Thursday, 31 July 2008

Turning water into beer

Turning my back on wine for once, this week it’s all about beer – specifically beer brewed in Surrey. And by beer, I’m not talking about pale, fizzy lager either, but real ale, which is, in many respects, England’s national drink.

Making real ale is, at its most basic, a simple process, mystified in part by the arcane language of the brewer. With apologies to the more knowledgeable amongst you, here’s my Bluffer’s Guide to brewing. Malted barley is put into a tank, or mash tun, with hot water (known as liquor) and mixed. The water, or wort, imbued with the flavour and sugar from the barley, is drawn off then boiled up with hops, which give it a distinctive bitter flavour. Yeast is added (“pitched” in the lingo) to provoke fermentation, whereby the sugar in the liquid is converted to alcohol, resulting in the finished beer. The skill of the brewer is in selecting the type of malt used, say Maris Otter or Golden Promise, the level of toast for the malt, from lightly roasted crystal malt to dark brown chocolate malt. There are also various hop varieties to choose from: Fuggles and Goldings are popular choices. And of course they have to produce the same taste over and over again.

Within living memory, most English towns would have had a local brewery, producing beer to their own recipe, which was drunk in the local pubs. But times have changed, the majority of the local breweries have shut down, their operations taken over by a smaller number of large scale brewers like Marston’s and Greene King. Our tastes have changed too: we’ve moved onto lager, cider and – dare I say it – wine. We’ve also moved away from the habit of spending the evening down the local and downing a few pints, instead drinking at home, in restaurants and gastropubs. All this means that the market for real ale has been contracting in recent years.

But there is light at the end of the tunnel. While the overall market for beer and real ale is shrinking, within it a relatively new group of small-scale, artisan brewers has sprung up and they are doing rather well. There are five active breweries in Surrey (plus a couple of pubs who brew their own beer) who are carving out a niche for themselves primarily by supplying free houses: those pubs not tied to a brewery or pub company and who can choose to stock whichever beers they like.

The senior member of the small club of Surrey brewers is David Roberts of Pilgrim Ales, based in the centre of Reigate. Pilgrim have been going since 1982 and their beers are sold in a range of free houses through something called the Society of Independent Brewers’ (SIBA) Direct Delivery System. This scheme allows small-scale brewers to deal with pub chains and retail outlets by streamlining the ordering and delivery process for both brewers and the pubs and shops involved. David is slightly coy about revealing where his beers can be found – but look out for his Burden Pale Ale, a light-coloured, crisp beer with a slightly smoked flavour.

The newest arrival on the Surrey brewing scene is Ascot Ales, based in Camberley. Chris and Suzanne Gill started brewing just before Christmas 2007 but have already enjoyed success with their range of typically light, hoppy beers, influenced by their love of Belgian beers. For summer drinking Suzanne recommends Alligator Ale, an American pale ale which is light, refreshing and hoppy. You can find Ascot Ales in branches of Waitrose and Threshers – both organizations who are making efforts to provide outlets for local producers. They are also to be found in independent free houses including The Barley Mow in Shepperton, the Albert Arms in Esher and the White Hart in Tongham.

Scott Wayland started his Wayland’s Brewery in Addlestone not long before the Gills, first brewing last July. His “one man band” outfit is nevertheless successfully supplying beer to 22 local outlets, mostly within a 10-mile radius of the brewery. A full list of where to find Scott’s beers is on his website,but includes The Wheatsheaf and Pigeon in Staines and The Happy Man at Englefield Green. Scott’s summer drinking recommendation from his range is Blonde Belle, made from 100% lager malt which makes for a light and refreshing ale. The more adventurous could try Martian Mild, named in honour of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds. At 3.8% abv it’s light in alcohol, but full of flavour.

The aptly-named Surrey Hills Brewery is located on a farm outside the village of Shere. The owner, Ross Hunter, gave up a career in IT project management (I’m bored just writing that) for the excitement of brewing. His first brew was on Friday 13th May 2005 – but luckily for Ross, it was a success and Surrey Hills has gone on to win numerous awards for its range of beers. Currently they are brewing to capacity and produce 7,000 pints of ale a week, so this is definitely still a small-scale, hand-crafted operation. I can vouch for the drinkability of Ross’ beers, as they are the supplier of beer to my children’s school fair. For the summer, Ross recommends their speciality summer ale, Gilt Complex, which is a pale golden, thirst-quenching hoppy ale. Their regular Ranmore Ale is also a good option at 3.8% abv, described as a “session beer”.

The Hog’s Back Brewery is the biggest fish in the small pond of Surrey brewing. To put things in perspective, they produce around 48,000 pints a week compared with Surrey Hills’ 7,000. Founded in 1992, they are probably the most well known of our local breweries. As well as supplying a long list of pubs, including Wetherspoons’ Herbert Wells in Woking, they have also been successful in getting their beer on the shelves of Waitrose, Threshers and Budgens. Despite being a small and friendly operation, they show plenty of marketing savvy, with a well-stocked shop on-site, liveried delivery vehicles and regular tours of the brewery. Their recommended summer tipple is Hop Garden Gold: hoppy, as a the name suggests, an aromatic, citrussy ale.

If this has given you a taste for experimentation, then a beer festival could be for you and most of the Surrey breweries will be at one of these two this year. The daddy is CAMRA’s Great British Beer Festival, running from 5th – 9th August at Earl’s Court in London. Closer to home, the next big local event is the Woking Beer Festival, 7-8th November at Woking Leisure Centre.

You can find out more about each brewery, their beers and where to find them via their websites:

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Last of the summer wine

Last time I focussed on all things pink for summer drinking – this time it’s the turn of white and red wines suitable for our capricious summer weather.

If I were writing this in, say, Spain it would be so much simpler. There, summer is hot, no two ways about it, and any wine recommendations would be for whites that you can chill right down for maximum refreshment, without too many worries about the flavour. Reds would be of the kind that can also take some chilling, as who would want to drink something at room temperature in the heat? Here, however, it’s never that simple: we could enjoy one of our mini heatwaves, which ends in the inevitable thunderstorm, or suffer seemingly endless grey days – or just about anything in between. And let’s face it, in this country we just don’t do sultry warm evenings as a rule: there aren’t many nights where you want to sit outside in a t-shirt sipping something ice cold. So, versatility is the order of the day and probably having a good range of suitable wines for any weather is the only way to be ready for anything the British weather can throw at us.

That said, there are some wines that I would probably avoid at this time of year, most notably claret/red Bordeaux. The tannic structure and elegance of these wines just doesn’t fit with the season somehow. Wines from the Rhône, with their spice and warmth, as long as they have enough acidity to remain fresh, seem to make a better match.

Wines for a Party
‘Tis the season to slave over a hot, smoky barbecue in the hot sun (just who thought this was a good idea?). What wines to serve to the masses? Don’t buy anything that you aren’t happy to drink yourself is always sound advice.

Cuvée Pêcheur, Vin de Pays du Comté Tolosan 2007, £3.69 at Waitrose. A mixture of half fruity Colombard and half crisp, neutral Ugni Blanc.

Fiano di Sicilia, Settesoli 2007, £5.99, or £4.79 if you buy two bottles, at Majestic. Fiano is the grape variety of the moment, scoring a hit with its delicate peachy fruit combined with crisp acidity and this one is made by a respected producer from Sicily.

Domaine de l’Olivette Blanc 2007, £5.79 at Waitrose. Some people will choose this because it’s an organically-made wine at a reasonable price. I like it because of its savoury, fruity, spicy flavours: perfect for barbecues.

Cuvée Chasseur, Vin de Pays de l’Herault 2007, £3.29 at Waitrose. The red partner to the Cuvée Pêcheur above, this typical southern French blend of Carignan and Grenache offers decent party glugging.

Sainsbury’s Portuguese Red 2006, £3.19. I was pleasantly surprised by this wine’s generous, spicy fruit, which put it ahead of other, more expensive, wines.

Los Robles Fairtrade Carmenère, Chile, 2007, currently £5.19 at Waitrose, but from 16 July until 5 August it will be down to £4.39. Carmenère is Chile’s signature grape, with its hallmark slightly leafy edge to the smoky black cherry fruit.

Over £5
For white wines, what do you want when (if!) it’s hot? Something cold, crisp and refreshing. If you’re feeling adventurous, then try a bottle of Fino or Manzanilla sherry – these are the driest, most refreshing white wines around and the drink the Andalusians sip while they graze on tapas. Yes, sherry is fortified, but is still only 15% alcohol – many a New World wine hits the 14/14.5% mark. Remember, sherry isn’t just a drink for granny at Christmas. Keep a bottle in the fridge and treat it as you would any other white wine: finish it within days, don’t leave it languishing on the shelf for months.

Sainsbury’s Manzanilla Superior Pale Dry Sherry, £5.99. Textbook stuff: crisp, dry and satisfying. Made for Sainsbury’s by Emilio Lustau – they don’t make poor sherry, so look for this name. Try it with olives, tapas or soup (especially gazpacho).

Picpoul de Pinet, Cuvée Ressac Prestige 2007, £7.55 at Nicolas. A wine known to every French wine drinker, but with a low profile here. This is the ultimate seafood wine: fresh and mineral, but with some weight.

Tesco Finest Grüner Veltliner, Austria, 2007, £5.99. Tesco have put in a lot of work on their Finest wine range over the last couple of years, weeding out the poor quality wines. This is good value for Austria’s signature grape variety. The nose is slightly floral and peachy and the palate is just dry but rich and concentrated with hints of grapefruit.

Tesco Finest Gavi DOCG 2007, £6.13. This is a great wine for people who don’t want their wines to dominate, or taste of oak. Made from the Cortese grape in Piedmont, northeastern Italy, this wine is typically light and fresh, with pear fruit, but has enough body to stand up to food. Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Gavi 2007, £6.99 is in the same mould, or you could go for Majestic’s Gavi La Lancellotta 2007, £7.49, down to £5.99 if you buy two.

D’Arenberg Dry Dam Riesling, South Australia, £9.99 at Oddbins. This has great freshness as well as ripeness of fruit. Juicy, limey fruit with a hint of toastiness and just 11.5% alcohol. A delicious and versatile wine.

Red wines

Cusumano Nero d’Avola 2005, £5.49, Oddbins. I urge you to try this wine – even if you don’t normally drink red wines. This is perfect warm weather drinking with its ripe, lively, juicy cherry fruit. A total pleasure to drink. The “dinner party” version of this style of wine is Planeta’s Cerasuolo di Vittoria, 2006, £13.99 at Waitrose. The Planeta family are the big beasts of the Sicilian wine jungle and this wine is beautifully perfumed with soft fruit but no lack of flavour – wonderfully understated.

La Piuma Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2006, £5.49 from Waitrose is a nice example of this grape variety. Montepulciano makes wines with an agreeably fruity and smoky nose, that are soft, spicy and slightly rustic on the palate. Just the right balance for barbecues.

From the Rhône have a try of Sainsbury’s enjoyably rustic Taste the Difference Côtes du Rhône Villages 2006 at £5.99, which is a perfect chewy, spicy and fruity partner for sausages. Moving up a notch in quality is Tesco’s Finest Vacqueyras 2005 at £7.48. It has more of everything, including tannins, so this is one for food.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Think pink wines for summer

The weather may or may not be playing ball (writing this a week before you read it, you might be reading this in scorching heat or under gloomy skies, who knows), but Wimbledon has started, strawberries and cream are on the menu – it must be Summer. Time to crack open a bottle of…what? This week I’m concentrating on pink wines, which epitomise summer. Next time, I’ll be sniffing out some choice red and white wines to see you though the barbecue season.

Think pink
Rosé wines are on a seemingly unstoppable rise in this country. Five years ago you’d have been laughed at if you ordered a glass of rosé in the bar, now you can’t move for bottles of the pink stuff in the supermarket aisles. Even before they became fashionable, rosé wines were always a great summer drink. Here’s why: they offer more fruity flavour than white wines, without the tannin of red wines, but you serve them chilled, so they have instant refreshment. Rosés are also the best wines for standing up to salads or any dish with a dressing. The extra fruit (and sometimes a little lick of residual sugar) combine well with the vinegar or lemon of the dressing, but the fresh acidity cuts through the oil.

Here are some of my favourite rosés to see you through the summer that I’ve tasted recently. And beware: last summer, you might remember, was a bit of a washout. As a result, many wine merchants and restaurants/bars ordered more than they needed and have been left with a glut of rosés that they couldn’t shift. The trouble is that, with very few exceptions, rosés should be drunk as young as possible. As they age, they tend to lose their bright, vibrant fruit and can taste dull and flat. That means you should be looking for 2007 vintages of rosé to buy this summer - especially from the Southern hemisphere, where they’re harvesting six months ahead of Europe. If you see 2006 rosés, my advice would be to steer clear, unless they’re on such a good offer you don’t mind if they don’t come up to scratch.

Tierra Brisa Malbec Rosé 2007, Argentina, £4.29, down to £3.79 when you buy 2, at Majestic. Tried a rosé made from Malbec before? Well here’s your chance. Not the most sophisticated of wines, but has well-defined fruit and a little toastiness on the finish.
Eva’s Vineyard Rosé 2007, Hungary, £4.29, Waitrose. A blend of Pinot Noir and the local Kékfrankos grape, this has good freshness to its attractive fruit.
Champteloup Selection Rosé d’Anjou 2007, £4.99, Waitrose. If we’re rehabilitating rosé, then we may as well go the whole hog and relive the 80s with an off-dry Rosé d’Anjou. This is nicely balanced and the sweetness would probably match well with sweet Thai-style nibbles.
Tagus Creek Shiraz/Touriga Nacional Rosé 2007, Portugal, £5.19, Waitrose. This is very deep coloured and is really a red wine for people who don’t like red wine. Plenty of soft, spicy red fruits.
Casillero del Diablo Shiraz Rosé 2007, Chile, £5.99, Sainsbury’s. Consistently reliable performer that offers relatively weighty fruit with plenty of crunch to it.
Domaine Bégude Pinot Noir Rosé 2007, France, £7.49 or £6.99 if you buy 2, Majestic. Pinot Noir tends to make lighter, drier and more savoury styles of rosé and this is a very correct example. One for food.
Muga Rosado 2007, Rioja, £7.19, Waitrose. Pale salmon colour, this is delicate, lively and fresh. One to savour.
Clos d’Yvigne “Bel-Ami” Rosé 2007, France, £7.99, or £7.49 if you buy 2, at Majestic. Made by an Englishwoman in the unfashionable area of Bergerac, next door to Bordeaux. This is 100% Merlot, making for an attractive, easy-going but grown up wine.
Château d’Aquéria 2007, France, £9.99, down to £9.49 if you buy 2, Majestic. From the specialist rosé-producing area of Tavel in the southern Rhône Valley, this is densely flavoured with a long spicy finish. Serve it with gutsy food to taste it at its best.

Next time: white wines that make refreshing summer drinking and red wines that you can chill on a hot day, or that can warm the cockles as you huddle round the barbecue for warmth.