Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Sainsbury's Beer Competition - 1st Quarter Final

Whistle v Bretwalda

One lucky ale had to make it through to the quarter finals on a bye, and Whistle is it. Unfortunately, this is ill-deserved luck, because Whistle is duller than the new Snow Patrol single (which is possibly the dullest piece of music ever committed to memory by anyone). It is so average, so uninspiring and so lacking in flavour, that it is little more than flavoured water, with a touch of alcohol thrown in.

Bretwalda actually improves slightly on the second tasting, but it is still pretty insipid. On this occasion, though, it wins through simply by not being Whistle.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Sainsbury's Beer Competition - 7th Opening Contest

Shropshire Lass v 80/-

Shropshire Lass is a revelation. Blonde beers usually lack something, a certain depth of flavour or character. But the Lass starts off with a honey, almost toffee-like, flavour that is then undercut by a generous burst of citrussy sharpness.

I had, in truth, expected the 80/- to walk this contest, but in fact the best thing I can say about it is that I didn't get bored of drinking it until the glass was 3/4 empty. It was a perfectly decent shilling ale, but just didn't stand out from the crowd in anyway. As a new beer, it was certainly inferior to Shropshire Lass, which wins by a country mile

Friday, 18 September 2009

Sainsbury's Beer Competition - 6th Opening Contest

Porteresque v Birds & Bees

Porteresque is everything you might want from a porter. Rich, fruity, malty and without the annoying tendency to demand a tip before doing anything meaningful.

Birds & Bees starts out promisingly, with a crisp, fragrant nose and a very clean taste. The problem is that it is simply too light and clean, it has no depth at all and ends up very much like drinking fizzy water.

In the end , Porteresque wins by some distance. And no, it didn't cost me $5 just to say that.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Sainsbury's Beer Competition - 5th Opening Contest

Chaos Theory v Woild Moild

OK, now this definitely sounds like a contest from Robot Wars. All we need are Craig Charles, Jonathan Pearce shouting like a deranged toddler and a large number of geeks. Oh, and Julia Reed and Phillipa Forrester in excessively tight leather trousers.

Unfortunately, there's not enough room in here for all of that, so we'll willingly settle for two beers and Mrs Bear in nothing but lingerie.

Beer first, obviously. Woild Moild is just as an old fashioned mild should be - hearty, almost treacly, with a lasting aftertaste.

Chaos Theory is a brute, as you would expect an IPA at 7.1%ABV to be. The problem is that it is almost completely unmemorable, too easy to drink and too lacking in distinguishing flavour.

Victory, therefore, to Woild Moild. I'll leave you to imagine Charles et all. I'm off to attend to Mrs Bear.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Sainsbury's Beer Competition - 4th Opening Contest

Taylor's Tipple v Wilson's IPA

Oh dear. After six pretty decent pints, this really was - with apologies to Ben Folds - the battle of who cares less.

Taylor's Tipple was disappointingly average. Nothing but a bog standard bitter, ok to drink but nothing to stand out from the crowd.

The IPA was even blander, with no discernible flavour of either hops, yeast or anything else. It was also a bit sharper than an IPA should be.

Which means that the Tipple wins, but that's really not an achievement at all.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Sainsbury's Beer Competition - 3rd Opening Contest

For the second year, Sainsbury's are having a beer contest. The most popular of 15 selected bottled beers will make it onto their product list.

Now, the Bear loves a contest, so I'm randomly selecting two beers a night and playing them off against one another, until we either have a winner of I die of alcohol poisoning

Bays Breaker v Williams' Ceilidh

This was a genuine Blue Peter moment. I don't normally like lagers, but this was something of a revelation. Rich, complex and with an almost citrussy finish.

Bays Breaker is a perfectly decent bitter. Solid, warming, but with a slightly metallic aftertaste that takes a bit of getting used to. On any other day, this may well have been a winner, but the Ceilidh was too good today.

Sainsbury's Beer Competition - 2nd Opening Contest

For the second year, Sainsbury's are having a beer contest. The most popular of 15 selected bottled beers will make it onto their product list.

Now, the Bear loves a contest, so I'm randomly selecting two beers a night and playing them off against one another, until we either have a winner of I die of alcohol poisoning.

Dogma v Bretwalda

After yesterday's contest, this was disappointing. Dogma is a honey heather ale, weighing in at a hefty 7.9%ABV. Unfortunately, it lacks the lingering sweetness of other honey or heather ales, whilst also lacking the warming density of other high alcohol beers.

Bretwalda therefore wins by default, despite being a rather thin and uninspiring ale, with nothing special to commend it but none of the faults of Dogma, either.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Sainsbury's Beer Competition - 1st Opening Contest

For the second year, Sainsbury's are having a beer contest. The most popular of 15 selected bottled beers will make it onto their product list.

Now, the Bear loves a contest, so I'm randomly selecting two beers a night and playing them off against one another, until we either have a winner of I die of alcohol poisoning.

Hardcore IPA v Bath Ales' Golden Hare

A tough decision this, because I genuinely liked both beers. Golden Hare is a nice, light drinking ale, hoppy but not overly so. A perfect drink for a warm summer evening.

Hardcore IPA, on the other hand, is slightly more bitter than the average IPA. However, it brings with it a certain depth of flavour and a certain density that set it apart from other IPAs. The beer is also slightly more viscous than usual, meaning that the flavour lingers in your mouth a little longer.

In a close contest, the winner is Hardcore IPA

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

I'm A Cheat

I’m a cheat.

There, I said it. No messing, no excuses, just an open and honest admission. I get onto a rugby pitch and I cheat like mad.

Handling in the ruck? Absolutely. I’m damn good at that. There’s no coincidence that the best referee my side had all last season was the only one to catch me doing it. (By comparison, the worst referee we had was the one who pinged me for handling on the only occasion I never actually touched the ball.)

That’s not my only crime, though. Breaking too soon from the scrum when the referee’s back is turned? That’ll be me. Slowly retreating so I’m still in the way when a tap penalty is taken? Guilty, your honour. Cutting a team-mate so that we can have a blood replacement? Er, no. That’s going way too far.

I’m a back row forward. Cheating is what we are good at, it is part of the game and everyone does it to everybody else. I’ve been involved in playground-style scraps for the ball with opponents when we are both lying at the bottom of a ruck. But hell, I’ve never gone as far as Dean Richards had his Harlequins team do last season. There’s cheating where you do it to your opponent before they do it to you, and there’s cheating where you stoop so low that even the earthworms look down on you.

The sad thing is, I learned a lot of what I know from watching Deano. For example, I wear my socks rolled down, because he did and he did so because it makes it harder for the referee to tell which side an infringing leg belongs to. As a callow youth in the 80s, learning the basics of back row play, there was no better player to watch. Look back at his debut against Ireland and see the lengths the Irish pack go to to stop him scoring a third pushover try and you’ll see what I mean.

For me, those memories are all tarnished now. The man who played the game as it should be played on the pitch somehow has become the man who tried to ruin the game for those who came after him. The world of rugby may never forgive him.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Michael Jackson - A Heretic's View

My editor at the Daily Mail is on holiday and her stand in is ignoring me, so this is the piece which I wrote for them today and which I am now assuming that they won't use. Enjoy:

First, a word of warning. This article contains a number of small heresies, all of which relate to dead people. If you don’t want to be offended, look away now. Go and make a hot drink, then return for the final paragraph. It’s the internet equivalent of hiding behind the sofa.

You see, I never liked Michael Jackson. I didn’t like his music, it meant nothing to me. I didn’t like the obviously fake public persona. I didn’t like the way he would have no compulsion about shafting his friends if it suited him to do so. And I certainly didn’t like the way he surrounded himself with children – although not for the reasons which you might think.

Let us begin with the music. Jackson’s contribution to his own sound was far less than many people believe. His music was shaped by the demands of his family during the early years, then by the likes of Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones and the shamefully unheralded Rod Temperton. Once he abandoned them and began to rely more upon his own songwriting, his recording career began to decline rapidly. As a singer and dancer, Jackson was one of the finest of his generation. No-one could put more emotion into a mawkishly over-sentimental ballad such as “She’s Out Of My Life” without utterly destroying it and you have to respect the care and craftsmanship that goes into it. But the song itself, like virtually all of his output, is meaningless nonsense.

The public persona? Come on, surely you don’t seriously believe that a grown man, over 6 feet tall, speaks in that soft, childlike voice all the time? Online, you can easily find an interview which Jackson gave with Oprah Winfrey, where he talks about the abuse which he received at the hands of his father. You can also find his press conference, where he announced the dates for his shows at the O2 arena. Go and listen to them. It is as if there are two different people talking. Why? Because as you get older, you lose the ability to force your voice to hit high notes. If that childlike voice was real, it wouldn’t decay. The voice, the surgical mask, the umbrella, the whole thing was an act that the world fell for, hook line and sinker.

Two other heresies now. I don’t believe that he was a child abuser and I don’t believe that he had his skin whitened. I am quite prepared to accept that the skin thing was a medical condition. Frankly, why would you not do so. If someone tells you they have cancer, you don’t disbelieve them, do you? Moreover, has any celebrity ever had so much cosmetic surgery carried out so badly as Michael Jackson did? Why would a skin whitening treatment be the only one to work?

The child abuse allegations always polarise opinion. The fans do not believe that he did anything, the detractors won’t believe he didn’t. Yet one of the few things we know about the man is that he liked the company of children, and children liked him. Children of the age Jackson surrounded himself with were of an age where kids are typically very unjudgmental and love anyone who will shower them with affection and toys. Once they started to question the relationship, the cruellest thing that he did to them was to cut them off. He was too astute a businessman to actually do anything wrong, but too in love with his own image to cut himself off from a very risky situation. It is unsurprising that, once or twice, he almost fell off that tightrope.

Michael Jackson was a fine singer and a superb dancer. But he was also a sad, lonely and incredibly vain man who exploited those around him no matter who they were and how old they were. If you look past the rumours and publicity machine, there really wasn’t very much to commend him at all.

Yesterday, a million people died. Among them were Farrah Fawcett, after a long battle with cancer, Seonnai Gordon, a mother who lost her battle against TB, and we also learned of the death of one of the finest journalists of modern times, Steven Wells. All of them and all of their families are at least, if not more, deserving of our sympathy than Michael Jackson, yet the legacies of all of them are in danger of being lost amid the eulogising of a man who, in my opinion, couldn’t hold a candle to any of them.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Crisp Wars - The Verdict

(One orgy of crisp eating later - sorry, Gus)

This was interesting. I am glad I decided to try more than one packet of each new flavour of crisp, because the second tasting was very informative indeed.

Onion Bhaji flavour were pretty much the same on a second try. There was a point about halfway through the second bag where I got a bit bored with them, but I think that might have been due to bad flavouring in the factory rather than a fault with the recipe per se. There was certainly the same warm aftertaste, so on balance my opinion remains unchanged.

My views on Chili and Chocolate remain largely unaltered, too. Except to say that, first time around, my judgment was clearly clouded by the awfulness of the chili flavour, in that I entirely overlooked the unutterable awfulness of the chocolate. It is like the horrible cheap rubbish you get in chocolate advent calendars, only worse. Really very nasty indeed.

A return to Builders Breakfast initially disappointed me. I got nothing new from the rather extreme flavour combination and certainly couldn't find the elusive buttered toast flavour. Then, a short while after I had finished the packet, I belched and was rewarded with a lovely taste of bacon. Mmmm.

The flavour which lost the most ground on second tasting was Fish and Chip. I'm not sure what happened, but all I could taste this time around was fish. Admittedly it was a very good recreation of the flavour of cod, but on the other hand it was a flavour which felt rather unpleasant without the texture of white fish to accompany it.

Roast Duck and Hoi Sin Sauce was the surprise of the round. I cannot begin to explain why, but on this occasion the flavours were more bearable and in fact I finished the packet very quickly, almost absentmindedly pulling crisp after crisp from the bag. These could be the new Roast Chicken flavour, too strong for most occasions but ideal for when you are a little bit distracted or concentrating on something else.

Finally, Cajun Squirrel didn't do anything for me this time around. The flavour quickly became boring. As before, it was just like eating spicy potato. I fear that there is a limit to how much of that your body can stand before it loses interest.

My final rankings, therefore, are:

  1. Onion Bhaji
  2. Builders Breakfast
  3. Roast Duck and Hoi Sin
  4. Cajun Squirrel
  5. Fish and Chip
  6. Chili and Chocolate

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Crisp Wars - Part 2

OK, time for the second part of the Walkers Crispoff. I have now sampled the second set of three flavours and, on the plus side, I'm still here.

Fish & Chips

A word of warning. If you're expecting these to be anything like the old savoury snack, which from memory was like an intensely salty and vinegary biscuit, shaped like either a fish or a chip, you'll be very disappointed. There's no overwhelming odour at all with this packet and the aroma, if anything, is exactly the same as you'd get from unwrapping a fresh and hot fish supper.

Unfortunately, this promising start is somewhat ruined by the fact that you never really get the flavour of fish or indeed chips, the latter being surprising in a potato snack. What you get instead is the taste of fresh batter, which is not unpleasant in itself, but somewhat boring after a whole packet. It is as if Walkers were so intent on not making this too salty or too vinegary, that they forgot to put any depth of flavour in at all.

Roast Duck & Hoi Sin Sauce

It is hard to know just where to begin describing this crisp. In some respects, it is done very well. You can definitely taste both the duck element and the sauce, and the balance between the two is well maintained. The problem, though, is that the flavours are not as nice as they could be. The duck flavour is somewhat fatty, like the area closest to the skin sometimes is in a roast duck, rather than the moist, flavoursome flavour you get from a well cooked duck breast. And the hoi sin sauce doesn't have the smooth flavour of the real thing; this is harsh and does not last long enough on the palate - the response provoked is 'ooh, hoi sin - oh, it's gone'. It works, but not as it should.

Cajun Squirrel

Ever eaten squirrel? Nope, me neither. Apparently, it tastes like chicken, only sweeter. These crisps don't taste anything like chicken. They don't taste cajun, either. In fact, they taste like Bombay potato dishes do.

This may make you think that something has gone horribly, horribly wrong in the mix. But this isn't so. They may not be the crisps they claim to be, but they are very tasty nonetheless. The spice balance is just right, with a warming aftertaste.

What now? Well, I am going to give each flavour one more try, in a frenetic orgy of crisp eating. It might be that I change my mind on some things, but then again I might not. I just believe that every flavour deserves a second chance to impress me. The fact that I bought two six packs of them might come into it, too.

Monday, 9 February 2009


At church on Sunday (yes, I know...) we were treated to a sermon on adultery, part of a riveting series on the 10 Commandments . I'm not sure why they didn't save the best one until last, doing them in order just seems so predictable.

Anyway, in the middle of his lecture - getting a few things off his chest, I fear - the vicar suddenly announced that "...even when you have closed the door to keep the children out, God is in the room with you when you are making love".


I don't care who they are, I don't want anyone else in that room unless my wife's invited them.

Forget about committing adultery. Now I'm too scared to commit fidelity.

Crisp Wars - Part 1

You might not be aware of this, but Walkers Crisps are currently trialling six new flavours of crisp. Consumers are asked to vote for their favourite, which will, Walkers claim, be added to their permanent range of crisps.

Being a kind person - and with the reassurance that Bupa's Online Health Check has told me that I have a better than 75% chance of living until I am 90 - I decided to try all six flavours for you. Here are the first three:

Onion Bhaji

I expected this to be absolutely awful. I thought it was either going to be a sour version of their pickled onion Monster Munch, or a flavour so overpowering I wouldn't be able to taste anything for a week. I was delighted to find that nothing was further from the truth. The onion flavour is very subtle and the spice is just right - enough to taste, not enough to overwhelm. I always find that, with good Indian food, I still have the memory of the flavour several hours later. The same was true for this crisp.

Chili and Chocolate

Of all the six flavours, I was most curious to see how this one would work. I have had chocolate with chili in on many occasions and it is one of those treats which actually pales after a while - the extra tang and heat of the chili becomes annoying by the sixth piece.

These crisps improved on that, but not in a good way. The chocolate flavour was very subtle, as if the manufacturer was scared of putting too much sweetness into a savoury snack. And the chili flavour was just horrible, bitter and nasty. To be avoided.

Builders Breakfast

To explain, these crisps are supposed to capture the essentials of a full English breakfast. There's a lot to cram in and they've left out some things entirely, such as mushrooms and black pudding. Even so, Walkers claim to have squeezed egg, bacon, buttered toast and ketchup into these crisps. I'm not sure they have succeeded. There's certainly a very strong flavour of fried egg and a hint of ketchup. You get a faint taste of something porky, but it is more sausage than bacon. Butter and toast are nowhere to be found, swamped in the attempt to create something even Heston Blumenthal would think ambitious.

The other problem is that someone did produce Sausage and Ketchup crisps a while back, so this comes over as a bit of a pale imitation - not enough sausage, not enough ketchup and far too much egg.