We’ve been bombarded with press releases piggybacking Dry January, Burns Night and Valentine’s Day. Here’s a selection of the boozes we guzzled for the occasions…
Alcohol Free Beers
At the back end of last year we put together a list of the best alcohol free beers for the Independent following a mammoth, week-long tasting session.* Since then we’ve been inundated with breweries and PR companies asking if we’ve tried their products. In most cases the answer was ‘yes’, but they weren’t good enough to topple the winner, vandeStreek Playground. Of those that failed to get a mention but deserve some credit were alcohol-free versions of Adnam’s Ghost Ship and Green King’s Old Speckled Hen (both 0.5% ABV). Each one tasted remarkably similar to their booze-backed namesakes with the only obvious tell tale signs of difference being a slightly thin finish to Ghost Ship and a touch of raw malt Speckling the Hen’s flavour. We would both gladly drink them in place of alcohol in future.
Joining the alcohol-free party was a new rum punch called ‘Punchy’. As with our beers, the producers have created two versions – one with alcohol (at 4% ABV) and one without. They were both similar tasting and very decent drinks, with tropical fruit flavours and a touch of ginger coming through at the finish. They managed to avoid the over-sweet, syruppy taste of similar drinks with some dry fizz giving them a bit of sophistication. The rum in the alcohol added an extra layer of smooth warmth and some richness to the flavours – and although the alcohol-free version was perfectly drinkable, the dab of rum reminded us why alcohol is so great: it’s not just about its intoxicating effects, it simply makes perfectly good drinks taste and feel even better.
Supermarket giant Tesco recently unveiled a new range of single malt whiskies at bargain prices, each representing a different whisky making region of Scotland: Speyside, Highland and Islay. With the press release arriving just a few weeks short of Burns Night our eyes were drawn to the tactically smart food matching notes of the Highland offering: “Pair with a veggie or traditional haggis supper.” Nick got himself a bottle and performed haggis and whisky scoffing duties, mixing his glass of Highland malt with soda water to make it a more meal-friendly drink. His gravy-stained, scribbled tasting notes read thus: “Enough oaky depth to cope with the peppery haggis and mustard, and there were also accents of floral honey riding the fizz, adding a refreshing touch to the meal.”
Tesco’s new Glenfairn single malt whiskies, including our Highland edition, are all priced at £20 per 700ml bottle and are available from the Tesco website
Nelson’s Gin, 41%
With Valentine’s Day looming we were at the end of a flurry of marketing emails promoting romantically themed boozes (and some limited edition Marmite). One such notification that caught our attention came from Nelson’s Gin, who released a limited edition rose and raspberry gin that was promoted by Master Distiller Neil Harrison with this line: “The combination of the dopamine-boosting alcohol, aphrodisiacal rose petals and libido-enhancing raspberries is the perfect way to get things going this February.” We prefer to focus on flavour rather than other potential fruity shenanigans and can report that it’s a floral delight with subtle hints of fruitiness from the raspberries.
The gin is available on its own (at £40 per 700ml bottle) or in a gift set with chocolates (priced £58.82) from the Nelson’s Gin shop.
Green Grow is an innovative new business that has developed sustainable techniques for growing mushrooms on used coffee grounds and whisky grains, which are then used to produce ready-to-cook meals. We caught up with Business Development Manager Dr Isabella Guerrini de Claire (pictured with Director Iain Findlay) to find out more about the project and how mushrooms can play a key role in creating a more eco-friendly future…
You grow mushrooms using coffee and whisky grains. How did the idea for this come about? The idea is originally from the Blue Economy work of Gunter Pauli but in our case, we wanted a showcase to help companies understand the principles of the circular economy which we mentor start-ups in, and promote to other organisations, both private and public. Re-using bio-resources like coffee and grains is a necessary step to make better use of resources without depleting natural systems. The mushrooms grown on coffee seems to be an effective way to demonstrate these principles so that people quickly grasp the idea more generally. I was cycling past a distillery one day and just watched as all that heat went to waste. I thought it would be a perfect match-up and we approached the distillery who were happy to let us try.
What are the techniques you use to grow the mushrooms and what are the advantages of growing them this way? We use fairly standard mushroom growing techniques but have adapted some parts. For example, we’re re-using captured waste heat from a distillery as well as growing on the grains. The low grade heat in the water is normally allowed to disipate into the atmosphere before the water is released into the environment. We re-channeled the water into shipping containers to create the necessary warmth and humidity to make the mushrooms grow. The advantages are that we save on fossil fuels and make better use of the used bio-resources to create at least two more products, mushrooms and mushroom compost.
We collect sawdust from a local sawmill to use as a fuel source. We also re-use plastic containers thrown out by a local bakery as our growing containers. These can be re-used multiple times, rather than the single use plastic bags that are used in oyster mushroom production. Our new system uses some pretty fancy engineering to create good growing conditions and we can control this remotely using feedback from the system. And finally, the ready-to-cook meals are plant based so that encourages people to eat a healthy diet. The mushroom compost is then added to the soil to re-build natural capital, a prime goal of the Circular Economy.
Does the growing medium affect the flavour of the mushrooms? Ha. If only that were true. No, the mushrooms digest the lignin in the growing medium and all they taste of is really lovely mushrooms.
What type of mushrooms do you grow? We grow oyster mushrooms on the bio-resources. Mushrooms inhabit an enormous variety of niches in nature as decomposers and are adapted to those materials only. We will likely start to grow other kinds, but on the coffee and distillery/brewery grains we stick to grey oysters.
Where do you get your whisky grains from? We get them from a Speyside distillery. We have signed a non-disclosure agreement and can’t tell you their name. We also use coffee grounds collected from a local Costa cafe, but also sawdust from a local sawmill at Logie Estates near Forres, who power their machhinery using renewable energy sources.
Where do your mushrooms get used? We are using them to add to our vegan ready-to-cook meals, but we also sell some locally through a vegetable box scheme.
You’ve launched a crowdfunding campaign. How can people get involved in the business? Yes, the crowd-funding campaign is aimed at helping us to understand potential customers but also to fund raise for the equipment we need to develop some of the really interesting aspects of mushrooms. We want to use the roots, the mycelium, to develop bio-degradeable packaging for our products – mushroom meals wrapped in their own roots. People can visit our website www.greengrowfoods.shop.
They can also follow us on twitter @GreenGrowFood or on Facebook for updates and fascinating fungi facts. We need to get access to some machinery and also fund the R and D. Most perople are now aware of the danger we are in because of plastic packaging. Mushroom based technology can play a part in develping alternatives that are bio-degradeable, compostable and even nutritious if a passing turtle or fish comes across a piece.
How do you see your business developing over the next few years and are there any plans to try other sustainable growing mediums? We want to expand the number of people growing mushrooms using our system. They can then sell the product themselves or sell them back to us for inclusion in the ready-to-cook meal boxes. This allows them to focus on growing the mushrooms without having to put in lots of effort to sell them. Our system, developed with a renewable energy company, allows for the growing conditions to be monitored and controlled making it easier for people to be successful, but it also allows for product traceability which is important for some of the higher end applications we want to explore, like medicines and packaging materials. We are working with some very cool groups in Belgium, including a PhD, to develop the mycelium packaging. If we can do it for ourselves, then we can develop transformative solutions for other companies who need eco-friendly packaging.
We’re looking into other sustainable growing mediums but need to focus on what we know works for the moment. There are a lot of grains and coffee out there that can be re-valorised and turned into healthy food, exceptional soil conditioner or new packaging materials.
Finally, can you recommend a mushroom-based dish and a whisky to have with it. I would have to go with our mushroom lentil meal. The lentils are grown at 1,000m in Italian co-operative farms and are really delicious. If I was drinking whisky with that meal I would probably have to go with a Bowmore 12 year old. And yes, I would add a wee dash of water too.
On Friday 25 January 2019 the beer world was ROCKED by the announcement that Japanese booze giant Asahi had bought Fuller’s brewing business for £250 million. Social Media frothed like a pint of London Pride forced through a sprinkler, while beer experts scurried to keyboards and radio stations to deliver their verdicts on the takeover.
Exactly one week later were due to meet up on a working trip to London. Should we use this opportunity to delve deeper into the story? What would be our take on the takeover? Who would be the winners and losers? After pondering these questions for a few seconds we decided to simply drink the beer instead, so planned a hunt for six products from Asahi’s new portfolio to see how they all compared before the businesses were properly integrated.
When the day arrived, the South West was buried under a foamy white head of snow. While I was able to battle the blizzards and safely get to Frome train station, Rich was less fortunate in his Alpine dwelling on the edge of Bath and remained trapped in his house like a wasp in a glass of cider – angrily thrashing at the walls trying to escape while everyone else is shouting “you’re better off where you are.” So I went on a frosty beer hunt alone…
Pilsner Urquel, 4.4%
Many of those who are unconcerned about Asahi’s ownership of Fuller’s point to the fact that Pilsner Urquel, the world’s first lager, has been produced to the same high standards for years. I cannily arranged a mid-afternoon meeting in the Argyll Arms, opposite Oxford Circus tube station, where the Czech lager was on tap and ordered the first glass of it I’ve had for years.
The beer had loads of flavour, with the light grain of the malt and the moreish pepper of the hops working perfectly in tandem. You can pick any classic lager descriptor and put a tick by it: Clean? Yes. Fresh? Definitely. Crisp? Absolutely. A well rounded glass of refined refreshment with enough of a bitter finish to induce a satisfying ‘ahhhh…’
Meantime, London Pale, 4.3%
We’ve always liked Meantime’s beers yet are rarely drawn towards them in a pub, so on the occasions we order one of their brews it feels like we’re rediscovering them all over again. After my meeting at the Argyll Arms I stayed around for one more drink and was joined by a Finnish chap* nursing a pint of Siren’s Broken Dream. If I wasn’t on this specific beer drinking mission I would’ve ordered this rather than anything by Meantime, but I diligently stuck to the task and opted for a London Pale instead.
This was another deliciously refreshing beer. But whereas Urquel’s Pilsner had the crisp, clean flavours of a beer that has been lagered to perfection, this pale ale had the fresh vibrancy of youth: bright and breezy with the citrussy zest of American hops, a little bit sweet and sticky, and an earthier bite of bitterness at the finish. Perfectly enjoyable for a late afternoon drink (although I still hankered after that Broken Dream).
Asahi Super Dry, 5.0%
Rich’s research led me to the Bloomsbury Tavern near Tottenham Court Road for an Asahi Super Dry, but the pub had none. Not wanting to waste a trip to a decent pub I had a swift glass of Angelo Poretti Originale – a rather lifeless lager with bread and peach flavours that did little more than emphasise how good the earlier beers were. On the way to my next pub I passed an All Bar One which did boast Super Dry among its line-up. This turned out to be my least favourite pub of the day; the least favourite beer on my hit list; and the most expensive beer.
It’s easy to be a beer snob about mass produced lagers like Asahi’s, but they’re hugely popular and, in many ways, it takes more brewing skill to get them to the same standard all over the world than it does to produce a one-off porter stuffed with cocoa nibs in a railway arch. However, the high fizz and low flavour isn’t my thing and, although it was easily drinkable, without any off-notes to grumble about (and even a hint of grass and lemon-pith flavour at the finish) I can’t imagine ordering it again on many occasions.
Fuller’s London Pride, 4.1%
Back in the early 1990s London Pride was a rare beast at our favourite Somerset pubs, so when it showed up as a guest ale it was something of an event. Over the years it started appearing more regularly – and in a few pubs as a permanent addition – although the quality seemed a little less consistent, which could’ve been due to it being less well kept in some of the crustier boozers we frequented.
More recently, getting a decent pint of beer is a lot less challenging than it was so we don’t have to rely on the likes of Fuller’s for quality, although we still drink it fairly regularly, particularly when we’re in London, and reckon it tastes as good as now it has ever has.
My Pride at the Jack Horner’s pub on Tottenham Court Road was spot on, with caramelised orange just sweetening up the malty backbone while wafts of Fuller’s yeast make it, to me at least, smell like the quintessential English bitter. I could’ve easily sunk into this for a long session but there were more beers to find…
Dark Star, Hophead, 3.8%
Whenever we’re in London we aim to get back to Paddington in plenty of time for the journey home. At least half an hour gives us the opportunity to load up on train snacks and ride the escalator to Fuller’s station pub, the Mad Bishop and Bear. The beers are always in top condition and more often than not it’s Dark Star’s Hophead we make a beeline for (which transferred production to Fuller’s Chiswick brewery last year) and is one of the best contemporary cask ales around.
To maintain that tradition I ordered a Hophead, along with a plate of curry, to see me on my way and it was as good as ever. As you would expect from the name it has a lot of hoppy character, with Cascade’s grapefruit bitter tones enough to kill off any other lingering flavours of London that might be loitering around the taste buds. It’s not particularly strong and the malt is light, but it’s much more than a hop showcase: a quaffing, glugging, swigging triumph that always makes me want to squeeze another in before legging it to the train.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s we made regular trips down to Portsmouth, doing little more there than watch football and drink beer (with the occasional round of pitch and putt). Our most frequently visited pub was The Fifth Hants Volunteer Arms where we would drink almost exclusively Gales HSB**, a unique, old fashioned type of fruity, nutty English bitter that gave us equally unique hangovers. By the time Gales business was bought by Fuller’s in 2005 our Pompey trips became less frequent and, when we were in town, the pubs we visited became more varied – not least because many of our local friends grumbled that HSB wasn’t the same since the buyout. When Gales ales did show up at the bar we usually downgraded to Seafarer to avoid those hangovers.
Unfortunately I didn’t encounter any Gales pump clips on the trip to London so we’ll have to revisit those beers at a future date, hopefully before the Asahi effect kicks in, to get a proper taste for how the beer has been faring under Fuller’s stewardship. And we look forward to revisiting Fuller’s other beers, praying that their new owners brew them to equally impressive standards as I found them this time around.
*He wanted to know if I knew anywhere that sold galoshes. I didn’t.
**Horndean Special Bitter, named after Gales Horndean brewery which closed not long after Fuller’s bought the business