The Craft Beer Life on a Budget

Is craft beer in the UK (definition 2) hopelessly exclusive to those on a budget or are there ways in?

We got thinking about this in response to two Tweets, the first from Mark Dexter…

…and the second from Tony Naylor who writes about food and drink for the Guardian and other publications:

Mark (former blogger, actor, doesn’t like 330ml bottles) went on to argue that those who suggested paying it was reasonable to ask more for a better product were essentially saying, ‘Screw poor people. Let them drink piss.’ (His words.)

This is something that nags at us somewhat. A few years ago we suggested that breweries might consider finding a way to offer an entry level beer at a reasonable price by, for example, being pragmatic about hops and shooting for a lower ABV.

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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.

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.