Patreon’s Choice #3: Odyssey Spottieottiehopaliscious

This is the third in a series of posts with notes on beers chosen for us by our Patreon subscribers. (If you want a ton of bonus stuff, and to tell us what to drink, sign up!)

Chris Gooch suggested that we try something, anything, from Herefordshire brewery, Odyssey. What Beer Ritz had in stock was Spottieottiehopaliscious, an American pale ale at 5.4% ABV. One 500ml bottle cost a rather wince-inducing £4.43.

The packaging is interesting, pitched somewhere between old school real ale and modern craft — vaguely folky, acoustic, fibrous.

The beer itself was golden with a loose but steady head, none of which, frankly, we were really able to focus on over the intoxicating, incredible aroma. It filled the air with blossom, with orange, grapefruit and peach. If something can smell sweet, this beer did, as if it was triggering some dormant ability to detect the ripest nearby fruit with a twitch of the nostrils.

It didn’t taste quite as astonishing, sadly. It seemed soft and pillowy on the palate and brought to mind tinned mandarin segments, or maybe some long-forgotten soft drink of the 1980s. Which is not to say it lacks bitterness — that sat there, adding weight, like a granite marble on the back of the tongue. There was, thank goodness, no onion or armpit, the appreciation of which in vogue characteristics is apparently beyond us. Overall it reminded us of Thornbridge’s fun, approachable pale ale Chiron, only looser and a touch funkier.

We found it, in short, thoroughly likeable and enjoyable. Nearly five-quid’s-worth of likeable? Maybe not quite.

QUICK POST: Alphabet Brewing Co Flat White Breakfast Stout

Flat White Breakfast Stout.

This beer was part of a batch ordered from Beer Ritz and paid for by Patreon subscribers like Simon Branscombe and Jared Kiraly — thanks, chaps!

We chose this particular beer because it came up as a suggestion in last year’s Golden Pints. A 330ml can at 7.4% ABV cost £3.19.

The can is rather cool looking and the name is appealing: breakfast is a lovely word for starters, and flat white (a small amount of smooth steamed milk over espresso) is just about hanging in there as the hip coffee preparation of the day even though you can now get them in Greggs.  We can imagine this cropping up in cafes and delis, appealing to people who might not otherwise be that into beer.

We don’t know much about Alphabet other than that a friend of a friend who was in the process of setting up a brewery in Manchester tells us they’re nice people, and that cans of their Hoi Polloi pilsner we tried earlier this year were decent enough.

The name hints at the stylistic gimmick at the heart of this beer: it is a stout but not black as we’ve come to expect. This is idea with some historical basis previously mined most notably by Durham Brewery. One immediate problem, though, is that, though pale for a stout, it is by no means white. In fact, it is reddish brown — the least remarkable colour for beer other than yellow. So an exciting proposition — Wonder At the Freakish White Stout! — is anything but in execution. ‘Pale’ might better have set our expectations but even that would be pushing it. Still, it did look appetising enough on its own terms, clear and gleaming.

The second problem, unfortunately, was a big stale aroma that caused us to recoil rather than to smack our lips in anticipation. Where there ought to have been perhaps a touch of smoke or fruit there was a sort of damp, dirty basement stink — the wrong kind of dank altogether.

Once we’d got past that (aromas recede after the initial encounter) the taste was interesting, definitely dark-tasting (because dark is a flavour in beer), slightly spicy, with some suggestion of cherry, and a lot of burnt cream. The resemblance to coffee, in other words, was specifically to those sweetened, flavoured, very milky dessert coffees that abound at this time of year. We didn’t particularly like it, just as we don’t particularly like that kind of coffee, but we can see how it might appeal to palates other than ours.

Unfortunately that staleness was a deal-breaker. This can was theoretically good for another few weeks, until 17 December, and has been stored in the cool and dark since we bought it, but we’d say it actually expired some time ago. And, once again, like a stuck record, we have to point the finger at dodgy packaging, or packaging processes. We’re getting more and more wary of cans from smaller breweries, especially when they cost as much as a pint of ale at our local. In this case, we feel a bit swizzed.

Patreon’s Choice #2: Bottled Hophead

Hophead label.

This is a quick entry in our series of notes on beers suggested by our Patreon subscribers. This time it’s the bottled version of Dark Star Hophead as suggested by @AleingPaul who has never tried it himself.

We bought this from Beer Ritz at £2.78 per 500ml bottle and, like the cask version, it has an ABV of 3.8%.

A note, first, on that cask beer — a classic we think it’s fair to say, or at least a standard. Here’s a bit on the history of the beer from an article we wrote for All About Beer a couple of years ago:

Another cult favourite is Hophead from Dark Star, a brewery in Brighton, a fashionable coastal resort an hour’s train ride south of London. Mark Tranter… worked at Dark Star from the 1990s until 2013. He recalls that, at some time after 1996, one of the owners of the Evening Star pub where the brewery was then based went to California and came back with Cascade hop pellets. These, along with other U.S. hops available in small quantities via hop merchants Charles Faram, formed the basis of ‘The Hophead Club’, conceived by Dark Star founder Rob Jones. At each meeting of the club members would taste a different single-hopped beer. ‘Cascade was the customers’ and brewers’ favourite, so it was not long until that became the staple,’ recalls Tranter. When he took on more responsibility in the brewery, Tranter tweaked the recipe, reducing its bitterness, and, in 2001, dropping its strength from 4% to 3.8%. Today, with the brewery under new ownership and with a different team in the brew-house, the beer remains single-minded and popular, giving absolute priority to bright aromas of grapefruit and elderflower.

Cask Hophead might have had a wobble a few years ago, or it might just have been that we had a run of bad luck, but on the whole it’s been a beer we cannot help but drink when it’s on offer. Its relatively low strength means we can take a decent amount without getting in a whirl or suffering the next day; its light body makes it swiggable and easygoing; but it is far from bland, even by the hop-saturated standards of 2017.

Perhaps our fondness is partly down to the fact that we’re of the Cascade generation and developed our love of beer when that hop variety was the coolest thing in town. Whatever the reason, fond we are.

So, how is the bottle? Does it capture the magic? Can you get that Hophead buzz in the comfort of your front room, dressed in your jim-jams?

Apparently not.

The bottled beer is utterly dull — a pan-and-scan VHS, K-Tel edit, plastic imitation.

It’s not horrid — there’s enough hop character there to spark a little pleasure — but it feels heavy, tastes as if it’s been microwaved, and has nothing to set it apart from any number of golden ales from less beloved breweries available in every supermarket in the land.

It’s weird to feel so irritated by a mediocre beer, but it must be because it’s a mediocre incarnation of a great beer.

We won’t be going out of our way to buy it again but will perhaps enjoy our next encounter with cask Hophead all the more.

Patreon’s Choice #1: Bag of Marbles

This is the first in a series of posts about beers chosen for us by our Patreon subscribers and features beers from Manchester brewery Marble.

It was Steve Lamond (@BeersIveKnown) who suggested that we try Lost Your Marbles and we added a couple of other interesting looking beers from Marble to fill out the box. We bought them (and all the beers for this particular series of posts) from Beer Ritz because, though the website is still mildly frustrating, we like the range on offer and find the service fuss-free.

The head of a glass of beer with glinting light.

First, as we tackled these in ascending order of strength, was Saison du Pint at 3.9% ABV and £2.80 per 330ml can.

What a clever beer, both in terms of execution and concept. It’s the brewery’s standard pale bitter, Pint, but fermented with the same strain of yeast used for the Belgian classic Saison du Pont. A sort of unofficial collaboration, we suppose.

It comes with a huge cotton-wool head, a beautifully clear golden body, and a whiff of some sort of sticky banana dessert. It’s tempting to judge it against Saison du Pont to which, unsurprisingly, it does indeed bear a family resemblance, but by that standard it seems a little thin and lacking in luxury. As a quirky session ale, however — remember, 3.9! — it is absolutely a winner, with a peppery mustard-leaf prickle contributed by the yeast complimenting the base beer in wonderful ways. Sinkable but strange; made to quench thirsts but cutting a dandyish dash on the way.

A few years ago we gave some talks on the basics of how beer is made and used German wheat beer to illustrate the impact of yeast. This would be even better, tasted side by side with original Pint.

The only serious downside, really, is that we want to drink it by the pint, and several pints in a row, rather than from a diddy can at home.

A dark old ale in the glass with bottle.

Lost Your Marbles is the beer Steve really wanted us to try: “My beer of the year to date — love what [James Kemp, head brewer at Marble] is doing with his old ales series.” It’s a 9% ABV ‘Cognac Oak Aged Blend’ and cost £5.38 for 330ml. It comes in a plain bottle with an attractively designed card dangling round its neck on a black ribbon.

(How do we know the right card stayed with the right beer throughout its journey? We don’t, but let’s not fret about that.)

This dense, dark beer was fascinating too, in a less subtle way. Like a lot of old ales and imperial stouts at around this strength it seems to contain a bit of everything: demerara, the burn of spirits, bonfire toffee, Cola sweets, dessert wine, coffee essence… You get the idea.

The suggestion of sugar that had ‘caught’ in the base of a too-hot pan, and a hot whisky note, meant that it wasn’t quite to our taste, but it is clearly a well-made, undoubtedly interesting, deeply indulgent beer that will knock the socks of most people who drink it. Heck, we’d probably buy it again, because it came close enough to wowing us that the chances are on a different day, in a different mood, it would do just that.

The head of a glass of dark old ale.

In a similar vein, at the same price, comes Castle of Udolpho, a blend of young and Pinot Noir barrel-aged old ale at 10.4% ABV.

This beer was so dark that if it was badged as stout we wouldn’t argue. It came with an off-white head and distinct aroma of something like sour cherry, or even raspberry vinegar. There were flavours of condensed milk, chocolate and even caramel were balanced with a liqueur-like heat and bite, and then chased around the mouth by a Harvey’s-like funkiness that took a long time to die away. The body seemed oddly thin after Lost Your Marbles — perhaps a consequence of something (the source of that funk?) having chewed through some of the residual sugar?

Again, though there’s no doubting its complexity or the skill with which it was put together, something about it didn’t quite click for us. We liked it, but didn’t love it. Perhaps it struck us as a little harsh or overblown, but then the same applies to Harvey’s Extra Double Stout and we can’t get enough of that. Perhaps it’s just that when you turn the volume up like this the background noise is amplified along with the good stuff. Our guess is that a bottle of this left alone for five years would come together rather better. If you like big, boozy, complex beers there’s a very good chance you’ll swoon over this one.

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Overall, we’re left with our high opinion of Marble. It’s a brewery that takes risks and does interesting things, whose beers are rarely less than enjoyable and often brilliant.

Vienna Beer at Zero Degrees

Graffiti outside Zero Degrees.

As part of our mission to visit every pub in Bristol* we popped into Zero Degrees on Saturday where, to our surprise, we encountered a beer of the year contender: a Vienna lager of astonishing perfection.

Something like fifteen years ago (wow) we used to swoon over Meantime’s Golden Beer, which was a kind of doppio malto affair, darker and heavier than a standard Pilsner but not sickly or sweet. It disappeared from Meantime’s roster more than a decade ago; thankfully, the Vienna Lager (5.3% ABV) at the Bristol branch of the Zero Degrees brewpub is a dead ringer.

It’s perhaps not surprising that Zero Degrees, a similarly lager-focused brewery founded at around the same time as Meantime in the same part of the world and targeting the same market, should sometimes produce beers that resemble Meantime’s. We haven’t dug into it but suspect some of the same staff have rotated in and out of those two breweries, too, over the years.

But, the Vienna… It was indeed golden — not quite amber, but definitely deeper than yellow — and balanced magically on the knife-sharp edge between all-about-hops and all-about-malt. It was advertised as dry-hopped but that didn’t translate into brashness. This is the kind of beer that stopped us shrugging about lager all those years ago — the kind of beer that makes us say, ‘Wow!’ without having any particular prominent feature to point at. (Further reading.) The wow factor is in the perfection of its structure, the precision with which each part does its job, the taming of weed and seed into perfume and biscuit when they can so easily end up all grass and mud. In the past we’ve had beers at Zero Degrees that lack life but this sparkled and glowed, and had a decent head, without being fizzy or like a bubble-bath.

An Oktoberfest beer also on offer was less successful (dense and dark, but sticky with sugar) and a sour cherry beer was almost brilliant except that the sourness had a faint suggestion of hangover sweat about it.

Overall, despite our ongoing problem with the chilly pizza restaurant vibe, we resolved to visit Zero Degrees again soon, and more often in general. Anywhere that is consistently brewing these Continental sub-styles, with only tasteful ‘twists’, deserves a bit of love.

We’re expecting this to take several years. We’re making the rules up as we go along, defining ‘pub’ as somewhere primarily defined by the availability of beer, and ‘Bristol’ as — gulp — the ONS definition. Visits made to pubs before we moved here in July don’t count; we both have to be present for a visit to register; but only one of us has to consume an alcoholic drink. We’re up to (checks) 72 so far.