Magical Mystery Pour #24: Weird Beard Mariana Trench

The last beer in this round, chosen for us by Rebecca Pate (@rpate) who blogs at Brewing East, is Weird Beard’s Mariana Trench ‘Transpacific Pale Ale’.

It cost us £2.89 per 330ml bottle from online retailer Honest Brew, has an an ABV of 5.3%, and is designed to showcase a mix of US and New Zealand hops, hence the name. Rebecca says:

This has long been one of my boyfriend’s favourite picks – and he has a handful of those from Weird Beard – but this is definitely among the brewery’s most consistent and highly enjoyable beers. Admittedly not as exciting as some of their other excellent range, this is one I’m still always happy to drink when spotted on tap. It’s a balanced pale that isn’t as aggressively hoppy as some of Weird Beard’s other beers, but I enjoy the hints of citrus and tropical flavours on the nose and light bitterness in the body… I’ve had some great pints of this on Broadway Market on lazy Saturday afternoons, so this is a beer that makes me wax nostalgic with every sip.

It’s probably worth reflecting here on our general feelings about Weird Beard, just to set some context. We find them interesting, not only in terms of the beer but also as a company — they’ve got a policy of openness and honesty which manifests through an often fascinating blog, and the ideas behind their beers can be quite attention-grabbing. We loved their saison when we tasted it off against a bunch of others and over the years have raved about occasional beers in their range. On the whole, though, we have them filed under ‘middling’, especially when it comes to their bottles. In fact, we’ve had this beer before, or at least a previous incarnation, and were lukewarm, although with the emphasis on warm.

Mariana Trench in the glass.
There’s a pin-cushion behind the glass, in case you were wondering about the magenta protrusions.

On opening it hissed just the right amount and poured perfectly clean, bright gold, despite being bottle-conditioned. The head was pure white, unmoving, neither shaving foam nor bubble bath, but somewhere between.

The aroma was muted — just a wisp of weed — which tipped us off to an issue. We checked the label and, sure enough, the beer was bottled in August and thus best before… last month. We bought it in January so this isn’t really our fault, or Honest Brew’s (although a warning might have been nice), or Weird Beard’s for that matter (this certainly beats fibbing about the best before like almost everyone else does). It’s probably just a fact of life we need to get used to with beers that are pointedly about hop aroma and flavour: check dates on delivery, file by delivery date.

There was a momentary spark of fruit juiciness — the ghost of a mango — followed by a vacuum left by the lack of malt character, which led into a faint home-brew funkiness. The latter wasn’t a problem — it provided a feature to navigate by — but the lack of sweetness or flavour in the middle was disappointing.

As per our pre-game prejudices, we found ourselves thinking that we liked it well enough, but it doesn’t push Weird Beard any further up the rankings. Run the standard diagnostic: is it better (or better value) than the reference beer in this area, BrewDog Punk IPA? Not really.

Again, though, we were drinking it past the clearly stated best before, and maybe it would have been, you know, better before. But we’ve had old hoppy beers before and been delighted — age tends to tame extreme hopping and rebalance this kind of beer towards the malt, which can turn out nicely to our taste. That didn’t happen here which highlights the risks of working in one dimension.

So, after our voyage to the bottom of the sea, we’re back where we started: Weird Beard continues to be worth exploring, but won’t always turn up treasure.

Thanks once again to Rebecca for taking the time to select these beers and write notes. Next up: Essex beers chosen for us by Justin Mason (@1970sBOY).

The Strawberry Thief: Belgium in Bristol

A lot of talking and thinking about Belgium and Belgian beer gave us the taste and so, passing through Bristol, we researched the best place to find it, which led us to The Strawberry Thief.

There are few examples — no examples? — of pastiche better than the original, but it is always educational. New Sherlock Holmes stories illuminate what Conan Doyle got right by what they get wrong; Star Wars: The Force Awakens is an excellent commentary on Star Wars; The Rutles bring home how unique The Beatles really were. And so on.

The Strawberry Thief pitches itself as ‘an elegant bar’ and adopts a number of Belgian quirks. A big one — the thing that tells you this is Not a Pub and that you are not in England — is waiter service. They’re good waiters, too — just on the right side of attentive without mithering, although (pastiche giveaway #1) they don’t have quite the rumpled, resigned authority that you get with the real deal in France, Belgium or Germany.

An odd detail that boosts the Belgian atmosphere is the furniture. We don’t know much about interior design but this stuff — brown, rounded, more delicate than bomb-proof British boozer kit — evoked Brussels or Bruges in some subconscious way. (Did Proust ever have a profound moment of recall through the seat of his pants?)

The beer, and its presentation, was The Big Sell. A substantial menu of around 50 Belgian beers covered all the bases, albeit with few surprises. The prices might be off-putting to some: most of the standard-sized bottles (330-375ml) were going for more than £6. All of those we ordered came in appropriately fancy glassware, properly branded in all but one case when an unbranded chalice was provided. We reckon we spent about £10 an hour on drinks between us — we happened to choose one of the cheaper beers, De La Senne Taras Boulba at £4.50 — which didn’t feel outrageous, if you think of it as rent on the seat, and bear in mind the high strength of most of what’s on offer.

The walls and ceiling at The Strawberry Thief.

What yanked us out of our Eurostar fantasy was the background music (contemporary dance pop where we wanted Grappelli), the light-blue walls (brown is still not cool in Britain) and the secondary theme: the designs of William Morris. The latter makes complete sense given the view from the window of the ornate facade of the arts-and-crafts Everard Printing Works opposite and, indeed, is the source of the bar’s name (‘Strawberry Thief’ is a Morris wallpaper design), but it’s got nothing to do with Belgium. Another thing that didn’t quite sit with the Belgian theme was the prevalence of pints of lager – by our reckoning draught Lost & Grounded Keller Pils (a normalish beer at a normalish price-per-pint from a local brewery) was the overall bestseller.

But as night fell, candles went out, lights came down, and a crowd filled every corner, all those quibbles washed away. If you’re willing play along, it’s close enough. We wouldn’t want, and couldn’t afford, to spend five hours here every night, but as a stop on a crawl, or as mid-week, post-work treat, it’s a nice garnish on a city beer scene otherwise dominated by old school real ale pubs or pallet-wood-n-Edison-bulbs craft beer bars.

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?