Discomfort Beer — Saison, Tripel, Brett and Kriek

‘Access01’ by David Bleasdale from Flickr under Creative Commons.

These are our instructions from Alec Latham, the host of this edition of the monthly beer blogging jamboree:

‘For Session 119 I’d like you to write about which/what kind of beers took you out of your comfort zones. Beers you weren’t sure whether you didn’t like, or whether you just needed to adjust to. Also, this can’t include beers that were compromised, defective, flat, off etc because this is about deliberate styles. It would be interesting to see if these experiences are similar in different countries.’

The example Alec gives in his own post is Thornbridge Wild Raven, the first black IPA he’d ever tried, and in the broadest terms, there’s the answer: any new style will probably wrong-foot you the first time you come across it. You might even say the same of entire national brewing traditions.

‘Discomfort’ is an interesting word for Alec to choose because the feeling we think he’s describing is as much social anxiety as it is purely about the beer: other people like this, but I don’t — am I being stupid? Am I missing something?

Partizan Lemongrass Saison.

We grappled with saison for years, for example. Michael Jackson wrote about it so eloquently and enthusiastically, as did Tim Webb and Joris Pattyn, and many others, but we didn’t get it. How could we match up those tantalising tasting notes with the fizzy Lucozade beers we kept finding in Belgian bars in London? Maybe the experts were just wrong — a worrying thought. We could have simply given up but we kept trying until something clicked. Now we not only understand saison (with, say, 65 per cent confidence) but also know which particular ones we do and don’t like.

Over the years we’ve been similarly disgusted or nonplussed by Belgian tripels, specifically Chimay White which just tasted to us like pure alcohol back in 2003; and also by Brettanomyces-influenced beers — Harvey’s Imperial, now one of our favourites, appalled us the first few times we tried it, and Orval left us cold until quite recently. (We are now fanpersons.)

In each case, the discomfort was worth it, like practising a musical instrument until your fingers hurt, because it opened up options and left us with a wider field of vision.

The flipside to Alec’s proposition, of course, is that some beers are immediately appealing but perhaps become tarnished with experience. The first time we were ever dragged to an obscure pub by an excited friend it was to drink Timmerman’s fruit beers from Belgium which we now find almost too sweet to bear. Comfort turns to discomfort, delight to queasiness.

The sense of taste is an unstable, agile, mischievous thing that you can never quite tame.

IPA, IPA, or Would You Prefer an IPA?

Derbyshire brewery Thornbridge seems to have gone on an India pale ale (IPA) brewing spree of late. We asked head brewer Rob Lovatt… Why?

Thornbridge has a strong claim to being the original British craft brewery (def. 2) that begat BrewDog, and thus The Kernel, and all the others. Its flagship beer is Jaipur, one of the earliest British takes on the highly-aromatic American approach to IPA that has dominated the last decade, and Halcyon, its 7.4% imperial IPA, has also become something of a classic. Surely that’s enough top-rated IPAs for one brewery, right?

Well, apparently not, because last night we enjoyed Huck, their new (to us) double IPA, and in the last year they’ve also produced Bear State (West Coast IPA), AM:PM (session IPA), Wild Raven (a black IPA that was among the first to appear in the UK), and Valravn, an Imperial Black IPA. Some of those are clearly quite distinctively different but there are at four beers fighting for more or less the same turf — light in colour, between 5.9-7.4% ABV, and aiming to deliver big hop aroma.

Thornbridge isn’t alone in this — BrewDog seem to be turning out endless new IPAs, for example, each of which leaves us wondering what was wrong with the last one.

So, we asked Rob to help us understand the motivations. Here’s what he had to say stitched together from several emails and slightly tweaked for style and clarity.

B&B: Jaipur has a strong claim to being the original ‘new wave’ British IPA and Halcyon isn’t far behind in terms of reputation, so why has Thornbridge felt the need to produce so many other IPAs in the last year or two?

There are various reasons. First, IPA sells! As much as I love Germanic styles, nothing sells better than an IPA. It’s somewhat depressing as there are so many beautiful beer styles out there other than IPA, but that’s what the customer seems to demand.

Secondly, we are at a size where we can secure the best quality hops in large volumes and the hops we’ve secured this year are the best I’ve used to date, so myself and the team are keen to explore different hop combinations. there is a lot of skill to using hops well and I think Huck is a great example of hop blend which creates a real flavour hook.

And then there’s the fact that the craft market has changed: customers are always demanding something new. Here’s a good piece I read on the subject recently. It is challenging as we always want to brew the best beer for our customers [rather than constantly experimenting] but once we get a really winner like Huck it will stay part of the range.

You mentioned that Jaipur is a classic beer. One thing we haven’t done here is dumb down our most successful beers in order to appeal to a broader audience. It’s still at 5.9% and around 60 European Bitterness Units. I don’t think every brewery can say that.

B&B: But can you imagine a situation where either Jaipur or Halcyon get retired? Do they still sell as well as they used to?

They are both big sellers and they’re still showing growth in sales year-on-year. Of course there’s always the risk a new IPA will steal sales from an existing one but offering a broader range results in much better overall sales.

B&B: How do the new IPAs you’re brewing map onto sub-categories of the style? What specific kind of IPA is Huck, for example? Was there a particular beer from another brewery you were inspired by? Or is it just what it is?

In terms of colour, with Huck, I didn’t want to go blonde as we already have Bear State and Halcyon which are very pale.

Sierra Nevada Torpedo is a beer I really enjoyed and I suppose you could say it was loosely based on that. The hop blend is completely independent of any beer I’ve ever drunk, though — I just had a feel for what would work.

The ABV of 7.4% obviously helps in terms of duty but I do also believe the most drinkable Double IPAs are in the 7-8% range. Once we start getting towards 9% the drinkability is compromised and it’s difficult to brew them so they’re not too chewy in the mouth.

* * *

That clears it up a bit for us but also makes us realise how much we rely on broad style distinctions when it comes to understanding a brewery’s range — this is their IPA, this is their porter, and so on. The problem is that the sub-categories, such as West Coast IPA, don’t instantly convey anything to us. So how do we choose? There are worse problems to have than trying lots of IPAs until you find the one you like but there is a communication challenge here.

We enjoyed Huck, by the way, which we bought from Beer Ritz at £3.18 for 330ml. It’s very bitter, rather dry, without the caramel stickiness that some IPAs have at this strength, though we didn’t get much fruitiness from it. We’d probably choose it over Halcyon just as, these days, we tend to choose BrewDog’s cleaner, lighter-bodied Jackhammer over the jar of jam that is Hardcore IPA.

Disclosure: we’ve had various dealings with Thornbridge over the years but no gifts/samples/freebies since 2014.

MINI TASTE-OFF: British Takes on German Wheat Beer

‘Why aren’t more British breweries tackling German-style wheat beers?’ Adrian Tierney-Jones has asked more than once. Intrigued by that question, we rounded up a few and gave it some thought.

Now, clearly, this isn’t one of our full-on, semi-comprehensive taste-offs — we didn’t have the time, inclination or, frankly, budget to get hold of a bottle of every Weizen currently being made by a UK brewery. One notable omission, for example, is Top Out Schmankerl, recommended to us by Dave S, which we couldn’t easily get hold of.

But we reckon, for starters, six is enough to get a bit of a handle on what’s going on, and perhaps to make a recommendation. We say ‘perhaps’ because the underlying question is this: why would anyone ever buy a British Weizen when the real thing can be picked up almost anywhere for two or three quid a bottle? The most exciting German wheat beer we’ve tasted recently was a bottle of Tucher in our local branch of Wetherspoon — perfectly engineered, bright and lemony, and £2.49 to drink in. How does anyone compete with that?

We drank the following in no particular order over a couple of nights, using proper German wheat beer vases of the appropriate size. What we were looking for was cloudiness, banana and/or bubblegum and/or cloves, a huge fluffy head and, finally, a certain chewiness of texture. That and basic likeability, of course.

Continue reading “MINI TASTE-OFF: British Takes on German Wheat Beer”

Session #116: Slightly Wrong Gose is Better Than No Gose

Gose, an obscure German beer style, has become a (small scale, low-key) battleground, and we’re not sure why.

Derrick Peterman is hosting the 116th edition of The Session where beer bloggers around the world post on one topic. This month, Derrick says:

Want to talk about the history of the Gose?  How about how American breweries are taking this style and running wild with it with different spice and fruit additions?  How else has the Gose manifested itself outside its German homeland?  Is the Gose here to stay or will it go the way of the Black IPA, once the hot style but slowly becoming a largely irrelevant curiosity?

We first encountered Gose in The Bible, AKA The Great Beer Guide by Michael Jackson. Back in 2008, when this blog was a year and half old, we travelled across Germany to the Czech Republic, stopping off in snowy Goslar and Leipzig on the way. So, before we’d ever tasted a fancified craft beer take on Gose, we had a good go on as near as there is to the real thing, at source.

We liked it, though some takes were better than others. It reminded us of a quirky cousin of Belgian wheat beer, and we like Wit, even, or maybe especially, Hoegaarden. (We realise this gets us thrown out of both The World Kraft Klub and the Ain’t Wot It Used to Be Society of Great Britain but we cannot lie.) Ritterguts had a bit more to it being a bit more tart. But, in general, what German Gose isn’t in the 21st Century is a deeply profound, complex, challenging beer: it’s a fun refresher, no more tangy than a can of Fanta, no saltier than a Jacob’s cream cracker, and with coriander present but hardly obtrusive.

For a long time Gose’s big champion was Ron Pattinson who called for the salvation of this endangered style while providing history lessons and setting some standards along the way. But the exuberant UK craft movement, focused primarily on IPAs and other hop-led styles, took a while to respond.

A breakthrough moment was the arrival of Magic Rock Salty Kiss in February 2013, brewed by Giada Maria Simioni (who has since left Magic Rock) in collaboration with Anders Kissmeyer. We don’t know that it’s the first example of a UK-brewed Gose — almost certainly not — but it was the one that made a splash. Magic Rock were, and still are, one of the buzziest breweries around and gave Gose a contemporary twist with the addition of sea buckthorn, rosehips and English gooseberries.

A can of Salty Kiss, close up.

We first tasted Salty Kiss in Sheffield in the summer of 2013 and, from the off, loved it. We’ve liked every variation we’ve tried — they’ve messed around with different fruits from time to time and tinkered with the recipe — and it’s become one of those beers we like to keep in the fridge at all times, if possible. If you’ve never had it you might imagine from the gloriously garish graphic design and the description that it is bright pink and tastes like fruit juice. It isn’t, and doesn’t: those additives are seasonings, not flavourings, and it really doesn’t seem hugely different to the beers we drank in eastern Germany eight years ago.

We tested that judgement recently when we got hold of some bottles of Bayerischer Bahnhof Gose from Beers of Europe. It was great, in that bright uncomplicated way — the kind of thing it would be a pleasure to drink from the bottle with a barbecue on a hot day. Salty Kiss is in the same territory but dialled up just a notch or two, arguably better, certainly no worse. It tastes how Gose tastes, it isn’t some sick mutation.

So when we read that Ron regrets wishing for more Goses (because everyone is getting it wrong, as we read it), or Ed being disgusted by Salty Kiss, or Alan describing most modern Gose as ‘Gatorade alcopop’, we feel a bit downhearted. Is their distaste about beer, or beer culture? We agree that a few more straight Goses without fruit and other sprinkles would be nice but, still, this feels like at least the beginning of a success story — a beer style so neglected it nearly disappeared altogether is now nearing ubiquity! As with IPA, getting people excited and engaged about the idea — letting them have fun — is step one. Getting the history right, at least at the sharp-end, in the brewhouse, can come later.

Beer in Pubs, 1951

Spread from LHATM.

It’s always exciting to come across specific notes on how beers of the past looked and tasted, especially when those notes are from someone inside the industry.

Through a footnote to a footnote in someone else’s book we recently came across Licensed Houses and Their Management, a three-volume guidebook published in multiple editions from 1923 onwards and edited by W. Bently Capper. It’s made up of a whole series of essays and articles by different authors covering everything from book-keeping to ‘handling female staff’. We’re going to post a few more bits from it in the Bits We Underlined format at some point but, for now, the stuff on beer seemed too interesting not to share in its own right.

The section is called ‘Ales and Stouts and Hints on Cellar Management’ and is credited to an anonymous ‘A Brewery Cellars Manager’. (Worth noting, maybe, that the accompanying pics are from Fuller’s.)

First, we should say that, throughout, it is made clear that beer should definitely possess ‘brilliancy’, i.e. must be completely clear. We’ve collected lots of examples of people not minding a bit of haze in their beer, or even preferring it, but there was certainly a mainstream consensus that clarity was best by the mid-20th Century.

There are three types of dispense listed: straight from the cask, via beer engine and ‘the Scottish method of drawing’ — that is air or top pressure. (The cause of so much strife in CAMRA during the late 1970s.) There is also a lovely mention of what are now known as sparklers:

With the beer engine, there is sometimes a difficulty during the winter months of producing a good head on the beer… To combat this there are several excellent fittings on the market in the shape of ‘nozzles’ or ‘sprinklers’ which are fitted to the spout of the engine. These agitate the beer as it passes into the glass and produce a head, without affecting the palate in any degree.

Right, then — time for the main event: BEER. This section begins by highlighting the importance of choosing good beers and the strength of ‘local conditions and prejudices’:

In London, for instance, one class of beer will find favour in one district, whilst in another part of the town the same beer would not be appreciated. The same thing applies through the whole of the counties…

The author then very usefully breaks it down by style:

Mild Ales… In some parts a dark, sweet ale must be served. This must be as fresh as possible and quite brilliant. In the industrial centres this beer will be in very great demand… In the residential or suburban areas, a mild ale of a lighter colour is more in favour…

Ron Pattinson has explored the difference between urban and country milds but we love the idea of Metroland Mild!

Burton… is a heavy-gravity ale, very red in colour, and with a distinct dry-hop flavour. There is a very steady demand for this beer all the year round, but in winter-time the sales in some districts equal those of mild ale… [It should be] neither too bitter nor too sweet, but [have] a round, full-bodied flavour.

Colour and flavour notes! Red ale — sounds quite trendy, doesn’t it?

Bitter… Bitter ales form the great part of the saloon and private-bar demand. These beers are the most delicate and sensitive of all brewed. The colour must be as of bright polished amber, and the pungent aroma of the hops must be well in evidence. It is very important… that the palate is quite clean as the great charm of bitter ales lies in their delicate palate flavour… There is little doubt that the Burton-brewed ales are the best of this variety, although great progress has been made in other parts of the country by brewers and competition is very keen in this beer.

In case you don’t know how social class mapped to bars, the saloon and private-bar were the relatively posh ones. Bitter was a premium product, the craft beer of its day, drunk for flavour as much as alcohol content or nourishment. (There’s more from us on the history of bitter here.)

Stouts… are brewed from highly roasted malts and are therefore dark brown in colour. The palate should be full and creamy, but not too sweet. Avoid stouts that are not in condition or that have too bitter a flavour. There is little doubt that among the best stouts the best are those brewed in London…

An early use of creamy to describe beer, there? From long before nitro was a thing, too. But what is the difference between stout and porter?

Porter… is a light-gravity black beer which is usually much sweeter than stouts.

There you go. Sorted. Sort of.

There are many more editions of LHATM stretching back 25 years from this one — if you have a copy from before World War II, perhaps you can check whether this advice changed over the years?