New Breweries, Classic Styles

Pilsner as an LP

It’s easy to mock self-consciously ‘craft’ (def 2.) breweries — [Chortle] ‘I suppose they make barrel-aged imperial India pilsner with passion fruit and freeze-dried raspberries! Hur Hur!’ — but it seems to us that the same breweries also do more than they are sometimes given credit for to keep classical styles alive.

A few years ago we stuck up for Brodie’s of Leyton, East London, who were accused of brewing ‘silly beers’. They did, and do, brew sour beers with fruit and a whole range of hop-heavy pale ales but they also did something that no-one had done in the London Borough of Waltham Forest for about 40 years by our reckoning: they made a standard cask-conditioned dark mild.

(We don’t know if they still do — their website is pretty useless and the last Untapp’d check-in appears to be from last August.)

Then, last month, we were astonished to see this line-up at BrewDog Bristol:

Beer menu at BrewDog Bristol.

For clarity (bad photo, sorry) that’s a straight-up stout (Jet Black Heart), a Dortmunder, an altbier (Candy Kaiser) and an eighty shilling, all on draught. All of them were respectful, straightforward attempts to brew (for better or worse) as per accepted style guidelines.

Elsewhere we have Buxton which has brewed straight-up and very convincing Belgian-style tripel, dubbel and patersbier; Thornbridge’s takes on helles, Kölsch, doppelbock, and more; and Harbour’s new line-up which also includes helles along with pilsner and even a bitter actually called Cornish Bitter.

There are plenty of other such examples, and likely to be yet more as Craft with a capital C converges with established breweries’ bandwagon-jumping efforts in Wetherspoon pubs, Tesco and other mainstream outlets.

Perhaps if people (hey, including us) stop sneering for a second and encouraged this kind of thing, they’d do more of it. And then maybe Fuller’s could jump on that bandwagon by making their ordinary bitter (Chiswick) and mild (Hock) more readily available all year round.

Session #121: Bock! (Absence Of.)

Illustration adapted from a vintage bock beer poster.

For this edition of the monthly beer blogging jamboree Jon Abernathy has asked us to think about Bock, which left us in a pickle.

You see, in multiple UK cities over the course of several weeks, we haven’t seen a single Bock for sale. Perhaps surprisingly there was a Cornish Bock from St Austell (very decent, too) but if it still exists, it’s in deep hiding.

So we were going to swerve this Session altogether until, researching an article on Michael ‘The Beer Hunter’ Jackson last week, we got thinking about Dortmunder.

Dortmunder, like Bock, is one of the 25 or so varieties of beer listed in the style guide in Jackson’s original World Guide to Beer back in 1977, and of which multiple examples were listed in our Bible, his 1998 throwaway, picture-heavy Great Beer Guide. But we can’t remember the last time we encountered anything calling itself a Dortmunder. (Although there are a few Exports around.)

Absent from his 1977 style guide, however, is Gose, examples of which are fairly easy to come by these days. That’s odd, isn’t it? That sour beer with salt and coriander should be more readily available than what you’d think might be a more accessible strong lager.

Well, maybe not. To many drinkers — even those with quaite refained palates — lager is lager is lager, and not terribly interesting. And a strong lager with a narrower focus on unsexy malt over hops is an even harder sell in 2017, especially to British drinkers who really do expect fireworks to justify an ABV of more than 5%.

UPDATE 11:20: Oh, except that we did have a Dortmunder at BrewDog Bristol in February. No Bock, though.

Magical Mystery Pour 23: Magic Rock Salty Kiss + Special Guest Star

The penultimate beer of a set chosen for us by Rebecca Pate (@rpate) of Brewing East is an old favourite: Magic Rock’s take on the salty, sour native beer style of Saxony.

We’ve drunk this beer many, many times, and have written about it often, including in our short and short-lived columnette in the Guardian Guide back in 2015. Nonetheless, we were very happy to give it fresh consideration, especially as we had a twist in mind.

People have been telling us to try Westbrook Gose (South Carolina, USA) for ages but despite its being theoretically widely available in the UK we’ve only ever seen it accompanied by the words OUT OF STOCK. But this time luck was on our side and we managed to nab a single can at £4.90 for 330ml from Honest Brew.

Which leads us to a first point of comparison: Salty Kiss cost £1.99 per 330ml can from the same source, which means Westbrook Gose has to be more than twice as good — stratospherically brilliant, in fact — to justify its asking price.

We drank both side by side. They looked remarkably similar in the glass — hazy gold, soft peaks — but the Westbrook gave off a more obvious sour smell, like a lemon in the compost bin.

The head on a glass of Salty Kiss.

Salty Kiss is made with gooseberries but does not taste of them, is not green, and will not strike you as all that weird if you’ve ever had a Fentiman’s lemonade. If any fruit comes to mind, it’s strawberries, but maybe that’s because of the design of the can, like a grown-up version of that experiment from Home Economics lessons at school where banana-flavoured milk dyed pink so easily fools the palate. Gose’s eyebrow-raising headline ingredient is salt but we don’t really taste it, perhaps because it is in balance with beginner-level sourness. Nor do we particularly latch on to any coriander, which presumably means its been used with the light touch 21st Century craft brewers (def 2) are so often chided for lacking. Our impression this time, as always, is that this is a classy, well-constructed beer that closely resembles the beers currently sold as Gose in Leipzig and around, only with a bit more punch, which is why it’s on the A Team.

Our first impressions of Westbrook Gose were of a much greater sourness. If Salty Kiss is Victorian pop, then this is some kind of sports drink designed to be chugged from a plastic bottle under the Friday Night Lights. The sourness is of a particular type: a sweaty, cheesecake funk; milk left too long in the sun. The obligatory fruit comparison: peaches. It clings to the tongue like peach tin syrup, too. There’s a line beyond which this kind of thing ceases to taste much like beer and, from our perspective, this beer is on the wrong side. Which is not to say we didn’t enjoy it — there is something moreish about it, and it’s not insanely sour or anything. If you always Go Large when the option is presented then, of the two, this might be the Gose for you.

Going back to Salty Kiss after the Westbrook Gose was a revelation. It was almost a different beer — lighter, fresher, hoppier, its pale ale DNA suddenly rampant. Different and, yes, better. Amazingly great. We’re still in love.

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.