Posts tagged ‘bottled beer’

July 2, 2012

Seeing past the Rhetoric

It is probably inevitable that a beer release heralded with a little bit of hype, controversy and showmanship is ultimately going to result in some disappointment, and last Saturday night I found exactly that.  This might sound strange to anyone involved in, or following, the OpenTheRhetoric hashtag on Twitter, and even more so if you read my own tweets on the subject that night.

The thing is, I really wanted not to like this beer.  And if that wasn’t going to happen then I could at least be a bit unimpressed.  The hype and controversy I referred to harks back to a little competition where a number of people, myself included, were selected to receive a bottle before its official release, to hold onto until it was deemed ready.  This was all wrapped up in a discussion on integrity, in particular of bloggers, and provided further fuel for discussions at the European Beer Bloggers Conference.  There were spin-off debates about sending bottled beer out before it is deemed ready, and the risks that involved and of course it was also a canny little bit of marketing, making sure Rhetoric got plenty of attention!

So, on opening my bottle I was disappointed that I couldn’t leap up with a loud cry, proclaiming my integrity intact and picking fault after fault.  To say, there you go, sorry, it was free but I don’t like it and I don’t mind saying so.

Instead I was welcomed by a captivating aroma, full of rich dark fruits and dominant but not overwhelming alcohol.  At the time I mentioned rum and raisin – that rich alcohol-steeped fruit scent – and there was something else too.  Something citrussy, but dark, rather than lemony-light.  The flavours lived up to the aroma with a fruity richness and warm alcohol burn.  That citrus was there again, tangerine came to mind, but one having been roasted to darken the skin and bring out a slightly bitter caramel edge.

For a beer of 10.2% the body was much lighter than expected, giving the overall effect of a Christmas pudding with all the heavy stodginess taken away and just leaving the light but rich flavours behind in a very drinkable form.  Condition-wise, it was fine, bearing in mind that a fair amount of the bottle-conditioning was while it was in my custody.  It would be interesting to compare (and would have been even more interesting as a direct comparison) to see how my bottle compares with one that has spent longer at the brewery in better controlled conditionsk, but there was certainly nothing wrong with this one.

Overall I think the Hardknott team have done a great job with this experimental beer.  I wouldn’t say it was perfect, and I’m sure there would be things that would be changed if it was brewed again.  I can’t really say either that it was a leading example of a Belgian Quad style because I don’t have enough of a baseline to compare that too.  Was it the best beer Hardknott do?  Tricky that, because I haven’t tried them all, and is it a fair comparison? I don’t think so – there’s too much of a time and place thing with different beer styles.  However, I enjoyed Rhetoric enough to order a couple more bottles.  Ideally one to leave for 18 months or so to see how it ages.  The other one I could have now, to compare how the brewery conditioned bottle compares to my own, or alternatively hang on until this Christmas when the flavours will suit the occasion just perfectly.

In the meantime, Dave, damn you for disappointing me in such a delicious way and I look forward to seeing what Rhetoric Edition II is like!

For the record, yes I received this beer for free, for which I am very grateful, and have tried to remain objective.  I’ve ordered (and paid for) two further bottles, because I felt it was worth it.

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May 16, 2012

Integrity, beer reviews and a bit of tongue in cheek

Oooh I thought.  Free beer.  I like the sound of that.  Well, who wouldn’t?  And all I have to do is write something?  I can write something, I’m sure I can.  Obviously it will have to be good, this is a sort of a competition, and there’s a prize to be won.  Can I write something good?  I can try.

Dave Bailey, of HardKnott fame, put an interesting post out yesterday inviting bloggers to respond with the chance of getting their hands on a rather special-sounding beer they’re just bottling.  This wasn’t obvious from the title, or even the opening paragraphs, but the post drew me in, as I sure it will have done lots of other readers, for a couple of reasons.  Firstly (get the flattery over with) I always enjoy reading Dave’s posts.  Secondly, the title was “Blogging Integrity” and it followed an excellent recent post (sorry, more flattery – hopefully that is the last) on integrity of awards ceremonies.  With the European Beer Bloggers Conference just two days away now, I was expecting stark views on the perils of sponsorship, advertising, and free stuff from breweries swaying the independence of the blogger.  After all, it is an obvious risk, and was nicely picked up by Boak and Bailey in this post here where the emphasis is on being upfront about freebies when writing, which I think is only fair to the reader who can make their own judgement on how much faith to put in the review as a result. 

But Dave’s post wasn’t really about that at all.  It was about HardKnott proposing to give away free beer so that the lucky bloggers to receive it can all tweet and blog about it together when the official “opening day” comes.  Sounds fun.  And all you have to do is write something that convinces Dave of your worthiness to receive a bottle.  Now, I don’t generally review beer in any sort of detail.  Not publicly anyway.  I’ve given appraisals of beers I’ve received from fellow amateur brewers and I’ve been lucky in that I haven’t had to make serious negative criticism of more than one of those.  I do tweet occasionally about a particularly fine beer I may be enjoying, and sometimes pass comment about ones I’m not so impressed by, but that is all.  As a result I’ve never been in a position where I’ve had to consider how I’d deal with the review of a free beer as opposed to one I’d paid for.  I’d like to think I would be able to set to one side any possible bias and give just as fair and honest a review as if I’d paid my own money for it.  But whether it is free or paid for, there is a bigger issue for me anyway – I don’t think it is necessarily fair to write a review of a beer based on a single sample. 

Sure, if it is good and you like it, then one sample is probably sufficient – how often will a rogue “good” beer get out?  But what about if you aren’t happy with it.  Have you had a representative sample?  Did you happen to have a bottle that picked up a defect or infection?  Was it an isolated case or has a whole batch been affected?  Is the beer as the brewer intended and you just don’t like something about it?  If your sample is from a cask the parameters are even greater – taste the same beer from the same cask a couple of days apart and you may well notice quite a difference.  And from the moment a cask leaves the brewery there is potential for the beer to end up not as the brewer intended, if it isn’t handled right at some stage.  So is one negative experience enough to condemn a particular beer or even the whole brewery?  I really don’t think so.

I can give a practical example – I had two bottles of the same bottle-conditioned beer this week.  Both were slightly past their printed best before date, but only by a couple of weeks.  They both appeared to be from the same batch, and certainly came in the same order from the same supplier.  The first one was a “drain pour”.  I could best describe it as a lambic best bitter.  Not a flavour combination I expected, and certainly not one I liked (I am quite happy to drink lambics from time to time, but this was far from right!).  Two days later I opened the second bottle, expecting little from it.  This one was fine.  I didn’t think all that much of the beer, but there was certainly nothing technically wrong with it.  So if I had reviewed it on the basis of the first bottle, would I have been showing the required integrity?  I really don’t think so – I think we owe the brewer the benefit of the doubt, and should always cross-check a bad beer with another sample, preferably from another batch / supplier if that is practical.  And that doesn’t matter whether you received it for free or not.

There’s some more interesting and related discussion from Boak and Bailey here.

Hang on a minute though, I said to myself.  This integrity thing, well, that’s all well and good, not being swayed into giving good reviews to bad beers just because you received them for free.  But what about writing a blog post that is driven by a desire to win a free beer.  Isn’t that just the same?  How on earth can I possibly write a post aimed at convincing someone to give me something for free, while giving my readers (for I know there are at least two or three of you out there, unless one person is making comments under several different names!) the reassurance that what I write isn’t being swayed by the potential prize.  Well, I can’t.  If I’m to have any integrity at all I can’t possibly sacrifice my independent thought in order to get free stuff, now can I?  So to maintain any sort of integrity surely I won’t be able to write anything in response to Dave’s invitation, and therefore can’t make my pitch to win a bottle.  Morally* that would be wrong, wouldn’t it?

Clearly, though, I’ll have to publish this post now in order to explain why I can’t possibly write it… 
* No morals were harmed during the making of this post.  In fact, very few were even found!  Should it somehow manage to attract free beer then obviously I will have to just live with the guilt.

February 29, 2012

The constant quest for variety…

Variety. It’s a double-edged sword. I guess like everything else it is best applied in moderation. When it comes to beer I have a preference for trying new things, seeking out beers and brewers that I haven’t tried before, or dabbling in styles that are new to me. On arrival at a beer festival I’m almost certainly going to be heading towards the names of breweries that I haven’t had the chance to sample in the past. Sometimes this can result in finding a little gem, other times I find something I’ll know to avoid next time – that’s part of the beauty of beer, there’s so much scope for variety, as long as you open yourself up to the risk that there are some that simply don’t appeal.

On the other hand, taking this approach sometimes means I’m torn between the new and unknown territory waiting to be explored, and the more comfortable, familiar, favourites that you know are worth a revisit. Especially when it is a known favourite that you only get to have once in a blue moon. Exploring new things was what brought me to taste Magic Rock High Wire, which instantly became one of my top beers of 2011. Even better that I was able to taste keg and cask versions on consecutive nights and discover both great similarities and subtle differences in the two. As a result of this discovery, what was a new beer to me is now one that tempts me away from experiencing other new beers on the occasions when I encounter it again.

My favourite venues are also those that provide a good variety, particularly where the range is sufficient for me to swap between pale and dark, strong and light, hoppy and mild. But more than that, ideally I want to move between cask, keg and bottled beers too. For a new pub to really capture my heart it needs to offer me the maximum variety. There’s been a lot of discussion in the blogosphere about how my nearest city of Birmingham needs to have a great new beer venue, and for me it will be one that offers me all of the above. The most recent new addition to the central Birmingham pub scene does well in the cask and foreign bottles stakes. The whispered-about rumours of a Brewdog bar would bring some great keg and bottled beers. Both will be priority detinations for me (assuming in the latter case it actually happens). But if swapping between cask and keg also means changing venue then I’ll reserve the right to remain just a tiny bit disappointed. I keep in my mind another firm favourite – the Euston Tap – which is not unique in its offering of a wide range of good cask, keg and bottled beer and very much look forward to the day when a similar “one stop shop” opens up a little closer to home.

However, the big question for me when constantly seeking variety is whether a one-off tasting of a particular beer can be a reaonable basis on which to make a proper judgement of it. Is it right to dismiss a brewer’s range because you tried it once and it wasn’t to your taste? What if it was badly-kept (confidence here depends how well you know your venue I guess) or at the end of a barrel? I’ve had the same beer in the same pub a few days apart, and it can make a huge difference. What if you’re basing your experience of a whole style on a single example which might even not be classified very well? If you never try anything of that style again on that basis you could miss out on something you actually would really like. And sometimes I find it takes time for some beers to grow on you, when it would be easy to dismiss on a first tasting.

I think the answer, for me, is that you can’t make a sweeping judgement based on a single sample, it is necessary to revisit, maybe at a different time, in a different context or a different place, and try again. But in the quest for variety, for new experience, sometimes that opportunity doesn’t always come again, or by the time it does, you’ve forgotten the details of the previous experience altogether. That’s what I find anyway. Maybe I should be keeping notes of what I’ve tried, so I can check back more readily. I certainly don’t want to give up on seeking out new beers, sticking just to what I already know. But perhaps there is also some merit in returning to old favourites more often as well.

What I do know above all else is that there is a stunning variety of beer out there, and I’m happy to keep experiencing as much of it as I can!