Category Archives: bottled beer

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.

Beer mixes illustration

Session #88: This Crazy Mixed Up World

For this month’s edition of the Session, we’ve asked people to take ‘traditional beer mixes’ as the jumping off point.

We did not have much joy finding mixes in pubs, despite visiting four in Falmouth on Saturday. Generally the beer on offer lacked variety (no mild, no stout, no barley wine). When we did find a pub with mild, there was no standard bitter to mix it with, and it really didn’t get along with the perfumed intensity of Burning Sky Plateau. In some ways, it seems, even ‘exhibition’ pubs offer drinkers less choice than fifty years ago.

But we had a back up plan, and one which happened to fit neatly into our side project to rediscover Michael Jackson’s Great Beer Guide — we went to Tesco and bought cans of Mackeson and Gold Label, along with bottle of that rare surviving Burton, McEwan’s Champion, and the rather reviled Guinness Original.

Supermarket beers for mixing.

We had no joy with bottled or canned mild, brown ale, or ‘light ale’, limiting us, with the contents of our ‘cellar’, to the following options:

  • Mother-in-law — old and bitter.
  • Blacksmith –stout and barley wine.
  • Half-and-half – bitter and stout, or bitter and mild.
  • B&B – Burton and bitter.

The Mixes

We started with a ‘blacksmith’, mixing Gold Label and Mackeson. Despite having 2.8% ABV to GL’s 7.5%, Mackeson won the battle, creating something that resembled a decent but unexciting cask-conditioned stout with a dense, chewy body. It reminded us of Bourbon biscuits (vanilla, chocolate) and we’d do this again.

Next, we mixed Guinness with Williams Bros’ 80/- (disclosure: they sent us that one as a sample) in a straightforward half-and-half. On its own, Guinness tasted watery, metallic and sweet, more like a keg mild than a stout, while WB80 was like a baby version of Thornbridge’s Colorado Red — fruity, with cherries and berries, and (this got us excited) the faintest hint of Kriek-like sourness. Something remarkable happened when they came together — it created one of the most delicious porters we’ve tasted in some time, with the 80/- added a sharp, fruity note to the stout, and putting life back into it. Try this combination if you can.

We finished, last night, by experimenting with ‘B.B.’ or ‘B&B’ — Burton and bitter, as recommended by T.E.B. Clarke in his 1938 book What’s Yours?

Should you have discovered that you like Burton, or “old”, except for its slightly metallic flavour — another verdict common among beginners — make “B.B.” your next order.

Tasting McEwan’s Champion on its own, we found it figgy, rich and, yes, rather coppery, but also lacking in life. We then combined it with two different sort-of bitters. First, Top Out Staple Pale Ale, a  grassy, bright and citrusy beer with unfortunately rough edges (disclosure: sent to us as part of a sample box by Beer52.com). Before we tasted it, we knew this would work. The Burton added density, polish and depth, and made the pale ale less harsh; the pale ale gave the Burton some ‘zing’ and fresh hop character. The result reminded us of Fuller’s ESB, and was deliciously easy to drink. (Was the development of ESB inspired by this kind of mix? Something to look into.)

Finally, we tried Champion with Williams Bros’ Cock O’ The Walk ‘red ale’ (disclosure: sample bottle), the latter being a crystal malt bomb which tasted like some of early attempts at home brew. Again, the mix improved both beers, producing a deep red ‘winter warmer’, though it’s not a combination we’d especially recommend.

Conclusions

We think mixing is more likely to work if at least one of the beers, and preferably both, are relatively straightforward in character — all roastiness, pure richness, and so on. A mediocre or even bad beer can be rescued by mixing, but an already great beer is unlikely to benefit.

Mixing beers has long been a way for the drinker to assert their independence from the will of the brewery. (Or to ‘insult’ the brewer’s artistry, depending on your point of view.) This is from a book called Beer in Britain published by the Times in 1960:

Also there is the intriguing snobbery of pub drinking — the desire to be different or… to be the same as someone you admire. And so the brewer has to contend with astonishing permutations and combinations of his own beers. How often he hears a licensee say, “Oh, yes, they call for that mixed with half a pint of bitter.” “That” is probably one of the bottled beers the brewer has brewed with extreme trouble to be drunk on its own.

If you don’t have easy access to a great variety of top notch beer, why not use readily available supermarket standards like Champion and Mackeson as building blocks or ingredients for creating the beer you want?

Magic Rock & Lervig Farmhouse IPA

confused_india_bound_chicken

This is the second farmhouse IPA we’ve had this year, so we’re going to start referring to ‘FIPAs’ as if they’re a ‘thing’.

Magic Rock are on our list of trusted suppliers, and their Salty Kiss was our favourite beer of 2013. That, combined with rapturous comments from Connor Murphy and others, made us keen to track down a bottle of the FIPA they brewed in collaboration with Norwegian brewery Lervig during our time in Sheffield last week.

We found it just as we were leaving town, at the Sheffield Tap, which remains one of our favourite places to drink in the entire country. One 330ml bottle cost £5.25 which made us wince, but was soon forgotten when we tasted it.

It was startlingly good, and fantastically exciting.

Magic Rock & Lervig Farmhouse IPA.It reminded us of the first time we tasted Duvel Triple Hop, or perhaps even of our reaction to our first bottles of Goose Island IPA going on for a decade ago: somehow brighter, shinier and louder than everything else around. It was more complex then a standard hop-focused IPA, and less fusty than a standard saison. Greater than the sum of its parts.

With a train to catch and one eye on the clock, we couldn’t really give it the attention we wanted to, but kept saying ‘Wow!’ and ‘Cor!’ and, finally, dashing for our platform, ‘We need to get some more of that.’

Back home, we ordered four more bottles from Ales by Mail at £2.99 each, plus P&P. On Wednesday night, we opened one and found it… very good indeed, but not revelatory. Last night, we tried another, this time a little less chilled, and had the same reaction: it was delicious, but it didn’t make us faint in ecstasy.

Over the course of a few bottles, we found similarities with the Schneider Hopfenweisse, with tons of ripe strawberry, banana, and candied orange. Something in the aroma reminded us of Thai food, and we eventually decided on lemongrass and (perhaps unsurprisingly) coriander. We’re sort of done with ‘pairing’, but it certainly stood up to a sweaty soft-rind French cheese, with the beer gently doubling the funk. The final impression was of a long bitterness, which rides right on through all the cameo appearances by members of the fruit salad ensemble.

It’s also worth noting that we have yet to pour it anything other than cloudy. To us, this only made it look juicier and more appetising, but we realise not everyone has the same tolerance for heavy fog.

Magic Rock Lervig Farmhouse IPA, on balance, helps to make the case for specials and one-offs, which some dismiss as a distraction: a beer like this can only take you by surprise once, but, boy, is it fun while it lasts.