Jarl vs. Citra – clipping in the treble?

We’ve been lucky enough to drink a fair bit of Fyne Ales Jarl and Oakham Citra lately, though not yet side by side in the same pub, and they’re both fantastic beers.

If we could easily, reliably get one or the other near where we live, we’d probably not drink much else, at least for a few months.

But Al from Fuggled asked the following question…

…it got us thinking.

We concluded, quite quickly, based on gut feeling, that Jarl is a better beer. (Or more to our taste, anyway.)

Twitter agreed with us, too:

Again, to reiterate, we love Oakham Citra, as do many people who told us they preferred Jarl.

For us, it’s perhaps still a top ten beer.

But what gives Jarl that slight edge?

It’s maybe that Citra, when we really think about it, has a sharp, insistent, almost clanging note that the more subtle Scottish ale avoids. It can get a bit tiring, even, four pints into a session.

We often find ourselves thinking about beer in terms of sound and in this case, you might say Citra is clipping in the treble, just a touch.

An EQ meter.

There’s another possible factor, of course: we think most of the Jarl we’ve drunk has come sparkled, while the Citra is usually presented as nature intended.

Cornershop beers: supposedly hoppy lager and blackcurrant stout

We used to drink a lot of cornershop beers. Sometimes it was the ticking instinct – how could we resist a dark lager from Latvia or an IPA from Poland? On other occasions, it was about convenience: we wanted a few beers to drink in front of the TV with a film or sporting event.

But these days, post 20th Century Pub and with middle age upon us, we’ve more or less resolved to drink in the pub or not at all.

Every now and then, though, we pop into the shop nearest our house and marvel at the ever-changing selection of obscure beers from Eastern Europe. It’s fun to see unfamiliar names on unfamiliar labels – a kind of alternate reality, a world where Carling and Foster’s don’t exist.

Last week, we were startled to see three very nicely packaged beers in unusual styles from Vilkmerges of Lithuania – a stout, a dark lager and a witbier. Vilkmerges is a sub-brand of Kalnapilis, which is in turn owned by Royal Unibrew of Denmark.

They sat alongside products from a craft beer sub-brand of Russian brewery Baltika, ‘The Brewer’s Collection’, one of which, with a striking orange label, all in English, is billed as RUSSIAN HOPPY LAGER.

The latter looked gorgeous in the glass – that very pale yellow that seems almost green and somehow signals refinement, perhaps hinting at Champagne. It tasted drier and paler than standard Baltika with maybe a touch of floweriness but didn’t quite live up to the billing. Perhaps the lorry ride across Europe did for the hops? At any rate, it’s at the better end of bog standard and a fascinating thing – the beginning of the Camdenisation of Russian lager?

The Vilkmerges witbier is called Kveitinis. It was more orange than white with a fast-fading head and not quite enough body. It reminded us of a witbier we homebrewed with ale malt, not enough wheat, and too much orange peel. It was a bit sickly but not awful. Purists, look away now: it would probably be nicer with a slice of lemon floating on top.

Their stout, Juodųjų Serbentų, is dosed with BLACKCURRANT JUICE. It smells – brace yourself – like blackcurrants. It was ruddy rather than black with an off-white head that didn’t stick around. It tastes sweet – like Ribena said Ray, reaching for the obvious; like the medicine they gave me when I got worms as a kid, says Jess, more originally. It’s 5.5% but tasted basically non-alcoholic. We poured this one.

Tamsusis is a dark lager and smelled and looked like a classic Bavarian Dunkel. And, in fact, is considerably better than most bottled Dunkels we’ve come across. Sweet, round, with just a touch of roast… Almost hinting at the lusciousness of double stout, in fact, so perhaps not ‘true to style’. This was the great find in the set and we can imagine getting a few of these in next time we cook pork knuckles.

One odd thing, though: beers from Eastern Europe often come in larger than usual packages, full-pint cans and so on, but these Vilkmerges products were in 410 millilitre bottles and the Baltika came in at 440ml. At around £1.80 a pop, they were hardly bank-breaking but, still, it felt like a bit of a con.

Scotland #3: Tennent’s Lager

Tennent’s has been producing lager since the 1880s and Scotland became a lager drinking nation long before England.

We knew we wanted to drink at least one pint of Tennent’s on our trip to Scotland but didn’t expect to like it quite as much as we did.

Despite the ubiquity of Tennent’s branding around Glasgow – big red Ts jut out from pub fascias all over the place –it actually took us a little while to find the opportunity: either the pubs we found ourselves in had something else we wanted to try, or they had no Tennent’s tap at all, replacing it with something more upmarket from breweries such as Innis & Gunn or Williams Bros.

We had our first taste at The Pot Still in central Glasgow, served in tall, branded glassware with a whip of shaving-cream foam, and bubbling furiously.

What were our expectations? Low, if we’re honest. We’d noticed a couple of other fussy buggers expressing affection for it but wondered how much that might be down to contrariness or sentimentality.

But we liked it.

Now, we choose our words carefully: liked, not loved. It’s good, not great. We enjoyed it but it didn’t make our toes curl with delight.

Isn’t that enough, though? To be able to go into almost any pub and order a pint of 4% lager for a reasonable price and enjoy drinking it?

We asked our Twitter followers what they thought and their collective judgement, though it falls on the wrong side of the middle line to ours, feels fair:

Especially compared to Foster’s:

Tasting notes feel redundant as it’s hardly a deep or complex beer, but we’ll try: it’s more sweet than bitter but in a wholesome way that suggests grain, not sugar; the high carbonation stops it feeling sticky; and there’s sometimes a wisp of lemon zest about it.

After our initial encounter, we found ourselves ordering it even when there were other options. After a long day walking in the sun, it was perfect – gets to your thirst, fast. In a questionable pub which looked like it needed hosing down, it was a safe option, and tasted just as good. It certainly suited watching Scotland v. England on a big screen in a pub in Fort William. In Spoons, it beat Carlsberg’s relaunched ‘Danish Pilsner’ hands down, though the latter was just fine.

Of course this positive reaction is partly down to us taking pleasure in drinking a local product on holiday but, look, you know us by now – these days, we don’t force ourselves to drink things that aren’t actually giving us pleasure.

And Tennent’s Lager did.

BWOASA: Marble Barley Wine from a dusty old can

One of the good things about this little project has been the nudge to go to different places, such as Mother Kelly’s in Bethnal Green.

Though we still think of it as that new bar we must get to at some point, it turns out to be five years old, and now part of a substantial chain. Time slips away.

We had formed the idea, perhaps based on murky social media photos, that it was a small, dark space on the corner of a back street. In fact, it’s in a large railway arch with a decent beer garden and, on a sunny April afternoon at least, perfectly airy and bright.

Though Mother Kelly’s does have draught beer, its selling point is really the wall of fridges on the customer side, packed with intriguing beers from sought after breweries. We figured there might be at least one barley wine lurking in there.

There were three, but they took a while to find, during which squinting, bent-backed hunt we concluded that fancy packaging designs and quirky names are great and all that but they don’t half make it a challenge to work out what you’re buying.

We chose the cheapest of the three at a drink-in price of £12 for 440ml. It was the 2017 vintage of Marble’s wonderfully clearly-named 12.4% barley wine, BARLEY WINE. Being an antique, the can had spots of rust across its top, and crumbs and dust, so we asked for a quick clean up before pouring. We got it, albeit grudgingly – maybe a bit of filth on your tinny is considered all part of the fun these days?

Marble Barley Wine in the glass.

Sitting down to drink a beer that you already resent is a good test of quality. Any irritation we felt in this case passed the moment we tasted it, which really was fantastic – almost, maybe, perhaps £6-per-nip good.

It seemed positively luminous in the dainty glassware, cycling orange, red and gold depending how the light struck it. The condition was also excellent proving that cans can work for this kind of beer.

Between appreciative purring, we talked it over: on the one hand, it did rather resemble Gold Label, but it also reminded us of a very particular beer: an attempt to recreate Ballantine IPA using Cluster hops. Raspberry jam, marmalade, chewy syrup sweetness, clean-tasting and double-bass resonance. Just wonderful.

And one more small twist: because of the difficulty of pouring two clear glasses from one can, we got to try this with and without (a tiny bit) of yeast haze. On balance, though it was hard to resist the sheer visual appeal of yeastless, slightly yeasty actually tasted better – softer and silkier, with a little less jangle.

We continue to hold Marble in high regard and will probably go back to Mother Kelly’s some time, when we’ve saved up some pocket money.

BWOASA: Our first taste of yer actual Watney’s beer

This really was a big moment. We’ve tasted clones, read plenty, and written a lot, but we’ve never actually tasted Watney’s beer.

We’ve been corresponding on and off with Tom Unwin for years. He grew up near Jess and we interviewed his Dad, Trevor, for Brew Britannia. When Tom came into possession of several bottles of a strong ale produced by Watney’s in 1987 to celebrate the supposed 500th anniversary of the founding of the Mortlake brewery.

(You can read the inevitable Martyn Cornell takedown of that story here.)

We set aside a little time to enjoy the experience of drinking this beer, 137ml each, even though we suspected it was going to be rank. After all, Watney’s beer wasn’t well regarded even when fresh, and this had been stored for 30+ years in a suburban sideboard.

The label told us that the beer had an original gravity of between 1096 and 1104 – quite a range, giving us a hint that it was probably around 10-11% ABV.

Popping the foil covered cap, we were treated to the barest hiss, and found the inside of the lid covered in rusty sludge. It had a slight, bubbly head that drifted away in seconds.

There was a whiff of roasted malt, we thought, or perhaps even smoke, and then a big punch of sherry.

It tastes like Pedro Ximénez – raisins, prunes, a bit of balsamic vinegar. There was also an almond nuttinness and a layer of dark chocolate.

Running through all of this, stopping it from quite being out-and-out pleasant to drink, was a beefy, Marmite line.

If you’ve read any other tasting notes on old beers, none of the above will be surprising. We probably could have written them before we even opened the bottle.

Still, it was special, and an experience we can now tick off our wish list.