Monday, December 31, 2012

Strong recollection

My end-of-year ambition was to clear out all the scribbled unused tasting notes I have and turn them into proper blog posts. I nearly did it too. Among the stragglers were two from Hardknott brewery, from separate occasions earlier in the year. Rhetoric came courtesy of brewer Dave via Reuben back in August. It was supposed to be opened, consumed and commented on across the Internet in a coordinated way at an appointed time, but that sort of thing is way too difficult so we settled for sharing a bottle in our own time later on.

It's 10.2% ABV and Dave has branded it as a Belgian-style quadrupel, and my first surprise was the colour: a clear red rather than the murky brown I was expecting. But who gives a toss about colour? I do give a toss about oxidation, however, and I can taste it in spades here. The first hit is a not-at-all unpleasant sherry kick and it's only after this that a bit of stale wet cardboard creeps in. In the middle there's a lovely balsamic strawberry effect, plus a lacing of liquorice from the star anise. It's a busy, chaotic sort of beer and tasted rather homebrewey to me: like one of my batches where I try too many different experiments at once. With a little refining it could be superb.

A few weeks previously I had picked up a bottle of Hardknott's Vitesse Noir in York. This is an 11% ABV imperial stout with added coffee, chocolate and vanilla, with a label which promises an "over-the-top explosion of stimulating flavours". It's certainly a dense beast and won't be rushed into the glass, showing little signs of carbonation and lazily forming a dark brown head. Nothing especially stimulating jumps out of the aroma: just the sweet roasted smell you get from any decent strong stout. But this is just a trick, to wrongfoot the unwary drinker. The flavour is intense. It's hard to pick out any individual elements at first: it's just a blast of fruit and roast and alcohol, but by the third sip it had come into focus. Milk chocolate and the vanilla to begin: literally sweetness and light. The sweetness changes tack in the middle, turning fruity, with elements of black cherry and sultana. The liqueurish booze makes its presence felt at this stage too, introducing the sort of headiness you get in suspicious stoneware bottles from olive-skinned peasants. Then a grand crescendo of dry roast to finish, overlaid with darker, more serious, chocolate notes. A magnificent beer and one to remember.

So while I'm looking back at beers consumed earlier in the year I reckon I may as well take the whole year into consideration. As usual I'm employing the template created by Mark and Andy. Can you believe it's year 4 already? Cor.

Let me just slip into my sparkly cocktail dress and sashay up the red carpet for...
The Golden Pint Awards 2012

Best Irish Draught Beer: Dungarvan Rye-PA
Almost literally a blink-and-you-missed-it appearance at the Irish Craft Beer Festival this year. And while this pale ale combined two things I don't normally approve of in beer, namely rye and very limited availability, it was stunning: spectacularly combining bold assertive hops with smooth cask drinkability. The hope of a more regular supply is just one reason I hand over this award.

Best Irish Bottled or Canned Beer: 8 Degrees Ochtoberfest
I'm cheating a wee bit here as I drank a lot more of this on draught than from the bottle (especially that memorable night in Farrington's when Barry was over), but it was gorgeous in both varieties and a definite contender for Ireland's best ever lager. Two in a row in this category for the trans-Tasman partnership in Mitchelstown.

Best Overseas Draught Beer: Raging Bitch
I made a decent fist of travel this year, making it to nine countries, including much beery delight in England, Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands. But the gong here goes to a beer served much closer to home. Against the Grain seems to have a permanent selection of Flying Dog beers on tap, and this old favourite of mine is the one that made my year. Raging Bitch is one of the very few to get the right balance between pungent American hops and funky Belgian yeast.

Best Overseas Bottled or Canned Beer: Kernel Export India Porter
Looking at other people's Golden Pints, I can see that the Wizards of Bermondsey have been sweeping the board. Reason enough for me to pass them over. But I have memories of that balmy summer's evening in the York Tap, when I thought my palate was completely exhausted, and my Export India Porter nightcap served as a reminder for once and for all that there's always room to enjoy another beer, if said beer is good enough. And robust yet delicate Kernel Export India Porter certainly is that.

Best Overall Beer: 8 Degrees Ochtoberfest
Looking at my four nominations, that's a pretty broad range of styles, and all them are beers which suit particular moods and settings while being less appropriate for others. I'm tempted to give it to Dungarvan, but I don't think I can justify it on the paltry amount I drank. So this will be going to the plentiful all-weather lager.

Best Pumpclip or Label: Dr. Rudi
They don't put a foot wrong, the L. Mulligan Grocer team, when it comes to the look and feel of their product. Usually you'll find it in the ambiance of their pubs or the playfulness of their menus, but their attention was turned to beer this year, and Dr. Rudi -- first in a series from "The Brown Paper Bag Project" -- was the result. Classical, sober, understated, but with more than a hint of fun about it.

Best Irish Brewery: White Gypsy
A return to the podium for the 2009 winner in this category. White Gypsy has kept the headlong rush of limited edition cask and keg specialties coming. But there's been a settledness too, with their excellent Belgian Blonde and Pils a regular feature at Bear (which would win my restaurant nomination for 2012 if there was one), and the long-awaited delivery of the bottled series of strong beers. From session red ale, to lager, to imperial stout and doppelbock: all things to all drinkers is just what you want from your local brewery.

Best Overseas Brewery: Evil Twin
I was sipping on thimblefuls at the Borefts festival so no single Evil Twin beer gets an award from me, but there were some absolute corkers in there, not least of which were the Hey Zeus! imperial stout and Molotov Spicy Cocktail IPA with chilli. With merely a pang of guilt that they're not really a brewery, I give this one to Jeppe.

Pub/Bar of the Year: Rody Boland's
A firm handshake, sincere well done and Silver Pint to WJ Kavanagh's which opened in Dublin this year and where I've spent many happy afternoons and evenings being well fed and beered, but once again I'm giving the award to a non-specialist pub. Being a mile from my front door means Rody Boland's doesn't quite qualify as a local for me, but it's not exactly a drinking destination either. Shopping in Rathmines, or going to the cinema, it's just there and you can drop in for a pint of something decent for a very reasonable price. Exactly what we need from pubs, in short.

Beer Festival of the Year: Irish Craft Beer Festival
Easy one this. Stand aside Borefts, move over Berlin: Dublin's three-day extravaganza in September was the year's top ticket, for the beer offer as well as the amazing atmosphere of joy and beery bonhomie. I may have spent quite a lot of it sticking wristbands on punters but there was still plenty to enjoy. Well done to the Seamus and Bruce who organised and the army of Beoir volunteers, ably coordinated by Andrew, who pitched in. If you've yet to experience Ireland's craft beer revolution, the RDS in September is one of the best places to do it.

Supermarket/Shop/Online retailer of the year: No-one
Once again I've bought next to no beer in supermarkets this year. Tesco seem to have made a bit of an effort, with Dunnes and Superquinn coming up behind them with a better beer offer than before, but none of this has really affected me. My regular haunts for beer buying -- DrinkStore, The Beer Club and Redmond's -- are still there and still as great as ever, but I'm not going to pick one out. And I don't buy beer online, though it's good to see Bradley's in Cork getting into that game as well. So no trophies, just an all-round keep-doing-what-you're-doing.

Best Beer Book or Magazine: Shakespeare's Local
Another area where I'm not in much of a position to make a call. This year's top reference work seems to have been Stephen Beaumont and Tim Webb's World Atlas of Beer but I've not seen it; while Stan Hieronymus's For the Love of Hops arrived too late for me to get a proper look at it. Which leaves, by default, Pete Brown to take the Golden Pint Award for Only Beer Book I Read All Year. Shakespeare's Local is a fascinating social history of the London Borough of Southwark, told with particular reference to The George, last of London's galleried coaching inns, all told in Pete's usual fun and matey style.

Best Beer Blog or Website: The Drunken Destrier 
Writing a blog of just tasting notes is a lonely furrow, I have found, and there aren't many others that I read. Too many are just lists of flavour descriptors or, worse, numerical ratings. So it's refreshing to find a blog that keeps a similar line to mine and does it in a lucid and entertaining way. For that reason, Kill of The Drunken Destrier is my blog of the year. Bonus points for some impressive beer photography as well.

Best Beer Twitterer: @BrouwerVanKlomp
A rare, sometimes terrifying, but always fascinating glimpse into the mind of one of Belgium's -- and the world's -- greatest brewers. Worth a follow if you feel you're worthy, though you obviously aren't.

Best Online Brewery Presence: Dungarvan Brewing
Oh how all those wonderful websites launched two or three years ago by the new wave of Irish breweries have fallen into abeyance. No-one seems quite able to keep their seasonals and availability quite up to date. I suppose it all goes on Facebook, though I don't. So this will be a Top Marks For Effort job, and it goes to Dungarvan for lots of quality tweeting and a shiny new website. Brown paper seems to be quite the design trend this year.

Food and Beer Pairing of the Year: Lunch at Jacobsen
Food and beer is a big part of what Carlsberg subsidiary Jacobsen does, so when they hosted the European Beer Consumers Union delegates in September it's not surprising that they pulled out the big guns. I won't go into detail, but if you are in Copenhagen do tear yourself away from Fermentoren and Mikkeller for an hour and have lunch in Jacobsen. And try the cheese.

Open category: Best Cider: Double L
It doesn't get mentioned much on this blog, but cider has become a much bigger part of my drinking life in the past year. The Irish cider revolution rumbles on apace and the quality of produce coming from the north -- Armagh Cider and Tempted? in particular -- is fantastic. Down here there's quality cider from the likes of Stonewell and Longuville House, but my cider highlight of the year was cask Double L at WJ Kavanagh's. Apple perfection in a glass.

In 2013 I’d most like to... get reacquainted with Belgium
It has been far too long. The Cantillon open day in early 2009 was the last time I set foot in Brussels. I have to get back and do some serious catching up: Moeder Lambic Fontainas is calling.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

A plan of action for January

Tell your colleagues - tell the National Executive


MICHAEL GOVE has declared that he is on a ‘war footing’ to drive through his attack on teachers’ pay. We mustn’t let him succeed.

His attacks, leaving pay dependent on a manager’s view of a teachers’ ‘performance’, have nothing to do with improving education. Gove wants to cut salary costs to help his privatising friends and to try to cower and divide teachers so that we can be bullied and overworked even more than we are already.

Too many teachers already struggle to cope with relentless workload as we are expected  to somehow produce ever-improving results without the resources required to meet the growing needs of our pupils. Stress levels, resignations and demoralisation are rising. This is what teaching is already like in many schools before Gove tightens the screw even further. If he gets away with his plans, teaching will become a truly horrendous profession for too many.

But Gove’s plans can - and must - be beaten. If we organise effectively, and put in place a firm programme of national strike action, then we can force this Government to retreat.

Gove has declared 'war' on teaching unions because he knows our potential strength. When we take national action, thousands of schools are affected, working lives and the economy widely disrupted, trade union opposition to cuts demonstrated in every community. Just as we found when we struck over pensions in 2011, action can win wide public support, especially  if we go out and explain how Gove’s plans are wrecking education.

We must respond firmly and quickly to Gove’s attack.  As a start, we have to build the strongest possible support for a first day of national action as soon as possible this term.

That means talking to colleagues in your school and in other local schools, holding meetings to explain why we have to act.

It also means calling and emailing your National Officers and National Executive members, so that they know that you are ready and willing to take action.

This is no time for teaching unions to hesitate or retreat. We mustn’t repeat the delays of last year, when further pensions action was postponed - giving Gove the chance to step up his attacks. Regrettably, the NASUWT may not be prepared to call a national strike - so the NUT may have to initiate action without them, as happened over pensions. The NUT can’t delay, it’s time to act.


Tell schools

Local NUT Associations should make immediate plans to get out emails, newsletters and, above all, to call school meetings to discuss Gove's threats and explain why we need to take national action. But take your own initiatives too. Forward 'Classroom Teacher' to your friends and colleagues

Tell the public

Some school groups have already held school gate protests and sent photos to the local press. Some London NUT Associations are planning a day of leafleting and lunchtime protests on Wednesday 23 January followed by a protest outside NUT HQ at 5pm to show the support for action. What can you do? Feel free to copy and distribute the 'message to parents' in the latest Classroom Teacher

Tell your union

Make sure you attend local meetings and regional rallies to encourage your Union to call national strike action. Send in messages in support of action to NUT HQ and call and email your NUT Executive members to ask them to vote for national action when the NUT Executive next meets on Thursday January 24.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Reflections on the lake

You know how it is on those crisp, breezy autumn afternoons when you hop on the paddle steamer at Nyon -- first class, of course -- for the leisurely cruise along the lake shore back to Geneva. Seated in the forward lounge you peruse the menu, seeking something that will help untwist those knots of muscle which develop in the frame of a flatlander, unused to Switzerland's pretty but often near-vertical urban landscape. Your companions are making selections from the fine range of whiskies and local liqueurs on offer, but for you it must be beer. A cool glass of lager is just what's required.

Options, however, are limited. Cardinal Spéciale is the height of it, brewed by those clever Carlsberg chaps at the nation's largest brewery, right by the border with Germany. At 5.2% ABV it packs enough weight to begin the unwinding process quickly, and you relax into it. It's a shame about the plastic cup it's served in: the golden age of travel is plainly far behind us. Even given the strength, you weren't expecting the pale gold lager to be quite so heavy. There's almost a syrupy texture to it. But it's not at all unpleasant as the stickiness is balanced by quite an assertive bitter bite.

On dry land this would not be a beer you'd give much for but, grasping your plastic cup and wandering out onto the deck to watch the vineyards and chateaux of Geneva's lush hinterland drift by, it's perfectly adequate for this setting.

As the city emerges from the haze ahead to herald your journey's end, you drain the last of the beer. Below decks, the engines begin their preparations to dock.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Santa Gueuze

You have to hand it to De Troch's Chapeau range of beers: they keep on surprising. I mean, they look like knock-off candy-lambics: doing a pineapple version suggests they aren't even trying to be taken seriously. And then this came my way: Chapeau Winter Gueuze. Sour lambic and Christmas spices are not a natural pairing, so what have they done here? With trepidation I popped the cap and pulled the cork.

It's 5.5% ABV and a murky red-brown sort of thing, light on fizz despite the thick champagne glass and double stopper. Mostly it smells like a kriek, with perhaps a little extra warmth: cherry strudel, maybe. The kriek theme continues on tasting, coming across like one of the sweet baby-steps starter krieks like Mort Subite or Bellevue. That strudel thing comes in again shortly afterwards and suggests raisins and stewed apples alongside the cherries. To finish there's a barely-there woody sourness of the sort you find in mild Flemish brown ale.

To be honest it's hitting neither my Christmas beer nor lambic receptors. It's really just a thick sugary concoction and the sort of thing I quite enjoy but wouldn't be running to recommend to anyone else.

So my scepticism levels were high when I turned to Cuvée Chapeau, their purported oude gueuze. It seems a very serious and difficult style for a brand which tolerates tropical fruit and cartoon Santas on its labels, but they have managed to pull this one off, I think.

The aroma from the dark gold beer isn't overpowering but it does more than hint at the sourness, complicating it with elements of flint and white grape as well. The first sip is properly puckering but the recoil doesn't last and an inviting warmth follows it, suggesting more than the 5.5% ABV. After that it finishes quite quickly with just a bit of not-unpleasant wine cork mustiness. So while it's neither as complex nor as quaffable as the top-tier oude gueuzes it certainly doesn't taste like fake lambic to me.

Two more reasons to regard Chapeau as the most surprising lambic producer. Here's wishing all my readers more lovely surprises this Christmas. Pass the cheese.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

NUT uncovers suspicious web of Academy advisers

NUT raises concerns about DfE education adviser contracts and potential conflicts of interests

The NUT released a press release today stating that the Union believes there is evidence that a number of individuals who have been employed by the Department for Education (DfE) as a contracted Education Adviser to work as academy brokers or on other activities related to the academies and free schools programme may have conflicts of interests arising from other employment as Ofsted inspectors, links to academy chains or sponsors or because of other DfE contracts and activities to which they are connected.

Christine Blower, General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers, the largest teachers’ union, said:

“It is quite unacceptable that a number of people are making a lot of money out of work within the Department for Education that is solely driven by the Government’s obsession with turning more and more schools into academies.

“Contractors such as these Education Advisers are being paid for work that includes cajoling schools into academy status, ensuring that they accept a particular academy sponsor or related activities supporting the delivery of the Government’s academy and free school programme.

“In some cases these individuals have connections to the schools’ inspectorate Ofsted or to academy chains that give rise to serious concern about their impartiality and objectivity. Contracts such as these represent a deterioration of the public service ethos in the administration of Government policy. Instead of professional civil servants, Government departments, and the Education Department in particular, are increasingly relying on hired hands to deliver their policies. These contractors lack the accountability set down in civil service codes and make their money from accumulating contracts for a variety of paid services, be it school inspection, academy sponsorship or consultancy work. There is a lack of oversight and insufficient regard given to where these functions may conflict. Michael Gove has fundamentally failed to oversee where there might be a conflict of interest. This is a very dangerous direction for a Government to be going.

“It is simply wrong that hard working school leaders, teachers and governors who support schools in a voluntary capacity are being bullied and cajoled into turning their schools into academies and stigmatised with the label that they are ‘failing’ when in practice the values and judgements of the people making these decisions have motives which are suspect to say the least.

“Once public services are run for profit the user is inevitably put second and we lose entirely the public service ethos. It has to be remembered this is tax payer’s money and should be spent for the public good not be squandered on a whole range of private consultants being brought in to run functions which should be provided by the DfE.

“Michael Gove should terminate these contracts, call a halt to the forced academy programme and return to the Department for Education its function of supporting all schools, whatever their status. We also need to see a return to the Education Department being run by professional civil servants, not cowboy operators out to make a fast buck.”

Also see:

By the numbers

I didn't realise I'd bought an antique. But it turned out that the XVII barley wine from Utah's Uinta brewery which I acquired at The House of Trembling Madness in York during the summer has a bottling date of 23 November 2010: so over two years in the bottle by the time I opened it. Would this be a good thing or a bad thing?

At 10.4% ABV it's certainly a robust beer, pouring thickly into the glass and presenting a murky mahogany body under a thick old-ivory foam. There's that very American aroma of bags of crystal malt laced with bags of C-hops: a messy collision between the toffee lorry and the grapefruit train. The hop aromas are muted, though, and the sweetness almost shades towards syrup notes, indicating immediately that this is perhaps not the hop powerhouse it once was. It tastes beautifully warming and there's definitely still a sherbety freshness to the hops here, with hardly any trace of bitter harshness. The thick, linctus-like texture spreads across the palate and slips silkily down the throat, spreading smooth caramel and naughty liqueur chocolates as it goes. Only a slight twang of stale cardboard arrives at the end to indicate that everything is not as it once was.

I'm reminded in particular of Sierra Nevada's Bigfoot in its more mature form, so perhaps this one too is a beer that needs a year or two to calm down. A superb sipper, it's really hard to know if freshness would be much of an improvement.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A history lesson for Mr Gove

" Paying teachers by results is like 'paying physicians only for the patients they have cured'. Society would never adopt this policy for its physicians so why should it for its teachers ? " 

'Payment by results' failed education in 1862, but Gove wants to try again 150 years later - and he thinks our kids need to learn more British history ?

Monday, December 17, 2012

Gove has declared 'war' - time to repel his attack on education!

Last week, the NUT National Executive met to respond to the declaration of 'war' on teachers by Michael Gove and the Review Body following their threats to link teachers' pay entirely to performance. 

Regrettably, the NUT Executive has not yet  shown the boldness and determination required in the face of such a serious attack. Instead, as a Union we have perhaps been rightly criticised for showing once again what one columnist has called " tactical conservatism".

NUT members have all been sent an email rightly explaining that already "NUT members have told us how strongly they oppose Michael Gove's plans. An immediate NUT survey of 10,000 members showed that well over 90 percent reject Mr Gove's plans for pay determination at school level".

That strength of feeling - backed up by the many angry comments I have received from teachers and posted elsewhere on this blog - - just wasn't matched by the same strength of resolve at the Executive. The email simply goes on to say that "NUT members may have to go further in demonstrating their opposition to this Government's plans ... and should prepare for possible strike action next term". A far bolder 'call-to-arms' needs to be made.

A national NUT circular issued today spells out exactly what was - and wasn't - agreed at the Executive meeting. I have pasted the various points in full below.

As I said in the debate at the Executive, those of us calling for a calendar of strike action have also always been strong supporters of the Union going out to members - and the wider community - to explain our case and build support. So the recommendations made by the NUT National Officers about a 'community-facing campaign for education' were not an issue.

However, we know that it will be the strength of union action that will be the decisive factor in defeating Gove's 'war' on teachers. It was only our 'objection' which sought to commit the union to commencing action with the urgency that these attacks require.

The defeat of that objection was a setback - but means that there is now an even greater urgency to go out to schools and to explain to members how the Review Body proposals threaten the pay and conditions of every teacher. It also means that there is an even greater need for NUT and NASUWT members to make their voices heard and give confidence to their national leaderships to call national strike action.

As I posted in my original report , there are bound to be differences over strategy when deciding under pressure how best to force back your opponent.

However, for some who opposed our objection, this debate was not just about the timing of the start of action. I fear that the final recommendation 3, "to develop new action instructions in combination with NASUWT relating to school pay policies" reveals the real, and dangerously defeatist, thinking of some on the Executive.

Limiting our strategy to perhaps just a token protest strike followed by an attempt to plead with schools to ignore Gove's new pay flexibilities would be fatal. Bullied by Ofsted and budget cuts, even the best of schools will be under pressure to limit pay progression for their staff. Many will seize on the chance to cut pay and ratchet up the pressure on staff even more. It is a strategy that will see the Union drowning in pay appeals, grievances and individual casework. Instead, we need to channel the rising anger and bitterness that teachers already feel about the way they are being treated into collective national action.

The defeat of the proposal to look at strike action in the first half-term means that valuable time has already been lost in organising the action we need. I am confident that this action can - and must - still be built - but only if we also go on a ‘war footing’.

Every Local NUT Association needs to get to work as soon as they can. In my Association, Lewisham, I have convened an emergency Committee meeting at the beginning of next term - with a wider invitation to school reps to come along too.

We'll be looking to draft in support to run the office and support with casework so that we can put together a programme of visits to schools and calls to reps. We'll be explaining how bad Gove's proposals will be for teachers and education - but also asking members to send in demands to the National Union for national strike action to be called as well. The proposals include calling a Lobby of the NUT Executive, after work on Wednesday 23rd January at 5pm.

Lewisham NUT will also be attending the next LANAC Steering Committee, 11am - 3pm, on Saturday 19th January 2013, at the Coventry Transport Museum CV1 1JD, to discuss how we can build that pressure on executive members in every Region.
PLEASE NOTE, as a London NUT Reps Briefing has now been called for that date,  LANAC Officers are liaising about whether arrangements will be altered - look out for further details.
Here is the record of the votes recorded in today's NUT circular:

A division was called during the debate on the Urgency report from the Officers’ meeting, held earlier on 13 December 2012. The report contained the Union’s response to the Government’s acceptance of the STRB recommendations.

The recommendations set out in the report were as follows:

Building a community-facing campaign for education:

1. Continuing to build the petition and gathering further sponsoring organisations (such as NGA) and to examine possibilities for high profile national meetings.
2. Parents meetings in schools over Ebacc demanding real consultation - in at least each region. With publicity plans and the possibilities of further meetings in more towns and cities.
3. Meetings on education - using the models of the Yorkshire Education Conference and the Lambeth primary conference. Again aiming to have these in each region - focusing either on school improvement/evidence on academies or on ‘trusting teachers’.
4. Examine similar possibilities for alliance working on school accountability including OFSTED and ESTYN, phonics and curriculum review.
5. Produce leaflets for use in building community campaigns on education.
6. Condemn and campaign against the impact of cuts to education services and associated services including for example the early intervention grant.

Building the campaign and joint union activity around pay

1. GS/DGS to give a series of national reps briefings. 

2. GS/DGs to run a series of regional rallies - putting forward the case against Government education policy and for industrial action.
3. Develop new action instructions in combination with NASUWT relating to school pay policies.
4. Encourage school groups to hold protests outside school gates and seeking local press coverage.
5. Seek media attention for stories about teacher morale and resignations.
6. Produce material for members around the pay freeze, the increased pension contributions and limitations on teacher pay progression.
7. Conduct surveys amongst early career members about the impact on their household budgets of the above.
8. Approach the NASUWT nationally early in January about the necessity for strike action in the Spring Term.
9. Build towards strike action in the Spring Term over both pay and pensions issues.

An objection to the report in the name of Martin Powell-Davies and Heather McKenzie was received as follows:

Replace existing points 8 and 9 with:
8. Instruct our negotiating team to urgently approach the NASUWT to seek their agreement for both unions to give notice for a first day of strike action to take place no later than the first week of February 2013.
9. Call a special meeting of the Executive on January 10 2013 to agree on the date that would be called for a first day of national strike action and to consider further dates that could form part of our calendar of action.

The vote was recorded as follows:

For: Marilyn Bater, Roy Bowser, Nick Grant, Dave Harvey, Mandy Hudson, Roger King, Ian Leaver, Anne Lemon, Julie Lyon-Taylor, Heather McKenzie, Patrick Murphy, Martin Powell-Davies and Annette Pryce. (13)

Against: Marilyn Harrop, Jay Barry, Dave Brinson, Dominic Byrne, Hazel Danson, Beth Davies, Neil Foden, Jerry Glazier, Linda Goodwin, Ian Grayson, Robin Head, John Holmes, Max Hyde, Angela Jardine, Simon Jones, Clare Jones, Gawain Little, Amanda Martin, Ian Murch, John Pemberthy, Veronica Peppiatt, Eddie Ritson, Ken Rustidge, Alan Rutter, Anne Swift, Tony Tonks, Graham White and Nick Wigmore (28)

Abstentions: Alex Kenny

Absent: Barrie Frost and Betty Joseph.   
The objection was, therefore, LOST.

What would happen if..?

As a dabbler in brewing I know what it's like: the temptation to not leave well enough alone. Sometimes, brewing experiments are born of necessity, other times it's just for the hell of it, or to prove a point. "I've proved a point" is a totally valid response to the question "Why does this taste weird?" Two commercial experiments today, from points as far away as Denmark and New Zealand.

Well, sort of. To Øl is one of those Danish gypsy brewing operations and Ov-ral -- a collaboration with Mikkeller -- isn't actually brewed in Denmark at all. It's badged as an Imperial IPA and is 10.5% ABV, but as the name hints it's had a dose of wild yeasts added in the brewing process like Belgian Trappist classic Orval. And it presents in a fairly Orvallish fashion: a cloudy orange colour and smelling of barnyards and vinegar. The imperialised hopping comes out on tasting, with a bittersweet oily citrus pith at the front contrasting with the sour funk from the wild yeast. Think orange barley sweets dipped in manure and you're close.

Out of interest I cracked a bottle of Orval for immediate contrast and found it tasted of very little by comparison. If you like what Orval does but find it somewhat lacking in character, then this is the beer for you, and you're an idiot.

We head down under next for one from renowned Kiwi brewery Epic, new to these shores. Zythos is a pale amber coloured IPA and has the same citrus and toffee aroma of a million crystal-malt-laden American IPAs, plus a surprisingly alcoholic smell for a relatively modest 6% ABV. But while the nose is quite run-of-the-mill there's a bit more going on in the flavour. For one thing there's a big and very English hit of tannins at the front, and the first taste called to mind a cup of strong black tea more than Californian craft beer. Behind this there's more of the powerful jaffa bitterness we met in the Ov-ral, but also some lighter, more softly spoken, mandarin notes as well. It's a very decent, quite straightforward beer which doesn't try to pull off the same sort of tricks as the Dane and is the better for it.

The experimental novelty factor here lies in the hops: eschewing the more famous American varieties which are often in short supply, this is brewed with a secret blend of more accessible breeds. To be honest I think it hasn't been a complete success and it lacks the welly of a beer loaded with Citra, Simcoe or the like. But that doesn't change the fact that it's enjoyable to drink.

Today's lesson, then, is that messing about with hops is pretty safe, but with yeast it helps to know exactly what you're doing, and preferably do it in someone else's brewery. Big thanks to Richard for providing both of these.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

A brave teacher

"This is Victoria. She died a hero today. She hid her first graders in the cabinets and closets after hearing the gunfire. When the shooter came to her classroom, she told him that her students were in the gym. He then gunned her down and moved on. She saved the lives of all of her students. Please pass this on if you see it. She deserves to be remembered for her bravery."

Perhaps, just for a moment, the politicians will stop trashing teachers.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

LANAC Steering Committee in January to discuss how to build fightback against Gove's 'war' on teachers

Over 50 delegates and visitors from NUT Associations right across England gathered in Leicester on December 8th for the second conference of the Local Associations National Action Campaign (LANAC).

LANAC was created following two packed fringe meetings at NUT Conference in Torquay this Easter called by delegates angered by the continued failure of the Union to call further national strike action over the attacks on teachers’ pensions.

This latest LANAC conference was held just after Michael Gove had also confirmed his ‘war’ on teachers’ pay. Teachers wanted to meet up even at this late stage of a long autumn term because we all understood that teaching unions needed to urgently respond by calling national strike action to repel these latest attacks.

Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of supporters of LANAC, the NUT National Executive meeting held just a few days later failed to commit to action early next term. This dangerous hesitation at the top of the Union makes clear just how important a role LANAC is going to have to play in organising from below to make sure Gove does not succeed in inflicting a major defeat on teachers - with all the long-lasting damage that could also inflict on children’s education.

The NUT Executive’s hesitancy also gives the next LANAC Steering Committee on Saturday January 19 in Coventry an added significance.
It is planned to be held from 11am - 3pm, Saturday JANUARY 19th 2013, at the Coventry Transport Museum CV1 1JD
PLEASE NOTE, as a London NUT Reps Briefing has now been called for that date,  LANAC Officers are liaising about whether arrangements will be altered - look out for further details

LANAC’s policies and campaigns are democratically decided. Every NUT Association who supports LANAC’s aims, and affiliates to the campaign, is entitled to send a voting delegate to that Steering Committee meeting to take part in our urgent debate as to how LANAC can organise to make sure the teaching unions mobilise to defeat Gove’s attacks.

If you are not sure whether your Association is affiliated, please get in touch.

Below, is a report summarising the discussions on December 8th:

The first session of the LANAC Conference, reviewing the lessons of this term’s ‘Phase One’ action, was opened by Julie Lyon-Taylor from Liverpool NUT and an NUT National Officer.

Pride of place was given to Steve Charles, NUT rep at Stratford Academy in Newham where, following nine days of strike action, management were forced to reverse their disgraceful docking of 15% from the pay of teachers taking part in the national action-short-of-strike action campaign. This success is the best answer to Gove’s latest attempts to order more schools to use the same provocative tactics to undermine trade union organisation.

That wasn’t the only victory gained at Stratford. Steve explained how, before the action, management had been making unannounced classroom visits to lessons every day, demanding that all teachers kept detailed lesson plans written in an unhelpful imposed school format and faced disciplinary action if they were found wanting. Those visits have now stopped.

The action at Stratford also has other vital lessons that any waverers on the NUT Executive need to consider. Firstly, teachers’ anger at their treatment meant that, with a clear lead from Steve as rep, a fairly inactive union group was galvanised into determined action. Secondly, far from attacking the strikers as Gove and co. might assume, parents instead turned on the school management and helped force the headteacher into retreat. There is no reason why the same determination and support can’t be built on a national scale.

Two other school reps, Karen Wheeler from Deptford Green in Lewisham and Tom Carlyle from Bishop Challoner in Tower Hamlets also reported on victories won in their schools over observations and ‘mocksteds’ after teachers threatened escalation to strike action.

Other contributions and reports from Nottingham, Croydon, Liverpool, Birmingham, Wakefield, Hackney, Hull, Lewisham, Southwark and Lewes/Eastbourne/Wealden pointed out how the ‘Phase One’ action had helped build union organisation and rank-and-file confidence but, at the same time, was not enough on its own to turn the tide on Gove.

Many reps described important local successes but also reported that the ‘Phase One’ action was inevitably ‘patchy’, with some school groups lacking in confidence to take school-based action alone. While maintaining and extending the ‘Phase One’ action, what was urgently needed was to now urgently move to ‘Phase Two’ and call national strike action.

As Mick Wale, NUT Divisional Secretary from Hull, put it “we are winning individual battles but we need to win the war”. Pointing out the harsh reality facing teachers, Mick explained how he had just taken eight calls in his NUT Office in one week from teachers asking for help in being released from their contracts as they couldn’t take the unending stress and workload of teaching any longer.

Two NUT Executive members introduced the afternoon sessions with presentations updating delegates on the latest threats (see for copies to download and use). Patrick Murphy from Leeds outlined the threats to union facility time and organisation and how the NUT needed to organise to meet those challenges. Martin Powell-Davies from London explained exactly how severe the attacks on pay structure contained in the Review Body report could be for every teacher, on top of the continued attacks on pensions.

That was followed by one of the highlights of the day, a live Skype link-up from Chicago with two members of CORE, the Caucus Of Rank-and-File Educators, explaining how they had helped rebuild the strength of the Chicago Teachers Union. By winning the support of both their members and of much of the public to determined action, they had won significant contractual gains after five days of strike action across the city. (again see for an edited video of the link-up).

The final plenary session, introduced by Debs Gwynn from St.Helens, focussed on the need to build escalating national strike action to defeat the attacks on pay and pensions – and to try and co-ordinate more generalised strike action with other trade unions as well.

All the contributions to the discussion, including from delegates from Coventry, Sandwell, Lambeth, Lewisham, Birmingham, Cheshire West and Chester, West Sussex, Leicester and Warwickshire, all agreed that an urgent programme of national strike action was vital. Many also stressed how we must explain to the public how these attacks are part of a wider government strategy to cut and privatise public services and narrow the curriculum.

There were also calls to support battles against academisation at Connaught school in Waltham Forest and at Sinfin Community School in Derbyshire, where NUT members will be on strike in the last week of term (messages of support to

There was some debate as to how LANAC should relate to other groupings within the NUT, particularly the broader ‘Campaign Teacher’ initiative. Continuing the debate at the June conference, some delegates again proposed we should hold joint meetings, others that we should appeal to those supporting Campaign Teacher to come together around LANAC . It was agreed that this should be considered again at the next Steering Committee in January.

‘Unity is strength’ has always been an old adage of the movement. However, LANAC has a clear democratic structure and statement of aims, debated and agreed at our founding conference in June. For example, LANAC stands clearly as a campaign “working at every level of the NUT for the earliest possible return to collective industrial action … and for a calendar of action that can secure further concessions from this weakened Government”.

The policy of ‘Campaign Teacher’ is far less clear. The NUT Executive members present had to point out to the LANAC Conference that they could not be at all sure whether some of the other NUT Executive colleagues backing ‘Campaign Teacher’ would be voting to support an urgent call for action. Regrettably, those warnings proved to be correct.

In the light of the Executive’s failure to confirm national strike action in the first half of next term, the January 19th LANAC Steering Committee in Coventry will need to consider what meetings LANAC organises, either with or without other groupings in the Union, both up to and at the 2013 NUT Annual Conference in Liverpool. We also agreed to consider preferred prioritisation of motions going to that Annual Conference.

However, the key work of LANAC will continue to be to lobby and organise at all levels of the NUT for national strike action. Our main agenda item on January 19th will obviously be to discuss how we can urgently mobilise to oppose Gove’s attacks - and how we can lobby NUT Executive members to persuade them to launch the escalating campaign of national action called for by LANAC.

If the NUT Executive can’t act boldly to give confidence to its members to fight, then NUT members will need to act boldly to give confidence to its Executive.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

NUT Executive calls for action on pay - but no firm strike plans agreed

Today's meeting of the NUT National Executive met to discuss how we respond to Michael Gove's threats to make all teachers' pay rates dependent on performance.

From the beginning of our dispute over Teachers’ Pay and Working Conditions - with our ballot results clearly supporting both strike action and non-strike action - we knew that the School Teacher’s Review Body was likely to worsen arrangements for teachers’ pay. That's why this term's campaign to get the best possible appraisal and observation policies in place has been so important - because, it's now clear that, from next September, Gove wants those often harsh and arbitrary 'performance' gradings to be used to limit teachers' pay.

Now we know that, not only has Michael Gove and the Review Body failed to address our demand that there should not be “any further restriction on increases in the pay of school teachers”, he has accepted a series of proposals that threaten the pay progression and pay levels of every teacher. In fact, he has threatened 'war' on teachers in a clear attempt to take on, and undermine, the teaching unions in order to push through cuts and privatisation. 

Given the seriousness of these attacks, and the damage that they will inflict on education, I argued strongly that the Executive had a responsibility to organise an urgent and significant campaign of publicity and action to defeat these proposals. The campaign would require a careful explanation of these threats to both our members and the public. However, we could be confident that we will generate strong support for the Union’s clear case against the injustice and division caused by performance pay and in defence of national pay scales.

Today’s Executive agreed that we had to oppose Gove’s attacks on pay, backed up by a survey of NUT members that already showed an overwhelming rejection of his proposals.

We agreed to hold protests, meetings and rallies to build the campaign against these attacks. But, although we agreed to continue to talk with the NASUWT about the need for strike action next term, no firm plans were suggested and, for now, we are still just ‘building towards’ that action. I think that this lack of urgency was a mistake and, unless corrected quickly, it could be a very serious one.

When you’re being attacked and having to decide under pressure how best to force back your opponent, then there are bound to be disagreements about the best strategy to employ. There were certainly some clear differences of opinion voiced in the debate about how to respond to Gove’s attacks.

A majority on the Executive were wary about committing to calling strike action at this stage, arguing that we shouldn’t rush into a ‘knee-jerk’ response. It was argued that, if we couldn’t yet be sure of members’ views, we shouldn’t be provoked by Gove into hasty action.

I argued that we needed to have a much greater sense of urgency and needed to call on the NASUWT to work with us in calling action in the first half-term after Christmas. After all, we have a live ballot that can sanction strike action and our survey results didn’t only show opposition to Gove - they also showed overwhelming support for strike action too.

My proposal, seconded by Heather McKenzie from Hertfordshire, called on the Executive to go beyond just ‘building towards strike action in the Spring Term’ but to:

* instruct our negotiating team to urgently approach the NASUWT to seek their agreement for both unions to give notice for a first day of national strike action to take place no later than the first week of February 2013.

* call a special meeting of the Executive on January 10 2013 to agree on the date that will be called for a first day of national strike action and to consider further dates that could form part of our calendar of action.

In proposing, I made clear that, yes, we needed to go out and explain our case to the public, but that we should be confident that, in a choice between Gove and teachers, most of the public will back our campaign. I agreed that, yes, we had to go all out to visit schools and hold rallies to build support for action. But, I argued, timing was critical.

We need time to go out and explain our case, but we haven’t got unlimited time. Gove wants to complete initial consultation by January 5th (!) and then rush through legislative changes to impose these changes in time for September. If we wait too long, members will lose heart and think that, together with pensions, this is a ‘done deal’ that unions cannot defeat.

But there’s no reason to delay or to lack confidence in our ability to defeat these proposals. There is already seething anger against these attacks. From their own experience of bullying, targets and observations, teachers know only too well how Gove’s plans will demoralise and divide schools. If we simply retreat to fight localised battles to try and win acceptable pay policies school-by-school, as some seemed to be suggesting, then we will leave most teachers isolated and bullied and union reps drowning in pay appeals and grievances.

Under perhaps Gove’s most unpopular proposal, those teachers who are bullied out of their posts will now probably find that they have to accept a substantial pay cut to get a new job.

Of course, our battle will be easier to fight if we have others unions as allies. The PCS will be hoping to co-ordinate national action nearer Easter but we need to get our action underway before then. Joint strike action alongside the NASUWT will certainly strengthen our campaign – but are the NASUWT leadership prepared to call action before it is too late?

While some argued that we were rashly writing-off the NASUWT, what we were actually proposing was simply that we concretely approach the NASUWT with the suggestion of action next half-term and then return to an emergency NUT National Executive to discuss if there was a real prospect of joint action. If not, then we would then have to decide whether we called action alone this side of the half-term break. We could also then have continued the urgent discussion of what programme of action should follow an initial day’s strike.

Regrettably, after debate, my proposal was lost by 28 votes to 13*. 

Many NUT members will be disappointed and angered that no firmer plans have yet been set. School groups and Local Associations will now need to urgently step up the pressure so that the next meeting of the NUT National Executive on January 24th can be in no doubt about the demands from teachers for a firm programme of strike action. The Local Associations National Action Campaign will need to play an important role in co-ordinating that grass-roots campaign.

Gove’s attacks can – and must – be defeated. If union Executives can’t act to give confidence to their members to fight, then union members will need to act to give confidence to their Executives – both in the NUT and NASUWT.

* The 13 votes in favour were: Bater, Bowser, Grant, Harvey, Hudson, King, Leaver, Lemon, Lyon-Taylor, McKenzie, Murphy, Powell-Davies and Pryce with Alex Kenny abstaining and Joseph and Frost absent from the meeting.

Support our campaign to defend education

A firm campaign is vital to defend teachers from bullying attacks on their pay, morale and workload - but it is also vital to defend education. Performance pay will damage education, dividing and bullying staff and enforcing even more 'teaching to the test'.

But this isn't the only attack from Gove that we are opposing. These are some of the other campaigns that the National Executive discussed ( see further information on NUT website ):

Give Every Child a Chance - Don’t rush to the English Baccalaureate – NUT/NAHT joint campaign

To sign our joint petition go to The campaign petition was launched on Friday 7 December with NAHT colleagues. It is also supported by the Musicians' Union and Equity and key political and academic figures.

GCSE grading case at the High Court

On Tuesday 11 December the NUT joined head teachers, councils and members of the other leading teaching unions outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London, for the start of the judicial review of the decisions of exam boards AQA and Edexcel and the exam regulator Ofqual. An outcome is expected next week.

Watering down of School Premises Regulations

A significant deregulation of protection for teachers’ working conditions - and pupils' learning conditions - took place at the end of October 2012.  

This is of particular concern in London, where these changes will aid Mayor Boris Johnson's plans to solve the pupil place shortage by opening privatised 'free schools' in unsuitable premises.

The changes include:
  • Removal of the regulation specifying that staff toilets must be separate from pupil toilets.
  • No requirement for a room in which staff can gather ‘for work and social purposes’. 
  • No minimum ratios of toilets to pupils based on age. 
  • Removal of minimum temperature requirements for classrooms (18°C), sick rooms (21°C) and gymnasia (15°C).  
  • UPDATE: It is also worth noting that academies and free schools are not covered by the new School Premises (England) Regulations 2012.  This was due to change in January 2013, but as of December 2012, there has been no DfE announcement.  Currently, academies are covered by the Education (Independent School Standards) (England) Regulations) 2003, which, on the subject of toilet provision, state only that there must be “sufficient washrooms for staff and pupils, including facilities for pupils with special needs, taking account of the Education (School Premises) Regulations 1999”, which, of course, are no longer in force.

"Arrest Michael Gove for bullying!"

The Artist Taxi Driver says it as only he can ...

apologies for the swearing ...

Tastes like a dead dog

OK, that's unfair of me: I thought of the title before opening the beer. But I'm not much of a fan of the beer from Sharp's -- MolsonCoors's Cornish operation -- nor of telly chef Rick Stein who put his signature on this one, nor of Chalky's Bite, the other beer named after his late mutt, so I wasn't expecting to be impressed by its little brother Chalky's Bark.

But really, it's not a bad beer. Yes it's massively overcarbonated making it difficult to taste anything in it at first, and at its core there's a watery nothingness where I think I'm within my rights to expect some sort of malt-derived weight, especially at the not-insubstantial ABV of 4.5%. But the centrepiece of the flavour is a lovely bittersweet lemon that teeters a little towards washing up liquid yet never quite gets there, fortunately. That the promised centrepiece of the flavour is ginger, of which I can detect no trace whatsoever, bothers me not in the slightest.

Chalky's Bark is a perfectly acceptable sunny day quaffer, as long as you let the dog blow off some of his trapped gas first.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Not on the level

Flat surfaces are hard come by on the streets of Amsterdam. When having drinkies outside Arendsnest last September with the wife, Zak Avery and Rick Kempen, I harboured a constant fear of my glass sliding sideways off the table and into the Herengracht. Thankfully we all managed to keep it together long enough to get a few down our necks.

Pairs of beers are always interesting, so picking randomly from the Arendsnest blackboard I had an Ongelovige Thomas by Jopen. "Doubting Thomas" is a 10% ABV barley wine which manages to pull off being unctuous and hot while still remaining drinkable and flavoursome, throwing plenty of fresh mango in with the marker pen. Its credulous counterpart is Gelovige Thomas by De Molen: two points stronger but similar in a lot of ways. There's no doubt that all the alcohol is in there: it has cockle-warming caramel aplenty, but once again the hop fruits are also very present bringing balance to the picture, causing the beer to disappear much too fast, when one is seated on an incline.

Sticking with these two first-string Dutch breweries, the next round brought De Molen Dubbelbock, another one in the strong mahogany genre, though with a single-figure ABV. At first I didn't make the link between this and normal red, sticky Dutch autumn bock, but that's what it is, just done very well with everything turned up a little higher: more toffee and more herbs. Mooie Nel, say Jopen, is an IPA. 6.5% ABV and hopped with a heady mix of Citra, Simcoe, Nelson Sauvin and Glacier it throws out masses of gorgeous tropical fruit: the pineapple effect when Nelson Sauvin is behaving itself (when it isn't you get cat wee). The base is soft and heavy, like a Belgian blonde though without any major Belgian yeast notes spoiling the hop party. Jopen is the Dutch brewery I keep forgetting the brilliance of. I must pay them a visit in Haarlem some time soon.

Rick explained that the dodgily-named Tasty Lady is the creation of a group of women (here they are) at the Breugems Brewery in Zaandam. Without meaning to stereotype or anything, it's a very bubbly blonde which smells quite perfumey. My notes say there was a toasty characteristic as well, but to be honest I've no memory of how it tasted, just that no one at the table of either gender was very impressed.

De Snaterende Arend is the brewing company in charge of the house beers for Arendsnest and its sister pub Beer Temple. Among its other beers -- brewed at various sites around the Low Countries -- is Roodburst, a gorgeous red-orange number smelling strongly of toffee but heavily hopped-up giving it a dank and funky quality which I really enjoyed.

Big surprise of the session was the new IPA from Amsterdam's veteran microbrewery 't IJ. Their labels have always had quite an old-fashioned theme, with only the colours and wording changing around the ostrich logo. For 't IJ IPA they've gone for a different sort of leggy bird: a mid-life crisis Harley Davidson of a design. There's a bit of the signature 't IJ funk about this at first, with obviously plenty of suspended yeast in the hazy orange liquid. But underneath the pithy hops are also making their presence felt, adding a stimulating sharpness. Really it's not a million miles from the kind of bitter and funky IPAs that lots of Belgian breweries are turning out these days.

So that was the slanty Arendsnest. We had started out previously in Beer Temple, a short walk away. The menu has got a little more diverse in the three years since it opened, incorporating more local fare among the American beers, but also including unfamiliar breweries from unexpected places. Like Bridge Road in Australia, and their Beechworth Pale Ale. This is a sticky and bitter golden concoction with a heavy accent on the oranges. How it manages to be as thirst-quenching as it is I do not understand.

From the US offerings I picked Southern Tier's Back Burner, an oak-aged barley wine. It's smooth and sweet to start with; the hop kick coming in late and gradually, building from jolly juicy mandarins to more serious pithy jaffa and then on towards more bitter, herbal territory. It's only when it warms that the oak shows up, and it brings quite a harsh, sappy flavour which is often a risk with barrel-aging. I presume it's some combination of these elements that gives it an odd burnt coconut flavour as well. It has all the elements of a great beer but doesn't quite put them together in the right way, unfortunately.

Drinking in Amsterdam is rarely wall-to-wall gold, but there's always something interesting.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Thar she blows!

Session logoThe Session this month includes one of my hobby-horse subjects within its remit. Mr. David J is our host and "Don't Believe The Hype" is the topic he has chosen: does a beer's reputation affect how we perceive it?

Following on from this issue is the whole matter of high profile "white whale" beers: the limited editions and hard-to-finds that plague the beer world. Not that they're bad beers, normally. My experiences with the likes of Westvleteren 12 and Dark Lord have been very positive indeed, but there are plenty of beers out there in the same league that don't have so much of a fuss made about them. The drive that some beer drinkers have to capture the white whales unsettles me a little. The make-it-anywhere-from-anything nature of beer means that the notion of special rare beers is a bit ridiculous, and label-chasing makes beer culture a little less of a pleasant place to be. I find more than an echo of the wine snob about some of the Captain Ahabs I've encountered.

All this makes me a little wary when a new, rare, special, limited edition beer comes my way. Yes I want to drink it -- it's what I do -- but I end up trying not to make a big deal of it, unless it warrants it, of course. The hype ahead of the Franciscan Well's new one was substantial. Like last year's Shandon Century it's a strong-ish stout presented in a numbered 1 litre bottle. The big change this year is barrel-aging. At first the brewery gave no more detail than it was maturing in a cask acquired from the Irish Distillers plant in Midleton. The lack of whiskey specifics left me wondering if Irish Distillers simply don't distinguish between the casks used for their many whiskey brands, or whether the brewery didn't want their beer associated with Jackeen labels such as Jameson and Power's, produced in Cork though they may be. They came clean eventually and Franciscan Well Stout Aged in Jameson Irish Whiskey Casks is the full title: 7.8% ABV in a run of 900 bottles.

It pours out jet black but not thick or gloopy and the mouthfeel has a little creaminess yet remains light and easy-going. The carbonation level is set only little above token, of which I heartily approve. There's not much of an aroma either, but it seems to be mostly a sweet and slightly burnt treacle thing, with just a brief hit of the whiskey vapours if you inhale deeply enough.

Charmingly for a strong barrel-aged stout, it's not a smack in the face on the first sip. A host of flavours line up politely to be appreciated, starting with the dark dry roast, overlaid with more of that treacle and accompanied by subtle honey and vanilla from the Jameson. There's a surprise in store at the end when a fairly generous hop character asserts itself: the big vegetal, almost metallic, flavours I associate with bitter powerhouse stouts like Wrassler's XXXX. The hop tang is the takeaway from this feast of a stout. I wasn't expecting that.

No, it's not Dark Lord, true; and nor is it trying to be. But while it's a wonderful example of what you can do with barrel aging a stout it's not worth obsessing over either. It's barely possible to justify the €12 price tag it came with so it would be foolhardy, in my opinion, to pay multiples of this on the grey market. When it's gone, it's gone: accept it and wait for the next beer.

And by all accounts it may not be around much longer. Bottles have been selling fast in what's already a busy season for this sort of beer. And today offers a rare opportunity to try it from the cask at the source. Only two have been filled and one will be tapped tonight and given away free, and exclusively, to Beoir members. Drop along to North Mall from 8.30 and bring your membership card.

Or you can wait for the second cask, scheduled for public consumption at the Cask and Winter Ales Festival in the 'Well in a couple of months' time (edit: confirmed for 15-17 February 2013). I can't make it along this evening so am planning to be there early for that.

Everybody will be talking about it, after all.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Wary Christmas!

It's that time of year when I can start putting a bit of a hole in the more wintery parts of my Belgian ale collection. They're a random bunch so this could go either way.

First up is Abbaye de Roc Spéciale Noël whose serious dark blue label looks classy enough to be trustworthy. But as soon as the cap came off there was beer everywhere. Corralled into a glass it's the picture of innocence again: dark red and blanketed by a thick white head. But look closely and there are unsettling gobbets of yeast bobbing around in the dark murky depths. Worse, the flavour is a complete mess: far too hot, to begin with, with those lovely dark Belgian fruit flavours doused in cheap sherry. Beyond that there's a weird medicinal eucalyptus thing, shading towards unpleasant disinfectant. This stuff is severely lacking in seasonal cheer.

Hopes were higher when it came to De Ranke and their jolly green-label Père Noël. It's a modest 7% ABV and a decidedly unfestive orange colour. Among the ingredients helpfully listed is liquorice, the only bit of seasonal enhancement. I can't say I'd have picked it out from the taste alone, or indeed any trace that this is supposed to be a Christmas ale. More than anything it tastes like a tripel, with the mix of honey, herbs and spices that that entails, plus an appropriate bitter kick at the end. All in all it's pretty straightforward, inoffensive stuff. Fine for year-round drinking, but I want a beer with a bit more yuletide character.

Time to break out the big guns: if Brasserie De La Senne can't deliver a satisfactorily beery Christmas, no-one can. The stash gives me X-Mas Zinnebir and let's skip over the bizarre manger scene on the label. It's another gusher but slow enough for me to catch, thankfully. From the dark red 7.8% ABV beer I get an aroma of roasted chestnuts, so that's appropriately wintery for starters. The texture is also spot-on for a winter warmer: rich and heavy and just gently sparkled. Disappointingly there are no festive spices in the flavour but instead you get a rock-solid malt-forward ale brimming with sweet toffee enhanced by whispers of pipesmoke and a very unChristmassy strawberry tartness. Not amazing but there's nothing upsetting going on either. Sometimes that's the best we can hope for at Christmas.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Chope shop

Rue de Boeuf is little more than an alley running through Lyon's old town, packed with antique shops, artisans and wine cellars. La Chope de Lug at number 9 is really more an alcove than a proper shop. Along one wall of of the tiny narrow premises is a set of shelves with the only product on sale: French craft beer. Dozens of breweries are represented, each with four or five beers, spanning a generous range of styles. And I knew none of them. As I was keeping the friendly proprietor from closing up for the night, and had a train to catch myself, I let him make a few recommendations and chose a couple of randomers myself.

He was especially keen for me to try Supernova, a collaboration between Brasserie de la Pleine Lune in Chabeuil, just south of Lyon, and Brasserie du Pays Flamand situated, as the name suggests, in the far north-east of the country in Blaringhem, near the Belgian border. It's 6.2% ABV and the brewers have declined to give it a style designation.

It presents as a quite beautiful dark amber ale, loaded with fizz and quite eager to escape the bottle on opening. Thankfully a significant viscosity holds it back enough to get it poured, the busy carbonation forming a massive loose-bubbled head. From this I get a distinct aroma of Duvelesque Belgian yeast spice, with some interesting orange candy hop notes too. The first thing that comes through on tasting is its density: an intense and slightly unpleasant stickiness, not helped at all by all the gas. Once you're past this it's much better, however: the hopping has left it mostly reminiscent of the better English bitters and IPAs, with an assertive pithy bitterness tempered by lighter jasmine notes. It occasionally shades into the peach and nectarine zone of American pale ale. The Belgian spicing is still present, getting more pronounced as we reach the bottom of the bottle. The heavy malt combines with the other flavours to give it a finish reminding me of chocolate lime sweets. All said, it's a wonderful amalgam of characteristics drawn from different brewing traditions and made to work in harmony.

I couldn't resist grabbing a French IPA while I could, and Brasserie du Mont Salève had two in La Chope de Lug, resplendent in their everso smart art deco labels. Mademoiselle Aramis was the one recommended to me by Monsieur Le Patron. Though only .2% ABV lighter than the Supernova it's a much more softly-spoken affair, pouring a cloudy orange with gentle carbonation and a subtle marmalade aroma. Despite the haze, the yeast doesn't really interfere with the hopping, and what comes through is mild grapefruit and mandarin with just a hint of gunpowder spice behind it.

Having been exploring hoppy Belgian beer of late it's interesting to see a French take on it. These breweries are working in more or less the same way as the progressive Belgians, but seem better able to keep the yeast flavours from smothering the hops. Happy days for French beer fans, especially those wandering the back streets of Lyon.

More from La Chope de Lug's range in due course, and you can read about the Mont Salève beers I met at September's Borefts Beer Festival here.