Vermont IPAs: a Tentative Conclusion

Two cloudy beers in fancy glasses.
Cloudwater NE DIPA (left) and BrewDog Vermont IPA V4.

The problem with Vermont IPAs, AKA New England IPAs, isn’t that they’re cloudy — it’s that they’re not bitter enough. Perhaps because they’re cloudy.

We’ve kept our minds open until now pushing back against the kind of knee-jerk conservatism that rejects hazy beer almost as a point of principle. We wrote about Moor, the brewery that pioneered unfined beer in the UK, in Brew Britannia, highlighting that, whatever you think of the trend, it wasn’t something Justin Hawke embarked on carelessly — it came out of personal preference and experimentation. Then for CAMRA’s quarterly BEER magazine last year we pulled together various bits of evidence underlining that haziness/cloudiness in beer has not always been taboo among connoisseurs and, indeed, has sometimes been seen as a mark of quality.

But at the same time — on the fence as ever — we’ve maintained a certain scepticism about the hazy, hoppy beers we’ve actually encountered in real life. We’ve continued looking for chances to drink IPAs with cloudiness as a flagship feature, especially anything labelled Vermont or NE IPA, trying to understand.

At BrewDog Bristol on Friday we were able to drink two different takes side by side — the first time this opportunity has ever presented itself — and in so doing, something clicked.

BrewDog draught beer menu.

BrewDog Vermont IPA (7.5% ABV, £4.90 ⅔ pint) is on its fourth experimental iteration and struck us instantly as overwhelmingly sweet — like a cornershop canned mango drink. But it didn’t taste yeasty, gritty or musty. It was clean, within its own parameters. Cloudwater NE Double IPA with Mosaic hops (9%, £4.95 per half pint) was incredibly similar clearly drawing on the same source of inspiration but better and more complex: pineapple, green onion and ripe banana. But it too verged on sickly and both beers we thought would have been far more enjoyable with the bitterness dialled right up to compensate for the muffling effect of the yeast haze, and to balance the fruitiness. Or, we suppose, with the haze dialled down to let the bitterness through.

Fortunately, the same bar also had on draught Cloudwater’s 9% ‘non-Vermont’ DIPA, which seemed only a touch less cloudy than the full-on milkiness of the previous two beers. The barman told us it was the first batch of the successor to the numbered V series. There was a snatch of garlicky armpit aroma we could have done without but, overall, it was just the mix of soft tropical lushness and diamond-hard bitterness that we were after. It was very good and proof, perhaps, that systematic batch-by-batch experimentation with customer feedback can pay off.

Back to the New England style, then: is purpose of the suspended yeast stuff (protein more than yeast — thanks, Emma) to soften and dull the bitterness? If so, and assuming that both BrewDog and Cloudwater know what they’re doing when they attempt to clone American originals, we can certainly see the appeal. Bitterness can be challenging, spiky, hard to love; whereas sweetness and fruitiness are accessible, easygoing characteristics. Good fun. Soft sells.

So, we’re now convinced Vermont/NE IPA is a Thing — a perfectly legitimate, interesting, coherent Thing that you have to take on its own terms rather than thinking of it as a flawed take on a style you think you already know. We’re never going to be fans — not with our frazzled middle-aged palates — but, as with some other marginal beer styles, will certainly take the odd glass now and then for the sake of variety.

Side notes

We also got to try Verdant Headband (£4.50 ⅔ pint) on draught at BrewDog and found it much better than the cans, although still rather one-dimensional. Again, more bitterness might have filled a hole here.

And the beer of the session — the only one that really knocked our socks off — was Cloudwater’s Double India Pale Lager (£4.95 ½). It might sound like the kind of thing traditionalists invent when satirising craft beer but, in fact, was an extremely happy marriage of traditions. Depending on your angle of view it is either (a) a characterful bock with a livening twist of citrus or (b) a pleasingly clean, crystalline, well-mannered IPA.

It was, suffice to say, perfectly clear.

Magical Mystery Pour 28: Wibbler’s Apprentice

This is the fourth of a selection of Essex beers chosen for us by Justin Mason (@1970sBOY) and it’s a 3.9% ‘session beer’ with Polish Marynka hops.

We bought our 500ml bottle from Essex Food for £3 and went into this with low expectations. We’ve previously moaned about regional gift shop beers — the kind of thing that seems to be brewed with minimal skill and consistency primarily to appeal to Buy Local obsessives who pick up a bit of beer at the local owl sanctuary or farmers’ market — and that’s what this looks like. The label is straight out of 1998, the brewery name is of the forced-jocular school, and we’d never heard of the brewery until Justin’s email which shouldn’t be a mark against it except that we’re partial believers in the wisdom of the hive mind and all that.

In particular, as is often the case with bottle-conditioned beers from unknown breweries, we assumed the worst and prepared for a gusher, teatowels at hand. Thankfully we were greeted by an assertive hiss with no accompanying drama. In the glass the beer was clear, amber, with a delicate, soft-focus look about the head — very cask-like.

The ambient aroma, which is what we’re now calling anything you can smell without sticking your nose in the glass, was primarily sheer booziness — quite an achievement at this strength. Closer up, there was just a whiff of hedgerow, or bramble, or fruit tea.

We took a few sips, then a couple of swigs, and noted some ups and downs in the story. First, there was a moment of concern — something was a bit off, or stale, a cardboard note — but that was soon followed by a pleasing essential, unpretentious beeriness. Of brick-built unadorned solidity. There was toffee, a flavour rather out of fashion these days, which was balanced against waves of round, orangey, spring-fresh hop flavour. Finally, there came down a steel trap of bitterness.

Apprenctice has a lot of flavour, a lot of body, a lot of everything except alcohol, without being showy about it. It is old-fashioned and reminds us pleasantly of our days ‘sampling ales’, pre-blog, with Michael Jackson’s hit-list at hand. There’s a resemblance to Badger Tanglefoot, once a pretty cool beer believe it or not, if you want a point of reference.

We grew more impressed the more we drank despite the lingering stale note. This, we concluded, is another fundamentally decent beer — the kind we really like — that’s been somewhat let down by the packaging process. Still, we’d drink it again, and we’d love to try a cask version in a creaky old pub in the kind of village where the clock in the square stopped in 1923.

If you like trad, give it a go.

Guinness, But Better

Two stouts, side by side, in stem glasses.

Guinness Antwerpen, an 8% ABV stout currently on sale in Tesco supermarkets, is very much a step in the right direction.

We bought our bottles there at £2 per 330ml. It is a version of the strong stout Guinness has been exporting to Belgium since 1944, known as Special Export Stout, or SES. Ratebeer treats them as the same beer.

We set about the first one with some expectations of a good time. SES isn’t a beer we know well, or can easily get hold of, so Antwerpen is effectively a new beer to us, and to many others. We’d seen opposing views in throwaway comments on social media — it’s great, it’s awful — but there were some people we trust in the former camp. People who we think are objective and who won’t hold Guinness’s sinister megabrewery status against it.

It is a dense black beer with a milky-coffee-coloured head. The body is similarly chewy and tongue-coating. It tastes rich, exotic and round. Some people might find it sweet but there is also what we perceived as a sour note to take the edge off, bringing to mind cherries and prunes. There is also a bare hint of savoury Marmite adding another layer of interest without intruding. It’s how we remember Ellezeloise Hercule Stout tasting when we drank a lot of it at The Pembury Tavern in Hackney Downs years ago — every so slightly off kilter, faintly funky, without being weird or challenging.

We were sufficiently surprised by just how much we liked it that we went back to the shop to get more bottles the next day. We also took the opportunity to answer a question posed by Steve Lamond of Beers I’ve Known: what does this beer bring to the party that the standard Foreign Extra doesn’t?

Foreign Extra (FES) is the 7.5% beer you see in supermarkets and corner shops at about £1.50-£2 per 330ml. It’s a benchmark for fellow blogger Ed: why spend more on a would-be imperial stout if it’s not better than FES? It’s a beer we drink from time to time and enjoy but not for a while and we recalled something quite different to Antwerpen. So we added a bottle of that to our shopping basket, too.

We tried both beers side by side, one of us pouring so that the other could taste (somewhat, unscientifically) blind. It was immediately obvious that these were different beers. FES is thinner, fizzier, harsher and more metallic. It tastes more like standard Guinness, somehow — rather burnt-sugar bitter, and blunt. But, at the same time, we had forgotten just how good it is and will certainly be making a point of getting some in if (when) the Antwerpen supply dries up.

As for Antwerpen, well, on a second pass, with FES for light and shade, impressed us just as much. It’s just got another dimension to it that lifts it up.

We had one last doubt: what if it was simply the glamour of that extra 0.5% on the ABV that had us fooled? So we diluted samples of each with water, as we learned to do on a gin-tasting tour a few years ago. Antwerpen’s flavour shone through: it tasted like standard Guinness, but better.

No-one is looking at Guinness complaining that they don’t make a decent lager, or pale ale, or saison. This is what people want from them: stout, but better. Not wacky, or adulterated, or overloaded with grassy hops — just better.

Magical Mystery Pour #27: Elephant School Sombrero

This passion fruit and chia saison is the third in a series of Essex beers chosen for us by Justin Mason (@1970sBOY) of Get Beer, Drink Beer.

Elephant School is a would-be-hip experimental sub-brand of Brentwood Brewing. This beer cost us £3 for 330ml from Essex Food. Justin says:

Brentwood Brewery, even though it’s across the other side of town to me, is my closest brewery in Essex and their Elephant School brand (named after an actual elephant school in Brentwood where people were trained to ride elephants by the East India Company prior to going to the sub-continent ) is their more creative arm. Sombrero is brewed with chia, a member of the mint family, and passion fruit, the latter ingredient almost taking the lid off the fermenter it was so volatile. This is still my favourite of their beers even though I have brewed my own cranberry Porter with them recently, Porter in a Storm.

What were our prejudices going into this? We’ve often been rather impressed by Brentwood’s cask ales — a 2.8% bitter of theirs is perhaps the best low-alcohol beer we’ve ever had — but can’t recall having tried their bottled products, and bottled beers from small breweries can be a risky business. Then there’s the style as described: saison is a difficult, delicate style and we sometimes suspect that chucking fruit in it is a distraction technique. And, finally, there’s a mild irritation at the idea that Brentwood, already a tiny independent brewery, needs a ‘craft’ spin-off — where does this kind of weirdness end?

Sombrero Saison in the glass. (Golden beer.)
Popping the orange cap we were answered with an assertive hiss and managed to pour (quite easily) a pure golden glass of beer topped with a glossy meringue-like head.

At first, we were worried by the aroma, which caused some nose wrinkling. There was a whiff of the old first aid kit about it, something chemical; or perhaps a peatiness, but somehow without the smoke. For a while, that was overriding, but it either died away or we got used to it.

Zeroing on the base beer we found something on thin side, dry, and spicy — a decent enough saison, but lacking the luxury of the standard-bearer for the style, Dupont. Perhaps that’s because it’s only 4.5% ABV — either historically appropriate or a kind of session saison, depending on the angle you’re coming from.

The passion fruit was dialling its performance in, offering a whisper of fruit flavour, but certainly not earning it’s star billing. It was about right for us, really — interesting and intriguing rather than like something that ought to be in a carton with a straw through the lid. We did wonder if the fruit was responsible for a mild acidity which we could have done without.

We detected nothing remotely minty, which is better, we suppose, than getting a gobful of it and not liking it.

It could do to be cleaner and, at the same time, to be a bit more interesting overall, given the expectations set up by the label and description. But we didn’t dislike it, even if we couldn’t go out of our way to drink it again.

Magical Mystery Pour #26: Colchester Brewery Brazilian

The second Essex beer from a set chosen for us by Justin Mason (@1970sBOY) of Get Beer, Drink Beer is a coffee and vanilla porter at 4.6% ABV.

We got it from Essex Food at £3.00 per 330ml bottle. Justin says:

Colchester Brewery use the ‘double drop’ method, where primary fermentation takes place in one vessel before being ‘dropped’ under gravity to a secondary fermentation vessel below, in the brewing of all their beers. Their Brazilian, with its label resembling that of a high street coffee chain (pure coincidence) is brewed using Brazilian coffee and fresh vanilla pods and is a beer that I’d quite happily end a meal with, having done so on numerous occasions.

We have mixed feelings about coffee beers. Too often they end up tasting sickly and fake — more like coffee cream chocolates, or coffee cake, than the real thing. Or, when they avoid that fate, they can instead end up too serious, harsh and headache-inducing. And of course there’s the novelty factor — is it a stunt, or a proper beer? Our gut feeling is that proper beers suggest coffee without just adding it to the brew.

In this case, too, the Starbucks-inspired branding didn’t fill us with hope. It’s such an obvious joke, a cheap shot, that it made us think somewhat ill of the beer from the off.

Colchester Brazilian porter in a beer glass.

On opening we felt yet more concerned. We’ve popped the caps on enough bottles over the years to almost be able to feel the character of the beer from the way it feels and sounds at that point. This felt flat and dead. It looked lifeless as it went into the glass, too, although as it settled a thin tan head did emerge like some kind of magic trick. It also kicked out a substantial drifting aroma of bottled baking essences.

And yet, for all those danger signs, we really liked this beer. The coffee character was fun rather than tacky and well balanced by the underlying beer — a bitter, light-bodied, uncompromising porter that we’d like to try neat by the pint sometime. It wasn’t at all sickly — it suggested sweetness without actually having much sugar left in it — the suggestive powers of vanilla, we suppose. What it reminded us of in spirit was those fancily-packaged single-estate chocolate bars with, say, baobab, that they sell in the Eden Project gift shop. It was intense without being po-faced about it.

What really sealed the deal was when we thought to check the ABV. We’d been assuming it was something like 6% — suggested by the bottle size, perhaps? — and were delighted to discover that so much flavour was being dished up in such a moderately alcoholic package.

We’d definitely buy this again and (based on this one encounter) would recommend it over some much trendier, more trendily packaged coffee stouts/porters we’ve encountered.

The brewery has a large range of special beers including lots of historically-inspired recipes — we’ll be looking out for them on our travels.