Barclay’s Russian Imperial Stout, 1970

Last night we sat down and, with due reverence (radio off, notebooks out) drank a bottle of 47-year-old Barclay’s (Courage) Russian Imperial Stout. And it was great.

The last very elderly bottle of RIS we got to try was at the specialist cafe Kulminator in Antwerp where we paid something like €18 for a relic from 1983. This new old bottle was found by Bailey at a car boot sale in Somerset and cost a much more reasonable £1.50.

The seller was an elderly bloke who had worked at Courage in the 1960s and 70s and said, ‘A mate of mine called me down to the cellars in the brewery at Tower Bridge one day where he’d found a stash of this everyone had forgotten about. He used to drink a bottle every morning before his shift started.’ This bottle, he said, was part of his own employee allowance that he’d never got round to drinking.

The cap of our bottle of RIS.

Having been stored who knows where for almost half a century, and then left on paste tables in the sun for who knows how summer boot sales, we didn’t have high expectations for our bottle’s condition. There was the usual hesitation when the time came to apply opener to cap — should we save it? But the answer to that question is generally ‘No’, and even more so when nuclear missiles are whizzing about on the other side of the world. So, one, two, three, and…

There was a smart snap and an assertive ‘Shush!’ Pouring it was easy enough, the yeast having fused with the bottle over the course of decades. We were left with a glass containing about 160ml of beer topped with a thick, stable head of sand coloured foam.

The aroma it threw up was immense, almost sneeze-inducingly spicy, and unmistakably ‘Bretty’.

The foam in the glass.

Oddly, perhaps, the Brett didn’t seem to carry over into the taste, or at least not in the ways our fairly limited experience (mostly Orval and Harvey’s take on RIS) has led us to expect. It wasn’t dry or challengingly funky. But perhaps it was simply that it was in balance, blended and melded with the rock solid bitterness.

The texture was like cream, the taste like the darkest chocolate you can imagine, with no hint of the sherry character we’d assumed was all-but inevitable in old beers. It was just wonderful — more subtle and smoother than Harvey’s, the nearest comparison, and overwhelmingly deep.

What amazed us most was how fresh it tasted, and how alive it seemed. If you’d told us it was brewed last year, we wouldn’t doubt you. (Disclaimer: such is the dodgy provenance of the bottle, we can’t say for sure it wasn’t brewed last year.)

Two hours later, Boak sighed dreamily: ‘I’m still tasting it.’

Beer as experience indeed.

Magical Mystery Pour #30: Long Man Best Bitter

This new season of Magical Mystery Pour, with Sussex beers chosen by Rachael Smith of Look at Brew, is one of those trendy but annoying short ones like Game of Thrones does these days.

That’s because with us moving house there was a bit of a delay in ordering the beers, and because the online store Rachael suggested — the only one with a comprehensive range of beers from Sussex — turned out to be a bit flaky. She picked five beers of which we ended up with three. (A fourth, from Burning Sky, was delivered past its best before date.)

The label for Long Man Best Bitter.

Anyway, crapness aside, the first beer we tasted was Long Man Best Bitter, a 4% ABV ale which cost us £2.80 for one 500ml bottle from South Down Cellars. Rach says:

I’ve picked this as it has become a staple in many a Sussex pub (on cask of course) as the core Long Man range is becoming synonymous with good quality beers at the traditional end of the Sussex brewing spectrum. It’s a classic session bitter with well balanced malts and bitterness, with some nuttiness coming through. It’s well worth seeking out on cask, but the bottled version is handy to have around. Not quite Harvey’s but a fine alternative.

The beer isn’t bottle-conditioned and was therefore no trouble to pour, giving us a thick, stable head above a body that it feels harsh to describe as brown such was its glow. (This is why marketing people so often resort to ‘amber’.)

Best Bitter in the glass.

The aroma was muted but suggested toffee and hot jam to Bailey, and a purely beery, woodland earthiness to Boak.

It seemed to be missing something on first tasting — a fizz, more toffee, and then a watery hole. As it went down and hung around, though, a warming orange marmalade note emerged.

It’s hard to find much more to say than that. It reminded us of any number of other traditional bitters you might find in the supermarket from breweries such as Badger or Butcombe, although with perhaps just a bit more oomph. Which is to say, it was a clean, bright, mainstream beer that with the right marketing could easily become a national brand.

We can’t imagine going out of our way to acquire another bottle but we’d certainly recommend it to friends who like normal beer and, as per Rach’s suggestion, suspect we’d get much more of a kick out of it on cask.

 

Hatherwood: Problems and Ideas

The numbered caps of the Hatherwood beer box.

The LIDL supermarket made a big deal of its revamped beer offer back in 2015 and the Hatherwood Craft Beer Company range was its sly centrepiece.

We got given a box set of six by a friend — a cute package with numbered caps and tasting notes — which prompted us to give them some serious thought.

Initially brewed at Marston’s the beers are now produced at Shepherd Neame, although you probably wouldn’t realise that if you’re not a keen beer geek trained to ferret out such information. Hatherwood’s head brewer happens also to be Shepherd Neame’s, and the bottles are the same distinctive shape as theirs too. Alarm bells also ring for us when we see those carefully chosen words ‘beer company’. No-one is claiming this is a brewery, of course they aren’t, but how many consumers will pick up on that fine distinction?

Really, this is the beer equivalent of those fake farms — Ashfield, Rosedene, Strathvale — that the supermarkets started using on meat packaging a year or two back with the intention of jumping on the provenance bandwagon.

It would be better, and more honest, if these were clearly labelled as own-brand products, with the actual brewery named on the label.

So, that’s the first misdirect. The second is that the admittedly very lovely labels and the names of the beers suggest something that the product in the bottles does not deliver. Green Gecko, for example, is a perfectly decent example of an old-school, historically-influenced British-style IPA but is presented as if it’s a competitor to BrewDog Punk. Amber Adder is really a sweetish strong bitter. Gnarly Fox new wave lager (still made by Marston’s at their Wychwood plant, we think) is a perfectly OK golden ale but certainly not the aromatic, adventurous, hip beer the blurb pitches.

What is the thinking here? Craft beer is the buzz-phrase of the day so that makes sense, but why not then make the beer more like the kind of beer that people who are excited by craft beer are actually drinking?

The funny thing is it’s actually not a bad range of styles. The porter in particular, which we guess is the same as the one Shepherd Neame produce for other supermarkets, is pretty decent and in this case comes in a very welcome brown bottle. If these were presented as the traditional British beers they really are, and the box was marketed as a guided tour of traditional beer styles, it would be rather a brilliant thing. (Especially at less than a quid a bottle.)

It certainly made us think we’d like to see more six-bottle sets with manuals from retailers and breweries, e.g. an IPA box with examples of the various sub-styles, designed to help newbies understand how, say, Marston’s Old Empire relates to Cloudwater DIPA. Or a package designed to demonstrate the subtle distinctions between porter, stout, milk stout, double stout, and imperial stout. (The Bristol Beer Factory have kind of done this.) Six is a nice manageable number — an evening’s work for two people, with just enough points of reference to learn something.

Magical Mystery Pour #29: Round Tower Avena Stout

The final bottle chosen for us by Essex expert Justin Mason (@1970sBOY) who blogs at Get Beer, Drink Beer is a stout from Chelmsford.

We bought our 500ml bottle from Essex Food for £3.40. The ABV is 4.7% and the label is minimalist to the point of plainness, its black and white shouting STOUT! from afar. Justin says:

Situated a stone’s throw from the heart of Chelmsford, Essex’s only city, Round Tower have been producing some of the tastiest beers in the county since 2013. Unafraid of trying out new techniques or embracing new styles Simon and Hannah Tippler pride themselves on the quality of their beer, and rightly so. Avena Stout, whilst neither experimental or challenging, is nevertheless a good example of what they are capable of. Roast malts up front, a creamy middle and burnt-toast-like dry finish make for a very satisfying drink, one to be enjoyed whatever the weather or time of day.

We like stout in principle but really struggle to find many examples at anything like standard pub strength that especially excite us. Samuel Smith Oatmeal is one that does. We had high hopes for Avena because it sent the right signals for us: modern without being aggressively trendy.

The head (foam) on a glass of Avena Stout.

The moment the crown cap came off the bottle let out a fierce hiss and the foam started to rise up to the neck. It stopped short of gushing but it was an anxious moment and the very high carbonation made it impossible to follow the instruction on the bottle to pour carefully. However slowly decanted, however tilted the receiving vessel, every trickle of beer into the glass kicked up an untameable stack of beige froth. It took several minutes and several tips of the bottle to get the glass anywhere near full. The beer being very dark meant that it was also hard to see what was happening with the sediment but we assume some, maybe even a lot, did escape.

The aroma, insofar as there was any, was of sharp, grassy hops over a background of hot metal. It wasn’t especially inviting, but it wasn’t off-putting either.

The flavour — the really important thing — struck us instantly as very pleasant. That established, we tried to work out why. It’s not, after all, as if it was perfect — there was a certain home-brew-like lack of polish that stopped just short of roughness. There was also a rattling clash between the hops and malt which almost hinted at black IPA, only green and leafy rather than grapefruity. If we could tweak it it might be to shift the hops back in the mix to create more bitterness and present less vegetation. The fizz, too, is distracting; a beer like this is better with a cask-like softness. As it is the bubbles perhaps contribute to the sharpness that undercuts what does work.

And that is the sweetness and body which, for once, really does earn the cliched description ‘creamy’. As far as we know there’s no lactose in here but it had a sweet milk stout character anyway. So many micro-brewery stouts are clearly inspired by Guinness whereas this sits on the other side of the family tree with Mackeson– nourishing, rum and raisin, just the thing for Grandma in the lounge or Mum on the maternity ward.

And that’s about all we’ve got.  As Justin suggests, it’s not the kind of beer you write essays about. But if you want a slightly skewed take on traditional stout, or generally find stout hard-going, this could be just the thing.

Thanks, Justin — that’s been fun.

Next in this series: Rach from Look at Brew suggests beers from Sussex.

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.