Magical Mystery Pour #27: Elephant School Sombrero

This passion fruit and chia saison is the third in a series of Essex beers chosen for us by Justin Mason (@1970sBOY) of Get Beer, Drink Beer.

Elephant School is a would-be-hip experimental sub-brand of Brentwood Brewing. This beer cost us £3 for 330ml from Essex Food. Justin says:

Brentwood Brewery, even though it’s across the other side of town to me, is my closest brewery in Essex and their Elephant School brand (named after an actual elephant school in Brentwood where people were trained to ride elephants by the East India Company prior to going to the sub-continent ) is their more creative arm. Sombrero is brewed with chia, a member of the mint family, and passion fruit, the latter ingredient almost taking the lid off the fermenter it was so volatile. This is still my favourite of their beers even though I have brewed my own cranberry Porter with them recently, Porter in a Storm.

What were our prejudices going into this? We’ve often been rather impressed by Brentwood’s cask ales — a 2.8% bitter of theirs is perhaps the best low-alcohol beer we’ve ever had — but can’t recall having tried their bottled products, and bottled beers from small breweries can be a risky business. Then there’s the style as described: saison is a difficult, delicate style and we sometimes suspect that chucking fruit in it is a distraction technique. And, finally, there’s a mild irritation at the idea that Brentwood, already a tiny independent brewery, needs a ‘craft’ spin-off — where does this kind of weirdness end?

Sombrero Saison in the glass. (Golden beer.)
Popping the orange cap we were answered with an assertive hiss and managed to pour (quite easily) a pure golden glass of beer topped with a glossy meringue-like head.

At first, we were worried by the aroma, which caused some nose wrinkling. There was a whiff of the old first aid kit about it, something chemical; or perhaps a peatiness, but somehow without the smoke. For a while, that was overriding, but it either died away or we got used to it.

Zeroing on the base beer we found something on thin side, dry, and spicy — a decent enough saison, but lacking the luxury of the standard-bearer for the style, Dupont. Perhaps that’s because it’s only 4.5% ABV — either historically appropriate or a kind of session saison, depending on the angle you’re coming from.

The passion fruit was dialling its performance in, offering a whisper of fruit flavour, but certainly not earning it’s star billing. It was about right for us, really — interesting and intriguing rather than like something that ought to be in a carton with a straw through the lid. We did wonder if the fruit was responsible for a mild acidity which we could have done without.

We detected nothing remotely minty, which is better, we suppose, than getting a gobful of it and not liking it.

It could do to be cleaner and, at the same time, to be a bit more interesting overall, given the expectations set up by the label and description. But we didn’t dislike it, even if we couldn’t go out of our way to drink it again.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 15 April 2017 — Metal, Myrcene, Milk Stout

Here’s everything that grabbed our attention in the world of beer and pubs in the last week, from heavy metal to heavy hops.

For Noisey, the music section of Vice, Sammy Maine has written what she calls ‘A Love Letter to British Metal Pubs’, highlighting the threat to this particular type of pub:

Another blow is the case of Bristol’s The Stag and Hounds—a metal/rock pub focused on the promotion of local and DIY shows—which will be closing next month. Announcing the news on their website, the team explained that ‘through a series of events and circumstances (some out of our control) we have looked at the books and it’s not viable for us to carry on to see the contract out.’ This kind of statement is becoming a broken record when it comes to fans of metal pubs—their presence tumbling thanks to various issues like tax hikes, the persistent demand for luxury flats and the feeling that they simply don’t feel hugely relevant or crucial anymore when metal can often feel more like a genre you pass through, rather than one you commit to.

(This is actually from a couple of weeks ago but we only noticed it the other day.)


Wild hops, Richmond, London.

Emma at Crema’s Beer Odyssey has shared a long, detailed post on the science of hops, based on research for a talk to a South London home brewing club. It is technical without being remote and typically forthright, acting (perhaps incidentally) as a rebuke to us and others who have failed to get on board the drink fresh train:

There are always people who say, ‘oh but I prefer my IPA with some age on it’ or similar. If you look around online it’s quite easy to find evidence of people drinking IPA or DIPA when it’s months or even years old and insisting it’s still great. It’s nice that they enjoy old beer but that’s not what the brewer intended. Of course, depending on the size of the brewery, there are steps which can be taken to give their beer as long a shelf life as possible (filtering and cold chain distribution, for example). For smaller breweries there is a much simpler option: advise your customers to drink fresh by applying a short best before date to your hop-forward beers, e.g. three or four months.

Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 15 April 2017 — Metal, Myrcene, Milk Stout”

It Conceals Its Lardiness Well

Illustration: a packet of lard.

What do we mean when we say we want a boozy beer to really taste boozy?

In yesterday’s review of a Colchester Brewery porter we mentioned our delight at discovering it had only 4.6% alcohol which was perhaps the immediate prompt for this from The Beer Nut:

We reckon we’re in the clear here — we rejected the first of those two options a few years ago, although Duvel (which we worship and adore) might be an exception.

Trying to think of an analogy, the best we could come up with was this: when you eat a 2,000 calorie pizza, you want to taste those calories. So, when people say ‘It was 9% but had the body and flavour of something half the strength — so drinkable!’ it sounds like ‘…but the cheese was so well concealed I was able to eat an extra six slices.’ Which might make sense if you’re bulking up for a marathon, or have a lot of cheese to dispose of for some reason (hey, that’s none of our business) but otherwise, just seems barmy.

An amazing, rich-tasting dessert that turns out to have barely any fat? Great news! Something that seems virtuous but turns out to have a load of hidden filth? Gutted. (The 1993 Seinfeld episode ‘The Non Fat Yogurt’ plays on this very premise.)

Alcohol isn’t good for us. It can, and often does, make us feel like death the day after. We’re willing to accept those downsides for a sufficiently thrilling, deep, mind-blowing beer. Otherwise, we’ll just drink a lighter, simpler, less intense, and probably cheaper beer and swerve the hangover.

But maybe what people really mean, as per Twitter discussion yesterday, is that they want the good things booze brings to beer — body, richness, headiness — without the burn. In which case the fat analogy works: a hugely calorific meal should taste luxurious, silky, unctuous, and all those other words we use to put a positive spin on fat. It shouldn’t taste greasy or oily, like hour-old battered cod from a chippy that doesn’t manage the temperature of its fryers properly.

Things cooked in lard taste great but no-one wants to eat it with a fork.

Magical Mystery Pour #26: Colchester Brewery Brazilian

The second Essex beer from a set chosen for us by Justin Mason (@1970sBOY) of Get Beer, Drink Beer is a coffee and vanilla porter at 4.6% ABV.

We got it from Essex Food at £3.00 per 330ml bottle. Justin says:

Colchester Brewery use the ‘double drop’ method, where primary fermentation takes place in one vessel before being ‘dropped’ under gravity to a secondary fermentation vessel below, in the brewing of all their beers. Their Brazilian, with its label resembling that of a high street coffee chain (pure coincidence) is brewed using Brazilian coffee and fresh vanilla pods and is a beer that I’d quite happily end a meal with, having done so on numerous occasions.

We have mixed feelings about coffee beers. Too often they end up tasting sickly and fake — more like coffee cream chocolates, or coffee cake, than the real thing. Or, when they avoid that fate, they can instead end up too serious, harsh and headache-inducing. And of course there’s the novelty factor — is it a stunt, or a proper beer? Our gut feeling is that proper beers suggest coffee without just adding it to the brew.

In this case, too, the Starbucks-inspired branding didn’t fill us with hope. It’s such an obvious joke, a cheap shot, that it made us think somewhat ill of the beer from the off.

Colchester Brazilian porter in a beer glass.

On opening we felt yet more concerned. We’ve popped the caps on enough bottles over the years to almost be able to feel the character of the beer from the way it feels and sounds at that point. This felt flat and dead. It looked lifeless as it went into the glass, too, although as it settled a thin tan head did emerge like some kind of magic trick. It also kicked out a substantial drifting aroma of bottled baking essences.

And yet, for all those danger signs, we really liked this beer. The coffee character was fun rather than tacky and well balanced by the underlying beer — a bitter, light-bodied, uncompromising porter that we’d like to try neat by the pint sometime. It wasn’t at all sickly — it suggested sweetness without actually having much sugar left in it — the suggestive powers of vanilla, we suppose. What it reminded us of in spirit was those fancily-packaged single-estate chocolate bars with, say, baobab, that they sell in the Eden Project gift shop. It was intense without being po-faced about it.

What really sealed the deal was when we thought to check the ABV. We’d been assuming it was something like 6% — suggested by the bottle size, perhaps? — and were delighted to discover that so much flavour was being dished up in such a moderately alcoholic package.

We’d definitely buy this again and (based on this one encounter) would recommend it over some much trendier, more trendily packaged coffee stouts/porters we’ve encountered.

The brewery has a large range of special beers including lots of historically-inspired recipes — we’ll be looking out for them on our travels.

The Pubs of Boggleton, 1837-2017

“The development of Boggleton, a small English town which I have traced at set periods in the next pages, is symptomatic of all England. We can learn the character of a country from the scars and wrinkles on its face.”

John Betjeman, ‘1837-1937’, 1937

With apologies to Sir John what follows is our attempt to condense the overall plot arc of the English pub in the last two centuries. It’s simultaneously a bit of fun — well, it was certainly fun to write — and semi-serious in intent, given that the town is purposefully generic and completely made up.

This also seems like a good place to announce what most of you have probably already guessed from all the hints we’ve been dropping about The Big Project: we have a new book on the way. It’s going to be called 20th Century Pub: from beerhouse to booze bunker and is due out this summer. It covers everything from improved pubs to micropubs (the long 20th Century, shall we say), via estate pubs, theme pubs, Irish pubs, Wetherspoons, and numerous other stops.

1837

Header graphic: 1837 town map.

Boggleton, being a relatively sober town much dominated by church folk, had only twelve pubs, to serve a population of 3,000 people. They were not called pubs at the time, however. One, The Dolphin, was most certainly a great Inn, situated on the main street, busy with coaches and the horses that drew them. It had beds, served meals (grudgingly, it must be said) and all sorts of drinks from ale to wine. The building rambled, was riddled with mice, and was marked by a gilded sign hanging over the street depicting something like a mer-tiger.

The Red Lion on the market square was smaller, sagging and smoky, intricately half-timbered. It too was an inn, at least on paper, but people rarely stayed or ate there. Sometimes it was referred to as a tavern, but it was not quite that either — there was nothing of the city about it, and it had no wine of distinction. It was most often called a ‘public house’ and was busiest on market days when farmers from the surrounding villages came into town, stuffed into shirts and waistcoats, sweating and merry.

The rest were beerhouses, or beershops – small establishments more-or-less resembling the cottages that surrounded them. They were licensed to sell only beer and were brought into being by the passing of the 1830 Beerhouse Act. None had prominent or elaborate heraldic signs and many were simply known by the names of the people who ran them. Thompson’s Beerhouse was typical: a single room – formerly the parlour of old Thompson’s own home – with bare plaster on the walls, scrubbed floorboards, a bench against one wall, and a wooden cask of home-brewed beer on a rough-hewn table in the corner. The beerhouses could be wild places and soaked up working men’s wages which worried the pious people of the town, but all they could do was complain, and watch like hawks.

1867

Header graphic: 1867 with Victorian manicule.

When the railway came in the 1850s, New Boggleton was created. There came row after row of houses for railwaymen and for workers at the new factories, as well as suburbs and villas for the well-to-do. And for 100,000 people, twelve pubs were hardly enough.

Despite the efforts of the Boggleton Temperance Society, founded in 1855, the beerhouses had grown in number and some, the most successful, had increased in size, too, until they rivalled The Red Lion. Thompson’s had become The White Hart and scarcely a trace of the original dwelling from which it had sprung remained.

Nor could the Temperance Society prevent the magistrates from granting licences for new beerhouses on street corners among the terraces, until it was said that from any point in town you could always see two pubs. The Venezuela on Oxford Road, serving the piston works, was purpose built by the firm that constructed the surrounding houses in 1860. It was small but nonetheless had two rooms, one a touch more respectable and suitable for foremen and clerks.

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