Magical Mystery Pour #25: Bishop Nick 1555

For this latest round of Magical Mystery Pour (the fifth) we’ve asked Justin Mason (@1970sboy) to pick us some beers from Essex in the east of England. He’s deeply immersed in the local beer scene as evidenced by his beer blog and the Twitter side project @BeerInEssex.

First, a quick recap of the premise of Magical Mystery Pour: we ask someone to pick an online retailer, choose five or six beers they think we’ll find interesting in one way or another, and send us some notes. We then buy the beers, drink them, and write them up.

We approached Justin because the idea behind MMP is to find beers we might otherwise miss and to highlight less talked about breweries, and we don’t know Essex beer at all well. Also, we both have family connections there, Boak more so than Bailey, and share a fascination with a county which at one end is tangled up in in London and at the other with East Anglia.

The first beer in this round is 1555, badged as an amber ale, from the Bishop Nick Brewery of Braintree. Its ABV is 4.3%. We bought our 500ml bottle from Essex Food for £3.10. Justin says:

Bishop Nick Brewery was founded from the ashes of Ridleys Brewery, at one time Essex’s oldest and largest by the son of its last chairman, and fittingly 1555 is named after the year that his ancestor, Nicholas Ridley was burnt at the stake for his Protestant beliefs in the reign of Bloody Mary. Hopped with Styrian Goldings this fruity red ale is one of my ‘go-tos’ if I see it on the bar on in a bottle.

We approached this with some wariness. The label says hip-young-things, the bottle size and the style says trad-as-your-dad, and ‘amber ale’ (i.e. bottled bitter) is rarely terribly exciting, even when (especially when?) bottle-conditioned, as this is. We’ve simply been burned too often by gushers and accidental lambics.

Bishop Nick 1555 in the glass.

But, thankfully, there was no drama during pouring, just a discreet pssst, the right amount of carbonation to give a decent pub-style head without requiring lots of management, and well-behaved yeast that stayed put in the bottle.

It was bright in the glass and made us want to resurrect the disgraced descriptor ‘polished mahogany’. How about the skin of a freshly-hatched conker for a social realist alternative?

The taste was remarkably unremarkable, which is a good thing. It is squarely in the brown bitter tradition, but more or less flawlessly executed.

It’s a beer ruled over by malt — round, nutty, wholemeal, chewable. Malt-led beers can often end up tasting sugary or toffeeish but there’s none of that here: it’s been properly finished and polished, with hops doing their work behind the scenes, out of sight. Well, mostly — the further we went, the more we detected a quirky fruitiness which might have been Styrian Goldings, or the yeast, or a double act between the two.

It’s hard to say what sets this beer apart but we’d guess it’s some combination of (a) precision in practice, (b) good ingredients, and (c) discerning palates. A similar brewery that came to mind was Westerham — if you like their beers, you’ll probably like this.

This is a conservative beer. It is grandfather clocks, National Trust floorboards and Inspector Morse. Don’t buy it looking for Alton Towers and fireworks. Do buy it if you’re the kind of person who can find themselves captivated by a rather interesting carved chancel screen.

That price tag, though hardly exorbitant, might put some people off when supermarkets are knocking out similar beers at less — sometimes much less — than £2 apiece. Bottled Butcombe Bitter, for example, is in similar territory, and solid in its own way, but this is better. Your money, your choice, and all that.

Magical Mystery Pour Bonus: Tempest Mexicake

Tempest Mexicake in the glass.

Tempest’s 11% ABV chilli-infused imperial stout, Mexicake, didn’t immediately appeal to me, because it sounds like the kind of beer people invent for their ‘Hur, hur, dumb hipsters’ jokes. But, wow, was it good.

This is a kind of Magical Mystery Pour deleted scene. Dina, you might recall, was our first selector more than a year ago, and very kindly sent us this and another beer as part of a Christmas gift box last December.

There are beers to which you respond intellectually, and those for which you just have a pash. This one made me go wobbly: ‘Blimey!’ was the only note I managed for the first few minutes. When I tried to expand on that, still reeling, I came out with I now know is called a malaphor: ‘That ticks a lot of my buttons.’

Then I said ‘Mmmmmmm’, three times before my brain engaged.

It was black with a dirty brown head, like something that might leak from the engine of one of those spiky cars in a Mad Max film. It felt dense, syrupy and velvety, and tasted like treacle. The chilli was subtle, almost possible to confuse with bitterness in the muddled wiring of the brain, and really worked. As it warmed up I began to think more of chocolate and vanilla but, really, there were lots of different flavours bouncing around. It might be easiest just to say, ‘It tastes of everything.’ (Except oddly, and thankfully, the advertised cinnamon.)

This was proof that big beers can also be perfectly balanced. Delightful. Bring me another!

Magical Mystery Pour #24: Weird Beard Mariana Trench

The last beer in this round, chosen for us by Rebecca Pate (@rpate) who blogs at Brewing East, is Weird Beard’s Mariana Trench ‘Transpacific Pale Ale’.

It cost us £2.89 per 330ml bottle from online retailer Honest Brew, has an an ABV of 5.3%, and is designed to showcase a mix of US and New Zealand hops, hence the name. Rebecca says:

This has long been one of my boyfriend’s favourite picks – and he has a handful of those from Weird Beard – but this is definitely among the brewery’s most consistent and highly enjoyable beers. Admittedly not as exciting as some of their other excellent range, this is one I’m still always happy to drink when spotted on tap. It’s a balanced pale that isn’t as aggressively hoppy as some of Weird Beard’s other beers, but I enjoy the hints of citrus and tropical flavours on the nose and light bitterness in the body… I’ve had some great pints of this on Broadway Market on lazy Saturday afternoons, so this is a beer that makes me wax nostalgic with every sip.

It’s probably worth reflecting here on our general feelings about Weird Beard, just to set some context. We find them interesting, not only in terms of the beer but also as a company — they’ve got a policy of openness and honesty which manifests through an often fascinating blog, and the ideas behind their beers can be quite attention-grabbing. We loved their saison when we tasted it off against a bunch of others and over the years have raved about occasional beers in their range. On the whole, though, we have them filed under ‘middling’, especially when it comes to their bottles. In fact, we’ve had this beer before, or at least a previous incarnation, and were lukewarm, although with the emphasis on warm.

Mariana Trench in the glass.
There’s a pin-cushion behind the glass, in case you were wondering about the magenta protrusions.

On opening it hissed just the right amount and poured perfectly clean, bright gold, despite being bottle-conditioned. The head was pure white, unmoving, neither shaving foam nor bubble bath, but somewhere between.

The aroma was muted — just a wisp of weed — which tipped us off to an issue. We checked the label and, sure enough, the beer was bottled in August and thus best before… last month. We bought it in January so this isn’t really our fault, or Honest Brew’s (although a warning might have been nice), or Weird Beard’s for that matter (this certainly beats fibbing about the best before like almost everyone else does). It’s probably just a fact of life we need to get used to with beers that are pointedly about hop aroma and flavour: check dates on delivery, file by delivery date.

There was a momentary spark of fruit juiciness — the ghost of a mango — followed by a vacuum left by the lack of malt character, which led into a faint home-brew funkiness. The latter wasn’t a problem — it provided a feature to navigate by — but the lack of sweetness or flavour in the middle was disappointing.

As per our pre-game prejudices, we found ourselves thinking that we liked it well enough, but it doesn’t push Weird Beard any further up the rankings. Run the standard diagnostic: is it better (or better value) than the reference beer in this area, BrewDog Punk IPA? Not really.

Again, though, we were drinking it past the clearly stated best before, and maybe it would have been, you know, better before. But we’ve had old hoppy beers before and been delighted — age tends to tame extreme hopping and rebalance this kind of beer towards the malt, which can turn out nicely to our taste. That didn’t happen here which highlights the risks of working in one dimension.

So, after our voyage to the bottom of the sea, we’re back where we started: Weird Beard continues to be worth exploring, but won’t always turn up treasure.

Thanks once again to Rebecca for taking the time to select these beers and write notes. Next up: Essex beers chosen for us by Justin Mason (@1970sBOY).

Heavy Lies the Crown

Cornish Crown is a difficult brewery for us to write about so we’re relieved to find that, finally, it might finally have come good.

It is based in an industrial unit outside Penzance and has a brewery tap here in town, The Crown on Bread Street which is the only PZ pub in the 2017 CAMRA Good Beer Guide. It’s a good pub, the pints are relatively cheap, and generally in good condition. It’s just that, for several years, the beer itself has been somewhere between indifferent and downright rough.

We said cautiously good things about the brewery when it launched, expecting it to get better, but actually, it got worse. But with decent branding, competitive pricing, and a strong local story, the beer was everywhere for a while, including places like London from where friends would text us: ‘This Cornish Crown… is it meant to taste like that?’

Every now and then someone would ask us what we thought of the brewery, on Twitter or in real life, and we’d be honest: ‘We don’t rate the beer.’ Sometimes, that would be met with astonishment, and we began to think that perhaps we were being a bit fussy. (We are, generally.) But the fact remained that for a long time we were happier to drink St Austell or even Skinner’s — another brewery towards which we are lukewarm — than Cornish Crown.

We kept checking in, though, things do change over the lifetime of a brewery (new kit, new staff, training and development) and, sure enough, last year we noticed a sudden upswing in quality. The keg vanilla porter in particular was not only passable but positively delightful. Then yesterday, prompted in part by the estimable Ellie Bennett, we made another visit to The Crown and gave the beer a fair workout.

Causeway best bitter is still not an exciting beer but was at least clean-tasting. If you like this kind of beer, there’s no reason you won’t like this particuarl example. One-Hop, the beer Ellie was excited about, was an extremely pleasant surprise, no longer muddy and cardboard-like, but popping with sweet citrus. It’s still fairly heavy-bodied and honeyish so not our favourite type of golden ale but there was nothing wrong with it at all within those parameters. Extra Stout Porter, a cask ale at 5.9%, was also sweet, mild and moreish, with no stale notes to spoil the fun. Our companion felt conned by the keg Red IPA –‘It’s more Greene King than Lagunitas’ — but it wasn’t sour or cabbagey as we have found it in the past.

We’d still rather drink a great pint of St Austell Proper Job than any of these beers but, for now at least, The Crown is back on the circuit for us, and we’re upgrading our advice on the beer from AVOID to GIVE IT A TRY.

Magical Mystery Pour 23: Magic Rock Salty Kiss + Special Guest Star

The penultimate beer of a set chosen for us by Rebecca Pate (@rpate) of Brewing East is an old favourite: Magic Rock’s take on the salty, sour native beer style of Saxony.

We’ve drunk this beer many, many times, and have written about it often, including in our short and short-lived columnette in the Guardian Guide back in 2015. Nonetheless, we were very happy to give it fresh consideration, especially as we had a twist in mind.

People have been telling us to try Westbrook Gose (South Carolina, USA) for ages but despite its being theoretically widely available in the UK we’ve only ever seen it accompanied by the words OUT OF STOCK. But this time luck was on our side and we managed to nab a single can at £4.90 for 330ml from Honest Brew.

Which leads us to a first point of comparison: Salty Kiss cost £1.99 per 330ml can from the same source, which means Westbrook Gose has to be more than twice as good — stratospherically brilliant, in fact — to justify its asking price.

We drank both side by side. They looked remarkably similar in the glass — hazy gold, soft peaks — but the Westbrook gave off a more obvious sour smell, like a lemon in the compost bin.

The head on a glass of Salty Kiss.

Salty Kiss is made with gooseberries but does not taste of them, is not green, and will not strike you as all that weird if you’ve ever had a Fentiman’s lemonade. If any fruit comes to mind, it’s strawberries, but maybe that’s because of the design of the can, like a grown-up version of that experiment from Home Economics lessons at school where banana-flavoured milk dyed pink so easily fools the palate. Gose’s eyebrow-raising headline ingredient is salt but we don’t really taste it, perhaps because it is in balance with beginner-level sourness. Nor do we particularly latch on to any coriander, which presumably means its been used with the light touch 21st Century craft brewers (def 2) are so often chided for lacking. Our impression this time, as always, is that this is a classy, well-constructed beer that closely resembles the beers currently sold as Gose in Leipzig and around, only with a bit more punch, which is why it’s on the A Team.

Our first impressions of Westbrook Gose were of a much greater sourness. If Salty Kiss is Victorian pop, then this is some kind of sports drink designed to be chugged from a plastic bottle under the Friday Night Lights. The sourness is of a particular type: a sweaty, cheesecake funk; milk left too long in the sun. The obligatory fruit comparison: peaches. It clings to the tongue like peach tin syrup, too. There’s a line beyond which this kind of thing ceases to taste much like beer and, from our perspective, this beer is on the wrong side. Which is not to say we didn’t enjoy it — there is something moreish about it, and it’s not insanely sour or anything. If you always Go Large when the option is presented then, of the two, this might be the Gose for you.

Going back to Salty Kiss after the Westbrook Gose was a revelation. It was almost a different beer — lighter, fresher, hoppier, its pale ale DNA suddenly rampant. Different and, yes, better. Amazingly great. We’re still in love.