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.
- 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’.
- 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.
- 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.