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  • A Visit to Conwy Brewery

    ConwyCasksA couple weeks ago, I took my first jaunt down to North Wales for the weekend so it was a great opportunity to pop in to one of our lovely breweries: Conwy Brewery. Licensed to brew the sought-after Yakima Grande Pale Ale, it's no wonder that head-brewer and founder Gwynne Thomas and his crew are also churning out so many other great brews with their core range and their West Coast Brewing brand.

    Officially established in 2003, Conwy Brewery has recently expanded to 2.5 times its previous capacity, which is impressive in and of itself. Even more so if you consider the fact that Gwynne essentially started his brewing career in his airing cupboard while at University. Dry clothes be damned when there's fermentation to be done!

    It's always great to take a peek at another brewery that's finding success. I really appreciate the team, especially Janet, for taking time out of their day to show this strange American gal around their new digs. This time around, I didn't get a chance to taste anything at the brewery--they were busy brewing and getting a BUNCH of orders shipped out. AND I was a week early for the Yakima Grande, so I missed out on that too. Nevertheless, I always like looking at shiny vessels and the smell of a mash tun being emptied.

    ConwyMaxUndeterred, I sought out their Honey Fayre 4.5% golden ale (a beer we don't currently stock, but I've been trying my best to get put on the purchasing rota) while out and about. The Honey Fayre belongs to Conwy Brewery's core range of bottle-conditioned ales--and it is a beauty! I'd put a ridiculous iPhone photo of the beer situated next to a pile of seafood I had paired it with but that would be stupid. Instead, I'll just tell you that the beer is a nice, easy-drinking ale with a smooth mouthfeel and nice balanced bitterness. Its decent malty-sweet character and notes of honey was amazing with our fresh seafood. Gwynne even suggested making mussels in ale with it by frying onions in butter, adding mussels with Honey Fayre, cook and reduce down until the mussels are opened and then serve with crusty bread. Sounds good to me!

    ConwyVesselSo, thanks again to Conwy Brewery for letting me take a little gander at their brewery in the middle of the day. They've got beautiful views of the sea from way up-top the hill! It's no surprise they've got a Riptide Black IPA and a Surfin' IPA American Pale in their arsenal. I, for one, can't wait to get my hands on some.

    --Maggie

  • Session #88 -- Traditional Beer Mixes

    The-Session-246x300Ok, I'll admit it: up until now the only beer mix I've ever had came in Irish Car Bomb form (you know, Guinness and Bailey's à la Jagerbomb.) So, suffice it to say that this month's Beer Blogging Friday topic of Traditional Beer Mixes--hosted by Boak and Bailey--is a long time coming for me.

    I've personally never been a fan of drinking beer concoctions, nevermind those days in my early 20's when I thought I was so cool when drinking a Flaming Dr. Pepper (a glass of beer with a flaming shot of amaretto and vodka dropped in it.) I've always thought that mixing beers was only something that bar-hands should do with the dregs in the glasses when clearing the tables. Nevertheless, I'm slowly warming up to the idea of some of these traditional beer mixes. There must be a reason why they have stood the test of time, after all.

    For those of you that don't know, I'm a Yank and I've only been living in the UK for a little over two years. I'm familiar with the likes of a black-and-tan and I guess we're seeing shandies showing up Stateside but I've never heard of most of this list of mixes: Blacksmith, Mother-in-law, Granny, Boilermaker? Just sounds like a boring party to me.

    Be that as it may, this blogging session gives me the nudge I need to get out there and see what all the fuss is about and to see why people feel the need to mix their beers. Without further ado, here are my--admittedly quite skeptical--observations on my first-ever beer mix (that wasn't set on fire beforehand.)

    The Granny

    I decided that I liked the sound of this adorably-named beer mix: an old and mild ale. To create this drink I selected the Ilkley Black and Robinson's Old Tom. Considering that both beers are pretty solid representatives of their respective styles, I figured that this would give me the best opportunity to look at beer mixes objectively.

    bottlesThe verdict

    Welp. I'm not sold. I don't get the point. It doesn't taste like anything bad. It just doesn't taste like, well, anything. I guess at most it mellows the flavors and intensity of the Robinson's Old Tom. Which I suppose would be a good thing if you're an old lady that needs to drive home. I shared my Granny (!) with my co-workers and we all agree: it's not bad, it actually quite grows on you. We just don't get the point.

    Granny

    So there you go: I wouldn't specifically head out and order any beer mix (although I'd consider the stout-and-barleywine mix Blacksmith) but I am happy to have found a reason to give this traditional beer mix a try.

    --Maggie

  • Best Beer Gifts for Father's Day

    Dad with FishBy going to the pub with the gents or stopping by the off-licence on the way home from work, your Dad's been hinting all year long that he really wants beer for Father's Day. That, as opposed to a new tie or a "this coupon entitles bearer to one free car-wash so long as there isn't something good on the TV or I'm otherwise busy" gift.

    Have no fear if you know nothing about beer, this guide will give you some tips on how to pick the perfect beer gift and have you rocketing to the top of the inheritance list amongst your siblings. Besides, he deserves it, doesn't he?
     
     
     
    How to Choose Something He'd Like

    • First thing's first: take a look at what's already in the fridge.
      This is the no-brainer; buy him more of what he already likes!
    • Pay attention to what he drinks at the pub. Often, his favourite cask ale is available in a bottle and lagers almost always are.  If he already chooses bottled-beers from the pub, you're in luck!
    • Note his favourite foods.
      A lot of times, certain foods have their own perfect match; spicy curry and IPA's, roast beef and a bitter, pizza and pale ale are just the tip of the iceberg.
    • Help him to reminisce
      If he took a trip-of-a-lifetime somewhere, sourcing international beers from everywhere from Australia to the USA has never been easier.

    Beery Gift Suggestions that Aren't Crap

    • Beer Club: remind your Dad every month, every other month, or quarterly (depending on how much you're trying to make up for from your younger days) of how great of a child you are with our Beer Club. Mixed cases of your Dad's favourites and others for him to discover make us wish we were your Dad.
    • Brewery Gift Sets: loads of popular breweries produce gift packs in branded packaging that have glassware and sometimes t-shirts included.
    • Glassware: If he's already got enough beer around the house, branded or style-appropriate glassware is always a great idea. Most breweries sell a glass with their name on it and the Belgians are famous for pairing their beers with a specific glass.
    • Books: Beer writing is fast becoming a national past-time and topics ranging from the best British beers to pairing beer and food are all covered between the bindings.
    • Special editions, seasonals, or collaborations: Breweries are always trying to push the envelope and collaborations are the name of the brewing-game. The website of Dad's favourite brewery should list their availability and upcoming projects.
    • Many beers are presented beautifully: strong Belgian ales, big American Imperial IPAs, or bottle-conditioned Real Ales are examples of those that come in larger 500ml-75cl bottles. These sometimes have a nice cork--much like wine. Stick a bow on it and it's sorted!
    • Gift Vouchers: If you're still stuck, the tried-and-tested gift voucher never disappoints--give your Dad the chance to be like a big kid in a grown-up candy store!

    Another great option is our range of mixed beer selections-a reliable mix of beer covering all tastes and budgets; some run the gamut of beers from around the world, while others focus on the best from a particular region (dare we say, the UK?) Take a look!

    Little Beery Gift

    Little BeeryIf you were a relatively good child and you're not still trying to pay him back for that broken window from your 1995 house-party, then this Little Beery Gift of 10 bottles is a low cost but delicious selection from across the world and in a range of styles. £25


    Great British Beers

    British 15 bottles of the finest stouts, IPAs, pale ales, or porters (among others!) from all corners of these isles, this Great British Beers Gift will show him that you think he's the best Dad in the whole wide world. £37.50


    Test of Strength

    ToSYou already know that he's the strongest man in the world, but have him prove it against our Test of Strength mixed case. 15 bottles of beers reaching as high as 12% ABV will have him leap tall buildings in a single bound! £49.50


     

    With Father's Day fast approaching don't forget to show him what he means to you. And with a carefully selected beer gift, he'll know that he's succeeded in raising you well!

  • Best Before Dates are for the Birds

    As established by the chicken. As established by the chicken.

    I'd like to start this out by stating that I'm not trying to pull the wool over anybody's eyes and trying to convince you that we can sell out-of-date beer. We shouldn't. By selling beer, we've essentially promised the brewer (and the customer) that we'd take good care of their baby and send it out into the world in the flourish of beauty that they had intended.

    Now that we've got that bit out of the way, I'd like to have a chat about Best Before Dates on bottles.

    In some circumstances, they're warranted; they're a good indicator of how to best enjoy a beer and for its intended use (besides drinking it, of course). A short date indicates that it should be drunk fresh in order to appreciate that particular beer's qualities; a long one means that it could be aged to see what the future holds. And truth be told, I personally wouldn't trust a 4.2% pale ale with a year left on its life.

    You see, hops--those glorious little nuggets that impart balance, bitterness, flavours, and aromas--only live up to their full potential for so long. The oils and compounds that are responsible for the job break down incrementally and before too terribly long, their deliciousness disappears and you're left with the bitter and preservative properties, and an ultimately disappointing beer. In essence, hops are like a glamour model--you wouldn't kick 'em out of bed, but an older one without the layers really destroys the fantasy. This is why lighter, hoppier beers tend to have a shorter lifespan than the inverse.

    Stay sexy, gorgeous. Stay sexy, gorgeous.

    Even so, with all the said, the Best Before Dates printed on the bottles are quite arbitrary. Generally a brewer will look at the date that he brewed the beer, flip the calendar the requisite number of times in accordance with the style, and print it on the bottle. There are some agreed-upon guidelines--and it's all with the beer's best interest in mind--but a beer that's one day, one week, or even one month out-of-date would require an omniscient beer-God to taste the difference.

    Thus, it's fair to say that a Best Before Date is merely a guideline, and a somewhat arbitrary one at that. Quite often they're used as gimmicks and sadly don't tell the customer that much. For example, what does an expiry date of 10 years from now, as is the case with certain stronger and darker beers, mean? If you've had a beer sitting for 10 years, what is 10 years and three months going to do. 11 years?

    Obviously that is an example of an extreme. Nevertheless, I'd even go so far as to say that arbitrary dates unnecessarily upset a customer. A better option would be to assume the practice of printing "Born On" dates (and perhaps indicate a generally agreed-upon range for that particular beer) and let the customer take control because, truthfully, once out of the hands of the brewer and then the shop, the responsibility of care and proper storage lies with them.

    --Maggie

  • Lady Beer

    Such a pretty lady. beer. Such a pretty lady. beer.

    Oh boy--this opens a can of worms. Either this brings about images of massive cleavage on a pump clip or a froo-froo beer cocktail with an orange garnish. Nevertheless, the concept of "lady beers" isn't something that brewers should be embarrassed about.

    Truth be told, despite its centuries-old history here in the UK, beer is still deemed a "man's" drink while the ladies stick to wine. Nevertheless, there ARE some "gateway" styles that appeal to the typical wine-drinking lady: fruit lambics, fruit beers, witbiers, saisons, and perhaps some dark barrel-aged goodness. But that doesn't mean that these styles are sub-par or that they don't have the cojones to be called a beer. No! It just means that these beers are opportunities--opportunities to educate and expand into ladies nights.

    I complimented a brewer once on a one-off brew of his (that was HOT PINK, coincidentally) and mentioned how I thought it would be great to serve at a potential ladies-only event I was was thinking about as a way to introduce a wine-drinking woman to beer. I was met with a rather defensive "well, we like our beer" response. What the hell? Is a beer only a beer if it has a 5 o'clock shadow? For some reason some brewers resist the notion that one of their beers could be pleasing to a woman who typically prefers wine. Why? That just insinuates that if a non-beer-drinking-woman likes it, it is therefore an inferior product.

    So, if you make a beer that you find the ladies take an exceptional liking to, you made a good beer with no gender specification necessary. Embrace the fact that some beers are opportunities to educate and embrace. Just because the ladies like it, doesn't make it a lady-beer. But don't come crying to me, dear defensive brewer, if you make a hot pink raspberry flavoured beer and you've got women swarming your bar.

    --Maggie

  • Nonsense on Beer Labels

    Slapping these guys on a bottle makes about as much sense as a lot of what's out there. Slapping these guys on a bottle makes about as much sense as a lot of what's out there.

    Considering we're a beer retailer that offers hundreds of different beers, it should come as no surprise that we see a lot of different labels. Now, this isn't a commentary on a brewery's particular branding strategy, the logos they've chosen, or even on those breweries who think a woman's cleavage is the best way to sell a beer. No, this is a commentary on the amount of nonsense that's put on the side of the bottle.

    That's right: nonsense.

    There are some breweries out there (who shall remain nameless) that appear to have gotten drunk, grabbed the largest thesaurus they could find and strung together all the big words in a loosely-structured sentence. Just what is a customer supposed to take away about a beer when the label references the size of "Zeus's ass" and tells you to sleep late and have fun? Ummm...guess it tastes delicious?

    Brewers of the world, please respect your customers. Only put on the outside of the bottle what is actually on the inside (or put nothing at all.) If you're going to tell a customer that they will be absolutely assaulted by hops, they damn well should be. Of course we're not advocating that breweries should simply list the flavours the customer should be tasting (that's impossible anyway!) but one doesn't read a label in order to find out how "historically accurate" or "intellectual" or "punk" the marketing department of that particular brewery is.

    Feel free to wax-poetic about goddesses, or monks, or just how fashionably hipster one would be if they were to just take a sip of your delicious nectar. But much like a bag of crisps or a sandwich, people actually want to know what's inside. Please don't forget to talk to us about the beer. Please.

    With that said, check out these new labels (click on the Diablo picture) from Summer Wine Brewing Co. as they have been brought to us by Yorkshire beer author and blogger, Leigh Linley. They definitely straddle the line between fun beer information and silly nonsense--which side do you think they fall on?

    Leigh Linley--The Good Stuff

     

    (To clarify--we dig the Summer Wine labels! We didn't mean to single them out--just thought they were a good example of straddling the line and will leave the rest up to you. It was also coincidental that they've recently revamped them.)

    --Maggie

  • Beer Styles--Rubbish or Required?

    psychedelicskeletonClearly, all beers have a description (otherwise you've had too many.) On the most basic level a beer can be described as light or dark, bitter or not, strong or weak. But how do you categorize a beer that's amber coloured? Or sour? Or gives you a buzz after two? That's where beer style guidelines come in to play.

    Nevertheless, it's not that simple. There are some schools of thought that say that beer style guidelines are somewhat arbitrary and that it forces a beer into a little box that's been otherwise obliterated by more exceptions than rules. Take a look at Black IPAs, for example. If you were to read the generally accepted description for an American IPA the colour typically ranges from a gold to a dark amber. Yet, there are black IPAs in abundance in the industry these days. If you put the qualifier of "black" in front of it does it truly maintain its status as an IPA? Not according to the style guidelines! But don't tell that to brewers or those who have designed the broody black labels for the bottles.

    Nevertheless, some sort of categorization is very important to have--especially for the consumer. A style name and description gives the customer the expectation of what's inside the bottle. Have you ever been shopping for beer and picked up a bottle that has a really cool label with psychedelic 3D skeletons on it but you couldn't--for the life of you--tell what it was you were about to buy? If beer descriptions were to be deemed irrelevant everybody's beer choices would be subject to chance and you could end up with a mouthful of lambic and not expect it. Which, ummm, would be quite a shock.

    It's worth noting that the key word here is "guideline." Not a law. Not a commandment. Nope, just a guideline. There is so much overlap when it comes to style descriptions that they do seem somewhat groundless; it's hardly possible to make them into a law. Besides, what fun would beer be if it got its knuckles cracked by rulers for stepping out of line?

    --Maggie

  • The perils of craft distribution!

    So recently we got into a barney with one of our suppliers...that word supplier rather than brewery is important here as we've no quibble with the brewery it's just that they aren't the supplier of their own product.  Instead they have chosen to grant sole import rights to one company rather than deliver direct which has created the little drama we've had this week.  

    The brewery in question is Birrificio Italiano, a very exciting Italian brewery near Milan producing fantastic beer. They have unfortunately made the choice to go down this importer route rather than delivering direct to outlets like ourselves.  Unless done really well, this extra distance from the end consumer make the product more expensive and causes quality issues - the extra middleman adds a link in the chain making the beer more expensive and you need a supplier with a very slick supply chain to hurry your beer through.

    This latter problem is exacerbated if, like Birrificio Italiano you recommend that your beer is drunk fresh, and fresh usually means best before dates are about 6 months. The masters of slick international supply are Stone Brewing in the US.  They do use a distributor and slap a 4 month best before date on but have such a silky delivery system they get beer all the way to Britain from California ...by boat....and then onto us in less than 6 weeks. Birrificio on the other hand have chosen an importer with a supply chain at the opposite end of the spectrum.  Their delivery schedule seems to go something like

    1. Get beer delivered to UK depot.  

    2. Leave beer in importer's depot for up to 5 months

    3. Deliver to retailer with 3 weeks left on the BBE dates

    ...and that's a particularly big issue if people are buying Christmas presents so the end drinker doesn't get the beer straight away from them either....3 weeks just aint enough!

    So we'd love to have Birrificio Italiano beer in again but until this quality control issue can be solved (probably by changing importer!) we simply won't, and unfortunately we're left waving goodbye to a product we loved.  

    No worries though we'll be replacing it with another exciting brewery shortly and if you do want to try some perfectly safe but sadly out of date Birrificio Italiano beers then you can do so here! (we think there's a minimal effect on quality by the way- perhaps a 1% deterioration.)

  • Oktoberfest's soaring beer costs

    As Munich's annual Oktoberfest grows in popularity, it seems that "Beer Price Inflation" is growing at an alarming rate.  The average festival beer cost almost €10 this year, that's up 3.6% on 2012, and nearly 2.5 times what they were in the early nineties (Source: UniCredit).

  • Tasting day 2 at GBBF

    Having ticked off most of the beers I came down to try yesterday, randomness is going to be the strategy today. I don’t know what I’m going to go for, so the criteria for which beer I try is going to depend very much on where there’s a gap at the bar.  I’ll wander and let the fickle hand of fate determine what I try, that said I didn’t major on the big brewery bars yesterday, so will start there. The big brewers all have stands down the middle of the venue all trying to outdo each other. Most are heavy on the woodwork conjuring images of tradition and pubby expertise, there’s the odd exception though. Bombardier have a double decker bus- I must try and get on board for a photo!

    Shepherd Neame Goldings 4.1% - Ooo that’s not good at all.  It’s not possible I’ve got a bad pint at GBBF is it?  I check my programme, this is a summer hop ale described as having ripe fruits, but to taste it’s just a big glass of bitterness.  Not even a citrus bitterness, just a tongue stripping one.  It can’t be meant to be this bad.  I’ll come back and try this again tomorrow to see Appearance 3, Aroma 6, Taste 2, Finish 2 Total score 13/50

    Time to chat to the friendly chap on the Greene King bar. He used to drive a forklift in their warehouse but now runs their events (Cool job!)  He is also funny - in response to my question “So what should I have?” he says “a shower” Harsh - this is a fresh t-shirt and everything!

    Greene King Twisted Thistle (5.3%) – Much better, that’s an excellent IPA.  Lush fruits and low hoppiness, with a very floral aroma and middle taste Appearance 5, Aroma 7, Taste 7, Finish 8 Total score 35/50

    Greene King Hurdy Gurdy (4.1%) – This is a wheat beer, but where’s the wheat?  It’s see-through and lacks the lovely chewiness of something like a Schneider-Weisse.  I don’t like this, but I do like the reference to the Donovan song Appearance 6, Aroma 6, Taste 4, Finish 5 Total score 21/50

    Courage Imperial Russian Stout (10%) – Time to up the ante, with a half of this trembling beastie.  It’s not cheap at £4.50 for a half and it’s with a little excitement that I try it out.  My first thought is this is quite thin, I’d expected a thick cloying glue swirling in the glass, this looks watery and it is thinner to taste too, not from a flavour perspective which is high strength coffee and fruit but it slips down surprisingly easily.  It’s good… Mike Andrews from Wells & Youngs pops up. He’s master of the Bombardier bus and we chat for a bit as he’s been setting us up with stock for the Champion Bottled beer case we are doing, where their wonderful Special London ale made the final few.  It’s mid this conversation that the Imperial Stout catches up with me.  Wow that’s knocked me for 6 – a final swirl of the glass and I finish it off – I add the word smoky to my notes and move off, only realising afterward I’d forgotten to ask for a tour of the bus.  Note to self:-drink this in thirds. Appearance 7, Aroma 6, Taste 7, Finish 8 Total score 35/50

    Country Life Pot Wallop (4.4%) – I need a refresher and spot a gap at bar B5 and search for something golden.  Pot Wallop is my random selection and chance pays off as this is exactly what I wanted, it’s an excellent session ale with a good straw colour and fabulous head.  Lovely middle malts and I make a note to try more of this brewery’s stuff.  Appearance 8, Aroma 4, Taste 8, Finish 7 Total score 35/50

    My Pot Wallop has livened me up and I go for a late lunch at the Truckle Cheese stand.  This is the best food at GBBF this year for me, big chunks of cheese made into an excellent Ploughman’s lunch. You get a bit bored of pies so this is something very different. I’ll be back.

    Fullers Vintage 2013 Ale (8.5%) – It’s all a bit random when trying vintage ales as they vary so much from year to year and unfortunately the fates haven’t been kind this year.  It pours (unsurprisingly) with a thin head which hovers over a deep ashtray brown.  It starts well with a sweet malt taste but this gives way to an unpleasant lingering bitterness rolling around your mouth.  Not for me this time Appearance 4, Aroma 6, Taste 5, Finish 3 Total score 23/50

    More refreshment needed and continuing clockwise round the venue I see the cider bar.  I do like cider but don’t know a lot about it.  The helpful volunteer suggests I try the Parson’s Choice from Somerset and it’s good, a big appley aroma and a nice tart finish and this is the drink with which I call time today.  I head off to meet a friend for dinner but am a little early and wait in a bar on Fulham Road.  I’m swiftly reminded that this is London as they are selling Scotch Eggs and Oysters as their bar snacks.  The Oysters are £1.90 each but the Scotch egg is a whopping £5.80 as though it’s a special delicacy brought back from the north. Odd place this but I’ll be back tomorrow.

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