Category Archives: beer reviews

Lager: Bait and Switch

A can of lager in cunning disguise.

By Bailey (edited by Boak)

How easy is it to tell one standard lager from another? And how much are we influenced by packaging and ‘brand values’?

After a rocky start, we’ve very much embraced St Austell Korev as our go-to lager. It is straightforward but tasty, and very good value in cans, which is why we didn’t hesitate to recommend it in this listicle for the Independent.

But, enjoying a half in a harbour-side pub, where it cost £4.20 a pint, Boak wondered aloud, “If they just gave me Heineken in this nice glass, would I notice the difference?”

Which gave us an idea. We agreed that, from then on, we would find opportunities to test each other by secretly replacing Korev with big-brand lagers.

Then, last week, fresh relevance was provided by a study which suggested most people served blind couldn’t tell one mainstream lager brand from another.

Last night, I finally seized the opportunity, dangling a can of Korev, but actually filling the poshest glass I could find with Carlsberg Export (can, 5%, ‘Produce of the E.U.’) and serving it up with due ceremony.

Cards on the table: she did not immediately notice the difference. The beer was cold and looked fantastic. It was only as it began to warm up that she started to suspect something was up: “Did you say this was Korev? It tastes weird. It’s much more… bland than usual.”

I really wanted Carlsberg Export to pass the test because it’s dead cheap and easy to find, but the fact is, it simply isn’t a satisfying beer. It’s clean, yes, but it’s also sweet to the point of sickliness. With more hops, or even more hop extract, it might do the job, but, like this, it’s barely even thirst-quenching.

So, round one to Boak, and to Korev.

Now, this wasn’t even remotely scientific and I was probably giving off all kinds of cues (though I avoided sniggering mischievously…) not to mention the fact that she knew this was going to happen at some point. But it was enough to convince us.

I wonder when my turn will come?

Fourpure Pils

Fourpure Pils -- can and glass.

As lager lovers, we’re always keen to try British brewers’ attempts, especially when we’ve heard good things about them from fellow beer geeks.

Bermondsey Beer Mile brewery Fourpure’s Pils has generated plenty of attention, partly because it comes in that most contentious of containers, a 330ml can.

Trusting our peers, rather than dabbling with one or two, we included half a dozen (@ £1.95 each, plus P&P) in our last order from Beer Merchants, placed at the height of the recent heat wave when we were craving things cold and refreshing.

At first, we were a little disappointed: compared to the cans of St Austell Korev we had picked up from the local CO-OP (@ about £1.10 each) Fourpure Pils seemed rather rough-edged. Last night, however, having emptied the last two cans and crushed them against our foreheads with a roar (obviously not) we concluded that it was good stuff after all.

It is, for one thing, far from bland: by the standards of most beers calling themselves Pils, it has a pronounced wild-flower, blackcurrant, stinging nettle hop aroma, back up by a robust, parching bitterness.

The hint of roughness remained in evidence, however — somewhere in the brewing and packaging process, we’d guess there is oxygen where there shouldn’t be, leading to a persistent stale, papery note in the background. It’s much, much cleaner than our home-brewed lager (plastic bucket, no temperature control) but there are similarities.

Depending on your tastes, though, this might read as that much-desired quality — ‘character’.

We couldn’t resist one final experiment — would it taste different necked straight from the can? Side-by-side with a serving in a fancy stemmed tasting glass, we noted to our surprise that despite this practical issue…

…the aroma was actually far better, concentrated through the tiny aperture into a needle of bright hoppiness right up the nostrils. From a glass, though still punchy, aroma, flavour and bitterness all seemed generally gentler.

In conclusion, we’d buy Fourpure Pils again, and look forward to trying it on tap when we get the chance.

King Street Revisited

Shnoodlepip from the cask.

Last Christmas, we found ourselves on King Street in Bristol, and were astonished to note that it had become home to three self-styled ‘craft beer’ outlets. We subsequently used it as a symbol of ‘the rebirth of British beer’ in the prologue of Brew Britannia.

Back then, Small Bar had only just opened, and, even though there was an exciting sense of commitment to ‘the cause’, it was obviously still finding its feet, serving flat kegged beer, some of it poorly chosen in the first place, amidst paint fumes and an air of mild panic.

Last Sunday, we broke the journey back from Birmingham and braved a night in Bristol to check on its progress.

While the Famous Royal Naval Volunteer across the road was gloomy and mostly empty, Small Bar, was buzzing.

A mini-festival celebrating the Wild Beer Co. (who also get a third of a chapter in Brew Britannia…) and British sour beers more generally was underway, and the chalked-up beer list, with clearly-stated prices, looked especially enticing.

Having missed it entirely last year, and at the Birmingham Beer Bash on Saturday, we started off with Shnoodlepip (6.5%), WBC’s collaboration with Mark Tranter and Kelly Ryan, in its 2014 iteration. It was available from straight-up keg and also from an oak cask, so we got a half of each to compare. We didn’t detect much difference except that the former was (surprise!) cooler and had better condition. The barman promised definite oakiness, but we didn’t get it. Overall, there was something of the hedgerow wine about it. It’s tastefully done, and certainly tasty, but not a revelation.

Somerset Wild (5%), also from WBC, was more to our taste. When we spoke to Brett Ellis and Andrew Cooper last summer, they were still working up to using actual wild yeast as opposed to bought-in cultures. This pilsner-pale, appetisingly hazy, gooseberry-wine of a beer is evidence that whatever’s on the breeze in Somerset isn’t just good for fermenting scrumpy. The head disappeared quickly, but the beer had plenty of life, and felt traditional, like the kind of thing farm labourers in Thomas Hardy novels might have enjoyed. A contender for beer of the year, if we can find the opportunity to try it again.

While we were on a streak of finding long-coveted beers with a vague Brew Britannia connection, we were also pleased to encounter  Lovibond’s Sour Grapes (5.4%). (Jeff Rosenmeier of Lovibond’s is quoted in the book, as a passionate and eloquent critic of cask-conditioning.) We were expecting, perhaps, indigestion-inducing FEEL THE BURN sourness, so were pleased to find it a clean-but-complex, summery beer which we could happily spend a long session drinking. “Lemon cheesecake” reads the only note we took all afternoon.

Almost everything interesting was £6+ a pint, so it’s not a cheap place to drink, but staff were generous with samples, and we didn’t feel like any of the beers we bought were bad value, insofar as, scarcity aside, they were genuinely different to anything on offer at any of our local pubs.

This was a fun afternoon session in a bar which is in the process of becoming great, and where we felt very at ease. We’ll be back.

Brett Ellis, head brewer at WBC, also happened to be there, delivering a talk to a crowd of fans — was ever there a time when more lectures were given in British drinking establishments?

The Batham’s, at Last

great_western_wolverhampton

On more than one occasion, we’ve been asked, “Have you tried the Batham’s?” On answering “No,” we’ve had the distinct impression that our credibility as commentators on beer has been reduced to zero.*

Of course we wanted to try it anyway, having heard from various sources, on numerous occasions, that the small West Midlands family brewery produces beers which are delicious, with a hard-to-define ‘mojo’. And we’re not immune to the ticking instinct, either.

Having travelled for 6+ hours from Penzance to Birmingham, we weren’t, however, quite in the mood for a further hour of buses and trains to get to the brewery tap at Stourbridge and turned, instead, to someone with local knowledge.

Tania’s suggestion was the Great Western next to Wolverhampton central station — 20 minutes on the train, plus five minutes walking. Perfect!

A cute, flower-covered pub surrounded by railway architecture and industrial wasteland, it was decorated throughout with memorabilia from the GWR, which once passed through the city. (Its western terminus is, as it happens, Penzance.) On a sunny Friday evening, it had a pleasant buzz, and a mixed clientèle perhaps just tending towards late middle age.

And there it was: Batham’s Best Bitter (4.3%). We ordered two pints along with a pork pie (‘real’, not ‘craft’), a hot pork roll and some ‘Bostin’ Cracklin‘’ — if you don’t like pig meat, food options are rather limited in the evening — and set about getting acquainted.

The_bathams_474

There are some mental contortions to go through when tasting a legendary beer for the first time. On the one hand, it’s easy to end up tasting the hype, and praising the Emperor’s new clothes. On the other hand, it can also be easy to end up feeling let down. We tried to forget all of that and just drink it.

It was certainly very pretty, scoring 11 out of 10 for clarity. As for the taste… Well, we were momentarily surprised by a pronounced honey note, but couldn’t help but be impressed. The balancing bitterness developed as it went down, and there was almost a suggestion of nutty grains between the teeth.

Ultimately, though, it had that quality which makes writing about beer difficult at times — something impossible to put into words, but which is perhaps a result of freshness, or a subtle combination of barely-perceptible aromas and flavours. A certain magic.

But…

Much as we enjoyed it, we did find ourselves wondering how much of its reputation was down to the beer’s relative scarcity, and the glamour of time and place. It didn’t strike us, fundamentally, as that much different, or better, than the products of many other family breweries.

For example (and we’ll probably get told off for this) in Manchester, we attempted to approach Robinson’s Unicorn (4.3%, golden) with similar detachment, and actually rather enjoyed it. If Robinson’s restricted its supply, and if it was only served in pubs like the Great Western which kept it in tip-top condition, perhaps it too would have a cult reputation.

We can’t wait for the chance to drink a few more pints of Batham’s just to make sure, though.

Further reading: Barm’s recent post about pub-crawling in Dudley is a cracking read, and this 2012 piece by Pete Brown was probably where we first really registered the existence of Batham’s.

* “What credibility?” &c.

Siren White IPA

Siren White IPA.

We weren’t sure what to expect from a beer with this name, but extreme pallor was, we thought, a given.

After a firm zip and hiss, it actually emerged from the bottle somewhere near amber, haze-free, with an immoveable, whipped-cream head.

Puzzled, we read the label again: it’s their ‘expression of a wit bier’ with IPA hopping, they say, but we think it’s actually an IPA with wit bier spices and citrus. That fine distinction made sense to us, anyway.

The (new concept klaxon!) far aroma — the one we could smell from a foot away — was of the candied pineapple, Del Monte tinned peaches variety, rather than at the weedy, piney end of the spectrum.

Getting closer — the near aroma – there was something mysterious to ponder over, barely perceptible but distinctly weird. Our first thought was swimming pool chlorine, then antiseptic, then… yes, that was it — the white rind of a  soft French cheese! So, ammonia, perhaps? That somehow fit into the Continental rustic farmhouse theme, and we found ourselves quite at ease with its occasional intrusion.

The beer tasted overwhelmingly orangey, in a sticky, Jaffa Cake fashion, but also somewhat salty, almost seaweedy, and had the texture of a vanilla mousse as it foamed on the tongue.

It tasted much bigger than its 4.5% ABV, though not at all ‘boozy’, with just enough complexity to keep the attention. It almost tasted wrong, but not quite, which is what we’d call a sweet spot. It was, in other words, tasty.

We’ve sometimes used the term ‘home brew’ as a pejorative when describing commercial beers, but we’re rethinking that: if a friend had brewed this, we’d congratulate them heartily.

Disclosure: we got this beer in a sample case sent to us by Eebria.