Cider With Honeysuckle (and no Indole)

I'm working through all the episodes of the Neutral Cider Hotel podcast. In the one I listened to last night, No Quilt For You, Queenie, James from Little Pomona talked about an aroma that I've encountered in a different context this week. It seems that the planets were aligned last night, for I recently shared a magnum of the very cider he mentioned, and there is honeysuckle in the garden, and I had to hand a preview sample of the next vintage.
It took me a little while to get into the Neutral Cider Hotel. It's a very relaxed four way chat (plus guests), but, as is often the case with podcasts (probably due to the huge success of My Favourite Murder), there are an awful lot of in jokes, and incoherent wheezy laughter at said jokes. As the Hoteliers frequently say, they want the podcast to feel like talking to your mates in the pub. In any case, I'm now at the stage where I'm sitting at the next table over, sipping a glass of something from the Three Counties, and enjoying the blether. If you have an interest in cider you should go check it out. (Or go check in. Or listen to it. One of those.)
Old Man and the Bee is a cider Little Pomona have made for four vintages now. It uses fruit from their home orchard, and mostly avoids oak. It's an attempt to express as purely as possible the year and the place.

(That's a magnum I was very kindly given by James. No label, but, you know, gift horse / mouth, yeah?)

My first impression is of plumpness, a soft, rounded ripeness. There is indeed a creamy florality which is honeysuckle adjacent. It's close to the creaminess of honey on buttered toast, which I think is perhaps why Martin on the podcast was reminded of oak, as that's an aroma I occasionally find when a fruity spirit has been matured in an ex bourbon cask.

This is a dry cider, but it give a strong impression of sweetness, so ripe are the fruit flavours. Yellow apples, shading into nectarine, with honey and a soft woody note. The finish evolves some spice, rather like the clove aspect of humbugs.
I used the phrase honeysuckle adjacent because there's an aspect to honeysuckle which I'm certain would not be welcome in cider, and that's indole. 

Indole is what makes shit smell of shit, but a tiny touch of it lends an animalic or musk note to perfumes. And it's found in honeysuckle.

I was lucky enough to experience this for the first time last month, on a humid evening after a blazing hot day.

The previous day I'd tweeted my happiness at the huge spread of honeysuckle and someone with a deep knowledge of aroma replied to say I should look out for the Indole aspect of the flower. So I went back and had another long sniff and sure enough, what I'd thought was something dead and rotting in the bushes was in fact coming off the flowers. Indole.
The conclusion to—nay, the moral of—this story is of course that we should remember that all tasting notes are approximations, and partial ones at that. Old Man and the Bee has the sweet, creamy, rose-adjacent aspect of honeysuckle, but (thankfully) not the the indole. And the spice aspect of Old Man is nearer to clove than the sandalwood I find in honeysuckle.
I do believe that's why we end up with the kind of word salad being gently mocked by Fake Booze this week, as an honest attempt to capture every aspect of a tasty drink ends up being more like what happens when you mix all of the paints on your palette.
If you like the sound of Old Man and the Bee you can grab a bottle from the Little Pomona webshop here.


Horse Chestnuts

Back in 2019 I learned from twitter that horse chestnuts are not just on trees, they're also on horses. I read a couple of blog posts, including this one, about the equine version, and then, seeing as I'm lucky enough to know some folk who are very horsy, I acquired some horse chestnuts.

They look like very thick chunks of dried skin. You could even mistake them for some sort of mineral (or perhaps a growth on a tree, heh).

Don't you think that looks awfully like a piece of flint? Of course, to touch it's much more like leather, but the appearance!

They grow on the back of horses legs, and when they're big enough they'll fall off, or be picked off in the course of grooming.

They're pretty stinky, but, for someone who is interested in aroma, they're also oddly compelling - kind of the way triple salted liquorice gets me: I think it's horrible, yet I can't help but want another piece.

I cut up some bits from four different horses, and put them into grain neutral spirit. I didn't have any plan for the resulting liquid, I just though it would be an interesting thing to do.

At this point I suppose a perfumer would go ahead and make up a blend or two, but I'm not a perfumer, I'm a drinks retailer, so instead I made some notes on the aromas. You'll be relieved to know I didn't absent-mindedly sip any of the liquids.

The base note across all four samples was waxed jackets (the UK brand I'm thinking of would be Barbour). All four also had an animalic, sweaty aroma, although, interestingly, in two of them this was unpleasant whereas in the other two it was really rather nice.

As I say, I'm not a perfumer, but I do think that a small fraction of horse chestnut could well add a leathery, animal note to a perfume.

If you're interested in flavour or aroma, I can most definitely recommend trying this for yourself. At the very least it's an excuse to go look at a horse.

My notes on four horse chestnut extracts

Martini (a nine year old)
Waxed jackets. It evolved a sour cheesy note, which reminded me of what you taste when you put the rind of a parmesan into a sauce, and once it's soft you eat it. Left in the glass the off notes vanished leaving a pleasant waxy-leathery aroma.

Yogi (a thirty-plus year old Shetland pony)
Stinky and cheesy, but also sweet. The most unpleasant of the four, and the least waxy-leathery.

Polar (a seven year old)
Hay-grassy & waxed jackets. Over time the grassy note went, to be replaced by the baseline waxed jacket note. The most pleasant of the four.

Unknown Horse #4
This one was the mildest of the samples. Alongside or over the baseline Barbour jacket there was a lifted, menthol, or mint note (or at least, something that tickles the nostrils). Over time an earthy note appeared.


Pure Dead Cramant

I recently attended a lunch event with Hervé Jestin of Champagne Leclerc Briant.

We tasted four of their wines, and he spoke at length about how they are made, and about biodynamic viticulture, and about Champagne. One of the ideas raised, which I didn't really understand, was the notion that the dosage for a champagne should speak to the wine, otherwise it won't benefit the finished product. He demonstrated this by sitting a glass of champagne on its side on a metal plinth which was connected by a wire to a pair of antennae which he then held over some sugar - there was no reaction or reading on the scale attached to the antennae, because the sugar had nothing to say to the wine. I didn't understand, but it surely was interesting.

The point of this was, I believe, to explain why Leclerc Briant is moving towards zero dosage wine making, and indeed to zero sulphur winemaking. On of the things that M. Jestin said was, "I want to train the wine to discuss with oxygen". And of course, until the relatively recent past, all wine making was done without the "benefit" of sulphur, so in a sense, M. Jestin merely wants to go back to the old ways. As I say, I don't really get biodynamic viticulture, but I do know that pretty much without exception I enjoy the end product, so I'm very happy to see more such wines.

The wines we tasted were the Brut Réserve, Extra Brut Premier Cru, Abyss, and Pure Cramant. They were all of very high quality, albeit very pricey. The Abyss didn't speak to me, but I thought the other three wines were complex, and I particularly enjoyed the fine mousse they all exhibited.

I want to single out the Pure Cramant in particular, as being a wine at the very edge of champagne-making: 100% Grand Cru Chardonnay from Cramant, fermented in used oak, unfined, unfiltered, five years sur lattes and then bottled with zero dosage and zero sulphur. And the result? A big, rounded, lush, ripe wine, as pure an expression of white and yellow stone fruit as you could wish for. My tasting notes also mention cranberries and 'something balsamic'. Wonderful wine. But, paradoxically, my enduring taste memory of it is of a warm, pink, lively, ripeness. Pink fruit, not white or yellow. It has somehow evolved in my memory into something approaching the Platonic ideal of rosé champagne.

Can one attribute that complexity, that evolving taste memory, to the biodynamic viticulture? I've no idea, but it surely was lovely.

More on Pure Cramant here.


A Negative Tasting Note

My main interest in writing about booze is trying to capture flavours in words. This is, of course, a doomed enterprise, but it has the merit of being entertaining (and offers the side benefit of occasionally getting me sloshed).

Over the years I have tinkered with many different structures or schemas or layouts for tasting notes, from many different sources, which aim to help one record various aspects of a drink's flavours, but I don't think I've ever come across anybody advocating the negative tasting note - recording everything that a drink isn't.

(I should say that I'm not sure that it's all that helpful in itself, but I certainly find it useful as part of a larger descriptive effort. Absences can define a presence, to an extent)

So, here it is, a negative tasting note for

That Boutique-y Whisky Company Millstone 6 Year Old, 48.9%

Not smoky.
Not estery.
Not malty.
Not dry.
Not dirty.
Not faint.
Not feinty.
Not soft.
Not stony.
Not grassy.
Not purple.
Not green.
Not yellow.
Not floral.

Not light.
Not dry.
Not soft.
Not malty.
Not spicy.
Not fruity.
Not raw.
Not green.
Not yellow.
Not sour.
Not bitter.
Not oily.
Not coffee.
Not sherry.
Not vanilla.
Not bacon.
Not diesel.

Frustrating, isn't it? And yet accurate.


Knightor Trevannion 2016

I tasted this as part of a "West Coast Wines" themed evening for Sweet Wine Wednesday. I dithered for quite a while between this wine and a Camel Valley Bacchus. I know, I know, I should have gone for the other, seeing as it's located that bit closer to the Atlantic, but on the few occasions I've had Bacchus I've not been particularly impressed.

Knightor are a small outfit located close to the Eden Project and St Austells. The current farm dates to the mid 19th century, but their website says that there are references to the property dating to 1305. (Not particularly relevant if your vines were only planted in 2006, but on the other hand probably quite appealing in a wedding venue.) They say they have 17000 vines, but I can't tell from the tone of their website if this is a way of saying they're really getting big, or that they're really boutique.

Trevannion is a blend of Siegerrebe and Schonberger, two pink skinned varietals. Siegerrebe is a 1929 cross of Madelaine Angevine and Savagnin Rose. It's favoured for cool climates - there's even some grown in Denmark, according to the big book of grapes. Schonberger is another cross, of Pinot Noir and Pirovano I, and in turn Pirovano I is a cross of Chasselas Rose and Muscat of Hamburg. (Is this too much grape breeding information?)

We're told that both varieties were picked when very ripe. They were cool fermented separately in stainless steel, then left on the lees for eight months before blending and bottling.

My initial impression is a very strong aroma memory of some rather rustic vin gris from the middle Loire - a wine which I remember being rather rustic but extremely gluggable.

The nose is fresh and fairly aromatic, with rose petals (or tinned lychees if you prefer), which evolves into a fairly elegant perfume, perhaps something like soap

The palate is strongly aromatic and off dry, with a subtle Muscat or Gewurz-like spiciness. The finish is long and warming, if a little simple.

Over time the wine becomes more floral, but this is probably just me over-chilling it.

Just like that Loire vin gris, this stuff is stupendously gluggable. And well worth the £19 I paid for it. If you see this one, I urge you to buy it. And don't over-chill it.

Wine Trivia!
That vin gris which the Trevannion called to mind was from the valley of Le Loir, a river which flows into La Sarthe, which in turn joins La Loire. The appellation is the (mostly deservedly) obscure Coteaux-du-vendômois. But very gluggable.


Beavertown Sapling IPA

On the one hand: oh dear, another Beavertown special. If only I still used ratebeer I could look it up and see what it is. Nice graphics tho.

 And on the other: 65 IBUs? Yep, I'll take one ta! And hey, it's Beavertown - gotta be good, right?

Cracking open the can I can smell the smell that means lots of bitter hops - but what is it? Resinous? Green? Dank? (However nebulous a descriptor that last one is)

So. It's not particularly fruity. Perhaps some yellow citrus notes. Not too tart. There's a fresh white wood thing. A peeled stick maybe? Or is that just me channelling the cool label?

There is a smell I can only describe as bitter. Clearly, this ain't a smell according to the current model of human olfaction, so I must be smelling some hard to verbalise aroma which I generally associated with bittering hops.

Pouring out the last of the can I'm sooking (or "huffing", if you like) the very final dregs trapped behind the lip of the opening. As always, this creates a fine aerosol or mist of what is—at least in this sort of beer—the very essence of the bitterness.

If you haven't done this before you really should (but go and get a properly hoppy can to do it with). It highlights a particular aspect of the beer in a way you don't otherwise experience. As when rubbing heavily peated malt whisky onto your hands to find the cereal behind the peat, or misting your tongue with brandy from an atomiser spray, it's good to explore flavour from odd angles occasionally.

In the particular case of Sapling, the huff reveals a powerfully bitter dry earthy sandiness behind which there is sweet yellow fruit juice, although not orange. Perhaps it's one of those odd mixtures of banana, apple, and a token gesture's worth of pineapple. I think I mean 'smoothie'.

I'm still not getting very close to what the bitter-associated smell is. Let's just leave it at "bitter" and ask the smell scientists to revamp their model to fit.

The taste is satisfyingly dry. There is a juiciness and a persistent bitter hoppiness which dries things out nicely.

A lemonade note. Metallic hops. Ripe yellow fruit - perhaps tropical.

This is a very, very fine beer, and especially in its 65 IBUs - the best kind of bitter.

I have but two complaints. The first is that 330ml is not quite enough, even at a strength of 7.1%. 500ml would perhaps be excessive, but 440 is a pleasant number. The second is that the ABV is entirely deceptive. Only in the thick texture is there any indication that the alcohol is higher than normal.

In conclusion, well done to Beavertown, good work. And, by way of a post script, it occurred to me some time after I'd written my notes on this beer that maybe the name is quite apt, since it reminds me of peeled green sticks. Or perhaps not.


Little Pomona C'est Si Bon-Bonne

My first thought is that the tannins are beautiful. Present, prominent, yet in no way abrasive. They curl round your tongue and in behind your teeth like a cat settling on your shoulders; it's lovely but if it it weren't lovely the cat wouldn't care and would still do it. Purring, rounded, but irresistible.

Then there's a metallic, earthy note, which isn't quite iron. Is this bottling perhaps slightly less clean than other Little Pomonas? After all, relinquishing control of the maturation of a cider to an oak barrel, however carefully sourced, however thoroughly the bunghole has been sniffed, is always something of a risk.

Peach pits. And a rather pleasant acidity.

They're definitely mineralic, these tannins. Almost blue steel (as when one has made steel tough by heating it, perhaps by drilling it at too high a speed or without lubricants).

It seems to me tonight that of all the Little Pomonas this is the one where tannic structure is most important.

From memory I think I can dismiss The Rainbow and The Unicorn as flighty creatures of fruit.

The Old Man and the Bee had a ripe richness which dominated other aspects of its character. Feat of Clay was brighter and sunnier - youthful choirboys beautifully chanting psalms rather than the Mongolian throat songs of Bonbonne.

If this were wine I'd call these tannins chalky. Can I do that with cider?

Blue steel.

It's too full bodied to compare with Chablis, and there are these compelling tannins. But the blue steel.

It stays with you. The tannins don't want to leave. Like Secret Service agents, inexorably polite, Ma'am-ing to left and right and not moving no matter what you say.

Behind all that tannic action, there's something which might be fruit cake or dried apricots.

Here, tonight, this is the best cider I've yet tasted from Little Pomona, and I think it's a strong contender for my cider of the year. You should seek it out and try it.

(Now, quite clearly I'm not in any way impartial. The owners and makers of Little Pomona are very dear friends of mine, and I've helped out at every harvest since 2014. But that aside, I do think this is an exceptional bottle of cider)

Boring technical stuff: C'est Si Bon-Bonne is a dry, still cider from Herefordshire. It's made mainly from Dabinett, along with Harry Masters Jersey, Ellis Bitter, and Foxwhelp (I helped pick and press these last two). It was a wild ferment in an ex bourbon barrel, left for six months then racked into glass bonbonnes and aged without oxygen for a year.

You can read more about Little Pomona here.