Marston’s Old Empire IPA

Marston's Old Empire IPA.Ever topical, a mere ten years after its first release, having mentioned it yesterday, we finally got round to trying Marston’s Old Empire with our reviewing hats on.

Before we talk about the taste, there are a few prejudices on our part we ought to ‘fess up.

  1. It’s in a clear glass bottle. Though some brewers have rolled their eyes at us for banging on about this, we’ve had overwhelmingly bad experiences with beer from marketing-led packaging of this type, and, despite choosing a bottle from the shadows at the back of the shelf, went in expecting ‘skunking’.
  2. The marketing schtick is full of dodgy history and the recipe is a compromise. On the one hand, it repeats the myth that it’s not a ‘real’ IPA if it’s not strong and aromatically hoppy; and then, on the other, the brewers admitted at the time of launch that they’d made it weaker than the ‘real’ IPAs it was supposed to mimic for commercial reasons, and used Cascade hops because they were hip in 2003.
  3. Marston’s? Meh. We’ve only had one Marston’s beer that’s really excited us in recent years, and that was probably a fluke. They’re simply not, on the whole, terribly characterful.

First impressions were bad, and the unmistakeable whiff of light-strike made the first mouthfuls hard going. After some efforts to pin down what specifically it reminded us of, the answer proved to be pretty obvious: Corona lager. We were close to giving up a third of a way in but, then, something began to happen that stopped us in our tracks.

“By the ‘eck,” we managed to mutter with puckered mouths, “it’s bloody bitter!” With each gulp, the back of our throats became drier. The beer, at 5.7% ABV, isn’t weak, but every spot of sugariness has been fermented out, leaving it rather thin and austere, bringing to mind something like the famously bitter Jever Pils from the north of Germany. Is that what slugs feel like when they have salt poured on them?

As we got used to the skunkiness and began to zone it out, a few subtleties of flavour and aroma emerged, too: medicinal throat lozenges (honey, lemon, ginger?); nettles or bitter herbs; and, perhaps wrapped up with that serious bitterness, something like cold Earl Grey tea.

Overall, we were left feeling that what could be a classic is being let down by shoddy packaging. The IPA they brew for Sainsbury’s is stronger (5.9%) and comes in a grown-up brown bottle, so we’d probably recommend that over Old Empire.

27 thoughts on “Marston’s Old Empire IPA”

  1. I’d describe it more as hit-and-miss than outright bad. If its not skunked its generally quite nice.

  2. On the subject of glass bottles, I noticed with dismay that Castle Rock Harvest Pale is now being sold in a clear bottle. Please don’t let this become a trend.

    1. What’s weird is that it was a trend about ten years ago and is on the outs elsewhere, e.g. at Shepherd Neame where their ‘speciality’ beers are back in brown.

      Brewers (or at least their PRs) will always point out that beer in clear bottles sells more; and that, anyway, most people aren’t sensitive to skunking.

      Drives us nuts.

  3. My local beer store got in a pallet of Old Empire a few months back. You think it was skunky when you had it? Try drinking it after it crossed the Atlantic and sat on a loading dock at the port of New York for a few weeks.

    1. Would now be a good time to start championing the theory that terrible skunking would have been part of the profile of IPA shipped to India in the nineteenth century?

      1. Well, you could try, but IPA was shipped in oak casks, which would have given a reasonable degree of protection from lightstrike, I would have thought…..

  4. An interesting question: certainly 10 minutes in a British pub garden is enough to start skunking a pint of bitter in a glass mug. But I suspect no self-respecting sahib (and certainly no memsahib) ever sat out in the sun drinking their iced Hodgsons or Bass: they’d be inside the bungalow, or under the shade of the verandah at best, while the punkahwallah worked the fan with his foot.

    1. And old boss of mine was the former head brewer at Marstons (not to be confused with Banks) and the man behind Old Empire. Goose Island IPA was the inspiration for it.

      1. Now *that’s* a fun fact. Heard somewhere that Bridgeport IPA (which we’ve never had) inspired Proper Job.

    2. Gents, I think we need to get the “East India Ale Project” going to answer these questions. I’m partial to “(insert you choice of) Ale Projects”.

  5. With much respect given the heavyweight knowledge here, I’d like to suggest what seems a skunk taste may be the yeast background. Bass had it too, and the keg and bottled Bass available in North America still have it IMO.

    Burton-upon-Trent was, according to Jackson and other writers, known for producing a sulphury taste in ale, one Jackson admired. It might have been the yeasts habituated to the area, or that in combination with some Burton water.

    We get Marston’s Pedigree in cans brought in pretty fast (couple of months or so) and I get the same taste in that. Draught Bass when I had it in England a few years ago – one pub in Fitzrovia specialized in it (The Ship?) – ditto. No question clear bottle beer can get light-struck but in this case I think the taste may be from the classic Burton yeasts.

    The East India Ale Project – indeed! Pete Brown did some early field work here. The way forward IMO is to brew and bottle a beer exactly like E.B. Collier described 1903 in the IOB’s Journal, send it to a warm clime on a slow boat and solicit taste notes on the other end. Given Collier said the beer had to undergo in cask a “sick” period. Given the brett or bacterial action it probably underwent, given the Madras light when the glasses were poured and the shaking and heat en route, it might have been a strange brew! Or maybe everything came together in a new and wonderful way.

    Gary

    1. You might be right, but I’m pretty sure it was skunked. Either that or Corona often also has a distinct Burton yeast profile…

      1. the sulphorous notes are more to do with burton water, gypsum (and of course over time the yeast absorbs some of these flavours)…skunking is a completely different process (involving different compounds), though the two combined could give similar off tastes.

  6. To me, even the sight of beer in a clear bottle makes me think “this will be anaemic piss”. Or maybe I’ve just drunk too many bottles from Lancaster Brewery and Greene King.

    1. We reckon they need to do some new market testing: the idea that brown bottles are a ‘good thing’ has probably made it into the mainstream, just as beer geeks are getting excited about cans.

  7. I wonder about this skunking of clear-glass bottles. I tried skunking a bottle of Spitfire by leaving it in the sun all day. Next to it sat another bottle, wrapped in black plastic. Four people tasted both bottles, finding no difference between them at all, and the flavour was fine.

    Brewers tell me that any brewer using a clear bottle will use hop extract that doesn’t get skunked.

    I’m not sure what to think, since so many people go on about skunking. Personally, I’ve never come across that flavour in my life, so I wonder what’s going on. I’ll try again this summer, if we ever get some sunlight.

    1. Is “skunking” possibly only some people can detect, like the famous Asparagus Effect? There’s a similar debate in the whisky world about sulphur in sherry casks. For some people, it ruins the whisky completely (Jimbo Murray for one), whereas others don’t mind it. Some, apparently, can’t even taste the sulphur at all.

      1. It’s true that not everyone can detect it, and even some who can don’t object to it, or even think it desirable.

        If you can’t spot it in a bottle of Corona (without lime) — about the skunkiest beer on earth, by our reckoning — then you probably never will.

    2. Lars –

      “Brewers tell me that any brewer using a clear bottle will use hop extract that doesn’t get skunked.”

      Sorry, but that’s not necessarily the case.
      Also, just using a hop extract won’t prevent your beer getting lightstruck – you have to use an extract from which the lupohumulone has been removed.

  8. A lot of lager – especially Continental lager – has the sulphur tang too (don’t know about Corona). In fact, generally, it is more a lager thing than ale since lager yeasts are known to generate it, but the Burton snatch as its called called – see Marston’s website – is a good example of it in the ale world. I get a similar taste in Old Speckled Hen, any iteration, and Spitfire too. Yet light-struck flavour is of course different and undeniably exists for some clear glass bottles. Some use a form of hop extract said to be exempt from the effect, but whether Marston does this I cannot say.

    I just can’t opine on what B&B drank without tasting the self-same bottles and it may well have been light-strike, of course.

    Gary

  9. Apologies, I exclude Spitfire from the sulphury yeast category, I had thought it was linked to Old Speckled Hen but I recall now that it’s under the Greene King umbrella and Spitfire is a Sheperd Neame property. We get Spitfire in the clear glass regularly here and it is a clean classic pale ale.

    Gary

  10. “The marketing schtick is full of dodgy history and the recipe is a compromise.”

    That seems to be the story of beer! I rather like this one though. It’s bitterer than most of the stuff I drunk, but it was enjoyable.

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