The Craft Beer Life on a Budget

Is craft beer in the UK (definition 2) hopelessly exclusive to those on a budget or are there ways in?

We got thinking about this in response to two Tweets, the first from Mark Dexter…

…and the second from Tony Naylor who writes about food and drink for the Guardian and other publications:

Mark (former blogger, actor, doesn’t like 330ml bottles) went on to argue that those who suggested paying it was reasonable to ask more for a better product were essentially saying, ‘Screw poor people. Let them drink piss.’ (His words.)

This is something that nags at us somewhat. A few years ago we suggested that breweries might consider finding a way to offer an entry level beer at a reasonable price by, for example, being pragmatic about hops and shooting for a lower ABV.

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The A-Team

Illustration: the A-Team.

Without quite meaning to we’ve acquired some habits — a line-up of bottled beers that we always have in the cupboard or fridge.

What follows is probably as near as you’ll ever get from us to an X Beers Before You Y list.

Bitter (pale ale) or pale and hoppy session beers we tend to drink in the pub. We’re spoiled for choice, really, even in Penzance, and even more so if we take the bus out to the Star at Crowlas. Still, it’s worth saying that St Austell Proper Job is our default pub drink these days. It’s for the more unusual styles that we resort to bottles.

Anchor Porter from the US which goes at around £2-3 per 355ml bottle in the UK is our go-to beer in the stout family. We arrived at this decision after proper testing. When the urge for a dark beer that really tastes dark overcomes us, this is the one we reach for, knowing it will be great every time.

There are lots of great Belgian beers but one that never gets boring, because it’s the best beer in the world, is Westmalle Tripel. There are always a couple of bottles of this in every order we place.

Orval is our favourite example of… Orval. We went from being sceptical to puzzled to devotees over the course of a couple of years. We love it in its own right — it’s always different, yet somehow the same — but we also like to play with it. It’s our house stock ale if you like.

We don’t often need a stout more robust than Anchor Porter but when we do it’s Harvey’s Imperial Extra Double Stout. It tastes its strength, coats the tongue, and comes with a tractor-trailer of funky weirdness that really does ensure a single glass can last all evening. One case every other year seems to do the job, though.

This is both our most boring choice and likely to be most controversial: we’ve yet to find a flowery, aromatic American-style IPA that is better value or more reliably enjoyable than BrewDog Punk. Every time we open a bottle or can we say, ‘Wow!’ which is exactly what we want from this kind of beer. Nine times out of ten Proper Job at the Yacht Inn is all the hops we need but this is the one we keep at home when our blood-humulone levels drop to dangerously low levels.

When we want something sour and refreshing we consistently turn to Magic Rock Salty Kiss. It’s not overly strong, not overly acidic, and is just the right kind of acidic for us, too. (But we won’t say too much — it’s coming up in the current round of Magical Mystery Pour.)

But there are still vacancies — styles where we play the field. When it comes to lager, we currently cycle through St Austell Korev (great value, easy to find), Thornbridge Tzara (yes, we know, not technically a lager, but technically brilliant) and Schlenkerla Helles (the smoke is just enough of a twist to keep us excited). Even though we tasted a load of them we still don’t have a bottled mild we feel the need to have permanently at hand — it’s a pub beer, really. We tend to buy Saison Dupont or BrewDog Electric India but that’s not a lock — we’re still actively auditioning others and saison isn’t something we drink every week. When we get the urge to drink wheat beer, we’re still happy with Hoegaarden, and most German brands do what they need to do, so we just pop to the shops.

So, that’s us. A tendency to conservatism, to the safe option, and to the familiar. (Which is, of course, what Magical Mystery Pour is intended to counter.)

But what about you — do you have any go-to beers? What are they? Or does the whole idea of drinking the same beers over and again just bore you to death?

How We Choose What to Drink

You walk into a pub or bar and are faced with, say, eight or more beers. Which do you go for, and why?

We were trying to work out if we have a system, subconscious or otherwise, and here’s what we reckon our order of preference is.

  1. Anything that’s on our wish list.
  2. Something new by a favourite brewery.
  3. An old favourite we don’t see often.
  4. A beer we’ve tried but want to give more thought to.
  5. Something from a new brewery we’ve heard is interesting.
  6. Anything new that doesn’t ring alarm bells.
  7. An old favourite we have all the time.
  8. Whatever vaguely OK but boring cask ale or ‘craft beer’ they’ve got.
  9. Guinness, or gin and tonic.

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Magical Mystery Pour #5: Ruhstaller’s Gilt Edge

Magical Mystery Pour logo.We asked noted beer writer Joe Stange (@Thirsty_Pilgrim) to select our second batch of Magical Mystery Pour beers and he said yes. Well, actually, he said:

  1. “Oh I like this. It’s like your friends actually letting you play DJ at a party.”
  2. “You know, it’s very tempting to troll you with the six worst beers I can think of.”

But, after further consideration, he decided on an entirely different theme: lager. Specifically, he chose a mix of Belgian, German and American beers, some that he knows well, others about which he is curious, all of which we then purchased with our own cash from Beers of Europe.

First, we tackled Ruhstaller’s Gilt Edge, a 4.8% ABV, vaguely-heritage-y California golden lager. Joe hasn’t tried it but says:

This one comes all the way from Sacramento at 42 IBU. I hope it’s drinkable. The labels on these revivalist American lagers remind me of current generational tilts toward things like beard oil and cowboy rye whiskey. I expect a barber shop quarter to appear when you drink this.

It came in a 330ml can that cost £3.49 — not an outrageous price but not cheap either, especially for what you might call a basic beer style.

Initial impressions, even before opening the can, were mixed: on the one hand, the label was glued to the can which, with UK beers, we have tended to regard as a bad sign. On the other, we’ve rarely seen more informative blurb:

Labelling on Ruhstaller's can: hops, barley, etc.

There doesn’t seem to be anything to hide here which is reassuring, even if we don’t actually have any idea whether those are particularly great varieties of barley, or if these farms are anything special.

After pouring, we could but marvel: it looked so pretty. The head was as stiff as beaten egg-whites and the body of the beer, pale gold, almost seemed to give off a light of its own. (Although, to be fair, this is also true of, say, Stella Artois.)

Ruhstaller's in the glass on a beer mat.

The aroma was restrained — just an appetising wisp of herbs and citrus peel.

The flavour had a few stages: first, that crusty bread savoury-sweetness we associate with decent German beers, then a brief appearance from that twist of citrus, followed by — oh, blimey! — a crushing monster truck of unchecked bitterness. The first few sips were almost challenging, tipping way over from crisp into harsh. But the more we drank, the less that bothered us. Our palates adjusted to this new reality, just as the shock-inducing cold plunge at a spa gets to be fun after a while. We began to think that, yes, we’d like a few more of these in for the kind of hot day we’re sure is on the way, when the back of the throat demands something with real bite.

It’s typically American (if we can indulge in some stereotyping) in its boldness and frankness, but that doesn’t mean it’s unsubtle or silly. There are no grapefruits here.

If you think lager is bland, or you think Jever and Pilsner Urquell aren’t the beers they used to be, give this a try. It might just be the jolt you need.

Magical Mystery Pour #2: Tzatziki Sour

Magical Mystery Pour logo.The second beer suggested to us by Dina (read about the first here) is Tzatziki Sour by Liverpool’s Mad Hatter Brewery.

She says:

Many people considered this their beer of the year.  It was definitely up there for me.  Again, it does what it says on the bottle- it tastes just like tzatziki.  I’ve only had a few cucumber beers in my life, but I have no idea how brewers manage to get such flavour from a vegetable that really doesn’t have much flavour. You just HAVE to drink this beer. I recommend you blend it with a kebab in your face.

This is what we’ve previously referred to as a Jelly Belly Jelly Bean beer: a beer designed to taste as close as possible to another foodstuff altogether. It’s safe to say that if you have an objection to this type of beer and/or you don’t like tzatziki, you won’t like this one.

The bottle opened with an jet-powered hiss and gave off an immediately familiar aroma. Guess what it smelled like? No, go on, guess! Yes, that’s right: tzatziki! That is, mostly of cucumber, with a touch of dusty dried mint, and a high note of acid funk. (Side note: the label would probably work as the cover for an acid funk LP.)

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