ʽʽHi, I’m Benjamin Nunn – critic, gourmand and author of Ben Viveur. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You might have read me in an in-flight magazine, or a beer publication, but here on my own blog I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others so anything goes.

I deal with real food and drink in the real world, aiming to create recipes that taste awesome, but which can be created by mere mortals without the need for tons of specialist equipment and a doctorate in food science. Likewise, I tend to review relaxed establishments that you might visit on a whim without having to sell your first-born, rather than hugely expensive restaurants and style bars in the middle of nowhere with a velvet rope barrier, a stringent dress code and a six-month waiting list!

There's plenty of robust opinion, commentary on the world of food and drink, and lots of swearing, so look away now if you're easily offended.

Otherwise, tuck your bib in, fill your glass and turbo-charge your tastebuds. We're going for a ride... Ben Appetit!

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Platinum Pints: BV's best beers of the 2010s

This year hasn't started well. I've consumed more pints of Lemsip than of beer, and wallowed in so much self pity and so little alcohol that I might as well be doing Dry Fucking January.

But it's not just a new year, it's a whole new decade... or is it?!?

There's a compelling mathematical case that 2020 is actually the last year of the 2010s and therefore the new decade won't commence until January 1, 2021. The problem is that if you accept that logic then you also have to believe that the Millennium didn't begin until 2001.

And that is an argument I had a problem with at the time, because going from 1999 to 2000 felt like an absolutely massive psychological shift, whereas 2000 to 2001 was a teensy little incremental feather that you'd barely notice. And given that time is ultimately an abstract concept, measured against fairly arbitrary starting points, the psychological effect - the way we feel about it - is arguably the only thing that matters.

So, there's my working out in the margins of the page. 2000 was the start of the new millennium, and therefore 2020 is indeed the start of the new decade, like it or not.

Which all means I can now pick my 10 favourite beers of the 2010s. Or, more specifically, of the 6850 new-to-me cask beers, because that's how I do these things. That's a lot of beer records to trawl through. But let's Lemsip up, open the spreadsheet and get the fuck on with it...

Keg, Can, Bottle, Mongoose bladder...

OK, let's not quite get on with it. Before I reveal the ten, just a few words on my favourite beers of the decade that weren't cask. Believe it or not, I do drink beer in other formats - sometimes even in considerable quantity. Yeah, OK, this is basically lip service, but it does happen occasionally, honestly!

Possibly the best keg beer of all time
For example, during the Summer of 2017 I drank an awful lot of Mad Hatter Tzatziki Sour and it must be a contender for my favourite keg beer of the decade, if not all time. The unbelievably refreshing combination of yoghurt sourness and zippy cucumber made for a stunning session beer, the likes of which I'm not sure can ever be bested.

Sadly the Liverpool-based brewery is no longer with us. I always had an idea in my mind that their Tzatziki beer would've been an absolutely superb companion to a big hunk of tandoori chicken. And now I'll never get to put that theory to the test. Glum.

Look a little further afield - Asheville, North Carolina, to be precise - and you'll find Wicked Weed Freak of Nature, an 8.5% DIPA that dialed up the West Coast Hop character to phenomenal levels, while remaining a superbly balanced, drinkable, almost sessionable beer. Despite NC being absolutely nowhere near the West Coast.

Again, the longer term story isn't a happy one. This beer was superb early in the decade when I encountered it in Asheville, but I gather that the brewery was subsequently taken over by AB-INBev and is no longer seen as part of credible craft beer. Which is a shame because I remember this particular beer being rather brilliant.

Hog's Back Montezuma chocolate lager is a bottled beer I raved about. and the brief period when a few select Wetherspoons had the stuff on draught was a chocolatey golden age.

Surprisingly awesome
I also have to commend the Kernel's London Sour and 7% IPA series in bottle, and the overall quality of stuff available in can from Brewdog, Thornbridge and so on is a world apart from what canned beer was during the previous decade.

But that's not really what I'm about, so onto my top ten cask beers of the decade:

Cantillon Kriek Lambic (sampled in 2015)

"Fuckloads of real sour cherries go into the kriek. I've seen the big sacks.

We'll start with an absolute classic, shall we? I've enjoyed the various Cantillon Lambics in bottled form for many years, but it wasn't until I visited Brussels for their madcap brewery tour that I finally got to sample several of the range as God intended - in pure, unadulterated cask form.

The 5% ABV, 18-month cask-aged Kriek is the pick of the bunch, with a really deep cherry flavour balancing out the tartness. I could drink this all day. And in Brussels I pretty much did. Apart from when I was drinking the Peche, Framboise, Faro, Gueuze etc.

The only problem is that other sour fruit beers can seem a bit like pale imitations afterwards. Beers that I'd normally enjoy greatly taste artificial and one-dimensional in comparison. Oh well, I guess that's just the effect of Cantillon being so fucking awesome at brewing and blending.

I'd also give an extremely honourable mention to Aeronaut Passion Fruit Sour Planet which manages to cram quite stunning amounts of fruity sourness into a tiny 3.2% package. And also Elgood's Coolship Fruit, which saw the Cambridgeshire brewery achieving about 99.9999% of what Cantillon can do, but in Wisbech!

Hopcraft Midnight in Antarctica (2015)

Gazza Prescott is a divisive character in this industry, and I'd be lying if I said I was frequently in agreement with him. But wherever he goes, it's pretty much a guarantee that he'll brew fucking great beers. And so there was a particular golden age around 2015-16 when Hopcraft were turning out stunner after stunner after fit-as-fuck stunner.

Lucifer Juice, Mate Spawn & Die and Golden Pixie  were all top-drawer winners from the Hopcraft stable. But better than all these hoppy delights was Midnight in Antarctica, a 'white porter' with coffee and coconut, brewed in collaboration with Steel City, another of Gazza's erstwhile brewing ventures.

There's a creamy sweetness, plenty of fresh roasted coffee bean, a sort of 'just bitten into a Bounty bar' feel from the coconut and a fair few hops bunged in for good measure. It was insane, and yet quite, quite brilliant and very drinkable. Only 5% too.

I had this beer at the Clerkenwell Craft Beer Co in May 2015 (which may just have clinched its place as BV Pub of the Year for the third time). At the time I described it as 'like that freaky hot girl in your class who you knew was a bit fucked-up, but you still totally would'. And, you know, I still would.

Tap East Saxon Invasion Sour (2014)

" It may be too mouth-puckeringly sour for some, but for those who enjoy this sort of thing it's quite magnificent and at 4.6% you can drink quite a lot of it very easily indeed.  "

Berlinnerweisse-type beers became mainstream in the UK a few years ago. OK, maybe not mainstream exactly, but definitely an established 'thing'. This was one of the first beers to put sourness on our map and did so in some style. And, importantly, it did so in cask form without any compromises - if anything the softer mouthfeel actually allowed made the sourness even more uncompromising than if it had been fizzed-up.

Over the last few years the Tap East have perhaps become a bit less experimental in their brewing and focused more on crowd favourites for the Westfield Stratford customers. There are more exciting breweries in East London these days, but we'll never forget the Saxon invasion of 2014.

Ilkley The Mayan (2013)

Rich deep notes of chocolate, coupled with the heat of chilli. It's a winning formula, both on plate and in glass. This was properly gorgeous and managed to attain the perfect balance that most 'hot' beers just can't achieve.

May I?
I loved it. Though, sadly, like a Hugh Grant film, I grew to love it just a little less.

You see, this beer changed its recipe not that long after launch, and for me the 2014 6.5% version just wasn't as good as the 5.3% original which I first sampled at the Gun in Docklands during one of their rather impressive beer festivals. Why change it?

Apparently Ilkley still have some chipotle peppers and cocoa beans out the back because they still brew this occasionally. I must revisit and see what it's like now.

Thornbridge Honeydew Melon (2018)

There have been some truly amazing Thornbridge beers over the past decade and it's hard not to want to include all of them. Honestly, stuff like Cocoa Wonderland, the Lucaria ice cream porter series, last year's Tapit Chocolate Orange concoction... they've been turning out some top-notch ale, particularly in the darkness department.

But of the many, many Thornbridge beers I've had in the 2010s (well over 100 different ones across all formats) it's one of their lighter, paler cask beers that was my favourite of all. The 4.5% Honeydew Melon pale ale that debuted at GBBF 2018. There aren't enough melon beers around, and on a hot Summer's day, it's just the most refreshing thing ever.

To let the subtle sweetness shine through the underlying beer needs to be unobtrusive and clean, almost lager-like, and that's exactly what the Thornbridge team achieved here. Gorgeous stuff and while I don't exactly regret being a beer ticker, I am sorry that I only got to enjoy one pint of this.

Tiny Rebel Juicy (2016)

" I felt like the boy who'd broken into the tuck shop and was guzzling all the Um Bongo. "

Like Thornbridge, Tiny Rebel have been one of the brewing stars of the past decade. And they've done so by balancing experimental shit with 'ordinary' stuff and doing both exceptionally well.

The Stay Puft series of marshmallow porters, the milkshake IPAs and the wonderful Cherry Bomb sour have all been highlights. But for sheer drinkability and just being a damn well-made beer, my favourite Tiny Rebel offering of all is Juicy. Because it does exactly what you'd expect it to do.

Just as Cresta was 'frothy, man', Juicy is, well, juicy. Extremely juicy. Properly hoppy and refreshing and fruity, it's a nicely sessionable 4.8% but absolutely bursting with tropical fruit flavours. It's just about everything a pale ale should be these days.

I know, I know. It's very mainstream. A lot of breweries are putting out beers like this, but this is just the best example ever. It's so good it should be seen as the aspire-to for this style of beer.

(And a nod to Wild Weather Pirate Captain from 2017, which was similar in its tropical juiciness, but stronger and pinier.)

Brew Wharf Hopster (2010)

Another 'mainstream' pale ale, and one for which we have to go back to the start of the decade. To a different time. A different age. A different place. Well, sort of.

Anyone of a decent age will remember a time when small-scale brewing in London had almost died out. The number of breweries in the capital could be counted on the fingers of a single hand. Brew Wharf was one of them - an unsung hero in the craft beer revolution in the capital, achieving a number of notable firsts.

Single hop beers, cream ales, properly-hopped American Pales, all back in the mid-Naughties when almost nobody else was doing that sort of stuff. The post-industrial brewpub in Borough Market was the place to go for really good, innovative beer.

And this was the best of them. A simple 4.5% APA bursting with hop character that could've come from the other side of the Atlantic. Maybe my pint glass is tinted with too much rose? After all, beers in this style are commonplace now. But are they as good as I remember Hopster being? Really?

I can't believe it's been over five years since we said goodbye to Brew Wharf. And I'm still a bit sad about it, if I'm honest.

Summer Wine Stateside (2015)

It was disappointing to learn this week that Holmfirth's Summer Wine brewery had decided to call it quits after more than a decade of turning out consistently solid beers, my absolute favourite of which was Stateside.

Another one in the same vein as Hopster and Juicy but, hey, I like my ultra-hoppy, tropical, quenching, refreshing pints. I like my Citra and my Simcoe hops. I want a beer I can down fairly heartily and still be thirsty for more. This fits the bill. Only 4.3% and totally gorgeous with hints of nectarine and just a tiny bit of pine.

Best enjoyed at the Crown & Anchor in Stockwell, while sharing a table with the actor Toby Jones and his missus.

Siren Big Inflatable Cowboy Hat: Mango & Lime (2013)

" It takes the 'dangerously drinkable' cliche and drinks it dangerously. What a way to announce your arrival! "

After a handful of ordinary drinking beers, I probably ought to tip my headgear in the direction of something a bit more 'out there' but no less brilliant. And so we come to BICH - Mango & Lime edition.

The original BICH was a 10.4% DIPA (possible even a TIPA?) in the uncompromising West Coast style that helped put Siren of Finchampstead on the map during their early days.

Add Mango and Lime and you have a recipe for insanity. But an insanity you can drink. But when you drink it you'll turn insane yourself. And start coming with your own recipes for insanity.


Kissingate Blackeyed Susan (2019)

I do like my chocolate beers. Lee's Chocoholic and Electric Bear Mochchocolata Ya Ya! were close to making my ten. But I've gone with the Kissingate from just a few months ago, not because it's fresher in the memory but because it's just that little bit different and special.

A 6.8% chocolate mild. That's right, a mild. Another recipe for insanity.

But it's so very, very good. Smooth and drinkable and chocolatey and delicious, with a backbone of solid chewy malt, it feels like a throwback to the milds of the Victorian era, but with a decadent thread of rich cocoa running throughout. Impossibly well crafted.

Just me, drinking some beer...
My Mum is the biggest beer-racist on the planet and never normally drinks anything darker than a pale golden ale. I got her drinking pints of this.

And that's that!

Given a whole decade of heavy drinking to reflect upon, It's been pretty hard to choose just ten beers. Impossible, maybe. Ask me on a different day and I might well have chosen a different selection entirely.

Should there be an Oakham or Roosters or Cloudwater beer on this list? Certainly I've drunk some uber-bangers from their respective stables over the past ten years. Absolutely sublime stuff like Dark Star Creme Brulee and Spey Valley Sailor Terry rum and vanilla stout hasn't even got a look in.

But it's job done. I'm just not looking forward to the task facing me in 80 years time when I have to choose my favourite beers of the century...

Only kidding, I'll be long-dead by then. And so will you. Night night.

1 comment:

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