Thursday, 24 March 2016

Birmingham, the Black Country and its Beers - Two Towers Brewery

The saying that some Greek fella said back in the day that 'The Whole is greater than the Sum of it's Parts' is very true when it comes to any major city in the world. London has its hip parts, its culture-vulture parts and its industrial parts; Manchester has it's history of sporting excellence in its suburbs and panache in the centre and Birmingham is no different. We've got the pinnacle of glass making at home in Stourbridge, areas of historical significance in Dudley and the home of a bonifide footballing miracle in West Bromwich (maybe this one is a bit biased, but forgive me for one bit of indulgence...) 

One place that has been of great significance is an area just situated outside of the City Centre, in the southern part of a suburb of Hockley, wonderfully named the Jewellery Quarter. The self-proclaimed centre of jewellery-making since the 1800s the UK, it still accounts for 40% off all production in the country. Add onto this, it's home to the Birmingham Assay Office (largest in the world to hallmark gold and check value of diamonds) and the renowned RBSA Gallery and you have a hotplate of culture and vibrant attractions. However, hidden away from all of the hustle and bustle of the bright lights, there is a gem that is bigger and will inevitably shine brighter than anything that you'll find on sale in the main jeweller shop stretch.

Two Towers Brewery has one simple message to the public; it wants to thrust good Birmingham beer back into the spotlight and show the country that we can do it just as well as anyone. The idea started brewing in 2009 within the minds of the brainchildren Mark Arnott-Job and Trevor Harris and came to fruition in 2010, when in the most industrial of industrial units in the maze of streets in Hockley, the Two Towers Brewery was born. It has a 10 barrel capacity, so they are the testament to small, produced beers.

I had the privilege of attending one of the many brewery tours that they offer and got to see the inner workings of a much smaller operation than the Fuller's Brewery tour that I did a few weeks back. They produce a variety of beers, with all of them having some link back to their heritage and the area where they are based. Some of the beers they make that I didn't get the chance to try was the Chamberlain Pale Ale (4.3%), named after Joseph Chamberlain, a famous mayor of the city and the peculiarly named 'Bhacker Ackhams' (5.6%), an award-winning chocolate porter named after the famous department store 'Rackhams' in the centre of Birmingham, where (if you were meeting someone), you'd meet them at 'the back 'o' Rackhams'.

During the tour, you get to see their brewing vessels, named Bertha and Bessy, see what they have brewing at the moment and get the opportunity to ask as many questions as any novice or experienced home-brewer needs to. However, more importantly, you get to try some beer whilst listening to Mark describe the intricacies of getting the perfect pint.

Whilst wandering around, we tried the brewery's best seller, Hockley Gold (4.1%), which was a very refreshing drop. A good balance of hops and bitterness, with a slight biscuity note on top. One of the best golden ales I've tried in a while.
Also, we tried their English IPA, Complete Muppetry (4.3%), which is a complete departure away from the big-hopped US IPA's currently in fashion. Easy drinking, with very light hops, but a tad bit more bitterness. A good session beer, if not spectacular, in my opinion.

What is especially great about Two Towers is that rather than having to scour the city to find a bottle shop that sells their fine wares or pub-hop around the Midlands to find them on draught, they have a Tap House in very close proximity to the brewery, allowing you to tuck into some more of their liquids. The Gunmakers Arms looks unassuming and much like your usual suburban pub, but it has some of their craft beers and also some good stock beers such as Pilsner Urquell, Freedom Brewery Lager and Hogans Cider from Warwickshire.

It was to there where I schlepped The Lass to a couple of days later and tried a couple more brews, and get an informed second opinion from someone who has a slightly less beer-sculpted palate.

The two we tried were Electric Pale Ale (4.1%), brewed especially for the UK's oldest independent cinema, The Electric in Central Birmingham. Apart from its brilliant '40s feel label, this has a lovely citric zest that runs right through it and would be a brilliant drop as the sun sets in a sunny back garden. This was a real favourite of The Lass, who is a wine drinker at heart, but the crisp, fruity nature of it sat well with her.

In addition to that, we tried a trusted recommendation from Peter (Mark's brother, who helps out at the pub), who guided us to Baskerville Bitter (3.8%), that had a soft malty and biscuity touch to it, but a good length too (there is nothing that disappoints me more than a beer that brushes your tastebuds, but is then gone quicker than it takes you to put your glass down...).

Leaving the pub, I was flush, with not only the feeling that only 2 pints can give you when you hit outside for the first time, but also the feeling that brewing in Birmingham is back in safe hands, moving away from all the 'Bells and Whistles, Fancy Dan' establishments that make average beer, back to what matters most; spectacular beer with a no-nonsense approach. 

Now that is definitely a boozy 'Part' that will contribute to the West Midlands 'Whole'...

Two Towers Brewery do frequent brewery tours and you can purchase their beers direct from the brewery or pubs and stockists, which can be found here. The Gunmakers Arms is open Sunday to Saturday from 12pm, with directions here.

Friday, 18 March 2016

A Balkan Bonanza at the Theatre of Wine

The great thing about meeting up with old friends when you haven't seen them for a little while is that you instantly pick up where you left things from last time. Such was the case for me last week when I was looking forward to seeing a friend I hadn't seen in over 18 months: the Theatre of Wine in Tufnell Park... 

Readers who have been following my posts for a little while will remember that I occasionally organise wine tastings for members of my orchestra (the Camden Symphony Orchestra) at this rather lovely, independent wine store that specialises in unearthing interesting and unusual wines. Somewhat embarrassingly it had been at least 18 months since our last tasting, due to my organisational deficiencies (wrist duly slapped), so the group were in high spirits for our tasting. 

The theme

The theme that Jason from Theatre of Wine and I agreed on was a "Balkan Bonanza". The Balkan regions are enjoying a recent renaissance as they are rediscovering grapes and regions that historically were  renowned but had been forgotten in the troubles of the recent past. This is the kind of theme that the clever clogs at Theatre of Wine really excel in so I was very much looking forward to seeing what they had in store for us. 

The Whites

We started with a 2015 Verus Furmint (Slovenia). Furmint is the grape that makes the King of Wines, Tokaji, but it is also used to make dry whites, particularly in Slovenia and Hungary. This wine had a nice, grassy nose with a lemon zinginess to it. On the mouth it had a certain juiciness to it that reminded me of a lush red apple. 6.5/10.0; £13.10/bottle.

Next up was a 2014 Avincis Vila Dobrusa White (Romania) which was made from a blend of Fetească Regală, Pinot Gris and Tămâioasă Românească. This wine was more floral and more aromatic on the nose, with a very nice pink grapefruit taste. I liked this wine a lot. Exceptional value too. 7.5/10.0; £8.90/bottle.

After this we moved onto a 2013 Coronica Malvasija (Croatia). The aroma was sweeter, more honeyed, but on the mouth it had a slightly flabby, waxy structure that I wasn't too enamoured with - not my favourite wine of the evening. 5.0/10.0; £15.00/bottle.

Our penultimate white was the 2013 Adzic Grasevina (Croatia), which was made from the grape Welschriesling, a relation of my beloved Riesling. On the nose it had a bright and juicy pineapple note to it that was definitely reminiscent of a Riesling Kabinett. On tasting I found that it had a very nice weight to it, with a complex apricot compote profile. 7.0/10.0; £16.80/bottle.

Last up on the whites was from one of my favourite producers, the 2013 Hatzidakis Nikteri Assyrtiko (Greece). Hatzidakis are renowned for their elegant wines that express the best of Greek terroir and local grapes and this wine made from Assyrtiko grapes was no exception. There was a touch of smoke on the nose, which was coupled with zesty lemon and crunchy green apple. On the mouth there was a lovely weight and complexity to the wine with a hint of that smoke from the nose. One of the standout wines of the evening. 8.5/10.0; £22.40/bottle.

The Reds
We started on the reds with a 2012 Edoardo Miroglio Pinot Noir (Bulgaria) which had very pleasing red fruit notes of strawberries and red cherries on the nose. On the mouth it had a surprisingly developed level of elegance to it. This was a lot of people's favourite wine of the evening and was certainly one of the best value. 7.0/10.0; £13.80/bottle.

Next up was the 2012 Tetramythos Agiorgitiko (Greece) which had a plummy and menthol nose that reminded me of a Cabernet Franc. On tasting there was a rather surprising kick to it. This wine didn't really do it for me. 5.0/10.0; £10.90/bottle.

We followed this with another wine from Avincis, this time the 2011 Avincis Merlot (Romania) which had a stewed red fruit nose. On tasting there were some bitter chocolate notes that gave it a little depth. 5.5/10.0; £14.80/bottle.

Jason upped the ante with the next wine, a 1999 Oikonomou Sitia (Crete) made from Liatiko and Mandilaria. The nose had just LOADS going on with cherry flavours mixed with a bit of aniseed and a whiff of leather. I remember not wanting to start drinking it as the nose had so much to take in. When I finally did summon up the courage to try the wine I found it unbelievably fresh, there were plenty of savoury notes going on with pepper and dark, meaty salami. This was a truly excellent wine and represented fantastic value. Jason rightly pointed out that to get a wine of this quality and age from Bordeaux you would have to pay at least double. 9.0/10.0; £41.50.

Our last wine of the evening was another stunner: the 2009 Coronica Gran Teran (Croatia) which had a slightly perfumed nose plump with juicy blackcurrants. On tasting it was nice and full-fronted with plenty of juicy and plummy notes. This was a very enjoyable wine to drink. 8.0/10.0; £31.80.


This tasting did exactly what I was hoping it would. It showcased the excitement and glamour that one can find in the Balkan region, if only you know where to look. There are interesting indigenous grapes, innovative wine makers and some very special terroir.

I should also comment that the Theatre of Wine team once more did an excellent job in hosting us. They put up with some of our more "unusual" queries and provided plenty of fascinating wine trivia. I only hope that it won't be another 18 months until our next tasting! 

Note: prices quoted are the prices available from Theatre of Wine       

Saturday, 12 March 2016

Must-Have & Must-Get Muscats

When you are trying to describe what a grape variety in a wine tastes like, it's easy to slip into standard (and many a time) indecipherable wine gobbledygook. Many a time I have misread the situation with someone I've been talking to and started to use words that wouldn't sound out of place in Klingon dictionary and watch the concentration and focus of the individual I'm talking to drift off into wondering whats on the Box that evening.

So, I've now tried a different tack. I have decided to compare modern day celebrities to grape varieties. Not the obvious choice to try and describe the intricacies of the noble fruit of the vine, but I've found that some people get on board with it. 

Take a young Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot from Bordeaux. I could go in with the 'austere, green tannic structure, primary with a touch of secondary characteristics' or I could go for 'This wine is like Samuel L Jackson - seems tough to get on with at the start, but with a bit of age and faith, it blooms into a smooth number'. What about New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, you say? Tropical nuances with a crisp and persistent acidity? Urrgh. Now say its like Will Ferrell - fresh, lively and real good quality, but have too much on a consistent basis and it may start to get boring. Boom! Now they want to know more.

So when I was luring an unsuspecting customer towards one of the most underrated (and one of my favourites) grape varieties, Muscat, I come out with a pearler. "Muscat is like Miley Cyrus... In its youngest form, its sweet, innocent and safe enough to take home to your mother. However, it wants to be taken seriously and when it is, it is a complex, edgy wine with a whole lotta attitude". What. A. Beaut.

A six bottle purchase and a chuckle later, it made me actually think what a great variety Muscat is. Ranging from the light and easy style of Moscatel del Valencia you can pick up cheap as chips at any supermarket all the way through to the rich and sticky Muscats you can get from high quality New World producers. It really is a great variety to get into if you are new to the world of wine, as it one of the only grape varieties that actually tastes of grapes when made into our favourite alcoholic beverage (and in its youngest form).

Now, I could turn this article into a potted history of Muscat and its varying names, but no-one could do it better than the maestro herself, Jancis Robinson, to explain. What I will tell you is that it is one of the only well known grapes that can be used for an aperitif (predominantly as a sparkling wine), a cracking wine for matching with main meals (light Muscats go fantastically well with light oriental dishes, as its sweetness is in complete harmony with chilli, star anise and lemon grass) and an unctuous dessert wine to finish off a satisfying dinner party.

I'm going to tell you my top Muscats that I have enjoyed recently, to tempt you into a reckless purchase!

To start off my Muscat binge, I tucked into the Mas Neuf Muscat Sec 2014, from Majestic Wine at £7.49 a bottle (6 bottle price, £8.99 for one). This is a great starting block for newbies to the wine/Muscat scene. It has a relatively low alcohol level (11.5%), which contributes to a really summery feel to the wine, giving off some really light blossomy and grapey flavours. Its just a smidgen off-dry, but the bloomin' marvellous thing about Muscat is that the acidity is pretty high, so keeps it real fresh. The grape taste still lingers in the mouth, but is joined by soft orange and lychee flavours. This would be spot on with a bit of Parma ham and melon in the garden come July.

Next up comes the Moscatel Seco 2013, from Botani
available from Leamington Wine Company for £15.99  a bottle, but available elsewhere too. The helpful guy who recommended to me (Rob), recommended I try it with a dish based on chilli and, as I accompanied it with a homemade noodle dish made by The Lass, I can thoroughly endorse that advice. Smelling of candied lime, orange blossom and a whiff of ginger, you expect it to be a bit on the sweet side, but it is very much a dry wine. Not too tart citrus fruit jumps forward when you taste it, with even a bit of a herby edge too. A serious wine made from a fun grape if ever there was one.  
For something a bit special, I treated myself to a bit of something new for me. I had read copious amounts about Rutherglen Muscat, but never tried one, so when I stumbled upon this, I had to go hard, or go thirsty. This is Two Hands 'A Day Late, A Buck Short' Rutherglen Muscat NV, priced at £31.99 (6 bottle price, £40 for one). Oh wow. Its like sticky toffee pudding in a bottle. Oozes caramel, cinnamon and vanilla pod, this is proper boozy at 18% ABV, but boy, you don't need a lot as it smears your tastebuds with treacle, raisin and cappuccino when you drink it. Its a great finish to a meal and when I finish it, I will be saving the pennies to get my next one. 

Bringing up the rear, but definitely not one that you need to leave til last, we have the Essencia Orange Muscat 2013, priced at £9.95 from This is a rare find, as Orange Muscat isn't widely cultivated, but it definitely should be. The grape pretty much dishes out what it says on the tin. Big flavours of orange, apricot and gentle spice are mixed in with a clean acidity which keeps it from being too much like liquidised Fruit Pastilles. Needs a good old fruit pudding or chocolate to go with, but a small glass after whatever you've eaten will send your stomach into a round of applause (if it had hands, that is...)

So the next time you see Hannah Montana invading your TV screens, a blast of a Miley song on the radio, or read about her latest tidbit of gossip, instead of just sighing and yearning for the 'tear it up' rock stars of the past, just grab the corkscrew and sup a glass of Muscat. It'll leave a far better taste in your mouth...

If you could relate a grape to a celeb, what would it be? Leave us a comment below, or on our Facebook page or twitter feed!

Monday, 7 March 2016

Gong Bar @ The Shard: Cocktails with one hell of a view

When "The Shard" was built it is fair to say that it divided opinions. Now that it is built I think most people cannot imagine the London skyline without it. I work in the London Bridge area and even though I see it every day I regularly find myself looking up at it with awe. 

The Shard is known for its opulent splendour as well as its spectacular views over London. You can imagine how excited I was then when I was invited last week to go to the Shangri-La Hotel and visit their Bar Gong on the 52nd floor. 

The view looking north-west from the bar
As you make your way through the various elevators that you need to travel up to the 52 floor, you emerge and greeted by immaculately dressed hostesses, looking glamorous in striking red dresses. We were shown into the bar, which is small but exceedingly elegantly presented. You are then able to take in that view for the first time, which simply takes the breath away. The bar is situated on the northern side of the building so you can take in views of Canary Wharf and Tower Bridge to the East and St Paul's and the London Eye to the North and West. We were blessed to have a relatively clear evening which allowed for great viewing. Throughout the evening I found that my gaze kept being drawn back to the spectacular views across London, it really is captivating. 

Zdenek Kastanek

Action shot!
The reason for the event was that Bar Gong had been taken over for a brief residency by the world-class cocktail maker, Zdenek Kastanek, who has achieved world-wide fame for his work in Singapore.

Kastanek has the look of a rock and roll star about him and he certainly puts on a show as he makes his cocktails - not with the flashy flicks and tricks of some, but in the way that he crafts his drinks with unusual ingredient combinations and interesting presentation.

During the evening it was a pleasure to be able to speak with Kastanek who was very personable and provided some interesting insights into his inspirations and passion for mixology.    

The Cocktails

For his residency at Gong, Kastanek had come up with a special list of five cocktails which really demonstrated his creativity and talent.

The first cocktail that I tried was The Bird Machine which featured Hum Botanical Spirit infused with Oolong Tea, Monkey Shoulder Scotch Whisky, Fresh Pineapple Juice and Fresh Lemon Juice. It had a nice tartness from the pineapple and a smokiness from the Oolong tea and the Whisky. 

Next up was my favourite drink of the evening (so good in fact, I may have ordered another one of these), Poet's Cup made from Bacardi 8, Mancino Amaranto Rosso Vermouth Infused with Coffee Beans, Becherovka and House Bitter. This reminded me of a Negroni, it started with a bitterness from the House Bitters, but then you get a real rich deepness from the coffee flavours. I felt so inspired by this drink that I felt pressed to have this "Mad Men" style picture of me enjoying it taken.

One of the more memorable drinks from an aesthetic perspective was The Merchant which had Yellow Chartreuse, Plantation Jamaica Single Island Rum, Homemade Fresh Walnut Milk Syrup, Fresh Lemon Juice, East Imperial Burma Tonic Water which was served in a wonderful mug that reminded me of an Easter Island head. This is the drink that is in the title picture at the top of the page - coupled with a lit up Tower Bridge I thought it made for a rather smart photgraph!

These drinks were really enjoyable, the crafting of them was very impressive. When you add in the salubrious environment that we were drinking them in and it made for an exceedingly memorable evening.

I would urge everyone to go to Gong to try out these cocktails - there is a no reservation policy, so take a chance and head down to check it out. The bar doesn't sit a great many people (in fact there are strict policies governing how many people can be in there at any time), but if you can get in you will be in for an evening like no other.

Thank you!

I would like to thank the staff at Gong led by the very personable Marta and Fabio who put on an excellent evening and were very friendly (we even got a sneak peak of the swimming pool that is set on the 52nd floor for residents of the hotel - phenomenal!).

I would also like to thank Su-Lin who invited me to the evening.  


Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Review and cocktail recipes: Sweet Potato Spirit Company spirits

Humankind has a habit of getting creative when faced with a struggle. No grapes or grains handy, no problem! Carrots, mouldy fruit and ketchup, milk, or beetroot will all work just fine to make alcohol...

So when you think of sweet potatoes, your mind probably drifts to fries, wedges, or mash. But sweet potato booze? Well, the humble sweet potato has been taken to a higher (abv) plane by the lovely folks at the Sweet Potato Spirit Company (and with considerably more success than the mouldy fruit and ketchup method). 

I love a craft, artisan product, but obviously it has to live up to the big boys in the taste stakes... I was excited about these before they arrived though. I’d seen pictures of the bottles and they looked great. The branding is bright and fun, but definitely not too twee. 

While the four tall, slim bottles – Moonshine, Spiced Rum, Orangecello, and Raspberry – might not fit on your average bar shelf, they certainly stand out above everything else. Each bottle is topped off with a thick, wax seal, which took me a while to get off, but it was worth the hassle.

How do they taste?

This moonshine is so far away from the hooch, home-brew, white lightning, or whatever else you may be envisaging. As you may expect, this is the UK’s first sweet potato moonshine! Instead of Deliverance-esque chaps passing around petrol cans with big Xs on them, this moonshine is more akin to a smooth, light, whisky. There are notes of vanilla, stone fruit, and a bit of caramel sweetness on the finish.

You put the fine sugar cane molasses in the sweet potato and drink it all up. Ok, so that’s not quite as catchy as putting the lime in the coconut, but it’s just as tasty. I find some spiced rums to be a bit heavy, but this has got a great balance to it. There’s definitely some fire in there from ginger and warm spices, but it’s offset with treacle, cherries and even a light citrus note. I definitely prefer it to the mainstream spiced rums. 

While you may never have thought of putting oranges and sweet potatoes together before, be thankful that the Sweet Potato Spirit Company did. I really like this as it tastes like real oranges, rather than that strange synthetic taste you can get. It’s not too sweet, there’s plenty of zesty tanginess, and it works very well in fizz for an extra boozy Mimosa. 

This is a fruity little number! Similar to the Orangecello, it tastes like it should: like actual, real-life raspberries. There's a gentle sweetness, but it's not sickly. Once again, it works really, really well in fizz.

If you can’t decide which one to try first, you can buy a gift box, featuring 5cl miniatures of all four spirits, for £16.50.

Cocktails and serves

While all the spirits work as sipping drinks, they also work very well in cocktails...! 

Moonshine sour

50ml Moonshine
25ml fresh lemon juice
15ml sugar syrup
A few dashes of Angostura bitters

Add all your ingredients to a shaker filled with ice, and shake hard for 20-30 seconds.

Strain into a glass filled with crushed ice, and garnish with some orange peel.

Spiced SP mojito

50ml Spiced rum 
20ml simple syrup
A lime, cut into small chunks
10 mint leaves
(A little soda if desired)

Muddle the mint, lime pieces, and simple syrup in a glass, making sure you extract all the juice.

Half fill the glass with crushed ice.

Pour in your rum, and muddle again.

Top off with more crushed ice, and a little soda water if desired. 

Sweet potato Mimosa

Add a little Sweet Potato Orangecello Liqueur to a champagne flute, and top with your fizz of choice.

Raspberry fizz

The Sweet Potato Raspberry liqueur works just as well as the Orangecello with fizz. Garnish with a fresh raspberry. 

Gin raspberry cooler

50ml gin
50ml Raspberry liqueur
25ml fresh lemon juice
15ml sugar syrup

This is kind of a cross between a Bramble and a Gin Sour. The raspberry and lemon cut through the sweetness for a refreshing summery drink.

Add all your ingredients to a shaker, shake hard for 20-30 seconds.

Strain into a glass filled with crushed ice, and garnish with a raspberry.