Yarrow, Alecost and Nightmares

Old illustration of yarrow leaves.
Yarrow leaves. SOURCE: Köhler’s Medicinal Plants, 1887, via Biodeversity Library.

I’m all about Harvey’s at the moment. It’s all I wanted to drink in London the other week, and about all I’m interested in drinking now we’re back in Penzance.

Last night, I pulled something of theirs from the back of the stash that, somehow, I’ve never got round to tasting before even though we got several bottles as part of a mixed case last year: Priory Ale.

This beer isn’t on sale anymore but think of this as general commentary on beer with weird herbs rather than as a review and it might have some use.

It’s 6% — a bit indulgent for a school night but not madly so — but the kick is in the small print. It was released in 2014 to mark the 750th anniversary of the Battle of Lewes and was ‘brewed using ingredients that were available to the Cluniac Order at the Priory of St. Pancras in 1264’. The mash included barley, oats and wheat and it was boiled with both hops and yarrow. It was then dry-herbed with alecost, rosemary and thyme during fermentation.

I can’t lie — on reading the blurb, my first thought was, ‘Uh-oh.’ Thyme and rosemary don’t really work in beer, or at least I haven’t yet acquired the taste, making everything a seem bit sickly and savoury.

On tasting it, my first thought was of medicinal shampoo, then of cough sweets, which I guess must mean some memory of menthol firing in my brain. Alecost is sometimes known by the name ‘Mary’s mint’ or variations thereon so perhaps that’s what I was picking up? The rosemary and thyme rose up as the beer went on, overriding everything by the end, like some kind of cotton bag you might hang in a wardrobe to give your bonnets a pleasant fragraunce. Or a leg of lamb.

Most disappointingly from my point of view, it lacked that distinctive Harvey’s character on which I am hooked.

It was not a relaxing beer. Being kind, I’d say it was stimulating, but maybe nerve-jangling is more honest. It put me on edge. ‘I think this is going to give me nightmares,’ I said on turning in.

And do you know, something certainly did.

Q&A: Which Classics Might I Have Missed?

“I was drinking a bottle of Proper Job yesterday and thinking about how I only started buying it after reading your blog. Later, I drank some Beavertown Gamma Ray and Magic Rock Cannonball and wondered if, by drinking fancy craft beers usually modelled on American style, I was missing something. Can you recommend any perennial British beers, the kind of thing you perhaps take for granted but that might have been overlooked by people who’ve only come to love beer since craft really took off?”* — Brendan, Leeds

That’s an interesting question and, let’s face it, exactly the kind of thing we semi-professional beer bores dream of being asked.

To prevent ourselves going on for 5,000 words we’re going to set a limit of five beers, and stick to those available in bottles, although we’ll mention where there’s a cask version and if it’s better. We’re also going to avoid the temptation to list historically significant beers that we don’t actually like all that much — those listed below are beers we buy regularly and actually enjoy drinking.

Four strong Harvey's bottled beers.

1. Harvey’s Imperial Extra Stout is a big, intimidatingly flavoursome, heavy metal tour of a beer that makes a lot of trendier interpretations look tame. It was first brewed in the 1990s to a historically inspired recipe. We didn’t used to like it — it was too intense for us, and some people reckon it smells too funky– but now, it’s kind of a benchmark: if your experimental £22 a bottle limited edition imperial stout doesn’t taste madder and/or better than this, why are you wasting our time? It’s available from Harvey’s own web store.

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Time to Let The Old School Rejoin the Party?

This is an interesting Tweet from Matt Curtis who is currently doing some shifts in a pub:

One of our friends springs to mind: he likes bitter, hates ‘that grapefruit thing’ and struggles to find anything he fancies drinking in places like The Craft Beer Co, despite its vast range. He has lately taken to putting his foot down and insisting on meeting in pubs with at least one old-school, brown, balanced beer.

So, yes, we reckon pubs or bars with a craft identity (def 2.) perhaps ought to take account of this potential market.

Of course many already do, often looking to craft breweries (again, def. 2 — founded since about 2005, graffiti on their pump-clips, etc.) to provide something a bit like bitter but with more pizazz — Amber or Red are the usual codewords.

But maybe that’s misguided.

Maybe instead everyone should just acknowledge that the best old-school bitters are made by old-school breweries who have been doing it for 30, 40, 100 or more years, and embrace them.

Fuller's vinyl-record beer mat, 1956.
Fuller’s jumping on the pop music bandwagon in 1956. Needs to be resurrected!

Five years or so ago the sight of, say, a Black Sheep or Timothy Taylor Landlord pump in a would-be trendy post-gastro, pre-craft pub would have made us groan. Too many times we paid over the odds for something stale, warm and headless served in something like an IKEA tumbler. So pointedly not serving those beers, or London Pride, or Butcombe Bitter, was a good way for Proper Craft places to signal their intent: there’s no Peroni here, only Camden Hells; we don’t have Guinness, try this Thornbridge stout; and we certainly don’t sell any of The Usual Suspect boring brown bitters. Then, that made sense. Then, we welcomed it.

But now, that point doesn’t need hammering home and so perhaps it’s time to let Fuller’s, Taylor’s, Harvey’s, Hook Norton (def. 1) et al back into the party.

We’d be quite happy to see London Pride, Landlord or Sussex Best, in really top condition, as part of the offer at the Craft Beer Company.

Or at a BrewDog bar.

[Exit left, pelted with tomatoes.]

Bottle Milds 4: Old & Dark

This time, we’re tasting two beers that weren’t on our original list, one from Glamorganshire, the other from Sussex.

There was a bit of angst on Twitter and elsewhere when we said we hadn’t been able to get Brain’s Dark for this tasting. We really did try, checking six or seven different supermarkets, and online. We’d given up and moved on when, suddenly, it appeared in our local Tesco. It wasn’t on display proper but hidden in a plastic-wrapped slab on top of the shelving from where a chap with a ladder had to retrieve two bottles. We paid £1.50 per 500ml in a four-for-six deal.

Despite the cryptic name the label trumpets a ‘best mild ale’ award from the World Beer Awards. The ABV is 4.1%, nudging above where most milds sit. It’s not bottle-conditioned or self-consciously artisanal so there were no gushes or quirks on pouring and it produced a glass of black topped with a thick wedge of beige without fuss. This is the blackest mild we’ve tasted so far — a real light-stopper.

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Retro Bottles from Harvey’s

A £37.50 mixed case from Harvey’s of Lewes brought us a selection of 24 gloriously old school beers in tiny 275ml bottles.

They look as if they’ve been pulled from a dusty shelf behind the bar at a pub that closed in 1983 — not ‘faux-vintage’ but evidence that, if you wait long enough, most graphic design starts to look cool again. Here, we’ve focused on four that belong to styles popular in the mid-20th century but which have long been abandoned by most other breweries.

Blue Label (3.6%) sends all the signals of ‘light ale’ — a type of beer that all but disappeared with the arrival of ‘premium bottled ales’ in the 1990s. Being based, however, on the almost universally adored Sussex Best — the brown bitter even the most desperate hop-hounds conceded isn’t boring — turns out to be rather good. The carbonation is arguably too low — getting a head on the beer was tough and it slipped away instantly — except that this seems to give it a hop-oily, tongue-coating richness. The core flavour is toffee, yes, but it’s heavily seasoned with drying, grassy hops that leave a final twist of medicinal bitterness on the tongue. In short, it’s good beer in its own right, and much better, or at least more interesting, than many over-cooked bottled bitters available in supermarkets.

India Pale Ale (3.2%) is similar — amber-gold, caramelised sugar, stewed tea hoppiness — but watery with it. We reckon it’s a pretty good example of what IPA meant to British pub drinkers 30 or 40 years ago but how many beer geeks trained on Goose Island and BrewDog Punk have been let down by it in the last five years? It wasn’t any effort to drink but we’ll have another Blue Label next time, thanks.

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