Category Archives: bottled beer

Supermarket Saminess

Green Bottles Standing on a Wall

Having written about the benefits of drinking at home, we felt the urge to tramp to Penzance’s three out-of-town supermarkets with a simple mission: to pick up two or three interesting-looking beers we hadn’t tasted before.

This, it transpired, is easier said than done.

At Sainsbury’s, we found nothing that persuaded us to part with our cash. The same old breweries and the same old beers took up most of the shelf-space, with a few seasonal ‘specials’ giving the illusion of variety.

Morrison’s was… well, we thought we’d somehow teleported back to Sainsbury’s. That re-badged Marston’s IPA? Check. Summer ales in clear bottles? Plenty. We left there empty-handed, too.

Finally, at Tesco, we had a bit more success. BrewDog Libertine, a black IPA (7.2%) we ought to have tried but haven’t, was newly-listed at £1.99 per 330ml bottle.

Purely because it was something different, we also picked up some Wadworth Swordfish (5%) even though (a) the concept (strong ale laced with rum) sounds unappealing and (b) we’re generally underwhelmed, and occasionally even appalled, by Wadworth’s output.

All in all, it was a lot of effort to add two beers to our stash.

Though we didn’t see much mild or stout (because it’s summer?) supermarkets do still offer a great opportunity to buy beers in a range of styles, for not much cash. For the novelty-seeker, however, it seems they’re rather a wash-out these days.

The World on your Sofa

It can sometimes feel as if drinking anywhere but the pub is a betrayal of ‘proper beer’, but it’s actually played a huge part in developing the culture Britain has today, and has broadened the palates of many.

That thought was prompted by this Tweet from Zak Avery, who runs legendary bottle-shop Beer Ritz:

In conversation recently, we said that we didn’t particularly enjoy beer festivals because they aren’t ‘how we like to drink’, which prompted the question, ‘Well, how do you like to drink?’ The honest answer is either (a) in the pub (once or twice a week) or (b) in the front room (more often).

Unless you live conveniently close to a good multi-pump real ale pub or a craft beer bar, then home is the only place to satisfy a spontaneous craving for a bit of strange. As we’ve said before, we like St Austell Tribute, but we don’t want to drink it every night, which is where a case of oddities from Beer Merchants or Beer Ritz, or even a few things from Tesco, fill the gap.

The majority of our most profound beer experience have, as it happens, occurred in pubs or beer gardens, but, for example, the first really aromatically-hoppy beer that ever made us say ‘Wow!’ we drank at home — Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, from ASDA, in, we think, around 2005.

Drinking fancy-pants beers at home is a fairly recent phenomenon which arose alongside the Campaign for Real Ale, meeting a demand among newly-assertive consumers for better beer.

Belgian beer didn’t start appearing in Britain in any great variety until the 1980s with ‘bottle shops’, run by enthusiasts for enthusiasts. One of the first, and perhaps most famous was the one on Pitfield Street. The founding of Cave Direct (Beer Merchants) is covered briefly in our book. Another such shop we read about but didn’t look into in great detail was Grog Blossom in Notting Hill, which was profiled in the Financial Times in 1989.

As for bottled British beer, here’s how Richard Morrice, a long-time industry PR man, put it when we interviewed him last summer:

You have to remember that, in the seventies, ‘premium bottle beers’ didn’t exist. Bottled beer was Mackeson’s, Bass, Forest Brown, that kind of thing, and usually came in 550ml returnable ‘London pint’ bottles, or in ‘nips’. There was a limited choice of regional brands and that was it.

In the late eighties, Shepherd Neame released a range of 500ml bottled ales, which was a risky enterprise, and there was a limited take-up by supermarkets. These ‘PBAs’ (premium bottled ales) sat in a price gap between the very cheap drink-at-home lager and draught beer in the pub, on a pence-per-litre basis, and the supermarket buyers just weren’t convinced. When Marston’s launched their range of PBAs as late as 1991, there were still no retailers really willing to take them.

[But, fairly] quickly… you started to get things like Marston’s Head Brewer’s Choice series, and seasonals, until there was quite a lot of choice.

If you want to experience the Michael Jackson vision of a world where beer comes in every shade and strength, from the beefy blackness of imperial stout to the barely-intoxicating pallor of Berliner Weisse, your own front room remains the place where you’re most likely to find it.

Siren White IPA

Siren White IPA.

We weren’t sure what to expect from a beer with this name, but extreme pallor was, we thought, a given.

After a firm zip and hiss, it actually emerged from the bottle somewhere near amber, haze-free, with an immoveable, whipped-cream head.

Puzzled, we read the label again: it’s their ‘expression of a wit bier’ with IPA hopping, they say, but we think it’s actually an IPA with wit bier spices and citrus. That fine distinction made sense to us, anyway.

The (new concept klaxon!) far aroma — the one we could smell from a foot away — was of the candied pineapple, Del Monte tinned peaches variety, rather than at the weedy, piney end of the spectrum.

Getting closer — the near aroma – there was something mysterious to ponder over, barely perceptible but distinctly weird. Our first thought was swimming pool chlorine, then antiseptic, then… yes, that was it — the white rind of a  soft French cheese! So, ammonia, perhaps? That somehow fit into the Continental rustic farmhouse theme, and we found ourselves quite at ease with its occasional intrusion.

The beer tasted overwhelmingly orangey, in a sticky, Jaffa Cake fashion, but also somewhat salty, almost seaweedy, and had the texture of a vanilla mousse as it foamed on the tongue.

It tasted much bigger than its 4.5% ABV, though not at all ‘boozy’, with just enough complexity to keep the attention. It almost tasted wrong, but not quite, which is what we’d call a sweet spot. It was, in other words, tasty.

We’ve sometimes used the term ‘home brew’ as a pejorative when describing commercial beers, but we’re rethinking that: if a friend had brewed this, we’d congratulate them heartily.

Disclosure: we got this beer in a sample case sent to us by Eebria.

The State of Our Taste 2014

Navel oranges by www.bluewaikiki.com, from Flickr, under Creative Commons.
Navel oranges by www.bluewaikiki.com, from Flickr, under Creative Commons.

This is nothing more significant than an attempt to take stock of our own feelings about beer as of 2014.

We’ve tried to be honest with ourselves — to consider our actions and reactions rather than ‘ideology’: what, when push comes to shove, do we order at the bar, or take from the fridge? What do we actually enjoy drinking?

1. We approach bottled beer from small breweries with low expectations. We assume they’ll be under- or over-carbonated; we expect to pour away more than half of those we try;  and we’re surprised when anything ‘experimental’ actually works. And we get less enjoyment than we used to out of wading through duds to find a gem. Or, to put that another way…

2. We find ourselves drawn to reliable beers and breweries. Punk IPA is unlikely to explode, need pouring down the sink, or make us feel nauseous. At the same time…

3. We can’t be bothered to drink mainstream bottled brown bitter any more. It’s so rarely anywhere near as good as a pint in the pub and (brace yourselves) often simply too fizzy for our tastes. (We don’t mind high carbonation but ‘fizzy’, to us, means specifically bubbles, as in a glass of mineral water, often accompanied by thin body and no head.)

4. The magic has gone out of our relationship with American beer. Is it to do with freshness, competition from UK brewers, or handling by UK bars? Or have we just become jaded? At any rate, after trying a whole range of kegged IPAs (e.g. Lagunitas, Founder’s All Day) on multiple occasions, in the last year, in London, Bristol, Manchester and Leeds, we found ourselves underwhelmed — where’s the ‘zing’? (We find that Ska Brewing Modus Hoperandi in cans has zing, as, oddly enough, does Goose Island IPA.)

5. Living outside the urban ‘craft beer’ bubble has its frustrations, and its benefits. We don’t have easy access to bars or pubs with large rotating ranges of beer, and the ubiquity of Doom Bar and Betty Stogs is a trial. On the other hand, we’ve learned that St Austell Proper Job and Orval from bottles, both of which we can find reliably in local pubs, never seem to get boring. On which subject…

6. Belgian beer fascinates us more and more. There’s something dispiriting about the idea of ‘unobtrusive yeast that lets the hops really shine’ — practically a mantra for US-style IPA brewers. The Belgian tradition puts yeast character right up front and gives us another set of flavours to grapple with.

7. We wish we had more of our home brewed lager. We don’t think it’s objectively great, and it wouldn’t score well in competition, but we get a thrill out of drinking it that’s hard for any commercial beer to match.

Tasting: Black Ales and IPAs

Point Black Ale

What connects the three beers we tasted this week is that they are all black ales of one sort or another.

Point Black Ale (5.2% ABV) was a pleasant surprise. Launching straight in without reading the blurb or doing any research which might prejudice our taste buds, we expected a rather mediocre British-style beer with veritable hops. Instead, we got an extremely convincing German-style Schwarzbier. (And Ratebeer concurs.)

Under a sandy-coloured head, a light but oily body offered caramel and notes of cocoa powder, made crisp by lager-level carbonation. By the end, as it warmed up, some suggestion of orange zest emerged, justifying the ‘ale’ tag somewhat, and adding a welcome layer of complexity. Ultimately, it’s an uncomplicated, satisfying and tasty beer, and our pleasure in drinking it perhaps highlights a gap in the UK market.

Next up were two black IPAs — a style about which we remain sceptical. We’re not offended by the name or the concept — we just don’t think that many of the beers sailing under that flag are anything other than either (a) IPAs with cosmetic Just For Men colouring or (b) stouts/porters/dark milds.

Otley Oxymoron

Otley Oxymoron (5.5%) has a name which references the issue many people have with the contradiction inherent in the term ‘black India pale ale’. The bottle label bears next to no information and the Otley ‘O’ logo is embossed in black, on black. Very stylish, but not much help to we poor consumers.

In the glass, it looked… black. What was interesting was the aroma: manure with a hint of bile.

Now, that doesn’t sound good, does it? But one of our favourite stouts is Harvey’s Imperial Russian which some find undrinkable because of it’s challenging ‘farmyard’ character, and Oxymoron might be its little sister — more sessionable but only slightly less mad. Beyond that, we detected an alluring hint of smokiness and a clanging grapefruit acid note. Much as we enjoyed it, we’re not sure the effect was deliberate, or that it is really an IPA in any meaningful sense.

Beavertown Black Betty.

Finally, there was Beavertown Black Betty (7.4%). We’ve drunk this beer several times, with pleasure, but with our brows furrowed. What makes it taste so distinctly London-y? And what is that elusive aroma we recognise but can’t name? This time, we think we managed to answer that second question: tobacco. Not posh pipe tobacco or cigars, but the slightly sweet, autumnal, dusty whiff of student roll-up baccy. There is also something savoury and wholesome — sunflower seed rye bread with caraway baking in the oven — in both the aroma and flavour.

Complex and interesting, then, and exhibiting a distinctive brewery character. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but beers that aren’t to everyone’s taste are what we’d like to see more of.

It is also a fairly convincing argument for the existence of black IPA — both stout and hoppy pale ale at the same time, depending on which angle you approach it from.

DISCLOSURE (more)

We bought the bottle of Black Betty ourselves from Ales by Mail (330ml at £2.30). Point Black Ale was supplied to us by Beer52.com as part of a sample of their beer subscription service; Otley Oxymoron came from a selection case sent to us by Eebria. For what it’s worth, Eebria’s selection seemed thoughtful and well-chosen, while Beer52′s did little to excite us.