was 5th overall.

Beer Number 4 - Bluebird Bitter, Premium XB, 4.4%, England

If ever a beer were light and refreshing, this is it – it could be the ultimate session brew, and is the perfect fireside ale to be drunk after a hard day’s hiking over the nearby fells – trust me, I have done the research on this one. It is named to commemorate Donald Campbell’s tragic attempt on the world water speed record on Coniston Water, but it is far from being all doom and gloom.

The bottled Premium XB ingredients and the abv are different from the CAMRA Supreme Champion Cask Ale (brewed out the back of the Black Bull Inn, Coniston), but it is brewed in Hepworth (Yorkshire) under the supervision of Peter Scholey (former master brewer for the late and much-lamented Brakspear Brewery of Henley-on-Thames). It combines the English pale ale tradition with American hops (Mount Hood) and is apparently extremely popular with our more discerning American beer-drinking cousins.

Fruity, honey summery taste, leaves a fizz on the palate
A glass of alcohol gold – taste sensation
Not too fizzy – no after-taste – I like it!
Quite flat and no real bite
Dirty dishwater
Quite insipid and tasteless but less fizzy and slips down easier than the others
Orange colour, subtle nutty flavours
Fresh and fruity, easy to drink – could get you in trouble with the wife
On first glance, the amber nectar – a Vienna-style – tasty
Fruitful but not sweet – half and half on this one but I think I like it
It tastes like beer and it looks like beer

Very mellow, honey tones

A (for me) disappointing 7th on the ladder for this one.

Beer Number 5 - Little Creatures Pale Ale, 5.2%, Australia

From a small, independent brewery in Freemantle, Western Australia, comes this hoppy pale ale. The brewery was established by a group of mates in an old crocodile farm, because they wanted to make, and drink, the perfect pale ale. They make theirs in small batches with Australian malts and hop flowers from Tasmania and Oregon, USA. It is named for the live yeast, present in the bottle, and has a cult following among young Australian drinkers.

Some interesting comments include: ‘In a land of bland beers, this makes for a pleasant change’ – Oxford Bottled Beer Database, and ‘This is love. An angel from the west, armed with a mischievous grin and a schooner of ale, has stolen my heart. They make the best beer in the country.’ – Peter Lalor, Sydney Daily Telegraph. It takes a lot to make a Sydneysider so sentimental – I’ll wager he’d had a few.

Nice mellow taste but an average beer – I wouldn’t trek across the moors for a pint of it
Sweet smelling and tasty – hangover material perhaps?
Kate Moss meets Robbie Fowler – a little beauty with a nice finish
Independent brewery – all round fine beer with fine perky breasts
When all the other flavour has gone there is just a hint at the back of the mouth lingering like a diamond in the rough
More like the lighter Kiwi beers I’d buy here
Cloudy and hoppy with a hint of caramel
Hoppy! I can’t even begin to think of the hangover you would get from this
Hoppy goodness – tasty lager for a summer’s day

This beer came a very creditable third overall, and this seems like as good a place as any to take a drinks' break.

Friday, 23 January 2009

Yosemite - Part 3

Ellery and Tioga lakes are semi-frozen and glistening beneath peaks and domes of rock.

We picnic and play ‘Guess the jelly bean flavours’ as we sun ourselves on the rocks at Tuolumne Meadows and startle the fish as we stepping-stone across the river.

Walking up to Cathedral Lakes through the trees, I keep a lookout for bears while Him Outdoors is overwhelmed by the sheer amount of scenery.

I love the big rock faces with large boulders on them that must have come down in floods or avalanches and are now left abandoned behind.

I also love the fact that they are called, 'erratic boulders' which conjures up notions of them nipping off to raves and behaving irresponsibly when no one’s watching.

We walk up and run back down – the huffing and puffing and shuddering should scare away any bears, or make them wet their fuzzy pants as they grown to each other, ‘I thought I was a big lumbering beast – have you seen that?’

There are reflections in Tenaya Lake and a glorious pink light over Half Dome. Glacial erratic boulders abound as we pile out of the car at Olmsted Point to take photos and a bloke tells us proudly of his eight-hour walk earlier in the day, pointing out the peaks he has encountered. A sign says ‘Watch for Rocks’ – Him Outdoors and I say simultaneously, “There’s one!” How childish!

Dark descends as we drive out of the park and come to Buck Meadows on the edge. We check into a motel and continue our American culinary experience with a meatball sandwich for me and a chiliburger for Him Outdoors.

I have a Fat Tire Amber Ale, which is nutty and malty, while Him Outdoors tries the Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. They come in frosted schooners which are way too cold and turn the beer to slush – it’s much more palatable when it warms up.

Walking back to the motel, we are accompanied by the clear night sky. The starts are so beautiful; forgive me for sounding like an old hippy, but the Northern Hemisphere constellations are like dear friends. Hello Great Bear.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

It's a funny old game

It's not been a good week for our household football-wise. Late goals have crushed us. All the ones in the Premier League went against Liverpool, particularly at Anfield where the snow sluiced down and even Captain Fantastic couldn't save the mighty reds their position at the top of the table.

And it all came down to an 87th minute goal by an Australian - blatantly not pictured. I still believe, however. Liverpool will rise again to the top of the table.

Meanwhile, Him Outdoors is devastated. The highs and lows of football supporting have never been so graphically illustrated as this semi-final of the Carling Cup.

Even the Guardian drew a prophetic parallel - "Four-one up and coasting towards a final date with Manchester United, Spurs were left bedraggled as Owen Coyle's emerging Burnley team produced a comeback that, in Turf Moor folklore at least, will be compared to Liverpool's miracle in Istanbul in 2005 as the Championship club took their wealthy Premier League visitors to extra-time and were within two minutes of going to Wembley."

He thought they couldn't and then he thought they could, and then he thought they couldn't, and then... Well all this thinking was quite exhausting and the result was not the one he wanted. After sending euphoric messages at the end of 90 minutes, he was reduced to shell-shocked grief by 120. He had practically booked his plane ticket home but this little claret and blue engine simply couldn't.

He is proud but he is gutted - so near... 'We've never made the final' he whispered and there is nothing I can say. I really don't know how he feels - my team will pick themselves up and carry on. All I know is that it hurts. 'The poor little town, how are they going to come back from that?' he asked. Fortunately he wasn't expecting an answer. Bill Shankly could probably have given him one.

So for Burnley supporters everywhere, I'm thinking of you. It was a great story while it lasted, but the Hollywood ending was not to be.

Yosemite - Part 2

Because of last night’s snow many of the roads are closed but we are able to see ‘the big trees’. Our Gracious Hosts arrived last night, so in the morning we all head off for a walk to Mariposa Grove where the giant sequoia trees grow.

These beautiful natural creations need fire to regenerate – a fact which was noticed by accident after many years of park protection when the rangers couldn’t work out why they weren’t growing. Now controlled burn-offs help these trees to germinate – this doesn’t mean they all start turning German, but the fires clear away the competing firs and cedars, and expose bare mineral soil for the seeds to take root. Only one in a million seeds takes hold and the trees only shed them once every two years – they’re not great odds. Nature can be tough!

The fabulous red trunks with their massive girth are almost too big to photograph, so Our Gracious Hostess and I play at taking macro shots of massive pine cones and bark patterns while chipmunks chatter from atop blackened tree stumps, fiercely protecting their secret stash of pine nuts.

An enormous tree has fallen on its side but used to be a tunnel. Jean and Mark carved their names into it in 1971, presumably when it was still standing. I wonder if their love is still as steadfast.

We drive to the valley floor where we attempt a scramble to the base of El Capitan. The marker says 0.3 miles but we instantly stray off the track and end up scrambling much further and higher across big boulders warmed by the sun. Climbers abseil and swing out from the cliff face, their whoops of abandon echoing around the valley.

Our Gracious Hosts’ eldest scrambles up like a little mountain goat, then Him Outdoors carries him back down on his shoulders because his little legs are weary. The view from beneath El Capitan is immense – that is one big lump of rock!

As the light plays over the rock, the view changes dramatically with gold and pinks entering the picture. John Muir sums it up succinctly – “It is by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter.”

The trout that I have for dinner at the Wawona Lodge is some of the best fish I’ve ever tasted. I love the 1900s dining room with the lampshades featuring pictures of sequoia trees and pine cones dangling from the corners. People bask in comfy armchairs before a crackling fire with books and glasses of wine – fabulous stuff!

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Yosemite - Part 1

Entering Yosemite National Park several signs warn that 'Speeding Kills Bears'. Despite the obvious quip that perhaps they should slow down a bit, these signs are apparently placed in every spot where a bear has actually been hit, which is pretty serious. As bears generally avoid roads and people it would also suggest that there are a lot of bears in them thar hills.

Yosemite is as beautiful as ever but cold – well, we are up at 4,00ft. At this time of year the streams and waterfalls are pretty empty, and Bridalveil Falls are slightly less than spectacular as the strong swirling winds blow the water back over the tops. The surrounding lumps of rock more than make up for it.

El Capitan (not Steven Gerard this time) has people hanging off the side of it as they shimmy up the sheer rock face. Those who have only made it half-way will have to bivvy out on a ledge tonight, which may not be much fun as high winds and cold temperatures are forecast. A couple on their 19 year anniversary hand us a pair of binoculars so we can spy on the rock rats.

We drive through the valley impressed by all the scenery, but it is simply too big to fit into our photos. The Ansel Adams gallery has great examples of how it’s done properly. His black and white prints are magical and they look good in full-size format. He writes, ‘Yosemite Valley, to me, is always a sunrise, a glitter of green and golden wonder in a vast edifice of stone and space.’ Books tell you where and how to take the best nature pictures, but I’ll leave that to the experts.

It starts to snow and all the wardens and rangers are thrilled, skipping about with excitement. This makes for an interesting drive back through the valley past trees and mountains that have disappeared although we know they’re out there. A deer tiptoes daintily across the road with her two calves.

The snow picks out features and contours like a negative shade, outlining and highlighting like a child’s drawing when they’ve run out of dark-hued crayons. The setting sun filters through the snow tingeing the clouds and trees pink. So it really does happen; perhaps the Magic Roundabout
script writers weren’t all on drugs afterall. But then again…