Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Marks and Spencer Review

As an American in the UK, there are a lot of things that I see as being completely different from their counterparts in the US. Sure, they call fries here "chips" and chips here "crisps". And aluminum isn't "al-loo-min-um" but rather "al -loo-min-e-um". Yeah, those are all true. But one of the biggest differences is in drinking culture. More specifically, the route in which you can get beer, wine, cider, or spirits. As in the US, the UK does a fairly bristling on-trade (bars, nightclubs, etc.) business but one of the most striking differences in beverage purchases is the off-trade in stores and such. In the US, when I want a bottle of wine, spirits, or beer/cider, I have to hop in a car. I drive to the store, browse the selection, pick out what I want, buy it, and drive home. Then I drink it, usually while surfing the internet and talking on Twitter. In the UK...I can get it delivered to my door. And in the UK, as long as I have valid ID, they'll deliver it anywhere. In the States, some states frown upon buying liquor online and having it sent to your house. Here in the UK, I can get a bottle of scotch and a case of beer with my bread, butter, and ground beef.

A bit ago, Marks and Spencer approached me to write a freelance editorial for them on the Food and Wine section of their website. I was happy to oblige. Not for the money, no. But rather it is a easy way to illustrate one of the biggest differences in the UK. So, let's investigate, shall we? Below is a screencap of their website:

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First off, you can see they have a pretty wide selection of wines. They cover the gamut of types (red, white, rose, sparkling/Champagne) from a variety of countries (Portugal, Spain, USA, etc.). It is nice to be able to browse a good wine selection online and then have it delivered to your door along with the groceries for the week. But delving deeper into this you can see another trend in the UK that's RARELY seen in the US. To start, let's pick red wine:

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Now let's go with something I'm more comfortable with in terms of knowledge. Let's choose USA:

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You can see that they have a small offering of California reds available. There's a Ravenswood Zinfandel 2006 (top row, 3rd from left). It is one of their standard bottlings. They also have a variety of Bonny Doon wines. Let's choose the Central Coast Syrah 2008:

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Looks like their standard bottling, right? Look closer:

Okay, let's go back to the main page and hit up some white wines:

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And then Chardonnay:

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Then France:

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Let's be gentle and meek here. I'll narrow it to a pauper's wine. £200 - £299.99:

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Mmm, a Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru Leslumeux 2009. A cracking vintage (?). Either way, a standard bottling by the Domaine Jean Pascal et. Fils. But what of the other bottling, the Chablis Grand Cru Grenouille 2006? Check it out:

As you can see...they're PROPRIETARY bottlings. Bottlings done specifically for Marks and Spencer. You don't see that in the US. At most, you may get some bottlings by Trader Joe's that don't release the name of the wine. For these wines, no only is it a branded wine endorse by M&S but they go into where it's made, what's in it, and who made it. Check out the beer and cider section here. All proprietary, exclusive bottles for Marks and Spencer.

One of the most interesting things in the UK, I've found, is store brand alcohol. And it's not just limited to wine, beer, and cider. Marks and Spencer has it's own brand of port, sherry and spirits (not on the website but available in store). They're cheaper than their equivalent on the shelf, generally the same quality, and they even TELL you who makes's just got the Marks and Spencer approval on it. And that is something I can get behind. I dunno if it's legal in the US but if it's not, I sure wish that would change. Store brand alcohol that is the same quality and even same name, but lesser prices? The Scottish blood in me enjoys the hell out of it.

So thank you, Marks and Spencer, for not only giving me the opportunity to talk about my experiences here in the UK but to enlighten my readers as well. And hey, recouping some hosting fees don't hurt either.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Rishi Tea Organic Ancient Pu-erh Tuo Cha (Shu) - Tuesday, June 14th

I am, by no stretch of the imagination, an expert on pu-erh. I like it and I really want to try a whole bunch more...but I'm kinda intimidated by where to start. I read The Half Dipper daily and, frankly, most of the things Hobbes talks about I don't know. Not so much like "Oh, I think it means this" or "I guess it means that" because that involves some sort of intelligent guessing and deductive reasoning. No, this is more along the lines of "What the...wait...huh? Is that a real word?" The fact that pu-erh is a very traditional Chinese thing doesn't help. I don't speak a lick of Mandarin. But my Cantonese is superb.

Alright, passable.


Ok, ok, I can't speak any dialect.

So instead, I dabble. Here and there I get bits and pieces of cakes to try out and, for the most part, I enjoy the hell out of them. But I wouldn't consider myself a collector, or even an aficionado. I like 'em, a lot, but I don't actively seek them out. That would just scare the hell out of me.

That and the last thing I need is yet another beverage related hobby.

It's good to see companies that put out pu-erh products into mainstream stores that is both decent quality and economical.  Rishi Tea does this fairly well with it's line of blended pu-erhs, like their Ginger Pu-erh, Vanilla Mint Pu-erh, and Blood Orange Pu-erh (all of which I have samples of), as well as their non-blended ones like this one:

To say that pu-erh is an acquired taste might be a touch of an understatement. It's radically not like most teas. The sheng (raw/uncooked) has an intensely white pepper and grass flavor to it and the shu (cooked) has a deeply wet dirt flavor to it. And both, I've found, have an umami-like brininess to it as well. Strange stuff but addicting.

These tuo cha were provided by Rishi Tea for me to test out. Yes, tuo cha. What is that? Wel, it's this:

Wee little tea cakes and not the kind you eat either. It's actually the processed tea that's steamed and molded. I won't go into detail as I'm truly no expert but if you want a general glimpse, I suggest Wikipedia. Anyway, here's the notes:

Brewed in: gaiwan and tasting cup.
Water: boiling (212F)
Steep time: 3 minutes (as recommended)

First infusion: Nose is earthy. Kinda smells like pine too. Pretty quiet though. Taste is of hay and dirt. It's like licking a barn. Which honestly, isn't a bad thing. Molasses makes me want more rum. Mild bitterness but no astringency; very smooth. Not a whole lot of body though, seems kinda thin. Not too deep. Color is pretty inky.

Second infusion: Nose is almost gone by this point. Some earth, pine is gone. Bitterness is growing and the taste is fading. That pu-erh brine is coming out. Molasses is still there but fading. Hay flavor is gone.

Third infusion:  Nose is non-existant. Absolutely nothing there. Taste has lost the bitterness and now tastes more like cooked rice. Much more pleasant than the second infusion. Body is better, oddly enough, but still thin. At this point, I'd call it done.

For me, it's a good enough tea that displays the possibilities of the shu pu erh category. It is definitely an introductory tea as, for me, there are teas out there with more depth and that can stand up to more infusions. It is not uncommon to go for six or seven infusions out of one set of leaves but this really started tapering off after two. Would I pick it up again? Eh, probably not. I've had some AMAZING shu in my minimal travels so once you're bitten by the bug it's hard to go back. But I'd recommend it to someone that's never had it before. A damn sight cheaper than diving in headlong, I'll give it that.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Theakston Old Peculier - Thursday, June 2nd

Beer in the UK has funny names.

I'm not talking like "Deranged Psycho Axe Murder Stout" but far more classier names.

Like Fursty Ferret.

Or Bishop's Finger.

How about a pint of Finchcock's Original?

Or Riggwelter Yorkshire Ale?

Here in Scotland, you can slake your thirst with some Ptarmigan, some Red MacGregor or a nice pint of Thrappledouser.

One could arguably say that these names aren't really weird or strange. They're more like "British weird" which is best described as "eccentric with a monocle and a refined taste for claret." Or, you could say...Peculier.

When a beer calls itself OLD Pecurlier, it better be pretty peculiar. Below is a bottle of the 5.6% Old Peculier, brewed by Theakston.

It wasn't very good, for the record.
Honestly, as peculiar names go...Old Peculier is a rather tame cop-out, don't you think? As you may note, it also says "The Legend". That's a healthy cup of competition for quaffing. Not just peculiar in a land of peculiar names but a legend on top of that?

There's a pint of the cola black mistress. Look at how she shines in the light:

I'll give it this, it's a beautiful beer. But how does it fare up?

Nose: Fairly estery. Some overripe banana. Molasses. It actually kinda smells a particularly potent/sour ester I synthesized in Organic Chem once. An oblique reference but it's definitely got a lightly sour and pungent smell to it. Other than that, pretty lightly staffed in the Smells Department.

Taste: Very biscuity. The first sip is viscous and sweet like a digestif biscuit. This fades to chicory coffee. Stone fruits in there as well: dried cherries, maybe fresh plum. They obviously use a lot of bittering hops in this bad boy. The finish is almost mouthpuckering. I'm hazarding a guess at Fuggles. It has no hop depth aside from just an amazingly astringent and bitter finish.

The more I drink through this pint, the more it grows on me. When I first started drinking it I wasn't a huge fan. The hop profile felt one dimensional, even for British beer who don't go all hop-crazy like us Yanks. But as I drink it, I'm warming up to it. Its simplicity, at first, belies the changing flavors that bubble up from below. It's fruity, malty, and dextrin-ous at the beginning but the hop profile cuts straight through it, leaving a pleasant bitterness in the back of the throat and a taste like Roman Nougat at the tip of the tongue. Would I actively seek it out? Maybe. I'd be interested to see what this Legend can do on tap but I'd have to be in the mood for it. This is not a "pint with friends" beer. This is a "pint with a book and pipe" beer. It's easy to drink for it's ABV but more than one, I think, would be pretty cloying.