• Blackcurrant tea: a DIY joint aid

    Having endured a miserable long and wet winter we’ve finally been treated to a few days of sun and my garden has at last received some much needed attention. Weeds have been pulled, beds have been dug and seeds have been sown. All of which has left me with aches and pains in joints that had forgotten what work was like.

    Earlier this week I was sent a review copy of a new book called ‘Practical Herbs 1’ by Finnish herbalist Henriette Kress. While taking a much needed rest I flicked through its pages, admiring the expert knowledge that has gone into it, with loads of information on some of our less obvious (and mostly wild) herbs and what to do with them.

    The likes of cleavers, chickweed and rose are all covered with instructions on how to make teas, tinctures, oils, vinegars and more. Being in the mood for a brew I turned to the index to see what I could quickly and easily make from something in my garden and decided upon blackcurrants – fruit season is a long way off but my plants are currently looking splendid with their bright green new leaves and blossom, and I know that those leaves can make a decent tea.

    According to the book, blackcurrant leaf tea has many health benefits, but the one I immediately noticed was for joint aches. I immediately hobbled into the garden for a quick picking.

    make your own blackcurrant leaf tea

    Henriette’s instructions are remarkably simple. 1 to 2 teaspoons of leaves for a cup of boiling water, which is left to steep for 5 minutes. Apart from that there is one small warning: “If you steep the leaves too long, the tannins render the tea almost undrinkable.” I filled my mug, set the timer and at 4 minutes 59 seconds whipped the leaves out, allowed the tea to cool a bit and started drinking.

    It’s a very tasty brew. There’s the musty tannin taste of blackcurrant that gives it a good, tea-ish bite and lots of fresh green flavours that make you feel healthy. The book recommends three cups a day for joints. I’ll put the kettle on again later and hope it works – there’s still a lot of gardening to be done.

    herbal tea book review

    Practical Herbs 1 & 2 by Henriette Kress are published by AEON Books


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  • Book review: CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide Belgium by Joe Stange and Tim Webb

    What’s the best country for a holiday? Is it:

    A. Spain, for its sun, beaches and vibrant night life

    B. Thailand, for its sun, beaches and amazing food


    C. Belgium, for its beer

    The answer is, of course, C and inevitably its the country we’ve visited more than any other. To enjoy a holiday in Belgium you don’t need a Lonely Planet, Rough Guide or any other book from the usual travel publishers, you simply need a Belgian beer guide. Of which CAMRA’s is the best.

    Now in its eighth edition, the book boasts descriptions on over 1,000 Belgian beers along with 800 of the country’s finest drinking haunts in which to enjoy them. If you can’t make a holiday out of that, you might as well stay at home with the cat.

    Like other travel books it opens with a bit of history, a bit about how to get there, and some stuff on Belgian food (which in our experience has been excellent. Especially the waffles). Then, it hits the beer. A huge A-Z section gives the lowdown on the country’s breweries, with a brief description and marks out of five for both the brewery and the beers they produce. It’s an astonishingly thorough run down of the nation’s beery goods from two authors whose palettes we’re happy to trust. Even if you’re not planning a trip to Belgium it acts as a great guide when considering a Belgian beer haul for home consumption.

    Once the beers are dealt with, the book moves on to the where to buy them. Nearly 200 pages, divided by the main cities and regions, with even a section on Belgian bars around the world. Each venue has a short description with essential information, and you’re also pointed in the direction of nearby beer shops and breweries that are open to visitors.

    The book also features maps, colour photographs and fact-filled boxouts. Pour yourself a Belgian beer, spend a few hours roaming this book’s pages, and start planning your best ever holiday.

    belgian beer guide


    Three of our favourite classic Belgian beers

    Are you a Belgian beer novice? Then we suggest these three beers are a good place to start…

    Westmalle Tripel, 9.5%
    Coming from one of Belgium’s famous Trappist Breweries, Westmalle originated the celebrated Belgian Tripel style and it’s still the best. ‘The stuff of eulogies’ according to the book.
    Buy it!

    Saison Dupont, 6.5%
    When we first started drinking hardly anyone had heard of a saison, but these days they’re a common sight. Too many modern versions simply bung a saison yeast into any old wort and hope for the best: which is to achieve something like this, the dry, peppery saison benchmark.
    Buy it!

    Verhaeghe, Duchesse de Bourgogne, 6.2%
    Barrel ageing is one of the latest beer trends, but few countries can match the way the Belgians do it. This is a tart, fruity Flemish Red, which has multiple flavours building up layers of delicious complexity.
    Buy it!

    CAMRA Good Beer Guide Belgium is available from the CAMRA book shop

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  • We’re on the hunt for World Cup beers

    Rejoice! The Football World Cup 2018 is nearly upon us. Evenings will be spent at home watching the telly and drinking beer. Evenings will be spent in the pub watching telly and drinking beer. For one month, we’ll be living in beer and football utopia.

    But we can’t start getting too excited just yet, because we’ve got important work to carry out before the first toot of a referee’s whistle booms out from our TV speakers. We’re putting together a list of World Cup Beers for the Independent – suggesting a beer to represent each country – and we need your help to track down booze from some of the countries involved.

    Beers must be available to buy in the UK and we’ve already got most of the European contenders covered (although some countries, such as hosts Russia, aren’t exactly setting the world alight with the bottles we’ve found). But for much of the rest of the world, there’s work to do.

    One country you don’t have to look for is Argentina. Much to our surprise, this one was easy to find, so we’ll be toasting Messi’s mazy dribbles with bottles of Quilmes lager. We’ve given you a taster of what this beer is like below and, hopefully, it’ll inspire someone to seek out other nation’s brews to help plug some our our gaps.


    Bottle quilmes argentina lager

    Quilmes, 4.9%

    The Quilmes label proudly boasts ‘Argentina’s favorite beer’ and, whenever this boast is displayed, you know what the contents are going to be: a mass produced lager. A little research shows that the Buenos Aires brewery is unsurprisingly owned by beer giant InBev, so we know roughly what we’re getting before we even pour. But, hey, it’s beer, with a decent amount of alcohol and, within the easy-going caramel sweetness, some pale malt and hopping does come through. Watching football can be thirsty work and, although this lager is no world beater, it amply does the job of providing beery refreshment while cheering on Messi’s magic and chomping on salty snacks. So we’ll be drinking it with pleasure. Unless, of course, you can do better…


    You can stock up on Quilmes at Beers of Europe

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  • Beer of the Week #106: Small Beer Brew Co, Dark Lager

    It’s Friday evening. I’ve had a tough, booze-free week and I’m ready for a well earned beer. But I’m playing in a high-stakes skittles game* at 9pm and the last time my team had a fixture at that hour we went out drinking beforehand and got thrashed, so tonight I want to turn up sober. But I’m gasping for a beer…

    Earlier this week a new brewery, The Small Beer Co, sent me a few bottles of their beers – a lager and a dark lager. As you might guess from the name, they’re dedicated to brewing ‘small beers’ or, in other words, beer that isn’t going to get you drunk in a hurry. Their lager is a very sensible 2.1% and their darker brew barely registers on the alcohol charts, coming in at a mere 1%. I like dark lager, so this seems a perfect opportunity to test it out.

    The first thing to note is the bottles. They’re the squat 330ml type that you only occasionally see (ace Bristol brewery Left Handed Giant also uses them) and they have clean, well designed labels with sketchy fingers making the ‘small’ sign over a shrinking white arrow. The smallness of these beers could hardly be emphasised any more.

    Small Beer’s dark lager looks great in my fancy tulip glass. It has a clean, almost jet-black body with an off-white honeycomb head that rises majestically as it’s poured, before steadily crumpling, leaving behind its lacy fingerprints on the glass. And it smells equally enticing: reassuringly beery with some lovely toasty notes from the well roasted grains. My expectations are rising.

    But like that tan head, those expectations become a little deflated on the first sip. It has the thinner, harder mouthfeel of a low ABV beverage and, with its eager fizz, the first impression is of a soft drink. But that’s the trouble with high expectations: they can only set you up for a fall and, on continued drinking, I start to focus more on the beer’s flavours and realise what a mighty fine brew it is.

    It has a malt cleanliness you would hope from a lager but with none of the sweet off-flavours that I’m used to from such a weak beer. It’s those roasted grains that do most of the work: they’re strong enough to cover for the lack of malt-body elsewhere (I suspect the 2.1% of the more standard lager is as low as the brewers dared to go without them) and they lend an easy-going burnt toast flavour that lingers without dominating. The toasty package is completed by light, peppery, lager-style hopping which is adeptly suited to the dark side of beer-life.

    It’s an impressive beer and meets the brief I gave it for the evening: I turn up to the sporting arena sober, but with the satisfying taste of beer already in my system, and I’m ready to smash some skittles


    It’s midnight and I’ve had a decent fill of beer (Green King IPA – the club where I play skittles doesn’t go in for choice). I can still taste residual toastiness from the dark lager and our team won its vital mid-table clash, despite me hitting my lowest ever score. So while I’m sure there will be many more occasions where a Small Beer Co lager will be very welcome, Friday night skittles won’t be one of them.  


    The lowdown

    Brewery: Small Beer Brew Co, London
    Beer name: Dark Lager
    Strength: 1%

    Small Beer Co Bottle Label

    *This is Somerset, where pubs and clubs have skittles alleys and league competition gets everyone together for a beer and top sporting action.

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  • An interview with: the Budweiser Budvar bike maker

    Media and marketing agencies are often conjuring up elaborate ruses in order to persuade us, bloggers and journalists, to promote their beer. More often than not the events they decide upon are too ridiculous to cover and the beers they’re promoting are not the ones we would recommend.

    But a few weeks ago we got sent a much more interesting marketing email. For starters, it came from Budweiser Budvar, a beer we’re very much fans of and have happily featured before on this site. And the scheme they have dreamt up was much more appealing: they’ve teamed up with custom bike builder Andrew Almond of Bolt Bikes to hand build a Budweiser Budvar bike and ride it all the way to their Czech brewery in Budweis.

    We wanted to find out more, so sent over some questions which Andrew kindly answered. If you’re a fan of bikes or beer, read on…

    A custom made bike business in London and a brewery in the Czech Republic sounds like an unlikely double act. How did you and Budweiser Budvar get together?
    The emphasis on craft is what really cemented the collaboration. We utilise hand fabricated parts, hand tooled leather and hand painted designs on our builds and it was this dedication to traditional skilled work and artistry that really resonated with the approach that Budvar takes to their brewing. There are other more economical approaches to doing what we do, and likewise with Budvar, but these alternatives often lack the authenticity in approach and the detail that sets what we do apart from the competition.

    What was the brief for the bike design?
    To start with, the bike had to be from the Czech Republic, which limited us to Jawa motorcycles, an usual choice for a custom build. Manufacturing tends to lend itself to the country of origin and this is true here, the Jawas are utilitarian and practical workhorses. They tend to be small capacity engines as a means for mobility over short distances and lack the performance approach of sports bikes or the larger capacity of tourers. The brief was to incorporate the craft that is put in the brewing of the beer. It was always going to be a challenge to turn a Jawain to a show bike but with vision we will get there.

    Apparently one of the bike’s fittings will be a copper ‘beer’ tank. We assume this won’t be full of beer for the journey?
    We always balance form and function in our custom builds – they should work as intended, and be beautiful and unique. If there is a copper beer tank on the bike you can be assured it will be full of beer!

    What other unusual bike creations have you made in the past?
    Our latest build is a Buell, another unusual and overlooked manufacturer – we like to be original in our approach so this provided a great start. The Buell is a ferocious bike, powered by a Harley Davidson engine that has been highly tuned, giving it a beastly aggressive sound and an incredible riding experience. I usually tend to favour vintage motorcycles but the Buell offers the rider a real thrill and consequently is the bike that has been involved in the highest number of fatalities. Buell’s are a real Marmite bike due to their unusual designs, they look like nothing else on the road, performance definitely proceeds style in their design.  We wanted to take this big lump of American muscle and give it a sleek continental look, leaving its distinctively 90s look behind for one reminiscent of cafe racers of the 60s.

    We made a new rear sub section to the frame and had the tank, fairing and seat hand made using aluminium. Literally 100s of hours of labour went into making the body work but we wanted to showcase the fabrication skills of our collaborator Jake Robbins and to create something completely unique. I wanted the bike to be for city riding and long distances and the bike was built bespoke to my geometry and style of riding – everything was done for a purpose.   Once this was achieved we really went to town with the metal work, giving it a real arts and craft look. The bike summarises our approach, to be innovative yet pay homage to classic styles of the past, to be different, to create something that worked as well as it looked, and that utilised craft at its very core.

    The ride includes stops Amsterdam, Bruges and Prague. What are you most looking forward to about visiting those cities?
    Riding motorcycles has introduced me to a world wide community of people with a shared interest, it really is a small scene in many ways. We will visit our friends in each city who are involved in the custom motorcycle scenes and have a party along the way. Hopefully we can pick up a few riders at each stage and bring them along for the trip.

    We used to go to Bruges quite regularly and stayed in a hostel called Bruno’s Passage. We once had to climb in through a window when Bruno’s back passage door was locked, which wasn’t easy after a night of Belgian beer. I hope Budvar are putting you up in more refined accommodation?
    Well, we usually stay at Charlie Rockets, a bike friendly hostel in the centre of the city. The best part is that they let you park your motorcycles in the abandoned cinema that resides out the back. Entering through the back alley you ride in through an old wooden door and across wooden planks before emerging in this huge empty space.

    What else will you be taking in on the journey? We understand other riders will be able to join you on the way to Budweis?
    The journey will be dictated by the small capacity two stroke engine, it really will not fair well on the motorways. This is the exciting part, planning a route through the county roads and passing through small towns as we go. You ride a motorcycle for the fun of the journey, you feel the elements and you are exposed, you take it all in. There will be a small group of us going and we will pick up friends along the way, it’s going to be a challenge and a lot of fun.

    There will be fresh, unpasteurised Budweiser Budvar straight from the cellars on arrival. For beer fans, this is a rare treat. Are you much of a beer drinker yourself and what expectations do you have for this thirst quenching reward?
    I visited the brewery in February and was surprised at how different the beer tasted straight from the tank – consequently I realise the standard of our local beers in London It was an experience I look forward to repeating and during those 1,000 miles in the saddle I am sure that first pint will be in my mind for much of the journey.

    When the trip is over and you’re back home in Stoke Newington I imagine you’ll have a few good tales to tell your mates over a few pints. Which of Stoke Newington’s fine boozers do you call your local, and do they serve Budvar?
    There’s a lot of pubs in Stoke Newington for such a small area and many of them offer a good selection of craft beers, although most tend to be from local breweries. I usually have a good stock of beer in the garage thanks to Budvar so tend to make use of our cobbled yard where friends can ride in, park up and join Simone, our Head mechanic, and myself. If i do go to a pub it’s usually the Price of Wales, located in a residential street nearby.

    You can follow Andrew’s bike adventures on Budweiser Budvar’s Czech Stories website


    Bolt Bikes Budweiser Budvar

    Andrew at Bolt Bikes HQ

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  • Cold comfort – a Muck Boot review

    As much as manufacturers try to seduce us with their shiny wares, the products we feature on these pages need to be pretty special before we are prepared to commit finger to keyboard and type some nice words of recommendation.

    Props then to the folks at Muck Boot, who – with an impeccable sense of timing – managed to wang us a pair of wellies just in time to test out during the recent ‘Beast from the East’ trilogy.* Snow is a relatively uncommon winter occurrence down here in the mild, mild West of England** so when the white stuff hit Bath (six inches and rising), it caused apocalyptic scenes of panic and social dis-order.

    Thirsty HQ was hit particularly hard. Tesco had cancelled their home delivery service due to the treacherous conditions so an expedition to the local CO-OP was required to go and wrestle a pensioner for a pint of milk. Muck Boots’ offering proved to be the perfect shoe for such an arduous task. They had sent us a pair of Arctic Excursions, an insulated boot designed for action in extremely low temperatures (down to -40C it said on the label) and they did indeed keep my toes warm and dry during that gruelling 1.3 km snow-bound trek.

    Styled in the fashion of the Chelsea boot, my sawn-off wellies gave my legs freer movement than what a traditional knee high boot would afford. They proved to be ideal for running away from the CO-OP full pelt, clutching the last pint of milk from the shelves – the shouts of angry pensioners drowned out by the crunching of snow and my own manic laughter.

    To purchase a pair, go here

    Box-fresh boots don’t grip so good on slippery surfaces and you might find yourself doing a ‘Bambi on ice’ on your wellies inagural outdoor excursion. To prevent such an ignominy, find a rough surface such as a patio or patch of gravel and perform an Ali shuffle for a minute or so. This will scuff off the factory sheen and provide the necessary purchase required for stepping out onto perilous wintery ground.

    * I enjoyed 1 and 2, but I thought the third instalment was a little underwhelming.

    ** Default weather setting – drizzle.

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