QUICK REVIEW: Rustically Charming, More Oak than Pine

Vibrant Forest Chinook in the glass.

Vibrant Forest was the stand-out brewery of last year’s Great British Beer Festival for us and their pale ale designed to showcase American Chinook hops sounded pretty appealing.

We bought it from Honest Brew at £2.29 for for a 330ml bottle and drank it on a rainy Wednesday in January when the moon was bright.

Something about the look of the beer in the glass immediately wrong-footed us: we were geared up for something pilsner-pale based on our previous experience with single-hop beers, but this was a hazy orange that looked leafy brown from most angles. The aroma was also surprising — more spice and toast than citrus, and quite muted altogether.

The spiciness carried through into the flavour which made us think of health food shops and dense German breads. We reckon there’s some crystal malt in here which it just gets away with, but which could easily retreat a bit further. The hops do make themselves known but primarily as a looming, rather harsh bitterness against the muddy, home-brew background.

That might sound as if we didn’t like it, but we did. Rough-hewn as it was, there was no staleness and it wasn’t fatally sweet. It had a lot of flavour and body for 5% ABV, too. Once we’d accepted that there was to be no grapefruit festival as advertised, we enjoyed it for what it was and found ourselves comparing it favourably to Adnams’s admittedly more polished Crystal Rye IPA. We reckon it would be better again as a cask ale, and also, counter to the advice of the Drink Fresh cult, after nine months or so mellowing in the bottle.

Vibrant Forest remain on our Keep Trying list.

More generally, it led us to reflect on the Shitloads of Hops approach to brewing. For a long time collective wisdom said that big brewery beers were boring because they were stingy with their hops, and only used Fuggles, and that therefore the answer was to be exceedingly, extravagantly, insanely generous. Up to a point, that works, but eventually returns diminish and it becomes a case of not how many hops you use but how you use them. Smart breweries these days are focusing on acquiring the best hops, storing them carefully to maintain their freshness, and thinking hard about how to use them for maximum impact. Should breweries that aren’t willing or able to do that retreat from the battlefield? Or are darker, malt-led beers simply a dead-end in 2017?