Four Beers, Three Write-offs

Plughole

A while ago, some friends visited, bringing with them some bottle-conditioned beers they’d picked up on holiday in Norfolk. A couple of weeks ago, we finally got round to drinking them. Well, we say drinking… pouring them down the sink is unfortunately closer to the mark for three of the four.

These were exploitative, gift-shop, tourist-trap beers. The brewers are either overreaching and delusional or, worse, cynics who know the beer they’re making is bad but sell it anyway.

One was just about drinkable — an unassertive yeast and some pithy hops made it bland but faintly aromatic — but more by luck than intent, we suspect. Another was an accidental, gushing lambic; yet another smelled like pickled lemons rotting in a drainage ditch and tasted like unfermented wort; the fourth had the aroma of blue cheese and tasted like alcohol-free wheat beer — chewy, grainy water.

So, one bland beer and three that were absolutely foul.

We’re annoyed that our friends got ripped off and we’re also annoyed that small, local breweries doing it properly are going to suffer by association with this kind of rubbish.

Kitchen sink pictured not actual sink down which beers were poured. Not actual size. Cheques will not be honoured. (From Flickr Creative Commons.)

40 thoughts on “Four Beers, Three Write-offs”

    1. It’s a problem that seems to afflict any rural area with a substantial tourist industry — hobby brewers (or even complete chancers) can find a market they wouldn’t have in any other context.

  1. Sadly, this bears out what I have long been saying, that most bottle-conditioned beers produced by micro-breweries are muck, and give the whole category a bad name. If you can’t do it properly, then don’t do it at all.

    I suspect many just bottle their beers directly out of the fermenting vessel without any kind of conditioning, which is inevitably going to lead to wild inconsistency and may well not be all that hygienic.

    “Local” beers aimed at the tourist trade would be far better filtered and pasteurised.

    1. So help a poor foreigner out: Bottle conditioned beers from larger breweries tend to not suffer as much?

      FWIW, I bottle my homebrew directly from the primary fermenter, even before primary fermentation is complete, eliminating the need for priming sugar, malt or gyle. I am thus able to short-cut around the 10+ days it would normally take for priming to take effect, meaning I have quite drinkable low-gravity ale in a matter of days instead of weeks. But then I’m desperate.

      I’ve never had any problems with hygiene this way though, not sure what you think might lead to such problems.

      1. Nick — bigger brewers tend to have their own automated bottling lines (more control); they also tend to remove the brewing yeast and reseed with fresh yeast, often of a different strain — one which creates a fine layer that stays put when pouring, rather than an inch of grey murk.

        Really small breweries are either contracting out bottling or doing it by hand. Suspect hygiene is not always 100 per cent; and that there is not much science being applied to the amount of yeast or sugar remaining in the bottles.

  2. I’m with Curmudgeon here, and I’d go so far as to say I tend to avoid pretty much all bottle-conditioned British ales, as I’ve had too many bad experiences. Too many have been either foul, over carbonated (Worthington White Shield I’m looking at you!), gushers, or some combination of the three. Yuck.

  3. I would say the carbonation in beers like White Shield is a natural result of secondary fermentation having taken place in the bottle. Although they both have a secondary fermentation, BCAs are a distinctly different product from cask beer and IMV it is misleading for CAMRA to imply they are “equivalent”. Belgian beers such as Duvel are similarly fizzy.

    In my recent experience, Fullers 1845 and Bengal Lancar, Young’s Special London Ale and London Gold, Shepherd Neame 1698, White Shield and Hop Back Summer Lightning have all been fine in terms of condition, although I have a bit of a blind spot with Fullers beers in general and London Gold is just bland flavourwise.

    1. I agree: why not name them? Help others avoid the trap your friends fell victim to!

      1. It’s something we agonise over but, for now, we’re just not comfortable naming names when it comes to really small businesses whose owners have a lot more at stake than we do.

        For more on our stance, see this post, and the discussion in this post at Alan’s blog.

        And, anyway, no-one in a gift shop near their holiday cottage is googling for reviews before buying these beers!

        1. I disagree about not naming names as if you don’t then I can’t see a reason why you have posted this in the first place?

          Without following up the post with details of the beers this is the message that I get from the post:

          * A friend bought you beers whilst on holiday in Norfolk
          * You opened them and they were all rubbish/awful
          * You wouldn’t want anyone to buy this muck
          * You don’t want other breweries tarred with the same brush

          As I have no list of breweries to avoid all I know at the moment is not to buy ANY Norfolk BCed beers…

          1. The Baron has a point, here and below. We need to know who is brewing bad beer, with the caveat that it’s only your opinion. I’d hazard a guess, though, that if it is bad to the point of being poured down the sink, your opinion is probably widely shared.

            The problem with BC beer is that the product is almost by definition not consistent. It isn’t like widgets made on a production line, where every batch is pretty much identical. It can be done very well of course, and maybe they had a bad day when they brewed these four bottles, but even so, if spoiled beer makes it onto the shelves, they have a problem, and we need to know about it.

  4. I support the not naming and shaming policy, but I think it would be a shame if anyone reading is put off all small Norfolk breweries’ bottled output. Lest any of you are visiting lovely Norfolk this summer, on the positive side I can say that I’ve never had a bad bottle from Humpty Dumpty, Wolf or Grain (although a few from others that I now studiously avoid).

    I agree most problems with bottled beer start at the brewery, but what part do overheated shops and long hot car journeys home from hols play?

    1. Lorraine — that’s really helpful: if any of this lot had been really good, we’d be accentuating the positive too, as is our usual approach.

      I should underline, too, that this isn’t a problem with beer from Norfolk in particular. It just happens to be that that’s where this particular batch came from.

      You might be right about storage and transport, although we’ve transported beers all over the place in rucksacks, on hot trains, and they’ve still been OK at the other end.

    2. I disagree, if a brewery produces crap beer then why should they be allowed to continue to sell it to people who can’t find out that it’s crap?

      You are in the fortunate position to know a few to “studiously avoid” but how do the rest of us non-Norfolkians find out that information?

      Not naming names is only going to put people off buying ales rather than helping steer them away from bad ones and towards good ones?

      1. Sorry if you don’t think our approach is the right one. All I can say is that we really have thought long and hard about it and, for now, it’s what we’re comfortable with.

        Even if we did name names, it would only be the opinion of two people — two people who write a blog hardly anyone reads at that! — with no special insight and certainly without super sensitive palates. This wouldn’t be red-hot dynamite intelligence…

        There are tons of people reviewing beer and naming names, so it’s not like we’re the only source of info.

        With hindsight, we might not have bothered posting this at all, or perhaps at least not specified Norfolk.

        If the take home point from this is that bottle-conditioned beers from small rural farmhouse brewers are often disappointing then… well, that’s actually a fair reflection of our experience.

        1. Fair enough and I didn’t mean to come down too hard on you for this, I just feel that if something is not good we should say rather than stay quiet and only talk when it’s good.

          I see your point about the rual farmhouse BCed beers though… 😉

          1. No, your challenge was very temperate and appropriate! We don’t mind being disagreed with.

  5. One brewery in Shropshire has been bottling filth for a decade now, and yet still it appears in shops (last time far from its home!) and like some sort of self punishment I occasionally cave in and buy one, just to check its still crap…. (it is)

    I am surprised that, if BCA is so good (which oddly, in my experience it sometimes really can be) apart from banging on about finest hops yadah on the label, more brewers don’t also publicly stand up and fight the corner for their BCA products. When have you ever heard a hand bottler brewer organise a tasting or publicity event for example?

    Is their silence perhaps tacit acceptance that the bottled stiuff they produce is garbage?

    1. When have you ever heard a hand bottler brewer organise a tasting or publicity event for example?
      Happens regularly here. Dungarvan Brewery hand-bottles and makes a consistently good product and often holds tasting events and promotions, in everything from corner offies to Michelin-starred restaurants.

      1. That’s a genuine surprise – maybe reflective of a smaller/newer market? Still good news though. Perhaps the UK producers could take the lead.

  6. I agree with Curmudgeon’s point about BCAs being a very different beast to cask ale – and I find myself going back to the same few, reliable, bottled beers.

    Some beers seem to work better in bottles. Particularly Belgian ones.

  7. We bottle condition all of our beers, yes it is a tricky process when you’re doing it by hand without automation but it can be controlled with a few simple checks and measures.

    Unfortunately not enough microbrewers understand the science behind what they’re doing so they make mistakes, as they can’t afford to dump a batch of bottles they just sell it and hope no-one complains.

    I’ve had to dump two batches down to simple over-conditioning, it was entirely my fault and I paid for it but it was better than letting poor quality beer go out to trade.

  8. I have been told which beers these are, none of which I’ve had in a bottle but I have had two of them on cask and they’re literally nothing like has been described.

    Living in Norfolk, I generally don’t drink bottle conditioned ales from Norfolk because the vast majority of these beers are freely available on cask.

    There was a particular Norfolk beer that I’ve seen a lot of very bad reviews from which I completely agree with as I’ve had it and I managed to try it on cask last weekend… it was nothing like the bottled version. It was in fact quite wonderful.

  9. If you have a bad beer (whether BCA, non-BCA, cask, keg etc) you should inform the retailer (if possible) and brewery. You should also tell us. You’re not saying “avoid brewery X at all cost”.

    On a separate note I think BCAs are a tricky thing to get right 100% of the time. And, assuming a brewer has a good product to start with, its the consistent standard over time which can make or break the reputation of a brewer.

  10. If you feel so strongly about what you consider to be OFFENSIVE ale, why don’t you name the beers you were so disgusted by? Norfolk has, I think, more breweries than any other county except one, and there are some truly wonderful brews available. Without going into detail about WHAT you drunk – and instead spending your time searching for visceral phrasing – gives a too generalised and misleading condemnation of a varied and exciting area of brewers. Be fair….!

    1. Gyro — I think we’ve explained our reasoning above.

      As we’ve also said already, with hindsight, we might not have posted this at all, or at least not specified Norfolk. This isn’t about Norfolk. We don’t have a problem with Norfolk. Norfolk is great. Hooray for Norfolk! There’s some great beer in Norfolk: http://northcotebeers.wordpress.com/2012/05/10/four-beers-a-response/

      Anyone who reads our post in isolation and decides, just to be on the safe side, to avoid all beer from Norfolk is an utter bonehead.

  11. Intersting post. I’m also uncomfortable naming bad beers, as you say it’s only one opinion, one mans drain pour is another mans Rodenbach Grand Cru Reserve ;o)

    That said, when you mentioned “exploitative, gift-shop, tourist-trap beers… either overreaching and delusional or, worse, cynics who know the beer they’re making is bad but sell it anyway”, I thought immediately of directbeers.com.

    To restore your faith in beers from Norfolk, I’m willing to send you a Humpty Dumpty ‘Double W IPA’ in return for a Tintagel ‘Harbour Special’. Deal?!

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