For as long as we’ve been pondering what ‘local’ means in terms of beer, we’ve also been interested in beers made with ingredients that evoke the place of their origin.
In the last year, others have crystallised that into a conversation across various blog posts and articles, of which there have been a particular flurry in recent weeks.
The idea that what is at hand — what grows in nearby fields or hedgerows — might shape the design of a beer is alluring and, frankly, rather obvious to anyone who’s ever clapped eyes on, say, bright yellow gorse flowers, or glossy rosehips. Realising that our stash contained a few beers which make a virtue of containing unusual place-specific ingredients, we decided now was a good time to taste them, with a question in mind: does this approach create tastier or at least more interesting beers?
First, though, as it fits the theme, something from an old notebook: our impressions of London brewery Pressure Drop’s Wu Gang Chops the Tree, a ‘foraged herb hefeweisse’ at 3.8% ABV, which we drank back in July. Orange and rather flat, with a soapy, foamy head, we struggled to summon the promised haze, even with some vigorous shaking. The herbs — the headline act — made us think of roast lamb (so probably thyme and/or rosemary?) but also, regrettably, of Body Shop shampoo. We finished it, and certainly found it interesting, but our final observations were that it made us queasy, and that it was a better idea than it was a beer.
Back in the present day, earlier this week, we tried two beers from Amazon Beer based in Northern Brazil, both of which contain ingredients from the rainforest. Açaí Stout (7.2%) is made with Açaí berries — one of those products that, in the UK, is mostly sold as teas and supplements in health food shops. As a stout, this is an unqualified success: rich and mouth-coating with a deep chocolate flavour and a supporting cherry-blackcurrant fruitiness, as if a few drops of Ribena had been added. If we detected a contribution from the Açaí, it was that, and perhaps a faint weirdness which reminded us rooibos tea, or baobab smoothies at the Eden Project. In other words, it tasted of something for which our staid palates have no reference. Is this beer a convincing argument for ‘beers from a place’? Not quite, as the Açaí feels like a gesture rather than a core part of the beer’s DNA, and there are plenty of stouts just as good being brewed in the UK.
Forest Bacuri (3.8%), from the same brewery, is less successful as a beer. Bacuri is, so we read, a fruit with a thick yellow skin and white pulp which is both sweet and sour. To try to work out its contribution to this beer, we first had to understand the base product, which seems to be a straightforward English-style golden ale, and a slightly tired, stale one at that. The Bacuri, then, is probably the source of the elderberry, grape-like fruitiness, and the powerful aroma of red berries and… fennel, perhaps? Overall, we found it hard going — sickly and lacking in bitterness, without the outright pop-art entertainment value of one of those sweet Belgian fruit beers. But perhaps this is our prejudice in action — maybe if we’d grown up eating Bacuri, we’d love this beer to bits.
Finally, we finished with Williams Bros Kelpie (4.4%) which is made with seaweed from the Argyll coast. Where we live, we get plenty of opportunity to smell seaweed, and have, on occasion, harvested some to eat. We didn’t detect any real evidence of it in this beer, or at least not that fishy-lettuce quality we were expecting. Instead, we found a brown ale with smokiness so subtle we didn’t agree between us that it was even there, a touch of milk chocolate, and then a lingering, dry, chalky bitterness. Our final note: ‘Mild with strawberry juice and soluble Aspirin.’ Not disgusting, but not something we’d be keen to drink again.
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Where has all this left our thinking on ‘beers from a place’? We want it to mean more than simply standard styles with a token addition of a local ingredient you can’t actually detect in the flavour, and which is there, really, only for the purposes of marketing. We also suspect that, done right, it will produce beers that, at least in the first instance, simply won’t taste like beer, and that might take some effort to grow to enjoy.
If you’ve got suggestions for other similar beers we should try, let us know in the comments below.
Disclosure: we got the Pressure Drop beer as part of a sample case from Eebria.com; the Amazon Beers were sent to us by the brewery along with several others; and the Williams Bros beer came from their PR people earlier this year.