Magical Mystery Pour #31: High Weald Charcoal Burner

The second Sussex beer chosen for us by Rachael Smith (@lookatbrew) is a 4.3% ABV oatmeal stout from the High Weald brewery of East Grinstead.

We bought our 500ml bottle for £2.75 by mail order from South Down Cellars.

Rach says:

High Weald has been on the scene since 2012 and recently underwent a massive re-brand, which seems to have thrust the core beers forth and more into the local spotlight than ever before. This oatmeal stout is a favourite of mine on cask where it takes on a creamy character. It’s a great session strength brew, smooth, with all the classic characteristics of chocolate, coffee, a touch of smoke and balanced sweetness.

We don’t advocate judging books by their covers but that doesn’t mean you can’t take a moment to appreciate a nice bit of graphic design.

The label for High Weald Charcoal Burner: farmer chased by Dragon.
SOURCE: High Weald website.

High Weald’s labels look like cover designs for Nonsuch-era XTC singles and (we’d guess) were inspired by those for US brewery Odell’s. Printed on textured paper, they look even nicer.

When we opened this work of art there was only a faint air-kiss of carbonation and it looked flat as it poured. Then one of our favourite things happened: a just off-white head magically materialised out of the black body of the beer.

The beer smelled smoky, autumnal and enticing.

High Weald Charcoal Burner.

The flavour was less immediately impressive — that stale note we so often get in packaged beers from small breweries dominated for the first mouthful or two, muting the other flavours so that the beer seemed almost bland. Throughout the middle stretch, things improved and we started to throw about words like rum and chocolate. At the very end there was another dip — it began to seem merely sugary, like the dregs of a cup of sweet, creamy coffee.

 

Overall, we felt fairly warm towards it. It’s a stout, of which there aren’t enough, and a decent one at that. A few tweaks would improve it, though — more body to hold the sweetness, or more bitterness to match the body. As it is, it reminded us a bit of a watered down imperial stout. But remember, we are fussy devils. At any rate, we’ll certainly try more beers from High Weald if we get the chance and (that now familiar catchprase) look forward to trying this on cask one day, perhaps near an open fire.

Magical Mystery Pour #30: Long Man Best Bitter

This new season of Magical Mystery Pour, with Sussex beers chosen by Rachael Smith of Look at Brew, is one of those trendy but annoying short ones like Game of Thrones does these days.

That’s because with us moving house there was a bit of a delay in ordering the beers, and because the online store Rachael suggested — the only one with a comprehensive range of beers from Sussex — turned out to be a bit flaky. She picked five beers of which we ended up with three. (A fourth, from Burning Sky, was delivered past its best before date.)

The label for Long Man Best Bitter.

Anyway, crapness aside, the first beer we tasted was Long Man Best Bitter, a 4% ABV ale which cost us £2.80 for one 500ml bottle from South Down Cellars. Rach says:

I’ve picked this as it has become a staple in many a Sussex pub (on cask of course) as the core Long Man range is becoming synonymous with good quality beers at the traditional end of the Sussex brewing spectrum. It’s a classic session bitter with well balanced malts and bitterness, with some nuttiness coming through. It’s well worth seeking out on cask, but the bottled version is handy to have around. Not quite Harvey’s but a fine alternative.

The beer isn’t bottle-conditioned and was therefore no trouble to pour, giving us a thick, stable head above a body that it feels harsh to describe as brown such was its glow. (This is why marketing people so often resort to ‘amber’.)

Best Bitter in the glass.

The aroma was muted but suggested toffee and hot jam to Bailey, and a purely beery, woodland earthiness to Boak.

It seemed to be missing something on first tasting — a fizz, more toffee, and then a watery hole. As it went down and hung around, though, a warming orange marmalade note emerged.

It’s hard to find much more to say than that. It reminded us of any number of other traditional bitters you might find in the supermarket from breweries such as Badger or Butcombe, although with perhaps just a bit more oomph. Which is to say, it was a clean, bright, mainstream beer that with the right marketing could easily become a national brand.

We can’t imagine going out of our way to acquire another bottle but we’d certainly recommend it to friends who like normal beer and, as per Rach’s suggestion, suspect we’d get much more of a kick out of it on cask.

 

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 28: Wibbler’s Apprentice

This is the fourth of a selection of Essex beers chosen for us by Justin Mason (@1970sBOY) and it’s a 3.9% ‘session beer’ with Polish Marynka hops.

We bought our 500ml bottle from Essex Food for £3 and went into this with low expectations. We’ve previously moaned about regional gift shop beers — the kind of thing that seems to be brewed with minimal skill and consistency primarily to appeal to Buy Local obsessives who pick up a bit of beer at the local owl sanctuary or farmers’ market — and that’s what this looks like. The label is straight out of 1998, the brewery name is of the forced-jocular school, and we’d never heard of the brewery until Justin’s email which shouldn’t be a mark against it except that we’re partial believers in the wisdom of the hive mind and all that.

In particular, as is often the case with bottle-conditioned beers from unknown breweries, we assumed the worst and prepared for a gusher, teatowels at hand. Thankfully we were greeted by an assertive hiss with no accompanying drama. In the glass the beer was clear, amber, with a delicate, soft-focus look about the head — very cask-like.

The ambient aroma, which is what we’re now calling anything you can smell without sticking your nose in the glass, was primarily sheer booziness — quite an achievement at this strength. Closer up, there was just a whiff of hedgerow, or bramble, or fruit tea.

We took a few sips, then a couple of swigs, and noted some ups and downs in the story. First, there was a moment of concern — something was a bit off, or stale, a cardboard note — but that was soon followed by a pleasing essential, unpretentious beeriness. Of brick-built unadorned solidity. There was toffee, a flavour rather out of fashion these days, which was balanced against waves of round, orangey, spring-fresh hop flavour. Finally, there came down a steel trap of bitterness.

Apprenctice has a lot of flavour, a lot of body, a lot of everything except alcohol, without being showy about it. It is old-fashioned and reminds us pleasantly of our days ‘sampling ales’, pre-blog, with Michael Jackson’s hit-list at hand. There’s a resemblance to Badger Tanglefoot, once a pretty cool beer believe it or not, if you want a point of reference.

We grew more impressed the more we drank despite the lingering stale note. This, we concluded, is another fundamentally decent beer — the kind we really like — that’s been somewhat let down by the packaging process. Still, we’d drink it again, and we’d love to try a cask version in a creaky old pub in the kind of village where the clock in the square stopped in 1923.

If you like trad, give it a go.

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.