Category Archives: beer reviews

Tasting: Black Ales and IPAs

Point Black Ale

What connects the three beers we tasted this week is that they are all black ales of one sort or another.

Point Black Ale (5.2% ABV) was a pleasant surprise. Launching straight in without reading the blurb or doing any research which might prejudice our taste buds, we expected a rather mediocre British-style beer with veritable hops. Instead, we got an extremely convincing German-style Schwarzbier. (And Ratebeer concurs.)

Under a sandy-coloured head, a light but oily body offered caramel and notes of cocoa powder, made crisp by lager-level carbonation. By the end, as it warmed up, some suggestion of orange zest emerged, justifying the ‘ale’ tag somewhat, and adding a welcome layer of complexity. Ultimately, it’s an uncomplicated, satisfying and tasty beer, and our pleasure in drinking it perhaps highlights a gap in the UK market.

Next up were two black IPAs — a style about which we remain sceptical. We’re not offended by the name or the concept — we just don’t think that many of the beers sailing under that flag are anything other than either (a) IPAs with cosmetic Just For Men colouring or (b) stouts/porters/dark milds.

Otley Oxymoron

Otley Oxymoron (5.5%) has a name which references the issue many people have with the contradiction inherent in the term ‘black India pale ale’. The bottle label bears next to no information and the Otley ‘O’ logo is embossed in black, on black. Very stylish, but not much help to we poor consumers.

In the glass, it looked… black. What was interesting was the aroma: manure with a hint of bile.

Now, that doesn’t sound good, does it? But one of our favourite stouts is Harvey’s Imperial Russian which some find undrinkable because of it’s challenging ‘farmyard’ character, and Oxymoron might be its little sister — more sessionable but only slightly less mad. Beyond that, we detected an alluring hint of smokiness and a clanging grapefruit acid note. Much as we enjoyed it, we’re not sure the effect was deliberate, or that it is really an IPA in any meaningful sense.

Beavertown Black Betty.

Finally, there was Beavertown Black Betty (7.4%). We’ve drunk this beer several times, with pleasure, but with our brows furrowed. What makes it taste so distinctly London-y? And what is that elusive aroma we recognise but can’t name? This time, we think we managed to answer that second question: tobacco. Not posh pipe tobacco or cigars, but the slightly sweet, autumnal, dusty whiff of student roll-up baccy. There is also something savoury and wholesome — sunflower seed rye bread with caraway baking in the oven — in both the aroma and flavour.

Complex and interesting, then, and exhibiting a distinctive brewery character. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but beers that aren’t to everyone’s taste are what we’d like to see more of.

It is also a fairly convincing argument for the existence of black IPA — both stout and hoppy pale ale at the same time, depending on which angle you approach it from.

DISCLOSURE (more)

We bought the bottle of Black Betty ourselves from Ales by Mail (330ml at £2.30). Point Black Ale was supplied to us by Beer52.com as part of a sample of their beer subscription service; Otley Oxymoron came from a selection case sent to us by Eebria. For what it’s worth, Eebria’s selection seemed thoughtful and well-chosen, while Beer52′s did little to excite us.

Greene King Mild At Last

Greene King sign

“It’s taken us longer to find a pint of this than it did to get hold of bottles of Westvleteren 12,” Bailey said in anticipation of his first sip of Greene King XX Mild.

Those robots among you who are able to judge beer purely on its flavour won’t understand how several years of hunting and hype influenced our ability to assess this pint of humble mild with any objectivity.

It seems odd to use the word ‘hype’ in relation to mild from a little-loved regional brewer, but that’s what we’ve been subjected to, in a quiet, rather British way — “Even if you don’t like GK IPA, you must try their mild,” uttered in a tone usually reserved for “There are some rather interesting carvings in the nave…”

We got our chance in the wake of a Brew Britannia reading in Cambridge last week when Pintsandpubs and Beertalk kindly agreed to walk us to the Free Press, a cute, historic back-street pub with a reliable supply of XX, on the way back to the station.

It was a bit of an odd experience, to be frank. The pub had several interesting cask ales and a nice selection of ‘craft’ and ‘world’ beer in bottles, so turning up with two well-known beer geeks and ordering mild earned us some funny looks. Those looks got even funnier once the Westvleteren comment had slipped out.

You won’t be surprised to hear that GKXX is not as good as WV12, but then it has only 3% ABV compared to the latter’s 10.2%. It wouldn’t be unfair to call it watery, and cask-conditioning rendered it no more complex or exciting than the various kegged milds we enjoyed (we actually did!) in Manchester the other week.

But it is a drinking beer.

If you’re prone to tasting and thinking but want a night off, it’s just the thing: your notes will be done in two sips (dark brown to ruby, chocolatey, sweetish) leaving you free to sling it back in volume, with your brain free for chatting, reading a book or completing a crossword or two.

Forcing ourselves to find something else to say, we spotted a resemblance to a Wadworth mild we tried a couple of years ago, and to home brew we made using our own interpretation of a 1938 Starkey, Knight & Ford recipe. That makes us think that it (a) contains a proportion of flaked maize; (b) uses a good slug of brewing sugar; and (c) probably hasn’t changed much in the last 60-odd years.

The final verdict: if we lived in Cambridge, Bailey would probably drink it all the time, but Boak will be quite happy if she never tastes it again. (See — we don’t always agree!)

And that’s that itch scratched.

Beery Highlights of a Week in London

Brew by Numbers Cucumber and Juniper Saison.

Spending more than a week in London, we set out to drink things that we rarely see in Cornwall. These were our highlights, in chronological order.

1. At the London and South East Craft Brewing Competition, where we took part in judging some excellent home brew alongside more experienced tasters, we were especially impressed by (a) the overall winning beer, Josh ‘Evening Brews’ Smith’s black IPA (a super-clean commercial-quality product) and (b) Lee Immins’s strong scotch ale.

2. At BrewDog Camden on Sunday 22 June, we were pleased to finally try a beer served through a ‘Hopinator’ (Randall). We think that what the IPA gained from being filtered through Cascade hops at the point of service was a fresh raw vegetable note (celery, carrots) — nicer than it sounds, perhaps. It tasted as if it was good for us, is what we’re saying. A gently perfumed Jasmine IPA was also intriguing enough to warrant more than one round.

3. We took two passes at Brew By Numbers Cucumber and Juniper Saison, the first at the Three Johns, Islington, and the second just down the road at the local branch of the Craft Beer Co. It’s an odd beer, but we found it absolutely charming — not a ‘stunt’ or ‘novelty’ beer, but a classy, refreshing brew with well-integrated flavours.

4. Young’s Bitter. Yes, really. We first enjoyed it a decade or so ago when it was already ‘not what it used to be’. Then, in recent years, with the move to Bedford, it seemed to have become browner, stickier and duller, slowly morphing into Courage Best. Having not tried it for some time, we were delighted to note that both beer and brand appear to have been spruced up. Paler than we ever recall it being, it was also truly bitter, with a lemon-zestiness that left our mouths dry. It’s not one for hopheads, but we’d certainly be happy to have a session on it.

5. West Berkshire Brewing Bruce’s Original Dogbolter — the Kings Arms in Bethnal Green not only hosted our compact and bijou book launch ‘do’ last Friday night but also acquired a cask of this recreation of recent brewing history. CarsmileSteve, who drank Dogbolter back in the Firkin days, declared it convincing. We, used to drinking Blue Anchor Spingo, found it very enjoyable, though very much a beer of its time (the 1980s) – brown and hearty, or, in Steve’s words, ‘twiggy’.

St Michael’s Canon #2: Ebulum

Ebulum: cap and book page.

It’s listed in our bible, Michael Jackson’s Great Beer Guide (2000), so why have we never tried Williams Bros elderberry ale, Ebulum?

For one thing, their beers were rarely seen in London when we lived there. They would occasionally turn up in supermarkets, but we can’t remember ever seeing this particular brew in Sainsbury’s or elsewhere.

Then, not long after we started blogging in 2007, Williams Bros was one of the first breweries to attempt to send us some samples, but the postman apparently ‘misplaced’ them and they never arrived.

Perhaps it also got lost in the post-c.2005 ‘craft’ mania: it had the misfortune to be something other than an IPA.

In his GBG, Jackson promises it will be ‘slatey-black’, with ‘winey, rooty, licorice-like, slightly medicinal flavours’. That description brought to mind Riga black balsam, a potent, tar-like cough cure that Latvians drink for fun. That, perhaps, set us up to expect something more intense than we got.

We can confirm that, 15 years on, Ebulum remains black. Our first impressions on tasting, however, were of oily water. As it warmed up, the wine-like flavours promised by Jackson began to appear, but… it tasted like watered wine. We did start to detect a hint of Ribena, but perhaps that was the power of suggestion at work? A bit more concentration highlighted a sort of fruit leather character and some black treacle. Finally, in the last sips, something like juniper berry began to pop out.

Ultimately, we wanted something more from a strong elderberry ale — more obvious exoticism. It’s a perfectly acceptable porter-like beer, but could do with its fruitiness amping up, and perhaps some trickery to give it more body. As it is, we wouldn’t rush to drink it again.

Disclosure: we got our bottle of Ebulum in a case of samples sent by Williams Bros.

World Lager Disguised as Craft Beer

Empty skull illustration.

Pistonhead Lager from Sweden’s Brutal Brewing seems, superficially, to be ‘well craft’.

It comes in a can.

A tiny, expensive can, bedecked with cartoon skulls, stylish typography and lifestyle rhetoric: “Pistonhead supports live music, Rock n Roll attitudes and good times.”

And yet it tastes… like Carling. That is, fine, but with a nasty edge in the warm dregs.

It’s bland beer targeted at people who don’t want to look like they drink bland beer — some of the BrewDog attitude without the flavour to back it up.

We’re bracing for more of this kind of thing in years to come.