Why Not Bitter Pils ’73 Before Bad 2002-style IPA?

We were interested to read an article in The Economist about the latest trend in Eastern European beer: Cold War retro.

One of the most interesting, Zlaty Bazant ’73, is a version of the biggest Slovakian lager brand based on a half-century old recipe, from the, er, good old days. We’ve heard that one reason larger breweries are reluctant to do this kind of thing is because it acknowledges the truth in the idea that ‘fings ain’t wot they used to be’. We suppose that might be an issue for brands trading upon their history, e.g. Guinness, but Zlaty Bazant (Heineken) seem to be dealing with it: the modern beer is a modern beer, for modern tastes, and good in a different way. There’s no conflict.

Zlaty Bazant 73 bottle.
SOURCE: Zlaty Bazant website.

(We’re not saying ZB is good — I drank a fair bit when I lived in Poland travelled and around Eastern Europe a decade or so ago; it was fine, but not one of my favourites. – Boak.)

This is happening in Western Europe, too. Through the fog of PR and junket-based razzle-dazzle it’s possible to discern genuine admiration for Carlsberg and Heineken’s experiments with ancient yeast strains. As one noted beer writer suggested to us recently, paraphrased, these breweries don’t like being unpopular and seem to have made the decision to distinguish themselves from AB-InBev by making decent beer again.

In short, we don’t understand why established breweries everywhere aren’t doing this as a way of offering an accessible ‘premium’ product. We’d have loved to have tried the recent 1955 London Pride brewed by Fuller’s in collaboration with Sierra Nevada – wouldn’t Pride ’55 that be a great thing to see as a regular beer in their pubs? Or Young’s Ordinary ’77 with a whiff of The Sweeney about it? (As long as they taste decent, and noticeably different, obviously.)

Bass in particular is a brand crying out for this kind of revival – a pep up (Bass ’65) rather than a total reinvention (Bass Sour Lime Flavourbombz®) — preying on nostalgia for the days of full-employment, World Cup wins, Pop Art and Beatlemania.

On a related note, this trend also indicates a way forward for European ‘craft beer’. While we don’t object fundamentally to Germans brewing IPA, as some people do, it does seem a shame that the reaction of ‘alternative’ brewers to ever-blander industrial lagers isn’t more often just really good takes on native styles. Old recipes, old yeast, old specifications might get people excited about Dunkel again, for example. (Yes, we know you’re excited about Dunkel already, but you’re a massive nerd.) And imagine an indie pilsner that is dead clean and traditional — no elderflowers or citrusy hops — but so bitter that it makes Jever taste restrained. That’d go like a bomb among craft beer fans, wouldn’t it? Or maybe Jever themselves will get there first with Jever ’83.

N.B. We’ve said most of this before in one form or another so consider this a premium retro-ironic post under the sub-brand B&B ’09.

Too Fancy to Drink: Gadd’s Russian Imperial Stout

These two bottles have been sitting on the shelf since March 2015, throbbing with sinister energy like the crate containing the Ark in the first Indiana Jones film. Last night, we decided to vanquish them.

They are non-identical twins — the same base beer (a 12% ABV historic homage) with two treatments, one aged in bourbon barrels, the other given a dose of Brettanomyces lambicus.

We didn’t buy these but we weren’t sent them by the brewery, either: when he worked at Beer Merchants, Phil Lowry snuck them into one of our orders as a bonus. His advice at the time was (a) to be careful with the Brettanomyces-spiked version and (b) to try blending them.

Even without any chilling Brett, as we’ll call him, was no trouble at all. He hissed but didn’t gush, and gave us a thick, steady caramel-coloured foam. It smelled exactly like Harvey’s Russian Imperial Stout, which is perhaps not that surprising, and in our book a high compliment.

‘We should put the other one in a different glass so we don’t get them mixed up. Use the St Bernardus one. Because Bernard. Bernard Matthews. Turkey. Wild Turkey.’

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Yarrow, Alecost and Nightmares

Old illustration of yarrow leaves.
Yarrow leaves. SOURCE: Köhler’s Medicinal Plants, 1887, via Biodeversity Library.

I’m all about Harvey’s at the moment. It’s all I wanted to drink in London the other week, and about all I’m interested in drinking now we’re back in Penzance.

Last night, I pulled something of theirs from the back of the stash that, somehow, I’ve never got round to tasting before even though we got several bottles as part of a mixed case last year: Priory Ale.

This beer isn’t on sale anymore but think of this as general commentary on beer with weird herbs rather than as a review and it might have some use.

It’s 6% — a bit indulgent for a school night but not madly so — but the kick is in the small print. It was released in 2014 to mark the 750th anniversary of the Battle of Lewes and was ‘brewed using ingredients that were available to the Cluniac Order at the Priory of St. Pancras in 1264’. The mash included barley, oats and wheat and it was boiled with both hops and yarrow. It was then dry-herbed with alecost, rosemary and thyme during fermentation.

I can’t lie — on reading the blurb, my first thought was, ‘Uh-oh.’ Thyme and rosemary don’t really work in beer, or at least I haven’t yet acquired the taste, making everything a seem bit sickly and savoury.

On tasting it, my first thought was of medicinal shampoo, then of cough sweets, which I guess must mean some memory of menthol firing in my brain. Alecost is sometimes known by the name ‘Mary’s mint’ or variations thereon so perhaps that’s what I was picking up? The rosemary and thyme rose up as the beer went on, overriding everything by the end, like some kind of cotton bag you might hang in a wardrobe to give your bonnets a pleasant fragraunce. Or a leg of lamb.

Most disappointingly from my point of view, it lacked that distinctive Harvey’s character on which I am hooked.

It was not a relaxing beer. Being kind, I’d say it was stimulating, but maybe nerve-jangling is more honest. It put me on edge. ‘I think this is going to give me nightmares,’ I said on turning in.

And do you know, something certainly did.

Magical Mystery Pour #13: Loverbeer Beerbera

The last of five beers chosen for us by The Beer Nut (@thebeernut) is a wood-aged brown ale made with 20 per cent grape juice and an 8% ABV.

It’s another expensive one, this: we paid £13.50 for a single 375ml bottle from Beer Gonzo. It’s a very pretty bit of packaging — a rather Belgian-looking naive pencil sketch on the label and blue foil around the cap, all of which maybe explains 15p of the total cost. The rest, we assume, is made up of the unofficial artisan tax (a levy to cover the pursuit of hopes and dreams), import duty, and cuts for middle men at various points on the long road from Marentino.

Popping the cap triggered a low-key, consipiratorial ‘Psst!’ and released a waft of strawberry scent. There was some noisy fizzing as it went into the glass and a head of pink foam flowered but only for a second leaving us with something absolutely still and mirror-like.

When you have a flat brown-purple liquid in a stem glass it’s hard not to think of red wine. It was at this point we (bright sparks) noticed the lad on the label with his bunch of grapes and picked our way through the Italian text on the label. In Chapter 16 of Brew Britannia, ‘The Outer Limits’, we wrote about The Wild Beer Co’s Ninkasi, a ‘celebratory drink’ that defies categorisation as beer or cider; Beerbera would seem to be an overseas relative. We admit to being intrigued by this kind of thing which makes us wish we knew more about wine. (On which, purely for educational reasons, we can confirm baby steps are being taken.)

Detail from the label: a farmer holding a bunch of grapes.

We instinctively liked it from the first sip. All that mucking about could have resulted in something silly and gimmicky but, no, it is interesting and surprisingly balanced. (And that’s not code for bland.) There is some sourness from spontaneous fermentation but it’s quite tame compared to, say, Cantillon Kriek. The latter is a more interesting beer altogether but it’s no bad thing that Beerbera is similar but more accessible. (Price aside.)

We identified a big hit of vanilla, especially in the aftertaste, and something like cherry-flavoured cough drops (grape + acid?). We eventually settled on one headline social realist tasting note: those rhubarb and custard boiled sweets from a jar on the newsagent’s shelf. All good fun stuff. There’s a bit of funk there, too — just enough to make clear that this is a grown-up beer. And, despite the list of tuck shop flavours, it’s actually on the dry side.

Overall, it’s a hit, and one we’d probably drink again if we saw it going for a fiver or less. As it is, there are affordable Belgian beers, and indeed British ones, that do many of the same tricks without undertaking a cross-Continental road trip.

So, that’s our opinion, but let’s check in on the Beer Nut’s. He only has a brief note, from 2011:

BeerBera is brewed with classic Piedmontese Barbera grapes and tastes to me quite like a kriek, having a pronounced sour cherry flavour but also some lovely earthy brett notes.

That sounds like the same beer, doesn’t it?

That third round of Magical Mystery Pour has been great fun, if both budget-busting and challenging at times. It’s good to have finally taken some tentative steps into Italian beer and to have expanded our experience of the sour and/or funky. Thanks, John!

Next up, a batch of beers chosen for us by David Bishop (@broadfordbrewer and @beerdoodles).

Magical Mystery Pour Side Mission: Thomas Hardy

You never saw The Beatles live? Seriously? But they’re a hugely important band!

That’s a bit how it feels to have been into beer for all these years without ever getting to know Thomas Hardy’s Ale. It was listed in the Bible of our early enthusiasm, Michael Jackson’s Great Beer Guide, and the elder statesfolk of beer writing all seem to have cellars full of the stuff and have tasted multiple vintages, multiple times, all the way back to 1968.

Our one encounter with it — or, rather, Bailey’s — is from a year or two before we started blogging. His dad brought some home from work at Christmas, discounted out-of-date stock (ho ho!) being a warehouseman’s perk. Innocently, they drank it fresh and, being more used to straightforward 4% session bitters, found it insanely strong and sweet and weird tasting. Most of the bottle went down the sink.

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