Monthly Archives: December 2011

Ridgeway’s Wicked Elves

Christmas is an interesting season for bottled beer, as many brewers produce seasonal ales just for this time of year. None more so than Ridgeway in Oxfordshire. I picked up five themed Ridgeway bottled beers from Booth’s supermarket. Ridgeway regularly produce Christmas specials, but they can be very hard to find, as most are intended for the foreign market, as were these. All were marked as being for export to the USA. How Booth’s got hold of them, I don’t know, but I’m glad they did.

Four of Ridgeway’s Bad Elves

The beers were Bad Elf, at 4.5%, Very Bad Elf at 7.5%, Seriously Bad Elf, at 9.0%, Criminally Bad Elf, at 10.5% and Insanely Bad Elf at 11.2%.

Starting with the lowest ABV, the rather fuzzy label on the bottle of Bad Elf depicts an unattractive elf helping himself to a draught from a huge beer barrel – what’s bad about that? Bad Elf is bottle conditioned and a light orange in colour. The smell is enticing – spicy and hoppy. The initial taste is briefly sweet, quickly followed by a satisfying swelling of very aromatic hop bitterness. The aftertaste is long and dry. Altogether a very satisfying drink, very nice indeed, though I did think it odd that this was classed as a Winter Ale – specifically a Christmas one. The taste is more reminiscent of light, hoppy summer beers.

The second bottle was Very Bad Elf. I was aware that even though I was only on the second bottle in increasing ABV, I had already reached 7.5%, strong by anybody’s measures. The label depicts our elf, with a wicked grin on his face, opening packages clearly marked ‘Do not open until Christmas’. The colour is a mid-orange, bright and attractive. There is a lovely smooth chewy mouthfeel to this beer. A spirituous alcoholic overtaste is also clearly discernible. There are hints (no more) of fruit and toffee, but overall, this beer does not have a huge amount of flavour.

The third bottle tried was Seriously Bad Elf. The again fuzzy label depicts the elf holding a schoolboy catapult, taking aim at a flying sleigh with Christmas baubles. OK, he’s getting a bit naughty now. Seriously Bad Elfis serious indeed, weighing in at a hefty 9%, and is described as an ‘English Double Ale’. These super strong beers tend to be a bit hit and miss in my experience. Some of them provide amongst the most sublime drinking experiences, whilst some just end up being foul. Fortunately, Seriously Bad Elftends more to the former than the latter. This beer has a very similar look to the 4.5% Bad Elf, being only a shade darker orange colour. There is no indication on the bottle that this beer is bottle conditioned, and there was no trace of yeast throw in the bottle. The beer has a slightly thick but very smooth mouthfeel, and the overall flavour is sweet and warming with some nice hoppy bitterness in the midtaste and a nicely rounded finish.

The label on the fourth bottle now shows our hero behind bars in a stripy shirt. Maybe he got caught flinging baubles at Father Christmas. Criminally Bad Elfcomes in at a whopping 10.5%. It is described on the bottle as a ‘Barleywine (sic) Style Ale’. The colour is a similar orangey-red to the previous two, but again a shade darker than Seriously. This ale does not form a good head, what little froth that first appears soon fades away. The mouthfeel is quite thick, but very smooth, almost velvety. This initial taste is cream, which fades and runs into a smoothly sharp finish. It’s excellent, the comfortable way it slips down belies its eye watering ABV – beware!

Three Bad Elves partying with some mates

Finally I reached the summit of elfdom, the 11.5% Insanely Bad Elf. The label now shows our hero sitting on the floor, wearing a straitjacket and drooling unattractively. This bottle is smaller than those for the other four elf beers, just 330ml as opposed to 500ml for the others. There’s a reason for that. Even the smell has a kick. The taste is very strongly alcoholic and is paired with a thick, viscous mouthfeel. The taste (when your heroic taste buds manage to climb over the alcoholic mountain to get to the flavour) is quite bitter and earthy. The aftertaste remains earthy but tends towards dryness. I don’t think I would drink this one out of choice. It’s just too strong and the taste isn’t worth the effort of reaching for. What I would do in the future with this beer is to put it down for a few years, and try it then. I can’t help thinking that this would transform it, perhaps into something quite special.

Altogether this quincunx of ‘Elf’ ales from Ridgeway is a real winner. There’s enough strength to satisfy the dedicated strong ale drinker and enough variety to satisfy anyone! I must point out that I didn’t sample them all on the same day! Well done, Ridgeway. It’s a shame that these beers are principally brewed for export.

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Posted by on 30 December, 2011 in Bottled Beer


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Two Bottles from Arran

Just a short one this time, I’m sure we’ve all got other things to do at this time of year.

Arran Brewery is located in Brodick on the beautiful Isle of Arran in Ayrshire. I was recently given two bottles from the brewery, brought back from Arran itself, though Arran bottles are available in my local supermarket.

Arran Sunset

Arran Sunset is described on the label as a ‘premium beer’, but no further clues are given as to what type of beer it is. It’s light orange in colour and has an ABV of 4.4%. Coming from where it does, this beer is probably best described as a heavy, or a best bitter.

The smell gives little away, and it took some time for any aroma to develop in the glass. The taste starts with fruit and flowers, which give way to a strong floral hop bitterness which in turn leads to a long aftertaste. This may be a traditional heavy, but the quality of the hops gives it a thoroughly modern feel.

Arran Blonde

Arran Blonde is also helpfully described on the label as a ‘premium ale’. I do wish brewers (or their admen) would stop using the word ‘premium’. It is just a buzzword and means absolutely nothing. Blonde weighs in at a respectable 5.0% and is a slightly hazy pale orange. It is fruity, the ABV showing in its robust smoothness. The flavour is rich, and there’s a taste in here – sweet with a slightly bitter edge – that makes me think of honey. There is little of hops in this beer. The aftertaste is short and ever-so-slightly bitter.

These are both very good beers and you should have no reservations about buying them.

Happy Christmas, one and all!

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Posted by on 23 December, 2011 in Bottled Beer


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Four Bottled Ales from Fyne Ales

Note first that the name of the brewery, ‘Fyne Ales’ is not a boast, it’s because of its location, at the head of Loch Fyne in Argyll. The brewery is ten years old and according to the Good Beer Guide, supplies 430 outlets from its ten barrel plant.

I was recently sitting in the excellent Prince of Wales pub in Foxfield, drinking companionably with a friend. We each had a pint of Fyne Ales Hurricane Jack, which we agreed was a very fine pint indeed. In fact, we concurred, we’d never had a bad pint from Fyne Ales.

I decided to follow up on the thread, and shortly afterwards bought four bottled Fyne Ales. The labels are smart and uniform, giving a little information about each beer. As I prefer to do, I drank them in order of increasing ABV.

Jarl – 3.8%

The first was Fyne Ales Jarl, a 3.8% blonde ale, described on the bottle as ‘A hoppy blond session ale’. It pours with a bright pale yellow colour and a creamy white head. The aroma is of strong fresh citrus. The flavour is also strong, grapefruit pithiness with strong fruity hop bitterness. The finish is dry, and gets drier in the aftertaste which is long and bitter. Absolutely brilliant. That would indeed provide me with a happy session.

Hurricane Jack – 4.4%

On to the second, my beer from the Prince of Wales, Fyne Ales Hurricane Jack. This is a bit stronger than Jarl at 4.4% and the bottle bears the description ‘A blonde & fruitily hopped ale’. And yes, they do spell it ‘blond’ on Jarl, and ‘blonde’ on Hurricane Jack. So then, another blond(e). It pours as a very pale yellow, with a white fairly short-lived head, unlike the Jarl head, which lasted to the bottom of the glass, by which time it had sculpted itself into a proper weird shape. Fun. There’s a strong citrus smell (hang on, haven’t I been here before?). The taste has strong elements of grapefruit pith and hops (yes, I have been here before). The flavour is not as strong as Jarl, but otherwise pretty similar.

Avalanch – 4.5%

Moving on, I came to Fyne Ales Avalanche, 4.5% and described as ‘a straw coloured well hopped ale’. Hmm. Another blonde then. The beer is a pale yellow colour. There is a clean citrus aroma, and the taste is strongly citrus pithy with a lot of hoppy bitterness. It’s clean and crisp, but I’m sure I’ve tasted something very similar recently.

Highlander – 4.8%

With a slightly sinking feeling, I poured my final bottle into my glass. Oh, and yes, I do wash my glass out between beers if I’m doing a tasting. Fyne Ales Highlander has an ABV of 4.8% and the label describes it as ‘a fine strong traditional ale’. With a little relief, I noticed that the colour was not pale yellow, but palish orange. Not a blonde then. There is a faint caramel aroma which I liked very much. The taste is slightly warming. Malty with toffee notes. There are also hints of orange in there, Hops appear towards the end of the taste. The aftertaste is small and short, but dryish. I’m not exactly sure what type of ‘traditional ale’ this is supposed to be – an English bitter or a Scottish heavy, maybe. Either way, it’s terrific.

Don’t get me wrong here. These beers are all excellent. I would happily drink any of them again. It’s just that the first three are so similar, it’s very hard to tell them apart. There are differences, but the similarities far outweigh them. I’d like to try them side by side on hand pump, but to be honest, if I walked into a bar that had all three of these on, I’d be disappointed at the lack of choice.

I’d be happy to encounter Highlander and any one of the other three ales in a pub, but not more than one.

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Posted by on 16 December, 2011 in Bottled Beer


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Cockermouth Beer Festival 2011

It seems that there is no time of year when a beer festival is not being held. Looking through the listings in What’s Brewing details enough beer festivals to fill every weekend of the year. Even early December, dismal and dank, has enough festivals to keep the dedicated drinker happy. The Cockermouth Beer Festival was held from Thursday 1st December to Saturday 3rd December 2011. Cockermouth is a pretty market town in the county of Cumberland, and the administrative area of Cumbria. It’s a major population centre in the midst of the sparsely inhabited area between the Lake District and the Scottish border.

The festival was held in the Kirkgate Centre on Kirkgate, and attractive street of early 18th century cottages, one of which Lady A and myself rented with a couple of friends for the festival. Being only a hundred yards from the festival has obvious advantages. Our friends had been to the Cockermouth Festival before, and pre-warned us that seating was limited and we would need to get there soon after the doors opened if we were to have any chance of sitting down. We duly arrived at the door of the Kirkgate Centre at 7 o’clock, and managed to secure a table.

The downstairs bar

The Kirkgate Centre has two main halls, one upstairs and one downstairs. For this first session, we sat in the downstairs hall, away from the deafeningly loud live music that blights so many beer festivals these days. The beers were arranged alphabetically, and downstairs had A-G (the bar upstairs was longer, being arranged along the hall instead of across it.) Breweries represented were Abbeydale, Barngates, Blackbeck, Coniston, Cotleigh, Cumbrian Legendary Ales, Dent, Derwent, Ennerdale, Foxfield and Geltsdale. The hall filled up very quickly, and I soon saw the wisdom of getting in early. It became quite a scrum to reach the bar.

We went upstairs for the Saturday afternoon session, getting in just on 12 o’clock. The bar upstairs continued from G to Y, dispensing beers from  Great Gable, Hardknott, Hawkshead, Hesket Newmarket, Jennings, Keswick, Kirkby Lonsdale, Madcap, Marston, Newman, Salopian, Strands, Stringer, Tirril, Titanic, Ulverston, Watermill and Yates Breweries. It was damned cold in the upstairs bar that afternoon, but it kept the beer in good condition. I can say that none of the beers I had at either session was out of condition.

The upstairs bar

Top beers for me from this festival were: Foxfield Encounter, a 4% bitter (I assume), with a thoroughly modern taste – smooth, slightly creamy and with a nice hint of biscuit. Another Foxfield brew – Stout, at 4.4% offered treacle, dark coffee and small traces of smoke. Hardknott Code Black, a 5.6% dark ale was an intensely hoppy mouthful with strong citrus notes and a devilishly bitter finish. Yates Best Cellar, a red-coloured beer, stronger than it tastes at 5.5% had a good, smooth mouthfeel with distinct toffee and fruit flavours.

Honourable mentions can be given to Blackbeck Carnival Kiss, Blackbeck Dolly’s Trick Shot and Stringer’s Stout No. 2.

The festival was well arranged and organised. All beers were dispensed through handpumps, and as I mentioned before, were in good condition. The staff were all helpful and ethusiastic.

If I may level one criticism at the festival, it would be that the beer list was a tad too ‘safe’. Most beers were in the 3.5 – 4.7% bracket, with only four breaking the 5% barrier. These were Hardknott Code Black (perhaps the most pleasingly different of all the beers I sampled), Jennings Snecklifter (a Jennings stalwart, always a favourite), Madcap Smoked Madness (at 6.9% by far the strongest beer on offer) and Yates’s Best Cellar (again, already mentioned as amongst my festival winners). There were lots of beers that tasted very samey. The majority of beers on offer were middle-of-the-road bitters and goldens. For example, when I came to read my tasting notes for the two Blackbeck beers, I found them to be almost identical. I enjoyed them both, but would have been happier if there had been something to distinguish them. Quite a few of my notes contain the words ‘dull’ or ‘uninteresting’. I want more from a beer festival, I want to taste new and exciting beers.

Although I understand that the festival was not a CAMRA one, but was organised by the local Round Table, and therefore raising money for charity was the main objective, I think there was room for a few more adventurous choices.

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Posted by on 9 December, 2011 in Beer Festivals, Cask Ale


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An Imp is Born

Last Saturday saw 2011’s reenactment of a now annual ritual in the household of my esteemed friend Dr Tristan Robinson. This is the time of year when the Imp is born. Tristan is an adventurous home-brewer, and for some years now has produced an annual Imperial Russian Stout. The first Imperial Russian Stouts (or ‘Imps’, for ease of typing) were produced by Thrale’s brewery of London, for export to the court of the Tsarina Catherine II of Russia. In 1781, Thrale’s Brewery was taken over by Barclay Perkins, and later by Courage. Tristan uses the recipe for the original Courage Imperial Russian Stout when preparing his own Ephemerale Imp.

Imps are very dark, very rich beers with high ABV, typically in the range 8 – 12%. The malts used in the Ephemerale brew are Pale, Crystal, Chocolate and Black. Whilst Tristan has just invested in a half-barrel plant, this is still stacked somewhat haphazardly in his garage on a windy Lancashire hilltop, so for now, the old plastic buckets would have to do. The 40 pint plastic boiler has a stretchable bag in which the malt (and later the hops) can be placed in the boiling liquor and which allows the solid ingredients to be removed without fuss in due time. This simple system effectively converts the boiler into a working mash tun. After the mashing, the malt is lifted clear of the liquor (now technically wort) and can then be sparged (rinsed) with clean water to wash the sugars out of the malt and into the hot wort.

The malt is lifted out of the liquor after the mashing

Once the wort has stood for a while, hops are added for flavour. The hops are introduced into the wort in the bag, the used malt grains being emptied out and given to the chickens to eat (they go mad for it).

Used malt – destined for the chickens

The hops used in this brew were an aromatic mix of Fuggles, Hallertau and Nelson Sauvin.

Preparing the hops for the wort

The brewing vessel was placed outside for this hour-long rolling boil. Once this boil is over, the hops are removed and the wort is boiled again to reduce it. This has the effect of thickening and concentrating the liquid. It took about an hour and a half to reduce the wort to the desired level.

Final boil

The wort is then passed into a fermenting vessel and left to cool to about 25C. Here the cold windy hilltop comes into its own. Once the correct temperature is achieved, yeast is added to the wort, and fermentation begins. The beer can then be racked into demijohns to complete the fermentation process. It takes several months to complete the fermentation, after which the beer can be clarified if necessary, and bottled. This particular Imp matures for two years, with the odd cheeky little taste along the way just to make sure that all’s well.

The reduced wort is poured into a fermenting vessel

I have a bottle of Ephemerale 2009 Imp in my beer store, waiting for Christmas Day. I had a little taster of this one a few months ago, before it reached its two-year anniversary, and it was tasting extremely fine. (Tasting notes for the 2009 Imp are here).

I look forward to the day in 2013 when I get to taste this year’s brew!

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Posted by on 2 December, 2011 in Home Brewing


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