Second honeymoon

A page from Michael Jackson's 500 beers book.

IPA was one of our first loves. As many people just getting into beer seem to find, the bold, obvious hop flavour and aroma provided an entrance point and, in the most visceral way, excited us. In the Great Beer Guide by Michael Jackson (our Bible back then) it was always the IPAs which looked most alluring — pictured in stemmed glasses, pale at the bottom, glowing amber at the top, the aroma almost lifting off the page. The fact that they played hard to get didn’t hurt, either: finding a strong hoppy IPA in London in 2007 involved research and usually one or more changes of public transport.

In the last year or two, however, we’ve drifted away from this style, partly because (at its worst) IPA can be a one-trick pony, and partly because the novelty wore off. (Colin Valentine was right — once they were everywhere, we got bored and moved on.)

This Christmas, however, we had the opportunity to stop thinking too hard and just enjoy several now easy-to-find IPAs.

St Austell Proper Job (5.5%, bottle)

Back in November, visiting Bridgwater, we were tipped off that Mole Valley Farmers were selling off out-of-date stock of Proper Job and Admiral’s Ale. We bought everything they had at 60p a bottle, knowing that, being bottle-conditioned, it was unlikely to have ‘gone off’. Sure enough, what we actually got in the Proper Job was a beautifully mellowed, rounded, aged IPA, without the slightly astringent hoppiness and thinnish body of the fresh cask version. Always a great beer, but one that doesn’t mind a bit of time to mature, it turns out.

Fuller’s Bengal Lancer (5.3%, bottle)

Is this getting better? The early batches were delicious but, here and there, had a hint of stewed tea about them. The bottles we drank over Christmas not only resembled cask ale more closely than any other bottled beer we’ve tried (skillful use of the microscope?) but also seemed brighter, cleaner and somehow less… English. Worth having in by the case, if you’re that way inclined.

Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference IPA (Marston’s) (5.9%, bottle)

This was the real surprise. We picked it up as an emergency backup — you don’t want to run out of beer on boxing day, do you? — but had a moment of eye-popping joy on tasting it. It reminded us, for some reason we can’t quite pin down, of those heady first days of exploring beer with a Michael Jackson book in our rucksack and absolutely no idea what we were talking about. (Reader: Nothing’s changed, then?) Could it be the upfront cascade hops, once the darlings of the brewing scene, now a bit old hat? At any rate, Marston’s are now somewhat redeemed in our eyes. Worst tasting notes ever, though: malt and hops, apparently.

Thornbridge Jaipur (5.9%, cask)

We approached this with some trepidation. Tandleman and others whose tastebuds we have no reason to doubt have not been impressed with it lately. Fortunately, on this occasion, we found it as as glorious as ever. Compared to the three bottled IPAs, it seemed to have more toffee and certainly had a weightier body. A deep beer, yes, but also a very drinkable one, which slipped down and caused us (literally) to smack our lips.

Maybe, as we approach our fifth year of blogging about beer, it’s time to return to dig out Michael Jackson and get back to where we once belonged?

14 thoughts on “Second honeymoon”

  1. I think I’m still in the first phase of my beer affair. I tend to drink IPA when it’s available to me, but am trying as many others ‘styles’ as possible too :)
    I’m not sure I could tire of IPA, but must admit I have had my disappointments along the way, par for the course and all that. Interesting to see the choices above have all featured for me in 2011. Highlights being Bengal Lancer, I say highlight, but it was more of a revelation, top class bottled beer, bang!

    Of the others, you know my thoughts on the Sainsbury’s IPA, I found it perfectly drinkable but may have lost the love for ‘supermarket’ beer at the time I was reviewing – trying to review too many in one sitting. I regularly pick up bottles of Proper Job or should I say, when it’s available. Jaipur is a beer I’ve tried and not gone back to. Liked it, but keep reading negative thoughts on it, so will wait a while before returning to it. Good post, cheers.

  2. You missed out Tap East IPA. 5.2% abv – Single hop (Cascade) and dry hopped with Cascade! Shame on you! ;) I hear you may be visiting at the end of the month….

  3. Rabidbarfly — we’ve got a trip to London in the calendar and Tap East is on the agenda. (Although reading about London these days is a bit depressing — so much beer and so little time to try it in on our flying visits.)

    Steve — we lived in Walthamstow where, in 2007, there weren’t many places you could get a pint of bitter in anything like decent condition. By the time we left, there were three really good pubs within walking distance, one of which was the William IV. Things changed a lot in those five years!

    Broadfordbrewer — if you see Jaipur on sale, you’ve got to have a pint. It’s compulsory. How bad can it be? (Suspect Tandleman is on to something — a dodgy batch or two, perhaps?)

    1. “if you see Jaipur on sale, you’ve got to have a pint. It’s compulsory.”

      I dread to think of the state you would be in on a permanent basis if you lived round here! Mind you, I’ve always preferred Kipling to Jaipur.

  4. The only one I’ve tasted from those you comment is St. Austell Proper Job, recently added to El Corte Inglés’ beer shelves, and I have to say I really enjoyed it. For sure is not the best IPA you can have in England but is definitely above most of the british ales that usually reach Spain, and for me it was quite a rest of american style IPA that, honestly, tire me if I drink ‘em too often.

  5. IPA has never been the cornerstone beer for me. Similar to Jackson’s writing, I suppose. Always good to review our thoughts on each but could you say the same thing about stout?

  6. Alan — our very early IPA fetish didn’t last that long but (as we’ve said elsewhere) it was like a first electric jolt to the tastebuds after which all other beer suddenly came into focus. As in: “Oh, *that’s* hoppiness, so that other flavour… that must be the malt!” (We started from scratch on this, you understand…)

    As for MJ… we don’t refer to his books much these days, and chose 500 Beers because it was the only book on beer Books etc. at Victoria Station had. There are only so many times you can follow his instructions and drink a Tsingtao looking for ‘notable hop aroma and bitterness’ before you start thinking, you know what, maybe our Jedi training is complete? But those photographs blew our mind, back when we were used to seeing beer served with no head in a scratched glass, muddy brown with bits floating in it.

  7. IPA’s hmmm lovely stuff, I’m a big fan of the USA and Belg/USA versions as well as the English, NZ, Black and any other combination you can think of. But I do know what you mean when you get too much of a good thing the tastebuds demand something dark and roasty.

    Incidentally I tried a new traditionally English hopped version last week though from Red Willow Brewery, called Peerless and was a lovely new find. Check it out if you get the chance

    http://redwillowbrewery.com/blog/?p=1115

  8. “but also seemed brighter, cleaner and somehow less… English. ”

    Oh quit your anglo self loathing!

    Its a style that easily gets repetitive. Original ones are always welcome.

  9. I am still loving ipa, made my way to it fairly quickly, when I found Jaipur I had a similar epiphany to yours, it snapped everything else into focus. Try Buxton Spa if you want something special and hoppy. Cheers.

  10. if you see Jaipur on sale, you’ve got to have a pint.

    Chance would be a fine thing!-I’ve been looking for this one since about 2008, when it sold out at our local beer exhibition. Never seen it in Kent!
    (Apart from in bottle-not impressed.) I did manage a pint of Thornbridge Wild Swan at Tap East-excellent stuff.

  11. Nice idea! I agree entirely re: St Austell Proper Job and Bengal Lancer. I get some satisfaction out of the fact that these two UK beers knock a hell of lot of others from around the world (that get more hyperbolic coverage) into a cocked hat. Wonderfully balanced, robust IPA.

  12. Wittenden — we got ours in Wetherspoons in Taunton — worth looking there? Don’t know if Nicholson’s get out your way but they also seem to have Thornbridge on quite frequently.

    Leigh — they certainly aren’t watery, boring, brown, dusty or any of those other words you hear applied to British beer, but nor are they brash or out of balance. More of this sort of thing, please!

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