Magical Mystery Pour #22: Brixton Megawatt Double IPA

This is another beer chosen for us by Rebecca Pate (@rpate) of Brewing East. It’s an 8% ABV double IPA from Brixton, South London, which we got for £3.09 per 330ml via the Honest Brew online store.

Rebecca says:

Another high ABV beer, yes, but I was slow to discover Brixton Brewery and this was something I rectified in 2016. All of their core beers are intensely drinkable, but this is an annual release of their DIPA and it’s packed with some great flavours from both Northern and Southern hops, including three unfamiliar to me: Rakau, Mosaic, Azacca and Falconers Flight. I got to try the 2016 version in December at a bar only a minute’s walk from the brewery. In fact, I also happened to be there on the day that they showed up with the keg and was told to watch out for the neon orange keg badge when it was on… I love Brixton Brewery and this nice release is well-balanced and very palatable number. It’s the biggest ABV beer they do and it goes down in a flash.

Every now and then, not very often, our palates get out of sync — you say hints of tomato, I say notes of potato, let’s call the whole thing off, and so on. With this beer we both tasted more or less the same things but in terms of overall likeability it fell into no-man’s-land.

Brixton Megawatt DIPA in the glass.

Popping the cap released a burst of fruit aroma, as if someone had stamped on a tangerine, with a gentle ‘Tsk!’ Some beers won’t be controlled on pouring but this one was highly malleable, providing more or less foam depending on the angle and height of the pour — you know, like a proper beer. We ended up with an unmoving head of just-off-white over a clear body of orange-highlighted brown — a 2009 model DIPA rather than the hazy yellow generally preferred in 2017, then.

Noses in, there was hot apricot jam and, appropriately, but disconcertingly, a suggestion of toasted brown bread.

The flavour is intense, we both agreed on that — there really is a lot going on. It’s rather jumbled and muddy, an odd combination of peach and chocolate. It’s fairly well dried-out and light-bodied, but also fiercely bitter. And then a different kind of bitterness — the savoury burnt dinner sort — lands on top of that. Plus, finally, there’s some hot booziness.

Boak: ‘That’s really very decent. Almost rough but not quite. Characterful. I like it.’

Bailey: ‘Hmm. I’m not keen. It tastes like dodgy home-brew to me. I’m confused by all these dark beer flavours in a double IPA.’

We concluded, based on this beer and a couple of others we’ve tried from the same brewery, that Brixton isn’t one of those outfits aspiring for slick and clean so much as funky and textured. Not everyone will like what they do, which is great — we want more breweries that not everyone likes — but probably explains why they attract less buzz than some of their peers in London. If you like your beer impolite and punkish, give it a try. If you insist on a high polish, walk on by.

Are Thornbridge’s 330ml Bottles a Con?

Thornbridge beer bottle caps.

The recent decision by Thornbridge to move their packaged beers from 500ml to 330ml has rubbed some people up the wrong way — are they pulling a fast one?

A particularly vocal complainant is Mark Dexter who used to blog at The Bottled Beer Year but who is nowadays busy being a successful actor, notably playing Prime Minister David Cameron in Coalition on Channel 4 a couple of years back. Yesterday, he repeated his objection to the switch to 330ml bottles:

For our part, we do find the indiscriminate switch to 330ml across the whole range a bit baffling — some Thornbridge beers at low ABV clearly suit drinking by the (near) pint — but actually rather welcomed it for the stronger stuff. Half a litre of Halcyon imperial IPA at 7.4% ABV? Too much. (Although we do at least have the option of splitting it between us.) The same goes for Jaipur too, probably, although we realise that makes us seem a bit pathetic what with it being a mere 5.9%.

Our gut feeling is that, for a lot of British drinkers, the point at which a pint becomes too much is somewhere around 5%. These days, that probably just translates to choosing a different beer, but we used to have a tradition in the UK of nip bottles (less than half a pint) for stronger, special beers such as Eldridge Pope Thomas Hardy Ale. Thornbridge and others who package at 330ml clearly believe, or hope, that drinkers can be convinced to buy stronger or otherwise ‘bigger’ beers if they don’t have to drink quite so much in one sitting.

So, in itself, the packaging change makes some sense.

But here’s the real nub of Mark’s objection: are they using the opaqueness introduced by the switchover to screw over consumers, as retailers were accused of doing back at the time of decimalisation?

First, we wondered whether the price rise people noticed with the switch to 330ml bottles might have happened anyway. This is far from scientific — we just grabbed info from Twitter and newspaper articles — but it does seem that the price-per-litre of Thornbridge Jaipur at Waitrose has been on the climb fairly steadily since 2012, going up by about 6 per cent each time. With the switch to 330ml, though, the increase was sharper at about 15 per cent, even though the absolute price of a bottle dipped back under £2. So, some sort of price rise was probably due, but the numbers certainly do seem fishy.

Then a good follow-up question seemed to be this: What kind of price increase have we seen on beers whose packaging hasn’t changed in the same period? Perhaps Thornbridge/Waitrose are merely following wider trends and the packaging size-change is a red herring.

Well, no. Oakham Citra, BrewDog Punk and St Austell Proper Job — similarly hop-focused beers from independent UK breweries — have all got cheaper at Waitrose since 2012.

So it seems Mark is right: Thornbridge is making a concerted effort to drag itself into the premium bracket and avoid the bulk-discount tendency, and the packaging change was a good opportunity to conceal the gear shift.

Even so, this is all just part of an ever-more crowded, complex UK market neatly segmenting itself. Jaipur is a great beer, sure, but these days it’s far from the only beer like that on the market, and plenty of those IPAs are still in 500ml bottles, for now at least. And we do after all live in an age of incredible transparency where packaging size conceals nothing with price-per-litre displayed right there on the supermarket shelf, and in the online shopping basket:

Waitrose screen display for Meantime IPA.

What could Thornbridge have done differently here? They could have stated outright that the price rise was to pay for investment in the brewery (have they said that somewhere?) and/or introduced the increase at a different time from the packaging change. But, seriously, are there many companies that self-flagellatingly honest?

Meanwhile, Mark and others — check Twitter, there are lots of others! — may stop buying Thornbridge in protest, but we suspect the brewery won’t much care. After all, it doesn’t seem as if they have trouble shifting every drop of what they brew, whatever they charge for it.

QUICK REVIEW: Rustically Charming, More Oak than Pine

Vibrant Forest Chinook in the glass.

Vibrant Forest was the stand-out brewery of last year’s Great British Beer Festival for us and their pale ale designed to showcase American Chinook hops sounded pretty appealing.

We bought it from Honest Brew at £2.29 for for a 330ml bottle and drank it on a rainy Wednesday in January when the moon was bright.

Something about the look of the beer in the glass immediately wrong-footed us: we were geared up for something pilsner-pale based on our previous experience with single-hop beers, but this was a hazy orange that looked leafy brown from most angles. The aroma was also surprising — more spice and toast than citrus, and quite muted altogether.

The spiciness carried through into the flavour which made us think of health food shops and dense German breads. We reckon there’s some crystal malt in here which it just gets away with, but which could easily retreat a bit further. The hops do make themselves known but primarily as a looming, rather harsh bitterness against the muddy, home-brew background.

That might sound as if we didn’t like it, but we did. Rough-hewn as it was, there was no staleness and it wasn’t fatally sweet. It had a lot of flavour and body for 5% ABV, too. Once we’d accepted that there was to be no grapefruit festival as advertised, we enjoyed it for what it was and found ourselves comparing it favourably to Adnams’s admittedly more polished Crystal Rye IPA. We reckon it would be better again as a cask ale, and also, counter to the advice of the Drink Fresh cult, after nine months or so mellowing in the bottle.

Vibrant Forest remain on our Keep Trying list.

More generally, it led us to reflect on the Shitloads of Hops approach to brewing. For a long time collective wisdom said that big brewery beers were boring because they were stingy with their hops, and only used Fuggles, and that therefore the answer was to be exceedingly, extravagantly, insanely generous. Up to a point, that works, but eventually returns diminish and it becomes a case of not how many hops you use but how you use them. Smart breweries these days are focusing on acquiring the best hops, storing them carefully to maintain their freshness, and thinking hard about how to use them for maximum impact. Should breweries that aren’t willing or able to do that retreat from the battlefield? Or are darker, malt-led beers simply a dead-end in 2017?

QUICK REVIEW: Small Saison With German Hops and a British Accent

Among our most recent grab-bag of interesting looking beers was Brew By Numbers Huell Melon Table Saison 17|07 which we bought at £2.79 for 330ml from Beer Hawk.

We find Brew By Numbers slightly frustrating: they’re responsible for some great stuff, and some not so great, which makes buying their beer a gamble. We have tended to enjoy their pale Belgian-inspired beers most, though, and found the idea of a 3.5% ABV saison made with an unusual, relatively new German hop variety irresistible.

It looked vaguely Champagne-like in the glass, with touches of pink, herbal green and gold depending on how the light caught it.

We didn’t detect the melon aromas for which the hop variety is known, and after which it is named, or too much aroma at all beyond a snatch of wild, catty hedgerow flowers.

The body was thin, not far from watery, the emphasis being on ‘table’ rather than ‘saison’. (Historically saisons were light, refreshing beers but these days, with Dupont as the role model, tend to be more like 6.5% and richer tasting.) Did it also taste a bit like… Aspirin? There was some mineral bite anyway, ever so slightly jarring. But once we’d adjusted to the reality of the situation we began to revel in the spicy, bitter, tonic spritziness of it all. It’s a blunt beer, one-dimensional really, but that’s not necessarily bad news — you might also call it focused, or straightforward, or even minimalistic.

The only real problem is — and bear in mind that we’re not pints-only dogmatists — that it really wants to be drunk in greater volume, rather than sipped. Even, perhaps, sloshed out of a five-pint jug, in a farmyard or field.

On further reflection, we decided that if we’d been given it blind and asked to categorise it by style we reckon we’d have filed it under pale’n’hoppy English ale rather than saison, which is odd when you think of its resolutely European DNA.

The final verdict? We liked it and would drink it again, especially on a thirsty summer day.

Magical Mystery Pour #21: Cloudwater DIPA Version 10

The third of series of beers chosen for us by Rebecca Pate (@rpate), who blogs at Brewing East, is Cloudwater Double IPA Version 10.

We had a bit of a time getting hold of this, too, because being a limited release, and much in demand, it tends to sell out pretty quickly. We ended up buying several bottles direct from Cloudwater via Eeebria as part of a mixed case of six bottles of DIPA and IPA which cost us £20. Individual 330ml bottles of DIPA from other retailers tend to go at around £4.50-£5.

Rebecca says:

I’d be lying if I denied being on the Cloudwater bandwagon and haven’t systematically tracked down every version of their evolving DIPA; however, this great DIPA adventure represents the first time I’ve found myself caught up in hype surrounding a beer. I’ve stepped back slightly since, stumbling upon all versions following v5 more naturally and without a frenzied hunt as it became more readily available around London. Regardless of the hype, Cloudwater have done incredible things for the Double IPA. When I enjoyed my half pint of this v10, I noted that the aromas took on a more savoury edge than previously, but the intense fruitiness in the body – likened by many to a fruit cup – was still present without much to indicate its 9% ABV. It’s almost magical how easily this goes down.

This is a really tricky beer to write about for various reasons. As we hinted at here in our non-review of a previous version there is so much talk about Cloudwater, and this beer in particular, that you either end up sounding like a wilful contrarian, or part of the cult. And with the announcement that it is to cease producing cask ale the other week Cloudwater has only become more political.

Then there’s the fact that each version really is a different beer. As we write this, Version 11 is just being launched, at which point Version 10 becomes an irrelevance.

Finally, of course, there’s the fact that if you don’t drink a DIPA as fresh as possible — ideally before it has even been brewed — then you can’t possibly have an informed opinion. This one is weeks old, for goodness sake. Or perhaps it needs a bit of time to mellow. It’s usually one or the other.

What follows is our best attempt to ignore all of that and to give our honest reaction to this specific bottle of beer, asking, first and foremost whether we liked it, before unpacking the whys and how comes.

Cloudwater DIPA in the glass.

This beer was not designed to be clear. From the first splash in the glass it was dirty and only got dirtier. There were no lumps or clumps — just something like a mango lassi or smoothie. It did not look unappealing to us but it might to you depending on your programming with regard to suspended yeast.

The smell was close to the ideal for an IPA, a jumble of freshly-picked, under-ripe tropical fruit, and mysterious, exotic aromas that brought to mind the alien plantlife of the Eden Project’s rainforest biome. Very exciting. Just wonderful.

Unfortunately, what we tasted was garlic, crisp green leaves and (to a much lesser degree) that same musty note that marred Verdant Headband. Pushing on, that faded somewhat, bringing to the fore suggestions of pineapple and unrefined sugar. The problem is we just don’t get this kind of flavour profile, where salad dominates over sweet fruit. It does not make us happy. We can, however, tell that this is a good example of the sub-style — it is 90 per cent clean-tasting, without the rough edges that mar many similar beers, and is crammed full of flavour.

Lettuce, spring onions and pineapple.
Adapted from public domain images at Wikimedia Commons.

We did not, when push comes to shove, like it, but we didn’t exactly choke on it either. It’s constantly interesting, if nothing else, and, oddly, going back to the haziness, one of the things we liked best was the rather milky, silky texture.

We’ll no doubt give Cloudwater DIPA another go in a few versions time. It will have been through a few more regenerations by then and might well be much more to our taste.