beer reviews

Four truly exciting beers in 10 days

It was inevitable that having written about beer feeling unexciting we’d encounter a run of beer-of-the-year contenders.

First there was an Italian Pilsner at Zero Degrees in Bristol.

Bearing in mind Italian Pilsner was basically a mythical entity to us at the start of this year, it struck us as absolutely convincing.

It was extremely bitter and desert dry despite its 6.4% ABV. It had the requisite white wine quality with suggestions of elderflower and lemon.

On a warm evening, after you’ve schlepped up Christmas steps, it’s exactly the glass of lager you dream of drinking.

OK, so beer can still excite us, we’re not dead yet, we said.

Then, a few days later, we found ourselves at The Pembury Tavern in Hackney, East London, and thought, sigh, we’d better try Five Points Gold, out of grim duty.

We love some Five Points beers (Railway Porter, the sadly defunct Pils, and Pale) but don’t get on with their Best Bitter. We find it muddy and confused. Gold, we assumed, would be like that, but more watery (it’s 3.4%) and less interesting.

But, blimey, it was good. We spent quite a bit of time thinking about Boddington’s and Young’s Ordinary as they were in the past – very pale, very bitter, mysteriously alluring.

That this beer, and only this beer, was pulled through a sparkler made us wonder if it might be a deliberate homage to the North.

We pulled out some of the old shopping basket descriptors: tangerine, peach, grape… But, really, the appeal was its clarity, cleanness, and balance. A real Swiss watch of a beer, perfectly put together.

Despite the presence of cask Railway Porter, a favourite of ours, we stuck to Gold, and left the pub several hours later with just the slightest buzz on.

Lost & Grounded Landbier with sunlight glowing behind it in a taproom building.

Last Friday, as we often do, we wandered to the Lost & Grounded taproom for a couple of pints between work and tea.

It feels like most weeks there’s some new lager substyle on offer and this time it was 10 Years On Land, a Landbier brewed in collaboration with The Royal Navy Volunteer pub.

Again, we ordered it because it was new, and we felt vaguely obliged, but it was love at first slurp.

For one thing, it proves that a beer can be hazy and still somehow taste clean – or maybe fresh is the better word.

It took us back to last autumn, trolling around Nuremberg and writing one tasting note after another that said something like: “Simple, but so fresh.”

There was a bit of lemon barley water about it, some grass and crunchy grain, and a decent amount of bitterness. At 4.4% it made us think, you know what? Dinner can wait.

Finally, on Saturday, we popped out to another local taproom because we’d heard a rumour that Moor Brewing Smoked Lager might be available.

It’s not quite as magical as Schlenkerla Helles but, on draught, was certainly fresher than the bottles of Schlenkerla we get in the UK.

It’s smokier than last year, or at least struck us that way, pushed just to the edge of too much. Or, in other words, just right.

Drinking it in the sun, surrounded by the hops that grow over the fences and street signs by the brewery, we thought, perhaps, we heard the echoes of an oompah band across the industrial estate.

beer reviews France

Diverse ideas of sour beer in wine country

One thing that struck us in France and Italy is that sour beer is as popular as in the UK but with more range in what constitutes ‘a sour’.

In particular, we got the impression, based on limited data points, admittedly, that there’s more overlap with the flavours and character of wine.

When Jess ordered Odissea by Birrificio Menaresta in a craft beer bar in Milan (pictured above) she was warned about the sourness by the staff. Presumably they’ve had one too many customers complain. But it really wasn’t what we in the UK would think of as a sour beer at all. It was more like beer (golden) with a shot of red wine in it. It had fruit tannins rather than fruit acidity. Looking it up later we learned that it is brewed with “top quality Mantua Lambrusco must”.

On the opposite end of the wine spectrum was Viti Vini Vici by Brasserie Dunham. Dunham is a Canadian brewery but we drank it in Les Cuves de Fauve, Paris. We understand this to be a series of beers matured in grape barrels but didn’t get a note of the particular batch we had – 12, maybe, or 14? But it certainly used a white grape and, boy, did that come through in the flavour. It was also intensely sour, with a character very like beer from Cantillon.

At Birrificio Italiano Polock en rouge was described as a 4% sour fruit Grodziskie. This presented a challenging, almost vinegar sourness, reminiscent of Duchesse de Bourgogne. It’s interesting that DdB is such an iconic beer and yet there are so few clones. But perhaps there’s an obvious reason for this.

We did also find some sours that were like the ones we get at home, and resembled fruit juice or fizzy pop. For example Peace Connection Unitaire by Sainte Cru tasted like a fresh tropical juice drink from a can, as purchased at the local corner shop. Nothing like beer but a nice thing to drink after seven hours on the train from Milan to Paris.

In contrast, Yoyo by Effet Papillon, at La Binouze in Paris, was described as a mango and redcurrant sour, but really wasn’t especially sour, or even sweet. There was a very subtle fruitiness but this suggested papaya or guava, and was barely there. It also had a hefty body, a proper head, and a good bitter aftertaste, all of which are quite unusual in our experience of sours.

Then there was also some playing around with sour notes in beer styles not badged as sour. For example, Blue Edith by La Debauche was a salted raspberry stout, where the raspberry aroma was noticeable but the flavour was extremely subtle. Raspberry often gets lost in beers; here, it added a pleasing layer of complexity.

And finally, we’ve been talking about wine influences in beer, but what about beer influences in wine? We took the opportunity in Italy to visit a few wine bars. We absolutely do not want to “get into” wine, because we already overthink beer and want to keep wine just for fun.

But we did find ourselves intrigued by Mare d’Inverno, a natural wine refermented in the bottle which therefore came with a little fizz and a small head. Fizzy reds are not unusual in that part of the world but it was interesting how funky this tasted. Our tasting notes make it sound more like an imperial stout: tobacco, leather, cocoa…

When we wrote Brew Britannia in 2012-14 the idea of hybrid beer-wine-cider struck us especially interesting. It’s never quite become A Thing – beer drinkers want beer, wine drinkers want wine – but we still wonder if there’s potential here.

beer reviews

(A version of) Kelham Island Pale Rider lives

Sheffield’s Kelham Island brewery is important. Last year, it looked as if it was going to disappear, until it was saved, and the Pale Rider is riding again.

For two weekends in a row, we’ve been able to find Pale Rider on cask at The Llandoger Trow in central Bristol. And drinking it has made us think about it.

The press release about the saving of the brewery was light on practical detail. A few months on, the story seems to be that it’s being brewed by Thornbridge, at Thornbridge, in Derbyshire.

The pump-clip doesn’t say that, though. In fact, it states very clearly MADE IN SHEFFIELD. There’s a little local consternation about this fact, if our social media replies are anything to go by.

But Thornbridge is a Sheffield brewery at heart, despite its location, and Kelham Island and Thornbridge were always tangled up with each other.

Digging through the notes of our interview with Thornbridge’s Simon Webster back in 2013, for Brew Britannia, we find this:

In August 2004, Kelham Island Pale Rider won the Champion Beer of Britain. We started brewing in October 2004 and, at first, we were helping Dave with the sudden demand for his beer. We were brewing once a week for Kelham Island, which was more often than we were brewing our own!

So this version of Pale Rider is perfectly authentic in its own way.

Here are some tasting notes on Pale Rider 2023: crisp, clean, classic 1990s citrus hop flavours; plus a certain round peachiness that comes with being 5.2% rather than 4 point something.

Everything we remember, in short, from drinking it frequently in and around Sheffield more than a decade ago, and on rare occasions since.

You can see how a beer like this won Champion Beer of Britain. You can see why Michael Jackson listed in his 500 Great Beers. You can certainly see how it played a part in spawning an entire sub-style – pale’n’hoppy, if you like, or the ‘juicy banger’.

But perhaps there’s a bit of Thornbridge there too, now? Maybe it’s even a bit better than when we last tasted it, in 2018, or at least more to our taste.

Clean and peachy. Those are two words we associate with Thornbridge beers.

But perhaps all we have to do is think of Thornbridge, or see the name in the small print, and those qualities pop into our heads.

If so, good for Thornbridge. That’s a good, powerful brand, that.

Now, let’s hope that either production moves back to Sheffield, maintaining the current high quality, or that ‘Brewed by Thornbridge in Derbyshire’ pops up on the pump-clip.

We don’t want a localised version of The Soul of Madrid, do we?

beer reviews

Thornbridge Jaipur has still got it

For a beer with a national profile Thornbridge Jaipur can be surprisingly hard to find on draught. That’s a shame because it’s still wonderful.

We came across it at The Old Fish Market in Bristol last night, a Fuller’s pub which often has one or two guest beers from larger independents.

It’s a funny pub, the OFM. On the one hand, it’s the closest in feel we’ve got to something you’d find in the City of London or Westminster. That is, a bit soulless, and a bit shiny. It also has London-style pricing – five a pint territory.

On the other hand, being fond of Fuller’s ale, it’s great to be able to get a pint of ESB whenever we want one. It’s also in reliably good condition and nicely presented.

Accordingly, Jaipur was about as good as we’ve ever had it. Pale gold with a firm white head, it had all the contained vibrancy you want in a great pint of cask ale. That is, steady on the surface, but electric on the palate.

The particular noughties C-hop character feels almost nostalgic now. Traditional. It’s hard to believe how startling it seemed more than a decade ago. But, still, peach and orange and pine – what’s not to like?

We couldn’t even object to paying £5.15 a pint, especially as, at 5.9%, it’s not a beer that encourages a long session.

There should be a pub in every town that always has it on.

Or a way to find out where it’s on, when it’s on.

Or maybe we should move to Sheffield and be done.

beer reviews

Boak & Bailey’s Golden Pints for 2021

We don’t need to tell you that it’s been yet another strange old year, which makes passing judgement tricky.

We’ve been to pubs, but not as often as we would in any normal year.

And our choice of pubs has been dictated by how handy they are to get to, along with weird criteria such as cleanliness and ventilation.

Cask ale has been on the menu but for a large chunk of the year, it came in takeaway containers – is that a fair way to assess it?

We haven’t been abroad since autumn 2019 and our intake of foreign beer has been dictated by what’s available in local shops, or by mail order.

But, still, all that has given us room to think and make (ugh) mindful choices.

We’ve also really appreciated the beers we have been able to enjoy in pleasant surroundings, with anything like a hint of a normal atmosphere.

As always, we’ve chosen our own categories, deviating from the master list set down a decade ago. Let’s get into them.

Lost and Grounded.

Beer of the year

Lost & Grounded Running With The Spectres Baltic porter takes the crown.

It really is a great beer, and consistently so. We can’t go to the taproom without having at least one half pint per session (it’s 6.8%).

We also enjoyed it from the can at home and on draught at The Elmers Arms, where it was so good we ended up having several, hangovers be damned.

We’d also like to encourage more breweries to make strong but straightforward (that is, not pastrified) stouts and porters. Years on, we’re still haunted by the majesty of Fuller’s Past Masters 1910 Double Stout, basically, and want more of that kind of thing in our lives.

Kirkstall taproom.

Brewery of the year

It’s Kirkstall Brewery of Leeds.

e were in the city for a week and drank more Kirkstall than anything else.

The beer range was excellent, from superior takes on trad styles to really out-there stuff that could put an East End railway arch brewer to shame.

The quality and consistency was enough to take us back to the taproom when we could have been ticking other pubs.

It will also probably be enough to take us back to Leeds sooner rather than later.

The Pembury Tavern

Pub of the year

It’s The Pembury Tavern in Hackney, East London.

In various degrees of restriction and confinement, we often dreamt of being there. When we could get to London, we went out of our way to visit, and then we stayed for at least two more beers than we’d planned.

It has a great range of beer in fabulous condition, and is simultaneously somehow spacious and cosy.

Takeaway pub of the year

A special category for this year and, please, let’s hope only this year.

When lockdown kicked back in at the start of this year, when pubs were closed even for takeaway, The Drapers’ Arms went above and beyond and started offering a delivery service of cask beer sourced from a selection of local breweries.

So, throughout the craziness of winter and spring, we had access to cask ale, some of it new to us. They even delivered to our new house once we’d moved.

Fuller's 1845
SOURCE: Fuller’s

Packaged beer of the year (that isn’t Westmalle Tripel)

It’s Fuller’s 1845.

Everything about it sings autumn-winter warmth.

We ploughed through the eight bottles we ordered and if it wasn’t for the fact that we are actively trying to support smaller breweries over multinationals, we would have ordered another case immediately.

If you’ve not had it in a while, do give it another try.

Kirkstall Brewery sign

Bonkers beer of the year

Another new category.

Though most of the time we like to drink fairly conservative styles, every now and then we crave something silly. And we’ve had some good stuff this year.

The standout was Gelato Tropicale, an Ice cream sour from Kirkstall Brewery, which tasted like rhubarb and custard in an utterly addictive way. Subtly sour, subtly sweet, it was beautifully balanced, in its own mad way.

If they hadn’t had so many other good beers on we’d have drunk more of it but, as it is, it earned a lot of oohs and aahs, and a repeat order.

Westmalle Extra
SOURCE: James Clay & Sons

Foreign beer of the year

Westmalle Tripel continues to be the Best Beer in the World, but this year we were also introduced to Westmalle Extra, which we think delivers about 80% of the flavour with considerably less chance of a hangover, at 4.8%. So it’s that.

An old map of Brussels.

Blogger of the year

As with last year, a massive shout out to anyone who’s managed to blog regularly, or at all, in this strange, distracting, disconcerting year. You are all stars.

But the gong goes to Eoghan Walsh, who has managed to conceive of and stick with a fantastic blogging project.

We’ve ended up linking to his pieces in our Saturday round-ups most weeks as a result, even though it feels like a cheat to do so.

The cover of Modern British Beer

Book of the year

We really like Modern British Beer by Matt Curtis.

It’s a useful guide book, nicely written and designed, which does one job really well: telling us what’s worth drinking right here, right now.

A longer version of this post previously appeared on Patreon, including notes on runners-up and contenders. As ever, thanks to subscribers for encouraging us to keep at it.