Magical Mystery Pour #29: Round Tower Avena Stout

The final bottle chosen for us by Essex expert Justin Mason (@1970sBOY) who blogs at Get Beer, Drink Beer is a stout from Chelmsford.

We bought our 500ml bottle from Essex Food for £3.40. The ABV is 4.7% and the label is minimalist to the point of plainness, its black and white shouting STOUT! from afar. Justin says:

Situated a stone’s throw from the heart of Chelmsford, Essex’s only city, Round Tower have been producing some of the tastiest beers in the county since 2013. Unafraid of trying out new techniques or embracing new styles Simon and Hannah Tippler pride themselves on the quality of their beer, and rightly so. Avena Stout, whilst neither experimental or challenging, is nevertheless a good example of what they are capable of. Roast malts up front, a creamy middle and burnt-toast-like dry finish make for a very satisfying drink, one to be enjoyed whatever the weather or time of day.

We like stout in principle but really struggle to find many examples at anything like standard pub strength that especially excite us. Samuel Smith Oatmeal is one that does. We had high hopes for Avena because it sent the right signals for us: modern without being aggressively trendy.

The head (foam) on a glass of Avena Stout.

The moment the crown cap came off the bottle let out a fierce hiss and the foam started to rise up to the neck. It stopped short of gushing but it was an anxious moment and the very high carbonation made it impossible to follow the instruction on the bottle to pour carefully. However slowly decanted, however tilted the receiving vessel, every trickle of beer into the glass kicked up an untameable stack of beige froth. It took several minutes and several tips of the bottle to get the glass anywhere near full. The beer being very dark meant that it was also hard to see what was happening with the sediment but we assume some, maybe even a lot, did escape.

The aroma, insofar as there was any, was of sharp, grassy hops over a background of hot metal. It wasn’t especially inviting, but it wasn’t off-putting either.

The flavour — the really important thing — struck us instantly as very pleasant. That established, we tried to work out why. It’s not, after all, as if it was perfect — there was a certain home-brew-like lack of polish that stopped just short of roughness. There was also a rattling clash between the hops and malt which almost hinted at black IPA, only green and leafy rather than grapefruity. If we could tweak it it might be to shift the hops back in the mix to create more bitterness and present less vegetation. The fizz, too, is distracting; a beer like this is better with a cask-like softness. As it is the bubbles perhaps contribute to the sharpness that undercuts what does work.

And that is the sweetness and body which, for once, really does earn the cliched description ‘creamy’. As far as we know there’s no lactose in here but it had a sweet milk stout character anyway. So many micro-brewery stouts are clearly inspired by Guinness whereas this sits on the other side of the family tree with Mackeson– nourishing, rum and raisin, just the thing for Grandma in the lounge or Mum on the maternity ward.

And that’s about all we’ve got.  As Justin suggests, it’s not the kind of beer you write essays about. But if you want a slightly skewed take on traditional stout, or generally find stout hard-going, this could be just the thing.

Thanks, Justin — that’s been fun.

Next in this series: Rach from Look at Brew suggests beers from Sussex.

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.

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.

Magical Mystery Pour #25: Bishop Nick 1555

For this latest round of Magical Mystery Pour (the fifth) we’ve asked Justin Mason (@1970sboy) to pick us some beers from Essex in the east of England. He’s deeply immersed in the local beer scene as evidenced by his beer blog and the Twitter side project @BeerInEssex.

First, a quick recap of the premise of Magical Mystery Pour: we ask someone to pick an online retailer, choose five or six beers they think we’ll find interesting in one way or another, and send us some notes. We then buy the beers, drink them, and write them up.

We approached Justin because the idea behind MMP is to find beers we might otherwise miss and to highlight less talked about breweries, and we don’t know Essex beer at all well. Also, we both have family connections there, Boak more so than Bailey, and share a fascination with a county which at one end is tangled up in in London and at the other with East Anglia.

The first beer in this round is 1555, badged as an amber ale, from the Bishop Nick Brewery of Braintree. Its ABV is 4.3%. We bought our 500ml bottle from Essex Food for £3.10. Justin says:

Bishop Nick Brewery was founded from the ashes of Ridleys Brewery, at one time Essex’s oldest and largest by the son of its last chairman, and fittingly 1555 is named after the year that his ancestor, Nicholas Ridley was burnt at the stake for his Protestant beliefs in the reign of Bloody Mary. Hopped with Styrian Goldings this fruity red ale is one of my ‘go-tos’ if I see it on the bar on in a bottle.

We approached this with some wariness. The label says hip-young-things, the bottle size and the style says trad-as-your-dad, and ‘amber ale’ (i.e. bottled bitter) is rarely terribly exciting, even when (especially when?) bottle-conditioned, as this is. We’ve simply been burned too often by gushers and accidental lambics.

Bishop Nick 1555 in the glass.

But, thankfully, there was no drama during pouring, just a discreet pssst, the right amount of carbonation to give a decent pub-style head without requiring lots of management, and well-behaved yeast that stayed put in the bottle.

It was bright in the glass and made us want to resurrect the disgraced descriptor ‘polished mahogany’. How about the skin of a freshly-hatched conker for a social realist alternative?

The taste was remarkably unremarkable, which is a good thing. It is squarely in the brown bitter tradition, but more or less flawlessly executed.

It’s a beer ruled over by malt — round, nutty, wholemeal, chewable. Malt-led beers can often end up tasting sugary or toffeeish but there’s none of that here: it’s been properly finished and polished, with hops doing their work behind the scenes, out of sight. Well, mostly — the further we went, the more we detected a quirky fruitiness which might have been Styrian Goldings, or the yeast, or a double act between the two.

It’s hard to say what sets this beer apart but we’d guess it’s some combination of (a) precision in practice, (b) good ingredients, and (c) discerning palates. A similar brewery that came to mind was Westerham — if you like their beers, you’ll probably like this.

This is a conservative beer. It is grandfather clocks, National Trust floorboards and Inspector Morse. Don’t buy it looking for Alton Towers and fireworks. Do buy it if you’re the kind of person who can find themselves captivated by a rather interesting carved chancel screen.

That price tag, though hardly exorbitant, might put some people off when supermarkets are knocking out similar beers at less — sometimes much less — than £2 apiece. Bottled Butcombe Bitter, for example, is in similar territory, and solid in its own way, but this is better. Your money, your choice, and all that.

Mrs Mullis on Types of Pub Customer, 1972

We’re hoovering up books about pubs at the moment and Behind Bars: straight facts about keeping a pub by Peggy Mullis got sucked in and clogged the filter.

Mrs Mullis was a freelance country lifestyle journalist who, with her husband Brian, took on the Crown Inn, Wormingford, Essex, c.1970. (She doesn’t give a date — that’s a guess.)

We Tweeted some bits about beer last week but the best chapter, without doubt, is at the very end, where her accumulated frustrations boil over, Basil Fawlty style: ‘The Customers’.

When we embarked on this venture, I made the naïve mistake of imagining that pub customers were ordinary mortals. They are not, of course. They are a unique race…

She goes on to explain the tension in the relationship: customers ‘pay your rent, your brewery bills, put the clothes on your back and the food on your table’, so they must be important. But they are also pains in the arse. (Not Mrs Mullis’s phrasing.) It starts out fairly tame but gets weirder as it goes, sounding like a transcript of a session with a therapist by the end.

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