Too Fancy to Drink: Gadd’s Russian Imperial Stout

These two bottles have been sitting on the shelf since March 2015, throbbing with sinister energy like the crate containing the Ark in the first Indiana Jones film. Last night, we decided to vanquish them.

They are non-identical twins — the same base beer (a 12% ABV historic homage) with two treatments, one aged in bourbon barrels, the other given a dose of Brettanomyces lambicus.

We didn’t buy these but we weren’t sent them by the brewery, either: when he worked at Beer Merchants, Phil Lowry snuck them into one of our orders as a bonus. His advice at the time was (a) to be careful with the Brettanomyces-spiked version and (b) to try blending them.

Even without any chilling Brett, as we’ll call him, was no trouble at all. He hissed but didn’t gush, and gave us a thick, steady caramel-coloured foam. It smelled exactly like Harvey’s Russian Imperial Stout, which is perhaps not that surprising, and in our book a high compliment.

‘We should put the other one in a different glass so we don’t get them mixed up. Use the St Bernardus one. Because Bernard. Bernard Matthews. Turkey. Wild Turkey.’

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Yarrow, Alecost and Nightmares

Old illustration of yarrow leaves.
Yarrow leaves. SOURCE: Köhler’s Medicinal Plants, 1887, via Biodeversity Library.

I’m all about Harvey’s at the moment. It’s all I wanted to drink in London the other week, and about all I’m interested in drinking now we’re back in Penzance.

Last night, I pulled something of theirs from the back of the stash that, somehow, I’ve never got round to tasting before even though we got several bottles as part of a mixed case last year: Priory Ale.

This beer isn’t on sale anymore but think of this as general commentary on beer with weird herbs rather than as a review and it might have some use.

It’s 6% — a bit indulgent for a school night but not madly so — but the kick is in the small print. It was released in 2014 to mark the 750th anniversary of the Battle of Lewes and was ‘brewed using ingredients that were available to the Cluniac Order at the Priory of St. Pancras in 1264’. The mash included barley, oats and wheat and it was boiled with both hops and yarrow. It was then dry-herbed with alecost, rosemary and thyme during fermentation.

I can’t lie — on reading the blurb, my first thought was, ‘Uh-oh.’ Thyme and rosemary don’t really work in beer, or at least I haven’t yet acquired the taste, making everything a seem bit sickly and savoury.

On tasting it, my first thought was of medicinal shampoo, then of cough sweets, which I guess must mean some memory of menthol firing in my brain. Alecost is sometimes known by the name ‘Mary’s mint’ or variations thereon so perhaps that’s what I was picking up? The rosemary and thyme rose up as the beer went on, overriding everything by the end, like some kind of cotton bag you might hang in a wardrobe to give your bonnets a pleasant fragraunce. Or a leg of lamb.

Most disappointingly from my point of view, it lacked that distinctive Harvey’s character on which I am hooked.

It was not a relaxing beer. Being kind, I’d say it was stimulating, but maybe nerve-jangling is more honest. It put me on edge. ‘I think this is going to give me nightmares,’ I said on turning in.

And do you know, something certainly did.

Magical Mystery Pour #13: Loverbeer Beerbera

The last of five beers chosen for us by The Beer Nut (@thebeernut) is a wood-aged brown ale made with 20 per cent grape juice and an 8% ABV.

It’s another expensive one, this: we paid £13.50 for a single 375ml bottle from Beer Gonzo. It’s a very pretty bit of packaging — a rather Belgian-looking naive pencil sketch on the label and blue foil around the cap, all of which maybe explains 15p of the total cost. The rest, we assume, is made up of the unofficial artisan tax (a levy to cover the pursuit of hopes and dreams), import duty, and cuts for middle men at various points on the long road from Marentino.

Popping the cap triggered a low-key, consipiratorial ‘Psst!’ and released a waft of strawberry scent. There was some noisy fizzing as it went into the glass and a head of pink foam flowered but only for a second leaving us with something absolutely still and mirror-like.

When you have a flat brown-purple liquid in a stem glass it’s hard not to think of red wine. It was at this point we (bright sparks) noticed the lad on the label with his bunch of grapes and picked our way through the Italian text on the label. In Chapter 16 of Brew Britannia, ‘The Outer Limits’, we wrote about The Wild Beer Co’s Ninkasi, a ‘celebratory drink’ that defies categorisation as beer or cider; Beerbera would seem to be an overseas relative. We admit to being intrigued by this kind of thing which makes us wish we knew more about wine. (On which, purely for educational reasons, we can confirm baby steps are being taken.)

Detail from the label: a farmer holding a bunch of grapes.

We instinctively liked it from the first sip. All that mucking about could have resulted in something silly and gimmicky but, no, it is interesting and surprisingly balanced. (And that’s not code for bland.) There is some sourness from spontaneous fermentation but it’s quite tame compared to, say, Cantillon Kriek. The latter is a more interesting beer altogether but it’s no bad thing that Beerbera is similar but more accessible. (Price aside.)

We identified a big hit of vanilla, especially in the aftertaste, and something like cherry-flavoured cough drops (grape + acid?). We eventually settled on one headline social realist tasting note: those rhubarb and custard boiled sweets from a jar on the newsagent’s shelf. All good fun stuff. There’s a bit of funk there, too — just enough to make clear that this is a grown-up beer. And, despite the list of tuck shop flavours, it’s actually on the dry side.

Overall, it’s a hit, and one we’d probably drink again if we saw it going for a fiver or less. As it is, there are affordable Belgian beers, and indeed British ones, that do many of the same tricks without undertaking a cross-Continental road trip.

So, that’s our opinion, but let’s check in on the Beer Nut’s. He only has a brief note, from 2011:

BeerBera is brewed with classic Piedmontese Barbera grapes and tastes to me quite like a kriek, having a pronounced sour cherry flavour but also some lovely earthy brett notes.

That sounds like the same beer, doesn’t it?

That third round of Magical Mystery Pour has been great fun, if both budget-busting and challenging at times. It’s good to have finally taken some tentative steps into Italian beer and to have expanded our experience of the sour and/or funky. Thanks, John!

Next up, a batch of beers chosen for us by David Bishop (@broadfordbrewer and @beerdoodles).

Magical Mystery Pour Side Mission: Thomas Hardy

You never saw The Beatles live? Seriously? But they’re a hugely important band!

That’s a bit how it feels to have been into beer for all these years without ever getting to know Thomas Hardy’s Ale. It was listed in the Bible of our early enthusiasm, Michael Jackson’s Great Beer Guide, and the elder statesfolk of beer writing all seem to have cellars full of the stuff and have tasted multiple vintages, multiple times, all the way back to 1968.

Our one encounter with it — or, rather, Bailey’s — is from a year or two before we started blogging. His dad brought some home from work at Christmas, discounted out-of-date stock (ho ho!) being a warehouseman’s perk. Innocently, they drank it fresh and, being more used to straightforward 4% session bitters, found it insanely strong and sweet and weird tasting. Most of the bottle went down the sink.

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Magical Mystery Pour #12: Troubadour Magma Triple-Spiked

Troubadour Magma in the glass, with bottle.

Magical Mystery Pour logo.This 9.8% ABV Belgian take on IPA is the fourth of five beers suggested to us by The Beer Nut (@thebeernut).

We bought it from Beer Gonzo along with its sibling which we wrote about yesterday. It cost £3.25 for 330ml which seems pretty reasonable for a ‘special edition’ fancy-pants beer with the added faff of Brettanomyces.

This one did gush ever so slightly which prompted a careless pour which, in turn, led to it surging up out of the glass and all over the table. What we managed to catch was misty orange topped with a cream-yellow foam. It gave off an intense room-filling aroma of citrus.

Our first reactions on tasting were gibbering, fear and confusion.

‘That’s quite something,’ we agreed, vaguely, once we’d calmed down.

Tasting notes, fountain pen on paper.

It was extremely fruity in every dimension — hops, of course, but also sweetness and acidity in balance so that, more than any other beer we can recall tasting, including some containing actual fruit, it really did resemble breakfast juice. (Grapefruit, orange, lemon.)

There was a burn in the throat and up the nose — a reminder that this is a boozy beer — and a funky fustiness that seemed quite restrained in the context of all those other fireworks. As we’ve admitted we’re still stuck on Orval = Brettanomyces and sure enough that specific beer did quite definitely come to mind. Could you get close to this beer by mixing Orval, a US IPA and Tripel Karmeliet in equal parts? Maybe.

Close up on the foam of the beer.

Job done, we checked out TBN’s own tasting notes for our own sanity:

I was expecting disappointment and dismay but it is amazing. If anything, the brett enhances the hop juiciness and despite the very definite farmyard funk it still tastes gorgeously fresh. The funk is not a gimmick, it’s not there for its own sake and really does provide a tart balance to the tropical fruit sweetness in the base beer, clearing out some of the heavy sugary malt. Tangy, refreshing and counter-intuitively clean, this is an absolute triumph. I couldn’t imagine ordering anything else for the second round.

This is a big, modern, electroshock of a beer — perhaps a bit much for us, if we’re honest, but we can see why it might appeal to thrill-seekers, jolt junkies and jaded palates.

We’ve only got one more of TBN’s beers to go. If there’s someone you think we ought to invite to choose some beers for us in the next round drop us an email: contact@boakandbailey.com.