Thursday, 29 September 2016

Opinion: Poor Taste?

I've learned a great deal from homebrewing.

I've learned I'm not very good at it for starters, but I've also learned patience, timing, extremes of cleanliness - and that I really, really need to use less Sorachi Ace when I brew.

But I've learned another valuable thing too, that beer tasting and therefore opinion-voicing for me is more than just subjective, it's deeply, deeply flawed.

In short your palate can't be trusted.

Or maybe it's just me...

But consider any batch of homebrew ... treated equally, bottled separately and usually consumed over a relatively short period. Although the general flavours - or serious defects - remain the same there can be a huge gap in your opinion from bottle to bottle. This can depend on what you have eaten, what you drank before, what humour your in, where you are drinking, and who you are drinking with, to name just a few tastebud-disrupters ... and it's not just those tastebuds you need to blame it's your general mood and that of those around you.

Sometimes you hate it, sometimes you love it and sometimes its just ... okay.

If this is true for homebrew then it surely must be the same for all beers? Therefore all this notetaking, tweeting and rating is all rubbish, as we could taste the same beer in an hour, a day, a week or next year and have a completely different opinion ... perhaps not on certain obvious flavour notes but certainly on whether we liked it or not, and how much we liked or hated it. Especially if tasted blind...

That taste can even be affected by a comment someone makes:

   'It's not as good as it used to be.'

   'They have a new brewer.'

   'They're owned by a macro now.'

   'It's coming from the east coast now you know?.'

   'Do you smell cabbage?'

I'm prepared to concede that there are a very small minority who have some kind of cyborg-like tastebuds and brains, which are not affected by a thousand different distractions, but those people are very, very, very rare...

The rest of us are deeply flawed in how we even mentally rate beers, especially after only one glass, pint or bottle...

So burn your notebooks, delete your blogs and remove your apps, it's all pointless! Just drink the beer, enjoy it or don't...

But try it again next week...



Thursday, 15 September 2016

Recipe: Naturally Fermented Ginger Beer - Getting the Bug

It all started with a book...

I had come across food fermentation at Savour Kilkenny last year and was intrigued by the idea, so when I spotted this book for sale on a trip away earlier this year it seemed like a good starting/continuation point.

For me fermentation isn't really about the much touted health benefits, it's about taste and my need to experiment with food, drink and processes. It was about how these wonderful and varied bacteria breed, interact with and - hopefully - improve food, changing it into some more tasteful in the true sense, and something more interesting and complex too.

The book deals with every aspect of food fermentation but right now I'm focussing to the drink side of the book, as the thought of having a naturally fermented beverage was appealing ... and ginger beer seemed like a good starting point...

The first step is to produce a wild yeast/bacteria starter called a Ginger Bug. This involves grating 5cm of ginger root - including the skin. A tablespoon of this along with a tablespoon of sugar is then added to 250ml of water in a sterilised lidless jar. Cover the jar with muslin or similar and add an extra spoon of both per day for 5-6 days, mixing well. Leave it out of the light at room temperature.

It should be ready in a week or so, there should be plenty of small fine bubbles breaking the surface when you stir the mixture.

My first batch didn't ferment at all but the second batch with organic ginger did, presumably it still had the necessary bacteria on the skin whereas the regular ginger had been cleaned or irradiated?

Then it was time to make the ginger beer itself, for this I varied a bit from the recipe in the book, as I often do!

20cm of Grated Ginger Root
4 Litres of Water
500g of Sugar
8 Crushed Juniper Berries
8 Crushed Green Cardamom Pods
8 Crushed Black Peppercorns
100ml strained ginger bug liquid

  • Add the ginger and all of the spices to 2 litres of water and bring to a gentle simmer for 30 mins.
  • Sieve the liquid into a larger saucepan and leave aside.
  • Add the other 2 litres of water to the saucepan with the ginger and spices, and simmer again for 30 mins, add this strained liquid to the bigger saucepan and discard the ginger.
  • Mix the sugar with the ginger liquid until dissolved.
  • Allow the mix to cool to room temperature before adding to a sterilised demi-john.
  • Add 100ml of strained ginger bug liquid to the demijohn and shake and swirl gently before adding a stopper and airlock

(I had much of what I needed from my homebrewing escapades but your local brew shop should sort you out for equipment.)

Then you need to wait, and then wait some more...

Mine took an age to get started, and the whole process took 3 months from bug making to bottle opening!

When the airlock stops bubbling (and if you're lucky enough to have a refractometer you can more accurately check when it's really done) pour the liquid into sterilised 500ml bottles and add a quarter of a teaspoon of sugar to each one, cap, shake and leave at room temperature for a couple of weeks to carbonate before placing in a fridge to arrest the fermentation process.

(Warning: This is a naturally fermented product so beware of exploding bottles! Keep them secure and safe for the warm conditioning phase - use common sense during the whole process!)

So what does it taste like?

The wild bacteria give it a refreshing sour twang and the spices and ginger combine to give sharpness and heat. It ended up at 3.5% abv so it's not overly alcoholic and it's easy to drink. Carbonation is a little low but pleasant enough, I might leave the bottles back out for another two weeks to see will it increase.


Well next time I might add more spices, as they don't come through as strong as I'd like - especially the juniper. I might also add honey or brown sugar to give another layer of complexity and body too.

Maybe some chili?!

But overall I'm happy with my experiment - and can thoroughly recommend that book!

Happy fermenting...


Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Travel: Mainz, Germany - Part 2 - Bibles, Brews and Feeling Blue

(Part 1 is here)

My love of books, and reading in general, has influenced my life since I was a kid. One of the first books I got seriously immersed in was Tolkien's The Hobbit, which led me on to The Lord of the Rings and then on to the brilliant, melancholy-inducing and often ignored stories in The SilmarillionTerry Pratchett too, still gives me huge entertainment on rereads, and I got my kicks from Bob Shaw in the past, although his books were hard to source.

And not just books of course, as I grew up in the heyday of the weekly comic. I evolved from The Beano to Tiger, and then on to drooling over 2000AD's Halo Jones in my teens, drawn by the brilliant Ian Gibson. (My only other print related crush was -  perhaps bizarrely - Estella in Great Expectations, which perhaps tells a tale in itself.)

My tastes changed over the years and at this point I'm reading Bill Bryson repeatedly and letting a deeply disturbing John Connolly haunt my thoughts and dreams in a thoroughly creepy fashion with his novels and short stories ... and there are many others too.

So with this in mind you can imagine my interest in the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, the city where Johannes Gutenberg was born and died, as this was a shrine to one of the greatest innovations and perhaps innovators of all time. Like many inventors I'm pretty sure it's better to say he improved on the the idea of using movable type and the printing press more so than inventing it. Either way he was responsible for revolutionising how books were made and therefore who could access - and learn from - them. Gutenberg and his 'invention' influenced the thought process of many and in the long run probably inspired, directly and indirectly, more people than any other inventor in history in my opinion.

My other travelling companions decided to head off and do some shopping so it was just myself and my other half who headed across to the east side of the cathedral to the museum. It was founded in 1900 in honour of Gutenberg and has since been expanded to include all type(!) of printing methods and examples from ancient to modern times. We excitedly headed in and paid the entrance fee, eager to learn more and enthusiastic to see the history of printing and of Gutenberg himself.

But my was it hard going...

I love the idea of recording information and disseminating to the greater world and I have always had an interest in how printing came to be. I'm not knowledgeable enough to know how and where the concept of writing, painting, stamping, imprinting, etc. began but this place goes a long way to answering that, although obviously the main focus is on the Gutenberg and post Gutenberg era of printing. My downfall was the amount of information, printed texts, images and items on display. Straining to see gorgeous lithographs, interesting books, early newspapers, beer bottle labels, and tons of other printed items take their toll on your eyes, spine and brain until you feel weary and exhausted from doing nothing but ... well ... looking at minute texts, many in languages you can't comprehend, but driven to continue by your interest in the topic.

As fascinating as it all was, they could really do with a bar or café half way through!

But I still really, really enjoyed it all so much. The highlight was getting to see two of Gutenberg's original 42 line bibles from the 1450s. These were the books that started the printing revolution as they were the first to be printed with his moveable type system and the first to be mass produced - relatively speaking, as only 150 were produced. To view the books we headed into a secure, guarded, safe-like room where the bibles along with other rare texts are displayed by spotlight and treated with the reverence they deserve, which is less about their content and more to do with their rarity and actual existence.

It was the highlight in every way of the museum, and although the  actual printing process has moved on from Gutenberg's process the basic concept remains the same.

Ecstatic but tired we wandered on through some more rooms showing printing and script from the Middle and Far East but at this point we were physically and mentally exhausted, and ready for food, rest and a well-earned beer.

(This image of the bible was provided by the museum and is subject to their copyrights and permissions of use.)

We met up with the rest of our crew and headed to the south of the city, back through the altstadt. A short but pleasant walk took us to Eisgrub Bräu on Weißliliengass. It's not the easiest place to find but we soon spotted the sign outside a very pretty building with bags of character, and we wandered across the road and headed inside.

My first impression was that this was very much a sports bar, as there were televisions showing football and plenty of noisy people decked out just like all all other sports fans from every part of the world. We passed beautiful copper kettles to our right on the way in, strategically placed to catch the eye and reinforce that we were in a brew pub. We made our way toward the back and found some seats close to the bar where we were quickly attended to by an efficient member of staff who apologetically informed us that they had just changed their menu and that they hadn't any English versions yet. He gave us English copies of the old menus and promised to guide us through the new menu if we needed it. Tired and thirsty we chose our beers first, with my choice being a Märzen, which arrived quickly in a branded glass.

I would hardly claim to be an expert on the style but this was certainly clean and dryish with a taste of malted milk biscuits and a touch of cane sugar, with sparing hop use ... a fine beer and exactly what I wanted at that point.

The bar area itself was clean and tidy, and surprisingly devoid of customers as most seemed to be eating at tables while engrossed in the match, which I now realised was being played by a local team. This also explained the lively crowd and all the noise!

The whole brewpub was very well laid out - decorated with copper fitting, those midcentury enamel lampshades that have become so popular, and comfortable wooden furniture. The curved ceilings gave the place an intimate feeling and added to its charm and enhanced that 'comfortable' feeling I get when I find a place that syncs with my mood and eclectic taste.

After looking at the menu, and with help from our friendly staff member, we made our choices and chatted for a while. Nige had finally shown up after getting slightly lost but he too was in good form. As the others filled him in on our day so far I went for a self-guided tour of the bar and brewing process, from the aforementioned kettles at the front all the way through to the storage tanks, which appeared to be feeding directly into the taps at the bar. I was surprised by the open fermentors on display, although they are in their own isolated room, as I had just assumed that they would be closed, or at least covered ... but from tasting the beer the system obviously works. After a good nose around I headed back to my table to be greeted by my food...

As you can imagine from the picture I was more than a little disappointed...

I had ordered meatloaf with and egg and potatoes and I had imagined a slice or two of moist, minced pork meatloaf, with a poached or lightly fried egg and some oven roasted potatoes, perhaps some relish and bread on the side - not a fried slice, crispy egg and crinkle chips. The sachets of mustard and ketchup added little to the image.

But looking to my right I saw that my other half had chosen more wisely...

She had picked the smoked sausages which came with gherkin, a gorgeous fresh salad with sweetcorn, brown bread and the seemingly ubiquitous condiment sachets. As often in my life I was filled with food envy, especially when I sampled her meal, as those sausages were tubes of smoky wonderfulness.

To be honest my own meal was okay ... the meatloaf was nicely seasoned and when combined with the chips and a little mustard was actually quite tasty, if a little stodgy.

I ordered another beer to wash this all down and this time went for the Schwarzbier, which tasted of mild, milk chocolate. It was sweet and easy drinking with a fluffy head with very little bitterness - very fresh and enjoyable, an ideal dessert.

Don't be put off by my meal ... this is a nice bar and restaurant. It's lively, interesting and full of character and characters. The beer is fresh and very drinkable, and you can see the brewing process in action. The service was excellent and most importantly we had a great afternoon. My other half even bought me a souvenir glass because ... well ... you know, she's comfortable with my healthy love of glassware.

Time was pressing on and the light was beginning to fade so we made our way out, as I was afraid we would miss out on what I hoped would be one of the highlights of our Mainz trip.

I must admit that I knew very little about Marc Chagall before researching this trip, outside of the fact that he was an 20th century 'modern' artist that dabbled in various media from paint to ceramic to stained glass. I don't plan on outlining his biography here but there has been a lot written about him so a quick web search will tell you more.

St. Stephan's Church to the west of the city, and just a short uphill walk from the brewpub, is the only German church that has stained glass by Chagall. We headed there now as quick as our beer and pork-filled bodies could wobble, in order to see the church while it was still bright outside. The building itself is relatively plain with little ornamentation. Like the Dom this church has seen more than its fair share of damage, so repairs are ongoing and varied. It sits in a good location looking down towards the city centre and the Dom, with the Rhine in the distance.

Walking inside I was immediately struck by the surreal feeling of being underwater, it felt harder to move ... as if someone had pressed the slow-motion button on my body and I was now walking at half my normal speed. The sound of an organ playing a sluggish, morose hymn added to this subaquatic feeling as the sounds reverberated around the building. I sat down and felt more peaceful and relaxed than in any building I had ever been in before, even the organ pipes seemed to be floating in midair. It felt like you could almost reach out and touch the colour blue itself - feel it, capture it and hoard it.

The stained glass windows that were causing this effect were beautiful and ethereal.Words - and certainly not mine - can't really describe properly how wonderful it looked and felt. It was possibly the highlight of that German trip...

But eventually we had to go, and we trooped out the door and made our way back to the train station, full of chatter, emotion and exuberance for a city I had only recently heard of and whose surface we had barely scratched, as we'd missed the Landesmuseum, Kunsthalle and the Zitadelle to name but three.

But it has left some large positive imprints in my mind and memory and if I'm ever back again I'd go back to all these sites, and more too.

I might not order the meatloaf though...


Mainz is easy to get to from Frankfurt city or airport, with a regular and efficient train service. We stayed close by in Wiesbaden, about which I will post soon.

(Apologies for picture quality)