• Are fuchsia berries edible? Yes! We’re thinking booze…

    Last summer I was having a drink in a friend’s garden when she leant over to her hedge, plucked a few fuchsia berries and offered them to me. Until this point I had no idea they were edible. I’ve hardly ever grown fuchsias so hadn’t even considered they might have berries that you can eat. But they are edible, and they were rather nice. Thoughts immediately turned to booze…

    I’m not sure I want a large fuchsia bush in my garden, so this year stuck a plant in a pot instead as a starting point for some berry experimentations. The plant didn’t grow particularly large* and, whereas my friend’s berries have a slight fruity juiciness, mine were lacking in such tempting flavours and, instead, were dominated by the peppery flavours of the skin. Not horrible, but not particularly appealing for a boozy beverage either.

    Following a little research it seems that the different varieties do have varying tastes. According to the excellent Drunken Botanist website it’s the Fuchsia splendens variety that provides the tastiest fruit, suggesting using them in a simple syrup for cocktails as the best way of enjoying them in booze. And having tweeted a picture of my own fuchsia berries Lancashire Mead Co. thought they might make a good addition to mead making.

    If I’m going to run some proper fuchsia-booze experiments then I’ll need to plant a bigger and tastier variety or raid someone else’s bush. But if anyone reading this has already tried a few fuchsia flavoured beverages then let me know.

    you can eat a fuchsia berry

    *It has been partially elbowed out of the way by some self-seeded kale (you can see a few leaves peeking out in the above image) which looked too tasty to cast aside

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  • How do I store wine? We meet the cellar fitting experts

    A few days ago I popped round to Thirsty Rich’s allotment to help out with a few chores. We needed a rake from the shed. It took a while to open the door – hop bines swarmed around the timber slats, fixing it shut much more effectively than the rusty lock on my shed – but once inside I was met with a HORRIFIC SIGHT. Scattered among the tools, buckets and bits of broken wood were bottles of home brew. Ciders, beers and a dusty bottle of my 2012 vintage elderberry wine. Not the best environment for quality booze, especially considering the long, hot summer we’ve just been through.

    To find out more about how precious wines should be kept we caught up with a company called Wine Racks UK. They provide bespoke wine storage solutions, fitting out cellars and supplying some of the finest Wine Racks in the UK and beyond. Besides asking them about ideal storage conditions we were also interested in their ‘dream cellar’ contents – surprisingly, my elderberry wine didn’t get a mention…

    How did your Wine Racks business start out?
    A family-run initiative, Wine Racks began in 1977, before expanding into the thriving business it is today. The company started out when the father of founders Adam and William Moore wanted a wine rack, so Adam decided to make him one. Friends of their parents were impressed and wanted one as well, so Adam donned his best suit and visited catering companies and wine merchants locally. He soon realised that there was a market for his wine racks, so he worked hard and visited companies throughout the UK to get the brand out there. 

    Wine Racks now not only supply private individuals & companies throughout the UK, but regularly export to Europe and other parts of the World. 

    What’s the best way to store wine?
    Ideal home storage conditions is lying the bottle down horizontally, in a cool, humidity-controlled, dimly-lit room which isn’t prone to temperature fluctuations or vibrations. The basement is, therefore, the usual choice and the most popular place for us to fit wine racks or entire cellars. 

    If you’re serious about collecting wine then it’s also a good idea to invest in a wine cellar cooling unit, which keeps the room temperature constant and cools the air gradually, whilst maintaining the humidity in the air.

    You produce bespoke wine racks in various materials – are there any materials that are better than others?
    Yes, certainly. The cheaper wooden materials, such as cedar, fir and poplar are best avoided because they can taint the wine’s natural taste and aroma – a nightmare for any serious collector! 

    Popular wooden materials like pine or oak are used for racks because they’re strong and remain durable in humid conditions which are perfect for cellars and they also don’t tend to crack or produce mildew. However, if your wine storage space is overly damp, wood might not be appropriate and we might recommend using metal racks instead. 

    Metal racks are just as good but they can be difficult to get an exact fit, especially in spaces which are shaped awkwardly.

    What’s the most complicated cellar you’ve fitted out?
    There are a couple that come to mind. The first was an ice house that was circular in shape and had to be accessed from the top, using a scissor lift. The wine racks had to fit around the entire circumference and it was difficult to make the wine racks complete the circle, as you can only work with full bottle holes.  

    The second one was a hexagonal shaped wine cellar and the wine racks had to follow the shape of the cellar. The angles were not consistent, which meant that each angle had to be cut on-site to achieve a perfect fit!

    What’s the oddest thing you’ve found in a cellar?
    We went to fit out one wine cellar and arrived to find three frogs had made it their home and were comfortably living there. As the wine cellar fitter was a bit squeamish, he asked the owner to remove them. The owner then had to ask his daughter to remove them! Luckily, the frogs were rehomed safely in a new environment.

    Name five wines that would be stored in your dream cellar?

    • Jeroboam of Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill Champagne
    • St Emilion Cheval Blanc
    • Chateau Latour
    • Chateau Margaux
    • Taylors 1963 vintage port


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  • What is keg beer? We meet the keg makers

    Back in the day, when we paid for pints with £1 notes and still had change for a bag of chips on the way home, ‘keg’ was a swear word. In the battle between cask and keg our allegiances were to the former: the beer we wanted to drink tasted better if it was naturally conditioned in the cask; beer in kegs was a poor imitation of our favourite beverage.

    But times have changed and, although there are still differences between the two methods of storing and serving, only a stuck-in-the-muds would refuse to drink beer from kegs out of principle. We enjoy great beer from casks, and we enjoy great beer from kegs. To find out more about the modern beer keg we caught up with keg makers Petainer, whose products use latest PET materials and technology, to find out more…

    What are the main differences between keg beer and cask beer?
    Cask beer is usually less fizzy and should be served between 11 and 13 degrees Celsius, using a hand-pull. Beer from kegs, on the other hand, is fizzier and should be served at cooler temperatures between 2 to 8 degrees and through a beer front.

    In terms of creation, both are brewed using the same methods, but cask beer is only partly prepared before it is entered into the cask. It isn’t filtered or pasteurised and a second fermentation is needed. This happens once the beer is in the cask, along with sugar, which reacts with the already present yeast and carbonates the beer. 

    Casks must be stored carefully, on their side and in a cool place until this secondary fermentation process is complete. Once cask beer is tapped it should be consumed in a matter of days because it’s already come in contact with oxygen.

    Keg beer is already filtered and sterile before it enters the keg, and then carbonated using CO2 directly into it. It’s then ready to drink.

    In essence, making and serving kegged beer is not as complicated a process as cask beer. Both do require expertise and training to create a lovely tasting beer. 

    How have you seen demand grow in recent years and, if so, why do you think this is the case?
    Demand has certainly grown in recent years and this probably most down to the fact that one-way PET kegs are increasingly being used as an alternative to their steel and glass counterparts. One of the key reasons is because they cut out costly return logistics, as they are simply recycled once empty. This offers considerable supply chain savings to breweries and drinks producers. 

    In addition, PET kegs are just 10% the weight of a traditional steel keg, making handling at the filling plant and on-trade easier.

    Petainer kegs claim to be more sustainable than traditional steel and glass kegs. How is this sustainability achieved?
    PetainerKeg  has a lower total cost of ownership than other packaging formats such as steel and glass, because it can be filled, sent and recycled when it is empty, cutting out the expensive return logistics and the washing processes.

    Moreover, only minimal investment or adjustments to filling lines are required because the keg has been designed to be filled using existing equipment, whether that is carried out manually, or on semi and fully automatic lines.

    The keg can also be sold as a kit and then blown and assembled at the filling plant in the local market, providing cost-efficiencies and helping to improve profits for larger breweries producing high volumes of draught beer. 

    We truly believe in a zero waste methodology and try to carry that through to our products.

    What are the advantages to breweries and consumers of using Petainer kegs?
    There are several benefits, including cost savings, a sustainability approach and logistical advantages. The kegs also offer CO2 and O2 gas barrier properties, helping to protect the quality of the beer, which ensures the freshest product for consumers. 

    VLB taste tests show that after nine months using a Petainer keg, the taste has not been compromised at all, and is on a par with steel kegs.


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  • Five American beers we want to see in the UK

    Most of the beer we drink comes from our patch of the south west. That’s because most of the pubs and retailers we visit sell a lot of local booze and we like supporting our local businesses.

    But we still like to augment our local favourites with beer from the rest of the UK and the occasional sampling of foreign stuff. And not only are we eager to taste what the rest of the world is up to but a steady stream of new beers from overseas keeps our local brewers abreast with global trends, inspiring them to innovate and push their brewing boundaries in new directions.

    A few days ago I was invited to a London lunch hosted by the American Brewers Association, where some of the most exciting new American beers were enjoyed in the company of some of the American brewers that made them. Of the drinks showcased only one had previously been notched on my tastebuds – Hardywood’s VIPA, a Virginian IPA so tasty we gave in a top ten slot in a piece for the Independent – and the others were so impressive that I’ve decided to pick out my five favourites for this blog. So here goes…

    Maui Brewing Company, Bikini Blonde, 5.2%

    Beers from Hawaiian brewery Kona have made an impression on the UK drinks scene, but this was my first tasting of anything from Maui. One of two beers they supplied (the other was the tropical and punchily bitter Big Swell IPA), this lager was my gentle introduction to the event and it quenched my immediate thirst a treat: a very light and easy going beer with a bit of malt character peeping through at the finish.

    Boston brewing IPA

    Boston Beer Company, Samuel Adams New England IPA, 6.8%

    It was inevitable that at least one of the beers on the menu would be an in vogue New England IPA, and this hazy treat packed the requisite hop juiciness and more. Galaxy, Simcoe, Mosaic, Citra and Cascade are the hops that combine to serve up a full-on tropical storm while wheat and oats add some creaminess to the malty base. The Samuel Adams range of beers is always worth investigating and this new offering shows the brewery is still hitting the high notes.

    Fifty Fifty Brewing Company, Barrel Aged Donner Party Porter, 10.9%

    Although a rapidly increasing number of UK breweries are barrel ageing beer (including our local ace experimenters Wild Beer) we don’t think many have quite achieved the consistently brilliant results of their Belgian and American counterparts. This Fifty Fifty porter is brewed with vanilla, coffee and cocoa nibs and all three ingredients are obvious from the outset, mingling nicely with the roasted grains and woody matureness. It has a lovely full bodied feel creating the impression of a boozy ice cream sprinkled with dark chocolate.

    Lickinghole Creek, Enlightened Despot, 11.3%

    I feel massively lucky that I’ve had some of Lickinghole Creek’s barrel aged beers before. They’re of such a luxuriously high standard that the feeling of drinking one must be akin to a wine buff dipping into a cellar for the most expensive old vintage he can find. This Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Russian Stout is immediately boozy, full of oaky alcohol flavours, roasted coffee, bitter chocolate and hints of spicy, fruity sharpness that brings those expensive old red wines to mind. Amazing stuff.

    West Sixth Brewing, Meadoweisse, 4.7%

    Having started with a light lager, before moving through the gears to an imperial stout (all accompanied with some amazing food from restaurant Brat) it was a smart sommelier’s stroke to finish with a light and refreshing Berliner Weisse. West Sixth provided us with a clean, simple example of the style – the sourness had a cidery crisp and acidic bite and it had a nicely satisfying neutral fruitiness to it (undoubtedly fruity but not in a way you could pinpoint a specific fruit likeness). A very satisfying finish.


    For more on the American Brewers Association www.brewersassociation.org

    For Jay Rayner’s Guardian review of Brat wander over here

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