The Sample Room: Metropolitan Brewing Co/Greene King

The sample room are posts mostly dedicated to straight reviews of beers. This one looks at some new beers from Greene King brewed exclusively for Tesco and labelled Metropolitan Brewing Co – something which caused a bit of controversy among beery Twitterites…

MBC Twitter debate 1

Because (in the UK) we still can’t agree on an official definition of ‘craft beer’, when a large(r) brewer uses the c-word it puts a lot of people’s backs up. For many, craft brewer means microbrewer and microbrewer means small, independent brewery.

Late in 2013 Greene King announced they’d spent £750,000 on a new 30-barrel craft brewery to be called the St Edmund Brewhouse. The company was aware of increasing sales of craft beer and understandably decided to see if they could get a piece of the action. The resulting beers were average. Nicely made, reasonably drinkable but not earth shattering (or in my case, dancing) beers.

As well as introducing these new beers into many of their pubs they selected a number of  British and US craft beers to stock too and they held a training day for pub managers and other staff to explain what a big seller craft beer could be – at which (disclaimer) I delivered a session called Surfing the Craft Beer Wave which was aimed at informing, enthusing and providing a vocabulary for managers and bartenders to talk about the flavours found in craft beers. The day was a good one and people were genuinely enthusiastic. It was encouraging to see this big brewery with a huge pub estate showing some love for beer.

Fast Forward to October 2014. The lovely Greene King PR people (meant genuinely) send me a box of their latest beers, “A new range of distinctive brews crafted to experience and savour,” they were apparently developed in partnership with Tesco and according to GK Brewmaster Craig Bennett are, “A fusion of new flavours and brewing styles designed to bring drinkers fresh experiences and tastes to discover.” I don’t often write negative things about beer – but these beers just don’t live up to that description.

MBC Tweet

The Twitter debate wasn’t about what the beers tasted like though – it was all about the packaging, the branding and whether it was deceptive for ‘the UK’s no 1 premium ale brewer’ to release beers that appear to be from a new, small brewery when actually they are from a multi-million pound brewer with a significant share of the UK beer market. I suppose it comes as no surprise to me that big business will use whatever tactics it sees fit in the pursuit of profit – we live in a capitalist society after all – but perhaps it’s less of a worry if the product isn’t that good?

So here’s what I thought of the beers…

Under Currant Pale Ale (5%)

The beer poured a pleasing brassy gold with a small white head. Its aroma reminded me of a mixture of blackcurrant jelly and orange squash. There was a teeny hint of hop leaf fragrance too. I was expecting a powerful but fruity bitterness but instead I got a mouthful of juicy malt with a brown sugar finish and aftertaste. The main flavour was one of biscuits. There were hints of hops but it was as if someone had turned the volume right down so you could hardly hear (taste) them. It tasted just like any not very hoppy golden ale. To my palate it was bland – but so are many of the UK’s biggest selling beers because let’s face it the British (Indian restaurants aside) aren’t always the best at coping with lots of flavour.

Big Bad Wolf IPA (6%)

Similar colour to the pale ale, perhaps a little lighter. Virtually no aroma. First sip had meGK MBC brand Big Bad wolf screwing up my face and thinking, ‘weird’ but then it started to remind me of palma violets. I asked Beer Husband – who hates pretty much all the hops listed as being in this beer – to sample it. He said it reminded him of a scene from one of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series of books in which Arthur Dent asks a spaceship computer to make him a cup of tea. It creates something with all the right ingredients but it tastes nothing like tea. I sipped again and taste lots of cerealy, brown sugar with a feint hint of perfumed flowers – although this was swiftly overwhelmed by malt. It developed a little more flavour as the temperature increased but essentially it was dull and in no way resembled a big, hoppy IPA or the description on the front label, “Huge hoppy character, brewed with 7 hop varieties and dry hopped for extra intensity.” Really?

Optical Infusion (5.5%)

I like the name of this one. A play on the addition of whisky – as served in the pub from an optic measure. This one is golden again with the same small white head. The aroma is of whiskey with woody notes, hints of vanilla and perhaps a little bit of baked apple with sultana. It has a soft woody whisky flavour – much like its aroma – but the whiskey is more bourbon that Scotch. It’s quite sweet but not cerealy like the two beers described above. I’m not sure how much of this you’d want to drink though. I manage about a quarter of a 330ml bottle before I feel like I’ve had enough. It needs to be boozier and more full bodied to carry off the addition of whiskey. I can’t help thinking adding whisky to beer is the cheat’s way of getting something akin to barrel-aged beer. It’s a quicker process and you can taste that in the resulting beer.

Brew T Amber Ale (4.5%)

MBC Brew TFor me this was the best of the four. It’s also the one that made me feel the IBUs (International Bitterness Units – a scale used for measuring levels of bitterness hops contribute to beer) listed on the neck labels of the bottles bears little resemblance to the contents – as this beer has the lowest IBU but had a good level of bitterness that I enjoyed – whereas the others claimed to have a higher IBU but tasted much sweeter to me. I am now considering having my tongue analysed in case it has some bizarre IBU-neutralising properties I am unaware of. But I digress…

This beer poured golden amber but didn’t keep its head too well. At first it smelled of sweet, white wine with a hint of light dried fruits but this soon disappeared to be replaced by an aroma of caramel with hints of something floral. It has a decent, bitter hoppy tang with an earthy-mineral quality. There’s a hint of floral flavour – as if a flower fairy has waved at you from afar but disappeared as soon as you tried to get a closer look – but mostly this tastes like a fairly traditional bitter which to me is no bad thing.

The biggest falsehood surrounding these beers is not the pretence that they come from a new microbrewery but that they are something new delivering a big flavour experience. These are average beers packaged to resemble the sort of beer which as come to embody the ‘craft beer revolution’, or the new age of beer, or modern 21st century beer – whatever you wish to call it. Beer lovers and new beer fans know there is something new and different going on in beer – and this is a traditional brewer’s attempt to jump on that bandwagon.

I don’t always think of beer as a craft (although literally it often is) I think of brewing as art. Some brewers can take those four basic ingredients and combine them in such a way as to produce not just a delicious drink but something inspirational, magical and memorable – like seeing an amazing painting that lives on in your mind. Not all brewers can do this.

No matter how hard some brewers try they will end up with, at best, something resembling beer that is drinkable and does the job but is instantly forgettable; at worst something that tastes (looks) like a kid’s drawing from play group. If you’re the parent you will love it and treasure it but to anyone else it looks like a random scribble in ugly, overlapping colours that have descended into a brown mess.

Great beer has something behind it that goes beyond thinking up a recipe that will sell. You can dream up all the branding and do all the PR in the world but unless the brewer has that certain something – or is allowed to fully practice his or her art – you may sell plenty of ‘units’ but no one will remember what they tasted like.

Greene King’s Metropolitan Brewing Co beers will be available exclusively at Tesco from 27th October. I’m interested to hear what you make of them!

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A restaurant with good beer! (Deeson’s, Canterbury)

As some readers will know I am responsible for the PR for Kent Green Hop Beer Fortnight which takes me Canterbury on a regular basis. Every time I’m there I hope I’ll manage to get a table at a restaurant called Deeson’s – but it is so popular that advance booking really is essential… By some miracle though I recently, finally managed to get in as a solo diner. Below is my restaurant review.

It’s the last day of the Kent Green Hop Beer Fortnight launch weekend. I’m knackered. I need a rich, meaty meal and a restorative beer. Canterbury has lots of good places to eat but they fill up quickly so unplanned dining isn’t always a success here.

Deesons frm their websiteI wander up Guildhall Street from the High Street. In and around what I think of as the Sun Street triangle (take a look at it on a map) there’s a choice of restaurants and eateries, including the wonderful Salt tapas restaurant on Palace Street – where I went with friends recently – Belgian restaurant La Trappiste and Deeson’s. I look longingly at the Deeson’s menu and ask a waitress if they have any tables. “Is it just for you?” she asks. I smile and nod. “Then we might have. Take a seat for a moment and I’ll find out.” She returns smiling. Finally I am in.

Although Deeson’s has a reputation for fish and seafood it is meat I need. Beef? No. Pork? No. Lamb? It’s my childhood favourite. Yes.

Regular readers will know I believe the British restaurant industry needs to make much more of beer and about my work to bring a beer section (called Brewhouse – which is happening again in 2015) to the London Wine Fair where some of the best beers around are put in front of people responsible for sourcing and buying them. Deeson’s is a rare example of a restaurant with a small but varied beer menu featuring local breweries. There’s none of the usual, lazy reliance on lagers here – although local lager is available. The selection includes a strong ale, an IPA, two pale ales and a stout. A range not to be sniffed at. Maybe they found it easy to stock local brews in a beer-steeped, hop-growing stronghold like Kent, but as most counties in the UK now have several local breweries there’s little excuse for restaurants not to at least investigate whether they might stock some (although I accept they’ll most likely be looking for bottles and not all breweries are able to bottle or bottle well).

It gets better. The waitress had clearly tasted the beers. I am delighted – but it’s tempered by a wish that she also had knowledge of how to put beer and food together. I’ve mentioned I’ll be having the lamb and asked after a strong ale to see if it will go nicely with it. She says it is rather bitter, so I don’t think it will work with the sweetness of lamb, but she suggests Gadds’ No. 3 pale ale instead – which is also pretty bitter. I decline and order the Oyster Stout (also Gadds’) instead.

I love the fact that Deeson’s is a proudly British restaurant, serving top notch British food in unpretentious surroundings. Old fashioned chairs and scrubbed wooden tables combine  with walls painted subtle shades of blues and greys with occasional flourishes like the jet black wallpaper adorned with colourful butterflies next to my table.

The service is attentive and efficient without being intrusive – although I wish my waitress were a little warmer. She is absolutely polite, I’d just like her to be a little more friendly to this solo diner. Gadds' black pearl oyster stout

I have to wait a little while for my food, but a young man comes to apologise telling me that chef wasn’t happy with my lamb. What’s worth having is of course worth waiting for. The roast lamb (a slow cooked shoulder served with new potatoes, baby carrots, mixed greens and mint sauce) is exquisite and melt in the mouth with only a little fat on it. It’s a proper, good-sized portion of meat too with exactly the right amount of potatoes and a decent amount of veg. Mixed greens turns out to include kale and sprouting broccoli, there’s the carrots too and and a surprise joy in the shape of tiny onions cooked whole. It ticks all the boxes – and there are many when it comes to lamb as my mum used to cook it for me in many different ways.

It is at this point it dawns on me that it’s not just the decor that is unpretentious. The prices – mains from £14 – are insanely good value for the quality of the food and the portion sizes.

I was right about the beer and food pairing. This rich dish called for dark beer – no hop bombs required. The slightly sweet, earthy flavour of Gadds’s Black Pearl Oyster Stout (6.2%) complemented the lamb and the meat returned the favour. The beer isn’t entirely without bitterness, but it’s restrained and not too harsh thanks to the use of British hops. There’s also vinous and figgy flavours and tiny hints of tangy liquorice. All this, with exactly the right amount of natural carbonation from the bottle conditioning, combined to refresh my palate between mouthfuls of meaty delight prepared in the Deeson’s kitchen.

Beer – being the sociable drink it is – is mostly improved by good company but occasionally I find myself alone and I’m not going to forego beer as well as companions. It is an exceptional restaurant or pub that is able to provide a memorable evening for someone visiting alone – but Deeson’s is exceptional. I can completely see why it is so difficult to get a table here, glad I persevered and even gladder that I finally got in.

Deeson’s British Restaurant is at 25-27 Sun St, Canterbury, Kent.

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Cans v Bottles at the Eden Project

The Eden Project loves beer. They asked me back to run tastings at their Harvest Festival for the 3rd year in a row and this year they wanted something a bit different. “How so?” I asked… “Well, we’d like to do something with cans,” they told me and so the Eden Project bottles v cans ‘face off’ was born.

I chose three beers available in both can and bottle, to be tasted blind, and then I’d ask the audience to vote on which they preferred. The Eden Project’s wonderful staff played along and rustled up a large wooden box to conceal the beers from the audience while they poured them.

The beers we tasted were:

  • Adnams Ghost Ship (4.5%) pale ale hopped with Citra and other US varieties.
  • BrewDog Punk IPA (5.6%) IPA stuffed full of hops including Chinook, Cascade, Simcoe and Nelson Sauvin.
  • Beavertown Smog Rocket (5.4%) smoked porter hopped with Magnum and Chinook.

Before we got down to business we talked cans. Food in cans? Nothing new. Britain had its first food canning factory in 1813. Putting beer in cans is a bit more recent. Beer cans were invented in the US in the 1930s but didn’t make it to the UK until 1935. By 1937 there were apparently 23 breweries putting beer in cans although it would be a while before ring pulls were developed (1960s/70s) making cans as popular and widespread as they are today.

Despite their prevalence – a report by canning manufacturer Can Makers says 9 billion cans were filled in the UK in 2009 and cans had a 70% share of the packaged beer market –  not everyone rates cans. The chief complaint is canned beer having a metallic taste, but although brewers and can manufacturers were circumspect about revealing exactly what the lining of their cans is made of the fact remains today’s beer cans are lined so that metallic taste could well be all in the mind.

The other thing drinkers don’t like about cans is how they look. I’m sort of in this camp to be honest. Bottles are more aesthetically pleasing. Something about cans still says, ‘cheap’ to me.

But my tasting at the Eden Project was just that – all about taste rather than visual appeal of the vessel. A word on the proceedings: Although I had told my ‘pourers’ what order to pour in (meaning whether to pour can or bottle first) I had forgotten which way round they were by the time I was on stage – although I’m not claiming I was tasting 100% blind. It was concealed from the audience though.

Adnams Ghost Ship bottle

 

We started with Adnams Ghost Ship. I chose this because I’d had it in can and thought it tasted good but also because it won the recent (and inaugural) Indie Beer Can competition. Sample one poured nicely and had a good head. It had an aroma of melon and passion fruit and packed a fruitily bitter hoppy punch. Sample two looked almost identical but lacked the fruity aroma and instead had a vaguely mineral fragrance to it. Its flavour was similarly subdued. The audience preferred sample one – which turned out to be: bottle. Score at the end of round one: Bottles 1 Cans 0.

 

Next up was BrewDog Punk IPA. Known and loved by many – whether you are friend or Punk IPA canfoe to BrewDog you may recall that Punk’ has had its moments of tasting less than great. Given the new state of the art brewery – which includes investment in the sort of high tech Quality Control Lab most brewers can only dream of – BD’s beers should be in tip top condition. Sample one, however, poured cloudily and was virtually opaque. It smelled bitter but not especially fruity and it tasted a lot like it smelled. Sample two poured crystal clear, smelled hoppy and enticing and tasted much better. The audience preferred sample two – which turned out to be: bottle. Score at the end of round two: Bottles 2 Cans 0.

Smog Rocket bottleOur final beer of the day was Beavertown‘s Smog Rocket. I chose it as Beavertown have a great reputation for promoting canned beer and also exhibit some colourful artwork on their cans. I selected Smog Rocket in particular because I think it’s jolly tasty and I wanted to include a dark beer. Sample one looked lovely and poured with a buff coloured head contrasting beautifully with the dark body of the beer. It had an aroma of roast coffee with a tiny hint of smoky bacon. Its gentle carbonation gave it real drinkability. It had lots of big coffee flavours with a nicely balanced bitterness and then chocolatey flavours poked through in the second and third sips. Sample two looked just as good but its carbonation was pretty aggressive and although it had the same pleasing flavours as sample one they were subdued by too much fizz. The audience preferred sample one which turned out to be: can. Final score – at the end of round three – Bottles 2 Cans 1.

I’m not claiming my little can v bottle tasting was scientifically carried out – but we tried hard to make it blind and as objective as possible. I was surprised at the result. I felt sure cans would run away with it – although some on Twitter cheered bottles’ victory. I’ll keep an open mind but I wonder whether there is work to be done on how cans are filled – rather than the vessel itself.

What are your experiences of pitching cans against bottles? 

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