Outside of Reykjavik, Iceland is sparsely populated with individual farmsteads and small communities dotted across a rural landscape. Farming and fishing are still key industries but the last decade has seen huge growth in software, biotechnology, finance and service industries and a significant increase in tourism.

Sauðárkrókur – Hólar – Akureyri

After an inland detour to visit Hólar, we took the coastal route around to Akureyri (and on to Myvatn) via a stop at the Bruggsmiðjan Brewery.

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Having set off early in the morning, we approached Hólar – nestled within the Hjaltadalur valley – in the golden morning sun. First to come into view was the tall tower of Hólar Church, with the red and white block of Hólar University College behind it.

The church and college were beautiful but what had drawn us to Hólar was the Nýibær turf house, next to the college building. Built in 1860, it is a typical medium-sized turf house in the North-Icelandic style, distinguished by forward-facing gables along the front and rear buildings arranged at right angles.

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The coastal roads offered stunning views, though occasionally a little hair-raising for those of us that are scared of heights!

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Our visit to the Bruggsmiðjan Brewery was organised in advance, but they do their best to welcome drop-in visitors too.

The brewery is only a decade old, established in 2005 by local couple Agnes Anna and Olafur Trostur, who were keen to forge a new business in the local area. Both their sons are now working in the business, and one of them related the brewery’s story and showed us round, offering tastings of several of the beers currently in production. We were joined by a few others who arrived during our visit.

Agnes and Olafur had never brewed beer before, but were inspired by a TV news report they happened to watch, talking about the rising popularity of small breweries in Denmark. Just one week later, they visited Denmark to visit a few small breweries and came home determined to achieve something similar in Iceland.

We were surprised to learn that beer had been prohibited in Iceland until 1989! In 1908 Icelanders voted in a ban on all alcoholic drinks, which went into effect in 1915. However, the ban was partially lifted in 1921 when Spain refused to allow the import of Icelandic fish unless Iceland legalised the import into Iceland of Spanish wine. In 1935, spirits were also legalised after another national referendum. However, the temperance lobby successfully argued to retain the prohibition on beer (which covered any beer stronger than 2.25%). Icelanders regularly raised bills calling for the legalisation of beer. They finally gained more momentum after a new rule was imposed by a teetotaller Minister of Justice in 1985, banning pubs from adding legal spirits to non-alcoholic beer to create an imitation strong beer. Parliament finally voted to end beer prohibition and the ban was lifted on 1 March 1989, a date still celebrated as “Beer Day”.

Bruggsmiðjan’s Kaldi brand includes pale and dark Czech-style beers, summer and winter seasonal beers plus limited editions such as a beer featuring local herbs as flavouring. All the beers are made with natural fresh water from the immediate area and the core range are available in bars and shops all round Iceland.

 

See my other Iceland postcards.

 

I’ve told before the story of how my husband Pete’s beer, whisky and coffee blog came to be – for a year he wrote a series of guest posts here on Kavey Eats before I finally kicked him off in October 2011 to launch PeteDrinks.com. Not long after that, we both went along to the 2012 European Beer Bloggers Conference in Leeds, a weekend long conference focusing on the beer industry.

There we met many many other beer bloggers, writers and industry professionals including blogger Steve Lamond, who writes Beers I’ve Known. Since we met, we’ve kept in touch online and both Pete and I read Steve’s blog regularly. We hope to meet up at another beery event soon.

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Hello and welcome, plea­se introduce yourself and tell us a little about the kind of content you share.

I’m Steve and I’ve been writing Beers I’ve known since May 2011 with 300 posts since then. I mostly write about beer and pubs but also feature other drinks when it takes my fancy. I try to provide a focus on beer in Northern Ireland as there wasn’t much to document this when I started. Since then there has been an explosion of breweries and bloggers; so my original goal is now somewhat moot but I still enjoy writing about and trying new beers! I’m also a cheese fiend; so that often sneak’s into the odd post too.

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Is there a story behind your blog’s name?

I used to help organise a zine fest in Brighton; one of the interesting ones was an anonymous booklet called “Nuns I’ve Known” cataloguing the various nuns who taught the author at a Catholic school. A fellow organiser suggested I begin a zine called Beers I’ve Known (such was my verbosity on the subject even then!) but due to (mostly) laziness and the ability to reach a wider audience that became a blog.

Why did you choose to blog about beer?

I write about beer because it interests me and generally people seem interested in what I have to say. I don’t think knowledge is something to be hoarded. I also like the social side of discussing with other bloggers/ readers some of the topics that arise. As touched on above I want to show the locals here in Ireland and further afield that we do produce some fantastic beers and ciders here and its not just about the macrolagers and ubiquitous black stuff produced in Dublin. But overall I just enjoy trying new beers, expanding my palate experiences, travelling and searching for that elusive “perfect beer”.

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Does blogging about drink present any particular challenges?

Its important to keep notes because it can be difficult to remember the following day, especially if a few beverages have been consumed! In Northern Ireland the difficulty is finding beers to write about because most pubs/bars do not stock anything of note. Thankfully I rely on a selection of decent mail order firms and the occasional trip away to keep me armed with plenty to write about. The challenge now is finding the time (and motivation!) to write the posts!

Is there a particular style of beer you seek out most often?

I’m polyamorous when it comes to beer, there isn’t one particular style I stick to above all others but of course I have my preferences. A decent session strength porter goes down well at any time of year, I love Belgian farmhouse styles (saisons and flemmish red/ oud browns) hop-forward beers like IPAs and wild/sour ales.

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Which single beer could you not live without?

A tricky question; I could probably live without any given beer as there are plenty that do a similar job to my favourite examples. I’ll pick Butcombe bitter here as it was my first cask beer which led me on this journey in the first place and I still enjoy after having sampled 4000 others.

Are there beer styles you don’t like or think are overrated?

I’m not particularly keen on doppelbocks and dunkels, nor anything OTT on the booze front. Something to do with the sugars used to hit the higher ABVs perhaps. Nothing is over-rated other than perhaps macro lager! Of course there are trends in productions of different styles but that helps to keep things fresh and interesting.

What are the current trends in the beer scene? How do you feel about them?

The current trend is canning beer; I think this a fantastic development and have an upcoming blog post to discuss why. There is always a “flavour of the year”, some of which I enjoy, others not so much. In recent years they have included, goses, black IPAs, fruited berlinner weisses and session IPAs

Tell us about your pet controversy in the beer world.
I’m a defender of Wetherspoon for bringing variety in beer choice and increased recognition of cask beer to the UK and now to Ireland at affordable prices. Many people do not agree with this…hilarity ensues.

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How did you get into whisky?

Whisky was the first booze to pass my lips at a mere 46 days old; though it would be a good 16 years before I’d try it again! I enjoy the breadth of flavours possible from a single ingredient and exploring what different ageing regimens can bring to the table. Whisky is of course just unhopped distilled beer; so its not that unusual to be interested in both drinks.

What is your favourite style of whisky?

I love Scotish Single Malts and whilst I’m now a big fan of the peat-forward smokey Islay drams, there will always be a place in my heart for the spicey and warming highland malts.

What are your top three criteria for a great pub? Do you have a favourite pub? Why?

A great pub first and foremost needs to be comfortable to drink in, both in terms of furnishings and facilities but also the atmosphere of the place. A real fire or historic features help but not as important. Second most important is a good selection of beer at reasonable prices. But what will turn a good pub into a great pub is the level of service and welcome received. That’s what is likely to turn a one-off visit into a repeat occurrence. I have favoured watering holes up and down the country but I think the York Tap has to be my most favoured, because it satisfies the above three criteria in abundance plus is easy to get to, sells tasty snacks and a great atmosphere.

What are the biggest turn offs for you, in the pubs you don’t like?

If a pub doesn’t have anything interesting to drink I’ll turn around and walk back out again. Cleanliness is important though unkemptness is forgivable.

What’s the best thing that’s happened to you in a pub?

The generosity and hospitality of fellow drinkers is the best thing about pubs. When I was a poor student I’d often be bought drinks in my local, an oil rig worker I struck up a conversation with in a Scottish pub picked up my bar bill and a chap we met when celebrating our engagement bought us a round. I try to share the love now I can afford to!

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Since you started blogging, has your style and content changed over time, and if so, in what ways?

I’m not sure that it has changed all that much, though I have made a conscious effort to make sure my posts have a point behind them, rather than just being a collection of reviews.

What is the hardest aspect of blogging for you?

Finding the time and motivation to write the posts. I have a number of posts in draft that just need polishing and pushing into the light.

What inspires you to keep blogging?

The amazing variety and enjoyment of beer and other drinks and the community of people involved in producing and writing about them.

Blogging killed the newspaper star. What do you think bloggers bring to the arena that differentiates them from traditional journalists?

Bloggers can often react more quickly to breaking news, especially as blogging isn’t a 9-5 job. There’s also the aforementioned social interactions but also the lack of financial motivation means topics covered interest the author and often that leads to a more interesting story.

What are you absolutely loving drinking right now?

I am enjoying well made British lagers, hop-forward session beers and playing with my new Aeropress for my coffee fix.

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What’s the single most popular post on your blog?

Somehow it’s the roundup post after hosting #TheSession (a beer blogging monthly chosen communal topic) for the second time. Topic – beery yarns.

Can we give a little extra love and attention to a post you love but didn’t catch the attention of your readers in the way you hoped?

Its always surprising which posts do get the views but I’d have thought more people would be interested in where to get good beer in Vienna.

Anything else?

After long-suffering my blogging affliction my wife Daisy is going to join me in writing a blog Drinks We’ve Known to cover all our travels, cocktail experimentations and other non-beery libations. Coming to a computer screen near you soon!

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Spread the love

Blog URL www.beersiveknown.com
Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/officialbeersiveknown
Twitter handle @beersiveknown

Enjoyed this interview? Read the rest of my Meet The Blogger series, here.

 

Have you heard of supertasters? To my eternal regret, I have, because I’m one of them.

The label makes being a supertaster sound exciting, suggestive of a superior palate. The truth of the matter is that a supertaster is simply someone who “experiences the sense of taste with far greater intensity than average”. Yes, that does mean a supertaster can detect hints of flavours that others may miss. A key identifier is an increased sensitivity to bitter flavours in particular; it’s usual for supertasters to dislike bitter foods and drinks.

A Guardian article about supertasters last year shares a wonderful quote from John Hayes, professor of food science at Penn State University, who says of supertasterdom, “It’s not a superpower, you don’t get a cape and it doesn’t make you better than other people.”

I first came across the term several years ago, and immediately wondered if I might be a supertaster; I’ve always had a very strong aversion to virtually every food and drink commonly listed as items that a supertaster dislikes – grapefruit, carbonated water, several of the brassica family, many alcoholic beverages such as hoppy beer and dry wine. When we were little, my younger sister occasionally amused herself by merrily sucking on wedges of lemon; it made me wince just to watch!

The increased sensitivity to other tastes and textures (sweet, salty, umami, fatty) is less problematic. While I am known to have a sweet tooth, for me it’s very much about flavour – too much sugar blows out the other tastes, so I prefer fruity dark chocolate to cheap sugary milk chocolate, for example. I generally love creamy, fatty textures and the flavours that come with them. I like salty things but it’s all about balance; although salt is known to boost flavour it helps counter bitterness as well so I like it well enough but too much of it overwhelms the rest of the dish. Some chefs add so much salt to their food I wonder if they can taste it at all.

Embarrassingly for an Indian, I cannot tolerate heavy-handed use of hot chilli – it makes my tongue burn so much I can’t taste anything else at all. And the pain isn’t pleasant either. Chilli sensitivity is a pain in the arse, but I manage to cope with a low to medium level so I’m not totally limited to baby food!

Incidentally, children are usually supertasters and share an aversion to bitterness that most grow out of, so when they tell you they don’t like Brussels sprouts, they may not be lying!

Coffee is commonly cited as an ingredient that we supertasters tend to avoid and yet I drink gallons of it. But I always choose the least bitter instant coffee available; very, very light roasts with fruity rather than bitter notes, and always  drink coffee with plenty of milk or cream and a frankly ridiculous amount of sugar (or dulce de leche in place of both). Coffee ice cream is one of my favourite things. Strong, dark, bitter coffee – as enjoyed by coffee aficionados – is a complete no-no for me; it’s far, far, far too bitter.

You might be wondering what causes this supertaster condition?

Current theory holds that the presence of a gene called TAS238 is involved, which seems to govern the ability to detect bitterness (usually tested via reactions to propylthiouracil) plus a higher than usual density of fungiform papillae taste buds on the tongue. Being a supertaster to some extent is not that uncommon – I’ve seen articles suggesting it’s as high as one in four. But the level of sensitivity varies and many supertasters are only mildly so.

It’s thought that this gene could be an evolutionary remnant; since many toxins are bitter, a natural aversion to bitterness would have steered our ancestors away from potentially unsafe foods.

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Back in early December, Pete and I were invited to a food and beer matching event by Leffe. I don’t usually enjoy beer (the bitterness from the hops being the problem) but I have found the occasional lightly-hopped fruit beer palatable. Pete, of course, loves his beers.

To make the evening more of an experience, Leffe invited along The Robin Collective, a company that runs lively events for brands interested in exploring taste in a fun and light-hearted way.

As we sat down around the table, they handed out some tiny plastic bags of mysterious white powder, a pink pill and a tiny square of white paper. There were a few raised eyebrows!

With no idea what it was, we were asked to place the little square of white paper onto our tongues. Immediately, I grimaced with disgust at the intensely bitter taste flooding my mouth and asked if I could please spit it out. To my surprise, nearly everyone else looked at me in surprised disbelief, stating that the square tasted of absolutely nothing, or for a couple of them, very mildy bitter at most.

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At this point, The Robin Collective revealed that the paper was a supertaster test (soaked in phenylthiocarbamide, which functions similarly to propylthiouracil). I was clearly towards the stronger end of the scale. The blue dye they asked us put onto our tongues next (commonly used to aid the visual identification and counting of taste buds) was a bust – the room was simply too dark to see, let alone count taste buds. It just looked as though we’d all eaten blue slushies! The white powder  was sodium benzoate, another molecule which supertasters are more sensitive to, and can detect more flavours from.

After this, we moved on to our meal, matching courses with different Leffe beers, including Leffe’s new-to-UK Ruby, a pretty rosé beer featuring red fruits of the forest along with their blonde, brown and nectar (honey) beers.

At the end of the meal, The Robin Collective also had us experiment with miracle berry, a fruit which naturally interferes with taste receptors such that your perception of sour ingredients is that they are sweet. We chewed on the pink pills before proving the effect by sucking on a plate of lemon wedges, which tasted wonderfully sweet.

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The beers were introduced by the very knowledgeable, charmingly enthusiastic and excitable Luke Morris, who has worked with many beer brands including Leffe. He told us about each beer, discussed the best food matches and guided us through our tasting.

As expected, different beers worked better or worse with different dishes.

Sometimes it’s a case of echoing the dominant flavour profiles in the dish with flavours also in the beer. Sometimes it’s better to contrast the beer and food. Either way, a great match can really make the food on the plate sing and likewise certain foods do a super job of bringing out different aspects of the beer.

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Of the four beers we tried during the evening, my favourite was the fruity ruby – drinking it with the food helped to lessen the light bitterness and bring out the fruity flavours. Pete was keener on the brown beer, with the blonde in second place. For him the sweetness of the nectar and ruby beers was less appealing.

Kavey Eats attended this beer and food matching event as guests of Leffe.

 

Regular readers will know that I’m married to a beer enthusiast. Pete loves to drink beer, to talk about beer and to brew beer. He even grows his own hops! Although supermarkets are getting a little better at stocking a wider range of interesting beers, Pete often buys his beer online, from the growing number of beer specialists that offer a far better choice.

We recently came across Beer52, an online beer retailer founded last year by James Brown after his epic motorcycle craft beer road trip round Europe. His discovery that there were more than 12,000 microbreweries in the world inspired him to create a business in which his team handpick eight different beers to share with subscribers each month; the selection is delivered to your door for £24 a box. Beer52 are often able to source exclusive, small batch beers from small and experimental breweries around the world – not the kind of beers a supermarket is ever likely to stock.

Pete put a recent box to the taste test. Whilst he didn’t love all eight beers in the selection, what he did like was the opportunity to try beers he’d have been unlikely to come across otherwise.

Also in the box is a copy of Beer52’s in-house magazine, Ferment, sharing more information about the beers they feature. Our boxes also had a couple of extra gifts including an edition of Craft Beer Rising magazine, some crisps, a little bar of chocolate and some product leaflets.

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Review

Barcelona Beer Company, 5%
A father golden, big billowing white head. Sweet, slightly biscuit aroma, some background hops. Flavour is – surprisingly – deeply bitter which overwhelms the residual sweetness.

Cerveza Mica, 4.7%
One of the most explosive gushers I’ve seen for a while! Golden, flat white head. Honey nose, with a slight mustiness. Flavour is a little bland, slightly sweet, boring.

Charles Wells DNA, 4.5%
Copper, little head, “new world IPA”. Nose is mostly mallet, very little floral hops. Flavour is just as unremarkable – slightly fudge sweet, insipid.

Freigeist Bierkulture Hoppeditz, 7.5%
A dark reddish brown coloured beer, thin white fine bubbled head. Aroma is treacle sweet, flavour is similar, sweet, slightly bitter burnt sugar, resinous hops and dark fruit. Very nice, but not as big on the hop front as I was expecting. Over time, actually it is pretty damn hoppy, nice lingering bitterness!

Kaapse Brouwers Karel American Bitter, 4.9%
BIG white fluffy head that takes a long time to go away, deep golden colour. Aroma has nice floral hops, mineral barley. Over fizzy in the mouth, honey with quite a harsh bitterness at the back of the mouth. Average at best.

Media Biere Blanche, 5%
Golden, big but fleeting white open head. Wheat aroma, grassy with a hint of metallic. Foamy in the mouth, softly sweet and more wheat grain. Not bad, unremarkable.

Microbrasserie de la Principaute Curtius, 7%
Belgian triple, golden with a thin white head. Typical belgian yeast aroma, spic and slightly fruity. Champagne foam texture, with a slightly sour background, metallic. Tasty triple, but maybe a touch turned?

Oppigards Indian Tribute, 6.6%
Copper, mid sized fine head. Floral hop aroma, sweet and slightly toffee flavour, with fruity flavours and a nice building resinous hop kick at the end. Yum.

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COMPETITION

Beer52 have offered us two cases of beer to giveaway and we’ve set up an unusual joint competition for you between Kavey Eats and Pete Drinks. Each winner will receive a box of eight beers selected by Beer52. The prize includes free delivery to UK Mainland addresses.

Running the competition across both blogs gives you 6 chances to enter, all of which go into one big list from which two winners will be drawn randomly.

HOW TO ENTER

You can enter the competition in 3 ways via Kavey Eats and another 3 ways via Pete Drinks – the more ways you enter, the higher your chances of winning:

Entry 1 – Blog Comment
Leave a comment below, telling me about your favourite bottled beer.

Entry 2 – Twitter
Follow @Kavey, @PeteDrinks and @Beer52HQ on Twitter. Existing followers are, of course, welcome to enter! Then tweet the (exact) sentence below.
I’d love to win a box of craft beers from @Beer52HQ and Kavey Eats! http://bit.ly/ke-beer52 #KaveyEatsBeer52
(Do not add the @Kavey twitter handle into the tweet; I track twitter entries using the competition hash tag. And you don’t need to leave a blog comment about your tweet either, thanks!)

Entry 3 – Instagram
Follow @KaveyF, @PeteDrinks and @Beer52HQ on Instagram. Existing followers are, of course, welcome to enter!
Share an image of a bottle of your favourite beer via your Instagram feed. In the caption include the name of the beer, instagram usernames @KaveyF, @PeteDrinks and @Beer52HQ, and the hashtag #KaveyEatsBeer52

Entries 4-6 – PeteDrinks.com

Visit PeteDrinks.com for instructions.

RULES & DETAILS

  • The deadline for entries is midnight GMT Wednesday 24th December 2014.
  • Kavey Eats and Pete Drinks reserve the right to alter the closing date of the competition. Changes to the closing date, if they occur, will be shown on this page and the related page on PeteDrinks.com.
  • The two winner will be selected from all valid entries (across both blogs, both twitter hashtags and both instagram hashtags) using a random number generator.
  • Entry instructions form part of the terms and conditions.
  • Where prizes are to be provided by a third party, Kavey Eats and Pete Drinks accept no responsibility for the acts or defaults of that third party.
  • Both prizes are one box of 8 craft beers selected by Beer52 and and include delivery within the UK Mainland.
  • The prizes cannot be redeemed for a cash value.
  • The prizes are offered and provided by Beer52.
  • Only one Kavey Eats blog entry per person. Only one Twitter #KaveyEatsBeer52 per person. Only one Instagram #KaveyEatsBeer52 per person. Only one Pete Drinks blog entry per person. Only one Twitter #PeteDrinksBeer52 per person. Only one Instagram #PeteDrinksBeer52 per person. You may enter all six ways but you do not have to do so for your entries to be valid.
  • For Twitter entries, winners must be following @Kavey, @PeteDrinks and @Beer52HQ at the time of notification. For Instagram entries, winners must be following @KaveyF, @PeteDrinks and @Beer52HQ at the time of notification. Blog comment entries must provide a valid email address for contacting the winner.
  • The winners will be notified by email, Twitter or Instagram so please make sure you check your accounts for the notification message. If no response is received from a winner within 14 days of notification, the prize will be forfeit and a new winner will be picked and contacted.

DISCOUNT OFFER

As well as the competition, Beer52 have also set up a special discount code for our readers. Use special code KAVEYPETE10 to take advantage of a £10 reduction on any subscription, including the gift subscription. Use KAVEYPETE30 for £30 off the £48.99 gift box (which adds a book and wooden bottle opener to the usual selection of 8 beers).

Kavey Eats and Pete Drinks received product samples from Beer52.

Winners: Ashleigh Allan (Kavey Eats blog entry) and @One2CulinaryStew (Pete Drinks instagram entry).

 

This week I’m introducing another beer blogger that I once again met through Pete Drinks. Matt is an exuberant lover of beer, which is evident from his blog Total Ales and in his responses below.

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Hello and welcome, plea­se introduce yourself and tell us a little about the kind of content you share.

Hello! My name is Matt Curtis and I’ve been writing a beer blog called Total Ales for almost three years. I started writing the blog because I was boring my friends by talking about beer all the time as I became more and more obsessed with it. I though it would be a good way to curb my enthusiasm a little but in fact it only served to reinforce it! I try to write about my personal experience of beer rather than just straight reviews of what and where I’m drinking and there is a healthy dose of both comment and opinion in there too. Hopefully people find it entertaining, enjoyable and informative as that’s the balance I’m trying to achieve.

Is there a story behind your blog’s name?

The blog is called Total Ales because when I was visiting the town of Fort Collins in Colorado, a true beer paradise, I went to an incredibly huge liquor store called ‘Total Beverage’ which was the base for the inspiration. It’s also a small homage to the video games magazines I read in my youth such as Total Play and Total Amiga.

Matt Curtis Headshot

Why did you choose to blog about beer?

I’d started blogs on other subjects I love before but they always seem to fall by the wayside. Something about beer just keeps the fire, the desire to write, burning away inside me. There are so many stories waiting to be told, I literally can’t wait to get home from work and start writing about beer. Sometimes just a single sip can inspire me to write thousands of words!

Does blogging about drink present any particular challenges?

Trying to vary the pace of the writing and keep things fresh is always on my mind, I think this is something that all bloggers deal with regardless of their subject matter though. I think the biggest problem outside of the writing is that I blog about alcohol and this leads to a lot of drinking (what a nightmare) which is something I have to think about. It also takes up a lot of my time, especially as I get to attend a few press events but I’d rather be doing this than anything else.

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Is there a particular style of beer you seek out most often?

I like hoppy American style pale ale and IPA and there are lots of good ones but I’m mostly seeking ones with clean, balanced and distinctive flavours that have a well-rounded juiciness and these are at the pinnacle of beer for me.

Which single beer could you not live without?

At the moment it’s Beavertown’s Gamma Ray pale ale. It’s my fridge staple and one of the best beers being brewed in the UK right now. Thankfully the brewery is only 10 miles from my flat!

Are there beer styles you don’t like or think are overrated?

I’ll try anything once, there can easily be good and bad examples of the same style. I mostly struggle with sweeter beers such as malt forward bocks or marzens. Another struggle is going to the pub with friends who aren’t interested in beer at all and finding something decent on the bar I want to drink. Thankfully great beer is exponentially rising in popularity so this is become less and less of a problem.

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What are the current trends in the beer scene? How do you feel about them?

Right now the beer scene is more exciting than it’s ever been and I still think it’s going to get even better! Since the late 80’s craft beer has been slowly bubbling away, gaining gradual momentum. Now this has spread all over the world and the UK is perhaps one of the most interesting places to be a beer lover. We have a strong traditional beer scene and a modern craft beer scene that’s growing incredibly quickly. This is now spilling out into the mainstream with even the Wetherspoons chain completely updating their offering. The trick is, like with great beer, finding the perfect balance.

Tell us about your pet controversy in the beer world.

I think my biggest problem is with breweries trying to cash in on the hard work of those that ‘get it’. People stealing anything from branding through to falsifying their own ethos so they look like another brewery. A common thing I see is that a lot of new breweries have a ‘Brewdog Complex’ where they copy the in your face marketing tactics of the cheeky Scottish brewery. This is in fact the antithesis of what Brewdog did in creating something quite different, in the UK at least (it could be said that Brewdog simply copied the ethos of their favourite American breweries.) I think a lot of newer breweries (and some older ones) would do better to find their own path rather than walk somebody elses well trodden one.

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What are your top three criteria for a great pub? Do you have a favourite pub? Why?

Great beer, good food and vibe. The first two are obvious but the third is really the trick. It’s tough to create the perfect atmosphere that ebbs and flows with the mood of your patrons, few really have it but the best example in the UK is probably North Bar in Leeds. It just has a certain magic that makes it hard for me to leave when I’m in there.

What are the biggest turn offs for you, in the pubs you don’t like?

Sticky tables, smelly toilets and bar staff that are selling craft beers but have little interest in having a conversation with me about what I’m drinking. If you don’t want to chat you could at least be wiping down the tables.

What’s the strangest / funniest thing that’s happened to you in a pub?

I once drunkenly haggled with Masterchef winner Tim Anderson when he worked behind the bar in the Euston Tap. My friend picked a bottle of imported American beer that wasn’t priced on the till so he said we had to haggle for it. I think we probably paid over the odds but we were pretty drunk and didn’t care too much!

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Since you started blogging, has your style and content changed over time, and if so, in what ways?

I think my writing has improved markedly since I began this blog in particular. I always feel like I’m learning and improving but this blog has dramatically improved my writing. I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned it how to edit a post properly and cut the crap that no one wants to read out! I’ve also learned that the most important thing is to blog for yourself, if you’re happy with what you’re creating then people will come and read what you’ve created and share the experience with you.

What is the hardest aspect of blogging for you?

Keeping things fresh and keeping the momentum going can be challenging. As with any creative pastime sometimes you can write for days on end and sometimes you have nothing. I try and keep writing through the dry spells, which have been thankfully few and far between, just to keep the momentum constant. Blogging moves so quickly that I find you can soon fall by the wayside if you stop writing.

What inspires you to keep blogging?

Beer! Honestly the beer scene is so vibrant at the moment that there is so much to write about and I’m constantly discovering stories or tastes that I have to write about.

Blogging killed the newspaper star. What do you think bloggers bring to the arena that differentiates them from traditional journalists?

The best bloggers are a combination of a great journalist, a great editor and a wonderful storyteller. The best blogs are the newspapers of the future!

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What’s the single most popular post on your blog?

I wrote a post on the price of imported American craft beer coming into the UK. This was picked up by the US beer blogging scene which is exponentially larger than the one we have here and it got a lot of attention and started a lot of conversation.

Can we give a little extra love and attention to a post you love but didn’t catch the attention of your readers in the way you hoped?

I wrote a short story based on an experience I had out in Colorado a couple of years ago when I had some absolutely incredible pulled pork at a roadside diner. No other pulled pork I’ve tasted since has come close but a lot of that was to do with the experience. It’s probably the piece of writing I’m most happy with and I still enjoy reading it. http://totalales.blogspot.co.uk/2014/05/the-best-pulled-pork-i-ever-had.html

What’s the one question you wish I’d asked you but didn’t?

What’s the best beer in the world?

Please go ahead and answer it!

Russian River Pliny The Elder of course! Except its nearly impossible to get hold of outside of California. It’s exactly what I look for in a beer; clean, bright, distinctive flavours of grapefruit and pine resin and a booming aroma to match. Perfection!

 

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Blog URL: http://totalales.blogspot.com
Twitter handle: https://twitter.com/totalcurtis
Instagram handle: http://instagram.com/totalcurtis

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Oct 272014
 

Married to a drinks blogger, it’s inevitable that I dip my toe into the world of drinks blogging too. One of the first drinks bloggers I met through Pete was Simon Williams, the founder of CAMRGB. I’ll let him tell you more about his mission to get us drinking really good beer in his own words…

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Hello and welcome, plea­se introduce yourself and tell us a little about the kind of content you share.

Hello, I’m Simon and I write about beer and run a small organisation that tries to promote and celebrate beer regardless of particular dispense methods.

Is there a story behind your blog’s name?

I called the blog The Campaign For Really Good Beer purposefully to annoy CAMRA (The Campaign For Real Ale) as the blog started as a rant against that particular organisation’s lack of support for new UK breweries.

The name also works well graphically – Really Good Beer is Red Green and Blue, RGB, the colour breakdown on an image used online.

I expected more people to make the connection straight away, but many still look surprised when I explain, and I still get people saying, “It should be red white and blue,” meaning I then have to explain again that I’m not interested in any weird nationalist agenda.

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Why did you choose to blog about beer?

As I already mentioned, it was a direct result of what CAMRA were (or weren’t) doing. They were not supporting (and still aren’t supporting) new breweries who were making what has started to be termed “Craft” beer and not brewing to CAMRA’s definition of what “Real Ale” is.

Does blogging about drink present any particular challenges?

For me, blogging about anything presents certain challenges as I have a young family and a full time job.

Once a blog becomes more than just a blog (as CAMRGB has) it’s imperative to keep the interest for the group and to grow the group.

Online this means regular new content, and so my days have become a process:

I get up at 5am and publish any beer reviews from the night before, answer emails etc., get the kids up, feed them, get them ready for school, get myself ready and off to work, get home at 5:30pm and pick the kids up from the child-minder, get them home, feed them and get them ready for bed, then I choose a couple of beers to drink and write about, eat and go to bed.

It is, put frankly, a bit boring.

Is there a particular style of beer you seek out most often?

Nope

Which single beer could you not live without?

Sierra Nevada’s Torpedo

Are there beer styles you don’t like or think are overrated?

Not especially.

What are the current trends in the beer scene? How do you feel about them?

The current trends seem to be in ridiculous facial hair more than anything.

To be serious though, you can watch the brewing industry and see where things are going.

A couple of years ago everyone was making Black IPAs, then they were all making Saisons and now everyone is sticking as much beer into as many casks and barrels for ageing as they possibly can, with sometimes amazing and sometimes hideous results.

Tell us about your pet controversy in the beer world.

Ooh, I couldn’t possibly. There would be blushes and finger pointing amongst a certain group of, shall we say, traditional ale drinkers.

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Since you started blogging, has your style and content changed over time, and if so, in what ways?

Not really, it’s about beer and about trying to connect people.

What is the hardest aspect of blogging for you?

Fitting it into everyday life.

What inspires you to keep blogging?

Meeting people and connecting people.

Seeing photos being posted on Twitter last night of people at IMBC 2014 who had struck up conversations because they were all wearing CAMRGB T-shirts is fantastic.

They know that whatever their differences they can agree on beer and share a certain ideology and can have a chat and have a good evening.

I think that that is just brilliant.

Blogging killed the newspaper star. What do you think bloggers bring to the arena that differentiates them from traditional journalists?

Bloggers are the new fanzine writers.

Passionate amateurs writing from the heart.

The downside of that – and I remember from dealing with fanzine writers in the 80s ad 90s – is that lots of people who start blogging do it to get free stuff and the result is they will only ever say things are great as they believe that that will get them more free stuff.

I try to always be honest in my writing and some people don’t like when I say their product isn’t very good, forgetting it’s just my personal opinion, but most take it on the chin and continue to allow me to get things to review.

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What’s the single most popular post on your blog?

I don’t know. The blog gets over 9000 hits a month right now, so I don’t really check to see who is looking at what.

Can we give a little extra love and attention to a post you love but didn’t catch the attention of your readers in the way you hoped?

I still love the two articles I wrote on Greene King: Insurgency Over The Front Line and Greene King Do The Wrong Thing

 

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Blog URL: http://camrgb.org
Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/CAMRGB
Twitter handle: https://twitter.com/CAMRGB
Pinterest profile: http://www.pinterest.com/crayolasarandon/

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You might think it a little strange for me to interview my own husband, since I might reasonably be expected to know most, if not all, of his answers! But of course, Monday Meet The Blogger is about sharing the blogs I love with a wider audience. So please read on to find out more about Pete Drinks, a blog where Pete talks about beer, whisky and coffee.

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Is there a story behind your blog’s name?

Not really; I started out writing guest spots on Kavey Eats and it just seemed the obvious name!

Why did you choose to blog about drink?

Honestly? It all came about because after a spate of food arriving at the house for Kavey to review; I (jokingly) asked Kavey why she never got offered beer. I was slightly horrified to learn that she had turned down such offers because she didn’t write about beer. She said she’d accept the next offer if I would write the review, and in the meantime invited me to guest post about beers I already had in the house. That sounds bad, because it makes it seem like I was only in it for free beer but actually I very quickly realised I just liked writing about beer and I didn’t care whether it was free or not.

The trouble with only making guest posts on someone else’s blog is that I soon found myself asking for yet another slot and being told that I’d have to wait a month. By that stage, I’d accepted that it wasn’t going to be a short-lived hobby so it seemed time to cut myself adrift and set up my very own blog.

Of course, the downside to that is that I don’t get to enjoy all the lovely traffic that came with being on a popular blog like Kavey Eats! [I didn’t pay him to say that! KF]

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Does blogging about drink present any particular challenges?

I don’t think the challenges are particularly specific to drink – they’re the same whenever you’re reviewing anything. You have to try and form an impartial opinion on something (the easy bit) and then put into words why you’ve reached that conclusion (the hard bit).

The other challenge is vocabulary; describing a beer (or anything else for that matter) is hard if you’re not in the habit of doing so – those first few cringe-worthy posts are filled with useful descriptions like “malty” and “bitter” which is a bit like describing the Antarctic as “a bit cold”; technically correct, but not exactly informative.

One of the joys of blogging is that it forces you to think far more deeply about what you’re tasting, and search for different ways to describe those tastes. I used to laugh at some of the Jilly Goolden-like excesses of tasting notes, but the more I try and understand flavour, the more I understand where she’s coming from.

The downside, of course, is that there’s always a small voice telling me that what I’m writing is unbearably pretentious twaddle when I begin waxing lyrical!

You mainly focus on coffee, whisky and beer. Why?

When I started, I was dedicated to beer, because that was what I knew most about (although not, to be honest, a great deal back then) and beer blogging appeared to be “a thing”.

It was over a year before I branched out into whisky, and that was largely caused by the large Drinks by the Dram parcel I got for my birthday. In many ways, that felt like going back to my initial days of talking about beer, because there was an entirely different palette of flavours to recognise.

Coffee came another year later; I’d tended to be a Nescafe Instant drinker to be honest, until I ended up working in an office where we had a coffee club – any time we bought a coffee we’d not tried before, Phil would demand our marks out of ten and we slowly built up a revealing list of our favourites. They knew I was a drinks blogger, so when they suggested I should add coffee to my repertoire, I took the plunge.

When you are pulling together a new review post, what are the similarities and differences when talking about coffee, whisky and beer?

The vocabularies and flavour palettes are different, but the basic questions you’re asking are the same: how does it smell? how does it taste? do I like it? and above all, why (or why not)?!

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Many of your posts are about your home-brewing experiences. What are your top homebrew tips to share with a) a complete novice b) a kit brewer thinking of branching out?

a) Just go for it. It’s dead easy, it’s cheap to start out and beer comes out the other end. Buy a kit, and get stuck in. Ignore anything you read about water treatment.

I would suggest you resist diving into homebrew forums at all to start with; they are fantastic resources of information and opinion, but they’re also full of people who will insist that if you don’t do everything exactly the way they do, that your beer will be ruined, destined to go down the drain. It will scare you out of doing anything.

Above all, keep in mind that people were brewing beer in mud huts five thousand years ago, and they didn’t have digital thermometers back then. Sure, if you’re a commercial brewer trying to reproduce the same beer day after day you need to be precise, but for the novice home-brewer, you can get away with a lot of errors (trust me!)

b) Stop using kits! “Brewing” with cans of extract is a little bit like baking cakes with packet mixes – sure, it produces something roughly beer-like (or cake-like) at the end of it, but you’ve only been half-involved. This ties a little into the first part of this question, because I’d say that if possible, complete novices should jump straight into ‘real’ brewing from the beginning.

Brewing from grain gives you so much more flexibility, and really doesn’t make things all that more complicated. If you can make a cup of tea, you can make all-grain beer. And it’ll taste better.

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What’s been the homebrew you’ve been most pleased with, and why?

That’s a little like asking a parent to pick their favourite child!

My Coffee Porter is an obvious one, because I got to brew it in a real brewery, sell it in a real pub and see real people paying actual money to drink it.

Have you had any homebrew disasters? What happened?

I’ve made plenty of mistakes – getting mash temperatures wildly out, managing to start a brew day without checking that I actually had all the ingredients and having to re-write the recipe on the fly – but things invariably work out ok. Beer really wants to be made.

Perhaps the closest to ‘disaster’ was the time I realised (at the end of the boil) that I’d forgotten to fit the hop filter inside the boiler. The hop filter is essentially a strainer that keeps the hops back in the boiler, and stops them from clogging up the tap when you’re trying to get all your lovely beer out.

After realising that just trying to carry on wasn’t going to work (the tap was so plugged up by hops that nothing was coming out) I eventually had to plunge my (thoroughly washed!) arm into still-rather-hot wort and fit the damn filter with the boiler still full.

Again, the beer came out fine at the end of it all.

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For those who don’t have an understanding of the brewing process, can you give us a brief explanation of the process; a short dummies guide?

Beer only (normally) has four ingredients; malted grain, hops, water and yeast. It also has four basic steps:

  1. Soak the malted grain in hot water (65degrees, give or take) for an hour. This extracts the sugar from the malt, and gives you a sweet liquid (called wort).
  2. Boil the wort for an hour (after straining out the malt grain), adding hops along the way. Hops added at the start of the boil mainly contribute bitterness to the beer, while hops added later in the process (especially in the last 15 minutes) are more about flavour and aroma.
  3. Once the wort has cooled down (and you’ve strained out the hops), add the yeast. This is the bit that turns all those sugars into alcohol.
  4. Drink!

If you can make a cup of tea and boil and egg, you’ve already mastered the fundamental techniques.

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As you also feature in many of the cooking posts on Kavey Eats, we must surely squeeze in some cooking questions…

What are your earliest memories of cooking? Who or what inspired you to cook?

Growing up, my cooking was limited to making cakes with my mum. It’s fair to say that we weren’t an adventurous family, food-wise so those cakes were limited to what was in Mrs. Beeton – Victoria sponges and butterfly cakes.

I’m not sure I could claim to be “inspired” to cook; at University it was more of a necessity than a passion, but over time being married to a foodie changes your perspective!

What recipe are you fondest / proudest of?

I’m not sure I’d describe myself as *proud* of any of my recipes; I mean I can produce tasty enough food, but I don’t see myself signing up to MasterChef any time soon.

The recipe that’s been most widely (and positively!) enjoyed is probably my Chocolate Porter Cake. I somehow agreed to take part in a Great Chocolate Cake-Off at Chocolate Unwrapped, and ended up creating a Devil’s Food Cake-based affair, liberally laced with Fuller’s excellent London Porter, in the sponge and the filling. And the cream on top.

It’s not the prettiest cake in the world – I still have the same design skills as I had when I was 8 years old – but it’s damn tasty.

I also had fun making up a paprika ginger beer recipe for a mixer challenge!

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Is there a particular style of beer you seek out most often?

Short answer, no. The slightly longer answer is, I’ll usually seek out something different to the beer I’ve just finished!

Which single beer could you not live without?

Honestly, I’m not sure there is one. There are about a million different beers out there, and while I’d be sad if, say, Bristol Beer Factory’s Southville Hop was suddenly discontinued, I’m sure I’d find something to take its place in my affections!

Are there beer styles you don’t like or think are overrated?

I don’t get Pilsners. It’s not that I don’t like them; I just don’t see why they seem to be so revered among beer “experts”.

What are the current trends in the beer scene? How do you feel about them?

Cans seem to be very trendy right now; as with so many things, British breweries are starting to import the US concept of putting their beer into cans rather than bottles. Of course, beer in cans is hardly revolutionary – Special Brew has been in cans for decades – it’s something new for “premium” beers.

In theory, it’s a superior package – light-proof, more robust and far lighter than glass bottles. In practice… I’m unconvinced. I generally find them over-carbonated and while I’ll happily drink from a bottle sometimes, I just don’t enjoy drinking beer straight from the can.

I probably need to do more research.

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What are your top three criteria for a great pub? Do you have a favourite pub? Why?

  1. Decent beer – by which I mean, (a) well kept, (b) not too damn cold, and (c) a decent – and changing – selection.
  2. Peace – going to the pub is a social experience; I want to be able to hear the people I’m with, not loud music or a blaring TV
  3. Food – having decent food means there’s a better chance of me being able to persuade my food-loving, beer-hating beloved to go to the pub with me!

Happily, our local – The Bohemia – ticks all those boxes quite nicely, and happens to be a brewery too!

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What are the biggest turn offs for you, in the pubs you don’t like?

TV. I HATE pub TV. I loathe it. There are few things more likely to stop me from even going into a pub. I’d rather – MUCH rather – be in a smoke-filled pub than a Sky Sports-filled one.

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How did you get into whisky?

Unlike beer, I haven’t always loved whisky. I put this down to my initial taste, in my teens, when I somehow acquired a small bottle of Teachers and decided that whisky was icky. To be fair to Teachers, I don’t think my teenage palate would have fallen in love with the finest single malt but the experience formed a firm belief that whisky was some sort of grain-flavoured sink cleaner.

Fast forward many years to the time we went up to Aberdeen to visit one of my wife’s friends. I’m sure we chatted and had a very pleasant time on the way in from the airport, but in my memory I’m convinced the first words this formidable Scots lady said to me were: “So, I hear you don’t like whisky, Pete. We’ll see about that!” – whereupon she opened a huge cupboard filled with an alarming number of bottles. A few were selected and pulled out onto the table; she is (and therefore, I am) a big Islay fan and decided that Lagavulin was an excellent distillery with which to start my education.

The rest of that evening is something of a haze. I do remember calling a halt to proceedings, having not yet even ventured past Islay, on the basis that I could no longer feel my face. Despite this, I was converted and have been on a voyage of discovery on the sea of whisky ever since.

What is your favourite style of whisky?

With that kind of start, I’ve always had a love of the big, powerful, smoky whiskies of Islay, and many of the other Scottish Island whiskies are the same.

That said, I’m developing an appreciation of bourbon too.

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You’ve visited Japan twice in the last two years and enjoyed trying Japanese whisky. How does Japanese whisky compare to Scotch and what might be a good bottle to buy for someone who’s not tried any before?

It’s probably closer to Scotch than whisky from other countries, although they’re not generally big on peat. The biggest difference is that they tend to benefit a lot more from a drop of water being added to them – I suspect that’s largely because the Japanese largely drink whisky with water, rather than straight up as we do.

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You’re a keen coffee drinker but have steered clear of the more pretentious side of coffeephilia. Tell us your thoughts on enjoying coffee as a regular coffee drinker.

There’s a lot of snobbery around coffee; as with everything I think it’s best to ignore what “the right way” is. For example, when I taste and review coffee I make it the same way as I drink it – in a big mug, with milk.

Now a coffeephile will tell you that a straight espresso is “the right way” to taste coffee and in a sense they’re right – diluting it with water and milk alters the flavour, but I don’t drink it that way normally. What’s the point in reviewing coffee in a form I never normally drink it?

What’s your top tip for an affordable tasty coffee to drink at home?

Buy an Aeropress; it’s the neatest, simplest device for brewing ground coffee. Then start working your way through the coffee in your local supermarket – there’s a huge range and something for everybody’s taste, and none of it very expensive.

For my money, you can’t go wrong with Taylor’s, and it’s often on special offer. Their After Dark remains one of my “go-to” coffees.

What are your thoughts on the increasing popularity of pod coffee machines?

Bemusement. Why buy a machine that restricts you to only drinking a limited range of (very expensively packaged) coffees? I genuinely do not get the point of them.

That said, I’ve never actually lived with one so maybe I’m missing something AMAZING about them.

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Since I’m a travel addict, you get dragged around the world regularly…

What’s been your favourite destination thus far, from a drinker’s perspective? Can you share a favourite memory from the trip?

Whenever I travel I’ve always got my eye open for the local beer; I don’t see the point of going to another country and heading for the nearest Englishe Pubbe for an overpriced half-litre of John Smiths.

Amsterdam was an impressive beer experience (largely thanks to some excellent pre-trip research not done by me!), although it’s hardly an exotic destination!

What’s the very first trip you remember taking?

Hayling Island, as a child. I don’t remember there being much beer, but I do remember an arcade machine that you could win bubble gum out of.

Where are you going next?

Washington DC. I’ve heard Americans can make quite good beer these days…

What three things can you never travel without? 

Camera, Kindle and Kavey :)

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Since you started blogging, has your style and content changed over time, and if so, in what ways?

I write more better.

Ahem. I write longer and more conversationally (sometimes to the frustration of my editor). I’ve become way better at self-editing. I’m even getting over my (incorrect) use of the possessive apostrophe in “it’s”.

Mostly, though, I just suck less than I used to. Writing, like everything else, is something you just have to do a lot – badly – before you learn how to do it properly.

What is the hardest aspect of blogging for you?

Getting around to it. Once I actually sit down and start typing it’s pretty painless, but I’m very bad at the starting part.

What inspires you to keep blogging?

I just enjoy writing, and blogging about drink gives me the focus to actually put some words down, and the freedom to keep it pretty short.

Blogging killed the newspaper star. What do you think bloggers bring to the arena that differentiates you from traditional journalists?

A lack of professionalism. And I mean that in a good way.

Journalists are, ultimately, bound by the person paying the bills – the publisher, the client, or whoever. Bloggers aren’t (or rather, shouldn’t be) so we can follow our hearts more easily.

The line is blurred because there’s such a wide spectrum of bloggers, from those who are just in it for fun – like me – to those who are looking for the book deal, the sponsorship deal, or the “real” journalism job.

The kind of blogging I do isn’t, in my mind, journalism. It’s standing on a box at Speaker’s Corner. I’m just talking about stuff I want to talk about – if someone stops and listens, that’s great but at the end of the day I’m not doing it for them. I’m doing it for me.

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You grow fruit, vegetables, wheat and hops in your garden and allotment…

What do you love about doing that?

I like seeing stuff grow. I like how the garden and the allotment changes every day, even if it is just weeds half the time. I enjoy the tidiness of a freshly weeded bed (although that rarely happens!) and the peace of being out in the fresh air watching the robins watch me dig up worms for them.

Obviously it’s great to get real edible stuff out at the other end, but it’s the journey more than the destination that matters. If I was only in it for the crop, it would be cheaper and easier to go to Aldi.

What’s the hardest aspect?

Getting around to it. Once I’m there I’m happy to do the work, but I’m rubbish at taking that first step (I’m starting to see a pattern in these answers….)

What’s new on your list to grow next year?

Barley. I already grow hops, so the next logical step is to grow some barley, figure out how the hell to malt it, and make beer genuinely from scratch.

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What are you absolutely loving cooking/ eating/ drinking right now?

I recently found a case of my homebrew Coffee Stout lurking forgotten at the back of the cupboard. That was a very happy discovery!

What’s the single most popular post on your blog?

By a considerable margin, my Alcoholic Ginger Beer tasting. I should probably do more things like that!

 

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Blog URL: petedrinks.com/
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Enjoyed this interview? Read the rest of the series, here.

 

When it comes to tourism in Belgium, Brussels gets a bad rap.

Go to Bruges, they say, for the picturesque canals and mediaeval centre.
Go to Antwerp, they say, for world class art and hipster fashion.
Go to Ghent, they say, for more of the same plus cycling too.
Go to Ypres, they say, for WW1 history.

But Brussels? Brussels is often dismissed as little more than a hub for politicians and lobbyists.

Of course, there’s much more to Brussels than politics! Yes, Brussels is the home of the European Union, NATO and the United Nation’s European office…

…but it is also the capital of a country of two halves – the Dutch-speaking Flemish region of Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia in the South. Multicultural Brussels, the third region of the country, is bilingual though French is now more prevalent than Dutch. These days English is widely spoken as well as many other languages, indeed it’s said that as much as half the population speak neither French nor Dutch as their native tongue.

As a Londoner, one of the things I find most appealing about Brussels is this sense of multiculturalism. Although the issue of language is still a hot potato for many Belgians, especially when it comes to education and cultural identity, Brussels is a city that is very open to the world.  Indeed, we chat to Pierre from the local tourist board who tells us that the people of Brussels refer to themselves as zinneke (bastard dogs), wearing their mongrel heritage with pride. Pierre is himself the perfect example – his mother is gipsy, his father Walloon and Flemish, his wife Brazilian and his sisters are married to a German, a Frenchman and a Czech, respectively!

Brussels is a vibrant city with a historic heart and a modern outlook. And the Eurostar service takes you from London St Pancras to Brussels Midi-Zuid in less than two and a half hours!

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When it comes to sightseeing, you still can’t beat a good old-fashioned guide book, or the website equivalent. I won’t try to recreate that here but suggest that as well as the popular Gothic and baroque buildings of the Grand Place and surrounding narrow cobbled streets, the shiny Atomium housing a variety of exhibitions and the incomprehensibly mobbed corner where the Mannekin Pis resides you might want to look up Jeanneke Pis and Zinneke Pis – the squatting female and doggie equivalents of Mannekin, the Belgian Comic Strip Centre (and the Comic Strip walk that takes you past comics painted on the walls of a number of buildings), an amazing array of grand buildings such as the Cathedral of St Michael and St Gudula, the Bourse (stock exchange), the Royal Palace, the Basilique du Sacré Coeur and the architecture of art nouveau architect Victor Horta. Lovers of literature, art, history and even cars, will also appreciate several excellent museums in Brussels.

Instead, I’m going to share my tips for some great places to eat, drink, shop and sleep.

 

Chocolates and Patisserie

Brussels is awash with shops selling chocolate, but much of what’s on sale is cheap, bulk-manufactured products that are hardly worth wasting suitcase space for. Here are the ones that are worth seeking out.

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Laurent Gerbaud is one of Belgium’s rising chocolatiers and is fighting an uphill battle to move Belgians on from the idea of “Belgian chocolate” to an understanding of the actual origins and varieties available.

Like several chocolatiers I’ve met, Laurent was a chef first; he came to chocolate via chocolate sculpture with an artist friend, and that lead, eventually, to his current career. As a child, he developed an interest in China, perhaps because of several friendships he had with Chinese and Taiwanese families. He worked in Chinese restaurants, took courses in Chinese and, after a university degree in history, finally moved to China for a couple of years. There, he discovered that the Chinese don’t have as sweet a tooth as Europeans and he lost his taste for high sugar sweets. When he came back to Belgium, he had the obvious thought of bringing his experiences in China into his chocolate making but realised he wasn’t inspired by fusion flavours. Instead, he focused on quality ingredients, including some sourced from Asia.

Today, the Chinese influences is perhaps most evident in his logo which is an artistic interpretation of the Chinese hanzi characters for “chocolate” and his name.

Laurent is keen to make chocolate that people love to eat; he says “one of my purposes is to make junk food – you eat one and you want another because it’s really good”. Judging by the chocolates we tasted, he’s nailed it – I could have eaten a whole box of the chocolates made with dried figs from Turkey and candied oranges from Italy. His shop on Rue Ravenstein is also a boutique tea room, with plans to extend the service to offer a savoury menu too.

Tip: Of course, you can visit his shop just to buy some of his excellent chocolate, but for a more personal experience, book a chocolate tasting or chocolate making workshop.

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Pierre Marcolini is one of the few Belgian chocolatiers to make chocolate from bar to bean, before then using it to make a range of chocolates. His chocolate shop at 2 Rue de Minimes is certainly full of temptation but what I recommend above the chocolate is a visit to the address around the corner at 39 Grote Zavel, where his spectacular patisserie is sold. I found the macarons surprisingly disappointing but a glossy strawberry patisserie was a winner.

Other famous chocolate brands in Brussels include Wittamer (a long standing bakery and chocolate business) and Frederic Blondeel (a chef turned chocolatier who also makes chocolate from bean to bar).

 

Speculoos Biscuits

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Speculoos, hailing from Belgium and The Netherlands, are spiced shortcrust biscuits that were originally associated with the feast of Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) in early December. Made from flour, brown sugar and butter with a spice mix that usually includes cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, cardamom and white pepper, these days they are popular and available all year round.

Maison Dandoy, established in 1829, makes a range of sweet bakery products but is best known for its traditional speculoos and gingerbread biscuits. These days, it has a handful of shops in Brussels, but its worth making a trip to its oldest remaining store at 31 Rue au Beurre, to admire the beautiful wooden biscuit moulds lining the shelves. The Tea Room on Rue Charles Buls (also known as Karel Bulsstraat) is larger, offering the opportunity to enjoy a wide range of biscuits, pastries and drinks inside. There are an additional four shops in Brussels, plus one in nearby Waterloo.

Having tried several supermarket brands of speculoos biscuit, I was surprised to discover that it’s not just a case of fancy shops and branding – the Maison Dandoy speculoos biscuits are definitely superior!

We also tried Dandoy’s pain à la Grecque, a crunchy bread-cum-biscuit coated with pearled sugar crystals. I was more fascinated by the origins of the name than the biscuit itself – over two centuries ago, the monks of a local Augustine abbey used to support the city’s destitute by giving them bread. The abbey was located near a place known as Wolvengracht (Wolves Ditch); the gracht pronounced grecht in local dialect. Over time, pain a la grecht morphed into pain à la Grecque, confusing generations of shoppers with its erroneous suggestion of a Greek origin.

Tip: If you’re as huge a fan of speculoos biscuits as we are, make a quick visit to a supermarket to pick up a couple of extra large packs of mass-produced biscuits as well. There’s a mini supermarket in Brussels Midi Station.

 

Cuberdons

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I first fell for cuberdons over two decades ago, and if anything, I love them even more today. A purply-dark red colour and conical in shape, the cuberdon is a raspberry-flavoured gummy sweet, firm on the outside with an oozing interior. In Dutch, it’s known as a neus (nose), in French it’s called a chapeau-de-curé or chapeau-de-prêtre (priest’s hat).

You can find cuberdons in quite a few sweet shops in Brussels, several of which sell multiple colours and flavours, a relatively recent phenomenon. But we’ve found that the best prices for regular raspberry cuberdons is from the Cric-Crac sweet shop inside Brussels Midi station, which sells by weight.

Tip: These sweets are best eaten within a couple of weeks of purchase, as the liquid centre can crystallise and harden if left for too long.

 

Waffles

Belgian Waffles fall into two types.

Firm, rich and chewy Gaufre de Liège (Liège Waffle) are made from an adapted brioche-dough and work well both hot and cold. These are usually oval in shape and have a slightly crunchy exterior from the crystallised sugar that has caramelised against the waffle iron. They’re great for eating on the hoof as they’re traditionally eaten plain (though you can buy them with toppings too if you prefer).

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Rectangular Brussels Waffles are made with a leavened batter, resulting in a much lighter and airier texture and are definitely at their best enjoyed hot, fresh from the waffle iron. Traditionally, Brussels waffles are served with a dusting of icing sugar but these days you can choose from a wide selection of toppings including ice cream, chocolate sauce and fruits. But I suggest you ignore all of those and ask for your waffle with a generous dollop of speculoos paste. With a texture much like smooth peanut butter, this sweet spread is the same flavour as the famous biscuit and melts wonderfully into the indentations of a freshly-cooked hot waffle.

Tip: You’ll find waffles on sale all over Brussels, often from hole-in-the wall vendors, but if you want to sit down and eat, try Maison Dandoy’s Tearoom.

 

Beer & Bars

Belgium is world famous for its beers and rightly so, with a rich tradition that goes back many, many centuries. The range of beers produced by Belgian breweries is impressive, including pale, golden, amber, red and dark ales, dubbels and tripels, Flemish sour brown, Champagne beers (which receive a second fermentation using the method now most strongly associated with Champagne), wheat beers and lambics (spontaneously fermented with wild yeasts that are native to the brewery, as opposed to the addition of cultivated yeasts).

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Both Pete and I absolutely love what owner Jean Hummler is offering at his two bars, Moeder Lambic and Moeder Lambic Fontainas, located at 68 rue de Savoie and 8 place Fontainas, respectively. He started the first bar less than five years ago, after a career working for industrial food businesses in France.

He starts off by telling us why he wanted to do something different; “most places are not very selective, they sell coca cola and junk food” and their beer selection is not very inspiring either. He is committed to selling only quality produce and that applies to the beers, the food and even the soft drinks. He has two key criteria, the way a product is made and how it tastes. “Making money and brewing great beer are often not the same job”, he laughs. He looks for products that are made by hand, adding that he doesn’t want “industrial anything”. For a beer to be selected it must be made with craft and it must pass the taste test – it must taste good! Right now, he has approximately 150 beers on the menu of which 46 are on tap. These include beers from around the world, including a number from the UK.

The same principles apply to his sourcing of cheeses and charcuterie (which form the main thrust of the simple menu) and the non-beer drinks menu (which includes some delicious farmhouse apple juice, for those less interested in the beers).

The cheese selection (€12.5) is utterly wonderful; all are raw milk cheeses and range from soft and mild to fantastically pungent, each one a genuine delight. In the centre of the serving board is a bowl of pottekees – a blend of fresh white cheese, onion, pepper and lambic beer. Just as excellent is the meat selection (€12.5) which includes garlic sausage, French sausage, paté made with geuze beer, hâte levée – pork cooked slowly in bouillon with garlic and spices, Tierenteyn mustard, Belgian pickles (which are a lot like piccalilli). Both plates are served with a basket of bread and a superb raw milk butter.

As he introduces each item on the plates, his enthusiasm for the producers and their products is self-evident; “The idea is to offer another selection, another quality, another explanation that most people don’t know exists”.

Two other key policies for Hummler are ensuring that all his staff know and love the product range, and establishing strong relationships with each supplier – and one (of many) ways he furthers both is the Moeder Fucker series of beers brewed by Le Paradis microbrewery not far from Nancy, in France. For each beer he sends two of his staff to the brewery to help make it; they decide which style of beer to make and work with the brewery team to create their vision. During our visit, Moeder Fucker IV was on tap.

As we talked, Pete tried five beers, guided by Hummler through the staggering range available. He drank Taras Boulba by local Brasserie de la Senne (Belgium), Moeder Fucker IV by Le Paradis (France), Mozaic Black by Mont Saleve (France), Cuvée De Ranke by Ranke (Belgium) and Fièvre de Cacao by Thiriez (France).

In the end, Hummler is a man after my own heart. “We all have to decide. Each citizen has to decide what they want to do with their life. I decided for myself that I wanted to eat very good food. I eat less and less meat, maybe once a week but what I eat is very good, like the chicken that is aged 120 days on a small farm. Taste is very important to me.

Tip: Ask staff for guidance in selecting beers for your own beer flight.

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Small and traditional pub La Fleur en Papier Doré was the perfect place to meet local friends for an evening drink. At 55 Rue des Alexiens, it was very close to our bed and breakfast, and also easy to reach by local bus. The menu shares a little of the history of the bar, housed in a small maisonette that dates from the mid 18th century. In the past it housed a convent, which moved to a new home in the middle of the 20th century. As a pub, it became the favoured meeting place of the Surrealist cultural movement with regulars including René Magritte; a few decades later it was a focus point for the Cobra (avant-garde) movement, creators of experimental art and philosophy. Mementos of both remain on the well-worn walls of the cosy pub, protected (along with the façade, the ground floor rooms and some of the furniture) by the local government which has decreed them of historical value.

Stop for a few beers (and some charcuterie) or for a simple meal.

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The Cantillon Brewery welcomes visitors for brewery tours (7 Euros including a beer) or to buy beer. You can buy to drink in or takeaway; lovers of lambic will particularly enjoy a visit. The address at 56 Rue Gheude is only a short walk from the central tourist district.

 

Lunch Stops

My first recommendation for a light lunch is the cheese plate and charcuterie selection at Moeder Lambic, above. Super quality, and each provides a generous portion for the price.

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Another great option is recently opened Peck 47 (amusingly named for its address at 47 Rue Marche Aux Poulets). This all day cafe offers a short menu of home made sandwiches, salads, soups, cakes, fresh juices, smoothies and a small selection of local beers. For just €8, my poached eggs on sourdough with smoked salmon and homemade relish was far more generous than I expected and all the items were of excellent quality. The eggs were perfectly poached, the salad nicely dressed and the home made relish very good indeed. Pete’s sandwich – roast chicken, rocket, lemon and basil mayo and slow roasted tomatoes – also impressed, for €5.

Tip: A particularly nice touch is that the free tap water is stored in the drinks fridge in large bottles stuffed with mint. Ask for some!

 

A Traditional Dinner

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I have to say from the off – don’t go to Restobieres if you’re looking for great service. The three staff on duty ranged from friendly but incompetent through utterly disinterested to downright sullen. That usually stops me from recommending a place but Restobieres is a good option if you’re keen to try traditional Belgian dishes alongside a range of Belgian beers.

Herve Cheese Croquets (€10) were a tasty comfort food, served hot and freshly fried. Homemade paté with Rochefort and foie gras  (€12) was a generous slab; light on the foie gras but tasty nonetheless. My calf’s liver with shallots and Chouffe  (€20) was decent; I really liked the beer and shallot sauce. Pete had satisfactory steak and chips with another good sauce and a generous well-dressed salad. The star of the mains was our friend’s bloempanch blood pudding (€12) which was both tasty and generously portioned for the price.

The only duff note (with the exception of the service) was a scoop of speculoos biscuit ice cream (€4) which we decided could only possibly have been made by a chef who’d never tasted speculoos (and not bothered to look up a recipe for the spices usually used). The texture was unpleasantly gritty too.

Located at 9 rue des Renards, not far from the Jeu de Balle flea market.

 

Brussel’s Modern Dining Scene

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I already explained how much we liked the multicultural vibe in Brussels. This goes equally for the food scene, which has some great restaurants to explore. One such place launched just a few weeks before our visit; located along very trendy Rue de Flandre in the Sainte Catherine district, Gramm is a restaurant offering bold, inventive and modern food. It’s headed up by Chef Erwan Kenzo Nakata, who grew up in Brittany to a French father and Japanese mother, thus explaining some of the eclectic Japanese touches to otherwise modern French cooking.

The evening offering is a fixed tasting menu, 6 courses for €38. Although the courses are individually quite small, we felt very satisfied at the end of our meal, having enjoyed the array of tastes, textures and colours in Nakata’s self-assured dishes.

While I felt the food was good value, I was less impressed with the drinks pricing, for wines, beers and soft drinks (which were served in shockingly tiny glasses) so if you’re on a fixed budget, keep an eye on your drinks orders to avoid a shock at the end of the evening. Also, do set aside plenty of time. Service is very warm and friendly but the wait between courses, even in a nearly empty restaurant, is a little longer than ideal.

Tip: Don’t be shy about asking for more of the excellent bread and butter, by the way, it’s great for mopping up some of the juices and sauces!

 

The Marolles Flea Market

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Usually, I’m not much of a shopper but offer me the chance to browse a car boot sale or flea market and I’m instantly excited, so I was very keen to return to the famous Marolles Flea Market held daily in the Place du Jeu de Balle. On sale is a charming mix of cheap tat and more expensive “antiques”; it’s definitely a case of one man’s rubbish being another man’s treasure. With my love of retro kitchenware, I was in heaven as there’s plenty of it here, at very bargainous prices. It’s actually a miracle I came away with only a couple of ornate old teaspoons and two Nestle branded cups and saucers in amber glass – there was, I think, a complete set of six in the box but most were too chicken-shit-and-feather covered to assess very well, so I just bought the two cleanest ones for a whopping €1!

The market runs every day of the year. Official start times state that it starts at 6 am and finishes at 2pm on weekdays, 3pm on weekends.

Tip: Take lots of small change with you and of course, be prepared to haggle!

Brussels has many more markets to visit including markets for art, food, flowers and vintage clothes.

 

An Elegant Pillow

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X2B Brussels is a family run luxury bed and breakfast in the heart of Brussels, just a few minutes walk from the Grand Place. The three guest bedrooms are each on a different floor – we booked the first floor double and were delighted to discover a vast room with soaringly high ceilings, simple and elegant furnishings and a very generous en-suite bathroom. Do note that none of the rooms have step-free access and, as you’d expect in a private home, there is no lift. Guests are welcomed either by owner Xavier or his mother Monique, who sit down with guests on arrival to share tips for visiting Brussels, personalised to their guests’ interests. Breakfast is excellent: a basket of fresh bread and pastries with an enormous selection of jams and spreads, cheese and cold hams, yoghurt, eggs however you’d like them, rounded off by coffee and freshly squeezed orange juice. The hot freshly made raisin bread pain perdu is a lovely touch. Free wifi is also a boon, for those of us who like to stay connected. From £160 a night including breakfast.

Tip: make sure you jot down the house number as well as the street name; there’s no obvious sign on the outside so we walked up and down the same stretch of road several times, eventually identifying the B&B only by peering at the tiny labels for individual doorbells.

 

Getting Around

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In terms of getting around, the key sites in Brussels are within a fairly small area and its certainly possible to walk. But you can also make use of the metro and tram network, as well as local buses. The Brussels Card gives unlimited use of public transport, free entry into some attractions, discounted entry into many more and discounts in shops and restaurants too. You will also be given a free city map. Available for 24, 48 or 72 hours for 24€, 36€ or 43€.

 

With thanks to Eurostar for the complimentary return tickets between London and Brussels and thanks to the Brussels Tourist Board for their assistance in planning some of our sightseeing highlights and their insight into historic and modern Brussels.

 

Some of you know that my Pete is a keen home brewer. He often writes about his efforts over on Pete Drinks.

On Wednesday, he spent the day at The Bull, a wonderful pub in Highgate with its own brewery on site. With their brewer Jenna and assistant brewer Jack on hand to help, Pete made his own recipe coffee porter, getting properly stuck in at all steps – weighing the ingredients, cleaning and heating the mashtun, adding the ingredients, sparging, transferring to the kettle, boiling the wort, adding hops, boiling, adding the coffee, transferring to the fermenter, adjusting the gravity and pitching the yeast.

He said it was reassuringly like the process he follows at home, just on a larger scale with (slightly) fancier equipment! Read his post on the experience, here.

If you’re London based, please come along to The Bull on the evening of November 12th, when Pete’s Coffee Porter will be launched. You can view the Facebook invitation here.

(Don’t worry if you can’t make it on the night, the beer will remain on tap for a few weeks until it runs out).

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I hope you can join us!

signed,
Mrs Proud Wife

 

I’ve never cooked beef short ribs before. I’m not sure if I’ve even eaten them before but I think I may have. Certainly I’ve seen much talk about them being a great value cut that benefits from long slow cooking such as a braise.

My beef short ribs came from The Ginger Pig, and I asked them to cut them in half, through the bone for me so that when I cut between the bones, I was left with smaller, more manageable pieces.

Trying to narrow down recipes, I found many appealing ones on the web including Barbecued Beef Ribs & Molasses Bourbon Sauce, Coffee-Marinated Bison Short Ribs (which I figured would translate well to beef ribs), Cherry Balsamic Short Ribs, Stout-Braised Short Ribs and Red Wine-Braised Short Ribs. I even contemplated adjusting this recipe for Dr Pepper Pork Ribs, but figured best to use a recipe intended for my cut of meat, at least the first time.

The recipe that called to me most strongly was this Braised Hoisin Beer Short Ribs by Dave Lieberman, posted on the Food Network.

Although the total cooking time is nearly 4 hours, the prep is fairly quick and easy and the ingredients list is short and simple. The original recipe calls for rice wine vinegar but as it’s only a small amount, I substituted cider vinegar which I already had in stock.

The recipe worked well, and we enjoyed it. The meat was tender and falling off the bone and the sauce was nicely balanced,. Although the beer didn’t really come through, it probably did its job of tempering the hoisin. But I’m not yet sold on beef short ribs. I think many of the recipes I’ve found could be made with ox cheeks, which I adore and are the same price per kilo or cheaper.

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Braised Hoisin & Beer Beef Short Ribs

Adapted from Food Network

Serves 4-6

Ingredients
1.5 kilos beef short ribs, cut into approximately 10 pieces
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2-3 tablespoons vegetable oil
10 to 12 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
1-inch piece ginger, peeled and finely chopped
340 ml mild beer
3 tablespoons cider vinegar
240 ml hoisin sauce

Method

  • Season the ribs generously with salt and pepper.
  • Heat the oil in a large heavy casserole dish with a lid. Brown the ribs on all sides, in batches if necessary. Remove the ribs. If you have more than a couple of tablespoons of oil and rendered fat, pour away any excess before continuing.

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  • Lower the heat to medium and fry the garlic and ginger for 2-3 minutes.

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  • Return the ribs to the dish. Pour the beer and vinegar over them.

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  • Once the liquid has reached a simmer, cover and reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for 2.5 hours.
  • Preheat the oven to 150 degrees C.

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  • Pour the hoisin sauce over the ribs, transfer the dish to the oven and cook, uncovered, for 30 minutes.
  • Remove the ribs from the sauce. Strain excess fat from the sauce, if necessary, and serve the sauce over the ribs.

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  • Serve with mashed potatoes and green vegetables.

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Do you have any favourite recipes for beef short ribs to share?

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