The Great Porter Flood of 2017

At some point in the last year a memo must have gone round all the traditional-regional-family brewers: let’s brew porter!

So far this year we’ve noticed new ones from:

And that’s before we get into debatable cases such as the revived Truman’s which has a vanilla porter in development.

Have we missed any others?

We’d guess this has been enabled by the trend for small pilot plants which enable large breweries, otherwise equipped to turn out tankerloads of one or two flagship beers, to produce styles with less mainstream appeal on the side. For a long time this was often cited as the reason for the lack of dark beers — they don’t sell enough to warrant a full brew — so this might also bode well for other marginal styles such as mild.

We’re also firmly of the view that porter is a more dignified way of meeting the current demand for novelty and variety than disappointing cod-American IPAs, or beers that are supposed to taste of Tequila.

Whatever the reasons and motives we’d be quite happy if October-December became a sort of semi-official porter season across the country. Imagine knowing that you could walk into almost any halfway decent pub and find porter on draught — imagine!

The Mainstreaming of Grapefruit Beer

Grapefruit from a 1953 US government publication.

Back in 2013 the idea of putting actual grapefruit into beer seemed quite hilarious — a stunt, a play on the grapefruit character of certain hop varieties.

But somehow, probably because it filled a gap in the market between alcopop and Serious Beer, it stuck and became a craft beer staple. (Definition 2.) Now it’s even made its way out of that walled community so that in 2017 it seems easier to get a grapefruit beer than a pint of mild.

BrewDog Elvis Juice, a grapefruit boosted IPA first launched in 2016, is in almost every supermarket in the land — even the funny little ones that otherwise only sell bog roll and sandwiches — at less than £2 a bottle. We weren’t sure if we liked it at first — “Eugh! It’s like someone’s put a splash of Robinson’s squash in it.” — but somehow it keeps ending up in the fridge, and keeps getting drunk. It’s got a palate cleansing quality, or perhaps palate defibrillating would be more accurate, and there’s just something fun about it. That the base IPA is good in its own right doesn’t hurt.

Adnams/M&S grapefruit IPA
SOURCE: M&S website

Out in West Cornwall we didn’t have easy access to Marks & Spencer so missed out on some of the fun of their revitalised beer range. Here in Bristol it’s much easier to grab the odd can or bottle while we’re out and about which is how we came to try the Grapefruit session IPA brewed for them by Adnams and available at £2 for 330ml, or less as part of multibuy offers. Would we have identified it as an Adnams beer if we’d tasted it blind? Probably not, but it does have some of their signature funk. It’s not thrilling or brainbending, just a decent pale ale with a twist. We’d probably rather drink Ghost Ship but perhaps, as with Elvis Juice, we just need to get to know it a little better.

Theakston Pink Grapefruit Ale
SOURCE: Theakston website.

And, finally, the one that really surprised us: the latest Wetherspoon’s ale festival includes a pink grapefruit ale from, of all breweries, Theakston. It is perhaps the most exciting Theakston beer we’ve ever had, a classic northern pale-n-hoppy whose tropical fruitiness is like the bold lining on a classically tailored jacket, glimpsed in passing rather than right upfront. But, after the fact, we discovered something funny: unless we’re missing a detail in the small print, despite the word grapefruit in the name and pictures of them on the pumpclip, this effect is achieved entirely with… hops. A relatively new, obscure variety called Sussex, according to the Theakston website.

Does all this take us nearer to Craftmaggedon, when the last of the cask Best Bitters shall be cast into the pit and we will face the sea of darkness and all therein that may be explored? Or is just another variable for brewers to play with? It’s the latter, obviously. The beers above stand out in the context of Wetherspoon pubs or supermarket shelves but still represent only the very tiniest proportion of products on the market.

Session #125: Single Malt, Single Hop

Cascade Express -- hop-themed boarding card.

Mark Lindner at By the Barrel has asked us to consider so-called SMaSH beers — that is, those made using one variety of malt and one variety of hops.

We were going to give this a miss because we couldn’t think of any such beer we’d drunk in recent years, or at least not any that made a virtue of their SMaSH status and proclaimed it at point of sale.

(St Austell did release a series of SMaSH beers a couple of years ago but unfortunately, like so many of the more interesting products of our (not for much longer) local giant they proved impossible to actually find on sale in any of the pubs we visited at the time.)

But then we began to wonder… How many quite commonly found beers are SMaSH beers even if they don’t declare it?

Rooster’s Yankee, for example — a beer we wrote about at length in Brew Britannia and have often touched on elsewhere — is (as far as we can tell) made with 100 per cent Golden Promise malt and 100 per cent Cascade hops. And we believe (evidenced corrections welcome) that Crouch Vale Brewer’s Gold, another long-time favourite of ours, is made using 100 per cent English lager malt and 100 per cent, er, Brewer’s Gold hops.

You might say, in fact, that the pale-n-hoppy UK cask ale sub-style is often SMaSH by default. Sean Franklin, the founder of Rooster’s, has long championed the idea of using 100 per cent pale malt to provide the cleanest possible background for hops to express themselves, and that’s certainly approximately how most of the best examples of HLA seem to be engineered. Perhaps there’s some wheat in there (see Jarl) or a dab of something like Munich malt just to round it out a little but, generally, Franklinian simplicity seems to be the preferred route.

So, what other examples of Stealth SMaSH are out there in UK pubs?

And does anyone know, for example, if Oakham Citra might be a SMaSH beer? Online homebrew forums are full of guessed recipes (guesscipes…) but we can’t find authoritative information. Our guess is, yes, in which case, it turns out we’ve drunk tons of SMaSH beer after all.

Old School IPA

Chris Clough’s Tweet, above, prompted us to put into words something that’s been buzzing around our heads for a while: Old School IPA is, and should be, a distinct sub-style.

What Chris was actually getting at, as elaborated upon in subsequent Tweets, is that what would have seemed a proper, unremarkable amount of bitterness in an IPA c.2010 has come to be regarded as high bitterness in this age of soft, sweet, fruit-juice-like beers, and therefore a bit retro.

But, as it happens, we’ve used the term frequently to distinguish a particular type of IPA, of which some other examples are…

  1. Weak, brown, mid-20th-century IPA, e.g. Greene King.
  2. Pale, citrusy 1990s American-inspired IPA, e.g. St Austell Proper Job.
  3. Hazy, sweet, oniony 21st century IPA, e.g. this lot.

These are all legitimate takes with verifiable lineage to the 19th century original, even if it’s hard to see any family resemblance between GK IPA and a Cloudwater DIPA.

India Pale Ale No. 1

But Old School IPA, as we’ve thought of it, is a kind of non-identical twin to the 1990s American style in particular, emerging from the same round of scholarly enthusiasm centred around Roger Protz, Mark Dorber and the White Horse on Parson’s Green. We’ve written about this a few times but here’s a brief account from Mr Protz himself:

Dorber decided to hold a pale ale festival at the pub in 1993 and asked Bass, owners of the White Horse, if they would brew a special IPA for the event. The brewer responded by calling up a retired brewer Tom Dawson who recalled brewing Bass Continental for the Belgian market, based on Burton beers from Victorian times. The 7.2% beer he brewed caused such interest when it was launched at the White Horse that Mark Dorber and me, with the support of the British Guild of Beer Writers, organised a major seminar in 1994 at the Whitbread Brewery in the Barbican. Brewers from both Britain and the United States attended with their interpretations of the style. Among those from the U.S. was Garrett Oliver who went on to become a celebrated brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery where he still produces the East India IPA he brought to the seminar.

What makes an IPA Old School in our view is and emphasis on hop bitterness as well as, and perhaps more than, aroma/flavour; a preference for English hop varieties; mellow orange character rather than pine or grapefruit; and a certain stoical pintability, despite relatively high ABVs by late 20th century cask ale standards.

Victorian IPA might be a good alternative description, and that’s certainly the iconography employed on many of those we’ve come across: Old Empire, Bengal Lancer, Bombay 106, and so on. We tend to enjoy beers like this and would like to see more of them, especially given that everything is IPA now anyway.

We’re not the first to give a personalised breakdown of IPA sub-styles — check out Jeff Alworth’s here, and Mark Dredge’s here.

Session #124: Late, Lamented Loves

A man melodramatically lamenting his lost love.

David Bardallis (@allthebrews) at All The Brews Fit to Pint is hosting this month and the topic is ‘favourite beers that are no longer in production but you still pine for’.

This was a fun subject to chew over in the pub last night. The first beer that came to mind was local brewery St Austell’s short-lived 1913 stout. Strong by cask ale standards and historically-inspired it unfortunately didn’t sell and slowly morphed into Mena Dhu — still great but a much tamer product. We’d go out of our way for a pint of 1913 which isn’t something we can say of many beers.

Another one that we always loved is Chiswick, Fuller’s light, bracing ordinary bitter. It’s become a seasonal which probably means it will disappear altogether before long, like Hock, the same brewery’s lesser-spotted mild, which we did get to try once or twice but haven’t seen since 2009.

The label for Meantime/Sainsbury's Munich Festbier.
From 2004. SOURCE: Justin Mason (@1970sBOY)

We also thought fondly of the bottled beers Meantime brewed for Sainsbury’s in the early 2000s. Were they great beers? It’s hard for us to say with all these years passed. We certainly enjoyed them, though, a lot, time and again. When we were just feeling our way into becoming beer geeks they made it cheap and easy to try examples of obscure European styles such as Vienna lager and Kölsch. They were fun, too — 330ml bottles designed for pouring into fancy glassware but also perfect for taking to barbecues and parties, when we still did that kind of thing.

Another Meantime brew we pine for is Golden Beer which we first tried in about 2003 and loved so much we went back to the brewery’s pub in Greenwich multiple times just to drink it. We didn’t know enough about beer then to really understand what we were drinking, and certainly didn’t take notes, but we think it must have been some kind of bock. When they stopped producing it, we were confused and dismayed — perhaps the first time we were ever made to feel emotions by a beer?

Overall, though, this was a surprisingly difficult exercise. Not many beers that we’ve loved have gone out of production. If anything, products like Goose Island IPA and BrewDog Punk — of enduring appeal rather than passing novelty — have headed the other way, towards mass production and household name status. The market seems to be doing a pretty good job on this front.

But the next five years could be interesting with the health of beers such as Harvey’s Mild looking distinctly fragile, and breweries selling up with alarming frequency. Let’s see how we feel in 2022.