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beer reviews

The Method: mini-keg + music + maps

As the Current Situation rumbles on, we’ve got quite good at enjoying our weekends at home. For example, we’ve just spent two nights in Scotland.

Step one: get the beer right.

On any normal weekend in Bristol, we’d be grumbling about the lack of Fyne Ales Jarl, which shows up in pubs here perhaps once a year.

Jarl is a 3.8% golden ale with Citra and was the highlight of our trip to Scotland at around this time last year. For us, it has the perfect balance of bitterness (high), aroma (also high) and booziness (low) so that one more pint always feels both desirable and justified.

Now, obliged to source beer by delivery anyway, it occurred to us that we might as well order from the Scottish Highlands as anywhere else. So, two five-litre mini-kegs of Jarl arrived last week, with plenty of time to settle.

Mini-kegs haven’t always impressed us in the past, at least where they’re touted as cask ale at home. The ones they sell in supermarkets at Christmas, though fun and good value, often taste more like packaged beer than they do the mysteriously vital cask versions.

This Jarl though… Oh, boy! The moment we opened the top vent, it was as if we’d set loose a genie. The ghost of hop fields past. A controlled explosion.

A clean glass, a rush slowing to a trickle, and 40 seconds or so later, there we had it: a perfect, pub-like, sunshine yellow pint of one of the best beers in the world.

Over the course of the weekend, as we got through both mini-kegs, we never stopped saying ‘Wow!’ That prompted us to ask ourselves the tough questions: which is better – Jarl, or Thornbridge Jaipur? On this evidence, Jarl, being both more delicate and less lethal.

We paid £44 for two casks, including delivery and a branded pint glass. Keep an eye on the Fyne Ales website to see which mini-kegs are in stock.

Step two: music and maps

It’s almost a psychedelic experience if you get it right. Or at least a Magic Eye picture.

What you’re trying to do is trick the brain, even if only for a moment, into forgetting where you really are, under what circumstances.

If you’re tasting Scottish beer, looking at an Ordnance Survey map you last unfolded in the hills beneath Ben Nevis, and listening to the kind of music that would seem pandering and cheesy in situ, the mind submits to the fantasy.

If this is Fyne Ales, and those are fiddles, then this must be Fort William, which means we must be five days into a ten-day holiday in a perfectly normal year. So relax. Relax. Happy days are here again.

Desperate stuff, really, but we’re not proud.

Step three: reshape reality

One final trick is to change the physical space. For us, that’s meant spending 15 minutes on Friday night packing away the home offices and moving around the furniture in our front room.

If you put that small table here, if you turn the sideboard back-to-front, if you hang those pictures there, if you arrange the whisky bottles on the bookcase just so…

It’s still our front room.

But it’s our front room in fancy dress.

Just different enough to boost the intensity of the daydream and to make staying at home for the tenth weekend in a row somewhat bearable.

A few props help, too, like the catering-size box of ready salted crisps we ordered online. Because you only get those in pubs, right? Who in their right mind would have one at home, right? Ridiculous.

When we Tweeted a photo on Friday, someone asked – concerned, perhaps, or jealous – whether we were actually in a pub. And that, right there, is the point of the game.

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beer reviews

Safe as houses: good old Thornbridge

There’s nothing like a prolonged, enforced stay at home to make you reflect on which beers you really like.

In the past month and a half, since we stopped going to the pub, we’ve been buying beer from various places and have certainly found our favourites.

Even before the crisis kicked in, as we researched the offerings from various supermarkets, we’d reached the conclusion that canned Thornbridge Jaipur is a hard beer to beat for drinking at home.

Having polished off 36 tins between us, bought direct from Thornbridge’s online store at about £1.80 each, that opinion hasn’t changed.

Jaipur has been a star for 15 years now despite a period when “it wasn’t what it used to be” – anecdotally, the result of ill-advised recipe tinkering a decade or so ago; the misstep was swiftly fixed but that kind of dent in a beer’s reputation tends to linger.

For our part, we come across it on cask three or four times a year and haven’t been able to fault it, except to say that the combination of 5.9% ABV and moreishness isn’t helpful as middle age sets in.

For a while, though, we’d have told you that the kegged and packaged versions weren’t a patch on the cask. Good, still, but less complex and less… well, alive.

The cans, though, are extraordinarily good.

In fact, a glass filled to the brim with the contents of most of two cans is about as close to a pint of cask ale as we’ve been able to get at home.

The softness, the depth, the green-fingered freshness, the mysterious electricity – they’re all there.

Sure, we’d rather be in the Drapers Arms, but Jaipur and chunks of cheese on Sunday night is holding the madness at bay.

The other thing we crave is, of course, lager, and the same brewery’s Lukas Helles (4.2% ABV, c.£1.70 per 330ml) has also impressed us. It was always good but now seems to have ascended to the next tier – convincingly German-tasting, sparking-fresh, as wholesome as a hike in the Fränkische Schweiz.

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beer reviews Belgium bottled beer

Blackberries in beer: Mûre Tilquin

Blackberries are my absolute favourite fruit. I’m borderline obsessed with them from about May onwards, watching out for how they’re developing, whether my usual favourite spots are looking good.

I have Strong Opinions about them, too. For example, I strongly believe that urban blackberries are better than rural ones and that the best of all come from Walthamstow Marshes; should have Protected Designation of Origin status; and ought to be the subject of lengthy essays about terroir.

So when I came across Mûre Tilquin, which is a lambic with 260g blackberries per litre, at our local beer shop, Bottles & Books, I had to give it a go, even at a whopping £25 for a 75cl bottle.

It was marked 2018-19 with a science-fiction best before date of 2029.

It’s comforting to have this kind of ‘special beer’ in the stash – something that you know will be interesting, at least: IN CASE OF UNEXPECTED GLOOM, POP CORK. And, well, that moment came at the weekend.

There’s a fun bit of additional ceremony when we open this kind of beer because as well as drinking it, we need to take photos. What if it’s amazing and we didn’t? Can you imagine?

Cage off, It opened with a threatening gunshot pop and pushed back hard against the seal. Would it gush? No, the fizz was assertive but not out of control.

Bottle and glass. Foam close up.

It poured a pretty, deep rose colour, and a pungent smell of brambles on the farm was noticeable from half a metre away.

It was, as you’d expect, rather sour. There was also an absence of sweetness and the finish was extremely dry, although not quite as mouth-puckering as most beers from Cantillon.

There was a strong oakiness but I didn’t pick up any blackberry. If someone had given me this blind, I don’t think I’d have even thought of my favourite fruit in passing. In fact, I might not have thought there was any fruit in it at all.

I enjoyed it anyway, though, over the course of hours, mostly because it reminded me of drinking Tilquin gueuze in Chez Moeder Lambic in Brussels.

In one of our very earliest blog posts, we wondered why you don’t see more blackberry beers, and reviewed a few that we had found.

I’ve often returned to that thought, particularly when it comes to lambic – if raspberries, then why not blackberries?

Having now added this data point, I’m more convinced of an answer we’ve received in the past: they ferment out too fully to retain any flavour.

But if you’re a brewer, pro or at home, who has managed to make a blackberry beer that proves otherwise, I’d love to know more.

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beer reviews bottled beer

Beers salvaged from the junk shop shelf

On our last trip out, in February, we visited Stroud for the day. That’s where, in a jumbled-up junk shop, we found a collection of grubby old beer bottles, still full, and for sale at £2 each.

We bought a selection based on (a) ignoring royal wedding and jubilee beers and (b) aiming for breweries that seemed more interesting to us.

  • Greene King Audit Barley Wine
  • Charles Wells Old Bedford Ale
  • Banks Old Ale

Then we got home and drank them.

Ever since our experience with Adnams Tally Ho, and having discussed the issue with Patrick Dawson, we’ve been committed to drinking these ancient beers when we come across them.

They rarely improve with age, or ever gain any particular cash value, but every now and then, one is a wonder.

In this set, all of which we reckon date from around 1980, give or take, there were two good ‘uns and, sadly, one total dud – not a bad strike rate.

Greene King Audit Barley Wine was the winner. It reminded us of Harvey’s Prince of Denmark – a mellower, milder take on imperial stout. On opening, there was a very slight hiss. It produced loose bubbles and barely held a head. There was berry, sherry, leather and… cheese? That makes it sound more complex than it was. Overall, it was pleasant, boosted by the sheer timebending thrill of consuming something bottled when we were babies.

Charles Wells Old Bedford Ale was, unfortunately, flat. From its tiny bottle, it produced what looked like two glasses of cheap brown cooking sherry. The first taste confirmed it: this beer didn’t survive the battle. The overwhelming flavour was, well, water, with a background whisper of burnt sugar and cloves.

Finally, the one we were most excited about: Banks Old Ale, with an OG of c.1092. It hissed, gave us brief bubbles, and then left us with two egg-cup’s-worth of flat black oil. It was salty, rich, full of prune syrup and plum. We wanted just a little more.

In conclusion, £6 for the pleasure of drinking two decent old beers that haven’t been produced in decades seems worthwhile. It’s certainly cheaper than a session at Kulminator, with a similar hit rate.

And you know what? The nip bottle needs to make a comeback.

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beer reviews Beer styles

Smokey and the Bandit: Rauchbier in the UK

“Good morning. Rauchbier is not a style.” wrote the Beer Nut on Twitter the other day and he might be right, at least in terms of the UK beer scene.

For one thing, there are really only two prominent German brewers of Rauchbier, Schlenkerla and Spezial, both in Bamberg.

What’s more, Schlenkerla’s efforts are the only ones widely and regularly available in the UK, so it’s only natural that they would end up being the reference points for British brewers’ attempts to make them, and the standard against which British drinkers judge them.

Before Christmas, one of our Patreon supporters, Paul Grace, invoked his right to ask us to try beers from particular brewery and pointed us in the direction of Round Corner of Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire:

A fully-fledged brewery with T-shirts and glasses printed before they’d made any beer, they’re now getting national exposure with a Rauchbier as part of Brewdog’s Collabfest. The beers I’ve had have been very well made, competent [and] carefully aimed at the target demographic.

We got in touch with Round Corner and arranged to buy cans of Succumb to Smoke at £2.50 each along with a west coast IPA, Hopping Spree, at £3.

We also asked Combie Cryan, co-founder of Round Corner, a few questions by email. He told us that its first beer was brewed in December 2018, the co-founders having met in 2005.

Colin Paige, the brewer, is from Belfast and studied at Heriot Watt in the 1990s. He worked at Hop Back and Fuller’s before going on to work for Lion Nathan at Mac’s in New Zealand. Combie is a businessman and a major investor in Melton Mowbray farmer’s market.

In other words, this is a serious operation with some money and experience behind it, not a bathtub-in-the-shed setup.

Mr Cryan also gave some notes on the brewery’s influences:

We take inspiration from underappreciated classics that we believe deserve wider attention such as the Rauchbiers of Spezial and Schlenkerla in Bamberg. Colin has won awards for his Rauchbier recipe in the past and it remains one of his favourites to make so, after an initial run out at the recent Brewdog Collabfest, do look for Succumb to Smoke in discerning pubs and fridges across the country in the coming months.

Succumb to smoke – can and glass.

To our delight (and let’s be honest, surprise) the beer really was very decent. Billed as a ‘Bamberg style Helles’, it’s clearly an attempt to clone Schlenkerla Helles specifically, and gets about 80% of the way there.

The smoke character is right – an open fire in a forest hut – and the beer beneath the wisps is clean and crisp. Perhaps not crisp enough – more golden ale than lager, with more fruit than feels quite right – and short on carbonation, but a beer we’ll gladly buy on draught if the opportunity ever arises.

If British breweries are going to make Rauchbier, winter is when it will happen, we suppose, which must explain why a second example fell into our laps on the line-up at The Drapers Arms just before Christmas, with an encore last week.

Stroud Fall in a pint glass at the Drapers.

Stroud Brewery’s Fall is billed as a ‘smoked bitter’ which doesn’t sound all that inviting – Doom Bar with a hint of kipper? But we generally find Stroud’s beer to be accomplished and satisfying, and we’re fans of smoked beer in general, so had no reason not to give it a go.

In short, this is a fantastic beer which easily passed the ‘same again’ test.

Stroud’s characteristic balance towards body and sweetness, which sometimes means we feel inclined to dock a pint or two for bitters and pale ales, works really well here, giving a 4.2% ale the feel of something much richer and more boozy.

The smoke is of exactly the same character as Schlenkerla, all bacon and barbecue, but with an underlying cask ale complexity that the bottled version of the Bamberg Mӓrzen tends to lack by the time it’s schlepped across continental Europe and sat on a shelf for a few months. And although not bitter by the standards of the best examples of bitter, the additional hop bite really lifts and balances the smoke.

All of that is why we felt emboldened, on the second encounter last week, to say this:

Of course we’re being provocative but, honestly, we don’t make a habit of making hyperbolic statements and, indeed, have been known to hack people off by sticking up for classic beers that cooler folk than us reckon to be passé. Yes, if we could be magically transported to the brewery tap in Bamberg and taste it there – oh, the fruitiness! – we might not make the comparison, but we’d rather drink this beer from a nearby brewery than a bottle of Schlenkerla Mӓrzen if given the option.

Unfortunately, Rauchbier is Rauchbier – the very definition of an acquired taste. Drinkers at The Drapers didn’t seem keen and the fact that the latest cask has been on sale for several days tells a story.

We suspect it might do better in craft beer bars where people tend to be actively in search of unusual flavours, but who knows.

A final thought: is there room in the market for a specialist bar or two focused on lager and German styles? This isn’t a complaint about how ‘it’s all IPA these days’ so much as a plea for someone to seize a wide-open gap in the market.

We’d be quite happy to see a line-up of Lost & Grounded Keller Pils, Stroud Rauchbier, Otter Tarka (a Jever clone), Bath Ales Sulis, Zero Degrees Vienna lager and so on.

Which are your favourite UK takes on Rauchbier? We’ve heard Torrside are good at this though we’ve not had chance to try their beers ourselves.