Bensoir! It's me, Benjamin. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You may have read stuff I've written elsewhere, but here on my own blog as Ben Viveur I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others, so pretty much anything goes.

BV is about enjoying real food and drink in the real world. I showcase 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. And as a critic 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!

Friday, February 7, 2014

Chocolate digestives and black pepper - in beer

When I first started properly drinking beer, Batemans were one of my very favourite breweries. Valiant, XXXB and Salem Porter were all music to my teenaged tastebuds, and the one-off Jawbreaker, brewed with hard toffee, was my favourite beer of 1996.

I even immortalised Batemans XB in a rather ghastly poem I wrote as a student:

"'Quintuple rum and black', said she.
It came to twelve pounds twenty-three
Including, of course, a pint for me
(of Batemans XB)"

The only other verse I remember is:

"Said he, 'this bird's with me tonight.
We'll settle this outside - ALRIGHT?!?'
And out of me he kicked the shite
(I lost the fight)"

I like to think that the quality of both my writing and my nights out have improved since then!

Changing tastes; changing times

It's probably fair to say that I fell out of love with Batemans as I grew older. They stopped brewing so many experimental beers, and the seasonal specials became fewer in number and notably less interesting.

My tastes changed, particularly towards very hoppy, American-style pale ales, and my predisposition was naturally towards small microbreweries rather than the larger, more conservative regionals.

It wasn't helped by the appearance, every Christmas, of Rosey Nosey with its irritating flashing pump-clip - possibly the worst festive ale ever, and with the overpresence of an unbearably annoying relative.

Just like tea and biscuits, but with beer instead of tea
But fast-forward to about a year ago and at the inaugural Craft Beer Rising festival a Batemans stand unexpectedly showed up selling a range of four new 'craft' beers with a variety of novelty flavours. I found myself drinking pints of all four - Orange Barley, Mocha, Mocha-Amaretto, and the particularly lovely Hazelnut Brownie.

These were good. This was Batemans appealing to my tastebuds again, just as they did in the 90s.

And so last night I was delighted to attend the press launch of Batemans new branding and several new ranges of beers, in celebration of their 140th anniversary. 

I sometimes get annoyed when beer branding changes needlessly, but in this case it's a very sensitive restyling and their first brand refresh since 1979. By way of comparison, Young's have probably changed about six times during that period.

When you think about it, it's a huge credit to Batemans that they have continued as a family-owned brewery without feeling the need to shut up shop, move to soulless new premises or sell themselves to Marston's or Greene King. Furthermore, they're tackling the threat from new, trendy 'craft' brewers by going a bit crafty themselves.

Looking to the future

MD Stuart Bateman talked about how the brewery has endured and prospered, its rich history and heritage intact, and how they're now experimenting with new flavours and looking to innovate - and innovative the new beers certainly are.

At last nights launch we were able to try their Winter Chocolate Biscuit beer on cask, which boasted rich chocolatey aromas and a fairly full flavour at just 3.9% ABV. It's a simple idea - taking a base beer with a biscuity character and adding cocoa - but I don't think anyone else has done it.

Waiter, there's black pepper in my beer!
This will be part of a 'Biscuit Barrel' series (see what they did there?) including fruit and oatmeal biscuit varieties at different times of the year. There's even a bourbon cream version due in the Autumn. Combine these with the Bohemian brews series (Mocha, Hazelnut Brownie etc.) and they've got more desserty beers in their portfolio than anybody.

Even the core range will now be matured for almost twice as long as previously, which in theory should give a more rounded taste. Maybe even Rosey Nosey will taste good next Christmas.

I also got to try a bottle of their new Black Pepper Ale (5.1%), which is served with ground pepper both at the bottom of the glass and sprinkled into the head on the beer.

On the night Stuart brandished a large pepper mill, perhaps regretting a decision to foresake a career as an Italian waiter in favour of brewing, but the real innovation is that each bottle comes with a little sachet of black pepper - much like salt'n'shake crisps - so the drinker can 'pep up' their own beer immediately before drinking.

We've seen the occasional pepper beer over the years, but this is something else. As an idea it's radical, bordering on the absurd, but it bloody works, with the spicy hop profile complimenting the pepper perfectly.

Batemans new 'craft' attitude gives us beer drinkers plenty to get excited about, and the biscuit- and brownie-flavoured stuff should appeal even to people who don't normally like beer.

If every regional brewery were to take this sort of innovative approach, I'd be writing a lot more about that sector of the industry.

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