MINI TASTE-OFF: British Takes on German Wheat Beer

‘Why aren’t more British breweries tackling German-style wheat beers?’ Adrian Tierney-Jones has asked more than once. Intrigued by that question, we rounded up a few and gave it some thought.

Now, clearly, this isn’t one of our full-on, semi-comprehensive taste-offs — we didn’t have the time, inclination or, frankly, budget to get hold of a bottle of every Weizen currently being made by a UK brewery. One notable omission, for example, is Top Out Schmankerl, recommended to us by Dave S, which we couldn’t easily get hold of.

But we reckon, for starters, six is enough to get a bit of a handle on what’s going on, and perhaps to make a recommendation. We say ‘perhaps’ because the underlying question is this: why would anyone ever buy a British Weizen when the real thing can be picked up almost anywhere for two or three quid a bottle? The most exciting German wheat beer we’ve tasted recently was a bottle of Tucher in our local branch of Wetherspoon — perfectly engineered, bright and lemony, and £2.49 to drink in. How does anyone compete with that?

We drank the following in no particular order over a couple of nights, using proper German wheat beer vases of the appropriate size. What we were looking for was cloudiness, banana and/or bubblegum and/or cloves, a huge fluffy head and, finally, a certain chewiness of texture. That and basic likeability, of course.

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Magical Mystery Pour #18: Wold Top Marmalade Porter

This is the last of the beers chosen for us by David Bishop (@broadfordbrewer/@beerdoodles) and it’s another from Yorkshire, this time Driffield, out east near the North Sea coast.

It’s not really a part of the world we know at all, dimly remembered childhood holidays in Scarborough and Whitby aside, but if you fancy a treat, spend a few minutes looking at the map: Nafferton, Wetwang, Fridaythorpe, Thwing! It’s a never-ending pleasure.

We’ve had a few beers from Wold Top and always been impressed, and marmalade porter is a wonderfully mouthwatering phrase. Can the beer live up to it? David says:

A wild card choice.  I had a bottle of this a while back and based on the description of the beer I must have enjoyed it? Right?

We got our 500ml bottle from Beer Ritz at £3.36. Its ABV is 5% and some will be interested to know that it is also gluten free.

As part of his list of suggestions David also included Samuel Smith Taddy Porter, our favourite UK version of the style, which we decided to use as a benchmark for judging Wold Top Marmalade, with a view to working out retrospectively how might have fared in our big porter taste of back in 2014.

Marmalade Porter in the glass.In the glass it’s one of those beers that looks almost black and until you let a light through it when it reveals itself as a rich, clear red-brown. It didn’t seem to smell of much apart from a whiff of metal. The taste was quite overwhelming, however — like the dying embers of a bonfire. As we got used to the smoke a bit of butter came through, probably a bit more than some would enjoy, but tolerable to us. We didn’t really pick up any hint of marmalade or orange flavour, though the copy on the label and its evocative colouring almost fooled our senses.

It’s an earthy beer, not smooth or luxurious, the bitterness badly wanting some dried fruit character to balance it out. It feels as if it was hacked from raw wood with an axe rather than being the result of delicate craftsmanship. It’s like drinking a garden shed. This is not necessarily a bad thing (rustic would be the positive spin) but it’s not quite what we look for in a porter. Our gut instinct — just a guess — is that the problem is the result of a heavy hand with the dark crystal and black malts.

Let’s bring in Sam Smith here: Taddy Porter is wine-like, almost creamy, defined by its sugars, with every hard edge rounded away. In every way, it’s a better beer, as far as we’re concerned. At £3.18 for 550ml from Beer Ritz it’s also a (slightly) better value option.

In the end, though the words above might not quite convey it, we did enjoy the Wold Top beer and would certainly drink it again, but only passively, if it drifted in front of us. Would it have made the final in our porter taste off? Probably not. But it certainly confirms our impression of Wold Top as an interesting brewery whose beers are worth exploring further.

Magical Mystery Pour #17: Kirkstall Dissolution Extra IPA

This traditional IPA from Leeds, at 6% ABV, was chosen for us by David Bishop, AKA @broadfordbrewer, who says:

It’s one of those beers that folk regard as an unsung hero of British IPAs.  I think I’ve become accustomed to the juicy banger IPAs and often forget IPAs like this. I drink a fair bit of the cask version of this beer – the weaker Dissolution IPA. The Extra IPA comes in an unfashionable 500ml bottle, it’s at the maltier end of the IPA scale, it’s quite strong, and the Ratebeerians don’t seem to think much of it, which makes me like it all the more.

We bought our bottles from Beer Ritz at £3.28 per 500ml.

(A spot of disclosure: when we launched our book in Leeds Kirkstall supplied a beer with our names on the pump-clip. They didn’t pay us, we didn’t pay them, and we’ve had no dealings since. Having to do this every time gets exhausting but in for a penny, etc.)

We get a little bit excited about this kind of English IPA — not the 20th Century version which is generally indistinguishable from bitter but the revivalist, retro, BBC costume drama variety. The Protz-Dorber sub-style, if you like. They’re generally made using English hops in quantities substantial enough that you can taste them but with an emphasis on bitterness and flavour, rather than extravagant aroma. They don’t demand to be drunk fresh, now, quickly, drink me now! In fact, a bit of age often does them good. And, because there are so few around they feel different and interesting, sufficient to tickle the novelty receptors, while still being rooted in tradition.

Kirkstall Dissolution in the glass.

On opening the bottle we got a whiff of hot marmalade. After pouring, it looked slightly hazy, and a rather beautiful shade of orange. With noses in glasses we found more marmalade and orange blossom, as encountered in the clear syrup they used to sell in our local Turkish supermarket in London.

The initial impression of the taste was more of the same, along with some ripe strawberry and a general hedgerow leafiness. We kept talking about oranges but it wasn’t citrusy in the sense of bright breakfast juice — more like candied peel and intense oiliness. The bitterness was turned low in the mix but probably about right, holding it back from being cloying. It’s a round beer, not a spiky one; robust, not rough; mellow.

We think it bears a strong resemblance to Meantime’s take on historic English IPA but it’s years since we had a bottle of that, and it is pricey these days, as well as being stronger again at 7.4%. Marston’s Old Empire is probably the best budget alternative, usually available in supermarkets for less than £2 a bottle and great at its best, though sadly variable in our experience.

Though we liked Dissolution Extra a lot, and found every mouthful demanded another, we don’t quite think it earned its ABV, drinking more like a 5% beer. We’d really like to try the weaker version David mentions in his note. Overall, though, it was a big hit with us and we will probably buy it again. If you think these modern IPAs smell like bloody air freshener, but also think Greene King have a bloody cheek, and so on, then you should definitely give it a try.

There’s only one more MMP post after this in the current series when we’ll be writing about Wold Top Marmalade Porter with a side serving of Samuel Smith Taddy Porter for reference.

Magical Mystery Pour #16: Black Sheep Riggwelter

This beer chosen for us by David of Beer Doodles fame (@beerdoodles) is either a modern Yorkshire classic or a ubiquitous supermarket PBA depending on your point of view.

‘PBA’? That’s ‘premium bottled ale’, a category which didn’t really exist before about 1990, when breweries and supermarkets decided they needed a way to grab the attention of real ale drinkers during their weekly shop. We tend to think of Black Sheep, founded in 1991 by Paul Theakston of the famous brewing family, as very much a product of the PBA era, perhaps because that’s the form in which we, living in the south of England, most often encountered its beers.

Recalling his youth David says Riggwelter is ‘a beer that was around when I was too young, really, to be drinking Strong Yorkshire Ale, so I have a certain affinity for its rough edges when served too warm’. We bought our bottles from Beer Ritz at £2.98 per 500ml but most supermarkets seem to be selling it at between £1.60 and 1.90 a bottle.

There’s a fair bit of chat online about whether or not Riggwelter is intended to be a clone of, or homage to, Theakston Old Peculier. Both are around the same strength and a similar red-brown. As far as we can see, Paul Theakston has never gone on record acknowledging the similarity but, having run the family brewery for much of the 1970s, he would certainly know how to brew a clone if he wanted to. They seem quite different beers to us, though — cousins rather than twins. Perhaps, as in the case of many beers vaguely based on other beers, the likeness was more obvious in the early days before Riggwelter evolved into its own thing.

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Treat Yo Self

Barley wine and imperial ipa in glasses.

We can’t go to Falmouth without finishing up in Hand Bar for ‘something silly’. This time, it was Evil Twin’s Molotov Cocktail Imperial IPA, and Lervig Barley Wine.

We crammed quite a lot into 24hrs in Cornwall’s beeriest town, trying as we were to make the most of a short weekend. We had a session in The Front, for starters: Rebel 80 Shilling seems to be consistently great these days, and is perfect for this weather; and feeling our way round the Black Flag range, we concluded that they’ve graduated from faintly dodgy to generally enjoyable and interesting. Then on Saturday, with big breakfasts and fancy coffee inside us, we headed to Beerwolf for our fix of Up Country beer — the classic that is Marble Pint — and had another chance to consider a beer of the year contender, Penzance Brewing Co’s Hoptimystic. Not as good this time but still alluring and mysterious.

Then, with the evening drawing in, slightly merry, we wandered up the hill to Hand. Since our last visit several huge new fridges have been installed on the customer side of the bar meaning that it’s easier to browse — and to be tempted by — all the pretty bottles and cans. Boak’s mission was to have something super hoppy, jammy and chewy, like those crystal-malt-laden American IPAs we used to enjoy at The Rake in London. Evil Twin’s leapt out at us for no other reason than it said IMPERIAL INDIA PALE ALE very clearly right on the front of the label. (Designers, take note.) But it had no price tag.

‘How much is this one?’ Boak asked warily.

The barman checked. ‘Er… that one is eight pounds ninety.’ He couldn’t help but sound apologetic.

The small crowd of student drinkers sitting on sofas behind us gasped. ‘Is that the drink-in price?’ one asked.

‘Yes, it’s a fiver to takeaway.’

‘Hmm,’ said Boak. ‘If I’m spending nine quid on a beer… Is it actually good?’

The barman squirmed. ‘Um, I’ve not actually had that — it’s only just gone on.’ He appealed to the audience. ‘Have any of you guys had the Molotov Cocktail?’

‘No — who brews it? Evil Twin! Then it’ll definitely be good. All their beers are great.’

Nine quid. Nine!

‘Sod it, let’s do it.’

Ideally, for the sake of a satisfying narrative, we would discover at this point that the beer was either absolutely dreadful, thus invalidating the entire concept of ‘craft beer’ and exposing as fools all who drink it; or astonishingly wonderful, causing us to re-evaluate our entire attitude to beer or something. But this isn’t Jackanory and it was merely very good. We Tweeted that it was ‘sexy’ which was an attempt to capture a certain superficial wow factor — that it looked gorgeous (faintly hazy orange) and smelled exactly like the moment when you put hops into boiling wort, which is to say greener and more pungent than how hops usually express themselves in the finished product. The first sips were intense, rich and mouth-coating and triggered memories of sweet pipe tobacco, weed and forests. But the fireworks subsided too quickly and it didn’t earn either its price or its booziness.

This is a thing we’ve debated with people a few times: in our view, if a beer is 13% ABV it ought to demand to be drunk slowly and bring the pleasure of several ‘normal’ beers. Others hold the view that the pinnacle of the brewer’s art is to make a strong beer that drinks like a weak one. We like Duvel, it’s true, part of the fun of which is that it’s easier to drink than it ought to be thanks to its fizz and lightness, but generally we think that unless you are on a mission to get bladdered as quickly as possible, why not just actually drink a weaker beer?

In this particular case, we reckon there are quite a few other IPAs — merely double rather than imperial — that would have delivered much the same pleasure at lower cost, and with less booze. As it was, it was too easy to knock back, each swig representing the better part of a quid as it flew down the throat.

Perhaps Molotov was sabotaged by its running mate. Lervig Barley Wine was 12.5% and tasted like it in the most wonderful way, inhabiting the space between winter warmer and dessert wine. It felt mature, deep, and complex, like a tour through the darkest corner of the store cupboard where molasses sit next to a crusty bottle of sherry from several Christmases ago, and chocolate strictly for cooking. It was impossible to drink quickly: a third lasted nearly an hour and, even though this was supposed to be a just-the-one visit, demanded a follow up. It wasn’t cheap — £4.50 a third, i.e. £13.50 a pint — but, seriously, who drinks barley wine by the pint? Nine quid spent on 380ml of this beer did feel like good value.