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.

Magical Mystery Pour #26: Colchester Brewery Brazilian

The second Essex beer from a set chosen for us by Justin Mason (@1970sBOY) of Get Beer, Drink Beer is a coffee and vanilla porter at 4.6% ABV.

We got it from Essex Food at £3.00 per 330ml bottle. Justin says:

Colchester Brewery use the ‘double drop’ method, where primary fermentation takes place in one vessel before being ‘dropped’ under gravity to a secondary fermentation vessel below, in the brewing of all their beers. Their Brazilian, with its label resembling that of a high street coffee chain (pure coincidence) is brewed using Brazilian coffee and fresh vanilla pods and is a beer that I’d quite happily end a meal with, having done so on numerous occasions.

We have mixed feelings about coffee beers. Too often they end up tasting sickly and fake — more like coffee cream chocolates, or coffee cake, than the real thing. Or, when they avoid that fate, they can instead end up too serious, harsh and headache-inducing. And of course there’s the novelty factor — is it a stunt, or a proper beer? Our gut feeling is that proper beers suggest coffee without just adding it to the brew.

In this case, too, the Starbucks-inspired branding didn’t fill us with hope. It’s such an obvious joke, a cheap shot, that it made us think somewhat ill of the beer from the off.

Colchester Brazilian porter in a beer glass.

On opening we felt yet more concerned. We’ve popped the caps on enough bottles over the years to almost be able to feel the character of the beer from the way it feels and sounds at that point. This felt flat and dead. It looked lifeless as it went into the glass, too, although as it settled a thin tan head did emerge like some kind of magic trick. It also kicked out a substantial drifting aroma of bottled baking essences.

And yet, for all those danger signs, we really liked this beer. The coffee character was fun rather than tacky and well balanced by the underlying beer — a bitter, light-bodied, uncompromising porter that we’d like to try neat by the pint sometime. It wasn’t at all sickly — it suggested sweetness without actually having much sugar left in it — the suggestive powers of vanilla, we suppose. What it reminded us of in spirit was those fancily-packaged single-estate chocolate bars with, say, baobab, that they sell in the Eden Project gift shop. It was intense without being po-faced about it.

What really sealed the deal was when we thought to check the ABV. We’d been assuming it was something like 6% — suggested by the bottle size, perhaps? — and were delighted to discover that so much flavour was being dished up in such a moderately alcoholic package.

We’d definitely buy this again and (based on this one encounter) would recommend it over some much trendier, more trendily packaged coffee stouts/porters we’ve encountered.

The brewery has a large range of special beers including lots of historically-inspired recipes — we’ll be looking out for them on our travels.

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.