• Asahi vs Fullers: tasting the range before the takeover kicks in

    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…

    Frome train station
    Snow in Somerset

    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.

    Gales Ales

    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.

    These beers are soon to appear in the same photo

    *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

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  • New booze round-up #3: Stouts, porters and tonka beans

    It’s winter and breweries have been working on their roastiest, toastiest beers for maximum contentment during the colder months. We’ve managed to get our hands on a few extra special seasonal ales so this latest ‘new booze round-up’ is a stout and porter special edition…

    Fourpure Snowblind, 5.9%

    Fourpure have gone bonkers for tonka in their latest canned offering. It’s a white stout containing tonka beans, a rather interesting adjunct that comes from the Kuaran Tree, native to central and south America. These black, wrinkly seeds are often used as a vanilla substitute in foods and perfume, and the tobacco industry have been known to grind them into tobaccos to make their cigarettes extra tasty. Mmmm…. tasty cigarettes….

    Anyway, Rich reckons Snowblind is a “smooth, complex and very more-ish booze.” He goes on to describe it as “pale golden and full-bodied, it has a distinct almondy twang, with caramel, liquorice and and a slight hint of cinnamon.” Nick, who has guzzled a few white stouts recently, proclaims it as “one of the best I’ve had.” High praise indeed.

    Salcombe Brewery, Island Street Porter, 5.9%

    Salcombe is rapidly becoming South Devon’s booze capital, with an excellent distillery and brewery each bearing the town’s name. We first tried the brewery’s summery beers at a festival last year and were mightily impressed and we’ve now had a chance to try their new winter offering, a delicious dark porter. We felt it had the touch of wild, dark fruits about it – with rich and slightly tart juice, hints of sweetness and a fruit-skin bitterness. The roasted malt flavours have been smoothed out with a spoonful of creamy cocoa making it an easy sipper that’s simply done but full of flavour. Impressive stuff.

    Clown Shoes, Chocolate Sombrero, 9%

    We regularly dip our hop-stained fingers into beer subscription boxes – they’re one of the best ways to get hold of new beers, particularly from far flung places. The latest cardboard-encased collection of cans and bottles from Beer 52 was a Massachusetts special and it was all new to our taste buds. The pick of the crop was an Imperial Stout, described as “Mexican-style”, from a brewery called Clown Shoes. The beer is full of adjuncts including ancho chilli, cinnamon and vanilla and they’ve done well to even them all out, making a subtly spiced beer with loads of depth. The trace of chilli rides the light fizz for an extra tingle; the touches of spice help it linger longer in the mouth; and the boozy, chocolatey malt gives it a decadent sippability.

    Hawkshead, Tonka Shake, 10%

    We’ve been keen drinkers of Hawkshead’s beers for several years now – they’re great at simple, hoppy beers but also know how to get creative with more unusual ingredients. This new release, an “Imperial Milkshake Stout”, is another to feature the in vogue tonka bean and it’s a real treat. Its many flavours brought to mind fancy continental breakfasts: a posh muesli loaded with flakes of coconut and covered in creamy milk, with a fresh pain au chocolate on the side and an accompanying cup of black coffee that has a rich, plummy edge and wake-you-up bitterness. The one element that doesn’t belong in our breakfast picture is the whisky-ish dash of booze.

    For more information…

    Fourpure Snowblind is available from the Fourpure website, £4.50 per 500ml can

    Salcombe Island Street Porter is available from the brewery’s website, £30 for 12 x 330ml bottles

    Clown Shoes, Chocolate Sombrero can be found over at Beer52 HQ

    Hawkshead Tonka Shake is available from Hawkshead’s website

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  • Wolfburn Aurora: a delicate, warming whisky for a 5pm chill

    I’ve been writing a lot about whisky lately and right now my office is scattered with 30ml miniature bottles of golden booze. Lots of Scottish whisky, Japanese whisky and all kinds of American bourbons and ryes, along with miniatures from more unlikely countries such as France and South Africa. I’m pretty good at avoiding the temptation to sip my way through them while working during the day, although the current cold snap is pushing that temptation to the limit.

    As I write it’s approaching 5pm and the heater under my desk is failing to fight off the chill, so I’m shivering. I reckon right now is a perfectly acceptable time to twist off a whisky bottle seal and take a warming swig, so I’m diving in to a dram that I’ve previously overlooked to consider how it shapes up against the global gathering of spirits around me.

    Introducing Wolfburn Distillery

    The Wolfburn Distillery is located in Thurso, the most northerly town on British mainland. The current distillery began life in 2012, but Wolfburn whisky first emerged from the same site in 1821 and kept going for around 20 to 30 years before closing down. After 150 years the first new whisky was released in 2016, reviving Wolfburn and putting to good use the local supply of natural water from where it gets its name (‘burn’ means ‘stream’ or ‘small river’). Aurora is a single malt whisky created from a combination of bourbon and sherry casks and is the first of the distillery’s output that I’m getting my chops around.

    Wolfburn Aurora, 46%: Tasting Notes

    Of the small clutch of bottles that Wolfburn Aurora sits among, it is by far the lightest. A bright straw colour that would probably twinkle beautifully in the sunlight if the sunlight ever managed to enter my office on a grey winter day. On the nose the straw freshens, becoming meadow-like and there’s lots of sweet sherry too: it smells clean, light and immediately approachable.

    That sherry sweetness has a sticky honey coating to it and is the first thing that hits the palate. With a 46%, young looking whisky that has some bourbon cask ageing behind it, I might’ve expected more of an immediate hit of alcohol, and maybe even some rough edges, but the sweetness neatly smooths everything out so when the nuttier, spicier flavours do come through they’re perfectly balanced with the overall lightness of the whisky. Vanilla flavours are evident throughout, marrying well with the upfront sweetness, accentuating some almond notes in the middle and drying out a touch at the finish to lend the whisky warmth I was looking for.

    As a 5pm whisky, Aurora has hit the spot: it’s delicate, easy to drink, sweetly delicious and gently warming. The heavier hitting whisky miniatures will be steadily consumed in front of the fire during cold evenings but the half-dram-bottle of Aurora I’m left with stays on the office desk – I’m sure it will come in handy the next time the heater fails to do its job.

    Wolfburn Aurora Single Malt Whisky

    Wolfburn Aurora is available from Master of Malt, £48.80 for a 700ml bottle

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  • How to make a rhubarb and ginger shrub: an easy alcohol-free cocktail recipe

    This January I’ve been having a few weeks without alcohol. Not the full Dry January but limiting booze to just a couple of days all month to make up for December’s excesses. At the top of my list of boozeless beverages is the Shrub: a fruity cocktail made from vinegar syrup and soda. To the uninitiated, drinking vinegar might sound strange, but although it’s very diluted it provides enough of an acidic snap to jolt you into life in much the same way as alcohol does.

    I’ve previously bought ready made shrubs but they’re easy enough to make, so this time around I raided the freezer for some home grown rhubarb to set about making my own. The results are astonishingly good and I’m now itching to pickle more flavour combinations in further Shurb experimentation. But, until then, here’s the rhubarb and ginger recipe I settled on…

    Rhubarb & Ginger Shrub Recipe

    To make a Shrub you first need to make the vinegar syrup, which acts as a concentrate (much like a bottle of squash concentrate) to be diluted with soda water.

    For this I used a 3:3:2 ratio of vinegar, fruit and sugar:
    300g cider vinegar
    300g rhubarb
    200g white sugar
    A small thumb sized piece of fresh ginger

    Infusing

    Method

    1 First up, I sterilised a glass preserving jar. Vinegar should see off most bacteria but it’s still worth keeping your storage vessel sterilised for other nasties that vinegar might be less fearful of its acidic vengeance. To do this I washed the container in hot, soapy water then dried it in the oven on a low heat for 20 minutes – this also means the jar is hot when it’s time to add the hot vinegar, which will prevent the glass from cracking.

    2 While the jar is in the oven put the cider vinegar in a pan and heat until it just reaches boiling point. Tip in the sugar and stir to dissolve before adding chopped rhubarb and ginger diced into tiny pieces.

    3 Pour everything into the sterilised jar, seal the lid and set aside. I left mine for four days which seemed long enough to get most of the flavour from the ingredients and allow them to start mellowing with the cider vinegar.

    4 Strain the vinegary liquid into a sterilised bottle, gently squeezing out the goodness, and store in the fridge.* It’s probably best to use it within a couple of weeks.

    5 To make a shrub simply pour some syrup into a glass (as you would with squash – a tablespoon or two should do the trick) and top with cold soda water. Sup slowly and wonder what the fuss with alcohol** is all about…

    The finished rhubarb and ginger shrub (in a wonky glass)

    *You could probably use the left over solid rhubarb and ginger in a chutney

    **Although the syrup would probably work well in a few alcohol-based cocktails too. Suggestions please.

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  • Hayter Osprey 46 Autodrive Lawnmower Review

    Last year we had a Hayter Osprey 46 Autodrive Mower on a long term test and spent the summer months beasting grass on a variety of lawns. With its tour of duty now over, it currently lies dormant at the back of our brewing shed, enjoying a well earned winter rest between a broken cider press and a crate of Nick’s quarantined pea pod wine. Here’s our thoughts from a summer of use.

    Unboxing and Assembly

    The Hayter Osprey 46 arrived in a MASSIVE box that unfortunately had no handle holes to aid in its transportation. Cursing the uncooperative cardboard, I just about managed to manoeuvre the weighty package into an area I had earmarked for disembarkment without enraging my old hernia operation. Ideally you’ll want want to enlist help from a strong pal* for this task. On opening, the box revealed a packing masterclass, with every mower part carefully packed and wrapped and all potential finger slicing edges thoroughly sheathed. In most situations where self assembly is required, I tend to bypass the instructions and wade straight in and gues-emble the product in question, then get cross when nothing fits or works. In an unexpected change of habit, I decided on actually reading the instructions. Good job I did – the instructions pull no punches, stating that there is a strong chance of losing a limb if you don’t follow the safety advice. Thoroughly forewarned, I tentatively began to assemble the mower, counting and recounting my vulnerable digits as I went. As it turned out, assembly from the box was a straightforward affair, with just the simple task of fitting the handle using the bolts provided. All good.

    Build Quality

    The Hayter Osprey 46 is a solidly built machine, all shiny, slick and resplendent in dark racing green, with the engine housed in tough plastic casing. Flipping the unit reveals a seriously sharp cutting blade that affords a 46cm cutting width. The blade has seven levels of adjustment, allowing for a minimum grass height of 25mm up to a positively unkept 70 mm. It’s a weighty old bird, tipping the scales at 29 kg which I found made it just on the cusp of being too heavy to lift it into the boot of a car. If you are after a mower that you intend to take out for trips to mow your granny’s lawn, or planning to invest in a mower for your own small gardening business, this is certainly something to consider.**

    Handling and Performance

    Petrol-heads will appreciate the throaty rasp you can coax from the Briggs & Stratton 500 series engine. Pump the accelerator bar! Hear it roar! Clasp the auto drive bar and the Osprey will lurch forward like one of Nick’s recalcitrant greyhounds, straining on its leash on a post breakfast / pre-poo walk. The advantages of the auto drive are subtle when mowing a level lawn, but take your hand off the assist bar – especially when mowing on an incline – and you’ll soon notice the benefits. The auto assist also comes in handy when manoeuvring the mower in awkward spaces. With a bit of practice a few gentle tweaks on the bar can help turn the mower in tight circles when you need to.

    Most of our testing was conducted on long-ish, damp grass, which, in some mowers, can cause clogging, especially in the channel where the grass passes from mower to grass box. The Osprey did clog on one of the earlier test runs, but we forgivingly put this down to a particularly dense patch of moss we had just ploughed through. The grass box itself has good capacity. As a guide, a full load of grass, when emptied, will half fill a standard bin bag.

    Storage

    The Osprey folds down neatly. The handle can be folded in two and doubles over itself with a few twists on the handle knobs, whilst the semi-rigid grass box is an added space-saving bonus. Before bedding down your mower for the night, it’s always wise to give it a good clean. Understandably, the undersides of mowers get particularly filthy, and if left unattended, wet grass detritus can prove to be particularly bothersome to shift. The Osprey has this covered, and comes equipped with a wash port. Attach a hose to the built in nozzle, turn on the tap and then turn on the engine. Whilst this helps shift the caked clippings, it doesn’t do an immaculate job (we’d advise giving it a couple of runs through, with a bit of scrubbing in between) but certainly makes the cleanup process less painful. Oh, and make sure the mower is dry before storage. Steel mowers are rust magnets, especially around the wheel axles and areas chipped by flying stones. Run the engine for a few minutes after washing, and this will dry out the machine nicely.

    Verdict

    The Osprey 46 Autodrive Lawnmower is a compact, punchy petrol mower, perfect for tackling a medium to large sized garden. The auto assist is a welcome addition, effective without feeling like you have handed over control. It’s a mower that actually managed to make mowing an enjoyable experience, which is no mean feat.

    ★★★★

    Spec box
    Model: Osprey 46 (HA 611)
    Weight: 29kg
    Drive: Single speed 2mph
    Cutting Width: 18″ / 46 cm
    Engine: Briggs & Stratton 500 Series
    Engine Displacement: 140cc
    Fuel: Petrol
    Engine Oil: 4-Stroke (0.6l bottle included)
    Cutting Height: 25 – 70 mm
    Grass Bag Capacity: 55L

    ——————

    *None of my strong friends were available at the time of mower delivery. And Nick was also busy.

    ** The fear of knacking my back when hoisting heavy weights such as this has led me to purchase a weightlifters belt. It’s not exactly stylish, but does the job. Lift with the legs! Keep the back straight!

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  • New booze round-up #2: featuring keller lager, crackling and tattoos

    Here’s our latest round up of the new booze (and snacks) that have passed our lips in recent weeks, including some of our drinking highlights from the festive season.

    Braybrooke Keller Lager, 4.8%

    We reckon there’s a bit of a marketing spend behind Braybrooke’s Keller Lager. The Leicestershire brewery has a formidable PR company supporting it who sent us a brace of bottles that was accompanied by a smart little brochure – not many individual beers get their own brochures. Thankfully for the PR company the product is a decent one: nice sweet bready malts and a gentle Germanic bitterness. Simple, tasty and effective it had Rich purring with satisfaction.

    Bulleit Limited Edition

    As the spirit market becomes ever more competitive, big brands are looking for innovative ways to thrust their products into the limelight. One such method that we’ve noticed gaining in popularity is the use of limited edition packages (the same product presented in a different bottle). Big bourbon brand Bulleit is the latest to get creative with glass and they sent us a bottle designed by New York tattoo artist Jess Mascetti.

    We quite like the results – it’s an impressive piece of inkwork and genuinely makes the bottle feel a bit special, especially when you peer through the golden booze to view it on the reverse. As for the bourbon, it’s made with quite a lot of rye which gives it plenty of punchy spice among the oaky vanilla flavours and is one we like to use for cocktails, being especially effective in a Manhattan.

    Bulleit Bourbon Limited Edition
    Tattooed bourbon

    Pub Supper Box

    This item may not actually feature booze, but it’s such a good idea for the stay-at-home drinker that we thought it deserved inclusion. The concept is simple: a subscription club that sends out a box of nine pub inspired snacks on a monthly basis. The munchables in our sample were all top notch and included posh crisps (haggis flavour!), pork crackling, roasted peas and a weighty bag of Italian onion and olive savoury biscuity things (we’ve not been to an Italian pub, but we like their style). At just £15 we think this is a beer-enhancing bargain.

    Find out more at pubsupper.com

    Pub Supper Snacks Box Subscription
    A few bags of snacks that came tumbling from our PubSupper.com box

    What we drank over Christmas

    The festive season always acts as a good excuse to try out new boozes and here’s a selection of what we guzzled this Christmas. We both stocked up on Fuller’s 2018 Vintage Ale (10.5%): a strong brew that was smooth as polished marble with creamy alcohol peppered by tannic dark fruit skins, a bit of mellow citrus and a dry oaky finish. Lovely stuff.

    Edinburgh Beer Factory showered us with several beers which we shared with friends – of those we kept for ourselves Edinburgh Brown (6%) was the highlight with a rootsy bitterness cutting through the clean, fresh and frothy malty liquid.

    Rich enjoyed a few tankards of keeved cider in the shape of Champagne-corked bottles from Pilton Cider whose medium sweet Tamoshanta (4.7%) greatly impressed. Nick finished his festive boozing with a dram of Campbeltown PBS whisky bottled by Cadenhead’s at a barrel strength 57.1%, a delicious drop with honeyed almonds flavours and a gentle waft of oaky smoke.

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  • Winter fruit pruning with Okatsune Pruning Shears

    It’s usually not until you try something new that you realise how rubbish the old has become. I’ve been using the same pruners for years. Over time they’ve gotten a little stiff, have started to sport a rusty fringe and prefer to bludgeon their way through thicker branches rather than cut, but they’ve always just about done the job so I’ve never considered replacing them.

    Towards the end of last year Dutch retailers Knives and Tools sent me a pair of Japanese Okatsune Pruning Shears to review and they’re so impressive that the old tool has now been banished from the garden.

    Pruning fruiting plants is one of the first gardening jobs I undertake in a new year, so this provided an ideal opportunity to test the cut and thrust of this Japanese piece of craftsmanship. There were three key jobs to undertake. My apple trees are now established so don’t need the the same level of hacking back as in their first few years, but there were a few branches that had crossed and needed to be removed, along with some additional snips to maintain shapeliness. The casseille (a blackcurrant / gooseberry cross) and Big Ben blackcurrants needed more serious attention – they’ve been getting a bit out of control, not helped by being clumsily bent over during a fence installation, pushing most of their branches out to a horizontal direction. Besides removing old wood (currants grow best on the most recent growth) they also needed further thinning so the remaining growth had a vertical inclination. There were also a few Autumn fruiting raspberry canes to cut back to the ground.

    Okatsune Pruning Shears: the verdict

    I like the look of Okatsune’s pruners. They’re not flash and they don’t have weird design features that claim unusual ergonomics: they are simply a product of their functionality. I assumed the only nod to any type of aesthetic was the fancy red and white colours of the sleek, curved handles – a nod to their Japanese origin perhaps – but Rich informs me that even these are borne of function. Apparently the colour choice is to help locate them should careless cutting cause them to tumble into the undergrowth: red for daytime, white for low levels of light.

    Between the handles is one of the major assets of the pruners: a tight, powerful spring that assists with the ease of the squeeze while keeping the blades running in smooth, flexible order. Those blades are forged from tough Japanese carbon steel (which is also used to make katana swords) and are hard and sharp, which should mean they stay fit for purpose for a far greater length of time than my old pruners. The cuts to every branch I tackled were managed with swift precision, and were each perfectly clean (which those plants will be extremely grateful for). The recommended upper diameter for cutting is 20mm and, although I didn’t measure what girths I overcame, the pruner managed every thickness presented to its steely blades (including a few apple branches that would’ve been too much of a burden for my old tool).

    Okatsune Japanese pruners
    Swift and clean

    I’ve always quite liked the job of pruning and, having raced around the fruit in no time, started eyeing up more of the garden that might benefit from a trim. But apart from dealing with an unruly bay tree branch I resisted the urge to get carried away and gave the pruners a quick clean before putting them away for next time.

    A pair of pruners should be a tool that lasts a very long time, so it’s worth considering getting the best you can afford and are comfortable with. If, like me, you prefer the utilitarian approach married with ultimate functionality then I can highly recommend Okatsune’s Pruning Shears – I reckon it’ll be decades before something new makes this tool feel old and unwanted.

    Okatsune pruners sharp steel

    Okatsune pruning shears KST103, medium are available from Knivesandtools.co.uk, priced £42.10

    Footnote: free casseille

    During fence installation my casseille was bent over to such a degree (and probably trodden on) that a branch tracked along the soil and has rooted. This has now been snipped from the main plant and will be transplanted to Rich’s allotment for a new free fruit bush.

    layered casseille fruit bush
    A free casseille for Rich

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  • New booze round-up #1: featuring Earl Grey, Millet and Quince

    You can’t fail to have noticed that a lot of new booze is being released at the moment. Not only are craft producers are springing up all over the shop but established brands are also getting in on the act with shelf-loads of adventurous new product ranges.

    Besides eagerly seeking out new boozes in pubs, supermarkets and online we also get sent more than our fair share of drink samples from businesses and PR companies eager to hear our feedback on their products (and hoping we’ll give them a mention in the press).

    Until now we’ve not done much with these drinks, other than tweet any that particularly impress or intrigue, but we think the time is right to give the best of them some coverage on our blog. So here’s the first of an irregular series of ‘new booze round-ups’, covering the best of the booze that we’ve been sent or stumbled across.

    St Austell Celtic Beer Festival

    In November, Nick headed down to Cornwall to spend an evening at St Austell Brewery’s annual beer festival. Along with their regular beers, and a selection from other Cornish and national breweries, were a load of one-off specials brewed by various members of the St Austell and Bath Ales (owned by St Austell) brewing teams. Inspired by Cornwall’s wintery, stormy skies, Nick’s pick of the beers was a pair of dark brooding brews. Bath Ales ‘Honey I Shrunk The Porter’ (5%) was a delicious honey porter with a heady aroma of coconut rum, lots of sweet toasty malt flavours and a warming booziness, while St Austell’s annual release of its barrel aged Black Square Russian Imperial Stout (10.4%) was even better: slick and creamy with mellow fruitiness, bitter chocolate and a rich vibrancy from its barrel ageing.

    Earl Grey and Biscuits

    The best beer to arrive through the post came from the good folk at Borough Market who worked with brewer Daniel Tapper of The Beak Brewery to create a 5.2% saison made with Earl Grey tea (provided by trader Organic Life) and hops grown at the front of the market hall. We like Earl Grey as an adjunct – it’s a tea that’s flavoured with Bergamot which has floral orange flavours that aren’t a million miles from some hops while the tea’s tannin gives beers an extra dryness at the finish. This saison suited the Earl Grey addition exceptionally well: an amazingly fresh and spritzy beer with those tea characteristics perfectly well balanced with the clean and punchy malt, yeast and hop flavours.

    We were also introduced to Surrey outfit Crafty Brewing in the form of a three pack featuring their Five Hop IPA, Pale Ale and the brilliantly named Loxhill Biscuit (3.8%). It’s a golden sweet and light biscuity brew with subtle orangey citrus flavours from Amarillo hops (it also includes First Gold and Challenger) that perk up through the moderately bitter finish: one to file in the ‘easy drinking’ category.

    Bourbon and Gin

    Our most recent commissions for the i paper included round-ups of gin (Rich) and bourbon (Nick). Among Rich’s selection was a quince gin from distillers Whitley Neill which features the flavours of the under-appreciated Persian fruit with earthy and piney bitter notes of juniper and spice. Rich thought it had a not-too-sweet zestiness and recommended skipping the tonic and drinking neat, pairing it with cheese over the festive period.

    Among Nick’s bourbons was an organic spirit from Koval, a Chicago distillery making inroads into the UK market. Along with the bourbon he also got hold of a bottle of their whiskey made from 100% millet, an incredibly smooth and creamy spirit with quite a noticeable aroma and flavour of pears mingling with the soft grains.

     

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  • Let the bells ring out! It’s our digging and swigging Christmas Gift Guide 2019!

    For the past few months we’ve been keeping our eyes out for booze and gardening gifts that we think might please YOU, our beloved reader(s). Here’s a collection of fine digging and swigging suggestions to inform your hasty, last minute purchases, each one a GUARANTEED sure-fire winner.
    Just make sure you keep checking this page as we’ll be updating it with more suggestions as Christmas looms upon us.

    Beer Me Now Christmas Box

    Beer Me Now, Christmas Beer Box

    Price £25
    Every year a there are new beers subscription services added to an already busy market place and we do our best to test them all. Among the most recent launches that has impressed is Beer Me Now, a regular service that provides a good mix of popular classic beers with less well known bottles and cans (along with a salty snack for munching action). The Beer Me Now team has also put together a one off box of goodies just for Christmas, so you or a mate can enjoy their selection of eight ace beers as a one-off purchase (which we reckon might be enough to tempt you to signing up when all the Christmas beers have gone).

    Available from Beer Me Now

    whisky Christmas gift

    The Glenlivet Founder’s Reserve

    Price £34.25
    If you’re hunting for a gift for a whisky fan but are not quite sure what they like then might we suggest this handsomely boxed bottle. It’s a classic Speyside whisky (everyone likes a classic Speyside) from one of the most popular Scottish distilleries, the Glenlivet. The whisky is named in honour of Glenlivet’s founder and is a smooth sipping delight, with some clean tasting floral and fruity notes and not a rough edge to be found. Perfect to ease away any Christmas chaos.

    Available from The Whisky Exchange

    Brew It Yourself Book

    Brew it Yourself

    For the ultimate digging and swigging gift there’s always our book, Brew it Yourself. It’s rammed full with ace booze recipes – from beers, ciders and wines to more curious cocktails and infusions, and a few Christmassy boozes to boot – many of them using home grown ingredients. And don’t just take our word for its goodness – take a look at the five star reviews on Amazon for authentic tales of boozy glee.

    Available from Amazon

     

     

    Somerset Cider Apple Poster

    And whilst we’re on an undignified, egotistic roll of self promotion, allow us to recommend this splendid apple poster, designed by Nick’s very own gnarled mouse-hand. It’s a typographic apple, beautifully constructed using the names of Somerset cider varieties. Ideal for bathrooms, sheds, kitchens and outhouses and just the ticket for covering up unsightly stains on walls.

    It costs a mere £10 (including postage) and you can buy it from our Etsy shop, right HERE.

    Fatty’s Organic Gin

    Price: £43.64
    Looking for a new groovy gin to gift (or guzzle)? Look no further – this Dulwich-born gin has been distilled with dill, the fish-loving, feathery-fronded herb. It’s a London Dry style with delicate herbal notes and was deemed tasty enough to grab gold at the 2018 Spirits Business Awards.As Claudio Ranieri would say: “dilly-ding, dilly-dong” (whatever the hell that means).

    Available from: Masters of Malt

     

    Stihl Retro T-shirt

    Price: £30
    Clad your beloved in one of these retro T-shirt from Stihl, our favourite German power tool peddler. Made from mottled grey cloth and sporting a groovy circular saw logo, it’ll cut a dash down both allotment and pub. We can confirm that the ‘medium’ will happily fit a short, bald, mis-shaped man pushing 50 years of age. Ja! Danke!

    Available from Stihl

     

    Drinks by the Dram Gin Baubles

    Price: £39.95 for a pack of six
    Deck the halls with boozy baubles, tra la la la la, la la la la. Each bauble contains a wax-sealed 30ml dram, filled with an exceptional expression. Hang them, admire them, drink them and embrace the festive spirit(s). Also available in whisky.

    Get them here

    The post Let the bells ring out! It’s our digging and swigging Christmas Gift Guide 2019! appeared first on Two Thirsty Gardeners.


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  • Coventry pub crawl: five best pubs 25 years on…

    A lot can happen in a quarter of a century. 25 years ago, in 1993, England failed to qualify for the World Cup in the USA, Mr Blobby spent a few weeks at number one and the Maastricht Treaty came into force, formally establishing the European Union. And in that time the pub landscape has changed dramatically, with a recent report claiming that more 25% of UK pubs have closed since 2001.

    1993 is also the year that we both graduated from Coventry Polytechnic and last weekend we joined a small group of fellow ex-students to revisit our old stomping grounds. We’ve both fleetingly called in on the city on separate occasions since (once each, over ten years ago) but this was our first chance to explore those old pubs together since gleefully handing back our graduation gowns to the hire shop.

    When we left we didn’t realise quite how many pubs we would be bidding farewell to for good. Among them biker’s basement haunt The Godiva; Spon End favourites The Malt Shovel and The Black Horse; the rickety old Shakespeare on Spon Street; Gosford Street pub crawl destinations including The Golden Cup* and Hand & Heart; and stop off point on the way home, The Admiral Codrington.

    But despite these boozer bereavements there still seemed more than enough pubs for city of Coventry’s size, with some of our old favourites still in business and a large range of new establishments open to tempt the current younger generation in from streets. The youth appeal of these flashier new bars meant that many of the student-packed pubs of 25 years ago were now populated by people of our own age, meaning we weren’t required to scrap our way to the bars with the younger and fitter folk.

    Having visited many pubs over the course of the weekend we’ve picked out five that we think make for a great city pub crawl for anyone with a weekend to fill in Coventry.

    Old Windmill Spon Street

    Dried hops hanging from wooden beams in the Old Windmill

    The Old Windmill, Spon Street

    Some things never change. This was our favourite pub in 1993 and our favourite in 2018. It’s believed to be Coventry’s oldest, a 15th century inn situated on medieval Spon Street, close to the city centre, with wonky walls, stone floors, exposed beams and various barrooms and snugs to relax in. It was always busy with a very mixed clientele enjoying fine cask ales and the occasional cider** and that still seems to be the case today. A proper old pub with a long history that, thankfully, is still run as a proper pub, rather than the kind of toursity, food-focussed, pub-museum that too many other ancient inns turn into.

    We drank: Having visited the Old Windmill three times during our Coventry reunion we managed to get through all seven of the cask ales behind the bar. Classics Timothy Taylor Landlord and Theakstone’s Old Peculiar were in excellent condition and hardly bettered all weekend, while we also enjoyed Slater’s light and hoppy ‘1 Hop’ (the single hop being Goldings).

    Golden Cross pub Coventry

    The Golden Cross in Coventry’s city centre was our Friday night meeting spot

    The Golden Cross, Hay Lane

    Another medieval pub that was built in the 16th century, becoming a public house in the 17th century, situated round the corner from the abby. The upstairs bar was our Friday night meeting place and it was always heaving and had a great atmosphere and Ruddles beers behind the bar. It looked a bit run down when we last saw it over ten years ago but has recently been given a tasteful makeover, with glass panels and Farrow & Ball colours complimenting the wooden timbers and stained glass windows.

    We drank: The upstairs bar had a much more limited selection than downstairs so we opted for the house beer, brewed by the Caledonian Brewery. It was decent enough but not quite up to the high cask standards set elsewhere.

    Town Wall Tavern Coventry

    The Town Wall Tavern (interior seen in main photo) has separate doors for the main bars and the tiny Donkey Box

    The Town Wall Tavern, Bond Street

    For some reason we don’t remember visiting this pub in the 1990s. Tucked around the corner from the Belgrave Theatre, Nick had a pint here on his only other trip to the city and made sure it was on the itinerary for this weekend. It’s an outstanding pub, perhaps second only the the Old Windmill, with a narrow room on one side of the bar, a more expansive lounge-ish room on the other and ‘The Donkey Box’ in the middle. This room has claims on being the tiniest in the country with its own bar and the Donkey Box regular occupying it shared a few tales about it while we were there (it was named after being visited by a pantomime donkey from the theatre).

    We drank: Lots more decent cask ales to choose from here including Goff’s Cheltenham Gold and Purity’s Mad Goose, both light and fruity, perfectly suiting the mid-afternoon part of our day-long session.

    The Phoenix pub Coventry

    The Phoenix, better known to us as the Sir Colin Campbell

    The Phoenix, Gosford Street

    There are several other better Coventry pubs than The Phoenix, but it’s one we have a strong connection to and is the kind of place anyone can pop into at any time without feeling out of place. It was called the Sir Colin Campbell in our day (and the Parrot and Griffin long before then) and sat opposite our art college, beckoning us in for lunchtime halves and post-study sessions. It was also the kit sponsor of our football team. After we left it went through a chequered period, which included a major fire, before being reopened as The Phoenix – the symbol of Coventry University. Today it’s brightly lit with glitzy, modern pub ephemera and is full of TV screens, but it provided us with a relaxing distraction from the drizzle outside.

    We drank: There were five keg and five casks on offer, mostly fairly mainstream. Nick played it safe with a Camden Helles while Rich was pleased with his choice of Robinson’s Trooper.

    Twisted Barrel Ale tap room Coventry

    The Twisted Ale Brewery: a new tap room in a whole new part of town

    Twisted Barrel Brewery & Tap House, Fargo Village

    Lucky Coventry. In our there were no breweries to head to for a fresh pint. Now Coventry doesn’t have just any run-of-the-mill brewery, but one of our favourite contemporary outfits, Twisted Barrel Ales. Just off Far Gosford street, which is now lined with ghosts of pubs, lies an assortment of modern food, drink, creative and community focussed businesses that is collectively known as Fargo Village (Far Gosford. FarGo. Got it?). Having moved from smaller premises opposite, Twisted Barrel occupy a good sized space, with piles of kegs separating tables and benches from the brewing equipment, and a bar with 20 keg taps. So impressed were we with this new addition to the city’s drinking scene that we trekked across the city for our final drinks on both nights.

    We drank: We got through quite a range of our hosts beers with the tang of Detroit City Sour hitting the spot as well as anything all weekend. From further afield we enjoyed the rare experience of drinking Weihenstephaner’s Helles on tap which was fresh as a just baked loaf, crisp and thirst quenching – not a bad way to finish off a weekend of beer adventuring.

    +++++

    *We both played in a band that performed here to mix of student and grumpy regulars bemused by the kazoo solo during a wonky rendition of ‘Love me Tender’

    **Our band used to perform a song inspired by The Old Windmill and Dead Rat cider called “Last Night of the Rat”

     

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