There are times when, as a beer blogger, you feel like you may well be the luckiest person on Earth.
ICIP had one of these moments the other day when an email pinged into our inbox from Nicholson’s Pubs. Their Spring Ale Festival was coming up and they were going to be debuting some special brews in a four-course beer and food matching dinner, hosted by Ben McFarland, Beer Writer of the Year. Would we like to attend, they wondered?
Oh, go on then.
“I’ve been writing about beer for 10 years and this is definitely the most exciting time to be a beer writer or a beer drinker,” says Ben after welcoming us to The Globe in Moorgate. Looking at the line-up for the evening, we feel inclined to agree with him.
“What we have here is an aperitif beer,” says Ben. “Normally with beer and food matching, you start with a light beer and a light dish and move up in intensity. But we thought ‘sod it’, and we’re going to go in there with the big guns.”
We are pleasantly surprised to see a dubbel on the menu: it isn’t a style you tend to see often, even in the craftiest of craft beer pubs in the capital. “Belgian beer seems to have been lost in the craft beer renaissance,” Ben agrees. “People don’t appreciate that the Belgians were the original punk brewers; people have been making wacky beers in Belgium for a long time. They have more indigenous beer styles than any other country in the world.”
The Solution is a fantastic beer to start the evening with – full-bodied and complex, its range of aromas and flavours gets every sense firing. “It’s got Czech Saaz hops as well as classic British Syrian Goldings, which makes it very earthy,” says Ben, “and it’s been brewed with a traditional Trappist Ale yeast, the fruitiest you can get. So it’s estery, hints of cloves in there, banana notes as well.”
The beer has a sweet chocolately nose, with flavours of rich raisin and a hint of coffee. Initially sweet, it gives way to a lingering, hoppy tang that mingles with the salty olives and feta deliciously. We consider our appetites well and truly whetted for the next course.
Three C’Son (5% ABV), served with our second course of chicken liver pâté, is a complete contrast to the dubbel. Brewed in collaboration with Adrian Tierney-Jones, this saison is named after the three American hops – Centennial, Columbus and Citra – that give the beer its zingy and refreshing bite.
In comparison to the dearth of dubbels about, Ben notes the recent popularity of this style. “In craft beer at the moment, everyone seems to be making a saison,” he says, “and they all taste completely different. I think it’s becoming an umbrella term for a lot of different styles. If it’s refreshing and it’s hoppy, and you don’t want to call it a pale ale, you call it a saison.”
Filling in some background, Ben explains that variation is a real feature of saison beers. “Saisons were brewed by farmers in Wallonia for their saisonniers who worked in the fields. There was no refrigeration which made brewing in the summer difficult, so it was brewed in the winter and kept until the summer, while the grain used in brewing could then feed the animals, so it was a massive cyclical thing.” Crops changed each year, and the availability of other ingredients varied, so it was rare for two brews to ever be alike. The only key characteristics of the style, Ben says, are that the beer should be refreshing, have some residual sugars to keep the workers’ energy up, and should be fairly low-alcohol: “people were using sharp instruments like scythes – not good when you’re shit faced”.
The beer is brewed with pilsner and wheat malts which gives body but also leaves the beer with a pleasant haziness. We didn’t get much from it in way of aroma, but it is incredibly light and fresh on the palate, with an almost astringent quality from the citrussy American hops which eases off into a pleasantly sour finish akin to a wheat beer. This cuts through the palate-coating pâté beautifully; a perfect match.
The tantalising scent of black pig and apple burgers alerts us that it is time for round three, and we are served up our next beer – the 5% Rye-Catcher. This beer was brewed in collaboration with Glenn Payne, who had come along to the event to explain his inspiration. “One of the nicest beers I ever tasted was a rye beer from an Austrian brewery and you don’t often see them in Britain. It was a beer style that was underrepresented here and I saw this as a marvellous opportunity to get it out there.”
But there is a reason that brewers tend to give rye a bit of a wide berth, explains Brains’ Head Brewer, Bill Dobson: “The reason brewers use barley malt is because barley has a husk. Whenever we brew with a grain that doesn’t have a husk it creates problems – we need that insoluble material as part of the mash filtration process,” he says, apologising for getting technical. “Other cereals like wheat, which you had in the saison earlier, we can use up to a certain amount, but then things start to get sticky and gloopy. Instead of making a nice mash you get something like wallpaper paste. You have to be very careful.”
To avoid this problem, Brains used two different types of rye, – a traditional rye malt and a rye crystal, giving the beer a vibrant red colour and spicy, malty base. “Many of you will have tried rye bread and this has that almost indescribable characteristic flavour… almost a nutty taste with a hint of caramel,” says Bill.
Beer and burger matching is very much in fashion right now, but it tends to be hoppy American IPAs which get trotted out time and time again. Rye-Catcher offered something a bit different while still providing the citrussy American hop hit to cut through the fattiness of the meat (Apollo, Columbus, Amarillo and Citra).
Draining our glasses and packing away our last few chips, we think we’re probably done for the evening. But suddenly we are confronted by the biggest slabs of sticky toffee pudding you have ever seen, and bottles of the strongest beer of the night, the 6.5% Boilermaker.
This beer was brewed in collaboration with Ben McFarland and his colleague from Thinking Drinkers, Tom Sandham. “Tom is a spirits expert and I’m the beer guy, and we thought we could probably do something to combine the two,” says Ben. “The Boilermaker is a beer and spirit cocktail which comes from the steelworkers in Pittsburg. It’s a very sophisticated drink: it involves pouring whisky into a shot glass, putting it upside down in a beer glass and as you drink the whisky blends into the beer. That’s what gave us the idea.”
Wanting to keep things local, Ben and Tom approached the welsh whisky distillery Penderyn, and not only barrel-aged their beer in old whisky casks but also threw in some oak chips infused with whisky while it was maturing. “Little did we know that Brains were giving Penderyn the wash from their beer to make the whisky, so there was already an established link between the two, and it all came together really well,” says Ben.
“It doesn’t bear much resemblance to what you’d call a classic IPA; there’s a sweetness there that we don’t necessarily associate with that style, but then as we’ve seen with craft beer today styles blur and blend into each other.” This lends itself perfectly to the gargantuan pudding we are currently shoveling down. “It goes well with the sticky toffee pudding because it has the caramelised notes to it. It’s not massively carbonated… this is calmer, more ‘cask’ and has more of a port-like quality which goes well with the dessert.”
The beer is rich and smoky, taking the edge off the face-puckering bitterness of the hops you usually get with a strong IPA. You also get a gentle hint of cool burn from the whisky barrel-aging.
Not content with sending us to toffee-beer oblivion, Nicholson’s also doles out a shot of whisky with each serving. “We couldn’t get any Penderyn, so we’ve gone with Laphroaig – peaty, smoky, really pungent,” says Ben. “The link between beer and whisky is such a close one – people don’t associate it enough.”
The four special Brains beers are part of a line up of no less than 50 cask ales and ciders that will be available during the Nicholson’s Spring Ale Festival, which is running between 24th March and 19th April. Exhausted by the trauma of eating a sticky toffee pudding the size of a small child and sloshing with beer, ICIP leaves The Globe excited about the prospect of getting stuck into their fantastic line up very soon.
ICIP will be visiting the Ale Festival over the next couple of weeks to bring you a review of some of the beers available so look out for our write up soon. In the meantime, check out the festival programme on the Nicholson’s website. There’s a really exciting line up with plenty of lighter blondes and golden ales for the Spring.