Patreon’s Choice #2: Bottled Hophead

Hophead label.

This is a quick entry in our series of notes on beers suggested by our Patreon subscribers. This time it’s the bottled version of Dark Star Hophead as suggested by @AleingPaul who has never tried it himself.

We bought this from Beer Ritz at £2.78 per 500ml bottle and, like the cask version, it has an ABV of 3.8%.

A note, first, on that cask beer — a classic we think it’s fair to say, or at least a standard. Here’s a bit on the history of the beer from an article we wrote for All About Beer a couple of years ago:

Another cult favourite is Hophead from Dark Star, a brewery in Brighton, a fashionable coastal resort an hour’s train ride south of London. Mark Tranter… worked at Dark Star from the 1990s until 2013. He recalls that, at some time after 1996, one of the owners of the Evening Star pub where the brewery was then based went to California and came back with Cascade hop pellets. These, along with other U.S. hops available in small quantities via hop merchants Charles Faram, formed the basis of ‘The Hophead Club’, conceived by Dark Star founder Rob Jones. At each meeting of the club members would taste a different single-hopped beer. ‘Cascade was the customers’ and brewers’ favourite, so it was not long until that became the staple,’ recalls Tranter. When he took on more responsibility in the brewery, Tranter tweaked the recipe, reducing its bitterness, and, in 2001, dropping its strength from 4% to 3.8%. Today, with the brewery under new ownership and with a different team in the brew-house, the beer remains single-minded and popular, giving absolute priority to bright aromas of grapefruit and elderflower.

Cask Hophead might have had a wobble a few years ago, or it might just have been that we had a run of bad luck, but on the whole it’s been a beer we cannot help but drink when it’s on offer. Its relatively low strength means we can take a decent amount without getting in a whirl or suffering the next day; its light body makes it swiggable and easygoing; but it is far from bland, even by the hop-saturated standards of 2017.

Perhaps our fondness is partly down to the fact that we’re of the Cascade generation and developed our love of beer when that hop variety was the coolest thing in town. Whatever the reason, fond we are.

So, how is the bottle? Does it capture the magic? Can you get that Hophead buzz in the comfort of your front room, dressed in your jim-jams?

Apparently not.

The bottled beer is utterly dull — a pan-and-scan VHS, K-Tel edit, plastic imitation.

It’s not horrid — there’s enough hop character there to spark a little pleasure — but it feels heavy, tastes as if it’s been microwaved, and has nothing to set it apart from any number of golden ales from less beloved breweries available in every supermarket in the land.

It’s weird to feel so irritated by a mediocre beer, but it must be because it’s a mediocre incarnation of a great beer.

We won’t be going out of our way to buy it again but will perhaps enjoy our next encounter with cask Hophead all the more.

Patreon’s Choice #1: Bag of Marbles

This is the first in a series of posts about beers chosen for us by our Patreon subscribers and features beers from Manchester brewery Marble.

It was Steve Lamond (@BeersIveKnown) who suggested that we try Lost Your Marbles and we added a couple of other interesting looking beers from Marble to fill out the box. We bought them (and all the beers for this particular series of posts) from Beer Ritz because, though the website is still mildly frustrating, we like the range on offer and find the service fuss-free.

The head of a glass of beer with glinting light.

First, as we tackled these in ascending order of strength, was Saison du Pint at 3.9% ABV and £2.80 per 330ml can.

What a clever beer, both in terms of execution and concept. It’s the brewery’s standard pale bitter, Pint, but fermented with the same strain of yeast used for the Belgian classic Saison du Pont. A sort of unofficial collaboration, we suppose.

It comes with a huge cotton-wool head, a beautifully clear golden body, and a whiff of some sort of sticky banana dessert. It’s tempting to judge it against Saison du Pont to which, unsurprisingly, it does indeed bear a family resemblance, but by that standard it seems a little thin and lacking in luxury. As a quirky session ale, however — remember, 3.9! — it is absolutely a winner, with a peppery mustard-leaf prickle contributed by the yeast complimenting the base beer in wonderful ways. Sinkable but strange; made to quench thirsts but cutting a dandyish dash on the way.

A few years ago we gave some talks on the basics of how beer is made and used German wheat beer to illustrate the impact of yeast. This would be even better, tasted side by side with original Pint.

The only serious downside, really, is that we want to drink it by the pint, and several pints in a row, rather than from a diddy can at home.

A dark old ale in the glass with bottle.

Lost Your Marbles is the beer Steve really wanted us to try: “My beer of the year to date — love what [James Kemp, head brewer at Marble] is doing with his old ales series.” It’s a 9% ABV ‘Cognac Oak Aged Blend’ and cost £5.38 for 330ml. It comes in a plain bottle with an attractively designed card dangling round its neck on a black ribbon.

(How do we know the right card stayed with the right beer throughout its journey? We don’t, but let’s not fret about that.)

This dense, dark beer was fascinating too, in a less subtle way. Like a lot of old ales and imperial stouts at around this strength it seems to contain a bit of everything: demerara, the burn of spirits, bonfire toffee, Cola sweets, dessert wine, coffee essence… You get the idea.

The suggestion of sugar that had ‘caught’ in the base of a too-hot pan, and a hot whisky note, meant that it wasn’t quite to our taste, but it is clearly a well-made, undoubtedly interesting, deeply indulgent beer that will knock the socks of most people who drink it. Heck, we’d probably buy it again, because it came close enough to wowing us that the chances are on a different day, in a different mood, it would do just that.

The head of a glass of dark old ale.

In a similar vein, at the same price, comes Castle of Udolpho, a blend of young and Pinot Noir barrel-aged old ale at 10.4% ABV.

This beer was so dark that if it was badged as stout we wouldn’t argue. It came with an off-white head and distinct aroma of something like sour cherry, or even raspberry vinegar. There were flavours of condensed milk, chocolate and even caramel were balanced with a liqueur-like heat and bite, and then chased around the mouth by a Harvey’s-like funkiness that took a long time to die away. The body seemed oddly thin after Lost Your Marbles — perhaps a consequence of something (the source of that funk?) having chewed through some of the residual sugar?

Again, though there’s no doubting its complexity or the skill with which it was put together, something about it didn’t quite click for us. We liked it, but didn’t love it. Perhaps it struck us as a little harsh or overblown, but then the same applies to Harvey’s Extra Double Stout and we can’t get enough of that. Perhaps it’s just that when you turn the volume up like this the background noise is amplified along with the good stuff. Our guess is that a bottle of this left alone for five years would come together rather better. If you like big, boozy, complex beers there’s a very good chance you’ll swoon over this one.

* * *

Overall, we’re left with our high opinion of Marble. It’s a brewery that takes risks and does interesting things, whose beers are rarely less than enjoyable and often brilliant.

Nips & Nipperkins

Men drinking from nip bottles.
Detail from a 1950s advertisement for Ind Coope Arctic Ale in nip bottles.

Until quite recently strong beer was often sold in so-called ‘nip bottles’ but what volume of liquid the word nip represented isn’t straightforward, it turns out.

In his 1785 Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue Francis Grose doesn’t list nip but does have this rather wonderful related entry:

"A fmall meafure".

By the time a new edition came out in 1788 nip had been added:

"A half pint, a nyp of ale"

We think what he’s saying here is that nipperkin (the vessel) derives from nip (the measure) although other sources suggest the derivation runs the other way. Either way, Grose is quite specific and clear: a nip is half a pint. That doesn’t seem to have changed in subsequent editions published in the decades that followed, even as the text was expanded and corrected.

Other 18th and 19th century dictionaries give the same or similar definitions for nip or nipperkin, too. Here’s Thomas Dyche’s of 1735:

Dictionary entry for Nipperkin.

Just to confuse things, though, this 1725 Canting Dictionary suggests that a nipperkin referred to half a pint of wine but ‘half a Quartern of Brandy, Strong Waters [spirits], &c.’ Half a quartern is insanely confusing — half a quarter of a pint, we think. At any rate, it suggests that nipperkin (and thus nip) was not tied to a specific volume but rather meant a relatively small measure of whichever drink you happened to be ordering. ‘Oh, go on then, just a cheeky…’ is implied.

When the Weights & Measures Act of 1824 was passed it did not include the nip/nipperkin among the new standard Imperial units of volume which meant that, legally speaking at least, it ceased to exist.

There’s talk of it having lived on in practice (PDF) through the conservatism of customers and/or sharp practice by publicans and it certainly lingered in song. Here’s the now standard text of ‘The Barley Mow’ a version of which was first transcribed in 1855 (PDF):

Here’s good luck to the pint pot,
Good luck to the barley mow.
Jolly good luck to the pint pot,
Good luck to the barley mow.
Refrain: the pint pot, half a pint, gill pot, half a gill, quarter gill, nipperkin, and the brown bowl.
Here’s good luck (good luck!), good luck to the barley mow.

The song works by ramping up the size of the drink with each verse which gives us a handy ranking. Here, the nipperkin has become almost the smallest imaginable measure of beer, less than ⅛ of a pint.

Its resurgence as the nip bottle seems to have come in the early 20th century and especially between the wars, if the frequency of its appearance in newspapers is a reliable indicator. Here’s a helpful summary of what nip had come to mean by this time from a 1939 report on licensing in the Leicester Daily Mercury for 4 April that year:

The definition of a ‘nip’ bottle of beer figured in the application by Messrs. Offiler, of Derby, for the confirmation of a beer off-licence… Making the application, Mr Geoffrey Barnett asked if the sale of ‘nip’ botles could be allowed, and Mr Woolley asked what a ‘nip’ bottle was.

Mr Barnett said it was a well-known term in the trade, and the bottle contained less than half a pint.

By the 1960s when Thomas Hardy’s Ale was launched by Eldridge Pope, along with pints and half-pints there were also nip bottles on offer containing about 180ml, or somewhere near a third of a pint. This seems to have been the industry standard although Courage IRS came in 170ml bottles and there were probably other variants around too.

In recent years, though, what we might think of as nip bottles because they look oddly tiny next to the now standard 330ml container are often as big as 250ml or even 275ml. Can we say, perhaps, that nip inflation is taking us back to where we started?

As ever, corrections are very welcome, especially if they point to contemporary or otherwise reliable sources as evidence.

The Mainstreaming of Grapefruit Beer

Grapefruit from a 1953 US government publication.

Back in 2013 the idea of putting actual grapefruit into beer seemed quite hilarious — a stunt, a play on the grapefruit character of certain hop varieties.

But somehow, probably because it filled a gap in the market between alcopop and Serious Beer, it stuck and became a craft beer staple. (Definition 2.) Now it’s even made its way out of that walled community so that in 2017 it seems easier to get a grapefruit beer than a pint of mild.

BrewDog Elvis Juice, a grapefruit boosted IPA first launched in 2016, is in almost every supermarket in the land — even the funny little ones that otherwise only sell bog roll and sandwiches — at less than £2 a bottle. We weren’t sure if we liked it at first — “Eugh! It’s like someone’s put a splash of Robinson’s squash in it.” — but somehow it keeps ending up in the fridge, and keeps getting drunk. It’s got a palate cleansing quality, or perhaps palate defibrillating would be more accurate, and there’s just something fun about it. That the base IPA is good in its own right doesn’t hurt.

Adnams/M&S grapefruit IPA
SOURCE: M&S website

Out in West Cornwall we didn’t have easy access to Marks & Spencer so missed out on some of the fun of their revitalised beer range. Here in Bristol it’s much easier to grab the odd can or bottle while we’re out and about which is how we came to try the Grapefruit session IPA brewed for them by Adnams and available at £2 for 330ml, or less as part of multibuy offers. Would we have identified it as an Adnams beer if we’d tasted it blind? Probably not, but it does have some of their signature funk. It’s not thrilling or brainbending, just a decent pale ale with a twist. We’d probably rather drink Ghost Ship but perhaps, as with Elvis Juice, we just need to get to know it a little better.

Theakston Pink Grapefruit Ale
SOURCE: Theakston website.

And, finally, the one that really surprised us: the latest Wetherspoon’s ale festival includes a pink grapefruit ale from, of all breweries, Theakston. It is perhaps the most exciting Theakston beer we’ve ever had, a classic northern pale-n-hoppy whose tropical fruitiness is like the bold lining on a classically tailored jacket, glimpsed in passing rather than right upfront. But, after the fact, we discovered something funny: unless we’re missing a detail in the small print, despite the word grapefruit in the name and pictures of them on the pumpclip, this effect is achieved entirely with… hops. A relatively new, obscure variety called Sussex, according to the Theakston website.

Does all this take us nearer to Craftmaggedon, when the last of the cask Best Bitters shall be cast into the pit and we will face the sea of darkness and all therein that may be explored? Or is just another variable for brewers to play with? It’s the latter, obviously. The beers above stand out in the context of Wetherspoon pubs or supermarket shelves but still represent only the very tiniest proportion of products on the market.

Taste-Off: Interesting Eastern European Corner Shop Beers

This beers we tasted for this taste-off post were paid for by Patreon subscribers and the topic was suggested via comments on a Patreon post by Aaron Stein and Andy M.

Cornershop beer seems to have evolved in the half decade since we last checked in, but has it got better?

There’s something appealing about the idea of discovering a hidden gem in the least pretentious of surroundings, standing on chipped floor tiles next to the permanently running dehumidifier near the tinned Bigos. Most people are too snobby, too xenophobic, too scared to tackle these mysterious labels, goes the inner dialogue, but me? I’m a brave adventurer. In fact, though, there’s hardly a beer geek in the country who hasn’t had the same thought and you’ll find any number of blogs reviewing this type of beer with a quick Google.

When we left London for Cornwall back in 2011 we had tried damn near every bottled Eastern European beer on sale in the cornershops of Walthamstow. Most were fine, some were foul, and Švyturys (Carlsberg) Ekstra Draught — an unpasteurised Dortmunder from Lithuania — was one of our go-to bottled lagers. Now, in Bristol, we once again have easy access to Eastern European cornershops with their dumplings, cured meats, quark, cherry-flavoured Jaffa Cakes and, yes, acres of exotic looking beer.

We dipped our toes back in the water with a return to Švyturys. Would it be as good as we remembered, or might our tastes have evolved? The good news is that, as a lager we can pick up on the way home from work for well under £2 a bottle, it’s still got it. Our memories were of a more bitter beer but it still has a remarkable clean, fresh quality that some ‘craft’ lagers swing at but miss.

Thus warmed up we returned to our closest shop and tried to work out some way to tackle the wall of beer. It stocks products from Russia, Lithuania, Latvia, Slovakia, Poland and Romania. (And possibly some others we missed.) It’s an intimidatingly huge range though the vast majority are variations on pale lager or strong pale lager, and most of them are things we tried years ago. Since we last looked Radler seems to have taken off out that way and there are now any number of fruit-flavoured refreshers on offer but, frankly, that’s not our bag, so we discounted those, too. What we were drawn to was the oddities in two categories: first, a new strain of takes on world beer styles (Belgian Wit, Munich Helles); and, secondly, a bunch of unpasteurised/unfiltered products presented as upmarket, ‘natural’ variants on the standard lagers.

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