Friday, 26 February 2016

'Day Off' Days Out - Fullers Brewery Tour

The quest for days off when you work in retail is an arduous one. You bust a gut for days at a time, giving blood, sweat and tears to reach the sanctity of 48 hours worth of free time, away from the madness. Once the goal is reached, they seem to disappear quicker than Lewis Hamilton on a race grid and you are back to the grind. So, its worth making the most of those beautiful days, by cramming in whatever fun stuff you can do in the little time you have.

With me being 'in the Biz', I sometimes stumble upon some fine opportunities to get out and about, and partake in a bit of product knowledge/getting merry. So when I got the opportunity (in the company of a few work colleagues) to take a trip down to the 'Big Smoke' and be entertained by the good folk of Fuller's Brewery, I was booking my tickets without haste.

A quick potted history of the brewery saw it take on many different guises from its first incarnation in the late 1600s when two separate small brewhouses in Chiswick, West London were bought by Thomas Mawson, and he started to put the foundations in place for commercial brewing. The brewery passed through a few different hands until the 1830s, when John Fuller invested in the brewery to save it from financial ruin, and, after his death, his son John Bird Fuller brought in John Smith (already and experienced brewer) and John Turner to complete the 'Fuller, Smith and Turner PLC' you see under the Fuller's name today.

The first beers that they concentrated on were HK (Hopped and Keepable) and eventually a Porter. This kept the coffers on an even keel, but it was the start of the 20th Century that started to put Fuller's in the brewing limelight. In the 1930's, they brought Chiswick Bitter to the market. By the 1950s the famous and iconic beer London Pride (named after a rockery plant that was growing at the brewery throughout the Second World War) was bought out, followed by ESB in the 1970's. 

Now, they have a vast selection of beers flowing out of their taps and bottles, but all of them anchored in the rich history of the brewery and the beers they have staked their reputations on. Our guide for the day, Lisa, took us all around the mash tuns, where the basic ingredients of the beer are mixed with hot water to create the sugary wort. Contrary to popular myth, just because the brewery is situated on the banks of the River Thames, no water from it is used in the production of their beers (if any of you have seen what floats about within its murky surface, you'd thank your lucky stars they took that decision). We then were told that the brewery have to add a fair old whack of Gypsum to the water that they use, so as to harden the water (the water in the home of British Brewing, Burton-upon-Trent, is perfect stuff for top-notch beer) and increase the bitterness somewhat. 

Moving through the brewery at a pace, it was really interesting to see the attention to detail that Fuller's put into creating their product. Take their beer Organic Honey Dew. Now, its pretty evident what one of the main ingredients are for the beer. Honey gives it that slight sweetness to go with the light citrus bite and refreshing finish. However, what you may not know is that they don't just go down the local Costco and clear the shelves of the cheapest sticky stuff they could get their hands on. The honey used is actually sourced from Brazil, as it gives a better flavour to the beer. To see such a large brewer going to extraordinary lengths to make sure their product stands out from the vast plethora of breweries on the market was really refreshing to see. In addition to this, Fuller's are a very 'green' brewery, making use of the yeasts in the fermentation process as much as they can. They then sell some to Japanese Whisky producers (making whisky is very similar in terms of production to beer) to be used there, and also then some to farmers to use as cattle feed. So drinking is definitely good for the environment, in my opinion...

As we neared the end of our trip, along came the jewel at the end of the beer-y Nile, when we indulged in a spot of tasting. We tried the very consistent and always enjoyable London Pride and ESB, but my standout brews were as follows:

The Golden Ale 'Oliver's Island' at 3.8% is the holy grail of Beer & Food matching. A beer that can match a good lightly spiced curry, or haddock and chips, but is equally enjoyable on its own. Packed full of orange zest and wheaty flavours, so refreshing for a session beer.

Fuller's step into the craft beer market has come in the form of Frontier 'Small Batch' Craft Lager, at 4.5%. Unashamedly (and admitted to) trying to lure Peroni and Kronenberg drinkers away from their usual pint and I for one would forego any tasteless lager for this. It took a few mouthfuls to get into it, but once you understood what they were looking to do, I really started to enjoy the light body and very light fruit flavours. Its a fantastic gateway into the fascinating world of Craft beers and an easy step over for the more commercial lager drinkers.

And the Diamond in a world of Cubic Zirconium is the Fuller's Vintage Ale 2015, at a whopping 8.5%. This is a style that Fuller's have created which is a testament to the longevity of bottle conditioned beer. The advice is you should leave this to age for a minimum of 6-7 years before even thinking of opening it. We obviously broke all the rules and had to have a snifter. Big, malty flavours which smack your chops about a bit and, admittedly, is a bit hefty to start with. However, perseverance is the key and you do start to sense that even with the brooding nature of this massive beer, there are some lovely soft fruity flavours coming through, balanced out with an undercurrent of bitterness. This will only get better, trust me.

All in all, after a week of hard graft, this was a wonderful way to spend a day of leisure and has shown that things only get better with age, be it 19th Century family brewers or bloggers for Vinspire...

If you fancy having a look round this great brewery yourself, then click here. They run from Monday-Friday at hourly time slots from 11am-3pm.

Monday, 22 February 2016

"Open That Bottle Night" #OTBN - 2016

Photo taken under CCL from citywinetours
This coming Saturday (27th) is the last Saturday in February, which may seem a slightly inauspicious date; but to me, and many other wine lovers around the world, it means something quite exciting - "Open That Bottle Night" (or #OTBN to give it a 21st century spin...). 

What is "Open That Bottle Night"?

Many of you I'm sure will be wondering what all of this is about, so I'll explain. 

A fair few years ago two journalists who worked for the Wall Street Journal, Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher, were reflecting on an issue that they and others that they had spoken to had when it came to wine. They found that many people possess "special" bottles of wine: they could be from an auspicious year, perhaps one from a year that has some significance, or from a favourite producer or region. The bottle(s) sit proudly on the wine rack and await their moment of glory. The trouble is that the wine lover wants to celebrate a truly special occasion with this wine and nothing quite seems to hit the mark. The wine waits and waits, as the time passes the requirement for just how special the event is to merit opening the wine becomes greater and greater, and consequently the chances of the wine being opened get lesser and lesser. By the time the wine is eventually opened, it is invariably too late and the wine has spoiled, or else the poor wine lover finds that the wine was corked anyway... 

Photo taken from Molly & Fred under CCL
All in all, a pretty sorry state of affairs.

Gaiter and Brecher felt that rather than looking for a special occasion to open the special bottle of wine, the opening of the special bottle of wine should be an occasion in its own right. After all, what could be better for any wine lover then gathering around friends and family and enjoying that wine that we love so much? To aid this they decided that every year the last Saturday of February should be set aside as the date that wine lovers all around the world come together and open that bottle (or bottles) that they've been saving and spend an evening enjoying them. What a truly wonderful idea.

What to do then?

Last year I celebrated #OTBN with my wife and we had a lovely bottle of 2012 Egon Müller Scharzhofberger Riesling Kabinett (Mosel, Germany), which you can read about in my post on it here. I am very pleased that this year, and in a completely unplanned manner, my brother and his wife are coming to stay with us for the weekend of #OTBN and they are both wine lovers so I am sure that we are going to have a brilliant evening. I have planned some rather fantastic wines, which I will reveal in a post after the event (I don't want to ruin any surprises for the evening!).

Get involved!

If you are planning on celebrating #OTBN please tag us in on social media (@vinspireuk on Twitter, or here on Facebook) and use the hashtag so that we can see what you're all uncorking for this special night!    

Friday, 12 February 2016

On trying out blind wine tasting

Last weekend I was invited around to the house of a good friend of mine who's getting married this year, he wanted my help with an important piece of "wedmin" (for those not in the know, a rather 21st century portmanteau of "wedding" and "admin"). He and his lovely fiancée wanted to get some ideas about wines to serve at their wedding, so they set a challenge, everyone was to come armed with a bottle of wine or two with some strict conditions - they wanted a French white and an Italian red within a proscribed budget of £5 - £8 a bottle. We would then become the tasting panel to test these wines against. What an awesome idea.

Blind Wine Tasting

What I didn't know until we arrived was that the bridge and groom had devised a "blind tasting" system for the wines. For those that are not aware of what blind wine tasting means, this is where the label of a bottle of wine is hidden from you so that you are not aware of what wine you are drinking when you taste it. This is supposed to remove any prejudices that you may have that influences subconsciously (or consciously) your impressions of a wine. The infamous "Judgement of Paris" tasting in 1976 is the most famous example of a blind wine tasting, where French wine critics and producers were asked to judge their legendary Bordeaux and Burgundies against Californian wines and were left aghast as the accolades for the best wines were awarded to the Californian wines across the board. I had not done much blind wine tasting before, I have done the WSET Level 2 qualification in Wine and Spirits, but they don't start making you blind taste until Level 3. I will admit that I was equal parts nervous and excited about the prospect!

So, as the guests arrived at my friend's house, their wines were taken off them and covered in foil. We agreed that we should start with the whites and then move on to reds. As the whites reached an appropriate temperature we were called in to the kitchen to start the tasting process. We were given a tasting sheet to record our scores and our comments (there was a special award to be granted for the most pretentious comment of the evening, which resulted in some rather interesting remarks, see left...!)
The experience

The experience of blind tasting was absolutely fascinating. A couple of times I tasted a wine and straight away thought "I know exactly what this is, this is the crisp green apple of an un-oaked Chardonnay" and occasionally I was right. However, on other occasions I was totally and absolutely wrong! What I reflected on afterwards is that most time I taste wine I know what the grape is, what country and region it is from and what vintage it is; having spent some time around wine now I have found that you start to learn what the characteristic profiles are for what you're drinking, but how much does this influence what you taste on the wine itself as you drink it? If you drink a Merlot looking for juicy red fruit flavours is it any surprise when you find them? 

When you are tasting blind you have to rely entirely on your senses, what is that I smell on this mystery wine? Is it stone fruit or is it tropical fruit? Is that some buttery note that I'm getting? I have long concluded that I am not a naturally good wine taster and have always felt that my wife, who does not drink nearly as much wine as me, or get nearly as excited by it, is much better as a wine taster. I think the only thing that you can do if you're not naturally good at something is to practice as much as you can... *reaches for a bottle*


So, how did we get? We reached some interesting conclusions: firstly, we tended to favour the more expensive wines in each category (an affirmation that although price is no guarantee of quality, it is a pretty good indicator); secondly, we really felt that you did not get nearly as good quality wine for the budget on  reds than you did on whites; thirdly, given that we were tasting wine for a wedding we had to think carefully about how the wines would match the food and how they would go later on as they became "session wines". 

I was also pleased that one of my wines made it into the top three on the Italian reds side! I don't think my white fared very well at all (it may well have been the subject of the "gym kit" remark above...!)

This was a really interesting experience, it was also a lot of fun. A great idea by the bridegroom- and bride-to-be and certainly the most fun piece of "Wedmin" that I've been asked to do.

What are your experiences of blind wine tasting? Is it something that you enjoy/relish or do you think that to appreciate a wine properly you need to know its providence?

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Birmingham, the Black Country and its Beers - Fixed Wheel Brewery

With my taste buds firmly placed back into the world of all things beer and wine flavoured, I thought where better than to delve back into the region of my birth and see what hoppy delights await me. You may remember the last article I wrote about Sadlers Ales in Stourbridge and the fantastic beers that they have gleefully given to my ale-drinking brethren of the Midlands, but I have recently discovered a wonderful and small brewery that has only recently popped up not a couple of miles away from where my folks still live! But before I get Ma and Pa to tear up the plans for turning my old room into the snooker room my Dad has always dreamed of, I ventured to discover what suitably tasty wares they had on offer for good ol' Joe Public to get stuck into.

Fixed Wheel Brewery was started by Sharon Bryant and Scott Povey in a suburb of the Black Country called Halesowen as recently as 2014, based on their mutual 'foodie' love of cooking and recreational cycling. A bit of passion and one lock up on an industrial estate and Fixed Wheel was up and running. They are very passionate towards helping project the image of brewing being an integral part of the Black Country's heritage, so are one of the founding members of the Mercian Alliance of Brewers, a group of brewers helping to promote the area's small brewers.

They have a core range of 4 ales, but as any self respecting craft brewery these days should, they love to do a bit of reckless experimenting and constantly come up with one off brews and special seasonal treats to tempt people to keep on supping their wares. All of the beers that they produce have a bike-themed name (examples that I haven't tried here are 'No Brakes IPA' or 'Chain Reaction Pale Ale' - perfect for me to keep drinking as it keeps up my road fitness training image, whilst training my tastebuds at the same time). As I browsed the beer section of a local off licence, I picked up 3 fine examples of what they have gifted the ale world, which I have (for the benefit of you fine people) tasted and noted down in my best descriptive words... *hic*...

The first drop to grace my lips was the Carbon Black IPA. A style that was seen as a bit weird when it first entered the market, it's now becoming increasingly popular. A dark colour automatically makes you think it will be very Porter-esque in its taste, but it catches you unaware with its freshness and zesty nature. Loads of orange peel on the nose, but with a slight dark cocoa bean smell too, it has great balance and is a really refreshing beer.

Next up is the seasonal beer Summer Smiles American Wheat Beer. I'm a massive fan of the German styles of Wheat beer, so tucking into this, I'm glad to see that it doesn't try to emulate the sweet, spicy nature of them, but tries to make their own creamy, fruity, yet subtly spiced, effort. Super drinking when the weather gets warmer.

Last one on the sip-list was Blackheath Stout, a beer named after a place where I used to kick a football around and left a few smashed windows. Lovely colour with a roasted malt and coffee bean scent, it has a great creamy texture and the bitterness associated with good Stout doesn't catch the back of the throat as it sometimes can.

This is definitely a brewery on the up, proven by the host of CAMRA and SIBA awards that the place has on its proverbial mantlepiece. In the words of Oleta Adams, and if she was the go-to woman for advice for a grand pint on a cold Thursday night in the Midlands, then she would definitely say "You can reach it by railway, on a bike up the motorway, I don't care how you get there, just get there anyway you can"...

Fixed Wheel Brewery is based in Halesowen and open to the public every Saturday from 11am til 4pm, where you can meet the Brewer and try a fresh cask pint!