Last minute Christmas gifts for beer lovers

Not posting my Christmas Gift Guide until now is a bit of an epic fail… but a family bereavement meant many things had to be put on hold. But let’s not dwell.

Christmas is just around the corner and in an effort to ensure beer lovers are NOT saddled with shit, pseudo Christmas beers or faux festive ales here’s a few brief ideas for what to give them instead.

Xmas beer books 2

A beer writer, suggesting beer writing as an Xmas gift? Whatever next? Ok, so I’m biased but these aren’t my own books (maybe next year!). These are new books that I rate and think are worth giving as gifts. They are all available from evil Amazon so if you’re quick you’ll get ‘em in time for 25 Dec.

Thinking Drinkers by Ben McFarland & Tom Sandham (Jacqui Small; £20)

It would be all to easy to dismiss McFarland (despite being a former Beer Writer of the Year) and Sandham as comedic bluffers but this book, which goes well beyond beer, is an engaging, informative AND funny read. If – like me – you are a dedicated beer drinker who has found their drinking horizons broadened by their developing palate you’ll find this a worthy guide to hitherto unexplored drinks. It begins with beer and includes chapters on wine, whisky, gin and more. Nicely presented book with a gift feel, but much better than a ‘gift book’ – if you see what I mean.

Wisdom for Home Brewers by Ted Bruning & Nigel Sadler (Apple £12.99)

I wasn’t convinced by this book when I first opened it – as it really is a list of 500 tips for home brewers and it uses an annoying, curly handwriting font for each tip although the details of the tips are in a proper, readable font. HOWEVER, I changed my mind when I realised this book isn’t for me! This is book of short bites of information for the sort of would-be home brewer who isn’t a keen reader – in fact it’s probably the ideal home brew book for anyone with a short attention span or who lacks time and wants to read about home brewing in succinct chunks.

Britain’s Beer Revolution by Roger Protz and Adrian Tierney-Jones (CAMRA, £14.99)

Two stalwarts of British beer writing team up to tackle the topic of the beer revolution – ’nuff said. What you want to know more? As with many CAMRA books there is much within that serves as an introduction to beer, but Protz and ATJ also highlight and mull over many of the things which have changed the face of British brewing, beer and drinking – such as craft beer, beer blogging and influences from abroad – before taking the reader on a tour of Britain’s best breweries, the people behind them and great pubs to seek out their beer. Equally enjoyable for the armchair traveller as for those who literally want to get out and explore.

Drink London by Euan Ferguson (Frances Lincoln, £9.99)

As an almost-Londoner living in exile I loved this book as much for Kim Lightbody’s wonderfully evocative photos of the city’s boozers as for the text. Whether you know the capital like the back of your hand or have never been there this is a lovely little tour of London’s pubs and bars that is also small enough to tuck in a bag as a travel guide.

Drinking with Men by Rosie Schaap (Riverhead Books, £….)

I can’t tell you how much I loved this book, which was recommended to me by Pete Brown – and for which I will be eternally grateful because as well as being an excellent book it turned me back on to reading too. Reading Drinking with Men is like being alongside the author in each of the pubs and bars she’s called her local throughout her life. Buy this for anyone you know, beer lover or otherwise, who loves the pub and understands the special kind of knowledge one can gain from going there.

More gift ideas… beer and soap! 

Sheps Mash Tun 1Ban and consign crappy Christmas gift beers by buying a proper gift beer instead – like this boxed Mash Tun No 1 (7.4%) from Shepherd Neame – which was brewed to celebrate a hundred working years of … the no 1 mash tun at the brewery – which also happens to be one of the last remaining wooden mash tuns in Britain.

(For beer newbies a mash tun is effectively a huge pot for steeping malted barley to extract the sugars which are then fermented into beer).

Or if you have access to a good independent specialist beer retailer, or find an online one that can still dispatch in time for Xmas you could buy a 750ml – or wine bottle size – beer as a gift instead.

44_image_Cuvee-Noire_largeBrooklyn Brewery’s Cuvée Noire (10.6%) would make a fantastic gift. It’s a rich, bourbon soaked stout with a Belgian twist – and it is pure joy to drink. (You can find my review of Cuvée Noire in the new beer magazine Original Gravity.)

Or – again if there is still time for delivery (check with retailer) you could buy a whole bouquet of beer. A what? Well, remember my home made bin of beer from a previous seasonal blog post? Little did I know someone had taken up the idea of doing something along those lines professionally. Check out the Bro-quet website for more details. (You’ll also find them listed via Not on the High Street.) I met the woman behind the business at the Birmingham Beer Bash earlier this year and like most of us in the industry she is passionate about all things brewed and keen to share the love.

Finally, if you are looking for a little stocking filler for a beer lover then see if you can find some Proper Job SoapYou’ve heard of beer shampoo? Well this is soap enriched with St Austell Brewery Proper Job.

Proper Job Soap

I have taste tested this soap so you don’t have to. It DOES NOT taste of beer so I strongly advise against eating it or even licking it.

It is, however, a very good soap which lathers well and feels expensive. The only downside is that it comes in a very chunky bar which isn’t so easy to hold on to if you have small hands. If you have big, manly hands though it’s perfect!  It also contains some sort of grainy pieces which I think make it a great gift for beer-loving gardeners or those working outdoors who need a bit of extra oomph to clean up their hands when they come in. That said I used mine in the shower – and I’m extremely fussy about what I wash with – and it was lovely. You could say it did a Proper Job!

Once again apologies for posting this so late in the day but hopefully it might still help you out of a beery hole and save some of my beer-loving brothers and sisters from the horror of being given a nasty so-called Christmas beer.

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It’s not all Doom: a visit to Sharp’s Brewery

For most people the name Sharp’s Brewery is associated with Doom Bar beer – one of the UK’s best-selling pints of ale, the likely reason behind the brewery’s success and its sale to Molson Coors (in 2011) for £20m – but there is more to the story, and many more beers, than their most profitable brew.

What started life as a Cornish microbrewery – with a five-barrel kit in a rural part of the north of the county – now occupies a site four times the size of the small warehouse it began in and brews some 220,000 barrels per year (that’s more than 63 million pints).

Visiting the huge, industrial site requires a formal health and safety briefing, which visitors must sign to acknowledge they have received, and the wearing of personal protective equipment (aka PPE) in the shape of high vis’ waistcoat and steel toe-capped safety shoes.

Stuart Howe, a giant of the brewing industry dwarfed by fermentation vessels at Sharp's Brewery, Cornwall

Stuart Howe, a giant of the brewing industry dwarfed by fermentation vessels at Sharp’s Brewery, Cornwall

I’m a little disappointed that my visit coincides with construction work to expand the brewhouse (something that will enable brewing to increase from 35 to 49 brews per week – equating to some and extra 130,000 barrels per year) and I only get to peek through the door, but in all honesty unless a brewery has some special historic and/or architectural pedigree the wow factor mostly comes from the sheer size of the fermentation vessels, conditioning tanks and suchlike but also from discovering any systems and special equipment either unique to that brewery or unusual (often as a result of the cost of such equipment). In the case of Sharp’s I am intrigued to hear there is a special hospital grade air filter aimed at keeping air within the brewery as sterile as possible.

At the helm of things – for almost 15 of the 20 years that Sharp’s has been around for – is Stuart Howe. If you are from within the brewing industry, or are in the beery know, his name will be familiar to you as a celebrated career-brewer and an alumni of Herriot Watt’s brewing degree course. He and his beers have been the recipients of countless awards and whenever I hear him spoken of it’s only in the highest of terms (except in my own house where he is mostly known by my stepchildren as ‘that man who made beer with woodlice’.) After the Molson Coors buyout of Sharp’s he was promoted to Head of Craft Brewing and Innovation which could so easily be a meaningless job title but in fact means he not only runs the show in Cornwall but also oversees things at Molson Coor’s two other ‘craft’ breweries, Cork-based Franciscan Wells and Burton’s William Worthington’s Brewery (the latter home of the famed White Shield IPA).

Stuart made 'Land Shrimp Pale Ale' in collaborating with Honest Brew. It was a hoppy number with no discernible woodlouse flavour despite apparently containing around 1.5 woodlice per bottle.

Stuart Howe made Land Shrimp Pale Ale (4.5%) in collaboration with Honest Brew. It was a hoppy number with no discernible woodlouse flavour despite apparently containing around 1.5 woodlice per bottle.                       [Cartoon by Beer Husband]

A shame then that despite Stuart’s reputation, obvious skill, passion and integrity it seems as though he is kept Rapunzel-like by Molson Coors and many of his greatest – and most delicious – beers only see the light of day at quantities of a mere 74,000 x 330ml bottles. There are, at least, plans for a new five-barrel pilot brewery – which hopefully will allow more flexing of his creative brewing muscles – but in short if you get the chance to sample one of those limited edition beers, such as the Connoisseurs Choice Range, seize it with both lips.

Six Sharp’s beers that aren’t Doom Bar

As part of my visit to Sharp’s Brewery Stuart Howe treated me to an extensive beer tasting which included Doom Bar. He talked honestly about the way its recipe has been tweaked over the years – in part owing to availability of ingredients and also the fact that

Stuart Howe during our extensive beer tasting

Stuart Howe during our extensive beer tasting

Bill Sharp’s original recipe involved blending two other beers –   but says it contains more hops than some of their other ales but they’re simply ‘not as expressive’.                  For my palate it remains far too malty with the hops utterly speechless rather than not expressing themselves. Luckily I got to try a number of other offerings that I’d be more than happy to drink!


Coaster (3.6%) This orangey, amber-coloured pale ale has a moreish dry, fruity character and features Aurora, Chinook and Citra hops – making it a modern, craft beer if ever there was one.

Atlantic (4.2%) Brassy amber with a loose white head, there’s a slightly cannabis-like aroma to this beer (remember hops and cannabis plants are related!). Soft apricot flavour with a chewy, malty aftertaste.

Special (5%) A rich, strong bitter with chocolatey notes, a dry, fruitcake character and a hoppy finish (including help from Citra and Simcoe) balanced with a biscuitty aftertaste.

Doom Bar Reserve 20 (6%) Brewed for this year’s 20th Anniversary of Sharp’s Brewery this is a rich, fruity tangily dry ale in the mould of strong fruity numbers like Adnams Broadside. Dry-hopped with Target, it pairs brilliantly with aged Cheddar cheese.

Connoisseur’s Choice Single Brew Reserve 2013 (4.5%) Brewed with a hop called Premiant considered to be akin to ‘Saaz on steroids’ the resulting beer is superbly drinkable. An enticing apricot aroma follows through to the taste in a brew that is tinglingly fuzzy rather than zesty.

Connoisseur’s Choice 6 Vintage Blend (7.4%) A glowing copper-coloured brew perfect for the winter months this is rather too drinkable for its ABV! Banana, sherry and fruitcake come through in the aroma. The sweetness of the beer is restrained but dried fruit and brown sugar are the dominant flavours followed by a tangy finish.

Find more details and other Sharp’s beers at: 


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King of beer dinners: Beavertown Brewery

Last week I attended an utterly delicious beer and food matched dinner hosted by Beavertown Brewery, Dogfish Head and Charles Wells held at Duke’s Brew and Que, just off Kingsland Road in north London. Below are my thoughts on the challenges involved in holding events like this along with my review of the dinner itself.

Beavertown event signYou can’t be half hearted of half arsed if you’re holding a brewery dinner. The beers have to be tip top and the food pairings have to go beyond neutral matches where neither beer nor food interferes with the other’s flavour. That said beer and food matching is not an absolute, neither in the creation   of   matches   nor   the   way drinkers/diners experience them, and it’s doubtful whether everyone you feed and water will approve of all the matches. A 50 – 75% success rate means you’ve done well! But there’s nowhere to hide. You need to know the flavour of your beers inside out and those beers need to be consistent – if you can’t brew exactly, identically the same beer each time then a brewery dinner will show up that weakness almost more than anything else.

It is, therefore, no mean feat to pull off a brewery dinner where both beer and food dance and sing. I went to a Fordham & Dominion one held at Heston Blumenthal’s Hinds Head pub in Bray (I won’t forget the marvellous Devils on Horseback and Dominion Oak Barrel Stout pairing in a hurry and the way the smokey bacon boosted the chocolate flavour in the beer) – and organised expertly by the UK importers of the beers Heathwick Ltd. No surprise that I’ve accepted an invite to a Thanksgiving beer and food paired dinner they’ve invited me to this year then.

But that’s the Americans, they’re used to this sort of stuff. Brewery dinners are far from unusual in the USA but are the UK’s breweries really up to it? Enter Beavertown…. (I can’t believe I actually just wrote that). Not only did they pull off a stunner but this was a ticketed event (rather than a PR/press only thing) priced at £75 per head – and it was packed out.

Beavertown founder, Logan Plant, addresses his sold out event at Duke's Brew & Que

Beavertown founder, Logan Plant, addresses his sold out event at Duke’s Brew & Que

Arrival drinks consisted of a bottle of Dogfish Head’s famously hoppy 60 Minute IPA (6%), which seems to taste a little more British every time I drink it, but it’s soon blown out of the water as we sit down to eat a dish that is sheer genius in flavour, presentation and beer pairing. Crab Mac & Cheese matched with Beavertown’s Earl Phantom (3.6%) – a Berliner Weisse style sour including Earl Grey tea among its ingredients. The beer is pleasantly like drinking a lemon meringue pie in its combination of tart citric and lactic sourness through which bergamot flavours emerge. It stands its ground with the heavenly concoction of crab meat, cheese and pasta served in a crab shell and acts much like a squeeze of lemon juice across the top. Once the flavours combine the beer is positively lip puckering and the perfect, palate cleansing foil for this rich dish. If I’d had to go home after this course I’d have gone home more than happy!

Genius: Crab Mac & Cheese paired with Earl Phanton

Genius: Crab Mac & Cheese paired with Earl Phanton

We have a couple more Dogfish Head beers. DNA (4.5%), their collab with Charles Wells, now features more hops. I thought it drinkable in a traditional bitter kind of way in its previous incarnation but it does seem a bit more flavoursome now. I would have liked to try the Cote De Bouef Philly Slider topped with a Fried Quail’s Egg with the DNA (had I not drunk all of it before the food came out) as well as the official pairing with Dogfish Head Midas Touch (9%) which is apparently a hybrid mead-beer-wine based on a 2,700 year old recipe from Turkey. It’s a sweetish beer with clove and vanilla flavours that reminds me of Belgian pale – not my favourite style. The ‘Slider knocks back its sweetness and is, in any case, so good that I’m not thinking too much about the beer.

Flavour explosion: Beetroot-pickled Scotch egg paired with Blackberry Gose

Flavour explosion: Beetroot-pickled Scotch egg paired with Blackberry Gose

The next course puts me in a quandary as it involves a beetroot-pickled egg. I’ve long avoided maroon foods such as beetroot, red onions and red salad leaves because they produce an allergic reaction around my mouth which apparently makes me look like The Joker, but I can’t bear the thought of not trying Beetroot-Pickled Egg wrapped in Sausage Meat & Black Pudding, Crumbed and Fried, Served with Bacon Dust & Tarragon Hollandaise. Sounds a mouthful? Wait till you taste it!!! It’s paired with Beavertown’s Blackberry Gose (4.8%)a kind of salty, sour wheat beer which reminds me of rhubarb and custard sweets including the fizzy, sherbetty flavour. The beetroot-pickled Scotch egg brings on a massive, perfumed, meaty flavour explosion which made me scribble, “Fuck me, that’s an eyebrow raiser,” in my notebook probably because of the stunningly good effect of dipping a Scotch egg into herby hollandaise and sticking bacon dust to it before putting it in your mouth.

In lesser establishments this might have proved to be mere pretentious nonsense but not at Duke’s Brew and Que. This deliberate method of eating, which we’ve been instructed to undertake, is an act of flavour. If you can believe it, sipping the Blackberry Gose after eating this actually has a calming effect and the fruitiness of the beer is a delicious contrast to the rich, fatty meat surrounding the egg.

After this we’re given another Dogfish Head beer. A palate cleansing, zingy little Berliner Weisse-style brew called Festina Peche (4.5%). It did the job but was too cidery for my liking.

Then there was Beavertown Smog Rocket (5.4%)… in cask. Imagine the smoothest, most chocolatey beer you’ve ever had and then times it by 10. Sigh. It was paired with Pork Rib, Smoked Beef Rib & Brisket served with Mash, Lemon Chilli Broccoli and BBQ Jus – and the smokey, meaty barbecue – and chilli – flavours boosted the chocolate and smokey flavours in the beer. It was like a carnivore’s wet dream.

A carnivore's wet dream

A carnivore’s wet dream

Dessert? Who cares. There was a delicate little panna cotta and a chocolate terrine served with inventive, tasty interesting sauces and paired with Wells’ Courage Russian Imperial Stout (10%). If you have a sweet tooth I’m sure it was heaven but, for me, after the Crab Mac & Cheese, the Beetroot-Pickled Scotch Egg and more meat than you could shake a stick at – each perfectly paired with an amazing beer, dessert is the last thing on my mind.

Even the excitement of the release of Beavertown’s Bone King double IPA (8.5%) – a collab with Spanish brewer Naparbier – didn’t touch me after the dinner I’d had. I bid my farewells to my fellow diners and to my hosts and floated off to the train station high not only on the beer but aloft on a flying carpet of flavour sensations.

British brewing may be booming, but if we want to keep it that way we have to step up a gear with our beer and food matching efforts. If you want a delicious lesson in how to put on a brilliant beer dinner look no further than Beavertown Brewery and Duke’s Brew and Que.

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