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Beer, Bangers & Bread in Sunny Shropshire

I was lucky enough to spend le weekend with mes amis in Shropshire visiting the Ludlow Spring Festival. SIBA (Society of Independent Brewers) were running the Festival Pub Marquee with over 140 real ales. We purchased our souvenir tasting glasses & commenced tasting.

SIBA Competition Winners, Moi & the lovely Ruth from SIBA

Salopian Brewery’s Lemon Dream went down a treat, followed by St George’s Dragon’s Blood. Otley Brewing Co’s Thai-Bo with its lemongrass & ginger undertones was an unusual but very pleasant combination. After that, my squirrelly handwriting becomes a little illegible. Let’s just say I had some great beers even if some were a bit over hopped for this squirrel’s taste.

Jingle, jangle

After a lie down in the sunshine next to the very shiny classic cars, with Morris Dancers jingling away pleasantly in the background, I continued my day. Cheeses were purchased from Mr Moydens Handmade Cheese & a very interesting loaf of dark Ale Bread from Richard C Swift caught my fancy. Coopers sausage rolls were consumed, soaking up the beer very nicely.

A big thumbs up to Ludlow for organising one of the greenest food & drink festivals I’ve ever been to with 100% compostable cups made from plant starch & categorised recycling bin system. Wondering who’s recycling all the beer left overs?

We watched a demonstration of how to make “Artisan Beer Pizza” using Bacheldre Watermill’s flour, Hobson’s Bitter & Prices’ baking expertise – an interesting way of using the yeast & flavours in the beer to enhance your pizza dough.

After a couple more tastes of beer, we appeared, blinking in the Ludlow sunlight, strolling smugly past the hoards of eager beer

How civilised . . .

& food lovers queuing to enter the festival who had not had the foresight to arrive early like us. We decided to round off our visit to the town with a very civilized afternoon tea at DeGreys.

Ahhh, c’est bon

Back chez nous, after a brief snooze on the sofa, it was time to eat & drink once more! I had decided to treat my friends to some Duvel Tripel Hop, all the way from Belgium. Our Shropshire cheeses – Wenlock Blue, Wenlock White & Smoked Newport together with Welsh Perl Wen by Caws Cenarth, some smoked salmon & boiled quails eggs were a perfect combination with this rich, complex beer. Citra hops gave the Duvel a grapefruit aroma & lightly hopped aftertaste without being too overpowering. At 9.5% ABV however, it was deceptively drinkable – beware the devil in disguise!

Salut to my fellow foodies & beer lovers in Shropshire, I will be back for more!!

Hops, A Beginners Guide

I was fortunate this week to sample one of the less well-known epicurean delights of hops. That’s right my friends, hops are not only a prized ingredient in beer: you can eat them too.

Hop shoots, also known as hopscheuten in (Flemish speaking) Belgium & bruscandoli in Italy are in fact one of the most expensive vegetables in the world. As the season is very short-lived, lasting for only a few weeks in March or April, & harvesting is labour-intensive, prices can reach as high as 1000 Euros a kilo. In Belgium, they are grown in darkened areas in order to maintain tenderness & therefore have a blanched appearance. Elsewhere, they are green, trimmed from the growing bines & either steamed or boiled for slightly longer to become tender. They look & taste a little like asparagus but with a hidden earthy depth to their flavour, perfect with light, creamy or lemony sauces & a poached egg on top. You can buy them from hopshoots.com. Here’s a recipe for Risotto di Bruscandoli.

A glass of De Landtsheer Brewery’s Bière Brut Malheur balanced the flavours of the hop shoots very well. Malheur is a blond, top-fermented ale beer, which is then re-fermented with similar yeast & finished in a similar style to that used in producing Champagne & other sparkling wines. I am indeed a superbly spoiled squirrel!

All this talk about hops got me thinking about how they relate to our favourite beverage. The current fashion among beer writers & expert commentators to focus on the individual hop varieties at the expense of other flavours & brewing techniques is, I feel, a little misplaced. What about the unsung heroes that contribute to our beer drinking enjoyment?

Beer is made, contrary to popular belief, not from hops but from malted grains, mainly barley. For centuries, herbs & spices known as gruit have been used to flavour & preserve beer, hops only being well established in the 15th & 16th centuries in Europe. Hops are added for the following reasons:

To add bitterness & dryness, counterbalancing the sweetness of the grain

To add a pleasant aroma

To stabilize the foam

To add a flavour that is unique to the variety of hop eg. lemon, grapefruit, herbal

To act as a natural preservative – hops have antiseptic properties

Hop plants come in two by two: male & female. The brewer uses seedless female hop cones as they contain the largest amount of Lupuline, the yellow resin that contains the goodies. They are added at various stages of the brewing process, most often at the boiling stage & even to the fermented beer, known as dry hopping. They are used in various forms, either neat or as pellets, oils or resins. The quantity of hops determines the bitterness of the beer – more hops = more bitter, the levels being measured in IBUs or International Bitterness Units. You can sometimes find this on the beer label: an IBU level of below 10 is low, 50+ is high.

Most beers are made with two kinds of hop: one for bitterness (known as bittering hops) & one for aroma. Some brewers however are experimenting with single hop, triple or more hop brews, pushing the boundaries of bitterness to the extreme. Craft brewers occasionally compete to create the hoppiest beers but perhaps they have forgotten what the function of hops really is? Hops are there to create a balance, a bit like the seasoning in your cooking, not to overpower the other flavours. There can be too much of a good thing!

Let’s hear it for hops – enjoy, whether you are eating or drinking them!

Easter Bunnies, Bricks, Triple Hops & Pink Elephants

Bonjour my friends! Hope you had great Easter & are now enjoying the rain! I myself went back to La Belgique to sample some Easter Beers & to pick up some beer gossip.

Belgian Easter Beers (in case you were wondering) are brewed by monks or farmers to welcome spring & celebrate Easter (no surprise there then!).  They were also created to ward off any evil spirits that may endanger that year’s harvest or bring bad luck to the community. This time of year also marked the end of the brewing season in the days when a lack of refrigeration limited production to the colder months. Brewers made a special effort to make stronger beers with fresh flavours to reward themselves for the early mornings & late nights spent brewing in the cold (any excuse!).

Some examples to try are Bos Keun (Easter Bunny) by De Dolle Brouwers, Gouden Carolus Easter from Het Anker & Grimbergen’s Optimo Bruno.

While on my travels, your favourite Squirrel Detective discovered that the famously mysterious Abbey of Westvleteren has begun to export their hugely desirable beer for the first time in their history. Rather than negotiate the “cloak & dagger” methods of obtaining this much-prized brew, 6 packs of Westvleteren XII with 2 glasses are becoming available in select venues worldwide. These packs, otherwise known as Bricks, are helping to fund a new dormitory for the monks, each pack representing an actual brick for the Abbey of Saint Sixtus.

Belgian supermarket chain Colruyt in collaboration with several local newspapers had 93,000 Bricks on offer, the remaining 70,000 packs being distributed across the world. 6 European countries (sadly not including the UK), the US & Canada were lucky enough to have some. E-bay, here I come!

Meanwhile, over at the Duvel Moortgat brewery in Breendonk, Duvel Tripel Hop 2012 Selection has been launched. Following the success of the 2007 & 2010 editions, Duvel have produced the 2012 version with the addition of Citra hops from the Yakima Valley in Washington State. The brewers select a different hop each time to add to the two already used, creating a unique flavour – this time with “notes of grapefruit & tropical fruit”. The third hop is added to the brewing process & also later, using a “dry hopping” method, which ensures that the flavour is maintained in the finished product. Yum, all we need to do now is find out where to get some.

Finalement, if you are short of ideas for the weekend, why not find your pink elephant costume & head over to the Huyghe Brewery near Ghent on Sunday at 10.00am for the Delirium Tremens Open Doors Day?

To celebrate the opening of their new brewery, they are offering a year’s worth of beer to the first 25 people to appear at the gates dressed as pink elephants in honour of their logo. Runners-up will receive a Delirium gift pack, so come on, what have you got to lose? A word of warning from the sponsors though: “Simply putting on a trunk hat is not sufficient. We want a full transformation, including the necessary Delirium accessories”. If you see a squirrel there disguised as an elephant, you know who that is . . . who said the Begians are boring?!

Bon weekend Babar!

Ps. Maybe if you ask nicely, maybe someone will let you borrow this costume? (See YouTube link above or below)