Sunday, 26 January 2014

A haggis is for life, not just for Burns

I love haggis and my girlfriend Dianne and I celebrate Burns night every year without fail but until very recently I had always struggled to find the perfect beer to pair with this dish. Luckily we don't restrict our haggis intake solely to one evening a year because it's far too delicious and this has given me plenty of opportunities to balance the strong tasting, salty meat with the right beverage. I know what you're probably thinking, why not skip the beer and get straight into the whisky and as much as I enjoy a dram I personally find that the high alcohol content strips too much of the delicious fatty goodness of the haggis away from the palate.

When I first began attempting to blindly pair haggis with beer I assumed that a rich dark beer would be ideal so I threw Fuller's London Porter and Kernel export stout at it. The rich ground coffee and bitter dark chocolate flavours of these beers clashed with the richness of the haggis, it was about as succesful as attempting to climb Ben Nevis in just jeans and a tee shirt, in January. My next step was to try a deliciously fruity and bitter IPA, something like Thornbridge Halcyon. I love the way a juicy, resinous IPA interacts with a nice piece of red meat but again it didn't work with the haggis which overwhelmed the tropical and citrus flavours in the beer just leaving behind the astringent bitterness.

Last July I was in Edinburgh for the European Beer Bloggers Conference and on the last night we had a traditional Scottish dinner hosted by the good folks from Williams Bros and Fyne Ales. That night the haggis was paired with the delightful Fraoch Heather Ale from Williams Bros, a beer that I probably wouldn't drink on its own because it's not really intense enough for my individual taste but with haggis it's a match made in heaven. The light floral notes of heather honey provided the perfect moment of cleansing refreshment after each and every mouthful, both food and beer were enhanced simply by being enjoyed together.

So typically, this year I left picking up some bottles of Fraoch until the very last minute and had to ask the kind folk of Twitter where in London I could acquire some. Turns out it was on special offer for just £1.39 at Aldi but I don't live particularly close to a branch and I don't drive so I ventured into my local Aladdin's cave of booze, Jack's Off Licence. Here I found a huge range of Williams Bros beers but not a drop of Fraoch, luckily they did have Róisin (pronounced 'Rosheen'), a beer brewed with tayberries and according to Beer Writer Melissa Cole works even better with haggis than Fraoch.

A tayberry is a hybrid of a blackberry and a raspberry that grows in Scotland's Tay Valley and it borrows the flavours of both fruit, think juicy end of summer sweetness combined with a drying tartness. Róisin pours a deep pink, almost like a Rosé wine but a little darker and less vivid, the head of tightly packed bubbles looks like a pink hued cloud, cute. The aroma is subtle but is dominated by the fruit with the malt and hops being barely detectable on the nose. On the palate the fruit is prominant, the malts are dialled down but there is bitterness from the hops present and a slightly leafy, vegetal quality. The finish is dry but the fruit leaves a sticky trail of sugar as it segues its way down your gullet.

It worked with the haggis, the fruit mingling with the salty offal but it didn't provide the instant eureka moment that the Fraoch gave me when making the same pairing. I did enjoy Róisin more than Fraoch as an individual beer though, it was balanced and full of flavours I enjoy, it would be ideal pulled straight from the fridge on a long summers evening. 

A wiser blogger would have written this for Burns night but there will always be another Burns night. Right now your local supermarket is well stocked with half price haggis so why not grab a couple along with a Fraoch and a Róisin and let me know how you get on. Remember, haggis is for life, not just for Burns night.

Photography by Dianne Tanner.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Heady Topper

Despite containing less than 50 breweries the US State of Vermont has more breweries per head than any other State in the country. This is because there are less than 700000 people that call Vermont their home but you can be sure that not one of them is short of a fridge full of world class beers. Vermont's roster of breweries includes Magic Hat, Hill Farmstead and The Alchemist, the latter being renowned for the double IPA I'm reviewing today, Heady Topper.

Based in the small town of Waterbury, The Alchemist use their 15 barrel brewery to brew and can only Heady Topper with their aim being to produce the freshest, most delicious IPA possible. This now legendary brew is only available to buy at selected outlets in Vermont and thirsty punters travel from all over to secure their case. Such is the hysteria this beer creates that The Alchemist had to close their brewery to the public due to the traffic chaos a release of Heady Topper would cause. Thankfully I didn't have to go through all that as I was offered a can by Leighton of the London Beer Guide in trade for the last bottle in my stash of Crooked Stave beer that I had brought back with me from Colorado.

I am an utter hop junkie, no beer does it for me quite like modern American style IPA and I was thrilled to be able to procure a can. When I got it home I immediately stashed it in the fridge in order to make sure those essential hop oils were being preserved as well as possible. I wasn't going to squirrel this away, it needed drinking immediately but I wanted to wait until I'd built up a proper thirst before getting it down me. A few days passed and then one Monday night after a particularly hectic day in the office I knew that the time had come. I grabbed the sixteen ounce can, it's simple yet effective silver and black livery glinting under the kitchen lights. A message on the container instructs the owner to drink straight from the can but I select a small glass anyway as I'm just as interested in its colour, aroma and head retention as I am in how it tastes. The reason The Alchemist ask you to do this is that although doing so will release those gorgeous hop aromas it will allegedly negatively effect the flavour due to the hop oils being so volatile, I was interested to see if this was actually the case.

As the can opens with a satisfying crack and hiss my nostrils are immediately filled with the scent of grapefruit, pine, mango and lime despite being nearly three feet away. Before I pour any into the glass I take a gulp, that pine resin and pink grapefruit aroma translate into the most dominant flavours but there's passion fruit, lemon zest and a slightly peppery, earthy note in there as well. There is zero detectable alcohol despite the 8% ABV and the malts are really dialled down so there is very little residual sweetness, this beer is all about the hops after all. Heady Topper is a delicious beer, make no mistake with the only negative being that the finish was a tiny bit astringent, it is incredibly hoppy but it isn't as bitter as say Stone's Ruination or Oskar Blues Deviant Dales, despite it being quite similar in flavour to the latter. It also reminded me of a few great IPA's that are much more available to us lot in the UK, Magic Rock's Cannonball being one and Kernel IPA in its pomp being another.

In the glass the light amber Heady is hazy thanks to the hop oils, perhaps it was psychological but the flavour profile seemed to shift towards the grapefruit with less of the pine but I don't really think pouring it into the glass took anything away from this beer. It was nice to see a decent, rocky white head that left a little lacing, it was nicely carbonated too.

Many hopheads consider Heady Topper to be the best beer in it's class and I agree there's no doubt this is one superb beer but I didn't experience the moment of clarity that I did when I tried Pliny the Elder for the first time so it doesn't top my chart. At the end of the day this is just an IPA, an incredibly made beautiful tasting IPA but not one it's worth queueing in traffic for half a day for. 

Thanks again to Leighton for trading a can and allowing me to experience this beer, in an effort to prove that I'm a blogger that doesn't shy away from new media, here's a vine I made of the moment I cracked it open.