Category Archives: beer reviews

Belgian Hop Beers

Belgian hop beer bottle caps.

Over the last few nights, we’ve tasted several Belgian ‘hop beers’ which we bought from the Belgian Beer Factory, a remarkably good value online beer store.

As luck would have it, Joe Stange’s article on this topic appeared online at Draft Magazine on Wednesday, so we had an idea what to look out for:

Whether today’s Belgian brewers are re-discovering a hoppy tradition, jumping on an international bandwagon or just slapping green cones on the label to reach a lupulin-lusty American market—or a haphazard blend thereof—is open to interpretation.

The notes below are based on us drinking half of a 330ml bottle each, so very much first impressions.

First, Palm Hop Select (6% ABV) – a clear example of the label-only hop beer Stange mentions in his article. The aroma was of muscovado sugar, the colour amber, and the flavour overwhelmingly metallic, like accidentally chewing on aluminium foil. That eventually passed, leaving us with what might have passed for a 4% UK supermarket bitter — clean, as in plastic tablecloths, with a touch of orange barley water. Not terrible, in any specific way, but the thought of having to drink it again makes us shudder.

Next, Buffalo Bitter (8.5%), which took advantage of us admiring its pretty cap design (the bucking bronco, above) to spew from the bottle and all over the table. What we managed to rescue was so cloudy it might appropriately be described as a yeast-beer emulsion. Resenting it before we tasted it, we were pleasantly surprised by its juiciness. Strawberries (from Tettnanger hops?) and tangerine combined with a creamy body with good effect. Rather malty and sweet, it was almost a car crash, but, somehow, it worked. We’d like to try it again.

The opaque yellow Gouden Carolus Hopsinjoor (8%) struck as relatively simple but delicious – bright, dry and chalky. The overriding flavours were orange peel and alcohol. In fact, it tasted as if a tot of whisky had been poured into the glass. It had, as far as we could discern, no more distinct hop character than many other Belgian beers.

Houblon Chouffe Dobbelen IPA Tripel (9%) is one we’ve enjoyed before. This time, we noted an underlying similarity to Hopsinjoor, especially in its evident booziness. We appreciated a dab of toffee to balanced out a bitterness which brought to mind biting into an unpeeled orange. The promised hops made themselves known in a lingering green fir-tree aroma. A great beer.

We’ll mention Duvel Tripel Hop 2014 (9.5%) in passing (we have another couple of bottles to enjoy) and say that, if you liked previous year’s efforts, there’s no reason you shouldn’t enjoy this. Along with the Achouffe, the pick of the bunch for us, along with De Ranke XX Bitter (6.2%) which, while hardly aromatic, really is almost too bitter. Which is to say, it’s just right.

On balance, we don’t think typical Belgian yeasts leave much room in a beer for huge hop aroma, especially from strident American varieties. More bitterness, though, it can handle.

A Hit and Miss Cult Brand

Rothaus beers in a line.

We’ve long had a soft spot for Rothaus but mostly for reasons unrelated to the quality of the beer.

First, Rothaus is wholly owned by the state of Baden-Württemberg, which seems to contribute to its cult status. Perhaps public ownership, combined with a general German tendency to conservatism, is behind our second favourite feature: ‘retro’ labels that remind us of illustrations from 1970s books for children.

Which is not to say that we haven’t found draught Tannenzäpfle (aka ‘Pils’) pleasant enough when we’ve come across it in the UK, especially when it’s been served with an appropriate mousse-like head in one of those pleasingly chunky handled mugs.

But what is the rest of their range like? And how does it bear up in bottles? Black Forest beers, Rothaus’s UK distributor, gave us the chance to find out when they sent us a selection of 330ml bottles.

Alkoholfrei (0.5% ABV)

We’re frequently asked to recommend an alcohol free beer and have not previously been able to do so with clear consciences. Boak tasted this very pale yellow example ‘blind’ (she didn’t know it was alcohol free) and, though she didn’t find it delicious, declared it better than Budweiser. It has the usual slightly salty, vegetal, corny finish of boozeless brews, but really wasn’t bad. Considering.

Tannenzäpfle (aka Pils, 5.1% ABV)

For a moment, we thought there might be some strawberry essence in this, the flagship beer, but realised the aroma was one we’re beginning to associate with Tettnang hops. The taste, however, was rather metallic. “Like licking jam off an old crowbar,” we imagined Jilly Goolden might say. The body was both creamy and light — it would make a good down-to-earth substitute for champagne — and, by the end, we were convinced we could detect a grape-y, German white wine character. We’re not going to rush to order a case, but there is nothing at all wrong with this beer, and plenty of depth if you’re in the mood to look for it.

Zäpfle (aka Hefe Weizen, 5.4% ABV)

A huge banana aroma and bright traffic-light orange glow made a good first impression. The first sip made us say ‘Wow!’ And then it went downhill. The beer is actually rather light on flavour and body, tasting almost as if it has been watered down. Trying really hard, we detected some suggestions of mango and passion fruit, but just barely. We’d rank it above Erdinger, but below many others. It’s fine.

Eis Zäpfle (aka Märzen Export, 5.6% ABV)

We expected this brassy, golden beer to taste something like the Pils but with the accent on malt; unfortunately, we found it rather rough, sweet, and sugary. Instead of bread-crust and cereal, there was something like brandy-soaked baked apple. This beer was apparently designed for the drinker who needs to get where they’re going with maximum efficiency.  “This is going to give me a headache,” said Bailey, which is as good a summary as any.

Those in the trade can order direct from Black Forest Beers and consumers from the Beer Boutique.

Supermarket ‘Craft Lagers’

Lager written on a pub window.

At least in terms of the number of brands available, we are currently spoiled for choice when it comes to ‘craft lager’ in supermarkets.

London brewery Fuller’s have been trying to launch a successful lager for decades. An early effort, K2, back in the 1980s, was a flop, but Frontier (4.5% ABV) seems to be achieving considerable success, at least if the sheer amount we saw being consumed on a recent trip to London is anything to go by. It might be benefiting from the fact that its stylish packaging rather implies that a trendy new brewery called Frontier is behind it, the Fuller’s name being all but hidden in tiny lettering.

Fuller's Frontier Craft Lager.Thought we’ve found the draught version perfectly fine if uninspiring, the bottles we tried hovered between just-about-drinkable and downright unpleasant. We would have liked some fruitiness, some sulphur, some Continental hop character, or some bread dough in the aroma, but got only a vague whiff of cream crackers. It seemed stale and ‘cardboardy’, with a throat-lozenge honey character where we wanted crispness. A victim, perhaps, of harsh treatment in the supermarket distribution network?

Marston's Revisionist Craft Lager.Marston’s Revisionist lager didn’t fare much better. We both suspected that, had we tasted it blind, we would have easily identified its brewery of origin. In fact, packaging aside, there wasn’t much to distinguish this from any number of standard ‘golden ales’. At first, we enjoyed its delicate elderflower and peach notes, but it finished badly, with staleness and stickiness building until the last mouthfuls were an effort. Though very cheap in Tesco (not much more than £1 a bottle), we can’t say it was good value.

We’re happy to see British brewers producing more lager, but, in general, they need to clean it up, jazz it up, or ideally both.

If you really want to pick up a UK-brewed ‘craft lager’ with your weekly shop, we haven’t found one more enjoyable than the now pretty solid St Austell Korev. If you don’t insist on a British product, Pilsner Urquell is still the best of the readily-available big brands in terms of taste, while Czech-brewed ‘own-brands’ continue to represent a bit of a bargain.

Hawkshead Stout, IPA and Export

Hawkshead bottled beers: IPA, Dry Stone Stout and Brodie's Prime Export.

Hawkshead of Cumbria is one of those breweries whose beer we’ve read more about than we’ve drunk. Best known for their pale-and-hoppy session ales, and much beloved of our northern beer blogging peers, they have recently acquired their own bottling line, and sent us three beers to try.

Dry Stone Stout (4.5% ABV) is a great name for a beer, suggesting the Cumbrian landscape as well as indicating, we assume, the intended character of the beer. It looked enticing in the glass, unctuous, and with a dark, immoveable head. Unfortunately, this bottle, from the first batch off Hawkshead’s new bottling line, seemed to have gone a bit wrong. Where we expected flinty austerity, we found an overwhelmingly buttery, toffeeish, Werther’s Originals character.  Boak, taking it as a kind of ‘Caramel Shortbread Stout’, rather enjoyed it; Bailey found it undrinkable.

Modern aromatic IPAs seem to fall into two broad categories: tropical-fruity and weedy-leafy. Hawkshead’s nameless version (7%) is firmly in the latter camp. It gave off a sweet pipe tobacco aroma on pouring, and its taste provided reminders of pine, lemon verbena, meadow grass, and, er, other type of grass. It shares some of the pleasingly raw character of Brewdog Punk IPA at is best, and is similarly dry. We found it nicely clean with no interfering ‘off’ notes. If it has a flaw, it might be that it is not terribly distinctive — why would we buy this rather than any other IPA of around the same strength? (See also Northern Monk Brew Co New World IPA.) Nonetheless, we liked it a lot, and would certainly buy a few bottles if the price was right.

We finished on a really interesting beer — Brodies Prime Export (8.5%), a stronger version of one of Hawkshead’s flagship products. Almost-black and red-tinged, it reminded us at once, not of another beer, but of Pedro Ximenez, a sweet fortified wine made from raisins, with a barely perceptible top note of grapefruit spray. It also brought to mind that bottle of 30-odd-year-old Adnams’ Tally Ho we drank last year, only without the unpleasant funkiness. In other words, Brodie’s Prime Export tastes like a ready-aged beer. It is rather classical and classy, despite its ‘craft’ branding, and gets four thumbs up from us.

Illustration: Victoriana.

Leather Plates and Pipe Smoke

“When I was a kid we used to go to my uncle’s house in London… The heat and light crackling sound of the fire, mixed with the smell of his oak-panelled room, his tobacco and the whisky by his leather chair, always bring Christmas of my childhood strongly to my thoughts… We created a dish… based on the memory… We set the frozen apple sorbet on fire with a whisky blend, while dry ice bellows from the leather plate carrying the smell of leather, wood, fire, tobacco and whisky. We even have the crackling sound of the burning logs coming from the dish.”

Heston Blumenthal

The very idea of a beer based on a historic recipe — the chance to share a sensory experience with our ancestors – gets us excited.

Packaging alone can build expectation, suggesting a swirl of fog, soot in the air, and the distant piping of a barrel organ, with a few tricks of typography and the prominent placement of an evocative date: 1913, 1891, 1884, 1880… (Like the dashboard on Rod Taylor’s time Machine.)

How historic are some of these recipes? Many are merely ‘inspired by’ something from the archives, while others are painstaking recreations. While we prefer the latter, we’re also more than willing to play along with the former, just as we would be with Heston Blumenthal’s sensory manipulations.

Read our tasting notes after the jump →