Wednesday, 9 October 2013


The one thing I knew before I went on holiday is that I needed a holiday. In recent times, I'd had the luxury of spare time with which to plan such things, not this time. 
This time, the process was: 'find cheap flights to somewhere interesting.' Germany featured consistently among the cheapest destinations and then thoughts immediately went along the lines of 'can we get to Bamberg?' Flying into Leipzig made Bamberg accessible via train.

So what's so special about Bamberg you may ask? For such a small town (population about 70,000)it has an unusually high concentration of breweries and unlike most German regions they produce a wide variety of different beer styles.
It also happens to be one of the prettiest places you're ever likely to visit. UNESCO have declared the city centre a world heritage site due to the high concentration of medieval and rococo architecture.

The old town hall.

The unfiltered Pilsner from Bayerischer Bahnhof, Leipzig.
First on the itinerary however was Leipzig, a city with a rich culture of music and arts  but also overshadowed by the destruction of World War II and the associated GDR and Stasi oppression that followed. As you may have realised by now, this post is mostly about beer and Leipzig is home to a little known regional speciality called Gose. 

There are only two places in the city that brew Gose which is a pale wheat beer flavoured with coriander and salt. The best interpretation can be found at the Bayerischer Bahnhof; a brewpub attached to one of the town's railway terminals. Their Gose was intensely citrussy and had a lovely complementary tang from the added salt. They make four beers on site including perhaps the best wheat beer I've ever had. The highlight for me was their unfiltered pilsner which was incredibly aromatic and relatively low in carbonation which helped bring out the herbal, lemony aromas and flavours further. 

On stepping off the train in Bamberg, the first thing we noticed was the sweet, malty aroma that permeates the town from the nearby Weyermann maltings. It soon becomes obvious that this is a town with serious brewing heritage.

I found these growing outside our lodgings.
With the aroma of malt in the air combined with crushed green hops in hand we finally went off in search of some beer. 

First stop was Cafe Abseits, a modest beer cafe near the station. After a short glance through the impressive beer menu I was surprised to find those three letters: I, P and A. Not something I was expecting to find in Germany. Braumanufaktur Hertl's IPA (7%), deep copper in colour with aromas of resinous pine, orange peel and tropical fruit. On tasting it delivered more citrus fruits backed up with robust bitterness and a slight sour finish.

Now it was time to head into the city centre that I'd heard so much about and seen so many pictures of. After crossing a few bridges, streets began to narrow and paving slabs turned to cobblestones and beautiful wooden framed buildings closed in to give an immediate (if somewhat disorientating) sense of history.

A view from one of Bamberg's many bridges.

Since we were visiting on a Sunday we found a few places were closed, so next on the list was Schlenkerla. When talking about beer from Bamberg, Rauchbier is usually the first thing that gets mentioned. Literally meaning 'smokebeer', the malt is smoked over a beechwood fire which imparts the typically complex, smoky flavours. The most well known of all the Rauchbier producers are Schlenkerla. Battling through the crowds of tourists we ordered the Weizen- a smoked wheat beer. The aroma was typically spicy and yeasty with extra depth and a phenolic edge from the smoke. The spiciness of the wheat beer is complemented really well by the savoury smokiness, the finish is surprisingly clean aided by the carbonation. 

Onto the main event- the Märzen, perhaps the most famous of all the smoked beers. The smoky phenol aroma much more pronounced this time with smoked bacon and spices featuring. There's a nice malty depth that leans towards fruitcake on the palate backed up with more smoke and spices. I'd sampled this beer a few times before the trip but didn't recall this level of complexity. Undoubtedly, served straight from the wooden cask on top of the bar, the beer will taste different to the same beer that is bottled and shipped abroad. I'm also a big believer that context and surrounding conditions can have a big impact on how flavours and aromas are perceived.


Schlenkerla brewery tavern.
A short walk back eastwards over the river took us towards Mahr's Bräu. There's a large beer garden and homely wood paneled rooms indoors. This was perhaps my favourite place in terms of atmosphere; it seemed very traditional and unspoiled as far as I could tell. I was looking forward to trying their "U" or Ungespundet lager which is unfiltered and stored under less pressure than most. It was much maltier than I was expecting, especially after the offering from Bayerischer Bahnhof in Leipzig. Slightly herbaceous aromas with a luxuriously malty and biscuity quality on the palate.

Last stop of the day was Brauerei Spezial which, for me, captures the brilliance of Bamberg as a place to drink beer. Starting with their smoked lager which had an amazingly clean taste and lightness of body compared to the heavier Schlenkerla brews. The final beer of the night was perhaps the best of the trip. The intense aroma of Spezial's unfiltered lager was the perfect contrast to an afternoon of Rauchbier. A complex aroma full of lemon sherbet, basil and honey was followed by some spice and gentle peppery bitterness.

Nowhere else in Germany can you experience such variation in styles in one location. Rightly so, Bamberg is world famous for its smoked beers but it also has such strength in depth illustrated perfectly by Spezial's brilliant "U".

Ask for "ein Ooooh."

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Baba Ghanoush.

A few weekends ago I went to a 30th birthday party. The friend reaching this particular birthday milestone happened to be Danish and as a result a fair crowd of Scandinavian expats had assembled. 
The food was crowd pleasing back garden BBQ, until someone brought out a bowl of what at first glance looked like some sort of salsa. I enquired and was told it was Baba Ghanoush. Naturally intrigued, I tried some along with the accompanying flatbread which had some sort of herby topping. It was delicious, unlike any Baba Ghanoush I'd had before. The colour was much darker and the texture much looser and the flavour had a real zing; in contrast to the creamier versions I'd had in the past.
The flatbread was also ridiculously good, almost cracker like in texture with a herbaceous, savoury topping which also contained sesame seeds giving it an extra crunch. The contrasting flavours and textures were unlike anything I'd eaten before.

On questioning the cook further, I was told the addition of pomegranate molasses was probably responsible for the fruity zing and the herby topping on the flatbreads was called za'atar. Immediately, neurons started firing and memories of many Yotam Ottolenghi programmes surfaced where I'd heard these ingredients mentioned frequently. Although definitely Scandinavian, it also turns out the cook was married to a Syrian, which also explains much.

Returning to Birmingham, I was determined to re-create what I'd tasted. The two pivotal ingredients, of course, would be pomegranate molasses and za'atar. I recalled someone mentioning there was a Persian supermarket on the Hagley Road so off I trotted to Pars in the hope that they'd stock both these ingredients.
It didn't take me long to find pomegranate molasses, I'd often noticed on my travels that certain foodstuffs commonly feature in many middle eastern countries.

Also called pomegranate paste/concentrate.

I asked if they had any za'atar only to find he'd never heard of it. I explained as best I could what it was (David Lebovitz does it much better in this article) but no luck.

Feeling a bit deflated, I left the shop. On the way back to the station I remembered there was a Lebanese bakery over in Balsall Heath, so I continued past Five Ways and had a wander to see if I might be able to find something approximating the bread I'd had a few weeks back. It didn't take long to find Soul-Ful Lebanese Bakery (used to be called Al Barakah, 167 Mary St, B12 9RN), and within seconds of entering the shop I found exactly what I was after. A rack to the left of the counter had freshly made flatbreads, some topped with za'atar. I asked where was best to buy za'atar in future, "here" was the reply. So I asked for some to take home. Before he packed it up, I was offered a smell of the za'atar so I duly obliged. "Very good for the memory" he added, I wasn't quite sure how to answer so I nodded politely and paid up. I picked up a copy of the menu on the way out and made a mental note to come and eat here soon as they operate as a cafe as well as a bakery. And now, how could I possibly forget?


Serves 3-4 as a starter/mezze.

1 aubergine, blackened over a flame
1 large tomato, diced
2 tbsp chopped walnuts
2 tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 tbsp pomegranate molasses
1 small garlic clove, crushed
0.5 tsp salt
generous squeeze of lemon    


Start by charring the aubergine over a gas flame (or charcoal). This is probably the most important step as it imparts a wonderful smokey flavour to the aubergine. This needs to be done for around 20 mins or until the aubergine is soft and the skin is blistered. If your smoke alarm goes off, then you're probably doing it right.

This must be done over a flame, no other way gives you the smokey flavour.

When the aubergine is soft and cooked through, peel off the blackened skin and mash. Combine with the tomato, walnuts, parsley, pomegranate, salt and lemon. Garnish with some good olive oil.

Syrian style Baba Ghanoush.

Flatbread topped with Za'atar and olive oil from Soul-Ful Lebanese Bakery.

The Za'atar I bought cost £2 for a large jam jar sized amount.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Birmingham Beer Bash.

Over a year in planning, the 26th and 27th of July saw the first ever Birmingham Beer Bash. From my perspective: a weekend of adrenaline, stress, extreme heat, sleep deprivation, aches, goodwill, friendship, education, relief and elation.

Above all, it was amazing to hear so many positive comments, it really does make everything worthwhile. Thank you to everyone who attended and drunk all the lovely, lovely beer. 

So, this blog post (the first in a long time!)will probably turn into a parade of bonhomie and back-slapping so apologies if it gets nauseating at any point.

The Caterers.
They fed the hoards of merry beer drinkers with grace and nailed it in terms of catering in volume but also not compromising on quality. Pop Up DosaLoafOriginal Patty MenSquisito 

Thank you.

The Volunteers.
I made lots of new friends over the course of the festival. It was great to see such a diverse range of people all coming together and giving up their precious time for a cause, hopefully a worthy one at that.
Big thanks also to Walter Newton for designing our terrific festival T-shirts.

A special mention to the talented Kerry Leslie who worked tirelessly and selflessly to give us our identity and image. 

Thank you.

The Brewers and Speakers.
One of the distinctive features about the new breed of progressive beer festival is the presence of the brewers themselves along with other enlightened people of the profession. What better way to get people enthusiastic about good beer than to have the people that make it and enthuse about it involved in your festival? Personal highlights include @WildBeerCo cheese and beer matching (Ninkasi and Westcombe Cheddar, a winner). 
The Icebox room smelled fantastic during the @compassbrewery Oxfordshire food and beer matching. A feast of smoked meats, cheeses and sweet things were paired with some superb beers.

The energy and enthusiasm shown by Greg and Doreen from @FivePointsBrew created a great atmosphere in the tasting room for the first tasting event of the festival. Their beers really got the fringe events off to a flyer.

One of the reasons why we put the festival together is so that people could try something new. That's exactly what they got with Ben (@CptCheerful) from James Clay. Some of the best beers from the USA and a pick of world craft beers were sampled. Not all beers went down well (girl who looked like she was about to throw up after tasting Bourbon County Stout- I'm citing you as an example here). Others were all round hits; All Day IPA from Founders Brewing Co. had the room waxing lyrical about its wonderful hoppy aromas, and rightly so. 

We also owe Marverine Cole aka Beer Beauty a debt of gratitude for helping us publicise the event. Also for bringing beer to a wider audience and making it accessible with great energy and enthusiasm. Her tasting session which featured her pick of the beers went down a storm and as a microcosm for the festival as a whole, demonstrated a much higher proportion of female attendees, which is also something we're very pleased with.

Special mention must go to the guys from Thornbridge (DomJanine and James) who not only provided invaluable expertise setting up and working the bars, but also helped run the fault finding sessions and malt seminars. A herculean effort, especially from Dom who gave us all a scare reporting in sick on Saturday morning. But like Lazarus, returned and delivered a great series of talks and tastings. It was a privilege to work with such professionals and to also hear about a certain Brewing Manager's bowel habits. Never forgotten.

Thank you.

Fellow Beer Bash Organisers.
I can't add too much to what's been said already, but it's been a real pleasure working with and getting to know you all. 

Thank you.

What Have I learnt?
A lot, about myself and others. Most importantly, never be without a clipboard.

Thank you.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

A Good Day's Eatin'.

Casually mentioning my plans for the following day, Kate suggested I blog about it.
Maybe I've started to get complacent, maybe the thriving independent cafes, restaurants and bars have lulled me into a false sense of security?

So, to keep you in the loop, the plans consisted of a day travelling around the city eating and drinking. Bread and butter for a blog such as this you might think.

To kick off the day, I hopped over the road to Stirchley Stores and Loaf where yet another brilliant pop-up event was happening. This time it was the turn of Stirchley Brewhouse. The talented folk at Loaf had put together a locally sourced breakfast menu together with loose leaf tea and single estate coffee made by mercenary baristas.
The menu contained some excellent healthy choices including porridge and sourdough toast. But today was not about healthy choices and let's be honest, only a very brave/talented food blogger blogs about toast.
I went for a creation called a Mock Muffin. In between a sourdough english muffin I found sauage and black pudding patties, bacon jam, egg and cheese. As you can imagine, it tasted rather good.
For a beverage I chose a coffee. This part took me a little by surprise, as I thought I'd done all the hard work ordering my food. Not so. Having chosen to go with a coffee I was then asked through which apparatus I'd like it made. The options were a V60Aeropress or Chemex. After a brief discussion on the merits of each method (which resulted in me being none the wiser) I went for a V60. The result was smooth and intense with some pleasant notes of bright red fruit and spice.

Mock Muffin and a V60. I'm lovin' it.
Passing through Stirchley Stores  on the way out I picked up a Chelsea Bun for later and considered how lucky I am to live a stones throw away. Not only do Stirchley Stores have plentiful supplies of bread from next door but they also supply a great range of dried foods and high quality storecupboard ingredients. 

A short bike ride later and I was in King's Heath for the Farmer's Market. Held on the first saturday of every month it consistently offers a wide range of locally sourced produce sold by talented, friendly people. After a brief stroll around, it was barely lunchtime and blowing an icy gale, so naturally it was time for some more sausage. Those familiar with the farmer's market scene in town will know Squisito and their great range of home cured meats, sausages and generally delicious produce. They also run supper clubs and host courses ranging from sausage making, curing and smoking to bread making. 
I sampled a couple of their Toulouse sausages which were dense and meaty with a good hint of garlic and pepper.

Squisito Sausages.

So then it was back on the bike for a well earned sit down back at home. Now, where did I put that Chelsea Bun? Accompanying the bun was some Assam from All About Tea bought from Anderson and Hill. For an everyday drinking sort of tea I've found the intensity of flavour excellent, their Earl Grey being a personal favourite.

Still some way to go on the jigsaw.
 The level of spicing in the bun was spot on for me, the addition of some lemon zest also gave it an extra dimension. The sugary glaze gave some good texture, especially where it had run down the side of the bun and collected around the base giving a more-ish crunchy sugary base.

After some intense jigsaw action, it was nearly time for dinner. Off in to town we went to a place that I know has had much praise since opening. I'm by no means the first to mention how good MinMin Noodle Bar is and I'm sure I won't be the last. We started with a house speciality: Vietnamese Cheung Fun. A delicate but still highly flavoured mixture of pork, prawns, wood-ear mushrooms and shallots steamed in a gelatinous rice parcel. The accompanying light, tart dipping sauce and fresh pickled vegetables worked very well.
For the main event I went for Yakibuta Ramen with kimchi. Noodles in a rich home made broth with contrasting textures of vegetables were topped with Japanese style roast pork. A side of searingly hot and sour home made kimchi made this one of those dishes you crave again and again.

Yakibuta Ramen with kimchi.
Once the volume of liquid in my belly had started to subside, it was back up into town for a few beers. Not just any old beer though. The recently opened Brewdog Birmingham just heppened to be hosting a festival of IPAs made by some of the best new craft brewers the UK has to offer. Over the course of that weekend we were treated to delights previously unseen on tap in our city. Featuring the likes of The Wild Beer Co. Madness IPA, Marble Brewery Earl Grey IPA, Magic Rock Brewing Cannonball IPA and Summer Wine Brewery Maelstrom IPA. Since opening, the Brewdog Bar has been constantly busy and has proved there is a great apetite for progressive, modern and above all flavoursome beer in the city.

Then I went home. Then I went to bed. The next day I ate lots of fruit and vegetables.