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.

Continue reading “Mrs Mullis on Types of Pub Customer, 1972”

News, Nuggets & Longreads 2 April 2016: Revitalisation and More

Here are the blog posts, articles and news stories we’ve found most interesting in the last week, from the revitalisation of CAMRA to the difficulty of describing lager.

→ This week’s big news is that the Campaign for Real Ale has launched a project to review its purpose. We’d suggest ignoring the melodrama which was only ever intended to generate press interest — CAMRA is not going to disappear and is extremely unlikely to change its name — but do take some time to respond to the consultation which is open to both members and non-members. We’re going to mull this over and write something on the blog next week; in the meantime, you could do worse than whizz through Brew Britannia, especially chapter six, by way of background, and there’s also a chunk on CAMRA’s navel-gazing in our massive blog post from last summer.

Close-up of the CAMRA logo from the 1984 Good Beer Guide.

→ Possibly related: every few months Rob Lovatt, head brewer at Thornbridge, drops a thought-provoking bomb of a blog post and, this time, has turned his attention to cask-conditioned beer:

When I moved to Thornbridge, I hadn’t really had any real experience of producing cask beer. I came from a brewing background of mainly Germanic styles, which were filtered, carbonated and packaged in keg or bottle format. I naively thought that producing cask beer would be a doddle compared with the challenges of filtration, or the trials and tribulations of running a bottling line day in day out.

→ Kaleigh at The Ale in Kaleigh has notes on Manchester’s new local-beer-only micropub, The Brink:

Manchester is home to so many breweries these days, but it can be fairly difficult to know where to get hold of their wares. Many of the city centre’s other beer bars focus more on options from far and wide which, in my view, isn’t a bad thing but it’s always nice to drink local and I think this would appeal to visitors to the city in particular.

St John's Wood pub by Alec Latham.
SOURCE: Alec Latham’s blog.

→ Alec Latham at Mostly About Beer reflects at length upon the ghost pubs of St John’s Wood, London, with lots of lovely photos:

The rate of pub closure in the area was made clear to me when, in summer last year in the nearby Church Street Estate, I happened to see the contents of what used to be a pub called The Perseverance (I know – the irony) being sold on the street outside… Around the same time, a pub just around the corner called The Globe closed but re-opened as a fully qualified modern craft beer bar. It seems that either the business adapts quickly or disappears. The greatest tragedy is when the building is transformed into something it was never meant to be like the estate agents. You know that as a place where people dwell and drink together, it’s gone forever.

→ Justin Mason considers the state of beer and brewing on his blogging beat, which is Essex:

[There’s] an awful lot that is troubling me… The first thing that I come across time and again is inconsistency. Whether it be from cask or bottle I know that I’m certainly not alone in wanting the same taste that I remember from the last time I had the beer… I’ve been embarrassingly caught out more than once introducing friends to a beer after extolling its virtues only to find it a shadow of the previous pint.

→ There’s reassuring evidence from Jeff Alworth that having his blog sponsored by Guinness isn’t going to stop him being interesting, even when he’s writing in part about that very same brewery:

You learn a lot when you visit a country. One of the things you learn is what beer people actually drink. In Ireland, for example, we imagine that basically everyone drinks stout, the majority of it Guinness. Nope. Just like everywhere else, lager is king, with as much as (statistics vary) 74% of total volume to something just over 50%. Heineken, not Guinness, appears to be the best-selling beer in Ireland.

Lager tank at the Four Thieves.

→ Joe Tindall at The Fatal Glass reflects on the difficulty for the dedicated tasting note writer of finding anything to say about pale lager:

The complexity of a barrel-aged imperial stout means that tasting notes write themselves. Drinking one, there’s so much going on that you hardly have time to jot down one thought before another hits you. Lager is comparatively simple – this is a large part of its appeal, but it doesn’t make for great writing.

→ Stan Hieronymus’s contribution to the 110th beer blogging Session was clever: what if Michael ‘The Beer Hunter’ Jackson was still with us and on Twitter? (See also: George Orwell’s Beer Blog.)

→ With apologies for egotism, we’re also going to suggest that you read the piece about Cornish (or, rather ‘Cornish’) swanky beer we wrote for Beer Advocate last summer which is now available to read online:

“Swanky was a brew of sugar, hops, ginger, wheat, malt, and yeast. It had to be allowed to work for three days in the bottles before the corks were tied down with string.”

→ A few people have asked us to point them to a calendar of UK beer events. It’s hard to keep something like that up so they tend to come and go but the latest to give it a shot is Charlie ‘The Crafty Beeress’ Cohen. One to bookmark.

→ And, finally, this looks like fun: