beer reviews bottled beer

Treat Yo Self

Barley wine and imperial ipa in glasses.

We can’t go to Falmouth without finishing up in Hand Bar for ‘something silly’. This time, it was Evil Twin’s Molotov Cocktail Imperial IPA, and Lervig Barley Wine.

We crammed quite a lot into 24hrs in Cornwall’s beeriest town, trying as we were to make the most of a short weekend. We had a session in The Front, for starters: Rebel 80 Shilling seems to be consistently great these days, and is perfect for this weather; and feeling our way round the Black Flag range, we concluded that they’ve graduated from faintly dodgy to generally enjoyable and interesting. Then on Saturday, with big breakfasts and fancy coffee inside us, we headed to Beerwolf for our fix of Up Country beer — the classic that is Marble Pint — and had another chance to consider a beer of the year contender, Penzance Brewing Co’s Hoptimystic. Not as good this time but still alluring and mysterious.

Then, with the evening drawing in, slightly merry, we wandered up the hill to Hand. Since our last visit several huge new fridges have been installed on the customer side of the bar meaning that it’s easier to browse — and to be tempted by — all the pretty bottles and cans. Boak’s mission was to have something super hoppy, jammy and chewy, like those crystal-malt-laden American IPAs we used to enjoy at The Rake in London. Evil Twin’s leapt out at us for no other reason than it said IMPERIAL INDIA PALE ALE very clearly right on the front of the label. (Designers, take note.) But it had no price tag.

‘How much is this one?’ Boak asked warily.

The barman checked. ‘Er… that one is eight pounds ninety.’ He couldn’t help but sound apologetic.

The small crowd of student drinkers sitting on sofas behind us gasped. ‘Is that the drink-in price?’ one asked.

‘Yes, it’s a fiver to takeaway.’

‘Hmm,’ said Boak. ‘If I’m spending nine quid on a beer… Is it actually good?’

The barman squirmed. ‘Um, I’ve not actually had that — it’s only just gone on.’ He appealed to the audience. ‘Have any of you guys had the Molotov Cocktail?’

‘No — who brews it? Evil Twin! Then it’ll definitely be good. All their beers are great.’

Nine quid. Nine!

‘Sod it, let’s do it.’

Ideally, for the sake of a satisfying narrative, we would discover at this point that the beer was either absolutely dreadful, thus invalidating the entire concept of ‘craft beer’ and exposing as fools all who drink it; or astonishingly wonderful, causing us to re-evaluate our entire attitude to beer or something. But this isn’t Jackanory and it was merely very good. We Tweeted that it was ‘sexy’ which was an attempt to capture a certain superficial wow factor — that it looked gorgeous (faintly hazy orange) and smelled exactly like the moment when you put hops into boiling wort, which is to say greener and more pungent than how hops usually express themselves in the finished product. The first sips were intense, rich and mouth-coating and triggered memories of sweet pipe tobacco, weed and forests. But the fireworks subsided too quickly and it didn’t earn either its price or its booziness.

This is a thing we’ve debated with people a few times: in our view, if a beer is 13% ABV it ought to demand to be drunk slowly and bring the pleasure of several ‘normal’ beers. Others hold the view that the pinnacle of the brewer’s art is to make a strong beer that drinks like a weak one. We like Duvel, it’s true, part of the fun of which is that it’s easier to drink than it ought to be thanks to its fizz and lightness, but generally we think that unless you are on a mission to get bladdered as quickly as possible, why not just actually drink a weaker beer?

In this particular case, we reckon there are quite a few other IPAs — merely double rather than imperial — that would have delivered much the same pleasure at lower cost, and with less booze. As it was, it was too easy to knock back, each swig representing the better part of a quid as it flew down the throat.

Perhaps Molotov was sabotaged by its running mate. Lervig Barley Wine was 12.5% and tasted like it in the most wonderful way, inhabiting the space between winter warmer and dessert wine. It felt mature, deep, and complex, like a tour through the darkest corner of the store cupboard where molasses sit next to a crusty bottle of sherry from several Christmases ago, and chocolate strictly for cooking. It was impossible to drink quickly: a third lasted nearly an hour and, even though this was supposed to be a just-the-one visit, demanded a follow up. It wasn’t cheap — £4.50 a third, i.e. £13.50 a pint — but, seriously, who drinks barley wine by the pint? Nine quid spent on 380ml of this beer did feel like good value.

29 replies on “Treat Yo Self”

Angels-on-pins time! You say “merely double rather than imperial”. For as long as they’ve been around I have always taken the terms “double IPA” and “imperial IPA” to be entirely interchangeable. The latter seemed to have fallen out of use in recent years and I’ve noticed the crafterati have even begun saying “dippah”, because who has time for five syllables? BUT I was surprised to discover in the US that “imperial” IPA is still alive and well, and even seems to be the preferred term.

Are you making a claim for there being a difference between double IPA and imperial IPA, or do any of your readers reckon there’s a distinction?

Ha, no — just amused, really, by the pomposity of the term ‘imperial’. Having said that, most double IPAs that spring to mind are more like 7-9%, aren’t they? 13% does seem to push this one into a different category.

If the double in double IPA refers to the double I, then what does the third I in triple IPA (IIIPA) stand for?

I’d like to know how breweries justify those prices… not in a ‘How can they POSSIBLY justify it!?!’ sort of way, but genuinely interested.

If the beers are two to three times stronger, that’s two to three times as much malt and, maybe, the same for hops. I’m sure there’s other associated costs that I haven’t thought of, particularly if you need to mash twice or similar, but I wouldn’t have imagined ingredients were a huge proportion of your total costs and most of your other costs are probably broadly the same.

A lot of these beers are three to five times the price of a ‘normal’ pint, though. Is this the other end of the scale to the supermarket undercutting that Matthew Curtis was talking about?

Also, is it even okay to question the price? It feels vaguely taboo.

It’s fine to question the price — healthy even!

I get a bit legged up in all this but…

1. Over 7.5% you enter a higher duty band.
2. There’s import duty, too.
3. And, of course, the bar has to make its cut.

Drinking strong imported beer is a bit of a mug’s game, financially speaking, but we can’t help ourselves every now and then.

And, of course, this is why everyone gets so excited about ‘Spoons selling Sixpoint Resin, to drink in, at £3 a tin. How do they do *that*?

£3 a tin doesn’t seem particularly cheap for a beer you could pick up for $1 a can in a US off-licence. Even after import duty, they still make a healthy profit on a per-drink basis.

That it’s contract brewed would also hike up the price. Evil Twin is essentially buying it wholesale from the production brewery and selling it on at wholesale-plus.

Disclosure: with tax and tip I happily bought one bottle once for $40. But it was an aged gueuze at “BeerBistro!” (as branded) in Toronto so the town was expensive, the bar was expensive and (at the time) the experience was legitimately rare. The problem has become the idea that you can manufacture rarity. Which has in turn caused a flood of the experimentally and seasonals pretending to be rare. But, as the line goes with basketball, you can’t teach height.

The saddest thing is seeing the sucker shell out hard won wages for the pricy beer, unaware that the tap down the way offers as good a beer in the same style for a third of the price. But our newbie guides don’t educate about that. And our beer fan mags don’t discuss it. The entire opposite of good wine, oddly enough.

We’ve never read any wine mags — how do they handle it? Do they suggest a budget alternative to a pricey wine they’re reviewing? If so, that’s not a bad idea. Have you suggested it to any of the beer mags you have in mind? What was their reaction?

If you look at the annual guides from folk like Hugh Johnson and Oz Clarke you will see value for money as one of the themes driven through their recommendation code system. I used to be active in wine forums 20 years ago and the “quality prove ratio” or QPR was a constant discussion point. This discussion, like the ability to spit at tastings, has been roundly pooh-poohed in the beer writing world. Hot topic around 2007-10 but as good beer is not a consumer driven discussion it’s not picked up. Could you imagine how the consulto-blogger and beer mags would manage asking these sort of direct questions given the niche’s socio-economic realities? Wine writing has gained the resource independence to allow for it.

I would like to see more comments along the lines of “it’s good, but it doesn’t justify the price premium compared to X”, and I do see this in blogs from time to time.

On the other hand, I guess that the reason that value for money is a lot less part of the discussion around beer is that even today there’s still relatively little variation. I still get steam coming out of my ears if I see a 4.5% pale ale selling at the equivalent of eight quid a pint, but that happens rarely, it almost never happened until quite recently, and it’s still only about twice what I’d expect for the strength and style. Our local indie wine merchant has plenty of Bordeaux for six or seven quid a bottle and plenty for more than ten times that. The need to talk about value rather than just quality is clearly a lot greater!

That said, I do seldom buy posh bottles in pubs and bars because they normally seem very expensive compared to the cask and keg options, while probably not being as nice as the cask (for cask-appropriate styles) and potentially having been gathering dust for some unknown period of time. But, like you say, sometimes it just seems like the right beer at the right time…

Probably off-topic, but I seem to think that in Spoons you can only buy “to drink in”. They don’t have an off-licence. Happy to be corrected …

Lots of (all?) branches now have a “Craft Beer Bottle Shop” selling beer to take away.

Over here an off-sales licence is included in a pub licence. Do on-sales-only licences exist in the UK?

The Counting House ‘spoons in Glasgow has a beer cave with cages of craft beers (like a “real” place like Drygate). To go with their seventeen Scottish craft beers on keg. One of those times I wish I could post a picture on here. (Yes, of course I took photos!)

A spoons with 17 craft kegs on? My goodness.

Pop quiz: who said this:

I just don’t see craft keg bursting out of the beer bubble at all. I’ve created a poll to ask people whether they think we will see any craft keg beers appearing in Wetherspoon’s – surely the definitive sign of a product having gone “mainstream”.

I don’t really understand why anyone would actively want the beer they were drinking to be strong, unless a) they were actively seeking to get drunk, in which case there are far quicker ways of achieving that state, or b) they confuse strong beer with tasty beer.

The ideal beer for most people on most occasions would be 3% but still pack a serious flavour punch. You could drink 8 pints in a decent session, marvel at the fantastic flavours, and still get out of bed in the morning.

Actually in a lot of circumstances, the ideal beer would be 0%. Then you can have a few pints with your mates and then drive home afterwards. A 0% beer that tastes like a 5% beer is the holy grail.

Hence I’ve never seen the point of Duvel. If I’m going to drink a beer with the alcohol content of 2 normal beers, I want it to be twice as nice. It never is.

Alcohol does influence flavour and texture. It’s harder to get that rosy-cheeked winter warmer feel off a 3% cask ale. As for Duvel, we put up with the booziness because we love the taste so much. And it probably wouldn’t taste as good at 5% although I’d struggle to tell you how/why the alcohol improves it.

It’s not a binary decision between getting pissed and staying sober though is it? Alcohol is a wonderful thing, it takes the edge off, helps people to relax, greases the axles of social interaction. (Not forgetting that people misuse it too of course). A lot of the time I don’t want to drink eight pints, just a couple, but still want to feel like I’ve had something to drink. McEwans Champion is a great beer (as Phil’s blog just pointed out), and I can have just one bottle in the evening yet know I’ve had something.

At a fiver a can or £8.90 to drink in, I’d have been very tempted to buy the can, take it away and drink it on a bench somewhere, then come back and spend the £3.90 on another beer.

Agreed about the pointlessness of strong beers that hide their strength, although I’d make an exception for Duvel (and Sloeber, for what that’s worth). When I drink Duvel I’m actually thinking “this is stronger than it tastes” – there’s a weight to it which warns you you’re getting into serious abv, without stopping it being refreshing. When I drink Cannonball I have to keep reminding myself that it’s stronger than it tastes, usually just after reminding myself how much I paid for it. I do like Cannonball, but I’d like it a lot more if it were as strong as it tastes (i.e. about half as strong as it is), particularly if it was priced accordingly.

I was in a restaurant recently and quite fancied a bottle of Duvel but balked at paying £6.95 for a bottle, this was in north Wales. I know a restaurant has plenty of overheads etc but it just seemed too much for something I could pick up from a supermarket for less than two quid. Ended up having a pint of cask session ale for a much more reasonable £3.95.

AP/Philip/TBN — our local Spoons advertises itself as a ‘craft beer bottle shop’ or something like that.

TBN — good question. It could be that all pubs could serve takeaway if they wanted, but they don’t.

Wetherspoons in Leytonstone doesn’t sell takeaways and I understand that this is due to licensing restrictions. It might be because they’re almost just across the road from an established off license and a 24 hour Tesco is less than 5 minutes away. I think the George in Wanstead, the next nearest Wetherspoon, does do takeaway but they may well be in a different licensing district.



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